I work as a cook in a small restaurant somewhere within the heartland of the country. Technically, it’s the north, but mentally it’s closer to the south, with Jackson, Mississippi, being closer than Chicago. I guess, it could be called life on the borderline without any lines of demarcation. The only lines are within the psyche and within the attitude.
I consider it the south, because of the rolling lush, sometimes swampy terrain that is laced with vegetation aromas of honeysuckle and mint. It’s a place where the poor side of town is literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, and everybody knows who John Deere is. It’s where the low-keyed soft southern twang roll off the tongues of modern day Scarlett O’Hara’s, like the first sweet bite from a juicy seasonal peach.
The job is transient: one with too low wages and boring uneventful days. Uneventful, except for the little things that the mind creates to make life skip a tick now and then. They are one of the little things.
The “they” are four United States Postal Workers (mailmen), who arrive everyday at exactly two o’clock for lunch. Their arrival is as dependable, as the mail is undependable.
Just as the lunch hour rush begins to die down, you see them (the kitchen is in the front of the restaurant) pulling up in there little postal carts that look like mini-chariots. They congregate outside for a moment, telling a joke or some gossipy tidbit, that sends them into immediate reaching back laughter. To me, the laughter always seems a bit forced, too hearty and too quick. Of course, that’s a tad of jealousy talking.
Into the restaurant they march single file and dressed in Confederate gray. They’re always led by John, the oldest; followed by a weathered looking Tom, skinny Andy, then the youngest, Tony.
John, the oldest, probably in his early fifties, comes from a family line that reaches back to the early 1800’s in the states. About a year ago, he came across an old VCR copy of the 1970s television series, Roots, at a yard sale. Since then, he’s been interested in his own family’s roots that included a few of them being Confederate soldiers. Somewhere along the quest of family roots, the Civil War period sidetracked him and has become his paramount obsession. The more he learned, the more the war confused him. Not the winning or losing, but rather, the whole era—the whole time period.
He searches for explanations, but is never quite satisfied. He spends the better part of his free moments in the nearby University library, reading Civil War history, diaries, and biographies.
The thing that made their appearance eventful, was that everything about them was predictable, beginning with their everyday appearance. I mean, everyday!
Beyond that, it’s the same arrival time and the same stale jokes and the same (I mean, the same) everyday food order. After working here for a year, I feel that their tastebuds are on permanent leave of absence or else they’ve been turned into Civil Service robots. That someone or something from “out there” turned off their switch. Hell, I don’t know. Who really knows the why of any who or what? But, to eat the same food, day in and day out makes me shudder.
Their daily arrival brings other predictable segments out to play. And one of them is on her way to the kitchen. This one particular waitress, Jane, is about to whirl the whisk that she whirls every day. And, here she is, “I ain’t serving them. The bastards never leave a tip, and when they do, it ain’t shit. They can shove their nickels right back up their tight assholes.”
Yes, everybody knows the mailmen.
I give the waitress a sympathetic smile. There’s nothing really to say, because she knows I agree with her on non-tippers. Working in a restaurant has sure raised my empathy level in regards to the wait staff, which caters to a public, which I’ve seen turn condescending on a dime.
Christ, they deserve to throw, at least one bowl of forever staining chili on the problem customer of the day. It may not be professional, but it would help them get through a non-tipping and abusive day.
Each day I wait for the mailmen’s order. Each day I wait for a change. It never comes. The menu’s description calls it a Chopped Sirloin Sandwich. That’s a miscarriage of justice. In reality, they’re slabs of cardboard shit. One of those fast-food delicacies that we all have on occasion, but would never think of making it a lifetime practice. It has got to have a backlash effect on your health. It has got to.
I prepare the sandwiches and ring the server’s bell. Then prepare my own lunch. I walk my sandwich into the dining room, sitting behind the mailmen, who are, of course, at their regular table.
As I sit down, the mailmen are telling jokes to, Jane, the waitress. Their act is so together that they have routines for everybody. For whatever unfortunate reason, the old recycled and stale jokes are usually saved for the waitresses.
Jane, who has heard the lines before, stands there with a blank plastic Kodak grin. The grin is what they’re after. A smile or a laugh from a cute young waitress is all they want, and they don’t care if it the smile is plastic or paint.
She doesn’t linger, heading over to another table to wait on.
The joke was bad. So, why am I laughing to myself?
I don’t know, maybe it’s the Chopped Sirloin Theory of predictability that I’m pondering. Talking to myself with my own brand of bad humor. I ponder: they seem to be surviving until their next chopped sirloin sandwich. The sandwich represents their lives. Ordering something else would make their lives chaotically formless. Either that, or it would dawn anew.
Years ago, I remember my father, who worked on a back-breaking loading dock, telling me a story about a young co-worker, who left the dock to take a job in the local Post Office.
To everybody’s surprise, the guy returned to the loading dock within five months! Before, I had a chance to query, my father said, “Why? Well, the kid said, the Post Office was too damn boring, and that he would rather be breaking his balls with activity, than to boringly gaze at the clock every fifteen minutes.”
My father went on to tell me stories that the young guy told him about the postal service. If half the gossipy tales were true, and not influenced by the three glasses of burgundy wine, it’s easy to see why we all have so much faith in the postal service. To this day, when expected mail is late or lost, I shake my head and remember my old man’s stories.
I find myself smiling, remembering my old man’s tales when I begin picking up droplets of the mailmen’s conversation.
“Do you know that I once wanted to be a singer? Really, I’m not throwing the shit. Back in high school, me and a couple of buddies had a three-piece band. Hey, you know something? We weren’t all that bad. You know, when I think about it now, I get a little down. God, I’ve haven’t play in what? A long time. Too damn long,” says Tom, who looks older than his 33 years.
“A singer? I find that hard to believe,” responds a doubting Tony.
“No really! Didn’t you ever have a dream of doing something against the grain of what you were supposed to do, or told to do? You know, something different. Back in those days we had planned to go to New York or California. You know, no local shit, only the big time and bright lights. But, there was a problem,” replies a pleading to be believed Tom.
“What, lack of vocal chords,” mocked Andy, a skinny and balding 27 year old.
“Very funny. Seriously, we were a country band playing traditional country, people like George Jones and even slipping in a little Bill Monroe. So why did we want to head to New York or California?” he pauses, then answers his own question. “For some reason, we wanted to go there. Small town boys wanting the big cities. Maybe, that was our loophole to failure.”
“You should’ve thought of going to Nashville,” says Tony.
“Yeah, we thought of Nashville, but then the dream faded and we broke up. We just didn’t invest the time. Playing in local honkytonks wasn’t all that pleasing. That got old real quick. We were young and wanted it without paying the dues.” Tom shrugged his shoulders, as if saying, “ah, heck.”
“Sounds like you guys were half-assed. Shit, you sure as hell didn’t have persistence. It takes persistence to do something like that,” says Andy.
“Persistence and a whole lot of luck. And good looks,” laughs Tony.
“You got that right. I was watching country videos the other day on the tube, and all those guys—you know, the singers in the videos. Well, hell, they all look and sound alike, there’s nothing that distinguishes any of those younger guys from one another,” smirks Tom, whose weathered face wears a rugged razor’s edge. No, he wouldn’t fit in.
John, the older man, just sits in silence, looking hollow and straight-ahead. He is chewing each bite of his sirloin sandwich in slow motion. His face is pale and drained.
“You know the more I read, the more confusing it gets. Hell, the more confused I get. I just can’t figure it out. Last night, I read…” John’s voice began to fade, then disappeared like sunset across the mighty Mississippi. You see the sunset, like you heard his words; then you glance away, only to return to the afterglow of sunset without words.
“What was that?” queries Tom. There was no reply.
“He’s into that Civil War stuff. When are you going to stop all that?” asks Andy.
“Some things go on forever,” replies John, without emotion.
“Down at the office, they say he’s been acting strange ever since he started all that. How long has it been, John?” grins Andy, while reaching over for the A-1 Sauce. He pours a flood onto his sandwich.
John doesn’t answer him, just sits in silence, looking hollow and straight-ahead.
“Reading and studying. What’s wrong with that?” muses Tony, who at 25, was the youngest of the group.
“Nothing,” says Tom, “nothing at all.”
“I wanted to finish college,” replies Tony. “Get a degree in secondary education and teach Chemistry. I know what you’re thinking, ‘Chemistry.’ What can I say, I was always good in science. I only have a year to go. Maybe someday, I’ll go back and finish. Maybe someday? This job isn’t all that bad, and beside Kate is expecting number three in July.”
“God, three years married and the third kid is getting ready to hand you another check. Don’t you realize that nowadays you can go into a drugstore without embarrassment,” says Tom, smirking a matter-of-fact look at him.
Tony throws back a hard look. “You’re not very funny, man. You guys know Kate, she always wanted to be somebody’s mom…” says Tony, as Andy interrupts him.
“Right, and in the mean time, those bills keep on rolling in like a goddamned runaway funnel cloud. Like that tornado that touched down last year. Remember that fucker? Pure destruction. Remember what it did to that mobile home park where I live; the one out on Route 51? Total destruction,” Andy shakes his head and continues.
“I just wanted to get a half decent paying job and live quiet and easy for awhile. I don’t need much money and this, right now, is perfect.” He avoids all eyes, but states it with total conviction.
“That’s great. You know what you want, and you’re right about jobs. Hell, there are a ton of bullshit jobs around here with pay so low that I wouldn’t wish them on anybody. Even you guys,” replies Tony.
The waitress refills the coffee cups that need refilling, then is gone before any of them launch into another stale joke. They act as though she was never there.
“Hey, don’t get me wrong. I want things from life, and maybe this isn’t all I want, but I remember my old man coming home after a day at his job; and shit, for-fucking-get it. No way, I mean, no way I’m busting hump. I’ll do my surviving by putting mail in Mrs. Smith’s box, thank you,” says a stern looking Andy.
“Mrs. Smith? Isn’t she the one on Oak Street, that you’ve been putting in overtime with? Tell me Andy, can you smell her perfume now? What kind is it?” laughs Tom.
“Don’t be an ass. It’s a figure of speech. Perfume? I think the name is Chantilly,” answers Andy, as his eyes throw darts into Tom’s eyes, then a smile cracks cunningly from the left side of his mouth.
His smile ends, when Tom butts in with song, “Chantilly lace and a pretty face and a pony tail hanging on down…”
“You a singer? Give us a break, please,” bellows Andy, as Tony covers his mouth with his hand, so that the laughter wouldn’t shove the food out and onto the table.
“You gotta do what you gotta do, right John?” asks Tony. John slowly shakes his head, but doesn’t partake in the laughter. It is as if he was somewhere else.
John looks at each of his companions, then says with a faraway look in his eye, “Let’s drink up. There isn’t much time, and we all have to question ‘why’?”
“Aye, aye sir,” answers Tom, as they all lift their coffee cups as one and drain their final swallow.
Without noticing me, I observe them. It’s as though their individual drinking method paralleled their lives.
Andy gulps his coffee down quickly, then smiles as he places the empty cup on the table.
Tom’s final droplets of coffee drip from the hairy end point of his brown bearded chin. Tony loudly slurps, like chalk upon the high school blackboard that he may never see. He grimaces, as if the coffee came from bottom of a pot that spent too long on the heated burner. His facial expression says he didn’t want to drink it. Yet, he downs it, as if he had not other alternative.
John looks content, sipping slowly. It’s as though he’s somewhere else in thought, a place of inner peace.
They begin to get up. Suddenly, John’s face turns ash white, with streaks of purple death. It looks as though he was having a stroke.
“Are you okay?” says a startled Tom, with a concerned look of panic in his eyes.
John sits back down and loosens the top buttons of his gray shirt. Jane, the waitress, runs over and wipes his face with a cold towel. After a few minutes, he seems fine, except that his coloring has turned from ash white to flushed red. He closes his eyes tightly, rubbing them slowly, then rubbing his temple area with his right hand in a counter clockwise rotation. He looks better.
John turns; leans toward his three companions seated at the restaurant table and begins speaking with a slow deliberate seriousness. He’s speaking to them, but he’s speaking from another time; another century.
“Did you say that John Brown and his kind should’ve been stopped; nipped in the bud before Pollawatomie Creek. My friend, the Kansas territory was all but lawless and besides, John Brown and slavery were but branches on the tree of ‘why’ concerning this conflict. Oh, the ‘why’...” his voice trails off, then comes back again. “You can say that the north wants to end slavery, but on the other hand they want westward expansion, which would mean the ultimate destruction of the Indian. Is the Indian a lesser human? We all have blood on our hands. That’s for the historians to ponder. Still, why do we find ourselves sleeping with defeat, during these hot and humid days of 1865,” he pauses, and grabs his coffee cup only to find it empty. He sips it anyway, then continues.
“Shit, victory is gone now. With Grant at Richmond, and Sherman, from everything I hear, kicking ass in the Carolinas. Do you know what was the military turning point? What was it? My guess is Gettysburg. But, we all know that. Don’t we? Ah, Gettysburg, every future school child will know about Gettysburg,” he looks at the ceiling fan spinning, then continues.
“An important key was that we just weren’t economically strong enough. We waited too fucking long to trade cotton with England and France for supplies. We waited too long. The beginning; yes, the beginning of the war was our opportunity. The golden opportunity. The north didn’t think we would last, and that it would be over quickly. They realized differently after Bull Run. If we had traded successfully, who knows? Maybe, I wouldn’t be having this recurring nightmare of the crashing of royal blue ocean waves, echoing the chant of ‘On to Richmond’ over and over again,” he pauses, holding his face in his hands, while mumbling the chant over and over again.
“Are you feeling better? Are you OK?” asks Tom, without hearing word one of John’s words. Nobody seems to have heard any of what John just said. That is, nobody except me! Why am I hearing it?
“What was that, Tom?” he glances at Tom, and then looks deeply into his hands. He then continues.
“What was that? Word of what? What? No! Well that’s it gentlemen. Our gambit has failed. General Early’s move through the Shenandoah Valley has been turned back by Sheridan. It’s only a matter of time, maybe a few months. It has been a battle of attrition. Let us get back to our men, and tell them that the dream, the war is over. The war, yes, but not their lives. Tell them, that we must rebuild. Tell them, that we must live. Tell them, that we must survive the best way we know how,” he sighs, looks again into his hands and says, “Let’s go.”
They pay their checks one at a time, then walk out into the cool afternoon.
I return to the heat of the kitchen. Walking back, I pass their table, glancing for a tip that, based on history, isn’t there. It isn’t. Jane sees me, and knows what I’m doing. She shakes her head, then hands me a new order. I place two hamburger patties on the grill, while watching the four of them ride off in their identical looking chariots. They stop in a straight line, as in formation, at the corner red light.
The light turns to green. The four mailmen split the road, going in different directions into their individual lives. In a world so full of uncertainty, I know they’ll be back tomorrow to order the same food and to tell the same stale jokes. Surviving the best they can.
I turned my eyes from the window and back to this, my inch above minimum wage job, though armed with a Master’s Degree that doesn’t seem to impress anyone, anymore.
Why didn’t anyone hear John speaking? If nobody heard him, then why did I hear him? I did hear it. I did. I heard him say, “Tell them, that we must live. Tell them, that we must survive the best way we know how.”
I flip the burgers. The grill sizzles as heat rises.
Survive the best we know how. Goddamn right.
About the Author: Pete Madzelan resides in New Mexico with his wife and cat, Manny. Currently has fiction in The Dying Goose. Photography in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, San Pedro River Review, Catcus Heart, convergence: journal of poetry and art, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal; and forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Pachinko, and BRICKrhetoric. Has had fiction and poetry published in literary journals, including Cigale Literary Magazine, Bellowing Ark, Wind; essays in a variety of publications including the Santa Fe Reporter and Minor League News.