Tad Blackwell, in his battered, white, mail truck, rattled and bounced over the double set of rusted railroad tracks, on the north side of Monotoning, and continued to zoom like a rocket up Route 211.
The afternoon sun struck the old mail truck's dirt-encrusted windshield with dozens of sharp, silvery spears of blinding, white light. The tiny fan, which Tad had attached to the cracked dashboard and plugged into the cigarette lighter, whirred mightily, but did nothing to dispel the turgid heat, which blew like a thick, muddy stream through his open windows.
Sweat streamed in a ceaseless stream from his sodden, red hair and from underneath his arms. His blue shirt clung uncomfortably to his skin. For what seemed like the millioneth time that afternoon, he dragged the back of his hand across his forehead. Five seconds later, he used his fingertips to wipe a salty, tear-like drop of sweat from his left eye. Ten seconds later, he performed the same delicate operation on his right eye. As always, there was that sharp, stinging sensation, followed by that terrible moment of almost hysterical blindness. Then he blinked several times and his sight returned, and he was okay, again.
Tad had purchased his fifth can of Coke for the day at the 7-11, on Main Street, just before he'd headed out of town. He soda tasted cool and sugary sweet. When he applied the coldly sweating can to his forehead, he enjoyed the illusory moment of cool peacefulness it afforded his dulled senses. But the moment he returned the can to its plastic holder on the dashboard, another trenchant wave of hot air blasted through the windows, once again threatening to overwhelm and suffocate him. Tad drew in another deep draught of air through his parched and cracked lips, holding it a long time, before he reluctantly released it.
The relentless heat pressed against his tall, lanky body like the hot hands of an invisible demon with a wildly raging fever. It was all just so unbelievably unbearable!
Just up ahead, on Tad's right, a bulldoze trundled like a giant, yellow insect across a barren stretch of empty field, its burnished blade scraping up a roiling mist of fine, brown dust, which encircled the machine like a heavy cloud, and partially screened the operator from the view of those passing by on the highway.
A little further up the road stood an old barn and a farmhouse. Or rather, what still remained of the farmhouse were the partial remains of one wall. A wooden staircase without a bannister mounted to a door frame wihout a door. The blinding white glare of the sun shone brilliantly through the empty door frame. A wrecking ball had reduced the rest of the farmouse into a small mountain of broken bricks and splintered boards.
Tad, like almost everyone else in Monotoning, knew that Goody Carlisle's grandparents had once owned that barn and that demolished farmhouse, and that vacant, mud-baked field. Goody was their only grandchild. They had bequeathed their farm to Goody in their will. Goody's grandmother Amelia had died five years ago. His grandfather Enoch had passed away, just this spring. A week after Goody buried his grandfather's remains in the Lutheran cemetery, on Fish Street, in town, he sold the farm, house, and all 1,111 acres of farm land to a developer for an undisclosed sum, which everyone in town agreed, was an obscene fortune.
Tad made a quick right at the Wa-Wa store, (which had only been there for a year and was already threatening to put his beloved 7-11 out of business), and continued on up Old Lumber Mill Road. He glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a grey, gleaming SUV and at least four other cars, brand new and shiny, trailing close behind him.
"Back off," he angrily commanded the murky reflection in his rear view mirror.
The anonymous woman in the SUV---a cell phone clung like a malignant tumor the right side of her face---immediately eased off her as pedcal.
Tad glanced to his left. Five years ago, when he'd graduated from high school, all the land on that side of the road had been occupied by a giant corn field, divided into sections by a ragged hedgerow of scraggly, old trees. Now, it was over grown with at least two hundred town houses, "modestly priced" (that seemingly innocuous phrase alwasys made Tad snort with laughter) between $250,000 and $500,000. Two-and-three stories they were, built of wood and stone and brick. They had obviously been designed to look regal and manorial in style, but to Tad, they didn't look anywhere near as strong or solid, or permanent as the old stone-and-brick farmhouses that had once dotted this neck of the woods.
Someone had though to at least save the hedgerows. But on the other side of the hedgerows rose at least another hundred or so townhouses, all tightly packed togeter, without even enough room for a person to sneeze in private, without his neighbor hearing him. Penn's Woods, they called the place. tad had a sneaking suspicion that that gentle, old Quaker would roll over in his grave if he ever found out what the "land pirates," as Tad liked to call them, had done to his once-peaceful woods in his name.
On Tad's right, there was still one big, open, empty meadow. The meadow was all that remained of Goody Carlisle's grandparent's farm. The meadow rolled in a great, green, undulating wave, back down to the highway.
He turned onto Iroquois Lane. The macadam road abruptly gave way to a sunken bed of cracked, brown dirt and an uneven strea of runnelled gravel. A half-dozen, barely finished houses lined both sides of the make-shift steet. The bare, wooden skeletons of a dozen other, yet-to-be finished houses rose bleakly in the shimmering distance. Up ahead, the road prematurely dead-ended against what was left of the wild, green meadow.
Tad stopped in front of the third house, on his right, and clambered out of his mail truck.
The rough sidewalk was splattered with dried clods of mud and straw, and grass, as was the curved sidewalk leading up to the front porch. What currently passed for the front yward was a soupy morass of mud. Here and there, a few shoots of tender, young grass bravely poked their spear-shaped shafts out of the watery grime.
Someone had planted a sign in the middle of all that mess. On a large sheet of cardboard, with a black magic marker, they'd written: This house was built by Ingram Construction, Inc! The heat and air conditioning doesn't work! The electric doesn't work! The basement floods every time it rains!"
Tad tried the doorbell, which did work.
Barbara Hendricksen answered the door. Mrs. Hendricksen was a small, brawny brunette. She and her husband were still yet another yuppie puppy couple who'd fled New York City for the supposed peace and safety of the Valley. Thousands of New Yorkers had flooded into the Valley like an army of locusts, over the last decade, and they'd brough their big city crime and violence, and their obscenely high cost of living with them---and they had the gall to call it progress. Mrs. Hendricksen regarded Tad for a moment with dark, suspicious eyes.
"Hi," he felt obliged to explain. "I'm your new mailman. I'm sorry to bother you. But I have a certified letter for you and I need a signature."
Mrs. Hendricksen's eyes brightened and she flashed Tad a friendly smile. "Please come in. It's much too hot to stand outside."
"You got that right," Tad agreed with a crooked grin, as he followed Mrs. hendricksen into her living room. The small room smelled and paint and varnish, and several other unpleasant odors.
"Please excuse the mess," she said. As you can see, we're still in the process of moving in."
"That's okay. If you think this is a mess, you should see my condo. Now, that's a mess!"
Mrs. Hendricksen laughed. "Can I get you a glass of water?"
"Nah, that's all right. I thank you for the offer, though."
He proffered her the certified letter and his pen.
Mrs. Hendricksen's eyes grew hard and cold as marbles and her nostrils flared when she read the return address in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. "I should have known. Do you mind if I open this, first?"
She sliced open the envelope with the sharp edge of one pointed fingernail and extracted a thick sheaf of creamy, white pages. She eagerly scanned the top page.
"Do you know what this is?" she demanded, slapping the paper with her red-painted fingernails. "This is a letter from Ingram Construction, Inc. If we don't remove that sign from our front yard, they're going to sue us for slander.
"Well, screw 'em," she said with a vicious snarl. "Ingram Construction is a no-good bunch of crooks and my husband and I want the whole world to know it. They cut corners everywhere they could. Every word on that sign, out there, is true---and more. And not only our home, but our neighbor's homes, as well. Well, I've got a big surprise for Ingram Construction. We all got together, last night, right here, in this living room, and decided we're going to sure Ingram Construction for faulty labor and breach of contract, and whatever else we can think to sue them for. My husband and several of the neighbor men are out, right now, with a lawyer, filing the necessary papers...Now, where do I sign?"
Tad showed her where to sign.
"Well, it was nice meeting you," he said. "And I hope you and your neighbors win your law suit."
Mrs. hendricksen seemed surprised that a stranger like Tad would care about her legal troubles. "Why, thank you," she managed to stammer.
Tad hurried back to his mail truck and drove back to the entrance of Iroquois Lane. He turned to his right, back onto Old Lumer Mill Road.
As he came around a wide curve, at the crest of the hill, he glanced at the corn field, on his left. What he saw there made his eyes bulge in their sockets and his jaw drop in shock and disbelief.
For as long as he could remember, the old-timers in The Valley---especially the farmers, of course---had had a saying about the annual corn crop. "Knee-high by the Fourth of July."
Well, not this year, it seemed. It was only the second week in June and most of the spindly, yellow-brown stalks that still hadn't keeled over beneath the sun's merciless glare stood only about as high as Tad's calves. Which really wasn't that high, at all. Each stunted stalk was brown and sere in the blistering heat of the sun. They limped in ragged rows toward the blazing horizon like the last, lost remnants of a terribly defeated army in desperate retreat.
Tad descended into a deep hollow. He came back up again, on the other side, and flew around another wide curve, on the narrow, back-country road. He glanced at the field on his right.
The last time he'd driven this way, only a week before, that entire field had been filled with sunflowers, so vibrant and alive that their dazzling profusion had seemed to surpass the golden hue of the sun. It had literally hurt Tad's eyes to look at them.
Now, all their pedals and pods, or whatever they were, were gone, vanished, disappeared. Like the corn, the tall, tenacious, pencil-thin stalk of each sunflower was withered and burned black from the cruel and hellsh heat.
For the past seven days, all the meterologist on all the local news programs, here and in Philly, which was only fifty miles away, had all agreed that this had been the hottest week on record in the last one hundred years. For the last five days, the mercury had topped a sizlling 101 degrees. Health officials on television and on the radio had repeatedly advised people not to venture outside into the sweltering heat, unless it was absolutely necessary, and to try and stay inside, where it was cool, stick to the shade, as much as possible, and keep their bodies fully hydrated with water and juice; unfortunately, for Tad, soda didn't count. So far, there had been no power shortages or brown-outs, or any deaths, that Tad had heard of.
Tad tromped his sneakered foot down hard on the gas, flattening the pedal against the matted floorboard. The old mail truck skipped like a stone over the bumpy country road. He was suddenly anxious to get back to the cool, dim safety of the Monotoning post office, as quickly as possible.