NEIGHBORSMature

     Tad parked his mail truck at the far end of the post office's tiny parking lot, next to the three postal vehicles which were used to deliver the in-town mail.  There were no other vans or Scouts in the parking lot.  As usual, Tad was the last letter carrier to return from his route.  Tad climbed into the back of his truck and hurriedly gathered together his empty, plastic mail trays, stacking them one inside the other.  He collected the short, leather straps he used to hold together his unweildy bundles of flats and circulars, and tossed them inside the top tray, along with the seven magazines and eleven letters he'd apparently mis-cased, this morning, in his usual haste to get out of the post office as soon as possible, so that, for once, after he was done delivering his mail, he still migh have a decent chunk of the day left for himself.  Tad checked to make sure he still had the green card and yellow slip from his one-and-only certified letter for the day.  Then he carried all that stuff to the green door on the loading dock, at the rear of the red-brick building.

     He opened the door with his key and stepped gratefully inside the small structure.  The florescent lights blazed weakly and the air conditioning thrummed mightily.  After almost nine hours outside in the scorching sun, it was wonderful to finally be back inside a cool place.

     Tad frowned when he saw Calvin Dooley the postmaster seated at his desk, hunched over an untidy avalanche of paperwork.  Cal's cordoroy jacket was draped over the back of his chair.  The sleeves of his white shir were rolled all the way up to his bony elbows.  The top button of his shirt was undone and his tie hung loose around his scawny neck.  Cal's heavy, black glasses were perched precariously on the sharp tip of his nose and his high, narrow brow appeared to be permanently creased in frustration and ever-deepening despair.

     Quick and silent as an Indian, Tad made his way around the tall metal case into which the girls broke down the daily accumulation of mail into the individual routes, each morning, and retreated to the relative safety of his cloistered, little cubicle.  He tossed his empty trays under his desk and carried his keys and the receipts for his certified letter up front, to the head clerk's desk, which unfortunately, stood only a few feet away from Calvin's desk.

     Calvin lifted his pointed chin from his sunken chest.  His bleary, brown eyes stared at Tad from behind his thick-lensed glasses.  The right corner of his thin-lipped mouth strained to curve itself in a faint pantomime of a smile.

     "My man!" he greeted Tad.  "When did you sneak in here?  I didn't hear you come in.  So, is it hot enought for you out there?"

     "Oh, yeah," Tad replied.  Calvin laughed and slapped his knee, as if Tad's caustic remark was the funniest thing he'd ever heard.  "You still here on a Saturday afternoon?"

     "End of the month." Calvin frowned and sighed, and shook his head, grimacing distastefully.  "It's a real beat.  But what are you going to do?  It's got to be done."

     Calvin's ancient swivel chair creaked loudly, as he glanced over his sloping shoulder at the clock over the back door.

     "Four-thirty."  He grabbed a pen and scribbled a quick notation on a sheet of paper attached to a battered clipboard.  The paper was Tad's weekly time sheet.  "Did you take a lunch?"

     "Nope."

     "Half an hour for lunch," Calvin said, documenting the fictitious event in the appropriate space.  "That'll give you an even eight hours for the day.  That's all your route's evaluated for.  Any more than that, and somebody at the sectional center will start to get suspicious.  Now, tell me.  Do I take care of my people, or what?"

     "Oh, yeah.  You take care of us, all right."

     Calvin laughed again, as if Tad had made another hilarious remark.  He handed Tad the clipboard and pen.  Tad signed his name at the bottom of the page and returned the clipboard to Calvin, who removed the used time sheet, inserted a fresh one, and handed the clipboard to Tad.

     "There," Calvin said.  "At least that's taken care of for the week."  Calvin rubbed his thin palms together like Ebenezer Scrooge or a praying mantis---Tad wasn't exactly sure which.  He grabbed a long roll of papers that leaned against the wall, next to his chair, and bounced to his feet.

     "Come, I want to show you something," he said to Tad.

     Tad followed him the few short feet to the front counter.  He watched, while Calvin unrolled the large scroll of papers, which turned out be a blue print of Monotoning and surrounding environs.

     "Now, here's the post office," Calvin said, tapping a minute, white triangle on the map.

     Tad followed Calvin's crooked, brown finger to the end of the alley, which in reality, was only twenty or thirty feet in length.  At the end of the alley, Calvin's finger executed a left turn and coursed down Main Street.  He crossed a long, curving, white line, with dozens of tiny, white hash marks slashes across it, which, Tad knew, represented the double set of railroad tracks at the north end of town.  Calvin's finger continued on up Route 211, until he reached Old Lumber Mill Road, and so on up the road to Iroquois Lane, exactly tracing the last leg of Tad's forty-mile long mail route.

     On the map, Iroquois Lane didn't suddenly dead-end into an endless, green meadow, the way it did in real life.  Here, it wound around through the meadow in a long, lazy, serpentine loop, and emptied back out onto Old Lumbermill Road, again.  Nearly a dozen alleys and side streets flowed into Iroquois Lane, and they, in turn, were connected to at least half a dozen more lanes and drives and streets, and even an avenue or two.  And every one of them was dotted with what looked to Tad like dozens, maybe hundreds, of tiny, white rectangles.

     Tad had to lean closer to the map in order to decipher the designated names of the new thoroughfares.  Delaware Drive.  Seneca Street.  Chippewa Lane.  Cute, he thought.   He was almost tempted to ask Calvin who'd come up with the American Indian motif.

     As Tad staredat the map, his eyes grew large and round as a pair of saucers and his plump, lower lip puffed outward and downward.  He groaned.  "Oh, wonderful.  More people."

     Calvin glared at Tad over the top of his glasses, as if Tad had said something truly blasphemous.  Which in Calvin's mind, Tad thought, he probably had.

     "Just be thankful you have a job," Calvin rebuked Tad in a harsh, disapproving tone.  "You should be grateful to all these people.  They're going to be your bread and butter for a long time to come---if you're lucky.  Six hundred and sixty-six brand new homes," Calvin said, with more than a hint of proprietory pride in his usually doleful voice.  He sounded to Tad like a professort lecturing in a hall, somewhere.

     "Look," he said to Tad.  "There's going to be a Laundromat...and a strip mall...a six-theatre Cineplex...and a playground for the kiddies..."  Calvin tapped a crooked finger at each of the projected locations.  "Isn't that wonderful?  That means a full-time route for you, someday soon.  More pay.  Benefits, finally."

     "Groovy," Tad said, with as much hostility and sarcasm as he could muster.  Groovy was a word he'd inherited from his father Big Jack, who had remained an unregenerate hippie all the way up until the moment he and Tad's mother died, in a terrible motorcycle accident, the same night that Tad had graduated from Lazarus High, five years ago.

     Calvin looked at Tad with his dark, baleful eyes, and shook his head.  "You can't fight progress," he told Tad.

     Oh, yes, you can, Tad thought, but he didn't say it aloud.  Instead, he smiled a devious smile and said, "Ah, yes, progress.  Which as we all know, means taking two giant steps backward in order to take one, teeny-tiny step forward.  Ten years ago, this neck of the woods boasted some of the finest farmland the world has ever know.  Now, it's all over-grown with houses.  Just where are we going to get our food from when we run out of land, in another ten years?"

     "Oh, they'll probably grow it out west, somewhere," Calvin said with a shrug.

     "Are you insane?  From what I've read, it's just as crowded out there as it is here."

     "You're way behind the times," Calvin said.  "You'd better get your act together.  Anyway, I just wanted to show you this.  You can go, now."

     "Thanks.  Hey, have a good weekend---what's left of it."

     "You, too.  So, are you going to stop off at your favorite watering hole?  Have a cold beer or two, and dry off a little, first?"

     "No, I'm going to go straight home.  I'm going to lock the front door, close the curtains, turn off my damn cell phone, and turn the air conditioning on full-blast.  And then, I'm going to strip down to what my grandmother used to call the 'all-together.'  And I'm going to stay that way, until bright and early, Monday morning."

     Calvin smirked.  "Oh, that sounds like fun.  Can I join you after I'm finished here?"

     "No, I don't think so," Tad said.

     "Well, before you come back on Monday morning, you might want to take a good, long, strong shower first.  You smell pretty ripe.  Some of your co-workers have complained.  And wash your hair and shave, and brush your teeth.  You represent the United States government."

     Silently fuming, Tad strolled out the back door, purposely letting it slam shut behind him.  "Butt-head," he swore under his breath.  In a louder voice, he said, "Sorry about that.  I forgot."

     Tad cackled like a mischievous, little boy, as he jumped down off the high edge of the loading dock and raced to his car.

     On his way home, Tad stopped at the 7-11.  There, he purchased two two-litre bottles of Pepsi and two packages of Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

     He made a left at the corner and drove up Pace Street.  Two blocks up Pace Street, he entered the Autumn Hills condominium complex.  On both sides of the winding street, the land steeped upward in a carefully arranged series of grassy tiers.  On each tier stood a long, two-storied, barracks-like building built of mud-brown brick.  The second story of each building protrued slightly over the bottom floor.  Each building possessed a darkly brooding quality, which Tad personally did not find aesthetically pleasing to his mind or eye.

     Tad pulled into first narro parking lot, on his right, and parked in the last slot at the far end of the lot.  He grabbed his plastic 7-11 bag from the passenger's seat of his car scurried to the second-last, orange door at that end of the building, which led to his second-floor condo.  He slid his house key into the tarnished, brass knob.

     At the same time, less than six inches away, on his left, the last orange door creaked open and his neighbor stepped out of his condo.  Tad's neighbor was a small, heavyset man, who looked to Tad to be somewhere in his early thirties, with short, rapidly thinning blond hair and a tight, bushy beard; he wore glasses.  Tad didn't know his neighbor's name, the same way he didn't know the name of any of his other neighbors.  They all seemed content to mind their own business and keep to themselves, and Tad was only too happy to do the same.  Tad had always been a very private person.

     The man regarded Tad for a moment with sad, mournful eyes.  Tad felt obliged to speak.  "Hey," he said curtly, forcing a crooked smile upon his face.  He nodded.  "How ya doing?"

     "Not so hot," his neighbor replied in a thin, weak voice.  He looked and sounded exhausted.  "Listen.  Can I ask you a question?"

     "Yeah, sure.  I guess.  What's up?"

     "Well, as you may or may not know, I went into the hospital, yesterday morning, for a minor operation for my back.  When I came home, this morning, around ten o'clock, my front door was wide open.  Someone stole the safe I keep in my bedroom closet."

     "No kidding," Tad said.

     "What time did you go to work this morning?"

     "Around quarter of seven."

     "And you didn't hear or see anything?"

     "No, sorry."

     "When you left this morning, you diddn't see that my front door was open?"

      "Nope."

     "That safe was small but it was heavy," Tad's neighbor said.  "It weighed over two hundred pounds.  You can still see the tracks the rollers left in the carpet.  If I'd had a second-floor unit like you do, they probably wouldn't have bothered with it.  Apparently, they used a pair of two-by-fours to get it down the stairs and into the back of their truck.

     "I called the cops the moment I got home and discovered it was missing," Tad's neighbor said.  "The cops found it, an hour later, in the field behind the fire house.  Whoever stole my safe stopped there and tried to open it.  They used a crowbar and a sledgehammer on it.  And when that didn't work, they just dumped it there and took off.  The cops found a set of tire trucks and they dusted the safe for prints, but so far, nothing.  Nobody saw anything.  The cops think, maybe, it was the same bunch that tried to steal the safe from the fire house, six months ago.  They couldn't open that safe, either, so they just left it there.  But the cops aren't sure, yet."

     "Oh, wow," Tad said appropriately sympathetic.

     Tad's neighbor shook his head.  "My safe is ruined.  I can't get it open.  I'm probably going to have to pay someone with a torch to try and open it for me.  You know, this area is starting to get really bad.  Remember how someone slashed all the tires in the parking lot, last Halloween?  Come to think of it, the cops never caught who did that, eithe.  First our tires, now my safe.  This place is even worse than living in Ellentown."

     "Tell me about it," Tad said dryly.  "Well, listen.  I'm really sorry about your safe.  I hope everything works out for you.  In the meantime, just try to relax and enjoy what's left of the weekend, okay?"

     "Yeah, thanks.  You, too, bud."

     Tad stepped inside his condo and closed and locked the door.  Tad  smiled as he plodded up the staircase to his living room.  He was finally free, until seven o'clock on Monday morning.  He wished he could hide in here forever and never go out, again.
  

The End

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