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                                    Gene Fehler

Louis shaded his eyes and peered toward the south, down the straight string of dirt road, hoping to see a spot of dust rising toward the mid-morning sun. Gray dust in summer; white dust of snow in winter. His eyesight had started to fail him just a bit a year or two ago, about the time he turned seventy-five, but he could still see that spot of dust. Sometimes.

He glanced at his watch. Maybe something had happened. Every day, except Sundays, the spot of dust appeared between ten o’clock and ten-fifteen. Then the spot would move toward him, growing like a raincloud, until it reached the Bradock farm three quarters of a mile away. There the dust would temporarily fade, melting into whatever direction the wind was blowing. If there was no wind, the dust would thin out above the car that caused it, but never for more than thirty seconds (Louis had timed it). The car would pull away from Bradock’s mailbox, not stopping until it arrived with its daily surprises.

But already it was ten-fourteen, and still the road slept, undisturbed in the January morning sunlight.

Troubled, Louis shook his head. With a trembling hand, he reached in his pocket for his large red and white handkerchief. He blew his nose loudly and stuffed his handkerchief in his back pocket. He stroked his beard and scratched at his neck whiskers. “My letters,” he mumbled. His voice quavered as he said again, “My letters.”

He shuffled to the side of the road and pulled the mailbox door open, just to double check. He had to make sure that the four letters he had prepared for today were still there, ready to be mailed.

They were there. One letter was a request to receive a catalogue from a mail order house. They hadn’t sent him their winter catalogue. Maybe it had been an oversight on their part, or maybe they had not sent it because he hadn’t purchased anything from their last four catalogues. The second letter was his entry form to a sweepstakes contest sponsored by a magazine. The third letter contained a dollar bill, his contribution to a preacher he listened to sometimes on the radio. Louis’ fourth letter contained seventeen dollars and forty cents, almost all the money he could find in his one-room cabin. He asked the editor of the Clarksville Courier to renew his subscription to the daily newspaper for as long as the seventeen dollars and forty cents would permit. It had been a long time since Louis had received the paper, so he assumed his subscription had run out. He wanted to get caught up on the news in Clarksville, since it was the nearest town, six miles away, and because he had been born there seventy-six years ago.

Louis stood by the mailbox and stared down McClain Road, waiting. Some days while he waited he remembered things. Some days he just watched for that speck of dust. Today was one of those days when memories flooded his mind. They rushed at him faster than he could fend them off. He remembered the day over fifty years ago when he quit his job at the grain elevator in Clarksville and bought the five and a half acres of land on McClain Road. He bought if for practically nothing, since the land was mostly scrub brush and rocks, no good for farming. The only farm within a mile of the place was Bradock’s. Back then it had been run by a family named Smith, but he hadn’t cottoned much to them. Two other families owned Smith’s farm before Bradock took over, but he couldn’t remember their names.

Louis and Sharon built the cabin themselves. They had been married for six months when he quit his job at the elevator. When they finished the cabin and moved in, they supported themselves on the food and pelts that Louis could hunt and trap, and from the small garden they carved from the rocks beside the cabin. Sharon worked beside him in the garden and on the trap lines, and she made their clothes. The two of them were together with all the pleasures Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden. The only difference was, they didn’t have to worry about being kicked out like Adam and Eve had been.

So why did she leave him? Hardly a day passed that Louis didn’t ask that question. Louis had returned one day after running his trap line and found a note on the kitchen table. All it said was, “Louis, I tried to make this kind of life work, for your sake, but I can’t do it anymore. I have my life to live too. I know you’ll be all right. I’m sorry.”  She’d signed it, Love, Sharon.

He had walked to Clarksville and spent a week looking for her. But she had disappeared, totally and forever.

Louis had lived by himself ever since. For the first year or two it had been lonely. Then he discovered a cure for his loneliness, something better, more loyal than a wife or lover. He discovered the U.S. Mail. It hadn’t been a sudden, overnight discovery, not like when someone finds God, or is struck by the Holy Spirit. Gradually, over a period of months after Sharon left, he began to consciously realize how much he looked forward to checking his mailbox, wondering what unexpected pleasures might be awaiting him. So he began to send an increasing number of letters out, answering advertisements, requesting information, getting magazines. As the years went on, he started to center his life around the mail delivery, anxiously checking to see what surprise would be left in his mailbox. Louis wondered why Sharon couldn’t have been as loyal as the U.S. Mail.

Today the speck of dust was late again. He rubbed his red-rimmed eyes. He hated when the mail was late and all there was for him to do was stand by the mailbox and remember the past. It was a long day of waiting. By mid-afternoon Louis was chilled and went inside for a cup of soup. By evening the winds picked up and the snow flurries began. At eight o’clock he sat at his at his table and started writing more letters. As he worked on them, he almost forgot about the wind whining outside, whistling through cracks. He had enough heat from his Franklin stove to keep him warm and he had enough light from his kerosene lamp to that he could write. There was no reason to think about the snow. At eleven o’clock Louis finished his final letter. He pulled on his cap and his hip-length coat. Snow slapped his face, and wind burned his ears so much he pulled his ear flaps down. The path to the outhouse a hundred feet out back was already covered with a layer of snow, and the huge flakes were swirling heavily.

He was chilled when he got back to his cabin, so he warmed himself by his stove, then fixed himself some hot tea. When he went to bed he lay awake for a long time, listening to the storm blow.

He awoke at first light to an unexpected silence. Then he crawled slowly, painfully, from his bed. The pain in his hip almost made him cry out, but he rested on the edge of his bed for a moment until the pain subsided. Slowly, carefully, he stood up and walked in short, slow steps to the window. He blew softly on the frosted glass, clearing a small round spot.

The landscape was picture-book pretty. For all the motion outside, he might have been the last living thing in the world. No birds dotted the pick sky of early morning. No animal tracks marred the sweep of snow that buried the dirt road in drifts up to four or five feet high.

Louis wondered how much snow had fallen. He guessed seven or eight inches, at least. A lot for an overnight snow. But he had been through bigger storms than that. He had been through storms that had lasted for days. By comparison this storm had been a small one. The skies had dumped their snow all at once, let it fall and twist and blow and skitter around on the frozen ground looking for a resting place, and then it was done. Louis bundled himself up and walked to the outhouse.

On the way back, he checked the temperature on the thermometer outside the back door. It read thirteen degrees. Louis fixed breakfast, a bowl of hot soup. As he ate it, he read over the letters he had prepared the night before. Then he turned on his radio. He was startled by its silence until he remembered that it needed new batteries. He walked slowly to the window and stared at the snow.

At nine-thirty, he put on his coat and cap, and went outside to mail his letters. He stuffed them in the mailbox and peered across the drifts of snow that covered McClain Road like white frosting. No dust speck would signal the coming of the U.S. Mail. Today he would have to watch for something else, maybe a flash of light as the sun struck an approaching windshield, maybe a spray of snow as a snow plow led the way.

By ten-thirty, a slight wind began to sweep the top layer of snow. Louis’ feet and fingers and face burned with pain. By noon the wind was stronger, but the pain had, surprisingly, lessened. Still there was no sign of the U.S. Mail.

Three days later, Robert Howley, a high school senior from Clarksville, was shooting the drifts of the still unplowed McClain Road in his snowmobile, on his way to see his buddy Jeff. Jeff lived on McClain Road, nine miles from Clarksville.

“I’ll show you some great snowmobile trails around here,” Jeff had said on the phone last evening.

As Robert sped past a small cabin, he noticed what appeared to be two small logs sticking from a large snowdrift just next to a roadside mailbox. Something indefinably strange about the logs made him slow down and circle back. As he climbed from his snowmobile, he noticed with shock that they were not logs. He stepped closer and saw that the gray on the soles of a pair of man’s shoes was not snow. The gray was the color of the socks which showed through the holes in the shoes. Robert scooped enough snow away to see that the body was that of an old man, preserved perfectly by the freezing temperatures. Robert had never seen a dead person before, except in a funeral home, and the realization that he had discovered—actually uncovered—a death, made him turn involuntarily from the body and lean against the mailbox to catch his breath. As his shoulder banged against the mailbox, its door fell open. He reached instinctively to close it, then stopped. The mailbox was stuffed with letters, bent and crumpled. He pulled out a handful. Then he whistled. “Must be a hundred letters jammed in there,” he muttered.

But it didn’t make any sense. Until the storm three days ago, temperatures had been mild; there was little doubt but what the man was newly dead. Yet assuming that the man belonged to this cabin, and that this was the man’s mailbox, why all those letters? Jeff had told him more than a month ago that the post office had ended all rural deliveries on McClain Road.

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