There was a steady rain as the sun rose. The dawn sky was gray and the air chilled. The raindrops themselves had the sting of ice needles, half-frozen, tiny comets nosediving in relentless assault. Which was all fine with me. It was a comfortable, lazy, foggy morning outside my window and I had nothing to do but write and whatever. With a pot of fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen and some Coleman Hawkins on the turntable, it was shaping up to be a fine start to the day and to the week, as well. Then something rather strange happened. I went and checked my mailbox, ostensibly, for mail. This was foolish for a few reasons. First, I knew for absolute certain that there was no mail. Knew it as sure as my own name. It was early Monday morning. No mail had been delivered on Sunday. There was no mail in the mailbox and I knew it. Second, once I was outside shuffling up the driveway toward the empty mailbox I was startled by how harsh the freezing rain was. It was cold. Really cold. It was like the cold that reminds you of your own mortality. Yet I went all the way to the edge of my front yard, to the mailbox, opened it, looked inside, closed it, walked back into the house and sat down, all the while knowing there was nothing to be retrieved and against a deluge of freezing precipitation. I rubbed my hands to get some circulation back in them.
“What was that all about?”
I gave it some thought. Then it occurred to me. I had seen my neighbor across the street check his mail, at this ludicrous hour. Enraged and no longer concerned with the freezing rain, I stomped over to his house and began hammering on the front door with both fists. He flung the door open and stood staring at me.
“What’s your problem?” he said.
“What’s the big idea checking the mail so early in the morning, on a Monday, of all days?”
I could see his mind working. “I know, right?” he said finally. “It’s freezing. I thought I was a goner about halfway back up the driveway.”
“No mail?” I said.
“Of course no mail,” he said.
I admitted that I had checked my mailbox because I had seen him check his and that it was too cold for that type of thing. I felt I was entitled to an explanation.
“Now that I think about it, I happened to see Doug check his mailbox.” My neighbor pointed a finger accusingly a few houses up. A minute later we were both hammering on Doug’s door.
“What the hell is wrong with you two?” said Doug. “Do you know how early it is?”
We told him we demanded to know why he would check his mail this morning, so early on a Monday, cold and gray and treacherous and freezing, when he knew there couldn’t possibly be any mail delivered and inadvertently making us check ours, and who did he think he was, perpetuating this foolishness right along down the block. Was he trying to make idiots out of us or what?
“It was Valerie!” Doug exclaimed. “I saw her hustling down the driveway in her bathrobe with her cigarette and coffee just two minutes before I checked my mail. Not only did she look into the mailbox, she actually stuck her arm in and felt around.”
“Are you serious?”
“Why would I make that up?”
“Let’s get her!”
Moments later we were all on Valerie’s doorstep, raining fists on the front door. She answered just as Doug had described her. Bathrobe. Cigarette. Coffee cup.
“Hello neighbors,” she said. “Come on in. Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes,” Doug said. “And put some brandy in it, and don’t change the subject!”
We sat around Valerie’s kitchen table. We were confused, accusatory, cold and with the arrival of the brandy, a little drunk. Valerie was legitimately disturbed. She insisted she didn’t know why she had checked the mail. She almost didn’t remember doing it and had to fight back a few tears of frustration. While we sat there, not entirely trusting one another, there was another knock on Valerie’s door. It was two neighbors up the block looking for me to angrily complain as to why I would be so stupid as to check my mail this early on a Monday morning when surely no mail had been delivered. Valerie brought out more coffee cups. We made short work of the brandy.
It was a troubling notion. Was this the stranglehold of advertising, a testament to its effectiveness? Mimicry. Reflexive behavior. Did we all buy the same paper towels, the one with the fellow from the Village People on it? Same detergent? Same bread? I was ready to accept a random sampling of dentists in order to let a majority of these unknown professionals dictate the chewing gum I may prefer? Did I even like to chew gum and did it matter?
I remember once I happened to catch a video of an old Bruce Springsteen concert live at Hammersmith Odeon, ’75. A powerful performance to be sure, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I watched it and considered it a job well done, and that was that. The next day I went to ten different stores looking for an oversized dirty wool hat. None were oversized enough, or dirty enough. After swapping one from a hobo for a pair of old sneakers I realized that Springsteen had been wearing the same hat the entire time on stage.
“Everybody hold on!” yelled Valerie. “It was Gordon. Now I remember,” she said with the dramatic flair of the amnesic from a Hitchcock movie who realizes she holds the key to the puzzle. “He was the one at the mailbox this morning before me. And not only that,” she leaned in and whispered, “he retrieved something.”
Moments later our angry mob shuffled up the block through the icy torrent. We huddled together for warmth and decided that if one of us died from exposure they would be left until the spring thaw, at which time they would receive a proper burial. When we reached Gordon’s house we could hear his dog Laddie woofing up a storm, announcing our presence. Gordon opened the door before we beat it off the hinges. He looked bemused at our rain-soaked bunch.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?”
We described the pain and anguish we had been dealing with individually and as a group because of his insensitivity in checking his mailbox first thing that morning, on a Monday, no less, in the freezing rain. Gordon laughed. He explained that his brother was going out of town for a few days and had left his spare set of house keys with Gordon to keep an eye on the property. He had tossed them in the mailbox so as not to be an early morning nuisance. We all looked at each other sheepishly, obliged and yet still unwilling to accept the explanation.
“We could run over there now,” said Gordon, jingling the keys in his hand. “He’s got a hot tub.”
Twenty minutes later we were all piled into the steamy whirlpool in various degrees of deshabille. Someone opened up a bottle of sparkling wine that happened to be laying around the refrigerator and then “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” came pounding out of the stereo. We felt no guilt or compunction about raiding Gordon’s brother’s house. It was the least he could do since it was his fault for disturbing the entire neighborhood, and the trajectory of the day ended up going to places the most lucid oracle could not have foreseen.
More Alembics to come.