I started writing a story about a man who has pretty much lost touch with the world. At the age of 70, he’s suddenly realized that his dream of being a novelist has been just that – a dream. When his local mailman – a buoyant, innocent, interfering type – secretly sets him up with a pen pal, something unusual begins to happen.
As I thought about what this new pen pal correspondence might look like, it occurred to me that it would fun or interesting – or more in the spirit of pen pal letters themselves – if I didn’t have a hand in the writing of one side of the correspondence. Thus, if you, reader, are interested, I’m wondering if you would be so kind as to write “Fighter” back. You can either write in the comment section or send me something via email at sherwinsleeves (at) yahoo (dot) com. Your letter will be incorporated into the story and Fighter will, in turn, respond to what you’ve written. Though Fighter’s first terse message is written on the back of a postcard, don’t feel constrained by post card sizing or word count. The story follows…and thank you
For 60 years I thought I was going to be one of those fellows who writes his first novel at the bonkers age of 70 and now that I am 70 I come to realize there are no such fellows and therefore I must not be one.
There is a poet or two I’m sure who’ve done it. For what’s her name? Edith Eleanor? Some such of two ladies names. 92 years old and out comes her first poem like a leaked cloud. And then a monsoon of such things till she’d a stack that made a book. A lovely book they would never stop calling it. A “slim volume” the poets say to do away with any grandness while of course the elbow is that a lot of poetry means very little of it.
Tommy the mailman knocks at the gate. “Hey! Yo! Fighter? Canni commup?” Dumb as a glue pot with his block of hair and extra teeth somehow and high-tech gear jimmied to his skull like a robot movie.
“I’ve no mail!” I shout over the green yard in a go-way voice. But he doesn’t stop so it must be urgent business. Usually when he’s mail for me he flaps it birdy style in a scene about mail for farmers who just have fields but never once licked a stamp.
Pair of different breeds of bug, we stand at the door.
“So,” he smacks his hands so hard I picture meat. “Have I got a bit of news for you old sir!” he says.
Tommy the mailman puts on a form of talk with old people as though we’d wisdom enough to make a language of our own that he’s been clever enough to sort. He pines to be a member of a club.
But what I like about Tommy is that he gets his only delight when someone else is about to benefit. You don’t see that much. It’s a rare thing to be delighted for another like Tom.
“It’s a schoolyard see,” he says in a schemes voice and I say “What is?” And he says “The schoolyard,” and I say “What schoolyard?” Because everything with Tommy is let’s go back to the beginning.
“The Parnassus school?” he says. And here we go with 20 questions start from scratch. “Down past the shops?” he says. “On Fences Avenue? With the great slides out front in the wood chips?” He’s nearly singing now, a bird of wonder.
And I say “Damn all that, Tom, just say it the way you like and I’ll sort it for myself.”
Which he did and which I didn’t and at the end he comes in for the kind of hug a lummox gives an old man who thought he’d write a novel after 60 years of not, which means he draped about my air to give me a scent of his underarms.
“Good news Fighter am I right?” he says. Thumbs up and smiling at my fortune and there lay his six front teeth like cinder blocks to bar the flood of Gethsemane.
“Great, Tommy, great,” I say quiet so to cancel it.
But he tugs and pops me from the door and it’s like I’m mailman number two with Tommy as we head to the Parnassus Schoolyard.
I stand by endless devastated box gardens in clouds of dog barks as Tommy raises up his sheafs and calls out to break the glass of all his customers. He’s heartbroken if he’s got to put mail in the slot, utterly devastated he loves to touch the arms of his customers so much.
Me, if I did it, I’d do it at night and use a disguise and lower the mail flaps so quiet there’d be no noise. I already walk like an Indian from my training camp days and have invisibility on my side except to Tom who can see me as he knows where to look.
“How long Tom?” I say every new street. I stand under a smelt of sunlight and watch him embrace some old girl. This is just my life, I think, it’s always been me and some other fool bringing me some place I long not to visit. You have to come and see, I’ve heard for 60 years and then I do and whatever thing it is I’m troubled it’s even there.
There was the time she brought me to the sea. Cold and frigid as a warship. Well Lord, I said, I know what the sea is. I spent many days at oceans is there any need?
She gulped in nails of bitter wind like canister oxygen and I turned my back to stay warm and look homeward and wait to be leaving.
Thousands of these times being dragged away to scenic vistas and whatever bleak valley that’s got stuck in the sights of someone else’s heart. The life of a novelist I’d told myself but now I’ve no excuse.
Fitting then, that the Parnassus Park should be rigged in iron spikes so I can gaze upon it hands to rail like a true jailbird.
“Ah Tommy,” I whisper with regret. For is there anything so forlorn as children on swings and slides and racing about mad as hatters not knowing a thing about the novels they’ll not write?
“It’s her then,” he says and nods beyond the tiny tragedies to a lump of a barelegged woman in a sundress with arms folded and silver hair in a braid hung over her shoulder like a sweat sock.
“Is it?” I say and he jabs a postcard from Paris into my hand that’s blank and already stamped and says, “Well, go on old Sir, she’s agreed to it!”
And here comes a pen up from his official gear pocket and I wish death upon him twice to heaven and what am I to do but get beyond it fast?
“I haven’t the foggiest…” I scratch in the pen and start to hand it back to him and he shouts to me “Sign it Fighter so she knows!”
I sign it “Fighter” so she doesn’t and he steals it away like his own money and raises up the fresh kill and sways it like a mission bell and I see the sweat sock swing to one side but by that time I am fast on a run away.
And so by god I have a pen pal by god.
[And now, reader, if it occurs to you, could you write Fighter back?]