Just after my thirteenth birthday I killed a mailman. It was an accident as much as anything is an accident. There were no weapons and I never planned it and feel bad about it still, but it happened, and I watched it happen, and after it happened it seemed like something I would always be waiting to have happen again.
I like to tell the story when the conversation warrants it. When I am with a new man and just starting to open myself up to him. It is a good public secret, something you can tell in a bar. I’m certain if my father knew how often I tell this story he would tell me to knock it off. He would tell me I’m not doing myself any favors. But I continue to tell it, casually, liking the way the men nod and fidget as I do.
“What is it?” the man I was seeing last night asked, sensing something was distracting me. I was thinking of the mailman, the whole story, beginning to end. “You remind me of someone,” I said. “But you won’t like to hear who.” He used the little stir straw in his Manhattan to stab at the cherry. “Sure I would,” he said, and popped the cherry into his mouth. I ordered another glass of rosé. I took off my shoes and made myself more comfortable.
I was home from school a lot that year. That’s how it started with the mailman. How I met him and came to love him, which is what it was, it was love, or infatuation, I’m not sure of the difference anymore. I was home because my father had gone from banking to painting houses and I’d moved schools and lost friends. No one bothered to argue when I claimed fever or migraine. So I sat at home waiting for the mail, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches, watching Jerry Springer. No one came to check up on me. My brother adjusted quickly to the new school, left me behind. I was lonely, is what it was. I was a girl, is what it was, twelve, so I felt like I was dying a little all the time.
This career move of my father’s disrupted the family more than we cared to believe. We called it a career move, but everyone knew he’d just lost his job. The job was there and then it wasn’t. We were trying hard, all of us, in our own ways, to adjust. We still lived in the house of a banker. My mother worked longer hours at a cosmetics counter so we could keep the house and the neighbors and the Lexus and the Sundays at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral and my father kept his suits and my mother kept them ironed. It wasn’t his fault about the bank. It was just how that year was. That year was like that for a lot of fathers.
I don’t remember if this mailman replaced a previous mailman. I’d never paid attention to the mail before. That mailman was the first I thought about, but after I noticed him he was all I noticed. It was his walk that got me. Lopsided, like one leg was sleepy or short. He had curling walnut-brown hair that fell in front of his eyes, which were set wide on his face. Thick-lashed eyes, a dark, almost navy color, which gave him a boyish, melancholy look. I am sure most people who saw him thought he had a very handsome face, a kind looking face, almost cherubic. He had the clean, plump skin of a man who had a hearty appetite in his youth. Drank whole milk, ate eggs and cheese and pastries. I had a similar appetite in my childhood, but my family build is thinner. We were reserved dieters, skim-milk drinkers. I was permitted only one dessert a week, maybe a frozen yogurt or some fruit and honey. We were cautious with our figures, as per the instructions of my father.
I did not speak to my father or my brother or my mother or anyone else about the mailman. I kept the mail in a neat pile on the table in the landing, next to keys and loose change, a picture of my brother and me in Easter clothes. At first it was just business with us, the mailman and me. Just his hand in the mail slot on the front door. I watched him walk up the sidewalk, and then back down, lopping slightly, that gait. Then it was me waving. Then it was him on the front step knocking, knowing I was home and me saying, Hullo, him waving. Him making me folded paper rings out of Little Caesars coupons. Then it was me on the front step before he even got there. It was him asking my name. Asking why I was home. Me shrugging. Then it was me standing there in a pink bedtime shirt, a long one, one that covered my knees so I could wear only the shirt. We talked about the weather. He asked me about school. “No school,” I said. “No school,” he said. I asked him about the mail. “Do you ever steal?” I asked. “The mail?” he asked. He looked at my feet, then his. “No,” he said. “Do you?”
I shrugged. I was a petty thief. Candy, nail polish, pencils. The worst was some money from a fundraiser at church. Money for needy families in the community. I used it to buy a Ken doll I was too old to play with anyway. I kept the doll in the box and prayed for myself.
He let me look through the mailbag, but wouldn’t let me keep anything. I’d hold up the envelopes to the light, try to read the openings of letters, or the sum of a check. “Rachel,” he’d say, “do your parents know about you?”
I wondered what he meant by this but had a pretty good idea. My aunt gave me a pair of jeans with gold stars at the bottom for Christmas the year I was twelve. Tight through the hip and thigh, flared at the bottom. I wore them downstairs one day, a day I’d decided to go to school. “You look like a stripper,” my father had said, clearly unaccustomed to the look of a stripper. He was wearing a tie and coveralls. He was still transitioning between his old life and his new life. He was struggling. “Your sister gave me these,” I said. “For Christmas.” His sister was Presbyterian and knew how to fold hand towels into swans. “Leave her alone,” my mother told my father, combing my teenage brother’s hair. She liked to touch my brother, my mother. She liked to get right up close to him. “Knock it off, Laurie,” my father said to my mother. “Look at yourself,” he said to her, motioning with his hand, looking her over from neck to ankles. The whole way down was white bathrobe silk. My brother and I looked her over, embarrassed and silent. I went upstairs and took the pants off and put on some khaki shorts instead. My father kissed me sweet on the forehead. I gloated all the way to school.
My father knew about me. He always knew, but we kept it like he didn’t.
The mailman came around the same time every day, two in the afternoon, late enough that I could usually see him even if I went to school, but early enough that no one else was ever home. As I watched him walk up the street, heavily tree-lined with red brick two-storied homes, I cut off the TV, especially if it was Jerry Springer. I didn’t want him to know I watched that. I felt ashamed enough of it on my own, seeing things I didn’t want to see but couldn’t get enough of—men with meat taped to their bodies, women who stomped on men’s testicles, sad-looking fathers in mustaches and heels. At twelve this was the most formative sexual education I’d had. If your father knew, I told myself. But my father wasn’t home.
Around two, when I was expecting him, I would move from the sofa to the staircase near the front door and watch him on our walkway, his heavy mail sack bouncing against his thigh. I would want to wave and smile and throw my arms around him, thinking as he approached that he was coming home to me. I imagined sometimes that I was my mother and the mailman was my father. I imagined sometimes that I had no mother or father. That the only man I knew was the mailman; that the only girl the mailman knew was me.
Outside we played a game I call slap hands, where I put my hands atop his and pulled away when he tried to slap the tops of them. He was quick and I was not. He played it like he wanted to win, which I liked. I wouldn’t have wanted him to let me get away with anything I didn’t earn. He’d tell me jokes. Good, easy, dad kind of jokes. I’d ask him Jeopardy questions. I’d ruff up his hair with my hand when I stood on the top step and he stood on the bottom. When he was feeling especially playful he’d poke his finger into my bellybutton outside my shirt.
Still, he was modest. He would put my mother’s Victoria Secret catalogues on the bottom of the mail. He’d get a little twitchy in the face if I came outside barefoot or still wet from the shower. “Rachel,” he’d say, his chin pressed to his chest, “you’re going to catch a cold.”
It was like this for some months between us. These months bleed together, the mail and the days of school and no school and friends and no friends and meatloaf and salmon salad and Jerry Springer and touching and not being touched. My father in suits, then no suits. Sweet, tender with me, or else not. My mother, eating more slowly, standing too close to my brother, my brother and I watching our parents disapprove of each other silently.
My father began to hold his breath when my mother spoke, like she was a disease he was trying to keep out. We talked less, all of us. But every day the mailman came and I stood like I’d watched my mother stand, and spoke the way I’d watched my mother speak. Sometimes I would try this with my father. When I pleased him he would take me into the kitchen and put me on his feet. Dance me around. My mother and brother watched us, with what I presumed to be envy. He is the kind of man you want to please, my father. So it is with me now, pleasing, trying always to please.
The day I killed him I was standing on my tiptoes near the door. I was small, which is why I stood like that, extra small, not the kind of girl you can mistake for being older. A cold, leaking February day, four days after my thirteenth birthday. I asked if he had mail for me. He did. Birthday cards. He asked if it was my birthday. I told him it had been, on Saturday. I told him there was still birthday cake left, and asked if he would come inside and have some with me. It was easy, when I did this. I was not afraid of myself, as I should have been. I told him I could make us some tea, if he drank tea.
“I’m working, you know,” he said.
“Just for a minute,” I said.
“Rachel,” he said, looking down at my wet, socked feet. “I really shouldn’t,” he said, but that was as much as he protested.
Inside, our house followed the neighborhood style, with broad-arched doorways and a craftsman style fireplace and staircase, though our house was larger than most on the street, and the windows had been redone so that it seemed lighter and warmer than the others. My mother had an easy and modern decorating style and kept things very clean and organized. There were long, willowy curtains framing the windows, two or three decorative and vibrantly green houseplants, a long, camelcolored sofa offset near the fireplace. It was a house I didn’t mind showing the mailman and held the door open for him proudly.
He took a long time bringing his broad body inside, despite the cold, and spoke in his deep hushed way, thanking me, but seeming all the time so hesitant, as I suppose he should have been. He pulled his short, sleepy leg in with some effort. I will say I felt quite like a predator at that moment, when he crossed over into the warmth of my house, dropping his mail sack carefully by the door. I was no more than half his size, if that, but I felt I had some power over him then, and it pleased me to have it.
He waited patiently near the archway separating the kitchen and dining room, looking at hanging photographs and vases and stacks of books.
“Is this you?” he asked, holding up my framed school picture, which had not come out well. He tried not to laugh as I took it from him.
“My parents keep it up as a joke.”
I sat down with the cake, knowing all the power I’d felt in that moment near the front door was gone. “That isn’t nice,” he said, and sat beside me. It was becoming late afternoon. I worried for him going back out into the cold.
We traded the slice of cake back and forth, sharing the fork, and I tried to lick my lips in a way that made me feel older and sexy, but he didn’t notice when I did, always looking down at the table instead. I’d forgotten about the tea steeping on the counter.
“How old is your brother?” the mailman asked me.
“Sixteen,” I said, and wondered if he thought he was attractive. My brother is startling to look at, objectively. I often thought my mother was in love with my brother, and there were moments I could not blame her. “He’s handsome, isn’t he?” I said. The mailman didn’t answer, just kept looking around, peeling back things from my home, looking for what, I wasn’t sure. Me, I hoped. More of me.
“Want to play cards?” I asked him. He looked outside, towards the street awaiting its mail.
“It has to be quick,” he said.
We played Speed. He won, bashfully. We played again, and this time I won, because he wasn’t playing as quickly as he could.
“That wasn’t a fair game,” I told him, and licked the frosting from our shared fork.
He had moved closer to me, and I could feel the warmth of his legs near my knee. I reached out to them, my small child’s hands, and without thinking too much about it, moved them up the length of his thigh, towards his groin. He let me get all the way up before taking up my hands in his, and, bringing them to his lips, kissed my thumbs.
“Rachel,” he said, so deep that it sounded like it came from the muscles I’d just touched. “Rachel what are you doing?” He put my hands back in my own lap.
There was a girl in one episode of Jerry Springer who was my age and wanted to get pregnant. She’d slept with more men than she could count, and that was sad, I knew it was sad, and I knew she was in a desperate situation at home, and I felt for her, I did, but also I envied her. I envied that all those men looked at her like that, when I knew they looked at me like I was still a child, and I was, certainly, my flat, flat chest, hairless arms and legs. Even then I knew the importance of being desirable in that way.
But what I thought that day when I remembered that girl was not my jealousy, but the fear that must be in men like the mailman, men who find themselves in an empty house with a girl like me, moving her child’s hands up his legs like wide, tender spiders. Girls who are crazy and desperate enough to do that are crazy and desperate enough to try, hard, to get themselves pregnant. I hadn’t even had my first period, but the mailman didn’t know that, and I wasn’t going to tell him. Honestly, I didn’t want to have sex. That was too much for a girl like me. I was so tiny. I didn’t want that, but I did want him to take me and hold me tightly against his body. I did want to curl up on his chest and sleep until school was over and I was older. Until I outgrew his chest. But I wasn’t sure how to ask for that.
“Rachel,” he said again, and I felt myself begin to cry. “Don’t cry,” he said. “You understand.” I did. He moved his hands over mine again, but didn’t kiss them.
The afternoon was evening when he got up from the table. I got him a pair of my father’s gloves from the hallway closet, as he wasn’t wearing any, but they didn’t fit his large hands, so he handed them back. I wished he had wanted to keep them, though they were my father’s and not mine, and so wouldn’t really mean anything to him anyway. He stood by the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I?” he said, as if he was afraid I might not be there.
But where would I go?
Before he opened the front door he reached down to grab his bag, and as he did, he stumbled, like he’d tripped, but caught himself, reached for my shoulder, missed, then stumbled again, this time falling straight forward onto his face, his body curling a little as it fell, so that he was lying on top of the mailbag, hugging it, with his knees bent beneath him. There wasn’t a thud as he fell, just a muffled sound of weight and the crunching of letters, and then the sound of air leaving his wide lungs. He did not get up. I spoke to him, quietly, asking if he’d like some water. He did not move. I bent down and touched his hair, and then the squashed paleness of his face, and with considerable effort, rolled him onto his back so that I could better see him. I expected him to blink, and thought that when he did, and looked up at me, he would kiss me, but he did not. He didn’t do anything.
My mother and father, away at work, would be home soon, and here was an unresponsive mailman lying atop his mailbag in our entryway, with me, their newly teenage daughter, the only one inside.
Later, when my father tells the story of the mailman who died of an unfortunately timed aneurism near his front door, he will speculate as to the intentions of an attractive single man inside the empty house of his teenage daughter. But alone with himself he will blame me for this scene. He will assume it was me who lured him inside. And he will be right.
But right then there was no one there to see. So I kissed the mailman, right on his fat, dry lips. I kissed him once, and then I kissed him again. And only when I’d kissed him to my satisfaction did I stand, wipe my spit from his chin, go to the kitchen, and call the police.