There he was again, the postman. After she first noticed him Cassandra began seeing him everywhere. Like when you learn what exacerbate means and then everyone begins to say it and it’s even in the morning paper.
He was marching down Sixth Avenue, his shiny shoes lifting high above the ground. One/two. One/two. At Thirteenth Street he turned his head to the right, pivoted, and disappeared. He was delivering mail.
Cassandra and her two-year-old son Matt were on their own morning route. The deli, the A&P, the bakery, the firehouse, the pet shop. Sometimes the laundry. Home for milk and cookies, then back down, to Washington Square. Home for lunch and a nap.
When she had first noticed the postman, how their paths crossed and recrossed, she wondered why she hadn’t seen him before. Had her whole life been altered by five minutes? What would happen if it altered by an hour?
Then she noticed that his route was timed so perfectly that for blocks at a time he would step onto the far curb exactly as the light turned red. He never deviated along the way, even the rare pleasantries were accounted for and predictable. Then she noticed that hers and Matt’s were, too. At nine, for example, a fireman would lift Matt onto the truck or put his hat on Matt’s head. At ten-fifteen the baker would ask Matt how was his big man today and give him an oatmeal cookie. Or the other baker would say, Hello, beautiful, to Cassandra and give her the cookie. When they got out the door on Greenwich Street there the postman would be, stepping off the curb.
It’s understandable, she told herself. Children need rhythm, a routine. Matt was so young, he liked their walks, their time at the park, but by one on the dot he’d be cranky, need lunch and a nap. Nevertheless, she began to try to vary their schedule. Matt reacted badly. He wasn’t ready for the sandpile or for drowsy swinging until after their walk. If they went home early he was too keyed up for a nap. If they went to the store after the park he’d whine, writhe to get out of the basket. So they went back to their usual routine, right in the postman’s footsteps sometimes, across the street at others. No one stood in his way or stepped out in front of him. One/two. One/two, he cut a straight swath down the center of the sidewalk.
One morning they might have missed him if, as usual, they had browsed awhile in the pet shop. But in the middle of the shop there was a new cage. Waltzing mice. Dozens of little gray mice running around in berserk circles. They had been bred with defective tympanums so they would run around and around. Cassandra took Matt out of the store and they almost collided with the postman. Across the street a lesbian called up to her lover in the women’s prison. She was there every morning at ten-thirty.
On Sixth Avenue they stopped at the deli for chicken liver, then next door to pick up the laundry. Matt carried the groceries, she pushed the laundry in a cart. The postman skipped one step to avoid the wheels of the cart.
Cassandra’s husband, David, came home at five-forty-five. He rang the buzzer three times and she rang him back. She and Matt waited at the bannister, watching him climb one two three four flights of stairs. Hello! Hello! Hello! They would hug and he would come in. He’d sit at the kitchen table with Matt on his lap, pulling off his tie.
“How was it?” she would ask.
“The same,” he would say, or “Worse.” He was a writer, had almost finished his first novel. He hated his job at a publishing company, there was no time or energy left for his book.
“I’m sorry, David,” she would say, and fix them drinks.
“How was your day?”
“Fine. We walked, went to the park.”
“Matt napped. I read Gide.” (She tried to read Gide; usually she read Thomas Hardy.) “There’s this postman—”
“Mailman,” she corrected herself. “He’s got me so depressed. He’s like a robot. Day in, day out, the same schedule—he even has the lights timed. Makes me sad about my own life.”
David was angry. “Yeah, you’ve really got it rough. Look, we all do things we don’t want to do. Do you think I like the textbook division?”
“I didn’t mean that. I love what I do. I just don’t want to have to do it at ten-twenty-two. Do you see?”
“I guess. Hey, wench—draw me a bath.”
He always said that, a joke. Then she’d draw a bath and prepare dinner while he bathed. They would eat when he came out, his hair shining black. After dinner he’d write or think. She’d wash the dishes, give Matt a bath and read to him, sing to him. “Texarkana Baby” and “Candy Kisses” until he fell asleep, a ribbon of drool bobbing from his pink lips. Then she would read or sew until David said, “Let’s turn in,” and they would. They would make love, or they wouldn’t, and fall asleep.
The next morning she lay awake in bed, her head aching. She waited for him to say “Good morning, merry sunshine,” and he did. When he left she waited for him to kiss her and say “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” and he did.
On the way to Washington Square she thought to herself that some kid would probably fall off the slide and cut his lip. Later, in the park, Matt fell from the swing and cut his lip. Cassandra held a Kleenex to the cut, fought back her own tears. What’s the matter with me? What more do I want? God, let me just see the good things. She forced herself to look around, out of herself, and, in fact, the cherry blossoms were in bloom. They had been coming out little by little, but it was that day they were lovely. Then, as if because she saw the trees, the fountain turned on. Look, Mama! Matt cried, and began to run. All the children and their mothers ran to the sparkling fountain. The postman walked right by it as usual. He seemed not to notice that it was on, got wet by the spray. One/two. One/two.
Cassandra took Matt home for his nap. Sometimes she slept, too, but usually she sewed or worked in the kitchen. She loved this drowsy time of day when the cat yawned and buses cruised outside, when telephones went on ringing and ringing. The sewing machine made a summer sound of flies.
But that afternoon sun flashed from the chrome on the stove, the needle broke on the machine. From the streets came sounds of braking, scrapings. Silver clattered on the drainboard, a knife screeched against the enamel. Cassandra chopped parsley. One/two. One/two.
Matt woke up. She washed his face, careful of the lip. They drank milkshakes, waited with chocolate mustaches for David to come home, to ring the buzzer three times.
She wished she could tell him how bad she felt, but he was the one who had it hard, working at that job, no time for his book. So when he asked her how her day had been she said, “It was a wonderful day. The cherry blossoms are out and they turned the fountain on. It’s spring!”
“Great.” David smiled.
“The postman got wet,” she added.
“We’re not going to the store today,” Cassandra told Matt. They baked peanut butter cookies and he pressed the fork down on each one. There. She made sandwiches and milk, put blankets and a pillow in the laundry cart. They went an entirely new way, down Fifth Avenue, to Washington Square. It was nice to come upon the arch, framing the trees and the fountain.
She and Matt played ball, he played on the slide, in the sandpile. At one she spread the blanket out for a picnic. They ate sandwiches, offered their cookies to people passing by. After lunch, at first, he didn’t want to go to sleep, even with his own blanket and pillow. But she sang to him. “She’s my Texarkana baby and I love her like a doll, her ma she came from Texas and her pa from Arkansas.” Over and over until at last Matt fell asleep and so did she. They slept a long time. When she woke she was afraid at first because she opened her eyes into the pink blossoms against the blue sky.
They sang on the way home, stopping at the laundry to pick up their bundle. Coming out, pushing the heavy cart, Cassandra was surprised to see the postman. They hadn’t seen him all day. Lazily she followed in his wake toward the curb. Then she let go of the cart, let it sail down the sidewalk heavy into his heels. It caught one foot in such a way that the shoe came off. He looked around at her with hatred, stooped to untie and put back on his shoe. She retrieved the cart and he started to cross the street. But he was too late, the light turned red when he was halfway across. A Gristedes delivery truck veered around the corner, just missed hitting the postman, its brakes screeching. The postman froze, terrified, then continued to the curb and down Thirteenth Street, running now.
Cassandra and Matt went straight up to Fourteenth Street and around back to their apartment house. It was a whole new different way to go home.
David rang the buzzer at five-forty-five. Hello! Hello! Hello! “How was your day?”
“The same. And yours?”
Matt and Cassandra interrupted each other, telling him about their day, their picnic.
“It was beautiful. We slept under the cherry blossoms.”
“Great.” David smiled.
She smiled, too. “On the way home I murdered the postman.”
“Mailman,” David said, taking off his tie.
“David. Please talk to me.”
Lucia Berlin is the author of the story collections A Manual for Cleaning Women and the forthcoming Evening in Paradise, from which “Cherry Blossoms” is excerpted. She died in 2004.
“Bloom,” 2014, by Thomas Demand
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York
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