First, a duck. It arrives inside a USPS box amid packing peanuts with Myra’s address written on the shipping label in a clean, mousy hand. It is a mallard, its beak slightly chipped, a 60-watt bulb still screwed to the socket extending from its spine. Myra checks the label. No return address. “Oh, Jesus,” she says and chuckles. A mistake. Somebody’s confused grandmother with the wrong address. She takes the thing into the kitchen and sets it on the island. She plugs the mallard in, studies the low light coming off the duck’s back, exposing cracks in the paint of its tail feathers. She tells herself she’ll return it to the post office the next morning.
But the next morning the mailman is at her front door with another package. “I’ll need you to sign for this one,” he tells her. It is larger than the first, and heavier. The mailman—who is handsome enough despite an outdated mustache and hair the color of old mayonnaise—struggles to keep the box beneath the crook of one arm while offering Myra his clipboard with the other. It is late autumn in Kankakee, much colder than it was just a month ago, but the postal worker still wears his gray shorts and wool socks. Myra signs.
She moves the new package into the kitchen. Inside she finds a set of expensive knives and, below their block, buried deep in the packing foam, are half-empty bottles of Pledge and Resolve and Goo Gone.
It goes on like this. Each morning Myra wakes and prepares for work. Just as she’s getting into her car, the mail truck pulls to her curb.
The mailman grins. “Somebody must be sweet on you,” he tells her.
She says nothing. She signs.
A paperweight with the Golden Gate Bridge suspended inside the shellac. Rare collectible coins. An ashtray that reads Jimmy Carter: A Leader for a Change. Cookbooks. Old silk ties and ball caps with sweat-stained bills and plastic shopping bags filled with more plastic shopping bags and tiny used votive candles and coffee tins and spoons and Black & Decker plug-in roach retractors and a set of three figurine clowns, one of which stares at Myra with little green-dolloped eyes, his tongue dangling out, his thumbs up in his ears and his hands spread wide, mocking her. Try to catch me.
Myra calls her mother Lucille back in New York.
“This probably happens more often than you think,” Lucille says. Myra’s mother is always busy. She is divorced again, and has decided to fill her life with the activities of somebody half her age. She goes to bikram yoga, has her hair done regularly by a guy named Edin, a Bosnian who hacks it into elaborate and bizarre dos. There are men in her life—some of them younger, some of them her age—and she has decided to take a job working as a secretary at a hedge fund. “I never got to do the downtown working-gal thing,” she told Myra after her first day.
Now, in the background, Myra hears her shifting papers, clicking on a keyboard. She’s only half-listening. When Myra first moved to Illinois, the two spoke nearly everyday. Their conversations have become increasingly rare. Lucille is more interested in filling Myra in on gossip from the city—her voice tinged with Here’s-What-You’re-Missing—than to listening to what is new in Kankakee. “Just take all that garbage back to the post office. They’ll deal with it.”
“That’s the thing,” Myra says. “There’s no return address.”
“Strange,” her mother says, though Myra can tell she doesn’t think it’s all that strange, all that interesting a subject.
And perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps Myra’s life in Kankakee, only eight months in, has already become dull and tiresome—the stuff of small town concern.
Myra works for a mortgage brokerage firm. When rumors of a transfer to the Midwest began last year, most of her colleagues had believed the new job would be in Chicago or St. Louis. When they heard otherwise, all intrigue died away.
What an absurd name. What an absurd notion, to live in such a place.
When Myra told her mother the job came with a corner office, Lucille had said, “And a view of what? Corn? I’d rather watch a lake get dragged.”
But Myra wanted the job. Things were not going well for her in the city. The Christmas beforehand, Jon, the man Myra was engaged to, had tried to kill himself. He had done it with pills (“Theatrical, don’t you think?” Lucille had said), and part of his brain was damaged. “Compromised,” the doctors had said. Jon now lived in a care facility upstate; so often he’d send a letter to Myra’s mother’s house, a sad little note written in Crayola. I am doing just fine. The food here is just fine. The nurses here are just fine. –Jon. Sometimes, out of nowhere, Myra finds herself sobbing violently, certain she is responsible, or, if not responsible, that she doesn’t offer enough love to stop somebody from checking into a hotel with a bottle of sleeping pills. When she thought of Illinois, she pictured a white-trim house she owned outright with a garden and a lawn, a new car, a dog, a local supermarket where the stockers knew what produce was ripest and shared their secrets only with her. It was a place where she could begin her life, and be happy.
And she was happy, for a while.
For a while, in the late summer, the town unfurled its advantages before her. The town courted her. Myra found a nice house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac with a backyard that gave way to empty fields. In September the leaves in the elms along Cobb Boulevard changed and dropped into the Kankakee River, and in the mornings or early evenings just after work Myra would jog along the Washington Street Bridge, taking in the sight: hundreds of red and yellow leaves resting on the water’s surface, as if the river were ablaze. She could afford to travel now, and drove to Chicago to buy a new wardrobe, and felt no guilt on the drive back south. For the first time in her life Myra had money in savings. Her job was rewarding. Her office overlooked the quaint downtown, and further, on the horizon, Lucille’s nightmarish view of the cornfields proved itself awe-inspiring when the sundown struck the pre-harvest just so: the red barns and silos, the bountiful yield. Myra could see her mother back East rolling her eyes; she could hear the woman saying the sight reminded her of the packaging to margarine, or listening to Teddy, her mother’s latest beau, chiming in that it was more like a glossy magazine ad for a new dick pill. For Myra in those first handful of months, it was like heaven.
“Listen, My,” her mother says now, “I’m going to have to let you go. Stockton has us all working overtime this week. Can I call you later, sugar-bear?”
Myra tells her of course, though she knows not to expect the call.
When the mailman arrives the next morning, Myra decides to tell him there’s been a mistake.
He frowns. “Are you Myra Gladhorn?” he asks, pronouncing her name with a deep Midwestern brogue: Mayra Glaadhorn? Today he wears a ushanka with the postal service eagle, but the same pair of shorts. His calves are ashy, nearly hairless except where they meet his socks.
“Yes,” she says.
“See here,” he says, running a finger along the shipping address. “Got your name, your address.”
“I know,” Myra says, “but the things inside aren’t meant for me.”
The mailman looks confused. “Uh-huh. But you see here,” he says, pointing back to the label. “You’re Mayra Glaadhorn. And this here is your address. You see? There’s no mistake, miss. Can’t be.”
He leaves his finger on the box, as if trying to help a child learn to read. Myra sees her name written clearer than she herself has ever written it. The mailman is right. There is no mistake. The handwriting is so pristine, so careful. The 2’s don’t look like z’s; the g’s don’t look like 6’s. Seeing her full name written with such deliberateness is eerie, though Myra would have to admit that there’s part of her flattered by the attention to detail.
“You can file a complaint,” the mailman says. “You can come down to the office, fill out a few forms. But I’d say you have a secret admirer.” He grins. “Someone in North Bergen.”
“Oh-seven-oh-four-seven,” he says. He shows her the smudgy black stamp on the edge of the box. “It’s the postal code for North Bergen, New Jersey.”
* * *
“North Bergen,” her mother says that evening on the phone. “Hmmm. No, I can’t say I’ve ever known anybody from North Bergen. Charlie, that guy I saw for a while after I found out Bruce was cheating on me? He had a cousin in Passaic. I don’t know if that helps. Listen, honey. You’re worrying too much. Somebody has the wrong address. They’re sending things along to a son or daughter or—”
“No,” Myra says, “this is different. For one thing, the stuff they’re sending isn’t normal. This morning I opened a box and found an ear thermometer.”
“Does it work?” Lucille says.
“I’m starting to worry,” Myra says. There’s a long pause on the line, and Myra knows she’s entering territory her mother is uncomfortable with—the territory of emotion.
“Sweetie, I’m not sure I can talk to you about this right now,” Lucille says briskly. “I don’t know what else to tell you. I’ve given you my advice—what else can I do? You never listen. You never have. In fact, I’m starting to believe you actually like these mystery packages. Who knows? Who knows with you these days? You move halfway across the country, to the middle of nowhere. You call me, leave all these downer messages on my phone. Hey, I get it; I wasn’t the perfect mother. But really, My. An ear thermometer? I don’t have time for this. An ear thermometer? What does that even mean? How is that any different from a regular thermometer? Why don’t you just throw it away or, I don’t know, donate it? To charity? To a charity program? Myra? Hello? Sweetie? Sweetie, are you there?”
* * *
She had gone to college in Virginia, and she remembers the collective urgency and excitement that came with the news of a snowstorm. People called their parents back home. They stocked up on canned soup and Ramen in case the electricity went out. They huddled together in dorm rooms and apartments, watching the blurry pink mass on a Doppler radar move toward their county.
For days the storm pools itself together on the horizon, like an army reserving itself before a siege. But when the snow finally arrives in Kankakee, the only change in the locals is a hardening of their faces, a quiet resignation to what they’ve faced for centuries. Nothing shuts down. Not the schools or downtown offices. Not the factory on the north side. Not the mail.
The mailman’s boots are caked with grimy ice. He doesn’t bother to clean them. Instead he stands on her stoop with a broad smile and a crate the size of a child’s coffin balanced on a dolly. When Myra gives him a bewildered look, all the mailman does is shrug.
“I can bring it in for you,” he says.
He tracks ice through the entryway into the living room.
“Where do you want it?” he asks.
Until now, Myra has been storing the shipped items in the guest room—the room she planned to decorate in granny-chic and toile. But the room is empty except for the boxes, which sit clustered in the middle of the floor. She doesn’t want the mailman to see this, or to see the few items she’s slowly incorporated into her life: the Keurig she uses each morning to brew Earl Grey. The no-stick saucepans. The mallard lamp.
“This is fine,” she tells him, and the mailman works at dislodging the cart, scraping her wood floor. He doesn’t leave, not at first. He takes off his gloves and puts his hands on his hips and stares at the box. Something in the mailman’s face tells Myra that he’s enjoying all of this.
“Want me to open it?” he asks, still grinning.
“No,” she says. “I’m not sure I can do this anymore. With small things—with blenders and the like—I was willing to put up with it. This is something else entirely.”
Myra asks him to leave.
She waits to open the box, telling herself she won’t, she’s done with all of this, the person can send whatever they damn well please and it will stay here, unopened. But after her first glass of wine with dinner—a failed attempt at succotash made in one of her new pans—Myra takes the rest of the bottle out into her backyard. She stands in the snow until her toes go numb, staring out at the wide sky and the moon. They say one can be lonelier in the city, surrounded by millions of strangers. Myra used to believe this. She no longer does. In the moonlight the snow collects in brain-gray mounds. The trees are dead. If it weren’t for the fence line serrating the horizon Myra could see for a hundred miles and not catch sight of a single living creature.
It occurs to her that it doesn’t matter if she opens the boxes or not. The things inside are here to wait. That’s the word for it. Wait. These are not wayward gifts sent to the wrong address. Nor are they for her. These are somebody’s personal things. This is somebody’s life. Whoever it is will come for them, for it.
The box is packed with less care and more frenzy, the tape striating in all directions. It takes her a while to get it open. When she does, Myra finds roofing shingles. There are hundreds of them, used and rain-worn, and torn from a roof without fastidiousness. They come in tarred clumps, in nailed together patterns of six or seven. The roof to a small house. Right here.
* * *
After Myra’s mother divorced her father, the two moved into a small apartment above a dry cleaner’s. Myra was ten years old. In the immediate aftermath of the separation, before Lucille met her second husband and settled down again, Lucille worked days in a pharmacy and spent her nights at a bar near the rail tracks. Sometime around Myra’s eleventh birthday, a man began to stalk her mother.
His name was Lenny Chalpuski. Myra remembers seeing him only twice, though he was, for three or four months, a real presence in their lives. She recalls her mother taking long, confusing drives from restaurants back home. She recalls her mother telling Myra to close all the windows and sit on the floor in the living room. There, the pair would watch television while Myra’s mother braided the girl’s hair, doing her best to keep the two of them preoccupied and calm.
It has been difficult for Myra to figure out just how much of a threat Lenny Chalpuski truly posed. He was a regular at the bar Lucille frequented, a drunk, but the woman continued to go there even after Lenny’s fixation began. It’s possible her mother had flirted with the man. Worse, she might’ve intentionally made him jealous of other drunks, dancing with some of them. Myra can’t be certain. In those few years, Lucille became a stranger to her. Despite the late night phone calls that ended with heavy breathing or the notes left inside their mailbox—notes her mom never let the girl look at—the woman shrugged off the attention and told Myra, “Some people are just like that. They’re desperate and don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t know how to be alone.”
But Myra remembers the terror. She remembers the twice-a-week occurrences when, while watching the ten o’clock news, a car engine, distant at first, would approach, its motor rumbling like a thunderclap announcing itself, and soon the flash of high beams coming into the apartment’s front windows. The light would settle there for a minute—though it felt much longer—and illuminate everything inside in a way that made Myra feel vulnerable and exposed. They were like people trapped in the pop of a camera bulb, people startled and frozen. And they remained that way until the car squealed off.
Just before the school year ended, Chalpuski was caught breaking into their apartment. Myra and her mother had been running errands when it happened. They came home to find two police cruisers outside. A neighbor had called. Something Myra has never told her mother is that she saw Lenny days before the incident, at the mall. She’d gone with some friends, cutting school, and spent hours loitering and shoplifting lip gloss. Then, in the food court, Myra felt a strange gaze on her. She turned and saw him sitting alone, drinking coffee. Their eyes met. At the time Myra had no idea who the stranger was. But she felt panic come over her.
Now the same man was in custody, glaring out from the backseat of one of the cruisers, eyeing Myra.
The ordeal was, in Myra’s recollection, agonizing and sordid and long. When she was in college, Myra would find herself walking across campus late at night, or doing laundry alone in her dorm, and suddenly have an acute sensation that somebody was behind her. A man’s hand reaching out, grabbing for her.
Lucille has no interest in discussing such matters. Those days are like a bad dream for her, or an embarrassing snafu at a cocktail party. The few times Myra has brought up Lenny Chalpuski, Lucille feigns memory loss or else laughs the matter off as a tidbit of history drawn large and strange in the mind of a child but essentially insignificant.
* * *
She calls her mother from work, though she vows not to mention the boxes. Since the shingles, Myra has received large, worthless paintings; a television; a microwave with old tomato soup still glommed to the glass plate tray. The items have long since spread out from the spare bedroom. They have begun to crowd out her own possessions, her own life. But four days have passed without the mailman’s truck pulling to her curb. Myra senses the end of the nightmare. She doesn’t want to say anything. She doesn’t want to jinx it.
“Teddy’s brother, Kevin,” Lucille says, “the wannabe novelist? He’s no longer a wannabe. He sold his book. To Knopf!”
“That’s fantastic,” Myra says. It’s Wednesday. From her office window, the hectares of corn have been harvested. They sit colorless, with the small stubble of last autumn’s harvest. The fields look like the skin of a dead man’s cheek.
“Well, not really,” Lucille says. Behind her mother’s voice, Myra hears car horns blaring, the whoosh of heavy traffic. “I mean, not for Teddy. He’s actually pretty torn up about it. He’s jealous. ‘But you never wanted to be a writer,’ I said to him last night. We were at a party. Everybody there was about half our age—it was pathetic. And Teddy was drunk, really hammered. He kept going to the bathroom to inspect his bald spot. Anyway he says to me, ‘Yeah, but I could’ve wanted to be a writer.’ He’s become a real downer, Myra. I think I need to end things. He believes growing older is about crossing out all the things in life you can no longer become. Those are his words.”
Myra doesn’t know what to say.
“Listen, My,” her mother says after a deep sigh. “There’s something else. I didn’t want to tell you. I don’t know why I am. I suppose you deserve to know. Jon is back in the city.”
Her mother lets a silence hang on the line before continuing. “I saw him yesterday. He was hailing a cab. He didn’t look out of sorts or, you know, weird or anything. I’m positive it was him.”
Myra considers this news. She realizes she feels nothing about it. Not anything.
“Have you considered that those packages you’ve been receiving are from him?”
Of course she has. She says, “Jon doesn’t live in North Bergen.”
“And it’s impossible for anybody outside of North Bergen to send a package from there? It’s a walled city, Myra? Closed off to all that aren’t Bergenites? You need to call him,” Lucille says. “You need to clear things up with him before he does something crazy, like mail himself.” Lucille laughs.
She is right. Myra should call. The strangest thing she’s learned in all of this—in Jon’s suicide attempt; in the end to their relationship; in her decision to leave the city for a place she’d never seen before—is not how close to impossible it is to truly know somebody. No, the strangest thing Myra has learned is how easy it is to go from loving somebody to not loving them. How easy it is to fall out of love.
Because she was in love; she would never dispute that fact. They met during Myra’s last year of college, and spent every day of the next six years together. He’d wanted, so often, for her to tell him she loved him, that she would always love him, that she would never leave. And she had done so without hesitation. In his apartment after an afternoon rain shower, or at the lodge in Vermont where they’d spent one Valentine’s, or while being supervised like teenagers at his parents’ house in Pennsylvania. She loved him, and she’d held it as the matter in this world with which she was most certain that he was her soul mate.
His chestnut hair. His long legs and easy gait. His melancholic eyes. Everyday, Jon’s traits become a little blurrier to her, a little more given over to the haze of memory. Someday, she won’t remember his name.
Instead of calling, Myra spends her day at work searching Google Maps. She zooms in on North Bergen. She follows the map down one road and to the next. She eyes the pixilated street-views of sad-looking houses, a meat market—pink slips of flesh visible in the windows—and cars parked along the streets. There is a man walking his dog. The Google van has taken his photograph—has sealed him inside the topography—just as he turns his head to look at the passing camera. Myra studies his half-alarmed look, the way his face sags in unguarded stupidity. Is it you? she thinks.
* * *
The rest of February passes without a new shipment. March arrives. The snow begins to melt. Kankakee looks runny, morose. Myra wakes on a Tuesday and senses something about the day will be different. It’s as if she knows the mail truck will be outside her house without having to look through the windows.
It is small, smaller than the box the duck came in. She opens it on the porch, before the mailman has gone.
“What is it?” he asks.
Myra holds it up. A single brick, peach-colored and chipped.
“Anything else in there?” the mailman asks, peeking.
“I’ll be damned.” The mailman sighs. “Who knows? Maybe that’s the end of it.”
He is wrong, of course.
The brick is followed by more bricks. Pallets of them. And rolls of pink insulation. And then the beams to a house, the plumbing pipes torn up out of the ground. Copper wiring. Strips of linoleum. When there is no more room inside Myra’s house, the items begin to fill the backyard. The bricks sit in her lawn like tombstones. The tangle of copper wiring is like a bad sculpture, the metal reflecting weak sunlight. She moves her car out of the garage and, in its place, stacks the wooden beams. There is a calmness that comes with the work. Myra finds herself itemizing the materials, checking the bricks for wear. Sometimes in the evenings she spends hours in the garage, staring at the materials, fascinated at how they come together to make a house. She is resigned to the fact that somebody has taken their life and, like a transparency over a photograph, superimposed it over hers. The feeling is not so bad, really.
The mailman, on the other hand, no longer grins. He no longer finds any of this amusing. The time he must devote to unpacking the things addressed to Myra from his truck has cut into the rest of his shift. He must work harder now, Myra thinks. Faster. He looks haggard in the mornings, and unwell. Myra pictures him working overtime, returning to the main office after the sun has gone down. She sees other mail recipients giving him grief—Who gets their mail at six o’clock? What kind of service is this?—and the mailman changing out of his clothes, driving to an empty home, heating leftovers. She sees the mailman drinking too much whiskey, watching too much bad TV. He is a lonely man, she understands now. Out here loneliness is a state of being.
Weeks pass. Myra avoids her coworkers. She doesn’t want to talk to anybody, especially her mother, whose phone calls go unanswered. They collect in Myra’s voicemail box. One a week. Then two. Then one a day. Lucille gives up on the cell phone and calls the landline Myra uses solely for the cable and internet bundling package. Sometimes Myra checks this phone, only to delete the messages. Sometimes, before she can hit delete, she’ll catch the beginning of what her mother has left. “Myra, honey, I’m worried sick—” Her mother’s voice is rife with genuine concern. But what is there to say?
There are other calls Myra is avoiding. These are from the county Health Services department. Myra’s neighbors have complained about the lumber in her front yard, the roofing sheathing in her driveway. Myra is facing fines, possible eviction. “Whatever home improvement project you have going on,” she heard a man from the department say in his first message, “needs to be taken care of pronto.”
Pronto. It has been nearly two months since the first brick arrived. It is May now, sunny. Around town, Myra’s fellow Kankakeeites have turned sweet natured. They spend their afternoons outdoors, and linger in the dusk for as long as they can, hoping to soak in every moment in the sun. Myra has hardly noticed the change in weather. In fact, on a Thursday afternoon, just before her coworkers left the office for the day, one of Myra’s bosses wrapped a knuckle on her office door and looked her over, his face tight with concern. “Are you feeling okay?” he’d asked her.
She shrugged. “Fine, I suppose. Why?”
He pointed at her feet. “You’re wearing galoshes. And a parka.”
Myra looked down at herself, then to her boss. She offered him an embarrassed smile.
* * *
It all ends the Sunday before Memorial Day. Myra spends the morning and part of her afternoon in bed. She doesn’t get up, not even as the phone rings incessantly. She listens. Downstairs, she can hear the answering machine click on, can make out the tinny alarm in her mother’s voice, though not the words.
Something has taken over her body, her mind. Her mother would call it depression. Her mother would say she’s isolated herself from the world, from the people who love her. Her mother would tell her to come home, that there’s a life for her yet here in the city.
But it isn’t depression. It’s something far different, something Lucille would never understand. Maybe nobody would. If she told people that she felt as though her life had been taken over—that what was used to belong to her no longer does, not even her own body, her own mind—who would believe that? Her boss? The man at Health Services? Lucille would be the first in line to have Myra institutionalized; she would have Myra sent upstate, to spend the rest of her time writing fucked-up little notes in Crayola.
Here is the truth: Myra knows what she knows. She knows some energy is feeding off of her—that her life has become a host for another entity, another person’s life.
The mailman understands. It’s why he arrives at Myra’s house, even on one of his few days off. When Myra answers the door, the two exchange a wordless look, a subtle nod. The packages are now a part of his life, too.
He goes to his truck, pulls a dolly off the back. He slides a crate on top of it, secures it with straps, forces it up Myra’s walkway to her porch, then beyond her threshold. He moves the crate into the center of the room and steps away from it. He moves closer to Myra. They stand side-by-side, staring down at it. There is no need to wonder what’s inside. It’s clear to both of them. This will be the last package.
The phone rings. The answering machine clicks on, projects Lucille’s voice out across the house. “Myra, for the love of god. You need to call me back right this instance. Myra? Are you there, sweetie? We need to talk. This is important. Jon is here. He’s here with me. He says he wants to talk to you. Myra?”
Slowly, without taking his eyes off the crate, the mailman pulls a small crowbar from his back pocket. He hands it to Myra. The tool is heavy in her palm.
A new voice echoes out of the answering machine. “Myra? It’s Jon. Are you there? I have so much I want to say.” He pauses. “I suppose I should start with an apology.”
Myra isn’t listening. She’s staring at the crate, waiting for the slightest of movements.
Jon says, “I know this has been a difficult time for you. I know I can’t take back what I did.”
“Are you going to open it?” the mailman asks, sweat on his lips.
“Soon,” Myra tells him. “Soon.”