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So Much To Burn

My neighbor is burning his mail again. My neighbor is a postman so his mail is not the mail he receives but the mail he delivers, or the mail he should be delivering but instead is burning. We live in a duplex and I can smell the smoke, seeping through the walls. I bake a pie, which is a thing I do when the postman is burning his mail or when I miss Jane. I bake a pie but my apartment does not smell like pie. My apartment smells like burning envelopes and I am alone. I go next door. I bring the pie—in case you need a break, I tell the postman. He is thinner than last time and I am fatter. The postman says he has no time for breaks. He cannot burn his mail fast enough. Towers of mail are stacked on the counters, the coffee table, the mantle. Coupons are scattered across the floor. The fireplace crackles and churns. The postman sticks in hospital bills, report cards, appeals to alumni to give back. He says the investigators from the post office are closing in. I did not know they existed. I ask the postman if I can help. He says there is a reward for leads on the missing mail. I can turn him in if I need the cash. I do, but I won’t. I owe the postman too much. He was the one who let me know Jane was having an affair. She was writing love letters to her pharmacist. On the return address she took his last name as her own. The postman was suspicious. Then there was an accident down at the post office; a machine tore open a letter. This was also suspicious. The postman read the letter, though he did not let me read the letter. He said that would be illegal. I suspect he was shielding me from the particular details. Anyway Jane left and I am alone baking pies and imagining particular details.

Don’t the investigators know where you live, I ask the postman.

They are tracking the missing mail, not me.

Don’t they know what mail you deliver?

They are a little disorganized down at the post office, he says. But soon enough it will lead to me.

He throws credit card offers into his fireplace. General interest magazines, their subscriber labels melting and dripping. Smoke fumes out to the ceiling. I deserve to be caught, he says. I have done awful things.

I do not see it that way. People are not getting their mail, but this doesn’t seem so bad to me. What do people ever get in the mail but bad news? Maybe if you are a person who has affairs you might get illicit love letters, but I am not a person who has affairs. I get debt notices and electric bills and Jane’s lingerie catalogues and postcards from her niece. Jane has left but they keep coming. Or: I was getting all those things, before the postman stopped delivering my mail. It is better now, not getting them. He has let me burn a few myself: Jane’s J.Crew catalog, her AAA card.

Are you sure about no pie? I ask. It’s rhubarb.

Smoke curls around towers of packages. The postman creeps to the window, unsteadily, like his legs have not been used in some time. His calves used to bulge. I can tell he has not been eating. He peeks around the curtain.

That’s them, he says. They’re here for me.

I take a look. That’s just Ms. Mulvaney with her dog, I tell the postman. I open the window for ventilation. You remember. Didn’t she bite you once?

Who? Ms. Mulvaney?

I smile, but I can see he is remembering that day when fear and pain butted up against a duty he still felt.

You never know, he says. They will come quietly. The post office does not need any more PR problems. You should call them while you have the chance. Big money.

Probably it is not big money. But it suits his sense of self to imagine the punishment of his crimes is worth so much.

Here is an irony, says the postman. I started burning my mail so I didn’t have to deliver it. But now I am beholden to this. There is so much to burn, to cover my tracks. I would have been better off delivering it. Why did I not just do that? He says, things beget things, which sounds plagiarized from something biblical, but I am not a person who would know.

The room is filled with smoke. The postman wipes his forehead and rests an arm against a stack of packages, which topple across the floor. I drag the postman from the debris, out onto the porch, then the street. I help him sit on the curb. Ms. Mulvaney asks how Jane is. I say she is likely very happy. The postman offers his ankle to her dog. She does not even growl at him, like she does not recognize him as a postman anymore. He is only a civilian now. His breath is smoky, his lips charred, his fingers sooty. He takes out his cell phone and dials. How will you spend your reward?, he asks. Motorcycle? Bears season tickets? He hands me his phone; it is ringing.

I wonder why Jane and her pharmacist wrote each other letters, but I suppose it suited their sense that their passion was too great for modern technology, a relic from a more romantic time. I suppose it suits me to pretend I know what they desired.

Smoke billows from the postman’s chimney, thick and black, proof that things are flying away from us. The smoke is probably suspicious, since it is summer. Probably they will come for us soon. Probably our lives are over. Hello, I say. I am here to claim my reward.

Award-winning fiction writer. Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award winner. Recognized in Pushcart Prize, Best American anthologies. NEA Literature Fellow.