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The Bells of St. Michael’s

by John W. Steele

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

An icy powdered snow whipped in the frigid gale and stung Norman’s face. Frozen drifts crunched beneath his boots as he battled the howling bluster and trudged along his daily mail route on River Street. The snow had fallen steadily for the last two weeks and still many of the sidewalks remained unshoveled.

Patches of ice lay concealed beneath the surface of the crusted undulations like land mines waiting to be trampled on. It had been a good year in some ways, and Norman had fallen only a few times. He felt fortunate because he’d fractured no bones this season.

Yet there was an intangible pall over the face of things on River Street, a subtle gloom that permeated the illusion of normality in this dreary place. Norman had learned long ago to focus on the end of the day and try to ignore the sordid realities that scourged the eroding walls of his reason in this distorted fragment of the world.

Every block along the three-mile stretch of decaying tenements and vacant manufacturing plants had at least one vicious barking dog chained in the yard. The dogs growled when Norman walked up to the rusted tin mailboxes that hung on the faded clapboard walls of the dilapidated factory houses that dotted the avenue.

Sometimes, the hungry mange-infested animals tried to attack. The pitiful creatures bared their yellow canines and dug the claws of their hind legs into the trampled and crap-littered snow as they wheezed and tugged madly against the manacle of their choke chains.

Inside the ramshackle structures, their owners peered out from behind blankets or sheets draped over the windows and then disappeared like snails in a shell when Norman glared at them. Hypocrites. Every one of them will be at church on Sunday.

The weirdness of it all no longer astonished Norman, because he was now long used to it. As he placed the letters from the evangelist in Mrs. Neff’s’ mailbox, his mind wandered back to the conversation he had with his supervisor long ago. He remembered the day he barged into the office and demanded something be done about the dogs on his mail route.

Arnold Kaminski, the postal inspector, sat at his computer with his back to Norman and stared at a pink e-card he was writing to someone named Sharon. A picture of Kaminski’s plain, matronly wife and his three stout daughters stood at the corner of his desk next to a woodcarving, which read Born Again.

Without facing Norman, Kaminski minimized the window. He turned slightly to his side and gazed at the wall. The middle-aged man’s ape-like belly hung over the belt of his trousers, and the skin beneath the hairs of his military crew cut shone. He wore a diamond-stud earring and smelled of men’s cologne.

Kaminski adjusted the herringbone-framed glasses that spanned the contour of his bulbous nose and cleared his throat. “What’s the problem this time, Whipple?”

“How long do I have to wait before you issue a warning to the owners about the dogs on my route?” Norman asked.

Kaminski shifted in his chair and leaned forward. “If you’ve been bitten, you need to fill out an incident report.”

“No, I haven’t been bitten, sir. Not yet...”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because it’s just a matter of time before one of those mutts breaks loose and takes a chunk out of me, that’s why.”

Kaminski eased back in his chair. He folded his hands and rested them on his pendulous abdomen. “You’ve done nothing but complain since we’ve assigned you to the River run. If you haven’t been bitten, you have nothing to complain about.”

“Yes, but...”

“May I remind you, Mr. Whipple, your evaluation is coming up shortly? The department has assigned you where we need you. Have you ever considered how many people would kill for your job?”

Norman’s voice softened. “I shouldn’t have to work under such conditions.”

“If you interrupt me again, I’ll have to write you up for insubordination, Norman. That will be the third time this year.”

Norman bit his tongue and stared at the floor.

“I suggest you learn to be a little more open to the needs of your clients.”

“I want a transfer, immediately.”

“We need you where you are.”

Norman’s head pounded and his temples throbbed. His face turned red and he slammed his hand on the counter. “Your brother-in-law has been reassigned twice all ready, Mr. Kaminski. He got the cushy Sunset Boulevard run that I applied for a year before he did, and I’ve got seniority.”

Kaminski sat motionless, stoic and unflappable. “His is a special case, Mr. Whipple. I don’t have to explain the managerial decisions of the department to you. As soon as we find a replacement for your area, we’ll reassign you, but for now, River Street is where the Postal Service needs you.”

Norman’s forehead wrinkled and silver sparks flashed in his eyes. “No one else will ever take the River run and you know it, Kaminski. They don’t call it hell’s bells for nothing.”

The inspector turned slowly and his chair squeaked under the weight of his bulky frame. He looked squarely in Norman’s eyes. Kaminski placed the middle finger of his left hand on the bridge of his glasses and pushed them up on his nose. His face lost all expression and his eyes squinted into slits of pale orange light. “Well, I suppose you could file a grievance, Mr. Whipple. Of course, that’s a drastic measure. Whenever too much attention enters a department, there are bound to be certain situations that are exposed.”

Norman swallowed hard. “What do you mean, ‘exposed’?”

“Well, for the sake of example, I know your wife has been ill. Cancer is a terrible disease, and you’ve been under a lot of pressure. Sometimes, too much stress can affect an employee’s performance. I’m not telling you not to file a grievance. All I’m saying is that it might be a good idea if you consider your actions in the context of your previous evaluations and employment record.”

Kaminski frowned and his mouth curled into a sneer. When he spoke, his voice was deep and bass, and hollow in the room. “Think about what I said, Norman. You’re dismissed.”

* * *

The sound of a blaring siren screamed in the street and roused Norman from his doleful reverie. The emergency vehicle careened down the avenue, its light bar flashing vibrant red and silver beacons.

With a sense of angry frustration, Norman descended the slippery, ice-encrusted steps and headed for the sidewalk. As he walked past Neff’s snarling Doberman, he drew an enormous mucous gob from the depths of his windpipe and hurled it at the animal.

The yellow oyster sailed through the air and landed like a raw egg on the canine’s nose. The dog’s long, pink tongue shot out and it licked the snot from the end of its snoot. The animal stopped growling and wagged its stubby tail. Norman wished he’d thought of this tactic years ago, but the die was now cast and the moment of redemption would soon be at hand.

A scant ray of sunshine fell through a tiny crack in the heavy curtain of clouds overhead and was immediately swallowed up by the pewter sky. Norman headed up the street past antique stores, barber shops, massage parlors, and bars, stopping at each one to deliver redundant advertising brochures, insurance premiums, and utility bills.

Cars raced up and down River Street like speeding projectiles fired from the shooter of a pinball machine. A man in a black Honda coated with an off-white haze of road salt blared the horn at a silver-haired woman with a cane who was trying to cross the road.

Norman wanted to help her. He raised his arm but he’d been at this too long, and he knew it would take every ounce of his strength to make it through the day.

When the tottering woman set foot on the broken yellow line of the median, the Honda spun its wheels. Globs of brown sleet squirted out from beneath the tires and splattered the length of her long black overcoat. The Honda sped down the avenue, its rear tires reeling erratically on the motif of stippled ice.

Norman caught a glimpse of a faded blue and white sticker displayed on the bumper. It read, “There’s No High Like The Most High.”

A gust of freezing wind howled down the avenue. Like a lusting, frozen hand, it reached beneath the hem of Norman’s blue-gray regulation jacket and caressed his torso with its icy fingers. The postman shuddered and cinched tight the drawstring at the waist.

His body ached with a dull throb that had its root in the marrow of his bones. A burning ulcer near his groin itched beneath its heavy gauze dressing. The bandage was damp with purulent discharge that had oozed from the inflamed pustule.

He thought about the pathogenic organisms that thrived in the abscess, and how they were feeding like ravenous parasites on the sugar in his blood. He could feel them breeding on his organs and sucking the vitality from his body. Norman knew it was only a matter of time before they breeched the blood-brain barrier and bored deep into his skull.

* * *

Far off in the distance stood the golden domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral shining in stark contrast against the dull gray clouds. Norman adored the domes, because each day, when he reached them, it meant his labors were nearly completed. The domes had been his faith and his goal for years now, and he’d long forgotten what they stood for. He’d grown dependent on the domes to make it through the day.

For a moment, he thought about the day his wife Veronica and he had stood at the altar beneath the domes and the priest had baptized their newborn son, Timothy.

Norman sighed. Timmy, Timmy, Timmy. He rubbed his hand on the chest of his jacket and felt for the tiny lump he’d been carrying inside the breast pocket for months. He thought about tossing the little vial into the trash or smashing it with the heel of his boot on the sidewalk. But there was one more prayer inside him, one last ray of reason yet to be extinguished. He braced himself and continued on his mission.

When he approached the Madison Hotel, he swallowed hard and prepared for the unavoidable daily ritual of alms begging. A drunk in a grimy Army surplus field jacket stood propped against a parking meter. Without the meter for support, the man would have fallen to the ground, such was the level of his intoxication. The man wore no cap and the tips of his ears were blue. He smelled like sour urine, and his naked hands trembled. Yet, the man smiled as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“Hey, Mr. America, gimme a dollar,” the drunk said. Norman removed his glove and reached for his wallet. He didn’t mind helping these broken men and had done so liberally through the years. He saw them as the children of a God forsaken and he felt grateful he didn’t have to experience their misery.

There were times he questioned if giving money to these derelicts was the right thing to do. He knew they’d just drink it up. But he decided it was better to give when asked, and a drink was the only comfort these tortured souls knew. Regardless of their shortcomings, Norman admired them in some ways. At least they’re not hypocrites.

He handed the money to the man without speaking. The drunk looked at him and smiled. One of his front teeth was missing and his lips were chaffed with deep broken fissures. “God Bless ya... ya son of a bitch,” the man said.

Norman turned to leave and the drunk began to retch. A projectile of blood-tinged vomit exploded from his mouth and splashed on Norman’s mailbag and the shoulder of his coat. Norman cursed, scooped up a handful of snow, and wiped the filth away with his gloved hand.

The drunk leaned on the meter and lay his head in his hands. The man began to weep, his tears falling like drips of rain from a broken gutter. A pang of empathy pierced Norman’s heart. He knew what it was like to hold a shattered world in his hands, and the horrible disappointment revealed when a man finally accepts that he is powerless to change things.

Norman breathed a heavy sigh. Why is the heart not made of stone?

When he reached the entrance to the Madison, he climbed the concrete steps and placed the mail inside the brass box suspended on the drab stucco wall. He glanced through the window of the blue padded door and looked into the saloon.

A dozen barflies sat on cracked red vinyl stools. They sipped their drinks and gazed mindlessly at the war unfolding with shameless mediocrity on television. Norman shook his head and continued down the street.

In the distance, the flashing lights of a police cruiser cut through the winter chill like the beams of a laser. The police car was parked along the curb behind a late model red Toyota. As Norman passed by, he noticed a cop sitting in the front seat of the red car. In his hand, he held a clipboard.

The woman sitting on the driver’s side had her skirt hiked high above her knees and her legs were spread wide apart. The cop glared at Norman through the window and the silver eagle emblem on his blue eight-point cap shone. Norman lowered his head and quickened his pace.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by John W. Steele

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