The Polka-Dotted Postman
He always wore polka dots – a polka dot shirt, polka dot trousers, polka dot tie and polka dot socks. Except for that he dressed in standard postal uniform. I’m not sure how he got away with it – even though the polka dots were stick-ons that he probably fixed to his clothes after he left the sorting office. And he may well have de-polka-dotted himself after his deliveries were done before coming back to clock off at the end of his day.
I once asked him why he went to all that trouble for over fifteen years. He said I was the first one to ever question him about it. I have my doubts. It’s hard to believe that nobody else had ever asked him why he did such a ridiculous thing. But who knows? Maybe the other people on his route were just happy to receive their mail and as long as he was regular as clockwork – which he was – they were willing to accept some harmless nonsense like wearing inappropriate dots on his clothing. Perhaps they were too embarrassed to ask - though, more likely, they probably felt that if he were rubbed the wrong way maybe some important piece of mail they were expecting would somehow go missing.
Besides, as I said, he was a pretty good postman – steady and reliable. He’d go out of his way to re-deliver a package if no one was home the first time and – as I found out later - he’d even dig into his own pocket if there was postage due and he knew the person the letter or package was meant for was going through some difficulties. (Mailmen do get to know quite a bit about the lives and loves of the people on their route which, of course, is understandable considering how many of us actually write an extensive and sometimes very personal PS on the back of the envelope prior to posting because we’d forgotten to write something we deemed very important and the letter was already sealed.)
I once saw him really upset, though. A dog had snatched one of his polka dots right off him and had scampered away. When I had come along, the dog was across the street, clutching the polka dot in its teeth and staring at the postman as if daring him to retrieve it.
‘ It was my favourite,’ the postman told me. He looked forlorn, as if he had indeed lost something very dear to him.
‘ Aren’t you going to try to get it back?’ I asked.
‘ Actually, I’m afraid of dogs,’ he admitted.
‘ But that one’s wagging its tail,’ I said.
‘ I know that dog,’ he said, looking at the mutt suspiciously. ‘We don’t get along much any more…’
The mutt (and mutt it was - a mixture of at least twenty breeds I imagine) had cocked its head to one side in a playful manner. Its stub of a tail was wagging furiously and its pointy ears were stiff and erect as if anticipating something quite pleasurable.
‘ It wants to play,’ I said. ‘It probably thinks your polka dot is a deflated ball. Dogs can’t see dimensionally, you know.’
‘ They can’t?’ he said, transferring his gaze from the dog to me, but this time instead of an exclamation point, his eyes contained a question mark writ bold.
Actually, I had no idea whether a dog can see dimensionally or not. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Maybe they skip the third and go on to the fourth. What I had said just slipped out of my mouth. I guess I was trying to mediate between the world of dogs and polka dotted postmen. But it’s not an easy thing reconciling a recalcitrant woofer and a po-faced clown.
I did try to get the errant polka-dot back for him. I crossed the road, attempting to stare the little mongrel down. It let me get about two strides from its prize – its deflated, two-dimensional ball – before it took off, scampering into the distant unknown.
That was the last I saw of them - both the dog and the polka-dotted postman. Three days later, after not receiving my mail, I rang the post office to see what was up.
‘ Maybe no one’s written you,’ said the supervisor after I had been passed around from hither to yon through the maze of electronic beeps and whistles that make up the modern communications system, guaranteeing nobody speaks to anyone who knows anything beyond a simple list of frequently asked questions that you probably could find on your computer anyway. Besides, how could anyone answer a question sensibly when everything has to be categorised in boxes numbered one, two, three or four, the button for which you have to press at the sound of the tone? And what number do you press to find out about your polka-dotted postman?
‘ None of my neighbours received their mail either,’ I replied.
‘ The mail’s slow this time of year,’ the supervisor said.
‘ What time of year isn’t it slow?’ I asked.
I could hear him sigh on the other end the line. It seemed to me like the air seeping out of a deflating polka-dot. ‘I’ll look into it and get back to you,’ he said.
Amazingly, I did hear from the postal supervisor a few days later. It was after a week of not receiving any mail.
‘ I’m sorry to tell you this,’ he said, ‘but your postman is dead.’
‘ What?’ I replied unbelievingly. ‘Are you sure you’re talking about my postman? I saw him just a few days ago and he seemed perfectly fit.’
Of course, I didn’t mention the circumstances in which I saw him last. I didn’t think the supervisor needed to know about my postman’s strange obsession – even if he were dead. Especially if he were dead, in fact, as you never know how things like this affect insurance policies, pension rights and so on.
‘ Are you absolutely certain you’re speaking about my postman?’ I asked again.
He had me confirm my name and address and then said, ‘Yes, Mr. Barboosh has been the postman on that route for fifteen years. It seems he died unexpectedly…’
‘ When is death ever expected?’ I asked.
‘ There are occasions,’ he replied. ‘An elderly man with a bad heart condition and advanced diabetes, for example.’
‘ I wouldn’t have thought my postman had a heart condition considering his gruelling routine,’ I replied. “I’ve never done anything like that myself, but I’m sure his work wasn’t easy. And I don’t remember him ever taking a holiday unless he took it the same time I took mine.’
‘ His record does appear to have been exemplary,’ the supervisor confirmed. ‘There wasn’t any indication of ill health – it seems he hadn’t even taken any sick days….’
‘ Thinking about it, I did have an uncle who popped off one day without rhyme or reason,’ I said, recalling that death could indeed be quite an arbitrary reaper.
‘ There you have it,’ said the supervisor. ‘You just don’t know about these things, do you?’
‘ No,’ I agreed. ‘You never know. And if you did, you probably wouldn’t want to.’
‘ Want to what?’ he asked.
‘ To know when someone is going to be dead before it happens.’
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. Then he said, ‘I suppose you’re right. Knowledge like that would present all sort of problems.’
We went on like this for several minutes. In a strange way, we sort of connected. I’m not a great one for telephone relationships but I guess both of us found a bit of solace through the disconnected voices of strangers communicating simple philosophies of life that maybe take the edge off the grim realities of non-existence.
In the end we decided to continue our conversation at a neighbourhood watering hole after work. Curiously, I recognised him right away. And he said, later, he had recognised me. Strange how those things happen, isn’t it? How can you match a face to a voice? I think it was his eyes. They were a mixture of dire boredom from being a bureaucrat far too long and another layer, just beyond, that spoke of kings and cabbages.
We became something like, but not quite, friends that evening – though chummy enough to meet up several times afterwards. It was at the third meeting, I think, that he told me. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘there was something strange about Mr. Barboosh – your postman…’
‘ Yes,’ I replied. ‘He was slightly odd, wasn’t he?’
‘ You knew?’ he said, looking at me amazed.
I was struck by his amazement. ‘All you had to do was look at him,’ said I.
The supervisor took a drink of his warmish beer. ‘You must have a keen eye for character,’ he said.
‘ How so?’
‘ For being able to see beyond the man…’
‘ Perhaps we’re speaking of different things,’ I admitted. ‘You aren’t referring to his polka-dots?’
‘ Polka-dots? I know nothing of polka-dots.’ He took another drink of beer and then he said, ‘Actually I do.’
‘ Do what?
‘ Know something about polka-dots. I’m a crossword aficionado, you see. I spent weeks suffering over a clue that read – “zits on your bottom”.’
He nodded. ‘Sometimes you get odd clues like that and it drives you bonkers. Are you a crossword man?’ he asked, looking at me hopefully.
I shook my head.
He gazed down at his suds. ‘Mr Barboosh was a complicated postman…’
‘ Yes he was,’ I agreed.
“ He died at home, you know. Alone…’
‘ How sad.’
‘ Very sad indeed.’
‘ How did they find him?’ I asked.
‘ A neighbour noticed he hadn’t come down to smell the petunias in his garden. He had a very strict routine, she said. You could tell the time by his movements.’
‘ Which made him a good postman,’ I said.
‘ Yes,’ the supervisor agreed, ‘except for one thing…’ His voice trailed off as if he had entered a different flow in the tidal stream of memory and imagination.
‘ Except for one thing?’ I prompted him.
The supervisor looked at me with tired eyes, splotched with narrow lines of red that gave the impression of marble balls under such pressure they had started to show signs of hairline fracturing. ‘He did something no postman should ever do – something unforgivable,’ he said.
I tried to think what could possibly be so dire that the supervisor would consider it “unforgivable”.
‘ He was opening the mail,’ the supervisor said, answering my unspoken question.
‘ Opening the mail?’ I repeated, scarcely believing I heard correctly. ‘How can you be certain?’
‘ It was all in the police report. All very neat and tidy. He was found slumped in his chair. On the table before him were stacks of letters which had been steamed open and were waiting to be resealed.’
‘ He was searching for money?’
‘ There’s no evidence of that,’ the supervisor said. ‘No one has reported missing cheques or funds that have been stolen.’
‘ Perhaps he hadn’t found anything worth stealing. It’s not a wealthy neighbourhood,’ I said.
‘ What’s strange is one of the letters that had been opened did contain some cash. But it had been neatly folded back inside the envelope.’
‘ How very curious,’ I said.
‘ Stranger still,’ said the supervisor, ‘there’s some evidence he had actually put his own cash into letters that contained none before.’
‘ You don’t say!’
‘ He even seemed to have been forging the mail…’
‘ How so?’
‘ One of the letters he’d been adjusting when he was found was a rather brutish goodbye to a woman from an ex-boyfriend. Our friend seemed to have added a little addendum that moderated the brusqueness – something like “you deserved better and one day your prince will come”, something like that. And then he stuck in a little cash with a note which read, “a little token to say how sorry I am for treating you unkindly…”’
‘ That doesn’t sound so bad,’ I said.
‘ Maybe not but it’s a crime to open letters. Postmen can’t play God.’
‘ No,’ I said. ‘I suppose not.’
Some days later I was speaking with one of the elderly women who lives on the ground floor of my building and I asked her about the polka-dotted postman.
‘ He was a very good postman,’ she said.
‘ Yes, he was,’ I agreed.
‘ He always brought the mail on time,’ she said. ‘Nowadays we’re lucky if we get our mail at all.’
‘ Did you know him – I mean, did you ever speak with him?’ I asked.
‘ Just to say “hello”, she said. ‘He was a very friendly postman but he kept to himself, didn’t he?’
I rang the supervisor again that evening. ‘Did he have any family?’ I asked.
‘ None that we know of.’
‘ What happened to the body?’
‘ It was taken to the morgue, I guess.’
‘ Was there a funeral?’
‘ The post office doesn’t do funerals,’ he said.
That night I had a dream. I dreamt that there had been a funeral parade for our postman. The road was lined in polka dots. The hearse that carried his body was covered in polka dots. And everyone in the neighbourhood who had come to pay their respects was dressed in polka-dots.
Many months later I managed to track down where the postman had been buried. As it turned out, he did have a sister somewhere who had seen to the arrangements.
The grave of Mr. Herman Barboosh was stuck away in the corner of a ramshackle cemetery covered in weeds and vines. When I found it I cut away the bracken and then took from my pocket some plastic polka-dots which I glued to the marble slab that marked his final resting spot.