Junk Mail

Kristi Petersen

Oh, God. They had found him.

He knew he was in trouble when he stuck his key into the lock of the row of mailboxes under the concrete stairs in his apartment complex; the latch didn't turn as easily, and something crunched inside: a soft, plastic squish.

Eight months was his record. He'd move to a new place, and those that send junk mail and knew things about his life would take any number of months to find him.

It wasn't so much the mail. It was that Thomas adored isolation, and he considered the types of junk mail they sent him invasive. It meant they knew stuff they shouldn't. He had explained this over the phone to his "best girl" once.

He'd been sitting in his favorite black leather chair, and spring breezes were pouring into his apartment.

"What are you doing?" She had asked him.

"Opening junk mail," he had said. "Oh, God, honey, they found me." He'd pushed up the sleeves of his green sweatshirt. "Did you know that the cold, calculating watcher of someone's mail can get a clear personality profile of who you are just from what you receive?"

"What do you mean?" She'd asked. He'd heard her start the water running to wash dishes.

"Let's say," he had leaned back, stretched his legs out, wiggled his bare toes. "There's someone watching the mailman when he puts mail in your box. They can tell whether you're rich or whether you're in financial trouble; if you're married or single; what you eat; if you smoke or not; whether or not you like to read, to mountain climb, whatever. Called your mail profile."

She hadn't responded. He had been sure she was thinking of the things that arrived in her box: her writer's magazines; science fiction collectors' pamphlets; secured credit card offers; threat notices from collection agencies; several offers from historical societies; cards and photos from friends.

"I hate this," he'd said to her. He didn't want to tell her what he was looking at in his lap at that moment: an offer from health magazines; some ads touting the wonders of the newest allergy medication; life insurance policy offers; a hiking gear catalog. How the hell had anyone found that out? The thought of someone knowing he loved being in the woods by himself made him shudder. His quiet place had been violated.

"You could just move again," she'd said. "You could just keep moving around to escape your junk mail." And she had laughed, that sound like fairy chimes.

He had chuckled. He had wanted to say, 'I love you,' but then decided not to, because then he might have to do something like commit to her, stay living in one place. It had sent a chill up his spine.

Then again, he had said all this to her without realizing that he had let her in a lot farther than he should have already. Sometimes she would send him "junk mail": little articles she saw in magazines that reminded her of him: "here's something that was in today's paper about Dali, and we were talking about him the other day," or places she wanted him to take her: "Look what's playing down at the IMAX!" Or, "The Museum of Natural History's new planetarium is open!" Articles about his favorite baseball team. Sometimes there'd be a nice card: "You taste - better than chocolate!" Her mail really annoyed him. An indication that she knew too much; she was too close. But he liked her return address labels. They had books and glasses of wine on them or sometimes fruit. He would peel these off very carefully: collect all four --and leave them, curled up, on the counter. He didn't want her to know he was saving them, but she would notice when she came over, he was sure of that. The girl was too fucking observant. She knew that he loved her, too, and that was the worst thing of all, since he'd never felt comfortable enough to tell her.

Well, that had been in Atlanta. Thank God that was over. The woman in Houston had never found him; the one in Seattle had, but he was really into screening his calls, anyway. The one in Seattle - what was her name, Sue? She only seemed to call at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, after she'd been drinking. And he was usually in bed by ten on Saturdays anyway and would turn off the ringer on the phone, so he'd never make the mistake of answering when he was too sleepy to know better.

Now he was in Connecticut. Far cry. Fucking Observant Girl would never find him up here; she'd never think to look.

So, what was in today's pile? Oh, God. An offer to join a dating service. That meant someone, somewhere knew about that, too; they knew about Fucking Observant Girl. Find another one? Find another woman so he could move again? It didn't matter. The fact that someone knew he was single would mean there were women out there, stalking him, waiting for commitments from him. What else? The local supermarket. Didn't they understand that he didn't like anyone knowing he shopped at the small markets instead of the big places? Fruit coupons. My God! Did they know all he could eat was fruit? Another ad: Brookfield Glass and Auto. Oh, shit. Someone knew the sunroof on his car leaked. His hometown newspaper. Well, he didn't mind that. He liked to know what was going on in that Irish Catholic Long Island town of his. Keep tabs on his former friends, if they were married yet.

A plain envelope, no return address. DO NOT BEND.

He recognized the handwriting.

Oh, God.

She had found him.

Kay. Fucking Observant Girl. How the hell had she found him here? When he left town he was always careful to leave no forwarding address. Once he left, it was over. Done. He'd only call his individual creditors to let them know where he'd be! Oh, Kay. Go away. I don't want to remember what I felt for you. I don't. I didn't love you, I don't want to talk to you. Why are you still sending me junk mail?

He leapt out of his chair. There was no other furniture in the apartment, really. He usually would let his best girl in any city do that, and then when he left them to move, he'd leave the stuff behind.

This place hadn't been decorated yet. He didn't have a best girl here, yet.

He went to his map of the country on the wall. It was peppered with push-pins: green, red, blue, yellow, white...all the places he had lived. So that he could ensure he spaced them all out enough, to run, to get away. In the lower part of the map, there was a huge white-space. No cities anymore; that was his mistake, moving too close to cities. He needed somewhere remote. Very remote, with woods. He didn't need culture...he only needed his television, somewhere he could get CNN. Yes, that would be all he needed. And an internet hook-up, so he could continue to work from home.

Somewhere with very few people, fewer people to deal with, to let in. You let them in, they'll love you, then they'll want to mess up your little plan.

Arkansas, yes.

He would move to Arkansas.

He moved a little black push-pin to the center of the state of Arkansas. Then he looked down at the envelope in his hand. There were photos inside; he pulled them out.

There they both were: Thomas and Observant Girl, smiling. New Year's Eve, before the jazz club and after. She'd been nice enough to send these. "For your photographic record," she'd written. "I know how much you love your pictures."

He felt a small pain in his heart. A longing. He remembered her hair, her laugh, the look on her face when she'd been caught smoking a cigarette.

Oh, Kay. Why the fuck are you doing this? Why are you sending me this junk mail? These coupons for my heart?

Oh, God.

She had found him.