Roger splashed the sleep from his eyes and stared at himself in the mirror. He grimaced at his belly and thick neck, a constant burden to lug around with him on his mail route. He sighed at his male-pattern baldness, his stained night tee, and his bloodshot eyes, wishing it would stay in the mirror and leave him alone. He tightened his mouth, stretching the skin on his face to splay out the scruff that had sprouted overnight. He rubbed it, trying to make to decide if he should shave or not and let his stomach make the decision for him. He lumbered into his tiny dark kitchen to pour a bowl of cereal where, of course, his fat lonely image followed out of the bathroom mirror.
A growl escaped the Roger’s lips as he discovered the milk was sour. He tossed the whole bowl straight into the sink at a distance he was lucky to not have broken it at. He flung the fridge door open, egg carton tossed out along with a package of bacon. He entered into a rhythm as he fried the bacon and eggs in a large, cast iron skillet, absent mindedly pulling them out at the exact time he always did. Bacon and eggs took exactly eight minutes and thirty seconds, though the man didn’t consciously realize this. He was like clockwork, sweet bacon aromas and the sound of sizzling eggs in bacon grease, going on for so long before, by experience, he just flipped, seasoned, and pulled them off the fryer just as he did every other day of the week, mind wandering off between tasks. After breakfast, it was: shower, dress, pull shoes on, breeze the news, pack lunch, go to work, come home, eat dinner, waste some time, rub aching knees, go to bed, and repeat—every miserable day, excluding Sunday, of course, where he turned on the TV and waited for the day to end and the work week to begin again.
He didn’t particularly enjoy work, but it was the most exciting part of his day, even if it wasn’t much. Work was when he talked to people the most (which thankfully wasn’t often), where he saw the most (as much as you can see in small town neighborhoods), and where he collected his twenty-four-dollars-and-seventy-one-cents-per-hour government paycheck (which supported his vacant lifestyle).
What he most hated about his route, besides the ridiculous shorts he was required to wear that showcased his thick hairy legs, was that it required him to start at five in the morning. He had been working it long enough that it wasn’t so much about waking up at four in the morning. No, mostly Roger hated going to sleep at two in the afternoon and waking up at ten in the evening, a habit he picked up from staying up late in the night when he first got the job and needing to sleep right after work to make it up. He’d tried to break back into a normal sleep day, but the same problem always arose. As a result, Roger spent most of his day in darkness, watching tv.
Roger’s route zig-zagged in the slowly growing light of early morning through neatly placed blockish Ohio neighborhoods with houses whose differences were mostly in color and flowers. Mailbox after mailbox after mailbox. A Personally addressed letter here, a package there, and useless coupons and spam everywhere.
But then there was this house. It was an odd wonkadonk of a house. It was purple all the way around except on one side of the house where it gave way to a badly chipped dull grey. They must have run out of paint. The windows were all different, not a one the same. There was one tall plantation window that spanned both the first and second floors. You could see the concrete and wood that made up the second floor’s…floor. A large dining room table took up the view of the first floor through this window, decorated with old center piece knick-knacks. On another side of the house was a small cluster of circular stained glass windows, all different shapes, depicting different scenes from children playing to monsters watching them. Another window was just normal and rectangular just beside the front door, but there was a laminate of the neighborhood watch sign-guy stuck to it, always watching the mailman as he came to drop off a package or stick an envelope in the rusted lime green and lemon yellow mailbox.
Stone eyes, noses, and mouths (Probably found at some cheesy garden store) nailed to an enormous oak tree gave it a different face here and there, crying, laughing, wailing, grinning. Those faces, gazing over the leaf, branch, and gnome strewn lawn always gave the mailman an odd feeling. The first time Roger had seen the house on his route, he had just stood and stared at it, taking in its bizarreness among all the neat and orderly houses around it. A man across the street snuck up on him and said, “Strange thing isn’t it? The HOA won’t do anything about it.” Roger glanced at the man, shrugged, and delivered the odd house its daily scrap paper.
Today, the house looked bright and cheery in the morning sun, pink dawn clouds floating lazily over the pale brick chimney and chipped grey shingles and reflecting in the windows. The house didn’t usually have much mail besides the coupons and catalogues he put in every box. There was no mail for the house this time, but there was a letter sticking out of the box to be picked up.
It was a small letter, probably containing a birthday card, since there were no big holidays that Roger was aware of in August. He didn’t get any days off, at least. Anyway, the letter was addressed in a loopy scrawl that reminded him of his mother’s handwriting when she was still alive. He could barely read:
362 Manfred Rd.
Riggins, Idaho 83549
Roger stared into the dining room plantation window, lost in thought about his own mother. “Such a long ways away.” He shook himself and returned to his route, saluting a troop of gnomes that were huddled around a window well on his way.
As he dropped letters and magazines into slot after box after box after slot, he thought about the grandmother figure he imagined lived in the crazy house.
Lois waved her pink sausage finger in Mrs. Bateman’s red face and downcast eyes. “You are responsible for this you stupid woman. Look at my son’s foot!
Mrs. Bateman dragged her eyes to the boy’s foot. There was a large red gash straight up the bottom of it, a steady stream of red erupting from it.
“And you know who’s gonna pay for it?” Lois Matteson’s glasses glinted in the sunlight. “You are, that’s who. You did this to my son.” Her face swelled with color. She looked about to say something else, but instead she dragged the stumbling young boy behind her and stuffed him in her car to take to the hospital, calling back that she would be sending the bill.
Mrs. Bateman stared at the broken gnome on the ground, her long wispy hair almost visibly growing greyer. Despite the sun, she wore a large burgundy shawl which she now maneuvered to better handle the broken porcelain pieces. Her lips trembled as she collected the pieces and finally her old eyes began to sprinkle and then rain. She gathered the dead gnome in her arms and gingerly carried it inside the purple house, stumbling and heaving with sobs. Neighbors watched incredulously from their windows.
The old Mrs. Bateman put the gnome to rest and sat still at her tiny dining table for a very long time. At last, she went to her newly acquired computer and after hours of grumbling and hot tears, she finally managed to finalize the purchase of an absurd fairy gnome. She finally settled into her first smile. As she thought of the pleasure of receiving this gnome, her smile broke into a wide toothy grin. The light had returned to her weak frame
A couple of days later, she had the hospital bill and the gnome and Lois Matteson’s stern letter scolding the old lady’s gnome placement. Mrs. Bateman took the berating letter like a saint, stuck the package in a paper grocery bag along with cash for the hospital bill, and waddled down the sidewalk a couple houses away. She timidly knocked on the door of the Matteson’s simple white house.
The lady of the house answered. Mrs. Matteson’s face, upon discerning who was at the door, turned a lovely shade of pink. She pursed her lips. “Caden!” She called back into the house. “Get down here now!”
The boy came rush-limping to the door with his bandaged foot. Mrs. Matteson simply gestured at his foot to Mrs. Bateman and crossed her arms. She looked as though she expected her to get on her knees and beg for forgiveness.
Instead, Mrs. Bateman seemed to shrink as she lifted the grocery bag, a peace offering. Lois’ figure visibly softened and she tenderly accepted the gift. Mrs. Bateman stood waiting for her to open it and after a moment, Lois did.
She handed Caden the bag with the cash in it as she lifted the box out. She turned a brighter pink and her eyes watered a bit. As she opened the box, her face froze, her plump limbs went rigid, and her eyes turned steely. She turned that steely gaze on Mrs. Bateman, and dropped the box right in front of her. The crisp chinking of the death of the porcelain fairy gnome lit the air, settled by the slam of the door in Mrs. Batman’s face.
Roger returned to reality in front of his microwaved leftover Panda Express dinner/lunch. He had an odd twist in his stomach, like he left something undone, but he ate anyways because he knew he would regret not eating later. The knot did not abate. He drifted towards his own mother in thought, then quickly steered to the “Reuben” that the strange house’s letter was addressed to.
Rueben stared at the birthday card his mother had sent him. Even forty-four years after his birth, she still never failed to wish him happy birthday. His mother was the only one ever to do so now. His wife had left him, taking their daughter with her and he had moved up into the mountains of Idaho to forget and start new in solitude.
He felt a twinge in his chest as he recalled when the last time he had visited her was. It was two years after the death of his father, ten years ago. Her sanity was depleting and she had developed a strange obsession with gnomes. She was perfectly able to take care of herself, so Reuben didn’t worry about her much. He didn’t think about her much either. She sent him cards for his birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and whatever other holiday struck her fancy during the year along with the occasional letter filled with silly old woman jargon.
Reuben always meant to reply, to send her a card back or wish her happy Mother’s Day. He never did though. He only placed the cards and letters as he did with this one now in a file cabinet full of them. Out of the way and out of his mind. Eventually the letters and cards stopped and he was informed that his mother had passed away. She died in her sleep, peacefully and alone. Reuben, upon hearing of his mother’s death, clenched his jaw and fists for a moment, breathed in deeply, flaring his nostrils, and ultimately let it out, leaving that breath in the old file cabinet with all the cards and letters his mother had sent him over the past ten years of his neglect.
A few days later, Roger found that the strange house had an interesting letter addressed to the Bateman household from a lawfirm. He looked at the house from his mail truck. Patchy scrappy clouds loomed overhead, casting ominous shades on the stone faces of the oak tree. They seemed to be mocking Roger for snooping in the house’s mail. He chose instead to look at the patches of chrysanthemums around the entryway through the short wrought-iron fence that surrounded the property. His ex-wife loved chrysanthemums.
Roger jerked out of the truck with his large figure and dropped the mail in the box beside the door, slamming the lid over it. He moved on in his route without sparing another look for the house. He spared it thoughts though and chuckled as he thought of a possible past in its old garden.
Rhett spewed a heap of breath out of his barrel chest. “Milly, they’re ridiculous! I feel like you have more affection for hundreds of tiny bearded garden men than you could ever have for me—“ He stopped short, gritting his teeth. “Look Milly…I just want to know that you love me. Show me that you love me.” His voice grew soft as he reached for Milly. “Please.”
Milly was staring at a gnome on the terrace in front of her, looking so cute standing sentinel over the daisies. She turned to face him with tears in her green eyes that could hardly meet his dark pleading ones. She was holding her engagement ring in her dainty fingers, spinning it this way and that. She looked down at it as moisture as bright as the little diamond in the band plopped onto her papery hands. She sucked in a breath and thrust the ring into Rhett’s rough palm without looking up and hurried out of the garden.
Rhett was left staring wide-eyed at the little ring in his palm. He stood straight and still as a statue until one might have thought that he was as lifeless as the gnomes surrounding him in the garden. He finally pocketed the ring. As he looked up, his eyes flashed on a gnome not two feet away on the garden terrace. In an instant, the little beaming bearded porcelain figure was dashed to pieces against the brick of the terrace.
Roger snorted at the ridiculous story and at Rhett for being mad about losing a loony like Milly. As he pulled into his driveway from returning the mail truck to the post office, his eyes landed on a bright red Volkswagen Beetle in the neighbor’s driveway. “Just like my ex-wife’s car…”
Roger’s eyes glazed over and his shoulders slouched as he wandered off to the past. He snapped back, blinking rapidly for a moment. He sat for one moment before giving one big sniffle and getting out of the car. Inside his home, his brain rumbled off again towards the purple house.
Agatha leaned on the counter, faced away from Reuben. Her shoulders trembled slightly, almost imperceptibly. Her hand was clutched around her car keys.
“Babe, I’m home.”Reuben had just shut the door walking in. “Agatha?” She didn’t answer. “What’s wrong honey?” Still she didn’t answer. He noticed a faint raggedy breath she drew in and slowly approached her.
He placed a hand on her shoulder and she spun around, eyes red and swollen, but dry. “I’m leaving.”
Reuben stared at her, not processing. He focused on her flaring nostrils which drew breath, in and out, quickly. She had no control over it.
Agatha’s eyes were hard, like marble, the only semblance of control. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. “I’m going. Katy is already at her grandmother’s. She’s staying with me”
Still, Reuben made no reply. He stood stock still, like one of the gnomes in the lawn that forever gazed at one spot. “Do gnomes ever wish they could look somewhere else?”
Agatha drew breath sharply and Reuben finally met her eyes. Her nostrils weren’t flaring anymore. Her swollen face only made her more beautiful. She shook her head and moved past him. She slammed the door on her way out and drove away in her luggage-filled bright red Volkswagen beetle. Reuben’s eyes hadn’t moved from where hers were only a few moments before but which view now only contained a knife block and a flowery container holding several kitchen utensils.
Reuben never showed up to any of the court dates for the divorce or for custody of Katy. His brain was a garden gnome’s brain. He might as well have been one.
Roger finally closed his eyes and fell asleep, his pillow wet with droplets.
The next day was cloudier, drizzling on and off, chilling Roger in the morning darkness. The windows of the strange house reflected this weather in its windows, obscuring the inside of the house. A broken, rusted out tricycle towards the back of the house, close to the chipping grey soaked in the drizzle. A few gnomes and flowers stood about it, looking quaint in the dull grey light, but the circular stained glass windows looming above it cast a gloom over the scene. Roger hadn’t noticed before, but the largest of the circular windows depicted the monster who had watched the children in a different window, leading them all into the woods where he had come from.
Roger shrugged his shoulders and shivered. He pulled out a small package for the purple house. It was about the size of his hand and very light. The label on it read:
102 Lake St.
St. Mary’s, Ohio 45885”
And in a little comment box, “Thanks for everything.” Roger ventured to shake the box a little and faintly heard a little something move. He had lingered all he could without looking like a wack-job, so he left the box on the house’s little porch and drove on.
Throughout the rest of Roger’s route, he thought of that little box. He imagined that the jewelry inside could possibly be a pair of cufflinks from an old army buddy.
Gun shots peppered the air and bombs sank to the earth like exploding geese. “Jack! 2 O’clock!”
“Copy that!” Jack twisted around the barrier and fired his gun at some unseen Vietnam soldiers and spun back around a half second later. Bullets whizzed past Jack’s ear and snapped against the edge of the barrier in response.
There were other American soldiers, but most were wounded or couldn’t take any more ground. They were outnumbered. Jack looked back at his companion, a wild glint in his eye. “Milton, take these.” He reached into one of the pockets of his mud spattered dull green uniform and pulled out a little draw string pouch. He tossed it to Milton.
Milton could hardly understand what Jack was saying over the spattering of gunfire and roaring of metal geese. “What do I want these for?”
“You gotta look nice for your big day with Jenny..” He grinned. Milton smiled grimly back and shook his head, tucking the pouch into one of his pockets before one of the exploding geese sank into the ground near their barrier, splintering Milton’s left leg into a thousand pieces.
Years later, an old, one-legged Milton on his deathbed had the cufflinks polished and sent back to Jack in the purple house.
Roger shook the gunfire and Jenny from his mind. “Naw, no veteran would have a house that kooky.” He pulled over and got out of his truck to drop some letters off in various surrounding houses that seemed to creep up and close in around him. The corners of his mouth pulled down. Then he had another thought. “What if there was a necklace in the box, and…”
Agatha gazed blearily down at her pale, broken child in the hospital bed. Tears were streaming down her face, but her face was otherwise expressionless. The doctors had just told her how much longer the girl had left to live. She sat on the bed and stroked her sleeping child’s cool cheek. “I’m sorry he’s not here baby,” she choked on her breath, “I wish for that coward would be here for you.”
Days later, Agatha went into Jensen’s Jewelers with stony dry eyes. She carried her deceased daughter’s necklace which the girl’s father had given her for her previous birthday, her eighth birthday. She stepped up to the counter and requested that the necklace be polished and asked if they would send it for her.
She glared down at the thing before handing it over. It was a dainty gold chain with a small gold heart on it. Its delicate engraving glinted mockingly: “To my beautiful Katy, love daddy.”
Roger stopped short, sucking in a shaky breath, a tear escaping his eye.
“Meow.” Roger looked down to see a small orange tabby cat looking up at him lazily and expectantly, twitching his tail straight up. He looked just like the cat his own daughter used to have.
Roger sniffed hard and shoved the cat out of his way with his foot, then quickly looked around to make sure he wouldn’t have any angry cat owners charging him or neighborhood dwellers peering at him to ascertain if it really was a tear they saw. There was only a pudgy shirtless man mowing his lawn who hadn’t seemed to notice Roger. Roger moved on, dragging himself past Agatha and her daughter.
But Agatha and her daughter and Reuben’s mother clung to Roger. All day they latched onto him and followed him home, retaining a hold on most of his mind. They tormented his sleep and weighed him down.
The next morning, Roger awoke with them all on his mind his own Agatha and Katy and Mrs. Bateman, torturing him with a sense of unfulfilled purpose and boats that had sailed, never to return. They dragged at his feet like led, ate into his stomach, twisted his heart. Roger gasped and clutched at his flabby torso.
Like a zombie, he pulled on jeans and a t-shirt, ignoring his uniform, drove to the strange purple house, and knocked on its dark green door.