If a restless traveler happens to find himself flying above the San Fernando Valley on a cloudless day, he might perchance look down and find the world of toy cars, dollhouses, and broccoli foliage that lay below. One of these cars may catch his eye: a strange, and yet oh-so familiar white box of a vehicle belonging to the United States Postal Service. The car moves more slowly than the others on the road, until it confidently pauses on an inconspicuous corner beneath the shade of a broccoli tree. An ant emerges from the vehicle and walks towards the back of it. But by this point, the traveler’s attention has most likely shifted, and he is no longer taking interest in the ant. He cannot see the ant’s blue shirt and shorts, her hair tied back in a ponytail with a rubber band that, in a previous life, had been used to hold a bundle of letters together. By now he has completely forgotten about both the ant and her funny car. He will never know about the rubber band hair tie, or about her past life. This moment will be lost in his subconscious memories, hidden deep within the hippocampus beneath depictions of instances of greater significance. But on this day, in that moment, the young man saw Julia Reynolds on her regular route, in her regular uniform, the same way she always was from Monday through Saturday for the majority of her life.
Julia Reynolds’ mail route covered a suburban district with upper-middle class homes whose picket fences were almost as white as their residents. The streets were lined with trees, and the lawns were covered in freshly cut green grass despite the blistering summer heat and the perennial drought that plagued the area. Most of the inhabitants were the friendly sort, and some even attempted to replicate the neighborhood courtesies they had grown up with. They would say hello to Miss Reynolds as she came strolling towards their mailboxes with her large tote bag hanging around her shoulder and resting on her hip. Their small, harmless dogs would bark shamelessly at the petite mail carrier before realizing that she was hardly a threat, and they would subsequently retreat through their doggy doors with their hairless nubs wagging behind them.
Reynolds could tell a lot about people from the kind of mail they received. For instance, the Madisons had two children. The younger child, a daughter named Adele, had recently been accepted to Princeton University. This did not come as a surprise to Julia, however, considering all of the alumni letters both of her parents had received in the past. Their oldest was a boy named Charles who had subscribed to both Billboard Magazine and Rolling Stone Magazine before he entered the eighth grade. When Charles was in high school, Julia oftentimes heard him practicing Stairway to Heaven repeatedly on the guitar through the second story window while Mrs. Madison yelled at him from the foot of the stairs. Sometimes it was a simple “Take out the trash!” other times it was a bit more explicit. One day, Reynolds noticed that the magazines were replaced with letters from the Marine Corps, and she never heard Stairway to Heaven again.
There was an old woman named Alice Palms that lived behind a tall hedge whose mailbox was particularly hard to reach. Reynolds had to pass through a gate that was covered in unkempt vines that made it nearly impossible to open. Ms. Palms did not receive mail often, only bills and car payments. The car was an old Volkswagon Beetle that never left her driveway, yet the registration was always up-to-date. Reynolds had only seen Ms. Palms a handful of times. Sometimes while she watered her plants, and other times while she sat in a chair on her porch with a book and a vacant expression in her gray eyes behind slim-framed glasses. Ms. Palms never paid any mind to Julia Reynolds. For some odd reason, this frustrated Reynolds to no end. Although Reynolds was undoubtedly terrified at the thought of a conversation with Ms. Palms, she found it infuriating that her own existence was never acknowledged by the wiry, elderly woman.
The only thing that terrified Julia Reynolds more than standing out was fitting in. She despised attention, and she actively fought off normality as if it were the flu. For this reason, being a mail carrier suited her. She enjoyed the superficial relationships she formed with the residents along her route. Her constant smiles and agreeable disposition welcomed cordial, cursory exchanges. She was small and plump with rosy cheeks, thin lips, frizzy black hair that was constantly tied back, and tired eyes. People (Ms. Palms excluded) recognized her, knew her name, and did not care to learn anything else about her. She appreciated this, because she did not care for long conversations, and hated any attempts to make her life story sound interesting. This is not to say Julia Reynolds was devoid of substance. She lived an ordinary life full of extraordinary characters. She was content with shallow relationships. She knew more about her acquaintances than they ever cared to know about her, and she did not mind.
Julia Reynolds’s life went about the same way it always had until one day. It was the 7th of January and the air felt crisp, a sign rain was imminent. Reynolds protected her carrier purse more carefully than usual as she rushed along her route. She scurried towards Ms. Palms home, and reached into her bag to find late notices stamped on bills. She struggled with the lock on the gate, as she always had, and finally broke through–pushing away loose vines. She walked towards the porch to the mail slot that lived against the wall next to the front door. However, something caught her eye on the way there. The registration on Ms. Palm’s car had expired. Reynolds hadn’t noticed this before.
Reynolds recalled that the last letter Ms. Palms received from the DMV arrived almost a month ago. Perhaps Ms. Palms had finally given up on the task of updating the registration on a car she never drove. Or maybe...
Reynolds shrugged away her thoughts and opened the mail slot. She pushed the envelopes through and heard a strange sound. She was familiar with the sound of the mail hitting the end of the tin mail slot, but this was different. She could hear envelopes falling from the slot to the floor, as if it were too full. As if the new mail had pushed the old mail out. Frantically, Julia thought about the last time she had seen Ms. Reynolds.
Around Thanksgiving, raking leaves.
She could be out of town. But who would she visit? She never received cards around the holidays.
A storm cloud loomed over Julia Reynolds as she hesitantly knocked on the door. No answer. She glanced at her watch, then slowly crept towards a window. She peered into a a lifeless kitchen. There was a small piece of burnt toast on a table.
No, not burnt.
It was covered in ants.
Reynolds walked around the house to another window, a living room. On the couch lay a Alice Palms. Her face pale and peaceful. The scene became a graceful still-life in Julia Reynolds’s mind. Death of a Misanthrope. A book that Ms. Palms had not yet finished reading lay on her stomach faced down. The pages of the novel split only a quarter of the way through. She would never know how the story ends.
The memory of the corpse would forever be engrained in Julia Reynolds’s memory.
That poor old woman, she would think. No friends or family to notice her absence.