“The Mail Lady”
from The Best American Short Stories – 1994
Lewis Coley is trapped. He is recovering from a stroke and, after forty years of marriage, his wife Alice is his caretaker, trying to interpret his imperfect speech, coaxing him out of bed, encouraging him to do what he can. But he suspects she is already thinking, planning for a time when she will be on her own.
Lewis narrates his thoughts, perfectly articulate, sarcastic, bitter and cynical, and these thoughts are in stark contrast to his efforts at speech, which Alice frequently misunderstands. We learn, through these thoughts, about the strains in their marriage, about his religious transformation, about their daughter Wylie, who is far away in Seattle.
Their mail lady is strong, manly, “a movie cowboy,” and in full command. She drives a big pickup truck, is known for pulling cars out of the deep New Hampshire snow and she represents everything Lewis cannot do anymore. For Lewis, the smallest tasks take massive mental and physical effort.
It’s very easy to understand Lewis’ feelings of futility as he sits alone in their car, stuck deep in the mud at the end of their driveway, a result of Alice’s inexperienced attempts to get them out and Lew’s efforts to instruct her. While Alice goes back to the house, he has nothing to do but think and wait and wonder what form of rescue will come to him.
This is a dark kind of read and it left me in a thinking mood. Gates is great at describing Lewis Coley’s feelings and frustrations. I think the ending can be interpreted as positive, but there’s a hint of sarcasm that makes me wonder.
David Gates was born in 1947 and is an American journalist and writer of short fiction and novels. Until 2008 he was the senior editor and writer in Newsweek’s Arts section. His first novel Jernigan was published in 1991 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other works include Preston Falls (1998) and The Wonders of the Invisible World (1999). His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Grand Street, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Ploughshares, Rolling Stone, and TriQuarterly. He currently teaches writing at The University of Montana.
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