Everyone in Steadman knew how Mailman George got his scars. In our town, when you were old enough to learn, your parents told you the cautionary tale of his affair with Carol Colletti – a woman on his walking door-to-door route – and her husband’s revenge:
Pete Colletti, a welder for the city’s transportation department, returned early from the shop one day to find George and Carol entwined on the guest room futon. She was wearing his blue, short-sleeved uniform shirt over nothing, and he was bare other than his white athletic socks. After the expected screams were exchanged, big Pete subdued skinny George and bound and gagged him using the only thing handy – three rolls of blue painter’s tape from the recent guest room remodeling. He dragged the near-mummified man into the driveway and tossed him into the back of the city’s pickup truck. Also in the old stick-shift Ranger’s bed was a roll of barbed wire. Pete had planned to cordon off Carol’s backyard garden during the approaching weekend. That project would have to wait.
On the far edge of the city dump, there lay one hundred acres of swamp. Pete plowed the truck instinctively toward the big marsh, unloaded his mostly blue prisoner, and kick-rolled him deep into a stand of cypress trees. There, he propped up George, who twitched and pitched beneath the sticky bindings. Pete unrolled his barbed wire bale, wrapping it round and round the interloper, starting at his still-socked ankles and finishing at the business end of his mullet haircut. Using the wire pliers from the glove box, Pete twisted the wire against the cypress tree, binding George tightly. He turned it harder and harder, deep into the blue painter’s tape and the encased victim. George stayed there all night, struggling beneath two excruciating layers of industrial adhesive and gaucho wire.
The next morning, two garbage men on their smoke break spotted something bright blue a ways from landfill pile number five. George was found and cut loose, but the barbs had dug into him all over. He gave an account of his torture to the local police, who did nothing since they sided with Pete.
This was the story everyone understood and politely never mentioned in public. Everybody was content with their discreet knowledge of George’s indiscretions until Aaron Ross and his family moved into town. They’d purchased the old Baxter place over on Eighth Avenue, and our parents had instructed us to make them feel welcome, even if they were “different folk.”
My friends and I rode bikes with Aaron for our part. His speech was funny to us, as he had moved to our little town from Rhode Island. What we called water fountains, he called “bubblers.” Cokes, meaning any carbonated soft drinks to us, were “pop” to him. The list of vernacular contrasts went on, and to add another alien element, he and his father played tennis. The only people we knew who played tennis were old ladies trying to stave off heart attacks. Aaron’s dad, a used car salesman, had taken a job with Victor “King” Reynolds, the owner of Steadman Ford. Our parents felt that tennis-playing Yankee car salesmen belonged in the same category with serial killers who made needlepoint samplers during their time on death row. But in the name of graciousness, they forced us to be outwardly nicer than they were behind closed doors. Besides, Aaron’s mother, Judith, made marshmallow fluff sandwiches – a delicacy we would never have at our PB&J-loyal homes. So we could muster up niceties for her, anyway.
Still, we should have known Aaron would screw things up. It happened in the middle of summer vacation. On our bikes, we were chasing down the Pinky-dinky ice cream truck when Aaron noticed Mailman George and all his scars.
“What the hell happened to him?” he asked us, still pumping toward the wavy sound of “Arkansas Traveler” warbling from the ice cream truck a block away.
“Don’t ask,” said Robbie, a towheaded, freckled boy two years my senior. “It’s a long story, dude.”
Aaron was insistent: “Nah – I want to know, man. Was he in the war? What?”
“Let it go,” Robbie advised. “Let’s get some snow cones.”
“Yeah, just let it go,” I parroted, ever the follower.
With that, Aaron skidded his bike around and began pedaling back toward Mailman George.
“Oh shit,” I said. “New boy’s gonna ask him!”
“Aw, hell no!” Robbie shot back.
We had to stop the poor fool. Catching up to his sleek yellow ten-speed, we arrived just in time to hear him blurt, “Hey mister – mind telling me what happened to you?”
Aaron’s hands were gesticulating about his face like flies were there, but alas, there were no flies. Only stupid Yankee-boy making an ass of himself. Robbie and I buried our eyes beneath our hands, shaking our heads as if our own gestures could somehow apologize.
“Son, you got guts,” Mailman George began. “In the twenty years I’ve been delivering mail around here, nobody’s asked me that question.”
“We’re real sorry, Mr. George,” Robbie said. “He doesn’t know…”
“No, no. It’s okay. I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask, and now that you boys have had the guts to, I can finally tell you my secret.”
We leaned forward, eager to hear the salacious confession that was sure to follow.
“Never coach little league,” he said.
“WHAT?” Robbie yelled back. “You’re saying you got all those scars from coaching little league?”
He was on the verge of indignant when I butted in: “How’d that happen, sir?”
With that, Mailman George’s eyes glazed over in reflection, and he leaned against the picket fence in front of the Moore’s place. He looked off into the oak tree canopy above us.
“I’ll tell you boys since you asked, but you’ve got to promise not to go telling anybody,” he almost whispered.
We nodded our sweaty heads in agreement, and he began his recollection:
“All Gabriel Delagarza ever wanted to do was be a relief pitcher. He was a boy about your age, and his favorite baseball player was John Franco, a fabulous reliever for the Cincinnati Reds. Most boys followed Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, or some of the other big-name hitters on that team, but not Gabe. He knew every John Franco stat that existed, and even had a red ‘Big C’ cap that Franco had signed during a spring training game. Gabe kept a baseball card of his hero tucked into the frame of his bedroom mirror so that every morning when he got ready, he could remember his goal: Be like John. Be like John.”
The postman’s right fist pounded into his left hand to hammer home his point.
“He daydreamed about closing games with consecutive strike-outs, sealing no-hitters for starting pitchers, and signing autographs after big shut-out games. So, when fall ball tryouts rolled around, Gabe came and saw me, since I was the coach at the time. We had quite a team: the Johnston’s Hardware Eagles. A great group of kids, that bunch. Thing is, they were all white – ‘Caucasian’ is the right word, I think. There wasn’t a brown or black face to be found on our roster. So when Gabe showed up, I figured there would be trouble. I came up with an excuse pretty fast, and told him, ‘Sorry, son. Your name won’t fit on the back of our uniform jerseys. Maybe next year when you’re a little bigger.’
Gabe was heart-busted. All he had wanted was to throw during a couple of final innings, and I was afraid that his being Mexican would have gotten him hurt somehow. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have made him a starter.” Mailman George’s eyes left us for a moment, glanced down at the sidewalk, then back up to us.
“Why?” Aaron prodded.
“Here’s what happened,” the deliveryman continued. “Gabe was so upset, his mom and dad took him to see the circus over at the big flea market that weekend. They had a whole bunch of sideshows, and one of them was a knife thrower. Gabe watched the man burst balloons, stick swords around a lady on one of those circular turntables, and he was hooked. He knew he had a new calling in life from that night forward.
He went home after the show, took down his John Franco baseball card, and shoved it in his desk drawer. He put his Reds cap on the top shelf of his closet. Then he began looking through the back of his dad’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. Sure enough, there among the ads was one selling a set of genuine throwing knives, just like the ninjas used. Gabe used his pitcher’s glove fund to get a money order from the local convenience store. In a few weeks, he had his new obsession. Every afternoon, he used his big right pitching arm to chuck those blades over and over into an old propped-up stump out back of his dad’s shed. He learned how to change his throw for different distances, how to make them stick at different angles, and his best trick was splitting a card at ten paces without looking.” The postman’s eyes grew wide and sincere. He lowered his voice just a little: “One day, he went out to the stump, taped his John Franco card onto it, and cut it dead down the middle from fifteen paces using his left hand. He was ready.
By that time, Gabe was in ninth grade. Circus posters went up all over town right about the time that fall ball tryouts were being held. Gabe went down to the flea market and asked to speak with the manager of the circus. An unshaven little man with a holey shirt came waddling up to the main entrance and eyed Gabe over.
‘No refunds,’ he said.
‘I don’t want a refund; I want a job,’ Gabe said back to him.
‘Don’t got any.’
‘Look, mister. I’m the best damn knife-thrower in these parts. I can work for you or against you,’ Gabe hissed, flashing his ninja knives from beneath his shirt sleeve.
‘I don’t respond to threats, boy. Tell you what I’ll do, though. Miss Christina is our resident knife act. If she says you’re good enough, I might take you on. Minimum wage, lousy hours.’
‘That’s more like it,’ Gabe said.
The manager, who finally introduced himself as Mack Snyder, led Gabe to a trailer in back of the flea market. Mack knocked on its door, and a tall, black-haired woman wearing only her bra and panties appeared.
‘What do you want, leetle man?’ she spit at him. ‘You know I’m very beezy.’
‘Leave your soap operas for just a second, sweetheart,’ he answered. ‘This here is, um…what’s your name, boy?’
‘Gabriel. Gabriel the Great. The finest knife thrower in all of Steadman.’
Miss Christina covered herself with a tiger-print blanket from nearby, and said, ‘So what? Anyone can throw knives. But can you heet anything?’ Her teeth were intense white beneath maroon-painted lips, and her blade-curved eyelashes batted her frustration away.
‘Lady, I can hit a gnat’s eyebrow from a mile off,’ Gabe bragged. ‘I can probably throw better than you do right now.’
‘Oh reely? Let’s see you try.’
Miss Christina closed the door kind of softly like girls do, and then she tossed on one of her show outfits, a little blue tasseled number that was no less revealing than the underwear she had on before. The only real addition she made was a headpiece – a kind of crown-looking jeweled thing that had peacock feathers in it.
She led Gabe out to the pasture behind her trailer. There, she’d set up a bunch of targets ranging from a plywood silhouette of a man to a round wheel that had playing cards painted on it.
‘We will play a leetle game,’ she began. ‘Have you ever played pig, young man?’
‘You mean like the basketball game? Sure. It’s like horse, only shorter.’
‘Same thing here,’ she said, withdrawing five silver knives from pouches in the back of her sparkling bikini top. ‘I throw, I heet. You throw, you heet the same thing. You miss once, and you’re out. Got eet?’
‘Got it,’ Gabe said, rolling his eyes all sarcastic-like at her fake accent.
‘First, tall man’s head,’ she told him, pointing toward the wooden cut-out. She whistled one of the knives through the air and it stuck into the top of the target with a vibrating ‘thwack!’”
Mailman George was now using his hands to demonstrate the sound of the blade wiggling back and forth in the target. We were entranced. Aaron stood silently, his mouth hanging agape, waiting for whatever happened next.
“Gabe pulled the knife loose from the target, backed up, and threw. His knife stuck exactly the same as Miss Christina’s, and let me tell you, she was miffed. The gypsy-looking woman threw one into the wheel of cards, hitting the ace of hearts dead-center. Gabe did the same thing. Well, by now she was getting downright pissed. She knew she’d have to pull out all the stops for her final shot. She backed up toward her trailer and turned around. Her slinky back was facing the field of targets. Without a breath, she spun around and hurled all five of her knives at the card wheel. They whooshed through the air and jabbed into every other painted card around the big wooden disc. That is, there were ten of those painted-on cards I told you about, and she had stuck every alternating one perfectly.
‘Beat that, leetle man,’ she said to Gabe, running her long finger along his jawline.
He says, ‘Fine’ back to her, just like that.
Gabe gritted his teeth and backed up. He turned his back to the targets and held his own five knives in his right hand. Spinning around, he flung his left hand out repeatedly, sticking the rest of the cards on the big wheel, filling in those gaps that Miss Christina had left. He was hired on the spot.
The circus even made up big posters with his name on them: ‘Gabriel the Great.’ They had these fancy drawings of a Mexican man with knives at the end of each finger and a sword clinched between his teeth. At the time, I didn’t even know that it was our Gabe that they were talking about. Hell, he was only fourteen. I never should have gone to the circus.
You see, they let Gabe pick a volunteer out of the audience. I just happened to be sitting on the very front row, over near the knife throwing sideshow. He came over to me and held out his hand.
‘Rise, my good man,’ he said in a showy voice. I didn’t even recognize him, but I know he recognized me. They had him outfitted with a sequined green and yellow vest, and these shiny red skin-tight pants that ended with slick vinyl-type boots. His hair had been plastered back and sprayed with some kind of glitter. For all I knew, he could have been anybody.
He escorted me to one of those upright turntables in the center of the ring. He had me step on two platforms on the table that kept my feet far apart, and he had me rest my arms on these two other little boards up top. Then he bound my arms, legs, body and neck with these big leather straps,” George explained, showing us the length of the straps by placing his hands about three feet apart. None of us moved.
“He had a rack full of about fifty throwing knives set up. The platform I was attached to began to spin, and pretty soon, I heard him talking to the audience: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, our main event!’ I remember hearing the first knife hit right above my left thumb, and I remember thinking he had just cut me, even though it didn’t hurt at first. I could feel a little trickle of blood moving down my hand, though. More knives came, up by my ear, down by my ankle, over my shoulder, all over.” He pointed at each one of his visible scars. “And every single one cut me just a little tiny bit. I was bleeding bad, but everybody thought it was just part of the act. I remember hearing cheers when Gabe threw his last knife, and then I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was laid up in the hospital covered in bright blue bandages from head to toe.”
“So what happened to Gabe?” Aaron asked.
“Oh, him? Nobody knows. The circus left town, but he didn’t leave with it. Some folks say he’s still around here somewhere, but nobody can say for sure. His parents never heard from him again, but I’m still left with all his little reminders.”
“Great story, Mr. George,” Robbie said. “Thanks a lot.”
“It’s not just a story, son. It’s the God’s honest truth. Let that be a lesson to you – never judge somebody on their skin color. You never know what might happen. Yall go on now. I have to finish my route here, and Mrs. Colletti has promised to fix me some of her famous cookies today.”
Robbie and I exchanged knowing glances, and Aaron broke the tension: “Thanks again, Mr. George. Have a great day.” What a Yankee suck-up thing to say, I thought.
Mailman George began whistling and walking, and we rode our bikes slowly toward the sound of the ice cream truck, which was now working the other side of town. Arkansas Traveler was a little harder to hear, and we never found our snow cones that day.
Some weeks later, the Ross family had to pack up and move again – Aaron said something about a “car superstore” in Michigan. Robbie and I never told our parents about what Mailman George said. Today, though, when I go in to the post office, I see him once in a while working the counter. He always offers me the special stamps. Last week, they had Roberto Clemente on them.