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  • It used to be that when you turned eighteen you’d work at a paint supplies store during the day and a bowling alley at night. Or enlist in the military, or hop trains, or shave your head and take drugs, or get pregnant, or get married. Or maybe you just checked in to the nunnery, the mental hospital or prison.
    But now times are better and everyone goes to college, including you yourself. You go to college really far away, but not all the way to New York- too competitive, loud and skyless. Nor snobby Boston, or ridiculously snobby Rhode Island. In Maryland there are too many wallet snatchers out at noon. You don't even visit San Francisco where Earthquakes have been known to wreck everything and kill people.
    You do end up in Kansas City, a city you have never heard of. What you know about any city is defined by your immediate surroundings. In the dorms there are clay-crusted footprints coming out of the showers. On Saturday mornings you can always expect that there will be at least one drunken boyfriend passed out in the bathroom, and he usually picks your favored stall.
    Another nasty “Kansas City” game: locating the anonymously discarded purple thong. Every day it’s in a new place: in front of the vent in the hall, in the sink, stuck to the bottom of the community vacuum cleaner. Once, you even saw it resting on the top cushion of the rec room's couch behind someone’s head as they tried to engulf a book of Nietzsche, desperate, anticipating a fatal exam.
    The next year you and your favored roommate (the one who brought the foot operated trashcan as well as the coat rack for your extensive hat collection- not the other roommate whose name in another language probably means “moody one” or “Satan.”) moved into a white wooden ornament of a house. There was the occasional sound of footsteps pacing the other room when you were home all alone, followed by the falling of a hung picture and a yelp, but you expect that. That sort of thing happens when you move into a house that was built the same year that the president died from inhaling milk and cherries.
    Since then, there was the place with cockroach poison spread across the kitchen counter. After that you spent a month in a molding bungalow with an unwashed bored husky dog. The combination of smells, mildew and musk mixing with wolf urine drives you out to a dark apartment all by yourself.
    Peace, you think. But no! You battle fleas for a few months, a complementary colony left from the previous tenant. You win, but you are scarred from welts and you are still not alone. There's sex in the walls. Amorous calls expelled from the tar lips of the Goth in unit #7 that press into your living room stopping you as you write your father a letter. There’s sex coming in from the ally too, the cat kind- yowling and scratching, but only at night. During the day there is barking, or 'breaking.' In #3 Woofie, a medium ginger male is angry and barks continual rapid barks "Return, return, return to me! Oh! Who are you to do this to me? Don’t you know you need only I? Come back! Oh! Oh………..oh. My heart is breaking. Breaking! Braking!"
    The neighbors you spend the most time with are the ones residing in the basement, #15. They live below the windows in an artificially lit kitchen. You assume, as you have never been down there. You haven't been down there, but you can hear everything. The wife below is always banging her pots and pans. In private she has two moods only: singing low and expanding herself so that she is only aware of her voice and it’s benevolent Baptist hymns, and the other mood when she slams down two plates, smacks a fried yellow bit of poultry on her husband’s plate and curses his name, his lazy ass, his mind, his purpose, his will, his existence and any thing else about him she can think of. She enjoys this quite a bit. Every morning at ten when you hear the pulse of “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!” from their television you know she is getting inspiration for the next time she gets mad.
    You know this is none of your business, and sometimes you try to ignore it. However, you have an innate interest in the free broadcast from the southwest living room floorboards. You call it your ‘family’, you left your old one behind five years ago and they stopped sending wads of bills and extra toilet paper a shortly after your graduation. It does bug you though when you turn 23 and your folks don’t even call you up. May fifth turns into May sixth and on the twelfth you call them up. They ask you why you haven’t thanked them. For what? “The letters! The package! The money! The you-know!” You were very rude for not thanking them for everything that they have been sending you to help you through your unemployment.
    When the white ponytail mailman arrives, you can tell he has been a mailman since 1968. “Where is my mail!” You demand. He says “I always put it on the steps, if it’s not there, then, well it’s probably…”And he points downstairs to the basement. Down at the dysfunctional couple in #15. “We get complaints about missing mail in this building all the time, and that’s not my responsibility, Madam, I just bring mail. But look at this…” He sets down a large postal crate. It is full of junk mail, about as much junk mail as you get in one year total. He continues, “This is all for-“ and he points downstairs again, “and it’s like this every day.” He makes a final series of eyebrow movements and eye scrunches (which you think are redundant) to further insinuate the mail thieving habits of your downstairs neighbors.
    It’s true that the wife has displayed an obsession with mail. You have caught her in the lobby examining the stack of bills for #3 with a slowness of someone reviewing a menu at a Tibetan-Alaskan restaurant. She was calm that day, combing her dyed scalp with her surgically enhanced nails. This week though when you were going down to the lobby to see if the package you ordered two weeks ago had come in yet, she didn’t seem quite so calm. Something on her wrist jangled as she mashed her forefinger under a envelope lip, yanking ripping the thing open just so. Before you even located your own piece of mail in its cubby, she stuffed the letter back into the envelope, and dropped the whole thing. Like a knot of centipedes. She fled down the stairs and and her door slammed. You've received a tire store discount coupon. But what was it that the downstairs neighbor had been wresting with? An advertisement for accident insurance for an upstairs neighbor.
    You post a sign in the lobby: “Hey Neighbors- if you have ‘accidentally picked up’ any of my mail, please return it to the steps no questions asked.” An hour later a smaller sign was taped to on top of your sign: “Neighbor, if you haven’t written down your apartment number, how to you expect us to know who you are?” You wonder why do they need my apartment number? If they need my apartment number than they must have mail stolen from more than just my apartment. They might even have some sinister ideas, so I better not do anything.
    You roost on it for a week, nothing appears and then on Saturday, the last possible day for there to be any mail for you the mailman brings nothing. For you anyways, the crate for #15 has a seed order catalogue in it (no one in this building has a porch- let alone a garden) sitting on a stack of sweepstakes, something from a yoga apparel company, missionary mail, and a hunting catalogue. You are certain that something is not right with them. Your spleen plucks inside you. You descend to the basement, and this time you have no intention of using the washing machine.
    You knock on the door and when the husband answers you introduce yourself. You tell him you have lived in this building for six months. He is a slender man about your father’s age and you walk past him into the apartment. You ask for a coke and if they have any French fries (which you smell all the time through your floor). He actually says sure and follows you down the corridor that leads to the rest of the unit. Their floor is covered in open pages of newspapers, and you ask if they are painting the walls. He doesn’t answer, but at seventy you can’t expect a man to answer a mundane question.
    It isn’t until you turn the corner when the mess you were expecting starts. It is stacked neatly, but it is a mess because junk mail in any quantity looks messy. #15 doesn’t have a measurable amount of junk mail. You only see the ceiling straight above you, and there is a central path to the kitchen sink and part of the counter. The television is implanted in a wall of mail and cardboard packages. The wife is sitting on what may be a couch, but could also be a catalogue and magazine stool ergonomically formed from the weight if their bodies. She has turned her head over her shoulder and stares at you horrified, and then she shifts her head and looks at her husband. “She lives upstairs she wants some French fries,” he says.
    "And all MY MAIL!" I shriek.
    “Oh, oh my goodness,” she says. She has a cigarette in her hand, and it is catching a Canadian Bacon Catalogue on fire. It is on fire, and the television wall is on fire. She is screaming and her arm is on fire, waving it and another wall comes into fire. How did your hair get on fire? You mash your head against the mail next to your head and smother the fire. All of you run out the door, but before she leaves the wife grabs packages, as many as she can, bellowing, still partly on fire. You all get out, but you go up to your own door, grab your wallet, your cell phone, your computer and throw it into a canvas bag that was sitting on your bed. You take this bag and your bicycle out the door. You have everything you need, you yell “Fire, fire!” as you exit.
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