Home Stories Angeleno by Frank Richards – FICTION on the WEB short stories

Angeleno by Frank Richards – FICTION on the WEB short stories


When postal workers go on strike, Delmore gets a chance at a promotion, but is that as far as his ambition extends?

Image generated with OpenAI

1. The City Primary

I finished counting the parcels on the second floor of the Los Angeles Terminal Annex and then headed to the Pony Express cafeteria to grab a quick coffee. I took a shortcut through the rows of city primary letter distribution cases, mail-sorting shelving units aligned perpendicular to the wall in strict formation, not one out of line. It was that sort of place. Even after working here for seven years, I had the feeling I didn’t quite fit in.

Quiet boredom hung in the post office air like the paper dust from the millions of letters that passed through this huge, multistoried building every day of every week of every year since it opened twenty-nine years ago. No doubt the dust of 1940 letters still floated here, ghostlike; time lingers in such places.

Terminal Annex squatted next to Union Station, a few blocks from downtown, and it moved to a beat of its own. If downtown was the geographic center of Los Angeles, the Terminal Annex was its hidden heart. Every day millions of pieces of sorted mail flowed out of the building into trucks that traveled along major and minor roadway arteries to local post offices and stations. The mail was further distributed by letter carriers who then drove it out for delivery to millions of addresses. Valentines, bills, international letters, Christmas cards, “Free” mail, letters home from soldiers in Vietnam, Social Security and welfare checks, love letters, medicine, newspapers, business reply mail, the catalogues of commerce and industry; it all flowed through the Terminal Annex to customer addresses in the city. Later those same carriers, collectors, and businesses picked up mail sent from those addresses and carried it back, coursing in reverse along those same veins to the Terminal Annex to repeat the city’s heartbeat in a story that never ended.

I glanced up at the Pony Express mural painted over the cafeteria entrance, one of those old WPA paintings you sometimes see in post offices. I was once told they gave unemployed artists work like painting murals in post offices during the Great Depression.

Hank the Poet leaned on a rest bar at one of the primary cases, throwing junk. A rest bar is a half stool with footrest; a distribution clerk could half stand, half lean against it while sorting letters. It was also reputed to be a sure prescription for major back problems later in life. Junk was advertising mail, third-class mail letters sorted after all the first class had left the building.

Hank’s dark hair was slicked back from his pockmarked, bearded face. He wore a wrinkled, green-and-black-striped, short-sleeved shirt, and faded blue jeans. An unlit cigarillo dangled from his lips. I used to work with Hank on Tour 3, the swing shift, and later on, Tour 1, the graveyard shift. We called work shifts “tours” for some reason. I thought about the times Hank was slightly inebriated and I covered for him. I thought about our trips to the track. I thought about the bets we placed, the races we sometimes won, the races I often lost. In other words, we were friends.

Hank turned at my approach. He pointed at my tie. “Looks like you joined the scumbags, Delmore.” His cigarillo bobbed up and down with each syllable.

“What are you doing here so late?” I asked. It was morning, an hour past the end of the tour.

“Luck stalled. I need the overtime.”

“The track?”

“Temporary.” He examined me closely. “When’s the last time you slept?”

I had been working since yesterday morning and said so.

“You look like shit.” He turned back to his case.

The city primary distribution case had forty-nine square letter separations to the front and another twenty-eight on an attached wing. Each grid separation was labeled with a Los Angeles ZIP code. Hank showed some skill at sorting city primary mail; he kept a fast and steady pace with no wasted movement. His left hand picked up a handful of letters from the gray, plastic tray on the ledge in front of him and held it up so he could read the addresses. He pushed the top letter up with his thumb, took it into his right hand, and tossed it into one of the case’s seventy-seven cubicles. It hit the metal back of the case with a soft thunk sound. He did the same with the next letter. Then the next. The next.

Hank had a name for each destination zone as he flipped the envelopes: “Downtown bums on skid row.” Thunk. “Baseball players.” Thunk. “Library rats.” Thunk. “Surfers and hodads.” Thunk. “Westside college brats.” Thunk. “Movie stars on casting couches.” Thunk. “Mastodons and Jewish delis.” Thunk. “Bars and whores.” Thunk. “Skinny cops and chubby bureaucrats.” Thunk. “Hippies and flower children.” Thunk. “Rich assholes sitting around swimming pools.” Thunk. “Angelenos.” He shook his head. And then he intoned: “This is the city. Is it the queen of angels?” He waved a letter around. “Or lord of the flies?”

Hank paused, picked up a metal clip-on ashtray and slipped it onto an empty separation. He lit the cigarillo with a Zippo lighter, which he snapped closed with a clank and slipped into his shirt pocket. Then he turned his head toward me, exhaling words in smoke.

“What are you doing here?”

“Counting leftover parcels.”

“In God’s name, why?”

“I have to report on the effect of the UPS strike.”

He reached down to the tray for another handful of mail. “Dumbest thing I’ve heard today.”

“I wrote part of the contingency plan for the strike.” No one really thought a strike would happen. Then it did. If I performed well, I might get promoted. It’d mean more money.

“Good for you.” He shook his head. “It’s a dangerous thing to wear a tie around here, Del. You should know that. Acting supervisor means you are in between. Not union. Not management. Stuck in the middle. When the shit hits the fan, everyone will blame you. You will run with the hunted.

“Remember Larry Julius?” He displayed the ring knife on his middle finger. These were used for cutting the strings used to bind up bundles of third-class mail.

Back when we’d both worked together in the mailing division on Tour 3, Larry Julius had been an acting supervisor. Larry trained the groups of newly hired distribution clerks who came in every week. One day he fired up a model “G” letter-canceling machine to show the new people how mail gets canceled.

“Folks,” Larry said. Larry, skinny body all angles like a 1960s version of Ichabod Crane, always called new people “folks” so he wouldn’t have to remember the names of people who probably wouldn’t be there the following pay period anyway. “This is how we postmark first-class letters. After they are all faced one way in the tray, we cancel them like this.”

Larry leaned down to guide the faced letters through the machine, but his dangling tie got caught and canceled, along with the letters, and then began winding around the dating spindle, pulling Larry’s head down into the craw of the machine.

Larry bent over the canceling machine, clawing at his tie, squawking in terror.

Hank had managed to cut the tie off with the ring knife he was wearing, freeing Larry from certain strangulation.

“You saved Larry’s life.”

“Yeah, but after that he always had that squeaky wheeze in his voice. You remember?”

After what he’d done for Larry, the supervisors had given Hank a lot of leeway. Nobody hassled him for drinking before work so long as he did his work quickly and accurately.

“Get the hell out, I say. Just like this place. All these letters; messages in transit. It suspends life and you get stuck here. It’s liminal, Del. Day after day the same routines, the same millions of letters coming in, the same millions of letters going out. There’s always another tide of mail and never any progress to be had. I’m going to win enough of a stake to get myself out so I can enjoy the finer things.”

“Such as?”

“Writing. Booze. Women.” He looked over at me and laughed. “Not necessarily in that order. Can’t do any of that here. Can’t make any money writing poems either.” He took a drag on his cigarillo.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about writing a novel. Maybe I’ll write about this place.” He laughed again, this time quietly, almost to himself. “What about you? When you gonna start writing again?”

“What would I write about?” I’d shown a couple of my army stories to Hank soon after we’d met, and Hank encouraged me to write more. “Nothing ever happens here.”

“You oughta get outta here, Del. You don’t want to wind up one of the lifers, do you?”

A few people liked the job security and stayed, but most left the post office soon after they started because of the monotony of the job. Management would bring in a dozen every other week for Larry to train, and after another week or two, maybe one person would be left. The rest all quit. Only the oddballs remained.

Oddballs like Henrietta Larson, who’d come in a couple years back; Henrietta Larson, the thin, bleached blonde who slipped and broke her arm racing downstairs to get a prime seat in the mailing division so she wouldn’t have to sit next to Sharon Pauley.

Sharon, a flirty, buxom brunette, had allegedly stolen Henrietta’s husband in an office romance. This left Henrietta brokenhearted. Sometimes it was usually the only thing she would talk about if you were unfortunate enough to sit next to her at an adjoining distribution case.

I thought of Joe Garibaldi, a gray-haired military retiree who’d gone to work for the post office so he could “double dip” – retire again from the post office and gain a second government pension on top of his military benefits – only to keel over one night last Christmas season and die prematurely from a heart attack.

Another oddball, “Ace” Newkirk, was, I thought, a veteran air force hero during World War II, until someone told me the reason he was called “Ace”; he’d gotten drunk one night and driven out on Cheli airfield and crashed into a row of P-51 fighter planes, one after the other.

Then there was Hans Altmann, a closet Nazi who liked to dress up in World War II regalia and who was rumored to go to strange meetings every Tuesday night at the local beer hall. Hans always sat next to James “Rick” O’Shay, a youngish-looking man who liked to talk about the model train layout he was building in the living room of his apartment.

Each of them was the same in their differences. Each thought they’d only work here a year or so, before moving on to more substantial jobs, yet each remained. The oddballs washed up with the tides of mail like the useless debris that washed up over on Long Beach.

“I’m going for coffee. Want me to bring you one?”

“Nah. Listen, Del. I’m serious. You start chasing that thing,” Hank pointed to my tie again, “you’ll spend the rest of your life here in limbo. Counting parcels.” He pronounced the last bit slowly, for emphasis.

“Gotta make a living, Hank. I’m not good at the track like you are.” I knew I wasn’t going to be like one of the oddballs.

He sighed and changed the subject. “Where to today?”

“I’m meeting Jack Yamashita for my report and then we’re heading over to Cheli.”

“I thought they shut that place down.”

“We’re reopening Cheli to handle the parcel overflow from the strike. We can still move a lot of parcels using the old setup. We mothballed all the parcel slides, sack racks, and conveyors there. I’m going over to set things up.”

Hank shook his head and then turned his attention to the mail in his hand. He started sorting again. “You oughta call me. Or just walk on over when you get done. I’ve still got your typewriter.” I had an apartment on North Harvard; Hank lived a couple of blocks south on De Longpre. “I don’t need it now. I redeemed my old typer from hock. You could take yours back. Start writing again. What about that Korea story you told me?”

“Yeah,” I said but I knew I wouldn’t.

I headed over to the cafeteria for coffee. I picked up a beige, plastic tray from a stack and selected silverware. I might as well order breakfast, I thought. I picked up a menu before I slid the tray along the metal tray line. The menu cover reproduced an old Pony Express recruitment poster. “Wanted,” it read in bold print. “Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows. Must Be Expert Riders. Willing to Risk Death Daily. Orphans Preferred.”

2. Cheli Terminal

Jack picked me up at the bus stop outside the Terminal Annex, and we took Alameda to Sunset Boulevard, then made a quick right onto Mission. This merged with the 101 Freeway south, which became the I 5 South, the Santa Ana Freeway, the main artery to Orange County, Disneyland, and San Diego beyond that.

We intended to get started on the setup before noon. But the city had other plans. Traffic clotted, backing up and slowing to a crawl.

“Must be an accident up ahead,” Jack said in recognition of the obvious. He drove a black Lincoln Continental and kept it in spotless condition. A Nisei, he’d been sent with his parents to an internment camp someplace in Wyoming called Heart Mountain during World War II. He was one of those people who always seemed to be at work; he never used his vacation time for fear of missing out on something vitally important. Being a prisoner early in life had affected him to the point that he managed to feel insecure in one of the world’s most secure jobs.

I rolled down the window. An ugly gray haze of smog shrouded the sky. My eyes itched and stung. I felt groggy from lack of sleep. I realized Jack had been talking.

Jack was saying I had to get Cheli set up by this evening at the latest. “Personnel already hired one hundred fifty casual employees for distribution. They’re processing them today, Saturday. They’ll be reporting Monday afternoon. Gotta be set up and ready to go.”

We took the Eastern Avenue freeway exit. When we turned right onto Bandini Boulevard, Jack pushed a cartridge into the eight track, which began belting out Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” “I love this song.” Jack sang the lyrics and tapped out the beat on his steering wheel.

We drove into a vast, empty asphalt parking lot, populated here and there with tumbleweeds. “In a couple of days, this yard will be filled with vans and trailers,” Jack said.

Cheli Truck Terminal was a long, warehouse-like building with a flat roof, laid out north to south on government property that had been an air base during the war. The Postal Service had used the building to sort most of the Los Angeles outgoing and incoming parcels until a little over a year ago, when they opened a new, more modern building about a half mile away.

The east side of the building was entirely loading dock, a series of open bays with extendable conveyors inside. “I’ll drop you here,” Jack said. He’d been unexpectedly called back to the district office, leaving me to do the entire Cheli setup by myself. “I had hampers and flats of empty parcel sacks sent over earlier. Make sure all the extendables are working.” Jack backed into the first truck stall near the entrance steps in the middle of the building. “Do you want me to pick you up later?”

I got out of the car, hefting the crate of labels I’d brought with me. “No, I’ll call my girlfriend for a ride when I’m finished.” Lisa was used to my working odd hours. I had thought to get the phone lines turned back on the prior day, Friday.

I trotted up the steps and into the darkness. Inside it seemed like the postal facility of old. But what used to be a chaos of sound – clattering conveyor belts, mail handlers pushing nutting trucks around, forklifts zipping to the dock and back – was dead silent.

Light coming from the open dock doors partially illuminated the interior of the building, tracing stark, skeletal lines of light and shadow, ghosting the equipment onto the rear wall. Everything inside was covered in a layer of fine dust. Dust motes even danced in the channels of light. The corners were uniformly dark.

I found the main light switch and waited as old neon hesitated and flickered to life across the building. About half the lights stayed dark. Burnt out. They’d need replacement. Maybe the whole place needed re-lamping. I made a note.

I set the crate of labels on a supervisor’s standup desk and looked for the first set of racks. They were shoved together in a corner jumble. I pulled them out one by one and arranged them properly around the first parcel slide. I had enough racks to hang sacks for all the states. I found a box of rubber bands in the drawer of the supervisor’s desk. I used the bands to attach the states’ labels alphabetically to each sack position on the racks. I hung a sack for each state. This would be a simple sorting scheme. I continued arranging racks and hanging sacks well into the late afternoon.

When I’d finished setting up the “States” and “California” racks, I headed back to the desk for more rubber bands and another set of label runs, this set for Los Angeles ZIP codes. I remembered Hank and his Angeleno mantra. I knew he’d written hundreds of poems. I wondered what he might write a novel about.

One evening last spring I’d sat next to Henrietta Larson sorting outgoing mail. When I told her about my plan to be a writer when I left the post office, her face lit up. She surprised me by saying she’d had the same idea herself.

“When the divorce happened, I decided to become the writer I’d always thought I would be,” she said. “I’d thought about it for years, the room I’d have, how I’d decorate it. You know, to bring on the muse to inspire me. So, I built my own scriptorium.”

I must have looked puzzled.

She laughed. “A room of my own, just for writing. I’d dreamed about it for such a long time. I knew exactly what it would look like. I cleared out the spare bedroom and painted the walls celadon, you know, a light green color, to promote creativity. I bought a couple of white metal sawhorses and an unfinished wooden door. I sanded down and stained the door to use as a desktop on the sawhorses. Then I added a bookcase and a file cabinet. I bought a box of office supplies, you know, pens and notebooks and typing paper. I was going to do it.” She stepped off her rest bar and exchanged the tray she’d emptied for a full one off the A-frame of unsorted mail behind us, and then she sat back down, picked up a handful of mail, and began to sort it into the distribution case.

“The next day I got off work and hurried home to write. I put a sheet of paper in the machine and thought about where to start. I remember typing a few lines and x-ing one out.”

“Then what happened?”

“I must have dozed off. When I woke up, it was time to get ready to go back to work.” She shook her head and smiled wryly. “I kept at it for the week, typing up a paragraph or so every day, but you know, I just stopped one day. I couldn’t seem to get into the flow. I told myself it was temporary, that I’d get back to it on my days off, but then Christmas came, and we were working eleven and a half hours every day with no days off, and I was exhausted. You know how it is.”

I nodded.

“I was going to start again when my vacation rolled around, but then Mama died and there was the funeral and all. Well, you know, I never did go back to it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a sort of rebound relationship.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how, when you break up with someone, you get these plans to change yourself. Ideas for a new you. Maybe that was me, then. But as things settled back to normal, the idea just faded away.” She reached down for another handful of mail from the tray. “I’ve still got the sawhorses and the door. You can have them if you want.”

I never took her up on her offer.

As I walked toward the north end of the building, I spotted a small, neat pile of gray-and-white pigeon feathers in the aisle next to one of the conveyors. I hadn’t seen any pigeons. I looked up, but there were none roosting in the rafters. I spread the feathers around with my foot. Odd.

I pulled the fourth set of racks out of another corner and brushed away cobwebs with my hand. I heard a sound and turned to see a shaggy, grayish-colored little dog, some sort of terrier I supposed, standing frozen in the middle of the aisle. That explained the pigeon feathers.

Maybe I’d frightened it.

I didn’t see a collar. Its fur seemed all tangled up. Probably abandoned here by its owners. I thought I would call animal control to pick it up and find it a new home. “Here, boy,” I said, because he was a boy, and then I walked over to pet him.

His ears dropped and he uttered a low growl.

It was my turn to freeze.

The dog backed away, never taking his eyes off me. Then he turned and ran, disappearing behind the nearest parcel slide.

I shrugged. I could call animal control to come for him after I finished.

Then I remembered I was supposed to check the extendable conveyors to make sure they all functioned. I went out to the dock and the nearest conveyor. I pushed the green “start” button, but nothing happened. I looked up to see that the conveyor was disconnected from the power cord that dangled overhead. A metal ladder dropped from the ceiling alongside the cord. If I stood on the conveyor, I would be able to reach the ladder and power cord. I pulled myself up onto the conveyor and then I scrambled up the ladder.

As I connected the cord, I noticed the terrier had returned. This time he was not alone. A brown-and-tan German shepherd padded alongside the terrier down the aisle toward me. One of the shepherd’s ears was bent over. Under fur, bones outlined the middle of his body.

Behind the shepherd was an elderly black-and-tan Rottweiler. His muzzle was graying. He walked toward the others with a slight limp.

The three dogs padded over to my conveyor and looked up at me.

I’d have to make that call to animal control right away. I began to climb down to the conveyor and then to the workroom floor. “Hey, come on, dogs.” I smiled a friendly smile.

Another dog appeared, a dirty, matted collie. It spotted me and began barking. The other dogs followed suit, warily coming toward me.

“Maybe not,” I said out loud.

I climbed back up onto the conveyor and reached for the ladder.

The German shepherd leapt onto the conveyor and stretched up toward me. It caught my leg.

I felt teeth sink into my calf. I kicked at the dog with my other foot until it let go, or rather, its weight pulled it back down to the conveyor, its clenched-jaw teeth sliding down along my calf, gashing my leg. The shepherd rolled off the conveyor, tumbling to the floor.

I climbed further until I hit my head on a sprinkler, a part of the fire suppression system.

Blood seeped through my ripped pants leg. Damn, I thought. The bite was a bad one. My army training kicked in. First, stop the bleeding.

I entwined my arms and legs with the rungs of the ladder, so as not to fall, and pulled my dress shirt out of my pants. I tore a strip of cloth from my undershirt and wrapped my calf. I took off my tie and tied it around the piece of shirt to slow the bleeding.

Now what was I going to do?

Below, the dogs watched my little drama with hungry eyes. They milled about, looking up as they circled. Then, taking up positions around the conveyor, they sat with a patient air. Their eyes stayed focused on one thing – me.

Ironically, Hank had been right. I now ran with the hunted.

The phone at the supervisor’s desk was only thirty or so feet away. But I’d have to climb down and run for it, and I wouldn’t outrun the dogs. Especially limping, as I would be.

No one knew I was trapped. I might be up here until Monday before anyone came in. My leg hurt. I needed to get it stitched up. I felt like a character in one of those old Jack London stories. But instead of having to light a fire with a single match in an Alaskan blizzard, I was treed by four wild dogs in an unexpected wasteland in the middle of the city.

I kept looking at the phone. It was right there. So close. I thought of the mural over the Pony Express cafeteria back at the Terminal Annex. The mural’s horse, mad terror in its crazed eyes, galloped so fast, all four legs seemed poised in midair, the front legs reaching out, back legs curled under. The Pony Express rider was clad like a cowboy in a gray western hat and red shirt. His shirt was a crimson blaze in the low desert light, and he carried a mochila bag of letters strapped around one shoulder. The rider raced toward a barely visible transit relay station off in the distance. Two Native Americans were situated on a bluff above the rider; one, perhaps a chief, in a full-fledged warbonnet, held a feathered spear high over his head; the other, with an arrow notched in a drawn bow, aimed to bring the rider down.

I was supposed to have everything here up and running. We were supposed to open on Monday. People would report for work, and things were only half set up. I was going to be blamed. Hank had been right about that too.

The four dogs continued to sit and stare.

I lit a cigarette and once again looked at the phone and wondered what to do. If there were only some way to reach the phone.

The lighter in my hand gave me an idea. I flicked it alight and held the flame under the center of the sprinkler head above me. It took longer than I thought, but eventually the sprinklers cut loose in a drenching shower.

The dogs yelped and then paced around uncertainly, getting soaked. With one last bark from the shepherd, they all raced away, the limping Rottweiler bringing up the rear.

I stayed up in the superstructure.

I knew that somehow the sprinklers were connected to the phone lines. A few minutes passed until I heard distant sirens. Two fire trucks rumbled into the parking lot, klaxon horns sounding. More vehicles arrived, and, eventually, the dusky sky flashed with emergency lights.

A firefighter administered first aid to my leg as I tried to explain to an angry police officer why I set off the fire alarm. There was no sign of any dogs, he said, shaking his head. Then the firefighter helped me as I hobbled over to a waiting ambulance.

By this time the sun had dropped low enough to touch the horizon, ready to settle into a bed of golden smog.

My ambulance headed down Eastern Boulevard, toward night and the city. Inside the windowless vehicle, I could not hear the traffic I knew surrounded us, I could not see the hundreds of collection trucks arriving at the Terminal Annex docks with the day’s mail to be sorted, but I could imagine the Tour 3 crew scrambling to unload, cancel, and sort the mail, with their illusions of working temporary positions and their hopes of lives moving forward to new and more promising careers. I could even imagine Larry Julius shouting out instructions to his crew of “folks.”

As we pulled into County USC Medical Center, I thought maybe Hank had been right about something else. Maybe I’d give him a call after all.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here