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Through the window, Gertrude Humble watched the mail carrier flick the tin mailbox shut and drive away. Mail delivery always made Gertrude think of her dear departed husband. André had been Flatland’s best mailman, right up until his death at the age of fifty-six. God rest his soul.
Her neighborhood was nice enough, with older but well-kept houses. When it wasn’t too hot, she spent her evenings on the front porch. She never spoke to any of her neighbors. Over the years, she saw more moving trucks than people.
She was raised on a farm outside Flatland, Texas, along with three brothers and three sisters. Being the youngest, Gertrude was the peaceful eye in her family’s hurricane. She did her chores consistently and without complaint. It wasn’t unusual for her father to reassign her tasks to one of her sisters, not because it wasn’t getting done but because he forgot anyone was doing it. Asked directly, everyone in her family would have said they loved little Gertie—but, if hard pressed, they would be unable to tell you what they loved about her. When she left the still-crowded farmhouse at eighteen, it had little effect on the regular goings-on.
She walked out and retrieved the mail, shuffling through the stack like a person who loses their place in a speech. Light mail day. Phone bill, supermarket advertisement, a fundraising letter from the Texas Communist Committee, three militia newsletters from around the country, and an envelope with no return address. That turned out to be a recruitment letter from the Florida Jihad.
After she’d left home, Gertrude went to work in the mailroom of the Flatland Courier, the oldest daily newspaper in the Panhandle of Texas. During her tenure, the mailroom ran like a German engine. It was here that she met André Humble, the mailman. André was the first—and to this point only—person to look into a room and notice Gertrude was inside. The courtship was long but effective, and after six years Gertrude delivered her own resignation letter to the Courier. When she left two weeks later, the mail room immediately fell into disarray, followed shortly by the entire newspaper.
Gertrude wrote a one-dollar check to the Texas Communists and filled out the form for the Florida Jihad. She’d just raised the little red flag on her mailbox when the truck pulled up with her fertilizer. She directed him to put all 500 pounds in her garage, right next to the eighty-three glow-in-the-dark clocks. Gertrude had ordered the clocks from a warehouse in Iowa. New old stock, complete with dials containing trace amounts of radium-226.
For lunch, Gertrude ate a garden salad and a slice of red velvet cake. André had always loved chocolate cake. After washing the dishes, she sat down with her Bakelite telephone and started making her calls. She had a list of two hundred and fifty-seven names. Most were lawmakers, both local and far off, but she included a few law enforcement agencies and key businesses. In the past, she’d called specific tip lines, but she’d decided she didn’t want to hinder any important investigations.
It had taken her months to curate a list of numbers where real people were obligated to answer. It was Tuesday, so she ran her finger down that column and started dialing. Wisconsin State Senator. The FBI Field Office in Buffalo. Three Railroad Commissioners. Each time she used star-sixty-seven to block the caller ID. Each time they picked up, Gertrude waited three seconds and hung up the phone.
It took Gertrude about an hour to work her way through the list. Afterward, she weeded the garden, then an afternoon nap. Her grandmother had lived to be ninety-seven, giving all the credit to daily afternoon naps. For dinner she had a nice potato soup and fresh bread. She then continued working on her largest jigsaw puzzle to date, a ten-thousand-piece recreation of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The three-and-a-half decades of her marriage to André had been the highlight of Gertrude’s life. André already owned this house, and their needs were modest. André delivered the bacon while Gertrude managed their house and finances with her customary rigor. Despite both of them wanting children, all efforts proved fruitless. They were disappointed, but their love for one another only grew. After thirty-three years of jigsaw puzzles by the fire, André had passed away a very rich, very happy mailman.
With André gone, Gertrude realized she’d never made other friends nor cultivated the skills to do so.
She’d tried pets. After a disastrous episode with the Flatland Humane Society and the Saint Francis de Sales Hospital Emergency Room, it turned out she was deathly allergic to anything furry. There were always birds and fish and reptiles, but in her opinion it wasn’t a companion unless you could cuddle with it.
Bedtime had been the worst, but she’d found some relief by purchasing a maternity body pillow. It had arrived in a relatively small package, expanding like an emergency raft when opened. When she thought of the pillow’s purpose, it made her a bit sad, but it was the closest thing to sharing the bed with another person. The massive pillow wrapped around her like a fluffy question mark, and she slept like the baby she’d never had.
The next morning, after she’d had her coffee and straightened the house, she awaited the mail carrier. She always assumed André had purchased the house partly because it received delivery so early. After the mail truck drove away, she retrieved her correspondence. Today was back on track, with a thick stack of newsletters, manifestos, membership cards, and pamphlets detailing everything from fluoride in the water to the successful infiltration of our government by the lizard people.
Thinking of lizards got her thinking of lizard tails which got her thinking of rat tails. That reminded her to buy a few pounds of rat poison. When she found a farmer looking for a little discount fertilizer, they’d probably want the poison too, if it were free. No idea what to do with the radium clocks.
A knock at the door.
Was she expecting another delivery? No, too early for that. It had been a while since her last door-to-door salesman. She fixed her hair in the mirror beside the door—when did it turn so gray? she wondered—and peered through the keyhole. A younger man in a dark suit knocked again.
She opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“Gertrude Humble,” the younger man said. “This has to stop.”
It was so long since she’d heard someone say her name out loud. “I’m sorry? Stop what?”
He took a wallet from a breast pocket and flashed his badge. “Agent Kyle Freeman, FBI. May I come inside?”
She stepped aside and let him in. His shoulders were broad under the light suit. “Would you like some iced tea?” she asked.
“That would be lovely.”
They sat together at the table, ice cubes clinking as they sipped their tea. Agent Kyle finally broke the silence. “This is very nice tea. Where did you get it?”
“What has to stop?” she asked.
“You know exactly what, Mrs. Humble. The mail, the orders, the phone calls.”
“I will do no such thing. I’ve broken no laws.”
“No. No, you haven’t, or at least nothing beyond nuisance phone calls. You’ve never mailed suspicious powder or made any threats. But it’s still creating a headache. You’re familiar with the Flatland FBI Resident Agency?”
“It’s one of the largest in the country.”
“It’s as big as it can get without becoming a field office. The agents here have important responsibilities. We have the FARM nuclear weapon assembly and disassembly facility, we have aerospace companies to look after. And then there’s ongoing problems, like drugs and human trafficking along I-40 and I-27. With all of those concerns, do you know what we spend most of our time doing? Keeping tabs on Gertrude Humble.”
“That doesn’t sound very productive,” Gertrude said, beaming.
“You’re damn right—”
“Sorry. You’re darn right it isn’t productive. On paper, you’re a member of over sixty recognized terror groups and countless suspicious organizations. In fact, your monitored correspondence has brought several to our attention.”
Agent Kyle sighed. “That’s not the point. You’ve bought enough material to build a dozen bombs.”
“Or fertilize a hundred acres.”
“But you don’t understand the amount of resources we’re wasting on you. We’re drowning in paperwork. FISA warrants. Surveillance requests. Your whole house is wired for sound. Do you have any idea how much of our budget that eats up?”
“Not my problem.”
“Then do you realize how much danger you put yourself in, networking with all these conflicting ideologies? What happens if they ever compare lists? What if one of these whack-a-doo looney tunes comes after you?”
She knew that the look on her face betrayed her—making it clear that, no, she hadn’t considered that.
“We’ve tried to pass the buck,” he said. “Homeland doesn’t want to hear about it until there’s a body. ATF said not to call them until you’ve actually made a bomb. CIA said sure, they’d handle you, but only if you left the country. And what are the chances of you doing that?”
“Lower now than an hour ago.”
“The clocks were the last straw. You have no idea how many forms we have to fill out because of those clocks. We’re talking phone book size. So, all the Flatland agents got together, and we drew straws. Loser had to come out here and try talking to you. And those sons of bitches—”
“Sorry. Those good-for-nothings cheated somehow and I got the short straw. Never enter a game of chance with a room full of highly-trained liars.”
Gertrude pursed her lips. “Glad to know I’m such a hot commodity.”
Agent Kyle leaned forward. “It’s not like that, Mrs. Humble. This is just outside our wheelhouse. There’s no guidebook about citizens who do everything they can to look like serious threats without actually seriously threatening anybody. If this were the fifties, maybe even 2002, you’d probably have just disappeared. But with all the leaks and revelations, no one wants to get caught harassing an innocent woman over a few mailing lists and selling fertilizer at a discount. So I’m here to ask what it’s going to take.”
“What’s what going to take?”
“What will it take for you to stop all this. The prevailing theory is that you’re a busybody, that you’re just trying to make trouble for hardworking law enforcement. But I don’t think that’s it. You did all this for attention, sure, but not because you’re trying to gum up the works. Maybe you heard about the NSA, maybe you read about the Patriot Act or Prism. You realized that, even if it feels like no one’s listening, someone always is. I think, Mrs. Humble, that you’re lonely.”
They sat there, with Gertrude staring down at her hands. Her fingers were cold, from gripping the glass of tea. If she gripped it any harder, it would shatter. She finally spoke, slowly and deliberately. It would be the most she had said at once for a very long time.
“Everyone thinks they understand loneliness. An unexpected evening on your own. Moving to a new city and sitting in a room full of boxes, not knowing a soul for fifty miles. But that’s just fake loneliness. A pale imitation. Most people, they spend an evening by themselves, it’s by choice. They could call someone if they really wanted. Same thing for someone new in town. They can call home, however far away it is. But me, who am I going to call? My husband is gone. I’m the last of my siblings. I’m the only one left. No family, no real friends. I’m sixty-five years old. That’s too old to learn how to make friends. Yes, you’re right. I do it all because I’m lonely, lonely as a Cosmonaut left to die in orbit.”
Agent Kyle reached over and took her hand. “Mrs. Humble—”
“Call me Gertrude,” she said, wiping her eye with her other wrist.
He smiled. “Okay. Gertrude. You wanted on a list? Congratulations. You’re on a lot of lists. But let me make a deal with you. Stop all of it. The letters, the daily phone calls, all the stuff we might not even know about. We heard you, mission accomplished. You cut all of that out, and I’ll come by every—what’s today?—every Wednesday morning for a chat.”
“Wednesday’s no good.”
“Fine, then how about Tuesday?” He tilted his head, like a child waiting for a treat. “This tea is awful nice.”
“Tuesday could work,” she said. “Just not too early.” Agent Kyle reached his hand across the table, and they shook on it. “What about the bugs?” Gertrude asked. “Will you need to remove them?”
“They’ll all be gone by the time you get back from the store on Friday.” Seeing Gertrude’s disappointment, he added, “But don’t worry. We’ll still keep an eye on you. In case any of your pen pals come to call. And we’ll reimburse you for the damn—for the clocks.”
A knock at the door. “Expecting someone?” Agent Kyle asked.
“That must be my delivery of guns,” Gertrude said. “Don’t worry, I’ll have them sent back.” As she walked toward the door, Agent Kyle drained the last of his tea. “Yes, please. You do that.”