STALE ENGLISH MUFFINS • by Michael Degnan

Jessica Bernard heard the story of John Reynolds on an old podcast while taking the metro home from work. Her job, she admitted to herself, had become tedious. She sent mass emails to raise alarm about the state of the world and to ask for money for her non-profit. Sometimes she wondered what the point was and whether people could be more alarmed than they already were. She also wondered whether there was anyone left with extra money to give.

This isn’t to say that Jessica disliked her job or Washington DC, although she did feel a lack of excitement. Her life had become like a stale English muffin. It hadn’t gone bad, but it only seemed worthwhile if there were no other options. She dreamed of France, the land of baguettes and croissants.

Jessica should have disliked the metro. At any given time, at least two strangers were touching you, even if you were lucky enough to score a seat. One of them would ask for your number or try to chat you up. Jessica always wore headphones and had taken to saying, “Sorry, I don’t speak English,” anytime she was approached by a guy, which was usually enough to confuse and turn away even the worst DC creep.

Despite all of the issues with riding the metro, Jessica loved it for one reason: it gave her an hour a day to listen to audiobooks or podcasts and immerse herself in someone else’s story. Maybe some of her colleagues who were also in their 20s got through a slow work day by thinking about happy hours or a game to watch that night. For Jessica, it was the chance to get back on the overcrowded metro, put in her headphones, and escape into different worlds.

The story of John Reynolds gripped her. John was a mailman in Philadelphia. He had worked the job for over two decades, never missing a day for sickness, weather, or any undue cause. He took one week of vacation every year and observed federal holidays. Otherwise, he was on the clock.

By every indication, John was a quiet man. He loved his Eagles and his Phillies, but that didn’t distinguish him in such a big sports city. He was a short, pudgy guy in his late 40’s who was nice to coworkers and waved to the people along his route. Even dogs seemed to like him.

One morning, John got into the boxy truck that he thought of as the mailman’s answer to the pope-mobile. Instead of going along his typical route, he merged on to I-76 and started driving south. Fourteen hours later he pulled into a hotel in Florida. He stayed there three nights, and then drove his mail-mobile back north. Upon returning to Philly, he delivered the three-day old mail that had been sitting in his truck, went home, applied aloe to his sunburned skin and slept for twelve hours. When he went back to work the next day, his boss told him that he was fired.

Jessica listened, transfixed to the true story, remaining standing even when a seat opened up. Things were not often black and white for Jessica, but this was. She had to find John Reynolds.

***

John’s story had gone viral right away. Trolls tried to appropriate it to advance their own political narratives on twitter. Some saw him as a disaffected middle class worker, driven out of his home town by the stagnant economy. Others said that he was an urban liberal trying to run away from reality during a fit of madness. He was turned into memes, with big block letters printed over his headshot saying things like “Time to pull a mailman and GTFO.”

John wanted nothing to do with any of it. He quit social media, refused to talk to reporters and ignored as much of the noise as he could. He found a new delivery job and fell into a normal, almost dull, routine.

It had been two years and John thought the world had forgotten about his impulsive trip when he got a letter from a woman in DC named Jessica Bernard. The handwritten envelope caught his attention when he brought in the mail. He didn’t get letters like this anymore. Almost no one did. As people moved on to emails and texting, mail was now for bills and catalogs that no one wanted. By the end of his time at the US Postal Service, John had felt like a traveling telemarketer.

He opened Jessica’s letter and read it slowly. His dog sauntered over, and as John ran his fingers through her curly black fur, he shook his head, smiled, and remembered the warmth of Florida sunrises.

***

Jessica’s thoughts drifted to John as the stewardess announced that they were only two hours from their destination. She had told him in her letter that his story had inspired her. She wondered what had made him take off that day, but that wasn’t why she had tracked him down. Others had asked him that, only to be rebuked by silence. Maybe he didn’t want to share his motivations. Maybe he didn’t know the answer himself.

Jessica had just wanted to say thank you. “Sometimes you forget that you can do more than listen to stories,” she had written. “Sometimes you forget that you have the power to write your own.” It was because of John, she thought, that she would now see Paris. It was because of him that she would visit patisseries along the Champs-Elysee.

At the same time that Jessica’s plane started its descent, John sat with a road map spread out across his dining room table. His boss had granted his request for a few days off, and John had started to think about where to go. He had never been one for planning, but maybe it was time for a change. He pulled out his glasses and took a closer look at the map.


Michael Degnan writes in Peaks Island, Maine.


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