He could have been piloting a boat on the Oronoco, but he wasn't. He could have been guiding travelers through the Andes, but he wasn't. Instead, Floyd Atkins was a mailman, driving his tiny, white, red, and blue truck from mail post to mail post. People called him Sunny instead of Floyd because of his disposition.
Often he didn't feel sunny at all. Oh, he smiled and greeted his customers as always, laugh lines crinkling around his eyes and mouth, his pointy chin making him seem almost elfin, but the eyes themselves were haunted. For Floyd was pursued by a small host of human vampires who had gorged on his inner strength and financial resources until he felt that he was nothing but shell, that even his bones were becoming so light that he might rise into the air and be unable to get back down, or perhaps implode into a powdery mound. It might have made him feel better to know that, in Hindu terms, he was a very old soul, one who had been around the track, -- wheel, if you prefer-- many times, but, of course, he didn't know.
He knew that his dreams carried him to far off places. He seldom thought of his mail truck in terms of being a mail truck. Instead he drove a motorized three-wheel ricksha, careening about the streets of Karachi to the squeals of his passengers, or piloted a paddlewheeler along the Mosquito Coast. Sometimes he even lurched up the Silk Road, riding the lead camel, head bent against the dust and glare. Indeed, his dreams were always modest, never carrying him to the reaches of power or wealth, but to existences that would offer him peace and serenity, his adversaries only the elements which one endured but did not fight.
The dreams were hard fought, fading always as he entered his front yard, greeted only by the soughing of the huge cottonwood, looming solitary against the bright blue sky, itself an old soul, fiercely protected by its owner against all those who warned, "It's old and rotten, Sunny. You should really cut it down. It's gonna crush your house." Sometimes before he entered the house, he'd detour to the tree, and rest his forehead on the bark, pushing back his loneliness. Often when it stormed or the wind blew very hard, he would slip outside and whisper, "Hang in old friend. Just hang in." As though it heard him, it hung in except for the losses of a number of peripheral limbs, always when he wasn't home.
The big tree and the fireplace had been the main reasons that he had bought the rambling old house in the desert, twenty minutes outside of the city. He'd come home one day to find his oldest son sitting under a rose bush in the tract house that he had just purchased, saying, "Look Daddy, a tree." Earlier that day he had noticed that the house with the cottonwood was up for sale, purchased it and insisted on moving in before Christmas to Doralee's insistence that no one moved before Christmas. The house was too good for them, she shrilled and did all she could to destroy it for all of them.
In time the house enclosed a chaos as Doralee and the children, shrikes all, vented their daily discontent on one another while they waited for Sunny's return. He'd made a mistake when he married Doralee, but she had seemed like she needed taking care of and he had sort of drifted into it. Then the children came, three sons, and he made up his mind to endure for their sakes. After ten years of Doralee's drinking and abuse, he divorced her and proceded to raise the boys himself. A gentle man, he attempted to teach them to be honorable, generous men by watching his example. What they learned, of course, was how to rip the old sucker off. The more he bailed them out of trouble and squandered his meagre resources on their motorcycles and cars, the more they demanded. Their needs were his fault, they told him, for making them live in an expensive neighborhood.
Over the years, as the city had expanded, their country dwelling had been engulfed by a weathy neighborhood. Floyd bowed his head and worked overtime, wondering where he had gone wrong. An honest person, he was a prime target for his children's lies, because no matter how much people lied to him, he just couldn't understand it. His work was his bond and he felt that a person who was dishonest was sick and needed help to get over it. His task in this incarnation was to learn to accept the existence of evil. He had to learn to stop saying to himself, "if I did something like that, I would feel really terrible."
The boys loathed one another with the intensity of Greek tragedians. While they often worked, they never had any money and were constantly at Sunny for handouts. When Nick, the youngest, finally moved out, Sunny sold the battered house, taking a tremendous financial beating. Making the buyers promise to care for the tree, he left, and almost wept when he drove past several weeks later to discover that they had cut it down.
He retired and bought a small house on the outskirts of town, vowing that none of his sons would ever spend the night. He had managed to save a sum large enough to let him travel around the world and he spent hours reading travel folders and planning for the trip of a lifetime. Sometimes he thought that he would never take the trip so that it would always be before him. Of course, he still traveled in his mind, his sweet expression deepening as he relaxed, free of the boys and free from the demands of the bureaucracy that he had served for so long. His cat, purring in his ear, provided all the company that he needed.
Of course Doug returned. Like a malicilous dust devil, he captured the serenity, the bright folders and the sunlit dreams of Sunny's new life, and whipped them in his vortex before spewing out their tattered remains. Definitely Doralee's child and completely ruthlessness, he pretended to have a good job that was starting in a few days. "Let me stay," he begged, "let me make up for being such a bad son in the past." He asked only for a few days, so that they could get to really know each. Sunny didn't want to let him in, but he felt guilty and told Doug that he could stay for a week.
Doug devoured everything in sight. Poor Sunny, believing that a parent always owed his children food, made reluctant trip after trip to the market, to feed the beast inhabiting his home. On the way home from one of these trips, he realized that something was wrong and shivered in the hot desert wind. His hands trembled on the steering wheel and he noticed that one of them sported a large liver spot that he hadn't noticed before.
Both the garage doors and the house door stood open. His inside cat stood uncertainly outside. Doug had looted the house. The few treasures that had survived the halocaust of his marriage were gone. His grandfather's gold watch, all of his wood working tools, his few paintings, even the recently acquired piano that he'd planned to learn to play during his retirement. The television and video-recorder were, of course, missing, as were the few remaining pieces of his mother's silverware. He opened his dresser to find that his carefully hoarded silver dollar collection was gone. Dazed, he walked slowly to car and lifted a single bottle from the six pack he had been bringing home. He sat on the step and drank, stroking the cat, fearing to look for his most prized possession, an exquisitely carved and painted, antique chess set that he had had kept in storage, safe from his family, until he'd moved here. When he'd seen Doug at the door he'd shoved it hurriedly under the couch.
To look at the chess set was to visit the India of the Moguls. The kings sat in hawdahs on prancing elephants, while the queens dressed in burning colors were worth fighting any battle for. The knights' faces were individualized. Even the pawns carried individual identities. It had taken him three years to pay for the set, which he had laid away at the gallery. Never had he regretted the purchase until now, when he suffered the agonizing pain of its possible loss.
Leaving the empty beer bottle on the step, he rose and walked through the house, stiffly kneeling to peer under the couch. Only one queen remained, peeping from behind its back leg. He held her, momentarily marvelling over her tiny sandle-clad feet peeping from beneath her cobalt blue sari. Her kohl-rimmed eyes looking over the silver veil held by one hand to cover her nose and her mouth accused. "See foolish man," she seemed to say, "you refused to see evil where it existed and made yourself a pawn of it. You have much to learn."
For a moment, he tried to convince himself that perhaps it had not been Doug, but he knew better. Setting the angry queen on the breakfast bar before him, he opened the telephone book to antique shops and began to telephone. The third one had purchased the set. "Of course, the value is tremendously decreased by not being complete. I'll probably break it up and sell the pieces individually," said the huckster's voice on the other end. "A nice young man sold it. Said he'd inherited it from his father who'd died, and he needed the money to bury him."
"He stole the set from me. I have the missing queen."
"Well sir, I'd be happy to buy that queen from you, or you can buy the set back for what I paid for it."
"It was stolen."
"You can't expect me to take the loss. The only way I have to return it is if you press charges against the thief; then I collect from my insurance."
Sonny hung up and turned the queen's back to him, so he wouldn't have to face her gaze. How could he condemn his own son to jail? Even if he did, they'd let him out and he'd come after him.
Somehow, Doug had missed the tummy television by Sonny's bed. Either that or he'd had a moment of humanity and decided to leave the old man some form of recreation. Sonny brought it out and put it on the breakfast bar, turning the queen's face toward the screen. "Here, you can watch Jewel in the Crown." He poured another beer, tossed a tv dinner into the oven and watched the rerun of the Indian soap unfold on PBS. He began his dinner as the show ended and another show began, a documentary about customs in India. He felt an immediate kinship with the man doing the talking, who was describing his mental struggle as he decided whether or not to become a sunnyasin.
A sunnyasin has himself declared legally dead, his possessions are disposed of, he makes what provisions he needs to make or wishes to make for his family and devotes the remainder of his life to meditation, to preparing for the next turn of the weel, or, perhaps to getting off the wheel. Free of worldly responsibilities and desire, he can devote himself to the important things: life and death.
"You just may have to go Queenie," he said to his carved companion.
He would become a sunnyasin.
He could have gone to India to sit by the Ganges and eat at the communal kitchen where twentieth century Indian sunnyasin eat, but he didn't. Instead, Floyd Atkins sold his house, got a post office box in another city for his pension checks, and bought a small self-contained motor home from which he could devote himself to the important things: life, death and meditation.
The little queen rode happily on his dashboard, while the cat curled in the passenger seat. Summers they spent in Sitka and winters in the desert. He was sunnyasin.
...Felicia Florine Campbell writes from Blue Diamond, Nevada. She teaches Literature and Asian Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.