SKIN SUIT: a horror story in six parts.
Felix Brunswell of 117 Charming Road was one of the hundreds of residents on my route. He was an older fellow who had recently moved into the neighborhood. One afternoon is June, he stepped out of his house, ran down the sidewalk, and began accusing me of stealing his mail. I tried to shrug it off, but then he struck me on the shoulder with a walking stick. Even then, I tried to walk away, but Brunswell just kept on hitting me.
Finally I hit back. Smashed the upper lateral cartilage of Brunswell’s nose. Lost my route and was transferred to an indoor job, serving as the lone postal clerk for a rural office in Hamptonshire (population 903), ten miles east of North Fairmont. I also had to meet with a psychiatrist to talk about my feelings of anger. I endured several sessions with Sebastian Connor, a strict Freudian.
“Your anger issues are the result of feelings within your unconscious mind permeating his consciousness,” he babbled.
“Why am I angry?” I played along.
“You are, in my estimation,” he said, “using anger as a means of self-soothing.”
“You have had loss in your life, Bridger. In a scant 23 years, you’ve lost your father, your home, and friends. You have been bullied. And you now have been relegated from a position within the postal service that offered you freedom of movement to a stationary desk job–a mere clerk. In a sense you’ve lost all autonomy.”
“Jesus. When you put it that way I feel like I should find the nearest noose.”
“You’re incorporating anger as a means of survival. If left unchecked, you will certainly self-destruct.”
“What can I do?”
“Have you heard of iproniazid?”
And just like that, I began taking antidepressants.
The postal job was fine. I sorted the mail and placed letters into post office boxes. The mail to be delivered to residents curb side was picked up each morning by Coleman Francis, a veteran of the USPS who had recently gone into semi-retirement. Aside from the morning pick-ups and drop-offs, I never saw much of Coleman.
I met C.F. Hoffmeyer a short time later, in August 1953. I admit that I was immediately impressed by him. An eclectic fellow of 29 years, C.F. was the only Hamptonshire resident who, as far as I knew, collected postage stamps.
“You’re new. What happened to Penske?” he asked.
“Penske relocated to Miami.”
“Miami? How dreadful. Though I’m sure the weather is nicer. I simply cannot abide Pennsylvania in August. I presume you have full sheets of Scott 1022 for sale?”
“Yes, the American Bar Association three-cent issue, released last week.”
“Ah, yes. Of course.”
“I’ll take five sheets.”
I retrieved the sheets from a drawer and watched as C.F. eyed them with the strictest scrutiny. A short, stout fellow with bifocal eyeglasses, thick black locks, and an olive complexion, I soon discovered that C.F. was keen on sharing his knowledge of the philatelic world. In little time he expanded my own stamp knowledge ten-fold, though I didn’t embrace the hobby much more than casually. Nonetheless, C.F. and I became fast, inseparable friends. Ever adorned in a vest and pleated trousers, he was well educated and self-employed as a corporate law consultant, with clients located as far south as Pittsburgh.
While in Hoffmeyer’s third-story apartment we transitioned from friends to lovers. It happened on June 18, 1956, rather unintentionally as these things sometimes do. Until that moment, I had never actually considered my sexuality nor thought about a relationship with either gender, but was awestruck by Hoffmeyer’s advances. As I later explained to my public defender, I never labeled myself as hetero- or homosexual; my willingness to enter into a relationship with C.F. was something that just felt right.
Shelley Arnquest entered my life later that same year. A well-dressed petite woman of twenty-four, Shelley visited the Hamptonshire Post Office on random Mondays, always at 10:13 am. Her attire never varied: black dress with matching pointed-toe pumps and sequin purse. Her skin was fair and her shoulder-length hair, auburn. I noticed the presence of dimples even when she wasn’t smiling. Shelley typically purchased one- or five-cent stamps. We chatted frequently, and Shelley was often quick to offer a bit of nondescript unsolicited advice about the weather or relationships. Often she spoke in riddles; truthfully, I regarded her as a peculiarity.
C.F. and I remained understandably clandestine in our affair. Hamptonshire and North Fairmont were largely comprised of white conservatives with an ideology that eschewed nonconformity to long-standing traditional moral values. We understood this all too well, having personally witnessed the thrashing of an out-of-town same-sex male couple several months earlier outside the Hamptonshire VFW.
In the fall of 1956, as the IBM Corporation was releasing the first computer to contain a built-in hard drive, we settled into a comfortable familiarity. C.F. gave me a key to his flat. I still lived at my mom’s North Fairmont home, where C.F. and I spent many hours, particularly in the early evenings as mom had transitioned from seamstress to switchboard operator working the 4:00 pm to midnight shift at the Bell offices in nearby Hartsdell.
On January 5, 1957, while updating the FBI’s Most Wanted flyers pinned to the lobby corkboard, I was visited by Shelley, who had not been by for several weeks.
“Good morning, Bridger, and Happy New Year.”
“Good morning to you. Shelley, do you think it strange that post offices are required to hang posters–missing persons, most wanted?”
“Lots of people visit post offices. And lots of people go missing. Lots.”
“I suppose. Are you here for stamps?”
“We need to talk.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Something is very wrong–well, is going to be wrong,” Shelley said, her usual cat-and-mouse tone turning serious. “What do you know about this town, about Hamptonshire?”
“What’s there to know?”
“Every town has its history, Bridger. Small towns like this, their histories are often rooted in the unnatural or the supernatural.”
“Hamptonshire has a past. A bad past; you’re too young to know about it.”
“We’re practically the same age.”
“Your presence here is going to ignite a spark long since dormant.”
“Could you be a little more cryptic?”
“I’ve said too much already.”
She looked over her shoulder, detecting a shadow, but it was only the sun disappearing into the clouds.
“Are you okay, Shelley?”
“Ask about Dereleth Abercrombie. Or Elizabeth Wilkinson.”
She left abruptly.
NEXT: SKIN SUIT continues.