“At the next stop we should see Eilley,” Marlo told me as he guided his almost classic Chevy Nova around a corner on the gravel road. “He’s almost always waiting for me.”
It was a cold November morning in 1980 in northwest Minnesota and Marlo was teaching me the rural mail route that was now mine. Marlo was my substitute. We had been driving all morning after sorting the mail and now Marlo was trying to help me remember the route by giving me information about my mail customers. The idea was to know something about each name to help it stick in my mind as I sorted and delivered the mail.
“Eilley likes to pick up the mail but I worry about him dropping letters so I bundle it up really tight in the newspaper and put at least three rubber bands around it.” Marlo watched me and the gravel road as I lifted up the next newspaper and assorted other mail pieces from our bundle of mail in a large wooden box between my feet. “Yeah. Like that.” Marlo nodded his head as I wrapped the third rubber band around the folded mail.
The way he talked about Eilley I was expecting a young child but then they’d be in school. Soon I saw a small, slender, bent man standing at end of the next driveway beside a mailbox. We were still about a half mile away. “Is that Eilley?” I asked.
“Yep. He’s waiting for us. I’m usually here earlier than this.” Marlo chuckled. “He might say something. I’ll pull alongside and you can see if he’ll take the mail from you. I’ll introduce you.”
I rolled down my window as we pulled up but Eilley looked at me and backed away suspiciously. “Hi, Eilley!” Marlo called from behind the steering wheel. “This is Paul. He’s the new mailman I’ve been telling you about.” Eilley cast a furtive glance in my direction and started towards the driver’s side of the car. He hobbled with an unsteady gait.
“No, Eilley, Paul’s got your mail.” Eilley looked at Marlo and muttered something unintelligible to me. Marlo chuckled. “Yep. We’re running late. Sorry. I’m teaching Paul the mail route so it’s taking us a little longer. He’ll give you your mail Eilley.”
I held the bundle of mail out to Eilley and he hobbled near enough to reach out his arm and take it from me. “Hi, Eilley. I’m Paul. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
Eilley took the mail and stuffed it into an old and stained newspaper bag he had wrapped around his neck. His cap sat twisted on his head and he had several days of beard stubble on his chin. His coat was faded but looked clean. He muttered something again and I could see he was missing some teeth. He appeared to be in his late 40’s as far as I could tell. His eyes watered from the cold and his nose was running but his eyes sparkled with life.
“We’ll see you tomorrow Eilley.” Marlo hollered through my open window. “You stay out of trouble now.” Eilley’s weathered face broke into a grin.
“He’ll get used to you and then if he starts to like you he’ll give you one of his cookies.” Marlo said as we drove away. “Lemon sugar cookies. He’s given me quite a few but I’ve never had the courage to eat one. He keeps them loose in that newspaper bag you saw. If that gets too close to your nose it can make your eyes water. They can’t get that away from him to wash.”
“Poor kid.” I said, not knowing what else to say as I thought of other Eilley’s I had known over the years. “He looks kind of rough.”
“Yeah.” Marlo agreed. “His family takes good care of him but sometimes he looks a little rough. He’s usually pretty clean except for that old newspaper bag. But he likes to get the mail so you’ll see him almost every day. And you’ll start to figure out what he’s saying after a while. Kind of.”
Eilley was by the mailbox the next day too. He took the mail from me okay but didn’t say anything to me. And then from then on I was by myself. I tried to talk a little to him each day. And I tried to get Eilley used to me. I wondered how I could connect with him.
About a week later I was pouring a bowl of cereal and out came a little toy boat as a prize. It was wrapped in cellophane and I put it in my coat pocket. The next day, on the mail route I got it out as I drove up to Eilley by his mailbox.
“Hey, Eilley!” I called. “I’ve got something for you.” Eilley looked at me with a quizzical look. And then he saw the toy boat in my hand. “NNNyoo.” Eilley said with a grin. He looked at the boat and carefully tucked it in his newspaper bag. The wind was behind him and I could smell the stale odors coming from the bag.
“You’re welcome. Glad you like it. I better keep going.” I said as I rolled up the window and drove away. I could see Eilley’s limping gate as he headed back to the house. He seemed to be moving a little faster than usual.
The next morning as I drove up Eilley was waiting with a grin on his face. “NNNPoh!” he said.
“Hi, Eilley. How ya doin’ today?” I asked as I handed him his mail. “Keepin’ busy?”
“Poh! Nnnyoo!” Eilley said as he pulled out perfect looking lemon sugar cookie from his bag. He offered it to me with a grin.
“Well, thanks, Eilley!” I said. “Thank you very much.” Eilley grinned and nodded at me.
“Nnnbet!” Eilley stammered. “Nnnbye.”
I eyed the lemon sugar cookie several times as I finished the mail route. It looked okay and if I held it up to my nose it smelled okay, just a faint odor of the old, stained newspaper bag. I finally dared to take a small nibble but the thought of the newspaper bag’s odor was too much. I took the cookie home and set it on the back porch on a shelf.
In the spring sometimes I would have a box of chicks or ducklings to deliver. One morning I had a box of twelve ducklings as I drove up and found Eilley waiting. They were cheeping nosily and Eilley seemed interested.
“You want to see one?” I asked him.
“NNmhuh!” Eilley nodded. I pulled the box onto my lap and lifted the edge of the box up. I cupped my hand around one of the lively ducklings and picked it up and held it up for Eilley.
“You can pet him a little.” I offered.
“Nnsoft!” Eilley giggled as he ran his fingers over the downy duckling.
“Feel him on your cheek. Like this.” I put the duckling on my cheek then up to Eilley’s cheek as he leaned into the windw. “Nnsoft duckie.” Eilley chuckled. Nnyou, Pah.” Eilley said with a smile. I grinned at Eilley and tucked the duckling safely back in the box.
“See ya tomorrow!” I hollered as I drove away.
I soon had a stack of lemon sugar cookies on the shelf on the back porch and I felt too guilty to throw them out and not guilty enough to eat them. As the weather warmed up I knew I had to get rid of them and I finally did.
But the cookies represented Eilley’s friendship and that I couldn’t throw away. He always brightened my day, waiting at the mailbox for me. All I had to give him was a hello and a kind word and his face would light up. Sometimes we would talk about the weather or his brother taking him to the doctor or going to visit his aunt or an animal he saw. It took me a while but I finally could understand him when he talked. He was very shy but a very loyal friend.
One day, after a few days off Marlo caught me by his mailbox. “Eilley’s been wondering where you were,” he said. “I told him you’d be back today.” He said with a grin. I looked forward to seeing him too.
But after a year and a half I moved on to a different post office job in a different town. I worried about who would be seeing Eilley every day and if they’d treat him as special as he was. And although I still can’t eat a lemon sugar cookie I can still remember that gentle soul, Eilley.