In the late seventies, I delivered mail to the General, but he seldom got a letter. His sister handled his affairs and owned the cottage where he lived alone.
He'd been hired as a shepherd in Eastern Washington back in the day when sheep ranchers farmed their flocks out on borrowed or rented land. The General's territory encompassed the generous slopes that spilled down from a local peak.
They say his brother worked with him for many years, but then died or moved on. It was a lonely life, a life he evidently became so accustomed to that he remained solitary even after there were no longer any sheep to herd. Someone once pointed out the weathered shack he'd lived in after he lost his livelihood, but before he'd been rescued by his sister. The vertical clapboards had gaps wide enough for a sparrow to fly through.
His hair was as white as linen when I met him. He was tall but stooped, and rake thin. His arms and hands were still sinewy, but he shuffled when he walked. Locals liked to gossip that he used to hitchhike into town and drink at a local tavern at the first of each month after his pension check came. I don't know how many years that went on, but it earned him the nickname General Grant. I supposed he must have been prone to posturing when he got a snoot-full, but that image was hard to reconcile with the reserved man I met.
He couldn't read, so when his sister sent a letter, I'd do the honors. He'd stand just outside his door, head inclined, listening. The letters were brief and impersonal, not surprising since she knew the message would be relayed. He'd carefully thank me each time, his pale blue eyes almost looking into mine, and address me as 'ma’am' instead of using my name.
He asked me to pick up groceries one day, and so I began to check on him from time to time whether he had a letter or not. I thought nothing of it when he asked for wine, but when I mentioned it to the postmaster, she reckoned it wasn't a good idea to have alcohol in the mail car. I hadn't considered it from her perspective—the burgundy bottle seemed in keeping with the bread, eggs and cheese that were the old man's staples. I was soft on him, you see. As a young woman with a son of my own, I spent time wondering about his mother, if she'd be heartsick that he'd ended up alone in a place far from his family.
One day he asked me to put rubbing alcohol on the grocery list. His feet hurt, he said, and he'd found that the rubbing alcohol helped to soothe them. The day after I'd delivered the rubbing alcohol, I drove in with a letter. I couldn't raise him, but I could see him through the window, sprawled in a chair. I let myself in. His house was as clean, poor, and spare as I'd imagined it would be.
He couldn't get up, his legs temporarily paralyzed from the rubbing alcohol cocktails he'd been mixing. He'd dosed every glass of fruit juice he drank--and wet his pants. His remorseless eyes tracked me as I poured out what was left in the plastic bottle, which had been sitting on the bare linoleum floor next to his chair alongside the pitcher of fruit juice. He had known beforehand that he wouldn't be able to get up once he started drinking.
I left him there, knowing I couldn't carry him, and stopped at a neighboring farm to get help. We never spoke of that day afterward. In truth, we'd never exchanged much more than hello—most of our interactions had been one-sided, with me doing the talking. He stopped asking me to pick up groceries, although I continued to deliver his mail and to read his sister's letters until my job ended there some months later.
I took a nostalgic drive past his old place the other day, or tried. Sometime in the last thirty years, the cottage had been torn down. A graveled road cuts through what used to be the adjacent field. I parked my car alongside a berm of melting snow, engine idling as if I'd just stopped at a mail box. Squinting, I could almost make out the younger, idealistic version of me raising dust as I pulled into The General's driveway, and his expectant face as he stepped outside to meet me.
Sue Ellis lives and writes near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some credits include Christian Science Monitor, Mused, The Camel Saloon, and a promotional brochure for the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions' Club Train Ride, a trip that, once taken, is relegated to vivid memory.