Greg had a rag hat. It looked as if Greg had made this hat himself, but I know it was a gift. One side was red and one side was green and how Greg wore his hat depended on whether Greg had been smoking or drinking, but Greg was always wearing that hat. Came a day in the middle of January that Greg was going out to check the mail, at the mailroom in Schuyler Hall, just across the quad. Greg was going to dash out in a T-shirt and shorts, but at the last moment he decided to take a jacket, the nearest jacket at hand. It didn’t match his hat, but he took it anyway.
Students sorted the mail. They didn’t always get it right. Along the walls beneath the mailboxes ran a shallow wooden ledge. On the ledge sometimes sat letters that had been misdelivered. You had to make sure that you didn’t have someone else’s mail in your box, and that no mail of yours had been misboxed and already disowned.
Greg opened our box, took out our mail: couple of letters, couple of flyers for campus events, a postcard for me from my ex-girlfriend—her cat was sick, her mom was getting remarried.
Greg closed our box, withdrew his key, put his keys in his pants pocket, held on to the mail, then looked along the ledge. Nothing of ours to claim, but one item made him stop and look more closely. The return address was official: Ossining, New York.
Someone at a federal correctional facility was sending mail to our small, prestigious school, it seemed. Greg recognized the name of the addressee, a girl who’d graduated the year before; Greg took her mail. Greg tore it open immediately. The cold didn’t faze him as he walked back to the dorm, reading the letter.
I know this not because Greg told me but because it was my jacket that Greg had grabbed on his way out of our room. It was into my jacket pocket that Greg stuffed the letter when he’d read it; then he forgot about it. I found it later that day.
“What is this?” I asked him.
“Asshole, it’s a letter.”
“Asshole,” Greg mimicked, “it’s not my letter.”
“That’s right, it’s not. And it’s not my letter, either. But you put it in my pocket. You took this letter from the mailroom today, didn’t you? Someone in prison wrote this to someone who used to go here and you took it from the mailroom ledge. Asshole.”
Greg shrugged. “You said it yourself: she doesn’t go here anymore. She wasn’t going to get it anyway.”
“Return to Sender, Greg. Then there wouldn’t be a man in jail wondering why his niece isn’t writing back.”
Greg snorted. “You read the letter!”
“I started to read it, yes. I wanted to know what it was. But I didn’t steal it—you did.” I dropped the letter onto Greg’s lap. “Fix it,” I said.
“You screwed up. Do the right thing. Find her. Get her permanent address from the registrar, forward the letter to her. And apologize for what you did. Then apologize to him. You’ve already got his address.”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“I’m serious.” I told Greg. I didn’t tell him that I remembered a story my grandfather told me: when he was at the school, one day the campus was put on notice—that evening, the lights would dim for a moment or two, about half past nine, as they’d be executing a man in the chair at Stillwell. The campus waited, but the dimming never came. Not that night, not that week, not while my grandfather was at school. Nobody paid a second call to tell the school what had or had not happened, and my grandfather could only assume that the man scheduled to die had been dealt clemency instead. Of all the people around that place at that time, that man may be the only one not still waiting for the lights to go down some.
Anyway, I knew that Greg would do nothing. Greg would light a joint, open a beer, watch tv. So I sent the uncle in jail a small package, returning his letter with a note explaining what my roommate had done and a recent photo of Greg—easily recognizable in his rag hat—on the back of which I had jotted the address of Greg’s parents’ home in Bethel, Connecticut, between Ossining and here.
“The Dimming” appeared in Spout Magazine, Fall 2003.