It was the stench coming from my neighbor's toolshed that led police to the grizzly truth. They hacked off the padlock with an ax, whipped open the door, and found the shed packed with dozens of stuffed garbage bags.
Jim had always seemed kind of antisocial. He went to work at the post office, but never seemed to go out otherwise. And we never saw anyone else entering or leaving the house. We all thought he was a little weird, but none of us suspected he was capable of anything this cold-blooded.
When the police opened up the shed, what they found was worse than we'd ever imagined. They ripped open the bags to discover mail--tons and tons of undelivered mail.
How could we have been so blind? I watched in horror as the police removed the object emitting that suffocating stench. I knew it immediately. It was a Christmas present I'd mailed five years earlier, to my uncle Harvey in Tampa, a port wine cheese ball from Hickory Farms.
I felt so violated. But in a way I also felt relieved: a nagging mystery had been solved. It wasn't until after Uncle Harvey's will was read that I realized how hurt he'd been that he never received a present that Christmas. Ever since, I've wished that I'd had just one more chance to talk to him, so I could have told him about the cheese ball.
But I was hardly the only victim. Inside Jim's house police found the answers to many other unsolved mysteries, like why some of us had received certain free samples and others had not. There were mountains and mountains of mail. Some of it had been spindled and mutilated. Boxes marked FRAGILE had been gleefully hacked to pieces.
The psycho had wallpapered every inch of his bedroom with our notices from Ed McMahon telling us about the millions we might already have won. And on his dresser he had erected a sort of eerie shrine: a collage of disconnection notices and social security checks and Playboy centerfolds. Its centerpiece was the remains of the Sports Illustrated football phone Mr. Deegan never received.
In his statement to police Jim said his spree had lasted some 15 years. He drew detailed maps leading to hundreds more bags of undelivered mail. The police found several buried in a cornfield in Iowa, several more after dragging the Des Plaines River.
Jim had been shrewd in covering his tracks. I remembered the time I happened upon him loading Hefty bags and a shovel into the trunk of his car at midnight. He said he was going recycling. Why did I want to believe him? Why didn't I get involved?
If there is any positive side to all this, it's that a tragedy like this brings out the true goodness in some people. Since the news of our plight hit the front page, we neighbors have formed a support group, and we've heard from millions of people from all over the country who have been similarly victimized.
But the scars will take a long time to heal. Mr. Deegan has gone into seclusion. He has received expressions of sympathy and support from everyone from the pope to the postmaster general. He appreciates their compassion, but he knows it will never bring back his football phone.