(In the interest of privacy, some names have been changed.)
Sound erupted in the stillness, rattling the empty soda cans on the coffee table and ricocheting off the living room’s cement block walls. Another followed, effectively shattering what had been an otherwise peaceful afternoon in Valencia. I dropped my script and stared, unable to move from my favorite reading spot, and if only for a moment, wished that the epicenter of those unsettling sounds could trace its origins to somewhere along the San Andreas Fault instead of the black plastic phone in the midst of my Diet Coke cans.
I knew the call was for me. Only one person ever called the suite that I shared with four other CalArts students at this time on Sunday – and until recently, every Sunday. I had my suspicions about why the calls had stopped shortly after Halloween, but preferred nursing my resentment in silence to risking a confrontation. Now, faced with the inevitable, I bemoaned my lack of support: all of my roommates were at production meetings, rehearsals, or fittings in the costume shop.
“I guess you’re too busy to thank me.” My mother’s voice shrilled through nearly three thousand miles of long distance static.
“For what – forgetting my birthday?” My twenty-fourth came and went without a word from Vermont.
“I sent your card three weeks ago,” she said. Her warble over the word “card” meant that money was involved.
“I didn’t get it, Mom,” I said, feeling somewhat chastened. “Sorry.”
“I knew I should’ve mailed it in Poultney.” Something meaty thudded on the other end of the line. “She’s not careful at all!”
“She” was Fanny Wilder, the latest owner of the East Poultney General Store and a longstanding bane of my mother’s existence. Abandoning all hope of birthday wishes, I punched a pillow with my free hand and settled back on the couch, preparing for a tirade – one I knew by heart. When Mom retired as Postmaster in 1981, Fanny relocated the East Poultney Post Office to her store, thinking the “old-fashioned” post office would be a quaint addition to her then-new business. A “tourist attraction,” she called it.
Mom never forgave her for that.
I tried to lighten the mood. “My friends here can’t believe we had a post office in our living room.”
Most of them couldn’t, but it was true. For the first twenty years of my life, a ceiling-high, pine partition split the largest, sunniest room in my parents’ sprawling Victorian house into public and private sectors. Painted light green and topped with white crown molding, thirteen feet of its frame bisected what would have been our front parlor from its quadruple-paned bay window on the southern wall to a spot just beyond the western entryway. There, it turned at a right angle, extending itself another six feet before abutting the wall beside the large front door. For twenty years, whenever I ran downstairs, I would have to stop short to squeeze between the post office’s shorter partition and an enormous, iron safe that hunkered only a few inches beyond the stair landing, else risk a nasty bruise from one of its sharp edges. It must have weighed a ton, that safe – so much, in fact, my father had to reinforce the floor to keep it from crashing into the basement. A few jacks bracing crossbeams in the cellar were a small consideration, compared to the others he and my mother made to keep the post office in our home – the kind of “little extras” that would have made First Postmaster Ben Franklin proud.
The post office was where I learned to read and write, and where my love of language first took root. Its gleaming, copper-topped counter was my first stage; my neighbors, the first “actors,” whose rhythmic voices mesmerized me with daily jokes and stories. I memorized zip codes the way other children memorized state capitals and by age seven, had my first “real” job: helping my mother sort the mail.
“Go on, laugh,” she said. “If you could only see the mess she’s made – the letters and papers all over the place!”
When my mother became Postmaster in1949, her position was only part-time, and the post office occupied a corner of the nearby Rising Sun Inn. After a fire destroyed the building in 1957, she decided to move the post office to our home and expand its hours. No matter how proactive, her decision did not curry favor among her more conservative neighbors at the time, many of whom thought that a woman – especially, a young mother – supporting her family was nothing short of scandalous, and my father’s seasonal employment only added to their litany of misgivings. While he babysat my older sister, my mother embarked on a campaign to win over her critics. She personalized services, creating flexible pickup hours, allowing access to newspaper and milk delivery, delivering mail to sick patrons, and in one instance, even proofreading multiple versions of a local professor’s thesis – all for no extra charge. My father, a housepainter who was also an avid hunter and gardener, contributed to her cause by selling raspberries from our patch, and giving free wild game – trout, partridge, and rabbit – to anyone who wanted them for the price of a friendly conversation.
While this silenced the skeptics and turned our home into a thriving social hub, it also created an enduring precedent: because the post office was in our home, patrons expected more from us than they did from other business owners. Our windows had to shine, every piece of metal had to gleam, the leaves of the philodendron vines that clambered along the walls of the post office could never show a speck of dust, and even the slightest crack in the concrete walk or drift of snow on the stairs could spark disdain. Growing up, I learned to live with the lurking dread that if we did or said anything that even slightly offended one of our patrons, then we would lose our primary source of income.
Fanny left the newspapers in a pile on the porch and let cobwebs grow in the store’s display windows. Her husband, whose ambitions were more political than mercantile, rarely appeared behind its long, glass-topped checkout counter.
I stared out the window, watching smoke wisps rise from the mountains and mingle with the smog that always hovered over the Santa Clarita Valley like a sullen caul. The “Burning Season,” one of my friends called it, the flames followed by downpours, which marked California’s equinoctial transition. As happy as I was to be away, Santa Ana-quickened brush fires were a poor substitute for the red and gold glory of the autumn leaves – the first ones I’d ever missed – back home. “It’s been almost five years, Mom,” I began, “Fanny must’ve learned how to—”
“I must’ve told her a hundred times, ‘That’s not the way you sort the mail,’ but she doesn’t listen. She treats me as if I didn’t know anything at all, and then, she laughs at me in front of her customers!”
She’d been drinking again. Her words blurred into one another, like letters written with watered ink. I twisted the phone cord into a noose around my bare foot. While I pitied Fanny for having to listen to my mother’s “advice,” especially if it came on the heels of a bottle of sweet wine, I didn’t like the “new” post office, either. My father’s hand-painted sign looked out of place beneath the general store’s gilt banner. His handmade worktable and sorting rack seemed cumbrous, now transplanted into a plywood-partitioned cubicle next to the beer cooler in the back of the store. I didn’t know why I was defending Fanny, whose priorities seemed to end with the monthly rent check she collected for housing the post office in her store: she rarely dusted the displays or swept the floor. The last time I retrieved Box 565’s mail, my fingers, after turning its antique brass combination lock, came away black and greasy; the once-proud eagle on its door looked like a crow. Still, I found myself saying, “She’s trying to run two businesses alone. She’s bound to make mistakes, Mom—”
“I didn’t,” she said with a vehemence that made my ears ring. “I never lost anyone’s mail – not once in thirty-two years! If you’d just taken it over, instead of gallivanting off to acting school…”
“Just ask Fanny if she’s seen it,” I said, cutting another unwanted diatribe off in mid-sentence. “I’m sure it’ll turn up.”
“You would say that.” The distance between us closed in a single, angry click.
Of course, it didn’t, so by mid-May, when I returned home for a summer theatrical internship, the latest battle in my mother’s silent, seething war with Fanny Wilder was well underway. I began to wonder just how much money she’d stuffed into that birthday card.
“Maybe you should just put up a mailbox,” I said to her one day in August, while I was packing the car for California, but knowing my entreaty was doomed before its start. Putting up a mailbox meant a change in zip code from East Poultney’s to Poultney’s, the mere suggestion of which was grounds for another row. At least when I was in a play, I could finish a sentence without someone screaming at me. Still, I tried. “It’s free,” I said, “you like the delivery lady, and you wouldn’t have to—”
“You’re never here anymore, and I miss talking to people,” she said, her eyes brimming, “but Fanny doesn’t want me doing even that, now. She says I’m loitering and it’s bad for business – as if a friendly chat’s going to stop her from selling cigarettes or those awful Lottery tickets. Oh, but it’s fine for her to flirt with every single man who walks through the door!”
“She’ll need to do more than flirt,” I said, thinking of the store’s claustrophobic ceilings, uneven plank floor, and the pervasive murk that no amount of incandescent lighting ever seemed to dispel. Its cramped space swallowed conversation, light, and happiness, leaving only an uneasy silence drifting down among the dust motes. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve sworn the place was cursed. In Fanny’s case, I think it was.
Mom tottered to the car to give me a tearful hug and a sticky kiss that smelled like Richards’ Wild Irish Rose. “She’ll run it into the ground, you wait and see!”
Not long after, Fanny began to fulfill my mother’s prophecy. She shortened the post office’s hours and reduced its services, forcing patrons to mail their parcels from other post offices or engage courier services. Her actions did nothing to improve the store’s reputation and eventually, her attempt to manage two businesses in one extracted a toll of its own. A few years later, Fanny, now divorced, sold the store.
The general store had a string of owners over the years. Whenever it changed hands, we would wonder if the post office would go, and with it, the zip code, 05741, which gave our village as much of its unique, historical identity as Horace Greeley’s printing apprenticeship or Ethan Allen’s Revolutionary War-era graffiti on a local tavern’s wall. Whenever I visited, I would walk by the store and stare at the post office sign my now-late father had painted so long ago, at the ghosts of his letters, still visible beneath the latest veneer of whitewash and black latex paint. Each time, I would wonder how long it would be before I saw his sign burning on a bier at the town dump.
I never knew why my mother hadn’t kept the sign. It was part of my father, it was an important part of her past, and, because I’d lived so long beneath its shadow, it was a part of me. Did it evoke bitter memories for her of six-day workweeks, a position with no opportunity for advancement, and, because of its singular location, a career spent without a single vacation? When I asked her once, she shook her head and said, “Once you put the government’s name on something, it’s no longer yours.”
When my mother’s health failed and an amputation made walking too difficult, I moved back home to help her; she refused to move to a nursing home. One of the first things I did was install a black, aluminum mailbox at the end of our drive. The first time my mother saw it, she cried.
A few days after she died, I went out to collect all the neglected mail. A half-hearted drizzle fell and a blustery wind whipped at my clothes, but I felt nothing that April morning, not the sharp stones beneath my slippers or the sting of near-sleet through my thin t-shirt. While I was opening the mailbox, a car pulled alongside me. Its tinted window lowered, and a woman with hoarfrost-colored hair peered out. I didn’t recognize her or the car, at first; I thought she was a lost traveler who needed directions.
“Are you Florence’s daughter?”
The question landed like a blow. Remembering a time when everyone in town knew my family, knew my name, I nodded.
“We found this behind a desk when we were renovating.” She thrust a smudged envelope at me through the crack in the car window.
Now I recognized her: the store’s newest owner. I had heard that her “renovations” included moving the mailboxes from their plywood cubicle to the front alcove, where they’d share wall space with souvenir shelves and racks of rental videos. “Thanks,” I said numbly. “You know, my dad painted that sign, and—”
She sped away before I could finish.
I don’t know how long I stood in the rain, gazing down at my mother’s spidery handwriting, and then, at the postmark, dated 1986, its bruise colored ink still clear and crisp-edged after sixteen years lost in dust and darkness. When I opened the envelope, I found a birthday card, twenty-four dollars, and a book of stamps. Scrawled at the bottom of the card were three words: I miss you.
When not promoting the restorative power of ice packs in her position as a school nurse, Antoinette McCormick collects vintage crochet patterns, edits Black Mirror Magazine, and pursues her Creative Writing MFA at National University.
© 2013, Antoinette McCormick