Postal interlude

Walker wheeled his dolly through the Post Office door. A lady going out held the door for him, and he thanked her twice, embarrassed to have a door held for him by a woman.

It was a once-a-quarter chore, sending the returns back to the publisher. In order to have a variety of books to sell, the bookstore subscribed to a program by which the publisher sent them a couple cartons of overstocks, which would be displayed for three months, then returned. The bookstore paid for the invoice difference, if any. Not much this quarter. Precisely one book sold. Summer slump in a school bookstore.

He got in line and surveyed the dingy, cluttered service area. The building wasn’t very old, but the abrasion of bureaucracy had already erased any humanity the place had ever had. Walker missed the old-time Post Offices, temples of democracy with classical porticos and lots of brass. You felt like you were dealing with the majesty of the republic in those old places. You felt proud to be an American there. You scanned the wanted posters on the bulletin boards, inspired with civic zeal to ferret out wrongdoers for the good of the commonwealth.

He looked at the service windows to his left. Only two postal employees on duty, so it would be a wait. But she was on duty today. Maybe he’d luck out and be one of her customers. Maybe a Sublime Moment would happen, somehow….

Such a lovely woman. You didn’t expect to see a woman who looked like that working for the Post Office. He couldn’t guess her age. She might be in her thirties, she might be as old as fifty. Impossible to tell. With that bone structure, she’d be beautiful until the day she died. The kind of bone-deep beauty Katherine Hepburn had, though she didn’t look at all like Hepburn. A petite woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue eyes. A kind of aquiline face, its planes clean and perfect. If she wore makeup, it wasn’t apparent.

And no wedding ring….

Helen gave the lady her receipt and looked to the next customer, saying, “Can I help you?” That customer, a guy with a beard, seemed to be woolgathering. The guy in line behind him nudged him, and he roused himself and wheeled two cartons on a dolly up to her window.

Great. Boxes to lift. Again.

Boxes of books. She knew it was books because she recognized the customer. Some sort of bookstore employee. He came in now and then, and he always wore a tie and a hat. Even on a summer day like this. Odd bird.

Too fat, but he had interesting salt-and-pepper hair, and his face looked younger than the hair indicated. She wondered what he was like. He was always polite and well-spoken. She glanced at his hand. No ring.

“All books. Media Mail,” he said.

They went through the rigmarole. As always, he didn’t want insurance or special services. He pulled out a business check and had it filled in except for the amount by the time she had a figure for him.

“If he asked me out, would I say yes?” she asked herself. “Might be interesting to find out what a guy who dresses like this is like. Probably a weirdo, though.”

“Any stamps?” she asked.

“In a separate transaction,” he said.

“Doesn’t charge his own stamps to his company,” she thought. “Minimally honest, at least. Better than my last boyfriend.”

She lifted the plastic display page. “We have these stamps,” she said.

“I’ll take a sheet of the Reagan stamps.”

She swore to herself. A bleeping Republican.

“Thank you,” she said when he paid her.

“Thank you,” he replied, wheeling his empty dolly away.

(The story above is true, except for the lies. It’s a fair description of my trip to the Post Office today, but I made up Helen’s [not her name] thoughts [certainly wrong].

Inventing scenarios like this is one of the things that make me a novelist.

Also one of the things that make me a total dork.)

7 thoughts on “Postal interlude”

  1. I played a similiar ‘game’ with my kids.

    Giving life and story to total strangers we would pass on the street, in cars, shopping malls, etc.

    My husband and I play it while sitting on the pier in Grand Haven, MI.

    “SWM: Loves to hold hands and walk the pier, seeking SWF who loves same.”

    Then, we tell each other “The Rest of the Story” and laugh uproariously, causing others to wonder about the strange aging fat couple snorting like fools on the pier.

    But, it works for us.

  2. Several weeks later, Walker squared his shoulders as he entered the Post Office again.

    No guts, no glory, he sighed to himself. Why doesn’t that make me feel better?

    He clutched the package in his hands, then forced himself to relax. Sweat stains on the box might not make the best impression.

    He waited nervously in line until another customer arrived to stand behind him in line. This was good. If the wrong window opened up first, he could let the person behind him go first. Fortunately, the new arrival in line was a harassed looking womon–simple courtesy would suffice as an excuse if necessary.

    The strategem turned out to be unnecessary–when it was his turn, it was her window that was open.

    He took off his hat before he spoke–courtesy, again, and no harm in letting her know he wasn’t covering a bald spot.

    “Media mail,” he said, “as usual. But this time I have to insure them.”

    Helen took the package with her accustomed efficiency. “How much insurance did you want, sir?” she asked.

    Walker blushed. “I don’t think it needs any, myself,” he admitted, “but I have this lunatic friend in Texas who thinks autographed copies of my books are worth more than the used bookstore price. And he sent the money to mail them with $100 of insurance, so I really have to use it as he requested.”

    “Ohh, you’re a writer? I’ll bet your friend in Texas is right. Maybe I ought to invest in some copies myself.”

    “Oh, well, you know,” Walker felt his knees shake, and the taint of acid at the back of his throat. “He’s got this Texas sense of humor. A little rough around the edges at times, but he has a good heart.”

    Helen finished filling out the forms and told him his total. He opened his wallet and paid her, accepting the receipt.

    “Um,” he said, not believing his own ears. He hated people who used noises instead of words in speech. “Would you like to meet for coffee some time?”

    His stomach was churning, and he cursed his impetuosity. Suppose she pressed an alarm button and the Federal Sexual Harrassment Police emerged from sally ports wearing their SWAT gear, forcing him to the ground before handcuffing him and frog-marching him off to leavenworth for accosting a federal employee. He fought the urge to turn and run.

    “Oh,” Helen said, surprised. “thank you for asking. Why don’t you leave me your number? Maybe I could call you after work this evening and talk about it.”

    Walker looked around. No troops were bursting out through hidden doors, and both of Helen’s hands were visible above the counter. He smiled, hoping his lips weren’t quivering.

    “Surely,” he said in the most gallant voice he could summon. He took a post office pen and scribbled his work and home numbers along with his name.

    “I’ll look forward to hearing from you,” He said, passing over the paper.

    She smiled at him again, and he turned away, walking carefully so as not to run into any walls or doors.

    OK, so she’ll probably never call, and now I have to find a new post office. Or she’ll call and explain to me she cannot possibly have coffee with a stanger. Why did I do this? This was insane.

    Despite the voice yammering in the back of his mind, though, Walker left the Post Office with a slight spring in his step. He knew he was no spring chicken… but maybe even a summer duck could find some luck.

  3. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t offer my own advice for this Walker chap. He could take out an ad in the paper; “SWM seeks… etc. Hangs around the post office a lot. Looks good in mail and old fashioned armor.”

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