The Temporary Assistant Postmaster

Every morning he emptied the lobby wastebasket, and set it down, making a hollow clatter ring. In fall and winter, whenever there’d been frost overnight, he strewed salt on the front steps as a farmer scatters seed. A mixture of vinegar and distilled water went across the glass windows looking out onto the entryway. When he swiped at the moisture running down, an apparition sometimes caught in the glass, a creature rumpled and gray who stooped a little more each year.

     The post office was open when he said it was. He watched the clock on the wall, ready to unlock the steel security gate at the appointed hour. Sometimes he waited a minute or two longer. It used to be that a line of customers would be waiting to enter, but times had changed, and the post office had become like one of those forgotten towns bypassed after the expressways were built.

     That morning no one came in at all, and by ten o’clock he’d been staring at the wall for the past fifteen minutes. The back door opened and closed; it was only Tom Harris, the postman, picking up the other half of his route.

     Just as he’d begun an inventory of forms—something he hadn’t done for a week—a harsh cry broke the silence. A crash rattled right up through the floor and counter into his bones. For a moment he thought it was the end of the world, here, in this empty post office where he’d spent his life.

     All he had was his name, Lyle Devlin—his father’s name.

     But, as he peered over the counter and looked outside through the shining lobby windows, there were no cracks in the earth, no black clouds or pillars of fire, no sounds of wailing. He rushed into the back.

     At first, nothing seemed out of place. Except that, in the center of the concrete floor, someone had thrown a pile of old clothes—a rust-colored down jacket, boots, and carpenter jeans with one leg bent beneath the other. Tom Harris’s clothes, as if he’d disrobed and vanished. Lyle moved closer and bent down. A bristly red face appeared with both eyes closed and a slack mouth, and the sour smell of whiskey.

     Lyle feared Tom was out cold or even dead—incident reports would have to be completed, not to mention the work of finding a new postal carrier with a working car. But one of the boots kicked, and a claw-like hand groped at the air.

     “What the hell,” Lyle said, pulling hard. “What the hell, Tom.” Lyle had known Tom for thirty-six years, knew his habits. How much had he had to drink today—so far? As soon as Tom was on his feet, Lyle released him. “You all right?”

     “Fuckin’ thing,” Tom sputtered, straightening his clothing. “Just leaned on it, and it goes shootin’ off.”

     Lyle looked further into the depths of the mailroom. One of the canvas-covered carts used to bring parcels in from the truck rested at an odd angle to the far wall, and he moved toward it, accelerating his pace when he realized something was wrong.

     The upper edge of the cart’s steel frame had been driven a good half-foot into the wall. Lyle tried to pull it free, but it was wedged tight and wouldn’t budge. He grabbed with both hands and pulled. He pulled again, harder, and this time, the cart came free with a screech and a wail. A gash opened in the wall three inches high and a foot wide. Within it, the bare bulbs of the mailroom reflected light against a dense surface of plaster.

     “Sorry, Lyle. Guess I knocked it pretty hard,” Tom said, walking up from behind. “That the original part of the building there?” On the left side, the exposed plaster was smashed, and beyond it, a lattice of broken laths crisscrossed a faded course of bricks.

     Lyle squatted down and extended his fingertips across the barrier of newer sheet-rock that, as he leaned in, exhaled mildew and cool dust. A tongue of sheet-rock paper hung from the gash, and he seized it, thinking that by tearing it off he could at least begin to put things right. But instead it gave way like a coiled rope, and he lost his balance and fell onto his tailbone.

     “You okay, Lyle? My God, this place is going to the dogs.”

     His weight had caused an even larger piece of the paper to tear, exposing a depth of granular gypsum. Tom leaned forward and reached into the hole. “No, leave it,” Lyle said, struggling to his feet and brushing dust off his pants.  “What are you doing? Stop—you’ll make it worse.”

     “Wait.” Tom stuck his arm in up to his shoulder, bracing himself against the floor and pulling. With a groan, a whole section of wall seemed to burst; gray fibers spilled out as if a bag of grain had been ripped open. “Holy shit,” Tom said.       “Look at this.” Covered in white powder, his fist held a bundle of letters, tied with a squashed knot of brown butcher’s string.

     “Wait,” Lyle said, as Tom blew dust off the bundle. “No.”

     “These are real old,” Tom said, examining the top letter. “I recognize the name—Murray—somebody my grandmother knew. House was torn down in ‘82.” He tugged out the letter and handed it to Lyle.

     In order to focus on the old script, Lyle held it at arm’s length. Mrs. Dorothy Murray at Three Milk Road. It didn’t make sense; the letter had no zip code and Milk Road had disappeared. Lyle knew where it used to be, behind where the old school had been, where they built the new café that served the flavored coffees. The return address was from Northampton, in western Massachusetts. The stamp had been canceled, the letter processed in good faith, but never delivered. And it was a three-cent stamp.

     “Here,” Tom said, passing along the whole bundle. “From the forties.”

     Yellow and dry, the letters were like pale flowers pressed between the pages of an old-fashioned album. Lighter than he expected. From his shirt pocket, he took reading glasses and pressed his thumb against one end of the stack, building up pressure to make the letters separate and fan out so he could see the stamps in the upper right corners. All first class. Dust went up his nose, making him sneeze.

     “Bless you. I’ve heard about this—dumping mail,” Tom said, shaking his head. “Course it’s not something I’d ever do. What’re you gonna do?”

     The bell rang up front, signaling the presence of a customer. “You’d best get on with your route. I’ll clean this up later.”

When Tom turned around, Lyle pushed the packet back into the hole and the cart tight against the wall.

     The customer—an enthusiastic, middle-aged man whom Lyle didn’t recognize—wanted to mail eight bottles of maple syrup, one each to eight different states including Texas. In Texas, he said, “they don’t sell maple syrup in these little jars.”

But he hadn’t filled in the addresses correctly, and while he did them over, Lyle glanced up at the wall to the right of the front door where a wooden plaque listed the names of all the postmasters going back to 1777. His name, which should have been at the bottom, inscribed on a small brass plate shinier than all the rest, wasn’t there. He was only the Temporary Assistant Postmaster and didn’t merit the recognition of engraving. Instead there was a gap at the bottom, a gap that disturbed him, as if—worse than the absence of recognition—his name had been removed.

     “Are these okay now?”

     Lyle blinked and nodded.

     He stacked the maple syrup parcels on the shelves and locked the money in the cash drawer. The right thing, he knew, would be to call his supervisor and make a full report about the lost mail. It was, after all, evidence of a federal crime.

     But for pity’s sake, there’d be an investigation. The postal inspector would come, and all the little shortcuts and efficiencies Lyle had cultivated over the years, all his habits, would receive unforgiving scrutiny. For sometime, his greatest fear had been that the old building would someday require so much repair that the higher-ups would order it closed to avoid the expense. Today’s accident could be the beginning of the end.

     In any case, it was lunchtime.

     He closed the steel barrier across the lobby door, and returned to the mailroom.

     The coffee from the machine wasn’t fresh but he poured a cup anyway. From the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, he took out the greasy brown paper sack he saved and reused all week. Inside there was a small yellow apple and a peanut butter sandwich on white bread. Two Oreo cookies.

     He made the sandwich the way his mother used to, mixing real butter into the peanuts so that the spread contained small, yellowish-gray balls that tasted smoky. Except now, he substituted margarine for butter. The sandwich was always cut in half at a slight angle, and the knife wiped clean on the uppermost face of bread.

     The acid in the apple set his teeth on edge.

     He looked at the silent black telephone on his desk. Lyle, Lyle, I need help—his mother’s voice would sound from the earpiece, thin and distant like a call from the other side of the world. Near the end, he’d sometimes had to close up and rush over to help her, even though it would have meant getting written up if his supervisor had ever found out. But the house was but a quarter mile away, and the supervisor never knew. Often, she’d run out of pills or broken a glass, but sometimes it was more serious—near the end, twice she’d fallen down and had had to crawl to the phone.

     The last time was the only time he couldn’t get away. It had been just before Christmas, and the phone had rung and rung, the line of customers had only grown longer. The temporary helper hadn’t shown up, Lyle had been all by himself. By the time he’d got home, his mother was gone.

     The paper lunch bag was folded, and his hands washed. He checked the time; it was still the lunch hour. If he called the higher-ups now, no one would answer. Just hide everything, he thought. Tom was okay; there was no need to complete an incident report. A fresh coat of paint would dry and harden, sealing the scar.

     Before opening for the afternoon, he checked to make sure the mail cart was tight against the gash in the wall, so that—unless someone looked close—nothing would seem to be wrong. Then he went back up front. When a customer came in, he was glad to have something to do.

     Just before five, he stood next to the door, watching the clock. It was too late to call the supervisor, but first thing in the morning he could do it, say he was cleaning up from the accident and had discovered the letters. He threw the deadbolt, allowing an extra second because of the angle he was at relative to the minute hand. Then he remembered: that morning, he’d opened two minutes early—he was still ahead.

 

                                                                                                    * * *

 

That night he unloaded sheet-rock and joint compound, a gallon of white latex paint, and the tools he’d brought from home, and went in through the back, making sure the mailroom door was shut tight.

     The hole in the wall—after Tom’s enlargement—was a rough, three-foot square. Lyle took a thick carpenter’s pencil and began outlining it with straight marks. After he sawed out the space, he cut a panel from the new sheet-rock, just a little smaller than the hole, to make sure it would fit tight.

     Might as well take another look before sealing it up, he thought. Last chance.

     He got a flashlight and crouched down on his hands and knees. Several layers of different materials had been exposed because it was always easier to cover up old walls rather than take the time to dismantle them. Under the broken sheet-rock, there was the empty gap, and then dry plaster and lath, beneath that, brick, probably from the 1700s.

     He angled the beam of light down over the torn edge and peered in, expecting to see the single packet of letters he’d thrown back earlier. But between the old plaster wall and the newer sheet-rock, piles of packets were stuffed between the joists. He blinked and pushed the light further into the space, hoping that what he saw was only a trick of shadows. It was not. With shaking hands, he retrieved each dusty packet, counting as he set them onto the floor—sixteen, seventeen…

     A rustling sound brought him upright and alert. He glanced around the room—nothing, a mouse—and resumed his count. Twenty packets. That’d be, say, thirty letters in each packet—six hundred letters. And this was only one section of wall—my God, what about the rest?

     A fist thumped three times at the back door. Lyle frowned. Who’d be coming here at this hour? He drew the bolt and opened the door a crack, positioning himself so that the letters couldn’t be seen.

     “Saw your car. You fixing the wall?” It was Tom. “I’ll help, since it was me who smashed it.” He pushed past Lyle and weaved across the room. “Fuckin’ hell, Lyle—there’s a lot more than there was earlier. You looking at ‘em? Lord, there’s so many. Bring ‘em over here so we can see.” He drew up a chair and sat at Lyle’s desk. From the depths of his coat, he pulled out a two-thirds full pint of whiskey and took a drink. “Want some? Go on—we’re not on duty.” He wiped off the mouth of the bottle and set it down. As soon as his hands were unencumbered, he crossed the room and returned with several packets of letters. “You opened any yet?” he said, holding the packets on his lap. Dust made gray streaks on his pants.

     “Course not. That would be a crime.”

     “Ah, hell. It’d be a crime not to. What’re you gonna do anyway? Did you report it?”

     “No.”

     “Well then you’re curious, same as me. Anyhow, nobody’ll miss a few—the folks who wrote these are all dead! I say, let’s read some, and then we’ll put everything back in the wall and seal it again. Look at this,” he said, pulling an envelope free.     “It’s probably from the war years. Who knows what’s inside.”

     Lyle walked to the desk and sat at his chair. “Go ahead,” he said, leaning back and clasping his hands across his belly.

     “What—open it? Now you’re talking. Let’s see, from Lawrence, Mass to a Miss Betty…” Tom held the envelope up and screwed one eye closed. “Betty Furlong, looks like. Don’t remember any Furlongs. Forty-seven Maple Avenue, yeah, that house is still there, not on my route though.” He tore the letter free and unfolded two sheets of stationary. “’Dear Betty, The weather here is…’” His voice dropped to a whisper, and his lips kept moving. “Somebody’s getting married but her parents don’t like the fella, it says. Lyle, this was important, wonder what happened? ‘Write back soon,’ it says. ‘All love, Mary.’ Huh. You read one.”

     Lyle drank from the bottle. “No, one’s enough. We’re accomplices to the crime now.”

     Tom shook his head. “Nah, we’re investigators, like those doctors who find ancient cities in the dirt and dig ‘em out with spoons.”

     “Archaeologists.”

     “Right. No one calls them thieves.”

     Lyle took another drink. “You think I should just put ‘em back in?” he said. “Cover the hole?” Tom’s voice, defiant like a finger thrust into the air, had gotten inside his head a bit.

     “Hell yes, Lyle. Otherwise, there’ll be a big old fuss. I think what happened was that this postman just got too tired.” Tom waved his arm in the direction of the rupture. “They were working on the building, I imagine, covering up the old plaster rather than repairing it, and he saw his chance. To lighten his burden. Maybe he was just old.”

     Lyle imagined an anarchist postman, defying the inspector, refusing to say what had happened, where he’d put the lost mail. Pleased at discovering the power to blind and mute letters—those things that controlled his existence.

     A stream of letters disappearing into cracks in the walls of a dozen post offices, the people who’d sent them always wondering what had happened. ‘I wrote him,’ someone might say, ‘and never did hear back.’ Silence stretching in an arc over the years, a silence that now, could be broken.

     His eyes focused on the space between his desk and the hole. His father had worked here, moved about in the very same space. A temporary clerk, filling in around the holidays whenever the postmaster needed help. Before the days of sheet-rock, before everything had been centralized. All Lyle had of his father was one handful of memories, the sharpest of them set here in the mailroom. He’d been just tall enough to look over the front counter, and while his mother bought stamps, he’d seen his father through the doorway, pulling a big, dingy sack of mail across the floor. Dark and beardless and wizened.

     The Devlins were never any good, his mother would say. ‘No sir, none of ‘em, not one.’ Her jaw muscles would tremble, her lips pushed out, but she wouldn’t cry. Because, if you bit down hard enough, any other pain became bearable.

     His lips pursed, and he withdrew a letter from the middle of a different stack. It was so dry it seemed it might shatter. He eased his reading glasses down his nose. “Let’s see. Mr. John Baker, 64 Limeharrow Street.”

     Tom snorted. “Baker, I remember him. There was trouble there, I recall my folks talking about it—an aunt who was insane. Kept her locked in the spare bedroom.”

     Lyle opened the envelope. “’John,’” he read aloud. “’As the days begin to dwindle I find myself thinking of old friends. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.’”

     “People used to write things like that,” Tom said. “Important things that wouldn’t necessarily be said otherwise. I don’t know what happens now. E-mail, maybe.” He waggled his right fingers in the space next to his head. “Texting.”

     “You mean because people don’t write letters anymore?”

     “Exactly. You can’t say something like that to a man’s face. Or on the phone.”

     “You’re right. It’s like poetry.”

     “Lost art. Read some more.”

     Lyle skipped down two long paragraphs. “’The years pass with haste, and we must draw them over ourselves as we would a familiar, comforting blanket across sad memories and regret.’”

     “Huh,” Tom said and began reading another letter.

     When his father had left, Lyle’s mother set to work on eliminating his presence from the house. She washed the curtains and scrubbed the walls, saying they smelled like cigarettes. A wedding picture was taken down and thrown in the trash, frame and all, but for years, Lyle could see its outline where the sun had lightened the wall around its edge.

     He hadn’t believed his mother could be successful in erasing his father; he was sure there’d be a letter someday, a letter just for him—if he thought really hard about it and repeated certain words the same way each time. A letter saying, I’m coming home. After all, a man who worked at the post office would know how to get a letter past Lyle’s mother. Everyday after school, Lyle would look on the kitchen table where the day’s mail was stacked, but there’d never been anything but letters from an aunt who lived in New York.

     Tom’s whiskey bottle was empty and on the floor next to the desk. “I don’t know. I think there’s still people waiting for these,” Lyle said, spreading his fingers over the pile of folded sheets on his desk. “These letters. Daughters, sons, even. A letter could alter your whole life, coming from the past.” He let his hands settle, gently squeezing the air out between layers of paper. “You remember my father used to work here?”

     “I remember. Temporary man, wasn’t he.”

     After his mother had died, Lyle didn’t think about his father—he was only a shadow passing across the bright sun of his mother’s memory. Lyle tried to keep the flame of his mother’s bitterness burning the way others might put flowers on a grave the first Sunday of every month. My father was no good, he’d say to himself. He deserves no imagining.

      He cleared his throat. “The truth is, I always wanted my name on the plaque up front. Once they close this place down, then it’s gone.”

     “Chance of you being postmaster, you mean?”

     Lyle nodded quickly, looking down to the side and pressing his eyelids together. For a moment, there was silence, and then Tom cleared his throat.

     “Hell, Lyle, we can’t make everything right, but some things we can.” Tom stood a little unsteadily and went to the broken wall. “Let’s go,” he said, returning with the bucket of paint and the brush. “Bring that ladder.”

 

                                                                                               * * *

 

The next morning, the letters were arranged in neat stacks on his desk. A half hour ago, he’d put in a call to the postal inspector. “This is Devlin,” he said. “Lyle Devlin. Found several hundred letters from the ‘40s. A few opened, but deliverable… that’s right, inside the walls.”

     He stepped back from the windows and looked up at the plaque. The empty space at the bottom was gone, filled with uneven letters written in more than one size. Lyle Devlin, it spelled, a trail of white paint running down from the “D.” Postmaster.

     The official opening time was two minutes away, and he unlocked the inner door and stepped into the lobby. He turned around and faced the windows, looking across the post office’s tiled floor, over the counter through the doorway into the back room where sheet-rock scraps and strips of tape had been swept together in a pile on the floor. It was the view every customer had, the view of one who was entering for the first time.

     He was there—his father, the real Lyle Devlin. A small man, hauling bags of mail, reflected, not in glass, but in the eyes of a small boy. Lyle’s head turned a point, and the reflection in the glass vanished.