by Sarah Starr Murphy
From Fall 2018
Owen Hanks attended Zack and Madison’s wedding, an intimate autumnal affair at The Austen Inn. There were an awful lot of sunflowers, fussy entrées with tiny sprigs of green, and a table full of the groom’s fellow letter carriers. Owen had not brought a date because there was no one he could reasonably expect to say yes if he asked. The others brought spouses or sweethearts. Dora brought her wife Toni, and Owen spent the night trying not to stare. Toni’s curled black hair framed her oval face and her short silk dress was the color of dusty emeralds. He worried that the women would take his staring as some form of homophobic leer instead of a compliment.
The conversation revolved for a while around everyone’s children. When that topic was exhausted, they fell back on USPS horror stories. Noah, who had just started last spring, told about his first mailbox wasps’ nest. Everyone nodded politely except for Dora, who rolled her eyes at Toni. Noah hadn’t even been stung.
Mark and Selina both had dog stories, but neither had needed stitches. Steve had, and he unbuttoned his cuff and rolled up his white shirt so they could all see the scar again. Dawn stretched the story about getting stuck in the snow bank last winter out to a twenty-minute anecdote. Everyone had stories about honking idiots on the road.
They moved on to gossiping about their customers. Who kept getting court summonses, who couldn’t pay their bills, who subscribed to hard core porn sheathed in thin brown paper. Who left good tips at Christmas or offered iced tea in the summer, whose kids were always running in the street. Byron claimed, to raucous disbelief, that there was one woman on his route who had come to the door twice in her panties and bra. Given a good-natured ribbing, Byron admitted that she was too ugly to even think about afterward.
Zack and Madison came by at this point, and an awkward silence settled, before Dora and Selina started congratulating them and everyone else chimed in.
“We are just so grateful you all could make it,” Madison said, “I know how important his buddies are to Zack!”
Zack, an affable, short guy wearing a powder blue tuxedo, gave a quick laugh and waved to everybody.
“Thanks, you all, for coming.”
“Thanks for getting married,” Mark called, “but remember not to pick up any more packages like this one!”
Everyone laughed, although the joke was already tired. Madison had been one of Zack’s customers. He had delivered condolence letters to her house after her first husband died, and they had chatted every day for a year before she asked him out. That such a thing could happen excited Owen and terrified him. There were women on his route, well, there was one woman. She was definitely not a widow. He had developed a crush on her anyway, hand-delivering mail from his truck even when it would fit in the box. She worked from home, and so he saw her almost every day.
The woman, whose name was Lacey Garcia, played the flute. She practiced all day long and was always playing when he pulled up. He guessed from the mail that she played in the Burlington Symphony Orchestra. She often answered the door with a flute in her hand, silver with buttons like shining barnacles.
Lacey was shaped like her instrument, with long, stick-straight red hair and gray eyes that fixed on his when they spoke. Surely, she could see his interest. He believed that in the afternoons, she made lasagna and risottos while dancing to the radio in a sunny kitchen. He imagined Lacey tying up her glossy red hair and slipping into a form-fitting black dress before heading out to her evening performances.
Lacey’s husband Morgan was usually absent, but one day in the summer he had answered the door. He was a bearlike man with dark hair crawling up his arms, who had glared at Owen as he proffered the mail.
“You can keep the bills,” the husband had said, his glower breaking as he tipped his head back and laughed.
Owen had stifled the urge to roll his eyes. Everyone thought they came up with that joke.
He did not share this story with his fellow letter carriers at the wedding. Zack and Madison were dancing, and Owen sat at the table nursing a glass of red wine until it was finally acceptable to leave. The happy couple were herded over to their lavish, sunflower-strewn cake. Watching them cut the first piece, Owen thought that the divorce rate was not nearly high enough.
Owen was still of this opinion two months later, when late fall was giving in to winter. He regarded his Grumman LLV from across the Post Office parking lot. The boxy white truck, old as it was, looked like an oversized toy. He had heard the Post Office was finally going to replace them, but small Vermont towns must be last in line.
Half an hour later, the truck was loaded, and he headed out. The town of Bradford was shaped like a rectangle formed by a kindergartener who did not grasp right angles. The Post Office, instead of being centrally located, was jammed down in one crooked corner. Owen’s route was in the opposite, top corner, and it took twenty minutes to get there. Nowhere more beautiful, he thought as he wound his way through the Appalachians, noting that the last of the leaves were finally down. They were lucky, at this point, to still be waiting on the first snowfall.
There were quite a few houses with Halloween decorations hanging around, one mobile home still hunched behind a Styrofoam graveyard. It would be Thanksgiving next week, and the fake cemetery was forlorn, gloomier than intended. Owen passed this house and turned onto Holywell Road, pulling up alongside the first rusted box. Opening it, he noted that ancient Mr. Wilson had retrieved the mail from yesterday.
Owen saw the curtains twitch as he closed the box and pulled away. He knew the old man would be getting his shoes and heading out to retrieve the mail directly. Owen always made sure to glance at the walkway between Mr. Wilson’s house and mailbox on his return. Checking on the guy made him feel that he was performing a community service.
The radio played an advertisement from the local dentist’s office. Owen, despite his excellent health insurance, had been avoiding a visit to the dentist, so he reached over and changed the station to one playing “Dancing Queen” by Abba. He whistled along as he made his next few stops. There were a lot of packages today, the beginning of the Christmas rush. He delivered boxes to a wide variety of front stoops, porches, and in one case, an aluminum ramp. Most people weren’t at home, but Owen didn’t mind. His route would take forever if he had to stop and make small talk with everyone. His supervisor, Phoebe, expected him back in exactly four hours. She wasn’t too bad, Phoebe, but she was a stickler for timing.
The wind snuck in the edges of the window, even though he had the damn thing closed. He shivered in his uniform, layered over long underwear. Owen glanced at the cloudy sky and hoped the rain would hold off. The truck leaked like the glorified aluminum can it was when it rained.
Since Lacey Garcia’s house was his very last stop, he spent the entire drive anticipating their encounter. Her house was perched at the top of a towering hill on a dead-end road. After delivering her mail he was supposed to drive past the house, down the hill, and to the turnaround in front of the First Episcopal Church. The hill was so steep and the church so close to the road that every winter some unfortunate skidded into the building, causing minor damage. The fact that Owen never had was a point of pride, and a major reason he had always kept the same route. Here a lesser letter carrier could not tread, he thought.
As he filled the last few mailboxes on the way to Lacey’s house, he thought about what he could say to her today. He was not that guy who hit on married women, but his attraction to her made him helpless. Was it cheating when her husband was such a loser? When Lacey was going to divorce him sooner or later?
He thought that he could say, “Looks like it might be a bad one,” about the nor’easter that was coming. He could say, “Can I use your bathroom?” which was against regulations, but would get him inside her house. He could say, “Mail’s here,” which was corny but always made her smile.
Or he could take a risk and compliment her on the music. It would not be hard; when she played, the notes tripped and floated through the air as if conjured. It seemed an obvious choice, but he had never tried it. Her music sounded so personal, so intimate, that to remark on it seemed as inappropriate as commenting on her bras. (She had two, one black and one purple, the straps of which peeked out from the broad necklines of her tops.)
Today, he resolved, he would praise her music. There was nothing wrong in that; a person could admire music.
He mouthed the words, “Your music is beautiful,” over and over as his LLV struggled up the final hill to where Lacey lived like Rapunzel in her castle. The back of his truck held a heavy, important-looking package for her. He would park on the road and carry the package up the driveway like a conquering prince.
“Your music is beautiful,” he repeated to himself one last time as he started to brake. Something smelled funny, an engine smell mixed with… smoke. Definitely smoke. Owen blinked, and a curl of smoke snuck out from under the dashboard. It poured around his feet, swirled up to the mail tray.
“Fire!” he yelled. He slammed on the brakes and flung open the door, leaping onto Lacey’s lawn. He stood there for just a moment wondering if he had overreacted, and then, in a whoosh, bright orange flames filled the cabin. With a jolt, he remembered his letter carrier training. The head instructor, a tired older woman with wobbly jowls, had lectured them, “Do NOT leave mail unprotected in the event of an accident.”
He ran to the back of the truck. Popped open the doors and jumped in, coughing through the smoke. The package sported a pink “Caution: Heavy” sticker, but he wrestled it out the back and heaved it away from the truck and onto the lawn. He ran out in the road to the passenger side to see if he could retrieve her letters. Flames pushed out the window and he knew they were gone. He realized his cell phone was still in the cup holder.
He ran towards Lacey Garcia’s house and as he approached he could hear her playing. He banged on the door. He heard the music quaver and stop, heard her steps to the door as it swung open. Her gray eyes were puzzled, and they widened as she saw the fire.
“My truck,” he managed, “Your phone?”
“Oh,” she said, “Oh, oh, oh. Are you okay? Come in, here, my phone, wait, no, it’s over here.”
And he was following her through the house. The rooms were smaller, darker, and much less tidy than he had supposed. They walked past a stand loaded with music, around a heap of laundry that must have concealed a couch, to an honest-to-goodness green rotary phone. It was mounted on the wall of a kitchen that looked as old as the phone but a good deal dingier. He stared at the phone until Lacey stepped in front of him. He could smell her perfume, something with patchouli. She dialed 911 and handed him the receiver. He had just finished explaining the situation and giving the address when from the front of the house he heard Lacey yell. He dropped the phone, leaving it to swing from its cord, and ran.
Lacey was standing in the doorway, pointing at the road.
“Look!” she said, and at first, he thought it was a trick of his eyes or of the fire, which engulfed the truck. Yet it was impossible to mistake; the burning, melting vehicle was moving forward. Had he set the parking brake? Of course not. Had he even put it into park?
Lacey sprinted ahead of him across the lawn and into the road. He ran after her, driven by the need to witness. The truck gathered speed as it rattled down the hill, dropping still-flaming pieces of detritus. Owen and Lacey dodged the scraps as they followed. The truck slammed into the side of the First Episcopal Church, an action Owen found both inevitable and still surprising.
“Fire extinguisher?” he finally thought to ask as they came to a stop a safe distance away. Perhaps they could just put it out.
“I don’t have one,” she said, as if admitting a great personal fault, “Don’t you carry one?”
“We’re not allowed,” he said.
“They would have to train us all on how to use them and it would cost too much.”
He was going to say more, deliver a monologue on the myriad challenges of the postal service, but he started coughing. The coughing turned into choking, and Lacey gave him a few strong whacks on the back until he calmed down. They watched what was left of the burning truck.
“Oh,” she said, “Oh, oh, no,” and they both watched the fire lick up the faded wooden clapboards of the church. Somewhere inside, fire alarms sounded, and Owen thought to check the parking lot. It was deserted.
“How much longer, do you think?” Lacey asked, looking back down the road.
He shook his head; the volunteer fire station was located next door to the post office. The fire started to crackle and pop, spreading towards the back of the building. There was no one to tell them what to do, and so they stood, watching the church go up. The inferno had nearly leveled the old church before the sirens began to rise in the distance, and Owen worked up the nerve to say what he had practiced.
“Your music is beautiful.”
Owen started coughing again, and when the ambulance arrived, she told the paramedics to treat him first.
When his supervisor Phoebe turned up, she told him to hop in the van.
“Just a moment,” he said, and walked over to Lacey.
“I saved your package. It’s up there on your lawn.”
“Thanks,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have bothered.”
“It looked important. It was heavy. I saved it from the fire for you.”
Lacey stared at him and there was a long pause. She blinked and said, “It was just some canned soup my husband ordered.”
When Owen didn’t say anything in return, she added, “It’s my husband’s favorite, but really, it wasn’t important.”
“Oh. Well. Thanks for letting me use your phone. Take care, Lacey.”
“Lacey?” she shook her head, “My name’s Morgan. My husband’s name is Lacey.”
Owen felt himself blush and then he started coughing again. His head was starting to pound, and he felt an edge of nausea slicing into his core. All he could do was wave a hand in apology and slink over to Phoebe’s van.
Phoebe kept asking if he wanted to be taken to the hospital. Owen shook his head and pretended his throat hurt too much to do anything else. Some tears were to be expected in such a situation. When they found him a new truck, he would pull rank and ask for a new route as well. Phoebe owed him that much.