Ever since Mary’s hip replacement, it was Jack’s responsibility to get the mail. Every afternoon (excepting Sundays and federal holidays), he walked down the block to the trashbox–as he called it–and sorted out the charitable requests, which he hid under his shirt then tore to bits in the bathroom so Mary wouldn’t see. Way too softhearted she was, wanting to donate to everything from retired priests to pregnant sea monkeys.
One Thursday in August, Jack unlocked the box and pulled out the assorted flyers, credit card offers, appeals, and…a bright blue, Hallmark-sized envelope addressed in indistinguishable Palmer script to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Durand.
Covering the blue envelope with their gas bill, Jack started back to the house, then paused. Cards arrived in December, May, and June for holidays. January and October for birthdays. Never in August. He shuffled the gas bill deeper into the pile and stared at the card.
No return address. Postmark read Kansas City, MO. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” he said, but the joke didn’t take the edge off. Neither of them had friends in Missouri. Kids were in California, Virginia and London. He flipped the envelope over to see if the sender’s name was on the reverse flap. It wasn’t.
An old service buddy could’ve moved, but that didn’t explain the size of the card. This wasn’t an announcement or thank-you note. This was birthday-sized, yet heavier. Like an invitation. From Kansas City. Sender unknown. He thought, Sometimes the past don’t stay buried.
Jack shambled home, tapping the envelope as if to induce it to spill its secrets. He wondered if he should open it, see what it was before he rang the doorbell and announced, “Mailman.” Before he delivered the bundle to his wife. But Mary opened the mail. Jack was just the postman (although he joked to his VFW friends he was more bill collector than mail carrier.)
He forgot his doorbell routine; walked in, mail at the ready. Mary wasn’t on the couch. The blue envelope taunted him from the top of the stack. He tucked the card into his waistband and adjusted his shirt. “Jack?” Mary called from the kitchen. “Is that you?”
“It’s me.” The card crinkled against his lower back. He almost put it back, but Mary shuffled into the living room, carrying a cup of tea. “You didn’t ring the bell,” she said. “Did you forget the mail?”
“Got it right here.” He waited for her to arrange herself comfortably on the couch, then handed her the post. It wasn’t until he was in the bathroom that he realized he hadn’t purged the junk mail. He’d been so focused on the card. He pulled it out; felt as if he stole it, despite his name emblazoned across it. Because it was only half his: Mr. and Mrs.
Should he open it? Or tear it to bits and flush? Maybe it was better not to know. This way he wasn’t adding to the secrets he kept from his wife.
He couldn’t remember if Madeleine hailed from Missouri. It’d been so long ago and he’d worked hard to forget. He prayed she wasn’t the type for death bed confessions. It was a concern, at their age–this clearing of consciences before meeting one’s Maker. “You can’t take it with you,” Jack said and stuffed the card under the bathroom sink behind the plunger where he kept his magazines.
He returned to the living room and found Mary writing checks. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep, thinking about homeless polar bears. And those poor children in Haiti. We have to send a little something.” She smiled and waited for his requisite crack about feeding the children to the polar bears. But Jack couldn’t summon up the joke. When he sighed heavily, Mary said, “Jack? Are you feeling okay? I could make you some tea. Or a hot toddy.”
“No, no. Everything’s fine.” He hoped it stayed that way.
Jack tossed and turned all night. Couldn’t get that damn envelope out of his head. Twice he tried to destroy it. But ripping the pretty blue paper felt the same as shredding his wife’s trust–he couldn’t throw it away. Second time, he moved the card to his coat pocket. Tomorrow, he’d write ‘return to sender’ on it and let the post office worry about it. Let it give them insomnia.
Next morning, Jack jumped back into their daily routine, letter all but forgotten. It was a skill he developed during the war: not thinking about the doom waiting to rain down on you at any moment. You handle what’s in front of you and when the juggernaut comes you put up your umbrella and prayed.
Mary had to remind him about the mail. “Yes, sir,” he said, saluting her. He grabbed his coat and headed out. But when he reached the trashbox, he couldn’t write ‘return to sender’ on the envelope. It wasn’t the Jack Durand thing to do. Jack Durand took his lumps and got back up. So he collected the bills, hid the charitable requests in the small of his back and plopped the card on top.
He rang the bell. Called, “Mailman!” Mary was on the couch, teacup in hand. “Do we know anyone in Missouri?”
“Missouri?” Mary paled. She examined the bright blue envelope, front and back. Her lips pursed; frown lines deepened. With a shaky hand, she handed it to Jack. “Maybe we’ll just throw that one out.”
H. L. Fullerton
H. L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about mail—which is sometimes published in places like Dagan Books, Penumbra, and Flash Fiction Online.
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