I. Four years ago, I fell asleep on the floor of a post office. It was unseasonably chilly outside, and I’d been drawn to the bright lights like a covetous magpie. Between two rows of silver boxes, I laid myself out on the linoleum. I was a fluorescent sunbather. I was drunk. You were the one who woke me. We will call you Sam, but I do not know your name. You were kind when you did it, tender, like my mother. You gave me a hand up, dusted off my back, even asked if you could help me home. I should have thanked you, but I did not. I took off, not looking back to see whether you watched me go. I think I was an asshole, since I never saw you again. I must have given you quite a start, an unexpected body blocking the path to your letters. Looking back on it, I sometimes wonder if you were there at all. It seems fitting to imagine a moment of karmic importance, a kindness shunned that could explain the downfall that was to come. Perhaps it was my own hand that wiped the floor-muck from my back under the scorching lights. In the weeks following the post office incident, I often had the feeling of a presence lurking just shy of my periphery. The morning after I broke my ankle, I swore I remembered something moving to my left just before I tumbled. In the coffee shop when the girl I’d been seeing told me she’d rather not see me, I thought I saw you there, though I don’t remember your face. The night my grandfather passed, my father had a laundry list of names to blame. The nurse was the first to hear it, the threat of legal action, but the doctor would shortly follow along with everyone else at the hospital. My grandmother, delirious with dementia, was treated to a tirade on how she never gave her husband any space, how her constant nagging had finally killed him. She’d started sobbing, and my father was escorted from the premises. When things fall apart, we all search for the kindling after the fire. My father never found it, and the night of the funeral, he wept into a whiskey glass, fearing that the pain he’d attributed to others was of his own making. When I stumbled back to the post office, night after night, I can’t rightly say whether I intended to beg your forgiveness or try to fight you. Either way, I never found you there.
II. It’s odd to come back to the post office now, as if I’ve happened into the setting of a recurring dream while wide awake. I run my hands across the worn keyholes. Nothing seems to have changed. When the bell above the door jangles behind me, I shudder, but it is not nighttime, it is not strange to not be alone. I steady myself and turn, almost expecting to see a familiar face, maybe even yours. The girl is a stranger who returns my startled gaze only for a moment before disappearing behind the display of Priority Flat Rate boxes. I thumb through my keychain, absentmindedly searching for the familiar combination of teeth that opens Box 1374, a key which has been missing from the ring for some time now. I like to imagine that you took up residence in that slot the day I left it, watching over it, keeping it safe, the same way you took care of me. The woman behind the counter asks if she can help me. I wish. I stammer a response, wishing my dilemma were something that could be easily solved with a sheet of stamps or a quote on overnight shipping. I buy the stamps anyway. As I push through the heavy doors out into the blinding sunlight, I am already balling up them in my pocket. I don’t send letters anymore. At the hotel bar that evening, I gaze out the window on the haunting lights of the town. It isn’t late, but I’d already finished a bottle of wine, my plans to have a quick drink before dinner having blossomed into a three hour vigil. I must be nervous. The sounds of a jazz trio come muffled from the private patio. I pay for the bottle and leave, bracing myself against the late autumnal chill as the door swings shut behind me.
III. If you were to come to 461 South Magnolia Street, you might think you were at the wrong address. I promise, this is where I live now. My apartment is on the second floor facing the street. I have a coffee pot, a microwave, a toaster. In the bedroom there’s an alarm clock set the correct time, and the bathroom is well stocked with toilet paper. This place bears all the trappings of normalcy and functional existence. Each morning before the sun peaks above the opposing buildings, I wake in darkness to wash the previous night’s creeping darkness from my back, brush away the scent of whiskey. By the time the streets fill with traffic, I’m Mr. Business-Casual, polished shoes, stomach full of whole grain cereal, taking the same well-trodden route each morning to the subway station. There’s a subtle joy to be found in these repeated movements. Watching water boil, each bubble breaking the surface in succession, it seems as if it were a dance carefully choreographed months before. I hit the alarm in just the same manner each morning, leaving a patina of fingerprints just so on the snooze button. It is from these motions that I reassemble myself. Even on the clearest nights, the city sky was a reflection of the illuminated darkness below it—cloudy, uniform, flat. Last winter, I dreamt of galaxies and awoke to the dusty curtain smothering the heavens. In that suspended nighttime, I made the decision and bought the ticket. Back to the post office, back to the night sky, back to you.
IV. The bottle of wine was a prudent choice. My body is fortified from the cold in a way I had not anticipated. I have no destination in mind, but nevertheless, I opt to take the long way of getting there. Each corner I turn brings back memories of skidding bike tires, another skinned knee, raw knuckles. Were you there then too, Sam, night after night, face obscured by the rain, keeping my unprotected skull from shattering against the curb? In the distance, the jazz band strikes up an old favorite. In spite of my resolute aimlessness, my feet find a familiar path, ending at the unlocked door the mustard-toned building that had once been my home. I climb the stairs two at a time. How is it that time never manages to erode the smells of places? The hallway smells damp and piney, same as it did the day I moved in, like a forest after the rain, a raw scent bisected by the biting citrus of whatever solvent had been scrubbed into the worn floorboards. I sway, the combination of the swift ascent, the wine, and the heady odor stopping me in my tracks. At the end of the hall was a window, as resolutely sealed to the outside world as it had been four years earlier. As I stood, attempting to ground myself in the moment, I see it all again. Me, bursting from a doorway on the right, reeling, drunk, upset. Sprinting towards the window. I’d wanted to jump, to burst forth in a shower of glass, to fly if only for a moment before shattering on the concrete below. I’d fallen suddenly ten feet from the window, breaking my ankle and narrowly avoiding fracturing my skull against the exposed brick wall. Later, I swore to my friends that I’d seen something moving out of the corner of my eye just moments before I fell. Was the half liter of cheap vodka the only force pushing me to the floor, or was it you that tripped me just short of my destination?
V. Friends My father’s handwriting was bombastic, full of loops and jagged edges, a combination of large and small printed capital assaulting their way across the inner flap of a birthday card. My mother must have chosen the card, instructed him to write it, told him to be nice. I knew that, but it was still a shock to see the lines of block text, the looping D at the beginning of his signature: Dad. I stood pondering the short lines, trying to imagine his lips forming the words that sounded too sincere to be his. The last time I’d seen him, a month prior, it had been like the interrogation scenes in cop shows. His larger form occupied most of the space opposite me in booth of the diner, for him, two cream, one sugar, for me, black. He’d upraised me like a miserly jeweler, taking in the bedraggled bandage over my ankle, the outline of my ribs through the threadbare t-shirt. The questions he asked were all quantifiable, as if, given the correct data set, he could extrapolate whether I constituted an acceptable child. I can see then, why it was so frustrating for him that his queries were greeted with a series of “I don’t know”s and “I guess so”s, each one less sure than the last. Are you getting enough sleep?
What do you mean?
Have you been eating?
You look thin.
Where do you spend most of your time?
I don’t know.
I don’t know. Does anyone get enough sleep?
I— I guess so.
In my room, or, at the post office.
Who are you writing letters to?
It was here that I paused. He was right. Any regular at the post office ought to be someone with many correspondences, and yet in the face of simple question I was at a loss for who drew me back to my letterbox day after day. How could I explain that I’d fallen asleep there once, that when I’d awoken and hurried away, it felt as if I’d left something behind, that, with each renewed visit, I was searching in vain for something unknown and yet vitally important? I sighed, resigning myself to the lie. Oh, you know. Just friends.
VI. As the glass door swung shut behind me, the distant horn solo of “Take the A-Train” was abruptly cut off. The post office was empty now. The fluorescent lights emitted a low hum above me. My shadow appeared monstrous on the pull down screen of the cashier’s window. I beat the familiar path back to the P.O. boxes, stopping again across from the tarnished number: 1374. I leaned back, allowing my back to slide down the wall, the cool metal of the boxes cutting through my damp jacket. A childlike shadow sloped across the wall, briefly caught in the glow of a streetlight in the neighboring alley. I caught my breath, thinking in spite of myself that it might be you. I lingered there until the jazz died down and the sounds of traffic stopped. The town was profoundly still. Through the window, I could see only a sliver of sky populated with more stars than I’d seen in years. Mind drifting towards a wine addled sleep, I imagined the post office as a lighthouse, illuminated day and night, always open, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, a steadfast and true navigational monument, the only star in the center of the darkened town. Sam, would that have made you the lighthouse keeper?
VII. I wake up with a start. The stars are gone, as is the silence. The sun is streaming through the window of the post office. The faint burble of traffic, early morning joggers, and rustling trees. My neck aches, and as I reach back to massage it, I feel the imprint of a keyhole pressed into the skin. So much for that hotel room. I hobble to my feet, temples pounding. Too much wine. The postal worker from the previous day appears around the corner. “Oh good, you’re up!” I attempt a smile and muster a grimace. “Rough night?” “You could say that. What time is it?” “It’s just past seven, honey. You been here all night?” “Yes—yes. I think so. I’m sorry. I just came in for a rest, but I must have drifted off.” “You weren’t the first, and I’m sure you won’t be the last. People seem to end up here all kinds of ways. You got a place to go?” I hesitate. I have plenty of places to go. A paid room at the hotel barely a block away, a rental car in the parking lot, an apartment back in the city, but somehow none of them feel nearly as familiar or safe as the worn linoleum and numbered boxes of the old post office. The door jangles, and the woman disappears back behind the counter. I sigh, grateful to no longer be on the spot. I step out from behind the rows of mailboxes and step towards the doors for the last time. Hand on the bar, I look back at the woman, now merrily going through various tiers of shipping rates. I nod my thanks, and her eyes sparkle back at me.
VIII. When the cab drops me back at the corner of Elm and Magnolia, I find myself unwilling to walk the block to my doorstep. I stand rooted to the cracked concrete, light drizzle peppering my thin coat until it is soaked through. I feel silly, unsure why I took the trip at all. Was it worth the cost of a flight and a hotel just to get drunk and nostalgic in a post office? When a police siren swerves past the curb, I finally force my legs into motion. The apartment is just as I left it. Coffee-table books, never opened, perfectly stacked on the too-short table, dishes stacked by size in the cupboard. I hang my coat on the radiator to dry and sink in my worn desk chair, facing out over the swarm of lights reflected on the damp concrete. I pull a sheet of paper towards me and begin to write. When I finally finish, the street has dried, and no cars race between the white and yellow lines. I dig through my pockets and find the crumpled sheet of stamps, each one bearing the image of a different log cabin. I choose the least marred of the set and apply it to the envelope. In a timid script, I write: Sam, P.O. Box 1374.
-- Alex Evans is a Midwestern prose writer and musician. He is currently in the Prose Writing program at the University of Cincinnati, where he serves as the fiction editor of Short Vine. His work has previously appeared in Persimmons Magazine and Peacock Journal.