by Mary Carroll Moore
My last year at the Post Office, before my retirement, I decided to buy beanie babies with my year-end bonuses from Uncle Sam. Then I carefully opened other people’s Priority Mail packages in the afternoon when things were slow and I was all alone behind the counter. Depending on who the package was addressed to, I’d add a crocodile beanie, a whale, a tiger, Mr. Shark.
Some of those postal customers must’ve wondered about their packages, but I never got caught, not even after Hans, the kid who works janitorial for us, found my drawer of beanies one night when I forgot to lock it. Seems the post office was getting a lot of complaints, but nobody could figure out why.
Hans was a strange guy. Only nineteen, he grew up wild, living on his own in the woods. His parents were in a car wreck when he was thirteen, and he ran away from foster care. His wildness reminded me of Johnny, my son who died. Hans and I talked on breaks, sitting on the dock behind the post office, staring at the sound. He bought me coffee from Starbucks before our shift started, not just the plain stuff but hazelnut and mocha. One time after work, he even walked with me to the wildflower gardens behind the cemetery.
Hans and I were friends. He never treated me like I was close to seventy, never called me anything rude. Just Miss Marjorie, kind of old-fashioned, but I liked it.
I’d hear stories from the others. One of the window clerks said Hans talked in tongues. Words not in English, not anything, would come over him in a fit. I’d just nod, like I marveled at such a thing, then informed the idiot that Hans was studying Icelandic or Latvian. That shut them up.
Mostly I felt sorry for him. Hell of a way to grow up, nobody to take care of you. Hell of a job too, pushing a mop all day for people who don’t give a fig.
Before my retirement, because Hans never breathed a word about my little escapade with the packages and the beanie babies, I did something my living children would classify as crazy. I asked Hans if he wanted to celebrate with me. We’d take a Saturday off, drive down the coast, see that rain forest Washington State is famous for. If Hans helped out, we could take my car, do it all in one day.
I’d given my notice the week before, and the crew at work gave me a party. There was a golden envelope with my name on it and a lifetime membership to the International Beanie Baby Fan Club. Everyone laughed at my shock when I opened it, except for our postmaster, of course. The cake was shaped like a dachshund, which is one of the hardest beanies to find.
I almost cried, and that’s the truth.
I picked Hans up before dawn that Saturday morning. He waited outside the post office, a cooler beside him on the pavement, one big hand clutching about six cassettes. I almost told him, ‘Don’t go ruining my day with that trash music you kids like to listen to.’ But he surprised me again. The first tape he played was a Mozart Requiem, one of the prettiest things I ever heard. We drove those three hours to the Olympic Peninsula, listening to that music over and over.
We stopped for lunch at a diner off the coast, a place I knew from family vacations. Hans ordered milk and two pieces of pie, key lime and banana cream. I laughed at that—elegant choices—so he told me what he ate those first weeks in the woods, bark and acorns. How it wasn’t elegant at all. We felt easy together now, after those lunch and coffee breaks, those miles of Mozart. A car is a space capsule, closed from the world, where secrets are exchanged. Where you can talk without feeling observed, each staring at the yellow lines weaving ahead, the headlights catching flashes of movement along the roadside. So over my second piece of pie, I talked about Johnny.
I told him how often I imagined what kind of pie Johnny might order, whether he and Hans would be friends. They’d be the same age, both a little wild.
‘I heard he was in Vietnam,’ Hans said, after we pushed aside our plates.
I didn’t want to talk about the war. Stupid, tragic, run by more government idiots, sacrificing boys like they were experimental animals. I wasn’t allowed to join the protests, seeing as I was a U.S. Postal worker, but the post office grapevine is as efficient as Express Mail, so everyone heard about the message that came. How they never found his body. How silently I raged.
‘Every war is senseless to a mother,’ I said now. ‘Johnny believed in the cause.’
My fault, really. I’d given my son flying lessons for his sixteenth birthday, same as my parents gave me. As soon as he got his license, he signed up to serve. I carried the whoosh of air, the smell of engine oil, the noise in my ears too. I almost understood.
‘Sometimes I dream Johnny still lives in Seattle,’ I said. ‘He has a job with another branch of the postal service.’ I was silent for a moment. ‘Other times, I see him still circling over burned villages.’ The familiar ache gripped my throat, making me dizzy.
Hans pulled his empty plate back over and scraped a pattern on the white china with tines of his fork and the leftover streaks of key lime pie. ‘Maybe he’s still alive, just not able to contact you.’
I sighed. ‘Johnny would’ve liked you. You both appreciate order. Mail with the right zip code.’ We laughed over that.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help the way my thoughts were spinning. The streaks of green reminded me of the rainforest, which gets 150 inches of rain a year. I imagined what a jungle looks like from the air. A cushion, soft enough to sink into, welcoming even. But its fingers of memory never really letting you go.
As if I were a page and he was able to read between each of my lines, Hans reached for my hand and just held it for the longest time. I had to go visit the Ladies’ Room after that. I didn’t want him to see me in that state.
Dusk was falling before Hans and I turned back north to Seattle, to his job at the post office and the beginning of my retired life on the little houseboat I’d managed to buy with the death benefits the government sent me.
I remember we were driving through the last strip of rain forest before you get to the coast highway. The trees are dark there, like a thick canopy over the car, so dense you can hardly see sky or stars. We only saw a golden circle of light piercing the darkness, a circle of gold at the end of the tunnel of trees.
I wondered if this was what Johnny had seen in those moments above the earth, maybe flying at sunset, watching something beautiful beneath him. If he had felt the silence or leaned closer to the plane windows before the explosion. All crewmen killed, they said. It was quick, they said.
But what if he’d jumped out, felt the light rain blowing in his face as his parachute opened, like the rainforest mist that streamed the windshield as Hans drove us home? Maybe it made a gentle sound that soothed my son, like the hiss of the tires on wet macadam.
As we came through the trees, Hans began to sing.
It wasn’t English. It wasn’t even Icelandic or Latvian or any language I could make it. Not even words as far as I could tell, but the message was as clear as the golden light we drove through.
And for the first time in that terrible year, I felt my heart ease a tiny bit.
We’d taken the long route, along the coast. The ocean stretched endless in the distance, reaching out to China or Russia or the jungle where Johnny lay, hidden by undergrowth, slowly reuniting with the earth. Hans sang for Johnny, for all the losses we two had suffered, for everything the world had ever known.
There wasn’t much to say after that. As we came out from the canopy of trees, light flashed like a beacon on the waves stretching the length of the coast. The sun dipped its head beneath them and was gone.
Mary Carroll Moore’s short fiction and poetry has been published and/or won awards with Fictive Dream, Quay, Pitkin Review, Glimmer Train Press, Airgonaut (forthcoming), Santa Fe Writers, and other publications. Her queer YA novel, Qualities of Light, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue, will be released in 2023. One of her short stories, “Breathing Room,” won an honorable mention in the 2005 McKnight Awards for Creative Prose and was a top-ten finalist in the 2001 Loft Mentor Series Awards judged by Amy Bloom. Another, “Blindness,” was a finalist in the 2021 Tobias Wolff flash fiction awards with The Bellingham Review.