“The Temporary Assistant Postmaster” by Alan Bray

20Sep13

Every morning he empties the lobby wastebasket, and sets it down making a hollow clatter ring, brittle. In fall and winter, whenever there’s been frost overnight, he strews salt on the front steps as a farmer scatters seed. A mixture of vinegar and distilled water goes across the glass windows looking out onto the entryway. When he swipes at the moisture running down, an apparition sometimes catches in the glass, a creature rumpled and gray who stoops a little more each year.

The post office is open when he says it is. He watches the clock on the wall, ready to unlock the steel security gate. Sometimes, he waits a minute or two. It used to be that a line of customers would be waiting to enter, but times have changed, and the post office has become like one of those forgotten towns bypassed after the expressway was built.

This morning no one comes at all, and by ten o’clock he’s been staring at the wall for the past fifteen minutes. The back door opens and closes, it’s only Tom Harris, the postman, picking up the other half of his route.

Just as he’s begun an inventory of forms—something he hasn’t done for a week—a harsh cry breaks the silence. A crash rattles right up through the floor and counter into his bones. For a moment he thinks it’s the end of the world, here, in this old empty post office where he’s spent his life.

All he has is his name, Lyle Devlin—his father’s name.

But, as he peers over the counter and looks outside through the shining lobby windows, everything looks the same; there are no cracks in the walls, no black clouds or pillars of fire, no sounds of wailing. He rushes into the back.

At first, nothing seems out of place. Except that, in the center of the concrete floor, someone has thrown galoshes on a rust-colored down jacket and carpenter jeans with one leg bent beneath the other. A pile of old clothes. Tom Harris’s clothes, as if he had disrobed and vanished. Lyle moves closer and bends down. After a moment, a bristly red face emerges from the background, its eyes closed and its mouth slack. A sour odor of whiskey rises.

For a moment Lyle fears Tom is out cold or even dead—incident reports will have to be completed, not to mention the work of finding a new postal carrier with a working car. But one of the galoshes kicks, and a claw-like hand gropes at the air.

“What the hell,” Lyle says, pulling hard. “What the hell, Tom.” Lyle’s known Tom for thirty-six years, knows his habits. How much has he had to drink today—so far? As soon as Tom’s on his feet, Lyle releases him. “You all right?”

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

Lyle looks further into the depths of the mailroom. One of the canvas-covered carts used to bring parcels in from the truck rests at an odd angle on the far wall, and Lyle moves towards it, accelerating his pace as he realizes something is wrong.

The upper edge of the cart’s steel frame has been driven a good half-foot into the wall. Lyle tries to pull it free but it’s wedged tight and won’t budge. He grabs with both hands and pulls. He pulls again, harder, and this time, the cart gives way with a screech and a wail. A gash three inches high and one foot wide opens. Within it, the bare bulbs of the mailroom reflect light against a dense surface of plaster.

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

Lyle squats down and extends his fingertips across the barrier of newer sheet-rock, which, as he leans in, exhales mildew and cool dust. A tongue of sheet-rock paper hangs from the gash, and he grabs it, thinking that by tearing it off he can at least begin to put things right. But instead it gives way like a coiled rope, and he loses his balance and falls onto his tailbone.

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

His weight caused a large piece of the paper to come free, exposing a depth of granular gypsum. Tom leans forward and reaches into the hole. “No, leave it,” Lyle says, struggling to his feet and brushing dust off his pants.  “What are you doing? Stop—you’ll make it worse.”

“Wait.” Tom sticks his arm in up to his shoulder, bracing himself against the floor and pulling. With a groan, a whole section of wall gives way; gray fibers spill out, as if a bag of grain has been ripped apart. “Holy shit,” Tom says. “Look at this.” Covered in white powder, his fist holds a bundle of letters, tied with a squashed knot of brown butcher’s string.

“Wait,” Lyle says, as Tom blows dust off the bundle. “No.”

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

Lyle holds it at arm’s length in order to focus on the old script. Mrs. Dorothy Murray at Three Milk Road. It doesn’t make sense: there’s no zip code and Milk Road has disappeared. Lyle knows where it used to be, behind where the old school had been, where they built the new café that serves the flavored coffees. The return address is from Northhampton, in western Massachusetts. The stamp’s been canceled, the letter processed in good faith, but never delivered. And it’s a three-cent stamp.

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

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

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

The bell rings up front, signaling that a customer is waiting. “You’d best get on with your route. I’ll clean this up later.”

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

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

But he hasn’t filled in the addresses correctly, and while the customer does them over, Lyle glances up at the wall to the right of the front door where a wooden plaque lists all the postmasters going back to 1777—except for his name, which should be at the bottom, inscribed on a small brass plate shinier with all the rest. But, he’s only the Temporary Assistant Postmaster and doesn’t merit the recognition of engraving. Instead there’s a gap at the bottom, a gap that disturbs him, as if—worse than the absence of recognition—he’s been removed.

“Are these okay now?”

Lyle blinks and nods.

He stacks the maple syrup parcels on the shelves and locks the money in the cash drawer. The right thing, he knows, would be to call his supervisor and make a full report about the lost mail, which is, 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. They’d close him for sure. For sometime, his greatest fear has 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’s lunchtime.

He closes the steel barrier across the lobby door, and returns to the mailroom.

The coffee from the machine isn’t fresh but he pours a cup anyway. From the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, he takes out the greasy, brown paper sack he saves and reuses all week. Inside there’s a small yellow apple and a peanut butter sandwich on white bread. Two Oreo cookies.

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

The acid in the apple sets his teeth on edge.

He looks 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 have 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. Sometimes, she’d run out of pills or broke a glass, but sometimes it was more serious—near the end, there were two times she fell down and had to crawl to the phone.

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

He checks the time; it’s still the lunch hour. If he calls the higher-ups now, no one will answer. Just hide everything, he thinks. Tom’s okay, there’s no need for an incident report. A fresh coat of paint will dry and harden, sealing the scar.

The paper lunch bag gets folded, and his hands washed. Before opening for the afternoon, he checks to make sure the mail cart is tight against the hole in the wall, so that—unless someone looks close—nothing will seem to be wrong. Then he goes back up front. When a customer comes in, he’s glad to have something to do.

Just before five, he stands next to the door, watching the clock. It’s too late to call the supervisor, but first thing in the morning he can do it, say he was cleaning up from the accident and discovered the letters.

When the minute hand touches twelve, he throws the deadbolt, allowing an extra second because of the angle he’s at relative to the minute hand. Then he remembers: this morning, I opened two minutes early—I’m still ahead.

* * *

That night, he unloads sheet-rock and joint compound, a gallon of white latex paint, the tools he brought from home, and goes in through the back, making sure the mailroom door is shut tight.

The hole in the wall—after Tom’s enlargement—is a rough, three-foot square. Lyle takes a thick carpenter’s pencil and begins outlining the hole with straight marks. After he saws out the space, he cuts a panel from the new sheet-rock, just a little smaller than the hole, to make sure it will fit tight.

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

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

He angles the beam of light down over the torn edge and peers in, expecting to see the single packet of letters he threw back earlier. But between the old plaster wall and the newer sheet-rock, piles of packets are stuffed between the joists. He blinks and pushes the light further into the space, hoping that what he’s seeing is only a trick of shadows. It’s not. With shaking hands, he retrieves each dusty packet, counting as he sets them on the floor—sixteen, seventeen…

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

At the back door, a fist thumps three times. Lyle frowns. Who’d be coming here at this hour? He draws the bolt and opens the door a crack, positioning himself so that the letters can’t be seen.

“Saw your car. You fixing the wall?” It’s Tom. “I’ll help, since it was me who smashed it.” He pushes past Lyle and weaves 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 draws up a chair and sits at Lyle’s desk. From the depths of his coat, he draws out a two-thirds full pint of whiskey and takes a drink. “Want some? Go on—we’re not on duty.” He wipes off the mouth of the bottle and sets it down. As soon as his hands are unencumbered, he crosses the room and returns with several packets of letters. “You opened any yet?” he says, holding the packets on his lap. Dust makes 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 says, pulling an envelope free. “It’s probably from the war years. Who knows what’s inside.”

Lyle walks to the desk and sits at his chair. “Go ahead,” he says, 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 holds the envelope up and screws one eye closed. “Betty Furlong, looks like. Don’t remember any Furlongs. 47 Maple Avenue, yeah, that house is still there, not on my route though.” He tears the letter free and unfolds two sheets of stationary. Dear Betty, The weather here is…” His voice drops to a whisper, and his lips keep 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 takes a drink from the bottle. “No, one’s enough. We’re accomplices to the crime now.”

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

“Hell yes, Lyle. Otherwise, there’ll be a big old fuss. I think what happened was that this postman just got too tired.” Tom waves 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 imagines an anarchist postman, defying the inspector, refusing to say what had happened, where he’d put the lost mail. Pleased at the secret, at discovering the power to blind and mute letters—those things which controlled his existence.

A stream of letters disappearing into cracks in the walls of a score of 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 which, now, could be broken.

His eyes focus on the space between his desk and the hole. His father 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 was centralized. All Lyle has of his father is one handful of memories, the sharpest set here in the mailroom. Lyle was just tall enough to look over the front counter, and while his mother bought stamps, he saw 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 bite down hard enough, any other pain becomes bearable.

His lips purse and he withdraws a letter from the middle of a different stack. It’s so dry that it seems it might shatter. He eases his reading glasses down his nose. “Let’s see. Mr. John Baker, 64 Limeharrow Street.”

Tom snorts. “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 opens the envelope. John, he reads 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 says. “Important things that wouldn’t necessarily be said otherwise. I don’t know what happens now. E-mail, maybe.” He waggles 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 skips down two long paragraphs. The years pass with haste, and we must draw them over ourselves as we would a familiar, comforting blanket over sad memories and regret.

“Huh,” Tom says and begins reading another letter.

When his father 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 was never anything but letters from an aunt who lived in New York.

The empty bottle of whiskey is on the floor next to the desk. “I don’t know. I think there’s still people waiting for these,” Lyle says, 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 lets 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 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, he deserves no imagining.

He clears 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 nods quickly, looking down to the side and squeezing his eyelids together. For a moment, there’s silence, and then Tom clears his throat.

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

* * *

The next morning, the letters are arranged in neat stacks on his desk. A half hour ago, he 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… right, inside the walls.

He steps back from the windows and looks up at the plaque. The empty space at the bottom is gone, filled with uneven letters written in several sizes. Lyle Devlin, it spells, a trail of white paint running down from the “D.” Postmaster.

The official opening time is two minutes away, and he unlocks the inner door and steps into the lobby. He turns and faces the windows, looking through them across the tiled floor, over the counter through the doorway to the back room where sheet-rock scraps and strips of tape have been swept together in a pile on the floor.

He’s 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. His head turns a point, and the reflection vanishes.


Alan Bray has worked as a musician and clinical social worker, and has been writing fiction for the past fifteen years. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. His recent stories can be found in Per Contra and The Citron Review.


Read Alan Bray’s comments on Ramona DeFelice’s “Traiteurs.”
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Notes from Alexander Slagg, Senior Associate Editor

Reading “The Temporary Assistant Postmaster” is like watching a fireworks display while wearing earplugs. The dramatic energy is subdued, but it is well-synchronized and bursting, at times, with rich emotional color. The subtlety of the author’s hand in providing small details, such as the specific and very apt contents of the protagonist’s lunch, and then ushering the plot forward and offering a nuanced ending, shows the care that went into calibrating the mechanics of this piece.

What I enjoyed about this story is that throughout the arc of that plot, the reader is not spoon-fed how to read the action. The author leaves some narrative space around each scene, allowing the reader the opportunity to infer some of the emotional subtleties—to participate in the telling of this story. For me, that is the most successful facet of this piece. The writing is mature and interested me enough to want to continue reading it to the end, and it gave me space to interact with this piece and bring my own narrative vision to the process. That quality makes this a successful piece of art.
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Comments on this story by Alan Bray, author of “A Shortage of Butterscotch at a Time When Butterscotch is Sorely Needed”

Lyle Devlin, cursed to bear the name of his estranged father, spends his days in a small post office in a small town, chasing the modest dream of being the town’s postmaster.  The only interaction he has is with the mailman, Tom, who has accepted the endless monotony of his work and found solace in whiskey.  At times, the story feels like a modern day retelling of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” as the two men accidentally discover hundreds of undelivered letters stuffed into the crumbling walls of the post office.  Despite his dedication, Lyle receives no external validation for his performance at this job.  He has slipped through the cracks, perhaps forgotten, perhaps ignored, or perhaps a combination of both. By taking control, Lyle escapes the specter of his father that has long haunted him in the old building, whether or not Lyle was willing to admit that to himself.  Bray has managed to create a story based around the lost art (and dying industry) of personal, written communication and the simultaneously brave and delusional man that wants to go down with the ship.




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