It is still dark when Wallace Johnson drives through town to the post office. He's worked this Sunday morning shift for years and he's gotten used to it, gotten used to the absolute quiet, the seasonal rush of summer folks from all over creation. It dwindles in September to the couple of hundred locals and the weekenders whose real lives are elsewhere. Mountains of postcards, wish you were here!, also dwindle, to property tax notices and missing-children flyers. He has watched this coming and going his whole life and has rarely felt a longing to pick up and leave, himself.
The doors of the small cinder block building stay locked while he sorts the mail left in the box last night. He is to where he can count down the Sundays he'll spend this way. In just two months, early November, he'll be retiring, and his Sunday mornings will be spent sleeping or reading or fishing. To some it might seem like life doesn't offer Wallace much, but it does, every day, every meal, every good cup of coffee he pours from the metal thermos he brings in with him.
He has just settled in when he recognizes the handwriting on an envelope in the box. For twenty-five years now the letters have arrived every month or so, no pattern, except that they're always dropped in on Saturday nights. They are all addressed in the same loopy script, all addressed simply to Wayward One; Wallace is supposed to file and bag them with all the other "dead" letters that are dropped into the box without stamps or real addresses, children's letters with play tattoos in the corners, letters to Santa Claus and to God. He was forty years old when the first Wayward One letter came; it was late fall, and other than a wadded up tissue and an empty Coke can, the letter was all that was there that morning.
It seems a lifetime since the first one. Wallace's children were still in high school, his oldest son just accepted into the state university, the youngest running track. When he looks back he sees years filled with worries, first over the mortgage, then the expense of college. Now the tuition days are over, and his sons are off with families of their own, little children who call him and Judy long-distance to sing songs and say snatches of things that don't make much sense. And he feels accomplished, responsible for something good.
That first letter he found was in red ink and doused with cologne. That's what got his attention, the cologne, a scent he almost recognized. It had been a slow morning, a hard morning; he'd have loved nothing better when that alarm sounded but to turn it off and roll into Judy's warm back. Judy smelled of Wind Song and had for years. Every holiday when the boys were little that's what they gave her. Sometimes Wallace had wanted to put out his hands and make the world stop and let him breathe it all in. Sometimes he found himself waking and wondering what it was all about anyway. Why does everybody follow the pattern, follow the schedule? Why couldn't he wake up one Sunday morning and just not show up at work, wake only to roll back into the deep warm comfort of his own world. He could be wayward. Without thinking past that moment he had torn into the envelope and held the smudged yellow papers in his hand, the script so looped and sprawling that it was difficult to read:
10/29/69 11:30 PM
Oh Dear, how could you? WHY did you? I've heard all the accounts, all the stories. I felt that people studied my face for reactions every time your name was mentioned. Of course, I'd felt that way since the first time I ever laid my eyes on you in that ramshackle club down at Ocean Drive. I was too old to be hanging out at such a place so you sure as hell were. There were pinball machines beeping and ringing and that song "What Kind of Fool" kept playing over and over. There was talk that they might tear down the Ocean Forest Hotel and I remember thinking what a different world it had become since I was a child and staying there. I knew who you were, everybody did. You waved to people you had never met and acted like you were friends.
You were wearing a wrinkled, white cotton shirt, the cuffs pushed up to your elbows and the tail hanging out. If only I had had the sense to stay away from you. I hate you for what you've done and yet I feel that it's not all over. I don't know what I mean to say exactly; it's kind of like a feeling I have about things. Did I ever tell you that I sometimes feel too powerful for words? It's not something you really go around spouting.
I remember the first time I ever felt that way I was a child and sitting way up under our house. It had been torn down long before you moved to town, but you can picture it. It was a house much like that one across from the old A&P, the one with the wraparound porch and dark green awnings on the upper windows. It looked bigger than it was, so much of the space given to high ceilings and the way it was built--way up off the ground. That's what I liked about it. I could stand on my knees as an eight-year-old and still not hit my head on the rough boards of the foundation and plumbing. It was my world and it made me feel powerful.
I drew it all out, the whole world in the dry black dirt. I'd hear my mama walking around above my head. I'd hear doors creak and furniture absorbing the weight of somebody or another. "Sugar, where are you?" she'd sometimes yell out, and I'd sit quietly, the late afternoon light coming through the lattice work that surrounded the underneath part of the house. There was something magical, almost mystical about the way that light hit my legs and the world I'd drawn there in the dirt, the fancy houses and the shops, the places where people wore long dresses and drank tea.
I felt so strong in those moments, made stronger by my silence, my absence from the world above my head. I knew when my mother ran some water in the kitchen sink or flushed the toilet. I heard her ring the phone on the kitchen wall, short cranks, nobody in town had more than three digits to the number. I remember thinking that this is what it felt like to be dead and in another place; this is what God must feel as he sits back and does nothing while sirens sound and cars honk, people scream, and Mamas spend more time on their hair than on their children. I still feel that way, have off and on my whole life. There are times when I feel as powerful as God, when I play God, for that matter.
That would scare a lot of people to hear me say such a thing but not you, never you. Nothing scares you. Not even death. When I heard about it, I said, "What a hateful selfish bastard." My husband heard me and he questioned me, looked hard at me. He knew. I asked why you didn't get a prescription, take some sleeping pills? Why didn't you throw yourself in the river? I felt sorry for your wife and I told people so. I said, that poor child, to have to live with his daddy doing such a selfish thing, to feel like his daddy didn't love him enough to live.
No, in my world I would've killed you a different way, a stronger way. I would have leaned my head up against the lattice work of my childhood home and peered out at the bed of hollyhocks in my neighbors' yard. I'd have kept myself there in the cool darkness out of the bright hateful world. I'd have lulled you in like a spider into a web, and spun and spun my cottony threads until you were bound in a cocoon and unable to breathe. Or maybe I would have pulled you into the Ocean Forest, that huge brick building, ocean front like a castle, and I would have pulled you into the big old elevator and led you down deserted hallways to a room facing the sea, heavy silk drapes whistling with the wind and we would have hidden in a tangle of white cotton sheets.
If I had had the power, I would simply have loved you to death, but who had the chance? Who really had the chance to love you. I was there for God's sake! I was there just minutes before it happened. Did you ever even think how this was going to make ME feel? Your bed still smelled of ME, like this letter, like the red scarf I had draped over your lamp and forgot to take. I wonder what happened to my scarf. I wonder why you didn't do as you had promised you would and just go back to sleep. But no. I imagine the door clicking behind me and with that click your eyes opening. You were just waiting weren't you, waiting to get up and kill yourself without any thoughts about anybody else. Truth be told you never wanted to be loved. Well, you screwed up didn't you? For somebody so unworthy of love, you had yourself some folks who did. You had me.
After he'd read the letter, Wallace had put it in a plastic baggie and sealed it up, just as he would do to a letter on its way somewhere and damaged in the process, but instead of the standard drawer, he had made himself a new file, a weathered gray cardboard folder there at the back of the cabinet. Someday someone might come looking for that letter.
He knew that it was likely connected to a suicide that took place down at the far end of Ferris Beach. The owners of the house had rented to the same man for years and they were angry that he killed himself there. It was bad for business. Children made up ghost stories. All Wallace had ever heard was that the man was a writer of some sort. Then here came the other side of the story--her side--not the wife, but her, this woman with the red scarf and cologne, this woman he might someday meet, and somehow touch the very cog of a story that would continue to spin forever. Over time, the beach house had given in, as if to the pressures of the suicide and all the ghost stories, and slowly let itself be taken over by the shifting shoreline. To Wallace, it seemed fitting in a sad way to let nature finish what she'd started. He fishes down at that point often and watches the two shores of the inland waterway fight for control. Sandbags, slick white walls of plastic, are lined up on both sides to prevent erosion but the water keeps coming, keeps washing; it takes what it wants to take. Sometimes, when the blues are running, Wallace stops baiting his hook because the fishing starts to interfere with his pipe smoking and his scanning of the horizon. At the right time of day, you can see the tip of a sunken barge. The water pulls and spirals into the wreck. You can see a school of sleek silver dolphins arching in the distance. Sometimes the fishing interrupts his thoughts of the woman; how she might come to search the strand for lost traces of the life she used to have.
Now here he sits again, breathing the familiar cologne. This may be the last letter of hers he ever gets. This could be the final piece to a puzzle. He reaches for a letter opener and slits the envelope open carefully; his pulse quickens as usual and in his mind there comes a woman's voice, a voice from one of the neighboring towns in this rambling county. He is on her side, and he doesn't have the chance to tell her. He hasn't told Judy about the letters. In all of the years of their life, this is his only secret. Somehow it seems right that every person needs a secret.
Dear Wayward One,
I find myself thinking of the old days lately, I find myself thinking of your hands now nothing but bone, your ring hanging loosely, a tiny flash of light there in your padded darkness, like the fillings of your teeth, the cufflinks I heard you wore--her cufflinks, her present to you. I've always meant to write you about that and always forget.
It seems so silly now to think of how mad I got when I heard what you wore, like you could have really done something differently! I was mad that you didn't wear the cufflinks I gave you, those funny little mice with rhinestone eyes. They were the cheapest gift I could find that Christmas because I was so mad at you. I wanted to give you something as cheap and ugly as I thought you were because I loved the hell out of you and couldn't stand the thought that right there across town you were trying to make your life work, trying to make the son you'd run out on love you. On behalf of somebody who was run out on, I can honestly tell you that it doesn't work that way. Buy him a dog, fill his stocking with candy, it just isn't that easy and it was foolish of you to think so. I was hoping that he'd still smell the dishonesty on you; that he'd smell me on your neck and face and so would she. I imagined her perking up her ears like that stupid little dog you bought, her eyes glassy with hate. I was there, you know. I never told you but I was there for the big reunion. I was in a borrowed car, just parked and waiting, the boy extending his hand to you like you might have been a complete stranger, the wife turning her sharp little face away from your kiss. I couldn't picture you in bed with her, not then, not now, not ever, though I don't know why I can't.
I mean didn't I go straight home to my own husband and pull him under the mistletoe? I pulled him around his whole life. I pulled him by his manhood and by the heart, and he loved me every day of his life. He knew about you and loved me just the same. Then you were gone and now he's gone. And it's your hands I keep thinking of now. I think of your blunt square nails, nicotine stained and warm, rough on the sides of your thumbs from your habit of weeding out the grass from between the bricks of your old rented walkway. How many nights did you squat there and pull and pull, obsessed with getting every new little sprig that had taken root in the night while we whispered and kissed, risking hurt and humiliation. The hands.
What a small part of the body and yet a whole life is there, every trace of the fingertip, skin and cells. I remember the time you sunburnt your back on an overcast day, the blues were running too good to stop you said, it didn't feel hot, it was barely May. Ten days later you lay face down while I loosened the dead skin and pulled it off in strips. I held a piece up to the light and I could see the marks and texture, like dried glue or gummy paste. You said, "Peel me, it feels good" and I continued the whole afternoon while you dozed under my touch. I peeled you like a plum, a grape, your skin glazed in salt. I would love to feel your hands right now, cupping my face, pulling me to you. Sometimes I wish you had burned to ash, that you were somehow scattered to the wind, rather than confined there in your dark satin box, empty sockets and protruding jaw, hip blades protecting and housing absolutely nothing. You are nothing in my life, and everything.
All these years have passed and I am still haunted, still longing. I see you now in a younger form, a thinner, sweeter form. You appear at my door, your toolbox in hand, and I lead you in, watch your back as you walk away. Through this image, this apparition of what might have been you, I have found some bit of forgiveness. Could it be I'm getting soft in these later years? Remember that joke about when you get old everything that's supposed to be soft gets hard and what's supposed to be hard gets soft?? Well, maybe that applies to my heart. Maybe what I can do is help others find love and peace and security.
These things are not easy to come by, but that's old news and I don't feel like dealing in old news today. I'm feeling tired, you know? I'm real goddamned tired. I'm so tired that every now and then I start thinking that I understand what you did and then I really get mad because I've never been weak a day in my life and you, my love, were nothing but. I truly wish I could hate you for it.
Wallace pours another cup of coffee and looks at himself in the chipped brown mirror over the small lavatory. A lifetime has just about come and gone. How easy it is to respond to bells and rings and calls and cries. How easy it was for this poor woman to devote a whole life to a dream, to spend all of her time looking to what life was or is going to be. The best part of going fishing is the getting ready; buy your cut bait or bloodworms, get some beer and a bag of ice, cooler, snacks, sandchair, then spread it all out, set it all up like a little world, like that woman did as a child up under her house. Wallace Johnson would much rather read about a place far off from home than go there. He has always known that if he went, it wouldn't live up to what he'd thought. He has been this way his whole life, and now with retirement in view, he's starting to feel good about the way life has gone. There's a need for the anchors and the cogs, a need for those who stay in place and mind the shop. How else is there such a thing as history? How else can a child come home if he should need to?
- paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0449912809
- ISBN-13: 9780449912805