At the end of tree-canopied, winding Renwick Street, Ward Hughes waited for mail. He dearly wanted mail. Not the sort of mail your eyes gloss over because you can see by the envelope it’s meant to be useless. He didn’t understand why mailboxes had to accommodate dull circulars or advertisements with two pages of fake cheery notes about a bobble head prize for your dashboard if you just ordered a subscription to Monster Truck Enthusiasts magazine. He had a sedan that he didn’t drive often (he took the bus), so why was he getting this?
The grocery and hardware store coupons were helpful. He held a low-level appreciation for the seasonal clothing catalog where he’d order T-shirts or chinos on sale. But overall, except for seed catalogs and a gourmet cooking magazine Ella used to get, he got very little of interest in the mailbox. And he ought to toss Ella’s magazine–it was a two year subscription that had another four months of life. Ward found himself studying each issue as if it held secret ingredients that might bring her back, like magic spell recipes. Which was ridiculous. For one thing (and two), she was teaching English in China with her new husband, the entrepreneur. That’s what he got for marrying someone younger and better all ’round, and he accepted it most of the time. But then her magazine came again and he was at it again, though he certainly didn’t intend on trying fancy recipes.
Of course, as far as communication was concerned, there was the option of virtual mail. The email alternative and texting, both of which he found mildly aggrieving. But you could pick and choose who and what you wanted to write or read. There was a place for junk to be sorted. Everyone else seemed to think this was good enough, so why not Ward? Because there was still too much junk, that was the problem, and precious little in the preferred inbox.
He’d been thinking about it and come to a conclusion. He wished to re-institute paper letters that arrived via snail mail, as many called it with a heckling tone. He wished for the hand of his mailman, Tom, to reach into his vast leather pouch and slip a tidy bundle right into his mailbox, some of which were addressed to Ward Hughes by someone who cared. It would liven up the evening when he returned home from his job at the state employment office. The job that threw at him much of the woe of the world some days.
Ward would finger the mail in the box, then tuck it under his arm as he worked a key in the front door lock, then entered the living room. He kept a lamp on; it always cast a honeyed shaft of light across the entryway. He’d put his hat on a hook and coat on another and set down his briefcase, all the while wondering what was in that pile. He’d put it on the breakfast nook table and sort it into yes and no, happy to see an envelope addressed to him in blue inky penmanship. He might know at once who the letter was from, or he would scrutinize it with anticipation.
It seemed a small thing, he knew. He’d mentioned it to a couple of neighbors after the mailman left one Saturday and they engaged in a brief foray into the business of mail. They’d responded with very different views.
Frank the tax man said, “I’d rather abolish the postal service, it is a limping relic, an unwieldy system. Who really needs it unless there is a package? And there are more efficient ways to manage those–they have special stores for things like that and now, I hear, lockers for pick up. I miss my parcels most of the time, and how can it be helped? I’m not even home in the daytime, don’t they get that?”
Then Aaron the lawyer, considerably older than both of them, piped in. He seemed genuinely distraught by the state of postal affairs.
“It’s a sad and sorry day, that so few want to bother with real correspondence, isn’t that just how things are anymore! People take the easy way instead of the interesting way. It’s all about me me me and how fast can I become gratified? I do miss the birthday cards I used to get when I was a kid and even not all that many years ago. On the other hand, I’m gone so much as we seek out our soon-to-be retirement home in Mexico, it seems foolish to keep the service going here. We are set to leave again soon. By the way, might either of you pick up packages that may come in my absence? I do worry about theft. I’d be much obliged, Ward, if you might check on things when I’m not here.”
Ward considered a second, then agreed. “Yes, that’d be fine. I seldom travel. I don’t myself order much online. Maybe I should start doing that–it would be like getting presents left on my doorstep!”
Jenny, Ward’s neighbor on the left of Ward happened to be walking by with her little girl, Adrianna, and heard their talk. “Well, Ward, you can have some of my mail stash. It just piles up on the side table all week long, maybe longer, until I get the courage to attack it on week-ends after a stiff espresso and a danish.”
“It falls off the table onto the floor and then Tally gets into it and has lots of fun,” Adrianna offered with a smile, brown eyes wide with glee.
“Yes, he turns it into confetti sometimes….Oh, Tally, our new Lab puppy,” Jenny explained.
“Ah, right. Tally the mad little barker,” Frank tossed in as he waved goodbye and jogged across the street.
“Does she keep you up, Ward?” Jenny hoped this wasn’t so; they loved that dog already and had been happy neighbors with Ward for eight years.
“Oh, no, I wear earplugs and a mask–no light or sound disturbs me.” He liked Jenny and her family; he wasn’t going to tell her Tally sometimes provided a ghostly howl right past his custom silicone plugs.
Harriet studied Ward with an index fingernail caught between her tiny teeth though her mother tugged at her. “What mask? Like a bunny or fox or a skeleton head?”
Ward smiled at her indulgently. Harriet was thoughtful six-year-old and interested in everything. He imagined she was thinking how he’d look as a rabbit, his balding head adorned with long floppy ears, stiff whiskers sprouting from his cheeks. He suddenly wondered, too.
“No, just a regular mask, like Zorro–oh, well, wait, you wouldn’t know about him. Like Batman’s friend–that Robin’s mask? But no eye holes in it.”
“Ohhh, that’s funny! Well, eyes are closed at night. Except Tally’s can be a little bit open, I noticed that once!”
“Smart cookie,”Aaron noted, then said good-bye.
“Adrianna, time to make dinner, don’t keep bothering Mr. Hughes.”
They headed down the sidewalk when Adrianna called out, “I’ll put some things on your porch when Mommy throws stuff out.”
Jenny yanked on her sweater and waved at him with a twist of her hand without turning around.
So Ward resolved to not think about the mail issue anymore. Adrianna’s offer of their (even more useless) mail was a kindness harboring a vaguely pathetic streak though the child, of course, couldn’t know that.
Two weeks later Ward shared lunch with a co-worker on the corner park outside their massive grey work place. Spring was showing off, and they sat sunning their faces, blinded by brilliance after too many months of rain-soaked clouds. Titus, an office mate who preferred his last name to first, always brought a peanut butter and jam sandwich and a piece of fruit. He now wadded up his paper lunch bag to toss into the trash can, a signal it was time to return. They hoisted their bored, tired selves off the bench when Ward noted a new grey and lavender striped awning above a shop across the street. The space had been deserted for months.
“Curious,” Ward said and hesitated.
“I think it’s an art, no, someone said it’s a stationary store, how weird is that? I can’t think why someone would gamble their money away on that venture,” Titus said.
Ward felt a rush of pleasure. “Really? That’s quite unique, isn’t it?”
The rest of the afternoon flew by. He checked the store’s progress each day after lunch, taking Titus’ ribbing. There was something enchanting about a stationer, he always thought so, even as a kid when his parents needed some nice cards. His days proved much swifter now that he knew the store would open soon and he could go in it.
The day came when he could spare fifteen minutes after a quick bite. He examined leather-bound journals with smooth, empty pages and turned over artistic greeting cards to see who had designed them. He ogled substantial pens and pencils in fancy cases. Memos pads that were decorated with flora and fauna or abstract shapes. But the real treat was along the back where many shelves held colored papers, several weights and sizes, with matching envelopes. They were a consortium of watercolors, some delicate, others rich as gemstones. Those delicious colors dressing fine papers were waiting for his hand to take a pen to them, that was all there was to it. As Ward left, he vowed to return after work on Friday and buy several colors to mix and match. To use for…something. Someone. He didn’t quite know the why of it other than it was mail in the making for others. He certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Titus, nor anyone else.
The next Sunday afternoon, after he had mowed the lawn and washed breakfast dishes, he sat at his desk with his acquired array of stationary papers with corresponding envelopes. He tried different pairings of the six sheets and envelopes: aqua and coral, grey and rose, creamy white and sage green and then he changed it up. It was a puzzle, which papers and for whom they were meant. He had the idea to send birthday notes to a couple of family members, a letter to an old college buddy, Grant, who had recently contacted him via social media (they had exchanged addresses for a future visits), and then maybe a couple very short notes to neighbors for some reason or other. Like invitations for dinner, perhaps.
The task gave him a charge of gusto, a sense of purpose that was also fun, a good way to while away an empty hour or two. He snickered at the thought of Ella seeing him do such a thing, something almost refined, even careful–she would not believe it of this man who preferred garden work, had a neutral and polite response more often than not to a gourmet meal she’d labored over. A man who frankly could wear a favorite sweatshirt for a long while before noting any untoward aroma. But he did like to write, she would have given him that, and enjoyed some art. Ward wrote little pieces, a few paragraphs of insights with doodle along the edges. A short poem that he kept to himself.
He began with an ordinary ballpoint in hand, and kept them brief. After a good hour, letters and notes were finished. They were stacked on his desk, stamps affixed, ready to mail.
He went to his job each day feeling as if he kept an funny secret, or had done something good without any prompting. But he also now knew he had expectations. If only there was a response, if one piece of mail came back to him from a sender of good cheer, he would be pleased. The week passed, and then another began. The mailbox was full of the usual detritus, nothing of note. Ward did, however, get two emails from a nephew and a cousin thanking him for the well wishes for their respective birthdays. And those included checks, most appreciated.
Then, near the end of the second week when he wondered if he was a complete idiot to undertake such an endeavor, he found tucked among the neighborhood newspaper, advertisements and a bill from the dentist: two white, standard envelopes. One was written by someone who scrawled Ward’s name and address (how did the post office decipher that?) and then didn’t bother with a return address. Well, it had no stamp, either, so Ward saw it had to have been put into his mailbox. The other had poorly formed yet carefully placed letters due to age, he determined. He hurried indoors and sat down at his desk.
He opened the messy one with no return address.
Good of you to think of Mary and me for your spring dinner get together in two weeks but we’re off to Los Cabos–might have found a great house at last! I think we’ll be back after midnight the evening after, if all goes well. I’ll stop by then.
I have to say I liked getting your handwritten invitation in the mail! The green and ivory were good to look at and the paper high quality. I was surprised by your neat handwriting–you can see mine is a mess. I rely on typing, of course, or other people to do the job.
But now you have gotten some actual mail of a sort–smart thinking! I will send you some postcards from Mexico now and then and you can update us on nice stationary stock. So, a win-win!
He found this a relief and also humorous, that Aaron would finally send him postcards after all these years of being such good neighbors. But he was happy with it.
The next mail was carefully opened and he unfolded a picture of a rabbit that looked suspiciously like a man. With no hair but funny long ears.
Dear Mister Hughes.
Mommy says you like art and lettres. Here’s 2 for yer pile. Of mail. I hope oyu like yer rabit!
His hand rested on his heart as he sat a few minutes re-reading them both. He propped them up on the counter, under the calendar. His first personal mail in a long while. It felt humanizing somehow.
The next week he got a long letter from his old college friend. Ward learned more about Grant than he’d thought to ask. He wrote about his work as a wildlife photographer and his family, about his tennis passion, how he created handmade canoes and loved being at his cottage with his gang more than anything else in the world. And he had traveled the world and found it little compared to his cottage spot with his four kids and wife of twenty-two years.
And by the way, I was so glad to get your letter, an actual letter! What a novel idea and how good of you to take the time to write a page. You’ve started a conversation I hope we can continue. It will be good to catch up, so write back soon.
And that did it. Ward was so happy, he got out his typewriter and started on a poem. It wasn’t grand; it was about connecting with others, how good it was to have many voices in his life. He thought about his earplugs, how they blocked out everything so well that a puppy having a good howl in the night caught him off guard. It needn’t be like that. He could try to be friendly even with Tally. He might ask Jenny and her family over for a simple meal when it got warmer. That Adrianna was a kid to reckon with, a fledgling letter writer.
It was time to be more of whom he’d hoped to become, not just a middle-aged man yearning for a letter in the mail. Ella was long gone and that was that. He had a career that wrenched more from him than he’d realized but it was a good position; he’d stay with it. Still, Ward wanted a variety of people-filled experiences, poetry now and then, wildflowers strewn around the hearty veggies. A few honest and eloquent letter exchanges. He felt writing thoughts on paper brought people to the truth faster and he was off to a decent start. Now he just needed an attractive new mailbox. The old one sported residue from a label emblazoned with Ella’s and his names. It needed only a house number. He did want to repaint it canary yellow or maybe fire engine red. Surely it–and he–deserved that modest upgrade in dignity.