Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Matilda Johansen’s Help from the Postal Service

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She hesitated before signing her name, as she often did. Should it be Matilda or perhaps Tillie or the name he always preferred, Mattie? He was only the second one who ever used it. The other was her mother, who landed on it when she was two in protest that her father required his only daughter be named after his grandmother. It conjured up no nonsense pioneer women, yes, but ultimately they were someone’s domestic laborer, they worked themselves to death like his grandmother. Her daughter would be independent and more. So Mattie was also used to the name Tillie, as teachers used it in school and then school chums used it, too. But she was her mother’s Mattie at heart, despite her father’s good intentions. In secret, she supposed, she would truly just be Mattie.

Well, she thought, licking the flap of the envelope and pressing it down with slender fingers, the recipient of the letter never objected to anything she used. Mostly she signed it Mattie; once it was Tillie. And–she pressed envelope against her chest–she really wanted to sign it, “Your sweetheart.” But that was clearly not right, not now.

She put on her light rain jacket–the low grey clouds suggested another day of rain–and walked the six blocks to the post office. Mrs. Melcher was raking leaves ahead of the weather, creating a giant pile in front of her porch, but she waved at Tillie, such a pleasant young woman. Mr. Harry was rounding up his fancy poodles after a walk and sharply nodded. Other than that, the street was mostly empty of traffic and yards were vacated later in the day. The neighborhood had been calm and orderly since she’d lived there. It was a place without drama, and that was reassuring and irritating at once. Mattie wished for more in her life but was always quick to find gratitude for what she had: a little house, a teaching career, an indoor/outdoor cat that had managed to stick around ten years, two close friends and a vegetable garden.

Except she missed Alan. Still. That was why she had begun to write him. Once a week.

Mattie was a fast walker. She clutched the letter in her side pocket and thought of him, how he’d outpace her with his longer legs and then she’d speed up and they’d end up racing each other to the corners, laughing. Sometimes she won. Such a simple thing, but it was another example of happiness she’d collected like she had many discovered, common stones. They were set out on the table for morning light to wash over. Then their real textures and colors were brought to life. Just as it felt was with the plainest stones illuminated, her day was given pricks of joy with each new reveal of the more lovely past.

A big white truck honked at her twice and the man gestured crudely at her; she stepped back just in time. Thinking of Alan did that–it took her to another place so that her present world was shined up, partly recreated. She kept her eyes on the downtown traffic clotting along the street, then came to the post office. Once inside, she cheerily greeted Annie working at the window, slipped her letter into the mail slot and started toward the coffee shop. She always got a cappuccino after she mailed his letter. To sit and think over what she had shared, to wonder how he’d react. If he’d react. To imagine him there across from her, smiling so readily and with that smile, stopping the world.

******

Annie knew that the woman had had a hard time when Alan left her; who didn’t know? It was a fishbowl town. Twenty years ago they’d seemed content, but in another five the marriage crashed and burned one day. Steady Matilda Johansen was left stunned. In shock, one might even say. It had taken a long while for her to get back on top of her job teaching theater and English at Elson Middle School. Or so Annie had heard; her son carried gossip to her from school. But it was apparent whenever they met at the post office–that dull look to her eyes, the absentminded nod. Understandably/ No one married with the idea that the love of her life would leave.

Alan was the sort of guy that everybody liked, gregarious and easy going, smart but not lording it over anyone; great at his work as supervisor of the pottery plant over in Waverly but more ambitious. And good looking. Annie thought he was a little exotic looking; everyone thought he was Italian but he said his mother was French-Canadian, maybe that was it. But he had an extra something that made people want to look at him more than a minute. If he knew that, he never let on, and always talked his wife up. They had made such a solid couple, sociable, generous with food at potlucks, attending the Methodist church Annie did, engaged in several community events. Annie secretly envied them their partnership.

Then Alan got a new job in Waverly, a managerial position at a outdoor/adventure company. It required longer hours, occasional business travel. So Annie wasn’t surprised when he was absent at many events. She’d shrug, say, “It’s the cost of ambition, he loves his work and wants more”, and she’d laugh a little too fast. But they bought the house; things went along.

Until they didn’t. Someone he met at the new company, people said. Marilyn was the name. his old work buddy let it slip that she was in Human Resources, and her looks, well, they matched his. So Alan divorced his wife of eight years and moved to Waverly and married Marilyn. People shook their heads, but things could be random, good men fell, lives changed.

But the one left behind? She isolated too much, the warm sheen she shared with him wore off, and she was apparently emphatic she was done, no dating, period. But she was a devoted teacher and began to win awards; this brought her back to a much better place. Back into her old circles, a life that mattered more. The whole town was relieved for her, as she was a valued citizen.

Then she started to write Alan letters. Annie couldn’t help but notice the weekly drops of carefully addressed envelopes, even if she’d tried not to. It had been going on for a month. Why would Tillie write that man fifteen years later? He was still married as far as anyone knew. Not that they cared. No one had seen him around in all that time. he had flown the coop and word was, though, he had kids, moved up the ladder of success with that Marilyn. It was a shame for Elson Middle School’s favorite English and fine theater teacher, but such was life with its hard knocks.

******

Dear Alan,

I can’t believe the leaves are not only brazen colors already but falling as fast as they turn. The summer was gorgeous and languid and then gone. But you know autumn is my favorite time of year, air clean and musky, sharp with cooling temperatures. I sit with Ginger Lily–my cat, if you recall–on the back porch and watch the maples catch fire in the fall sunshine. I know you’d like seeing this.. And Ginger Lily looks a lot like Tucker, our long gone tiger cat. She’s getting old and settles into my lap a good hour. I’m glad of her company, though she has little to say. This house, though small, would feel empty without at least this fur creature.

I imagine you’re doing well, are so beleaguered by work that you have little time to think of me. I always knew you’d rise to the top, as the best often do. I understand. (You had a family, I heard, at least one child– but a boy or a girl? How fortunate you have been.) So I try to imagine you in your office. Head bowed as you work at the computer, hand running over the shock of dark wavy hair when frustrated or just concentrating hard. You would play with a pencil, quickly laced it between your fingers over and over. And sometimes bite your nails. I used to nag you about it but we all have our foibles. Like, I still twirl and twist my hair when grading papers. And still forget to wipe down the bathroom counter after I splash a ton of water when washing up.

I saw the Hunter’s Moon with my buddy Lydia–she loves the skies, too–but thought of you. It was enormous and so warmly hued that it looked like a giant orange masquerading as the moon. Remember how we’d go sky gazing? Willard Point and the fields out by Rossiter’s Farm and the western hills and forest where we set up our tent for a weekend away. So dark there you couldn’t see your feet when you had to get up at night.

My teaching continues on as before. Not much changes from week to week. I so appreciate my students; they work hard on crafting a decent sentence, to inhabit a role in a play, to open their minds enough that they can see the value in creativity more unleashed. Well, most of them do. But I never give up on any of them, you know that.

And I never gave up on you. I look forward to writing these letters once week. It would be ridiculous to others if they knew. But I sense you near when I write. I know you are, still. We had so much, didn’t we? It is sustenance to my soul to know this.

Yours, Mattie

******

“Every time she sends one of these, I either want to throw up or scream. This is number four. It has to stop, it’s gross!” Carly’s eyes shone with outrage, then glistened. She tore up the page of blue stationary. “It’s just lucky we keep getting home before Mom does.”

Kendra leaned back in her chair and frowned. “Yeah, she hardly ever is home before 8. We do have to end it. Strange…But we never, ever tell Mom, right? We can handle this somehow. There is no return address but we can find out where she lives, somehow. Didn’t Dad say she was a teacher when he explained he was married before?”

Carly, a mirror image of her sister, raised arched eyebrows, eyes wide. “Hmm, right. We’ll figure it out. The Twins Shall Triumph. Again.”

They high-fived and went to their room. It took all of four minutes checking out the two schools in tiny Littleton, twenty-one miles from Waverly (an actual medium-sized city, thankfully). There had to still be a teacher with the name of Matilda Johansen. There it was…That was her full name, they guessed, though their dad had called her Mattie when he admitted he was married for eight years, that she taught kids. But then he met their mother and she swept him off his feet, and he didn’t feel too badly about it, because leaving the Mattie person meant he got to have them.

“My girls, the best in the entirety of the universe.” He said this as he grabbed both of them in a giant hug, and at 6 ft. 3 with a few extra pounds, they felt cozy and safe in his embrace.

They thought of this more than they wanted to. Or they wanted to but found it hard to think of him, period.

This Mattie was of no importance to them, not until a month ago when the letters started, and what nerve that took, sending them! It was wild that she taught English and theater. They both liked those subjects, were close to her students’ ages.

And they recalled their dad had said her name with a bit of softness in his voice, then said no more. That was two or three years ago when they had gone fishing with him….

“It all gives me the the shivers….I mean,… does she know something? And how do we find her?” Kendra said in a whispery voice. “This idea is crazy. Do we get Michael to drive us over and show up at her door?”

“No, no way. I don’t even want to see who this person is, who has to butt into our lives all of a frickin’ sudden. Let’s just call and leave her a message, threaten her a little, you know?” Carly sat up, hands balled into fists.

“No, don’t be stupid, no threats on a voice mail! In fact, how do we get her number?”

“We can… just call the school, ask for her.”

“And if she answers?”

They readjusted the pillows on the bed behind their heads and stared at the laptop, open to the school staff page. Matilda Johansen looked like a basic teacher type person, not a madwoman; she was almost nondescript, not even worth mentioning her looks. No wonder their dad left dull Mattie for their mom. And their mom was smart, practically ran the company, finally. They didn’t have to say these things aloud. They knew their mother was beautiful when younger. Sort of even at present.

But she’d changed a lot in four and a half months. They all had been changed.

“I’ll call,” Kendra said, “you’ll get way too emotional.”

Carly punched her shoulder and Kendra punched back.

“Stop it. We both want this to end. I can’t stand reading her pathetic lovesick letters. It’s so awful and wrong that she does this. And Dad would not even read them, he’d toss them from the start and tell her to get a clue, it was over at least fifteen years ago.”

Carly pulled away, gave her sister a side eye. “Would he? Do we even halfway know that is an absolute fact? Maybe he—“

“Stop it, just let me take care of this…” Kendra said with less conviction than she desired, voice wobbling. Before another moment passed, they were both crying, their arms about each other.

This was getting to be an old routine. Just mention dad and then slobber-cry.

Their parents had been fighting off and on for a year. Money stuff, petty miscommunications, the girls had to do this or that, the other parent against it. It had gotten tougher to come downstairs in the morning on week-ends, not knowing if they’d both be there or if the one who left would be back before night. Sometimes they’d wait until it was quiet, until both might have left. So they could eat breakfast in peace together.

They always had each other.

They stopped when a few hiccups subsided, finally stood up. Looked at each other, chins tilted up. It was like looking at themselves only different. Thank goodness.

“Tomorrow morning,” they said in unison.

******

“Elson Elementary and Middle School, how can I help you?” The woman spoke as if stifling a yawn.

“Ms. Johansen, please?” Kendra clutched Carly’s hand. They had under five minutes, then they had to leave for their classes in tenth grade.

“She’s in a meeting right now, can I leave her a message?”

“Can I leave it on voice mail?”

“One moment.”

“It’s ringing!” Kendra said.

“I can hear it, speaker’s on, the volume’s up!” Carly hissed.

A woman’s low voice with a melodious lilt came on. “You’ve reached Matilda Johansen’s office, and I’m away from my desk. Please kindly let me know what you need with your name and number. I will return your call.”

“Oh. Hi. I’m–well, you see, I’m calling because my sister and I need you to stop sending our father letters. Got it? Our names are Kendra and Carly Weatherford, his daughters who have a mom who loves him. And who he has… loved.” Kendra began to sniffle, then choked up so badly Carly tried to get the phone from her hand. She resisted and kept on. “Sorry for crying, this is hard to do but you just have to stop. Because–because…” she put her phone down.

Carly pried the phone from her fingers, took a deep breath. “No more writing him! Because it’s wrong. And– Alan Weatherford died last June!”

They gasped for breath as Carly hung up. They had never said those words to anyone they didn’t know. Just forming the syllables out loud hurt. But telling this crazy woman–this ex-wife of their dad’s? Why did she have to butt in and make things harder? It made them feel like they were lunging into a deeper dark pit so they grabbed each other, eyes gushing.

“Okay, we did it and now we have school,” Kendra said as she pulled away from Carly. and they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves.

Hal honked his horn three times, as usual. They counted on that. They grabbed books and coats and left, slamming the kitchen side door hard behind them, windows and door a-rattle as if in applause.

******

Matilda Johansen, Tillie to friends, Mattie to only two others (three if she counted herself), listened to that message three times.

Then she dialed the number from which it originated.

Carly answered immediately, put it on speaker as Hal drove unhurriedly. Kendra did not want to talk more.

“It’s Matilda. I guess it was you who left me that message? I knew something was wrong…Oh, no, you said–He’s…? I mean, I heard from him–the thing is, he came to me. In a dream….I guess.”

“Are you serious? How can you call us back? He was in a drunk driving accident…not him, the other guy killed him!”

“Oh no! So that’s why he walked into my room when I was staring out the window at constellations. And he did speak to me…I thought, well, he really needs something. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know how to get a hold of him but I knew his address. So I decided to write, see what would happen, that’s all. I didn’t know for sure if he was still there, still married or what…I thought they come back to me or someone would write somehow…”

Kendra bent over the phone. “Matilda. Mattie. It’s Kendra, that was Carly, my sister. He spoke to you, really? Well. What did he say?”

“Makes no sense, she’s nuts!” Carly said, poked at her sister’s thigh, looked out the window then toward Hal. he looked in the rear view mirror but said nothing. He knew when to shut up.

Kendra put the phone up to her face, as if trying to see her. “Wait a second. What could Dad possibly say to you, of all people? He hasn’t even shown up for me…us…”

Mattie cleared her throat once, twice. “He was like, foggy, you know, but I knew it was him. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mattie, the stars and I watch over you all.'” She clamped her mouth shut with her free palm, turned away from her door where a student waited to see her. Willed herself not to lose her control. She had known it, she knew it already, didn’t she? That he was gone from the earth? She saw him, in her room.

The girls were stock still, bodies sharing a fine electric charge that ran up and down their narrow backs and triggered memories. They used to be afraid of the dark, little kids always checking under their beds, in the closet, begging for a bright night light. Their parents didn’t think it necessary to buy them one. Their dad said the stars were there to comfort them all, like shining points of love. And then, tucking them in, he’d tell them: “It’s alright, I’ll always watch over you, from here or afar.”

“Oh, yeah…” they said.

Mattie heard them. And knew they all realized he was doing just that.

“I will stop sending letters, of course. You’re right, it was a strange idea. But when he came to me and said that, I deeply hoped maybe he was around still, maybe he was in trouble or all alone, and I believed he needed something from me, you see. I guess it was absurd, but–“

“No. We see. I get it. Sorta,” Carly said as the car lurched to a full stop in the school parking lot.

Hal turned around, held both palms up. When they ignored him, he got out. He didn’t know what to say about their father dying. It scared him. But he waited for them to come out. He was a trusted third in their twindom.

Kendra sighed. “I think I do, too. I can’t imagine why writing–I mean, think if our mom might have found them!” She looked at Carly. “I guess you loved him, too.” Carly nodded in agreement.

“Yes.”

“Okay, then, we have to go now,” Carly said.

“Yes, alright. And I’m so very sorry that he died, girls. He was something else. But you know.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

******

The next Saturday afternoon Ginger Lily sat at the front door, meowing with her best complaining voice. Someone was knocking, but Mattie was in the kitchen rinsing off sweet potatoes. By the time she wiped her hands and opened the door, no one was there–only a car racing off. But there was a big bunch of potted rusty-yellow mums with a little note card.

Dear Mattie,

I think you did the right thing, writing to our place. Dad sent us a message through you. So he did need you to find us and talk to us. He really cared for you to trust you that much.

Maybe one day we’ll meet, maybe not. But we’ll remember this.

Thank you,

Kendra and Carly

Mattie picked up Ginger Lily and went to the back porch to sit awhile. The leaves were twirling down so gracefully; the big trees were shedding the old ones so fast. She knew it had to happen but she mourned the castoffs a bit. It might be a lonely fall and a slower and colder winter. But she could keep writing to Alan. She just wouldn’t have to send them anywhere. He’d know she was talking to him.

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