By Grace Przywara
Honorable Mention, Prose, Create | Encounter 2019
Don’t let any mailperson tell you they don’t read the postcards. They’re lying. And usually it’s not that big of a deal. Your newly-married friends are having fun in Bermuda, your dental cleaning is scheduled for next month.
It was this one particular postcard that stuck with her, though. She’d been a mailwoman for ten years when she was assigned a new route. Rolling her truck up for the first time to 2710 Palms Street, about to stuff the bundle in the gaping mouth of the mailbox, she saw it. She extracted it carefully, discreetly. On its one side was a photograph of dusty, rolling hills and a bright blue sky, feathered with clouds. In tiny italics in the bottom left corner: Hills in Kabul, Afghanistan.
She found herself reading the message, and was taken aback by how loving it was in just three sentences:
I hope school is going well. I think about you every day, because every day the sun comes up warmly, just like your little smile. I can’t wait to see that sunrise again.
The handwriting was small and precise, like an architect’s. She slipped it back into the bundle and into the mailbox of 2710 Palms Street. Remembering her dad used to call her “princess” before he passed, she drove onto the next house.
A two weeks later, long after she had forgotten about the hills of Kabul, the bundle for 2710 included another postcard for the princess. Bright pink tulips in a garden outside a sandy-colored house.
I think I’m going to plant a garden when I get home. Maybe it’ll look like this. Will you help me? I’ll do all the work if you just pick bouquets, promise.
She smiled. What a sweet father. In the mailbox it went, along with some bills and a Southern Living magazine.
Every couple of weeks there’d be some new love note for the princess. A couple of times, the same postcard photograph would be used, but without fail there was another darling couplet, another promise, another question to be answered later.
As the mail went in and out of the mailbox on Palms, she never noticed a reciprocal postcard or envelope. Was the princess dropping her mail off somewhere else? Or did his love notes go unrequited? It was a sad thought that stuck with her for rest of the route. She thought about it on her way home, and the broccoli- and-cheese frozen dinner spun in yellow light. It distracted her throughout the reality show reruns. She thought about it as she fell asleep.
On a day that held its breath darkly with the promise of rain, after Magnolia Drive, and Hyacinth Lane, past Pine Street and Sycamore Circle, she came up to 2710 Palms Street. Another postcard. This one had a narrow, green valley with thin roads and a winding river. Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan.
I miss your laughter. I miss the way you sing very loudly. I miss the way you quote the movies we watch. Remember Mulan? “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.”
She couldn’t help it. She slipped it in her uniform pocket, and put the Verizon bill and the Good Housekeeping magazine in the box. She even accidentally-on-purpose put 2712 Palms Street’s coupon book in there, just to take up the space that she felt was so glaringly obvious.
When she got home, she thought she was going to throw up due to the weight of the postcard in her pocket. She never replies anyway, she told herself. I’ll just hang onto it. She won’t miss it. She read it over again. I’m sorry—how precious—start over. The words were like aloe. She put the postcard on her nightstand and fell asleep, dreaming in flowing watercolor of pink tulips.
She had always recognized Dad’s postcards easily, and now had stopped looking at them before she placed them in her pocket. She’d go home and read the words over dinner instead. At first, she liked to look at them as soon as she walked in the door and had a chance to sit down on the eleven-year-old sofa. Then she started to wait, leaving them on the table till she was settled. Without the rush, she started taking the time to cook—something like rosemary roasted chicken and eggplant—and reading the couplets or occasional one-liners as she ate. Often they were silly, sometimes they were poetic, or a little more serious, but each and every one was brimming with love.
The television shows she used to watch became stale. She started opening the windows, well into the evening, to let the cool, dark air in. What started out as nausea turned to a kind of flutter of her heart when she saw the stack on her nightstand grow—a stack that sat next to a new potted plant she had placed there to accompany the landscapes that Dad sent her.
The day after the new sofa was delivered, a few weeks after standing in line at the furniture outlet, wondering what the conversion rate was between eleven human years and sofa years, she brought home a postcard of a simple desert sunset. Sitting down with homemade tomato soup, gouda grilled cheese, she began to read the very small, slightly cramped handwriting.
I’m sorry for how hard it’s been. I know you’re hurting, and you’re upset at me for not being there for you. But I can’t do anything about that now. All I can do is hope that when we see each other again, soon, you will understand how precious you are to me. We can start over.
It was the apology that did it. With no kind of build-up, her breath caught and her eyes stung with fresh, sudden tears. Her appetite lost, she dropped the crust, the postcard, and pressed the heels of her hands in her eyes. The voice in her head started swirling.
I want so badly to forgive you, Dad. He was your brother. You could have stopped him. But you didn’t. I told you what happened but you didn’t care. You didn’t listen. Why now. Why now.
She got up so fast her chair tipped over, clattering noisily in the empty air. She frantically ran her fingers through her hair, pacing in circles before collapsing on the still-stiff sofa.
I wanted to put it all behind me after he died. I thought it would all be over but it’s not because you cried at his funeral and said he was so great and I was your princess wasn’t I, wasn’t I, wasn’t I
and her thoughts turned to yells, “Wasn’t I worth saving?” She gasped. “Wasn’t I your family, too? Why didn’t you help me? Why didn’t you believe me, damnit damnit damnit...”
Like a mantra, she kept repeating the word until her heartbeat slowed and her breathing returned to normal. For a long time, for what felt like her to a week of nights, she laid there. Her life played out, not in a flash, but in a sick spiral. Those days of childhood. Those tense conversations. Her secret-keeping. She thought of her uncle’s funeral and her façade of mourning. The shades of black of the congregation turned
to the same crowd at her dad’s. Bitterness mixed with sorrow. Regret that rested in her heart uncomfortably, like it didn’t fit, like it didn’t belong to her.
I’m sorry...I know you’re hurting...not being there for you...how precious you are to me. We can start over.
A breath in, then out. I’m sorry. Start over.
A breath in, harder this time. Her breath out was the kind of sigh that a person breathes rarely, if ever, in a lifetime. She stood up, sore, muggy-headed, and walked to the table. She carefully picked up the postcard, and read it again. I forgive you, Dad.
Two weeks later, the postcard was a photograph of simple, frosted mountain peaks, bursting into the sky. It had one sentence, which she read as soon as it was in her hands:
Soon I will be home!
She thought about this one all day, the way she had with Dad’s messages many times before, but this time, a new feeling followed her around: relief. He’s going home. Though she didn’t go to church anymore, she believed in something more, an afterlife, she supposed. She felt a little ashamed at what the relief must mean—what she had thought had become of him before. But then she remembered shame was no longer a feeling she had to endure. He’s going home. And she helped him get there.
There were no more postcards.
Down Magnolia Drive, down Hyacinth Lane, past Pine Street and Sycamore Circle, she delivered some magazines and a package into the mailbox of 2710 Palms Street one Friday. She took note of ten cars of assorted colors parked all over the driveway and lawn, the sound of laughter and music and conversation from the backyard, and the smell of a grill. She smiled for this nice family, happy for them, whoever they were, and began to think of what she might eat for dinner.