Russ puts a key into the lock. “Now, zen,” he says, in an exaggerated French accent, because he always finds a way to dork up a situation. “You have a spess-yee-ale some-sing to mail?”
Ingrid tells him how we pulled into the post office parking lot at eleven fifty-eight, but the grumpy man wanted to go golfing and wouldn't let us in, which was very, very unfair.
Russ acts as if her story is the most fascinating he's heard in a long while. As she talks, he takes a spot behind the first window, pushes a few buttons on the computer, and folds his hands on top of the scale. “Let's do this,” he says.
I hand Ingrid the envelope, and she rolls onto her tiptoes and hands it to Russ.
“Anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” he asks.
“Huh?” says Ingrid.
“I'll take that as a no.”
“Of course,” she says, “I don't know why we didn't just
our entry. Wouldn't that have been easier, Zell?”
“From the mouths of babes.” Russ tosses the postmarked envelope into a dingy bin.
I cover my face with both hands. “I forgot about that option, Ing. But you're certainly right. It would have been easier.”
“No matter,” she says. “We made it. Thank you, Mr. Russ.”
It's a good thing Charlene has free long distance, because EJ talks to her tonight for almost two hours. She calls and asks right away if her latest delivery of chicory arrived, and for the first time, he lies to her.
“Not yet,” he says. “It'll probably come tomorrow.” He doesn't want to talk about her letter that was packed with the chicory; he'd get too nervous. He wants to write his response.
They talk, and somehow they get onto the subject of childhood summers, and she tells him about the sleepaway camp in Mississippi where she was a camper and later a counselor. He tells her about his closest equivalent: Nature's Classroom. How one night after dinner, a camp counselor was going to teach the song “Moon Shadow.” Nick raised his hand and said he knew it, because his dad taught him. And he got up there next to the counselor on the little platform, and the counselor strummed her guitar, and Nick sang. At first a couple of kids snickered, but eventually everyone grew still and listened. Nick was a ten-year-old folk star. He led sixty-five kids and fifteen adults in his own squeaky-voiced version of Cat Stevens.
EJ talks and talks, and Charlene laughs at all the right moments. After they finally say good night, EJ finds, in a bottom drawer of his mother's buffetâstuffed away with taper candles that have never been lit and a brocade runner for the dining room tableâstationery. Thick, cream-colored paper with shimmery gold trim and matching envelopes. The buffet was among several pieces of furniture his mother left behind when she moved, because she thought the moist ocean air of Truro would ruin them somehow.
The stationery smells like candles. He spreads it on the dining room table, thinking that his mother would yell at him for writing there because the pen might make marks in the wood. But he doesn't worry about this now.
It's been a while since he's written a real letter, with pen and paper. He feels silly, self-conscious. His handwriting is blocky and slanted and ugly. But he writes because Charlene will like it.
I'm not much of a writer, so this is going to be a short letter. I don't think I've written a letter since middle school when me and my friends used to pass notes in class all the time, my spelling is bad so I apologize in advance for any stupid mistakes. I want you to know that I'm coming down to see you. I don't know when, exactly, but it'll be soon. Aside from the Muffinry I have no real attachments here. I know you know this already but my parents are divorced and I never see them anymore, I live in the house I grew up in, and a lot of times it's lonely. I don't know why I'm writing about all this right now. Anyway, I'll come down. We'll spend some time together. We'll talk and figure things out. I am glad you feel the way you feel, I feel that way too, like we are good friendsâgreat friendsâwho could probably be something much more.
Love (and I do mean that),
P.S. To answer your question, I am very attracted to you.
2nd P.S. I'm bringing you a surprise. Two surprises, actually. You'll see.
November 9, 2006
Hey. It's late. Everybody's asleep but I can't sleep. I would call you but I don't want to wake you up. I'm typing this in my sleeping bag.
I could get madâvery madâabout the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. I could come away disillusioned, defeated, deflated, dispirited, ashamed of my country. I bet a lot of volunteers leave feeling that way. I'm sure the people who live here feel that way, too, sometimes. And I don't blame them. Not at all. And I won't deny that there is some of that in me. There is disappointment. And at times, disgust.
But there is also hope. The hope is bigger than the disappointment. Maybe that's easy for me to say. I'm sure if I'd been living down here after Katrina hit, I'd feel very different.
I wouldn't quite say I feel proud or patriotic, but when I look around down here, I see so many people united. Coming together to build a better world. To help each other heal.
I hope these e-mails don't freak you out. I know I probably don't sound like the Nick you're used to. But don't worry, Pants. I'm still the same old Nick. I'm not about to join an ashram or take a vow of silence or something.
But I think you'll like the new me. Because I want my lifeâour livesâto have meaning. I want the work I do to affect other people in a good way. I want to touch others' lives and improve them, without condescending to them. That's a fine line to walk, but I think I know how to do it. And I think I can teach our soccer team how to do it, too.
This trip is giving me confidence. I know I never really talk about this, but a lot of times I feel sort of stupid for never having gone to college. (At least not a regular four-year college.) Sometimes I feel less than an intellectual, because I am, I guess. But being down here, I know that even just doing little thingsâeven when I just show up and smile at someoneâI am making a difference and I am doing enough. And you don't need to have a bachelor's degree to do that. Also there is no job too small or unimportant and you don't need to be a master carpenter to come down here and help. All you need is love, to quote John Lennon. Sounds cheesy, maybe even clichÃ©. But I guess there is a reason cheesy clichÃ©s become cheesy clichÃ©s, if you catch my drift. But that's neither here nor there. . . .
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the injustices in life. Why are there people in the world whose every possession is wiped out, whose world is crushed, whose family is scattered about, and then there are people like us, so lucky, so happy, with (knock on woodâknock on my head!) no major catastrophes to speak of? I wonder why that is. Who is in charge of all that? Do you ever wonder about stuff like this? You probably do. You're “deeper” than me. That's one of the things I love about you.
I can't wait to see you and kiss you all over and just hold you in my arms for a while. I keep imagining our reunion in the driveway. You'll come running out to meet me. Ahab will be waiting at the door. Do you realize that we've been married eight years, and we've never spent any time apart? Ever, until now?
We're leaving tomorrow afternoon. In the morning EJ wants me to go with him and Charlene to tour a construction siteâsome big new church they're building on the outskirts of town. I still don't feel tiptop, but I'll go. Why not? I might get ideas for the Man-Shed EJ and I are going to build in his backyard. A Man-Shed with an attached sauna. More on that later.
Then we're hitting the road. And I'll see you day after tomorrow!!! DAY AFTER TOMORROW!
I love you.
LADYS SINGS OF SITTING ALONE with no love to call her own.
I wear Nick's apron. I drink coffee like a pro. So what if it makes my hands shake? So what if I risk spilling on my anterior view of digestion? I live on the g.d. edge.
My digestion is front on, no hiding. It's heavy on 242: PEACH FUZZ and 276: NAVEL ORANGE. I've been at it for days, and now all the big players shine up at me: esophagus and stomach, transverse colon and intestines. They make an odd combination of organs, delicate yet diligent. Mouth is there, too, and oral cavity, and glottis; few people realize digestion begins here, with the first bite.
I'm about to sign my initials whenâwheeze. W-h-e-e-e-e-e-e-z-e. France stands on my porch. She's dressed off duty, as she dressed in high school: hiking boots, jeans, fleece vest. Her brown hair is pulled back into a stunted ponytail, like always. Loose short wisps float above her ears.
“Hey, girlfriend,” she says.
I lean in and give her a hug. “Hey.”
“I was out hiking just now.”
“Beautiful day for it,” I say, because it's one of those early spring days when the sun's so bright, it's almost painful. But in a good way.
“I was looking for Captain Ahab,” she says. “I hiked along the power lines for a while, behind the Muffinry. Then I headed north about a mile, toward the mountain.” She reaches into her pocket. “Anyway. I found this.”
In her palm is the fairy charm. The beaded wings are scuffed and chipped, and one foot is missing.
“It's Ahab's, isn't it?” she says, handing it to me.
I fold my fingers over it and nod. The damaged wires poke my skin.
“Maybe it means he's near,” she says. “He's trying to get back to you by following the power lines to Main Street. Or maybe he felt like an adventure and followed the power lines in the opposite direction and walked all the way to New Hampshire. Or maybe it means nothing, other than the fairy came loose or got snagged on something and fell off.”
“Did you look around for him?” I ask. “I mean, in the place where you found this?”
“I looked all around. I called for him. I even sang that dumb âCookie Time' song Nick used to sing.” She purses her lips into a half smile, remembering.
Guilt creeps inâguilt and regret for letting Ahab get awayâand I hang my head. “Oh, I'm sorry, Captain,” I say. I step onto the porch, wondering how Nick would react if he were here. Would he be angry with me for letting Ahab escape? Or would he understand, and forgive me?
Next to me, France leans on the railing. “It's not your fault, Zell.”
The mail truck careens around the corner now. Metallica blares. Russ screeches to a stop in front of the house, snaps off the radioâwhich is attached with a bungee cord to the dashboardâand mounts the steps. He stuffs mail in the Knoxes' box, then hands me mine: a paycheck, a credit card offer, and the newest issue of
Meals in a Cinch,
which I now subscribe to. As always, Polly adorns the cover. This month she straddles a hot pink motorized scooter, and her shiny locks flow from underneath a matching helmet. I glance at the headline and notice it somehow combines the words “vroom vroom” and “chili.”
I sigh and try to put Ahab out of my mind. “Nothing from Scrump Studios, huh?” I say.
“It's only been a couple weeks,” Russ says. “Patience, my child.” He jabs my arm, then France's, and skips down the steps and drives off.
“Hey,” France says. “Want to go get that beer now?”
“Not just now,” I say. “But soon.”
She gives me a quick hug and takes the porch steps and walks backward a few paces toward the street, squinting in the sunlight. “You'll be okay, Zell.”
She pivots and strides down High Street toward the apple orchard.
“Thank you,” I call after her, and she waves without turning around.
SATURDAY MORNING. Gladys sings about how life is so crazy, how love is unkind.
The spleen I'm drawing looks like a lax, mottled fist, gray and purplish, tucked under the ribs, under the dome of the diaphragm. My spleen is a warriorâit destroys and recycles red blood cells. But it's also a reservoir, saving the blood until it's most needed.
The doorbell wheezes. I go downstairs and see Russ's outline through the gauzy curtain. I open the door. Ingrid's next to him. Her hair is swept into a side ponytail above her right ear. Garrett waits behind her, hands on her shoulders.
“What's up?” I say.
“Open it,” says Ingrid, as Russ hands me a big pink envelope. He raises his eyebrows a couple of times, like a vaudevillian. He switches his mailbag from one shoulder to the other.
I study the envelope. It was postmarked in Boston, and the return address reads “Scrump Studios.”
I tear it open and unfold official Desserts That Warm the Soul! letterhead.
“Is it from my mother?” Ingrid says. “Read it out loud.”
Garrett pulls her against him as I read.
“ âDear Ms. Rose-Ellen Roy, Congratulations! You are one of two contest entrants chosen to appear on the first-ever episode of
Pinch of Love Live,
the live version of Polly Pinch's original hit show,
Pinch of Love.
Polly is excited to bake your Scrumpy Delight live in front of a studio audienceâalongside you and a guest of your choosingâon May fifth!' ”