His last address was easy to remember. But in a year living on the outskirts of downtown Eatonville, Ben still confused Front Street with Back Street about every other time. Maybe that’s what happened with his last letter.
Confusion was a state he’d yet to master. At eighty-six years of age, Ben Walker could remember what was in his lunch box the day the Number 2 tipple burned on Shelby Creek, but he couldn’t remember Front from Back to save Daddy’s life.
As the post office lady pulled to his mailbox, he got up from his porch swing and started toward her. She cradled a large box in her arms. Written on the side were flowery words reading Thirty-One.
Not for him, no sir.
When he sent the contents of his chest to his daughter in Indiana, Ben half expected Kristy to send them back. That’s what family on the outs did these days. He figured it was a show of good faith on his part. Figured he’d been getting them back in no time. Knowing now, three weeks later, that Kristy might take a notion to keep them, he was seriously regretting sending the love letters he had written Susan, tucked at the bottom of the chest.
Before Ben could make it to the edge of his yard, the lady shook her head and hunched her shoulders. She then hopped into her truck and zoomed off, late for real packages to everyone in the hollow but him probably.
There wasn’t much in the chest, not like you’d expect from a package sent to a daughter from a father who was barely there most of the time. One would expect a whole spread of things trying to make up for lost time. But Ben knew that wasn’t possible. And there was nothing of any real value in the chest. All the same, three weeks and no response.
He had to have mixed up Front and Back again. It was the only thing that made sense. It happened the last time he sent Kristy a card for her wedding anniversary. She told him so when he finally got her on the phone a couple months later.
When Kristy was ten they sent her to stay for a month with Susan’s brother in Indiana. Ben was never sure what happened there, but something did. She came back different.
Susan’s brother, Paul, drove cross-country delivering RVs, hauling his Chevy along and driving it back from every state you could think of and some you couldn’t.
Ben was against it, but Susan said it would do her good to visit family and get her nose out of books, play like a normal girl, quit worrying about skinning her knees and get a little dirty. It had a lot to do with Ben not taken to Paul from the start. He drank, played cards with drunks, fought with his wife, Nora, night and day. Paul and Nora had three daughters. Striped snakes were more kind, easier to get along with on account that their parents mostly left them alone. Kids left alone and bored were going to find the time to head in bad directions.
Paul’s girls – Melanie, Sara and Brit – were all older than Kristy. This added to Ben’s worries, which he kept to himself and thought about all the possibilities after Susan slept easily two feet away from him in bed. Those hours, watching shadows of branches cast from the moonglow appear and disappear along the walls of the bedroom. In those black forms he saw Kristy being bullied, shunned, yelled at, ignored, lonely with no books, no solitude. For others, maybe not a big problem. For his Kristy, it was a straightjacket, a metal pan slopped with a fist-sized chuck of wadded meat and no yard time, no sunlight, no hope.
Susan snored. Ben could not imagine what she dreamed of, a smile clear even in the gloom.
Turned out Susan thought the trip would toughen Kristy up. Instead she came back telling of how she woke each morning and watched deer scatter across the yard and sprint toward the pond at the back of the house. She cried the way an adult would cry, no expression, just tears dropping every few seconds from the corners of her eyes, saying how one morning a big dog, a German Shepherd maybe, chased one down and killed it on the spot. She remembered how the steam lifted off the torn apart flaps of the deer belly.
The trip was a failure, on all levels, and the weeks and months and years that followed were picked apart like silk by voiceless crows to remove the husks and leave everything inside bare and useless, picked to the core.
Ben woke early as usual the next morning and went to the porch with his coffee. Post lady would be here in an hour or so. He watched the sun coming up and searched for whatever sort of inspiration or glory people seemed to find there, but all he ever saw was that color of bright washed pink, like a nosebleed from a cloud. That sort of bitterness ate at him most days now. It was a new feeling, and one he didn’t welcome. Keep moving along, bitterness. We’re all full up here.
He sipped his coffee, already cooled from the milk he added, and fought off those old bedtime thoughts, fought at them until he heard the rumble of the post lady. He watched her place a letter in his box, struggle to close the latch and then finally leave it hanging.
She waved and he waved back. When she marched to the truck, she stopped and slapped her thigh, bent and grabbed a chest, his chest. Turning, she held it up and smiled at him.
Ben didn’t move from the swing. He motioned for her to sit it down outside the fence, and she did. The sun was bleeding yellow now, the color of ripe corn.