A second-grade teacher who thinks herself benevolent writes to Marcus Wing, Inmate #A-04014 every morning for six months before she finally runs down her crime-slimed street to the post office. By then she has accumulated one hundred and eighty-five articles, from decoupage paper cut into the shapes of olive branches and Sacred Hearts to vintage Life magazine covers with blood orange–faced housewives thrashing pancake batter. As she runs to the post office, her hefty paperboard box containing all of these objects knocks against her mail-order utility belt, which she stocks with pepper spray and fastens tightly.
The teenaged girl behind the counter pops a stick of cinnamon gum, and the woman is so startled by the noise she almost sprints home again. “Are you ready to mail that?” she asks the woman, who starts shaking her head well before the last cinnamon word bursts toward her.
The woman has left the box unsealed. She annexes a section of the counter on which to sort the ephemera, although she has already tried to arrange it, first by colour, then by size, then by sentiment. This last way was the least successful––there were so many filed under “Humour” and “Activities” and so few in “Social Commentary” and “Relationships.”
The teenager looks familiar, but the woman is too bushed from her rush to the post office to turn over dialogue stones, looking for common ground. She tells the girl she needs a few minutes. A three-person line has formed, and the woman drags her eyes down the queue to make sure the routine people with their hydro payments and prepaid postcards for faraway mothers see how she has made what she would call, on her dream business card, an “office-like milieu.” If she printed that dream business card today, as opposed to six months ago, it might say Miracles of Jesus Historian. It might also say Ukulele Prodigy, or Unicorn Horn Polisher, depending on how many days she had spent alone before writing it, how long she had given her lucid mind a hall pass.
An old man in line, coffee cup for a face, glances over his bifocals and accidentally witnesses the woman out in the world. She instinctively huddles down into her chenille blouse, which is buttoned right to the throat cove. Her heart bangs the way it does when she leaves the primary school she teaches at to rocket through the menacing cement lot to her car, with its steel chassis and automatic locks. Or the way it does at her new church, when she tries to sing the forgiveness hymns and her vibrato thins her voice into a caterwaul, and the biddies in their silk bonnets turn to cast eye salt. The folds around this man’s eyes are deepened by curiosity, not verdict. Still she needs to escape him. The only direction she can think to look is down.
I moved last week. Now I live in the cozy, one-room home I always talked about. I love seeing all the walls, and the door, and the toilet, even when I’m lying in bed. I suppose it’s only charming when it’s a choice, though, huh?
It’s full-on summer. Yesterday a man came to the door to sell ice. You would think it was 1950 the way this town works. I sometimes wonder why you chose it, but then I think of our old home’s spotless picket fence, the thick shutters that blocked out even the spill of street lamps, the trust and oblivion ever frozen on our neighbours’ faces, and I understand.
I didn’t buy ice. He stood there with his hands in the cooler and for a minute I thought he might pull out a gun.
PS. Sorry for not putting a return address.
Jamestown, New York––Last Thursday, an ex-offender led his first mindfulness meditation group at the Jamestown Public Library. In his teens, Ego Greene was arrested on assault and weapons charges. After spending forty years at Rikers Island, some of the time in solitary confinement, he has just returned to his family home in upstate New York. Neighbors are concerned about possible violent behaviour after his release, but some who have seen this program in action agree that it is affecting positive change in the community. One resident of Jamestown told TWC News, “You feel the vibrations when you’re browsing for a good, grizzly mystery. May I meet this moment as a friend, they say, and ring a bell until all the softbacks are shaking. I swear the actual air in the library gets purer.”
The words Jade has highlighted: assault and weapons charges; concerned; violent behaviour; positive change; purer.
In a red silk pouch, Jade has collected shells from two vacations, one with Marcus to Atlantic City, and one on her own, years before she had met him, to a haven known as Spirit Lake.
With Marcus, she had looked for Nautilus shells, while he, pushing ahead into the land of novelty shirts and shot glasses, became a speck on the boardwalk. In the underbelly of those shells, she saw sacred geometry, the same golden ratio she noticed everywhere in nature––in pine cones, in cauliflowers, in planets. She followed the spiral of the Nautilus around with her eyes, a staircase opening into smaller chambers, and when she reached the centre, she wished Marcus was there to enter that innocent, pinhead-little place with her. Of course, by the time she struggled to reach him and he called her ten different kinds of heavy, she no longer felt that way.
On her own, she looked for scallops. The apostle James wore the scallop as a brooch of protection on his pilgrimage to Compostella; from it, he sipped stream water, which revived him when the path was burning and barbed with weeds. And now, in Spain, cement and brass shells adorn the route he followed, guiding lost souls to safety, or at least telling them where to use the bathroom.
In the silk pouch, the shells have gotten crushed. The tiger stripes of the Nautiluses have blended with the blonde wash of the scallops, and together they look like trash, like cigarette ash put out on a woman’s bare arm. She thinks Plato must have been quite foolish. The golden ratio, like a woman’s trust, can be broken.
At the counter, the teenaged girl is helping the wrinkled man select stamps. Jade does not remember how long she has been in her milieu, arranging and rearranging objects in her big, brain-grey cardboard box. The man does not want any of the stamps he is being offered. He gets frustrated when the teenager suggests Memorial Day stamps, because, he grunts, she is too young to have experienced any real conflict, and besides, she must not have been listening when he said statutory holidays were a national collusion in which he refused to take part.
“Do you like ferns?” the teenager asks.
“Does anyone like ferns?” the man snipes back.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do, sir,” the teenaged girl says. “But I need to help the next customer in line.”
The elderly man looks over at Jade arranging the contents of her cardboard box, presumably for back-up. He wants someone to see his irritation, and more to the point, he wants someone to corroborate his reasons for being irritated.
Jade hunches her back and puts her arm around her care package, the way her second-grade students do when they’re trying to block their seatmate from copying a history test. Already, at that age, possessiveness. The teenaged girl is blowing cinnamon bubbles at the next customer, who is stalling in order to stay safe from the fray. Jade can feel the elderly man’s eyes and anger ponging from her to the teenager, and she huddles closer to the counter, that steady span of laminate. She closes her eyes. Blue guilloche and yellow trefoil replace the particleboard of the post office walls. All the aggression, from without and within her, turns vibrant and lovely behind those squeezed lids.
“Excuse me,” Jade hears. Her back is a scallop shell and she mollusks into it. “Any way I can borrow some of that counter?”
When she opens her eyes, she doesn’t see the stony goblin she had imagined, leaning over and breathing fermented juniper into her hair, but just the elderly man, trying to write precariously against a shaking knee. The address on his envelope, belonging to Mrs. Pip Turnip, is barely legible. And though in her gut she wants to say no––no, I won’t write you letters, no, you can rot in there alone––the woman hears her caterwaul voice saying, “I’ll find a way.”
To make space on the counter for the elderly man’s envelope, Jade picks up a package she has wrapped in kraft paper and tied on either end like a morose Christmas cracker. A note taped to it says, in her meticulous handwriting, “Remember to check what the prisons allow!!!”
She has forgotten to check. Or, anyway, she hasn’t checked.
When reduced to its essential oil, lavender has been proven to reduce hostility. Jade read that in a free flyer one of her neighbours had slipped under her door. She isn’t sure which neighbour, not having made the effort to meet anyone on her new street.
She’d asked the kindergarten crafts teacher if she would prepare her some lavender oil in exchange for a week of class coverage. The crafts teacher, when she isn’t scrapbooking or building popsicle replicas of the Colossus of Rhodes, likes to travel. Jade prefers to cover classes.
Jade had briefly considered asking the crafts teacher to make the soap, but the lavender article had mentioned that visible accomplishments give a person a sense of self-worth. All of the affirmations and meditations and visualizations she has been doing would have been for naught. Rubber gloved and safety goggled, her trembling hands on a candy thermometer, she had struggled through frustration and then malaise, ultimately arriving, when the waxy splotch was cooked, at soapmaker’s fatigue. White canvas sneakers up in the staff room, she had allowed herself to unwind. And the article was right, she had felt admirable, until the other teachers had come in and proclaimed that her soap looked like an unshelled turtle.
Hoping no one at the post office would notice, Jade lifted the morose cracker to her nose and huffed the soothing lavender.
Photograph torn from a magazine
A boy, maybe fourteen, in a multicoloured field of Job’s Tears. His arms form a broad, proto-muscular halo, as if he is holding an invisible companion in front of him. The caption says: “After a day of paintball, a disadvantaged Nebraska boy takes a moment to stretch the kinks out.”
The boy’s face is a rainbow of neon paint, the tiny wired hairs on his forehead and chin tinted tangelo orange and Bleu de France. He wears convex aviators, in which is reflected a miniature natural world interrupted by slashes of dye. On the boy’s teeth are a different spectrum of tinted braces, these ones organic, mushroom and liver and fawn. He is so generous with those teeth, Jade wonders if she’s ever made anyone smile. She makes googly eyes at a kid in line, but she must misjudge his age, because he looks worriedly at her before hiding his face again in the Proust novel he has been reading.
The photograph is taken from a periodical at the school library called Talking Trauma: New Means. In this issue, which Jade smuggled to the washroom before tearing out the photo in a locked stall, was a spotlight on paintball as a benign alternative to hunting, or gun violence. Jade perched on the toilet tank so no teacher or student could see her sneakers, and burned through page after page of monotone world turned psychedelic and enchanted by manmade paint. But this was the photo she returned to: A boy who could choose between field and corner, game and misdemeanor. A boy proudly staring down a camera in his moment of being reborn.
I was laughing this morning because I noticed I still hadn’t mailed you a letter I wrote two months ago.
(Not laughing so much as hand-to-foreheading, to be honest with you, which is important to some of us.)
Today I phoned public radio. Stay with me here, Wing––they were doing a program about another radio program. The other radio program was called “The Prison Show.” Maybe you know it. Texas inmates can call, or they can tune in to hear messages from their families, importantly mundane things like report card grades and barbecue menus. In the first segment, an inmate listened to his fiancée exchange vows with a proxy in studio. I promise to be kind and patient with you, she said, and the proxy, speaking on behalf of the condemned man, said I will try in every way to be worthy of your love. His voice was wavering, and I wondered how often people really feel things, and how often they act like they do.
The same inmate stayed on the line for the second segment. The father of the boy he had killed phoned in. He spoke like our school guidance counselor, all hemp hearts and Age of Aquarius. It had happened ten years before, in a whiteout, at a red light. The father started to sing an old folk song I recognized, “Poor Lazarus.” He blessed the inmate’s new union. “How did you get to this place of mercy?” the host asked the father. “And do you think everyone should try to get to that place?”
The father said it was the only way he could continue to live in the real world. He was a dead man, and forgiveness raised him from the underground.
I phoned, because the man didn’t answer the second part of the host’s question. I needed to know. Should everyone try to get to that place?
The show was ending. They didn’t have time for me to go on the air. But the call screener listened to my question as I unknotted it, told me yes, from his perspective, everyone should at least try. As he was talking to me, I believed I could do it. But as soon as he abandoned me with the cut phone line, I only saw the shafts of resentment, iron bars pinching the bounds of my abilities.
Be well. I am yours, but
Try to talk about sports for levity!
Having finished Mrs. Pip Turnip’s complicated address, five lines of vigilant block writing, the old man slides the envelope across the counter to the teenager. She is distracted by customers with more immediate demands and seems not to register his action at all, though Jade can tell by the tidy printing and the man’s tick of checking the wall clock that this letter is important to him.
Jade first wishes her paper walls stood higher. But because her letterhead fort is too small to shelter her, because she is watching this man as he struggles to snag the teenager’s attention, she feels the need to say something. Thinking of her sticky note, she wonders what innocuous sport this man might like to talk about. Is chess a sport? Pheasant shooting? How about the one the kids play at recess, where they pretend to be nobles, and someone has to be the serf crawling the concrete, scraped and sad? Goodness, she thinks. There’s a broken water main on Small Talk Avenue. “Tell me about Pip,” she says.
The man squints at her over his progressive lenses. “She took my virginity,” he says.
Jade is not sure what to do with her eyes or hands. It would be condescending to cross herself, so instead she moves her thumb in the shape of a cross on a softcover. The Brothers Karamazov, from the school lost and found. “How nice for you.”
“I splintered her toenails with a budvase and she moved five thousand miles away. I spend every night writing to her and every day waiting for a response.” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, the way someone might after vomiting. “I liked your whistling,” he says.
It’s absurd. Jade does not whistle, and she definitely does not whistle in public. “What are you talking about?”
“Lazarus told the deputy, Please give me a cool drink o’ water,” the man says. “Just before I die, Lord, just before I die.”
Jade can feel by where her gummy lipstick has split along the sides of her mouth that she has in fact been pursing it. She is suddenly aware of her lips, how few pretty things they have said lately, how often they have puckered around horse nettles instead of daisies.
“Was I really whistling that?” she asks. Maybe there is some hemp in her heart. She expresses her smile, like her sign of the cross, secretly, as a traced outline on a book cover.
The old man says, “You were a bit off beat, but I recognized the tune.”
Behind the counter, the teenager finishes weighing a parcel and, even after the customer leaves, she reinforces the packing tape and reties the blue velvet ribbon. Her acrylic nails are long and spiked, wildcat’s claws, making it difficult to form a bow. But with effort she does, and Jade sees her motion as an act of care. The teenager sighs her attention back to the elderly man. “Have you chosen a stamp yet?” she asks.
“If you were a seventy-two-year-old, grumpy, exquisite woman in a miniskirt and orthotics, what image would make you feel mercy for an old blockhead with tattoos on his flaccid pecs?” he asks.
Cinnamon pop. Eye roll. “Sir, I’m ten minutes from my lunch break. Why don’t you do me a favour and just wait until my relief comes.”
Beside Jade, the elderly man uncoils his spine, a predatory bird manipulating his height. She retreats into her chenille. She feels his anger in two bodies––as a spark that turns her veins to gasoline trails, and as a cramp that strangles his belly with two cold hands. In her, fear; in him, pain. She wants to duck behind the six-foot Is Your Package Safe To Mail? sign, crouch between the bulleted items on its list, +Does it contain mercury? and +How might it react to changes in atmospheric pressure? But she also wants to stay there beside him, to neaten his packing straw hair and reassure him of one certain thing: Even if Pip can’t pardon him, he is on her mind.
The old man leans against the Plexiglas barrier that separates him from the teenager. “You can’t leave me before I’ve bought my stamps,” he says. “You just can’t leave me.”
Now the teenager, with her Medusa curls and her brass earrings shaped like missiles, is angry, too. “Don’t tell me what I can do,” she says. “I’m going to let my supervisor know you were harassing me.” She spits her gum at the barrier, and it clings, spiced saliva, red pellet pitted by inattentive teeth. Then she does the intolerable––looks to Jade for reassurance. Jade wants to slap them both, wants to kiss them both, wants to run home to her favourite cave in the quilts and drink lavender tea and lose track of night and day. So many different impulses are boomeranging through her, she needs calm before she chooses how to act; perhaps she can only find this in her discrete, paper world.
Effervescent Brain Salt!
Cures brain troubles and nerve maladies brought on by anxiety, panic, migraine,
Positively remedies all mania caused by unsteady thoughts
Calms even the rowdiest of children, men, snake charmers, cottage witches, costume party attendees, and rodeo clowns
Near the bottom of the photocopied advertisement, Jade has written in careful rollerball, “I found this in an old medicine textbook in the school library. It was probably just ammonium they were selling, don’t you think? Or even better, kitchen salt? But if the poor suckers thought it would work, I bet it worked.”
ShadowboxIn a hand-sized box of matches, which Jade emptied through attempts at smudging, burning sage, sweet cicely resin, and maple chips, she has assembled all of the tokens she used to hide in the top drawer of her dresser.
Here is the little biosphere. Green train tickets form the grass. Jade’s baby molars are houses, pins from basketball games, national parks, drum & bass shows––she used to have interests––are their roofs. Torn movie stubs speckle the ground, rough-and-ready snowflakes. Marcus’s childhood toys stomp through the scene like flown-in monsters, tin estimates of Kang the Conqueror and Dr. Doom. As a boy, he left them out in the rain too many times, and they have tarnished.
Above it all, she has built primitive birds with a glue gun and dried poinsettias. The latter her family sent in a plain white envelope from their Christmas dinner. Shame had kept her in Chautauqua. She has attached these starlings with silver wire to the cardboard walls of the matchbox, and depending whether she is in a room or in the wind, they will freeze or flutter. The wire, she had been using to hang Job 6:11, framed. What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?
Opposite the birds, the wire holds up a sun and a moon. The sun is made of a charm from the promise bracelet Marcus gave her before he went inside, the banana phloem and brown lettuce juice from its temporary trip to the garbage now scrubbed clean. The moon is a tiny dreamcatcher she stole from one of her second-graders’ key chains in a moment of panic. In that moment only superstition could have liberated her from the approaching dread, a yard of polyester being pulled over her face and tightened: gag, gasp, sweat.
Jade looks down at the shadowbox with the serenity of a creator, and thinks how unbridled peace can be, how clear and teal and absolute, how peace can be a better word for sky.
The old man has started to drum his open hand against the barrier. With her lips close enough to kiss the Plexiglas, the teenager is hawking out curse words. She picks up the phone and starts to dial someone, presumably her supervisor, while straightening the middle finger of her other hand. Thin and cold-cracked, it is covered in pewter rings a child might wear: a pony, a four-leaf clover, a mermaid. All the other customers, their needs met, have left, and Jade knows that if she stays silent, before long the teenager’s relief will arrive and intervene. Then Jade will have to walk out the door with her eyes fallen, and the once blue sky will be full of words dark as stormclouds––coward, doormat, bootlicker, nobody.
“I, need, a, stamp,” the man is yelling in rhythm.
“She doesn’t love you!” the teenager is shrieking back. And, versed as she is in the descant of yells, Jade recognizes the sound. A seven-year-old in a tartan jumper, a nasal strain of fear needling through the concrete playground, independent of her clear, precocious voice.
It was Jade’s first class in Chautauqua, and this girl was cruel: braiding electrical tape into her seatmate’s hair, squeezing hand sanitizer into the blinking eyes of the class gecko. She ran urine trails down the inside of her snowsuit one recess until, highlighter yellow, they disgraced her pure white mukluks. The girl had cried for help. But, thinking only of the gecko, Jade had stayed by the swings.
In the post office, Jade’s skin is crackling. Her throat feels like one thick live wire; she’s sure, if she were to speak to someone, the words would fry them both. But she wants to try. She pictures it the way it would play out in an old cartoon––when electrocuted, their skeletons would flare white. The body’s vessels and deep muscles and the face’s disguises would flash to black, confessing only the bones.
“I’d like to mail this package,” she says to the teenager. Her knees cock and straighten. Her shoulder blades strain to meet. It’s a full-figure act, throwing those ordinary words into the crossfire.
The elderly man whips around to face her. He looks as if he’s going to lunge, but Jade moves toward him so decisively he doesn’t have space or time. The teenager starts to laugh, the same adenoidal way she had been screaming. She slides open the screen in her plastic barrier and invites Jade to slide the box across the laminate, which she does.
“There’s no address on this,” the teenager tells her.
The one shred of paper Jade did not bring. She could feign surprise, say sorry and race home to unlock it from her nightstand. Eying the teenager, the old man, each calm but so close to rupture, she knows she’s not ready to perform a miracle. She has wounds that need licking, chills that need to be rubbed warm, weals that need a spruce salve. She is just a second-grade teacher with stopper knots in her sneakers and a hummingbird trapped in her chest, though one day she may be a saint.