Critical Thought: Backbone

I wrote this while hooked on Leonard Michaels. One of my favorite Michaels’s story is Hello, Jack. In Hello, Jack, Michaels turns something as mundane as a phone call into a grand, memorable, and perplexing event. With a trip to the post office on my list, I wondered: if Leonard Michaels has me rapt because a phone has rung, how can I engage a reader similarly with my boring errand? Then: what if a whole town executed a soon-to-be obsolete task at the same time? How would the USPS deal with us? How would we reward them? When, where and how often would it be important to repeat myself if I am to make something so lackluster feel like a carnival? Who do we dread to see in silent lines? What would we think about as we wait? My guesses are at left.

Emily Rae's work has also appeared in the Denver Quarterly.

There Is Nowhere To Rest Your Backbone

I had a letter. To mail a letter, you have to walk from my apartment to the end of the street where the post office is. You do this if you have an envelope which I did. So on went my boots. Nothing to it.

At the post office was the whole town. All 28,978 of us were there. We are 22 people short of being 29,000 strong I said to myself. I counted fast. It was just heads, heads, heads.

The post office is a zoo today I said to a troop of boy scouts. They looked around for their leader.

I said this place is a zoo to the veteran in a wheelchair I had seen in the newspaper that month. He was writing a book on courage I knew.

It really is he said.

I smiled at him too hard. My best guess is that the whole town did.

There was a woman in navy holding two plastic bags of cookies, limping, yelling cookies cookies all these free cookies people. Gotta get rid of ‘em. Some of us reached in for a gingersnap. Not me.

Imagine the viruses in there I said to the boy scouts. I wanted to swat the mushy tops of their hands. Viruses I said.

I had a sore back from digging my pet mouse’s grave. Every kind of stand I tried that day gave a pinch. The boy scouts stood like it didn’t hurt them an iota. One sneaked a gingersnap by me, got the starts of a cold or a staph infection. I hunched, erected myself. My back was a lit match.

I heard the gingersnaps. Krrrrrrrr, krrrrrrrr. What a real zoo this is I thought. I wanted to lean. I was jealous of the ones in wheelchairs, the babies, the seeing-eye dogs. My back was too hot, too full of its blood. There is nowhere to rest your backbone at the post office.

At the post office that day people were not bothered by the long lines. No. People got itchy about having to say hello how are you to all those other people. People got nervous they forgot your maiden name, why your husband moved to Albuquerque. Adults with braces were not smiling at children.

I for instance didn’t know what to say to the nun who taught me to play piano last year when I was happy. What if she asks about my music, what if she already knows I’m in a band called Martyr Sauce I thought. What’s so wrong with this year I asked.

The day before the post office I took a nap in my car. It was the best place to listen to the rain, the best place to sleep I speculated. I wanted to see if I was right. I was right. Besides the dream I had I was right. I dreamt about a white horse made black by mosquitoes.

There was a knock that woke me up from that car nap. A boy knocked on my window.

Hey lady he said.

I woke up. I looked at him. I didn’t have a thing to say. I said what.

He said okay well that’s good. I thought you were dead.

Before I left for the post office, my friend Sue called. She had to tell me about this old fuck’s parking spot.

I said hi Sue how’re things?

You won’t believe how long I have been waiting for this old fuck’s parking spot Sue said.

I said oh no how long? I did my softest voice. I did my nicest little whisper.

A day and a half I’ve been waiting Sue said.

Maybe the old fuck died I said.

Post offices are of course not large enough for 28,978 people. A line of people went outside, around the corner, into our town park. I wished to be at the beginning of the line. At the beginning of the line was sunshine, a bench, an ice cream truck. At the front was coughs, an old man who’d gotten a pant leg stuck in his black sock, fluorescent lights zapping off my beautiful tan. You can’t leave when you’re that close to the finish. Would be pitiful to give up.

At the post office I saw a teacher I had one time. He made diagonal red lines through every page of my Jane Eyre essay. His pen ripped through the last page, my conclusion.

He wrote you are wordy and to conversational in this book report.

You spelled too wrong I said. I said it to him after class. You spelled too wrong in your remarks.

He said simply an oversight. He said rewrite it please.

I took the F. I’ll always be wordy dickwad I said.

The post office stayed open late that day for all of us. There was a barbeque for its employees in our town park after they closed it down. The next day was declared a state holiday. All the employees could stay in bed. They could watch television, have sex with each other. They deserved it we said. We toasted them with champagne, with sparkling cider in sippie cups. The high school cafeteria donated yogurt parfaits. We slurped, we gulped. We had our stamps, our letters were mailed, our p.o. boxes emptied. We went home to sleep, brains tick tocking slower on booze. We were people of stamina that day, and many others.

by Emily Rae