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There is Nowhere to Rest Your Backbone

by Emily Rae

           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.

           This new toothbrush was excellent. All the old vigor had returned. I was crisp, refreshed. The bristles cleaned the deepest pockets of my mouth. It gave me a new strength to face the day.

           Around that time I began dating a beautiful dark-haired woman. As the relationship progressed, I found myself spending more and more nights at her apartment across town. In the mornings I needed a toothbrush. The woman offered to share hers, and I accepted on more than one occasion, but it was not a habit I wanted to form. Kissing a lover’s lips is one thing—sharing semi-digested food particles is another.

           Thus I took my old toothbrush, which I had stashed away, and brought it to the woman’s apartment. There it stayed, something for me to use two or three times a week, usually on weekends, when I stayed over.

           But this dark-haired woman was entrancing, and two nights a week became four nights a week, sometimes even five, so that I would find mail overflowing from my box when I returned home, and my apartment developed the shut-up smell of a room rarely-used. I now stayed at her place more often than I stayed at my own. Without meaning to, I had gone back to using that old, worthless toothbrush!

           But something occurred to me. That old toothbrush, which, despite its many flaws, still got the essential job done, was the exact same model as the new toothbrush. That meant that someday, no matter how fresh and sharp it seemed now, the new toothbrush would become like the old one: weak, limp, still serviceable, but not desired.

           Unless I kept that from happening. So I began to carry the old toothbrush around with me, in a little leather pouch designed especially for toothbrushes, so that I could use it no matter where I spent the night. I placed the new toothbrush away in a drawer. That way it would stay fresh and sharp. Someday, or course, I would have to dispose of the old one and use the new one. But I wanted to delay that day as long as possible.

           All of this I did unbeknownst to the dark-haired woman, who eventually became my wife. When we moved in together I hid the new toothbrush in the bottom of an old shoe and kept using the old one. One night, as I brushed my teeth, she commented on its rattiness. We had been married several months by then and the toothbrush had been grinded away to nearly nothing. That toothbrush is awful, she said. No wonder you’re complaining of toothaches.

           The next day she bought me a new toothbrush—the exact same model, same color green. She snatched the old one from my hand and threw it away. I stood in the bathroom alone, staring at the new new one, still wrapped in plastic. Quickly I went to the closet, and removed the old new one from my shoe. I slid the new new one in its place.

           When my wife returned, I was already brushing. All the memories came back to me. The strength, the vigor. The cleansing of hidden spots. The overall feeling it gave me, the confidence it instilled.

           My wife will never know. I will use this toothbrush as long as I can, until it becomes like the old one, a step away from dust. When she buys me a new one I will switch it for the one in the shoe. It will be my secret. I will use these toothbrushes as long as possible. There will always be a toothbrush to fall back on. The generations of my toothbrushes will be endless.

Author's Note

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 above.

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