There’s a naked picture of myself in a pink envelope in my pocket. And there’s good reason to send it to an eighth grader in New Jersey.
She’s my most difficult pen pal. Her letters to me always have a muddy handprint wrapped around the envelope. When I asked her about this, she said, “Mailmen in your area must have dirty hands.” She puts letters to paper like a knife to a tree. I can see the spots where her pencil brakes—most often in the middle of words like shithead or dickhead or any other word she uses to describe her dad. She must go through a pack of pencils when she’s writing of her father. She says she’s not scared to say all this to his face, but he’s deaf in one ear, and instead of turning the good ear toward her, he says, “Walk around”—which she says she stopped doing last New Year.
Her letters are my least favorite to read. She doesn’t ask much about me, only sometimes asking if she could see me naked or if I could send her gift cards to Macy’s. But she writes me twice a month, and in that regard, she’s worth double than my other pen pals; and her name is Amy, which makes her worth more than anything in the world.
She signs her name just how I beg her to, with the A slanted gently to the right, and the M with no sharp points, and the Y sinking off the paper and then swooping back up—just how I’d seen it written all over my house for all my twelve years. Walking from kitchen to bathroom to living room to garage with the phone jammed between her shoulder and ear, my mom would write her name on anything that would take ink while talking to my dad as he drove home from work. On the days when dad drove fast, mom would only need the backs of old newspaper and a few stacks of sticky notes. With dad in gridlock, mom would have to expand her canvas, writing her name on anything from toilet paper to old orange peels.
Her name was everywhere. All over everything in the house. It was impossible not to read it when walking by, but as my brain sounded out those three letters, all I ever heard was mom. I can still hear it now.
It took two years for any of us to admit that there would be no more new notes to discover floating around the house. And it took us another two years to finally clean up.
“What do you think Dad hears?” my sister asks me with a handful of sticky notes covered in mom. “Just put them in,” I tell her, nodding toward the paper-filled cardboard box, the one that an hour earlier housed our plastic Christmas tree. Now it holds what might as well be mom’s ashes. “Ready?” dad asks, bent down next to the box. We nod, even though we know the question is really for himself.
Dad is bent down on one side of the box, me and my sister on the other. He stretches his arms so that one is on each end, and now it’s as if there are two people on each side of the box—how it used to be.
It’s lighter than it was with the Christmas tree, but it’s hard to carry in its own way. It’s a new path for all of us. In our house, we travel into the unknown. Instead of carrying the box from the living room back to the garage—where we always store it after setting up the tree—we carry it up the stairs and down the thin hall and into the dark office. We set it by the shredding machine and we sit on the floor. This is the real funeral, dad says.
For six hours we shred sticky notes, newspapers, envelopes, every bit of mom—until the box is empty, and the shredder is full.
We pull the bin from the shredder and look into it like a casket. My sister says that paper shreds are used as bedding for composting worms. And that composting worms’ casting are great for soil. We can start a garden, she says. Let’s start a garden, she says, now reaching deep into the bin of shredded paper with one arm, playing with it between her fingers. Now we all have an arm buried in the bin, and we let our hands move however they might move, feeling our mom’s heart between our fingers. “Maybe,” Dad says. “Or maybe we just glue them back together.”
With my other arm I feel around in my pocket. I feel the pink envelope and the picture inside of it: my naked twelve-year-old frame standing in front of a dirty mirror, my blurry body from my shaky hands, the sweat on my forehead, the red on my face, the tears in my eyes, the pain in my repeatedly punished heart—my monthly subscription to a freshly inked Amy.
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