I’ve been the postmaster around these parts for going on fifty years and I reckon I just might stick around until I’m dead. I ain’t got no plans to retire and that’s the truth. My Daddy was the postmaster before me, he got the job through the New Deal and when he shot himself back in ‘69, I took the reins. I ain’t ever left since. It ain’t never bothered me none to stick around, not like my Daddy who had left a note saying he just couldn’t do it no more. Besides, you get to see plenty of folks when you have their mail. You never get lonely. It’s been the same old same for all these years. That is, until that Becky Sharp mess.
It all started when we got to talking’ about how things are now. She was stopping to get her mail out from her P.O Box—I reckon she’s one of the last who even got one—when she sees the packages come in from the mail truck. She sort of clicks her tongue and scowls and I ask what her problem is.
“Folks can’t even be bothered to go out to the shops anymore,” she says, shaking her head. “I just don’t understand it myself. Pretty soon there ain’t gonna be any stores for us to go to, this keeps up.”
“It keeps me employed. Besides, Sears started out as a catalog, remember,” I tell her.
She ignores me. When Becky Sharp is on one, she’s on one. She’s been like that since she and I were girls. Fact is, I’ve never liked her but she’s one of the few who have stayed around so I guess I got to talk to her.
“This world ain’t like it used to be,” she says, leaning across the counter like she owns the place. Her curly hair spills down her shoulders, she still has it colored. I wonder what she’d say if I said something about it. I let mine gray a while ago.
“How do you figure?” I ask.
“Well, it’s just not safe,” she says.
“Sure it is. Safe as it ever was.”
“No,” she says firmly. She uses her church voice. I recognize it from her reading the scriptures on Sunday. I really ain’t all that religious to tell you the truth, not like Becky who wears a gold crucifix around her neck. Church just gets me out of the house.
“Come on, Becky. It ain’t so bad.”
She gives a rueful chuckle.
“Ain’t so bad? Ain’t so bad? Haven’t you watched the news?”
“No. I ain’t got no use for it. Same stuff, different day.”
“You always were an odd one, Velma, I swear,” she says. “Anyway, didn’t you hear about that lunatic goin’ around the state robbing and raping old women?”
“Nope and I don’t want to hear about it, neither.”
I know I’ve got no choice. Like I said, when Becky Sharp is on one, she’s on one. She stands up real straight and all and slams her hands down on the counter. She leans in real close. I can smell coffee and onions on her breath. She’s just left Bucky’s on Fifth, the only restaurant in town, if you could even call it that. She goes every Saturday morning and then stops in at the post office. It’s been like this ever since her husband Pete had a stroke and died. After she leaves here, I know she’ll go back up in the mountains to her ranch where she lives alone. I live about three miles down from her in my own cabin that my Daddy left me. I suppose Becky Sharp and I ain’t so different though I can’t stand her. Now how can that be? Why is it the people we always like least are the ones that remind us most of ourselves? That’s life, I reckon, full of things that just don’t make a bit of sense.
“Well, I’ll have you know, this guy–he’s young the news says, one of them new kids. News calls ‘em millennials. No morals, this new batch. None at all. He’s gone from town to town holding innocent old ladies up with a gun, snatching their purse and then raping them. The nerve. And he just keeps doing it. No one has stopped him either.”
“You mean no one has caught him,” I say.
“That’s what I said.”
“No, it’s what you meant.”
“Same difference,” Becky says and rolls her eyes.
“So what’s your point?”
“My point,” she says, “is that things like that didn’t use to happen.”
“Pshaw,” I say. “Becky, people always been evil, no matter what year it is.”
“Not like this,” she says. “What do you make of all them school shootin’s?”
“I guess I don’t make nothin of it.”
“You act like you don’t even care.”
“I guess I don’t, not really.”
“Why not? It’s a real problem you know. If my son were young today, I think I’d be home schoolin’ him. Not enough prayer in schools, no pledge of allegiance, nothing. Now that’s the problem.”
“People have killed in the name of God and in the name of this country,” I say.
Becky waves my comment aside with the toss of her hand.
“Now you sound like a liberal,” she says.
“I don’t do labels, I say what I feel.”
“You always did,” she says.
She’s quiet for a moment and her eyes dance around the post office as if she’s trying to think of what to complain about next. It’s cluttered. It’s just me that runs it and I always was a little messy. I like being around a little mess, it helps me think.
“You ought to clean this place up,” Becky says.
The door opens then. Both of us look up. I’m grateful for the distraction. This young man walks in, looking all suave and all. He gives us a polite smile and quick nod. Becky eyes him with intense skepticism.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“I’d just like to buy some stamps,” he says.
“Sure, how many?”
He names a figure and I pull some down from the rack. Becky watches us like she’s my boss or something.
He looks over at her and asks, “How are you doing today, mam?”
This surprises her, I can tell. She was expecting him to say nothing.
“Why, I’m doing just fine and you, young man?”
“Can’t complain,” he says. “First warm day for awhile.”
“Mhmm. But I’m sure it’ll get cold again. February is always fickle.”
I hand him his stamps and take his credit card. Becky seizes upon the opportunity.
“Say, how come you young ones never use cash no more?”
The young man looks at me and then back at her. His eyes grow wide and I can tell he doesn’t know what to say.
“It’s alright,” I tell him. “Don’t pay her no attention. Besides, I like it when people use cards, less money to count and deal with.”
“You ladies have a good day,” he says and collects his stamps.
He’s out the door soon after that. I watch him through the glass climb into his car in the parking lot. It’s warm and the sun is shining, melting some of the snow. He pulls away, down the side of the mountain. The post office sits a little outside of town, just before Rockies. It was put here because most of the people live up in the mountains and didn’t always want to have to go into town to get their mail. Can’t blame them. Besides, I always liked being alone out here. Never did have much use for the town, not really.
“Can you believe that? He didn’t even answer my question,” Becky says.
“You made him nervous.”
“So what. No manners, these young people. I was nervous around grown folks, too but I always respected them.”
I glance down at my watch.
It’s nearly time to close and I pull the key out of the drawer when another car pulls into the lot.
“And then you’ve always got those folks who wait until the last minute,” Becky says pointing out at the car that has parked.
“Well, we’re still open another five minutes. I’m paid till then, so what’s it matter?”
“Back in our day folks were more courteous,” she says. “We never went someplace that was about to close. We got up early and got our business done.”
A man emerges out of the car, a beat up old black wagon. He’s an older man, with a bald head but he’s got heavy bags under his eyes. He’s thin and dressed in a black suit. I think he looks a bit like a preacher.
“Well, he sure ain’t young,” I say. “So explain that.”
Becky just grunts.
The man comes into the post office.
“Help you?” I ask.
He just stands there.
“Mister,” I say. “Can I help you?”
“This the post office?” he asks. His voice is deep and hoarse.
“I reckon it is.”
“You got a package for me then.”
“Alright,” I say. “Got some identification?”
“Well I reckon I can’t help you then,” I tell him. Something about him is a little off. His eyes seem too small for his head. They look like little beads tucked in his skull. They’re a funny gray color and bloodshot. I wonder if he’s sick or something.
“Oh, Velma, come on. I’m sure he just forgot it, that’s all,” Becky chimes in. She gives this man a smile. I wonder why she’s being so nice and then I realize he looks like he’s around our age, maybe even a tad bit older.
“Sorry, Becky, rule is you got to have some sort of identification when you pick up a package.”
“Go easy on him, Velma. Like I said, I’m sure he just forgot it, didn’t you mister?”
He doesn’t say one way or the other.
I look at him again. I notice he’s got a large wooden cross around his neck. He’s got to be a preacher, I think.
“I forget things sometimes, too,” Becky says with a sigh. She looks down at her freshly manicured nails, painted deep red.
“You know, just last week, I drove into town without my purse. I got all the way into the grocers and there I was at the checkout and I couldn’t pay. You know how silly that was?”
The man just stares.
“Anyway,” Becky goes on, “they were nice enough to put me on credit. They told me its cause I’ve always been a good customer and all. I remember when they opened and Lewis Johnson and his brother, who was it, Samuel? Or Sherwood? I thought he was biblically named. Anyway, like I was saying, I remember when he opened it along with his brother–”
“That’s enough,” says the man. This time he looks right at Becky.
“Pardon?” she says, catching her breath.
“I said that’s enough. Quit your babble.”
His voice is commanding. He grips his hands on his hat that he’s been holding and then he puts it on. It’s a shabby black fedora and it looks ridiculous. It’s something my father would have worn.
“How rude,” Becky says. “You ought to know better than to talk to a lady like that.”
“You aren’t a lady,” he says. He smiles, then. It’s an ugly sort of smile. His teeth are green and black, rotting out of his skull.
Becky Sharp, for the first time in her life, is quiet.
The man laughs.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asks.
“Hey mister, look, we’re about to close and all, so you’re gonna have to leave, I reckon.”
He shoots me a look. He laughs again. One of his teeth falls out and hit the floor. Becky shrieks.
“Hate it when that happens,” he says. He bends down and his knees crack. I realize he looks older than I originally thought. His skin seems more worn. I study his hands which are covered in liver spots. His nails are filthy; they look as if he’s been out digging in dirt.
I watch as he picks the tooth up and then pops it back in his mouth. Even more surprising, he begins to grind it up with his other teeth. I can hear it crunching in his mouth. His eyes light up as he watches our faces.
“You ain’t right, mister,” Becky says.
“Nope,” he says. “I never was.”
Becky leans in to the counter. I’m not sure what to do. Fact is, I’m a little excited. I’ve never seen anything like it, to tell the truth. But I’m also a little scared.
Once he swallows his tooth, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“So,” he says, putting his hands in his pockets. “You’re Becky Sharp and you’re Velma Rudolph.”
“Hey,” she says. “Who are you? How do you know my name?”
The man grins.
“I know a lot of things. I know you cheated on your husband in 1985. I know you got knocked up by a one-night stand in town at the Royal Inn. I know you passed it off like it was your husbands but it ain’t.”
Becky turns pale.
“Now wait a minute,” I say but the man puts his decrepit hand up and waves me away.
“Who are you?” Becky asks again, this time her voice is softer. I can tell she’s frightened.
“I am judgement,” he says. “We’ve never met but I reckon you think you know me.”
“You’re a liar is what you are. None of what you said is true. I don’t know you and I never did.”
“Mister, you ought to leave,” I say.
“I will in good time,” he says.
“No you need to go now or I’ll call the Sheriff.”
“You won’t,” he says.
“Don’t you try me mister.”
From his pocket, he pulls out a gun. Becky screams. It’s an old style revolver. A smith & Wesson from the look of it. It dawns on me that it sort of looks familiar but I can’t quite place it. Anyway, I don’t have much time to think about it because the man cocks it and aims it right at my forehead. My daddy always told me when you’re in the ring, you never let your match see your fear or else you’ve already lost. I hold my face still.
“Now, I ain’t got no bones to pick with you, postmaster,” the man says. “Who I got to deal with is Becky Sharp.”
“Mister, I can give you money if that’s what you want,” Becky says holding up her leather purse.
It begins to grow dark outside. The room fills with shadows.
“I don’t want your money,” says the man. “Never did have any use for it.”
“Well what do you want then?” Becky asks. She’s crying. Tears are cascading down her overly made up face, making her foundation smear into an ugly orange color. She looks like a dropping Halloween pumpkin.
“Well, first off, I want the truth.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about mister.”
“Yes you do. Let’s hear it. Let’s hear what you did. Confess, you’ll be better off when you do.”
“Who are you?” Becky demands.
“That’s the question I ask you,” says the man, “who are you?”
Becky is silent.
She looks at the floor. She’s wet herself. A little puddle forms at the bottom of her heels.
“I know who I am,” she says. “I’ll bet I know who you are, too. I’ll bet you’re that awful fellow who has been going around and terrorizing old ladies.”
I know she must be scared, I think, for it takes a lot for Becky Sharp to cast herself in the league along with seniors.
“No, no,” says the man. “They said he’s a young man, remember?”
“But you’re old enough to know what’s right, mister.”
“What do you mean, Ms. Sharp?”
“I mean, well…I know what I mean,” she says using her church voice again. She thinks she has command of the board.
“You think you know you mean. Fact is, I could be old and I could be young, judgement comes in all ages, all kinds.”
“Who are you to judge?” Becky snaps.
“Exactly,” says the old man, waving the gun at her, “who am I to judge?”
He speaks in riddles and while I’m trying to sort them out, I can’t take my eyes off that revolver. I know I’ve seen it somewhere.
“I ain’t got much else to say,” says Becky. “I didn’t do nothing wrong. I did what I had to do.”
Outside, the sun is gone. A heavy darkness hangs over the room. I can barely see the man now. I can only see the shine of the revolver.
“If you can’t repent then I don’t have a choice Ms. Sharp,” says the man.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I said,” says the man.
The room is quiet. Becky Sharp has one shot to make this right and I reckon she’s too proud to save her own life. I know I ought to say something but I don’t. Fact is, it doesn’t matter what I think is right. I ain’t the one he’s come to see. Everybody’s got their own right, anyway. I think of Becky and I bet she’s always thought she’s done right by her and I reckon this man is only doing what he thinks is right too. I guess I just don’t know what right is but I can feel it. That’s all about anyone can ever really hope for, I reckon.
“I got nothing to be sorry for,” says Becky. “Nothing at all.”
It’s the last thing she ever says. The revolver fires and Becky flies back over my counter, a splash of her blood smacking my cheek. It’s warmer than I would have thought for someone like her.
The man gives a heavy sigh, like he’s real disappointed and all.
Before he leaves he says, “I reckon I’ll be seeing you someday.”
When the police came, I told them all I could. They said they’d look into it but as far as I know, they’ve never been able to do nothin’ about it anyway. What we think of as justice always fails us in the end.
Just the other day I got a call from the central office asking if I wanted to retire. They thought the Becky Sharp affair might have been too much for me to handle. I told the man on the phone I wasn’t going anywhere. He tried to talk me out of it but I couldn’t be persuaded one way or the other. Fact is, there’s always been bad in the world, my Daddy told me that when I was a young girl and it ain’t ever left me. No place is safe. I reckon I could stay home but that’d be too much like defeat. Frankly, it just wouldn’t feel right.
After I got off the phone, I was cleaning out some old drawers when I came across my Daddy’s revolver. I think I understand now as best as I can, anyway. As best as I can.
Banner Image: DanTD [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D