In the Post Office
by Joshua Calloway
I stand in line, a thousand people in front of me. We serpentine around counters and shelves stacked full of boxes, envelopes, card stock, watermarked stationery, and collector edition stamps adorned with Christmas bells, Dreidels, antique cars, movie scenes, and influential women throughout history. We shuffle on, one foot at a time, prisoners in a chain gang. I came here directly after work in an attempt to save some time. I immediately regret this decision, as I can feel the eyes of all the other customers fall upon me, sizing me up in my uniform, from head to toe. Some look at me with disgust and turn away, oddly this doesn’t bother me. Others shoot me a quick smile or nod and with this I feel myself starting to have a mini panic attack. I wish I had a fucking Valium! I inhale deeply through my nostrils and pinch the bridge of my nose with the thumb and index finger of my left hand.
“Hey buddy, you okay?” The words come from behind me and fill me with nameless dread.
Please, please don’t be talking to me!
I turn. A short, pudgy, old man stands behind me wearing a gigantic fur lined parka. Mostly bald, sporting a bald comb-over, and round coke bottle spectacles that magnify his oil black eyes. He has the unmistakable looks of an Alaskan native with his olive skin, flat forehead, and thin mustache that only forms at the corners of his mouth. His breath is rank with cheap gin. He has a genuine look of concern smeared across his stupid-looking face. I stare at him for a measured minute before he inquires again: “You okay buddy?”
His words seem foreign. What the fuck are you asking me? What do you want? Why can’t you just mind your own goddamn business and leave me the hell alone.
He waves his hands in front of me as if to break me from a trance, “You alright?”
“Ahm…ah…ah…fine. I’m fine,” I finally sputter out, forcing a half smile. I turn back around.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. A chill shoots down my spine, and my stomach churns. I think I may throw up; I can already taste bile in the back of my mouth. I take another deep breath. Hold it in. Close my eyes, tighter this time. Oh God, go away! I take a moment before turning to face him.
“Yesssss?” I inquire, deliberately drawing out the word in attempt to show my frustration and get the old man to back off. It’s lost on him and, he continues,
“Ya sure you is okay? You’re sweat’n pretty good.”
“What?” I cough, utterly confused.
“Sweat,” He says pointing at my forehead.
I feel my brow. My hand comes back soaked in perspiration. I get like this in crowds of people.
“Little warm…I guess.” Embarrassed at having someone notice and bring attention to it.
“Really? I’m freezing! Ain’t you freezing?” He asks the girl in line behind him, a pretty blond in a blue dress and a green parka that doesn’t match. She nods in agreement and studies my pale, sweat coated face.
“I guess I’m just…warm blooded.” I offer. What the fuck do you care anyway, you son-of-a-bitch?
“Maybe you is getting sick.”
“I’m fine, really.” Piss off!
“You should see a doctor.”
You should go fuck yourself old man! I hope you fall on the ice on your way home and you break your fucking hip! I hope it gets infected and you die a slow, painful, death.
“I’ll do that,” I assure him. I turn and face forward once more and shuffle up a couple feet.
“Anybody in here a doctor?” He blurts out from behind me.
I’m starting to shake. Everyone turns to look. My chest tightens. The room is spinning, my vision tunnels. “I’m fine!” I bark. The words come out sounding much harsher than I had intended. The old man has a shocked expression, taken back by my tone. He has a wounded look about him, as though someone had just delivered the news his dog had died. I think to myself, At least now maybe you’ll leave me alone. I take comfort in this thought and allow myself a moment of relaxation. It’s short lived however, as I hear the dreaded words come from behind me:
“So, you was overseas, yeah?”
I cringe. My guts flip-flop inside of me and a gruesome bubbling sensation comes from my bowels. Please, don’t let me shit myself, not here, not now! I turn, face the old man once more, look into gigantic magnified eyes and reply flatly. “Yeah, I was,” and turn around again.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” begins playing over the speakers. I HATE CHRISTMAS MUSIC, the upbeat cheerful tones with their messages of love, hope and forgiveness. All bullshit! How in the fuck did I not notice this when I first came in here? If I had I would have turned and left right then and there and could have avoided this entire fiasco. I consider leaving now but I’ve been shuffling along in this line now for forty-five minutes now and there are only three more customers waiting in front of me. Still, it’s tempting!
“Well…” he continues, “let me just say thank you for your service and all your sacrifices.”
I spin around to face him; a smile spread across his fat face from ear to ear, his arm outstretched offering a handshake.
I feel delirious. I’m sure I’m starting to hyperventilate. I think maybe I’ll black out.
Why do they always say that? “Thank you for your service and your sacrifices?” What the fuck do you know about it? You know nothing of my sacrifices. You don’t know one damn thing about me. How would you know what I have sacrificed if anything at all? “Thank you for your service.” Really? I wonder how many would thank me if they knew we killed a kid, no more than fifteen; his family crying in the next room as he bled out in their kitchen. Would they thank me for my service if they knew I punched an eight–year old square in the chest for throwing rocks at me? Would they still thank me if they knew I walked right on by as a mother pleaded for my help as she clutched her dead baby, blue and limp, in her arms? Would they still thank me for my service if they knew how ready I was to murder? Not just the “bad guys” but anyone who provided me with the opportunity. Would they thank me then?
I feel the blood pumping through my veins begin heating up. The nauseating feeling I had is gone now, replaced with a fire burning out of control in my belly. I can literally feel the heat coming off of me. I want desperately to punch this old Klooch right in the face, although admittedly I don’t know why. What is wrong with me? Why am I always so goddamn angry all the goddamn time?
I gain just enough composure to shake the man’s hand, perhaps just a little tight. I tell him, “You’re welcome,” through clenched teeth, “and thank you for your support.” I offer a fake smile, but it feels stupid and forced on my face.
It’s either my faux smile or my vice grip, but something has changed in the old man. His smile is gone, in its stead a look that is a mixture of fear and disgust. For a moment I think that he sees through me, or maybe I have been speaking out loud, I’m not sure. He is saying something to me now but, my head is spinning I feel so weak and dizzy all of a sudden. I shake my head trying to gain clarity. I look once more to the old man, this time his smile is back. Was it ever gone? I still can’t quite make out what he is telling me but, he is pointing at me. Wait no, not at me, he is pointing past me. Then, suddenly as if I have been turning the knob on a radio finding nothing but static and then finally finding a station his words make sense to me, “You’re up kid.”
Still, slightly confused, I turn my head to see the cashier behind her counter waving me forward. I step up to the desk. The woman looks irritated and I wonder how long she had been calling me before I acknowledged her.
“How can I help you, sir?” She asks.
I respond with a blank look, like perhaps I didn’t understand the question.
“Sir, what do you need?” she asks, this time with a bit of an attitude.
“Sir! How…can…I….help…you?” She says, pausing between each word as if I am an imbecile and don’t understand if you speak too quickly.
I can feel the anger stoking up again deep inside. “I need to mail these off” I tell her, slamming the envelopes I’ve been clutching in my sweaty fist down onto the counter.
The cashier is startled, and jumps a little, which makes me smile. She inspects the envelopes for a second and then asks, “Will you be needing insurance, sir?”
“No,” I say shaking my head.
“Are you sure? Sir, this time of year we really do recommend…”
“I said no!” I shout cutting the lady off as she speaks.
“Hey buddy, you’s gotta take it easy.” I turn to see the old man talking to me. Behind him, a sea of faces, all looking at me with disapproving eyes. “I know you’s been in line awhile,” he starts again, “but you’s gotta take it easy.”
I feel a tidal wave of embarrassment crash over me. “You’re right,” I tell him. “I’m sorry.”
I turn once more to face the cashier. I apologize to her but it’s clear that it’s too little, too late.
“Anything else Sir?” this time she is the one talking through clenched teeth.
“No, ma’am, that’s all.” I pay my bill and make my way to the door. I’m sure the bitch will toss my letters and they’ll never reach their intended destination, but at this point I couldn’t care less. I’m angry again, but this time not at anyone else, I am pissed off at myself for acting like an asshole. I’m losing control of myself. The monster I woke inside me in Iraq is proving harder than I expected to put back to rest.
I climb into my Dodge Stratus and put the keys in the ignition, but I don’t turn them, I just sit there. I feel the first hot tear run down my face and wipe it quickly away, but I have opened the floodgates and tears start pouring out. I feel so ashamed but I can’t hold them back. As the tears flow, snot begins running from my nose. I wipe my nose with the sleeve of my blouse leaving behind a trail of slime. I flip down the visor and see through the vanity mirror how pitiful I look. “FUCK!!” I scream at myself. “Fuck you, you whiny little bitch. Look at you, you’re so fucking pathetic,” I tell my reflection in between sobs. I look to my left out the window and see the pretty girl with the blue dress staring back at me. I’m not sure how long she’s been there, how long she’s been watching me, but it’s obvious she has caught enough of my production to cause concern.
“Are you alright?” she mouths.
I roll down the window. “I’m fine,” I lie, tears still cascading from my eyes. “Truly, I’m fine.”
“You sure?” She asks, “cause you don’t look fine.”
I start the car. “I am, I’m fine” I tell her, putting the car in reverse. “Thank you.”
“Wait a minute,” she hollers to me as I put the car in drive and peal out of the icy driveway.
Home is only a few blocks away, but I circle around for an hour until my tears have stopped and my cheeks have dried. I cannot let my wife and boy see me like this. When I finally pull into the driveway of my apartment complex the clock reads 7:07. I had told my wife when I left for work this morning that I’d be home no later than five. Oh well, so I am a little late. I flip the visor down once more and examine my face, insuring there is no remaining trace of my tears. My eyes are slightly bloodshot but for the most part you can’t tell that I have been blubbering. I feel better, although deep down in my belly I can still feel something smoldering.
Joshua P. Callaway is thirty-six years old. After fifteen years of service, he medically retired as a US Army Airborne infantryman. He now resides in San Diego with his wife, their three boys, and dog Gingie. He is a full-time student and an aspiring writer.