Chapter 9

“Irma Willard’s good people. Don’t ever doubt it. Little hard of hearing. We try and get her to use the hearin’ aid but she says she likes it quiet.”

     

The dust cleared and there was the house. Like a vision from a paint catalog. There was a lively weather vane atop a proper roof. White lace curtains swayed in fresh painted windows. The perimeter flower bed agreed with the window boxes. The porch had a swing and a rocker, and in the rocker sat a solitary and unoccupied Irma Willard.

    

The women stepped out of the truck.

     

“Lookee what I brought ya Irma. This here is your new tenant, Celia. Found her on the road so I picked her up and brought her to you. Special deeeelivery.”

     

Celia and Penny waited for a response, any response. Irma rocked, staring forward. Her smile was one of content. She felt happiness was for children. Irma was content. Her home was content and the whole picture oozed content. It smelled of content and Celia was as awed of this as if standing before Niagara Falls.

      

Irma rocked her last deliberate rock and rose, straightening her skirt and delicately descending the 3 porch steps, she approached the girls.

    

“Well that’s just fine Penny. Thank you very much. How do you do? I’m Irma Willard. This is my home and you are welcome to it. You must be Celia.”

    

Celia’s eyes and thoughts darted around. This was an unbelievable moment she was living in. A perfect moment without artifice or pretense. The house and the women and the scenery were all beautiful and not threatening. Perfect.

    

“Yes, how do you do? I’m Celia. Thank you. Yes. Your home is really lovely!”

    

Celia extended her hand unconsciously, a habit. This created an awkward moment. Irma didn’t really know how to shake. It was not a custom for women of her generation or locality to shake but as she aspired to be always, the best possible host, she put her hand in Celia’s and submitted to this foreign ritual. She straightened her skirt and sweater again disguising the reflex to somehow wipe or sanitize her now altered personal self.

      

“Can I get you a cold drink Penny? I just made a fresh pitcher lemonade expecting Celia here.” Irma smiled with her hands clasped together.

    

“Thank you darlin’ but I have to get back to costuming our school play and it is a pile of work I don’t mind telling you.”

     

Before the word ‘play’ was entirely past Penny’s teeth, Celia’s head snapped around like she heard her mama calling.

   

“Well the Lord loves your devotion honey so you get right back to work. We girls will get acquainted by ourselves. How about a lemonade for you Celia? Special Deelivery.”

   

“Thank you, that sounds great Irma. Yes please.”

     

Irma smiled and turned, remounting the stairs up the porch and silently slipping into her perfect home by way of the screen door.

    

Celia thought, “Wow, a screen door.” Penny returned to her truck.

      

“I’ll be seeing you cowgirl. If’n you need anything you look me up. I figure you going to know where I live by bout noon on Monday and remember, Miles, so keep drinking.”

      

Penny opened her door and slipped back into her truck. Before the door closed Celia called out, “Hey, where’s the Post Office?”

      

Penny popped back out, her engine already running. She pointed

to the flag waving over and past the trees.

 

 Ardensville

                          Chapter 10

 

Celia Stax, nee Stayavon, was not what one might call, un-traveled. She had been up and down the East Coast, the West Coast, she had been to Chicago and a couple of other larger U.S. Cities, all for the purpose of theatre. She had been to much of Europe when in between semesters of school plus a generous splatter of vacation destinations, when her Dad was alive.

      

Never ever had she been anywhere like this. Only stepping out of her dropped house into the land of OZ could top this. No Medieval hamlet even came close. And the sky, the sky went on forever.

        

Except where the house interrupted, she could see for miles in pretty much all directions and except for the water tower, declaring “Ardensville,” none of that view included any advertising.

 

Was this because no one was buying or no one selling? Who cares? Not the breeze bringing the air of the planting fields. Not the song birds too numerous in presence to count or song to isolate. Celia sat on the steps for an everlasting second, swooning in the experience of having forgotten herself completely for maybe the first time in her adult life. Inhale. Exhale.

     

“Enjoying our scenery young lady? It is a fine fine day.”

      

Irma descended the 3 stairs again, the rail in one hand and lemonade in the other. Celia jumped up, another polite reflex.

    

“You stay right where you are honey. I know the wonder of the wonder of creation when I see it and I’m going to sit here right next to you and enjoy you knowing it. Just like prayin’.”

      

Irma handed Celia the lemonade, pretty as a picture with the elegant crystal glass already sweating beads of joy. Celia raised her glass to Irma, “My landlady” and took a deep refreshing drink.

      

Abruptly, her throat closed. Something died in her mouth, whoah.

   

“Is this woman trying to kill me?”

      

Irma smiled broadly. Her lemonade was famous you know. Celia still had a mouthful and it was not going to stay there long. She looked around desperately. Where could she secretly discharge this and not kill any flowers. Oh well. Betting on Irma’s hearing, she let it go over her shoulder and hoped the chrysanthemums were hardy or, maybe artificial. Celia started to breathe again.

     

“How’s that tastin’for ya honey?”

        

Celia smiled approval wondering, if she ate the caterpillar inching on the rose branch behind Irma would it kill the taste?

     

“Your rooms are upstairs, around back. You just set and finish your lemonade. Take your time and have as much as you like, then we can go see your new quarters and get you settled in. That good for you?”

     

“You betcha.”

 

Irma turned hearing, infrequently as she does, a car backfire somewhere on the road. Celia’s lemonade went over her shoulder into the shrubs.

 

“Man-up boys. Whoah.”

     

They walked around to the back of the house. Though in shade at this hour of the day, the back was as detail perfect as the front. Instead of facing the road and the small amount of traffic or activity Ardensville had to offer, it faced fields. Fields and distance. Couple of trees but Celia could not tell how far they might be. Or how close. Considering all of this, Celia resolved the back was preferable to the front. She did not think a two step porch with a one seat swing any kind of indignity. In fact, she thought it paradise.

    

“Well go on in honey,” Irma announced with something like newlywed joy. Celia gestured that she did not yet have the key.

    

“Oh, well here’s the key,” reaching into her apron pocket, “but

 nobody locks anything round here. Go on in.”

Celia opened the screen door and the inner door was already ajar. She looked back and giggled in childlike amazement. There was a small modest foyer with a coat rack and side table next to a staircase. Along the staircase were a few pictures. Family local type

pictures, Grandpa with a tractor. That sort of thing. Some pictures had been removed, their relocation evidenced by an unused picture nail or two.

 

All the while Irma was explaining that it used to be one home for one large family. They were all gone now. She was the last. “These were the back stairs.” Folks from town helped with the renovation, so Irma could have a little extra income from an apartment, “If’n anyone moved to Ardensville.”

     

Irma called it the upstairs. Celia knew it as an apartment. An apartment that could never exist in New York. As it included the entire upper floor, there were windows on all sides. With the interior doors all open, one could, from strategic locations see 360 degrees. It was a great clean white space. Brand spankin brand new and happily genuinely antique. The sweet breezes from all directions moved past Celia like arias. She watched Irma move around the rooms, looking for the people and events that no longer were. That was a little sad but as long as their taxidermied bodies did not reside in the fruit cellar, Celia would not object to the company of family ghosts. They were permanent fixtures and she believed herself to be otherwise, but, for the moment, home sweet home.

 

 

 Chapter 11

By herself now, the endless white walls did not call to Celia. She would not biograph on these blank walls. Somehow, she felt her inner self on a kind of vacation. These walls did not compress her issues and conflicts into eruption. Hmmmm.

She unpacked her bags into not half the drawers of a dresser and barely any of the closet in the room with the bed. This bedroom had windows on two super scenic sides. One of those windows had a nearby Elm tree that one could climb up or down from the window. She had such a tree as a teenager in Connecticut. She also had a boyfriend.

     

3 pages of a calendar was all she brought. Figuring, outside, this gig would not take longer than that. She magneted them to the fridge with some charity magnets she bought at the bus station by the airport, way back on the other side of the day. One tried to be a corn cob. One was a farm animal, probably. The last was simply not identifiable. She liked that one best.

     

In the shower Celia imagined Irma, dressed as a man, pulling back the curtain and murdering her. Nice. Didn’t happen. Not long after getting out of the shower, there was yoohoo from the bottom of the stairs and there was Irma with a tray of sandwiches and a pitcher of cold milk.

      

It seemed like unbridled hospitality to Celia and it seemed Irma wanted to sit in those rooms again and belong there.

    

“Was this where she played, where she first kissed her cousin Farley, or maybe her cousin Loretta? Stop, she is a sweet old woman and her demons are not my concern when only her angels bring me sandwiches and milk,” thought Celia.

       

Church bells, pardon, bell woke Celia in the morning. It may have been a tire rim struck with a crow bar, but it got her up just the same.

       

It was a glorious morning streaming in every window. Having had an excellent night’s sleep and feeling secure Irma had not poisoned her, which would make this a pleasant afterlife, the spirit of adventure filled her sails, got her quickly dressed and out the door.

 

“Let’s see this town.”

 

She started walking towards the flag pole which she assumed to be the downtown area.

      

There were no sidewalks. No parking signs and no streetlights. A few homes and fewer businesses were all in good repair. Not the equal of Irma’s but most respectable. Folks were looking at her. She knew this and confessed to herself she would have to be unconscious not to know it. They smiled and tipped their hats, but they didn’t come close and they weren’t tossing flowers.

        

The flag pole rose from what was most likely the center of town. It stood in front of the far end of an odd building whose other end seemed to be the church steeple. Then she listened. “No bats in that belfry. Bats couldn’t stand the singing, not that singing.” There were not many voices, but in solo moments or in the aggregate, that was the worst church singing Celia never imagined. “Wow.”

        

Across from the church thing building was what Celia was looking for:

 

Aunt Babby’s Café

If We Don’t Cook It

You Don’t Eat It

Native Americans Welcome

        

When Celia came through the screen door, conversation stopped. She froze, not knowing what to do. Coming from the kitchen was a powerful voice that didn’t yell, but in a voice so resonant and authoritative that it shattered the silence came, “Billy Ray, where’s my rye toast with the eastern omelet?” Conversation resumed. Celia tried to be invisible and that was impossible. She decided to sit at the counter and chose a stool that seemed to have a view of the establishment. Conversation stopped again. That was Babby’s seat. Nobody sat in Babby’s seat.

      

Something Celia discovered in that moment was a small mirror mounted in front of her in a funny sort of way. It was not hidden nor was it visible to all. Mostly it was visible to the one person sitting on that stool and the mirror showed the door.

         

An imposing leonine woman of color came around the corner of the kitchen and looked Celia right in the eye.“Good morning,” said Babby.

    

“Yes thank you good morning,” returned Celia.

       

“I see a cup of coffee in your future,” said Babby.

        

Never losing eye contact, Babby’s powerful hands stealthily vanished beneath the counter. One returned first with a mug. The other followed with a pot of coffee. She poured and returned the pot to its station. Babby slid the little milk pot and sugar over to Celia.

       

“Thank you no, black, I mean I drink it black, black coffee, thank you, yes.” Celia sipped the hot coffee trying to retain both eye contact and smile. “Wow, that’s good coffee!!”

       

Conversation stopped again. Babby flared her nostrils, and conversation began again.

   

“What else do you see in my future, if you don’t mind me asking?” Celia gave up and closed her eyes while inhaling the vapors coming up from the best cup of coffee she could remember.

     

“You’re Miles’s new help at the P.O. You’re staying upstairs at Irma Willard’s. It’s your first day in town and you’re looking for breakfast.” Babby sipped her coffee.

       

Celia displayed a little consternation now “What am I, wearing a sign or something?”

        

“What would you call that shirt?”

          

Both women sipped.

         

“Okay okay, you got me there.” Celia put down her coffee and cocked her head. “Hi, I’m Celia Stax. I’ll be working at the Post Office. I’m new in town. I’m staying upstairs at Irma Willard’s. Is there a menu?”

    

“A huh. I’m Babby Hopperyn. This is my place. You’re in my stool. In addition to letting you live another day, I’m gonna buy you your first breakfast in my café, only forget the menu. Everybody in America knows what they want for breakfast. What do you want? If this is a hard question, I guess I won’t be seeing my mail for awhile.”

         

Both women alternately sip and tap their knuckles on the counter.

        

“A huh, Okay, then how about fried eggs and grits.”

        

“Grits is the south, honey chile. This ain’t the south and neither are you. You just drink your coffee. I’ll get your breakfast since you’re not paying for it, and you just think of something new to say, something embarrassing. Really, I’m enjoying this.”

       

Babby went back to the kitchen where she could be heard mostly, not seen. The waitress came by the window, picked up some plates, refilled Celia’s mug and kept going. “Woman runs a tight ship alright.”

          

Didn’t take long. Babby was back with the breakfast. It looked spectacular. Celia had dined at New York’s finest and then some. Nothing she recalled beat what was now before her, and the first fork was not yet in her mouth. When it got there it exploded in her mouth. It danced on her tongue, sang upon her taste buds. “Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. Where did you learn to cook like this?”

        

“Keep it down honey, we don’t want the Times in here.”

         

“You’re not worried, the Times couldn’t find it.” Celia wiped the last speck of anything off her plate with the last morsel of biscuit.

      

“At’s right cupcake, we don’t want the Times here.” 

 

Since she got no check, Celia left 4 dollars under her mug and waved good bye.

     

“Babby!” remarked the waitress, “That lady in the ugly shirt left 4 dollars.”

     

“It’s yours. Just keep it down. Damn foreigners.”

 

Chapter 12

Any day might be a fine day with a breakfast like that. Celia looked back through the screen door making sure she had not merely imagined this place and that spectacular meal. Maybe the whole thing would vanish into time if she stepped away from the building.

    

Carefully, not wanting to give herself a wedgie, Celia tugged her ugly shirt out of her now somewhat stressed pants when she noticed an unusual figure coming towards her from across the street. It was not high noon and it was definitely not Gary Cooper. He came from the direction of the church like building across th central intersection.

    

He wore a ridiculous hat, sort of half way between a state trooper’s stiff brim and a cowboy hat. There was a bright polished emblem in front reflecting the sunlight. A snakeskin band and a wild turkey feather completed the chapeau. Shaded below the brim, Dirty Harry style reflecting sunglasses ministered on their pulpit. He was not a fat man but he did have a paunch which in combination with his cowboy boots and cowboy six shooter, made walking seem every step painful.

     

The jewel in this crown however was above the obscured belt line. He had on a minister’s black shirt and collar. On his breast he had a sheriff’s star, military fashion commendations, and a cross.

     

Celia was at bare minimum gob smacked.

     

“Have I the pleasure of addressing our new postal mistress?”

     

Celia remained unable to respond in words to this chimera.

     

“Have those feeble minded postal geniuses sent me an idiot? Why this woman can’t communicate in English,” thought the ma from Rio Eastwood.

   

“Yes, right good morning ahh, officer ah Sheriff Padre,” Celia babbled away much like the idiot he suspected she was.

    

“Excuse me. Folks around here refer to me as Sheriff / Minister, Sheriff / Minister Morrow, Dwight Morrow.”

   

“Yes, good morning how do you do. I’m Celia Stax. Pleasure.” Celia reached forward to shake his hand. As Morrow was not accustomed to shaking hands with girls let alone touching them at all nor anyone else for that matter, this handshake was at very least tenuous.

   

“Excellent, yes. Did you find your way to Irma’s without too much trouble I hope? And, I presume you’re settled in your quarters?” asked Morrow still not convinced Celia was not an idiot.

   

“Oh yes, thank you for asking. Irma is very nice and her home is lovely. I could not ask for more, no sir,” assured Celia regaining her wits and now perusing this man to find him even odder than he seemed 43 seconds ago.

    

“Irma’s good people. Don’t ever doubt it. Now, pay attention,” he said taking an abruptly commanding tone, “if you would be so good as to cross the plaza to our municipal center,” Celia looked around and even squinted a bit trying to see a plaza and municipal building that he could see and she did not, “go around to the right by the flag pole there where you will find, I hope, the Post Office.”

    

Getting a handle now on this significant character, the only individual she was forewarned of at all, Celia decided to play the ditz for Morrow. So she responded with a convincing and sincere “A huh.”

     

Morrow peered over the top of his glasses at this pretty but dim woman in a very fashionable blouse though un-tidy for not being tucked into her trousers. He felt sure now she was indeed another postal halfwit and would be no trouble or very little.

    

“Yes, around to the right. Go on in. It’s Sunday but Miles is always there. I don’t know why. You introduce yourself to Miles. You will report to him in the morning so he can show you the lay of the land today. Do you have any questions?”

   

“No sir Shmeriff/inister.” Celia was playing now, “I’ll go talk to Milo. Thank you.”

   

“Now I hope to see you at our service next week, young lady. If you will excuse me, I must tend to my breakfast. The work of the Lord does raise an appetite. You run along now, and we shall talk again soon. Bye now and give my best to Irma.”

     

Morrow tipped his ridiculous hat, turned and went into Babby’s.

    

The folks already in the cafe, some of who had been to Sunday service, treated him coolly. Liked or loved was not on Morrow’s “needs list,” however, he didn’t generate much in the way of fear neither. He took the stool at the counter, next to Babby’s stool which Celia had recently departed from. Babby had ducked into the kitchen knowing he would be coming in.

      

Joanne, the waitress that morning, swooped in with a cup of coffee without being asked, typical of life in Ardensville. She slid the sugar and little metal creamer in reach of the sheriff who nodded approval but didn’t really say thank you.

  

Man ate the same thing, every morning for as many years as anyone could remember. Salami and onions on a prune danish. Extra mayo. It made Babby a little ill just to say it let alone make it. And how he ate. No one of weak constitution could watch. Wasn’t eating at all, more like feeding.

     

Morrow generally did not pay for his breakfasts. He would issue Babby a summons for something or other, tear it up with a wink and say, “Well this will be between us.”

      

As it was a busy morning, down a waitress and Joanne begging for a help, Babby bit the bullet and went out with a bus tub knowing she would cross paths with Morrow. Having cleared some tables and returning to the kitchen with her tub loaded, Morrow, now standing, spoke.

    

“Why Babby, there you are. I see you so infrequently lately. How are you?”

     

Babby grit her teeth but held the bus tub so to appear to need to get back to the kitchen without delay. She could have held 3 bus tubs, full.

    

“I’m fine, Sheriff Sinister. How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you for asking. How is your other waitress, uh, Angelina? Has she had her child yet?”

    

By this time, Joanne had sidled up to Babby. Just in case.

    

“No Sheriff  Minister, her due date 2 week ago but we still waitin,” interjected Joanne.

     

Morrow blew his nose with his napkin and dropped it in Babby’s waiting bus tub. He straightened his hat and glasses.

     

“Babby, why are you people always late.”  Leaving no tip, ever, Morrow turned and left.

     

“One of these days I am going to go 1968 on that cracker Joanne, you betcha.”

Chapter 13

       

 

If Irma’s house was a centerfold for Home and Gardens, the Ardensville P.O. belonged on the cover of the Postal World Quarterly. In fact, it was eligible for a stamp.

        

There at the base of its flag pole was a little rock and flower display. The rocks were all the same size and the flowers were in orderly arrangement of yellow and purple and white. More than freshly painted, the pole seemed polished, all the way up. The flag might have been ironed.

       

Three steps and a screen door. The steps did not creak and no mosquito could be seen crucified on the screen door. Celia peered in and saw no one. She entered, paying attention to everything and everything was immaculate. A slow moving ceiling fan moved the air silently. It did not rock or shimmy like most ceiling fans that seem to threaten escape from their mooring and decapitating someone who lingered beneath too long.  

        

The little stacks of postal forms were neatly evenly piled and labeled, each having some kind of polished postal paper weight to keep them regimental. The counters shined. The photo portrait of the president was centrally located and the glass and its frame shined like a halo. A bowl of wrapped candy on the primary counter greeted Celia and she accepted.

          

Everything in place and perfectly still. She called out, “Miles?”

         

A bridge troll popped up from behind the counter directly in front of Celia, and she nearly took his eye out with a projectile butter scotch toffee.

         

“Wow, yea so sorry, Miles? You must be Miles. I’m Celia, Celia Stax. Reporting for duty.”

 

Celia hesitated and did not reach her hand out for fear of catching something. Didn't matter because Miles dove under a desk duty bound to retrieve the butter scotch.

        

“How do you do, I’m Miles but you already seem to know that,” said the troll from under a desk. “Gotcha.” Miles rose from under the desk displaying his capture and gesturing if Celia might want it back. She declined. Miles snorted audibly, inhaling and exhaling as he tossed the candy in the empty waste basket.

       

“This is what Penny was talking about, this is Miles, wow.”

       

As perfect the post office was in every detail, Miles, its author was opposite. He was a mess. A most unattractive site. Sporting a classic “Larry” (Stooges Larry), his hair was again, just a mess. He did not show a beard but was not shaven either. His postal issue shirt was buttoned incorrectly, possibly due to the absent buttons. One shirt tail tucked in, the other not, and the back not at all. His postal issue pants were the color “stain,” falling off and threadbare in many spots. Looking at his shoes anyone would guess, “the man digs ditches.”

        

He did not smell good. This could have been his clothes that needed washing or his self that needed washing or both. Most alarming was this: Miles snorted. He snorted like a hog digging around for truffles. When he snorted in he snorted out and so pronounced was this snorting, people thought they might catch a booger in the eye if they stood too close, which neutralized the not smelling good issue. He smiled broadly always, and his yellow teeth lined up like drunks around a burning trash can.

       

Gob smacked again, Celia tried to reconcile how this human pile of wreckage could maintain this perfect P.O., exemplifying discipline and order. With every encounter, Ardensville, its residents and its locations appeared more and more improbable.

      

“I’m so happy to meet you! I’ve been without help for quite a while now and as you have probably noticed, the place was beginning to get away from me.”

     

“I was going to say something about the knot on the flagpole but, it not even being my first day, I decided to let it go.”

        

Miles restated his broad smile and blinked slowly signifying and signaling to Celia that her sarcasm was recognized and enjoyed. So far, Miles was Celia’s favorite.

       

“Come, walk with me.” Miles pointed to the swinging waist-high door toward the end of the counter. He turned and started walking to the back of the post office.

         

In an orderly shelved backroom, Miles opened neatly stacked boxes and started pulling pants and shirts and a sweater for Celia, handing them to her as he went. Then, employing a ladder, he went to the top shelf and came down with a conspicuous box. He opened it, smiling broadly again. If Douglas MacArthur were assigned to the postal service, this would have been his hat.

        

“No no no no no, thank you Miles but ahh, I am not worthy.”

         

Miles returned it to the high shelf. He would not wear it either. While still up on the ladder he reached into another box and pulled out a plastic wrapped and current Postal regulations guidelines and practices. Thick like a phone book.

     

“This is not very good reading but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not give you one. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep on a restless night.” Miles came down the ladder and returned it to its hook on the side of the shelving.

      

“So where are you from Celia, and why come to Ardensville?”

     

“Well,” Celia wondered how much fabrication she could get over on Miles—other than his personal hygiene, he seemed to be all there and sharp—“I was working a P.O. in central Connecticut. There was ahh, this tattooed freak, letter carrier, a bit in love with me who I was not going to any truck demolitions with and when they finally started giving him warnings he decided to come and kill me. I  wasn’t working that day but he did get my goldfish, so I asked for a transfer to anyplace just like this, and lemme tell'ya, this is perfect.”

      

“Huh” said Miles snorting. Celia’s arms were now loaded with postal costume and bible. “Here, walk with me, I want to introduce you to someone.” Miles again turned to walk further into the recesses of his post office. The door he opened with the push of a bar revealed sunlight. It was a back door which was kind of odd.  The configuration of the building did not seem to have a back or a front.

 

“What a strange place!” 

 

Attached to the building was a shed that looked more like a small barn. Miles fiddled with the latch a bit and said, “May I introduce to you, my ole' buddy, Alexander M. Stephens,” and threw open the barn doors.

      

Celia was expecting a horse or a buggy or something like that. Instead, there was a jeep. A WWII genuine issue open top Willys jeep. No particular color at all, a tall stick coming up from the floor board and a gas tank and spare mounted in the back. There were postal emblems on the sides and on the hood and two little American flags mounted on either side of the windshield.

     

“How do you do Alexander M. Stephens,” Celia was truly and deeply deeply in love. Like the P.O., Mr. Stephens appeared to be in perfect repair. The rag top was there in the back of the shed for a rainy day, and the jeep itself was backed in facing out, a cheetah ready to charge.

      

“You start tomorrow at 9 but take Mr. Stephens for a spin today. If you make a right at the end of the town road and go 1.6 mile, you’ll see Butch’s filling station. There’s a motorcycle out front, the kind with big handle bars. We have an account there for gas, and if there’s a problem, Butch can fix it.”

     

“So, like, Mr. Stephens is mine?”

       

“In so far as you are both attached to this branch of the U.S. postal service, yes, you and he are—‘an item.’”

       

Celia dropped her load in the back and jumped right in. There was no door. The key was in the ignition and it started up immediately and commenced to purring. Celia released the safety brake and he just rolled out of the shed. There must have been an incline.

     

“Please be gentle. He’s not a youngster,” Miles saw something wild in Celia’s eyes. She gave him a little gas and the purr became proto-roar. She threw it into first, popped the clutch, and Mr. Stephens burst from the tall grass. Celia’s shrieking joy could be heard above the roar of a happy engine. Miles’s snorting became choking when the honeymoon couple’s acceleration left Miles in that too familiar cloud of dust.  

    

“9 o’clock. Take it easy on him. He’s an old fella.” Miles tried to yell it but choked mostly and it was not likely Celia was really listening anyways.

Chapter 14

 

Celia was having an ecstasy moment by any measure. Now in motion, the dust cloud rather than engulfing her was behind her. First stop—home and out of these ridiculous clothes. Folks turned to see this new resident with Mr. Stephens kicking up dust even on the short ride from the P.O. back to Irma’s. She came to a skidding stop 10 feet from her door, jumped directly out of the vehicle leaving the keys right there in the ignition because, well because it’s Ardensville. The blouse didn’t go in the hamper. Went in the garbage, express. Jeans, her boots, and an old flannel shirt let her remember

who she was again. She found her sunglasses and looked in the fridge. She did not really need to be reminded that there was nobody home there. “A fine place to begin,” she thought.

 

She drove aimlessly, like a teenager. If she saw a road she took it till the end. If there was a mailbox she slowed to read the name. She took stock of the houses she saw and the vehicles parked nearby. Were there barns, were there tractors or silos or livestock? Hex signs, broken windows, little banners saying vote this way or that? She took it all in. There was a gun shop, a farm store, a VFW bar, and a market that was something of a mutt, a cross between the general store it used to be, the supermarket it wanted to be, and the very useful store that it just was. Had a Mexican name: Torado’s. 

 

The landscape, no longer intimidating, began to reveal its distinguishing features. Since vast flatness would be anyone’s first description, colors now gave feature to one part of the horizon or another. The green of a sorghum field was different from the green of soy. Corn was another color and the sight of a sunflower field required Celia to stop the jeep, be still and re-learn the meaning of yellow. Sometimes a field would just be big brown-black. This was a field just harvested and tilled or so she thought, not truly conversant yet in agrarian/rural. One might see a windmill. Not the big Dutch type but the water well kind with a little propeller. A farmhouse here a stand of trees there and the well-delineated patches of agricultural colors. That was all and that was everything. Celia was a little surprised that Torado’s was open on a Sunday and there it was—time to shop. It was a dirt sort of parking lot where you did not really park. You stopped and turned off the engine.

 

No lines or handicapped signs to speak of. These steps creaked making the bell over the door superfluous. Inside had the aroma of Astoria. Garlic, oregano and cheese, and coffee all sang the holiest of harmony that can never be oppressive. They didn’t have 14 kinds of toothpaste. There were 3 kinds. There were beer and soda and wine but the wine was mostly Chianti. There was a strange variety of things: Greeting cards from another age, butterfly nets, souvenir water tower/thermometers, hex signs, and a whole aisle for spam.

 There was a prepared food counter for what they called “home-mades.” Behind the counter was a giant bear of a man and a much smaller bald man with thick glasses who looked disoriented and lost. If the big guy bumped into the small guy, he might break him, and he didn’t. He was rather nimble moving around the small space behind the counter. It all looked pretty good really.

 

“Whacha havin’ young lady?”

 

“He does not sound Mexican.”

 

She bought soppressata and fresh mozzarella and pickled peppers and groceries and some local produce and a bottle of Beam and an air freshener thing you hang from the rearview. Celia pulled up to her door just as the sun was hitting the horizon. She stopped her grocery unload. She stopped period. The sunset over the fields was heart-stopping. Earth’s longest-running show. Behind her, it was already night and then the night was complete. It seemed to happen that fast. Then the stars. She forgot there were that many stars. Clouds of stars and shooting stars and constellations and a crescent moon, low on the horizon and bigger than your garden variety urban moon. 

 

All put away or on the table, breezes through the kitchen, and a non-existent radio was set to the all cricket and peeper station. Celia had the evaluation papers out and she began writing that was asked of her. Strangely at home in this moment, Celia wrote with one hand and opened packages with the other. She peeled off a perfectly thin slice of soppressata, folded it bite-size, and popped it into her mouth. Boing!! Once again. “What is going on here?” The best salami Little Italy, NYC had to offer did not hold a candle to this. And then the mozz. State of the mozz mozz. There was a deep mysterious flavor in it that could not be identified except to say it was not a mere chewy lump of milk. 

 

Wow and wow. “What the fuck is going on here?” quite sincere and out loud.

Chapter 15

 

The postal garb wasn’t bad. Very blue but not uncomfortable. There were fewer folks in Babby’s and the buzz buzz did not change much at all when she came in and sat at the counter, this time next to Babby’s perch. Babby’s face was in the service window.

    

“Well good morning,” said Babby.

    

“Well good morning,” Babby’s good morning coming back as if it had bounced off a mirror. Celia already had her mitts on a cup of coffee.

    

“You having breakfast?” asked Babby studying hair, makeup, fingernails, teeth and well, everything on this enigmatic newcomer.

     

“Thank you no, I’m good with coffee. Back for lunch though. What am I having?” breathing in vapors of the best cup of coffee in America.

     

“Short ribs n’ turnips. You like short ribs n’ turnips?” the head in the window asked. Babby always seemed more concerned with how you responded to a question rather than what your answer was. Your answer was only what you said, what came out of your mouth.

    

“Well are we talking pink turnips or rutabagas. For all I know, you might put out a shredded daikon with a maple citrus vinage….”

     

“Go deliver some mail, cupcake. Miles is waiting for you. Don’t wanna be late yo’ first day now do ya?”

    

“No, no I don’t and who knows what kind of traffic I’ll hit getting cross town?” Celia rose, smiling. She left 2 bucks under her cup, winked at Babby, said good morning to Joanne and headed out.

     

She had parked over by the P.O. as driving back and forth across “the plaza” seemed a little indulgent. Not too surprising, Miles had started loading mail sacks into the jeep. Labeled, ordered, wind proofed and instantly comprehensible.

  

“Why isn’t this guy the mayor of New York or president?” Celia nearly collided with the president two steps into the door.

    

“Excellent.” The more Miles smiled the more pronounced a slight lisp became. “If you would be so good as to get those two sacks loaded, we can begin the 9:10 meeting.”

    

“What kind of meeting?” Celia cocked her head a bit confused.

    

“Strategy, geography and objectives. What were you expecting, research and development initiatives?”

    

Celia smiled and blinked slowly informing Miles that his sarcasm was enjoyed. “Who, may I ask, will be attending this meeting?”

   

Miles looked around, looked at the ceiling, counted on his fingers, recounted, concluded his thought process. Smiling again, he said, “You.”

     

In the back of the P.O. again, Miles had a blackboard set up on an easel. Drawn on the board was the entire district. Road numbers and names detailed where necessary. The map was divided into nine sections, districts, based on population density and distances. The divisions were numbered ‘1’ thru ‘9’ which corresponded to the numbers on the sacks. Additionally, packages not in the sacks had their own 1-9 designation. Miles explained everything and he had a pointer and with every point made his pointer percussed on the blackboard giving Miles a kind of executive marshal patina.

         

“No doubt who the brains in this outfit is.”

   

He warned her about dogs off the leash at specific homes. About potholes on the country roads, about mail boxes with decrepit hinges and all the funny habits of every last inhabitant on her route.

 

If hearing chapter and verse in this presentation was not sufficient, Miles handed her ALL of this information, in even  keener detail, on a clip board and printed on stationary of the U.S. Postal service. It dawned on Celia at that moment, as Miles demonstrated an organizational genius of a magnitude that would have made the invasion of Normandy only an exercise, that Miles seemed to be preparing for…an invasion.

 

Chapter 16

 

Not only had Miles’s distribution system made the mail delivery a breeze, but she learned the whole county in a day. It was like Miles was climbing through her mind. Maybe, she thought, it’s an invasion of the body snatchers thing. Everyone she had met thus far was a little bit from another planet. Nobody, after the bus driver closed the doors, was just regular or above suspicion of being inhabited by an alien entity or force. Every new encounter reaffirmed this thesis. Penny, Irma, Miles, Babby and Morrow—king of the aliens—were just weird.

 

The town folks she had not met were weird. They were polite but distant. Not hostile and, not approachable either. Celia started to liken it to some Kafka piece. That spooky loneliness where nothing entirely seemed to be what it seemed to be. A tree seemed to be a tree but that was about it.

 

The day went by like a breeze. She met a few more people. Some of them did not wear the Ardensville cloak of mystery, and Celia was moderately relieved. Finished up and back at the P.O. by 3:30, Celia reviewed her day in her mind and her mind approved.

 

“Miles, I’m back.” She stood back from the counter expecting him to pop up—this time his antennae not tucked under his hair. She unwrapped a red and white mint when Miles appeared from the back.

 

“You’re early, that’s good. Any problems?”

 

“No problems, mon general!” Celia saluted. “Tres bien mon amis.” Celia just stopped, holding her salute and waiting to see if Miles would continue in perfect French or any other language. He did not.

 

“Please, could you run these three largish pieces out to Penny Corinth. She’s out on Rte 47 about a half a mile. Just call it a day from there, and I’ll see you in the morning.

 

Excellent first day.

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