PO Box 455

by D. Harlan Wilson 

Annoyed, the postal clerk tore up my book of stamps.  I asked to see the manager.  The clerk removed another book of stamps from a drawer and tore it up.  Before I could respond she destroyed a third book.  Then she called over the manager and told him I was responsible. 

The manager eyeballed me.  “It’s a federal offense to tear up stamps.  That’s like burning a flag.  That’s like burning your grandmother.” 

“I never set fire to anything that didn’t deserve it,” I admitted. 

A trap door in the ceiling scraped open and moaned like a cracked seashell.  It scraped closed.

I blinked at the manager.  “Shaving is an important facet of robo sapien culture.  Where is the toilet please?” 

“The toilet is government property,” he said.  “Are you a government employee?”  The clerk swallowed a book of stamps.  The manager looked askance at her, but he didn’t say anything. 

“Excuse me.”  I walked away. 

The manager raised a finger.  “Razors are not permitted in the post office!  Come back her, sir!  Security!” 

A closet door rolled open.  Inside a portly security guard snored like a lawnmower.  He snorted awake and lunged at me with a nightstick.  I sidestepped him.  The security guard fell onto his knees and the nightstick bounced off the floor and struck him on the chin.  He cocked his head, unsure of what had happened, and slumped over unconscious.

In the restroom, a postman scrutinized a bald patch on his head.  He quickly put on his hat when I entered, pretending to adjust it.  I turned on the faucet of the sink next to him and lathered up my face. 

“P.O. Box 455,” whispered the postman.  He didn’t look at me.  He continued to adjust and readjust his hat. 

I ran a straight razor down my cheek and neck.  “Pardon me?” 

The postman’s hands fell limply at his sides.  “P.O. Box 455.”  His chin trembled. 

“P.O. Box 455,” I echoed.  “What’s in there?” 

Now he looked at me.  He covered his mouth, eyes wide with terror, and shook his head.  I accidentally cut one of my sideburns too short and had to compensate on the opposite side. On his way out of the restroom, the postman tripped over a garbage can.  Stamped, unopened letters flooded the linoleum floor.  The postman slipped on a letter and fell down.  He slipped on another letter and fell down.  He continued in this vein for two or three minutes, reaching for the doorknob each time before losing his feet beneath him.  I observed him idly in the mirror.  At last he was able to grip the doorknob and use it for leverage.  Panting, he cracked open the door, glanced sternly at me over his shoulder, and slipped out. I splashed water on my face.  I bent over and held my head under a hand dryer.  It was a clean shave. 

I stood, yawned. 

There was a key on the lip of the sink.  I picked it up and inspected it.  The inscription on its bow read: 

455 

I ran a fingertip over the number.  Dirt came off.  Or oil.  A black substance, in any case.  I rinsed off the key, blow-dried it, polished it with a handkerchief, put it in my pocket, stared at myself in the mirror, blew my nose, and left the restroom. 

Outside in the hallway the entire postal staff awaited me in an orderly triangle, as if somebody had lined them up like bowling pins.  The manager occupied pole position.  He adjusted his belt several times and said, “Give us the key.” 

I looked behind me.  I looked at the manager.  “Is there a problem?” 

The staff members shifted uncomfortably and traded annoyed whispers.  The manager shushed them and readjusted his belt.  “You know there’s a problem,” he said calmly.  “The key.  Now.”  He stuck out his hand. 

“I don’t have the key,” I replied.  I took the key out of my pocket and showed it to him.  “I have this key.  But this isn’t the key you mean.”

”That’s the key,” the manager said, pointing at it. 

I returned the key to my pocket.  “At any rate, I’m on my way to the . . . what is it called?  The mailbox room?  Is there another name for it?” 

“We call it the key insertion room,” said an anonymous member of the staff.  The manager glared at the staff member and reluctantly seconded the claim. 

“Well.  Then that’s it, I guess.”  I walked forward.  Carefully I weaved through the postal workers, trying not to touch them, pardoning myself if I did touch them.  They regarded me with singular expressions of disapproval and enmity. 

In the last line was the postman who had addressed me in the restroom.  He hung his head and stared at the floor.  I paused next to him.  “What’s in the box?” I whispered. 

His eyes pinched shut.  He took a deep breath through his nostrils, tilting up his chin.  His mouth twitched and compressed into funny shapes. 

He fainted. 

I went to the key insertion room. 

An elderly ex-bailiff wearing a yellow Maytag Man uniform with a nametag that said EX-BAILIFF accosted me at the entrance.  “You do it like this,” he twanged, then stuck out his hand and made a turning motion.  He demonstrated again.  And again, and again.  I thanked him and began to search for the right box.  “Remember what I showed you!” he exclaimed from behind me, making another turning motion. 

P.O. Box 411 . . . 426, 427 . . . 450, 451, 452 . . . 455.  I lifted the key and stuck it in the keyhole.  I could feel the ex-bailiff’s breath on my neck. 

“That’s right,” he said.  “You’re doing it.  Good.” 

“Back off, you old bastard.” 

The ex-bailiff clutched his chest and staggered backwards.  “That ain’t nice.  How would you like it if I called you an old bastard?” 

Apologizing, I turned the key and opened the box. 

Inside was a figurine.  I removed it.  Examined it. 

The figurine was about five inches high and made of hard plastic.  It had limbs that swiveled at the armpits and groin but not at the elbows and knees.  No scratches, nicks or cracks.  It looked normal enough. 

I showed the figurine to the ex-bailiff. 

“It’s you!” he bleated.  He clutched his chest again, staggered backwards again . . . and collapsed like a stack of deadwood. 

“Are you all right?”  I nudged his chin with the toe of my shoe.  He didn’t move. 

I kicked him in the ribs.  He didn’t move. I exited the key insertion room. 

Postal workers either fainted or ran away when they saw me coming towards them holding the figurine in my hand like a PEZ dispenser.  The security guard tried to kick me, but I dodged the blow, and he fell into an ungainly somersault and tumbled down the hall.  The manager got in my way, too, although I clearly disillusioned him.  “Are you going somewhere?” he asked.  “You can’t come in this place and expect to go somewhere.  That’s not how things are done.”  His Adam’s apple quivered . . . He dry heaved.  He went cross-eyed . . . He smacked his lips, pointing at the figurine.  “Then again, different people do things in different ways.” 

The trap door in the ceiling scraped open and oinked like a wounded pig.  It scraped closed. 

I handed the manager the key to P.O. Box 455.  The postal clerk tried to snatch it from him.  He fended her off and gave me a free book of stamps.  I thanked him. 

—–

D. Harlan Wilson is the author of three collections of short fiction and a new science fiction novel, Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaquedemia (Raw Dog Screaming Press 2007).  His stories and essays have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies throughout the world in several languages, and he is the editor-in-chief of The Dream People (www.dreampeople.org), a journal of Bizarro texts.  For more information on Wilson and his work, visit his official website at www.dharlanwilson.com.

Published on December 31, 2007 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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