On Tuesday, I finally meet him.
He comes in to the post office where I work, says he received a phone call telling him there was a package. Tony, who is helping him at the corral next to mine, chomps on his dentures, looks him up and down and is about to tell the man to fuck off when I jump in.
“Here, sir, I can help you.”
I wave him over, ignore the bitter gourd face Tony is making. He is old and vicious and he knows nothing about customer service — it’s not his picture that has been hanging in the break room for seven months in a row now.
The man walks up to me.
“A package?” he asks, and then, “I didn’t realize the post office called customers at home?”
For a moment I consider giving him the kind of bullshit I give other men, something like how this package has to be opened in front of me, security reasons. Lean forward, lick my lips. Those jittery fuckers eat up that shit.
But he just stands there, eyes hanging at the edge of politeness and he seems like a possibility, an actual man. It’s a small room and it heats up real sudden. I pretend to study the computer screen.
I know that already but I make him spell it out. He has been sending mail for the last two months. All of it gets returned.
“You just moved.” I nod.
He gives me a lady-how-the-fuck-did-you-know look.
I shrug. “Haven’t seen you before.”
Sweat rolls down the unbuttoned V of my polyester uniform. I wonder if he can see.
From the side, I can feel Tony’s stare burning into my face.
“The package?” He raises his eyebrows.
His fingers are long — I imagine them across the keys of the piano my mother left me. I will have to clean off the dust, take the price tags off the picture frames. They keep going on sale at Kohl’s; I figure someday I will have someone to put inside.
“Yes, the package.” I pretend to clickety-clack at the keyboard. “Aha! I’ll be right back.”
Tony follows me into the back.
“That guy looks like a sissy.” I ignore him. He is pissed because I said no to Atlantic City with him last Christmas. Just because I had let him put his fingers inside me in the breakroom a few times didn’t mean I had to sleep with him.
“He is too good for you.” Tony shuffles around to where he can see my face. “Everyone is.“
Bastard. He just wants to see me crack.
I return to the counter. The package is wrapped neatly. His name is across the front in big black letters, same as the last three boxes. I know the handwriting by now: the careless, angry cursive of a petty woman, the same one who doesn’t keep his letters.
He writes really nice letters. Her loss.
“Here.” I place the box on the counter.
His mouth twitches.
I want to tell him that I understand. Boxes like this carry loneliness. I can imagine it anyway, even if all I have ever done in the last two years since my father left is quit school and work at the post office.
“You can open it here. If you want,” I say. I find a box cutter under the table.
He slices the tape. I watch the skin on the back of his knuckles. He seems thoughtful, an attentive man. The kind of man who would tape up your mirror if you broke it. I think I might like to lick the insides of his knee.
“Must be nice to get gifts.” I say.
“It’s not a gift.” He laughs, digs inside the box and pulls out a sombrero.
“My mother used to give me gifts. Mostly, they were old things around the house that she wrapped in newspapers. She gave me a piano before she died.”
He pulls out some books, an old ashtray that someone forgot to wash.
“My ex-wife,” he says and I can see he is embarrassed.
“I can clean it for you.” My leg is shaking, fast, under my desk.
The line is building.
“Sorry about your mother,” he says.
“Neeeext.” Tony’s loud.
He closes up the box. “Thank you.”
“That’s a nice hat.” I press the box cutter against my wrist.
“Thanks.” He smiles and walks away and the woman next in line is already at my counter saying “stamps.” The computer screen blurs in front of me and I can hear the sounds of the phlegm in Tony’s throat rattling.
I reach under my table for the stamps and then before I know it, I am standing up on my chair and saying, “Hey, can I have the hat?”
He is at the door. He turns and looks at me. Everyone else does too, and behind me I hear Tony saying, “Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
He walks back and puts the box on the counter.
“Sure,” he says. “Keep it all.”
I know I shouldn’t. But maybe if I tell him that that I love the smell of his clothes, he might like it. He might like that sometimes I wear his shirts and say our names: Carla and Chris Miller; he might get it. It might be better than Atlantic City.
“I can play the piano,” I say.
“Stop,” he says.
I can feel want gathering in my skin. It is painful.
“I can cook you Mexican.”
Stop,” he says, louder.
“I can write you letters.”
“Jesus, Carla.” Tony yells. “Your arm.”
I look. There’s a neat, fresh, cut. I’m dripping on stamps.
“I’m sorry,” I say and I mean it and I want him to stay. “I’m sorry.”
But his eyes have darkened. And the room is darkening. And I can hear Tony saying Jesus Christ over and over and before I know it he is gone and the lid has closed on me.
Hananah Zaheer’s work has recently appeared in South West Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review where it won the Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction. She is Fiction Editor for Four Way Review and the founder of Dubai Literary Salon and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.