Addressed to Kill



Winter weather is hard on flags and the poles that display them. It had taken me a while to bring my predecessor around to this reality and convince him that the North Ashcot Post Office needed to upgrade its image and its equipment. Finally, on this freezing February morning, I was able to hoist a new, strong, double-ply polyester Old Glory to the top of a pole with a smooth, wire-centered rope and the latest in pulley assemblies.

For the past few months, discussions on this topic between old Ben Gentry and me had been often, and of the same form.

"The American flag is not equipment, like computers or a piece of machinery, Cassie," Ben would say, his lanky form making itself comfortable at my desk. "It doesn't need updating."

"Yes, it does," I'd respond. "The pole has cables and a rotating top, and the banner itself is made of a flimsy fabric that has been abused for years by New England weather. It needs to be kept in working order."

"It's an unchanging symbol of identity and national pride, Ben would counter, in a glowing non sequitur. "And it reminds people that we're here to serve, no matter what winds are blowing around us."

He might as well have lifted his chin, held his hand to his heart, and sung the national anthem. Maybe he'd been humming it to himself and I'd missed it.

In the end, I'd appealed to his sense of patriotism and invoked the name of John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War hero. Jones was famous for his alleged cry, "Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight," and for many firsts involving our flag. He's said to have hoisted our first national flag, the first time it was ever flown, on board the first ship of the Continental Navy. That was a lot of firsts, and the way to Ben's heart. "What would John Paul Jones do?" had worked to bring Ben around to a new flag, if for no other reason than I'd shown some appreciation for history.

Each time this and other issues of postal management came up, I was able to hold my tongue and refrain from reminding Ben that he'd retired, that the nameplate on the counter read CASSIE MILLER, POSTMASTER, NORTH ASHCOT MA POST OFFICE, and that I had no obligation to listen to him.

But Ben was also a friend and the first to step up when I needed help or temporary replacement in what was ostensibly a one-woman postal service to over three thousand citizens in the beautiful, woodsy Berkshires of Massachusetts. I had no doubt that I'd be calling on him soon, as we approached the busy Valentine's Day, second only to Christmas in the volume of mail that passed through our small colonial building. Even Mothers Day took a backseat to Cupid's arrow.

I took in a last breath of twenty-degree air, cast a last glance at our new flag, my gaze reaching the top, higher even than the arrow on our weather vane, and hurried out of the cold to enter my building through its side door. I was greeted by the sounds of music, coming from the community room, which ran the length of the east side of the post office building, one thin wall away from me and my customers. A group of local musicians, loosely organized, had been bumped from their usual rehearsal place in the school auditorium as the crumbling North Ashcot Elementary underwent much needed repair.

After some negotiation, The Ashcots, as they were known, had won access to the community room for an hour or so in the morning before I opened the doors to post office customers, and for a couple of hours in the evening, as needed, after the post office closed. The reason for the stepped up rehearsal schedule was the upcoming Valentine's Day dinner dance at the senior center that served both South and North Ashcot, located a few blocks away from my post office, on Fifth Street.

This morning, I heard the soft notes of a folk tune, dominated by the guitars and an instrument that reminded me of a flute. The latter was actually a tin whistle, according to Quinn Martindale, whom I sometimes called my boyfriend, depending on who was listening. I'd gotten to know the players through Quinn, our local antiques dealer when he wasn't strumming his own dobro (more than a guitar, he claimed) with the group. After normal retail hours, paperwork time for me, I was likely to hear The Ashcots' louder, more upbeat strains.

I checked my watch and saw that I had enough time for a morning Skype session with my best long-distance friend Linda Daniels, who still managed a human resources program at Boston's main postal facility. When we worked together, people had often mistaken us for sisters—the two tallest women in the building, five-nine and marathon-fit, distinguishable only by our hair styles—hers short, blond, and neat; mine long, dark, and too curly to ever label neat. Linda and I had met in college and traveled the same career path until mine brought me back to the town where I'd grown up.

Because I'm a slow learner, I thought I could share my stars-and-stripes excitement with Linda.

"Why would you wait for Ben's permission for a new flag setup in the first place?" she asked. "You've been the official postmaster out there in the boonies for nearly two years." She was off by six months and spoke the words as if it was about time I moved back to the city where we could once again share our morning lattes and scones in person. I chose to ignore her "boonies" characterization—Linda felt deprived when she couldn't get to New York for a weekend of shows, shunning even Boston's considerable theater scene.

The longer I stuck it out in North Ashcot, the less badmouthing I suffered from her, but this morning for some reason Linda was not happy and I bore the brunt of her displeasure. As usual, she was dressed in a power suit and I felt like an adolescent in my blue striped shirt and small scarf. She sat with her back to her window, the better to remind me of her great view of Boston's financial district.

I could never make it clear to Linda how small towns worked, how the chain of command and way of life were different from the protocols in the state capital. But I tried once more to explain that as Postmaster for more than twenty years, Ben deserved a certain degree of respect. "He's from an era when things were supposed to last forever," I said. "Including flags, along with clothes and shoes."

Linda broke down and smiled. "I guess he wouldn't be familiar with the built-in  obsolescence of televisions and cell phones?"

Linda was the poster girl for state-of-the-art electronics. For years, I'd been the beneficiary of her obsessive need to upgrade. My latest acquisition was a new tablet and stylus that I was still getting used to.

"Ben is suspicious of my tablet," I said, just as he was when I bought a microwave. "He's afraid they're going to mess up our meters."

Linda laughed, as I hoped she would, so I could take advantage of a light moment. "Something wrong today, Linda?" I was ready for something as serious as a break up or as frivolous as missing a sale at her favorite shoe store.

"Just a sec," she said, leaving her computer. I heard the familiar sound of a door closing. She came back to the camera, breathing heavily, as if worn out by the trek to the doorway. "I guess you could call it a job crisis, since I hate to call it mid-life before I'm even thirty-six years old. I may have hit the career ceiling here and I don't know what's next."


"I know. Wow. I guess you thought I was here for life, happily ever after."

"I did. Was it something in particular that brought this on, or—"

"I don't know. Maybe I see how things are going so well with you. You have no complaints, and here I am, dreading coming in to work every morning to an inbox full of same-old, same-old." Linda shuffled papers on her desk and held them up, one at a time, with a summary statement. "Health benefits review. Changes to the handbook. ADA implementation. EEO compliance. A, B, C, D . . . the whole alphabet needs reworking."

I gulped. "I had no idea, Linda. And, I'm so sorry. But in case you think it's all sweetness and light here, the only reason I don't tell you all my problems is to keep you from nagging me about returning to Boston."

"Do I do that?"

"Yes, and I'm not that confident. I'm afraid I'll give in. I'm not as settled here as I might make it seem."

"Wow," she said, and we laughed at the symmetry.

With all our defenses down, we made the most of the few minutes before my retail day began, airing out our problems, offering quick advice, promising to deal with everything in more depth, soon.

Our litanies of dissatisfaction played out to background music from The Ashcots in the room next door. I recognized the voices of Greg Overland and Brooke Jeffries singing about a chain gang if I heard correctly, with heavy guitar accompaniment in the background. I'd heard the musicians often when they played at the coffeehouse and at special events and especially loved their original compositions. Which reminded me. There was a special event on Saturday.

"Why don't you come here for the weekend?" I said to Linda.

She groaned. "You're inviting me to a senior dinner dance on Valentine's Day? Are you really trying to depress me?"

"Quinn will be playing for the first part of the dance. The guitar people are taking turns so no one is tied up for the whole evening. You and I will have some time alone. Unless you have a hot date?"

She chuckled, a wry sound. "Hardly. I'm between guys, as you know. My timing is always impeccable." Linda looked up to where I knew the clock hung on her wall. "More later. I'm so lucky. I have a committee meeting now." Linda put on a clearly false smile and we signed off. I felt sorry for Linda's plight, and regretted my own lack of gratitude for things that were going well for me. I had two close friends in Quinn and in the chief of police, of all people. But I wasn't in the mood for a glass half full moment.

My flag-waving cheerfulness had dissipated, even before my retail day started.