Death Takes Priority



On most days, I love my job. Who else gets to start the day by raising the American flag outside her office? Military personnel, I suppose, and maybe law enforcement officers. But they have to suit up with a belt full of tools and weapons, while I just shrug into a comfortable blue shirt and a striped scarf with its special, ready-made, sewn-in knot that sits low and soft on my neck. Not exactly clubbing clothes, but then there aren't any clubs in North Ashcot, Massachusetts, and, anyway, it's Monday and I'm here to work.

Postmaster Cassie Miller reporting for duty, I mumbled this morning, resisting the temptation to salute the flag. Instead I smiled and waved at a group of seniors trotting along the sidewalk as fast as they could, their version of jogging. Thanks to their easy pace, they didn't have to slow down to exchange "Good morning" greetings with me. I was grateful for their attention. Each day, it seemed, I got a slightly friendlier vibe than the day before. The town was warming up to me, I thought, a glass-half-full moment.

Today I got a tip of the headband and a "Looking good, Miss Miller," from "Call-me-Moses" Crawford, said to be the town's oldest citizen and a "Hey, sweetie," from Harvey Stone, probably the second oldest. Only one frown, from Harvey's wife, in pink sweats and matching sneakers. I figured I was slightly ahead.

I crossed the lawn, kicking a few late fall leaves from the path, and reentered my beautiful building through the side door. The old, one-story, red brick Colonial Revival, trimmed in newly refreshed white and gold paint, looked good for its age. Over one hundred years old.

The mid-November air was crisp and dry, which didn't rule out a rainstorm, or even an early snow, later today. We were past the peak of foliage and thus also past the height of the tourist season in western Massachusetts, but I believed what the locals claimed about New England weather—expect anything, any time. Or, as my dad used to say: "If you don't like it, wait a minute; it'll change."

I used to be a local, until I graduated from high school and left for college. I was trying to reclaim my native status, if that was possible. I'd been back in my hometown of North Ashcot only a little more than three months. Many pluses and minuses so far, but I never regretted coming back to help my Aunt Tess through her last days. Time would tell whether there was enough to keep me here now that she was gone.

For now, I removed my outer layers of clothing  and focused on sorting the mail delivery and setting up for retail hours, which would begin in forty-five minutes. Pretty soon the early birds would arrive. The waiting time in the lobby, before I unlocked the glass doors, was as much a coffee klatch as part of an errand or a business chore. Customers stood with their morning drinks and shared their latest news, covering topics from birthday parties to arthritic joints, from home remodels to money struggles to the state of downtown shopping. No one objected when I began a new custom—donuts from Hole in the Wall, our local bakery, every Friday, courtesy of me, as long as they lasted. Nothing wrong with a little pandering.

I walked past the business side of the post office boxes, the open slots where I'd stuff each customer's mail; past the worktables and chairs, the nested piles of white plastic tubs, and the various generations of machines, some depending on electricity, others manual contraptions from long ago, but operational in a power outage. As I reached my desk, behind the retail counter, I had the sense that something was off—the corner by the delivery room, where the truckers dropped the mail, looked cleaner than usual. Strange. Had a housekeeping fairy stopped by with a mop and broom? I chalked the feeling up to my Monday morning re-entry sluggishness.

I prepared the cash drawer and straightened a framed thank-you note from Mrs. Baldwin and her second-grade class, who had come for a tour of my building last week. It had been a struggle to get my mentor, outgoing-PM, Ben Gentry, to agree to the children's visit. Ben—formally Benham, after one of the first settlers in Massachusetts—sometimes acted as if he himself had been on the Mary and John, the pilgrim ship that landed north of Plymouth Rock in 1630. One of his prized possessions was a limited edition print of the vessel, which to me looked like all the other ships of that era. I wasn't sorry he packed it up and took it home when I took over.

When I proposed the fun field trip for the schoolchildren, he'd grimaced, pulled himself to his full height, near six feet, and said, "This is a government office."

"Not anymore," I'd replied, as if Ben needed reminding that the postal service had been an independent agency of the government, run by its own Board of Governors, for more than forty years.

"A technicality," he'd answered. "It's still not a playground. Yet."

The energy of fifteen seven-year-olds eventually overwhelmed Ben, however, in a good way, and at the end of the day I could have sworn I heard him say, "Maybe we should do this again next year." Curmudgeon or not, Ben had come to my aid more than a few times since my arrival and I was glad he was only semi-retired.

On quiet mornings like this, with things running smoothly, I was glad I'd decided to give North Ashcot another try at feeling like home. Other mornings, I wondered how I got here. Had I been too quick to bail when Adam Robinson, my fiancé back in Boston, walked out on me? Was it as dumb as some claimed that I'd quit my job at the main post office in Boston for this sleepy town in the Berkshires where I was born? Things seemed to have happened too fast. The news of Aunt Tess's terminal illness, coming on the heels of Adam's departure, had sent me running from my big city apartment to Aunt Tess's bedside. She'd taken me in after my parents' death during my junior year in high school, and I had to be here for her.

I was lucky that my years of experience at so many levels of postal work in a major zip code, and my professional connections, coincided with Ben's wish to ease into retirement. I'd taken this job on a temporary basis, but now Aunt Tess had been gone a month and here I was. Her home had become mine, legally at least, and I was sole proprietor of my hometown post office. A smart move? A hasty decision?

Useless musings.

I turned from the counter and walked toward the delivery room. For a moment I expected to trip, as I'd done on Friday, because—I looked at the floor—there had been piles of telephone directories in the way, stacked in the corner where the interior wall of the delivery room met the wall of the adjoining community room. I'd shoved them there on Friday morning. Now they were gone. The polished wood floors were clear, not a trace of the phone books. There had been hundreds of directories, some still in the cartons, some wrapped in slippery green plastic, others separated from the pack, ready for handing out to customers.

Where were the books? The truckers who dropped off our mail had a key that fit only the lock on the outside door to the delivery room. No one had a key to the postal area itself. The North Ashcot PO had no carriers, no records keeper, no mail handler in the back room, and no window clerk other than yours truly. My one luxury was a part-time cleaning service, in the person of the widow Brenda, who claimed to enjoy working a few hours every two weeks, but always while I was present. 

I'd left the side door unlocked as usual while I hoisted the flag, but that was only for a few minutes. No one would have had time to remove all those books. A fleeting thought was that Ben might have figured out another way to distribute the books. But he was very careful to respect my position and wouldn't have done that without telling me.

I was left with the fact of a theft, though I couldn't think of one reason why anyone would steal a load of phone books. Who even used them anymore? News streams and blogs predicted the imminent death of the paper directory, but the phone company still paid us to distribute them to our customers free of charge. I guessed that anyone mid-thirties like me, or younger, used the Internet for phone numbers and addresses, both personal and business. I paused. Too much stress for a Monday morning.

Was I supposed to report this theft? To whom? To the police? To Wendell Graham, the local phone company rep? I'd rather talk to a cop than to an old high-school boyfriend. Or should I wait it out, hoping this was a simple mix-up that would magically resolve itself?

As with any crisis, big or small, I called Linda Daniels, my best friend in Boston. I didn't have a best friend in North Ashcot yet, but dwelling on that thought would take me to more useless musings. Other than a serious polarity in musical taste, from Ricky Skaggs (me) to the Smashing Pumpkins (her), Linda and I were of one mind about all the usual BFF topics, including shoes, purses, and office politics.

I poured out my tale of grand theft phone book to Linda, then added, "I think I should at least inform the police department."

Linda laughed. "Such as it is. You're not in Boston anymore, sweetie. There's no BPD there with two thousand cops and a special robbery division."

"What I mean is, I should tell Sunni Smargon."

"Your friend, the police chief. Why do I always smile when I say that?"

I resisted the temptation to lay into Linda for her condescending attitude. As if Sunni weren't a real, sworn officer of the law, in charge of four other officers. "What if there's something else missing that I haven't noticed yet? What if this is the start of some kind of crime wave that Sunni should watch out for?"

From two hundred miles away, Linda tried to put things in perspective for me.

"Are you saying you think there's a serial phonebook thief loose out in the boonies?" she asked.

"It's not the boonies," I said, finally ready to defend my old-new home. "It's a charming town of nearly three thousand citizens, with one of the lowest crime rates in the state."

"The rate's gone up," she said. "I believe a crime was just reported to me?"

"Good point."

I pictured Linda behind her desk in Human Resources at the main plant in Boston, looking out her window at the large fleet of vehicles bearing the post office eagle. We always joked that we were meant to be friends since we were the two tallest women in the building, both five-nine and relatively fit, but distinguished easily by our hair styles, hers short, blond, and neat, mine long, dark, and too curly to ever be neat. For all her uppity tone, which I knew stemmed from her desire to have me back, I missed her. I hated to admit it, but I missed Adam. I missed ubiquitous great pizza and bad-for-me donuts. I missed drivers who thought nothing of passing on the right even if it meant pulling onto the sidewalk.

"Is that old cheerleader still hassling you?" Linda asked. "Bunny something? Maybe she committed local larceny in retaliation for when you went to the prom with what's-his-name."

"High school grudges die hard, but I can't see Bonnie orchestrating this kind of payback. Besides, I think she went to college in California and never came back. And I don't even remember what's-his-name's name." I heard Linda clear her throat, waiting. "Oh, okay," I admitted. "It was the very hot Wendell Graham."

"And where does he work now?" she asked, adding a "Hmm," in a tone that suggested I should do the math: missing phone books, plus ex-boyfriend who works for the phone company equals—blame Wendell. 

I'd forgotten that I'd shared with Linda how strangely Wendell had behaved when he stopped in at my post office a month ago. He'd introduced himself as a stranger might, as a supervisor from the local central office of the telephone company. No "Good to see you after all these years." No handshake with "Let's get together and catch up." Barely a "Hey, Cassie," and he was down to business.

I'd tried to remember if there'd been even a whiff of animosity in our last meeting before I left town. Had I broken a date with him? Forgotten his car's birthday? Had too long a conversation with another guy? My memory failed to call up anything antagonistic. Or anything we'd said, in fact. On the other hand, I wished I could suppress as well the image of that horrid green prom dress with the asymmetric balloon hem. And the matching flats I'd had to wear because I was two inches taller than Wendell.

Other than his being height-challenged, for a male, I couldn't help noticing that the former quarterback hadn't lost his physical appeal. Dark hair combed back from a high forehead and eyebrows many women worked hard to paint on. A square jaw and muscular physique. Not that I remembered that well.

"Phone books come yet?" Wendell had asked during that one awkward business visit. I doubted he was thinking of our crepe-papered gym-turned-ballroom.

I'd barely gotten out a "Not yet" before he broke in.

"I'll check with the main office. You should have them before the end of the month," he'd muttered, and walked out.

Linda's voice broke into my thoughts of Wendell Graham, the old and the new. "Anyway, it's worth considering that the whole stealing-the-directories thing was a prank by Wendell, who's still hung up on how you ditched him."

"I didn't ditch him."

"Was he still in your hometown after you left for college?"

"So what?"

"That's a 'yes'. Did you keep in touch?"

"Not a lot, but—"

"You ditched him."

"If this was a prank, a better theory would be that it's harassment from some grownups here who think I should have stayed in Boston."

"Like me," Linda said. Uh-oh. Since I'd started the thread, I let her go on for a while. "You didn't hear it from me, but your so-called replacement is a ditz," she continued, a rant I'd heard before. "The files you so carefully organized are already a mess. Everyone misses you. I miss you. Steve goes around as if he's lost—"

"I'd better go," I said. I didn't want to hear about Steve or any other of my former employees. I was afraid I'd agree with Linda and beat it back to Boston. I could be there in time for a late dinner on the Wharf.

But I needed to make my own decisions about this new life, without the aid of a sentimental pull or well-meaning but strong-minded friends like Linda. "I have to unlock the front doors and start the retail day," I said.

"Oh, the throngs," Linda said, chuckling.

When we hung up, I was no smarter about the missing phone books, and no less homesick for my old city life. But neither was I ready to declare my North Ashcot experiment a failure.