Friday, February 18, 2011

In the Land of Dead Letters

by Bryan Russell


In the Land of Dead Letters

Eduardo had taught at the University, American History, specializing in domestic policy, but his drinking and the affair with the student (well, two of them, really, but no one knew about one of them, except, of course, himself and the lovely Lila) became big problems, and he didn’t have tenure, and wasn’t ever gonna get it, either, as he’d stopped publishing, no one wanted his articles, least of all himself. He tried giving a few away, once, but students didn’t even want them for term papers.

He got a job at the post office. Probably better than he deserved, and he liked it more than he expected. He didn’t have to publish, and his wayward postulations on history faded from his head–they weren’t really his, anyway. And he liked the mail, liked all the envelopes with addresses, the endless strangeness of handwritten names and numbers.

It was orderly, the post office. Everything carefully coded. Zip codes and postal codes, letters spiraling out into the world, destinations alive in ink. Zip zip. Zing zing. Off they went into the world. This number meant there. That number meant here. Everything was official. The government sent tax notices out in flights of a million, flocks whistling out to towns and cities and along muddy rural roads.

Yet some letters went nowhere. Typos, spelling mistakes, forgotten stamps. Broken-winged, they couldn’t fly. Sloughed off by the flock and falling to earth. Piles in the dead letter office.

Yet each one held a voice. Eduardo looked through them. He fingered them, read them, listened to them. Something old burned inside him–a sense of history. Not a history of the books, of the scholars and academics, pontificating to students, but a history of small slippages, of checks gone astray, of letters lost, of reunions forgotten and old lovers missed. A history of silent voices. Of silenced voices.

Eduardo gathered them. One night, after work, he started binding them together. One sheet, then another. Insurance forms, legal papers, ungainly poems, love letters stilted by desperation. He bound them together until he had a history of the blank spaces between worlds, of the empty moments between people. A history of missed conversations.

The book was vast and huge and ungainly, and he had trouble carrying it to his car. He took it home, driving faster than normal. He lugged it inside.

Lila’s voice, on the answering machine, told him to stop calling. It was over. Perhaps she was seeing the Professor of Foreign Policy now. Hot stuff, foreign policy. The War on Terror, history as foresight.

Eduardo looked at the dead letters of his book. He hauled it out to the backyard. The grass was weedy. It was a rental and he didn’t feel much like cutting it. He put the book on the ground. He lit a cigarette and stood smoking, watching the book. After awhile he leaned over and pressed the cigarette on the top page. It smouldered. A little flame licked out.

Eduardo stepped back. The flame grew. Orange ate into the papers, into the dead letters, swallowing them one by one, like old leaves. Sometimes he thought he heard voices–singing, wailing, whispering. But they all vanished in the end.

The voices of time could not resist the wide nothingness of the future, the great wall of history already written, already growing into the present. Bricks piled up, the past hidden from view.

There was a burnt patch in the scraggly ground, ash sifting among the weeds. It was against his tenant’s agreement, he was sure. But it wasn’t much of a rental anyway.

10 comments:

maine character said...

Excellent on so many levels.

Jayme Stryker said...

I really appreciated the birdification of the mail in this one. Flocks of tax notices - ha! I also loved "the empty moments between people." What a haunting thought...

D.G. Hudson said...

I like the implications of the 'dead letters' and the voices crying out as they dissolve into smoke. Haunting images of words that never got to the intended person.

Thought-generating, Bryan. The image of a postie who loves his job is an interesting one, but the ending is what I liked.

jbchicoine said...

I do so love the way you use a metaphor..."Yet some letters went nowhere. Typos, spelling mistakes, forgotten stamps. Broken-winged, they couldn’t fly. Sloughed off by the flock and falling to earth." ...this is great.

...and the idea of "small slippages" and "silenced voices" so sad when you think of the implications...

Marsha Sigman said...

And this is why we love you.

The writing is beautiful and brilliant, Bryan.

Steve said...

I'm going to try this cigarette-book burning thing this weekend in the yard. I think I have just the book...

JM Leotti said...

Another brilliant piece. Love the metaphor, and the loneliness is heartbreaking. So well done and haunting.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

I am sad now. Very, very sad. Beautiful, haunting, depressing...

Paul Joseph said...

Ohhhhh how I enjoyed this. A well-written piece that transpired this weird feeling of uneasiness. I can't describe it, but I like it.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ok, the flocks of tax notices made me shudder. :)

Always your writing is lovely and sad and beautiful. I love it.