Lena waved goodbye to Claire and stared at the mailbox: the flag was down, the door partially opened, the latch never gripping. She reached for the knob, she pulled back. Golfer’s feet and collection agency calls she could handle, the tyranny of the mailbox she could not. The promise of more passive-agressive paper, signed by the faceless creatures who signed their names Bob or Karen or Amanda or Alan on Courier-font form letters, made her hands shake.
She opened the mailbox. It was an easy day: catalog and second notice on the water and sewage bill, an expediture yet to prove its value. The water sucked and no one came to clean the sewer grate; she was the one who had to rake out the leaves and detritus and used condoms that had washed from the frat house three doors up to save Mrs. Adams the inconvenience of a moistened basement that would, Mrs. Adams was certain, decimate her priceless collection of heirloom hand-crafted figurines from Amish Country. It was because of those hand-crafted figurines from Amish Country and Mrs. Adams’s subsequent threats of litigation should her figurines, her bequest to her grandchildren, be destroyed because of a flooded basement, that Lena was unable sleep during storms. With anything less than blue sky, she would lie in wait. When the rain came, she would listen to it batter the five-years-past-replacement roof, the trickle crescendoing to a deluge. Every ten minutes, she would shine her LED, zebra-striped flashlight (Christmas present, honest) out the window to see how much water had risen around the grate and hope that she might be able to wait it out, that she wouldn’t have to rush out, rake in hand, to stave off the rising tides of used condoms and twigs and Snickers wrappers. Without fail, Mother Nature and Amish Country would have other ideas. Fortunately, the storm clouds were nowhere to be found as she closed the mailbox.
Lena eased herself into the kitchen table chair, its uncooperative leg and ever-growing crack through the center a battle of wits in which she had been the only master; she was under no illusions that the chair was not on borrowed time, that someday soon she would fall through and lose the battle.
The unopened envelopes splayed across the table screamed at her: first notice; second notice; final notice; for really real final notice; certified and registered; hand-deliver; signature required. She pulled the topmost envelope from the pile. She scribbled another check for less than the minimum due, a peace offering to the gargantuan envelope blob that had taken over the kitchen table and the shitty tablecloth his grandmother had made in honor of their third anniversary, the one that said “memories,” spelled “menories.”
She flinched when she licked the envelope, the sting from last week’s electric bill cut still fresh on her tongue, the glue her fifth food group. She reached past the hot dog steamer and stuck her hand into the drawer. She pulled out the book of stamps and glared at the empty sheet that said “forever.”
• • •
Lena sat Ava, Triceratops in hand, on a throne of wine cases.
– I’m giving you the most important job in the world.
– In the world?
– The whole world. We’re playing a game. You’re the lookout.
– What game?
– It’s called “Lookout.”
– Lookout for what?
– Mommy is going to look for something, and you’re going to tell Mommy if anyone comes near this room.
– What are you looking for?
– A stamp.
– Because we need stamps to send things.
– Because in the infinite wisdom of the Postmaster General, it was decided that we have to put stickers with pictures of dead people and flowers on letters to entertain the people who take the mail from place to place.
– Oh. I like stickers too.
– I know.
– Why am I the lookout? You’re the one looking.
– Because you have to look out and give me a signal if anyone comes around.
– Oh. If anyone comes around.
– Anyone anyone?
– Anyone anyone. Think you can handle it?
– Rahr. Dinosaur.
– Right. You’re the lookout dinosaur.
Fist-bump, big hand to little.
She pushed against the door, careful to leave the two-year-old calendar with June’s seascape and sailboat in watercolor untouched. The scent of Kouros assaulted her nose as she stepped into the office. Flying toasters flapped across a dusty screen. Piero was nowhere to be found: it was his self-anointed hour for writing the dinner specials on the board, his pride on chalkboard in neon dry-erase marker. Lena turned on the light, a banker’s model from the ‘70s. It blitzed and buzzed and took its sweet time turning on. It illuminated the door on top of file cabinets, the makeshift contraption that barely supported the ten-year-old Dell and its monitor the size of a steampunk megaton bomb and just as noisy.
Lena jumped. She peeked out the door: Ava lounged with her feet propped up and Triceratops in one hand; with the other, she made a dinosaur mouth, her pink plastic Hello Kitty watch a collar.
– All clear?
– All clear, Mommy.
Lena popped back through the doorway. She opened the bottom drawer of the first of a nigh-endless array of plastic drawer sets splayed across the door-desk. The smell of Kouros grew.
– What you looking for?
– Rahr, Mommy.
Lena turned, a quick pivot. Piero pushed her aside with a flutter of his hand and opened the top drawer.
– Damned dry pink marker. Couldn’t finish writing specials.
He slammed the top drawer. He waved the pink dry-erase marker in Lena’s face; her eyes widened from the dry-erase fumes.
– You have to tell me when these are looking dry; you all have to tell me. When it look like you can’t read it, you tell me. What you looking for?
She looked at Ava. She coughed.
– Crayons. For Ava. I couldn’t get a sitter, I hope it’s ok I brought her.
Piero looked over at Ava. She made her dinosaur mouth attack. Chomp chomp.
– Always welcome, always welcome.
– I’m the lookout!
– Yes. A very good one, too. We find you crayons.
Ava proffered a proud smile. Piero opened the bottom drawer and produced a box of crayons. He walked past her and put the box in Ava’s hands.
– Crayons for you, my dear.
– Say thank you, Piero.
– Thank you, Piero.
– Most welcome, most welcome.
Lena stood still as Piero walked back into the office. He opened the third drawer of the fourth set of plastic drawers.
– What else you want? Invade my privacy more?
– No, no. Nothing. I’m sorry.
Lena pivoted and left the office. She hoisted Ava off the wine case throne. Piero uncapped the pink dry erase marker and gave it a sniff as he passed them.
– Stamps in top drawer.
– I wasn’t –
– Top drawer. One dollar and fifty will be out of paycheck for three you have taken already.
– I –
– Get stamp, get out. You have new boyfriend out there asking about you. Another? You try to give her sister? No? Brother maybe?
• • •
Lena sat Ava in the far booth with Triceratops, a box of crayons and a stack of placemats filled with flags and spaghetti mazes and dots that cried out for connection. She glanced at Ava’s Hello Kitty watch: 4:36PM.
– Think you can handle these?
She kissed Ava on the head and went to the front of the restaturant: a man in a suit eyeballed the day-old chocolate cupcakes in the display and tapped an envelope in his hand. She closed her eyes, counted to three. Composure.
– Help you?
– Lena, right?
– What now?
– Nononono. I’m not one of those guys. Jesus, no. I’m a lawyer.
– Her lawyer.
– She left this for you.
Lena took the envelope; the miasma of Nat Shermans and Chanel and apple sauce rose from the envelope. She looked at the lawyer; he looked at the chocolate cupcake.
– Friend found her this morning on the couch. Called me. That envelope was on the coffee table with your name on it.
She turned the envelope over and over; something shifted inside, metal.
– What’s in it?
– No idea, but I’m sure she’d find a way to whack me with a newspaper from the afterlife if I hadn’t put that in your hands ASAP.
– She was just… what happened?
– Dozed off watching an NCIS marathon and kept dozing.
– And poof, just like that?
– She’d been sick for awhile. At least that’s what her friend thought, what I thought. You know Tess, she never would have said anything anyhow.
– Never want to be a bother, rightt?
– I suppose.
They stood in silence. Lena ran her fingers over the raised metal inside the envelope.
– Yeah. Think I could get a margarita? She always said yours were, quote, sub-fucking-lime.
– Sure, um, just –
– Watch my step, right?
– Right. Right.
To be continued.