The Final Maybe

The Final Maybe by Joelle Reiter - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

She always waits for the mail on Mondays. Sometimes with George and Marcy and Delia. Sometimes with Father, who brings lemon cake and milk. And sometimes alone, waiting for whoever wears the familiar blue post hat. During summer, she mostly reads while waiting—J. K. Rowling and L. Frank Baum. Once school is in session, they walk—her and George and Marcy and Delia. All the way to Marcy’s house, where Marcy’s mother, while making them sandwiches or cutting up fruit, will smile at each of them, her eyes skirting away from George and Delia and her daughter to land on Alice herself. Then, once the homework has been completed, food eaten, and smiles received, they make the trek, walking the short distance from Marcy’s home to Alice’s. And they sit, lounging on the familiar stone stoop. And they wait.

She remembers, not for the first time, back before she paid any mind to the mail, being told that all important things should occur on Mondays. “The most exciting day to receive mail is Monday,” Alice had been informed. Back then, she paid no mind to the sentence. Now, it replays in her mind every Monday and not-Monday, every time she does homework with her friends and eats sweets with Father. It occupies every formerly free space in her mind. She should have seen the signs, she tells herself. She should have realized what the constant remarks about the town meant. She should have noticed the shifts in the cosmos that made everything change. Noticed something. But she didn’t, and so she waits.

She wonders sometimes if Father noticed. And then she wonders if she really wants to know. Maybe the signs had always been there. Maybe. Maybe. When did life become a series of maybes?

It takes her two weeks after school has started to finish the Oz series. Delia says that one day she’s going to disappear into a book and together they plan; which little woman to befriend and what part of the yellow brick road to begin on. Alice thinks that anywhere would be better than where she is. In the silent house and suffocatingly cheery town. When they are in the middle of a debate about which is the best book in the Oz series, the mailman approaches. He puts three catalogues and an ad for the local pool in the dusty mailbox. Alice goes through them three times and finally accepts that there is no letter, not this Monday. She looks up to find the mailman watching her, with furrowed brows and a frown on his face. “Hey there,” he greets them. “Listen, I see all of you out here all the time. And I’ve always wanted to ask, what is it that you are waiting for? Must be some important package for you all to be out here so often,” he says with a laugh. It takes Alice a moment to process his words. The man wants to know what she is waiting for. Suddenly all Alice can see is nothingness. Like how she feels. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. “You know, kid, the mail ain’t gonna get here any faster because you’re waiting,” the mailman says awkwardly. George and Marcy and Delia all stare at Alice, but she is gone. Gone to a place in her mind where she doesn’t have to answer the mailman’s questions or think about why they make her feel sicker than the flu. “We have to wait for the mail,” Marcy informs him. Her voice is soft, as if she is afraid if she were any louder she would collapse the very structure of the universe. “Because Alice’s mother, ” she says slowly, glancing at Alice and the others, “Alice’s mother is going to mail her a letter. And it’s going to arrive on Monday.” There is silence. And it wanes and stretches until the mailman lets out a soft noise of understanding. “You’re the Feinstein kid,” he says, under his breath, his eyes drooping. Alice stops thinking about nothing and staring off and she looks straight at the mailman. Stares at him as though he holds the secret to getting a letter that won’t come. At his eyes, which are avoiding hers, and his grimace and twitching check. She knows what he, and everyone in the small town, thinks. Now that he knows who she is. Knows what he is afraid to say. Knows it as well as George is loyal, as constantly as Marcy laughs, and as deeply as Delia hates strangers. It is that knowledge that stings her, like a constant visceral ringing in her ears. No letter is coming for you. Your mother is gone and is never coming back. Her worst fears dance in the mailman’s mind.

When Marcy’s mother goes on a business trip and Marcy comes to school on a Monday wearing a San Francisco shirt, Alice decides that the small town is doing more than choking her, it’s shutting down her organs and stopping her blood from going through her veins. She watches the mailman, a new one this time, as he stops at the house next door, and she focuses on his familiar sky-blue messenger bag. For a second, she believes she has X-ray vision. She sees a letter with proclamations of love and sincere apologies and pictures of waterfalls in the Rockies, of Spain and France and….And then the mailman is gone, and no promise for a better life is on her steps. And then George and Marcy and Delia are telling her they’ll see her tomorrow. And then they are gone. And then it is just her.

One day, after she comes back from riding bikes with George and Marcy and Delia, Father tells her he’s glad she has such good friends. He knocks on her door later that not-Monday with an offer of cake and milk and asks if they can talk. He wants to talk about mail and Mondays, and books, and far-away places and the person who told her that Monday was the most exciting day to receive mail. And she decides right then that she doesn’t want to talk about mail, and Mondays, and books, and faraway places and the person who told her that Monday was the most exciting day to receive mail. Even if it means the lemon cake goes to waste. And so Father leaves.

When Father has stopped attempting to talk to her, and the air begins to have a frigid edge, she begins the Narnia series. She sits on the front stoop next to the moss every Monday evening reading about Peter the Magnificent and Aslan and Queen Lucy the Valiant. Delia sits beside her, quietly content, or often joins George and Marcy in studying or playing card games. And Alice disappears. With every trip through the wardrobe she feels less and less there, and she discovers that maybe it’s not the town she despises but everything else. Father’s cakes, and Marcy’s mother and her friends’ happiness and all the stories she had been told that make her life seem less than. And then the mailman is there. “You have mail today. Just one letter, from out of the country,” he says. She looks up at him from the middle of The Horse and His Boy. His hair is messy in the cold November wind. Like Aslan, the Narnian lion. His lips are pressed together and his eyes are focused. George and Marcy and Delia are all staring at him, unusually quiet. Their faces pressed together, and their eyes wide. “The mail,” the mailman repeats. “We’ll go,” says George looking at her. “Yes,” says Marcy, “we’ll go.” Alice knows that they, just like everyone else, thought that waiting was some form of therapy, that no letter would really ever arrive for her. Yet dutifully, every Monday they wait. Through rain and shine. Through unsent letters, and Narnia. “That’s what real friends do,” she heard Marcy tell her the first time they ever waited for the mail. “Stop,” she says, barely a whisper, but enough to get the three children to stop their steps and glance at her. The mailman holds out a lightly stained letter. “Look, kid,” says the man. “You want the letter or not?” The question sticks in her mind like a bullet in human flesh. You want the letter or not? Boom. The shot echoes in every corner of her world. Does she? Does the letter contain everything to make her life right again? Will it take her to Rome and the Rockies and Spain and San Francisco? Will it make Father okay? Will that one sliver of paper make everything right again? Make the months that she has been waiting for the mail disappear? And everything bad with it? Will it bring back the one person whom she’s afraid to want? “Kid,” says the mailman. No, she thinks. Nothing can. And then she takes the mail.

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