Finalist, Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, May 2007
The stairs creaked under Ephraim’s slow, steady descent. Every morning but Sunday, he came downstairs at 10:45 and waited for the mail. And every week, a letter from his granddaughter Daniella was mixed in with the bills and fliers.
The mailman Ephraim waited for was a nice black girl who always wore her hair in a tight French twist.
It was black now, wasn’t it? Bah, he was an old man, how was he supposed to remember all these changing words? When he was younger words were static. They meant what they meant, period.
When Daniella was fourteen, Ephraim smoked cigarettes while he waited for the mail, but Daniella’s mother had listed the dangers of smoking on her pointed fingers.
Finally, the nagging overwhelmed him and he quit. Now that his daughter and granddaughter lived a state away, Ephraim considered smoking again. He sighed; remembering the way one lungful of sweet smoke could instantly put him at ease. But that was four years ago; now cigarettes were too expensive. His daughter probably had something to do with that, too.
“Good morning, Gloria Mae.” Ephraim smiled as he pulled his hands out of his pockets.
“Good morning, Mr. Pepperman.” The lady mailman smiled as she came up the sidewalk. She handed Ephraim his mail.
He was glad to see that the stack was thick; it wasn’t the free paper she handed him on no-mail days. Ephraim flipped through the envelopes as quickly as his papery, arthritic fingers allowed. His whole body sagged when he reached the end. Nothing but junk mail.
“She hasn’t written back,” he mumbled.
“Mr. Pepperman,” Gloria Mae began, but Ephraim was not paying attention.
He muttered to himself and slipped back inside the building.
The ascent back up the steps was daunting. When Ephraim’s daughter moved him into this second story apartment, she scolded him for not finding a building with an elevator. She listed his heart, blood pressure and arthritic knees, counting each one on her fingers.
As she carried on, Ephraim would wink at then ten-year-old Daniella and she’d bite her bottom lip to stifle the giggles.
This play infuriated his daughter, making her lose count of the benefits of assisted living. She’d clench her fist and flick each finger as she repeated her points.
“Mount Saint Helens,” Ephraim said. With a deep breath, he grabbed the handrail and began the labored climb.
These stairs were a mountain that he shared with Daniella. In every letter, Ephraim described the mountain he just conquered.
“Today I climbed Mount Saint Helens.”
He paused and chuckled to himself. She would like this next part.
“–Post eruption Mount Saint Helens.”
Daniella had been born after the eruption and was amazed that he and her mother lived through such a momentous event. The explosion, the ash, the way the country escaped a Vesuvian fate.
Young girls were always dramatic, Ephraim thought. Chicago hadn’t seen the slightest hint of Mount Saint Helens except for the continual late-breaking news stories.
“I would like to be up here reading your letter, but one has yet to arrive. I know you wouldn’t forget your ol’ Grandpa. The mail must be slow again.
“My mailman is a nice girl, but she is not particularly prompt. No, not girl. Your mother would tell me to use woman. First no cigarettes, now no girls. The world changes too fast.
“I have not heard from you since your car accident.” Ephraim stopped and lay down his pen.
His eyes were hurting again. He rubbed them with one hand. Where were those reading glasses his daughter forced him to buy?
Ephraim sighed and stood up. He hobbled to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of tap water, not bothering to turn the faucet from warm to cold.
His drinking glasses were vintage 1970. He had bought them for his wife’s birthday. Effie had been so excited. She loved the flecks of gold embedded in the translucent yellow glass. He could see her now, holding the glasses up to the light, one by one, examining them with her horn-rimmed eye-glasses.
His wife had passed eight years earlier—on his birthday. That was the blackest year of his life, despite the continual visits from Daniella. She was such a clever ten-year old; she began sending him birthday cards on his wedding anniversary instead of his wife’s death day.
When she laughed, Daniella reminded him of his wife. Looked just like her grandmother in the eyes, too. Daniella inherited her fair skin and blonde hair from her gentile father but had kept her grandmother’s beautiful brown eyes. Daniella managed to pull off the mutt look well. She was a strong beauty, not a pasty, sickly thing.
It was a shame about her car accident. Ephraim hoped that Daniella had been spared disfigurement. She had a strong inner light but he wasn’t sure the world would notice if she didn’t have a beautiful face, too.
Ephraim’s one bedroom apartment was convenient; everything was within reach. There were no extra bedrooms in which to store and lose things and Ephraim was less winded going from bedroom to bathroom in this apartment than he had been in his old house, although, he was more easily winded these days. It was harder to get from his bed to the john. Six years and the apartment seemed to have gotten larger.
“My mailman is a nice girl, but she is not particularly prompt.” Ephraim reread the last few lines of his letter.
“Gloria Mae, I believe, is her name.” He wrote in the margin. “She is very worried about you and your accident.”
Gloria Mae usually talked to him when she delivered the mail. She hadn’t talked to him today. That was strange, Ephraim thought.
When Ephraim first received the letter about Daniella’s car accident, he let Gloria Mae read it. She had cried and gently touched the tiny gold cross she wore around her neck.
She seemed so sad since then. Ephraim hoped that she was all right. Every time he saw her, Ephraim thought he should buy flowers to cheer her up, but then the idea would slip his mind.
“Should I buy her flowers?” Ephraim asked Daniella. Would that be inappropriate, he wondered to himself. Daniella was smart; she would know. She knew this confusing time so well that it often amazed him.
“Nothing romantic,” he clarified. “Not roses.”
“Good morning, Mr. Pepperman,” Gloria Mae held up the free paper.
“Last night, I realized why she hasn’t written,” Ephraim said.
“Really?” Gloria Mae lowered her voice. Sadness dulled her eyes.
“She broke her right arm—in the accident—she can’t write.” Ephraim grinned at his own naiveté.
Gloria Mae remained silent.
“But don’t worry, she’ll write again soon. In the meantime,” Ephraim smiled and pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket. “I’ve written this for her. After all, a broken arm won’t affect her reading.”
Gloria Mae took the letter as Ephraim fished in the shirt pocket for change.
The post office was too long of a walk for him these days. He never told his daughter that she was right about his knees.
Ever since his daughter took his driver’s license and stole his car from the garage, Ephraim was forced to walk. He did own a bus schedule; it was taped next to the front door. But the bus never seemed to go where he needed to, not without more walking on the deteriorating city sidewalks. He’d already lost his footing on the corner by the bus stop. Nothing had broken, but his hip and ego were both sorely bruised.
Ephraim handed over a quarter. “Wait!” He searched his other pockets. “It’s thirty cents now.” He pulled out a nickel.
“No, Mr. Pepperman.” Gloria Mae tried to hand back the quarter. “You gave me too much change last time—it’ll pay for this letter.”
“I don’t remember that.” Ephraim shook his head. “No.”
As he held the nickel in the air between them, his hand shook.
“Mr. Pepperman, I’m so sorry.” Gloria Mae shook her head. “I don’t know what to say about your granddaughter…”
“I can pay for my own stamps.” Ephraim snapped. “I don’t need charity from the likes of you!”
Ephraim sat at his writing desk, blank paper and pen lying in front of him. Instead of deciding which mountain he had just climbed, Ephraim stared at the Galileo thermometer Daniella had given him years ago.
The tall, cylindrical thermometer stood on the corner of his desk. Different colored balls floated to the surface depending upon the temperature of his apartment. It was a fine present, Ephraim thought.
The red ball floated on top, the orange hung beneath it, jockeying for position. Time was like that, Ephraim though. Each day, a different ball bubbled to the surface of his memory.
Ephraim sat on the park bench, playing checkers with himself while he waited for Gus. They played everyday at the same time, but today Gus was fifteen minutes late.
“Dad,” his daughter sat down on the far end of the bench.
Daniella squeezed her eleven-year-old body between Ephraim and the bench’s armrest. She rested her head on his shoulder.
Ignoring them both, Ephraim arranged the pieces into their starting positions.
“Dad,” his daughter repeated. She placed her hand over her father’s. He paused but several silent minutes passed before he looked at her.
“That’s Gus’s seat. He’ll be here soon.”
“Dad, Gus isn’t coming today.” His daughter’s voice was soft. “Dad, Gus is…”
“Don’t say it,” Ephraim yelled. He wasn’t a damn porcelain doll. He didn’t need to be coddled. He needed to play checkers.
In a movement swifter than even he thought himself capable, Ephraim overturned the checkers board. Pieces scattered over the ground.
Daniella leapt off the bench and retreated to the walking path. The circle where she rested her cheek was suddenly cold.
“I can’t be the last one,” Ephraim’s voice shook.
Effie was first. Then his synagogue friends. He and Gus began playing checkers after their wives, bridge partners and poker buddies had all left them. Last night, he and Gus had been the last ones.
“Last man standing…” Ephraim slouched on the bench as his daughter collected the scattered checkers into their dilapidated, taped-together box.
Ephraim started crying and his daughter put her arms around his shoulder.
It was 10:45 and Ephraim stood at his appointed spot. When he saw Gloria Mae pushing her mail cart towards him, he straightened and checked the buttons on his cardigan. They were all in their correct holes.
He hadn’t talked to her all week, not since she had insulted him by refusing his money. Ephraim was still angry, but he missed talking with someone.
Gloria Mae had a bounce in her step, Ephraim thought, until she spotted him. What was is about him that made her feet turn to lead? Once, she had told him that he was the highlight of her route. What had he done to become a chore?
“Good morning,” Ephraim fought to keep the hurt from his voice.
“Good morning, Mr. Pepperman,” Gloria Mae said. “They’re giving me a new route. Today’s my last day with you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ephraim said. He took the free paper from Gloria Mae.
“I’ll miss seeing you…” Gloria Mae started.
“Hmm,” Ephraim breathed as he regarded the free paper. He couldn’t look her in the eyes. “Light mail day. Goodbye.”
Ephraim’s daughter’s family stood in front of him, ready to shuffle past, like mourners at the graveside. He waited for them to toss their fistfuls of dirt on him and walk away.
“Bye Zedeh,” Daniella stood on her toes and wrapped her long spindly arms around his neck.
The relentlessly hot sun dazzled her hair. The sparkling curls brushed against Ephraim’s cheek as she hugged him and Ephraim crushed his nose into them, trying to breathe in their life.
Her sun-browned arms stuck slightly to his neck when she pulled away, leaving a ring of cool sweat around his neck.
“You are so tall,” he said for the umpteenth time that weekend.
Daniella rolled her eyes. “I’m 12.”
Ephraim smiled sadly. Time flew too quickly. “Bye, Daniella.”
“Go get in the car, Danny,” her father said.
Ephraim frowned. He didn’t like that, always shortening things. Cities to abbreviations, wars to numerals, girls names to boys. It seemed to take away part of the identity, to trivialize it in some way. And this man did it to his wife and daughter.
“Ephraim,” Daniella’s father held out his hand and gave one manly pump before following his daughter to the car.
“All right, Dad,” his daughter stood in front of him. She reached out to hold his hands, but he held them at his sides.
After a moment, she dropped hers. “We’ve got to head back. Work, you know…”
“Yes, I suppose you do,” Ephraim pouted like the child he felt she was turning him into.
“The landlord gave me the number of the maintenance man. I taped it to your fridge—they’re there twenty-four hours a day. If you have any problems, just call.”
The two-story walk up his daughter just moved him into was a hard compromise. It was smaller and more manageable than his two-story house but it was a far cry from the assisted living attention she believed he needed.
“You’re a block from temple. You’ve got…” she counted on her fingers.
“I want to live in my own house!” Ephraim needed to stop her before she mentioned the bus stop. His daughter seemed to think that convenience alone made the move worth it.
“You grew up there. It’s your house too. I carried your mother over the threshold of that house. You grew up in that house.”
“Dad, it was too big for you.”
“I knew where everything was.”
“You’ll learn this place soon enough.”
Ephraim doubted that. He’d probably die trying to find where his daughter put his pills. She unpacked everything herself. She put it away. She even hung the pictures in the wrong places.
Ephraim’s daughter leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’ll call when we get in.”
When he watched his daughter drive away, Ephraim stood in the very spot that he would wait for the mailman.
It was raining. That meant Gloria Mae would be late. She took more time on bad weather days. Ephraim couldn’t blame her, though. After all, his knees creaked a little more on days like this.
She usually waited for him on his slower days; the least he could do was wait a few extra minutes for her.
The landlord tried to beautify the building by putting a lace curtain over the heavy glass door. Ephraim pushed the lace aside to watch for Gloria Mae, stirring up dust. His eyes watered and he sneezed.
Like most of the landlord’s beautification, the curtain had been forgotten. Soon it would fade to yellow and fray off the rod.
The door swung open and a young kid surged in, a guitar case and umbrella swinging from his hands. Water sprayed the foyer.
“Sorry, man.” The boy bounded upstairs.
Ephraim looked at his watch. 11:03. It was well past the time Gloria Mae was supposed to come.
Ephraim pulled back the curtain again. The rain was starting to wane. He glanced down the street. Gloria Mae was not there. He couldn’t even see her cart, draped in plastic. Rain or shine, it always sat in the middle of the sidewalk as she climbed porch steps to the mailboxes.
The boy who had just come bursting in, sailed back down the stairs. In place of the guitar and umbrella, he juggled a wad of keys.
What could a boy so young do with so many keys? Surely his life wasn’t that closed off, Ephraim thought.
The boy jangled the bunch so they fell away, leaving only the mailbox key pinched between his fingers.
“She hasn’t come yet.” Ephraim offered, the old imparting knowledge onto the young. It was all he had left to give.
The boy looked up from his open mailbox. It was full. “Are you waiting for something?”
Ephraim stared into boy’s mailbox, confused. “She always waits for me.”
“Maybe she was in a hurry,” the boy volunteered.
“But it’s raining today.”
Ephraim looked at his own mailbox. He didn’t have his key. He didn’t even know where it was.
How was he supposed to get Daniella’s letters if he didn’t have the key?