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Return Address

by Arthur Pinte

It arrived one Saturday morning. This in itself was unusual since the UPS truck didn’t normally deliver until late afternoon. Today it must have come shortly before noon. Alison was in bed, had been lying there all morning trying unsuccessfully to sleep in, when she heard the knock and by the time she got to the door the truck was gone and there it was outside. A small cardboard box with the UPS logo on the front.

She stepped out onto the front porch and picked up the box. It was light and didn’t rattle when shaken. She looked at the mailing label. Something else from Publishers Clearing House. There were a dozen such pieces of junk lying around the house. Fingernail clippers, a saltshaker, a set of little brushes for some purpose or other in a brown plastic case... There was a return address, some place in Wyoming. She didn’t give it a second thought at the time.

She brought the box inside and was about to open it when her cell phone rang.

“Hey, it’s Susan. What you up to today, babe?”

“Not a lot, as it happens.”

“I’m at the mall. I was wondering if you want to meet for lunch? I’ve got some exciting news. ”

“I’ll need to have my social secretary check my appointments book and get back to you.” She sighed. “Actually, it sounds good. Take me out of my funk. Maybe.”

She meant that and some. The apartment was just too depressing now. She’d been staying out nights frequenting bookstores, movies she had little interest in, poetry readings, for God’s sake. With friends when available but alone if need be. Anything to escape the confines of the four walls and herself...

“What time?”

“Well, I need to be at work by two o’clock. Twelve-thirty alright?”

It was, but only just. She threw on some clothes, brushed her teeth, dragged a comb through her hair, and forgot all about the box.

* * *

The lunch was... okay. Susan had finally been offered the promotion she’d been angling after for the last three months and was indeed excited. Apart from that it was uneventful. Teriyaki chicken and unsweetened iced tea in the food court.

Alison didn’t spend too long there. She found Susan a bit hard to take at times, truth be told. It’s a little insensitive to refer to somebody’s ex-boyfriend as a creepy little nerd. Whatever had happened between them, she still had feelings for him. No doubt Susan thought she was being supportive. Then again, there was something of the bubblehead about the woman, and any guy with a doctorate in biochemistry and a job in a government research facility was going to seem creepy to her.

Actually, Alison was unable to sort out what exactly she did still feel about Clive now. He was so great at first. Smart, interesting, attentive, shy, funny, sweet... if a little... strange at times. She couldn’t understand how something so good had ended up so bad. Heartbreak hotel.

* * *

Georgia Tech must have had a home game that weekend because the traffic in downtown Atlanta was insane. She stopped off at the pharmacy to refill her meds, picked up a few items at the supermarket and finally arrived home around three-thirty.

She unloaded the groceries, poured a cup of coffee and carried it into the living room.

The phone was sitting in a nook on the far side of the room. Almost everything she received on her house phone these days was telemarketing crap and political adds and she usually ignored it. But she looked in the direction of the phone now and noticed that the red light on the answer machine next to it was blinking.

There were eleven messages on there! She was tempted to delete them all there and then and have done with it, but decided against it. Instead she pushed the play button.

Friday January 6, 9:35 pm.
“Mom here. Not checking up on you dear, but I saw Mrs. Williams at the Post Office and she said that you called in sick today. Wanted to make sure you’re okay. Anyway, I’ll call your cell phone.”

Sunday January 8, 2:11 pm.
“Allie, this is Clive. I’ve been trying to reach you for three days. I want to apologize for what happened. I know there’s no excuse for the way I acted but I was under a lot of strain at work and I guess I just snapped. I’m sorry and I want to make it right. Please call me. I love you.”

So he had called. At the beginning of January she’d changed her cell phone number when she signed up with Verizon. The relationship with Clive was on its way south by then and she hadn’t been overly keen to give him the new number. It seemed strange that it hadn’t occurred to her to check the answer machine before for a call from him — perhaps she was psychologically predisposed against it.

Monday January 9, 1:35 pm.
“This is the campaign for the re-election of President Barack Obama. The last three years have seen—”

Thursday January 12, 8:37 pm.
“Allie, I don’t blame you if you never want to speak to me again but please call me. There must be some way we can work this out. I love and miss you.”

Friday January 13, 2:45 pm.
“As a homeowner, you may be entitled to—”

Sunday January 15, 3:24 pm.
“I have to see you. When I stop by you’re never there and you don’t return my calls. If you think you can just—”

The remaining five messages were all from Clive, increasingly shrill in tone. The last one a couple of days ago.

Thursday January 19, 4:17 am. “YOU F****** WHORE. WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? YOU WRECKED—”

She dropped the phone as if it had suddenly sprouted teeth and bit her. Her first thought was to dash to the front door and attach the chain. Instead she collapsed into an armchair, lowered her head and began to cry. Whether for herself or for him she couldn’t have said...

Reaching for a tissue to dry her eyes she happened to touch the box, which was sitting on an end table next to her chair. She’d forgotten about it until now. It occurred to her that over the past year she’d received a half dozen packages from Publishers Clearing House and not one had been delivered by UPS.

She glanced at the return address.

4311 Malthusian Way
Wyoming 8200

He’d totally gotten weird at the end but the voice on the answer machine was like nothing she’d ever heard before... something primal...

She eyed the package.

Picked up her laptop and did some research. The zip code seemed right but there was no Van Nuys in Wyoming. Much less a Malthusian Way.

Clive had once told her that his first name was Van. He never used it because he hated it, said it made him sound like a character in an eighties hair band. She also recalled that he’d taken philosophy courses in college. He told her once that he wished he’d had the opportunity to study the subject in more depth. “I just love the way some of those dudes thought back then.” Malthusian. It sounded familiar.

Her heart was pounding. There was something else odd about the address that she couldn’t quite get hold of.

She thought about their relationship.

Things they’d said to each other...

Places they’d been together...

The first time they made love. He was so nervous and awkward, she wondered if it was his first time...

The day they met. It was a Sunday, some time back in April, the same day she bought the dishwasher from JC Penney. On returning home from the store she found that she’d left her purse behind. They didn’t have it when she went back but later that afternoon she got a call from Clive. He happened to be in the neighborhood, could he drop it off?

A realization was starting to form...

Alison never threw anything away, an unfortunate habit she’d acquired from her mother. Most all of the paperwork ended up in her handbag — sometimes it took a half-hour to find something in there.

Now was not the time for niceties. She dumped the entire contents of the handbag onto her lap and pawed frantically through the mess until she found what she was looking for.

The receipt for the dishwasher. It was dated April third — 4/3/11.

4311 Malthusian Way

She climbed slowly out of the chair, edged away from the table and ran out of the house. Pulled out her cell phone but all she could do was stare dumbly at it for a while...

Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Pinte

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