Prompt: Write a short story, of 750 words or fewer, based on this prompt: A man opens his mailbox to find an envelope containing a set of instructions.
Tug of War
By Deborah Walgenbach
She’s behind me, barefoot, leaning against the apartment door—her tent top draping down over her protruding belly, no longer able to hide the obvious. Since the drawing, she refuses to get the mail, so now it’s my job.
“Is it here?” she asked.
The mailbox is full. Yesterday it was empty. Day before, a Newsweek rolled up like the high school diploma Principal Peters handed me at graduation. The magazine is still on the kitchen counter with the others, rubber bands preventing the news from spilling out into our small apartment.
I’m not a religious person, but that didn’t stop me from bargaining with the Powers That Be each time I fumbled with the small key to the mailbox. All I want is more time. My single buddy at work, a day older by minutes, lucks out with 241. My number—091 bought me a ticket to ‘Nam—didn’t tell me when.
I turned the key six to noon locking the box. My sweat turned cold, like when I walk into the air-conditioned A&P on a hot summer day. I’ve had the better part of a year to prepare for this day, so why the sharp punches shattering my insides? “What’s for dinner?” I asked without turning around.
She’s still learning to cook. Boxes of Hamburger Helper line the top shelf of our pantry, coupons and clipped recipes the front of our fridge.
“Is it … here?”
She’s waiting for an answer. I like to tease her, so I start clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth. “Da don da donda da don da da.” I forced a laugh and turned around. “Standing there like that, ya do kinda look a little Alfred Hitchcock-ish. His profile.”
“Well, is it?”
I fanned through the stack of mail trying to buy more time. The official looking envelope, power and light bill, phone bill, Penney’s summer catalogue, and the Sear’s bill. “Twenty easy payments and the washer and dryer are ours,” I said waving the envelope in front of her face. “You’ll thank me. All those nasty diapers.”
Silence followed us into the apartment. She plopped down onto our hand-me-down couch, sinking deep into the worn cushion. Neither of us laughed about her growing clumsiness as my finger sliced through the envelope like a letter opener. It was official all right—right from the president of the United States. It said so right in the upper left hand corner of the letter.
“In two weeks.” The words turned fuzzy as the black letters bled into the empty white spaces on the paper. I blinked a few times. “We’re to … we … we meet in the lobby of the post office, 6:30 a.m. From there it says we’ll be forwarded to an Armed Forces induction station. Get it?” I asked laughing. “Post office, forwarded, like the mail.”
It’s the unknown that scares me, the unfamiliar. “OK,” I said holding the letter and stretching my arms out in front of me, trying to mimic the older guys at work who read the paper on their break. “Says I need to bring my glasses.”
“You don’t wear glasses silly,” she said, the sides of her month curving up slightly.
“OK, clean clothes for eight days and my Social Security account number card.”
“What about your job?”
“It says to inform my employer. I guess if I’m not inducted, if I don’t pass, I get my ass back to work ASAP.” The hot factory floor, with the endless line of parts rushing at me all day, looked pretty good right now.
She leaned into me, rubbing her hand up and down my thigh. I reached over the back of the couch, inviting her in, my thin cotton work shirt tugging at my shoulders. We both knew I’d pass.
“What else?” she asked.
“Enough money for a month, for personal stuff.”
“That’s it,” I said, folding the letter. It was the first time I’d lied to her, but somehow it felt OK. Tomorrow I’d find the key to the safety deposit box, stop at The National Bank, get the address and number off my policy like the letter said.
I took in a few deep breaths. Her hair, freshly washed, smelled of Herbal Essence shampoo, her one luxury. The Pledged furniture. The Hamburger Helper.
“Did you feel that?”
“I did,” I said, placing the palm of my hand on top of her belly, waiting.