“The Mississippi River is one-Hell-of-a-something at night, ain’t it Mama?”
Every time I talked about the Mississippi as a kid, you’d think I just saw Jesus getting baptized in it. Bev never once brought me to church, always saying she’d only start reading gospel when the man upstairs put an end to Vietnam. Maybe it was the sweet lull of the summertime that made me feel a holy ghost running through me, but from June to August of 1967, I reckon I believed in a god. I didn’t know it then, but that summer was the culmination of the fifteen summers I’d spent with my legs dangling out of Bev’s mail truck, staring at the heavenly Mississippi all night with a Lucky wedged between my teeth.
“Mhmm,” Bev made a hum of agreement, the distracted type, the way a person who isn’t truly listening would hum. Her pupils were so dilated that they were eclipsing the hazel, licking the outline of each word my father had written her.
“That must be a good one,” I piped up after her murmur dissipated into the dull roar of the cicadas. “You haven’t even looked up once to see all the fireflies that are out right now.”
“Every one of ‘em is a good one, Jo,” Bev’s voice maintained its plateaued, disinterested pitch. She was too preoccupied by the sweet nothings pledged to her in cursive by John Covington, a man whose devotion to the American cause in Vietnam had forced him to abandon Neptune, Mississippi for the better part of my life. He was a carrier first and a pilot second, marrying his two passions by working in airmail. I never saw him when I was young, work keeping him in the air and keeping Bev on the line. He disappeared altogether upon being drafted to Vietnam, not even coming home once. His presence still floated through our house in the form of the occasional love letter Bev would receive from overseas. As I watched her spiral into the spectacularly obsolete, the only thing yanking her out of her depression spells was the prose from my absent father.
“How’s the memorization of that one goin’, Mama?” I leaned over her shoulder, trying to get a peek at the spells my father’s poetry was putting her under. “Am I gonna get to hear it soon?”
Bev snatched up her letter, hiding it behind her back to shelter the sacred words with her body. “Josephine, you know you’ve got a job to be doin’ right now,” She snapped at me, not mincing a single word. “I’m gonna lose you come September first. I need all the help I can get.”
I tried to suppress the exasperated sigh attempting to escape my chest. I did have a job to do, Bev’s job. I picked up the stack beside me and began sorting, giving into my temptation to watch the river every few letters, even for a moment. Looking across its rushing waters made me feel like I was at the edge of the world somehow. Suddenly, the lights on the banks of New Orleans were far away
stars and planets that I could reach out and touch. I would stretch my hands to the Milky Way back then, having full faith in the heavens that were slipping through my fingers. When I think back to life in Neptune, Mississippi, or lack thereof, that’s what I immediately remember every time. How I do miss swimming.
I worked in near silence, the only sounds underscoring my sorting being the non-human kind: the sputtering sprinkler on the lawn next door, the crackling of the radio static that dominated over the Vietnam news, and the lullaby of the Mississippi. Bev effectively broke my concentration through the sound of her bare foot meeting the radio, forcing it to choke on its stammer. “Damn thing,” She cursed it as the orange plastic toppled over, its knobs sending tin echoes reverberating off the walls as it collided with the sheet metal of the truck bed.
I peeled up the undersides of my legs from where my sweat had cemented them to the truck and pulled myself in. “Let me get it, Mama.” I coerced Bev, wrestling the radio from her. I began to troubleshoot it, tinkering with the alignment of the antenna and jamming my fingers into each of the buttons.
“Give it up, Josephine.” Bev swatted at the obstinate machine, repositioning herself at the edge of the truck and nestling up with her letter again. I flicked off the switch on the back of the radio and set it on the truck bed, sending its static to an early bedtime. Bev glanced up from her letter. “Don’t be shutting it off now.”
My legs were suspended in a mid-squat position as I went to take a seat again, halted by her instruction. “You want the static on?”
Bev’s sternly arched eyebrow made me recoil from my question. “You heard me, Josephine. Put it back on.” I hesitantly complied with her request, rising again to flip the switch. The truck was flooded with a screaming match between the static and the war talks, underscored by blindly optimistic radio jingles. “Ain’t the Mississippi enough background noise for you, Mama?”
Bev retracted her attention again, the absence in her voice prominent. “What are you rambling on about, Josephine?”
I squatted beside her, folding my legs under each other. “There’s lots of other sounds that aren’t as garish as that radio static.”
Bev snickered, still refusing to peel her eyes off the letter. “Where did you learn a word like gar-ish? Whatever the hell that means.” I winced to hear her criticism of the word I’d ripped from a headline in the newspaper that morning. Bev hardly took notice. “It’s the not-so-white noise of it, I think. That’s why I like that garish radio so much,” The tip of her tongue traced her lips as eyes fluttered shut, welcoming the static with her inhale. “Even though I can’t quite make out the words, it
reminds me that there’s a world out there beyond this prison Neptune’s become. A world that’s got my John in it.”
I considered her indictment of my home as I surveyed the small window of it the mail truck made us privy to. My eyes fixated on the spot where Neptune met the rest of the world, the treetops whose leaves bled into the cirrus clouds that muddied the sunset. “I like this town,” I concluded softly. “for all it has and all it does not.”
Bev snickered. “It doesn’t surprise me that you like Neptune so much,” The steely tone of her voice stood in contention with the enveloping warmth of the August night. “It’s the kind of place for a person who hasn’t seen nothin’ else.” She’d always cursed Neptune as an insignificant speck on a map. Its greatest claim to fame was proximity to the Mississippi, but even that held little import. As a child I did not mind the barrenness, the utterly bland life Neptune had to offer. Perhaps it was because the stability Neptune offered counteracted the one thing in my life that failed to maintain itself as a constant.
My eyes sustained themselves on the dissipating embers of light that glistened on the water’s ripples until the violet curtain blotted out any remnant of day. “And what have you seen, Mama?”
I could feel the dry heat of Bev’s stare out of my peripheral vision. She swiftly ran her thumb and index finger up the body of the letter as if she were sharpening a kitchen knife with it. “I’ve seen enough.”
We’d reached an unspoken stalemate in our argument, the atmosphere quelled by our mutual stubbornness. Bev pulled her knees into her chest and averted her gaze from mine, the letter migrating to her lap. I reluctantly returned to work on her pile, squinting my eyes at the faintly written address lines and cursing myself for allowing the daylight to flee from me.
“You know,” Bev piped up finally, her tone uncharacteristically meek. “I was a bit harsh on you earlier.”
“It’s okay Mama,” I replied.
“No Josephine. I’m mighty sorry I snapped at you earlier,” Bev pulled her eyes up from her lap. “you know the stress I’m under. It’s getting to me, I reckon.”
“I get it Mama, it’s alright,” I inched closer to her, softening my voice at the sight of her unresolved contrition. “Really, it is.”
Bev looked out at the river, a grin pushing up at the edges of her cheeks. “This letter, if you must know, is a beauty,” She turned her gaze back towards me. “You want me to recite some of it for you?”
My breath caught hold of the Mississippi night. “Of course I do, Mama,” I responded, trying to suppress the full extent of the giddy I felt.
“Well alright then,” Bev repositioned herself, her back against the frame of the truck. I couldn’t see the words, but I could feel them. I closed my eyes as she began.
High school was a whole different beast I came to learn real soon. The same kids I’d been in class with since I was in diapers had somehow gotten crueler over the course of one summer. Girls came to school with hips, chests, and unabashedly judgmental eyes. Boys came with lean muscles from summer work on farms and bottled-up perversions they dreamed of acting upon beneath the gym bleachers. I came to school the same skin-and-bones eighth grader I was the year prior, accompanied by a bad sunburn I’d acquired from laying out at the river too long.
I wished it’d happened in November, when the air outside held a fiercer bitterness, one even Bev couldn’t persist through. The entire walk home from the bus stop, I repeated a silent prayer in my head. It was the first silent prayer I’d ever wished on, and the first time I’d tried to get into contact with a god I hadn’t actively believed in since the warmer months.
Please, O God, will the Mississippi winds to shut the truck door. Oh—and amen.
But as I sauntered onto our lot, making my way across the torn-up lawn muddied by all the rainfall we’d gotten that year, I knew the Lord had turned a blind eye to my simple request.
“Josephine!” Bev hollered at me when I came into the view of the truck. I could only make out the silhouette of her figure in the shadow cast by the monstrous-looking pile she had on her hands. She needed my assistance.
Pinpricks spread across the surface of my cheeks as my reluctant legs carried me to her. “Mama—”
“I’m sure you’ve got homework Josephine but I’m gonna need your help for an hour or so,” Bev didn’t look up to acknowledge my presence from where her body was sprawled out on the truck bed. “I had one of my migraines today, didn’t get much done.” I couldn’t even summon a response with my gaze averted to my shoes, which were rearranging the gravel on the driveway.
“Josephine?” Her voice wasn’t asking, it was telling. My eyes shot up, meeting hers for a few agonizing moments before she migrated her stare to my right hand. “What’s that you’ve got?”
One of my eyes twitched independent of the other. “It’s…a paper. For you to sign.” Bev snatched it, her eyes scrutinizing each word as if it were a fresh letter from my father. I watched the rosy undertones of Bev’s flesh begin to simmer. “Why the hell are you bringing home a disciplinary notice to me?” When I couldn’t hoist my eyes up to meet hers she seized the underside of my chin, yanking my pupils upwards with it. “Huh?”
“I…” My throat reflexively cleared itself. “I filled Mark Stewart’s locker with paper airplanes.” Bev’s hand dropped from my throat. “You what?”
My voice autonomously raised in volume. “I filled Mark Stewart’s locker with—”
“I heard what you said,” Bev pinched her temples, her head shaking slowly. “but why the hell’d you do it?”
I couldn’t tell her the whole truth of the matter, so I omitted the part about Mark spreading a rumor that my mother sleeps in her mail truck. A true rumor. “Mark was making fun of me for having a Daddy that works in airmail,” My words came out gradually as I attempted to gauge Bev’s reaction. “He said it was pathetic to go through pilotry school only to come out with a license to carry greeting cards.”
Bev sunk her back into the sack of mail behind her, positioning herself on her throne of postage stamps. “Is that so?”
“I had to do it, Mama,” I hoisted my body into the truck, crouching in front of her to meet her eye level. “Mark Stewart has been calling me funny names, boys’ names.” My pupils did a somersault. “I’ve been ‘Joseph’ or ‘Joey’ since we were in kindergarten on the account of the overalls I always wear.”
Bev’s fingers toyed with her box of Luckies. “Was a locker full of paper airplanes really the solution?” She chuckled to herself. “You’d think after all these years of working with mail that you’d learn how to use words.”
“I didn’t want to hurt him, Mama, just mess up ‘is day a little,” I folded my hands across my chest. “And I wanted to see his face when a fleet of airplanes fell outta the sky and onto ‘im.”
A Lucky nestled itself into Bev’s jaw. “That’s a bit cynical, Josephine.” “No damage was done, Mama,” I pleaded with her. “A paper cut, maybe.”
Bev’s nose wrinkled. “Well, you can tell Mark Stewart that ‘is Daddy has gotten fat since I graduated from the high school with ‘im, and Mark is headed down the same exact path.”
“I don’t wanna tell Mark that. Besides, we’re even now.”
“Alright then,” Bev smirked. “He probably likes you anyways, that Mark Stewart.” “Likes me?” My spine cemented upright. “As in, likes me, likes me?”
Bev smirked, smog filtering out of her mouth from the gaps between her teeth. “I reckon so.” I considered the notion. “I don’t very well think he could like a girl named Joseph.”
Bev reached backwards and tossed me a stack of letters. “Well it’s a good thing your name isn’t Joseph then, isn’t it?” Then she tilted her head backwards and shut her eyes tight while I began sorting, keeping my lips sewn for a long while.
“Mama,” My timid voice was enough to pull up her right eyelid. “Daddy addresses all of his letters to Bev.”
She nodded. “That’s a fact.”
“Why do you got ‘Bev’ stitched on your uniform? And why does Daddy call you that ‘stead of Beverly?”
“Bev is a better name for me,” She replied, her tone of voice steady and void of emotion.
That was always how she talked when she was trying to shut me up.
I chewed on my lip. “I think Beverly is a beautiful name, Mama. I think it’s better than Bev.”
She looked at me, simultaneously picking up the Lucky she’d been working on from the ashtray beside her. “That’s just it,” Her response came through a puff. “Beverly is a pretty girl’s name. It ain’t the name of no small town mail carrier.” So, she went by Bev.
I always thought Josephine was a terrible name despite it being my own. There were too many syllables I decided. It didn’t come with any extraordinary nicknames either. Josie? I told myself there were too many ruffles attached to Josie. In reality, I think that my subconscious had dictated to me that Josie was a pretty girl’s name. So, I went by Jo.
My father only knew me as Josephine, I imagined. Bev had told me that he picked my wretched moniker, and that my namesake originated from the old song, “Come Josephine in my Flying Machine”. Bev liked to hum it whenever her mind wandered someplace else while she did her sorting, someplace she could only get to in an airplane, I think.
Come Josephine in my Flying Machine/Going up she goes! Up she goes!
“Did Daddy ever call you Beverly?” I piped up again. “What?”
“Did he call you Beverly or Bev?”
Bev’s reply came in a cautionary fashion. “He didn’t really call me anything, not one or the other.” I didn’t protest her ambiguity.
“What was he like? —Is he like, I mean.”
Bev’s lips spread, unveiling two rows of crooked, yellowing bone. “We were coworkers at the post office before we were married,” She began, not protesting as I sprawled across her with my head in her lap. “It was just supposed to be a summer job for me, but it rolled into fall, and winter…” And by spring of ‘53, a daughter was born to John and Beverly Covington in the back of a mail truck they both worked in, and that was just about the last time anything out of the ordinary happened in my mother’s life.
“Yes, Jo?” Bev wove her fingers into my hair, twisting sections of it into what I imagined was a sorry attempt at a braid.
“What’s it like to kiss a boy?”
I could feel her stomach convulse with a rumble of laughter. “Are you meaning to tell me that you’re a fifteen-year-old girl whose never been kissed?” My skin stung momentarily and I lifted my head from her lap, retreating to lick my wounds. “I’m sorry Josephine, I didn’t mean it like that.”
My sheepishness suddenly fell to the wayside. “’Course I’ve never been kissed,” I snapped, flinging my back against the wall of the truck and tightening my arms across my ribcage. “the boys at my school call me Joseph.”
Bev pulled my head back down to her lap and my neck allowed it, her fingers assuming their position in my scalp again. Her chest billowed against my temples, heaving a sigh. “Boys’ll do funny things to show girls how they feel. All boys are nasty like that,” Her voice was coming from someplace else, somewhere far, I think. “It doesn’t help that they turn around and tell us how sorry they are and make us come to them in a heartbeat. But that’s human nature, I suppose.”
My eyes rolled backwards, straining to see her expression. “Is that what Daddy was like?” Bev exhaled a laugh, a soft one I reckon she could’ve easily swallowed. “Oh no, my
Josephine. Your Daddy was always a gentleman. Is always a gentleman.” She finally released my hair from the guardianship of her fingers. “When you find a boy worth kissing, you’ll know it.”
That night, after I completed my punishment of doing the extra sorting, I sat down amidst the dusk infiltrating my bedroom to write my first ever letter to my father. It was then that I’d become self-aware of how inconsiderate it was of me to impatiently wait for each of his letters then never send a reply of my own. It didn’t bother me much that all his letters were all addressed to Bev, they still helped me feel close to him.
I wrote my first letter on October thirteenth, my second on November seventh, my third two weeks later, and about five others over the course of December. None ever received a reply, though
Bev got hers. I wondered if he was regretting naming me after his most favorite song. Perhaps I was not worthy of that title. Nonetheless, I signed each of my letters in the same exact fashion.
We spent Christmas Eve of ‘67 alone together in the back of the truck. Winter had to be the most deplorable of all seasons, I reckoned. It was a time of greeting cards galore, letters of well wishes, and non-stop complaining from Bev about the work we were up to our elbows in. Winter made me melancholy for a few other reasons; for the soldiers who wouldn’t be home for Christmas, and for the closed back door of the mail truck, shutting out the Mississippi and the incessant bitter wind. But mostly, the winter made me feel guilty for all the people who wouldn’t be receiving any Christmas cards that year.
“The Michaelsons’ kid got chubby, huh?” Bev elbowed me, disrupting the letter I was in the process of writing on my lap. I craned my neck towards the image she was trying to show me.
“Mhmm,” I agreed shakily, choking on the burgeoning guilt in my throat. I wondered if the Michaelsons would say the same about me if they had been annually ripping open a Christmas card I was featured in. I tried to block out the discord I felt by focusing on my letter.
Dear Dad, Dear Dad, Dear Dad, Dear—
My train of thought derailed at the sound of another envelope being ripped to shreds voraciously. Undeliverables, she called them.
“When do you think Mrs. Carver is gonna eat it, Jo?” Bev stuck the Christmas card in my nose, which bore an elderly woman, a sweet smile on her face and a small dog in her lap.
I grimaced. “No idea, Mama.” I hoped it wasn’t soon. Mrs. Carver’s cards had always encapsulated Christmas for me. She didn’t have much left, only the dog that kept her company, but she had something. Something worth showing off in a Christmas card.
“Why even send a Christmas card at all if it’s just you and your dog?” Bev asked, her words dodging a Lucky.
“We never send a Christmas card of us, Mama.”
Bev said nothing in reply, the muscles in her face contorting while her eyes fixated on the card. Then she threw it down abruptly, swiftly pulled the cigarette out of her mouth, and buried its ashes into Mrs. Carver’s face. “I need some air,” She said finally, and kicked open the back door of the mail truck.
The chill of winter quelled the complacently stagnant air inside the truck, its wind stroking our cheeks and lining our arms with goosebumps. We were silent in the moments before the sound of a propellor disturbed the peace, an airplane announcing itself as it broke through the atmosphere of our solitude.
“Look up,” Bev squeezed my shoulder and pointed at the passing plane.
I swear my chest filled with enough air to carry me 32,000 feet into the sky. “Is that Dad?” I asked her, knowing full well it wasn’t him no matter how much I wished it could be. My dreams were laden with images of Dad delivering letters to the heavens, stopping at every mailbox in the clouds.
Bev’s face remained unchanged, a glossed over interest in the mighty sky machine. She pulled another Lucky out of her coat pocket, making several attempts to light it with her numb fingers. “It must be.”
I grinned at the thought of it, at the thought of Dad. Bev’s stare came into my peripheral vision, longing for my head to turn towards hers. The Christmas Eve sunset painted her cheeks, decorating her rare smile with tints of tangerine. “I love you more than anything Josephine. You know that?”
I squinted at her. “More than Daddy?” Was all I managed to get out, keeping my voice low and my hopes lower. Bev pulled her knees up into her chest, pondering my inquiry. “As much as him.” She replied. We both returned our gazes the retreating airplane, fixating on the trail of smog leaving its scars on the atmosphere holding Neptune together. Silence settled on us when we finally couldn’t hear the hum anymore. I strained my ears to listen for its propellers long after it had gone, blindly hoping it might turn around and come back.
“Jo?” Bev asked me. “Yes, Mama?”
“Would you like an early Christmas gift?” I nodded. Bev cleared her throat, let her cigarette dangle from the corner of her mouth, and began to recite.
January of 1968 had made Bev a hermit of the mail truck and me a prisoner of the kitchen radio. It was the first year that Bev refused to start sleeping in the house when the winter equinox rolled around, the escalating death toll of the war fueling a degree of delirium I never imagined she could reach. I didn’t want to obsess over the thought of it, the bloodless bodies dusted in shrapnel. I couldn’t help it, my impulse to sit on the kitchen floor each night, hugging my knees to my ribcage and absorbing the lump sums of lives that would cease to continue. Each morning of the new year I had been worming my way out of a jungle infested dream, crawling on all fours out of the dirt and into my sheets. I couldn’t stop screaming even when I was fully awake, always feeling the napalm singeing my skin.
The night that Walter Cronkite’s voice prevailed through the radio static to relay the death toll at the Tet, I decided that my mother needed me more than she needed the isolation of a sheet metal prison. I also decided that I needed my father more than my mother needed to hide his memory in a shoebox beneath the driver’s seat. I didn’t even shut the front door behind me or throw a sweater over my shoulders, fully submerging myself into the blistering winter. My feet were spectacularly numb, refusing to recoil as they met the gravel driveway. I ran with the adrenaline of an ingénue in a horror film at the exact moment of realization that she was as good as dead.
“Mama!” I shrieked to her, coming up on the truck. I squinted hard as I neared it, the silhouette becoming more prominent. Bev had parked it so far from the water, so far from the house. So far from me. “Mama,” My voice came through heavy breaths as I reached the back of the truck where Bev sat, her legs dangling. I heard the voices first, the voices from the plastic orange radio. I immediately saw the way she was slumped over the shelf, the dying embers of a cigarette pulverized into the ground, and the quarter-full handle of Johnnie Walker. The perfect cocktail for a night you never wanted to remember. It was obvious, she knew.
I reached for her cold, clammy hands as she retracted them. “Please, Mama,” I begged her, but she wouldn’t budge. I pulled myself up into the truck with strength I didn’t even know I had and stepped over the letters and magazines that were nearly covering the entire floor. I crushed Bev’s box of Luckies in the process, and narrowly avoided stepping on an emptied-out handle. An old one, I silently hoped.
“The letters had to stop coming at some point, Josephine,” Bev’s voice was froggy, sounding as though it aged thirty years. “good things don’t happen to Neptune folk. They just don’t.” I kneeled beside her.
“Mama, what are you talking about?” My hands embraced her shoulders, desperately squeezing them to the bone. “You’re not making sense, Mama. We don’t know anything yet.”
“I wasn’t pretty in high school,” Bev’s eyes darted just about everywhere, refusing settle on mine. “Handsome, my father said. Handsome enough to go with a few good guys, sure. Not handsome enough to make one stay.” Her pupils finally acknowledged me, sharply shifting over and dilating to take me in as if I were a stranger she’d never seen in her life. “You’re handsome enough maybe, Josephine. I think about that often, you know. You’re a scrawny thing, but there’s a chance for you.” Bev let her head sink backwards and hit the truck wall, rattling the tin. “I sometimes hope every man on the planet dies in Vietnam. It’s a terrible thing, I know. I shouldn’t say it out loud.” Bev assessed my horrified look, her voice simmering at the sight of it. “Not all boys are men, Josephine, but all men are boys. It’s us women who do the weathering. Men live, leave, come back, die. But we stay, Josephine, we stay.”
“Mama,” My voice came softly, shaking as much as my head was. “Mama you’re not thinking straight you need t—”
“Josephine. Jos-eph-ine.” She smiled to herself, slurring my name through her mouth. “It’s a beautiful name, really. You were the handsomest baby I ever saw, not that I ever saw any others.”
“Mama,” I tried to pull her up from where she was slumped over. “Come inside the house.
Bev’s neck suddenly snapped straight up from her limp body. “Josephine!” Her eyes were begging mine. “Sing along with me now! Help me drown it all out.”
I pressed my plead. “Mama, you—”
“Come Josephine—come on, Jo! —Come Josephine in my flying machine, going—” “Please!” I seized her hands, muting the singing. The sobriety Bev had drowned in Johnnie
Walker suddenly resurfaced in her voice.
“I love you more than anything, Josephine. You know that?”
I let the night absorb my exhale. “I know, Mama.” We were both breathing heavy, our crystalized breath cumulating in a cloud. Bev returned to singing, further off-key than before.
Bev was too far away, I knew then. I rose from her body and gave that damned orange radio the hardest kick I could, dispelling its haunted voices into the retreating day. Bev’s head swiftly repositioned, her neck slowly rotating to look back at me. She didn’t look much like the woman who had just been humming my name. “Put the radio back on.”
“Mama,” I couldn’t swallow my trembling. “I need to see the letters.”
The muscles in her face couldn’t settle into a singular expression, contorting into a steely snicker. “What makes you think I’ll let you do that?”
I mulled on the inside of my cheek in a sorry attempt to stifle my emotions. “I know anything could have happened to Daddy today but I need to read ‘is—” My throat got caught my words. “I need to read his letters. Please, Mama. I need to read his words and know that he’s real.” Bev’s glare wouldn’t let up, prompting the words I’d been holding in for fifteen whole years to rupture.
“Mama! I don’t remember him Mama! I don’t remember seeing him ever in my life and it—it pains me,” I pleaded with her, my voice getting so hysterical it was giving out. “I feel guilty everyday for not being able to remember a man who is…who…I just need to see them Mama. Please.”
Bev resembled a scorned corpse; colorless, motionless, adamantly speechless. In that moment, I made a decision. A crass one, maybe, but one that I could never forgive myself for not making. In a swift motion, I reached under the driver’s seat, lunged for Bev’s shoebox of letters, and ripped open the lid.
Bev made a sound, some kind of yelp in the instant that I did it. Her arm shot towards me, slinging the remnants of her Johnnie Walker into the gravel, but it wasn’t enough. She watched in anxiety-laden silence as I flipped through the stack of letters.
Dear Diane, Dear Elizabeth, Dear Ruth, Dear Margaret, Dear…
I didn’t need to read the sincerelys or the yours trulys. I physically couldn’t anyhow, my eyes were so welled up that I felt like I had my head in the Mississippi. Looking through the ripped open envelopes was enough to seal the truth, the envelopes that were once homes for these love letters that never made it. These undeliverables. When I finally composed myself enough to speak, I was able to look Bev in the eye for the first time in my life and not feel so small.
“Mama,” My voice came out narrow and level despite the clattering in my bones. “What are these?” Bev made no attempt at a reply, not even acknowledging my gaze. I tried again. “Where is my father?”
Bev lunged at me then, impelling from the mass of letters that coated the floor. During the milliseconds I had to process before my mother reached me, I determined that her outstretched hands were not coming to wring my neck. The box, I thought, I need to protect the box. With unanticipated agility, I managed to swerve past Bev as she stumbled over an empty handle. The piercing scream she emitted when the bottle sliced her foot kicked up any of the last stagnant adrenaline hormones within my body, propelling me forward and into the night with only one destination in mind.
The churning river just below where I had stopped on the bank carried an ominous promise, distorting the reflection of the moon. I felt odd tranquility in knowing that the all-powerful night bringer, the dictator of tides that the moon was became a mere ripple of light on the surface of the Mississippi. I turned to face my mother.
Bev had always been off, that was a fact that I’d known consciously and subconsciously for my entire existence. But she had never looked more delirious, more separated from reality than she was in that moment. The whites of her eyes were muddied with strokes of bloodshot lightning, her disheveled uniform clung to her heaving frame, her foot carried with it a trail of blood all down the gravel. And she was afraid of me.
“I’ll give you one chance to tell me the truth,” My voice came through with a backbone that had suddenly done fifteen years’ worth of growing in a matter of ten minutes. “Where is my father? Who is my father?” Bev’s breaths grew shallow, the ferocity of her front crumbling before me. She finally sacrificed her stance, collapsing to her knees and succumbing to hysterics. I watched her fit unfold, sustaining itself for minutes before she spoke a word of truth to me.
“He…he didn’t write those letters, Josephine,” The box began to grow heavier then, my shoulders trying their damnedest to support its weight. “but I wanted them to be from ‘im so bad that…” Her voice clipped as her eyes grew to the size of mine, perhaps caught in the same realization that I was. I wondered what was more mental, the mad woman who had so intricately invented a war- hero husband that the lies faded into reality, or the reality of my entire life, which turned out to be no reality at all. It was my turn to talk. “So where is he then?”
Bev looked up at me from her place in the dirt, her eyes asking for the mercy I wasn’t prepared to give her. Then her reply came.
“I haven’t seen him in over fifteen years.”
My body began to convulse at the mercy of the storm that had just entered my stratosphere. I looked down at the box in my hands, the box that had once held half of my identity, then shifted my eyes down to Bev again. I turned my back to her, released the grip of my fingers, and watched the box plummet into the Mississippi.
I was lucky I was able to find him, luckier that he even wanted to take me in. Or rather, felt obligated to take me in. When I showed up in New Orleans at the front door of Richard Wright, a man who previously did not exist to me and to whom I previously did not exist, I felt for the first time in my life that I was the least sane person in the room. Severing the fictional John Covington
from my being was the hardest part; he was the mystery, the mailman, the pilot, the lover and the fighter that had shaped everything I knew. Richard Wright was a doctor who had never seen war.
“Is chamomile alright?” Richard set a dainty teacup on the coffee table in front of the sofa he’d ushered me onto. I couldn’t force an utterance out of my lips, my eyes entranced by the row of antique Johnnie Walker bottles lined up like an army in his liquor cabinet.
“You like Johnnie?” I asked him, my eyes not greeting the stupor I’d put him in. He glanced over his shoulder at the liquor cabinet.
“Oh—yes, I do. Been drinking it since high school.”
I nodded. “That’s my mother’s favorite drink, Johnnie is.” John, I thought.
Richard lowered himself onto the cushion at the other end of the couch. “About your—” He swallowed hard. “—mother,” My eyes met his. “What we had—well, it meant…nothing, ultimately.”
My fingers grazed the handle of the porcelain teacup. “It meant everything to Bev.” Richard shook his head as if he were in a daze. “Bev?”
“Beverly,” I replied quickly, catching the tail end of his voice. “That’s my mother’s name.
“Beverly,” Richard swallowed the name along with the saliva in his mouth. “That’s pretty.”
It was then that I decided I liked the men that lived inside my imagination better than I liked the real ones. Nonetheless, I had to get used to writing Josephine Wright on my documents.
Two years ago, I read in the newspaper that an infinitesimal town called Neptune, Mississippi had been absorbed by the neighboring Lancaster, Mississippi. East Lancaster, they were calling it now. My brain impulsively jumped to the question of how they would be handling mail delivery now in this conjoined town. Surely Bev would have been able to keep her job, as devoted to her career as she was. Hell, she lived inside her career. Did I want that? Did I want to know that Bev’s existence was carrying on in this East Lancaster, or did I want her to fade with my memories of a place called Neptune, Mississippi?
For the first time since 1968, I couldn’t sleep through the night. But this time, instead of crawling out of the jungle and into my sheets, I was hoisting my body from the Mississippi, drenched in its waters, carrying a box under my arm. It was a recurring dream, one that kept me up every now and again, one that haunted me. One night, I decided to do something about it.
I sat down at my desk in the dark, the all-too familiar feeling of squinting in the pitch black at address lines coming back to me. It had been a long time since I’d written a letter. The only difference this time was that John Covington, the fictional stranger whose remnants only lived in my
memory, would not be the recipient. As I wrote furiously, I wondered if Bev had ever received a real letter of her very own.
I thought for a moment, erased what I’d written, and tried again.