Variation on a theme by Chekhov
“Oh, Eldridge. Well. Ain’t seen you in a week. I thought they must have re-routed you or something, boy.”
Eldridge Sartor had spotted Mr. Hitt moseying from his front door to the mailbox as soon as he pulled up.
“Naw, sir,” Mr. Sartor replied. Even though Mr. Hitt was now standing no more than ten feet from him, he continued to load that day’s mail into the rusted tin box. “My boy,” he added.
“What’s that?” Mr. Hitt asked, smiling broadly and politely. It was obvious he was anxious to get his mail by the way he stared at it leaving Mr. Sartor’s hand. He edged closer to the box and slid his hand along the top.
“They buried my boy a week ago Saturday.”
“Um. That’s right. I seen that in the paper. I was sorry as I could be to read that. Eldridge, you didn’t notice whether my benefits was in or not, did you? But yes, I read about your boy in the paper and I hated it like everything.”
“They’re in the pile somewhere. Spinal meningitis is what got him.”
“Eldridge, I ain’t blaming you personally, but it seems to me the U.S. government could be a bit more careful with a citizen’s mail. Look at them frayed edges.” He held up the envelope from the Veterans Department in Washington. “Well, as long as the check’s in it, I don’t guess it matters.” He laughed a short laugh; then his face and voice grew sober again. “Meningitis, uh? Funny how that gets around. Like a ghost almost, don’t it? I had a aunt caught it drinking from the same glass as somebody that had just got over it.”
“It was my oldest boy. Bob.”
Mr. Hitt inspected the contents of his letter. “I hate to sound like a sourpuss, but I believe when a man loans hisself out to the U.S. government, puts his life on the line in a foreign country, he is entitled to more than a mere pittance like this every month. Don’t you?”
“I don’t think you ever met Bob.”
“It was Bob they buried? Oh that’s right. It was in the paper. No, I don’t believe I ever did meet Bob. I know your girl. I used to see her in Dr. Rankin’s office. She’s a receptionist, ain’t she?”
“Bob used to talk about going to medical school. Would have if he could have got the money. He was smart as a whip, I’m telling you. But he got off track and wound up in the mill like most folks here.”
“It’s hard to lose any of them, but it’s got to be real hard to lose the first one. Don’t know that from experience, thank the Lord, but I can just imagine. What do you think?”
“I hate to say it,” Eldridge began with a wry smile, ‘but you feel closest to the oldest. Leastways, I did. It’s the first, you know. There’s something important about that.”
Mr. Hitt was glancing over the remainder of his mail. “That’s right,” he said, almost absently. “I believe I am going to ask Mrs. Hitt to stop writing checks. Seems everybody in the world wants us to buy a durned credit card. I get a dun for one almost everyday in the mail. But you would know that, wouldn’t you, Eldridge?” He snorted.
“I set all my pride on Bob. You tend to do that with your first. You put your pride on ‘em or your love or even your pain. It ain’t a good thing probably, but it happens just the same.”
“I loved mine all the same,” Mr. Hitt countered.
“That’s a good thing. Good for you. With Bob, though, I couldn’t help myself. He seemed to be set apart, you know? From the start he was. He was strong and bright-eyed. Could have played professional sports, I bet, if he had wanted to. And he had manners and respect and intelligence. All that in one young man! And he knew what he wanted to do. Always. He knew from before the time he was a teenager that he wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or some such. Now my girl and my other boy: they went from ting to thing, from this to that, before they could settle down. Now that I loved them any less for that, but Bob was straight as an arrow about the thing he wanted. And he would have got it too, if things had just gone a little bit different.”
“You got to admire that,” Mr. Hitt remarked. He was waving the handful of mail in front of him, as though trying to ward off something. “The problem with our young today is they got no focus. There are too many things, good and bad, dangling around them. It’s hard to choose!”
Mr. Sartor agreed.
“But you know,” Mr. Hitt continued, “I believe you and me’s as much to blame as anybody. I mean people are age. We didn’t have nothing when we was growing up, so we made up by giving our own everything. Now they’re flabby and unfocused, moral wise. They’re confused. And that’s how come they end up on the dope and everything else.”
“Bob wasn’t like that. He knew from day one he wanted to be a doctor.”
“He was a rare one then.”
“Yes sir.” Mr. Sartor kept nodding his head.
“Mr. Hitt!” The voice of Mrs. Hitt rose in a shrill arch behind them. They turned. She was perched like a gray plump little hen on the top step of the porch. “Your soup is on the table and is growing cold.” She turned back to the door.
“Well, Eldridge,” Mr. Hitt began with an embarrassed laugh, “if you don’t get on with your route, you going to have a ton of angry customers coming looking for you. It’s after noon.”
Mr. Sartor smiled. “Yes. That’s right.”
Mr. Hitt began backing away from the mailbox. “Sure is good to see you back though, Eldridge. And I sure am sorry to hear about Bob. I know you will miss him.” He finally turned and began a brisk walk toward the house.
Mr. Sartor assured him he would, cranked up his motor, and moved on.
His was a rural route, several miles from town, and he dreaded it now as he never had before, because the spaces between houses was sometimes long and silent. He was a man not used to being alone for very long. He was a family man and a working man and had therefore grown habitually used to the sound of other voices and the sight of other human bodies. There was always somebody at home or work to talk to, to argue with, to laugh with. There hadn’t been a thing in the world wrong with his oldest son’s having lived with him even when he was past twenty-one, past twenty-five. It was a good thing sometimes, and, yes, rare, for a boy to give up his own life to be a help to his parent. Mr. Sartor hadn’t asked or begged him: it had been Bob’s decision to stay home And Bob had worked. Everyday. In the hot Compton County cotton mills. Working and saving up his money so someday he could go to school. To Charleston to study medicine. So then, with Bob at home, when his route was done, Mr. Sartor could look forward to some company, the company of his own blood. But now he despised his route and the end of his route too, because both of them left him with a loneliness he could barely stand.
The next house he approached, two storied and white as snow with a wrap-around porch and diamond-shaped windows in the front door, belonged to the widowed Mrs. Estelle Swanson. Beside the house lay a brown withered garden that had once, and Mr. Sartor remembered this well, been luxuriant and green and one of the horticultural showcases of the county. Mrs. Swanson had let it go. She had let most things go. She was along in years now and much bothered by arthritis. It was for this reason that Mr. Sartor took her mail to the door instead of leaving it in the box. He had recommended she get her box nailed to the door, but she seemed to prefer his visits. She was childless and had been widowed for more than a dozen years. He had only one piece of mail for her that day. He left his car and headed for the front door, but before he reached the porch, the door opened, and Mrs. Swanson, small, thin, and pale, appeared in front of it.
“I knew it was you!” she exclaimed with a wide smile. “I was watching from the window. Where have you been the last week?”
“I’ve been off.”
“Why, I knew that. That’s how come I asked.”
“They give me a week off at the post office. I buried Bob. They give me a week to take care of things.”
“You buried who?”
“Bob. My son. My oldest youngun.”
“Your son? I thought you only had a daughter. The one that works for Dr. Rankin. And you buried him, you say? Well, good Lord, Eldridge. I had no idea. Listen, the next time you are out, I want you to be sure you tell your substitute that I would appreciate his coming to the door. It’s hard for me to walk out to that box!”
“Yessum. I’ll be sure to do that.”
“Is that all I have today?”
He handed her the letter.
“Now listen. I know you are a busy man, but I want to show you something.” Without allowing him a chance to decline, she took his arm and led him into her dark but neat home. “It is in the kitchen,” she said, and when she stopped at the kitchen door, she pointed. “Look!”
In the middle of the long green kitchen table sat what looked to Eldridge Sartor like an elaborate, old-fashioned doll house. Four feet high and six feet wide, it was bronze or, perhaps, a tarnished gold, with one main structure given the illusion of height and width by gables and cupolas and a surrounding gold gate.
“It plays music,” Mrs. Swanson explained, moving from Mr., Sartor’s side to the table, so that the contraption suddenly stood between them. “It’s a replica of a Viennese music house. My sister came up from Atlanta this weekend to help me clean the attic, and we found it there, at the bottom of an old trunk. My husband gave it to me as an anniversary gift years ago. I was there when he bought it. We were in Paris though, not Vienna. He started to buy me a smaller box that played `Fur Elise’ but my heart was set on this one. It won’t play though, Mr. Sartor. The key that starts has gone stiff. How I wish it would play! It played `Moonlight in Vienna,’ and that is such a nice melody.” She attempted to recreate the song in a shaky voice, her hands rising in the air, delicately fluttering, as though she were touching piano keys, as though she were trying to give the melody physical credence.
“Bob played piano. He had lessons for a year.”
“Who’s that?” Mrs. Swanson asked. Her musical reverie had ended and she had been standing quietly.
“Bob Sartor. My son.”
“Mr. Sartor, I have become quite fond of you since you’ve been delivering out this way. I just wish I knew more about your family. I thought you only had a girl.”
He wanted to tell her how Bob would rush in from a lesson and go straight to the piano in the den and pick out the piece he had learned that day. And how he, Eldridge Sartor, and Mrs. Sartor would improvise a silly, awkward dance, attempt broad, majestic steps to the classical notes; and he wanted to tell Mrs. Swanson how well Bob could sing and dance and how astonished he and Mrs. Sartor were, wondering where all that talent had come from. Mrs. Sartor played a.little piano but nothing like that. Bob had gone on playing those same classical melodies ten, twelve years after that one year of lessons was done and over, how he had even played at Mrs. Sartor’s funeral because she had liked his playing so much. But he didn’t tell Mrs. Swanson any of those things because she had begun the story of how she and Mr. Swanson had wandered into that charming little shop on the Champs Elysees.
She talked and talked. “There are moments,” she said, “when life seems brighter than others. There are times that stand out. That time in Paris was one for me. Maybe the only one. Oh how I wish that box would play! I want to hear `Moonlight in Vienna’ again so much.”
Mr. Sartor agreed. There were moments in life brighter than others. He had had his share, but he would have no more. Now every moment would be dim, very, very dim. But Mrs. Swanson didn’t want to hear any of that. She was saying she dare not turn the key of the music box too hard or use any lubricant on it for fear of damaging it irreparably.”
“And if I lose that, I’ll lose my memory, won’t I?” she asked. “In a way?”
“Oh no, ma’am. Not really. It would be a sorry thing if our memories dependent on material things, wouldn’t it? Things we can touch or hear or see. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Swanson shook with frustration. “What can I do to make it play again?”
Mr. Sartor made the most obvious suggestion – that she take it to a repair shop.
“Oh yes. I guess that’s right. But there’s no place around here I know of that could do it. I would have to take it to Spartanburg or Greenville or some place like that. Well, that means it won’t get fixed. I have no way to get it to there. My sister only comes to South Carolina once in a blue moon.” She sighed. Her face suddenly brightened. “`Moonlight in Vienna’ is such a lovely melody. Do you know it?”
Mr. Sartor told her he was afraid he didn’t know it and then quickly added that he had to go, as he had several more stops to make.
“Of course. You’re a mailman. I almost forgot!”
She led him to the door, and as he was making his way to his car, she called behind him: “Eldridge, when I get that music house working again, I’ll let you know. I want you to hear `Moonlight in Vienna.’”
Mr. Sartor nodded towards her with a smile then pulled off.
When he had finished his remaining deliveries he turned his car around and headed back towards the post office with that day’s outgoing mail. Usually after he dropped it off he would go home for some lunch. But he wouldn’t do that today or tomorrow or the next day. What would be the point of it? There was no one there waiting for him. What he felt like doing was driving right past the post office, right past his own house, right past everything, driving until he did not know where he was, until he could not recognize any of the faces around him. That would be a good thing right now, to go where he was not known, where he had no past, where he could make a new start like a young man. But he couldn’t do anything like that. He was not a man of impulse, never had been; he could not give in to the whims of a sudden grief. No; he would go to the post office and turn in the mail he collected so it could be sorted and sent out. Then he would go to the Dairy Queen for a hamburger. And after that he would drive around town, just drive and drive, up and down the streets he knew and didn’t know, until his possibility of doing anything else dwindled, until he was left with no choice but to go home. And he would do that, he supposed, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and for as far as he could see.
He approached the post office, a squat brick and mortar building a mile from downtown. It swarmed with lunch time customers, so it was with difficulty that he made his way round back. There were only a few cars there, as well as a van toting incoming mail – a red-headed boy was scurrying up and down the loading ramp with a small wagon loaded with two swollen bags. Mr. Sartor gathered the armload of mail he had collected on his route and walked slowly in the hot sun towards the back entrance.
As soon as he entered the door he was faced with the long non-descript table on which outgoing mail was sorted. There was only one person there at the moment, Justin Alexander, a young, likable, college-educated boy who had been working there only a few months. He turned with Eldridge Sartor walked up to the table and laid his armload down upon it.
He smiled. “How you getting along, Mr. Sartor?” There was a bright light in his soft brown eyes.
“Just fine,” Mr. Sartor answered with a lopsided smile. Justin turned back to his work. Mr. Sartor watched him a moment – studied the young angularity of his face, his slimness, watched how quickly his hands moved in sorting out the mail. Surely to God this wasn’t going to be his lot in life – this post office. That life was tailored for me like Eldridge Sartor, not Justin Alexander. Justin was young and college-educated; the whole world was waiting for him to conquer it; the whole world. The world always lay open and ripe for the Justin Alexanders of the world, not the Eldridge Sartors.
“Eldridge, you finally finish your route, boy?” Mr. Sartor was startled by the voice behind him. He turned. It was Ellis Hudgins. He had worked there ten years, stayed real close to the postmaster, Mr. Flowers, hoping, no doubt, he would succeed Mr. Flowers when he retired. He was a young man too, but he had the irritable knack of browbeating people you usually found in older men. The world was not as open to him as it was to Justin, although he no doubt thought it was. He was vulgar and silly and thought he was above everybody else at the post office except Mr. Flowers, and he probably thought he was better than him too. He was always telling everyone else what to do.
“You must have been chatting with your route again,” he said and clapped Eldridge on the shoulder. “Eldridge, you know the name of the post office game is efficiency. People are expecting their mail. God bless you, you act more like a bartender than a mailman!” He laughed, clapped Mr. Sartor on the shoulder again then started to turn. But he stopped.
“Oh yeah, Eldridge. Marshall Kennedy wanted me to tell you that he’s having a barbeque at his house Saturday afternoon. Just a little summertime get together. He wanted me to make sure you knew and to make sure you were invited.”
Mr. Sartor smiled wanly. “That was nice of him.”
“You ought to try to make it out there, Eldridge. It’ll do you good to be around other folks. You’ve had a rough blow dealt you, no doubt about it, but that isn’t any cause to go turning into a hermit.”
Mr. Sartor shot him a hot look of contempt. He thought he knew everything.
“We’ll see,” he answered, and Ellis Hudgins walked off smiling.
Mr. Sartor ambled from the sorting table to the door of the entrance where incoming mail was brought in. It was a hot bright summer day. Two new boys were standing on the porch and talking about yesterday’s baseball game. One of them said there was no way in hell that Pittsburgh would win the pennant with the pitching they had, and the other one was refuting him. Mr. Sartor, however, was not paying either of them any attention; his interest had been caught by something else on the far side of the porch: a small boy, no more than five or six years old, was sitting alone on the steps, glancing about in the bright sunshine. He was a little fellow, small as a tadpole from Mr. Sartor’s distance, and he was sitting all by himself.
“You know you ought to think about going Saturday,” someone said over his shoulder. He looked back: it was young Justin Alexander. “I hear Mr. Kennedy’s barbequed pork is the best in town. I’m partial to it myself – barbequed pork, I mean. Not Mr. Kennedy’s, because I haven’t tried his. Yet.” He smiled a broad smile. He was young and good-looking and bright-eyed; the whole world was open to him; surely to goodness he wouldn’t be stuck in a post office for good.
Mr. Sartor ignored him. “Do you know who that youngun is?” he asked, pointing to the child on the steps.
“That’s Everett Johnston’s boy. Everett’s taking his vacation this week. He’s going fishing. Everett stopped by to pick up something. The boy’s going with him. He’s a cute kid.” He smiled at Eldridge and walked back inside, leaving Mr. Sartor alone in the doorway. Eldridge held his gaze on the boy, delighted at the smallness of his back, the thick black curls on his head, the small sweet face that turned from side to side in small-boy curiosity.
He stepped through the door, shuffling slowly towards the youngster. His heart clenched as he approached the small form. The boy spotted him over his shoulder. Mr. Sartor stopped on the top step.
“Hello, sonny boy,” he said, staring at the boy. “You having a nice time out here.” The boy merely threw up his hand in a defenseless motion. “You don’t mind if I sit here, do you, sonny?” He settled himself on the top step.
“So I hear you and your daddy’s going fishing. Is that right? That’s nice to hear. I’ve known your daddy a long time. Since about the time he was your age. He’s a good man. A real good man. And I want you to promise me something.”
The boy didn’t respond. He just stared off into the sunlight.
“I want you to promise me that you’ll never leave your daddy. Will you promise me?”
“Oh, I’m not going now’ere. My daddy told me to sit right here till he got back. He’s getting his check.”
“That’s right, little one. Don’t leave him. Don’t go. You’ll kill him if you go.”
“I ain’t going now’ere!”
“That’s right. I knew this boy once that left his daddy, left his daddy all alone, and now his daddy’s heart’s broke all to pieces. Bob was the boy’s name. Oh he made his daddy proud with how smart he was and good and how he give up his own life to be a comfort to his daddy. Not many young folks do that. But Bob did. And you should have heard him play piano and sing. Smart as a cricket, he was. Would have been a doctor more than likely. Could have been anything he wanted if he had had the time. But he got sick. Real sick. And he went away. Now his daddy’s all sad. Don’t you go leaving your daddy. Promise me.”
“I’m going to the lake, but he’s going with me. He’s driving. He says we’re going to catch the big one this time!” The boy threw his arms wide open, limning some mythically proportioned catch.
“Promise not to leave him.”
“I told you oncet and I told you again: I ain’t going no place!”
That’s right, sonny. That’s right.