Short Story of the Month

September 2019

The Rules

by Brooklyn J. Frances, Utah, USA



It’s the busiest time of the year for us. In fact, it’s the busiest time of the year for most
people in the Western world. I’ve worked in retail: busy. In food service: also busy. In
education too, and despite the ten-day recess, somehow this time was still a total
frenzy–even more so than usual.
I’m not a fan of December.
Although I no longer work in the call center, I’m well aware of what happens there.
When people who never pick up the phone (other than to text or to check their
FaceBook) are impelled to dial our number, something is amiss. Then those people are
put on hold. How do you think they behave an hour and twenty minutes later?
Thanks to my experience, we needn’t speculate.
By the time their calls reached a representative (me), I was the most despicable excuse for a human being whom my clients would ever condescend to speak with. These interactions did wonders for my self-esteem.
All the praise might have gone to my head, though, so after two years I made the noble sacrifice of transferring out of my dream job at U.S. Postal Service Customer Care.
But on my last day of work there–which happened to be in December–something threatened to make me rethink my decision.
I took the call which would end up being my last. On one hand, I’m glad of that, because its memory sweetens all the bitterness of the previous years. On the other, I wish I had taken a hundred more calls like this one, so I could remember them too. I wish I had spoken to a hundred more people like him.

“Thank you for calling U.S.P.S.; this is Eliza; may I have your tracking number please?”
My greeting was disappointingly un-robotic. Not only did I have a lump in my throat from being cursed out during the previous call–I was also crying with joy because my shift was less than an hour from its end. Soon I would be off this phone for good.
“Oh, dear,” came a feeble but friendly voice at the other end of the line. “I reckon I hit the wrong button when I heard the list.”
“Which button would have been the right one?” Challenge of the day: hold back this laugh. My mixed emotions, apparently, were getting harder to control.
“Whichever one takes me to a live representative,” the old man answered.
The chuckles burst forth, unannounced but not unwelcome. “I hate to disappoint a genial customer like you, but I’m as lively a representative as you’ll ever encounter here.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that. You sound as lively as you do lovely. It’s just that I hadn’t planned on being asked for a tracking number, and, well…” His tone became hushed, subdued. “…I ain’t got one.”
“Not even one?” I whispered.
“Not a single, lonely tracking number in this whole big world. Can you believe it?”
I could, and I did. Probably half of my callers suffered from the same tragic deficiency. Usually, I would ask them to call back when they had found the elusive number. (This caused me to get cursed out a lot.) But I was having too much fun with this one to let him go, even to a different department. I would push the very limits of my influence to find him the answers he sought.
“It is a most stunning blow,” I admitted regretfully. “However, if you can move past this for the sake of our friendship… then so shall I.”
“Oh, that’s mighty good o’ you, Miss.”
“Any decent folk would do the same, I’m sure. So what, pray tell, may I assist you with?”
“Actually, I hoped I might be of assistance to you.”
“Me, sir?”
“If, indeed, you do consider yourself ‘decent folk’.”
So his issue was to be a test of my character. Would I care enough to involve myself?
“I’d like to think that’s what I am, sir. There’s one sure way to find out.”
“One way indeed, and I’ll tell you what: I got a package here that ain’t mine, and I figure it’s got as good a chance as any of somebody out there bein’ on the hunt for it. More likely than not, this person’s called you and made inquiries.”
“I would guess you’re correct.”
“I’d like nothing more than to say the same about you, Miss.”
“Then I’ll have to find you some answers. I’ll have to start with a question, though: Is your address the one on the package?”
“I reckon so.”
“Perfect. I can use that to pull up our notes.”
He told me his address, and with no little incredulity I told him what I found:
“Someone called about this package earlier today.”
“Didn’t I tell ya?”
“It was very important to him,” I pointed out needlessly.
“Figured as much.”
Sympathetic listeners were a rarity among my clientele. Now that I had one on the line, details gushed out like the sobs of the man we were presently discussing. “His 6-year-old daughter got in a car accident while visiting relatives. She and the grandfather are in the hospital, and her dad has no money to get there. He shipped her favorite teddy bear and blanket for his mother to give to her so she wouldn’t be so afraid.” At last I remembered to inhale. “I guess she was hurt pretty badly.”
The old man stayed quiet for a while. When he spoke, he got quieter still. “You’re readin’ all this in the notes, are ya?”
Picturing him right in front of me, I shook my head. “I’m the one who processed that call.”
“And you weren’t able to help, I take it.”
“He had put the wrong address on the box. Wrote ‘Avenue’ in place of ‘Court’, or some such silly mistake. Just a tiny slip-up, but there was nothing I could do.”
His microphone struggled to register a sigh. Yet, the accompanying actions came across clearly, the way I assumed he was able to envision mine. I saw him standing up from his settin’-chair, re-centering his silver belt buckle, and lowering the brim of his Stetson over his right eye.
“Well, I don’t see why a man should be punished for an honest mistake, do you? If my little girl was in the hospital, I think I might misspell a word or two. What’s more, I would hope that some decent folks would help me right the wrong I’d done, to give my baby some comfort.”
“You mean you’ll bring her the box?” Starting now, I loved him.
“Can’t make no promises, but this cowboy’s sure gonna try.”
Of course he was. What could he be except a cowboy? “You’re a good man, mister.”
“Solomon’s just fine.”
“Thank you, Solomon. Maya will be so happy.”
“Is that our girl’s name?”
I nodded frantically, almost forgetting to include an audible “yes.”
“That’ll help, I reckon. I’ve only got the grandma’s name on the box here. If I can’t catch her, I’ll go to every hospital in town ’til I find Maya and her grandpa.”
I hadn’t doubted that for a moment.

Almost a year has passed since my transfer into the mailroom. I don’t miss my old job, but sometimes I wonder what became of that poor young father. The cowboy named Solomon, too. Decent folks are hard to come by these days, and my time on the phone with him was too short. Like the boxes that pass through my hands too quickly, so that sometimes I don’t even notice what’s written on them.
This one I notice. Though the handwriting on the label is that of a stranger, a sweet familiarity overcomes me the moment I read it. The name Solomon is there. Below, the word ‘Avenue’ is spelled out more deliberately, confidently, than I’ve ever seen a street name spelled.
The sender’s name, also, I recognize immediately. He’s Maya’s dad.
I can’t put the package down. I know too well that things get lost in the mail every day, and this thing is much too precious to lose. At the risk of my job, I would break every rule to ensure its safe arrival.

Solomon’s address is a nine-hour drive from mine. The distance is more a test of patience than an obstacle, because I not only want him to receive this package–I want to see what’s inside.
It’s late in the day–the day after my confiscating the box–when I arrive on the avenue in question. I approach the house with the corresponding number. Then I knock, feeling simultaneously noble and foolish. What will he think of me? Will he even remember
My doubts are quelled when his gruff voice issues from beyond the closed door: “I thank ya kindly for your patient spirit.”
There’s no way he’s forgotten me. Decent folk like us don’t forget.
The next sound to come is the clink of spurs–he’s wearing his cowboy boots indoors. Just as I imagined. He opens the door, and the first thing I see is the Stetson pulled down over his right eye. I knew it.
Then his silver belt buckle. Didn’t I tell ya?
Finally, a look on his face that seems to say, ‘I reckon I’ve met ya, but there ain’t no tellin’ when or where.’
“I’m Eliza.” I hold out the box without knowing why. Perhaps as identity verification.
He looks at it, then at me. The smile which follows that look is so warm, the colors of the autumn leaves around us look cold.
“The nice lady on the phone at the post office?” Laughing, he takes the box with one hand and extends the other toward me. I give him mine in exchange for a tight squeeze.
Since I never knew either of my grandfathers, I like to imagine that their handshakes were just like Solomon’s. “You wanna step inside?”
I nod. “Do you recognize the sender’s name?”
Shutting the door behind me, he studies the label. “Wouldn’t ya know it! It’s that little girl’s daddy. Gosh, I hope she pulled through all right. Come on in, kick your feet up for a spell.”
We sit together on a couple of chairs that are just as dusty and threadbare as I hoped they’d be.  “Did you ever get to meet her?”
He shakes his head. “Doctor wouldn’t let me in, bein’ I ain’t family. Said he’d give her the box, though, and I reckon he did. What could this be, I wonder?” Taking a knife out of the pocket of his jeans, he hands it over, welcoming me to do the honors.
I slice through the tape along the top of the box. Each of us pulls back one of the cardboard flaps, revealing a thank-you note in a child’s handwriting. It reads:

It was vary good of you to breng my barr to me. It duzzint hert as much wen I hav it heer.
My blankit is keeping me warm so I can sleep. If I ever stop needing my barr, I want you to hav it,
becuz old peeple hert a lot and I thenk it wood help you.
You are a good man.

When we’re through with this paper, we reach for the item that was underneath it. Both of us are puzzled. What made Maya decide she no longer needed her bear? After minutes spent musing over the question, we spot what’s lying on the floor of the box.
This second note is written in the same hand as the addresses. I hold it up for us to read:

If you’ve read Maya’s note already, then you sense how much she appreciated you
seeking her out, giving her the comfort she needed while she was in pain and afraid. The
pain is over for her, thank God, but it has only intensified for me since that week.
Using the money you slipped into the box, I made it to my little girl’s side before she
took her last breaths and turned cold. I imagine it would have been much colder without
her beloved blanket, which my wife had made for her. She passed away when Maya was
just a baby.
In my eyes, she was still a baby when I lost her. That baby had a strong will, though,
and she spent her final moments insisting I pass the bear on to you.
You’ll forgive the delay, I’m sure; it wasn’t easy to let go of something my little girl
treasured. Although we haven’t met, I feel sure that you’ll watch over it, like you
watched over Maya. Thank you for your extraordinary deed. I only wish that kindness
like this could be the rule of everyday life, instead of an exception.
Matthew Moran

With empty lungs that I just can’t fill, I hug the bear close to my aching chest. Solomon then pulls me against his. Though he is silent, I discern his thoughts by the tears which are wetting my hair. He’s wondering, as I am, why it is that kindness must be the exception. But in the span of a second, we both dry our eyes and straighten our backs, and I’m certain we’ve come up with the same idea:

Let’s change the rules.