This is a story about Donna the Lumberjack. I call her that, not because she felled trees for a living. Hardly. She was a U.S. postal letter carrier. “Lumberjack” was just the word that popped into my head the first time I saw her. Perhaps it was her long stride or the cleft of her chin, or maybe the breadth of her shoulders – wide enough to humble a huddle of NFL veterans. I suppose I could have called her “Donna the Linebacker,” or “Donna the Longshoreman,” but “Lumberjack” just seemed to fit and that’s how I’ve referred to her ever after.
I know this is unspeakably cruel, but I also presume she has since made up her own memorable handle for me, something like “Edgar the Gimp,” or “Edgar the Grump.” If I thought she knew the word, she’d be welcome to call me “Edgar the Misanthrope.” I wouldn’t object. It’s foolhardy to object to the truth.
I don’t remember how we met. It was certainly online, but whether it was Craigslist, or match.com or something else matters little. We started chatting via email.
I do remember when this happened. It was in the fall during the World Series. The Cardinals were playing the Detroit Tigers. She asked me if I was rooting for any particular team. “Naw,” I wrote back. “I just like watching a good game, seeing a taut duel between pitcher and batter, watching the turn of a perfect double play, seeing Tony La Russa square off against Jim Leyland. On any given night, I would pull for whichever team was a game behind in the series, so they could win and come back for another match-up.
I don’t know if my interest in baseball impressed her or not, but we kept writing to each other anyway. I’d imagined early on that she was perky, cute and buxom. She might have imagined I was moderately handsome. We were both mistaken, probably her more than me. At some point, she said we should get together for a drink. “Why not,” I wrote. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Do you like beach music,” she asked? “There’s a place called Reds I go to. We could meet there tomorrow night, if it works for you.”
At the time, I had only the vaguest notion what was meant by the term “Beach Music.” I’ve lived along the North Carolina coast for over sixteen years now, but I still haven’t quite assimilated the culture. “Beach music?” That would be the Beach Boys, right? Not quite, at least not in the Carolinas.
I’ve since come to understand Beach Music better, though as an interloper I may never get it completely right. I do understand it is more than a style of music by the Drifters or the Platters, though it wouldn’t be Beach Music without either group. I now recognize it is as much an era and an attitude as it is a musical genre. The era was the 40s and 50s and into the early 60s. The music was R&B for the most part, but a very safe, very white sort of R&B. The tunes had names like “Under the Boardwalk” and “Up on the Roof” and “Brenda.” A lot of these songs weren’t even about the beach. They were about being young and in love and free of social inhibitions, particularly the one that told good southern white girls not to listen to “race music” or dance the shag.
It is the attitude of Beach Music that is most distinct. It says: “I’m a young, privileged white girl. I’m going to spend my entire summer on the Carolina beaches. I’m going to get a great tan because I have no real responsibilities. I’m going to kiss a very bad boy before the end of August and I’m going to listen to whatever music I want to and you know what, fuck what my parents think about any of it.”
This was a long time ago. Before Viet Nam. Before Watergate. Before we all grew up and became adults. Before the loss - not of our innocence - but of our unassailable sense of invincibility and privilege.
I neither abhor nor sentimentalize Beach Music. I know it once existed. I will hum along when I hear a tune from that era on the radio, but for me, it remains firmly calcified in a time and place that no longer exists. Had I understood all this when Donna suggested we meet at Reds, I might have declined her offer. I would have known that Reds was not a living place, but a decaying shrine where the past becomes the present again, where dolled up, fifty-year old gals (with bouffant coifs) and puggy, fifty-year old guys (in too tight jeans) could still dance the shag and act black without reflection or consequence, fuck what their now dead parents might think of it.
When I got to Reds at about 7 pm, the place was deserted. Apparently the beach is closed Tuesday evenings. I’m sure it could be a pretty lively spot when filled with middle-aged beach people, but when empty, it was kind of sad looking. The decor was ocean themed: starfish on festooned netting, faux dock piers for table standards, countertops lined with imbedded seashells and piles of sand here and there. Inexplicably, despite the waterfront allusion, everything was painted deep red, a justification for the joint’s name I suppose, or some other reference to the beach that still escapes my understanding. It was dark, illuminated by an occasional miss-aimed spotlight and the soft aqua glow of a jukebox in the corner. I presume the jukebox was playing Beach Music, but frankly the place was so dead, I don’t remember hearing anything al all.
Donna walked in about twenty minutes after seven. I’ve already described her entrance, leaving out only her attire: a hip hugging tube skirt, an overstuffed nylon blouse and a vinyl sleeved letter jacket. She looked around for her date, I imagine hopeing that the frumpy, pale-skinned man seated immediately in front of her was not her only candidate. No such luck. She threw the jacket over the back on the chair opposite me and sat down. We said hello and shook hands.
She was nervous almost from the onset, biting her crimson lower lip and obsessively pulling of the strap of her bra though the fabric of her blouse. I suggested we order a drink. “Scotch,” she said. “On the rocks.”
“A double,” she added.
“My pleasure,” I replied and went off to the bar. Ordinarily, I don’t drink hard liquor – I’m more a beer and wine guy – but under the circumstances a really strong belt seemed like a good plan. I ordered up two scotches and brought them back to the table.
I think to start the conversation with something familiar and comfortable.
“So, you’re a postal worker?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I work for the US Postal Service.” She’s still nervous as hell, but she makes this statement with unabashed conviction. You can tell this is something she’s very proud of.
“That must be real interesting work,” I said
“It is,” she says. It’s real interestin’.”
I think talking about her work might calm her down a bit, get her to relax and lighten up, but after each response she closes back up and continues to fidget self-consciously. Not knowing what else to do, I keep asking questions.
“So, this thing about delivering in the rain sleet or snow. Is that really true?”“It sure is. We do the best we can.” She shuts down again.
I search my memory for anything about her job that might get her to loosen up - maybe laugh a bit. “Do they teach you to drive on the right side of the car to deliver the mail, or do you have to figure that out yourself?”
“You do that on your own time.”
“And do you sort your own mail, or does somebody do it for you?”
“Everybody sorts their own.”
“How many mailboxes do you deliver to every…”
“Oh, and how long does that take you to….”
Four hours, ten minutes. Mostly.”
Nothing will get her to open up. To be clear, she isn’t being in any way hostile. More stunned I think – froze up and in a state of shock. Something about meeting me – likely the startling disparity between her expectations and the reality she now faces – has broiled every synapse in her brain, reducing her to speaking only in short, monosyllabic bursts, after which she needs a minute or two to recover before speaking again. It reminds me of a line from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, describing a woman in a very similar situation:
“She searched her brain and could find nothing but used facial tissue.”
Regardless, I keep trying.
“I don’t use the mail much anymore. It’s all FedEx overnight stuff in my business…”
"Oh, sure.” She leans forward for the first time and takes a swift gulp of her scotch. This statement has finally gotten a rise out of her. For once, she elaborates.
“They wouldn’t be nothin’ without us. Nothin. FedEx,” she snarls this name with practiced rancor. “They deliver all the easy places. Anyplace hard, they give it to us and we deliver it for ‘em. All them planes they show on TV. Half their deliveries end up on our planes and then they pick the stuff up at the airport in one of their little trucks and take all the credit for getting it there. UPS’s the same way. They wouldn’t be nothin’, neither of ‘em, without the US Postal Service. Nothin.”
“Oh,” I say quietly. “I didn’t know that.”
“Nobody knows it. It’s the biggest secret in the shipping business.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“Nobody does. Nobody. It’s a shame, a real shame.”
“Yeah, I suppose it would be.”
Her pique concluded, Donna shuts down once again. I try something a little lighter. I tell her the story I’d read about a guy who addressed a slice of toast, put it in the mail box and it got delivered.
“Well sure,” she says, as though this is completely unsurprising. “We’ll deliver anything if it’s got the proper postage.”
“I guess you’d have to, wouldn’t you?”
“You bet we do. You bet.”
I remember how my family used to leave a small gift for our mailman at the holidays. I asked if she ever got anything like that and what the most interesting thing she ever got was.
“Collard greens,” she says without hesitation. “A whole mailbox stuffed cock full'a collard greens.”
I laugh and tell her I don’t think this is much of a present.
She doesn’t see anything funny about this at all. Not one bit. “These are real poor people,” she tells me. “They don’t have nothin’ except what they grow on their farm and they were willing to share that with me. I was appreciative, real appreciative. I took’em home and fryed’em up in an big flat skillet with bacon drippings. It was good eatin’. Mighty good eatin’.”
Donna pauses for a moment as if she’s reflecting on a fine memory – the sweet taste of those greens. She looks down into her glass, takes a final swig and then looks back up, straight at me.
“I gotta go.” She says.
I misunderstand and gesture discretely toward the rest rooms.
She looks in that direction and then back at me again and says: “No, I really gotta go.”
Donna gets up from the table, throws her letter jacket over her shoulders, pivots and heads to the front door. She’s gone before I can even get out of my chair. Through the window, I see the taillights of her car streak out of the parking lot.
The date is over. I finish my drink and order another. Why not? I haven't much else planned for the evening.
I never saw or spoke to Donna again, nor did she ever try to contact me. We had both gotten a pretty good measure of one another that night and recognized how little sense our acquaintance made. Interestingly, it was only Donna who had the presence of mind to act decisively on this recognition.
I suspect by now Donna has retired from the Postal Service. She probably works part time in a flower shop or answers the phone for a realtor. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’d found herself a fine, barrel-chested man and every Saturday night they go to Reds to shag. Later in the weekend, she’ll fry him up a mess of collard greens dripping in bacon fat with a thick slab of cornbread on the side. It’ll be mighty good eating. They’ll be happy - real happy.
Me? More likely than not, I’ll be sitting in some coffee shop or bar, cruising the internet, looking for the next Donna, or Judy or Jane.