the postcard

I don’t think I’ve ever written fiction on my blog before, though I write fiction all the time. It’s what I DO, man. And this week, since everything about this post is different from what I normally do here, I figured I’d give it a go. See, the good people at Indie Ink (of whom I’ve been aware for ages, and for whom I’ve been meaning to write something for at least as long, without actually getting around to it, because I’m forgetful), have this thing, a weekly writing challenge, that I’ve seen some people doing for awhile, and I finally figured, oh, what the heck? It’s not like I’m coming up with so many posts on my own these days. So I had them put my name in the hat, and this is the challenge I received, from A Lil’ Irish Lass:

Write a “Sliding Doors” piece – write the scene “as is” and then write it as if you had made the other decision at that moment when you could have “gone the other way.”

Since the challenge by nature has to be at least half made up, I decided I might as well make up everything. And now I’m going to stop introducing it and just write. (Not really sure where this idea came from — I blame Neko Case, since I was listening to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood earlier, and in the few seconds between the songs “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “Star Witness” I thought this up.) Enjoy, if you’re so inclined. (My challenge for the week fell to Blackbird.)

One

I didn’t mean to kill him, and the truth is that I didn’t. Kill him, that is. I didn’t kill him. He went and killed himself because he was stupid, and if I told anybody why he went into that burning house, they wouldn’t think it was me that killed him, they’d think “What a stupid man.” But I knew he was stupid, knew exactly how stupid he was, and I guess I probably did know he’d run into the fire after that damned postcard. And I’m the one who left it in the house for him to go and get. I guess I could’ve saved him — there I was at the last minute, picking up that postcard and putting it back down — but even though I knew I’d married a stupid man, I hoped I was wrong. My house was on fire and I decided to be an optimist and now I’m a widow.

Maybe I did mean to kill him. We got along alright, but it’s not like we ever loved each other. It’s just how life is sometimes. If you’re not paying attention, it’s awful easy to wind up in the middle of something you never would’ve picked for yourself if you’d just taken a minute to think. My husband — God rest him — once dated a girl named Katie Lynn Jeffrey, who has never exactly been a household name, but she did have one song that made it on the radio. It’s the kind of song folks might hear if they happen to be in a diner in Tennessee late at night if the short order cook was playing a radio in the back. Ten years ago, Katie Lynn got a record deal, and she mailed my husband (he wasn’t my husband then) a postcard from Nashville. On the back, it says Always — Katie Lynn. That’s all it says, and he kept it all those years in a sandwich bag in the same drawer where he kept his socks, and he’d take it out every morning and run his fingers across the words written on the back, a gentle caress, like he used to touch my face before he’d kiss me, back when he liked me as something more than just a roommate who cooked supper and washed his clothes.

I had a candle burning. It smelled nice, and I liked it. I got it as a birthday present from my sister. I lit it and wandered off, and the breeze from the window must’ve picked up the curtain and dropped it right into the flame. I walked into the bedroom, intending to get the dirty clothes out of the hamper in the closet and do a load of washing, and the wall was on fire. I knew I had to run out of the house, I knew I did, but I ran to the dresser and grabbed that sandwich bag and looked at Always — Katie Lynn. And I put it back in the drawer and shut it (I took the time to shut the drawer) and ran outside. He’d been mowing the lawn and he saw me running. He stopped the mower and looked at me. “The house!” I yelled. I guess he knew what I meant because he asked “Did you get it?” I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew I’d know. I shook my head and in he went.

Maybe he could’ve made it if I’d left the drawer open, but maybe not. Maybe he took a minute to run his thumb over her name, and that’s what got him. I don’t know. I just know he didn’t come back out of the house. The house. Our house. The insurance says it’s a total loss, and I could get a new house right in the same spot, but I think I’ll go somewhere else to live, and leave my husband and Katie Lynn alone together for as long as they want to stay.

—-

Two

I knew things were going to be different when I woke up that morning. Instead of waking up with my back against my husband’s, which is how it’s been nearly every morning for so long I can’t remember anything different, his mouth was against my shoulder, and his thumb absently stroking my ribcage through the thin material of my old, worn t-shirt. I could feel his breath, slow and steady, blowing across the side of my neck. It was a hot morning, and I felt sticky. I moved his arm and he shifted; I turned and watched his eyes open and close without a spark of consciousness lighting them. I got out of bed.

It turned into a normal Saturday around the house, and then I decided I would start the laundry. When I walked into the bedroom and noticed it was on fire, I thought about how I used to get asked this question: If your house was on fire, what would you save? I used to think I would save my mother’s pearl necklace. She gave it to me before she died, and I wore it on my wedding day, because I figured she’d want to be there somehow. But that’s not what I saved. I saved the postcard. That stupid damned postcard of my husband’s. An old girlfriend mailed it to him, and he’s saved it for years. He says because he thinks someday she’s going to be famous (she made a record once, maybe 10 years ago, but if she ever made another one nobody’s ever heard it), but I know it’s because he wishes he’d married her. He thinks I don’t know how he takes it out of his sock drawer and slides it out of the bag he keeps it in and touches her signature, but of course I know. I see him do it nearly every day, but he doesn’t notice that I’m looking at him when he does it. It’s just the two of them in those moments, and I don’t exist then. I don’t exist a lot of the time, not as anybody other than someone who happens to be in the same house, but especially not then, not when he’s holding the postcard, touching her name, sliding his fingers over Katie Lynn.

So of course I saved his postcard. Lord knows that if I hadn’t, he’d have gone in the house after it and gotten himself burned alive. So I grabbed it. I saw the room on fire, I ran to the dresser, took the postcard out of the drawer, and ran out of the house. He was outside mowing the lawn when I ran out. “The house!” I yelled as I ran toward him. I shoved the postcard into his outstretched hand when I reached him, because he’d been waiting for it. It was the only thing that needed saving if the house was on fire.

And it was. The house was on fire. I stood there dumbly while the fire truck pulled up in the street out front. My husband wasn’t watching the flames working through the roof, because he was busy looking at his postcard, touching Katie Lynn with his thumb. So I watched for him, watched because someone had to, watched while everything else burned and burned.

9 thoughts on “the postcard

  1. Oh man, this is terrific. I’m right there in both pieces with you, him and Katie Lynn. If forced to choose (And no one’s forcing me. I do realize that.) I prefer the first one. Probably because it’s the one with the happy ending – a happy ending with a death no less! I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

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    1. Hi John — Thanks! I kept having ideas and then not writing them because I didn’t want this to be the longest post of all time. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it, happy ending and all.

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  2. Wow, Jamelah. This was an awesome response to the prompt. I felt each emotion expressed, and I was hooked… I prefer the first. But, the second offers a lot of depth as well. Well done.

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  3. As I drove home late I saw the trucks with the flashing lights.
    My house had just been re-carpeted after the flash flood. Just a prelude, right God…
    As I swung the car around I counted the chances it could be someone else on the block against my moments of
    “It’s happening to me” notoriety that are a loser’s version of fame.

    “Is it fire?” I said to the man in reflective clothing on the street –
    “Haha. Nah mate – we’re re-painting the lines on the road”
    “Oh…”
    As I smelled the damp that was lingering in the door frame, fumbling with my keys again,
    I was so relieved
    nothing had burnt away at all.

    ****************************************

    I like your stories so much I got mini-inspired. Mine is more a bit from a stand-up act – I hope it doesn’t seem cloud-stepping. If so you know what to do. Hallo Jam!

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