The next morning I was up bright and early, headed to the Lonelyville Post Office. When I pulled up, I thought to myself “are you kidding me?”
It was a standalone structure that looked like a survivor of the Civil War. I was certain that I saw evidence of a patched-up cannon ball hole that had blown all the way through the building.
I went in and spoke with the man standing behind the counter. “Good morning, young feller,” he said. I smiled and said “good morning. Can I speak with the Postmaster?” He shook his head and said “we don’t have one here.” I said “okay, then how about the supervisor?” He said “we don’t have one of those either.”
I looked at his name tag, handed him the order and said “well, maybe you’ll be able to help me, Roy.” He put on his glasses, looked at it and said “we don’t get many of these way out here. I’m going to have to call somebody and get permission to do this, because I’m just a part-time clerk.”
He excused himself and picked up the telephone. After a brief conversation with whoever answered, he turned to me and said “okay, what do you need?”
I explained that I needed to look at the safe deposit boxes in row S, with the numbers 35 on them. “Okay,” he said. “Just follow me.” He opened the swinging half-door and said “step this way.” I followed him to the back of the room and he said “now, our numbers only go up to 50 on every row, so you should be able to find what you’re looking for, and right quick.”
I found #35 and tried the key. It didn’t work. He looked at the key and said “boy, this is an old one.” I told him I knew. I said I was trying to close a case and the key had been found in the hand of a woman who had died. He said “well, I’m sure sorry to hear that and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you out.”
I asked him if he would be willing to look up her name. He said “sure, I’d be happy to. Fetch me that ladder over yonder.” I handed him an old wooden ladder that looked like it had been splattered with almost every conceivable color of paint that had ever been mixed. He slowly climbed up and reached for a thick, dusty book on the top shelf.
I gave him her name and he opened the book and started thumbing through it. “It’s interesting that your records aren’t kept on a computer,” I said. He laughed and said “we barely keep our doors open out here. There isn’t enough money to have something as fancy as a computer. Besides, like I said, we don’t get many requests like this.”
He continued his search and all of a sudden he said “here she is.” I felt like I had just swallowed a double shot of espresso. I said “and is her box number 35?” He said “well, it used to be until about six years ago.”
“What happened six years ago?” I asked. “She stopped paying the yearly rental fee,” he said. I asked what happened to the contents. He said “well, when they stop paying for the box, the contents are removed and put into a dormant status. After five years, if nobody comes in to claim them, they’re incinerated.”
I said “everything? What if valuable jewelry or coins or heirlooms are in there?” He said “we don’t open the boxes and look to see what’s in there. It just goes in the fire.”
I asked him why the key hadn’t opened the box and he said “when the contents of a box go dormant, sometimes, we change the locks. Not always, but sometimes. That’s probably what happened here.”
I asked him where the contents were kept until they were destroyed. He said “they’re kept back there in that room. We call it the ‘graveyard’.” When I asked why they called it the graveyard, he said “because what goes in there has been forgotten and it eventually turns into ashes.”
I asked him if there was any possibility that the contents of her box might still be around.
He said “I don’t know if they’d still be here or not. We’re not one to stand on ceremony and we don’t always get things done in a timely fashion, if you know what I mean. It’s been six years now, so I’d say the chances are about 50/50 but you can certainly have a look-see, if you want.”
I was eager to, as he put it “have a look-see” and followed him to the graveyard. When we went inside, he had to find the string to the old pull-chain light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. When it lit up the room, all I could think was “Lord have mercy on my scrotum.”
There was literally box after box, stacked up on shelves and on the table and on the floor. When I say boxes, I don’t mean post office boxes, I mean shoe boxes. They were all carefully tied shut with twine and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to how they were organized, if they even were.
I imagined that everybody who had ever worked at that post office or had lived anywhere near it, brought in their old shoe boxes to be used for storage. Either that or somebody had pilfered Imelda Marcos’ closet.
I asked how I was supposed to find the contents of box 35, if it even still existed. Roy said “well, the numbers and the rows are supposed to be written somewhere on the outside of the box. Go ahead and help yourself. I need to get back out front.”
To be continued___________________