John Michael Cummings



I woke that morning to a sight drawing me up in fear—my father standing over my bed.

“Come on, get up,” he said. “You’re going with me today. Your mother’s already packed you a lunch.”

I was confused and sullen before even awake. He never came into my room, unless to rant and rave about something I did wrong.

“You wanted to see Worsh-ington,” he said, looming over me. “Well, I’m gonna show you the capital. Get up.”

Stumbling downstairs to get away from him, I found Mom in the kitchen.

“Josh,” she said quietly, “just go along with it.”

“But, Mom, I have French!”

Dad was right behind me.

“You can miss one day,” he growled.

The bastard had to order me to eat breakfast, order me to get dressed, then order me out into the car, which, I discovered, was already piled high with mail for the day.

My father was the last of the rural letter carriers in our county opting to use his own personal vehicle to deliver the mail. It was legal, as long as he kept his emergency flashers on and a mail sign in the back window. But talk about embarrassing—Dad pulling over to mailboxes around town in our family car.

Apparently, this morning, he had gone to the post office early, loaded up, and stopped back here for me. What did he have planned? To stick me into a mailbox somewhere to get rid of me? I was sure this had something to do with my grandfather’s “influence” on me.

As we pulled out of town, I scooted down in the seat so as not to be seen, our crappy little car vibrating and groaning as if about to self-destruct. This, believe it or not, was an official US mail car, but with 207,000 miles on this engine alone, it was a contraption of shimmies and rattles.

Once on the highway, Dad stayed in the slow lane, emergency blinkers on. In this repainted red Ford Escort Wagon that tilted to one side, on account of a bad shock, we looked like a big bloody bandage limping down the road. We went past where the school bus usually turned around and on past where Mom shopped. Out here, past the Galaxy Cybercafé, the Hummer dealership, and the three Taco Bells within a mile—the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was at its worst.

“Look, there’s the damn Worsh-ington Monument,” he said, pointing at the long neck of the Citgo gas sign.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him waiting for me to grin.

“It’s Wash-ington,” I said back, “not Worsh-ington!”

I hated how hicks around here pronounced it.

“And there’s the White House,” he went on, pointing at the new Chesapeake Bay Lobster House. He wasn’t funny, the bastard.

“Look, the Lincoln Memorial!” I shouted, lunging my arm at the Bob’s Big Boy and following it up with the ugliest look.

“Josh,” he said, over the noisy air ruffling through the cracked windows, “what in the hell’s gotten into you lately?”

He named everything I was doing wrong with my life—failing my classes, hanging around with blacks from Bolivar, running up to see my “grandfather,” who, in his opinion, wasn’t really my grandfather, but the goofy person my mother’s mother was remarried to.

“Why can’t you be more like your brother?” he said.

I looked out the window. What, a loser doofus?

“I say to your damn mother, ‘Katie, why can’t Robbie help that son of yours pass English?’”

French, idiot.

“Know what she says?”

No, what, asshole?

“‘Well, Bill, they’re different.’ Different? ‘In different grades,’ she says.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him looking over at me.

“Your mother and I,” he went on, suddenly trying to sound decent, “were always at odds on how to raise you kids, even though I tried—”

“Look!” I shouted over his voice, pointing at the flaking old billboard for Howard Johnson’s. “The US Capitol Building!”

When he raised his hand to slap me, I pulled one of the mail bags between us. He cussed and threatened for a while, but for the moment, I got the last laugh.

* * *

Seven miles out, we took the Jefferson Parkway exit. Wide lanes, bright yellow dashes, shiny reflectors, grassy area in between—looked like an airport runway. Here he pulled over and told me to get in the backseat. From this point on, he had to drive from the passenger side of the car.

No kidding. Since he chose to use his personal vehicle to deliver mail, rather than a standard mail van with right-side steering, he had to drive from the passenger side. That way, he could shove mail into boxes as he pulled up, like a normal carrier using a van. Apparently, it was legal. The cops left him alone anyway. And according to my father, this kind of driving had actually been a job requirement of letter carriers in the old days. He could do it too. He just reached his leg over the hump in the floor and worked the gas and brake like nobody’s business, all while steering with his left hand.

So I got in the backseat with the mail bags, and he pulled on, from the passenger side. Soon everyone barreling past us did a double take—we looked like Jalopy Driving School with an invisible student. You’d be surprised how far down into a Ford Escort Wagon you can slide when you’re mortified enough.

On his morning run alone, he had 56 stops to make, or 172 addresses he was responsible for getting the mail to. The old car groaned from one fancy housing development to another, places called Cherry Acres Estates and Huntington Acres. The damn post office, he didn’t mind griping along the way, was supposed to have phased-in two more carriers on this route alone, but nothing ever happened, thanks to red tape. That left him overworked, with the union not standing behind him.

Inside these posh developments, most mailbox islands were empty, since it was mid-morning, but at some, nice cars were pulling up just as Dad was shoving pieces of mail into boxes that looked like shiny safety-deposit boxes. I sank down into the seat while Dad went into his “personality routine,” as my brother and I called it. Became all smiles and pleasantries. It almost seemed a comedy act. But it was his disguise, his way of making himself appear happy when inside he was as ornery and twisted up as a piece of petrified hickory. In those few minutes, as he put on performance after performance to rich people who merely gave him amused glances, I knew he had the worst job in the world, if not the worst life.

At 12:01 by the big Jefferson Savings Bank sign, Dad stopped right along the highway to eat his bag lunch, emergency flashers clicking, SUVs barreling past, shoving our little car with jolts of air.

“Let me tell you something about your ‘grandfather’,” he started by saying, still sitting on the passenger side, now looking across the car, legs partly up on the seat. To traffic flying by, we looked like a family of three broken down, the driver out walking to a service station somewhere.

For the last two years, I had been hearing it start the same way. He always had to tell me something about the man grandma had married at 71, something to pin him down and ruin him once and for all.

“There’s nothing special about him,” he said, eating his sandwich by peeling back the plastic baggy, never touching the bread with his fingers. “Roy just likes the easy life.”

I had heard this before, too. Roy didn’t tinker on one car forever or sit in the sunshine all afternoon whittling a stick. He preferred his air-conditioned living room and DVD recorder. He even had a bird feeder, kept a clean yard, put storm windows on the house, and waved to his neighbors. Also, he was a northern Democrat—good only for raising daughters.

“You’ll never be like him,” my father said on this occasion. “So don’t even try.”

“I know. I’m not, and I don’t wanna be,” I said right back.

He looked back at me, but I kept from giving him any explanation, any clue, as to who I might want to be like now. Then he turned, looked out into the middle of nowhere, and started reminiscing. Years ago, he said, when this land was dotted with stone farmhouses and round barns, he was often scouting around for good junk for the taking. He didn’t need to remind me. How many times he came home with something heaped up in the backseat, some plank of decorative walnut or unusual assembly of what looked like scrap iron but he insisted was old and valuable. Times, though, had changed. All around now were the greenest, picture-perfect expanses of transplanted grass, stabbed with shiny steel power line poles—pins through the broken heart of the earth. He’d find no more old junk lying about out here to take. The world had moved beyond him.

“Your damn mother,” he said, looking over the seat at me, “has it in her head that you’re like me! But I told her, no way, you’re nothing like me.”

Nothing, indeed.

He went into his old song that he had grown up with catechism and discipline, both of which my brother and I lacked. Then he glanced back at me.

“Where’s your sketchpad?”



He proceeded to grab a few pieces of junk mail, collect them into the thickness of a tablet, top it off with a piece of rag-weave paper from a brown shopping bag, and wrap the whole contraption with a rubber band. Then he slapped a pencil on top and handed it over the backseat, saying, “Here, sketch with this.”

He was serious, too. Never mind that I’d be drawing on the back of an A&P bag, rather than in my Grumbacher, 60-pound-paper, Fine-line sketchpad.

* * *
Some time in the hot afternoon, during all the endless stops at the same-looking housing developments, I fell half-asleep with my face in a musty canvas mail bag. In the back of my mind was nothing good at all. More and more it seemed I would die before reaching 16. I mean, what was wrong with a trip to the Nation’s Capital? To the National Zoo? To the Smithsonian to figure out the origin of, like, life?

“Josh,” my father said, rousing me, “I want to tell you something.”

As I raised my head, the vibration of the car filled the silence after his voice.

“Your damn grandfather sent you a piece of mail.”

I looked over the seat at the side of his head. A piece of mail?

“Didn’t ‘send’ it,” he went on. “Came by the post office this morning and asked me to give to you. Me? Anyway, it’s around here somewhere.” He glanced around the dash and seat in a phony effort to locate it. I was already looking too. “I don’t know what in the hell he has in mind for you.” This he made sound as if I should know.

“But I’m gonna leave the whole matter up to your mother.” He glanced up in the mirror. “He’s her damn relation.”

I spotted an envelope with granddad’s handwriting on it in the corner of the dash. With sunlight on it, I could see even from the backseat the faint shape of a blue Amtrak ticket inside—a ticket to Washington, just as granddad had promised!

I looked at my father.

“Keep sketching,” he said.

And just like that, nothing else would be said about it. I would sit in this car for another hour in curiosity, then in my room half the evening, wondering what kind of father I had.

John Michael Cummings’ stories have appeared in North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sou’wester, and The Iowa Review. He has fiction forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review and The Kenyon Review. His novel excerpts have recently appeared in Louisiana Literature, Rosebud, and North Dakota Quarterly.


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