I don’t check my mail very often. In fact, the only reason I had even checked my mail that early spring day was because I was expecting a letter from the bank with my new debit card. I had lost mine a few weeks ago at a bar in Portland, along with the bracelet I was wearing and the chapstick I had in those pesky shallow romper pockets. The debit card and chapstick I could replace, inconvenient as it was, but the bracelet I was more upset about. It was a beaded one from my days in Athens; my old friend bought it for me at a flea market, from one of those vendors that doesn’t sell vintage materials but cheap accessories like flashy purses and plastic rings. She hadn’t spent more than seven dollars on it, and I watched her buy it and hand it to me, but it had sort of worn a comfortable patch of my wrist for a couple years and came to feel like a part of me.
The debit card was in the mail that day, and so was a medley of other mail, mostly junk. I squinted into the shadowy box and pulled out a pile of fliers, grocery ads, coupon promotions, bills addressed to previous tenants, including a “Tom Gouda,” who I noted as having a fake-sounding name, like Mr. Gouda was in the Witness Protection Program, or an identity made up to get extra rewards points at Bed, Bath, and Beyond or something. There was also a postcard from my cousin in Spain—she had returned home from her vacation last week. The generic yet entrancing oceanfront photo on the front made the 60-degree Vancouver afternoon seem a little nippy all the sudden.
The last piece of mail I pulled out of my box made me frown for a moment as I glanced over the sender’s address. Mine? The recipient was a Catherine Thompson, who I knew otherwise as Ren. As I noted the “Return to Sender” stamp across the envelope, I remembered my mother’s warning that I would be receiving this. Ren had passed away earlier that year.
I closed the door to my mailbox and jiggled the key out of its hole. The mail at Edison Pointe was housed in one central building, all the mail slots stacked, unit by unit, along a wall. Down the hallway from it was the leasing office, and on the other side of the hall was our apartment’s rather modest gym. Maybe if my mailbox was closer to my apartment, I thought, as I pushed open the main door, I’d check it more often. Although there’d be no point to checking it any more often since it’s mostly garbage anyway, I added, glancing at the handful of mail I’d be throwing away soon.
Even though there was a sidewalk, I cut across the grass and smiled in the sunlight. It was a sunny, temperate day. I probably could have felt comfortable in a t-shirt, but I wore a hoodie just in case. My apartment was towards the back of the complex, on the right side, farther away from the interstate that ran along the other side of the property. The complex was a fairly new development in the area, from what I understood, and had been built to accommodate the influx of young adults moving west, to cities like Portland and Seattle. I was one of those westward migrators.
As I walked up to my porch, I thought about how bland it looked compared to the other apartment units. It was hard not to compare apartments when all the units looked the same. The neighbor to the left had strung lights around the porch, and had a set heavy duty patio chairs with cushions and cupholders, a stone garden along the front of the apartment, a chain of flowers bordering the two windows to the left of their front door, and decorative astral-themed lawn ornaments stuck into the ground. I looked back at my patio. There was a rectangular-shaped stain on the cement where the matt used to be in front of the door, before I accidentally spilled a gallon of milk on it hauling in groceries one day and had tossed it into the bed of dirt where—I glanced—the mat still was. I never moved it because I’d been so frustrated with my life and all the inconveniences that kept knocking me down that I was too stubborn and fed up to take care of the mess. My patio also had a “Trans Lives Matter” sticker slapped on a random football-sized rock sitting in the corner of our porch. I’m not trans, but I think the sticker appeared after one night when my roommate had friends over.
The wind blew against my back as I opened my front door, and a current of freshly-mown grass swept in with me as I shut the door behind me. I tossed most of the mail down on the table by the door, but kept Ren’s letter and the bank’s letter with me as I moved to the couch. The living room faced the front of our apartment and had a cushiony couch pointed towards the TV, which was set up between the two living room windows on the same wall as the door. I settled into the corner of the couch, tossing the bank’s letter on the floor beside me.
I had moved to Vancouver five months earlier, right after graduating college. My friend Anita, who I had known since high school, had moved here six months before I did. At the time, she was sleeping on friends’ couches and in her car until we found this apartment and we planned to move in together as soon as I was done with college. Anita was a little older than I was but had never finished college, and was a little bit more of a free spirit than I was. I sometimes wondered if I should have dropped out instead of sticking around to finish my degree in business, something that ended up being meaningless to me. I left immediately after the graduation ceremony to bid an abrupt good riddance to it all—the student debt, the wasted time, the maniacal professors.
Fortunately, I was able to get a job quick out here at a coffee shop ten minutes from our place. I had waited tables at a Waffle House a year during college, so while I knew that people could be crazy about coffee, but nothing else about the matter, the experience looked good and the other interviewee for the position hadn’t shown up that day. I was then hired and employed at Hot Lips Café, where both customers and co-workers alike yelled at me for $10/hour about how I should prepare different forms of caffeine to a mass clientele that were all just addicted to it but convinced themselves it had to taste a certain way. It was still better than thinking about economics at a desk. Half out of spite and half out of laziness, I refused to apply for any office jobs in my field of study. Besides, my passion was being mistreated by strangers.
I stretched out my legs along the couch, pushing my heels out and pointing my toes as far back towards me as I could. God, that felt so good, the tension in my hamstrings as they yawned, and then the throbbing release as I relaxed my feet. The sun shone through the windows, curtain pulled aside, and lit up the living room. Behind the couch was the dining area, and hooked around the corner was the kitchen nook. The dining room had a sliding door, and more sunshine crept between the blinds on it, meeting with the sunshine from the living room in a sort of loose embrace. It made the apartment feel hazy and warm.
I opened Ren’s letter, tearing the envelope open along the top, a little ungracefully. I knew what it was, although I hadn’t sent it—my mom did. She had been kind enough to send out graduation announcements to all our relatives and friends, and put my address as the return address so that any responses would come directly to me. So would this, as it turned out.
To her credit, my mother didn’t know Ren had recently passed away when she sent it to her. As soon as Mom found out, she warned me that this would appear sometime in my mail. I wasn’t upset or anything—it was Ren, the crazy old bat from our hometown. At least, that’s how I thought of her when I wasn’t exactly thinking about her.
I slid the 5×7 piece of cardstock out of the envelope. On the front side, there were a couple pictures of me from graduation—shaking the OU’s president’s hand, holding up my diploma—and one from a kindergarten graduation, just to be cute. The design had been all her handiwork; I had merely glanced at it to consent to the final draft. There was also a paragraph about me and my achievements.
On the back, it was blank, but Mom had handwritten a note to Ren. In her later years, Ren had begun her descent into senility and I could tell by the neatness of my mom’s handwriting that this was at the forefront of her mind as she had neatly written it. It said:
This is Debra, my daughter. She helped mow your lawn and work on your garden about seven years ago, when she was in high school. Now, Debra just graduated from college with a bachelor degree in business! I know you will be proud of her. Whenever we hear phoebe birds, we still think of you.
When I finished reading it, I set it down on my lap and stared at the black TV screen. Ren’s hands, they had never held this letter; her eyes had never read my mother’s carefully written words. She left before this momento could connect with her. I read the lines over again, “I know you will be proud of her. Whenever we hear phoebe birds, we still think of you.” The phoebes—I had forgotten. My eyes quickly filled with tears and I blinked to release them down my cheek, taking a deep breath and wiping my face with the sides of my hands. She would never be around to be proud of me.
The silence of the apartment eased me into a trance as I slipped into reflection. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about Ren in a long time. I had only known her a little while, but for that time, I knew her quite well. She had been a talker, which is how I came to know her. Ren and my mom became pals because Ren was always at the hardware store in our hometown, and so was my mom, because she went there for paint a lot—Marge is a painter—and somehow, they got along to being friends even though Ren was probably forty years older than my mom. Once the weather started getting nicer, Ren had mentioned to my mom that she needed help keeping up with her property, and Mom volunteered me, the way mothers do. Once I found out Ren intended to pay me, I had no problem going over there once a week to do basic yard work and listen to Ren Talk.
Ren was eighty-seven during the year I knew her. She was a woman built to last, sturdy, with a square jaw. The first time I saw her property, I was impressed that she had managed to keep up with it pretty well for her age. She had four acres of field, and her house was an octagon-shaped structure in the middle of it, with a brown, weathered barn off to the right. She was quick to tell me she had always wanted horses there, like she had when she had lived in Arizona, but simply had not gotten around to it and wasn’t able to ride like she used to.
On our first meeting, after my mom had dropped me off at her house, I knocked on the screen door and surveyed her porch, which was like a scene out of a Find it! Book. There was clutter everywhere: bookshelves without shelves or books, empty bottles stained with dirt, crates, flower pots with muddy boots in them, gardening tools, full trash bags, plywood—and that was just what I noticed before Ren pulled the door open and said, “Oh hello there! Debra? You’re right on time!”
“Hi, you must be Ren!”
“I must be!” Ren stepped back to let me in and chuckled. She was wearing a plain blue t-shirt tucked into her jeans, which were well-worn and faded light. “That’s what they keep telling me, anyway! You know, I’m eighty-seven, and I prove it to myself every day, sister. This morning, I nearly fed my cat a bowl of cat litter! Now what would she do with that! Next thing you know—well, maybe we don’t want to think about the next thing after that. Come take a seat!” She motioned me in. I was bewildered by the onslaught of information, but her smile was wide and her eyes—somewhat deep in her head—twinkled, so as I stepped into her house, which smelled of must and cat litter, of course, I felt all right. She would at least make these four hours interesting.
The rest of that day was easy enough. Before we got to work, Ren wanted to talk a little bit to get to know each other. “It will make all of this more enjoyable if we get to be friends about it,” she told me. “And hopefully by the end of this you will have learned a thing or two from me, from all of my talking.” She laughed at herself when she said that. We were sitting in her family room, a dingy room bordered with so much “stuff.” Here, there were crates of papers, records, cardboard boxes with labels crossed out and rewritten multiple times in marker, bookshelves full of binders and books stacked randomly, and a rocking chair and a recliner facing each other at the center of it all, the eye of the storm. I sat on the edge of the cushioned seat of the rocking chair, nodding and smiling, which is the only way I knew how to interact with old people at the time.
“I’m so glad you were willing to help me. Marge said you’ve mowed lawns around the neighborhood before, and I always like to hire girls to help me out if I can, because I just work better with women. Young boys just don’t cooperate as well, and I think young women are more receptive to what I have to say.”
And Ren’s words did motivate me and inspire me. I wanted to go on adventures out west and ride horses, meet Brazilian men, study marine life in the Gulf, start nonprofits to help other women. She felt very strongly about a lot of things, like recycling and reusing every material possible—which was also a good financial move, and why she saved so much of the junk around her house—, and the importance of women getting involved in math and science careers. Some of her lectures blew my mind; others put me to sleep. When she detailed the process of doughnut production, my eyes were watering profusely from how much I was stifling yawns. But she always amazed me, even if she weirded me out in the process.
One of the times I came over, we were talking when she took us into her room and pulled out a tackle box from her bedside table. She sat on the edge of her bed and said, “Tell me if you’ve ever seen anything like this,” and opened a box full of dead bugs, dried and petrified. Lady bugs, flies, curled up spiders, stink bugs, and even a dragonfly. She laughed at my cringe and giggled as I had to get closer and study them in amazement.
“That’s disgusting,” I said. By then, I knew that my honesty wouldn’t offend her, only amuse her. I was legitimately creeped out by Ren’s strangeness sometimes, and was definitely planning on going home and telling my parents about this particularly noteworthy quirk.
“I like to draw them,” she said, looking into the assortment of bugs with a smile. Her cheeks were so high when she smiled, and her eyes crinkled. “I see them lying around the house, like in the window sill, or behind things that haven’t been dusted in a while, and I just put them in here. I’ll take them out and arrange them different ways to draw, because I just like how intricate they are if you look closely.” She gently picked up the dragonfly. “This beauty I found in the barn, a few weeks ago, during that really dry spell. I couldn’t believe it! And just the day before that was when the groundhog got hit in the road and I had to go shovel it up and… And I still have the bones from him, too!”
Ren belly-laughed at my dumbfounded face, and then we were onto the next topic, and the stories Ren had to tell about them. Not that we didn’t ever work; as I sat on my couch in Vancouver, I thought back to those hot Ohio days when I’d be riding the brush hog around Ren’s property—because it was Ren, so she used a brush hog—and the sun beating down on the open field, but the air moist as soup, and Ren right out there with me, making sure I took breaks for water every fifteen minutes and clearing away twigs, or God knows what random yet strategic task she had decided needed done. My role was to do what she told me and not ask questions, because if I asked questions, then were would be a long story. There would be a story anyway, but if I asked, it would be a long story.
I’m teasing, of course, because we always sort of teased each other. At the time, I was young, so I didn’t know what to do with all the information she shared, was overwhelmed by the abundance of it. Now I understand she was probably in a rush to give the world all she could while she still had each day. She had been a high school history teacher for about a decade, so she was certainly used to a soapbox. I only wished I could remember it all. I thought about my mom’s line in the letter about the phoebes again. Ren loved phoebes. Apparently that’s a bird, which she taught me. She had told me the story once, about how she could always pick out the phoebes when they chirped because they sounded like they were saying their own names, calling “Phoe-be,” in a two-toned trill, and she would imitate the bird. She was so happy one day because she had heard them in her own yard. I guess she wore that story on her like cologne, because my mom and I once discovered that she had shared it with her a few times, too.
I flipped the graduation announcement back over to the front. I stared at the picture of myself in my grad cap, smiling, holding my diploma up. It was weird holding this ghostlike artifact, this misplaced token of love, just a little too late.
How could I throw something like that away? Yet it felt uncomfortable to possess. This awkward, melancholy letter. I wasn’t supposed to have this; in fact, when Mom sent it, I wasn’t even meant to see it. It was Ren’s letter, devoid of Ren, and the current had brought this lost message to my shore. I set it on the floor and flipped on the TV, leaning my head against the couch in a confused, quiet despondence.
Hours later, Anita came home from work and awoke me from my nap with the bang of the front door. She greeted me and I mumbled something back, groggily remembering about Ren’s letter and my afternoon reminiscing. She flipped on lights as she made her way through the dark apartment.
“Are you hungry?” Anita called from the kitchen.
I entered the kitchen with the grad announcement and hung it up on the fridge with a “mountain” magnet, from our magnet poetry collection.
“Yeah,” I said. I had hung it up so that my mother’s letter showed.
“What’s that?” she asked, setting her purse on the counter and glancing at me. She must have just come from the call center because she was wearing her work polo.
“It’s—um,” I said, deciding how I wanted to share this with her. I bit my lip. “It’s like one of those things from your past,” I said, turning to her. She faced me and listened, leaning against the counter. My eyes roamed around the kitchen, and I looked up to notice the tacky bird clock Anita had hung up in the kitchen when we moved in; on every hour, it was supposed to give a different bird call, corresponding to the picture that the hour hand was on. Of course, we had never gotten around to putting batteries in it, so it was basically just a wall decoration; I had never thought anything besides it being a stupid clock until then.
I smiled. “It’s like one of those things from your past that kind of remind you who you are, and what you want.”