Pieces of Walter

Walter Jeffers opened his rusted mailbox and frowned at the intruder inside. He hadn’t been expecting any mail today. Generally, he knew every piece of mail he would get before it came. He’d lived in this house for twenty-three years, and he kept track. He could tell you without question when the next circular would be out from each and every store in the county, and the exact day his bills would arrive, one by one. He never got mail he didn’t see coming, except for a few oddball letters from his sister who lived in Tuscaloosa, and the only reason he couldn’t predict those was because they came so rarely, maybe one or two a year. She hadn’t sent as many the past five years or so. That was likely because he never answered them, and when she would call, he let the answering machine pick up.

On this occasion, the sanctity of his mailbox had been violated by a large manila envelope, the kind that came lined with bubblewrap, like they sold at Patterson’s down on the square. The seal on the corner of the packet read “Office of Veteran Affairs” though, so he grudgingly took it back to the house instead of drawing the red felt-tip pen from his pocket to scrawl “RETURN TO SENDER” across the front. He paused in the garden and thought about watering his okra and tomatoes, but he didn’t. He lit a Winston and surveyed his little garden with pleasure. When he was almost to the filter, he headed on into the house, the wooden screen door banging closed behind him, cutting the long wafting trail of smoke from his cigarette temporarily in half.

There were two things inside the padded envelope: a letter and smaller manila envelope that was about the size of a business card. Walter unfolded the letter and crushed out his cigarette in the emerald glass ashtray by his chair.

“Dear Mr. Jeffers,” he read aloud, peering over his glasses at the print. The words looked like they had been pounded out on a typewriter; the lines were slightly uneven. “In accordance with mandatory federal regulations found in article 17 of the recently enacted Reynolds Reclamation Act, enclosed you will find item(s) that were retained as part of your permanent file. Should you have any questions regarding the enclosed item(s) please contact – blah, blah, blah.”

He dropped the letter on the coffee table and bent together the metal tabs that held the flap of the small envelope shut. Turning it up, he tapped one pointed end on his open palm, and something small and shiny fell into his hand. Once he pushed his glasses back up his nose, he could see it was a sliver of glass about an inch and a half long, shaped like a thick sewing needle without the usual hole for the thread. He picked it up between his thumb and forefinger, and it seemed to briefly light up from the inside. It reminded Walter of a fiber-optic Christmas tree his mother had in her apartment before she passed, or sunlight passing through one of the plastic sun-catchers the kids used to paint in Bible school.

“What the hell is this?” he asked his scraggly gray cat, who had just wandered in from the kitchen. As usual, Tom didn’t have an answer, beyond looking at Walter like he was the most uninteresting thing ever. Walter patted the cat on the head twice in a businesslike manner after Tom jumped up and settled on the couch, and then he peered at the shard again. For just a second, he thought he even heard a low humming coming from it, but that was just stupid. It was a piece of glass some government pencil pusher thought he would want.

“This is the sort of thing that happens when you elect idiots into office,” he grumped at Tom, and then dropped the sliver into the wooden tray where he kept the remotes.