Like so many strange stories, this one takes place in the post office.
I was there on my lunch break, sending a little package to Tess. I was already feeling a bit grumpy. In the best circumstances, the post office is just a mildly irritating place with too many abstract rules that smells like cardboard and cheese. On a worse day, the line will take forty minutes and when you get up to the counter the bored mustachioed postal worker will tell you that you used a cursive ‘L’ when you wrote the address, and now you either have to go to the end of the line and readdress your envelope or endure twenty lashes from Bob The Bulk Mail Associate.
And you always choose the lashes, because going through that line again will snap the last little hinge keeping a lid on your murderous impulses.
I had already spent about twenty minutes in line with the bubbled envelope tucked under my arm before I really started to examine the other post office patrons. There was a woman who was wearing something like safari fatigues and a man who had the type of nervous red face that people have when they are always late for things. The lady behind me had a green purse and was staring straight ahead, unflichingly. The man in front of me…was different.
He was wobbling from one foot to the other, and every few seconds his shoulder would twitch and then hunch up to rub his ear, as though he felt like flies were settling there. His legs were decorated with tattoos – a black rose, an ornate dragon-knife-thing, and what was either a bunch of Celtic knots or the alien from Alien. He had a big box that he kept switching from one arm to the other.
In any case, everyone in that post office looked as resigned and irritated as I was. I realized, looking down at my blank envelope, that if I tried to address the envelope when I got to the counter that they would have every right to throw rocks at me. I hunted in my purse for a pen, and didn’t find one.
This is when things get bizarre.
My first impulse was to ask the woman behind me for a pen, and then I analyzed that action. Why her? Because she has a purse full of things that could probably write? Or because she was a non-threatening middle-aged woman? Was I perpetuating some kind of prejudice by not asking the man in front of me? Sure, he seemed kind of…well, creepy, but he hadn’t done anything to make me think there was anything actively wrong with him besides looking a little different. And giving me the heebie jeebies. It wasn’t fair that I would rule him out as a nice, pen-giving fellow-human just because he kept twitching and he seemed to be sweating a lot.
So I asked him for a pen.
“Uhm, excuse me,” I said, tapping him lightly on the arm. He turned slowly and gazed down at me from over the rim of his glasses. “Do you happen to have a pen I could borrow?”
He stared at me. His shoulder twitched into his ear again, and quietly, he turned back around.
I was about to ask him again, louder, in case he had a hearing problem, when the woman behind me fumbled in her bag and said, “Oh, I have one, here.”
I addressed the envelope while we made small talk about the weather and the fourth of July and oh gosh, don’t you always just need a nap around this time of day? I dotted my final ‘i’ and slipped the envelope back under my arm.
“Thanks so much!” I said to her with my most winning smile. “Here’s your pen back.”
The man in front of me whirled around, his fists clenched at his sides.
“I DON’T HAVE A FFFFfffffffffucking PEN!” he yelled.
The post office went silent. The man’s nostrils flared. When he said ‘fuck’ he drew it out and sort of whispered it, as though that kind of conduct was inappropriate in a government building. I could have said something witty at that point to show that I was in charge of the situation and very used to being yelled at by men a foot taller than me, but I wasn’t in charge of the situation, and I’m not much used to yelling that doesn’t happen during a Mario Kart match.
So I just said, “Oh. That’s okay.” in a squeaky little voice.
The man turned around, keeping his eyes on me until the last moment.
As the post office slowly resumed its particular brand of bustling inactivity, I became aware of a strange, rank smell. It was sour and cloying. It made my nose wrinkle. I started glancing around as nonchalantly as I could, looking for the source. I thought somebody might have a baby or something, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a soggy brown stain spreading over the shorts on the man in front of me.
I took an involuntary step backwards. Liquid shit began dripping down the man’s leg, pooling in his sock and creating a puddle on the floor. For a moment I thought he must have had a colostomy bag that had burst, but no. The source was…easily discernable.
I glanced at the woman behind me, trying to find a cue on what to do. She was just staring at the situation with her hand over her mouth, shaking her head. I debated with myself whether to tell the man that he seemed to…uh, have an issue. On the one hand, if it were me, and I were crapping a river in the post office, I would like to know about it so that I could make a hasty retreat. But how do you not know something like that? How do you not notice? It seemed more likely to me that the man was desperately aware of his problem, and that he was hoping that nobody else was noticing. In that case, telling him would only humiliate him.
Finally, the woman working the passport counter approached with a sympathetic yet firm look on her face. She leaned over and whispered something in the man’s ear. He whispered back. She whispered again. He whispered back, and then set down the box he had been intending to mail, and calmly walked out of the post office.
The woman returned to her desk, probably to call a janitor or a hazmat team or something. The post office worker signaled me to come forward with my little bubbled envelope.
“Hi,” he said. “How is your day?”
I meant to say ‘fine’ or ‘pretty good’.
Instead I said, “Wwwweird.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Us, too.”