“The Copperlin U.S. Post Office Manual” by Lauren Rudin
THE COPPERLIN U.S. POST OFFICE MANUAL
It’s Sunday. Post-office day. It’s a silly love, but I love Post Offices. I love the empty packages that people can buy so that they can fill them up and send them elsewhere. I love the stamps, especially the historical ones. I love the uniforms that the Post Office people wear – the dark blue cardigan over a light blue button-down, the dark blue ties. It’s a particular dark blue color that says this person works for the U.S. Postal Service. I don’t wear that uniform because I work here on Sundays. The Sunday employees wear white with dark blue lines running along the edge of the collar, like a reverse sailor outfit. We wear dark blue hats with white wings on the sides. The rest of the week I work at Ms. Sally’s flower shop, but on Sundays, I wear white.
We handle the mail from the dead. Ever since 1860 when the barrier between the dead and the living split open just a tiny crack, we’ve been receiving their letters. Of course, the Post Office, as a thoroughly bureaucratic entity, took its chance and commercialized it. Not that I’m complaining. It’s so much more efficient to sort mail into bins and deliver it than it is to find letters underneath the tomatoes in your garden or inside the creamer at breakfast. I’ve even heard of people accidentally eating their letters where they’ve been crammed into crepes. Not that I would know – I’ve never received a letter.
Days at the Post Office are full of possibility. Things are coming in and out from all over the world, carrying love and business and toys. It’s an in-between space and it’s an arrival and it’s a goodbye, all at the same time.
It’s now nine in the morning on a Sunday, and I sweep in the door, right on time. Stacy is already there, sorting letters into bins. She is blonde and tall enough that her white pants stop an inch above her ankles. Her blue hat covers the top of the thick braids wrapped around her head; the little white wings perch above her seashell ears.
I start sorting the letters that Stacy has put into my pile. People like to drop off their own letters even though we tell them they inevitably get returned to sender. The letters always float back over shortly after being tossed across the divide and whether they really get read, we don’t know. But people keep trying anyway. The barrier itself is far north, deep in the frozen tundra where the air is thin. A hundred foot perimeter blocks the barrier to prevent people from getting too close – it’s said that if you’re right next to it, you can actually hear the dead whispering. I’ve never seen the barrier in person. Almost no one has. But you can see the light through the cracks in the perimeter, and it leaks out overhead, blending into the northern lights.
Most of the letters seem to pop up around there, but the system isn’t perfect. Stacy found a letter in her tea last week, the ink running badly enough she couldn’t tell who it was meant for. She ended up throwing it in an out of the way bin that’s collecting dust. It’s a crime to open someone else’s mail, even a dead person. They ruled that in the Supreme Court in 1974.
Stacy’s gotten letters meant for her though – one from a great-grandmother that she didn’t even know. When she opened it, she held it up to me with a quirked eyebrow; it was just an unfilled-in crossword puzzle. A lot of the letters from the dead are like that: an uncolored page from a coloring book, a nonsensical poem. A photograph of your shower drain.
We hung the crossword puzzle on the fridge in the tiny lounge, and we take turns trying to fill it in. I pencil in the word “elephant” to 13 down (“mittens”). I raise my eyebrows at it. I have a lot of practice with this, but at least more than half the time one guess is as good as another.
“Your turn next,” I say to Stacy. She grunts in response. I cough into a handkerchief and then go back to sorting the mail. Mail still isn’t delivered on Sundays, so people have to come to the Post Office to see if anything’s there for them. We don’t like to deliver it with the other mail; it gets too confusing. That’s the bureaucratic reason anyway. The subtext of religious tradition behind this reason makes certain news shows uneasy while the atheist forum on Reddit explicitly dislikes it.
I think the real reason though is that it’s too heart-breaking to receive a letter from your husband who died three years ago amid your heating bill and the junk mail from the pizza place down the road.
It’s Federal policy that each Post Office only hires two workers at a time for Sundays. No more than two employees are needed. If one of the employees is absent from work, the other employee will pick up the slack. If both employees are absent then the Post Office is closed. Sunday Post Office workers go through extensive background checks and psychological evaluations before being hired. Sometimes working with the artifacts of the dead can make people go a little funny, after a while. The woman who had my position adopted fifteen birds while living in an apartment and then two months later stuck her head in an oven. The neighbors only realized because the birds got progressively louder over the course of two days.
Stacy’s been here years before me, and I’ve been working with her about five years now. I was unhappy about suddenly being transferred to this position at first, but it’s nice here. It’s not that much work in comparison to my previous job, although it’s busier in the winter when it’s letter season and more letters come through. Letters then trail off in the spring and summer before steadily picking back up in the fall.
Stacy and I organize boxes together before the Post Office opens. She turns around and tosses a package to me. I catch it with the long ease of someone who has had a lot of packages thrown at her from semi-sadistic co-workers. It is addressed to a Mr. Matthew Alvan from “Mom.” No return address. I’ve never seen a return address. Packages are usually rare, and I set it aside with suspicion. Stacy typically mans the counter in the morning when the Post Office opens, and I continue organizing boxes. In the afternoon, we switch.
We eat small lunches in the lounge at the cracked wooden table that only seats two. Winter-gray sunlight peeks through the faded green curtains. I wipe my nose on a stiff, colorful napkin that was leftover from Stacy’s birthday party a month ago. Stacy looks at me, dubious. “Are you getting a cold?”
I shrug. This napkin is really terrible at absorbing moisture. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe I should take the front today for the afternoon,” she says.
“I’m still going to be touching everything,” I say. “And besides, I’m not sick.”
She takes a sip of coffee, steam curling up by her nose. Her tie is askew from lifting boxes. It’s cold today. Old Mr. Burke from the coffee shop next door asked to borrow the space heater. Stacy leans back in her chair, stretching her fingers out behind her to the drawer underneath the sink and pulling it open. She sinks the chair legs back down onto the floor and pushes an envelope across the table. “I meant to give it to you earlier,” she says. “But–” she quirks her mouth and shrugs. I know what she means. It was too busy this morning for us to exchange anything beyond, “Ms. Murphy, check box number three.”
The line was long today, which I always like. There’s something meditative about handing out letter after letter, making sure the name is correct, and then watching the recipient’s face. Some people cry. Some people smile or look worried. Once a man waited in line for three hours and when he finally got to the front and received his letter, he ripped it up without even opening it. Stacy handled that one. She’s better at the counter than I am. She knows what a person needs.
I look at the envelope to see it’s addressed to me with no return address. The writing is tight and elegant. “Why would anyone write me a letter?” I say dumbly.
“Well, open it,” Stacy says, leaning forward and lacing her fingers together.
I slide an index finger underneath the corner and rip. The letter is folded in half, barely fitting inside the envelope. The paper is cornflower blue and thick. I take it out and unfold it. It’s blank on both sides except for the neatly drawn stars lining the edges; a tiny math equation is crammed into the upper right corner.
“What on earth,” I say. Stacy sits back in her chair. I fold the paper back up and set it back in the envelope.
Stacy takes a thoughtful sip of coffee. “The dead have always had a bizarre sense of humor,” she says. Last summer, Copperlin experienced its worst heat stroke in thirty years, and we sorted box after box of red mittens for months.
“You’ve got that right,” I say.
In case of inclement weather, the Copperlin U.S. Post Office closes when other government agencies close. Please check your local radio or television station for news of closings or delays. Last winter, we had snow up to the top of the doors of houses. This winter, it is bitterly cold but hasn’t snowed at all. The ground is frozen, and the green of the grass is faded with frost. Copperlin is situated at the very top of Michigan, a short leap from Canada.
CNN suspects global warming due to pollution – conspiracy theory forums suspect the barrier. The theory is that one of the unintended consequences of the barrier being open is vast amounts of unknown elements coming through and affecting the environment. The dead most likely have no need for a carefully maintained environment that supports existence, so why should their lifestyle suit ours? As a result, the conspiracy theorists say sea levels are rising, and weather is becoming unpredictable. They wonder if the barrier should even remain open and if not, how would it be closed?
Stacy is the one who tells me these things. She’s far more facile with the internet and in fact, maintains our Post Office website. The Copperlin U.S. Post Office website can also be checked for closings or delays.
Halloween is, frankly, a trial. The children and adolescents are fascinated by the Post Offices on Halloween, and the prank wars are legendary. In my opinion, the less attention paid to Halloween, the better.
There’s always an uptick in mail on Sundays during a holiday, especially Christmas. While the contents seem unrelated, the sheer quantity of letters suggests that the dead remember. On Valentine’s Day, love letters pour in from the dead. The envelopes are pink and red and sometimes there are lumps inside that suggest the shape of flower heads. Year after year, Stacy traditionally expounds on her theory that capitalist commercialism has finally infected the afterlife and gags at me over particularly horrendous shades of pink. I think perhaps the dead are sentimental, in their own way; but who knows what the dead really long for.
On this Valentine’s Day, I received a letter on the same soft blue paper as before, also blank, but delivering the scent of French lavender, sharp and floral. It was pleasant, but I shrugged at Stacy’s raised eyebrows because it meant nothing to me. I keep both letters in the back of my closet, underneath my mother’s collection of faintly mint-scented blue handkerchiefs.
Yesterday was Easter, and as a result not only are there more letters than usual, but the religious channels are running their annual specials on whether any letters will arrive from Jesus.
Stacy snorts. “They shouldn’t hold their breath,” she said. “Who would the recipient be anyway?”
“The Pope?” I suggest.
She makes a face and throws a tissue at me. “Stop sniffing.”
“I would if I could,” I say and blow my nose. I cough and then run my tongue over the front of my teeth.
“You’ve had that cold for months,” she says. “You should really go see a doctor.”
“It’s fine,” I say.
“Really?” she says. “Then stop hacking.”
I roll my eyes. Stacy thinks because I have no family in the area that I need extra attention, even though she’s only a couple years older than I am. She invites me for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners every year with her roommate. I’m not a Christmas person, but it’s nice to spend it with people I like. It’s nice not to be alone.
I smile at Stacy and toss my used tissue at her. She dodges skillfully and grimaces. I try not to laugh too much because it makes me cough.
“Yeah, yeah,” Stacy says, sitting at the office computer. “Laugh it up, chuckles.”
Annual Federal Bureau of Investigation Inspection
Every summer is the annual Federal Bureau of Investigation inspection. At first, government agencies fought over whose jurisdiction it actually fell under, but the FBI won through sheer determination and a large number of references to the X-files. Agent Jeffrey Cress has been Copperlin’s specific inspector for the last seven years, and he arrives exactly on time, as per usual.
“Fancy meeting you here, Agent,” Stacy says, winking at him as she walks into the lounge.
“Always a pleasure, Stacy,” Jeffrey says, putting extra emphasis on her name. He’s tried to get her to call him by his name for years with a success average of thirteen percent.
“How far along are you?” Stacy asks.
“I’ll finish by the end of the day,” Jeffrey says. “I’ve checked three quarters of the records and got halfway through the warehouse area.”
“Excellent,” she says, and walks back out to the front with a glass of water.
Jeffrey rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling.
“I should probably get back to the warehouse,” I say.
“Actually, there was something I wanted to discuss with you,” he says. His suit jacket lies on the back of the chair, and he’s rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. Sunlight pours through the window and washes the room in gold, picking up red highlights in his dark hair. Sweat trickles down my spine. All of us have forgone coffee today. Perhaps I should run out for iced coffee before my break ends.
“Yes?” I say, taking a drink of water.
He clears his throat. “I’m getting transferred.”
I frown. “As a promotion?”
“It’s mostly a lateral move,” he says. “To a different Post Office.”
“Oh,” I say after a moment, when he looks like he’s waiting for me to say something. Jeffrey’s known me a long time, since I was nineteen and shivering in my first winter with snow, far from the west coast. Perhaps I feel the chilly, sinking sensation of being left, but I put it away, like sliding the blank letter neatly under my mother’s handkerchief in the back of my closet.
“So I won’t be coming here for the annual inspection after this year,” he says.
“Congratulations?” I try.
Jeffrey closes his eyes and rubs his hand over his face. His hand comes down over his nose to reveal blue eyes narrowing at me. It’s like having a baby bird angry with me. But he doesn’t sound angry when he says, “I’m going to miss coming here.”
I take him in for a long moment, the gleam of sweat on his olive-colored skin, his bare forearms, the way he wraps both hands around his mug of water because we don’t have real cups. “We can still talk on the phone, can’t we?” I say eventually.
“Of course,” he says, face easing, lips rounding out from its flat line into a smile. I lean back in my chair, pressing my white uniform shirt uncomfortably into the damp hollows of my back, limp with heat and the sincerity in his smile.
When Jeffrey leaves in his black government agency car, Stacy and I clean up the warehouse. We work in silence, Stacy not looking at me. Her brows are furrowed, her gaze is far away. She’s thinking. She’s holding a large box one-handed, and I take it with both hands, bracing my knees. Stacy is an ox trapped in a slim Scandinavian body. I start to cough and accidentally drop the box on my foot. My eyes smart, and I fumble for my handkerchief and cough into it. I carefully lick my teeth before standing straight again.
Stacy yanks the handkerchief out of my hands the second I stop and inspects it, mouth hardening. I’m frozen in place, mouth slightly open.
“Blood,” she says finally. “How long have you been coughing up blood?”
I let out a deep breath and reach over to take the handkerchief back. She lets me and then takes my wrist. “I know you used to work in the north at Headquarters,” she says. “I asked Jeffrey.”
“Traitor,” I sigh.
“Friend,” she corrects, shaking my wrist, gentle despite the steel in her voice. “When were you going to tell me?” She lets go, and I cross my arms over the flat of my hips.
“Later,” I admit, her sharp hazel eyes shaking it out of me like a mugger.
“What, when you were dead?” she says.
“It’s a slow deterioration, Stacy,” I say. “I still had time. Have time.” The rule that a person can only work five years solely at Headquarters near the barrier exists for a practical reason – scientists still aren’t sure exactly what leaks into our plane of existence from the barrier, but evidence shows at least one component might be a type of radiation. There’s a quiet death count resulting from working at Headquarters, and the powers that be carefully keep it under the statistically significant line.
Stacy rubs the heels of her hands into her eyes, as if just looking at me exhausts her. It probably does.
“I–” I say and then stop. She turns back to the stacks of old mail, the mail with wrong addresses or no address at all, and starts sorting again.
I bite the inside of my lower lip as we work, face crumpling. The letters in my hands become vague and cloudy-looking, like they’re underwater. I wipe my face with the inside of my elbow, smearing sweat and tears. I fought with myself on whether to tell her, I really did. Whether she deserves to know or whether it’d be kinder to remain silent, to not let her carry the burden that I carry. Now I want to warn her too late. I want to tell her this is what happens when you take in strays – they will always disappoint.
When we lock up for the night, Stacy turns to me and cups my shoulders with her square, gentle hands. “It’s okay,” she says, a breeze ruffling loose strands of her hair.
“You were angry,” I say.
“Of course I was angry,” she says, flicking my nose. “You lied to me.”
I grab her hand before she can take it back and hold it tightly, shivering with relief.
She sighs and says, “You’re a mess.”
“I know,” I say. The barrier to the dead is potentially enormous, possibly extending all the way up through the thermosphere. But the nature of quantum physics makes it difficult to determine exactly where and how the barrier exists in space – it shivers in uncertainty, like air near a flame. The summer sky is velvet dark and touchable, and I wonder what it’s hiding.
“You make things hard,” Stacy says, evenly, with no censure, and walks me home.
Computer and Internet Use
The other day Stacy received an e-mail through the private Post Office e-mail that only said the word “rabbit” over and over again. When she replied on a lark, her reply was sent back to her. Sometimes the dead send notes through e-mail, but it’s not their preference. Stacy guesses it has to do with the difficulty of finding wi-fi. She sends me abstracts of dissertations on the subject, and I have to admit, it’s interesting.
Stacy takes great pleasure in starting fights on the internet and sometimes links me to conspiracy forums where she’s stirred everyone up. She recently created a twitter page for the Copperlin Post Office and posts things like, “Lots of letters today!” or pictures of all the crates of mail we have to sort through. It’s a slow Sunday, so I check the twitter to find she’s posted, “Found a letter in the coffee this morning – the dead need their caffeine fix too.”
“No more mystery letters, huh?” Stacy says, leaning over my shoulder to check the Post Office e-mail.
“Nope,” I say. That happens sometimes where people receive letters for months or years and then suddenly they just stop. It destroys people sometimes but for me, it’s just another annoying inexplicability. “It’s your turn on the puzzle.”
“Yeah,” she says, deleting spam. “Eat the snack I brought you. You’ve got to keep up your strength.”
I’m not hungry, but I retrieve the yogurt parfait from the fridge anyway. “Are you even allowed to have a twitter page for the office?”
“It’s not written anywhere that I can’t,” Stacy says, taking a long sip of coffee. She has a surprising amount of followers, most of whom don’t even live in Copperlin. “I think I’m going to start having a question of the day. Like, why do you think not everyone gets letters?”
“Isn’t that a little too deep for a government agency?” I say.
“What are they going to do, fire me?” she says, shrugging. “As long as I don’t incite riots–”
I snort into my spoonful of strawberry.
“I don’t need this job anyway,” she continues. “I just do it because it’s interesting.”
“Really?” I say.
“I mean, why do you work here?” she says.
“It– well.” I wave my hand with the spoon in it, trying to get my thoughts together. “It’s purpose,” I say. “People need this, and it’s important. I feel like these letters give them a certain amount of…security. I want to be the one to give them that.”
Stacy frowns. “I don’t know,” she says. “Sometimes I think the barrier gives people false confidence about the afterlife. Which then sometimes generalizes to life itself.”
“Maybe it is false confidence,” I say. “Or maybe it’s not.”
“I mean, like the article I sent you that made the argument that these letters aren’t actually from people we know,” she says.
“Yeah, that they’re from another world or aliens or something,” I say. “And well, so what if they are?”
“Then it’s a lie,” Stacy says, turning around in the swivel chair to face me. “People are being comforted by something that’s not true.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” I say.
“Not by itself,” she says finally. “But who knows about the implications.”
The fan stops for the third time today. “Really, again?” Stacy mumbles, pushing herself upright. I look through the huge stack of letters next to me, listening to Stacy curse and dig into the guts of the fan with her screwdriver. Another letter for Mrs. Paleo. She gets them weekly, and Stacy and I have yet to determine whether it’s from her father or husband. Mrs. Paleo consistently picks up her single letter with a smile on her face. Stacy always lets me be the one to give it her, even if it’s her turn at the counter.
I finish the parfait and wash out the cup. I dry my hands, but I accidentally get droplets of water on the letters anyway. “Good?” Stacy says when I pass by her. She’s on her knees, leaning over the fan, screwdriver between her teeth.
“Good,” I say.
I slip behind the counter where boxes of sorted letters have already been placed. The afternoon line trails out the door and onto the street. People shift from foot to foot, nervous or excited or bored, looking at phones, or not. People rarely stand in line in pairs or groups – they come alone and pretend they don’t know each other if they do. I’ve never been to confession, but I imagine it’s a little like that.
Everyone looks up at me, and I take in a slow breath to steady myself. It’s the most intimate work I’ve ever done, working Sundays at the Copperlin Post Office. “I’m ready for the first person in line,” I say, and the afternoon shift begins.
About the Author
Lauren Rudin is an avid reader, especially of science-fiction and fantasy. She grew up in Baltimore but now lives near Philadelphia. Her hobbies include international travel and gardening. She is currently pursuing a career in psychology.