Mr. Meriweather thought so too, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask Penny Dobbins for more coffee at the Blue Onion Grill, much less her hand in marriage. Without other complications, however, he probably could have overcome his extreme shyness in three or four years. Unfortunately, there existed other complications, one in particular, that he had related to no one but the post office cat, who rarely showed interest in anything that did not involve tuna, but who also could be counted on not to tell.
Harmon Meriweather was an addict.
Like all addictions, it started innocently enough. One rainy afternoon, Penny stomped into the post office in her blue waitress pinafore, threw a letter on the counter, and stomped out. The envelope, caught in the draft from the slammed door and possibly unglued by the wet weather, skidded, hit the tape dispenser and discharged its letter into Mr. Meriweather’s hand.
He stared at it in horror, his heart choking him. Here was temptation in all its succulent allure, the one thing that could impeach his unimpeachable integrity. One flick of the wrist would reveal Penny’s private thoughts and possibly provide a clue to the question that had plagued him for the year he had been in town: Did he have a chance? He hadn’t heard that she was seeing anyone in Sweetgum, but he didn’t know about Russell Township, where she went to visit her sister. He couldn’t believe someone so lovely was not already spoken for.
Every morning as he shaved, he practiced in the mirror asking Penny for eggs over easy with bacon on the side. At breakfast at the Blue Onion, he thrilled each time she asked if he might like some orange juice—and tried not to read too much into the way she said “fresh-squeezed,” which always made his heart beat faster. At lunch, he delivered another request, also practiced, for a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. During these encounters, Mr. Meriweather struggled to convey his regard for Penny without actually doing or saying anything much, because he certainly did not want to impose.
As he stood in the post office with his ears ringing and the forbidden letter burning his hand, he was on the veritable diving board of imposition. In the space of a passionate heartbeat, Mr. Meriweather was poised to leap from the solid footing of an upstanding civil servant into the dark waters of flagrant criminality.
Not quite ready to plunge into the abyss, however, he forced himself to put the letter back in the envelope. He then stashed it under his mattress. As the postmaster, he was charged with accepting the delivery of mail from the postal truck and sorting it for the citizens of Sweetgum to pick up. He was also charged with accepting the townspeople’s mail and sending it out on the same truck. There was no regulation prohibiting use of a mattress as a collection site. Therefore he had broken no laws. Yet.
When he practiced his lunch order that day, he imbued it with a certain suave elegance, not unlike Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. He had always been so good, so worried about being bad, so “yes ma’am, no ma’am, don’t mind me, ma’am,” that for the first time in his life he felt reckless. And just the slightest bit attractive.
At lunch, he smiled warmly at Penny.
“Boy, you’re sure in a good mood,” she said.
“Seeing you always puts me in a good mood” fell out of his mouth before he could stop it, and he blushed to the roots of his mouse-brown hair. Penny laughed and smacked his shoulder with her order book.
Crossing the street to work, he whistled a tune, once he could breathe again.
He closed the office at 5:30 p.m., and retrieved the letter. Mr. Meriweather knew that Mrs. Samuel Pickens, to whom the letter was addressed, was Penny’s sister. (Besides food, the Blue Onion served up all manner of piping hot gossip.) He didn’t need to see the return address to know the handwriting on the envelope was Penny’s, since he had studied her penmanship for a year, and once—he dreaded dying and having someone go through his sock drawer—even forged a love note from her to himself when he was feeling low.
So there he was, all alone with no defense against fate, the devil, or whatever blind forces had conspired to bring him together with an opened letter from the woman he loved. Once it arrived, however, the moment of truth didn’t look like much. He read:
You have some NERVE! Don’t you DARE fix me up with Sam’s idiot brother Skeeter!!!! I am NOT repeat NOT intersted. And I am not selfish just because I do not have kids. Your just jealous! Besides the people at the grill think I’m just PEACHY I always refill coffees without them asking!! There are VERY nice people here, and some THAT I HAVE MENTIONED BEFORE I hope to know MUCH better. And I will thank you to lay OFF or I’m not coming down to Russell any more. Did you find my pink sweater I think I left it in the back room.
P.S. I’m not KIDDING about Skeeter!!!!
Mr. Meriweather slapped the letter against the table and hooted. After reading it again, however, he said to the cat, “She doesn’t really mean to talk that way to her sister. She’s just upset.” Although pleased at the vehemence of Penny’s objection to Skeeter, Mr. Meriweather also felt sad.
He had no siblings. He had never known any kin beyond his mother. Whenever he asked her about family on his father’s side, she just shuddered and held up a hand as if to ward off evil, which led him as a youngster to picture his relations as devil worshippers or white slavers. Later, working at the bank and watching other people’s families trade insults and flounce off in collective snits, he hoped someone in his family had simply called someone else an ingrate or deadbeat, and that had been that. But there was no way to know. When his mother died, he sold the house and headed for New Orleans because she had once dismissed it as a city of sin, and, putting two and two together, he hoped to find some relations there. His car broke down in Sweetgum, however, and after one look at Penny in her little waitress cap at the Blue Onion, he forgot about New Orleans. Sweetgum was where he wanted to be related.
“I’m sure if she thought about it for just a second, she’d want to take a more moderate tone with her sister,” Mr. Meriweather said to the cat. “Words spoken in anger can damage a relationship, you know. And then we’d never find out who she wants to know better.” In that instant, an idea popped into his head that overrode any remaining shred of rational thought.
The next day, he stopped in the drugstore and bought a packet of note paper embellished with kittens playing with yarn. Late into the night, as Lucy Stevens walked the floor with her colicky baby, he went off the deep end of postal indiscretion and polished his forgery skills to create a new version of Penny’s letter:
When I first got your letter I was a little put out. But I know you only said all those things because you care about me and want the best for me. I appreciate that. I do know what I like however, and I do NOT like Skeeter, so please CANCEL any dates you have made for me. I have friends here I like VERY much.
Let me know if you find my pink sweater. It may be in the back room.
P.S. I really mean it about Skeeter!!
A week later, the incoming mail truck brought a reply from Dolly. Mr. Meriweather sagged against the counter in relief. The dread of discovery had kept him from sleeping well. In the silent dark, he had lain awake wondering again if he carried criminal genes and suffering acute remorse at having let down the U.S. Postal Service. Once he saw the letter from Dolly, however, all concerns evaporated. He went in the back room and put the kettle on. In green ink, Dolly had written:
i know Skeeter picks his teeth at the table and he could wash more without hurting himself but i worry somtimes about your future you wont be young forever you know. Are you keeping compny with someone in Sweetgum? i wont push Skeeter at you if you dont want. i found your sweater.
Even though Mr. Meriweather did not have to worry about Skeeter as a rival, he needed more information. He went to the drugstore again, this time for a green ballpoint pen. The druggist’s wife thought green was frankly peculiar and didn’t hesitate to tell him so, and he had to settle for blue, but he was beyond caring about the fine points of forgery. That night he practiced Dolly’s up-down-and-every-which-way handwriting until he felt confident enough to add a P.S. to her letter to Penny:
Do you like anyone special? You can tell me.
He waited helplessly for Penny’s reply, and she took her sweet time about it. When her answer came, she told her sister to mind her own beeswax, but she did sort of like someone with the initials AM.
“NO!” Mr. Meriweather yelled so loud the cat jumped. The only AM in town was 87 years old. “Shoot! There must be an AM in Russell.” He resealed and sent the letter off immediately and only hoped Dolly would write back that Alan Maypole or Abe Mullet or Alistair Monkton had stolen money from widows and orphans.
He couldn’t stop, and he couldn’t go back. He spoke to people even less than before, for fear that the right word from someone would make all his transgressions pour out, just the way punching D4 on the Blue Onion juke box made Elvis start “Love Me Tender.” On the other hand, he longed, he yearned, to tell. Sometimes the pressure became so intense he wanted to jump up on a table at the Grill and yell like James Cagney in a prison movie: I did it! You’ll never take me alive!
After two agonizing weeks, Dolly’s return letter arrived one morning with the rest of the mail. Unable to wait until lunch, Mr. Meriweather locked the door and ran to the back to steam open the envelope.
The letter began: “Dear Mr. Merrywether,” and his heart stopped.
Icy sweat bloomed on his forehead, and he thought he might be sick. He felt his way to a chair and turned the envelope over just to make sure. Yep, it was addressed to Penny Dobbins. Which meant Dolly knew. That he. Would open it. Which meant soon he’d be joining people who looked like James Cagney in a big brick building with no juke boxes or coffee refills or pretty Pennys. On the other hand, he thought irrelevantly, he might run into more Meriweathers.
When his vision cleared, he read on, but the blood must have left his brain because he couldn’t quite make the words line up into sense:
He sat there holding the letter and staring into space until banging at the post office door roused him. Still holding the letter, he let in Albert Meese, looking for his Social Security check, and Martha Burns, looking for the reason people were banging on the door, and Penny, looking for him because he’d missed breakfast. Dumbfounded, he handed her the letter, which Martha read over her shoulder.
“Where’s my check?” said Albert.
Mr. Meriweather, still stuck on the letter from two weeks ago, asked Penny, “Who’s AM?”
“My initials are A-period M-period,” said Albert, louder. “Where’s my check?”
Mr. Meriweather pointed to a pile of mail on the counter and turned back to Penny.
“Why it’s you, of course.” Penny blushed. “Armand Meriweather.”
“Service is something terrible around here,” said Albert. “When Lloyd Bump was postmaster, we had some real service, yessir.”
“When Lloyd was postmaster,” Martha snapped, going to the counter to dig through the envelopes, “the mail was slow as molasses because Lloyd was such a slow reader.”
“My name’s not Armand,” said Mr. Meriweather. “It’s Harmon. It’s my mother’s maiden—“
“Do you like me at all?” said Penny.
Harmon moved his mouth, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again: “Completely.”
She slipped her arm through his and smiled up at him. “That’s a relief. I thought I was going to have to take out an ad in the newspaper.”
“But I’ve done terrible things,” he said.
Martha Burns stuffed Albert’s check in his hand, frog-marched him out the door and locked it. “Tell,” she said.
Once Harmon started, he couldn’t stop. He wept from the sheer relief and shame of it all, while Penny patted his hand. He told them about his mother and his phantom relations, about opening the mail and the forgeries, about his not liking orange juice all that much but loving the way Penny asked, and about how desperately he would miss her when he went to jail.
“Jail!” Penny clutched his hand. “What for?”
Martha rolled her eyes. “Good grief. Lloyd never went to jail, and he read everybody’s mail for 30 years. We counted on it.”
“Counted on it?” Harmon gawked at her.
“Close your mouth,” Martha said. “You look feebleminded.” She poked him in the chest. “Son, you haven’t been doing your job.”
In less time than it would take to tell about it, everyone came to agree that Harmon Meriweather was the best postmaster in the history of Sweetgum. People knew that if they wanted a sympathetic ear or advice on a little problem, all they had to do was wink and ask for “special delivery,” and before long they’d be drinking tea and petting the cat in the cozy sitting room behind the post office. Rain or shine, Harmon served the town as a discreet confidant and a master of what to say after maybe too much of the wrong thing had already been said. Unlike the previous postmaster, however, he didn’t need to read people’s mail—so he could always get home in time for dinner with Penny.