The Postcard Scene


by M. Bennardo


 

The postcard scene showed the white sand beaches of Waikiki. Two curving palm trees crossed attractively in the foreground and the placid waters of the Pacific receded into the distance. Far away, boiling on the horizon, the setting sun was about to disappear.

The postcard scene also showed a boy and a girl in near-silhouette, both golden-skinned with long brown hair. An enormous tropical bloom perched on the side of the girl’s head, and a surfboard rested against one of the trees.

When Deborah looked at the postcard scene, she had used to hear the gentle crashing of waves and the restful strumming of ukuleles. But toward the end, she had only heard the screeching of piercing sirens, blaring endlessly in her skull.

#

The postcard scene had for a long time been pasted to an empty jumbo-sized mayonnaise jar. Deborah had slathered the mayonnaise on a thousand-and-one sandwiches at the truckstop where she had worked in Duluth, Minnesota, and when it was empty she had cleaned it out and taken it home.

She had pasted the postcard scene on the front: not a real postcard, just the picture of one that she had cut off the cover of a mailing circular for a travel agent. Around the picture of the postcard, the mailing circular had said things like: “Three hundred dollars, all-inclusive! A weeklong trip for two to the famous white sands of Waikiki! Fly the new Los Angeles-Honolulu route from Pan-American Airlines!”

Deborah had started dropping her spare change and the overflow from her tips in the jar, the rare nickels and dimes and quarters that weren’t immediately gobbled up by the mortgage payment or car repairs or the million little expenses and disasters that always seemed to befall the household.

Or really, that always seemed to befall her husband, Harold. Somehow, Harold always seemed to be short on money for everything, which was why Deborah made sure to hide both the mayonnaise jar and the postcard scene in a hatbox in her closet, where Harold would never think to look.

#

On the first of every month, Deborah waited until Harold went out and then counted the money in the mayonnaise jar, marking her progress off with a line on the side. It gave her such a warm feeling during those long Minnesota winters to see her getting ever closer to the three hundred dollar goal.

Sometimes she fantasized about how she would break the news to Harold that she had gotten them two tickets for a week in Hawaii. After all, she wasn’t doing it just for herself. They both needed a real vacation. And after six years of saving, Deborah couldn’t believe it when she counted up two hundred and eighty one dollars in nickels, dimes, and quarters. As she carefully marked off the new total on the side of the jar, her head spun at how close the goal had finally come.

By then, the postcard scene had yellowed and turned brittle, peeling away from the glue that had fixed it to the side of the mayonnaise jar. The travel agency’s special promotion was long over too, but Pan-American Airlines was still making weekly flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and the travel agent in town had assured Deborah that three hundred dollars could get them through a week in Waikiki, if they didn’t mind a discount hotel.

But the next month, when Deborah took the mayonnaise jar down from the hatbox in her closet, she found that somehow it was completely empty. As soon as she had lifted the jar, her heart had clenched up in cold terror, for instead of the cheery jingle of heavy coins she had heard only the hollow ringing of empty air. And as she sat, looking down into the gaping mouth of the jar and out the other side of the transparent bottom, that hollow ringing turned into stabbing sirens.

That night after her shift at the truck stop, Deborah undressed slowly and then got into bed. Harold was already snoring loudly, sprawled on his back. As she slipped between the covers, Deborah felt herself shaking with rage. But she didn’t say or do anything. She just closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, even though the constant wailing of the sirens wouldn’t let her sleep all night long.

#

Deborah didn’t say or do anything to Harold on the second of the month, or on the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. In fact, she didn’t ever say anything to Harold about the missing money. She didn’t do anything about it either until four weeks later. Not until the evening of the thirty-first, when she was getting ready to go to the truckstop and saw Harold, spawled as usual in his easy chair in his fraying bathrobe with empty cans of Schlitz arrayed on the side table.

A cigarette burned in his fingers, but he was clearly fast asleep. And as Deborah watched, the cigarette slipped and fell onto his robe and lay smoldering against the twisting fuzzing threads.

Reflexively, she snatched up the cigarette and stubbed it out. A few of the threads of the robe glowed orange where the cigarette had lain, thin tendrils of smoke curling up into the air. Then the glow died out and the threads turned black and crumbled away.

A chill ran through Deborah’s body.

If she had only walked out the door without looking into the room! If she had only let him sit and had let that cigarette burn! Harold’s life was insured after all: enough to bury him, anyway. The house was insured too: enough to pay off the bank, anyway.

And Harold’s pension paid an automatic benefit on early death of exactly three hundred and seventy-five dollars cash.

What she was owed, plus interest and fees.

Deborah stared at the stubbed-out cigarette in the ashtray, willing it to burst back into flame. Willing it back to where it had lain on Harold’s stomach before she had snatched it up. But the crumpled white cylinder stayed cold and dead, and didn’t move an inch. Just like everything else in her life, the cigarette stubbornly refused to do what she wished it to do.

#

The postcard scene was folded up in Deborah’s handbag, but now that she was walking along the white sands of Waikiki in person she felt that she didn’t need to look at it ever again. There were the curving palm trees, just as the postcard scene had shown. There too were the placid waters of the Pacific. Soon, when the sun set, she would see that big glowing ball of orange fire descending down toward the horizon.

(Despite the tropical heat, Deborah shivered at the thought. She’d recently given up smoking herself, after suddenly losing the taste for it. And now it seemed that anything that reminded her of orange glows or curling smoke made her shudder like a schoolgirl.)

Deborah walked all day along the white sand beaches of Waikiki, from morning until late afternoon. When she closed her eyes, she could hear the gentle crashing of the surf and could almost imagine the strumming of ukuleles.

(Only twice, did the sounds of sirens intrude, but not from inside Deborah’s own skull anymore. They came from out on the main road back to Honolulu: police or ambulances, racing to some catastrophe elsewhere on the island. Or maybe fire trucks? But no: not fire trucks. Deborah didn’t like to think about fire trucks anymore.)

At four o’clock in the afternoon, Deborah rented a surfboard from a nice young man in a tiki hut. It cost fifteen dollars and it came with a free surfing lesson. But Deborah didn’t want the lesson. She just wanted to carry the surfboard, to hold it under her arm, and later to prop it up against a curving palm tree as the sun set out on the Pacific Ocean.

But as the sun fell lower and lower in the sky, Deborah still couldn’t find the spot from the postcard scene. She took the yellowed picture out of her handbag and tried to smooth it out in the evening breeze. It had only been six years since the picture had been taken… Could the spot really be gone? Had a typhoon blown it away, or had it been bulldozed over to make way for some new hotel?

Deborah could only do her best, and so at last she picked the spot that she thought looked most like the postcard scene. There were three palm trees, not two, and they curved in the wrong direction. But the white sands and the blue ocean were there, and so was the sun that was setting down into the distant horizon.

So she set up the surfboard, leaning it against one of the trees, and stood looking out into the sunset. Deborah had forgotten to get a flower for her hair, but there was nothing to do about that. She knew too that her skin wasn’t golden and her hair wasn’t the thick brown mane of the girl. Her back was certainly not the voluptuous violin shape that had made her presence on the postcard so appealing.

But she was there. She had made it.

Alone, it was true. With no home to go back to, no husband, no savings.

But at last she was there, watching the sun go down.