Fred Miller is a California writer. Over thirty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories...read more appear in his current blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.
Born in the Mississippi, Fred maintains many connections with the culture of the Deep South. He spent his professional career in the financial world and now pursues his writing, often with a humorous take on life.
Time to time in our society we face minor mishaps, and because of the nature of some, we tend to discount them as rare, especially if they occur over the holidays. And if any embarrassment is attached to the encounter in question, our account of these confrontations may tend toward fiction, or, if you will, just plain lies to assuage our fragile egos. Sometimes stories become lore and are retold with much jocularity by so-called friends who risk becoming sworn enemies.
Now, the following story is true. Take it from me, the writer, I know. It happened to me this past Christmas so just forget I'm using a nom de plume to write about it. This should in no way dissuade you from the pure veracity of my words. I simply don't wish for my nincompoop sisters to know about this. Otherwise I'll never get any rest.
So, here's what happened. Quite innocently I drove to the main post office parking lot one chilly December morning to post Christmas cards. I might add that I send cards to almost everyone whom I have befriended over the years, and each missive always has a personal note enclosed. And I was confident that if I failed to have these gems mailed today, a number of them would arrive after the holidays.
To emphasize the importance of my mission, the reader should know that this is my favorite season of the year and I'll spare no expense or time to enjoy and share it with friends and acquaintances. And one of the family traditions I maintain is baking muffins from a secret family recipe handed down to me by my dear grandmother, Sarah. We call these goodies, "Christmas Bliss." And they are shared with local friends and neighbors and tradesmen who've made special efforts on my behalf.
So, here I am in the post office parking lot looking for the outside postal box. Anyone with any sense knows to avoid the unruly lines inside the post office during this time of year. Trying to negotiate a crowd full of unruly children is a sure sign of insanity, believe me, I know.
So, with my trusty, eco-friendly car, with fake antlers on the roof, I parked in a legal space in the post office lot, and rolled out with my arms full of cards and scooted toward the familiar blue box on the edge of the lot. Now the reader may ask why this idiot didn't just swing into the drive-thru and drop the cards in the box like most other folks? Good question. And yes, most would do just that and think nothing of sitting in a line of cars two blocks long while they sip coffee or check their make-up in the rear view mirror or sing along with the carols on the radio. And they'll do the same at fast food drive-throughs, even to the point of near starvation while they wait. But not me. Time is important…I'm in sales. And I've got a client meeting this morning in an hour halfway across Los Angeles. With a rude noise, my alarm clock reminded me of this appointment at 5 AM this morning.
Deftly I balanced my cards in one arm, and opened the mail drop with the other. "Swish," "thunk," and "ching" followed. The first two sounds I expected. The third I gave no thought to until I returned to my car and reached into my pocket for my keys. No keys there. I retraced my steps to the box and back to the car. I looked around the car. Under it. I even looked on top of it. And scanned a few nearby trees to assure myself that no wiseacre squirrel had snatched my keys off the pavement just to amuse himself at my expense.
As hard as I tried, I couldn't dismiss the thought that the "ching" I heard was the result of my keys landing in the securely locked blue metal box on the edge of the parking lot. Rats!
Moments later I scurried across the marble floor of the main post office and viewed the horde of patrons snaked around the entire floor in two directions. I was trapped. And the piped in music of the season did nothing to ease my tensions.
Scanning the area I realized it'd be impossible to move to the front of the line in a normal, polite manner, so I boldly marched past the lines up to one of the unmanned portals and waited. Behind me I could hear a few disgruntled mumblings, but I pretended to hear nothing. After all, this is the time of year to make allowances for others, I thought. I smiled. After a few minutes I caught the eye of a postal clerk down the counter who nodded and politely pointed toward the back of the line.
"I just have a simple request and it'll only take a moment," I said.
Our voices echoed across the cavernous room and heads turned to stare.
"But I'm stuck and I can't move," I said, my face now reddening. The clerk raised one finger to the eyes of the customer he'd been assisting and moved down the counter in my direction and peered over the counter at my shoes.
"Stuck in what, ma'am?"
"No, no, I'm stuck outside. My car can't be moved. I've lost my keys."
"Sorry, ma'am, but the post office cannot assist you in locating your keys. Perhaps you'd better call a locksmith."
With that he turned away and walked toward the customer he'd been assisting. Now I was irked. No, I was livid. "I don't need a locksmith. You…you have my keys," I said. My words reverberated across the marble walls. And the mumblings I'd heard earlier disappeared. Eyes widened. The gentle folk here were in the spirit of the season, I realized. They actually cared about my dilemma. With my firm pronouncement hanging in the air, the postal clerk in question turned and came back to where I stood trembling.
Now, uniformed postal professionals may not always display images of vitality and energy, but one might expect an air of courtesy and politeness. His face had now darkened. He leaned over the counter and whispered.
"No, ma'am, I don't have your keys, and if you persist in this unruly disturbance, I'll be forced to calls security and have you removed from the post office."
I stood rigid, my chin quivering, and watched as he returned to his station and smiled at the woman who'd waited patiently for him to conclude his conversation with me. This knave was not about to defeat me.
"I'll have your badge for this," I shouted over my shoulder, my finger pointed toward the ceiling as I retreated amid a thunder of raucous applause. That'll show him. But wait, I thought, what badge? My Christmas spirit had begun to wane.
Outside I fumbled for my phone and called Uber. And arrived at my appointment an hour late. After concocting a lame story for my tardiness, I launched into an energetic and enthusiastic sales presentation, one of my best. Twenty-five minutes later I was back on the street with no sale. I called Uber.
When I walked into my house, the first call I made to the USPO for assistance landed in a room of polite, soft-spoken postal aides in the Washington area who told me they'd never encountered a problem quite like mine. I was not amused. I asked for the direct phone number of my local postmaster and then dialed the number. I listened to a recording. My call was important. The post office wished to extend every effort to resolve my problem, whatever it might be. The recording said so. It also informed me that someone would cheerfully return my phone call within the next twenty-four hours. I hung up and redialed Washington.
"If you'd just call the postmaster in my city and make a simple request for me I'd be grateful. My car keys are in the postal drop box by the post office parking lot there, and if he'd secure them for me, I could go right over and retrieve my keys," I said. "That's all I need. And it's a simple wish, a Christmas wish, if you will." I'd hoped that coda might melt a few bureaucratic hearts.
"Thank you for your call, Ma'am. Your business is important to the USPO and I'll make every effort to resolve this problem for you." Before he could continue, I interrupted him. "Oh, thank you, thank you," I said, but it appeared I'd spoken too soon.
"Ma'am, the postmaster is very busy this time of year as you can imagine. It's unlikely that he'll be at his desk, but I can leave a message..."
"No, no, I can leave a message myself. I need those keys now, not twenty-four hours from now. Don't you understand?" I said. I looked at my free hand now shaking as if warming up to take a baton and lead a symphony.
"Ma'am, I'll do my best to inform the postmaster of your urgent request. Please bear with us. The post office is here to serve you. And we appreciate your business."
"Thanks," I said in a dejected tone and hung up. What could I do? Well, I suppose I could have my car towed to my house and—wait a minute. The post office wouldn't tow my car, would they? Never. After all, this is Christmas. I called Uber.
There sat my precious eco-friendly baby in the space on the edge of the lot where I'd left it. It looked okay to me, though it appeared that some squirrel had dropped acorns in the windshield well and a couple of pigeons had hesitated overhead to relieve themselves on my hood. Maybe the post office wouldn't tow it after all. Then I had a bright idea, a very bright idea.
I strolled over to the blue box and read the pickup times: 5 PM each day. Some trusted postal employee would open this box at 5 PM to retrieve the mail and if I was there, I could get my keys and my problems would disappear on the spot. I looked at my watch. Two hours from now I'll be breezing along in my car without a care. My spirits started to rise. I walked toward the corner at the front of the post office and happened to spot a security guard standing proudly at the front of the door. I ducked behind a tree. And called Uber.
Once at home I busied myself with business paperwork and waited. My cat gazed at me as if I were an intruder. At 4:30 PM I called for a car again. The post office was only ten or twelve minutes from my house. This was going to be a snap.
Uber informed me the closest driver was ten minutes away, still enough time for me to be at that big blue box at the appointed hour. I waited. And waited. At 4:46 PM a small red car pulled into the driveway.
"To the local post office—and hurry," I said.
He smiled and backed out into the street. Nine minutes later, we were in a long line of rush hour traffic waiting at a light two blocks from the post office. Two minutes later, the traffic light was still red. The light was stuck. I opened the door, thanked the driver, and raced down the block just as the light changed.
In high school I ran track, the high hurdles in fact. I knew I could beat the clock to the box. But when I turned the corner and raced up to the postal drop, the time was 5:06 PM. I leaned on the box and wheezed. Surely this time of year the professionals picking up mail would be off schedule. It's the holiday season; oodles of mail to be picked up everywhere. He'll be late, I told myself. But he wasn't. At 5:25 PM I frowned. And called Uber.
On the kitchen counter at home I saw the call waiting button blinking.
"Happy holidays, this is the postmaster, Harold Waites, returning your call. And I'll be most happy to assist you with any postal concerns you may have. At the post office we strive—"
I jerked the receiver up, dialed his number and listened.
"Happy holidays. You have reached the office of Harold Waites, postmaster of the—"
I hung up and sighed. No doubt if I'd swum to Samoa and back I'd run into Harold Waites from the local post office somewhere along the way and could beg for his kind assistance. Or maybe I could just assault him. Hm, I wonder if assault is a misdemeanor in Samoa? I grabbed the phone book and searched for locksmiths. It was late. I started with the A's and by the time I got to the M's I got a live voice.
"Minot Lock and Key, this is Bubba. How can I help you?"
"Bubba, my car is locked in the main post office parking lot and my keys are locked up in the drop box on the edge of the lot. Could you meet me at my car and make a new key for me?"
"Yeah, I suppose I could. You say your keys are in the outside mail drop box?"
"Well, you know, you could save yourself some time and money if you'd just contact the post—"
"Could you meet me at the post office parking lot and make a new car key for me?"
"Sure. You want that first thing in the morning or now on the night call rate?"
"Um, what's the difference?"
"'bout a hundred bucks more if you want it now. Your call, Ms…."
"Just call me slow."
"Okay, Ms. Slow. Now or first thing tomorrow morning?"
"How early tomorrow?"
"7:30 AM okay?"
"I'll see you there, Bubba."
"You got it, Ms. Slow."
At sunrise I called Uber and arrived at a coffee shop a block away from the post office at 6:25 AM. The café sign said they opened at 6:30 AM. I waited.
At 6:30 AM on the button a smiling waitress opened the door and I found a stool with the new morning paper on the counter. I sipped some hot coffee, ate a glazed donut, and scanned the local news. The post office was experiencing the usual holiday onslaught according to the editor's column and she was effusive on the great job and courtesies of the local postal professionals. I folded the paper, dropped it on the counter, and stared off into space. And every couple of minutes I glanced up at the wall clock. And waited.
At 7:00 PM I paid my tab, left a tip, and walked toward the post office. When I turned the corner I could see a paneled truck with the logo, Minot Lock and Key, but my car was nowhere in sight.
"This here's Christmas time and I didn't do nothin'. This one's on me.."
"Oh, thank you, Bubba. I'm adding you to my 'Christmas Bliss' list this year."
He laughed and drove off, none the wiser to what I'd just offered him.
I called Uber.
Either the post office had towed my car or it'd been stolen. I chose to think the latter. The post office was too busy this time of year to notice a lone eco-friendly car with fake antlers in its lot overnight. Besides, they appreciate my business. The recording said so. No, I decided, they'd never tow my car.
I called the police station to report a stolen car. A soft-spoken detective took down the basic data on the car.
You say you left the car in the main post office parking lot overnight, Ms…?"
"And your last name?"
"Josephine. Sarah Josephine."
"Okay, Ms. Josephine. You left the car in the post office lot because your dropped your keys where?"
"In the mail drop box at the lot."
"The mail drop box?"
He coughed, but I knew he was covering up a laugh. I bit my lip. And waited.
"Um, okay, Ms. Josephine, I'll fill out the missing auto report and if we recover it, we'll give you a call."
"Thanks," I said. I hung up the phone and called my insurance agent.
"Gotcha Covered Insurance, this is Sam, how can I help you?"
"Sam, this is Sarah Josephine. My car has been stolen and I need a car rental."
"Your car's been stolen?"
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Sarah. They take it out of your driveway?"
"No, I left it in the post office parking lot overnight and it was gone when I got there this morning."
"The post office parking lot?"
"Sam, do I have car rental coverage?"
"Well, I'm sure you do, Sarah. Let me just look this up on the screen. Hm, seems you opted out of the rental car option, Sarah."
"Says so right here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yep, but all is not lost. I've got a friend in the used car sales and rental business and I know he can fix you up with a nice rental on the cheap."
"He gave me the name and address of the car lot and I called Uber.
"Welcome, to Minot Motors, Missy. Merry Christmas, I'm Willie and I can guess the kind of car you're looking for."
"Yep, you're just itching for a late model Corvette and I've got—"
"No, I need a rental and preferably an eco-friendly car."
"Hm, you sure you don't want a muscle car? I've got a hot GTO and a red Mustang convertible just in…"
"No, just a plain ordinary eco-friendly car."
"Not sure I've got that, Missy. How about a late model Ford Fairlane cop car? That's the closest I've got to what you say you want."
I sighed. "Okay, I guess that will do."
"Your car in the shop, Missy?"
"No, it was stolen from the main post office parking lot last night."
"Say, I'll bet you're the lady who dropped her car keys in the postal drop box, aren't you?"
I just stared at him. He was attempting to cover a snicker with his hand.
"How'd you know that?" I said.
"My cousin, Bubba, over at Minot Lock and Key."
"Oh," I said. I signed the forms and drove out of the car lot in a six-year-old, black and white Ford Fairlane with two hundred thousand miles on the odometer. It looked like an orca with a blue slipstream of effluvium trailing from the exhaust pipe. And there'd be no need to inform my neighbors when I drove into the neighborhood. The muffler growled like an irritable lion who'd just sat on a thorn.
Late one night a week later I got a call from the police department.
"Ms. Josephine, this is Detective Samuels over at police headquarters. I think we've recovered your car."
"Great! Where is it?"
"In the police recovery lot down by the river."
"Where'd you find it?"
"In the police recovery lot. It seems it was towed there a couple of weeks ago at the request of the local post office. Because of the volume of business the post office experiences this time of year, they're most vigilant in keeping their lot clear of abandoned cars. I'm sorry it took so long for us to call you. There's a paperwork snafu we're trying to clear up over here at headquarters."
"When can I get my car?"
"Um, first thing tomorrow morning. The recovery lot opens at 8 AM"
He gave me the address and at 7:30 AM I was there looking through the gated fence. I could see an officer in a small hut in the middle of the lot. He appeared to be drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. I caught his eye and waved. He pointed at his watch confirming the lot would open promptly at 8 AM. I waited.
Five minutes later he came out of his enclosure and walked over to the fence. "Ma'am, I can't officially open the lot until 8 AM, but it's cold out here. Won't you join me in my booth and have some hot coffee?" he said.
"Well, how nice of you, Officer…"
"Officer Benson. I'm Sarah Josephine."
He eyed me in a most peculiar way.
"Got some fresh Christmas cookies here, too. My wife made them. Have one."
"Why, thank you for your hospitality, Officer Benson. You just got added to my Christmas Bliss list," I said.
He had no idea what I meant by this, but he nodded and smiled.
At 8 AM we stepped out into the open air. The car lot was vast, rows and rows of vehicles as far as I could see. I'd never realized how many cars might be impounded by the city and I told him so.
"Yes, ma'am, we have stolen cars, carts abandoned, and cars confiscated from criminals—you name it, we've got it. Now, let me find your name on the list."
"Sarah Josephine," I repeated for him.
"Yes, um. You're the lady who dropped her keys in the postal box," he said.
I nodded. He smiled. I didn't. We walked what seemed to be the length of two football fields and he paused. He looked left, then right, then back down at his paperwork. In front of us lay a grid of maybe fifty parking spaces, all empty.
"Says here it's in space 1046, but it isn't. Hm, come with me, Ms. Josephine."
We strolled back to the hut, he dialed the phone, and I waited. A conversation ensured between the office and someone at headquarters that made no sense to me. He hung up, shook his head, and looked at me.
"Ms. Josephine you need to go to police headquarters and speak to Chief Loggins."
I stared at him, my brow knitted. "Chief Loggins?"
Earlier I had left my cop car parked outside Minot Car Sales and Rental thinking I could drive back there and give Willie the keys once I had my own car. I called Uber.
"Ms. Josephine, I'm Chief Loggins, and I'm terribly sorry about your car."
"Where is it?"
"It's been sold."
"Yes, the police department conducts a quarterly auction of confiscated and abandoned cars and somehow, by mistake, your car was included in the auction."
"That's impossible. Where's my car?"
"According to our records a car auctioneer out of Minnesota bought it along with about twenty-five others, and it has now been re-sold to someone in Canada."
"I want my car back."
"I know, and the police department wants to make this right for you, Ms. Josephine. Come next Thursday at the City Council meeting, we think we can resolve this matter to your satisfaction."
"City Council meeting?"
"Yes, we're confident we can get the post office to sign the necessary forms before then and at the council meeting we'll submit a proposal to have the city refund the value of the car to you. Then you'll be able to find a suitable replacement."
"But I don't want a replacement. I want my car."
"Yes, ma'am, I understand. And I'm terribly sorry."
"Isn't this illegal? I mean, somebody else buying my car?"
"No, ma'am. And as I say, I'm terribly sorry. Now, if you'll just step out into the office and ask for Detective Samuels, he'll have you sign the necessary forms. Then we'll get the process moving for you."
I frowned. My lips quivered and I felt my eyes well. Damn, someone's trying to rob me of the spirit of the season. I won't allow this, I just won't. I've got Christmas Bliss muffins to bake for my friends and neighbors. I'm not allowing this small setback to get me down.
It's late Friday afternoon and I'm sitting in the kitchen with the cat in my lap. I'm reviewing and updating my list of recipients for the muffins. The second batch is in the oven and wassail is warming on the stove. Nothing is going to spoil the goodness of the season for me. Nothing.
Last night I attended the city council meeting, and it appears that the request of the police department to refund the value of my car to me has been postponed. It seems that the post office regulations require a signature out of Washington for legal forms and this make take some time.
I add two names to the list. The doorbell rings and I find the postman standing there with a Priority Package, but he says he's required to get my signature before he can hand it to me. He smiles and I sign the form. "Holiday wishes, ma'am." He says. I smile and offer holiday greetings in return.
In the package I see my lost keys along with a form letter from the local postmaster:
Dear Postal Customer:
The USPO sincerely regrets any inconvenience you may have had in recent dealings with your local post office. At the post office we are here to serve you. And we do appreciate your business.
The letter was signed by Harold Waites, Postmaster.
In the kitchen I pick up the pen and add my postal carrier to the list. The cat's tail begins to move in tandem with the gentle rhythm of the kitchen clock.
I take a deep breath…sigh. The monies spent for Uber have almost depleted my monthly household allowance.
The doorbell rings again. I gather the cat in my arms and slowly pad to the door in my slippers.
When I open the door, I'm in a mild state of shock. I recognize the mayor standing there with a small wrapped box in his hands. I also recognize Police Chief Loggins, officers Benson and Samuels, my postal carrier, and a host of others I've encountered over the past few days, including many of my neighbors.
The mayor steps forward with a big smile and says, "Ms. Josephine, on behalf of the city, I'm pleased to offer you the keys to your new car. As you can see, it is in the driveway."
I see a new, eco-friendly car in the drive with a big ribbon on it. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. There's a lump in my throat. My eyes blink."
"It was Officer Benson's idea, Ms. Josephine. We recovered this new car in a drug bust. Chief Loggins called me this morning and I was able to call a council meeting at noon to approve the transfer to your name. Happy holidays, Ms. Josephine."
The crowd breaks out in applause and whistles. Before I can say anything, the oven timer "pings."
"That sound, Mr. Mayor, is to let me know fresh muffins, what my family calls 'Christmas Bliss,' are warm and ready. Won't you kind people come in for a muffin and some wassail and help me celebrate the spirit of the season.