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Ralph Uttaro

Ralph Uttaro

Ralph Uttaro's short stories have appeared in decomP magazinE, Bartleby Snopes, Toasted Cheese, Stone Canoe and other online journals. His work has twice been nominated for the storySouth Million Writer Award. He lives in Rochester, New York with his wife Pamela.

Snail Mail

"I have something for you." My mother handed me a yellowed envelope. "It was the darndest thing. It just showed up in the mailbox the other day. Look at the date."

I turned the envelope over in my hands. It had a New York postmark, dated August 4, 1986.

"Do you think it just got lost in the postal system all these years?"

It was more likely that the letter had mistakenly gotten tossed in a box full of old photographs. My father was an engineer at Kodak; free film and developing was one of the perks. He had copiously documented the lives of his three sons through the lens of his Instamatic. Since his death, my mother had made a project of sorting and culling and organizing his snapshots. When my wife Nancy and I visited on Sunday afternoons, my mother would take us through the latest album she had assembled. Her short-term memory was failing, but she could recall with remarkable clarity the name of the smiling mailman who helped me hoist his bag onto my shoulder in one photo, the final score of the little league game that precipitated the victory celebration in another.

I had become a chemical engineer, like my father. Like him, I was precise, pragmatic, unsentimental. I found my mother's rambling stories about my childhood boring, at times even embarrassing. Nancy, on the other hand, looked forward to these sessions. I would leave her and my mother in the living room and wander off to read the newspaper or catch a ballgame on TV. If I checked back an hour later they would still be sitting there, Nancy listening intently. Nancy was thoughtful, compassionate, serene. She had become the daughter my mother never had, but she was home with a bad cold. I was on my own.

"Are you sure it didn't just get stuck in with some of Dad's old photos?" I asked.

"Oh, no, dear. It came in Thursday's mail. I'm sure of it."

"Quite the mystery, isn't it?" I smiled at her.

"My, yes. I'm dying of curiosity, but I didn't think it would be right to open your personal mail."

The ink on the front of the envelope was faded and smudged. I could barely make out the name in the upper left-hand corner: Tom Montgomery. Tom was a fraternity brother at Syracuse, a couple of years older than me. He was a dreamy Philosophy major in a house full of jocks. I wondered why he would have written me.

"Well? Aren't you going to open it?" She was sitting across from me on the sofa, her hands folded in her lap. The brittle paper tore as I broke the seal with my index finger.

      Dear Bill:
      There's no good way to tell you this so I'll just say it straight out.
      Nancy and I are in love. We've been on fire the last three weeks.

I couldn't read any further. I felt dizzy. I grabbed the arm of my chair.

"Is something wrong?"


"Well, who was it from?"

"Some guy I knew at school."

"What did he have to say after all these years?" My mother had always been lovably obtuse. I couldn't tell whether she was making a joke or had forgotten the date on the letter.

"Nothing important." She looked disappointed.

I forced myself to stay for forty agonizing minutes, then I told my mother that I should go home to check on Nancy. It was a clear cold night, but I rolled down the window as I turned onto the interstate. The air flapped around me like sheets blowing in the wind as I accelerated to seventy-five.

      ". . .on fire for three weeks."

I had taken a job as a counselor at a six-week sleep away camp in the Adirondacks that summer. Before I left, I hitchhiked down to New York for the Fourth of July. It took me eleven hours from Rochester, but this was my last chance to see Nancy for the rest of the summer. She lived in a three-story brownstone on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. Lace curtains hung in the parlor floor windows, fresh flowers filled large ceramic urns at the top of the stoop. Her father grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. Her younger sisters watched us with furtive smiles, whispering to each other and giggling. We had sundaes for dessert, then Nancy and I climbed up to the roof to watch the fireworks. We kissed as explosions echoed and colors flared over the Hudson River.

I shared a musty cabin with another counselor and a half dozen ten-year olds. I was miserable. The kids never slept. I tried to call Nancy a couple of times late in the evening from the pay phone outside the camp master's cabin, but she was never home. When we got back to Syracuse in August, she seemed moody, distracted, reticent. I convinced myself that it was just a result of having been apart all summer. I was relieved when things gradually returned to normal.

Ribbons of orange and pink and magenta were disappearing along the edge of the horizon as I pulled into a rest stop. I opened the letter again.

      She doesn't have the heart to break the news to you. I lined up a job in the    

      city, she's transferring to NYU in the fall. She doesn't even know I'm

      writing to you. I'll tell her in a couple of days when it's too late for her to try

      to talk me out of it. Sorry, man.
                                                                       Tom M.

I re-read every line until the words faded in the dark. Two tractor trailers were parked at the far end of the lot. I stared at their taillights, listened to their engines softly idling, gulped cold fresh air until my lungs burned. After a long while, I folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope and put it in my coat pocket. I shifted the car into gear and slowly drove home.

Nancy was sitting in the living room by the fire, an afghan pulled tight under her chin, her hands wrapped around a mug of chamomile tea. Her eyes were watery, the tip of her nose red and raw.

"How is your mother?" she asked.

"She's fine." I sat down across from her, my coat still on.

"Something wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong."

She looked at me dubiously. I took the letter out of my pocket and handed it to her. Her eyes scanned the front of the envelope. I thought I saw her flinch.

"She said it came in the mail Thursday. It was probably in with Dad's old photos."

She set the letter down gently on the coffee table.

"Aren't you going to read it?"

"No." There was a long silence. Then she sighed. "It was along time ago, Bill."

"He said you were going to transfer to N.Y.U. to be with him. He said you were 'on fire'. Were you?"

"He told me he was going to write you, but I didn't think he ever did. Tom was always so dramatic. Don't you remember?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"I married you. We've lived happily ever after, as the saying goes. We raised three beautiful children together. That was almost forty years ago now. Whatever happened back then doesn't change anything."

She looked at me sadly, lovingly. I wanted to believe she was right.

"Does it?" she asked softly.

I took the letter from her hand and stepped over to the fireplace. I reached down and a small flame caught and rippled diagonally across the page. When my fingers grew hot, I let it go and watched as it dissolved to carbon.


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