“A Public Service” by Jenny Belardi

Issue 13 / Spring 2018

 

Jill stood at the end of the driveway, her hands cupped, nearly closed. One hand was full of cheese cubes, which left a residue on her skin. The other was full of apple slices, which left a sticky sweetness. She pushed her sunglasses down with her elbow, against the glare of the approaching car’s windshield. She counted.  

The girl’s tiny voice, her hand stretching out toward Jill’s. The girl had done well and she knew it. The car slowed, the passengers barely seeing Jill and the girl as they stood there inhaling the smell of the freshly cut lawn. The girl ate the cheese, returned to her spot. 

To think back on it, Jill knew it started because of the snacks. Jill saw kids snacking everywhere she went: in the grocery store, on the bus, even at church. Jill knew even before she had a kid that kids could be annoying, so she knew why all the snacks. She told herself snacks would be earned when she ran a household. 

 

 

The realtor didn’t advertise to Jill and Robert that so many people used the street as a pass-through. Or maybe she did and Jill just didn’t notice. Jill still remembered the realtor’s glossy red hair, her forest green pumps. She looked like someone out of the seventies. She matched the house. That was before they had Melissa, before cars driving recklessly caused Jill’s breath to catch in her throat.   

Jill was used to frequent stops. She’d been a mail carrier since she graduated from high school, operating on the same route since her mid-twenties. She thought she’d be a mail carrier for the rest of her life, or for as long as she could climb into and out of the car in the snow. For as long as arthritis stayed away, as long as she cold flip through envelopes as quickly as she could now. She liked the rote of it all, the uniform with its muted patriotism, the dogs. 

Even Melissa liked Jill’s job. Ten years old, Melissa thought mail was important. She couldn’t understand that the postal service could become obsolete any day now, or that her mother would probably be out of a job before the arthritis ever found her. 

Melissa and the cat, Henry, waited for Jill at the end of the day. Robert worked from home, but Melissa wasn’t to bother him. He made her a quick snack, usually peanut butter and fluff, and then he returned to his conference calls and his typing and his stacks and stacks of files. Melissa then re-dressed for whatever the weather was, and she knelt on the couch, her arms on its back, looking out the window. Henry waited too, even though he was waiting to be abandoned by Melissa, since unlike her, he couldn’t go outside. 

Jill kept her uniform on. She only went in the house to grab the cheese cubes and apples. Then, without a word, she returned to the driveway, this time with Melissa at her heels.   

 

 

It was a warm, sunny May day, but they would’ve been outside even if it’d been rainy. Speeding cars were even more dangerous in the rain, so it was important not to let their guards down just because they’d get wet. 

Melissa stood closest to the street, but not so close that she’d be noticed by the neighbors. She faced straight ahead, and as soon as she could hear a car coming from one direction or the other, she’d pivot her whole body towards the car. She’d shut her eyes very tight, and she’d re-open them when the car was about 100 yards away. Then, her eyelids would peel back an impossible distance, allowing a level of focus Jill couldn’t even understand. Jill couldn’t pay attention to anything the way Melissa could pay attention to those cars.   

“Forty-six,” Melissa said, the car maintaining a constant speed as it passed. 

Jill’s job was to take note of the car’s license plate number. When her daughter fed her a speed faster than the neighborhood’s limit of 25mph, she jotted the license place number down on a legal pad. The rest of the time, she leaned up against the front end of her car and watched her daughter, mesmerized. She gave her a cheese cube. 

Three minutes later, another opportunity. “Thirty-eight,” Melissa told her mother. Her mother gave her another cheese cube. 

She wasn’t sure when she realized that Melissa was different. She’d always been a social little girl, and she still was. She still hung around with Lizzie and Piper and Hazel. They had sleepovers, rotating amongst the girls’ houses. When they slept at Jill’s, Jill ordered them pizza and bought birthday cake flavored Oreos and root beer. She let Melissa rent a scary movie every time, movies the girls were way too young for and even though Jill was pretty sure Melissa didn’t even like scary movies.    

Still, Melissa seemed to prefer her mother over all else. Maybe it was because she hadn’t gotten to the teenage years yet, and maybe Jill didn’t understand what different even meant, because Melissa was an only child. But she knew most children would think that Jill was crazy, and Melissa didn’t.  

After seven or eight cars, Jill switched from cheese cubes to apple slices. Melissa wasn’t lactose intolerant or anything, but that many cheese cubes couldn’t be good for anyone. They were Melissa’s favorite, particularly the pepper jack. She needed them at the beginning every time, but by car seven or eight, she was so in the zone, Jill wasn’t even sure that Melissa noticed the switch. 

When they were finished, they went inside and sat at the kitchen table. Robert had meatballs in the oven, the smell intoxicating. Jill opened her laptop and emailed the police department with the license plate numbers and their recorded speeds. She shut the laptop with satisfaction, her favorite and most productive part of the day complete. 

Who was Jill kidding? The neighbors definitely noticed. 

 

 

There was less traffic during the summer than the school year, especially in the mid-afternoon, when Jill was finishing up her route. She could shave as much as an hour off her workday when mid-June hit. Some of her colleagues hated the summer. It was a hot time to have a physical job, and some of them hated having to interact with the kids who were constantly playing outside. Jill liked to see them. They were a throwback in their short denim shorts, playing basketball and riding bikes, occasionally rushing to the curb at the sound of the ice cream truck. 

Still May, it took her longer to finish the route, and the sun was high but not as high as it would be a month later. She rushed to the post office to turn in the truck, made sure there weren’t any pieces of mail stuck in the seats, and raced to her Subaru in the parking lot. 

Twenty minutes later, she turned into her neighborhood. She understood her own irony: that she sometimes sped herself, when she spent so much time and energy trying to catch other delinquents for doing the same thing. At least she stopped at the stop signs, which others didn’t always do. Jill herself had petitioned to have the stop signs put in, shortly after Melissa was born, when she started to toddle around the front yard. Always under supervision, but still. They’d put the stop signs too far up the block, with hundreds of yards between them. So it didn’t do Jill, or Melissa, much good. 

She could tell as soon as she parked that Melissa wasn’t waiting at the window. Henry was there, his tail swishing gracefully back and forth at the sight of her. There were only a couple hours of daylight left, but she tried not to let the panic show on her face when she walked into the kitchen where Robert was stirring a pot. 

“Hi,” she greeted him. 

“Hi.” 

“How was your day?” 

“Good. Yours?” 

“Good. Where’s Melissa?” she asked. 

“Hazel’s.” 

Jill immediately felt herself dissolve into limbo. She couldn’t track the cars herself. It was a special skill that only Melissa had. Even the police department took Melissa seriously. Or it seemed like they did anyway. They rarely replied to Jill’s emails anymore.

“I know what you’re doing,” Rob said to her, as she pondered whether or not to take off her uniform. Putting on sweatpants felt like a small sign of defeat, admitting that she wouldn’t be going back outside until the next day. 

“What’s that?”

“You’re freaking out inside that Melissa isn’t here.” 

“Oh, you mean that.”  She’d thought he meant what she was doing to Melissa. With Melissa. She wasn’t even sure anymore. “I’m not.” 

“It’s weird, what you’re doing.” 

“I know.” 

“But you keep doing it.” 

“It’s a good thing,” she argued.  “A public service.” 

“There are machines that can do it.” 

“I know. They put one on Baker Street. It flashes at you when you go too fast.” 

“I always slow down for it. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” she admitted, not sure if it was a good thing to do or not. If you only slowed down for the sign, what was the point?   

She had no other argument to make, but she didn’t need to. Outside, Melissa got out of Hazel’s mother’s Honda. They could all see Jill through the big picture window. Jill locked eyes with Hazel’s mom and they both nodded, the secret language they shared: Thanks for getting her back safely 

Melissa didn’t come inside. Instead, she waved to Jill, her arms moving in an exaggerated fashion. Come out, come out, they said. Jill looked at Robert, for acknowledgement or permission, she wasn’t sure. “Dinner in fifteen minutes,” he said. 

 

 

The décor in Melissa’s room was too young for her, but they hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. Sometimes, when Melissa was at school or out with friends, Jill sat on her daughter’s bed. The sheets were covered in tiny mauve bears, and the blanket over top was white and fluffy. The bed was always a mess, since neither Jill nor Robert ever cared enough about something like an unmade bed.

On a night when Melissa was downstairs working on a pilgrim diorama for history class at the kitchen table, Jill went into the room. She knew she’d need to make a quick exit if she heard anyone on the stairs, so she didn’t sit on the bed this time. Instead, she walked over to her daughter’s desk where there were stacks of papers. It didn’t look much different than Robert’s desk downstairs, except there were also piles of stickers and a tin of crayons. Most of the crayons were broken. Jill couldn’t remember the last time she bought any, and she knew crayons weren’t something Robert would ever buy. Still, it looked like Melissa used them. Carnation pink, periwinkle, and magenta were heavily featured. Jill sifted through the drawings. There were unicorns and seascapes and scenes from what looked like an extraterrestrial zoo. 

A drawing with harsher outlines than the rest of the pictures caught her eye. She pulled it from the pile, disrupting the drawing on top so she could easily put the picture back in its rightful place.   

It was a picture of cars. At first, she thought it was a picture of what she and Melissa had been doing. There was nothing inherently dangerous in this. Even if Melissa told people, or showed them a drawing, it would only serve to further solidify their family as a bunch of social outcasts. Nothing more. 

But that’s not what the picture showed. The picture showed two cars, smashed together so completely, it was hard to make out where one car ended and the next began. There were several figures standing close to the cars – luckily, no one was inside. One of them was wearing a postal worker’s uniform.   

Jill didn’t hear anyone’s footsteps until Melissa was standing in the doorway. She was momentarily terrified of her daughter. But Melissa just smiled and turned down the hall, walked into the bathroom, and began to brush her teeth. 

 

 

Jill knew that Robert tried to hide it from her. She could feel it as they lay next to each other in bed, the heat radiating off his body somehow not quite reaching her. He’d tell her later that he’d seen a couple of construction guys outside when he’d gone to get the mail, and he’d asked them what they were doing. It’d feel like his house more than hers when he said that. He occupied it for so many more hours than she did, toiling away in the closet-turned-office. No windows or clock, like a Vegas casino. 

Melissa saw the radar speed sign before Jill did. It was July, Melissa out of school. Almost every day that summer, she played basketball in the front yard waiting for Jill. Robert had lowered the hoop in the driveway, a hoop that had come with the house. The day the speed sign went up, Melissa stood in the yard holding the ball as Jill pulled up. Melissa looked disappointed, but also guilty, like it was her fault. Her talent would now be obsolete. Of course, it’d been obsolete all along, but now that fact had encroached upon their own home. 

The sign itself was hard to miss. It was bright yellow with contrasting black letters and numbers. “YOUR SPEED” and a black box with yellow numbers, now blank until the next car drove by. It was fastened to a poll fifty yards from their driveway. Jill wasn’t sure if the poll to which it was fastened was new or if it had always been there and served some other purpose, as well. She wondered how long it would take her to feel that way about the hideous sign. 

“No more cheese cubes,” Melissa said, as if she were in on the joke. 

“Not true,” Jill said. 

“What do you mean?” 

“We can use it as a test. To sharpen your skills.” 

A car was approaching. Jill grabbed Melissa by the shoulders, not harshly, and positioned her at the base of the driveway where she usually stood. Melissa herself pivoted towards the car. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but old habits die hard. As the car got closer, Melissa closed her eyes. She opened them at the exact right second, as far as Jill could tell. “Forty-two,” she said, and the car sped by. 

“Look!” exclaimed Jill, and pointed to the speed sign. Several seconds later, the car passed it. It blinked several times: thirty-eight, forty-five, forty. It was like a scale, or that old game show with the whammies. Jill inhaled. It locked on forty-two. She exhaled, trying to keep it silent. “Look,” she said again. 

She went inside to grab the treats.

 

Jenny Belardi’s work also appears in Yarn, Windmill, and Sixfold. She was a semi-finalist in the 2017 American Short Fiction Contest and shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Flash Prize. Belardi is the Director of Development at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. You can find her on Twitter at @jcbelardi.

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