Limited Edition Maya Angelou Stamps

Now when I walk into the post office
I'm thinking about yesterday I'm thinking
about walking into the post office yesterday
about how I had to just turn around
and leave because it was six minutes until closing
and I hadn't inscribed the books I was mailing
and needed to check Facebook messages for addresses
and the whole time it felt like time
was circling like a carousel of empty envelopes
then one of the guys behind the counter
mentioned three times to his coworker
that in four minutes he was leaving and you could tell
he was saying it in a voice that he wanted
to be heard so I just left without a word or even
an I-get-it nod because I've been there not
at the post office but waiting tables in college
at a pretentious pizza shop in Arkansas
and when the Pentecostal church crowd came in
late Wednesdays some Wednesdays
all of us servers would just sort of look at each other
and frown and say something
we could get away with something like
man it's a really late crowd tonight
in a broken chorus of voices we wanted to be heard
but they always stayed late anyway
and never tipped and we were always pissed off
so now when I’m thinking about yesterday
I’m also thinking about those far-away days
when I walk inside the post office after having inscribed
the books I’m mailing in my car
which idled there for so long in the parking lot
it had filled with cars when I finally looked up
and I thought I guess the post office has a lunch crowd
and when I walk in to join the lunch crowd
I grab two of the large tan envelopes I know
are the ones that don't require
anything extra any forms or stickers or anything
and now when I’m waiting for my turn
I check my phone a few times
but then I start to feel guilty about that
so I just sort of look around the post office
as if it were the first clearing in a forest I'd walked
all day for miles and that's when I notice
a poster on the wall to my right that advertises
limited edition Maya Angelou stamps
and I don't really mail things from home
or really mail much at all but I think to myself
I'd like to get some of those Angelou stamps
you know in case I send something to someone
maybe someone I love and I want them
to have a little piece of poetry with what I send them
a little piece of me that makes them say
hey so and so we got something from our poet friend
it's probably a book or something
look at that stamp
and then I start to think too that
it'd be nice if folks know I appreciate
black poets but then I wonder why I think about that
and wonder if anyone would even wonder
if I had thought about that anyway
but now on another wall behind the counter
of postal workers another poster for Batman stamps
catches my attention which reminds me
of being a kid in another life tucked away somewhere
when Batman was a cartoon to count on
not just in the afternoon after school
with a plate of cheese and crackers on my lap
but who’d always lash out against injustice
without regret or remorse for his victims
like the redneck kids that lived in my neighborhood
that lived to bully but now I’m thinking
of when that stray cat became my family’s pet
a black and white cat my little brother named Batman
the cat I’d see when I came home from college
curled up with my grandmother on her recliner
where she napped during the day and slept at night
because of an old back injury she said
not because we didn't have enough beds
and when he wasn’t curled up with her on the recliner
Batman was fighting crime would bring home
dead things from dark corners of back yards
did it for years but then a few years after grandma died
my mother found Batman all mauled up
covered with flies and we thought about him
curled up with grandma in the recliner
like some black and white wad of lost socks
or something not covered in flies
so now I'm thinking about that but when I think
about that recliner I’m reminded of my grandfather
and his dog Walter who used to steal
my dirty socks a fat black Chihuahua who’d trot off
with a single sock dangling from his mouth
who seemed to commit his little crime only after
grandpa died and passed the recliner on
to grandma and always only in the morning
when I was just waking up so I'd just barely see him
so it was kind of like a lingering dream
but then I'd go find him lying on the sock
behind the recliner grandma had risen from
hours before so I knew it wasn’t a dream
and I knew the sock was already lost
because he'd growl and show his teeth so I just
had to let him have it so I just wore
a lot of mismatched socks back then that's what
I always thought about anyway later when Batman
the cat slept there with grandma I thought
about grandpa and Walter the dog
who died so many years before Batman showed up
looking back it seems like he was from
another life but now in line at the post office
this old white guy surely someone's grandfather
is making a scene when the woman behind the counter
informs him that with that kind of envelope
he'll have to fill out this special form
write to and from then peel off the tape and stick it on
before it can go but at this he just slings
his black cane up onto the counter and asks if she can’t
just cross out the word express on the envelope
and I almost laugh and look around the post office
for other faces to almost laugh with
but instead I find that the clearing in the forest
is just forest now so I just look down
and check my phone again and I’m ashamed
not for checking my phone but for almost laughing
because bulging beneath this old white guy’s voice
is entitlement or something like it
and he owns it like he owns his skin like he owns
his cane his socks his big belly his watch
and in the woman's eyes I can see that she is seeing
how white the old white guy is and I wonder
if she wasn't black would that whiteness be there
that whiteness so white in her eyes
and now when I’m wondering if I even see it
if I can see it being white myself
I wonder if what I’m seeing is only my silence
my little silent laugh my little look-around
at the forest of faces growing new faces a long line
of faces and now the old white guy is busy
filling out his form hunched over all his words
and his numbers and for some reason
it seems like he’ll be there so long that when he finishes
he will have been dead for a long time
but then he does finish and he’s not dead
he’s only out of breath and just sort of swaying between
the only two workers at the counter
and it’s my turn next but one of the postal workers
is busy and the one who told him to fill out the form
leaves to drop an envelope in some box
somewhere in the back so I practice what I'll say
to this old white guy when he glances 
over his shoulder to see if he can cut I practice silently
saying sir and gesturing over toward the other worker
when he's finished who me and the old white guy
and all of us in the line inside the forest of faces
can tell is about to wrap up his transaction can tell that
inside every face is a forest and hiding
behind the trees is shame is anger is guilt is a forest
is a cat is a dog is memory is a forest is
yesterday yesterday yesterday
stretching so far back so far beyond what I remember
but now I remember how angry I got
when grandma said my black friends couldn’t stay
over for the night said just because when I asked why said
we were just different and all and grandpa
who always seemed like a forest that lived inside a forest
that stretched so far back the doctors
had to transplant his heart but before the forest
killed his new heart he kicked back on that recliner
silently agreeing with what his wife decided and I decided
then I didn’t know how to proceed but now
when I am at the post office now we can all agree
surely now every one of us wonders what will come to pass
is wondering what the procedure will be
every one of us who can all tell that the lone postal worker
is about to wrap up his transaction but
he doesn't and now the woman is coming back
so the old white guy shuffles shakily over
with both arms flopped on the counter
and they are both agitated you can tell pretty easily
and for a minute they just sort of stare at each other
until she says anything else
and he just stares back at her then asks how much
but before she can say he just takes out
a crisp twenty and slaps it down
faster than it seems he should be capable
and now after receiving his change now he takes his cane
out into the hot New Orleans parking lot and for him
maybe this summer will last forever but now
it’s my turn so I walk up and say
hi how are you just need to mail these books
it doesn't matter when they get there
and then I ask
can I get two sheets of those
limited edition Maya Angelou stamps

and point to the poster on the far wall and she looks over
squinting a bit and I follow her look still pointing
and I squint a bit too and it feels as if we are both trying
to make out some blurry something
we can barely see through a thick forest of trees

 

 

Most recently, Christopher Shipman is co-author with Vincent Cellucci of A Ship on the Line (Unlikely Books), co-author with Brett Evans of T. Rex Parade (Lavender Ink), and author of a chapbook of short prose pieces, The Movie My Murderer Makes (The Cupboard). His poems and prose appear in journals such as Cimarron Review, PANK, and Salt Hill, among many others. Shipman's poem, "The Three-Year Crossing," was a winner of the 2015 Motionpoems Big Bridges prize, judged by Alice Quinn. Shipman lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter and teaches English and creative writing at St. Martin’s Episcopal School.

 

Edited for Unlikely by Rosalyn Spencer, #BlackArtMatters Guest Editor
Last revised on Thursday, September 1, 2016 - 17:41