Since my folks moved to the Florida panhandle four years ago, my mother walks to the end of the driveway every weekday morning at eleven to get the mail. After their respective retirements, the hustle and structure of their previous lives has been replaced with the shifting white sand of the gulf coast. Besides bible studies and doctors' appointments, the only constant, really, has been the mail. In their little town, you could set your watch by it.
Gulf Breeze is a small suburb of Pensacola with a population of just over five thousand. People know most of their neighbors. They know the high school kid bagging their groceries. They wave to the sheriff as he cruises the boardwalk. They know their postal driver's name. On Elodie Lane, the woman who always came bumping around the corner every morning, the back of her white, boxy truck filled with bundles of magazines and credit car pre-approval packets and pizza coupons, was Carol. In their neighborhood, the one thing that changed the most, my mother said, was the style of Carol’s hair.
Three weeks ago, my mother pulled into the driveway a little before noon and walked down to the grab the mail. The box was empty. She saw that the other mailboxes on the street still had their red flags waving. Carol must have been running late. She began running through scenarios as she went back up the drive: engine trouble with her mail truck or a late delivery at the distribution center in Pensacola. Or worse, trouble at home. A fight with a boyfriend or husband. My mother knew Carol enough for the pleasantries if they happened to be at the mailbox simultaneously, but it was my father who talked with her more often. He was always outside waxing the car or mowing the lawn and he would undoubtedly hold up her route as they conversed. Maybe he’d have some insight about her delay. She planned to ask him when he returned home.
As she closed the garage, the sound of a siren crawled under the door and echoed off the posters of cars and vintage aircraft my father had mounted all over the walls. A fire station is within earshot of their house, so sirens weren’t unusual, but for a moment she had a feeling this particular call had some knowledge of her husband. He was, after all, getting older and this was something she had to consider. But it couldn’t have been for him. He was at the VA hospital anyway, he’d taken the scooter up to see the doctor about his gall bladder. So, if there was a problem, he'd be in good hands. There was no reason to think the worst. She let go of the feeling while she changed into a swimsuit. When he got back from his appointment, they were going to the beach to look for seashells. But my father, like the mail, was late that day.
And then the phone rang. A young male voice asked if her husband was Bruce, and when she confirmed this, he informed my mother that my father been admitted to the emergency room with serious injuries. The clerk had no further knowledge other than my father was alive, the stability of his condition was unknown. She was backing down the driveway again in a matter of seconds.
As she turned onto Midway, the main street out of the housing development, she saw yellow tape crisscrossing the next intersection. A line of waiting cars and a firetruck blocked the view of whatever lay beyond the tape. My mother pulled over, tires against the curb, and got out. She left the motor running.
When she ducked beneath the yellow tape and came around the side of the firetruck, she saw three things at once. Like a simple formula. (A) = Late model Suzuki Scooter, or what was left of it. My folks used this hog for solo trips to the beach or to buy milk at the Publix a mile away. (B) = Ford box truck swathed with flaking red, white and blue, pulled at an angle on the sidewalk. The sliding side door stood agape. A plastic bin was overturned, its contents strewn out onto the asphalt. A few envelopes lay in the grass nearby. (C) = A man in Post Office blues sitting on the curb, arms wrapped tightly around his legs, face burrowed between his knees. His body hitched with sobs.
(A) + (B) + (C) = the red flags of Elodie Lane.
“Did you hit my husband?” my mother asked.
Her voice must have broke him free of the spiraling train of thought, because he jerked his head back like someone had a handful of his hair, and he squinted against the sun for a moment, straining to make out her face, before he could respond. And when he did, he made no excuses or justifications. He didn’t blame the blind spot of the sun or the brakes of the Ford. He said simply, “Yes, ma’am. I did.”
My mother took this is, and absorbing it she looked around at the scene again. From (A) to (B), then back to (C). The sheriff’s deputies had left their notepads and conversation on the hood of the cruiser and had turned in her direction. They made no attempt to block her from the area, to push her back beyond the yellow tape. It was as if they knew.
There were a hundred questions in her head, begging her to scream at the folded man, but she quelled them and asked, “Did you kill him?”
“No, ma’am. I don’t believe I did,” the man said and dropped face face between his knees again.
She turned from him and got back into the car, the same Kia my father had spent the morning cleaning while she was at bible study, and drove to the hospital.
Twenty-one years before I was born, my father spent a year in Southeast Vietnam. He was a door gunner on a Huey, with the burn mark on his neck as a reminder. During that year, he was assigned to three different birds. The first two were shot down. In each, my father was the only survivor.
Today, my father is back home on Elodie Lane. His foot is broken in three places and his pelvis in three. He has bruised kidneys and a significant stitches on his scalp. His left shoulder remains separated, hanging on by tendons and ligaments. Fading road rash covers most of his body like a tattoo. In his words, “As the test results clearly show, the unprotected human body is no match for the Ford built U.S. mail delivery vehicle.”
But he has, once again, survived. My folks attribute this to God’s love and protection. His continual survival truly is a miracle. Someone or something is looking after my father, and if it really is the hand of the divine holding on with a tight grip, then right now, I’m thanking God for protecting him.
I still have no idea if there is a creator, and I’m not sure I ever will. I went to bible study while growing up and I thought of myself as a Christian, but it didn’t stick. I came back to the church when I hit bottom on my own and tried again. I still can’t say I believe in God above, but after my mother found the empty mailbox, I was absolutely certain about the one thing: the faith I have in my father. In his courage and in his strength. His love.
He is a man that, no matter what happens, I will never stop believing in.