by Linda Mills Woolsey
“Can I put the dollar in for you?” she asks.
Her dark eyes shine like molasses in sunlight,
her scraped-back hair explodes
in an anthracite halo.
My heart’s drumbeat shifts
from four to the floor to jazz ostinato.
Why this zero at the bone?
The P.O.’s empty, for one thing.
Just me and this harlequin kid
with her hot pink sneakers, electric blue jacket,
and crown of barrettes, yellow
I scan the room for a big brother’s hoodied slouch
or the hard-faced stare of an older sister
with pouting fuchsia lips and bleached-taffy hair.
But it’s just us.
I bite my lips, trying to make out
this kid’s particular hustle.
We’re in the corner by the vending machines
where Palladian windows cast
barred shadows on polished marble
and the clerk is nowhere in sight.
Really, the kid’s what Grandma Vallely
would have called “a mite of a thing”–
skinny and small, not even half my size.
A dollar’s not much to risk.
Managing my best nylon-gloved Sunday smile,
I fumble in my purse. She flashes me
a candy-store grin, accepts
the rumpled dollar bill,
flicks it with a magician’s wrist,
rubs it smooth along the machine’s steel ledge,
feeds it into the narrow slot
without a hitch.
“Can I choose?” I nod.
Why not? We’ve come this far.
I watch as she considers options,
slowly touches each smudged glass rectangle
over the stamps, as if she’s inventing happiness
from limited options.
Stars and stripes, dinosaurs, dolphins.
I watch her hesitate over storybook bluebirds
and scarlet cardinals perched
in the mad white flourish of April dogwoods.
Okay. So maybe it is
a dazzle of possibilities.
Butterflies, I think, smugly, as her firm jab
releases a packet–Rubik’s cube bright
in the rose of her palm.
As I hesitate, she hands me the stamps
with a flourish: strange faces stare at me
from each perforated frame—
masks carved by half-forgotten people
to sing the world awake.
I’m left pondering choices
as the girl pirouettes, skips away, jives off
to a music I’m deaf to.
She just vanishes,
not waiting for a nickel or a dime,
not asking for a stamp,
not even pausing to look back,
even the astonished applause
of my smile.
Having worked her own angles
of amazement, she leaves me alone in the P.O.–
just another clueless middle-aged
white girl clutching the moment
like a patent leather purse—
wanting to hold on to the jazz of her joy,
to the way she worked the machines of the ordinary
with consummate grace.
Linda Mills Woolsey’s poems have appeared in Anglican Theological Review, The Cresset, Christian Century, Coal Hills Review, Relief, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and other journals. A native of Western Pennsylvania and Emeritus Professor of English at Houghton College, she lives in Rushford, NY with her husband, two cats and a comforting stash of books.