Image by y shell_ghostcage via Pixabay

Written by Mel Carriere

     On her 59th birthday, Ross Truman gave Natalie Anderson a pretty pink stylus. 

     In Ross’s defense, he didn’t know it was her birthday. If he had known, it would have been a very lame gift indeed. She would have been completely justified throwing it back in his face.  

     Actually, the stylus wasn’t intended as a gift. Ross had bought a ten pack of assorted colors for five bucks, and didn’t want the pink one, for usual cultural macho reasons. He bought them because it was tough to use his postal scanner with his winter gloves on, but the styluses worked perfectly on the scanner screen, meaning he wouldn’t have to take his gloves off. He thought Natalie might find this useful, too. He thought wrong. 

     That same morning Ross left the stylus there, he tried to explain to Natalie what it was, and what it was for. But her thoughts were elsewhere, she was only half-ass listening. In fact, she was kind of mad that Ross had not wished her happy birthday either. She thought they were friends, and weren’t friends supposed to do that? Her girlfriends in the post office had failed to report too, but for some reason they were absolved of this sin. Of all her coworkers, Ross alone stood guilty. Natalie was still an attractive woman still at 59, and maybe she expected men to fawn and gush all over her, but they weren’t doing it today. Maybe she was on the other side of that washed out bridge where they would fawn and gush no more. This could be why she took it out on Ross, as a symbol of fawning and gushing now past.  

     Needless to say, It was a quiet morning at the Snowmist post office. Most of the time, if Natalie and Ross were casing mail side by side, they chatted and joked freely. For instance, Ross might tell Natalie that her lower Midwest drawl made her sound like a female John Cougar, and then she would growl like a cougar. Or, she would answer that his Southern California Valley voice made him sound like Moon Zappa. Friendly, playful banter like that. But today, Ross was getting the silent treatment, and wasn’t happy about it. Still, he kept it to himself, because to consciously acknowledge his perceived injury might be a sin. 

  The wound in Natalie’s tender psyche aggravated Ross’s aggrieved brooding. Because neither was in the mood to blink first and say good morning, in the hour before they hit the street it was silent as a tomb inside the post office. 

     As she drove her mail rounds far away from Ross, Natalie’s bad mood only deepened. She had been abandoned on her birthday. No matter how much a mother and grandmother like her swears they don’t care about such things, no matter how well they play the role of silent servant for everybody else’s birthday – baking the cake, buying the presents, making sure there is plenty of food and liquor for the party, it still sucks when they leave you hanging out to dry. 

     By rights, the one person who should never forget her birthday was her husband Steve, and this was the slight that should have hurt most. Although she knew such business trips were part of his legitimate duties, and he had been carrying out these long-distance inspection rounds for years, lately he appeared to like them too much. He was too eager these days to go off and leave her alone. Natalie suspected, though she could not prove, that he was fooling around with some hussy on the road. Probably his pretty little secretary, Yvonne. Natalie had been to Steve’s office, and couldn’t help but notice how that girl didn’t make eye contact with her, how she gave her a curt and cold hello, then pretended she had things to do and went off to run and hide somewhere. Meanwhile, she was warm and bubbly with everybody else.  Those could be signs. 

     To Natalie, this rude treatment could only mean one thing, but she wasn’t ready to admit it. Yes, she had her theories, but just like archaeologists couldn’t prove Moses for lack of evidence, Natalie could not prove the existence of Steve and Natalie’s love affair. Monitoring his phone for adulterous text messages revealed nothing. Dropping into his office unexpectedly on her days off  failed to catch him playing grab-ass with that little skank. Either Steve was one smart son of a bitch who knew how to cover his tracks, or there were no tracks to cover. Why couldn’t she be at peace and just acknowledge his innocence? Why couldn’t she admit his fealty and let it be? Because the suspicion bug still bit her in the ass every day, that’s why.

And here was yet another why. The bastard had forgotten her birthday! As thoughtless and egotistical as the man could be, he had never done that before. True, he would bring her gifts that looked like they cost him about five bucks and took about five minutes to pick out, but when that failed to impress, he would cheer her up with flowers and take her out to dinner. Well, sometimes only a promise to take her out to dinner, but it was the thought that counted, right? In other words, he went through the motions, making an effort. In the thankless world of devoted wife, mother and grandmother, effort is almost too much to ask for. But these days, Steve didn’t even bother to go through the motions anymore. This lack of motion on his part was giving Natalie a kind of emotional motion sickness. 

What did it mean? This was the question Natalie meditated upon all day while making her mail rounds, but could not come up with a satisfactory answer. She alternated between brief blips of hope on her radar screen of life, where she almost convinced herself she was being silly, then sank into deep troughs of gloom where Steve was guilty as charged. 

   None of her customers were outside today either, which only increased her despondence. Nobody was around to chat with, to tell her how wonderful she was. Natalie was a chatty person by nature, and a good chat could make her forget about stuff. However, on this particular day, the streets were deserted worse than during Covid. Even the neighborhood dogs, who ran out for treats when they saw the mail truck, were hunkering down like it was the end of the world. Maybe it was.

     By the time Natalie parked her mail truck in the shade for her second break, her funk had sunk to its deepest dip. Three o’clock in the afternoon and still no birthday greetings from anybody who really mattered. Why the hell was she always busting her still-shapely ass, making sure everybody was happy, when they couldn’t even call or text to say two simple effing words – Happy birthday? 

     Maybe she would surprise everybody and just disappear, drop off the face of the planet. Maybe she would quit her job and move away to…move away to Spain. Spain? Where did that come from? It came from her yakky, ungrateful T6 Ross, who always talked about going to Spain when he retired, that’s where. Well, come on Natalie, don’t blame Ross for your problems. His being faithful to his wife and never forgetting her birthday is no crime against you. She snuffed this train of thought quickly. Her ruminations were straying down dangerous paths. She better purge Ross and Spain out of her brain, this instant. 

     Thinking about Ross only made her remember the pink stylus he had put in the little holder on her vehicle dashboard, where she stored stuff like pens, notice left slips, and postage due envelopes. She looked up and saw the stylus, perched in that place, where it had been mocking her and her misery all day long. Why the hell did Ross put that there? she asked herself. Was it some kind of sick kick in the pants when she was already down? Did that stupid joker know it was her birthday, and leave the – what the hell did he call it? as some kind of insensitive prank? Was this little plastic cylinder with the rubbery end supposed to be her big birthday present? It was exactly the kind of gift her husband Steve would bring to her, then appear perplexed when her face didn’t light up with joy. 

     Natalie grabbed the stylus and threw it out against the open side door of her postal vehicle, but her aim was off, and the stupid little doo-hickey bounced against the metal door frame, then fell into the well where she jumped in and out of the vehicle. She was tempted to say some swear words, or at least think some swear words, but she was a grandmother now, and had also given her life to Jesus. So she settled on an outraged mother effer that rang silently through her brain. After that, she figured she better stoop down and pick it up, or her dumb a-butt might slip on it, hit the deck, and be laid out for weeks. All because of a silly pink pen.

     That afternoon after work, Natalie’s sister Donna called to wish her a happy birthday. 

    “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier, sis,” she said. “I was working, you know.”

 

    “That’s okay,” said Natalie, the kay part climbing at the end, a bit plaintively. 

     “You sound a little blue. Don’t tell me you’re all alone on your birthday.” 

     Natalie said nothing. A little tear leaked from her eye, though she had promised herself not to cry. Donna could hear her tear. Sisters hear each other on secret frequencies. 

    “Oh Natalie, I’m sorry. That thoughtless jerk!” Donna didn’t like Steve. Never had, and she made it known. 

    “Don’t call him that, He’s busy.” You had to defend your man, even if he was a thoughtless jerk. 

    “Yeah, busy doing…” but Donna pulled her punch, thinking her sister was going through enough shi…- stuff, to give her more to worry herself silly over. “Well, you know what I do in times like these. I take my Bible off the shelf and let Jesus comfort me.” 

  Taking refuge in the good book wasn’t much of a salve to Natalie’s troubled psyche, right now. It should have been, she wanted it to be, but it just wasn’t. She loved Donna, but sometimes she irritated her with this sanctimonious grandstanding. Of course, Donna would deny any accusations of sanctimonious grandstanding, because sanctimonious grandstanding was only appropriate for people as righteous as the Apostle Paul, for instance. Still, Natalie could still hear sanctimonious grandstanding in her sister’s voice. 

     “You don’t have times like these,” said Natalie. “Bob is always thoughtful and sweet to you.”

 

     By saying this, Natalie had put a match to gasoline, and she knew it. Donna’s five sisters always brought this up, like it was a bad thing she had found a good man. Five years ago, before she found God, she would have dismissed them as jealous bitches, but Jesus and Bob were teaching her patience. In theory, the Holy Spirit should now suppress her sinful inclination to fight back, and make her respond instead with love. 

     Love, thought Donna meditatively, drawing a deep breath. Love. “Well you know, Natalie, it’s not like I didn’t endure twenty years living under the same roof with a jerk off.” That wasn’t exactly love, but it was better than anger, right? Then she wondered if jerk-off was a sinful word. Too late to reel it back in now. 

     “I know,” said Natalie. How could she not? Donna had been married to Steve’s best buddy Jim, a pair of wild childs from the same hometown, the same graduating class. The two were nearly carbon copies of each other, except Jim had the tendency to use his fists when he drank too much. “I’m really happy you shook him off and found a good man.” That part was a lie. Natalie didn’t much like Bob, either. She knew the Bible was a good thing, but it was all he ever talked about. Natalie liked guys that could make her laugh. Ross made her laugh. Shame on you Natalie. Don’t go down that road. 

     “He’s living a lie, Natalie. Christ commands us to preach the gospel to all men. You have to go after him.” Natalie knew Donna would never admit that statement was intended for anything other than a directive to save Ross’s stained Catholic soul, but she also understood her slightly older sister didn’t want to be the only one who had succumbed to the sin of divorce, either. Even in the days of the prosperity gospel, where everything goes, the stain of divorce still encountered righteously raised eyebrows. 

      For a Bible thumper, Natalie thought Donna was always eager to get her to do something dangerously close to adultery. 

     “I told you. He’s heard the gospel. He was brought up a Christian. A Baptist I think. He didn’t become a Catholic until he got married. Why are we even talking about him?” 

     “You’re the one who always talks about him.” 

     “Really? Well, maybe it’s better if we don’t.” 

     “Oh no. What did that guy do to you?” Born again Christian or not, Donna was hot on a juicy gossip trail now.  

     “It’s really not something I want to get into. It’s silly.” 

    “Natalie, I told you. The only way you’re going to feel better is if you unburden your soul of these things with someone.” 

     Natalie sighed. There was no way she was going to get her sister to let this rest. “It’s so silly,” she repeated. “Really, really silly.” 

     “Must not be too silly, or you wouldn’t be worried about it.” 

     “Who says I’m worried about it?” 

     “You can’t fool me. You’re worried about it.” 

     Natalie considered hanging up the phone, but she couldn’t do that without dire consequences.  For a devoted Christian, Donna could be ruthlessly spiteful and vindictive. Anyhow, there was no way to shake her sister off this scent, so Natalie told her the story of the pink pen. 

     “A pen, you say?” 

    “Something like a pen. I forget the exact word.” Natalie wished she was better at technology.

     “That’s not a pen, that’s a stumbling block.” 

     “That’s not a pen, that’s a stumbling block.” 

     “A what?” 

     “You said he’s Catholic, right?” 

     “Yeah, but he never talks about it. I mean, he talks about it, but he never tries to convince me I should convert, like…” 

     “Like what?”

     Natalie was going to say like you do, but thought the better of it. “Like you would expect, if he took it that seriously.” 

     “That’s the whole Catholic technique. They invite you over for something innocent and fun, like let’s get together for a couple beers, then next thing you know you’re participating in their witchery.” 

      “That’s ridiculous. You and I grew up Catholics. When did we ever participate in any witchery?” 

     Most of the time, Natalie didn’t contradict Donna like this. She was content to be a devoted disciple, letting her big sister supply the theology. But after coming home from this frustrating, depressing day to find herself still alone and forgotten on her birthday, she had uncorked a bottle of wine and kicked her feet up. Who did she need to be an example for, anyway? She had given up hope her son would bring the grandbabies around for birthday festivities, so she might as well let it all hang loose. Drop her guard, speak her mind for a change. 

    Donna groaned, exasperated with Natalie, because they had been through this before. “We did participate in the witchery, we just didn’t know it. All that ritual stuff – those recited, memorized prayers, are all prayers to the devil. Especially when they say it in Latin. Nobody knows what all that Latin means. Mom always took us to Latin mass, remember?” 

    “How could I forget? It was boring as hell.” 

    Oops, the evil h word. 

    “Are you drunk?” 

    “A little tipsy.” 

    “Well listen up, if you can hear me through the booze. You better ditch that pretty pink pen of yours. 

    The deeper she went down into the bottle, the more defiant Natalie grew. She hadn’t even changed out of her mailman uniform yet, and at this rate she never would. Maybe Steve would come home to find her with her lovely bare legs stretched out on the Ottoman, the thin stem of her wine glass dangling from her fingers at an angle, red droplets spilling down onto the new carpet. Instead of making sure she was okay, he would get pissed she had stained the expensive rug. This thought made Natalie smile. 

    “The pretty pink pen was the only birthday present I got so far today,” Natalie told Donna. “I think I’ll keep it.” 

    “You’re out of your mind. You can’t keep it. It’s cursed.” 

     “What?” Natalie really did spill wine this time, but just a couple drops that dribbled down her chin, never making it to the rug. “Who’s the real drunk here, me or you?” 

     “If that really was a birthday present,” said Donna, it’s the worst birthday present in human history.” 

     “I agree. It’s cheap and tasteless, but it’s my only birthday present, and I’m going to hold on to it.” 

     “You’ve got to listen to me, Natalie. Bob is an ordained minister, and he studies these things. He’s given seminars on them. The Catholics are in league with the devil. That pretty pink pen was put there to get you to think wrong, then lead you astray. Some pedophile priest probably gave it to your friend to give to you, after tainting it with that accursed water first, or praying over it to the devil, in Latin. Bob wonders if it’s even Latin, or some unknown language of the fallen angels. You’ve got to give it back to him, or your whole life will fall apart.” 

    Natalie cringed when she heard the words pedophile priest. The wine went sour in her mouth. She didn’t want anything that had passed through the hands of some filthy, drooling maniac who had been trying to put his filthy mitts all over kids. 

     “Calm down Donna. Of course I’m not going to keep it. I’m going to throw it away just as soon as I get back to the post office tomorrow.” 

     “No!” Donna shrieked. “Don’t throw it away! If you throw it away, the evil will cling to you. You have to return the pen to its source, and verbally reject it.” 

     Natalie thought this was getting more insane all the time. “What does that even mean?” 

     “It’s easy. You just say I don’t want it. But you have to specify what you don’t want. It will be like rejecting the devil, and all his works, and all his empty promises…” 

     “I…I can’t do that. I might hurt the guy’s feelings. I don’t think he’s the devil, I think he just left it in my truck and said I could keep it.” 

     “Are you sure about that? Do you want to see bad things happen to your family, to your…grandchildren maybe, to see the people you love suffer, after which you will fall into a despair that will make you doubt God, and possibly reject your faith? Or is it better to be on the safe side, and just give it back where you got it from?” 

     Natalie didn’t know what to say. This was just too bizarre. A stupid pink pen was being twisted out of all proportion. But, as usual, Donna had a way of twisting her soul into these moral knots, rejecting all middle ground or happy medium, finding the exact right words to motivate her into doing crazy things. 

     “Well,” said Natalie, “now that you put it that way.” 

Read Part Two Here: https://melcarriere.com/pretty-pink-pen-part-two/

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