A letter for Carver

The letter slides through the tarnished brass mail slot onto the floor of Dorothy Carver’s compact shotgun row house along with all the others. In its plain white business envelope, the letter does not stand out from the gas and electric bill or the worthless junk mail that comes along for the same ride. It does not distance itself from the folded grocery circulars that merely, and innocently, offer you a dollar off on Mott’s applesauce. No, the letter possesses no innate powers enabling it to stand up on edge and spin around, begging for special attention. And only much later does Carver—as she likes to be called—wonder why anybody would think it’s OK to share bad news, life-changing news, so quietly and unobtrusively. Such things should come with a warning—red flashing lights, perhaps, or, at the very least, a deeply revealing dream. Better still if someone were to show up at your front door and begin yelling at you. At least then, Carver decides, after the whole business had spun itself out, you’d have the illusion that everything happening to you is somehow connected with real people, and not just a faceless system.

So the letter lies in wait, in dumb silence (an insult, truly), on Carver’s floor, as Carver returns from her nightshift at the hospital cafeteria. She kicks the pile of mail to the side, as is her habit. With only six hours until her lunchtime shift begins at the local elementary school cafeteria, Carver’s priorities are sacrosanct: run a hot bath and throw something in the micro before catching a few hours of sleep. Sunday will offer plenty of time to open the mail, and get up to all other manner of foolishness, depending on her mood. Church has never been high on that list, truth be told, which means Sunday stretches out, deliciously devoid of obligations. Carver sinks into the hot tub, steam billowing and filling the tiny bathroom, soaking off the smell of cooking oil and ketchup and canned pineapple. The best moment of the day: drifting in and out of sleep, aching heels and knees and hips unfurling in the hot, sudsy water. And just enough money in the bank to cover this month’s rent, buy a graduation gift for her niece—middle school!—and groceries that bear no resemblance to anything she prepares or serves at work. As for the utility bill, well, there is a bit of an unstated grace period on that.

Sunday arrives, and it is the last peaceful Sunday Carver will have to herself. Perhaps ever. She refuses to think in those terms, now, because that way lies defeat. The letter is nearly dumped into the trash along with the unsolicited solicitation to purchase a burial plot, but her name appears printed more crisply than on actual junk mail, suggesting someone truly intended this letter for her, personally. Although she does not recognize the sender’s name—a law firm, and what business does she have with any law firm?—she opens it.

And there it is. Words on a page that morph into the dividing line between Then and Now. Isn’t it strange, Carver thinks later on, when she has too much time to think, how mere words on paper can turn somebody’s life upside-down?

Through it all, Carver makes a point of keeping track of the days since receiving the letter. Today is Day 176. And she sits on a park bench on a punishingly cold and damp November day, a block from the elementary school, counting the minutes until her shift starts so that she can move indoors, warm up, and resume the mantle of a normal life—for six hours, at least. Day 176, and she has exhausted herself picketing with neighbors who received an identical letter. She has exhausted herself figuring out who might spend two minutes entertaining an appeal to find new housing she can afford. She has exhausted herself trying to construct an alternately stable reality. And all because of black type on a white page: Eviction. Demolition. Brand new construction. Urban renewal. Better city!

The words on the page are plain, yet potent. Life used to be a condition to be borne—cheerfully, whenever possible. There were many bright moments to celebrate: the niece’s graduation. The hot baths. The indulgence of sitting in a dark movie theater matinee on Sunday, carried away by the impossible odds of surviving on Mars, or Compton, or Chicago, or St. Louis, or Milwaukee, or Baltimore, or anywhere, for that matter. All made possible by the fact—seemingly immutable, hah!—of returning home to a few rooms, heated, with a bathtub waiting to be indulged.

And now. But now. Each Sunday, Carver walks down the block where she lived her other life—the one she actually chose at the outset. There is concrete rubble and twisted rebar. A yellow forklift sits in the middle, as silent and unresponsive as the white business envelope itself, which kicked off this fiasco. She knows there is a name for this disruption. It is progress. And what does that mean, really? Dorothy Carver doesn’t have answers, only questions. And as she now lacks a permanent address, it seems unlikely that a nondescript white business envelope will arrive any time soon, containing the answers she seeks, in plain black type.

 

By Amy Bernstein