The box was cardboard, worn and frayed and the top still neatly in place. I recognized immediately the now pale logo of some long ago shoe company whose name I had not seen in years. I tugged at it gently and pulled it from its place then wiped away with a handy rag the dust of many years. Hidden behind chests of tools and old paint cans splashed with colored drool, forgotten quietly on one of the many shelves in my garage, I had stumbled upon the letterbox searching for something else. Gingerly, as one might carry a recently unearthed and long buried time capsule, I carried it over to my workbench knowing full-well what it contained, yet apprehensive, too, at the memories which would, like some unbidden genie, arise from inside. With both of my hands I pried gently at the top, the lid refusing at first to come away as smoothly as I had imagined. The box was no longer sturdy and I became more careful, a respectful steward of my past. I tugged more strongly now at one of the corners lifting the top and smelled at once the musty odor of years gone by and for a moment contemplated the sight of what I had known to be inside. Tightly banded in rows by year, some covered in faded script and others in uneven type, were the many letters of my youth.
The silence was profound because we lived in the country, a rattletrap drive miles from the nearest town. Above my head I listened to the creak of the rafters expanding in the hot afternoon sun, and outside the occasional car driving slowly past. I was alone that Sunday afternoon, my wife miles away, our children grown, and I welcomed my solitude.
I struggled with the nearest set of letters bound by a worn tobacco-colored band that snapped loudly and unexpectedly as my fingers tugged to remove it. The faded blue lightweight airmail envelopes, with their red and blue borders, cascaded unto the bench as I struggled to prevent them from falling to the floor. On the first one, a handwritten notation in my father’s no-nonsense script signaled the year—1966. It was the year of my graduation from high school, the year I went off to college and left he and my mother and my two brothers and sisters far behind in Africa, my father a missionary with his church devout in his passion for spreading the word. I fanned through the envelopes quickly, remembering as I did with some difficulty, highlights of that fateful year, a year which would begin to shape a life: long forgotten friends, a girl, the quaint college town, the horrors of the war in Viet-Nam, but little else. And of my freshman year, an interesting class, perhaps a charismatic professor, I remembered nothing.
Hesitant, and perhaps unwilling to read my words written or typed on matching blue onionskin paper, my life then as yet untainted by thrills and disappointments, I struggled at the prospect of being faced for the first time in a long time with evidence of the foolishness of my past. My hand trembled as my fingers reached in to pull out the first letter, my wide-eyed sentiments awkwardly revealed line by adolescent line, my future unknowable, my life uncertain, a nation at war.
I remember, as I read over my awkward sentences strung strangely together, how the letterbox had come to me. One of my sisters had them in custody for all of us—five letterboxes, one for each of us, of our correspondence home from America—saved lovingly by my father and mother in the tropical heat of their African home. I was middle-aged and married with children when I received my letterbox and gave it little attention and tucked it away.
As the years passed I chanced now and then to consider sitting and reading them, but a busy career and the pressures of life argued against it. Now, many years later, warming at last to the memories and undeterred, I dug deeper into my past. The thick packets, so rich and full of detail the first few years, were now very much thinner by 1971, the final year at the back of the box. As I opened them carefully, I learned I was busy and in a hurry that year. I had places to go and important things on my mind. My letters were typed in those days, because now I had a degree and a job and a typewriter in my office. My sentences were short, cryptic and terse, as if dashed off at lunch, the closing endearment mechanical and lacking in much passion, or so it seemed to me.
There were postcards, too, tucked alongside the envelopes, colorful and often still bright, the different colored inks from my ballpoint pens faded, my wide-eyed hasty scrawl often illegible. I leafed through them slowly, looking carefully and tried to remember first visits to Chicago, Manhattan and Washington, D.C., a crowded summer beach, an atmospheric city view of the southern town where I was married, and still others now mostly meaningless to me.
The afternoon was drawing to a close. I could sense the imminence of dusk and view the falling light through the small, dirty window high above my head. Switching on the light, I repacked the box slowly, glancing longingly one last time at the faraway familiar African address, a continent I would never visit again, and put away forever the vestiges of my youth.
J.R. Rogers holds a bachelor’s degree in French Literature but has worked most of his professional life as a management consultant. His work has appeared in Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review, TrainWrite,VelvetBlory, The Copperfield Review, and elsewhere. He has published three e-book novels, The Counterfeit Consul, Leopold’s Assassin, and Doomed Spy, for which excerpts can be found at www.authorjrrogers.com. He tweets about books, literature, writers, and writing @authorjrrogers.