The Dead Letter Office receives a series of postcards from a place that doesn't exist. Conway takes a trip to his local art museum after some pieces go missing.
(CWs: beer, derealization)
The Dead Letter Office receives a series of postcards from a place that doesn't exist. Conway takes a trip to his local art museum after some pieces go missing.
(CWs: beer, derealization)
CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the dead letter office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is a felony. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public.
A series of postcards, collectively titled Dead Letter 6910, postmarked May 17th 1980. The post office that initially received these cards were unable to determine the intended address and no return address was provided. They were apparently left on top of a cabinet for a few decades until that office closed. Agents clearing out the remaining equipment flagged these and sent them our way.
The front of the cards feature a white lighthouse, somewhat faded from exposure to the sun. Small cursive handwriting covers the postcards back to front. I’ve been able to place them in what I believe is the correct order. The messages read as follows.
LOST FISHERMAN, NARRATOR: It’s real easy to lose yourself fishing, to forget your troubles. It’s like a daydream. Now Lucy, I know fishing stories get exaggerated, but you’ve got to hear this one, sweetheart: it’s a real humdinger!
Me and Ken were out on the boat, cruising for fish. We had talked about going out on Lake Erie to nab a few meaty walleye last winter. All season I kept having the same dream: we’d be out on the drink, passing the hours doing a whole lot of nothing. I’d be almost in a daze when I’d hear the plop of my bobber dipping. I’d anchor my foot against the side of the vessel and start slowly reeling in the line. I could feel something pulling on the other end. Something big. We’d fight over the wire for minutes, then I’d finally hoist it out. A big, glistening golden walleye, almost as big as, jeez, my whole torso, you could say. But then Ken would hold up this weird upside-down painting of a lighthouse. While I was distracted, the walleye would wriggle its huge body and slip into the lake, disappearing into the deep. I’d peek up at the sun above the scattered clouds, sigh, then check my watch. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter what angle I’d look at it, I just couldn’t make out the time. Then I’d wake up.
Well since the weather’d warmed up, we figured it was about time.
So me and Ken were out on the Erie sitting on opposite sides of our little watercraft. He had this big orange life preserver on, which I still think’s a little showoffy, and his nose was white with zinc. He was gazing out over the calm water before he cast his line. It was a cool late spring morning, a little bit of haze still resting above the surface before the sun comes up and cooks it away like fat on the griddle. I flicked my wrist and sent my hook out into the lake, then reclined in my seat. I stuck my hand into the blue cooler at my feet and felt around for some jerky. Ken was still just scanning the lake, as if he was trying to find something that wasn’t there. He got this weird expression like he’d been pricked, then finally also cast his line.
We spent a while without a single bite. The morning bugs were starting to come out and swirl around the water’s surface. You know, in a way, fishing is kinda similar that new age meditation I saw on tv. You forget yourself and just be one with the fishing rod. Having a few brews handy helps with that, too.
I reached into the cooler for a beer and cracked the bottle open with a satisfying fizz. Well that finally caught Ken’s attention.
LOST FISHERMAN: “You want a cold one, buddy?” I offered.
KEN: “What brand did you bring?”
LOST FISHERMAN: “Well…” I turned around bottle in my hand, but the label was gone. It must have sweat off in the ice. “Something light. Don’t need to be getting sauced out on the lake in the middle of the day!”
Ken shrugged and took the slippery bottle. I peered over the edge at my reflection in the lake. The rippling water around the edge of the vessel distorted my face. Then the slack on my line went taut and the reel started unspooling. I shook myself from my thoughts and picked up my rod. I clicked the handle forward and started reeling her in. The drag was fierce, this must have been some fish! I braced my legs against the side of the boat and anchored the butt of the rod under the lip. I pulled and reeled in succession, but the more I struggled, the harder this thing was to reel in. My arms were getting weak, my face turned beat-red and no doubt made that strained expression you always laugh at. Ken sat and watched in shock.
KEN: “That must be some fish!”
LOST FISHERMAN: He muttered, then rushed over to me, pulling my shoulders and helping me keep my balance. We waged war with this fish, tug of war, that is, back and forth for what could have been 20 seconds or 2 hours. Eventually the line slackened, and we figured we’d worn this monster out. I puffed out a sigh, straightened my hat, and prepared to haul her in. I thrust my arms up and the line snapped, splashing me with lake water and sending me careening for the port edge. I landed on my backside with a crash. I dabbed the moisture in my mustache and rubbed my dinged elbow. Ken laughed and fished around in the cooler, pulling out another drink for me.
KEN: “Come on, I think you’ve earned it.”
LOST FISHERMAN: We sat quietly again for a time, waiting for another bite or just enjoying the little peace away from home. The bugs mostly left us alone once the sun was high. The warm rays of the afternoon combined with the sedating nature of the suds made me liable to doze off. My eyelids grew heavy and sank, blurring the glinting sun on the water into a band of soft light. The rocking boat lulled me into a trance, and my head dipped.
Before I could actually catch some Zs, Ken spoke up, real gravely. He was in front of me, his hand on my shoulder.
KEN: “Have you seen the duck yet?”
LOST FISHERMAN:“Which duck?” I asked. He closed his eyes and sighed.
KEN: “It’s rusting. Look this might sound boneheaded, How did we get out here again?"
LOST FISHERMAN: I blinked hard and pushed up the brim of my hat to get a good look at him through my sleepy eyes. “What d’ya mean, Ken? We drove out to the dock then motored out here.” He turned his gaze out over the water and shook his head. He asked if I remembered actually doing that and, well, now that he mentioned it, no. I just remembered being on the ship. “It was early, Ken,” I reasoned, “we were barely awake. I just can’t think on it right now’s all.”
He didn’t seem satisfied with that. He bent over the old cooler and rooted around to scoop out the rest of the bottles we had. He turned them my way.
KEN: “Look, no labels. You think every single one rubbed off in the cooler? You really can’t remember which brand you bought?”
LOST FISHERMAN: “C’mon Ken,” I said. “You’re acting funny. Not haha-funny either.” He took a step toward me. I was starting to get a little anxious.
KEN: “What’s my last name?”
LOST FISHERMAN: He asked. Lucy, I swear, I felt older than granddad. I knew what it was, but in that moment I couldn’t say. It was on the tip of my tongue, but nothing would come out. I felt prickling sweat running down the back of my neck. My hands were clammy and my mouth was bone dry. “Jeez Ken, w-what’s this all about? I thought we came out here to relax, not play ten thousand dollar pyramid together.” My stomach felt uneasy. Ken kneeled to my eye level and took off his hat.
KEN: “What’s your name?”
LOST FISHERMAN: What’s my name? What a damn silly question. He sounded serious though. What’d gotten into him? “I’m not playing around anymore, Ken.” I let out a bitter laugh. “Cut it out. You must be drunk, or seasick, or both. Yeah, that’s it. You know how you get off balance when we’re on the water. Here, lay flat on vinyl, it should cool your head down.”
KEN: “I’m not seasick, and I’m not drunk. Quit avoiding the question.”
LOST FISHERMAN: He had a queer kinda glint in his eye, and his mouth was screwed up in a grimace.
KEN: “What is your name, Lost Fisherman?”
LOST FISHERMAN: I wiped my sleeve across my upper lip to sop up the sweat that was beading under my mustache. I scratched at my neck with a shaky hand. I blinked hard a couple of times against the stinging sweat and sunlight. My poor gut was twisting itself up in knots. I was ready to go home and forget this ever happened. But Ken wasn’t about to let this go, not without me without answering his frankly asinine questions.
“Whatever’s gotten into you, Ken, I promise me saying my name’s not gonna help you. We have to get you to a doctor.” I got up on my wobbly feet and started toward the engine, fixing to speed us back to shore.
KEN: “Your name!”
LOST FISHERMAN: I raised my index finger and opened my mouth to yell, but nothing came out. I shut my trap and sunk my head. The world was spinning around me, my thoughts were swimming like fish in the lake. I couldn’t even remember my own name. I started coughing, almost heaving. I looked up again at Ken, who was just watching me. I tried to ask him to tell me what the hell was going on, but the words wouldn’t come together. I couldn’t remember a damn thing from before we were on that damn boat. My eyes darted around in a panic for any sign of familiarity: but there was no shoreline, no other people on the horizon. The jerky I brought was in a blank plastic baggie, the beers just brown bottles. My heart stuttered and shook like mice were chewing through my wires.
“Is...is this a dream?” I asked Ken, almost accusing him of something, though not sure of what, exactly.
KEN: “If this were a dream, we’d be in that boat instead.”
LOST FISHERMAN: He held out his hand, pointing starboard. I turned my head slowly, then I swallowed hard and looked. About a hundred yards off I saw a small canoe, Ken and me sitting in it, pointing back at us.
I swiveled my head back toward Ken in the painted canoe, then down at the wooden panels under my feet. Two oars were attached to the boat, and our fishing rods sat under the little seats near my boots.
He asked one last question.
KEN: “Do you have the time?”
LOST FISHERMAN: I turned my wrist over and tried to check the time on my watch. But I just couldn’t look at it. Everything was so as maple syrup.
KEN: “What time is it?”
LOST FISHERMAN: He repeated. I fought with all my might to glance at my watch. Its face was distorted, blurry and rippling in the corner of my vision. That winded me. I gasped and faced Ken. He leaned down to a panel in the floor of the boat and lifted it open, similar to a hatch for a crawl space. He flatly motioned with his hand to step inside.
So me and Ken climbed into the hole and stepped down a steel ladder below. At the bottom, we found ourselves standing in a dark, open area. Some kind of metal scaffolding was holding up a matte painting of trees over the lake. A spotlight was hoisted above a catwalk, its light shining onto where we were. Up above us I saw the wooden boat prop sitting on weighted rigging. It was surrounded by a plexiglass tank full of water no bigger than our rumpus room. It looked like we were backstage, or under the stage, of a theater.
I was totally flummoxed, unable to say or do a whole lot of anything. I heard something moving to my left. In my peripheral vision, I saw something dark, a figure in pure black, parting a set of curtains at the edge of whatever we were in, then it disappeared. Now Ken started walking slowly toward the curtains. I stood there, mouth hanging open like an ass, then hopped along to catch up to him. Behind us, I heard more of those silhouette people moving and muttering as they dismantled the lake set.
Ken stepped through the threshold and I followed. We ended up at the foot of an inverted lighthouse, hanging from God knows what and going way down below into the abyss under our feet. It was long, crumbling white stucco’d brick, covered in sharp gray icicles. There were a few cement stairs down to the stark black door leading inside. Ken extended his hand, signaling that I should go first. I stood in front of the dark door, and slowly turned the handle. I glanced back and Ken was gone.
Beyond the door was a spiraling staircase downward toward the bottom--er well, top--of the inverted lighthouse. I was surrounded by exposed red brick, and held onto the cold metal rail to steady myself. It was a narrow, claustrophobic descent, each step my rubber boots squeaked on the iron stairs. Moments passed in silence as the space got smaller and smaller.
I made it to the end of the staircase and saw an opening into a dark room ahead. Having nowhere else to go really, I stepped inside.
There was Ken again, tall, lanky, still in that silly orange vest and nose all white. He was standing next to a huge metal device, taller than he was at parts. Its surface was smooth and dark, maybe polished black iron. Its shape was curved and irregular, thick here, thin there, odd angles. Not a square or cylinder, nearly impossible to describe. It was humming, and letting off thick steam in slow curling ribbons. Its rancorous clattering and rumbling made me wince. It sounded like I was under the hood of a mean car. Ken was standing straight up with his hands folded neatly in front of him, clasping onto an empty golden picture frame. He locked eyes with me one last time and reached one hand out to this nightmare machine. His fingertips touched the sleek metal, and in a flash of light, he was gone, leaving just his lifejacket behind. I slowly moved closer to this machine, investigating where Ken just was. I could feel whatever this was giving off heat as it worked. My rubber sole depressed the corner of Ken’s foam vest as I stood next to the whirring thing. I put my shaking palm forth, and made contact with the Lucid Engine.
Now honey I know this sounds like nonsense, and this next part is gonna sound extra funny. You should be sitting for this last bit. Go grab a seat in the kitchen. I want you to think real hard on what I’m about to ask you. What’s my name? What did you do today before I wrote you this card? Yeah, I thought so. Now look up at the clock on the wall. What time is it?
We’ll be waiting for you at the top of the lighthouse.
CONWAY: I’ve searched for the address on these postcards, and not only does the street not exist, neither does the town. It’s supposed to be delivered to Aisling or Ashline? Ohio, which does not show up in any of our state records dating back nearly a century and a half. There only addressee is a “Lucy” something--the last name is smudged, indecipherable. The Ken figure was similarly elusive. Given the contents of the cards and the nonexistent recipient from a fictitious town, these postcards are undeliverable in quite a literal sense. DL-4910 will thus be stored safely in our vault.
CONWAY: A number of pieces have gone missing at the ***** museum of art. This only began after they received a strange new acquisition in the mail last week. As a dutiful employee of this venerable organization and art history major--or perhaps more pertinently the closest member of the Dead Letter Office to said museum--I’ve been assigned more field work.
*on tape: car door shuts, car starts, driving noises*
CONWAY ON TAPE: Now from what I’ve been told, a large crate showed up in the museum’s storage last Monday with no prior indication as to who may have delivered it. Rather than look this particular gift horse in the mouth, the museum accepted the donation and set out looking into its provenance. They found it historically noteworthy, I suppose, and set up a display for it. Since that time, 2 nearby oil paintings have completely vanished from the museum without a trace. I’m heading to that museum now to investigate with my trusty government-issue tape recorder.
*CONWAY singing on tape* I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my days. I bid farewell to Cincinnati, the place where I was born and raised. The place where he *indistinguishable lyric*
CONWAY ON TAPE: So they’ve got this exhibit cordoned off, and brought up all the packaging for me to look over along with the statue.
Let’s start with the piece itself. It’s about 6 feet tall, a carving of a winged woman, presumably an angel or perhaps a seraphim of some kind. Looks like marble. Her hands are clasped in front of her chest. Her features are smooth. The finer details of this sculpture appear to have been weathered by some time outside. Now nothing too exceptional, and not really my taste--
Nearby, I can see the former displays for the oil paintings. The info placards are still here, but the frames and canvases have vanished without a trace. Apparently the authorities weren’t able to find any any signs of theft and security cameras at all the exits show nothing out of the ordinary. It’s as if simply vanished into thin air. Now interestingly enough, there are several chairs nearby, closer to the sculpture than the paintings were, but none of them have been disturbed. So it’s either a standard theft--albeit one committed by an expert--or this sculpture has some kind of intrinsic definition of art and a penchant for larceny.
Now I’m not one to judge. Carpentry is certainly an art, as is furniture design. Maybe the sculpture sees things differently. Well let’s put this to the test. I’m sure the docents wouldn’t be too keen on trying it with anything from the collection, so it looks like I’m going to be doing my best impression of Picasso on my notepad.
All right I’ve placed my crude sketch at the foot of this statue, and uh, ten minutes later there's still nothing.
So it’s looking like theft is increasingly likely and my time is being wasted. And here I was excited to see a statue versed in aesthetic theory.
The return address on the packaging doesn’t indicate a name, but it does list some address out in Cali-for-ni-ay. A quick search indicates that it’s warehouse for shared by a CEO for a company called Thanatech. Now that sounds familiar, but I’ve got no reason to believe that this is anything our office should be involved with. Time to--
*on the phone in the car*
CONWAY ON TAPE: What do you mean he’s missing? Well it certainly would have been nice to know that an employee of ours is gone, yeah!
So--fingerprints were found all over this thing, and you didn’t think that was pertinent? Christ, all right, I’m turning around. I’ll be back in 10.
CONWAY ON TAPE: Jesus his prints really are all over this thing. Like head to base covered, all in different directions. Now we’re talking my language. What the hell was he doing?
CONWAY ON THE PHONE ON TAPE: Yeah, you got a description for me? Okay, tall, dark hair. Got a name?
Kenji Ta***. Right. I’ll get back to you.
CONWAY ON TAPE: Let’s try something else. Maybe my scribbling didn’t cut it for this thing. Maybe like the chairs. I wonder about facsimiles or forgeries. I’ve pulled up an image of Undergrowth with Two Figures by van Gogh on my work phone. I’m going to set it next to the sculpture and observe.
*Clattering noises, buzzing, same as in the lighthouse* Well, damn, that’s no good. I guess this thing disagrees with Bemjamin about a reproduction’s uhh authenticity. Well that's--
CONWAY ON THE PHONE ON TAPE: Yeah, it’s Conway again. Sorry my other phone is...indisposed. Now you’re going to want to box that thing up tight, make sure you wear gloves, and bring it out back. Keep it as far away from other pieces as you can on the way out, I want to emphasize that. I’ve got one of our guys coming with a truck to pick it up soon. Yeah. No! No, don’t call them, we’ll take care of it. We’ll update you as soon as we can. Yup. Okay, okay. Bye, now. Mm-bye--
CONWAY: We’ve catalogued this sculpture and assigned it the label Dead Object 07811. Further study will be necessary to determine its exact provenance and nature. For now, it will be stored safely and securely in our vault.
For the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, this is Conway, signing off.