Hat Lady

Submitted into Contest #212 in response to: Set your story in a post office.... view prompt

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Fiction

“She’s back.”

“Hat Lady?”

“Yup.”

MaryAnn motioned the next customer to the counter, putting a temporary hold on their conversation.

“Can I help you?” She asked, hoping she didn’t sound as impatient as she felt. It wasn’t the customer’s fault that she was anxious to see what happens with the mystery woman.

“Yes. Ten stamps please. You know those stamps that are always good, I can’t think of what they’re called.”

“Forever stamps,” she replied, glancing toward the lobby.

“Yes, that’s it. Forever stamps. Ten Forever stamps please.”

She plopped her tote bag on the counter and slowly began taking items out one by one. Slowly, so very slowly. “Now where’s my wallet?” she mumbled.

MaryAnn turned to her coworker who raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

Another glance to the lobby showed the back of the mystery woman as she exited the post office. Darn. 

“Will that be cash or charge today?” Digging in deep to find her professional voice she bypassed the tone of annoyance that was threatening to come out as she completed the transaction. The customer put all of her items slowly back into her tote bag including her ten Forever stamps, thanked her, wished her a nice day and left.

Thankful for a break in customers she called out “Did anyone see anything?”

“Nope. Same as always. She opened her box and left empty handed.”

“So strange. Did she look disappointed?”

“I didn’t see her face.”  

MaryAnn hadn’t caught a glimpse of the woman’s face in a while and last she did it was unreadable. Who was she and what in the world was she looking for? Appearing one day in that signature black hat of hers she opened a P.O. box which she checked on randomly. As of yet she had not received any mail. 

“It’s sad. She must be waiting for something, right?”

“Maybe no news is good news?” Doug, ever the optimist, replied.

“How is it good news to not receive what you’re obviously looking for? Give me one example.”

Doug thought for a moment and replied. “Maybe her daughter ran away from an abusive husband and the P.O. box is their only way of communicating if she desperately needs help. No communication means she’s fine.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Well,” Laura jumped in. “Maybe she has an elderly family member on death’s door and she’s hoping not to hear from the attorney that she passed. Maybe she uses a P.O. box so no one finds out when she becomes the sole beneficiary of a huge estate.”

Michael walked by taking out one ear bud. “Not again with Hat Lady? What’s with the obsession?”

“She’s not an obsession.” MaryAnn quickly became defensive. “She’s intriguing. Just trying to figure it out.” Hat Lady was kind of an obsession, MaryAnn reluctantly admitted, but just to herself. Having worked at the Post Office for over twenty years she prided herself on knowing all the locals and keeping up with their news and gossip. Hat Lady was the exception and that did not sit well with MaryAnn. 

*

“There’s mail in Box 103.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yup. I just saw it go in.”

“Well, I’ll be. Hat Lady got mail. What was it?”

“I don’t know.   White envelope. That’s all I saw.”

The group stared at each other after Michael’s surprising announcement. 

MaryAnn was the first to break the silence. “What does this mean?”

“Hat Lady should be here shortly. That is, if she gets notification of her mail.”

“Probably not, Laura. If she did, she wouldn’t keep coming in to check and leaving empty handed.” Doug had a good point.

“So, we wait.” MaryAnn said with her impatience in full swing now. 

Michael came back into the break room. “Tote Bag Lady is out there. Someone please help her. Not you, MaryAnn. Not in the mood to see a meltdown today.” He left before she had a chance to swat at him good naturedly. He was right, though; she just couldn’t muster up the manners for another slow motion transaction. Peeking around the corner at the line that was starting to form she saw Dr. Joe. He was more her speed. 

“I’ll take Joe. I like his stories about the kids in town who are all grown up now.” She tapped Laura’s arm. “As for Tote Bag Lady, tag you’re it.” They both laughed as they went back to work.

*

“Hey MaryAnn, I’ll trade you a turkey for a snowflake,” Doug, standing on a ladder, was handing her a cutout decoration that he had just pulled off the front window.

“How is it winter already? Another year coming to a close. I can’t believe it.” She took the turkey, threw it in the box labeled Thanksgiving, and handed him the requested snowflake.

“Another year closer to retirement.” He smiled at her. They were both getting up in years, looking forward to the next chapter of their lives.

“But first, another holiday season to get through. Hopefully we survive.”

If MaryAnn struggled to keep her composure with a line of two customers, everyone on staff said a little prayer every December morning. Like a barometer of her stress level, her cheeks turned deeper degrees of red. They knew from years of experience when it was timeout for MaryAnn. Someone, usually Doug, would take over her register and send her to the back for any plausible reason.

It was on one of those crimson cheek days that Laura filled in and MaryAnn walked to the lobby to check on the food drive. She was pleased to see the donations were at an all time high. Turning away from the baskets of canned goods she was startled to be face to face with none other than Hat Lady. 

“Well, hello!” She blurted out then instantly regretted it. They were strangers after all. “Happy Holidays.” She tried to cover up her overzealous greeting with something more fitting, less stalkerish. 

“Good day.” Her voice held a thick accent, barely over a whisper, her face in shadows under the brim of the hat.

MaryAnn stood dumbfounded, unable to move or answer. Hat Lady was right there with all of her mystique. She was itching to ask her questions, to finally find out why no one knew anything about her, she was never seen in town, in stores or restaurants. Who was she?

She stood like an oaf literally blocking the way to the wall of P.O. boxes. 

“Pardon,” Hat Lady said in a foreign whisper of a voice, in one word pointing out that MaryAnn was inappropriately in her way and would she please move.

“So sorry.” Feeling clumsy she stepped aside.

With the turn of her key, she opened the tiny door of P.O. box 103. From the other side of the lobby MaryAnn heard the gasp as the door swung open revealing the envelope inside.

Time stood still. Would she finally learn the secret of Hat Lady? She didn’t dare breathe or motion to her coworkers. She picked up a can of green beans from one basket and quietly placed it in the neighboring basket, an easy pretense of organizing the donations while intently watching the mystery hopefully unfold.

Slowly, in a slow motion speed comparable to Tote Bag Lady, she opened the envelope and removed a single sheet of paper.

MaryAnn reached up to the top of her head for her glasses. They weren’t there. How many times did Laura tell her to wear her glasses on a chain around her neck? If not for her stubbornness, she could be reading along instead of looking on blindly.

With a swift and sudden crumple, the letter was balled up.  Hat Lady turned on her heel and walked out the door dropping the paper into the garbage can as she left. MaryAnn was shocked.

With a look to her left, she noted the can, and with a look to her right, she saw Hat Lady walk through the parking lot. Another look to her left, a few quick steps and what she hoped looked like a nonchalant little swoop she grabbed the crumpled paper and ran.

Fighting her way through the dense crowd of customers bundled up in thick winter coats, scarves and hats holding piles of packages she got to the front of the line. Reaching over the counter she grabbed the “Be Right Back” signs and placed them in front of both Laura and Doug, sending all customers to David in the corner register. He looked at her with wild bulging eyes of pure terror. 

Ignoring David’s silent plea for help, she motioned to Laura and Doug. “Meet me in the break room,” she whispered.

*

The trio sat around the sticky table all eyes on the crumpled paper in the middle. 

“I mean she did throw it out. It’s fair game at this point.” MaryAnn said.

Doug sat back, crossing his arms over this chest. “True. Very true.”

Laura nodded in agreement.

With his usual one ear bud in, the other one out, Michael appeared, and they quickly filled him in. “Are you all serious right now?”  He grabbed the paper, opened it, and read it out loud. “Ready.”

“Ready?” The group said in unison incredulously.

“That’s what it says.” He threw the paper on the table, popped in the ear bud, and scolded them. “Get back to work. David is having a stroke and the mob is getting angry.” He was right. They went back to their stations in a haze greeting each customer merrily for the season.

There was endless speculation about the mysterious one word “ready” but there was never a solid explanation. Everyone had a theory ranging from the witness protection program to a fiancé getting over cold feet. The years went by, occasional strangers appeared in their tiny post office bringing with them tales from afar, but nobody ever stopped talking about the elusive Hat Lady and she never returned. Her discarded one word letter hung crumpled and yellowed on the bulletin board in the break room long after MaryAnn’s retirement.

August 20, 2023 20:31

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4 comments

Debra Walsh
14:22 Aug 31, 2023

Great job! Fun read! I love stories that keep the reader guessing!

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Hannah Lynn
16:57 Aug 31, 2023

Right? I’m still wondering what happened to Hat Lady and who she was. Maybe she’ll come back in another story and we will find out. Thanks for the feedback!!! :)

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Karen Corr
15:48 Aug 27, 2023

I enjoyed reading your story. Suspenseful to the end. Thank you.

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Hannah Lynn
18:41 Aug 27, 2023

Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! :)

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