I drove to the UPS store—I know it well—on the corner of Park and Mass Ave in Arlington, Massachusetts, my client’s manuscript on a tiny thumb drive in my purse. Sometimes I can email the file and they’ll print it out and all I have to do is drop by and pick it up, but one of their machines was acting up so I went in.
“Hey,” said the woman behind the desk, “be with you in a minute.” Open-faced and fair-haired, she looked like a former athlete. Strong. She was helping a man try to send a phone card to his son in Puerto Rico. “My son doesn’t have an address anymore,” the man said, and the woman was looking up nearby crossroads towns in some kind of book. Another man was sending a bunch of heavy boxes to Thailand and he too was having trouble with addresses. In the front corner of the store, with her back to us, an older woman stood at a copy machine, quietly feeding in pages.
When my turn came along, the woman behind the desk told me she was the new owner, Laurie Poland, and that she was working alone that morning. She told me she had bought another store too in a neighboring city. She put my thumb drive into one of the machines. I had tried myself and couldn’t get it to work. “What a day,” she said, shaking her head but not in a despairing way. She was bubbly, one of those spirits who seems to thrive on a lot of action. “I’m on my own,” she added. “My assistant overslept and I have to leave early to get to my two older sons’ football game. I have four boys and no matter what’s happening, I make time for their events. I mean, what’s more important than children, right?”
I told her I agreed as she dashed off to help somebody else. “Oops,” I said. “This machine is still not working.” She laughed and said, “We’ll get it honey, eventually. Come on to the back when I finish helping this young lady, and we’ll see if we can get my computer back there to send it up here.”
She set me up amongst her personal stuff, photos and sticky notes, attached to her computer and headed back out front. How nice of her to let me use her work computer, I thought. When I came out to see if the manuscript was printing, she had moved to the woman making copies at the printer in the front corner of the store.
“Everything going okay for you?” she asked. We had gotten my drive to print but the pages were coming out full of lines and not printing front and back as we had asked it to. I moved closer to tell Laurie we should cancel the printing but by this time she had her arm around the woman at the machine. I stood back. The woman was wearing black pants, a patterned jacket, and a puffy cap that hid her hair. I could see a bit of gray curl spilling out at the nape of her neck.
“I just need to make sure I get every single piece of paper out of this copier,” the woman said, her voice rising.
“Don’t you worry, we will,” Laurie told her. I saw the woman’s face now, streaked with tears and I couldn’t help but move closer. “You see,” the woman said, “these are all the pictures and writings of my son and he was murdered.”
Laurie leaned in. “Would you like to sit down?” she asked. “Let me get you a bottle of water.” Plenty of people were waiting for her attention, but Laurie just looked over to the register area and said, “I’ll be with you all in a minute.” I saw one sheet of paper the woman in the hat was copying. Photos: a blond-haired toddler with curls, a baby, an older boy missing a front tooth. Yellowing tape fixed to the page holding the snaps in place. “His writings are on the other pages,” the woman said.
Don’t worry,” Laurie said. “We’ll make sure you have every piece of paper you came with. “
“I have many more to bring in,” the woman said, tears coming stronger.
My thumb drive and printing problem paled. I remembered all those decades ago, waiting on a rainy November day, receipt in hand, for prints from a roll of Kodachrome I had turned in days before at the photo shop near my parents’ house. The young guy took the slip of paper from me, thumbed through a stack of envelopes, the thick ones photos used to come in, the negatives tucked inside, the upper edge turned over and sealed.
“When did you bring this in?” he asked me. “I can’t seem to find them.”
Standing in that UPS store, I felt my throat close, like a drain holding water in a sink.
“You’ve got to find that bag of photos,” I told the man in the photo shop, my voice shaking. I’m sure I sounded like all the other demanding people wanting their prints—and immediately. What he didn’t know was that this was the only roll of pictures we had of our son Malcolm, who lived only 7 weeks. If he couldn’t find these. . . . I felt my head go light, my knees rubbery.
Laurie stood with the woman, carefully gathering all her originals and copies and gently sliding them into a bag. “You come back with more and we’ll sit and talk a while,” Laurie said, her voice soft and liquidy, like honey.
“Okay,” the woman said. I noticed now that she had a cane. “I will.” Laurie helped the woman towards the door. “We’ll settle up when you come in next time and we’ll make sure to have more time together. I want to hear all about your son.”
She escorted the woman out of the store. Laurie came back to me. “Now let’s see what’s up with this print job,” she said. “I just don’t know,” she added. “If something happened to one of my boys?” She blew air out of her mouth.
“I know,” I said.
Her assistant had arrived and was helping tape packages and fill out forms for other customers. I thought of the gruff guy in the photo store all those years ago. He had no idea the subject matter of my pictures. Fortunately, the envelope turned up.
I think right now of all the men and women in the groups I have led–what they have left from their dead children’s lives. Some parents have lost their children’s things to fire, divorce, multiple moves, the thoughtlessness of others. I wonder about all the losses of all the people in the two hurricanes that have struck the Eastern seaboard this fall, flattening and flooding homes, wiping out entire towns. So much has been irretrievably lost—belonging to the living and the dead.
Finally, my print job came out right, front and back, no lines. This after two full manuscripts had printed. “Just pitch those messes in the shredder,” Laurie said. “I’ll only charge you for this one that works. You’re set.”
“Thank you,” I said. And then I couldn’t help myself. “Have you ever considered the ministry?”
Laurie laughed and tossed her head back. “I’m serious,” I said. “What you offered that woman was an act of grace.”
“I just try to help people,” she said, shrugging, “whatever that might mean.”