The only things in the village more important than the post office are the store that carries bread and the walk-in clinic. But when you come right down to it, the post office really is the bigger deal. The master built it back in the day, to use as a school, so it’s solid and roomy, and has little stoves to keep thing toasty. And so very orderly it is, with a separate office for the savings bank, and a room for outgoing packages, and even a special place to hand in newspaper subscriptions. The main room is where the post and telegraph clerks sit, behind a counter covered with blue linoleum and painted a reddish brown.
Postmaster Ilya Semyonovich Yablochkin is a bulky bulldog of a man. He wears a skull-cap to hide his bald spot, and sateen sleevelets to hide the fact that his shirt is out at the elbows. Yablochkin knows his worth and his customers’ too, which is why he torments them, making them wait in line until they are good and docile. He moves the abacus beads slowly back and forth to tally things up, writes even more slowly to fill out forms and record sheets, and, with regal dignity, takes out the book that has a pocket to hold stamps, and extracts them with licked fingers. He loves illustrated envelopes, and better yet if the picture celebrates the current date. He only accepts packages neatly sewn up in white fabric inscribed, legibly, with the to whom, the where to, and the from whom. The sender gets confused, scampers off to rewrite a form, and messes up for the hundredth time (it’s so hard not to put the amount in numbers), while the entire line is hissing and yelling mean things, because everyone knows that the same fate is awaiting them. The grand finale is the stamping of the outgoing mail, for which purpose a little pan of sealing wax is kept boiling on a small electric hot plate. With a deep sigh best fitted to the guardian of a state secret, Yablochkin stands up and takes a special wooden-handled seal from the safe. Dripping the wax onto wherever string meets string, he presses the seal down with great deliberation, then lifts it and admires his handiwork.
Ninka the telephone lady sits at a separate counter, mumbling “town exchange, town exchange, hey girls, Sheshurino calling, come in… town exchange, town exchange…” into her mouthpiece. It’s as if she’s chewing on the words. The line is always busy. The wooden benches are occupied by biddies with children, business travelers, casual laborers here to build a cow barn, and suchlike nobodies. And all of a sudden, Ninka yells “Kherson? Booth two. Move it, move it! Who wants Kherson? Fifteen minutes!” A little man darts across the room, losing his briefcase on the way, and starts yelling so the whole post office can hear: “Masha? Masha! I’m stuck here for two days! Masha! We’re being audited!” At which every single person there smirks, because they all know that the old pops from Kherson has hooked up with Valka the shop girl and has been wearing himself out with her in the sweltering heat, on a stove bench padded with feather-filled coverlets.
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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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