In the 20 years she has been postmaster in Paeonian Springs, Frances Williams-Payne has gotten to know her customers and their schedules pretty well.
"If someone doesn't come in, I miss them," she said. "If they don't come in for a couple days, I check up on them."
One day last week one of her daily customers didn't show up as usual at 10 a.m. When she didn't show up the next day, Williams-Payne consulted with the woman's neighbors. As it turns out, it was just too hot for her to make the trip.
"Usually if someone doesn't come in, I call their home or check with the neighbors to see if they're out of town," she said.
Starting tomorrow, residents of Paeonian Springs won't have that neighborly safety net, because Williams-Payne is retiring.
Williams-Payne joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1975 and worked as a window clerk in Hamilton and Reston before becoming postmaster in Paeonian Springs in 1985. Since it opened in 1892, the post office in Paeonian Springs -- population 404 -- has remained a one-man, or in this case one-woman, show.
"It is my post office. It has been for 20 years," said Williams-Payne, who declined to give her age. But with her husband Roger Payne retiring from his work as a plumber in August, the time was right to leave.
Williams-Payne said that when she started with the Postal Service, post offices were a bit more charming -- free from long lines, overcrowded parking lots and disgruntled customers. She did most of her work by hand, transcribing transactions and weighing packages on a manual scale. That equipment has since been replaced by computerized versions.
"We used to have things that were over 100 years old, but nothing ever went wrong with them," said Williams-Payne. "These things break down every day."
The post office, a white wood-paneled annex leased from the adjacent home of mother and daughter Barbara and Karen Decker, retains much of its charm. A needlepoint wall hanging that records the names and years of service for the town's postmasters hangs near the front door.
Williams-Payne's addition was a dish of M&Ms on the counter, refilled every few days.
"I get complaints if I don't," she said.
The frequent interaction with customers has made her somewhat of a confidante.
"Sometimes I feel like a bartender," she said. "I pretty much know everyone's business."
While checking their mailbox Thursday, retirees Mary Ann and Bill Yockers joked with the postmaster.
Bill Yockers, an avid Harley-Davidson motorcyclist, pressed Williams-Payne to take him up on a longstanding offer to go on a ride. Her response: "As soon as you get it air-conditioned."
Mary Ann Yockers said she would be sad to see Williams-Payne go. "We're really going to miss her. She's always got a nice smile and a nice attitude."
A few minutes later, Donna Jamison came in to buy a book of 40 stamps -- probably the last time she would see Williams-Payne behind the counter.
"You'll be sorely missed. Please come back and visit us."
But Williams-Payne told her not to worry, especially since she plans to enjoy her retirement in nearby Hamilton. If she needs a book of stamps, Paeonian Springs will be a five-minute drive away.
Frances Williams-Payne, left, talks with Mary Ann and Bill Yockers.