Here are four short shorts to keep you busy while wasting time at work.
Martin unlocked his knuckle-dented mailbox expecting to find a small package, hopefully in a padded envelope. Being on the receiving end was always a minor thrill, whether it was a customary transaction or a handwritten letter from a friend overseas. The latter occurred less frequently and held more power, but whenever he was waiting for an antique wristwatch or the first printing of a limited run, he felt a brush of excitement.
The surge came as he charmed the door with the tiny bronze key. All the way open, he was breathless and befuddled. The mailbox was empty. Not a catalog or a card from the post office was to be found.
“They said it would arrive today,” Martin muttered to himself.
The seller had notified him that his parcel was on the way, sent with a tracking number through the postal service, which he used because of their low rates. Martin believed with certitude that, as a regular in the interstate marketplace, he knew about reliability and parsimony. Depending on what he was looking for, the gifts could cross continents. On those occasions, his only options were the commercial carriers. New Zealand was his furthest conquest, Laos the most exotic. The Laotian exchange reaped a disappointing yield, though not altogether dissatisfying. The photographs had been doctored. It was advertised as a gilded knife with a pearl handle, but the gold was irreparably tarnished and the pearl was something like marble. Martin still used it as a letter opener, though, and he warned his acquaintances not to buy anything from the charlatan. Coincidentally, he was informed soon thereafter that the vendor had been blackballed for exporting hundreds of zirconia rings that were advertised as diamond. The package he was hoping for was a vintage belt buckle with an engraved palomino. It was not particularly valuable, but that was beside the point. Something was simply amiss.
The next day Martin went to his day job at the call center. He worked for an insurance company that offered coverage for natural disasters, automobiles and death, but not health. We won’t save your life. That was the slogan he and his coworkers had come up with and laughed about over reheated lunches. They were unaware of Martin’s habit—what some would call a wasteful compulsion—of ordering things arcane and banal. The balance between fascinating and ordinary was exactly what was consuming about the practice. If, on a Wednesday, he fancied a garden umbrella with a Caribbean motif, it could be in his rented storage unit by Saturday. It did not matter that he did not have a backyard or a patio to unveil his find, because one day perhaps he would. And once he was fortunate enough to own that house, he would already have everything he needed.
On his afternoon break, while the other phone jockeys were furiously dragging cigarettes in the courtyard, Martin was calling the intermediary company through which he had purchased the belt buckle. They had drawn down the funds from his credit card and verified that the package had been sent on the day the seller had claimed. An unforeseen problem of little consequence to anyone else, Martin felt like he was caught in a loop, on a ceaseless carousel, and he was beginning to dwell on the futility of his endeavor. As he removed his headset, the smokers came in laughing. He slouched into his rolling chair.
Martin rode a salvaged Pashley bicycle with a cracked leather seat to and from work each day. It was a tall cruiser, meant for an athlete, and he nearly had to stand to have some semblance of comfort. The downhill coast for the last ten blocks was always liberating. As he approached the three-story house he shared with the owner and his son’s family, he side-saddled his legs before hopping off. This jaunty maneuver was the explicit expression of his anticipation, no less pronounced in the absence of his sought-after keepsake. His excitement quickly turned to disbelief when he saw that the mailbox was once again empty. He closed the door and opened it a second time, as if he had tricked himself into believing an illusion. But the envelopes that were supposed to be leaning against the tin wall were somewhere else. That somewhere, of course, was the ground of infinite mystery.
In the middle of the night, Martin was watching a cult film about a former beauty queen who, late in her years, paid a shifty surgeon to make her look young again. When they unwrapped the bandages from her face she was revealed to be the opposite of what she desired. The surgeon, unmasked as a fraud, had given her the antennaed visage of a wasp. This frightening yet entirely predictable ending kept Martin awake for several hours. He stewed over the whereabouts of his belt buckle. The mailbox could have been full of invitations and credit card statements and he would have questioned its existence nonetheless. While lying on his couch, with fever dreams of wasps and roaches and missing shipments, he resolved to visit the post office before work.
Martin waited outside the post office in an overcoat, checking his watch and attempting to will the doors open. The branch manager, who he knew by face but not name, let Martin in as the customers lined up behind him and shouldered their way to the front. He stood at the window while the clerk prepared her space, counting the till and organizing her artillery of stamps, both rubber and adhesive, official. When she was ready—and he was unquestionably waiting on her—the postal worker raised her eyebrows expectantly and disrupted the pregnant pause.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“Yes, hello, I was expecting a package to arrive on Monday and wanted to know if it is being held here. I did not get any mail yesterday either, which is unusual.”
“Did you bring the package notification card?”
“No. Like I said, I have not received anything in the past two days.”
“Maybe it’s been held up at the exchange center. Who knows?”
“I guess that is possible, but would you mind checking back there.” Martin pointed to the wall where the failed deliveries were kept. “The last name is Volckhausen.”
She rolled her eyes, coaxed her hips out of the chair, and waddled over to a rack of alphabetized shelves. After perusing the inventory, she returned with upturned palms.
“Is there anything else you can do?” Martin asked.
“What’s your address?”
He provided his house number, and though she seemed exasperated, she obligingly entered his information into her terminal.
“Your change of address was approved last week. The mail must have been forwarded.”
“What? I didn’t move. You must have made a mistake.”
She lowered her eyes at him. “I don’t make mistakes. It says right here that it was submitted on the tenth. You signed it.”
“Will you print it out for me?”
“Yes, but you will have to speak to my boss if you want to know anything else. The queue is backed up.” Martin looked over his shoulder. Faces dripping with contempt and lethargy.
The woman handed him a sheet of paper with a copy of a crinkled form. His name and address were there, as was another address above the scribblings of a forged signature. Martin stepped aside and stared at the evidence, utterly confounded. His bewilderment did not keep him from acting, however. He dashed out the door and fumbled as he unlocked the Pashley. As he weaved through traffic, crushing the paper against the handle, he thought about how he been abused. It was worse than a stolen identity, it was a premeditated scam buoyed by bureaucracy. The house was not far, and whoever it was may not have been home, yet he pedaled as if he were late for a very important affair.
When he reached the street he checked the address again and secured his bicycle to a signpost. The house had a red door that had recently been painted. Martin knocked and a man about his age answered. He was wearing a polo shirt, a beige jacket and twill pants. It was precisely the kind of outfit Martin would wear, and this man’s disaffected mien was a fair match for his own. Martin’s eyes were drawn to the man’s waist, where his missing belt buckle was pinned. It was meant for blue jeans and cowboy boots, but Martin would probably only admire it once it was in his possession. Beyond the door, Martin could see a stack of boxes, other shipments for other marks. Tired of this standoff, the thief crossed his arms and huffed. “What do you want?” The air of entitlement was enough to enrage him. Martin did not know where to begin.
CONCERN, WITH THIRST AND HUNGER
The apartment is beginning to smell, or reek, I should say, of curdled milk and unwashed skin. The man that takes care of me has been asleep for four days now. The lights are off and the refrigerator door is open. Even that light has gone out. I have been dining on leftover beef casserole, which is quite delicious, and better than the tablespoon scoops of minced lamb that I am often fed. My caretaker never puts down the toilet seat, so there’s plenty of water. Sometimes the basin makes a gurgling sound before it fills up again. That’s when I like to go for a drink. I have to perch on the rim and crane my neck to lap up the water. It may seem precarious, but I have never fallen in. Not once.
The curtains are drawn, so I have to paw at them to see what’s going on outside. It appears to be morning, but I can’t be sure. My sense of time is warped. Maybe it’s afternoon, when my roommate usually returns from wherever he goes. I pan the street and follow the blur of motion. A bird flew into the window and fell onto the sill when I was a kitten. It didn’t move for several days, and then the human pushed it off the ledge with a broomstick. I thought he was going to give it to me, but he just nudged it until it dropped out of sight. I stared at him without blinking to ask why he had teased me.
I circle the couch and then slide my leg underneath it to corral the stuffed mouse, but it’s just out of reach. If my roommate were awake he would toss it to me and I would bat it away. I recognize the difference between an animal and a doll, but there’s something irresistible about the toy that I cannot define. My choices of entertainment are limited, so I can appreciate the simple pleasures of a good scratch at my carpeted post and a stretch after a long nap. A minute of attention from a hand behind the ear is even better.
The coolest part of the house is a tiled corner of the kitchen, though it is sticky from spills and has been chipping away for years. That is where I rest and wait, beating my tail against the splintered baseboard. Before I get comfortable, I take account once more. It has been another slow day of chasing moths and bathing. I have sniffed and licked and nuzzled my caretaker, but I haven’t been able to wake him. I have been waiting for a visitor to come by and rouse him, and would be grateful for the company. Although he is here, it is as if he is not here. Usually there is music, but since he has been sleeping I have only heard raps and rings and stomps. The house is quiet, and I am a little worried.
ALL FOR REBRANDING, RAISE YOUR EAGER HANDS
I clocked in at four past the hour and was met by the head-shake of the store manager, Kevin. Neither a scholar nor a gentleman, Kevin tapped his wristwatch and clicked his tongue: “Not good, Mr. Walcott. Not good.” He was pompous and infantilizing, generally loathed by his subordinates. I, for one, was appalled by his slavedriving arrogance. Though I was mired in a life of mediocrity, at least I wasn’t upholding an institution defined by it. When Kevin went back to the office, where he counted tills and clipped credit card receipts, I pulled the company’s silk-screened T-shirt over my head and considered the futility of my charge. I checked the schedule and saw that I was supposed to mop the floor. But I didn’t care for swabbing, so I shirked that duty and shuffled over to prep.
To say that the labor of a smoothie artist is monotonous and menial would be monotonous in itself, but there’s more than a glimmer of truth in that statement. So why did I subject myself to such unrelenting tedium? Because I was shiftless and naive, unaware of the doomed fate of the underclass, and I didn’t see any way to escape other than to pretend I simply did not exist. The fluorescent lights had hoodwinked me into believing I was human, but I was just another marionette behind a counter. Strings were pulled and I perked up for the pale-faced strangers, mechanically scooping their sherbet. As the doubts began to consume me, I tested my theory of faithlessness. I slipped on a Latex glove and plumbed the icy crush of supremed oranges. My numbed fingers swam in the cold preserves and I dabbed my tongue with the frost. It tasted of aluminum and concentrate, far from the tartness of the vine.
While blending raspberries and açaí, I realized that I could no longer withstand the hegemony. I handed a customer his frozen-yogurt-glucose-jolt and said, “Your daily dose of deliciousness awaits you, sir. Come back to Slush Rush soon.” According to company policy, if an employee failed to refer to a customer as sir or ma’am, they would be entitled to a free juice, and the cost would be deducted from the scofflaw’s paycheck. I abided by the rule because I didn’t want my paltry earnings slashed, but sometimes a customer didn’t look like a sir or a ma’am, so I resorted to mumbling sir’am to cover my ass. I didn’t utter any sir’ams that day, however, and I never sir’amed anyone thereafter.
In the mood for martyrdom, I stripped off the Latex glove and silk-screened T-shirt and addressed everyone in the store, denouncing the alleged wholesomeness of the Slush Rush brand over the loudspeaker. The audience was baffled by my rancor, which was as frank as it was misguided. Prepared for the fallout, I reserved the most powerful and low-swinging adjectives for the Chief Slushee. For my insolence, and what Kevin deemed threatening behavior, I was duly fired.
UPON THE ALTAR, HIGH ATOP THE STEEPLE
We used to wrestle, my brother Henry and I. We revered the barrel-chested caricatures we saw on Saturday morning television, when the week’s marquee match-ups were revealed. Champions and contenders faced the camera and boasted of their prowess, all for the fervor of their devoted followers. Us. We were suckers for the good guys, but we played out our ring fantasies as rivals, for the sake of truth and valor. Henry was a shaggy blonde, so naturally he assumed the roles of our heroes, Hulk Hogan and Mr. Perfect. I was always a cheap imitation of whichever low man the title-holder was going up against, which essentially meant that I always had to be the loser.
I was almost a teenager when we had our last bout. It was the year of the great California drought, and the end of another arid summer. We had a covered mattress and a box-spring set up in the garage where the rounds began. We bounced high and dropped elbows, missing each others’ head by an inch. Our father constantly warned us about fractured skulls, our mother’s protests were legendary. We beat our chests and raised our skinny arms to rile up the imaginary crowd. The only way to get pinned was to be body slammed, like a star in full extension. I clearly remember the deranged look on Henry’s face whenever he came at me in that frenzied sprawl. Bug-eyed and frothing, my maniac brother.
But I found ways to escape, slipping out of choke-holds and half-nelsons on the strength of sheer will. I had to, because we inevitably wanted to move to the backyard where we tussled in thickets of Bermuda grass. We would be itchy afterward, but the chlorinated swimming pool was there to soothe our nicked knees and rash-burned skin. That was the way it went when the time had come for the grand finale. We had no idea how fleeting our game would be.
On a waning afternoon, Henry rushed at me with a rabid bull-charge, one of his signature moves. He started before the bell and caught me off guard as I was hurled poolward. Before I could react, I was in the water, tucking and sinking to the concrete bottom. I held my breath and sewed my eyes shut, counting the seconds until I finally had to rise for air. I searched the yard for my wily brother when I emerged, but he was gone. Treading water in the deep end, I waited for him to come running through the fence gates. Then I heard a bird call from above. It was Henry’s unmistakable caw. He was on the roof of our house, standing at the edge with his toes hanging ten. “Henry, get down!” I yelled. He returned with a war cry and leapt, becoming a swan as he dove. My brother had perfected flight, but he had to land. When he did, the splash was tidal, a wave that went on forever.