"Taking himself seriously, so you don't have to."

Manufacto Corporatica

A blue ball bounces down a stairway, followed closely by a boy no older than four, Glen. He makes a little murmur with each bounce. “Dop, dop-dop,” he says. The ball ricochets against a wall, bouncing into a small kitchen. The boy’s mother, Edna, stands over a sink, inserting silverware and plates, one at a time, into a recess in the counter. Seconds later, a freshly-cleaned utensil, plate, or bowl pops from a similar recess into her waiting hands. The boy’s father, Herb, sits at a stainless-steel l table, eats scrambled eggs with a fork, and watches a screen portraying a newspaper.

“Edna, have you heard about the… London Astrolabe?” asks Herb, squinting. “Well, apparently, the UK’s made an astrolabe so big that it’s the biggest one ever—” Glen rushes underneath the table after his blue ball, ruffling his father in the process.   “Glen! Quit it!” Herb says, “I regret getting that damn thing. I should have let it rot with the other old trash in the poor shop.” Glen is undeterred, however, now kicking the ball into the living room. “But I felt bad for the guy. I’m surprised they let people inside the place.”

“Glen, go play with your view-box!” Edna shouts, “…All the great things we have: fully interactive view-boxes, robotic cats, partial-stun laser ray guns, and all he does is chase around that damn ball!”

Herb looks at breakfast: rice and pork congeal, with vinegar. He is about to dig in, but his spoon doesn’t quite cut it. Glancing to each side of the plate, he finds no fork. On the floor, he sees the dropped fork. “You know, I’ve been told they like to run around at this age… so maybe it’s only a phase thing. Chancellor knows I was a hellion in my day. I once called my teacher Mr. Hooch, instead of Mr. Hotch.”

“I wouldn’t brag about that Herb,” Edna says, “stunts almost kept you out of technical training. I hope you don’t talk about that at work, much less actually do anything so prankish.  We depend on your job; if you lose it… well you know what will happen.”

Herb retrieves his fork from the floor, and wipes it with a napkin. He fiddles with the pork pudding, overcooked. He needs a knife, and he takes it. “Edna, I’ve never done anything…” Herb trails off, as he, fumbling with his utensils. His eyes grow wide with some strange thought. Spoon, fork, and knife hang limply, crossed through each finger on the same hand. He studies them like he has never studied anything before, unlearned and unknowing. Edna keeps talking. Now she’s saying something else. She’s really close to his face now. She pokes him in the cheek. Glen tugs on his dad’s pant leg. Herb blinks and mindlessly puts the utensils in his coat pocket.

“You’ve never done what?” Edna finally asks.

“Oh nothing,” Herb says, checking his watch. “Time for work. Hugs and kisses.”  He rushes out the door, down the steel steps, and onto the street below.  He crashes into a sea of men in suits, each one more similar than the first.

Edna turns from the sink and crosses her arms in a forlorn manner; her gaze focuses on a briefcase on the floor, near the door.

*****

Herb sits on a bench in a tram car.  He rockets by gray skyscrapers, radio towers spaced every hundred feet, and super-sized trinkets of every variety.  Most call the city beautiful; some find it sickening, though never in public.

“Beautiful, isn’t it Herb,” a man says.

Herb turns to see someone he knows well.  “I… yeah, it is.  Umm… Geoffrey, is it?”

“Yeah.  Geoffrey,” he says. Herb and Geoffrey relax back into their seats. The tram is the only non-work setting when they see each other. Though they work in the same office, they rarely speak. The stress of work does not allow for casual conversation, or so they are told. Herb thinks that it is strange that he knows nothing of his coworker. Then again, he thinks, for what does he need to know anything?

The tram stops; Geoffrey and Herb exit out through the side, file through the station, and jump on a conveyor that ferries them the rest of the way. The day is just like any other day, except there is someone without a briefcase.  “Herb,” Geoffrey says, “Where’s your briefcase?”

Herb checks his right hand, nothing. He checks his left, nothing. He checks the conveyor near his feet, again nothing. His head throbs; he wants to yell out, scream in frustration, but such a thing would only bring more attention, more pain upon him. The fact is now true. He gasps, barely audible, “I don’t have it…” Gazing to where Geoffrey stood, he sees only empty suits and unfamiliar faces. Herb, disgusted, looks to the ground and puts his hands in his pockets. Years upon years of working to make a livelihood… This is where I stand. Alone on the conveyor, waiting for life to sank from a most terrible mistake. What was I thinking? *Snap*, go his fingers, and he pads around his coat and pants pockets. He feels objects at his coat breast: a spoon, fork, and butter knife.

Herb sits at a his desk, staring at a panel with whirling lights, knobs, and vacuum tubes. He spent twenty years of his life training for this job. Twenty years he spent, all so he could twist a knob to the left when a red light flashed. Thirty minutes into work, today, Herb begins to wonder what he is doing. It is a dangerous question to ask, even in silence.  But it’s no matter any longer, for Herb’s life, as he knows it, is already over.

A man in a suit strides directly toward Herb’s desk: “The Supervisor”. Known by no other name, he looks as menacing as possible within proper social limitations. They are usually hired for a Type A personality, a wide jaw, and a relish for critiquing every second of their workers’ lives. “Worker bee number 45,” he says, “where is your briefcase?”

Herb looks at the ground.  “Sorry sir; I left it at home.”

“I’ve heard reports of a disturbance on the conveyor this morning.  Improprieties are taken very seriously number 45,” the supervisor says. “You know we have thousands of perfect applicants willing and able to kill for a job like yours.”

Herb rubs his hands together. “Sir, I understand,” says Herb, as relenting as possible, “I hope you can forgive me these discretions, as they are the first of their kind.”

“There is no allowance for error in this institution,” the supervisor says, “You were taught in training… you are withdrawn, number 45. Give me your identification card.” Herb fishes in his pocket, through the utensils, and produces his ID.  The supervisor takes a hole-punch contraption, attempting to use it in a business-as-usual way, but he forgets to relieve a clamp restricting compression. He tries to force it down  and again with little success.

Herb grows bored, and ventures a suggestion. “So you need to to release this clamp here… no, the other way, yes.”

The Supervisor punches a hole in the lower corner of the ID. He takes a big breath, and hands the card back. “You may leave now.”

Herb takes his card with more curiosity than misery.  “Before I go sir,” he says, catching the Supervisor’s attention, “Can you tell me, umm, why are we all working here?”

The supervisor, with a sudden sadistically gleeful smile, responds, “We work so bums like you don’t have to.”

*****

The walk home is difficult. Herb can no longer ride the tram, nor use the conveyors. The city has become a maze with no shortcuts. He walks by a burning trash can. Sticks and logs lie on the ground around it, though he wonders from what tree they may have come. Wood is a rare occurrence. He throws a few sticks in the trash can, and puts a few in his pants pocket.

Herb walks by a familiar view-box store window. The Chancellor is giving a speech, “-many among us.  We stand idly by and watch the American dream die. I am not going to take it anymore! I call on the American people, in the interest of security and freedom, to bring to the attention of the authorities any unseemly and disruptive behavior. I know that if we all work as one, we can end this scourge of lawlessness-” It must be Tuesday, Herb thinks to himself.

Nearing his house, Herb stops to watch a repair man climb a light pole with a most peculiar contraption. Strapped to the man’s back, a segmented machine slowly shimmies up the steel shaft, like a caterpillar. At the top, the man carefully removes a burned-out bulb, places it in a knapsack, and produces a fresh bulb at his right. As he installs the new one, the machine slips an inch. He loses grip on the bulb, and it crashes with a resounding *POP*, blasting glass in all directions. In the distance, sirens wail.

Herb runs. He has never seen the police before, and he would rather not begin today. With a punched ID card, no one would believe a word he said. So he streaks through gray streets of nothingness. The business day was over hours ago, and there are few people walking the paved valleys. Were it not for the tram track above him, he would not have found his way home.

*****

Out of breath, Herb finally reaches his house. On the door are posted two notes:

Herb – Unemployed men are not allowed residence in Block 22. You have 2 days to vacate the premises. Compliance is strictly enforced. – Federal Residential Management Association

Herb – I saw your briefcase. Sorry things didn’t work out for us. I’ve taken Glen and some of our things to the women’s refuge where I can find a new husband. The divorce has already been taken care of. Unemployed men cannot marry. – Edna

The kitchen is littered with broken dishes, though all sparkling clean. Several accessories are missing: an egg-separator, flour-shaker, and liqui-solid transmodifier.  The blue ball sits on the table, punctured and deflated, beside his briefcase, emptied of its contents and slashed along one side. Herb lifts a chair upright and sits at a drab, ruined re-creation of his life.

He empties everything from his pockets: identity card, eating utensils and sticks.  He takes off his coat, pants, undershirt, and the rest of his clothes. A cold shower would probably help in some way, he thinks. In the shower, he turns the spigot, but no water issues forth. The FRMA is vigilant and unmerciful. Tired yet restless, he ponders over the significance of the spoon, fork, and knife. He examines each thoroughly: the shape, feel, and material, the intent, and practicality.

Suddenly, all at once, his thoughts coalesce into an idea. Herb picks up one of his sticks; he fishes a cutting knife from a drawer. He shears away parts of the wood, like he has seen people do on the view-box. The wood is a light, tan color with dark brown grooves. He cuts first a handle, larger at one end, tapering smaller to the other. Herb scoops out a bowl shape at the smaller end, and trims away the remaining scraps. Into the spoon, he cuts three notches at the tip, creating four small prongs. Along the left side, he jots a serrated edge. On the underside, he etches “Herb”. On top, he engraves “Spnörfe”.         Physically, emotionally, and intellectually drained, Herb tilts slowly toward the floor. The chair slides out from beneath him with a clatter. He hits the floor and falls asleep.

*****

Spnörfe in hand, Herb makes a visit to the unemployment office, marked clearly with a giant “UO”. Roaming men travel in packs, stopping at one office and moving to another. They are disheveled, malnourished and occasionally spasm. Their suits are each uniquely ripped and torn. There are some with their lower pants cut short completely. One of them wears his tie backward, with cracked spectacles, and uneven socks, almost like he intended to look as such.

Herb steps inside the office. The inside  is bare, with no chairs or tables, but four glazed windows. Herb gets in line behind a few others. The wait is surprisingly short: one question, one answer, instructions, and exit.

The window asks, “Your training?”

“Third-level technical,” Herb responds.

“Come back each day and there may be something for you.”

It is a lottery, Herb thinks. Another sudden idea comes to him, and he ventures a new approach. “Is there a… ‘Supervisor’ I could speak to? It’s very important. I just need one min-”

“Sir, first I’m going to have to ask you to calm down. If you calm down, I can help you,” the window says.

“Yes, sir,” Herb says submissively.

A few minutes pass before the door opens, and a suit, in much better condition than most, comes out.  “Hello Herb,” he says, “You wish to speak with me about something important.” Herb stands in silent awe, amazed at his fortune. “Come in. We’ll talk.”  They enter into a long corridor, flanked with desks of men speaking into fist-sized metal contraptions connected to cables leading to the windows.

They cross another hallway, exiting the area with the desks, and follow a long, empty corridor. Herb sits opposite the Supervisor’s desk. “Sir, I made something yesterday… after I was withdrawn,” Herb says, “I call it the ‘Spnörfe’.”  He reaches into his pocket and removes the wooden Spnörfe. He presents it with the utmost care, gentle and formal, to the supervisor. “I thought that maybe this could be a new eating utensil, so people could use one implement instead of three different ones.”

The supervisor studies the strange object with fascination at first, then mock-carelessness. “So, umm,” Herb asks, “What do you think?”

“I’ll admit, it is an interesting idea, but I don’t think the world is ready for this. I’ll just take care of it for you…” Herb watches as the Supervisor drops the Spnörfe into a drawer and twists a key to lock.

Herb starts, “That’s mine! Why you no good-”

The Supervisor puts up his hand. Herb’s protests stop.

“Now let’s get down to business,” the Supervisor says, “How would you like a job?”

One Comment

  1. Brlncialie for free; your parents must be a sweetheart and a certified genius.

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