Shipping and Handling Extra
Maybe it's a good thing that we usually draw a firm line between our professional and personal lives; after all, a man's home is his castle.
Jerry's not much of a public speaker. He'd give everyone the news from the inside of a cardboard box if he could, but the company president doesn't allow cardboard boxes in the conference room. So he's stuck up there at the podium going through charts and figures as fast as he can. There's sweat on his brow, his face, and his hands. He's just covered with sweat, so much that you'd think that he had come out of a rainstorm, but that's Jerry. He's biting his nails and drawing a little blood, which isn't good for the charts. And when he's done, he charges for the elevator and goes straight back to his office to cower among his boxes.
Sorry for not introducing myself earlier. I'm Hal. Jerry and I work for Tarpley Publishing in Chicago and we have offices at two ends of a very long hallway on one of Tarpley's three floors in this building. Four floors, if you count the ground-level shipping area. Both of us have been here a while, and we've worked hard to get those two special letters -- VP -- in front of our titles. I like to think that I didn't lose much in the fight for those letters, but I think Jerry lost more than he bargained for.
Let me try to explain. Every copier, computer, and television monitor comes in a large cardboard box. After the packing peanuts are judiciously removed and taken to Steve's office, every one of those boxes goes straight to Jerry's office. For a while, Jerry would put the boxes through rigorous testing, to see if they meet his high standards. About two months ago, he stopped checking the boxes and took every single one of them.
Jerry takes the bus to work every morning, grumbling about the bus schedules as he sprints for his office door, and he takes the bus home every day. There are slips of cardboard in his shoes, gloves, and glasses, so he has the feeling of being in a box as he's in transit. Nobody's seen his home -- there've been jokes about him living in a cardboard box, but Personnel says he's got an apartment he shares with someone. Who is this someone? we asked Personnel, but that's confidential information.
And then Jerry won the lottery. All six numbers on a slip of paper, and he's fifty million bucks richer. There's a picture of him that shows him shaking a lottery official's hand, and he's holding this huge check. If you look closely, you can see the ragged nails on the tips of Jerry's fingers. After that, he's gone for a few days, and there are rumblings by the water cooler and in the bathrooms.
But Jerry doesn't tell the boss to kiss his red-blooded American ass and quit his job, no: he goes right back to work. But he doesn't come in the way he always comes in, covered with cardboard slips and grumbling about the bus. No, he's all smiles and grins, skipping through the hall to his office door.
The water cooler's buzzing with all sorts of strange news. Jerry's been seen in the employee lounge getting a cup of coffee. Jerry's pushing the copier buttons with his fingers instead of using pencils. Jerry's going to other people's offices without first spraying himself with insect repellent. And what's with the skipping? someone asks. Did those fifty million big ones turn him into some sort of fairy?
I fix my tie and head back down the hall. I'm going to talk to Jerry. I'm going to ask him what the hell is going on. I'm going to...
Oh my God! The cardboard boxes are gone!
Jerry comes out to greet me, shakes my hand, and he offers me a seat. I politely refuse a cup of coffee and I look around his office. There are pictures on the walls. There are subdued knickknacks on his desk in the place of all those nails that were pounded into the wood surface. All the nail-holes are covered up with putty -- you can barely tell where the holes were. His telephone isn't foaming with Lysol anymore. And all the chairs aren't covered with plastic and crazy-glued to the carpet to keep them from rolling around.
But strangest of all is that there are no boxes anywhere, not a single cardboard box in sight. Even the refrigerator box, his favorite, has been taken from the corner by the window.
"Jerry," I say, "do you have the figures for next week's presentation?"
"Sure thing," he says, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back in his chair. "I'm working up some charts and graphs that should show where we're heading for the next five quarters. Good times ahead." Then he pushes back from the desk just a little and his chair rolls a few inches back.
There are some charts on the spreadsheet program on his computer screen. He's actually working up charts. Is this man -- who is a solid week ahead of schedule on his presentation -- the same man who would tear, rip, and maim his charts before a presentation in order to avoid having to stand in front of others? He knows I'm not asking about the presentation. He knows I'm looking around for the boxes and the nails and the foaming phone, but he isn't telling me anything.
"Everything all right, then?" I ask, trying desperately to look him straight in the eye.
"Everything's perfect," he says, leaning back just a little more. "Everything is just the way I always wanted. It's all so perfectly perfect. There's nothing to worry about anymore, Hal." And then he looks straight back at me and laughs.
I don't remember anything more from the conversation. I just couldn't get over that look in his eyes. It was something like a blackboard or something, dead center in his pupils, and something fierce and holy was written on it. Something that you just knew you weren't supposed to ever know, but it's right there in front of you and ready for the whole world to discover. Call me crazy, but that's exactly what I felt trying to keep eye contact with the New & Improved Jerry.
When I get back to the water cooler, I'm surrounded. They're asking me what's with the skipping. They're asking me about the lottery check. And they keep asking about the boxes. I don't have a single answer for any of them, any one of the secretaries and managers and marketers drooling for gossip. And it's not because I don't want to tell -- I want to tell them desperately -- but it's just that after I got that look in Jerry's eyes I couldn't remember a damn thing.
They suggested that I go back and ask Jerry point-blank what's going on, but I refuse. People keep asking me for days, and I tell some of them to go do it themselves. And the ones that do, well, from the way they walk and the way they're looking at things and holding their coffee mugs, I just know that they got that look from his eyes and they saw what I saw in them.
Then a few days later, Ed from Accounting comes in and we're going over figures for the last quarter. Nothing in the numbers or columns has any whiff of Jerry's story, and Ed gets up and closes the door.
"He doesn't take the bus anymore, you know," he says, sitting back down.
"Who doesn't take the bus anymore?" I ask. "Jerry doesn't take the bus anymore?"
"You remember," he says, and he waves his hand around for no reason. "I told you about the cardboard gloves and blinders for his glasses and all that. Well, he stopped taking the bus to work. And he doesn't take it home, either. Or a taxi. I haven't seen him go out the door at all, now that I think about it."
"Look, he probably just goes out the back door to the garage, where he has his brand-new car just waiting for him to drive home," I say. Ed waves again, and nearly knocks over his coffee. "Ed, let me finish -- he could have a limo driver waiting on him with what he's worth."
"But he doesn't drive!" Now Ed waves hard enough to knock the coffee over. He pulls away the charts and figures before the stain reaches them. "I know, I know -- he could buy any car on any lot. But he doesn't have a license and he doesn't know how to drive. There's no limos in the lot, except for El Presidente's, of course." Ed stands and salutes briefly before sitting back down. "Honest Injun, Hal, I swear. Oh, sorry about the coffee. I get carried away sometimes."
"Duh," I reply, getting some paper towels out of a drawer in my credenza. "Good investigative work, Secret Agent Ed. Now go play actuary while I pretend to manage the publishing figures."
We blot out the coffee spill together, and he leaves with his folder in one hand and a bunch of dripping paper towels in the other.
After the weekend, I ask Gladys in Personnel if there's anything different with Jerry, and the instant she opens her mouth I know that she'd seen the look in Jerry's eyes, too. I swear, I don't know how I know that everyone's seen it, but I just can tell and I think that they can tell I've seen it, too.
"Our Vice President of Marketing has been abducted by the government," she says. "The only reason why I can't tell you is because they brainwashed me, and they're drugging everyone through the water bottle deliveries."
"Seriously, Gladys. Please," I say. "I'm new at trying to play detective."
"I can't give away this information without a good reason, you know," she says. She taps her pen against the blotter, and it makes a rat-rat-rat sound like raindrops on a window.
"OK, you win the free lunch. Where and when?"
She looks back in her files again. "There's nothing to say. Same old Jerrold Timothy Hardaway, same social security number, unmarried -- what a shame on that. He did change over to direct deposit, but I've been hounding him for over a year about that." She went back to her files and brought out another. "And I've been hounding you on that, too, it seems. Care to sign this form?"
"No, I don't," I say. "I know it's funny working with publishing software and accounting software and using credit cards all the time, but I just like the feel of having a check in my hands and taking it down to the bank to deposit it."
"You know," Gladys counters, "in the big picture of things a check is just as hokey as an electronic transfer of funds. If you and Jerry were serious about being paranoid about your money, you should come in here and demand bags of cash to carry home with you."
"You know something, Gladys," I say, signing the forms, "you're absolutely right."
"I can't believe what I'm seeing," she said. "You're the last one to give up control. I ought to buy you that lunch."
"You're right," I say, and I can't stop grinning. "You're abso-fucking-lutely right."
"Go back to work, Hal. Unless you want to sign up for the shipping position. You can work your way up from the bottom all over again."
"Same salary?" I ask.
"No," she says. "Bye."
So Jerry doesn't have his boxes anymore, he doesn't take the bus anymore, he's having his checks deposited, and I owe Gladys lunch. Time to check the mail and get ready for the presentation tomorrow.
And what a night it's going to be. While I was out playing Sherlock Holmes, every one of my Technology minions decided to empty out their filing cabinets, stick all their papers in manila folders, time-stamp them, and stick them on my desk. I do my best to sort through whatever falls in the category of Final Draft or Summary Report before going home at midnight.
I dream that I'm looking into his eyes.
The next morning we're all in the board room. Everyone's in the same chairs as the last presentation. Oliver something-or-other nudges me.
"Steve's got pretty big dandruff this morning," he says. He nods towards Steve, whose suit jacket has a few packing peanuts clinging to it. "I hear he's got the pile so deep that he can dive into it from the top of his desk."
"As long as he doesn't hang himself, it's fine by me," I say. "Any news on when Jerry's going to show up?"
"I don't know. Didn't you give him a radio collar or an ear-tag?"
"They're still in my briefcase. You want one?"
Then the doors boom open. Jerry strolls in, goes to the podium, and picks up the remote control.
"He's going to use the automatic electronic overhead networked computer display system. Nobody's used that thing ever," hisses Jones, who smells something like burning leaves.
"Why doesn't anyone use it?" I whisper back. The lights dim slightly.
"I don't know," says Oliver. Maybe he's the one who smelled like burning leaves. "We bought it to keep up with ReMont and Yellowjacket. Ours is better."
"How can you tell?" I ask.
"I don't know," says Oliver. "I hear they haven't used theirs either. I think they're planning on buying a better system first."
"Nice cologne," I say. Something lowers itself from the ceiling and the presentation begins.
Next thing I know, he's shaking everyone's hand. He shakes them a few more times, and holds up the remote. Everyone applauds, and then he walks calmly to the elevator. I race up behind him and stick my hand in at the last minute.
"Great show, Jerry," I say.
"What show?" he says, and he gives me that look again. He hands me the remote. "Take a look inside."
The door's about to close on us, but Joe from Advertising is rushing to the door. "Hold it! Hold it!" I push the Open Door button and Joe steps in. "Thanks, guys. You so sure that we're ready to expand?"
"I know we're ready," says Jerry, and then Joe suddenly jumps out of the elevator.
"I'll take the next one, guys," he says, and walks away from the door.
"Whatever," I say. I pop open the remote. There are no batteries in it. "Needs batteries. Hey, Jerry -- want to hit somewhere for dinner?"
"Already got plans," he says, and he starts humming along with the elevator music. "Hum with me, Hal. It's a good tune."
So we hum along with the elevator music for a few seconds and the door opens. Jerry heads off for his side of the hall, and I start toward my office, but Jerry's talking loudly, so I turn around.
Jerry's shaking hands with this really big guy in work boots and a jean jacket. They go into his office and Jerry closes the door. I walk over to Janice, his secretary.
"Who's the thug?" I ask her.
"Hi, Hal," she says. "That guy's the new shipping clerk."
"What does Jerry need with the shipping clerk?" I ask.
"Maybe they're talking about those cardboard boxes without homes," she says, giggling. "Although that's probably all in the past now. I'm just worried that he's going to want someone else to do the filing."
I look at her perfectly manicured nails. "You file just fine, Janice."
"I'm used to it all," she says. "And sometimes it was fun, you know? As long and he doesn't get funny on me and try to look up my dress, everything's just fine. Besides, he was quite generous with his first lottery check. Like my new scarf?"
"Wonderful," I say.
"I'll let you know if anything weirder happens, OK?"
"Thanks," I say, and I go back to my office and answer my messages. I go through the proposals and sign off on a half-dozen projects and I'm reading through another when the light goes out in Jerry's office. I check my watch and discover it's 5:15. Damn, time flies fast some days. I look back out the door -- Jerry's closing up shop. I drop the folder I'm holding and run for the stairs. I'm no athlete, but I ran a good mile in my high school days and weekend tennis and golf have kept away the Beer-Gut Fairy. I run down the 16 flights fairly quickly, and it takes me about half a minute to recover my breath while the elevator arrives. Everyone files out of it, and I shut the stairwell door while Jerry passes by. He turns around the hall and I peer around the corner just in time to see him walk into the shipping office.
After waiting for a few seconds, I walk over to the shipping office door... no, let me rephrase that. I tiptoe over to the shipping office door for a few feet, then I tell myself "Who am I kidding?" and I walk the rest of the way. When I get to the glass door, I look in. I gasp.
It's his refrigerator box, reconditioned and reinforced at the seams with light plywood, but it's the same old box nonetheless. There's a noise coming from the inside, like a radio or a can opener or something, but I can't tell through the door, and I don't want to startle Jerry by opening it. He steps into it and draws the flaps closed. There are a few clicks, then silence.
Nobody's coming. I open the door and walk over to the box. Its address is this one -- Tarpley Publishing, Chicago, Illinois. Overnight delivery by 8:30 A.M. is checked, and it's insured for fifty million dollars. Fifty million dollars worth of books.
I hear someone coming and run back out the office door. I try to close it as silently as possible and I duck under the glass window in the door. After a few seconds, I peek through the bottom of the window.
The shipping guy comes in from the dock, checks the paperwork on the side of the box, taps on it a few times, and tips the box onto a dolly. I run for the stairs before he can see me, and I make it to the third floor before I realize that it would've been safe to take the elevator this time.
I spend about two hours in my office trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and how to confront Jerry. But I didn't want to see those blackboard eyes of his, because they'd be worse -- since that look had started popping up in other peoples eyes. I pace the floor, think about calling the shippers, and even walk down to Jerry's office to see if there's anything that might give me ideas. In the end I just grab my briefcase and go home. I even wrote "J ships himself in box every night" in my planner, just in case I have a major attack of the crazies in my sleep and lose my mind.
Around ten the next morning, I decide to let the shipping clerk know he's mailing a lunatic round-trip in an appliance box. His name isn't on the phone list yet, but he probably has the same extension as the old shipping clerk -- Walt, or something like that.
"What and where?" he says. Real charming.
"How much does it cost to ship a Vice President to New York?
"You're that Hal guy, right?"
"Yes, this is the Hal guy," I say. "Do you know you're sending one of our top executives overnight delivery with a round-trip ticket?"
"Back off," he says.
"Excuse me?" I say.
I'm ready to ask him again, this time from the position of a Vice President ready to take his job away. But not over the phone. So I slam down the phone and head for the elevator. I've still got my coffee mug in my hand, so I drink the rest of it and throw the mug in the corner of the elevator. I don't know why I threw it, and I pick it up again. The handle's got a little chip in it, and the door opens. I walk over to the shipping area, and he's wearing the same work boots and jacket. I try to get one word out but he's got the Jerry-look in his eyes, and that look still outranks me, like some sort of magic trump card everybody's got in this building. Without a word, I'm back in the elevator and rubbing the chip in the mug's handle.
I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, but I don't see a damned thing in my eyes.
The next day, I go into my office and the door closes shut behind me.
"I'm Ray," the shipping clerk says. He puts out his hand. We shake. "So you want me as your travel agent? Pretty soon everyone's gonna be lining up at my door. How much you weigh?"
"Why?" I ask him. "Why do let him do it?"
"Why not? He pays the shipping bills, and he gives me a little on the side. Just leave it be, OK?"
"It's wrong!" I yell. "There's just something wrong about it!"
"He isn't hurting anyone," Ray says. He lights a cigarette, throws the match on the carpet. "I hear through the rumor mill that before I started mailing him every night, he was a pretty bad wreck. As long as nobody gets hurt and he keeps paying the bills, it's fine by me. You done yet?"
"Well, where the hell does he ship himself over the weekends, then?" I ask him. "He doesn't just sit in the loading dock from Saturday to Monday, does he?"
"I don't know."
"Really," I say. "Is he paying you to keep quiet on that one, too?"
"No, really," he says. "Look, I'm saying more than I should, but you're his friend, so I can tell you this much. But it never gets beyond us two, or there's going to be trouble, OK?"
"OK," I say. "Or are you looking for more money than you're already getting?"
He looks out at the loading dock entry and then closes the door to the hallway. "Look," he says, "no money on this one. The box gets shipped out on Friday evening without any special instructions for Saturday or Sunday delivery. So it goes out on Friday and it must come back Monday."
"So where does he eat?" I shout. "Where does he sleep? Where does he go to the bathroom, for Christ's sake?"
"I don't know," Ray says, "and I don't want to know. This stuff is crazy -- a guy shipping himself to his own office every day, never going home.... I told you enough already, so just leave me alone and go ask him if you want any more answers, OK?"
"How does he do it?" I ask, grabbing his shoulders. "How?"
"He's got this yoga thing he does," Ray looks me straight in the eyes. "Like those channelers and crystal-sniffing weirdos. After he seals himself up, he just goes into a trance and waits to come back. I use this special knock to let him know he's back -- it's what breaks him out of the trance, OK? That's it for the headlines, pal."
The eyes! That's where he got the eyes!
Ray pushes me out of the way, opens the door, and walks out.
For a few weeks, everything was fine. I didn't go by shipping at all, and I even took a few days off to see my kids in Florida. They were doing just great, and I came back to work better than ever.
"Well, he didn't come in yesterday. either," Janice says, filing her nails. "I tried his cel phone, but he didn't answer. I even tried his home number, but he must have had it changed after he won the lottery because it isn't listed. I wonder where he is."
"Can I borrow your phone?" I ask.
"Sure. I wasn't using it or anything."
I call Gladys to check up on Jerry's home number and address. No changes.
"Oh, and thanks for that lunch," she adds. "We've got to do it again sometime, OK?"
I write down the address and thank her before hanging up. I turn to Janice. "Keep me informed, OK?"
"Aye aye, captain."
I go back to my office, and once again, I am greeted by my good friend Ray. My floor is littered with spent matches.
"OK, man." Ray stands up. "What are you trying to pull?"
"What is who trying to pull?" I ask. Ray looks me straight in the eye, and for the first time since God knows when, someone in this place doesn't have those Jerry-eyes.
"He's gone, man," says Ray, stabbing out his barely-smoked cigarette. He lights another.
"What do you mean, gone?" I ask.
"I mean gone," he says. "Totally gone. The box didn't show up yesterday. He's gone."
"So he decided to open up his box and get out somewhere."
"He can't get out of that box by himself," says Ray. "I seal the edges before it goes out. And the special knock."
"All right," I say. "Maybe he decided to put a stack of books in there, and then he took a slow taxi home to think things over for a few days."
"Nope," Ray says. "I watched him go in."
"Maybe he had someone let him out at the distribution office. I'd certainly let someone out if they were shouting for help from inside a giant package."
"No way. There's a few guys down there who know about it -- so that they don't drop him or nothin'. They'd tell me if he was planning anything weird or ran into any problems."
"Weird? You mean like shipping himself in a box every night?" I ask.
"Aw, just shut up, man!" he yells. "What the hell we do now? The guy's been stuck in a box for three days now!"
"What about the weekends, Ray?" I asked. "He lasts three days over the weekends."
Ray looks down, takes a breath. "I lied about that. I show up Saturday and Sunday to re-ship him. He hangs out in the shipping room, reading the paper until they pick him up. Sometimes, he sends me out to get him a burger or something."
"Great," I say. "Well, what do we do now?"
"I asked you that, man," Ray says. "We can't call the cops or nothin' like that -- how the hell you explain shipping a guy every night?"
"Well, let's go down the shipping dock and check the paperwork. Maybe you put the wrong label on him or something."
After going down to shipping , we check the labels and the forms. Everything was signed and labeled properly.
"They even check the labels on the boxes," Ray's going through another cigarette. He doesn't leave the matches lying about in his own office, however. "They always check it because the weight was so much, and they wanted to get the billing right. Oh, man! We're screwed!" I pick up them phone, and Ray slams it down. "You can't call the cops!"
"I'm calling the shipping company. What's his account number?"
I try to tell the person on the line that we were missing a package, and they have a good chuckle at the size of the package. "We don't lose many that big, but there's nothing in the system under that number. What was in it?"
"A person," I say, "registered as books, but it was a person."
"Very funny," she laughs. "No really, what was in it? Was it insured?"
I ask her to check again, and she still doesn't find Jerry. I ask for a supervisor.
"We're screwed," Ray moans. "I don't know nothin'."
The supervisor picks up, and I told her as much as I could: the account number, the package number, the billing date, the delivery address and the return address.
"Did you know that your return address is the same as your shipping address?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "But he's still missing and we need to find him."
"Oh, a body. Our policy is not to ship human remains under any circumstances," says the person at the delivery service. "If you want, I can give you the numbers of some shipping companies that perform those services quite adequately."
Then, for whatever reason -- I have no idea, I break. I'm screaming into the telephone. "Track him, track him for God's sake!" But they can't find Jerry in their system anywhere. Their computer says that they picked up three packages two nights ago, two letter-sized envelopes and a 20-pound parcel going to our New York branch, but there's no sign of a 300-pound reinforced cardboard box bound for a round-trip back to our own offices. They ask me if it wasn't sent the day before, and I tell them it was, the day before and every day before that.
Ray's sweating bullets, even worse than the old Jerry used to do at staff meetings. He's smoking cigarette after cigarette, and he's putting them out on the top of his desk nowhere near his cracked Chicago Cubs ashtray. He's mumbling something to himself with "Jerry" in it, over and over, but I can't make out the rest of what he's saying. I shake him a little, and he shrugs me off.
"Well," I say, sweeping cigarette butts into a wastepaper basket, "game's over. How do we explain this one?"
Ray explodes, spit flying everywhere. "We ain't explainin' nothin! Nothin! We ain't explaining nothin' because there wasn't nothin' that ever happened! I didn't do nothin' and I don't know nothin' and you don't know nothin' and that's the truth!"
Over the next few days, there's no word from Jerry. Ray comes by the office almost every hour, and he just paces the floor spitting, smoking, and mumbling that same whatever he mumbles with "Jerry" in it. Then, a week after Jerry's disappearance, Ray doesn't show up for work. I ask Personnel about him a few days later, but they just say that Ray called in on Monday to tell them that he was quitting and moving out of state, and he'd call them about getting his last paycheck.
He hasn't claimed it for over a year now.
Jerry never showed up at the shipping dock, or gave anybody a word to say that he was all right and happy to be where he was. Once, when I couldn't stand that message in his eyes going through my head over and over, I went to the regional office of the shipping company and tried to take one of their managers into confidence with the whole story, but they thought I was kidding and nothing I said could convince them a real live human being vanished from the face of the earth in one of their vans, trucks, or planes.
I like to imagine Jerry decided to change the destination address on his package from Tarpley Publishing to Anywhere, Tahiti and he's living the rest of his life on the beaches, sipping drink after drink and watching the sun go up and down. I also have these images in my head of a delivery error, or a distribution office accident as Jerry's fate, leaving him as a corpse rotting in his box in some dusty warehouse, cradling a space-heater and a radio to his chest.
Jerry's old position went to Steve, and the movers spent an entire afternoon carting bag after bag of packing peanuts up two floors of stairs, because Steve wouldn't let them use the elevators with his furniture. Steve handles the presentations just fine, with no sweating or nail biting at all. I look for signs of nervousness and a compulsion to return to the packing-peanut world of his office, but he gets through the meetings and takes his time getting back. There's no talk about Jerry at the water cooler or in the bathrooms any more, and there's no talk about Steve and his packing peanuts either. I think people are starting to talk about me, though, so I stay around the bathrooms and coffee machine and the water cooler and any other place that people stand around and talk.
I pray to God that Steve doesn't win the lottery, because I don't think I could stand to see what weird fate would befall him.
It's only five more years to the earliest I can take retirement, and I'm going to take it as fast as I can. I'm getting out of here.
Laurence Simon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an HTML developer for Nettech and a Research Producer for CTN in Houston. Nearly every Thursday night he can be found in a local pub battling his arch-rival at Scabble. He is known for traveling everywhere with his lucky Slinky in his pocket, and will hastily produce this object if challenged or threatened.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Laurence Simon.