by Janelle Bassett
The school lunch menu has once again landed in the Herald’s inbox with the subject line LUNCH MENU and an attached document titled LUNCH MENU TEMPLATE. This email comes every Wednesday afternoon, sent by the school secretary. I find comfort in how little it varies. If there’s pizza, there’s corn. Hamburgers mean tots. Each combo served with diced fruit. Always “choice of milk.”
Every week we print the menu in the paper even though the whole month’s menu is available online at every moment. This town runs on habit. Put school menu in the upper-right corner on page four. Send this into the Herald on Wednesday. Scoop corn into the slot beside the pizza.
But I won’t bash habit. I appreciate the weekly rituals even more now—the way they carry on the same—since Tony.
I look up from my computer to see about him. When you remember about Tony you immediately look at him to see what he’s doing at that moment but then you look and he seems so ordinary. Sitting and typing.
Well, bearing down more than sitting. You can’t tell by looking, but he’s a paperweight in human form. His average-sized body is much heavier than most. By hundreds of pounds. He walks like the Tin Man during a blizzard. We can’t find chairs strong enough.
I don’t know why they made him like this if he’s supposed to be inconspicuous. It’s possible that his density helps with his process. Maybe his true body was shoved into this ill-fitting meat puppet. Maybe the weight is full of sensors and hearing mechanisms. I’m not privy to the process. The terms prohibit me from asking too many questions.
He’s typing and scrolling. I’ll say this: He’s an excellent proofreader. I run it all by him now, even the captions. He knows all the faces in town so if we mix up the names of two boys under the photo of the seventh grade basketball team, he spots it, easy. Anything untrue he zones in on. It’s helpful. It’s unnerving.
There’s a ribbon cutting starting soon, a new chain restaurant opening down the street in the building that used to be a pawn shop. Most of the buildings in town have been pawn shops at one point, so that’s not really a good way to differentiate buildings. This one happens to be on the corner. This one is painted brown. I need to send a photographer down there so we have enough happy-good-news items this week. I could send Trish or Deena. Tony can’t walk that far and I’m not allowed to send him out of the office. Per terms, his newspaper contributions are all of the indoor variety. Maybe I’ll go myself. I could use some sunshine and standing.
I pop my head into the main room (in a bigger operation it might be called the newsroom) and tell the girls I’m going out to take a photo. I put my camera around my neck and walk past Tony at the front desk. I don’t need to tell him what I’m doing. He already knows. As soon as I thought about the photo, the pawn shops, the sunshine, it all was tabulated somewhere in his concrete poundage. I wave anyway, to contribute to feelings of normalcy.
The new restaurant is only a few buildings away. It will serve pitas. You can choose what you want in your pita, insofar as what you want in your pita is what they’ve laid out in front of you. There’s a man and a woman standing behind the red ribbon. The man is from the bank. The woman, I assume, is the one who will bring pita to this town. I don’t recognize her so she must have moved here to start this business. I know everyone. The town is very small and I run the paper.
There’s not much crowd to watch the ribbon be cut. There’s a couple kids, who must be the pita woman’s because she keeps looking down at them with eyes that say don’t even. The owners of the neighboring businesses have come out. That woman owns the diner, technically a competitor for food dollars. That man owns the pawn shop, the one with the bike in the window. Always a bike. And me. I guess I’m here to provide the audience, later, reading about the event in their own homes.
Now that I’m here they can start the ceremonial snip. The bank man welcomes us, says something about keeping local dollars local. The woman talks about her vision for fast, healthy meals wrapped up in whole wheat—a prepackaged vision she paid for with a franchise fee. I take some notes on my phone to write this up later. Local dollars. Whole wheat wraps. The pawn shop owner instigates a clap. We all clap so that we can then leave. I stop the pita woman to confirm her name and details for the grand opening. Kids will eat free, drinks not included.
I write that down and think of Tony perceiving all this. Will he wonder why we went outside to watch a string be cut in two? Will he understand the symbolism? Will his report to whomever convey a sense of community and perseverance? Will he understand why the drinks aren’t included?
I resent being forced to see us all from above, a removed perspective. At first it was fun. An audience—let’s put on a show! Tell them about Christmas trees! Show them how we swim in lakes, float on our backs! Ballet! Childbirth! Ooh, ooh, pineapple upside-down cakes, the part where you turn it over onto a serving plate! Show them that! But there was no feedback. No applause. Just tabulations. Just perception, ongoing and without comment.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. When Tony showed up, he said, “I am a Perceptor.” He didn’t say, “Here we are, now entertain us.”
When he first came to the office, he asked to speak to me privately about a job. I told him we had no openings. He said, “Be that as it may…” which I’d never heard anyone utter in real life. He was insistent on a private meeting. I would have been frightened, him being such a forward and unknown man, but his tone had no hint of malice. I now know (from the chatty yet matter-of-fact tidbits that Tony drops) that his voice was engineered to put humans at ease so he could more easily perceive them. I led him to my office. He stood, knowing the plastic visitor chair would not hold. I stayed standing also.
I said, “How can I help you?”
“I am a Perceptor. I realize you don’t know what that means so I will tell you. I’m here to make reports on your town.”
“We aren’t looking for a reporter at this time but I can keep your résumé…”
I don’t know why I sat. It was my office.
From my seated position I watched him move his hand to his hip. The effort it took—it was like his arm was filled with something other than bone and muscle. I pictured sand or water inside his arm, then a smattering of beach umbrellas. I hadn’t had a vacation in a decade.
“I am a Perceptor. I realize you don’t know what that means so I will tell you. I’m here to make reports on your town. I have to be close enough to the townspeople to perceive them. I report their thoughts and actions. I report their inputs and outputs. I cause no harm. They feel nothing. In fact, they feel a slight temporary warmth in their temporal lobe which they will probably mistake for happiness.”
I thought of who I could call to help this man. My husband’s friend Andy drives an ambulance. Deena volunteered for a suicide hotline in college. I decided that playing along, taking him seriously, would be best for my safety in that moment.
“Where…do these reports go?”
“My response to that question is this: I am not from a governmental agency. I am not affiliated with any religious body. I am supposed to tell you that I am something akin to a cosmic fact-checker.”
I laughed and then understood I wasn’t supposed to laugh even though his face didn’t change. It was the lack of change that conveyed it. I now know that my laugh was documented so that other Perceptors could avoid the pitfalls of having their spiel mistaken for a joke.
I tried to look like I hadn’t laughed. I picked up a pen.
He said, “You will be compensated. We are aware of the hard times facing print newspapers. There will be sizable monthly payments. I will also offer my services to your newspaper free of charge. Perceptors are being placed at newspapers all over the world at this moment. You will be part of a big operation. We know you place value on feeling part of something bigger than yourselves. In some countries we are working as drivers or fruit sellers. I am telling you that as a bonus tidbit. I am not expressly told to tell you that.”
Once the subject of money was introduced I was pretty sure the whole thing was a scam. He would ask for my banking information next. Instead he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sweaty piece of paper. He laid it on my desk. A check written out to the Ashton Weekly Herald for $2500.
“Your first payment.”
I picked it up. The signature read PSA. I wasn’t aware of a scam that paid out money. I owed the printing press $1800. Our computers were from 2008.
I said, “I’m still not sure what you’re asking here.”
“Everyone will say that. It’s very hard for you to understand. Take comfort in the fact that your understanding is not needed. We only ask for compliance. I am going to need steel chairs. Buy several.”
He opened my door and went to the desk at the front of the office. Slowly. He could barely move his body. The word “lumbering” doesn’t suffice. Perhaps the phrase “reanimated corpse filled to the scalp with asphalt” does. The floor creaked but held.
“I will use this desk.”
“That’s Trish’s desk.”
“Trish takes pain pills recreationally and has sexual fantasies about a man in a movie about war. She collects silver baby spoons. She has one engraved with the word Gertie, which we believe is the name of the baby it was given to.”
“How do you know that?”
“I am a Perceptor. It will take seven full explanations and three specific examples of my skills before you understand. That is an average. It will likely take less time for you because your intelligence is high and your responsiveness to new ideas is moderate.”
This was amusing, at least, now that I’d decided he wasn’t a threat. And since he’d given me money.
“Go ahead and hit me with more specific examples then. Let’s get that out of the way.”
“Your kids are twelve and fifteen and they talk to you thirty percent less than they did at age five. Their bodies touch your body eighty-two percent less often than the did at age three. You live in a house with eight rooms. You married at age twenty. You wish your husband were smarter and when he chews with his mouth open your sexual desire reaches an all-time low. Your father looks out his window every time a car drives by.”
I could not respond. My father, he’s always expecting some package.
He said, “You will need to be alone for some time now. Please order the chairs. And I will need a private room for Sending. It is suggested that many newspapers still have a darkroom. Such rooms would work nicely for our purposes.”
He slo-mo ushered me into my office and closed me in. I could hear him up front, going through the drawers, typing on the password-protected computer, shuffling papers. A woman came in to place an ad. She was selling a deep freeze. He knew the protocol, charged the right amount based on word count. He put the cash into the drawer where it was supposed to go. He was good with the customer, warm and helpful. Our shopkeeper bell rang when she opened the door to leave and Tony cried out “DING” at the exact same time.
It’s Thursday, the day the paper is released. Trish has picked up the bundled copies from the press and we have three hours to assemble, address, tie and bag the papers and get them to the post office. Sandy down at the P.O. cuts us no slack on the mail cut-off. If it’s 6:02 she’ll just shake her head at us when we pull up to the back dock. I hope Tony is letting someone know this and that she’s marked down as a harsh bitch, cosmically.
It’s all hands on deck for mailing papers. Even Tony helps, seated at a small fold-out table and affixing pre-printed mailing labels on each paper. Most of our papers will be delivered within a five-mile radius, but we have a handful of out-of-state subscribers. A seemingly well-to-do couple from Toronto found one of our old issues in an antique suitcase they bought on EBay and called up asking for a subscription. I assume they find our news to be quaint. I assume they read aloud to each other, point and laugh. On Sunday there’s a pancake breakfast to raise money for the fire department. Look at this mayor’s hair, do you think he graduated high school? The Methodist church is selling potted plants. These homecoming queen candidates look like dented cans. I hope this small girl with her eyes closed wins. Her bangs alone deserve a crown.
First, we stuff. The paper is in two sections, so the second half of the paper is slid inside the first to make a full issue. Our weekly shopper goes inside each paper. And the paid advertising inserts must be put in too. This week our inserts are a thin, slick ad for Pita Way (impossible to pick up) and a small postcard-like ad for a national window company.
The process is this: Arrange your paper stacks with the innermost innards on your right. Stick your fingertips into the communal finger-goop. The goop makes it easier to pick up one paper at a time so you can be swift-of-arm. Pick up window postcard, put in on top of slick Pita, pick up both of those, put them on top of shopper, pick up all three and slide them into the B section of the paper, then slide the stuffed B into the A and that’s one paper done. Repeat until your fingers are totally black.
Trish, Deena, and I each have our own collection of stuffing stacks at one massively long concrete table where we stand and work. It’s an astonishing table; it comes up to our breasts. Maybe there’s a better word for it than “table” (industrial slab?), but it has both a surface and legs. The top is thick glossy concrete held up by green wooden legs as big around as small trees.
The work of stuffing is mindless (all in the wrists), so we are able to talk as we work. Only, we have to count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 internally as we talk because each set of five papers should be turned a different way to prevent lopsided stacks.
Deena asks, “Did you all watch that girl on TV last night? The little red-headed singer on Wee American Go-Getters?”
Deena likes all the performance shows, especially the ones featuring kids. She once told us that the talented kids give her hope for the future, the way they chase their dreams. Tony’s fourth chair broke right when she said this. We heard the metal snap and his body slam the carpet. We ran up to the front room to help him. We had a chair-fail routine at this point. It took all three of us to get him up, two pulling and one pushing. Once he was back on his feet Deena ran to the back storage room to restock his chair. I gathered chair shards and threw them in the dumpster. Trish checked for injuries. That time, the talented kids/fourth chair time, when Tony was reinstalled in his seat, he looked at Deena and said, “Your love of twirling children and your simplistic hope for the future have given me an understanding of human sadness. Thank you.”
Deena is waiting for a response so she can finish telling us her little-red-headed-play-by-play. Trish and I shake our heads (stuff stuff 2, stuff stuff 3); no, we hadn’t seen the singer on TV.
“Well she was a red-headed little thing, about five. She came out dressed in a full-length black gown and wearing lipstick and at first I was thinking Now wait a minute, let these kids be kids. She shouldn’t look like a come-hither woman when she’s only hip-high. But then she started singing and she was a tiny Marlena Dietrich. She was just exactly Marlena. She sang ‘Falling in Love Again’ and I got full goosebumps. She did the accent and the throaty voice and it was like she was mad but enjoying it. Perfect. She only needed blonde hair and a cigarette. The judges liked her but said she needed to slink around the stage more if she wants to make it to the finals.”
Trish and I nod (stuff stuff 3, stuff stuff 4) and Trish starts to tell us about the crime procedural she’d watched. A woman wasn’t believed, then it was too late.
Tony rises from the chair (with great effort, pushing down on his table for leverage) and walks toward the dark room. His Sendings are always inconveniently timed. Now one of us will have to switch over to labeling, and our stuffing progress will be slowed down.
He knows we are thinking how inconvenient this is.
He says, “Per terms, I must give Sendings at predetermined intervals” as he pulls the dark room’s light-blocking cloth curtain closed.
Before Tony, we all had a go-to darkroom joke. Mine was: “We can rent it out as a mini-meditation retreat. People pay big for sensory deprivation.” Deena’s was: “We can use it to threaten our kids into behaving. Quit hitting your sister or it’s thirty minutes in the dark!” Trish never quite understood the game. She’d say, “We could use it as a pantry, couldn’t we?”
Not a joke, what actually happened to our darkroom: A quicksand-walking coworker sent by WHO KNOWS goes in there several times a day to transmit (SOMEHOW?) personal and private information about everyone in our town and the sounds emitted when this happens are like this: ZEEEK ZEEEK PLUNK, ZEEEK ZEEEK WOP and we don’t know if this sound comes from Tony’s mouth or from some equipment he has in there (WHEN?) or if the sound comes from the receiver’s end. All we know for sure is that it takes only fifteen minutes to report the hopes, grudges, loves and missteps of 2000 people which has given me an understanding of human sadness.
I move to the labeler and tell the girls what I watched last night. A comedy special.
“The best joke was about a vegan ATM who wouldn’t accept cash. It wouldn’t eat anything with a face. Get it?”
We all laugh and (stuff stuff 5) turn our stacks.
Tony opens the cloth.
“I’m glad to hear laughter. Overall, laughter is down 23% this week. This seems to be due to the decline in temperatures and news coverage of nuclear weapons. But we simultaneously believe there’s no real cause.”
He loves to emerge with a tidbit for us. He must feel lighter after a Sending.
I thank Tony for telling us the tidbit. I know he doesn’t have to; he offers it to help us. He thinks we’re seeking to understand, like him, instead of avoiding all major truths.
He might never understand humans; we’re too simple.
We get all our papers assembled, labeled and into mail bags by 5:45. We’ll make it; the post office is only around the corner. Trish and I toss bags onto the back stoop that we use as a loading dock and Deena, down on the ground, picks them up and gives them a second toss into the van. Tony goes back to his front desk.
I ride with Deena to the P.O. to help her unload. We arrive at 5:49, plenty of time. Deena backs the van in and pops the trunk.
Sandy is standing there waiting on us, like we’re late. She’s holding one arm in the other, an impatient pose.
I get out, grab some mail bags and throw them into the empty bins without saying a thing to Sandy. She can pout, but we’ve made it in time.
I unload a couple more armfuls and then I can’t help it.
“Do you have to stand up there and pout like we missed your birthday party, Sandy? We got here over ten minutes early. Early isn’t late, per the definition of early!”
“Per terms!” adds Deena, already laughing at herself.
“Per terms!” I say.
Sandy isn’t even listening, she’s rolling the full bin inside. This is for us. We’ve never let ourselves joke about it before.
Deena calls, “Sandy, it’s people like you killing laughter in this town!”
Sandy is inside.
“And you know Sandy’s harboring nuclear weapons. She gets them overnighted for free, probably. Tony told me she collects racist figurines and dildos made of crystals.”
Deena smiles. “He did not!”
We get back into the van, slamming our doors one second shy of simultaneous.
“No, he didn’t. He told me she sleeps with balled fists though. All night they stay tensed up. He says it’s not even all that uncommon.”
“That’s pretty sad.”
I nod slowly.
I don’t want our banter extinguished by Sandy’s agitated sleep habits.
I say, “Maybe it’s not sad. Maybe every night she dreams that she’s a hammer, or a double hammer. Maybe she likes Peter Paul and Mary and she’s hammering all over this land while she sleeps and it’s very restful and peaceful.”
“Yeah, maybe in her sleep she volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. Building houses. If more places allowed volunteers to be actually asleep and dreaming, I think they’d get more participation.”
When we get back to the office, Tony is standing in the doorway between the front office and the main room.
“I did not say sleeping with balled fists is common. It is statistically uncommon at 8%.”
Deena and I are still giggly from the car.
She says, “Lay off, Tony. Can’t we just enjoy the brief happiness that comes between issues?”
“Historically, no, you cannot, Deena.”
We laugh at this, falling all over each other, not really knowing if Tony’s stony face could cause the sky to rip apart in punishment or retribution or as a final understanding of human uselessness. It’s too funny, “Historically, no, you cannot, Deena.”
Image: @Natalia Toreeva / Wikipedia Commons