s
t
o
r
i
e
s

“I was having coffee with my subconscious. He was a peculiar looking man. Small, with a waxed mustache and crossed legs. He repeatedly called me Escobar, though I told him, ‘My name is not Escobar. It is Verskin.’ And he said, ‘What do you know?’ And I said, ‘I know my name.’ And he just sat there twirling his waxed mustache, staring at me with contempt. Finally, ‘Escobar,’ he says to me, and at this I lose my temper and throw a cannoli at him, at my subconscious. ‘My name is Verskin!’ I cry. ‘But you wish it were Escobar,’ he whispers. ‘No, I don’t!’ I answer. And then he says to me in this superior way, before he begins to sip again at his coffee, ‘You don’t know what you want, Escobar,’ and I wake up. What do you think it means?” Peter asked, staring intently from his place on the couch, toward the yawning face of Freud, a tweedy colored fox terrier.

His morning ritual: Dream therapy with Freud, followed by a session on the computer. He used to write poetry, but now limited himself to emails. The great poet paused over the keyboard. “The weather is optimistic,” he typed. “How are you, Mom?”

After, he tried a stanza, but was unable, as usual, to progress past a single line before pressing delete. Every day he would start a fresh page with the notion that today the sanctions on his writer’s blockade would be lifted, that free trade of thought and language would again reign happily across all borders of the mind. He shook his head at the blank screen. “In my heart, the embargo continues.” He sighed and retreated from his desk.

He cleaned himself up and emerged from his apartment building, holding a portfolio. “I must visit my editor,” he announced to himself, “and turn in this, my latest manuscript! If only art were as easy to construct as these flimsy pages,” he grieved, “but then, it would not be art—Alas,” he waxed, “not one poem in all these five years . . .”

He boarded the 57th Street bus and took a seat in its accordion middle. The bus swiveled across town and stopped on 7th Avenue, its doors opening to a woman. From the front entrance, fiery hair came waving toward him, then next to him, before resting on his shoulder, like a butterfly, pausing.

He looked straight ahead as the bus started up again—an orchestra tuning before the opera, a garbled excitement, a rogue cello, intent violin, the sound of thoughts breaking within a person wishing to speak. He waited for the conductor to bring order to his voice, to point at him with his baton, his cue: Address her! You! Oh, shyness, Wagnerian! Oh, silence, music of my heart! She got off at the last stop.

Quickly, composing poems out of her hair, shards of words flying past and cutting him, he tore open his notebook to record, to tame, to harness the songs: “Red, red hair,” he wrote, “how to construct?”

He exited, too, closing his notebook hurriedly as the bus driver announced he was taking his break and so all passengers should kindly “Get the hell off my bus!”

Stepping off, he watched her escape far down the street, red hair drifting like fire through a stone maze. She disappeared behind a corner. The wind against his face felt like a reproach. He crossed the street to wait for a bus going back; he’d missed his stop.

There was nothing beautiful to stir him from his envelope of reserve on the return trip. His empty notebook remained secure in his pocket and he did not chew the gum he didn’t have.

Standing at the foot of the building, Management and Company, he looked all the way up, a ritual glance with which he always prefaced his entry into the building’s revolving doors. Sucked in through the entry valve, he was spit out on the inside, into a rose marble foyer, that was ugly in a carefully planned way, then continued toward the elevator bank, ready to dispatch his responsibilities.

 

“Anton,” said the suited man. “You have finished this assignment even sooner than the last, how grateful our devoted customers shall be,” said the suited man, walking out from behind his desk.

“My name is Peter.”

“Of course,” said the suited man. “And this, the final manuscript for the 2001 G-4 Easy to Stack, Pull, and Fold’em? I don’t know how you do it. I find it all so frustrating actually. I’ll let you in on a little secret; I buy all my own furniture pre-assembled. I just don’t have the patience for the kind of do-it-yourself convenience we here at Management and Company so amply provide,” he said.

Peter shifted.

“Well, I’ll send this to the printer immediately. Gus Sanders in marketing will be pleased. They’re already backed up with orders.”

“You don’t want to read it first?”

“But why? Your work is always perfect. In your five years here at Management and Company, you’ve not made a single mistake. You are a font of exuberant practicalities and possess an uncommon mastery over their application. I’m sure it is perfect,” he said, winking at Peter. “And besides, we’re backed up,” he repeated, as he began shuffling some papers on his desk.

This was Peter’s cue that the meeting was over. He was preparing to take his leave when the suited man broke in. “Oh, and, Anton, I almost forgot. Since you are here, I have another assignment for you—Fold’em, Stack’em Chair and Coffee Table GTS-4. I was going to give it to Flemming, but—poor boy—he just can’t keep up with you. You are the best writer we have on staff, Anton. Really.”

“Thank you, sir, and it’s Peter.”

“Of course,” the suited man said, as Peter exited the office.

 

It was five years ago that Peter Feinstein had not written a poem in over ninety days. He kept beginning poems and, when this didn’t work, he tried his hand at a new genre: “the poetical essay.” A few of his attempts: “Phantom Cake: On Craving What Is Gone,” “A Complete Theory of Fluorides,” “The Elbow and Its Secrets,” “Aglet: A Consideration,” “Toward a Definition of Umami,” “Ringtones of Our Forefathers,” and “Modern Koala: Rise of the Twentieth Century City Bear,” all of them rhyming, all of them promising, all of them stalled. In desperation, he even tried a meditation on war, which proved fruitless, too, as all he knew of war was what he had read, thus prompting an effort toward a poem about war literature—equally unsuccessful.

Peter was without poetry.

He looked at his hands and buried his face in his grasp. It was the morning of his twenty-fifth year.

 

After high school, Peter had done quite well. In the two years that followed, he had written and published his first book of poems, Gerund, which sold almost no copies. Peter accepted this philosophically, seeing it as a necessary step in his literary career. He applied, successfully, for a grant to complete his second book, which would be called Growing Down. It was to be about the childhoods of poets, his in particular, but written in iambic pentameter and from the perspective of a soft cheese. He would hint, throughout, at truffle. And he had been disciplined in that work up until this last ninety-day hit.

He would take a vacation from the figurative, he decided.

It began first with a slight numbness in the fingertips, an odd tingle that slowed his usually feverish typing. Then it started to spread, from the fingers and into his arms and then into his whole body, a pins and needles sensation, but at the cellular level, freezing him mid-stanza, casting him as a kind of ice sculpture of the writer at work. Peter moved freely, but his thoughts remained frozen within his mental double, who never left the computer, never looked up, and also never wrote.

The mornings met the evenings and those evenings met the mornings and those mornings met the evenings and so the numbness spread. And kept spreading across days, weeks, and soon months, until the day that Peter—sitting before his computer, sharing for a few moments the space of his double, wrists arched to act—stopped. He breathed and listened. His heart beat a Morse code that he could not decipher, a plea that he could not answer. The red light of his clock radio answered instead. The numbers blinked, the present shrugged. “What time is it?” the clock asked. The universe answered: it was time to get a job.

He rose from his desk as, he imagined, the first sea mammals had climbed upon the land—with gravitas and theme music suggestive of the moment’s import. He pressed pause on his tape player. Then, spreading his arms to both sides, he began moving them in circles, before hopping up and down too. Then he jumped. High! In the air, straining at the threshold of orbit, his arms a blur of furious revolution, he would get a job and join the waking world.

 

Peter cast off into a sea of concrete description and lived from there coolly among undisclosed metaphor and symbol. He would take a vacation from the figurative, he decided. He would no longer force imagery where others saw only architecture. Midtown spires would remain spires. The Statue of Liberty, merely a gift from France. The valves of the subway pumping commuters to and fro, he would regard only as a convenient twentieth-century construction on which work began in 1904, not as the city’s cardiovascular system, nor as evidence of an urban Emersonian oversoul. Nor would he, he vowed, craft similes that would liken his morning cup of coffee to a milky bog, ambiguously promising through its caffeinated opacity. Nor regard his orange juice, as a river of citrus joyously bursting from the sensual delta of the carton Tropicana. Nor bagels, nor pickle brine, nor four hundred milligrams of folic acid in a gel cap, would he lasso into analogy. Not even the deep blue pin-holed swatch of fabric, which, discarded by some God, lay crumpled in a mass that at nights always fell skyward, dressing the unmade celestial bed glimpsable each 9 p.m. on 57th Street, where he stood standing small at the floor of this grey Manhattan valley, out front of his tiny apartment for a few brief moments, a male copular gazing up as occasional gusts from city buses, like trade winds, blew his hair into his eyes, which, opened wide, panned the brief vista between building tops. He would not squeeze life into poetry with or without the pulp or added calcium, but would work, and live, literally.

He would not squeeze life into poetry with or without the pulp or added calcium, but would work, and live, literally.

Mornings held nothing but tea and toast, he noted, as he read the daily paper, searching the want ads for a suitable, practical position. And then one day he came to this: “Technical Writers needed to write instruction manuals. Visit Management and Co. at 444 Park Ave. for an interview today!”

 

Peter made it to 444 Park Avenue in somewhat of a sweat despite the frigid air. The walls of the office were covered in a Lima-bean-prior-to-boiling shade of wallpaper. It was an almost square room lined with folding chairs and a lavender leather sofa. He proceeded immediately to the receptionist who, staring out the only window, was vigilantly unoccupied.

“Excuse me,” he said. Her gaze did not waver. “Excuse me,” he repeated, “I am here for the interview. I am a writer,” he said straightening. She did not move, so he began again, “Excuse me—”

“I heard you. Please be patient.”

“I apologize,” he said, revolving slightly.

Another thirty seconds passed with his watching her watching before, sighing, she turned away from the window. Without a word, she began shuffling the papers on her desk. “Here,” she said, handing him a messy pile. “Fill these out.” He took the stack and looked around, then walked toward the empty leather couch. He was about to sit, was bent halfway when the receptionist’s finger began to wag.

“What,” Peter asked, still half-crouched, “I can’t sit here?”

“Of course not,” she said and returned her attention to the window.

He took an unoccupied chair next to a large potted-tree, the only plant in the room, and beside a young leather-clad girl with big black sunglasses who was also filling out forms. He removed his coat and was about to hang it on the vacant coat rack when the receptionist began wagging her finger again, so he folded it instead and tried to stuff it beneath his seat. Sitting on the flimsy folding chair, he produced a pen from his shirt pocket and assessed the work ahead. There were instructions written at the top of the page: “The science of prose construction demands attention to detail, a firm grasp of post-structuralism and a descriptive prescience. Our writees are selected from a large pool of highly qualified applicators, making the hiring process at Management and Co. one of the most competitive in the field! Success in our prose industry depends heavily on our writees’ compotency, as the pamphlets we produce are the bridge to customer satisfashions. This is not a job for the dabblededo or dreamer, but a position for the applicator committed to the craft of writing within a disciplined and professional environmental. B.A.s a must. M.F.A.s preferred. Only serious writees need apply. Complete the preliminary test below if you are still interested in pursuing a career with us.”

“Match the figure pictured on the left with the description that best fits.”

The page was covered with the following illustrations: a square with one rough edge, a cube with three rough edges, a cylinder, four screws, four washers, and a nail. Brief snatches of copy were arranged into numbered groups arranged vertically along the page’s eastern margin. The options were tricky. Peter considered his first answer carefully before moving onto the rest of the exam, which comprised fifteen similar pages. After completing the test with, what he thought, relative ease, Peter waded across the carpeted room toward the receptionist, still motionless at her desk by the window.

“Excuse me.” Peter cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” Peter asked, “but what now?”

Reluctantly, the young woman turned from her point of interest and replied, “Huh?”

“What do I do now? I’ve finished filling out the forms.” He motioned to the neat stack he’d placed on her desk.

“Mr. Feinstein,” said a voice emanating from a grey suit that had just appeared. “Follow me,” the grey suit said before retreating into an office and shutting the door behind him.

Peter hesitated before opening the door. When he did, he found the suited man already at his desk. “Please, knock before you enter my office, Mr. Feinstein.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sit down,” the suited man said, motioning to the carpeted floor, free of any chair. Peter looked at the floor, puzzled, but not wanting to ask a stupid question and appear unqualified, sat on the spot where he imagined a chair would be were there one.

Leaning back in his plush leather seat, the suited man studied Peter, then showed him his teeth. After a moment, he pressed a button on his desk and barked, “Send them all in already; I have to go to the bathroom.” Without breaking eye contact, the suited man gave more teeth. Peter shifted uncomfortably on the floor.

A woman in dark oversized sunglasses and carefully messed hair; a teenage boy with baggy pants; an unrealistic blonde man (were he a fictional character, he would not ring true); and a medium sized gray-haired septuagenarian male in a white short-sleeved button-down shirt, poly-fiber slacks, sturdy leather belt, and loafers who looked as if he’d gone out expressly to buy a squash, entered the room. They, the other applicants, sat on the floor in a row next to him.

The suited man opened a desk drawer from which he began to pull multiple green sleeves, each about a foot long. Piling them onto his desk, he addressed the group: “So, you want to be writers, do you? You think you have something to say in a way that no one else can?” He continued to pull one green sleeve out after the other. “You’re young, full of ideas . . . I was young once. Last year, as a matter of fact. I ate clams by the beach with this ragtag blonde I picked up on the Jersey shore. My god, was she something. Broke my heart between her legs.” He picked up a sleeve and removed a recorder.

He placed his fingers over the air holes leaving the pinkies extended, then wet his lips. He began to play. It was a low, plaintive sonata; he trilled a G and then ascended to a D flat. Peter felt profoundly sad for the man. That ragtag blonde really had done him in. The sound of the recorder danced through the room, tiptoeing first across the surface of his skin and then crawling along the base of the rug where he sat before it lifted again, moving in graceful circles about the suited man. He let out a final B flat, and a tear. Then, laying the recorder on his desk, he sighed a heavy sigh and looked down at the group.

The suited man began passing out recorders. “The best ‘Hot cross buns’ gets the job. Go down the line!”

One at a time the applicants began playing while the suited man took out a set of shears and gardening gloves and began clipping the plastic tree next to his desk. When it was Peter’s turn, he summoned all of his pent-up metaphors and channeled them into the three-note song. He played it a little bit jazzy at first, before breaking into an almost disco interlude, which nearly tipped into psychedelic funk, but then finished, at last, operatically. He lowered his recorder. He knew he had done well.

This is not a job for the dabblededo or dreamer.

Peter looked up. Out of the tree, the suited man had sculpted a dinosaur. He removed his gardening gloves and laid the shears on his desk. “Well done, all of you. Unfortunately, there is only one position open.” He began circling the room, slowly, with his hands clasped behind his back. He began again, “The science of prose construction is not for everyone. Writing is a lonesome occupation, requiring great discipline, the occasional fencing lesson, and a cumulonimbus mind. Not to mention, if you are offered a job here, you will have to let me cut your hair however and whenever I want. If you can’t handle pressure, leave this office now!” The girl with the black sunglasses and carefully messed hair rose from the carpet and disappeared out the door.

“You four are some of the finest writers we have in this great city,” he said motioning toward a wall where a mural was painted of the view that might have been visible had there been a window.

“But this job requires more than great writing. It requires long hours; sixty-five, sometimes seventy minutes per; sleepless days; and an unwavering commitment to the firm,” he thundered. “It requires mud, Chet, and fears.” He motioned to an oil portrait of an elderly mustachioed man. “This is Chet. He handles billing and organizes the obstacle course at the company retreat. Terror on the tires, that boy.” He leaned on his knuckles until they went white.

“You’re probably all very tired. The interview process at Management and Company is, I know, a long one. But stay strong my young idealists; we are entering the final phase.

“Again,” he resumed his pacing, “to anyone who does not think they can handle the rigors of this firm, I encourage you to depart now without any hard, soft, or just right feelings.” The teenage boy with baggy pants rose from the floor and opened the door, vanishing beyond. The suited man surveyed the three sitting on the floor before once more pressing the button on his desk. “Bring in the Phase Three materials.”

The receptionist drifted in and, without a sound, stopped directly behind the suited man. She pulled an argyle cravat from her dress sleeve, wrapped it over his eyes and tied it securely at the back. Then, from her dress pocket she handed him one paper donkey tail with tape stuck to its back. Addressing the assembled job applicants, she then said, “Stand up and don’t move.”

The last three applicants rose and froze in place as the blindfolded man, standing tall before them, began to speak in a tone of great importance. “As you youngsters begin to make your way through this world, you will learn that life, this vector of cells so susceptible to love and fat,” he waved a hand up and down his body in explanation, “is driven by the thrusts of two opposing forces—Fate and Will. Sherri!” he broke off from his speech, “Take dictation: Remind me to sculpt a topiary of Grecian gods representing this dichotomy. Also, send Irv to Chinatown this afternoon to fetch more practice plants. Give him the car and also, ask him if he’s gotten any leads yet on the name of that midget that’s blackmailing my daughter in-law.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” He resumed his tone. “Both of these forces work independently of each other and sometimes even against one another.” He exhaled audibly. “It is necessary that you let each have their say. When you learn to allow for this balance, to live by it, life will steer itself. This is the same advice I gave to my son before he left for college. He is now the founder of the biggest peanut butter and jelly sandwich firm worldwide.”

“I have already chosen one of you for this position. We shall see now if the fates agree with my decision. Sherri!” he said to the receptionist, which cued the young lady to begin spinning him by the shoulders. Spinning and spinning and spinning until he stopped. Then, extending the hand holding the donkey tail straight out from his chest, he raised a leg deliberately and, wobbling, began walking toward the wall directly in front of him. The three applicants stood to his left watching.

“Not to mention, if you are offered a job here, you will have to let me cut your hair however and whenever I want.”

Peter was reviewing the situation, but before he’d even made the decision to, he found himself pumping his legs, moving them in long strides across the carpet in a race with the other two applicants, also making out madly for the suited man’s destination. The three bumped and stumbled against each other until it was only Peter and the incorrigibly tall if poorly drawn blonde man in the short lead. The blonde reached out his long arm to push Peter out of the way.

Hit in the shoulder, Peter stumbled and fell to the floor while the blonde man, laying his back against the wall and opening his arms broadly at the last second to be tagged by the suited man upon the chest. The suited man extended the tail toward him as Peter rose up to his knees and, shooting his hand up above him, intercepted the paper tail in the center of his palm.

Defeated, the blond lowered his arms, while the third man, still far behind, exited the office without a word as if they did not have the squash he’d wanted. The suited man removed his blindfold excitedly and, grabbing hold of the hand with the tail still stuck to it, he smiled, shaking Peter vigorously. “Welcome to Management and Company, son.”

Peter left the office extremely excited about his first foray into the exciting world of big business. He felt, finally, that he was on his way. He did not need poetry; he had something more concrete, something practical, something pure; he had, at last, an assignment.

 

When Peter arrived home, the first thing he always did was clear the kitchen of all its furniture, dumping everything haphazardly into his bedroom and onto his bed. In the tiny kitchen, on the dirty linoleum tile next to the stove, he opened the box full of parts for the table and chairs, taking each part out and laying like ones together in piles along the floor.

He especially enjoyed this part. It was like a puzzle to him; he had all these pieces that were designed with a certain, now invisible, structure in mind, and he had to figure out how it would all hang together. From the pieces on the floor he would assemble a sort of destiny. It was like life, he thought, as he separated the piles; you are given all the pieces, a name, a body, a place, and you have to figure out what to do with it all, discern the overarching design. He held two oblong cylinders of wood and studied them for a moment. He wondered about destiny, if this, for example, was his, to make sense of objects for others. It certainly was a more noble profession, he thought on the bright side. Better than his past poetic waxings, which, from his position with the wood on the floor now seemed disgustingly selfish—all the “I”s and “me”s he’d employed to make his poems rhyme; he winced. Yes, this certainly was more selfless.

He found a screw and inserted it into one of the cylinders, and looked at it, past it, around it trying to glean the larger idea. He thought of the woman on the bus from that morning, imagined what he might have said to her and what she might have said back, and then revised it all over again until it was perfect.

 

“It was tea and crepes this time. I was sitting at a table in a garden with my Unconscious. He was balding with an oily comb-over and a three-piece polyester suit, like that of a gym teacher chaperoning a high school prom in a 1979 driver’s ed video describing the perils of operating a vehicle while intoxicated. ‘I have to tell you something,’ he said, dipping his mustache into his teacup. ‘OK,’ I said, pouring a little more chocolate sauce onto my crepe. They were do-it-yourself crepes. All the materials were set out on the table. It was really very nice.

‘What is it?’ I said.

‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you, I promised.’

‘Don’t be silly, of course you can tell me.’

He shook his finger at me. ‘No,’ he said finally.

It went on like this for a very long time. And as it started to become dark, I became frustrated. Finally, I lunged at him across the table, yelling, ‘I must know,’ and began shaking him by the shoulders. ‘Please,’ he said as I shook him, ‘my stomach is rather upset, don’t jostle me,’ and then I woke up.”

Peter turned his head from the spot on the ceiling on which he’d been focusing for the better part of his narration to look at Freud, sitting silently with a stiff back, on his desk chair.

It had been another long, feverish night. Lately—he had been completing a new project every night—once he started, he could not pull himself away. He’d begin the work and then, at some unnamed point, disappear into it. Working until he was finished, he’d look at the clock after, and find it was five or six in the morning, as if he’d fallen through time, landing on the next day. He took a few hours of sleep in the morning, and that was it, just enough to dream.

He printed the manuscript and prepared to take it to Management and Company; he was eager for another assignment. He gathered his papers into his portfolio and began skirting the various shelving units he had constructed over the last few years he’d been with Management—they let him keep all of the products he worked on; it was one of the perks of the job—which were spread mostly unused throughout the apartment and in some places, for convenience, piled atop one another like in a furniture warehouse. Next to the door, a tall tower was developing from a table, a bookshelf, a CD rack, and a bar stool. He had to be careful when shutting the door because the tower would rock. It was slightly leaning.

Standing on 57th Street, he began walking downstream while the traffic to his left pumped like a river. The wind was fierce and beat at his face and at one point caught the flat of his portfolio turning it out like a sail, forcing him back a pace until he turned it again, cutting the wind in half.

He arrived at the building of Management and Company, looked down from his feet and then scanned up to the highest stone as was his custom before proceeding through the revolving doors, careful not to impede its cycle in any way. He took the elevator up to twenty-five.

“Anton,” said the suited man shaking his head in the doorway, “truly amazing,” he said regarding the manila envelope Peter had placed on his desk. “I shall get this to old Gus right away. He’ll be so pleased. Poor Flemming,” he said sighing. “But what can one do, right Anton?”

“There are few if any things each of us can do indeed. Have you another assignment for me, sir?”

He pushed a button on his desk, “Sherri, bring in the GTS 28 Breakfast Nook for Anton. You know, Anton, it isn’t necessary for you to come in everyday. We could have these materials shipped to you.”

“Yes, sir. But I’m afraid I prefer it this way, you see—”

The suited man cut him off. “Come now, boy, there’s nothing to fear but a pear itself, if you have that allergy. Do control yourself, Anton. In business, weakness must be monitored and minimized.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“True love means never having to say that. If you love your job, Anton, quit the apologies.”

Just then Sherri dragged a box through the door. “Good, Sherri. Thank you, Sherri.”

Peter began loading the box onto his small foldable gurney (his Christmas bonus from Management and Company), when the suited man began shuffling the papers on his desk furiously, staring at Peter peevishly, with teeth.

“Yes, I can do this in the hall. Thank you, sir.”

Peter wheeled the assignment gingerly out onto the street, weaving in and out of the stiffly lined faces that floated urgently down the sidewalk, when he caught sight of a redness disappearing down the street. He quickened his pace trying to catch it. He pursued the redness for a long avenue until it dissolved into a sea of bodies and he gave up.

From the pieces on the floor he would assemble a sort of destiny.

It took about an hour to carry the box step by step up the five flights of stairs to where he lived, including breaks here and there where he sat beside the box and shut his eyes for a moment so as not to wind himself too deeply. Mostly he could take his time at this because his neighbors were all at work at this hour. It was only the occasional unemployed neighbor who would catch him laboring on the stairs. Mr. Smiley from 3B had passed him as he was rounding two and then moments later, perhaps hearing his heavy breathing and feeling guilty, returned with an offer to help. “Thank you, but I’m fine. It will only take another forty-five minutes or so, really. I need the exercise, you see.”

“Suit yourself,” said Mr. Smiley, disappearing in double steps up the stairs.

This dialogue with Mr. Smiley had occurred more than once, and the situation was beginning to feel rather awkward to him. Peter was not much for socializing. He had worked hard to cultivate a kind of artist’s temperament, which as a youth he had felt was a necessary prerequisite for the construction of his poems. Solitude had been his most well-executed plan. Mr. Smiley was really becoming pushy though. “Please, let me help. It will be much faster this way.”

“Yes,” he lied, “but I really do need the exercise. It is part of my regimen. I take the box down everyday, and then I bring it back up. So if you helped, I would only be cheating myself, you see.”

“Oh, well, OK,” Mr. Smiley said, looking at the box skeptically, because it looked like a different box from yesterday’s, and because he had never caught him before carrying a box down.

Peter added on, “As I advance through the workout, I add weight, and therefore must change the box.”

“Well, that makes sense.” He paused. “You do know though, there is a New York Sports Club just across the street.”

“I am morally opposed to running in place, believing it deleterious to the soul, Mr. Smiley.” Peter had seen his name on his mailbox. “I’d prefer to commit myself to a practical labor and have good health be a byproduct of my efforts.”

“Mmmm,” considered Mr. Smiley. Mr. Smiley was very fit. He had been working out every day since he had lost his job and joined AA. He’d lost his job because of an alcohol-related escapade at the office Christmas party, which he couldn’t actually remember. He had thought the Christmas party would be a safe place to act out, that his “shenanigans,” as he referred to them, would go unnoticed, what with everyone else’s.

The night came back to him in shadowy glimpses of his boss’s enraged face. He had since begun working out for lack of anything better to do and for the secondary high it afforded. He’d lift weights whenever he wanted a drink, which meant he lifted weights most of the day. “Well,” he continued, “if you’d like a wheatgrass shake when you’re finished with your work out, you ought to stop by. I make excellent wheatgrass shakes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Smiley. Perhaps I will.”

An hour later, after he had successfully maneuvered the new box into his apartment and, having looked in his refrigerator for a refreshing beverage and found none, he decided to go downstairs to see Mr. Smiley after all, figuring since he had given up art, perhaps it was time he let go of solitude too.

Mr. Smiley blended an ample supply of shake for the both of them and told Peter all about his drink-related fallout at work, what he could remember of it anyway, and how he was embarking on a totally healthy life and had never felt better. He took a deep breath through his nose, so that his nostrils flared like a dragon’s. Then he made Peter guess his age.

“I don’t know,” Peter said.

But Mr. Smiley insisted, “Come on, guess!”

“Forty.”

“Thirty-five,” Mr. Smiley said excitedly.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Smiley.”

“Not at all. A month ago, I looked forty-five, so you see.” Mr. Smiley said, not having to finish his sentence.

“Miraculous!” Peter said with the necessary zeal.

This became a regular appointment. Every afternoon, as Peter lifted his box up to his apartment on the fifth floor, Mr. Smiley would appear at his own doorway and invite him over for a vitamin shake once his workout was complete. After a while, Peter found this arrangement quite pleasant. Mr. Smiley did most of the talking, so Peter could relax, watching happily as Mr. Smiley made wide gesticulations in explanation of another of his stories. When it was now and then requested of him, he’d respond between sips of shake, which he suspected, because of its repulsive taste, must indeed be very healthy.

In March, Mr. Smiley was still looking for a job. “The market’s bad,” he’d say on some days and shake a newspaper open to the want ads, “But what can you do?” and Peter would say, “Exactly, there are few things one can do,” subtly trying to redirect his over use of the second person. Most of the time, however, Mr. Smiley was upbeat. He always had a story ready of how he had, or he would, beat the odds. Mr. Smiley referred often to “the odds.” “The odds” controlled everything according to Mr. Smiley. They were the rolled dice of gods who were as aloof and full of personality as the immortal monsters of ancient Greece, Mr. Smiley implied. He’d formulated his mythology the way he blended his healthy shakes—hearty aphoristic chunks that he’d picked up at AA meetings were crushed and mixed with epigrams from his Tony Robbins inspirational cassettes, which were then spun into the thickening agent, an overarching belief in luck and punishment. The odds controlled mostly everything according to Mr. Smiley, but only mostly. He explained to Peter once, as he split the remains of shake between their still full glasses, “Life is about navigating the exceptions,” and Peter imagined himself climbing a tree.

In June, Mr. Smiley’s unemployment checks would stop coming. But it was still May. Peter’s dream therapy meanwhile was proving immensely fruitful. He felt all but cured of poetry now. Fleeting visions of the red-haired girl still pursued him from time to time on his trips to the office when he’d imagine he’d seen her appearing in some door, behind the fountain outside The Plaza. But even then, it was not poetry. He imagined all of their encounters in prose, sometimes in dramatic form with stage directions: [The red-haired girl sighs and exits stage left.]

He was always falling in love with shadows, he knew that, never the real, always only the residue of a meeting, always chasing after what had gone, not because he disliked the real, but because it was too quick, because it left before he could catch it.

“They found your directions to be—how can I say this—Less Than Adequate.”

He understood on a basic level that if he did see her again, he likely wouldn’t recognize her. She was solid, existing in life, while his love existed mostly in ether. But he didn’t dwell on that as he built desks and armchairs and coffee tables and consoles of fantastic convenience. During these hours, while pursuing his small architecture far into the night’s silence, her shadow came to life, and as he built and wrote the instructions for his constructions, he held her still before him, glowing in his mind like the last apartment light across the way, glowing out into a dark, sleeping city.

Peter’s production soon took on a life of its own. Time seemed to pump him through it, until one Monday, having looked from foot to stone and revolved without impediment and ridden up the elevator of Management and Company to the twenty-fifth floor and proceeded through the office to Sherri by the window, he was announced and ushered into a startlingly silent office. The suited man was at his desk, his head between his hands. Peter laid his latest manuscript on the desk. The man at the desk said nothing. Peter asked finally, “Have you another assignment for me, sir?”

“I’ve given it to Flemming.”

The suited man rose and came from behind his desk, putting a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Peter,” he began.

“It’s—” Peter stopped his correction.

“Peter, we’ve received some complaints from customer service. This will be hard for me to say. It started with the GTS 1600, Mini-Bar. Customers . . . have been calling. They found your directions to be—how can I say this—Less Than Adequate.”

Peter flushed. “This is a blow, sir.”

“Please, Peter. Let me finish. When the first calls came, we assured them the instructions were infallible, reminded them to separate the pieces at the start so as not to confuse a cog for a screw and all that. But the calls kept coming, regarding ten models from this past March alone. Your instructions, though beautifully written, are misleading.”

“Misleading?”

“We’ve recalled all ten models and have assembled a team, headed by Flemming, to evaluate the forty-five additional constructions you have written manuals for since March.”

Peter sat down on the carpet, dumbfounded as the suited man walked a contemplative circle around him. He could not understand how, without his realizing it, his work could have taken such a turn. Especially when life, he felt, had really been swimming. Hadn’t he finally found his place? Peter looked at his hands wondering how they could have deceived him.

Not since the armory show of 1913 has the art world been so profoundly shaken.

“One family in Iowa is suing the company over your GTS 140 Shelving Unit. They claim it has caused nightmares in their youngest son. Another family in Salt Lake City has claimed the same unit to be pornographic and is fearful it might lead their youngest toward teenage pregnancy. Another mother in Idaho purchased the Children’s Desk and Chair Set for their ten-year-old son, only to find once assembled, the material was strictly unusable; it came to resemble, she said, a nude and alarmingly angular woman.”

“But that’s madness, Mr.—”

“And they’re not alone. A lawyer from Minneapolis is bringing a class action suit against the company for the propagation of what they believe to be—how can I put this—pagan imagery. Of course, you see, Peter, how it would be impossible to keep you on under such circumstances. The entire company, too, has been placed under productive arrest—we are to cease all output until the matter is cleared in court. You may be asked to appear as well, but that, of course, won’t be for some time, as the state is still gathering evidence.”

Peter pushed on his knees, rose from the floor, and said, “I don’t know what to say, Sir.”

The suited man whipped around and snapped, “Say you’ll get help, man!”

 

Peter drifted empty-handed through the streets toward his home, trying to understand what had happened, but couldn’t. When he got home, he wanted to talk to Freud about it, but he couldn’t do that either, as Freud dealt only in dreams and refused to listen to anything that had taken place in waking life.

Peter sat on the linoleum floor of his kitchen with his back against the closed oven door and looked out through the doorway into the living room where all of his designs reached toward the ceiling. It looked beautiful to him. Dozens of destinies in all different shapes and sizes, stacked on top of each other like the windows in the buildings across from his. He sat there for a while, thinking and staring at his work, until he fell asleep on the floor beneath the kitchen light.

He dreamed of the red-haired girl. They were playing a game of badminton and he was losing, but he was happy because she was smiling, and her hair was waving back and forth across her face as she swung. He kept missing when it came over to his side and she laughed like a bell and called over the net across the grass, “Send it back, Anton! Send it back!”

He woke to the sound of the phone ringing. His phone never rang. He only kept it for emergencies. It was all the way on the other side of the room, so he had to climb over the stacks of furniture to get to it. First, a mountain of chairs lying over each other at discrete right angles, then three consoles piled vertically into a tower, and then across two end tables leaning against each other diagonally, supported underneath by a shoe rack and a breakfast nook. The phone was on the floor in the corner beneath a set of shelves. By the time he got there, sitting atop a chair that was stacked above four others just like it so that it was raised up like a child’s high chair, the ringing stopped. He sat at the top of this tower of chairs and looked out the window; it happened to be in front of him. The phone began to ring again, and he picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Is this Mr. Verskin?” a woman’s metallic voice asked.

“How may I assist you?” he heard himself answer.

“My name is Phoebe Caldwell. I’m a reporter for the New York Sun, and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions about the Management and Company case.”

“I don’t know that I have any answers.”

“Mr. Verskin.”

“Please,” he interrupted her, “Call me Anton.”

“Alright then, Anton. How long have you been working for Management and Company?

 

Over the next few weeks, he got many calls from many different newspapers, big city papers and little ones, too, from places he’d not heard of. They all wanted to know why he did it. If it was a prank, or was he disgruntled, mentally ill, had he ever been in prison, did he feel remorse over the lives he had adversely affected, about divorces his furniture was said to have caused, about one girl’s running away from her family in Milwaukee to become a soothsayer in New York City. He told them all he didn’t know anything about that. “I just did my job,” he answered. “My job was to write instruction manuals. I can’t help it if some people are not happy with the way things turn out. Life is like that.” He thought for a while and then added. “Destiny sometimes appears differently in the picture on the box.”

 

One Monday, he received a call from a woman named only Jane. She was an art critic for the New York Times who wanted to meet to discuss his work. “May I come see you at your studio?” her voice meloded into the phone.

“I don’t really have a studio, but a one bedroom.”

She persisted, so he gave her the address. She appeared at 1 p.m. with auburn hair, jeans, and a crisp white shirt and blue sport coat. Sunlight streamed through the apartment, casting a jungle of shadows through the furniture stacked in the den.

“This is very exciting for me. I’m a great fan of your work,” she said, shaking his hand and then filling her eyes with the room. I have three of your pieces and think they’re magnificent. Not since the armory show of 1913 has the art world been so profoundly shaken,” she said placing a hand on the GTS 22 next to her.

“I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything,” he said. “I don’t keep food in the apartment.”

He followed her down the stoop on their way to lunch, and her hair, when it met with the sun, flashed a fiery red. They ate at a restaurant on the corner of 57th and 10th Avenue, and she asked him many questions, making notes in a little pad. She told him she had a friend who had a gallery who was desperate to give him a show.

On the sidewalk, after lunch, they stood facing each other while the river of people cut past on both sides. Her hair was blazing when he said, “I’ve seen you before. Yes, I’ve seen you,” and taking her hand and opening it, he kissed her palm and then her eyes. She studied him for a moment and squinted into the sun. “I know,” she said finally, arriving at his mouth.

 

He looked for her column in the paper some Sundays later, while she sat in the next room talking to Freud.

The article began, “Not since the retroactive revelation of paint-by-number has a new art form so radically held the world hostage. Anton Verskin constructs destinies, he’ll say if you ask him, ‘I just put the pieces together, and write the instructions for how they best fit.’ His work began selling at Kmart under the guise of simple do-it-yourself furniture. The buzz began in controversy as people in the Midwest who had sought only to reorganize their shoe closets found themselves instead building monuments to his despair.

“Formerly a poet, Verskin’s work has sold out of Kmart now and will soon be exhibited at the Jacques Flanheim gallery on Madison Avenue. Meanwhile, Management and Company awaits trial for having forced the disturbingly abstract images on consumers across the country. The company, having ceased all commercial production, is now working closely with the MoMA to launch a retrospective of Verskin’s work from his five years spent in the company’s service.”

Next to the article, three of his designs were pictured accompanied by their requisite “instructions.”

“‘The genius of his work, of course, is that it is do-it-yourself art,’ remarked Anne Douglass, PhD, and art history chair at Columbia University. ‘Note the near elegiac quality of his instructions for this desk unit: ‘Fit screw securely into cylinder or your table will be wobbly, and life will forever seem a question with too many answers. Tighten screw and look for five minutes out the nearest window. What don’t you see? Repeat steps five and six and then slide the drawer back so that it appears as a mouth speaking to you from the deep. Fill the drawer with what it says.’”

 

Having fallen through time and woken up together, Jane and Anton determined they were in love and were married shortly after his first show in a garden along the Hudson River. Cannoli were served at the reception, which was followed immediately by a badminton tournament played between the two wedding parties.

They all wanted to know why he did it.

After the wedding, Anton, Freud, and Jane took up permanent residence in the Plaza so that he would have more room for his sculptures. Downstairs in the main foyer, his GTS-22 Handi-table remains permanently on view. Now and then, Mr. Smiley visits him there.

Mr. Smiley never found a job but decided after Anton moved out to start his own business. He calls it “The Moving Gym” and it is the biggest exercise craze to hit North America. His business serves both as moving company for recent arrivals to New York City as well as a workout regimen for those seeking a sense of purpose in their fitness routines.

If you hire “The Moving Gym,” a team of gym members assemble at your apartment and carry your furniture and bric-a-brac, depending on their fitness level. In order to qualify, however, you must be moving to a walk up.

Pictured recently on the cover of Forbes, Mr. Smiley was quizzed about his innovative business plan. In the interview, he thanked his still close friend, the famous instructional artist Anton Verskin, for giving him the idea. Anton, when called for comment, responded by saying, “This is his destiny, all of ours, to swing from tree to tree, looking for footholds in exceptions.”

Iris Smyles is the author of the novels Iris Has Free Time and Dating Tips for the Unemployed. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and elsewhere.

You Might Also Enjoy

Vines

Sarah Green

My mother wrestles with the stakes
and I with her, with the tomato vines
caught in our decades-old wires.

poems

Watching Over

Linda Hogan

This land I watch over / is a place with old stories / and plant medicine. / It is earth a mountain lion walks . . .

poems

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.