Armed by Robert Stiles
No one asks Sal Noman about the arm.
He would tell them he found it laying on his front stoop the morning of his yearly Personal Performance Review. On his way to work that day, he’d nearly tripped over the triangular bulkiness of the package. Written on the sand-colored postal paper, in all capital letters, had been his name and address. The return postage had indicated a place named Solutions, Inc. in Plainview Texas. With both hands, he had lifted the neatly wrapped parcel off the rotten welcome-mat and carried it inside, where after retrieving a pair of scissors from his desk, he’d cut open the box and instantly recognized that the fake arm curled inside was intended to replace the right limb of an above-elbow amputee.
Lifting the prosthesis from the box, Sal searched for an invoice, casting surprising refractions around the living room’s sharp-shadowed surfaces as the dawn’s early light gleamed off the stainless-steel, rubber-lined pincers. The box held only the arm and its accusatory aura of disfigurement — something both freakish and banal; an impression perhaps conjured by the clinical indelicacy of the arm’s white Velcro strap and the mismatched, drab skin-hues of the shoulder-cuff’s rigid, plastic hardness and forearm’s stocking-like spandex wrap. He knew he would have to wait a day to correct the mistake; post-offices closed earlier than the end of his workday, and his lunch break was too brief to spend on the errand. Thus he dutifully repackaged the prosthesis and headed to work, leaving the arm at home for the time being.
• • •
Because he’d been a Guardsman in Iraq, people often assumed that the arm had something to do with his time in Baghdad. But Sal had sustained a different type of combat injury.
It happened on the day that he saw the man’s face lying on the road. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the weather was less than scorching. He was cleaning up after a car-bomb, because that’s what guardsmen did. He figured the skin was that of the driver. It matched the license, and he noticed that the indicated age was twenty-one years old, younger than himself. The given birthday made the driver a Virgo. His home address was three blocks away.
Not like mine, thought Sal.
But Sal and the other Guardsmen knew that the info on the ID was untrustworthy — only the picture would be genuine.
The freak of a blast had peeled off the young man’s face and tossed it aside. It had landed about twenty feet away — “Sunny-side up,” the sergeant said. It was squinting up at the sky and seemed to have missed a few spots shaving that morning.
Sal snapped a picture to show back home.
One of the other Guardsmen took out his piece and relieved himself, writing his name, baptizing the mug with urine before shoveling it into a garbage bag and tossing it into a truck bound for the hospital incinerator.
That’s when the bomb beneath a nearby dog carcass exploded, searing Sal’s mind with white light.
• • •
He woke weeks later in a hospital ward, his body intact, but suffering from a severe head trauma. During the months of therapy, he met men with similar injuries ... men who had problems with their memory, speech, taste, smell, hearing, seeing, touch, feeling. Either that, or they suffered from dizziness, depression, hallucinations, paranoia, new and bizarre phobias, impotence or increased libido. Obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, rage, mania, nightmares, insomnia, lethargy, twitching, trembling and shaking, strange food cravings and weird foreign or unidentifiable accents, idioms or languages when speaking.
Sal had lost the ability to laugh. The physical means remained intact; that is the neurological/musculoskeletal impulse and activity that is engaged whenever something funny has been recognized was still functioning for Sal, but the understanding was no longer whole. It had been wasted by remote controlled detonation.
• • •
Once home he got a job cataloging video for the digital library of a 24-hour television broadcast organization called News Event International. His condition was not a liability.
Five days a week, eight hours a shift, he sat before a viewing machine, attending to an incoming stream of moving images that had been gathered from around the world for potential use in upcoming and/or future N.E.I. news packages.
There were car chases, riots, disgraced politicians, radiant celebrities, serial killers, sensational criminal trials, starving children, fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis — any visually arresting raw material of Armageddon’s narrative. Additionally, there were mundane scenes: empty streets, unexceptional people leaving nondescript buildings, various reporters rehearsing their lines, wind-blown fields of wheat, a bridge at sunset, a chained bicycle, a man in a cafe drinking coffee ... and many other unremarkable scenes without immediately identifiable news-value.
It all passed beneath his humor-absent gaze before being added to an ever-expanding database — one which could be searched according to the specific terms assigned to the material once it had been processed by employees like Sal. If an N.E.I. producer needed footage of a certain world leader, it could be retrieved by through a search field by said name — just as material for an exposé about the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke could be retrieved by entering the term: “smoking” into the database.
Or for a piece on The Joys of Pet Ownership: the terms “Cats” and/or “Dogs”.
Or for stories on Global Warming: “Icebergs” “Desert” “Sunshine.”
For Obesity: “Eating” “Exercising” “Obese People,” etc.
The task for catalogers, like Sal, was to anticipate the terms appropriate for the particular material being cataloged; a tricky business, considering that absolute categories were impossible. Descriptions of images were constantly being updated and revised for accuracy, and often expanded or limited according to changes in world events and general perceptions of these events. New rubrics were always being created to replace outdated classifications.
Over time, the accumulation of each revision or addition of newly assigned search criteria to an often-used clip would seem to indicate a type of semantic natural selection. The process expressed how N.E.I. defined and presented as “World Events” and defined the creation of its product, “World Events.” This in turn, influenced the selection of the very terms used to describe the captured and contained footage of the world events.
Thus, raw video was recorded ‘out in the world’ but passed before the eyes of the catalog staff, like Sal, so that it could be categorized, selected, edited and made suitable for broadcast to N.E.I.’s worldwide viewers.
• • •
One day, during a shift when he had some time to kill, Sal entered the term: ‘God’ as a search parameter. The results yielded countless scenes of religious rallies and/or protests, interior and exterior shots of churches, mosques and synagogues, religious services, people in various attitudes of prayer, well-known religious-themed paintings, interviews with clergy, imams, nuns, rabbis, cult leaders, gurus, yoga instructors, etc.
Sal absently scrolled through the results, not really looking for anything in particular, until he spotted a blurry thumb-nailed still-shot that had been assigned the terms: ‘chair’ ‘forest’ ‘god’ ‘winter’ ‘morning’. Clicking open the file revealed shaky footage of a three-legged, broken-backed common-looking wooden chair of artless craft leaning against a pine trunk. Upon the rough, sun-parched wood-grains of the chair’s surfaces, a faint bleached-blue coat of turquoise paint could be seen in faded, flaking traces.
No one appeared in the short clip, but when listening through headphones, Sal detected the sounds of a group of men speaking calm and casual and seemingly familiar to one another off-camera, in a language that sounded very much like German ... But, it also sounded very much unlike German and more like something else ... Something in a dialect both familiar and unrecognizable ... something like the weird words voiced by some stranger approaching in a dream ... or like the nonsensical speech heard spoken in sleep.
As he replayed the clip, Sal had checked the catalog record to see who’d been responsible for assigning the term ‘god’ to the file’s otherwise consistent list of search terms. He didn’t recognize the indicated name as belonging to any of his co-workers. He searched N.E.I.’s Personnel Directory, but discovered that whoever the person was had apparently left the company. No information was forthcoming.
With a clear conscience, he was poised to delete the inaccuracy ... Inexplicably and with the slightest of right hand-motion, he clicked the printer icon to print out a full-color hard-copy of the abandoned piece of discarded furniture. He then taped this still-shot upon one of the dividing walls of his cubicle, where it remained.
• • •
Sal’s new manager, Ed Blight, a man of doubtless demeanor and the tight-wound irritability of one who is perpetually disappointed by those around him, sat at a desk facing east in a tenth floor office that had a view facing west. Behind Blight, over his shoulder, in the sunset’s far hazy distance, beyond the city and flat-sprawling suburbs, As Sal enter Blight’s office, he could see an aberration known as Cherokee Red Mountain bumping up and out of the tamed and named geography that extended to the land-locked, smog-obscured line of the view’s horizon.
“This is Sue Firmen from HR,” Blight said to Sal. “And this is Jack Sizemore from Best U Solutions. He’s going to sit in on your review. Okay?”
Sal glanced out the window again as he shook hands with the wiry, knife-jawed girl from Human Resources before doing the same with the newt-like man with indistinct grip from the company that had implemented the new Employee-Assessment System at N.E.I. “As long as Security’s not involved, I am ready and willing,” said Sal.
“N.E.I. protocol requires an HR rep.” Blight said mechanically, unblinking. “Bringing in Best U is an innovation.”
“Potential innovation,” clarified Sizemore. “I’m here for innovation potential. For program development. The Best U model is Evolve-Oriented.”
“Efficiency leads to more efficiency. Progress to more progress.” Sal said, taking his seat. “I understand where you’re coming from.”
“‘Improvement is Standard’ is the Best U credo.” Sizemore said.
Blight handed around copies of Sal’s review. “We’ll just go through the weighing of your goals then discuss some modifications for your projections.”
Sal’s prior manager had always treated the reviews as an empty formality, if not an outright joke. For the past couple of years, she’d only required him to — in her words, ‘populate his review’ — a process that amounted to his recycling of the preceding review’s generic, frankly bombastic, form-filling testaments of on-going, unwavering commitment to N.E.I.’s cause and corporate interests.
Then about a year ago — right around when the Best U model had been adopted — his old manager had been demoted.
“You averaged seventy-eight percent completion of your individual goals,” said Blight. “Accordingly, your year-end bonus was set at the amount listed.”
Sal noted that both numbers were lower than last year’s. “The ends towards which my efforts have been directed have not always been clear during this past year,” he said.
“We know,” said Firmen. “Stage-discrepancy was apparent.”
“That’s something we’ll work on,” said Sizemore.
“Your raise is one-point-nine percent.” Blight said. “You’re now at the maximum pay grade and your benefits package remains the same. Any questions? Comments?”
“I can only say that at the moment I am as close as is tolerable to being content at the current position.” Sal said. “I harbor no perverse urges to become CEO, nor do I disregard the seriousness of my responsibilities. I acknowledge and am comfortable as possible with my circumscribed role and routine existence within N.E.I. Thank you.”
“We appreciate that,” said Blight. “But regarding projections ... Our analysis of your review and work record indicates that you’re entitled to a greater contributory role here at N.E.I.”
“Such a change would require a modification ...” Sal said. “One which I fear is perhaps too comprehensive and too great a specialization than the range of my capabilities can withstand.”
“Yes, but judging from the subtext of your stated goals,” said Blight. “There’s a distinct undercurrent of dissatisfaction.”
“That’s something I cherish,” said Sal, catching a glimpse of Cherokee Red Mountain outside Blight’s office window. “Something I cultivate.”
“Best U does like to keep people hungry,” said Sizemore.
In the distance, Sal could see the twin smoke-stacks of an old textile mill that had been converted to lofts. “But I am ... hungry?” He said to no one specific.
“Right,” said Sizemore. “And we’re going to help you feed that hunger.”
“HR has worked with Best U and your manager,” said Firmen, “to design a Program of Challenge that will address some of your vulnerabilities. The plan begins with your enrollment in a series of three Optimal Performance Classes: Personal Branding 101, Networking for Success, and Ten Highly Effective Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“We’ve also set up the opportunity for you to Shadow the Research Desk,” said Blight. “An area where we believe you’ll be a good fit.”
“Sal,” said Sizemore. “You deserve greater exposure.”
“You don’t want to get overlooked, do you?” said Blight.
“H.R. likes to keep track of available talent,” said Firmen. “Sometimes there are resources right under our noses that need to be unearthed and utilized ... Like you, for instance.”
“Greater demands — ,” said Sal. “Equates diminishing returns.”
“We don’t recognize that formula here at N.E.I.” Blight said. “Not in your case, anyway. You can do more ... according to our estimation.”
“Human potential is limitless,” said Sizemore. “You can be more — but you’re not you in the existing circumstances.”
“Think about the next ten years,” said Firmen. “Where do you see yourself? What would make you happy?”
Sal saw his reflection, a ghost amongst ghosts, refracted off the internal surface of Blight’s window, his image pierced by the blinking lights atop the smoke-stacks outside as Cherokee Red Mountain darkened to a hulking silhouette in the sunset distance. “I can’t say. I don’t have the tools that allow the expression.”
“That can be changed,” said Sizemore.
“You have recognizable potential,” said Firmen.
“You start Monday ... shadowing,” Blight said, rising from his desk, blocking the view.
• • •
Later that night, as Sal lay on the verge of sleep, he could sense the prosthetic arm downstairs. This impression — more sensation than conscious thought — mingled and mixed with his recollections of the day, blending and conjuring those images peculiar to the in-between of waking and sleep.
Once asleep he dreamed a tense dream about a hybrid species of impossible animal that was threatening to devour him if he didn’t let it out of his condo — but at the same time, he wanted to keep the creature as a pet because of its rare, conclusive singularity. When he woke hours later, fatigued and disoriented from the rare nightmare, he was possessed with a compulsion to be rid of the limb. He quickly showered and dressed ... then headed to the post office with the arm in arm.
Two days later he began shadowing.
• • •
The Research Desk was nicknamed the Spine. It consisted of four pairs of interconnected workstations, located in the newsroom, directly behind the desk where anchors sat when reading news scripts from teleprompters while broadcasting. All news scripts had to be fact-checked by the Spine prior to their being used.
For the first few days, Sal sat with Amy Adder, observing the actions of what characterizes an N.E.I. Researcher. She showed him how news scripts were uploaded to the Spine by N.E.I. reporters or producers, and she indicated what sorts of things needed to be verified for accuracy within the scripts. She demonstrated how the checking of facts amounted to a determination of whether at least two other reasonably reputable sources had used identical information. This authentication of N.E.I.’s news authority was achieved either through the various pre-existing data sources that had been collected and compiled within N.E.I., or else via a standard web-search of other independent news outlets and/or news sources. Contact with the original sources of information was never established. Beyond that, the Researchers of N.E.I. simply lacked the time needed for the type of concrete validation through actual human testimony of events.
The world’s time zones dictated round-the-clock deadlines. Scripts usually hit the Spine minutes before the scheduled broadcast, thus requiring the Researchers of N.E.I. to scramble to ensure the broadcast suitability of several simultaneous scripts that often dealt with a variety of subjects for multiple N.E.I. venues. Once a script was determined to be factually sound, it also had to be edited for clarity — a somewhat formulaic process, requiring an awareness of such dramatic considerations as the transitive “tosses” and “teases” of anchors and reporters, the use of embedded footage within a segment, the location of commercial breaks, the scheduling of live interviews, etc.
Sal’s encounter with this frantic, harried, distracted pace of a Researcher’s typical day immediately made him miss the quiet, nearly-meditative, relatively undisturbed focus of his Cataloger’s work.
“I’m afraid I lack the essential fortitude,” he said to Adder after two shifts on the Spine.
“What’re you’re talking about?” She said. “You’re a natural.” She finished off her sixth and last packet of machine-vended candy. “Tomorrow, you’re on your own — not just a shadow.” She swigged from a fresh, deep, recyclable well of caffeine Cola.
“The speed of my fact-checking will be problematic,” said Sal.
“You’ll get the feel.” Adder said. “Steven Lissom’ll be here to give you a hand.” She logged off her workstation and rummaged through her purse for a pack of gum. “Gotta eat something. My blood sugar’s low. I’m outta energy. Want anything?”
“I’m not hungry,” Sal said.
The next day, Sal fielded calls and did his best with the scripts. At one point, he was having trouble verifying certain details in a report on the growing popularity of an insurgent political movement in another country.
He looked to Lissom for help.
“Substantiation of the actual size of this movement is proving elusive.” Sal said across to Lissom on the other side of the Spine. “The measure of support amongst the general population is by no means certain.”
“Don’t get so hung up on certainty,” said Lissom. “Our transmissions aren’t for philosophers. As long as everything seems logical; compellingly logical stories or vice versa — that’s what we’re going for here.”
Lissom checked out the script and signed off on it and Sal moved on to something else ... something about a train crash in a mountainous region in an area of the world that he’d never heard of, a region that, for some reason, the existence of which he began to doubt.
He worked on, also becoming increasingly doubtful despite Lissom’s assurances and encouragements.
“Pay attention to striking the right tone and rhythm in the scripts,” said Lissom. “Depending on the nature of each piece, you’ll want to shoot for a subtle balance between incomprehension and reaffirmation ... or hysteria and comfort ... or any other combination that helps to convey the riveting drama of the news anchor’s aggressive, almost sadistic concern.”
“What if the story has little or no potential for drama?” Sal asked. “How do you elevate the banality of material like the script now before me that concerns the rescue of a cat stuck in a tree?”
“The performative banter between newscasters and reporters will conjure the hook,” said Lissom. “Their streamlined, flawless exchanges with each other ... the ‘teases’ and ‘tosses’ ... the polished choreography of conversation and facial expressions — all this functions as ritual — as a virtually inclusive lesson and sermon to the viewer ... like the lessons and sermons of a Catholic mass.”
“What exactly is being taught?” Sal asked.
“A weltanschauung.” Lissom said. “Think of the embedded footage within each script as something like the stained-glass windows of churches. Good, usable news footage achieves bewitchment. What’s incidental, becomes essential and vice versa.”
“But the camera lies,” said Sal.
“Wrong. The camera neither lies nor tells truth,” Lissom said. “It fixes an image. And the irrefutable existence of the image is all that matters, not whether the image captures something true or not.”
“An image’s ignorance of context is viral,” said Sal. “Its sensationalism is replicated. Its authority, total.”
“You got it,” said Lissom. “Now let’s get back to business. I got an ex-wife and child-support and an underwater mortgage to pay.”
During the next two days, their conversations pertained mostly to the execution of their jobs. Sometimes the weather was discussed — and once, Lissom mentioned something concerning a local sports team, but never again was the nature and consequence of the Spine’s purpose broached.
• • •
At the end of the week, Sal met with Blight.
“I’m gonna let them borrow you for another five days,” said Blight. “You’re not really missed in the Library, and I’m hearing good things from the Spine. They’ve been trying out candidates, and you’re the first that gets it.”
“The experience has been strange,” said Sal.
“You’ll get used to it.” Blight said. “Take the weekend to decompress. Spend time with family and friends. Tinker around the yard. Play around with a hobby. Have a few beers. Relax. Come back Monday with recharged batteries.”
“Your suggestions — although well-intentioned — aren’t applicable in my case,” Sal said.
“All right, go see a movie. Or go to church, if that’s what you do,” said Blight as he ushered Sal from his office.
When Sal got home, he found that the arm had returned. A new label with his address had been pasted on the box. The package clearly had not been opened since it had been taped together a week ago, so he set the box in his living room where it remained overnight.
In the morning, he wrote a note to send back with the arm:
To Whom It May Concern,
I, the twice recipient of this prosthetic device, wish to inform the interested parties that I believe there has been an error. This package is being sent to the wrong address. I am as certain as is possible that the right arm with which I was born is still a recognizable part of a conceptual whole which I have little doubt exists according to long-recognized foundational notions of integrity that concern what is automatically referred to as a physical body. Although I greatly admire the innovative craftsmanship of your product, and also recognize the commendable purpose of its use, there is as yet, no evidence that suggests that I am the one that is in need of the device. I am therefore returning this merchandise, which I have neither ordered, nor paid for in any way, and hope that the mistake can be remedied and the arm sent to whom it has been fitted.
After dropping the arm at the post office, Sal attended the first of his assigned Optimal Performance Classes: Personal Branding 101. He then spent the evening contemplating his week’s labors from without.
• • •
On Sabbath-day, he slept late and woke from a nightmare about a common, ordinary, unhinged deli-slicer blade that was pursuing him with mechanical persistence down a network of busy, oddly familiar streets. Its high-pitched, howling revolution struck a whorl of sparks off the asphalt and sidewalk pavement and every attempt to shake the blade was failing and there was an anxious sense of inevitability pervading — like the push-pull vertigo of approaching psychosis. This uneasiness lingered briefly upon waking, before quickly evaporating, leaving only a residual feeling of the blade’s inexorability as Sal rose and got about the business of a typical Sunday off.
• • •
The following week at the Spine, he worked closely with the Head Researcher, Bill Wright — a veritable N.E.I. patriarch with the characteristic humor of a true believer and the aura of sentient papier-mâché. Wright’s reputation had been staked on his intolerance of error. He had an instinctive repulsion for mistakes — especially the kind that most human beings would most likely view as downright petty, if not slightly amusing or even virtuous. For Wright, however, the more inconsequential the detected fault, the greater was his distaste. Whether this attitude had any relation to any discovery of factual discrepancies within any of the many news scripts that passed through the Spine was all coincidental. Perfection, not legitimacy was Wright’s religion. Infinite distrust had made his career because infinite distrust was integral to N.E.I.’s product. Wright’s target was any spot of friction that could potentially introduce unpredictable and irregular elements to the daily work-rhythm and busy hum of the Spine’s efficiency.
When subjected to the categorical professionalism of Wright’s work ethic, Sal had the sense that something essential within himself was shrinking — as if retreating — like grease-film from soap-bubbles. Mid-week, Wright handed Sal a packet of paper and requested that he, “Do twelve copies of this deposition.” Sal asked where to find the nearest copy-machine and Wright reacted with irritation. When Sal returned with copies that had each been stapled in the top right-hand corner, Wright held one of them between thumb and index, and said with dispassionate disbelief, “Right-side staple. Weird.” Then he was off to a meeting of like-minded middle-managers.
Sal spent the rest of the week atoning. Stress and self-estrangement cradled him in Wright’s demanding efficiency — and the next two shifts passed without incident. He was looking forward to returning to his Cataloger’s position.
• • •
When he showed up for his scheduled Friday meeting with Blight, he was surprised to see that Wright was also in the office.
“The bad news,” said Blight, “is that I replaced you in the Library.”
“I’m fired?” asked Sal.
“No luck,” Blight continued. “Because the good news is that Bill Wright wants to try you on the Spine.”
“I need an overnight person.” Wright said. “Ten p.m. to six. Full-time.”
“It’s a good opportunity,” said Blight. “Better pay. Greater skill development potential.”
“You’ll get on dayshift after gaining seniority.” Wright said. “Probably about six months.”
Sal gazed at the dark night outside Blight’s window. “Don’t have much of a choice.” He said. “I need a job.”
Blight laughed politely and Wright cracked a tight smile at what they took as Sal’s little joke.
“I’ll put you on the schedule for Sunday night.” Wright said.
“Congratulations.” Blight exclaimed, indicating the meeting’s conclusion. He stepped from behind his desk and opened his office door.
Sal rose and headed out. “For what exactly?” He asked as he passed the threshold.
“For your promotion.” Blight said to Sal in the hallway. “It’s a big step.”
On the way home, Sal picked up a bottle of wine. He had never been much of a drinker, but the accumulated stress of his time on the Spine begged relief. In the sanctuary of his condo, the entire bottle went down quick on an empty stomach, causing Sal to be too hung-over to make it to his next Optimal Performance Class: Networking for Success. Anxious that his No-Show would be reported, and fearing the thought of consequences, Sal purchased two more bottles. He did his best to finish both before passing out on the couch while watching the evening news.
• • •
When he woke before dawn Sunday morning, the First thing that he noticed was that he was in boxers in his bed in his bedroom. The Second thing that he noticed was a man sitting in the corner. The Third thing that he noticed was that his own right arm had been replaced by a now-familiar prosthesis.
“Am I dreaming?” He asked ... more to himself than to the strange man.
The man coughed and seemed dimly amused. “Dreams’re lies telling truths,” said the man. “Name’s Henry Sage, from Solutions, Inc. You can call me Hank. Don’t worry about shaking my hand. All I need’s your signature. You can just mark the spot with an X.”
Sage stood and handed Sal a sheet of paper. “What’s this?” Sal asked bewildered, holding the sheet with his left hand.
Sage sat back down. He was heavier and older than Sal. A shirt-tail had come untucked and his thinning hair was mussed. He wore crooked black-framed glasses and dingy running-shoes with Velcro straps. His smile never faded or deepened. “Bill of receipt,” he said. “For the arm.”
“How did you ... ?” asked Sal.
“Not ‘How?’ but ‘Why?’ is the right question to ask at this point,” said Sage. “Our products allow customers to overcome certain limitations.”
“But ... it’s a mistake,” said Sal weakly. He tried sitting up but experienced sudden vertigo and lay back down.
“Solutions Inc. sees all mistakes, flaws, accidents, ruptures, breakdowns etcetera, etcetera as raw opportunity,” said Sage. “The arm is for you. And you are for the arm. Been in the business close to two decades and never seen or heard of any kind of mess-up. Customers always think they’re getting more than they bargained for ... but everyone comes around.”
“There was nothing wrong with me,” Sal whispered.
“In a manner of speaking, you’re right ... except that you have lacked a certain definitive element of resistance for quite some time now,” Sage said. “I’m talking about your little head wound, mister Noman. I’m talking about how that roadside explosion back in Baghdad kissed your mind in faceless communion, then left you empty, pliable and somewhat ill-defined — a Guardsman no longer guarded against the Howling Lack, awake to the teeming spasm and collapse of nature’s lurid cacophony of decay and regeneration. So, yes mister Noman, you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re all too right ... and that’s the problem ... Besides, there’s no return policy on Solutions Inc. products.”
“I’m dreaming,” said Sal, beholding his new arm in the beginning daylight. “This makes no sense.”
“To say that you’re dreaming makes no sense.” Sage said. “The order is real. More real than the arm itself. Its placement is irrefutable. Whether it makes sense or not, doesn’t matter. In fact, you might want to call this ‘order-fulfilled’ a ‘metamorphosis.’”
“That’s crazy!” Sal exclaimed.
“Like a good joke is crazy,” said Sage with the same inscrutable smile. “Humor’s something we take very seriously at Solutions, Inc.”
“What am I going to do with this?” Sal said sadly, presenting the gleaming claw of his prosthesis.
“Think of it as an arms agreement.” Sage said, smiling evenly. “Excuse me. I always say that.” He produced a crumpled pack of filter-less cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Mind if I smoke? Nasty little habit I got.”
Sal motioned dismissively with his new arm.
“I’m trying to quit.” Sage said matter-of-factly. “I’ll take it outside. Gotta get going, anyway. Flying back to Plainview this afternoon.”
“Fly ...” Sal said absently to the wall. He turned his head to see Sage’s face hazy behind the day-lit cigarette smoke that hovered baroquely.
“Your confusion’s a good sign,” said Sage, flicking ash into his hand. He presented this makeshift ashtray to Sal. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground. That’s what your new arm emphasizes, mister Noman. Both the Vegetative Gordian Knot and Adam’s naming of every living creature. Postlapsarian phantom leg syndrome and its potential remedy. Try to have a sense of humor about it all.” He stood and dumped his handful of dust into a nearby wastebasket. “Card’s on the table,” he said, indicating the nightstand. “Take care.”
Then he was gone.
Several silent moments passed ... then Sal reached for the card with his left hand and read:
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad
creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and
treats the people as straw dogs.*
No contact information was forthcoming.
• • •
Sal’s first week on overnights was difficult. Besides the clumsy new prosthesis and the larger demands of the new position, he found it impossible to adapt to the unnatural night-time schedule. He couldn’t get enough sleep during the day. The artificial night that he created with black-out curtains and a drug-store blind-fold never completely fooled his body, thus making his time on the Spine an increasingly thin-skinned struggle to stay awake and attentive.
Nobody ever mentioned anything about his arm.
All N.E.I. employees are schooled on definite standards of professionalism that explicitly dictated an awareness of anything that might give the appearance of unlawful discrimination. Therefore, Sal’s co-workers acted as if the fake-arm did not, in fact, exist at all. So when Sal struggled to keep up — typing with his one good arm, or when he bobbled the phone with his chrome-claw — the other Researchers took pains never to register their irritation with his clumsiness. They just picked up the slack and followed company protocol.
At week’s end, with raw, sleep-hungry nerves, Sal found himself facing Bill Wright.
“We’ve gone over some figures and done some calculations,” Wright said humorlessly, “and we’ve decided to go with a different system.”
Sal desperately wanted to shut his eyes and sleep. He felt brittle and dried — like some kind of primitive sea crab that’d been washed up and stranded on a baking beach. “What’s that mean?” he asked and yawned.
“As of today, we’re working with one less Researcher on overnights.” Wright said. “Your position is eliminated. You’ll turn in your access badge to Sue Firmen downstairs and she’ll go over your Severance Package with you.”
Sal yawned again and used one of his hands to cover his open mouth. “Pardon me,” he said and quickly noticed Wright’s surprising irritation at the indiscretion. “What kind of Severance is lined up for me?” Sal asked as he casually raised his new arm and offhandedly scratched his left cheek.
Wright glared at the offensive gesture. “You’ll have to take that up with Sue in Human Resources,” he said stiffly, his composure perceptively forced.
“What about my Benefits?” asked Sal, feeling the cool chrome of his arm’s pincers stroking the side of his face. “Will I still have my Health Insurance during my time of Severance in case something happens to me?” He slowly — almost tauntingly, continued scratching a nonexistent itch.
“You’ll have to ask HR,” said Wright impatiently.
“There’s no employment opportunities in the library?” Sal asked.
“They can’t use you,” said Wright, conspicuously glancing at his wristwatch.
“Somewhere else, then?”
“No, nowhere,” said Wright.
“I can’t be used?”
“Not in the new system.”
After several thick and silent seconds, Sal rose from his chair. “I guess I’m pretty useless, huh?” he said, raising his right arm.
A verbal response from Wright was not forthcoming.
“Well, all righty then,” said Sal. He reached out to shake hands. “Then I just want to say: Thanks for the experience. Let’s shake.” He nearly let out a chuckle at the sight of Wright’s confusion.
“Is something funny, mister Noman?” asked Wright, noting the enigma of a grin on Sal’s expression.
“No,” said Sal, smiling. “Nothing’s funny ... Nothing is very funny.”
* Excerpt of Tao Te Ching (verse 5), Lao Tzu
© 2014 Robert Stiles
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Robert Stiles - Robert Stiles was educated at Columbia University. He is a fiction and poetry writer that teaches English at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. He loves playing his guitars in the morning and reading his books at night.