“Here Today” by Harman Burgess
Edward worked for the Fenton County Post Office. His job mostly consisted of standing in a small dark room sorting packages into small piles. In the evenings he took a Literature course at Fenton University and when he got home, he dreamt of one day becoming a writer. Not the famous kind where a publicist flies you around the world to give lectures to adoring fans in sold-out theatres, but the smaller type where he could publish a book every couple of years and earn enough from that to get by. If, as Kafka thought, writing is a form of prayer than sign Edward up for a monastery.
Edward didn’t like the people he worked with at the Post Office and they didn’t like him. They treated each other with the mix of professionalism and spite that characterizes relationships between co-workers in a minimum wage job. And Edward structured his working day to see as little of his fellow employees as possible. And at this, he was remarkably successful, of the dozen or so people that worked at the Post Office Edward only interacted with Clark (his manager) and Paul (the person that brought him the packages to sort). Besides Clark and Paul Edward would be hard-pressed to remember any of the other worker’s names although, for some peculiar reason, they all knew his.
On the evenings when Edward’s course wasn’t on, he would go to a bar to unwind. The bar was a tiny place located between a bank and a book shop and run by a retired couple for something to do on a Friday night. It looked as if it had been furnished by a pack of drunk carpenters (who, incidentally, are the main clientele). Timber covered everything: the counter, the benches, the seats, the floor. It wasn’t very comfortable, but the retired couple preferred it that way. If the customers felt wretched then it made the fights better.
One night, as Edward was sitting at one of the bar’s hard booths sipping a cold beer, Paul sat down next to him. Ordinarily, Edward would have told Paul to fuck off as Paul wasn’t that good a drinking buddy and he didn’t want to go through the hassle off starting a new friendship. Although, his throat had that scratchy feeling it got when he needed a cigarette, so he decided to hear the man out.
“Got any ciggies, mate?” asked Edward.
“What is it then, what do you want?”
“I saw something weird happen the other day,” said Paul. He glanced around the bar as if someone was watching him. “I think Clark murdered someone.”
“What, mate?” Edward checked his watch; it was only 7 pm, far too early for this sort of stuff. “Do you mean spiritually or something? Because I agree with the alienation of the working classes and all that. But I think that’s taking the metaphor too far.”
“No! I’m being serious! Clark took that new girl Amanda into the breakroom last week and I haven’t seen her since. Have you?”
“That girl with the red hair. You know, the one I told you about the other day.”
Edward shook his head. “Names, faces, I’ve been working here for two years and they’ve all started to blend together. What’s the point of remembering names if everyone looks the same?”
“How do you get through the day not knowing anyone’s name?” asked Paul, despite himself.
“That’s easy. One of the remarkable things about human conversation is that you don’t have to mention anyone’s name. I can just come in, give a couple of nods, and then go to my corner and sort shit.”
“That’s absurd; I just… no. Surely, you know Amanda. Red hair, new here? You gotta know her.”
“Wait, was she the one with the nice…” Edward held his hands out in front of his chest. “And you think Clark killed her? What is that some sort of sex thing? I mean, I always thought he was, you know, frustrated, but killing someone? Jesus. What are you going to do? Are you going to follow him around or some shit like that?”
“I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“You, you’ll keep an eye on him. I mean, no offence, but you’re not the most inconspicuous.” Edward gestured to Paul’s protruding gut.
“Exactly. Which is why I want you to help me.”
“Fuck off. Why would I help you follow our boss around? Because you haven’t seen someone in a while? Please. Even if, for the sake of argument, Clark murdered her, why would I care? I’m not going to risk my life going after the killer. I’ve got dreams, man, and I’m not going to get myself killed before I get a chance to realize them.”
“Come on, man. You’re like the only person I know there.”
“No.” Edward stood up. “I’m going to get some cigarettes; you stay here and do whatever you want.”
Time passed Edward by like an angry housewife suffering from grout. Paul trailed Clark around for a few weeks until Clark got sick of him and told Paul to go fuck himself. Then Paul took to following Edward around and complaining to him about Clark until Edward got sick of him and told Paul to go fuck himself. And that ended the investigation into the disappearance of whoever she was. Edward’s University assignments all came due at the same time, Clark asked him to cover some extra shifts, and he had to – somehow – find time for writing. There simply wasn’t enough time to put up with Paul’s delusions.
Edward got home after telling Paul to go fuck himself and poured himself a drink. He shifted some books and old takeout boxes off his coffee table, pulled out some greasy scraps of paper and a ballpoint pen and began to write. In Edward’s story, a depressed girl (the girl is melancholy because this was fiction and in fiction, the main character must be either a writer or depressed) is chasing down a rogue pack of flying saucers to save a different girl, who is also depressed, from drowning. Edward didn’t understand all the confusion and angst that people go through over a first draft. He suspected that the reason the first draft has such a mysterious aura around it was because of a few established writers (Proust, Joyce, Hemingway etc.) putting epic arcs of self-discovery in their novels before their characters do any actual writing. Edward wrote his story in three hours, edited it over a week or two, and put it into rotation with the other short stories he sent out to magazines.
More time passed, and Clark gathered the employees together at the shop for a New Year’s Eve party. Clark had threatened and cajoled Edward enough that he had overcome his dislike for his co-workers and begrudgingly shown up. They had cleared out the main area of the shop and set up some tables with food and drink on it. Some moron had even put up a disco ball. On arriving, Edward went straight to the alcohol intending to get black-out drunk. In protest, of course.
“Can I have your attention please everyone,” said Clark tapping a fork against his whisky glass. Conversation obediently tapered off. “Thank you. Now we’ve all had a tough year. What with all the people leaving us, and we can all remember Easter.” The employees dutifully laughed, Edward rolled his eyes to Paul and downed a glass of Vodka. “Oh, stop it. But we have good news; I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that we now have a published author working with us! Yes, I know, Edward you may not like us very much, but that story of yours about the flying saucers was hilarious. I’ll look forward to reading it a second time when it comes out in print.”
“It was meant to be a character study. Yes, there was some comedy in it, but that was to highlight the character parts.”
“Whatever it was, it was hilarious. Now, if my watch is correct, and I think it is, then it should be the New Year in 10…9…8”
The chant took over the group and grew into a thunderous crescendo that very much annoyed Edward. As everyone cheered and kissed and other such things, he poured himself another glass of Vodka and lit a cigarette. Clark sidled up to where Paul and Edward were standing.
“You know, those things will kill you,” said Clark taking Edward’s cigarette from his mouth and stubbing it out on a plastic plate.
“Good,” said Edward lighting another one, “Then I won’t have to listen to you telling me what I can and can’t do.”
“Classic,” grinned Clark placing a hand on Edward’s shoulder. “Paul, can I talk for a moment?”
Paul nodded and followed Clark to the breakroom. He shot Edward a look and Edward made a twirling sign next to his forehead. They disappeared, and when they had gone, Edward proceeded to consume an outrageous quantity of alcohol. He spent the rest of the night trying to remember if the redhead standing by the door to the breakroom was called Amanda or not so he could flirt with her.
Edward woke the next morning on his back on the kitchen floor completely nude and in the grip of a throbbing headache. On seeing that he was naked Edward excitedly looked around the apartment to see if there was anyone else there with him, maybe that redhead. But, finding nothing, he flopped down on his couch with a disappointed sigh, opened his laptop and absentmindedly checked his emails. One from the magazine who bought his story, this might be important. He read it through once. Then again. Then jumped up, threw his laptop onto the sofa, and started pacing back and forth, his penis bouncing up and down as he walked. The bloody magazine folded. The editors reassured him that although his story had been good, the magazine’s next issue would be its last and as his story was slated for the issue after that they wouldn’t be able to publish it. They said he could keep the money though, the bastards, as if he was doing it for that.
Edward didn’t go to work for a week. He just lay on the sofa watching T.V and ordering fast food whenever he got hungry. He didn’t read, he didn’t write, he didn’t do anything. It wasn’t a very good week. A knock on the door roused him from his stasis, and he pulled on a dressing gown and went to answer it.
“The fuck are you doing here?” asked Edward.
“You haven’t been to work for a week, dickhead. I was worried about you. Can I come in?” asked Clark.
“Whatever,” Edward waved his hand and Clark strolled into the apartment.
“Nice place,” said Clark holding up a half-eaten pizza.
“What do you want?” asked Edward shutting the door.
“I came to see if you were ok, man. I miss you, and well Paul disappeared. I know that you two were close.” Clark sat down on Edward’s sofa and crossed his legs.
“What! Oh my God!”
“You didn’t know then? Shame.”
The gears turned inside Edward’s mind. “Did you kill him? The other day at the pub he was going on about a missing girl and he thought you killed her.”
“Not personally, no, I didn’t kill him or Amanda. But I know what did.”
Edward went cold. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. He ran into his kitchen, pulled out a carving knife, and charged Clark. There was a brief scuffle which came to an end after Edward managed to cut a deep gash into his own hand.
Clark set Edward down onto the sofa and went into the kitchen for bandages. “Calm down, buddy. Here, I’ll bandage that for you. No? Would you like to hold onto the knife? Would that make you feel better? Ok, then.”
Clark quickly bandaged Edward’s hand and then sat down on the coffee table. “I should explain myself then. I suppose it started when I was about your age. Twenty or so. My father, well, we didn’t get along very well. He ran the post office before me and made me work there part-time. To build character or some shit.”
“What the fuck are you telling me about your father for. I don’t give a shit about your father, are you killing people or not?”
“Shut up, I’m getting there.” Clark paused a moment to gather his thoughts. “Where was I? Yeah, my father. He was a cunt, and I went along with it by letting him order me around for pocket change. I never wanted to kill anyone more than that basted. But I never did anything about it, and it just bubbled away under the surface of my mind for years until one day I heard the voice. It told me to show my father into the breakroom and then it would take care of him for me. You’ve got to understand me; I was desperate here. I told my father that there was a leak under the kitchen sink, he went in there to fix it, and I never saw him again. I never heard the voice again either, but my life improved so much because of it. I took over the store. I ran it so bloody well that in the first quarter I earnt twice what the old man earnt in his best year. Every now and then I’d bring an employee in there as a kind of offering to the voice. And every time I did my life would improve. I’d find a wining scratchy or the girl I had a crush on would smile at me or that stock that I just invested in would go up. You know, little things.”
“This is crazy. You’re delusional.”
“I’m not!” yelled Clark standing up. “The only reason I’m telling you this is that I felt bad for you. That was a good short story and I’m damn sorry that the magazine folded! I want to help you get out there, man. I want you to be the titan I know that you’re capable of being. I want to read your latest novel and smile because I had a hand in it! Do you want me to show you how?”
Bleeding and depressed, Edward thought about Clark’s offer. Deep down, he had no idea how the publishing world work. He thought he did, but he really didn’t. So, he decided to hear Clark out on this. To see if he was telling the truth or if he was just delusional. If he was delusional, he could call the police and if he wasn’t then he’d have to think very hard about calling them.
Edward followed Clark back to the Post Office. He watched Clark go into his office. Then he watched him drag Paul’s tied up body out of it and into the breakroom. Paul’s pleading eye’s fixated on Edward’s as Clark shut the breakroom door. Edward looked away. And then the shop shook like it was in the middle of an earthquake. Products falling off the shelves, packages crashing over, deafening noises. And then silence. Clark opened the door to show Edward an empty room.
For his mind, Edward was consuming a case of beer and two packs of cigarettes a day. As if he could drown his life in a pool of alcohol and exhale it in a puff of nicotine thereby transcending himself and his regrets. He didn’t do much from day today. He rose at 2 pm, drank, smoked, watched T.V, ordered food, drank, wrote, drank more, slept. Not a good routine for a working person, but a perfectly acceptable one for a successful writer. Edward was in that point of his career that if he were to ask for a child concubine his assistant would say: how young? Not that he asked for concubines – child or otherwise – or really anything besides cigarettes and drink and pens and paper.
Unfortunately for Edward’s routine, he had somehow managed to write another book. A slim volume based on an old unpublished short story of his. His days became filled with meetings, press, anxiety, and more anxiety, quite side-lining his vices. In interviews, he joked that this was to be his last work. After all, he was nearing forty and after twenty solid years of writing it would soon be time for him to follow in the footsteps of Hunter S Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf. His book debuted at number one on the bestseller list, was instantly nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and sold a million copies in the first week. The critics declared it his magnum opus and hailed it as one of the great books which define a generation etc. etc. All that was illusory to Edward. No matter how well any of his books did he was always left empty. The satisfaction that he had once experienced upon finishing a short story which no one would ever read had vanished. He felt nothing except the coldness and the sameness of it all.
In the center of Edward’s brain sat a fragment of shadow that pushed outwards and spiked into soft grey matter. It whispered sweet nothings to him: Telling him that his time was up. Telling him his debt was due. The voice grew louder and louder until it dominated Edward completely. He lost interest in writing and just sat around his penthouse drinking and listening to it. One desperate night he gave in. He went out onto his balcony. He climbed over the railing and hung there for a moment, his ears filled with the sounds of the city; people in bars, a helicopter passing overhead, cars accelerating, and people screaming. The lights from the skyscrapers looked so pretty and Edward stepped forward to touch them, the dark and light blurring together into a single stream of color that flowed past his eyes and vanished leaving only bloody remnants on the pavement below.
Harman Burgess studies Literature at Newcastle University, Australia. In his spare time he writes and enjoys spending time with friends. This is (hopefully) his first publication.