by Henry Hietala
I walk into the Hex, a two-story square of tinted glass across the street from an abandoned office park. It’s my last day. I nod at the security guard, who doesn’t look up from his desk. I reach my cube, expecting the usual layoff routine—clean my desk, turn in my tech, shred my key card, have a perfunctory conversation with an HR crone I’ve never met before—but management has other ideas. They’ve replaced my computer with a sticky note, a stack of paper, a box of envelopes, a roll of Henry Ford stamps, and a list titled “Corporate Partners’” I read the sticky note, which says that my severance package is contingent upon my finishing this project in a timely manner. Signed, Management.
I say it out loud, hoping Amelia will hear. She doesn’t respond. I peer around the divider; she isn’t there. Her desk is bare except for a phone charger and sleeping monitors. I kick the wheels of my rolly chair. As the morning IT specialist, Amelia usually works from 7-3:30, so if she isn’t in at 9:15 she isn’t coming in at all. She hasn’t told me she’ll be gone, and now I won’t get to say goodbye to my only friend at work.
I tie my hair back. I can’t waste time on my computer, not like I did the previous day when I read a long article about the Icarus myth, subconsciously relating his failure to fly to my imminent layoff. I have to do more work for a company that doesn’t want me, and I have to do it fast otherwise I won’t receive my severance. Shit indeed.
I fold the first piece of paper and stuff it in an envelope. I address it to the first corporate partner on the list—my first time using a pen in the Hex. I stick a stamp in the upper right corner. Henry Ford looks downcast, like he’s disappointed in my job performance. I turn over the envelope, hoping to find adhesive strips, the kind you peel off to make the flap close, but I don’t and have to lick the envelope. My mouth tastes funny and will the rest of the day if I keep this up, licking hundreds of envelopes for the sake of a severance check. I’ll have to brush later, before I go out and try to meet someone. Glue isn’t exactly an aphrodisiac.
I do more envelopes this way. The going is slow, the flood of manila daunting. In true Henry Ford fashion, I arrange everything in an assembly line, and when I look at the stamps I realize how old the roll is, the paper yellow-hued, the picture a mothy black and white. How long has management had the stamps? Did they stockpile them years ago, or buy the roll online to save a few bucks? With a computer in front of me, I could search for the year the stamps came out, wasting away the minutes of my last workday, but I have to keep peeling and pasting, licking and closing.
The glue is fucking with me. I get a floaty feeling in my head, the kind I associate with the first few minutes of a molly high before the sick sets in. I write and fold faster, messing up an address in the process. I lick the next envelope, swallowing a tinge of panic, a caffeinated edge. The cube blurs around me. I hear music, what sounds like a guitar if it wasn’t so deep and ripply, a water current of sound, and my mouth dries up, the chair wheels rattle, I stand up, a woman sings, and I float over my cube, over the rest of the cubes, looking down on everything, the crop circles of the cubes fitting neatly inside the geometric form of the Hex, and my gaze fixes on the envelopes, which hover in the airspace below me, pearling in the sun in their manila white, changing color, burning red and yellow, desert hues, and I tumble down into the red and yellow, crashing into sound and song and open sky.
I’m driving down a highway. Jetstreams skate over the windshield; desert bluffs flank the windows, monuments of fossil and rust. Alone and not minding it, I follow the roadlines through the flats until it rears on the horizon, a giant three-pronged cactus. I turn on the road near the cactus. I park in front of the motel, below the neon vacancy sign, and decide to spend the night.
It’s too hot to be outside, even in shade or pool, so I sit at the bar. After my last day I deserve a drink. The bartender has his back to me; I yell to get his attention. He asks me what I want without turning. I order a rum and coke. He pours and shakes, taking an eternity to mix my two-ingredient drink. I decide not to tip him. The man on the stool next to me plays a guitar in his lap. I can’t see his face under his hat, but something about his playing sets me at ease.
The bartender turns around. He has a fine face, all dark hair and cheekbones, except he lacks a mouth. He gives me the drink.
It’s on me.
I turn to guitar man; he lifts a riff out of the strings. I look back at the bartender who couldn’t have said it since he doesn’t have a mouth.
I’m Jacques, the voice says.
The stool beside me sits empty, no man, no guitar. The music keeps playing. I point at the mouthless man, who nods. We’re alone now, in a dim and dusty bar, and I find myself warming to him, wanting him; I’m standing across from him in a motel room, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his back, the two of us swaying to the sound of bass; I’m sprawled out on the sheets, waiting for his lipless toothless face, knowing he wants me even if he can’t say it; I leave him there sleeping, the click of the door-latch triggering the false alarm of love, for I don’t want to see more of him, not when getting close means finding out what parts of him are maimed and missing when I’ve got plenty of maims and misses myself; I step outside the motel, hear the music, see the jet plane, start the engines, flick the switches, watch the nose of the plane move forward, the road a refuge splayed in front of me, highway morphing into runway, the plane soaring higher and higher to the melody, reaching the icy altitude I know so well, where I don’t have to think about the mouthless man or the man with the guitar or any other man, I can just pretend I’ve never really loved until the music fades, the plane stalls, and I see the mouthless man, his body facedown on the sheets, the white sheets, manila white, envelope-white, white envelopes, white envelopes.
A tap on my shoulder.
I pick up my head. Amelia is sitting next to me in her rolly chair.
Sorry, she says. I had a meeting in the conference room.
She touches her phone screen and takes out her earbuds. I taste glue, even though my head has returned to normal.
How’s your last day going? Amelia’s tone is loud, compensating for my quiet.
I show her the project. She pronounces it bullshit, then offers to help. I address the envelopes while she stuffs the letters, the two of us an assembly line team that would have made Henry Ford proud if he hadn’t been against women in the workplace.
Can you get me a sponge? Amelia asks.
This glue’s making me light-headed.
I laugh. I consider telling her what happened, but she wouldn’t understand, not that I do myself. It’s all in my head—the music, the motel, the mouthless man, a half-dream hallucination drawn from a distant melody and my hopes for the night ahead—and I want it to stay in my head, undiluted by the process of sharing.
I find a sponge in the break-room. I scan the office, the bleak terrain of white screens, light strips, gray dividers, and rolly chairs, the site of six months of ungrateful, ungainful employment that I am happy to leave behind. All I need is my severance check, with a little help from Amelia. Passing her cube, I can’t help but look at the pictures on her desk, the bright coats and bright faces on mountaintops, her personal postcards. In the whole of the Hex, she is all that I’ll miss.
I return to my cube. Her earbuds ring a tinny sound.
What song was that? I ask.
This one? She removes an earbud and points at the pearly plastic.
I don’t know, she says, I have a playlist going.
I try to recall the words I heard while nodding off; none come to mind. I only remember the desert, the drive, the bar, and the mouthless man, his name on the tip of my tongue, something French or Italian, not that it matters, especially if I meet another man tonight, a real man whose name I’ll do my best to remember if only for a while.
I pass Amelia the sponge. She wets the envelope seal, and when the sponge dries out, she dips it in her water bottle to soak it again. We finish most of the envelopes before lunch. Amelia leaves for a meeting. I eat alone in my cube, munching on red salad leafs, the dressing tasting of glue, a sensation for which I blame the company and their stupid task. Amelia doesn’t come back. I finish the letters by myself, grateful for the sponge. While folding the last letter, I realize I haven’t read it. Why would I now?
Management sends over an assistant with my severance check. It’s less than expected since the month of cumulative pay puts me in a higher tax bracket, but at least I have it. The assistant hands me a Clorox wipe. I clean my cube. After the assistant leaves, I leave. There’s no reason for me to stay, not with the severance check in hand.
I pass a conference room. Amelia sticks out, the only woman among the silver heads of management. She waves at me, then points at her phone as if to say, Let’s meet up for a drink sometime. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. I wave back at her.
I reach the front doors. The security guard stares at me from behind his desk. I hand him my key card and ask him what he’s doing later. He doesn’t reply. In fact, he doesn’t have a mouth.
Henry Hietala grew up in Montana. His writings have appeared in The Rush, Stonecoast Review, and The Susquehanna Review.