David B. Riley
Wendell paused for a moment, just long enough to take a peak at the guys in gray suits coming out of Mr. Ayoley’s office. Then, he went back to his cart. Being a picker at the book warehouse was the best job he’d had in such a long time–way better than the hog farm. He looked at the clock. It was almost lunch time and there were gobs of orders piling up.
He could pretend he didn’t hear it, maybe get another half hour’s pay. He put down the order sheet. What was the use? Wenell Oliver Hoag somberly marched toward the warehouse office. “Busy today, sir,” Wendell said.
Mr. Ayoley put down one of his dreadful bargain basement cigars and stared at him, then out the window. “Hoag, how long have you been here?”
“Three weeks, sir,” Wendell replied.
“Well, things just aren’t working out.”
“In what way, sir?” Wendell asked.
His head seemed to be shaking and he was doing that nervous twitch. “It just isn’t. Go by accounting and pick up your last check.”
Wendell yanked the eviction notice off his door and went inside the dingy studio apartment. He looked at his prized green and white Coleman tent that was so neatly folded up underneath the table. “I’m gonna need you, buddy.”
“Dude, I’ve got something,” his neighbor said.
“Not so close, guy. Your breath could kill a skunk,” Wendell pleaded.
“Oh, right.” Phillip spread some papers all over the top of the little table that was one of the few furnishings in the apartment. “Check this out.”
“What is this stuff?” Wendell asked.
“It’s the budget. What the government spends on stuff.”
Phillip looked like he’d discovered a new planet or something. “They can’t hide the money, dude.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Wendell asked.
“Check this out.” He pointed at one of the pages he’d printed out.
Wendell looked at the tiny print and wished he had the money to buy glasses. Highlighted, in yellow, was an entry for something called Bureau of Miscellaneous Affairs. “So?”
Phillip handed him another page. Also in yellow was, Office of Making People Miserable.
“What is this?”
“Read on, dude,” Phillip said.
A third page showed Wendell Hoag Unit. “What?” Wendell asked in disbelief. “I’m in the budget?”
“Remember when, last week, you said you thought the government was out to get you? Dude, they are,” Phillip explained.
It seemed impossible. “A government department just to make me miserable?”
“Yeah.” Phillip showed him another page. “They got an office downtown.”
“That was in the budget?”
“No, the phone book, dude.”
“Should I go there?” Wendell asked.
Phillip pointed out, “What have you got to lose?”
Wendell looked at his watch. It was getting late and there was packing to do. “First thing in the morning.”
“Right on,” Phillip agreed.
His gut tightened as he walked down the marble steps to the basement of the downtown post office. There, in frosted glass on the door of room 107A, was his name. He turned the handle and went inside. It was a small office. There was only one person inside, a nondescript man with glasses dressed in a gray suit. The man looked up from his computer terminal. “Well, hello Wendell.”
“You’re not surprised to see me?”
“Heck no. We’ve got your apartment bugged,” the man replied.
“I can’t believe this is real.”
“Believe it. A whole government office dedicated to making your life completely miserable,” the man said.
“All the jobs I’ve been fired from?”
“I can’t keep an apartment.”
“Us,” he said proudly.
Wendell sat on the little wooden bench near the door. His legs were shaking so badly he needed to sit down. He’d hoped this was just another of Phillip’s conspiracy theories. “My college has no record I ever attended there.”
The man shrugged. “Beats me. We’re just doing our job.”
“Just doing your job!”
The man leaned back in his swivel chair and put his feet up on the cardboard desk. Wendell recognized it as the same type of cardboard desk they had at the Census Bureau before he got fired there.
“Look, somewhere along the line, you pissed off somebody in Congress–an aide or someone. Maybe cut somebody off on the freeway or something. They slid a line into the budget.” He made some sort of gesture toward the ceiling. “And, poof, here we are. Nobody ever actually reads the budget. What a colossal waste of money. Yet, here we are making your life pure hell. And we do it so well.”“I thought about killing myself,” Wendell said.
“We’d probably lose our funding if you did that.”
“I can’t even keep a job.”
“Those are easy,” the man explained. “Mr. Ayoley didn’t want to fire you. He said you’re a good worker. You don’t fart in the break room or anything. But, when we pull out their tax returns and ask what time of day they prefer their audit, they always fold.” He sat back upright. “Personal relationships are harder. They often require cash.” He was silent for a moment. “Remember that redhead you liked? Heather something?”
“I wanted to marry her.”
“Yeah, I know. She held out for a lot of money,” the man explained.
“I came home and she was doing the UPS guy on the floor,” Wendell pointed out.
“Well, we have to make sure the government’s money is well spent. Besides, chicks dig UPS guys. It wasn’t really that hard.”
Wendell put his face in the palms of his hands. “I have this to look forward to for the rest of my life?”
“Or the rest of the fiscal year, whichever comes first.”
Wendell glared at his accuser. “I could get a gun and come back here.”
“Go ahead,” the man taunted, “we’d love to get you in prison. We can do all kinds of things there. You like getting raped in the butt, Wendell?” He started writing on a notepad. “Actually, we need to work on that, anyway.”
“Good idea. Nice meeting you, Wendell,” the man said.
“Thanks to you, I’m living in a campground.”
“Actually,” the man looked at his watch, “there was just a fire at the campground.”
Wendell climbed inside Phillip’s VW van that smelled like cat liter. Phillip had no cats. “It was all there. The government’s out to get me.”
“That’s what I been telling you, dude,” Phillip said.
Phillip drove him out to the campground. The fire trucks were still parked near the restroom as the firemen packed up their hoses. Then, Wendell couldn’t believe his eyes. His prized Coleman tent stood in front of him, unscathed. Some guy with a beard in the next row over was crying as he surveyed what was left of his trailer. But, Wendell’s tent was intact. His sleeping bag was intact. He rummaged through his duffel bag. His Pulitzer Prize trophy was still there. The government couldn’t even burn out some poor homeless guy without screwing it up. Life was suddenly good.