We Are All Wearing Jackets
In the interest of saving time and preventing confusion our Director issued a decree eliminating regional signifiers. We refer to each other as Countrymen, ignoring such distinctions as Southern or Northern or from this city or that. Even something like “out-of-towner” is illegal now. Those who enforce this policy, informers like George, receive supplemental income from the Information Office. I see him, George, leaving every morning on his way to his work. He returns around one in the afternoon, has lunch with his family, and goes out again at around 3. I am writing all this down in my log. I keep a record on him, like all the others.
After George returns to work, I go visit Stenger, the Room Adjuster. He works in the building where the rest of us live. His signature is required on all forms related to the renovation of private homes. We eat lunch at the cafe across the street, and we discuss my planned adjustments, when I can get him to focus. Stenger is scatter-brained. On his lunch break he wants to talk about music or the weather. He never wants to discuss the rearranging of furniture; that’s his job, he does that when he returns to work. But I cannot talk to him about it when he is at his office because I’m too busy (as busy as I can be since my forced vacation began); at 4 Mrs. Lewis gets home and I must keep up my inventory of the things she carries in with her in paper bags. She more than anyone must be watched closely—she was once Convinced, and her husband was not, and now she carries all her bags herself. Such a person needs monitoring, and I cannot trust the government to do it.
So I try every day to get Stenger to listen to me on his brief lunch hour. All I want is permission to move my couch so it sits in front of the large window in my apartment, where it will partially obstruct the view. Otherwise the sun, the glint off the offices downtown, is too much for me. I can’t live in the dark but I can’t stare at that vast expanse of unrelenting blue and the shiny ragged teeth of the city skyline, not when it’s that bright, not every day.
I’ve been avoiding that skyline ever since I was put on forced vacation. I don’t know why they chose me. Carson came into my office one day, perfectly pleasant, and informed me that I had been selected.
“How long?” I asked.
“You’ll be back before you know it. Just relax. It happens to everyone, guy. Make the most of it.”
So I am cut off from the world. At first I was annoyed, now I am almost afraid. I worry I may become sick, like Mrs. Lewis. When she first went on vacation she seemed to grow pale and her hands shook when she watered her plants on her little concrete balcony. Only after they Convinced her did she seem to perk up. I see her now, on my endless off days, still out there watering the plants, though she moves slower now. There’s a hitch in her gait and sometimes she seems to be in pain. I need to work, I wasn’t made like her, able to enjoy idleness.
I want to be like George. He’s all smiles when he gets home from work. I’m not sure what he does—I’m only aware of his nasty hobby. I don’t want to be like George. I can’t inform on people, no matter how much information I have on them from watching them all day. I’m so tired.
Today Stenger would not listen to me. He was humming for me the opening bars of some piano piece he refused to believe I did not recognize. I changed the subject.
“What does George do?” I cast my eyes around the cafe, empty but for the two of us, but still less unsettling than Stenger’s idle grin.
“George! Oh if you could see inside that house. Such furniture cast every which way. But all approved, signed paperwork. I don’t know where he got it.” Stenger chuckled.
“Speaking of paperwork, have you got mine yet?”
“Yet he’s very organized.” He ignored me. “Such a man must be. Last week he had five people Convinced. Five! It’s a record, don’t you think.”
“I think it’s disgusting. Isn’t his real job enough to satisfy him? Some of us would kill for just that.”
“Oh, relax, Countryman. You’ll get yours.” He attempted to pat me reassuringly on the shoulder. I didn’t get anything. We parted after our meal with no paperwork, again. The street outside was empty when I left the cafe.
I have almost given up. I’ve stopped my notes on Mrs. Lewis, at any rate. I had so many, I was so concerned that she was up to something, but what was I going to do with the information?
I’m exhausted from my encounter with George.
I ran into him in the elevator. I asked him what he does for a living. His eyes, which had been fixed on the elevator door, became animated, searched my face as he interrogated me. Why did I want to know? What was MY job? (He pretended not to know; he knows.) How have I been? (He switched from defensive to artificially friendly.) I grew bored of it all. I told him I was on vacation and that I spent my days staring at my couch and plotting the different ways I might dispose of it. I told him I planned to drop it out the window soon. He didn’t think it was funny. I asked him about Mrs. Lewis. Very neighborly.
“You don’t need to worry about her.” And then he wouldn’t talk anymore. For such a happy man, he is without humor.
Today there were a few people loitering in the cafe, staring blankly out the window or into their soup, so it was a while before I could bring myself to raise my voice. “Dammit, Stenger,” I strained through my teeth, “I just want my permit!” My tone surprised me. I stared at Stegner; he stared at me.
“Control yourself, George.” He said evenly, a little amused, none of the jubilant mood going out of his face. “Don’t be so quick to outburst! Maybe this is why you’ve been on vacation.”
“I don’t know what it is. It’s driving me crazy. All I can do is wander around in my little rooms and wonder what they’re doing without me at work. Why me? What did I do?”
“You were working too hard, I’d say. The stress!”
“How do they know that?” I almost raised my voice again. “I don’t remember what I was working on when I left. Can you believe that? My mind is such a jumble. And Stenger–” here I leaned across the table at him– “all I need to help me now is the permit to move my couch. What do you say?”
“You need to be patient, George. Things don’t happen overnight.”
“Now that’s the second time you’ve called me George. What is that? You know how I feel about George.”
Stenger grinned ridiculously, like a naughty child in a silent movie. “Guess what this is” he said, tugging at his lapels.
“It’s a raincoat.” It wasn’t even raining out.
“No!” He smiled broader. “It’s a jacket. And so is that.” He pointed at my overcoat.
“The latest from the Director. In the interest of saving time and preventing confusion, they’re all jackets if they go over your shirt. What a load off!” He laughed. “And now, what comes next, I can only imagine but I have a feeling, is we’ll all be called George. Imagine!”
“How will that prevent confusion?” But he was in his own world for a moment. I sat drinking my coffee, wondering when it would no longer be rude to get up and leave. Instead I made conversation.
“When did this jacket thing happen? I haven’t heard anything.”
“Oh any day now, any day. I know someone, you know. Who works in that department. I know when all the new efficiency reforms will be handed down.”
“Who? Who do you know in that department.”
“A George.” He grinned at me, and I felt the afternoon slipping away. My permit was farther away than I had thought. “I see. A George I don’t know.”
“That’s right, George.” I paused for a while. The cafe was quiet, stilled by the force of Stenger’s satisfaction. I was tired again.
“Please…think about my request. My couch. The permit.” I got up and gathered my things. Stenger seemed on the verge of laughter. I left without looking at him, hurrying to avoid whatever torrent he had hiding behind his face, ready to release.
I spent the whole day on the couch, watching the city. I forced myself to stare at the towers, I let their glint leave spots in my vision. My eyes watered, but I did not give up. I traced the crooked skyline, warped with the heat of the day. The tallest buildings, huddled in a little clump, looked like fingers poking at the unrelenting blue sky. Stenger called me while I was thus occupied. Where was I, he said. I did not show up for lunch. I laughed. As if there was anything to discuss. The weather is the same every day and I don’t know any songs. In the interest of saving time and avoiding confusion, I hung up on him.
The other day it suddenly all made sense.
My work called me and told me it was time to return. I woke early, got dressed, waited anxiously for the car they were sending for me. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was still very early when I heard it pulling up downstairs.
Carson was inside.
“We’ve got a surprise for you, George. It’s your turn to be Convinced.” He smiled.
I felt unsure. I didn’t recognize the road we were driving down. Carson seemed relaxed, thoughtful. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. The sweater I’d put on against the morning chill was chafing me, warming me too much in the close air of the car.
We pulled up to a building. It looked familiar. It was low-slung and rocky, with tall skinny windows. As we walked inside, I thought of Mrs. Lewis and her little flowers and I felt more at ease.
Carson brought me into a small, gray room and sat me at a small gray table. George was there, sitting in the corner with some other men. He looked so pleased. An official-looking man in a long coat detached himself from the group and stood before the table.
“We are ready to begin. When you are done you will be able to return to work again. You will find your productivity increased. Do not be alarmed by moments of joy. There is much to be thankful for. Are you nervous?”
“A bit.” I hoped what I was doing with my face was a smile.
“Be at ease with your doubts. There are things which are true of which we will Convince you. You will understand.” He sat down. Four of the men came over to us at the table. The man in charge began to dig in his pocket for something. As if distracted, he glanced at me.
“Take off your jacket, please.” he said. I tugged on a sleeve. Two of the men came up behind me.
“This is a sweater,” I said.
But I was mistaken.
Ben Black is an MFA candidate at San Francicso State Universtiy. His story, “The Wolves” is forthcoming in New American Writing.
This piece was read as part of the inagural production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.
Other stories in this series include:
- Destroy the Rich, by Daniel Roche
- A Moment of Weakness, by Olga Zilberbourg
- Dandelions, by Nona Caspers
- What would you have done?, by Gabriel L. Bellman
- The Black Metal Barreled BB Gun, by W. Ross Ayers
- Re: Sugar, by Scott Lambridis
- Pilgrimage, by Benjamin Wachs
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