Friday, July 19, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Man in the Shabby Coat

            Why would I steal?  Because when you take something from someone else, you take a little bit of their personality, a little bit of what makes them unique.  Some people, most people I guess, steal because they want food or money or another hit.  They either steal or starve.  I stole because it was a way to take a bit of someone else.  I don’t know, sometimes it feels like everyone else is just chipping away little bits and pieces of me, and I guess I’m just trying to get back what they took.  I’m telling you this because I’ve decided to stop, and a confession is supposed to be a good a way to start the healing process, at least that’s what addicts say.  I don’t know if what I had was technically an addiction, but I know I hit rock bottom.  For me, it wasn’t jail or a near-death experience.  Like I said, I take little bits of people.  Yesterday, I met a man on an elevator, and I took all that was left of him.

            You don’t need to know my name.  I don’t mean to be rude, but you can understand my desire for anonymity.  Call me John.  John the data enterer.  I work on the tenth floor of a thirty floor building, my cubicle is the fifth in a row of twenty, my row of cubicles is second in a series of five.  The digits of my employee number add up to thirty-six, which is close enough to my age to seem portentous.  I work with numbers all day, but I have no idea what they mean.  I’m paid by people who don’t know me to input information for the benefit of people I’ve never met, all towards a purpose I can’t understand.  Everyone hear either has a vice or has taken up numerology.  They study the numbers as if, if they can just find the pattern that must course through it all, they can escape onto the other side of, become the ones that the numbers are about.  To the best of my knowledge, no one’s ever succeeded.

            If you looked at me, you probably wouldn’t look a second time.  I’m not ugly, but I’m not handsome either.  The best description I’ve heard is “unremarkable.”  I couldn’t be more invisible even if I were actually transparent.  People notice when chairs and coffee cups and cigarette butts move of their own volition.  I’m seen more as a piece of scenery, like a cloud.  No one notices clouds unless they’re threatening rain. 

            I work in a building in a nice part of the city.  Everyone above the twelfth floor wears a suit.  We have a doorman.  He also wears a suit.  I can get away with khaki slacks and a long sleeve button-up shirt.  I’m supposed to wear a tie, but I never do.  Everyone who works here has a public way of showing how much they wish they didn’t.  We’re not supposed to wear lapel pins of any kind.  Our shoes are supposed to be shined.  Our sideburns are supposed to end half an inch above the earlobe.  They’re kind enough to give us little rules to break, so we won’t get into trouble breaking the big ones.  We break the big ones on our own time.

            The first time I stole was about a year ago.  My physician has a mug on his desk filled with personalized pencils.  They’ve got his name and business info on them, promotional stuff.  I noticed them when he was in the other room, poring over charts.  If I had asked, I’m sure he would have given me one, but what I felt then and have since proven to myself, is that it’s the taking that’s important.  Something that was someone else’s has become mine, and that person had no part in the process, so a little bit of them is left in what’s taken.  But I didn’t know that then.  When I took the pencil, I thought I was breaking a little rule.  If I had said to the doctor, “Hey, I took one of your pencils when you were out of the room,” he probably would have said, “Okay.  So what?”  Just like if one of my coworkers went to a manager and said, “I’m wearing a flag lapel pin.”  So what? 

            But when I walked out of the doctor’s office, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.  I hadn’t even realized how tense the whole ordeal had made me, how hard and fast my heart pounded, how white my knuckles got.  That’s how I knew that this was a big rule. 

            I hope you weren’t expecting me to be an international art thief, or a cat burglar or something extraordinary like that.  I’m unremarkable.  I break a big rule in the littlest way possible.  Pens, spare change, sticks of gum.  It’s the act of taking that’s important, not what’s taken.  It became a habit.  Once a week, I just had to take something or I’d get restless.  Six days since the last time I’d stolen anything, I was getting itchy fingers as I walked past our suited doorman and into the marble and chrome lobby of my office building.  I joined the small crowd waiting in front of the elevator door, trying to tune out the sound of business chatter and the squeak and scrape of shoes across the waxed floor and the thump of dropped suitcases and the rustling crackle of whipped open newspapers.  Usually this quiet cacophony didn’t bug me so much, but I was restless.  The elevator door dinged and whooshed open and the crowd flowed in.

            I was pressed in near the back, a fat man in a nice suit and bad toupee was squeezed in on my right, a janitor on my left.  Directly in front of me was a  man in a slightly frayed and seriously wrinkled coat and slacks that looked like they’d been  through the laundry a few thousand times.  The janitor’s uniform was nicer than this guy’s attire.  I could only see the back of his head; his oily grey-black hair was uncombed.  He didn’t look like someone who would be employed in this building.  The elevator slowly lurched from floor to floor. 

            I noticed a folded sheet of paper sticking out of the man’s coat pocket.   My right hand started to clench.  I looked to either side of me.  The fat man was tapping out something on his phone, the janitor staring into space.  The man in front of me seemed to be staring at the digital readout above the door, announcing that we were now on the seventh floor.  I waited another few seconds and reached out.  Quickly but gently, I took the paper from his pocket.

            Suddenly everything seemed quiet.  I glanced quickly left and right and made sure that no one was watching me, had seen what I’d done.  Everyone was in their own little worlds, and the doors glided open on the tenth floor.  I squeezed past the others in the elevator, keeping my eyes set downward, not looking at anyone, especially the man in the shabby coat.  Once in the hallway and the elevator out of sight, I relaxed and contentedly strolled to my desk, the pilfered paper still hidden in my closed fist. 

            I dropped the crumpled and folded sheet onto my desk next to the keyboard, cracked my knuckles, and logged in to the system.  I kept looking over at the paper.  It wasn’t a receipt; it seemed to be a piece of eight and a half by eleven printer paper.  I unfolded it and read.  In meticulously neat handwriting:

            To whom it may concern,

                        There’s nothing left.  I’m sorry.  I just want to feel the wind in my hair one more   time.  I don’t want to be a burden.

            It was unsigned.  By my estimation, a full ten minutes had passed since I left the elevator.  Too late.  I folded the paper into a small square and put it in my pants pocket, left my desk, went to the elevator bank and rode to the lobby.  As I exited the front of the building, I noticed several people running through the alley, towards the executive parking lot in the back.  It would be mostly deserted at this time of day.

            “I don’t want to be a burden.”

            Did he know that the note was missing when he jumped?  If he did, did he care?  Either he knew that it was gone or he didn’t and in either case, this last message of his, the last piece of himself that he had was in my pocket.  I took that from him. 

            I didn’t go back to work the next day.  I haven’t been there for a few weeks now.  One of my managers called me a few days ago and asked if I was sick.  He called me “John.”  That’s not my name.  I guess you could say I’m in a transitional period.  What I’m transitioning towards is still up in the air, but I’m glad to be moving away from where I was, and I think to really do that I need to get everything out in the open. 


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