Charles

The second-place entry in Postscript’s Short Fiction Contest, by Devin Clancy, ArtSci ’13

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His name was Charles. I say was, because he never liked his name, and intended to change it. By change, I’m referring to a legal process by which a person, like Charles, is able to file some files so that people can call him something different.

People often do this when they get married, and by people I mean girls. This is because a long time ago a man decided that when a girl becomes a wife, she also becomes his property, and like with a toolbox, men like to tape their name onto them. But Charles wasn’t a girl about to become property; he was simply an average man, with a name he disliked.

This disdain began when, in elementary school, Charles saw on the television that a bearded man with the same name had been able to convince a family to kill lots of people. This news segment had turned the name Charles into glass shattered on the pavement. It was everywhere, mainly in small, dull pieces, but there was still that one odd shard, large and jagged, waiting to cut whoever walked past.

Our Charles had only ever met the dull pieces, but on that very day, in Technicolor, one of the jagged ones had made it onto the CBS broadcast. Since then, our Charles has hoped and hoped never to be a jagged piece, because they’re always the ones who misinterpret The Beatles.

Our Charles was getting up from bed. He tossed away his blanket, and forcing his body to comply, he flung his left leg up and over his right, pulling himself onto the right-hand side of his single bed. In this position his striped pajamas ran perpendicular to his striped bed sheets, thus creating an X, marking the spot where a very tired, yet resolute Charles sat.

Determined to reach toward his cluttered desktop in search of his alarm clock. This action was painful for Charles because the clock was silent. This meant bad news, because a noise was needed in order for him to be on time. It was a loud and jarring one, designed specifically to scare your mind into leaving behind a make-believe world of dreams for the real world; the world in which Charles hated his name.

There had been many of these alarms in the past, created for different reasons. At first it was the sun, but people didn’t like being so naked under the sky. So they built roofs, but people needed a reason to leave their dreams for the world of jagged glass. So they built churches, but the bells only got people to sing songs. So they built factories with whistles, where they could make shiny objects, but people felt like cogs in a machine. So they created outsourcing, allowing the important people to simply spin the cogs, but these spinners needed to get up in time to make sure their shiny objects were still being made. So they got the cogs to make the modern alarm clock that was loud and jarring. These alarms were cheap, and could stop working at any moment. Charles was a spinner, and his shiny object had stopped working.

This meant that he was late, and late was something that the spinners never appreciated, although Charles didn’t know why. He was confused, because what he was late for was never anything of true significance. It was only a meeting. These were appointments made by men where they could all sit together around a table to pool information. This took place often in the business world, allowing those with power to evaluate the pool, and spin the spinners accordingly so that they would then spin the cogs. This hierarchical formula is old, and has gone by many names throughout human history: monarchy, fascism, capitalism, communism, you name it.

Yet for something so old and seemingly natural, it always feels like being trapped in a crowded house, where all the people are anxious to reach the ceiling. They jump up and down. Up and down. Up and down. And they never understand that at the top, there’s nothing to hold onto. They’d simply fall down again, rubbing against the shoulders of the crowd, over and over, eventually bursting into flames. Charles didn’t bother jumping, because he didn’t mind being in crowds, and he couldn’t justify submitting anyone to breathing in more smoke.

Now, back in his small apartment, Charles had finally found his shiny object, and he was indeed very late for work. However, this didn’t shock him, and he continued on with his daily routine as if he were perfectly on time. First he crept over to the bathroom twisting some knobs to produce hot water—ideal for showering. When he had finally finished up in the bathroom, it was full of steam, impairing the mirrors ability to act like Charles. He chuckled to himself, thinking that if he had showered long enough, the air would be so full of water he’d have to swim through his apartment, or at least drink it empty.

Back in his quaint bedroom, Charles grabbed a fresh pair of black socks to pull on his feet, he then slipped into a pair of underwear, and put on his freshly pressed black dress pants one leg at a time. Next, Charles grabbed a white dress shirt from his closet and carefully inserted his arms into the sleeves.

His body wasn’t fully dry from his shower so the shirt clung to the small of his back like wet paper. Charles hated this. It made him feel like someone was holding him, and as long as his back remained wet, he was uncomfortable. This was another setback to Charles’ punctuality because he couldn’t do anything without first drying his back, so he grabbed a blow dryer from his closet, and plugged it in.

This device had two settings: normal and turbo, and because Charles was late, he chose turbo, getting his back dry in one minute and 34 seconds. This was a relief, and now Charles could get back to what he originally had in mind. He reached into his shirt’s breast pocket, and replaced his few business cards with a letter he had been working on late into the evening, tossing his cards onto his desk. They read:

Charles McCannery
Accounts Assistant
Metal Werx Inc.

This company was one of the leading metal manufacturers in the country, and it was Charles’ job to bring in contracts. The company was founded in the mid ‘50s by a man named Richard Lewis, and somewhere in there, there is a story about how Richard came from nothing, only to create a place of success and opportunity. And somewhere in there, there is a story about how Richard’s company had run his competitors out of business, only to employ them as cogs in Richard’s winning formula. But really the formula is not Richard’s at all, it’s ancient.

Charles now grabbed his black tie, and slung it around his neck. He measured the garment very carefully, to ensure that he would end up with the perfect knot, beginning:

Left over right.
Around the back.
Around the front.
Up through the middle.
Down through the bridge.

Looking in the mirror, Charles critiqued the tie of his twin, and adjusted his own accordingly. He then danced his arms into the sleeves of his black jacket, finally bending over to lace up his oldest pair of brown dress shoes, thus completing the uniform of the American dream.

Looking up at the ceiling, Charles noticed a crack beside a light fixture caused by water damage a few years back, so he climbed onto his chair and slowly ran his fingers over the imperfection. This furrow in the plaster intrigued Charles, and he started picking at it, chipping away the years old craftsmanship, but no matter how long he tried to grab further inside, his efforts only smoothed out the crack. Charles smiled. He was now thinking of work; today was his big day to bring in a promising client, with the possibility of a promotion. In fact, it was one of the most profitable clients out there for a metal company.

He had been in close talks with the military for years, but it was all coming together now. As always, the military needed ammunition, and Metal Werx was a perfect fit. Charles knew this, and knew it would be his job to reel them in. Richard had said to Charles years ago that the military could keep Metal Werx in business single-handedly. ‘You know how much the military spends each day?’ Richard asked. There was no answer so he continued, ‘I don’t know the exact figure, but a lot of fucking money, and that money could be ours.’ So with that, Charles had been assigned a very specific and important job: play a lot of golf and talk a lot about metal.

In the end it worked, Charles had reined in all the players, and all that was needed now were signatures. By the way, Charles had figured out what the military spends per day. Turns out it’s about $ 1,816,438,536 and some odd cents.

Now, Charles began to sway back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth, until the chair slipped out from under his old shoes. His tie was taut.

The letter in his breast pocket read: I never wanted to become a jagged piece.

Check out next week’s issue of the Journal to read the first-place entry in Postscript’s Annual Short Fiction Contest.

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