Colin’s first envelope decoration was dissatisfying. Just beneath the return address, he drew a Polaris star: four beams radiating, cross-like, from a circle. Then, underwhelmed by the balance and harmony of the image, he added four smaller lines midway between the beams. Colin used a blue pen for the star itself and his thin lavender marker – the one he carried in his bicycle bag – to draw the other lines. The moment he’d finished, he wished it had been the other way around. Lavender on the inside and periwinkle on the outside would have been far better; more astral. He wrinkled his forehead. What’s done is done, he thought; it’s not like I can rip this up and start again. He slid the envelope into a pile of others and brought the stack to the mailroom. With a conspiratorial look at Andres, Colin emptied his arms into the out basket.
Later Andres would drop that basket into a larger bin. Over the course of a typical workday, the bin would be filled and emptied several times. All the letters looked exactly alike: the same French vanilla company stationary with the split-arrow logo affixed to the upper left corner, the same puff from the double-nickel thickness of the folded piece of stationary inside. Direct mail wasn’t the only thing that the Company did, but it was a primary means of solicitation without which Mr. Offerman would not know who to call on the phone.
This was Colin’s understanding of the Company, anyway; a view through a pinhole, illuminated by the pale shaft of fluorescent light between cubicle dividers. He’d been working on the edge of the Financial District – a few blocks north of Wall Street – for a little less than a month. This had come as a great relief to his family. Colin had been searching for white-collar employment for the better part of a year, never getting as much as a callback. He’d told them many times that he could find work as a bicycle courier, but they wouldn’t hear of it: he was a college graduate. It was time he began climbing the ladder.
The news prompted a party. Colin’s mom called downstairs for a coffee ice cream cake with chocolate crunchies inside; just how she liked it. His dad gave him a beer and then another. Cousins and uncles were phoned and the merriment lasted into the night. They didn’t mind making a racket, even when the neighbors downstairs banged on the ceiling – wasn’t it a Friday? Colin sat in the brown upholstered chair over by his telescope and thought about what was going to happen to him. The party, loud and colorful as it was, seemed a strange prelude to the faint life he was about to begin: one in a grey, dry, carpeted office, surrounded by strangers. He felt like a plant about to be uprooted, and potted in weak soil.
Around 2 a.m., his Uncle Phil pulled him aside and into the hallway by the bathroom. He put one large hand on the corridor wall to steady himself, and clapped another down hard on Colin’s shoulder.
“So it doesn’t bother you what this Company gets itself up to,” asked Uncle Phil. His eyes were yellow and his speech slurred. He had been drinking plenty.
Colin was startled. Of everybody in the family, Uncle Phil had been the most adamant about Colin’s need to put his degree to work for him. He asked his uncle whether there was something he should know.
“O there’s always something. Always something. Right?”
“I really don’t know what you mean. It’s a financial services firm.”
“Services. Services I’ll say. You just watch it you hear me.”
That Sunday Colin looked for Uncle Phil, but he wasn’t there. The church had been rented out for a party and silver mylar balloons floated near the apse. Colin found his face in one of them. Distorted by the ridges, his image drained over toward the far side of the heart. One of his eyes was several times as wide as the other, pulled out and stretched downward like a taffy.
The next day, he took his bicycle down the West Side pathway to the offices of the Company on the forty-first floor of the tower. An unaccountable feeling of guilt overwhelmed him as he crossed the threshold. It was unreasoned, but it felt appropriate, and Colin surrendered to it.
Then the odd feeling passed and work began.
Although he’d always doodled, Colin didn’t consider himself an experienced artist. High quality pens, he felt, would make up somewhat for his poor draftsmanship. At Pearl Paint on Canal Street he bought a pen in jungle green, and another in a lighter shade – an Easter green, he thought of it. He also selected a rich navy blue; almost black to the casual viewer. Maroon, terra cotta, and a dark, menacing pink, dusky gold and charcoal grey. It was important that none of the colors feel workaday. Felt tip was better than ballpoint, too, since the Company envelopes were thick and caught the ink properly.
In his cubicle he scanned the list of names under process. There were hundreds. After some deliberation, Colin settled on Angelina Logan of Melbourne, Florida. That was a nice regal-sounding name — an aesthete’s name. He pictured Angelina Logan as a retiree (for the Company’s targets were all senior citizens) living in a modest but elegantly appointed cottage a few blocks from a bay. Maybe struggling with osteoporosis but too dignified to complain. He looked at his phone. If he stuffed the envelopes steadily, he’d reach Logan at 2 p.m. That was perfect. By then most of the rest of the office would be at lunch.
In fact Colin raced through the morning and made it to Angelina Logan’s envelope shortly after noon. He began with an orange starburst around her name. Then he adorned each of the points of the zigzag with a turquoise circle. Colin agonized over whether to incorporate a third hue. Blue and orange seemed appropriately Floridian, but it occurred to him that she might be tired of seeing the same color schemes. She might find it cliché, or, worse, condescending. Thus he decided to underscore her name with thick maroon lines. Then he added sharp maroon triangles to the corners of the envelope and three Polaris stars of different sizes. Colin stopped himself before it got too busy. It was important to maintain the negative space of the French vanilla, which was really quite pleasing. Dreary as the Company’s offices were, they’d splurged on handsome stationery.
Colin was tempted to decorate another envelope, but decided that one per day was sufficient. Already strategizing about tomorrow’s design, he zipped through the rest of the list.
Mr. Offerman was pleased with his productivity.
“You work well,” he said to Colin. Then he returned to his office and closed the door.
Days at the Company felt like a dream. Often Colin wondered if he was sleeping through the whole thing. Older employees hardly interacted with him. If a worker was on the phone and Colin passed his cubicle, he’d invariably hear the swivel of a chair and see the blank back of a head. Sometimes he imagined that these people were faceless. That scared him and made him hope he’d wake up in his bed. The bicycle ride on the West Side path was his great reassurance. It kept him tethered to the present.
Colin was deeply disappointed in his third envelope. He had decided to keep it simple: long grey lines across the bottom, each ending in a semicircle that opened to the street address. But by now he felt that the Polaris star was his signature, and in his attempt to cram a few into the design, he had rendered the whole inharmonious. Awful! Attempting to color in between the lines only made it worse: clumsy like a child’s design and not at all delightful. Colin would have loved to have torn up his decoration and start again, but the envelopes came to him with the addresses already on them. He did not have printer privileges.
He attempted to correct his mistake in a washroom stall, balancing the envelope on his right leg as he superimposed a bricklike texture over the latticework of grey lines. After nearly dropping it the toilet twice, he gave up. Colin tucked the envelope into his jacket and deposited it in the big bin in the mailroom. Andres, who always seemed so miserable, did not look up from his screen.
At Wednesday night service, Colin thought about the Epistles of St. Paul. The evangelist had spread the Word to church communities around the Mediterranean by writing letters. Most of the books of the New Testament were originally letters; some by St. Paul, and others by holy men whose names were lost to history. How famous their words had become and how powerful letters could be. They were voices across a void. Everybody thrilled to find a handwritten letter in a mailbox. Even the Company chose a font for their direct mailing that mimicked the curves of human penmanship. Of course it was nothing of the sort — it was a computer generated facsimile. But Colin’s own decorations were authentic. He was tempted to tell the Reverend about the envelopes but decided against it.
On the fourth day Colin hit his stride. He started with multicolored polka dots on Rocio Irizarry’s envelope and then began to include small squares and diamonds. A few of those he divided in half – maroon on one side, lavender on the other. He covered the backside with radiant curlicues, and found space for a perfect Polaris star, there like a chevron, just to the right of her name. Colin did most of this work on his own lunch break which he took in the stairwell; he squatted on a window-ledge overlooking Downtown Manhattan, which was inspirational. Every building was catacombed with offices, and every office contained a dedicated worker who was up to something fiduciary. He returned to the ledge on the next day, and the day after that, and after that, each time decorating another envelope with confidence.
The day after that was a Friday. Just as Colin was putting the finishing touches on his best envelope yet, he heard a door to the stairwell open two flights above him. Business workers with hard-soled shoes stepped into the stairwell. One lit a cigarette. Colin smelled alcohol.
“He’s compromised. They’re going to catch up with him any day.”
“We’re all going to be unhireable cot dammit.”
“Just keep your resume handy. This is no town for a poor boy.”
It struck Colin that they were talking about Mr. Offerman! Soon the police would shut the Company down. Mr. Offerman would be taken away in a van and this job would be over. He would miss doing the envelopes. Sending out letters from home didn’t appeal to him. Then all at once he felt the whip of conscience: was he wishing ill on the man who had given him employment? Did the prospect of the raid excite him? But if what they were doing at the Company was truly indefensible, it was probably for the best if the authorities intervened.
That Sunday Uncle Phil was at church. Colin hadn’t seen him since the night of the party. Phil was sober and dressed in his Sunday best and had no recollection of warning Colin about the Company.
“Ha don’t think I did that, kiddo. I think your imagination runs away with you.”
“No, you told me to watch out. You were adamant I promise.”
Uncle Phil laughed. He told Colin how proud they all were that he’d gotten this job. Work hard and do what the boss tells you. Don’t daydream and doors will open. Before you knew it you’d be running that place. But would there be a place left to run? Not for the first time, Colin wondered about his own complicity. There could be legal ramifications for workers if it could be proved that they were in the know. It seemed unlikely that anybody would bother to prosecute a file clerk. But in the chaos that would surely accompany the raid, anything could happen.
Yet an unpleasant thought nagged him. It was possible that those workers in the stairwell weren’t talking about Mr. Offerman at all. Colin wasn’t even sure if the Company’s offices extended two flights higher than his. They might have been working for somebody else. He had to admit that there was no reason – other than his own intuition – to suspect Mr. Offerman of any malfeasance. He’d seen nothing unusual around the office. On the contrary, he ought to be grateful to the Company for giving him the opportunity to decorate the letters. He thought back with satisfaction to the last one he’d completed: how he’d managed to fit an entire starscape on the front side while preserving the integrity of the address. He’d slipped this dazzler into the mail basket with pride, and by now, it would be on its way to Chillicothe, Ohio and Virginia E. Manski.
Outside the church it was a perfect autumn day on 177th Street. Most of the leaves on the trees in front of the brown brick medium-density buildings had turned Mets orange. October sun shone off the green subway globes and the artless friezes of the apartments over the corner store. It would be a great day for a charge down the bike path to the Financial District. He wished it was Monday – because on Monday, it was supposed to rain.
A man Colin had never seen rapped at the wall of the cubicle. His knuckles struck hard enough to rattle the paper clips in their oval container.
“Offerman wants to see you. His office now.”
Steps on office carpet made no sound. All he could hear as he walked: the buzz of the lights in the cheap drop ceiling.
Mr. Offerman’s lips were a thin slash. He stared through Colin through thick spectacles with tortoise-shell rims. In the corner of his office a large moon globe squatted atop a paper shredder. Long ribbons of eight by eleven twisted in the teeth of the machine. Have a seat, he said. Without breaking eye contact or changing expression, he opened a drawer and extracted the decorated envelopes. One by one, Mr. Offerman placed them down on the surface of his desk. There they sat: a rude fact.
“Andres was kind enough to flag these.”
Colin said nothing.
“Let me tell you something that very few people know. I studied art in college. I did. There were twenty people in my class. After a semester I made an objective assessment and decided I was the third best artist in the group. Sounds good, right? Bronze medal, right? Only then I extrapolated: from the class to the world. When I did that, I realized that there was very little chance I’d ever distinguish myself sufficiently. If I was only in the eighty-fifth percentile of artists, I would always be outshone by the real stars. That was unacceptable to me. I switched to economics and eventually finance.”
“I studied Sociology.”
“I know. I hired you. You don’t think I fail to read the resumes of people I hire, do you?”
To Colin’s immense dismay, his windpipe constricted. He sounded faraway and faint. So his decorations never made it out of the Company office. They were stillborn. There was so much about them that he wanted to revise. Much of his handiwork now struck him as insipid, particularly the color combinations. Though he could see the intention, and some of the execution was nicely realized, particularly the starscape, which Colin had to admit was neatly balanced. Then Mr. Offerman was asking him for an explanation; not pressing, not begging, simply prompting, in an instant-coffee voice.
“I thought that I’d improve the envelopes, sir.” It sounded stupid, but anything he said would have been insufficient. How could he explain?
“Yes. Give them a human touch?”
“The human touch. Everything done at this Company has, as you poetically put it, the human touch. I’ve seen to that. It’s one of our sources of pride. You must be a highly arrogant person to believe you can improve on the services that we have refined over many years, decades, of work. Has anybody told you that you are a highly arrogant person?”
Colin told him: nobody ever had.
“Allow me to be the first. Allow me to enlighten you.”
Colin nodded. Nodding dog, he thought.
“Your services are no longer required. You are dismissed.”
For a moment Colin was gripped by a desire to seize the envelopes back: wrest them from his employer’s grip, save them from the shredder, head to the post office and give them wings, let them fly to their targets through space. A sense of tragedy crushed the room and pinned him to his seat like gravity. Mr. Offerman grimaced.
“What are you waiting for? Go! Go. You’re going to be a famous artist I’m sure. Get out of here.”
Bicycling in the rain, thought Colin on the muddy West Side path, is never exactly pleasant, but there’s something salutary about it all the same. One tends to concentrate on the immediate contingencies — creaking chains and deep puddles and slick handlebars — and ignore the big picture for awhile. Give yourself over to it on a warm fall day and it might splash on your crown like a baptism. Across the river Jersey was only a hint: rough shadows of towers in the fog. 34th Street and the long bad idea of the wet Javits Center to the right; forty-five minutes until reckoning and the impossible explanation he’d have to give. What, really, could he say in his defense? And as he picked up speed and crashed through the cloud, pursued by his own humiliation, it occurred to Colin: Mr. Offerman had placed six envelopes on the table. Now maybe there was another in that drawer of his that he’d forgotten to take out. But maybe Andres the collaborationist, in his reprobate stupor, had not been so complete about it. Yes, one had gotten through, Colin was sure of it. One made it out of Downtown. There was a letter from the Company that he’d decorated, and it was on its way to a person he’d picked, more or less at random, out of a list. Maybe she’d already gotten it. Maybe she tore it up and dismissed it. But maybe she liked it. Yes she did, he knew it — it was a little point of fire in a dark firmament. His folks would be sore. He might not get another chance downtown. Yet from his cold and soaked skin right down to his aching bones, he was sure of it: his first foray into employment in the city had been a success.