DON’T DO IT
The corridor stretched ahead of him, bathed in a soft glow that faded to blackness in the unfathomable distance. Buster panned the walls and floor with the beam of his flashlight, it’s halo illuminating a meager patch of graffiti and anonymous dirt. Sloping downward like a handicap ramp, the floor propelled him onward into its mysterious darkness. Where would it end?
He cupped a hand to his mouth and called out. “Hello…(ello…ello)?” As his words bounced back to him in the empty hallway, he jumped. What kind of place IS this? He wondered, wiping a sweaty hand on the leg of his Dickies.
He remembered walking through the parking ramp on Baird Street that eerie night, trying to remember where he’d parked his car. Ah, there it was. He fished the keys out of his pocket and headed for the cancerous Pinto. “Damn it, anyway; I can’t hold on to nothin’ tonight.” Stooping over, he grabbed for the keys and missed. From out of the shadows, a husky voice echoed through the night air.
“I have a job that needs doing and you look like the perfect man to do it,” the guy had quipped, sizing him up and down with a cold stare. Shadow man had smiled then, and Buster wished he’d heeded his first instinct at the time: the little voice that whispered, “Don’t do it, buddy—you’ll be sorry if you do.” Buster knew he didn’t see the yellow teeth that narrowed into sharp points or smell the sulfur that hung on the man’s breath. He’d been drinking that night (oh, yes, he was), and this was just one more hallucination to explain away. It’s just that sickly ramp lighting. Yeah, that’s what it was.
“Huh? Uh, that depends…on who’s askin’ and what the job is.”
“The name is Quentin and I need a guard to watch my property tonight.”
“Uh, how do you know I’m a security guard?”
Quentin laughed, sucking air in hacking gulps. Buster wondered if he was choking on himself. “I make it my business to know these things. Besides, that’s your name on the tag, isn’t it? I’ll pay you a hundred bucks—cash.”
Buster had watched, inhaling the scent of fresh greenbacks, as Quentin peeled off bill after bill and fanned them under Buster’s nose. Pinball Polly had floated into his feverish mind; her tight ass wiggled in front of him, as he sat on the bar stool at Casey’s and ogled her. The buzz was wearing off; the whiskey in his throat had turned sour. His hands shook, his voice cracked, and he reached for the money.
“I’ll take it! (“Don’t do it, Buster,” that little voice warned again). “Where do I go?”
But Quentin snatched the loot away and scowled. His mouth had tightened into a pencil line. “You have to promise me something first,” he hissed.
“Wh-what is it?” Buster stared into eyes that were black and depthless.
“You have to promise me…that you’ll stay the whole night, and not tell anyone what you see.”
Buster laughed, the relief pouring out of his voice. “Is that all?” What could be so horrible? (“Don’t do it, Buster”). “No problem.” He breathed on his nametag and buffed it to a polished sheen. “Buster Parks at your disposal. Security guard, extroardianairy—yessiree. I’m your man.”
“And so you are,” Quentin whispered, smirking again. “But first, sign here.” He dangled the money in front of Buster’s nose again. This time, Buster reeled it in, not giving his host the chance to reconsider. He jotted his autograph on the fine print and listened for instructions. “Go to 947 Code Street and ask for Pete when you get inside. He’ll show you what to do.”
Two hours later, Buster’s Pinto chugged to a stop in front of 947 Code. Its brick exterior wore a façade of normalcy that belied its inner chambers. He grabbed his keys and rolled his belly out from behind the steering wheel. Replacing the silver flask in his pocket, he headed for the door. The lock had turned with ease, but he couldn’t find the lights.
Now, as his flashlight beam searched the dirty walls, the words “Help me!” screamed at him in red letters. A flicker of fear raced up his spine, as he moved closer to the wall. Is that paint or blood? He wondered. Must be some kids getting their rocks off. “So, where is this Pete, anyway?” he asked the darkness. It echoed back to him, mocking, daring him to invade its depths. He picked his way down three floors, winding one way, pivoting another, down a spiral staircase without steps.
At length, the hallway ended and leveled off in front of a doorway on his left. Dim light crackled and sputtered, its efforts to illuminate the room feeble, at best. Machinery chattered inside in monotonous tones. Buster wrinkled his nose, as the odor of musty paper jarred his senses. Curious now, he approached the room and shone his flashlight into it. He pursed his lips in a soft whistle and wiped the sweat off the shiny part of his head.
“Hey, buddy…you in there…is your name Pete?” he asked, bobbing the flashlight up and down.
“Who wants to know?” the man growled, straightening up and stretching. “Oooh, my achin’ back.” With a quick motion, he punched the machinery to a stop and glared at Buster. “Make it fast—these letters don’t sort themselves, ya know.”
Buster stared down at the man and marveled at the guy’s resemblance to Ed Asner. “Hey, sorry if I’m interrupting you, buddy, but I’m supposed to find someone named Pete. The name’s Parks. Buster Parks.” He pointed to his badge and smiled. “Quentin hired me to walk this place tonight. He said Pete would show me where to go.”
“Quentin hired you?” Pete’s expression hung for a moment, then exploded into a grin, like he’d just pulled a winning triple on the slots. “Well, if Quentin hired you, you’ve got a job for life.”
(Don’t do it, Buster). (Shut up).
“Give me a hand with these boxes in the corner, will ya? They’re blocking the door to the storage room, and it’ll go faster if you help me.”
“Sure thing, but—“ Buster grabbed one end of a wooden crate, while Pete reached for the opposite corner.
“Mmmmm….oooh….ooof! Let’s set it over here.” Pete guided the crate away from the door and motioned to Buster. Damaged bits of glass scraped against each other inside.
Buster winced and rested his forearms on the box. “What the hell is in this thing, anyway? Rocks? Whatever it is, it sounds broken.”
“Could be rocks, could be beans, for all I know or care. All’s I know is, it’s got no return address and no zip code on the mailing address, so they sent it to me.”
“Wait a minute, I thought…”
“Save the questions. Let’s get this stuff moved.” Umpteen boxes later, both men paused in front of a dingy, gray door, wiping the sweat from their brows and fanning their sticky armpits. Pete opened the door and led Buster inside.
“You’re gonna love this room—it’s so much fun. Wait, put this on.” A lop-sided grin lit up Pete’s face, as he plopped a fuzzy red and white hat on Buster’s head. Buster peeked at the tassel, eyes crossed. “This is our Christmas room, where they send all the letters to Santa Claus.” As Buster glanced around, Elvis crooned carols from a music box, while an animated Santa blinked his red nose and waved at them in rhythm. A fake, purple tree sprouted from the middle of the room, adorned with white garland and multi-colored bulbs. Peppermint candy canes hung everywhere, shaded in hues of green and blue from the spotlights below.
“This room makes me wanna puke,” said Buster, sinking into the leather chair before him. “And why is it so damn cold in here?”
“Atmosphere, my man. Atmosphere. That chair was made for you. This is where I work during the holidays. They let me do my thing with the Santa letters.” He pointed to a mountain of unopened envelopes, heaped in front of the chair. “You wouldn’t believe how many brats are getting nothin’ for Christmas this year. Come on, I got more to show you.”
“But…how long have you worked here?” Buster asked. He was beginning to wonder if the pocket change for an extra hangover was worth all this fucking weirdness.
“Me? I can’t remember when I DIDN’T work here. Let’s go into the next room.” Pete led him to a white door on the opposite end of the Christmas room.
Once inside, Buster squinted hard, as a piercing white light stabbed at his vision. Choirs trilled and a pipe organ vibrated from the loud speakers above them; a carpet of cotton was spread out on the floor, while a body pillow lay in the center of the fluff. Reaching inside a parked De Soto, he picked up a plastic statue of Jesus and set it back on the dashboard. “Is that incense I smell? What is this, some kind of church service? Wait a minute, don’t tell me…” he said, swiveling around to look in the back seat.
Pete folded his hands and raised his eyes to the heavens. “This—this…is our God room. When I want to feel inspired, I come here. I sit in that back seat and write letters from God. For every person who has a sick or dying relative, I give them hope. For every guy who has piles or a limp dick, I give them relief and support. For everyone else, I tell them to send money.”
Buster’s eyes bugged out and a fit of laughter overwhelmed him. “You’re a sick bastard, you know that? Do you ever take a break from all this, er, creativity?”
“Hmmm, no time for breaks. The last break I took was in 1952. Let’s go. One more room to explore.”
This time, Buster followed Pete through an archway and into a mammoth room. Mountains of letters and packages of every size and shape littered its interior. Each one sported a bright, red stamp. “OK, Pete, why is there a scale in this room and nothing else, except mail?”
“Can’t you guess? This is our N.E.P. room, our I. P. room, our S.O.L. room.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Not enough postage, insufficient postage, or just plain shit out of luck. We get to be REALLY creative in here when something is too heavy and they don’t pay us enough to ship it. Nobody gets away with owing us money.”
“There’s no chair in here.”
“We stamped it for insufficient postage; it had to go.”
Buster’s jaw clenched and unclenched. His face flushed a deep red; he shook his fist under Pete’s nose. “What the hell kind of place is this, anyway? So far, you’ve shown me everything YOU’RE supposed to do, but nothing I’M supposed to do.”
Pete latched onto the menacing fist and pumped it up and down. Locking his gaze on Buster, he smiled and said: “Since you’re here now, it’s high time I took my break. Welcome to Postal Hell.”
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