Howdy folks and Happy Saturday. I’ve been under the weather with a ghastly cold (compliments of my daughters) so today, you get fiction. This is a piece I wrote back in 2005. It was inspired by a chat with Jay Lake in AIM where he said “Someday, we’ll all be Scholeses” and some kind of creative tick required that I reply “No, soon we shall all be Saunders.” Then I typed it again: “Soon we shall all be Saunders with his greasy hair and his sweaty hands and his stink of onions and menthol shaving cream” and went away immediately after chatting to nail down this bizarre story. It first appeared in Wheatland Press’s Polyphony 6 and now finds a home in my first short story collection, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Strange Journeys. It also taps into my days working for Thompson Merchandising Supply, where I repaired label guns for a time. I hope you enjoy it.
Soon We Shall All Be Saunders
By Ken Scholes
Soon we shall all be Saunders with his greasy hair and his sweaty hands and his stink of onions and menthol shaving cream. We’ll all wear stained white shirts and our bellies will push and pucker at the buttons and we’ll leave our jacket opened because it could never make the stretch to be otherwise, especially sitting at our gray desks in our gray cubicles underneath those gray lights. Our shoes will be scuffed and the hem of our pants will ride just a few inches too high and on weekends, at the grocery store, we’ll stoop and fix shopping cart wheels gone wrong and give the manager our cards.
I wonder if it will hurt?
I wonder if my wife will still recognize some part of me when Saunders walks in the door at the end of the day? I don’t think she’s met ‘Phil from Inside Sales.’ Maybe she’ll scream at the stranger in her home in those brief moments before she becomes Saunders, too. Or maybe Saunders won’t go home to my house. Maybe all the Saunders in the world will go back to that apartment that smells like cat litter and vanilla-scented Glade Plug-ins, spilling over into the hallways, into the street, into the neighborhood, into the city. Hundreds — no, wait, thousands — no, wait, millions — of Saunders lining up across the world, just wanting to go home.
The epidemic started just after lunch and spread quickly.
Saunders hit his monthly numbers today — Tuesday — just two weeks into June. Was it a coincidence that today was the day for the Big Announcement? Bob the VeePee called us all into the lunch room. We packed ourselves in and felt the temperature rising with the pressure to perform.
Bob gave Phil Saunders theSpecial Parking Place. He gave Phil Saunders the Plaque of Appreciation. He gave Phil Saunders a round of applause and we joined in with feigned enthusiasm. Then, he gave us the Encouraging Speech.
“You should all watch what Saunders does,” Bob said. “This man is a selling machine. You would all do well to be more like him. Andrews Merchandising Supply and Bag Manufacturing could use a dozen — no wait — a hundred more like him.”
“Why stop at a hundred?” Larry from Accounting said just loud enough for some of us to hear. “Imagine a whole world of Saunders.”
And suddenly, Larry was Saunders with his big class ring and his chewed-down nails and his glasses smudged from greasy fingers pushing them up his pock-marked nose. Bob looked up, surprised, and then he changed, too.
I ran from the room, waving my arms.
“Where’s Bill off to?” a half-dozen Saunders asked behind me.
I’m fortunate. At our office, I’m always the last to catch the various bugs that go around. Maybe I’d be the last to catch this bug, too. I raced past Madeline at the front desk.
“What’s wrong, Bill?” she asked from behind her headset, finger poised above a button on her phone.
“Saunders,” I said.
“Employee of the month again?” She smiled. “Don’t take it personally, Bill. We can’t all be Saunders.”
But oh yes we can, I thought. Soon we shall all be Saunders. Saunders who specializes in the personal touch, the plastic bag logo design by fax, the over-the-phone label gun repair tips, the never ending stream of cash register paper to customers who just keep coming, coming, coming back.
“Leave while you still can,” I told her as I left the office.
I doubt she listened to me. Now, she’s Saunders, too.
I was afraid to go home. I called instead.
“Sarah?” I asked when she answered.
“Pack a bag, take the baby, drive to your Mother’s.”
“Bill, my Mother’s inMichigan.”
“I know,” I said. “Trust me. Something bad is happening.”
Sarah sighed. “Did you start drinking again?”
“No,” I lied. I was calling from the bar.
“Bill, someone from your office called. They’re worried about you. They say you just up and ran out in the middle of a staff meeting.”
I closed my eyes. “Who called?”
“Phil,” she said. “Phil Saunders.” She paused. “He seemed like such a nice guy.”
“If he comes over,” I said, “Don’t let him in.”
“Why would he come over?”
But I hung up the phone when Saunders walked into the bar.
“It’s not bad being me,” he said over drinks. Saunders drank cheap light beer and didn’t mind at all if I smoked. Saunders smiled and his crooked teeth looked slightly green in the hazy light.
I waited. Waited for my clothes to tighten, waited for the beer and pretzel cravings to grab me, waited for the sudden impulse to ask the bartender what model of cash register he used or where he currently purchased his merchandising supplies. Nothing happened.
So Saunders and I talked in quiet tones and one by one, the people changed around us and drifted over.
“Hi, I’m Phil,” they kept saying to me and to one another.
I learned about his ex-girlfriend, Paula in Shipping, who he’d only slept with the one time after the Christmas party last year. I learned about his cat, Frisky, and his collection of Batman action figures. I learned about his father, the war hero who never came home, and his mother (the twinkle in her little boy’s eyes) who lived in the apartment upstairs and had him up for spaghetti every Friday night.
While he droned on, I pondered my immunity. Which would be worse, I wondered? Being Saunders or being with Saunders? And I imagined going home, unlocking the door, walking inside and seeing the whole house full of Saunders, imagined going to the crib and looking down at the tiny little Saunders with his greasy hair and his sweaty hands. I swallowed my scream along with my bourbon.
He kept droning on even after the drinks stopped coming because the bartender — now also Saunders — drifted over to join the growing crowd. Eventually, I left my money on the counter and walked out into streets crowded with blue slacks and brown jackets, white stained shirts and green-striped ties. Shaving cream and onions all around.
“Hi, I’m Phil,” someone said when they jostled me.
I walked into the pawn shop and put four hundred dollar bills on the counter. “I need a gun,” I told the man who stood there watching.
Behind him, on the news, pandemonium and madness spread out from the city.
“There’s a three day wait,” he said.
“I don’t have three days,” I answered. I put another five hundred dollar bills down. He stared at me in disgust until I added another three.
He pulled out a .38 special and set it on the glass.
“Bullets?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t sell those.”
I brushed past Saunders on my way out the door.
I sat in the park and stared at the empty revolver. Saunders stopped by and sat on the bench.
“Hi Bill,” he said.
I looked at him. “Hi Phil.”
“What are you doing with that gun?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Are things really so bad?” he asked.
I still didn’t say anything. A dozen more Saunders joined us in the park. Saunders with his gray raincoat in the summer and his silly, crooked smile and his thick, hairy ear-lobes.
“Is that thing loaded?”
I shook my head. “Any idea where I could find a bullet?”
Saunders put his hand on my shoulder. “Listen Bill, maybe you should reconsider. I’m really not sure that gun’s the answer for you.”
I stared at him.
Saunders stood. He reached into his pocket. He pulled out a carefully folded plastic sack and handed it to me. “Have you ever considered the possibility of plastic? Less mess. No bullets required.”
I took it. I dropped the pistol in it. “I’ll think about it, Phil.”
He smiled. Then all of them walked away to give me time to think.
I sat for a long while. Sat until long after dark, until long after the streets emptied as a city full of Saunders went to bed in their cotton pajamas with their orange tabby cats.
I must have drifted off myself. I dreamed about ham and onion sandwiches. I dreamed about big-boned Paula sweating on top of me with a vacant expression in her eyes. I dreamed about my mother’s spaghetti and my new parking place at work.
Soon we shall all be Saunders, I thought, when I opened my eyes.
A homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of his life passed by. He was the first person I’d seen who wasn’t Saunders. One of the cart’s wheels made that grinding noise that sounded like music to my ears and I stood up.
I smiled at him. “Let me fix that for you,” I told him.