Joe woke up at seven in the evening, as he always did, leaving plenty of time before his shift. He had slept well, and was quite refreshed. But then, still somewhat drowsy, he realized that his pillow was covered with a blend of brown and gray hair. He rubbed his hand across his head and felt a dew-like baldness.
Joe’s bedroom was cold, and the floor a shock to his bare feet. He rushed to the bathroom and turned on the light, squinting against its harsh brightness.
When he focused on his reflection in the mirror, he saw the clean bean of his now-bald head. When he smiled automatically into the mirror, part of his daily, FRUP-mandated routine, he saw there were no teeth at all along his lower jaw. Thatches of dark, scraggly hair had sprouted up in their place.
Joe, blinking, pondered this. He curled back his lips to reveal the mouth hair, ran his tongue over it. It was bristly, tightly wound.
That he wasn’t feeling any pain was encouraging. He had heard that the body knew what its limit was, that while exercising for example, you would pass out before doing any real damage. He opened the medicine cabinet, reached in for his toothbrush, and then chuckled. Maybe his brain was going too.
The FRUP supervisors had a notorious intolerance for tardiness, and so Joe dressed quickly. But what about his head? The FRUP supervisors were also sticklers for proper presentation. Bold fashion statements, unique hairstyles, and non-regulation tattoos were not allowed. Joe went to his bedroom closet and pulled on the string of the overhead light. He chose after a moment’s hesitation a stocking cap that he pulled down over his face in a mask. It was very warm, and from watching a lot of TV Joe knew it might seem suspicious, but he felt he had no choice.
Joe walked down the dark, pre-dawn street to the subway. His car had such bad body rot it had become untrustworthy. Still, he didn’t mind public transportation. The subway trains, while not very clean, were usually empty. The doors wheezed shut as Joe sat down in the first train that soon arrived, as if he had been expected. No one else was there. As the train pulled out of the station and picked up speed, he eased the woolen ski mask off his head.
Something in the hat the size of a large nut nearly wedged in his eye. Joe reached in it and pulled out a nose. He automatically felt the front of his face. Only two slick holes met his touch. He examined the bulbous meat in his hand. The hairy nostrils, the blackheads, bits of dried mucus. He sighed, put it into his pants pocket for safekeeping and slipped the hat back on.
A short time later, he exited at the FRUP stop at the perimeter fencing. He blinked against the cold brightness of the spotlights, which towered over the huge complex, rising on towers into the night sky. It was said that the FRUP plant was as large as 25 football fields. Joe didn’t know much about football other than he enjoyed it, but he knew he would be lost if he strayed away from the painted pathways and warning signs. Workers from the just-completed shift whirred past in long electric carts.
Doubts began to surge through him. How would he be able to keep the mandatory goggles on his face, without a nose? Would he be able to speak, with so much hair in his mouth? What would happen if his supervisor came up and asked Joe for the time of day? How long would it take the man to fire him as he stood there honking and drooling in reply?
With these new fears packed in with his usual ones, Joe joined the ranks of workers as they funneled through the narrow opening in the barbed wire topped fence. He filed with the others past the squad of uniformed men and their leashed dogs. Suddenly, he was jostled, and then he tripped over someone’s leg, and fell to the ground.
The dogs began to bark and howl. The other workers moved away from him. Joe was yanked back up, and one of the guards that held him ripped off his ski mask.
The two guards exchanged a look, and then were moving him so fast Joe’s feet barely scraped the ground. In seconds, he was in the back seat of an emergency vehicle, headed for the tall administrative buildings clustered in the center of the complex. The siren wailed and the red lights whirled. The guards sitting on either side of him said nothing.
He was brought through the revolving glass of the main building and into an open elevator. When it stopped on the top floor, they hurried down the hall to the only door, which one of the guards opened.
A woman sat at a desk. A single red rose in a white vase and a black telephone were at the corners across from her. She was completely bald. She raised an eyebrow, as Joe and the guards came in. The other men left.
He wondered if his vacant scalp was why they brought him there. He tried to speak, but as he had feared, no words came out. He grew agitated. The woman put a finger to her lips.
She got up, and motioned him to follow. As she walked to a door at the back of her office, he grew light-headed from the sight of her red and white-striped dress that hipped up and down as she walked. She snatched the hat from his hand as he came up beside her, then opened the door and pushed him in.
It was dark inside. Had his eyes dropped out of his head as well? He heard a soft humming, and a warm wind bathed him.
A lamp snapped on. It took Joe a moment to make out that a man was sitting at a desk, upon which like the woman’s, sat a single rose and phone. The man held an index card in his hand, and was looking at Joe. He had hair. He was also the one humming; it sounded like music a machine might have made.
“Please sit down.” He pointed to the contoured, pale plastic chair in front of the desk. He was wearing a tie.
“I am Mr. Diss.”
Joe felt weightless. Thick draperies hung across what he assumed were windows. The walls were lined with squat, foreboding file cabinets that lurked in the fringe of shadow. Joe felt drawn to the lamp on the desk like a moth or other type of fire-seeking bug.
“You are Joseph Joe.” The man’s voice was like thick, rich gravy.
“I… ahh.” Joe gagged on some of the hair growing from his gums, fear and panic forcing the words out. “I … never been late before!”
“I realize that,” said Mr. Diss, leaning back in his chair. “I have your record right here, Joseph. Also, a photograph… a recent photograph I was led to believe although there seems to be some discrepancy here….”
A bubble of fear burst inside Joe like a popped balloon. If Mr. Diss thought he was unable to work, he would surely fire him. Without the FRUP-subsidized food and shelter chits…
“I never been late before!”
“Calm yourself, Joseph. I was merely making conversation.” Mr. Diss put down the index card. “You must admit, you look a bit… tired.”
“It’s justacold,” Joe said.
“I’m sure,” agreed Mr. Diss. “Tell me… without going into a lot of detail…what were your duties when you worked in Building A?”
Joe had to think for a moment. The question had surprised him, and it had been a long time ago.
“This was with the chemical baths?” Mr. Diss prodded.
Joe recalled the time when he had fallen into one of the larger vats. After he had come up for the second time, one of his co-workers had hurled him a life ring. He hadn’t been able to hear over the bubbling froth, but once the liquid steamed off his face, he could see his co-workers above him. Some were laughing; others, exchanging money.
Mr. Diss looked at Joe intently, as if trying to decide something. “All right Joseph. Building B? The food products division?”
Joe nodded. He had worked in Building B back when FRUP was famous for its breakfast cereal of the same name. Joe had worked in the Protein House, where he and his co-workers had reconstituted rodents into a fine paste. It was then sent on to join the fillers, colors, and sweeteners, and flash-fried into tasty flakes.
“And of course, Building C is no longer with us,” Mr. Diss went on, as if he had followed Joe’s thoughts, and was content with them for an answer. “And that’s most unfortunate. A worker of your abilities certainly would have been proud to master the radiation stackers.”
Joe felt light-headed. He had almost forgotten (as he was supposed to) the explosion of Building C. They found the still-shod foot of one co-worker a mile away, stuck into a 40 year old oak.
But… had Mr. Diss just praised him?
“I know what your duties are now of course. Any worker who can handle equipment that can grind up… well, let me assure you that we here at FRUP know when we have something special.”
The dark puddle of doubt that Joe had brought into the room was starting to evaporate. He tried to ignore the sudden itching that came over him. Before he could thank Mr. Diss for his kind words, he erupted into a series of vicious sneezes. It was an odd sensation with no nose; his body shook, and hot, sticky cobwebs of snot exploded out of the front of his face.
When Joe’s motor finally ran down, Mr. Diss nodded.
“That’s what I appreciate about you, Joseph. I’ve had many other workers come in when they’ve felt a bit under the weather, and do you know… they try to convince me that their… colds… are somehow caused by their jobs. They hold FRUP responsible. Not only responsible, but guilty.”
Mr. Diss crumbled the index card in his hand. He tossed the paper ball off into the darkness, where it landed in what sounded like an empty metal bucket.
“Joseph, I only have to take one look at you to see that you are ready… more than ready in fact…to move onward and upward here at FRUP. And don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve been worried all during our little chat, about being late to your place on the line. That’s the type of thing I’m referring to. We admire that dedication, and selflessness, and desire to obey in a worker. And well… after meeting you here now… not that we haven’t been keeping a close watch on you of course… I’m convinced that you deserve a…promotion.”
Although Joe was beginning to get drowsy during this long speech, he perked up. Pride began to pulse through him. He had always done his job—that was true. In return, he had received semi-regular pay, a place to be every day, and snacks. Now his hard work and extra-hard work had paid off.
The door behind him opened, and a wave of light crashed over him. Mr. Diss turned off the lamp on his desk. The large, uniformed man who entered the room helped Joe to his feet. Joe turned back to Mr. Diss, and made sounds he meant as a thank-you, but Mr. Diss gave no indication any more that he understood what Joe was saying.
In the long hallway, Joe’s escort ignored him until they went into a small room. He told Joe to take off the work clothes he was wearing, and change into the new set of overalls he handed him. Joe was thrilled, to see that his name was stitched in fancy script over the top pocket.
“Look at that,” he tried to say, pointing, but his attempts to talk through the hair failed him. He was left to gesturing, slobbering, and blowing wind, to show his pleasure.
“Yeah, I hear that,” said the guard. He took a six-foot long bamboo pole, picked up Joe’s old clothes, and flung them against the far wall, where they slid down onto a pile of similar garments. Then he helped Joe with the final snap on the overalls, glancing down at his name.
“Well… Mr. Joe. I guess we’re all frupped up now. I’m betting you don’t give a frup what I think, but I think you’re going to enjoy this here new job. Got your types of people in there, know what I mean?”
The man winced, as Joe tried one final time to speak. He opened the door opposite the one they had come in, and guided Joe into what turned out to be a vast, warehouse-sized space.
Hands immediately grabbed at Joe, bringing him inside. His senses were overwhelmed with the noise: a droning engine of sound, a mixture of sighs, whistles, mutters, and the occasional shout. A fine mist fogged the air, and the steam rising around him smelled sharp and sweet.
He was pulled, and pushed, and seated at a table, on a long bench, with many other co-workers. It took him a moment to get settled but then he looked quickly out of the corners of his eyes, as he had long been trained to do. One co-worker had no arms, another a purple face, the next with skin as coarse and channeled as a crocodile’s. Joe could not tell exactly what they were doing, only that it was some sort of routine, it looked easy, and he was expected to join in.
“That’s right, Joseph,” a voice soothed above him, “if you’ll just sign this, while you’re able… that’s it… yes, that’s fine. Welcome to Building Z.”
Joe tried to focus on the stack of leather and spools of thread in front of him. None of the others spoke, not in so many words, but Joe knew he shared a strong bond with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, there with him, that he was in the right place.
“You’re about to use those advanced… talents of yours,” came the voice, ‘to make wallets for under-privileged executives in Fourth World countries. Now, isn’t that something?”
There came a final flash of light, but Joe had been anticipating this one, and he kept his eyes clenched against it. While he sat there he wanted to agree, it was part of being a good employee after all, but his tongue suddenly flopped out of his mouth, and fell quivering into his lap.
He considered this. How fortunate for him that the promotion had come while there was still something of him to promote!
And even better, he realized, as he picked up his needle and jabbed it into his hand by mistake, throughout it all, he was feeling no pain.
Jon Fain’s publications include short stories in The Twin Bill and King Ludd’s Rag; flash fictions in The Daily Drunk and Reservoir Road Literary Review; and micro fictions in Six Sentences and Blink-Ink. In 2021, his work was nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. He lives in Massachusetts. Jon recommends the Merrimack River Watershed Council.