Today’s Short Story

(From the 2012 book of short Lunch Hour)

With apologies to Flat Stanley, meet…

Paper Joe

                Joe hated his job. As a telemarketer, he sat in a small cubicle all day long bothering people on the phone trying to get them to buy things that nobody needed. All day long, Joe’s boss yelled at him, “Sell more Joe! Sell more!”

Although he was good at his job, he never made enough money to do the one thing he loved most. Joe loved to travel. He loved the freedom of going different places and doing different things.

            One day, while Joe was on his ten-minute coffee break, a rather large co-worker offered Joe a donut. “C’mon, Joe,” he said, “thing’s aren’t all that bad. At least we have jobs.”

            Joe reached from his chair up to get a donut. Just then, Joe’s boss came up behind Joe’s co-worker yelling, “Break time’s over! Back to work!” He startled Joe’s co-worker so badly that the co-worker fell on top of Joe.

            “Oh, no!” the co-worker cried, “I’ve fallen on Joe”

            “Ummph!” said Joe.

            “Back to work!” yelled the boss. It took two of Joe’s other co-workers to get his large friend off of Joe. When they did, they made an amazing discovery. Joe had been squashed flat as a piece of paper.

            “Call 911!” said someone.

            “Wow! He’s really flat.” exclaimed a co-worker.

            “Flat as a piece of paper.” said someone else.

            “Whoa!” said Joe. “What a trip!”

            “What’s going on here?!! I said get back to work!” yelled the boss again.

            “Joe’s been squashed flat!”

“Flat as a piece of paper.” said another co-worker, again.

            “Well, staple him back to his chair and glue his hand to the telephone and get back to work!”

            “What about my injury?! cried Joe. Surely this can’t be good for me?

            “Your injury is your problem. Keeping the phones ringing is my problem. If you don’t get back to work in two minutes, YOU’RE FIRED!!!”

            “I’ll sue!!!” yelled Joe. I’ll sue you for every penny you’ve got!

            “Oh yeah?” said the boss, narrowing his eyes and threatening Joe with his cigar. “I’d like to see you try.”

            Joe found an attorney in the phonebook under the heading of “Accidents”.  His name was Silas and he could see right away that Joe had a case, and one that could offer a big payoff. He told Joe that he would take on his case on a “contingency” basis. That meant that he would get exactly one half of whatever Joe got in compensation for his injury. “The harder I work,” Silas explained, “the more money we both make. ”  That was quite all right with Joe.

            Joe’s attorney filed a motion with the court asking for fifty million dollars. They said that the telemarketing company had been negligent in providing donuts to the workers for free. It was this negligence that caused Joe’s co-worker to become large enough to cause the injury to Joe. Had the company been more forward thinking, they would have seen the potential for harm that this environment of free donuts created.

Silas and Joe made quite an impression on their first day in court. Instead of walking into the courtroom like a normal person, Joe’s attorney brought him into the courtroom in a large manila folder. It was requested that all of the doors and windows to the courtroom be kept tightly closed so that Joe wouldn’t blow away. Special furniture had to be brought in for Joe so that he could sit comfortably. Periodically during the trial, Joe would curl up like a pirate map and his attorney would have to request a recess so that Joe could be ironed out.

            Joe’s attorney painted a gloomy picture of what life would be like for Joe from now on. He would never be able to go out on a windy day for fear of becoming a kite. He would not be able to frequent diners that had an open flame grill, as he was now highly combustible. He would no longer be able to work. Even the most menial of jobs presented hazards to him in one form or another.

Worst of all would be the humiliation. He would never be able to go anywhere without people staring at him. Even now, attorney Silas said, children taunted his client with shouts of  “There go Paper Joe! There go Paper Joe.”

The telemarketing company’s attorneys could see the handwriting on the wall. The jury was obviously sympathetic to Joe’s plight, with one woman even breaking down into a gentle sob as Joe described how his life had been ruined by his injury. The capper was when Joe offered her his paper-thin sleeve for her to use as a tissue.

In the end, the telemarketing company settled for “an undisclosed amount”. It was enough to make both Joe and attorney Silas rich beyond the dreams of Avarice.

After the settlement, Joe entertained ideas about how to spend his newfound wealth. He thought briefly of purchasing the telemarketing company and firing his old boss, but he soon found out that the owner of the company had beat him to it, sending him off with only a box of stale donuts as severance pay.

Joe bought a new home, a new car, a boat and new clothing, all custom made for his flat stature. Still, he longed to travel. He couldn’t drive his new convertible from place to place because he might end up blowing away. Air travel might reverse his condition because of the pressurized air in the jet and if that happened, he would have to give all the money back. He got too seasick to travel anywhere by boat and trains and busses were for poor people and he was certainly no longer poor.

And then in a flash it hit him. He would mail himself wherever he wanted to go; after all, almost any place around the world had a post office of some sort. Better yet, he would send himself to all of the luxurious hotels he planned on staying in during his travels. All he would need would be a few hundred custom envelopes of the proper size and several books of first class stamps. “Well,” Joe chuckled to himself, “I’ve always wanted to travel first class.

After visiting the stationary store, the bank and the post office, Joe pulled out a map of the United States and drew a big red circle around Las Vegas, Nevada, a place he had always wanted to visit. Joe carefully packed a few changes of clothing, some stamps for the return trip and a flat bundle of cash and travelers checks into the oversized envelope. “Sin City, here I come!” he said as he sealed himself into the envelope and leaned himself against the mailbox.

“Whoa,” moaned Joe as he crawled out of the envelope at the end of his daylong trip. “I’ll have to remember to write FRAGILE in red letters on the envelope the next time I travel.” A startled hotel manager simply stared at Joe as he slid out of the envelope. “You’re finest suite, my good man,” said Joe handing the manager a $50.00 tip, “and send up some champagne.” The manager had little choice but to comply as hotels in Las Vegas are designed to cater to the rich and odd.

Once he had settled into his room, Joe decided to see the town. As he left the lobby and strolled into the casino, he met some very friendly ladies. They seemed to know that he was there to have a good time and they offered to help him enjoy himself. Together they played roulette, Black Jack, Craps, Keno and most of the slot machines.

Vegas was a wonderful place, Joe thought to himself. All the drinks were free, the girls were friendly and the other casino patrons paid no attention to his obvious flatness as if it were the most normal thing in the world. This was the place to be. The last thing Joe remembered was the girls ordering more champagne from room service.

“Whoa!” said Joe when he woke up the next afternoon. “ I guess that champagne went to my head but I must have had a good time because the room is a mess.” Joe’s clothing was scattered everywhere, there were more than a few empty champagne bottles and the dresser drawers were all opened. The girls were nowhere to be found and all of Joe’s money was gone, including his traveler’s checks. Joe called down to the front desk to report the incident. “What can I tell you sir?” he sniffed, “It’s Vegas.”

Joe called his banker at home and had him send enough money to pay the hotel bill and for postage home. “Never again!” said Joe.

Joe decided that his next trip should be somewhere more sedate. Joe decided to visit one of the great theme parks in California. He booked his reservations at the theme park hotel, slipped some casual clothing and cash into an envelope, stenciled FRAGILE in bold, red letters across the front of the envelope and mailed himself off to the land of fun.

His trip this time was better. When he arrived at the hotel and slipped from the envelope in the mailroom, no one noticed Joe except someone dressed in a large dog suit that was pre-occupied with removing his head so that he could have a cigarette. “I like your costume.” the man/dog said, “It’s pretty original and that’s what they go for here. The pay’s not great, but it’s all the fast food you can put away, although it looks as though you probably have to watch your weight.”

Joe ignored him and strolled up to the hotel desk, but before he could get a word out, he was shooed away by a woman in what could only be described as an aging princes costume. “Away with you now.” She said in a grand thespian voice. “You should be out entertaining the guests.”

“I am the guests!” said Joe.

After checking in, Joe decided to try some of the rides at the theme park. As he strolled along the grounds, people stopped him to ask if they could take their pictures with them. “They must have heard of me,” Joe thought to himself, “and my famous court case.” He did find it odd that parents of small children told Joe that he was their favorite character or that they loved his cartoons.

Riding some of the rides made Joe dizzy, while others got him wet. At one point he flew out of the roller coaster, but floated down to the boardwalk as gently as a feather on the breeze. On one or two occasions, Joe was mistaken for part of the scenery and several times he was told to get back to work by people who seemed to be in authority. At the end of each day’s fun, Joe would go back to the hotel and relax. “This is much better than Vegas.” Joe reflected as he sat staring out at the glittering theme park from his balcony. “All of the people are so friendly and everyone here seems to know who I am. Some even seem to think that I have been in the movies. This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity.”

On his last day at the theme park, as he checked out of the hotel, a very stern looking man asked to see him in his office. “What is your name!” the man demanded.

“Joe Smith” said Joe. “Why do you ask?”

“I don’t think that you are going to work out here. I have a number of reports of you dining with the guests, riding the rides during park hours and you have even been seen coming out of one of the rooms in this very hotel. As you know, it is our policy that employees are not allowed to fraternize with the guests under any circumstances. I’m sure that you feel that your behavior is harmless. You are certainly not the first person to feel this way. I’ve heard it all before from young men such as yourself and I find that the best way to handle it is just to cut the deadwood from the mighty oak that is our organization. Believe me, you will thank me for this one day.”

With that, the man handed Joe an envelope and dismissed him with a wave of his hand. Joe walked back to the front desk, paid his bill and walked out into the sunshine. He opened the envelope and took out the pink slip of paper that said “TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT Reason: Gross Insubordination.” Attached to the paper was a check for two hundred dollars made out to Joe with the notation “Final Pay”.

“Whoa!” said Joe, “That was weird.

“Who needs amusement parks?” said Joe. “Their for kids anyway. Now Mardi Gras, that’s the place to be.”

Joe had heard that Mardi Gras was the grandest of times, with all sorts of revelry and fun. He had looked up the event on the Internet and saw people in colorful costumes, giant floats and all kinds of people in different stages of inebriation. The Crescent City, which New Orleans is called, seemed to be a place where people could go and cut loose. Joe was always about cutting loose.

He arrived at his hotel a week before Fat Tuesday, the final day of Mardi Gras. By now he had learned to make his hotel reservations in advance and then have the envelope containing him delivered to his room. This helped to avoid any surprises or confusion in the mailroom. Once he felt himself slipped under the door of his room, he got out and plopped down on the bed and fell asleep. Traveling by post always took a lot out of him.

Joe awoke to a cacophony of voices, music and sounds he had never heard before in his life. There were people shouting and it sounded as if a riot had broken out just outside his window. He got up and pulled the curtains back in an explosion of light. Outside his window was a small balcony and beyond that, Bourbon Street. Joe went out onto the balcony and absorbed the sights, sounds and aroma of Mardi Gras. “Whoa!” said Joe out loud, “Now this is a party!”.

Joe found a complimentary bowl of colorful beads on his dresser with a note explaining the custom of tossing them from the balcony to passers by and a mask to wear as part of the celebration. Joe put on the mask, stuffed a wad of hundred dollar bills in his pocket and went out into the fracas.

Out in the street, the world was pandemonium. People were everywhere and it was difficult to move, but Joe was able to slip through the narrowest of spaces to get to where he was going. Several times, someone tried to pick his pocket, but were thwarted by their inability to get their hands into such a tight space without alerting Joe. Joe’s first night was an evening of roaming from club to club and barroom to barroom. Even though many of the clubs were filled to capacity, there was always a place where Joe could slip in and the club owners could always find room for Joe’s money.

Joe’s first night in New Orleans was filled with Jazz, smoke and the oddest collection of characters he had ever seen, and that included his trip to the theme park in California. He met men dressed as women and women dressed as men. He saw people sobbing with joy and hooting with laughter. He saw fistfights and acts of lewd behavior. “Whoa! That’s weird!” he found himself saying every ten minutes or so. All of this activity seemed to be something out of a Roman circus. After his first night on the town, Joe collapsed into bed just as the sky began to brighten. “Whoa! What a night!” he mumbled as he drifted off to sleep.

Joe awoke late on Fat Tuesday. He had slept through breakfast and lunch. He ordered room service to bring him some dinner. “I’d like something traditionally Mardi Gras.” Were the only instructions he gave the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, a waiter arrived at his door with a pushcart filled with Cajun delights.

There were red beans and rice with big slices of sausage, Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffee’, Jambalaya, small fried puffs of dough called Beignets and two desserts: Bananas Foster and Cherries Jubilee. Joe sampled everything and ate his fill as the waiter stood at attention. As he prepared the dessert, he poured some liquid into a shallow pan of cherries and ignited the alcohol with a brilliant flash.

“Whoa!” said Joe, “Put that out! I’m highly flammable!”

“Aren’t we all during Mardi Gras?” offered the waiter, smugly. Joe tipped him handsomely and sent him on his way.

Joe had noticed the night before that the balconies were full of people throwing beads to the excitable crowd. Someone in a club told him that the balcony parties were by far the best during Mardi Gras, so he decided to have his own. He called down to room service and ordered champagne, more food and more beads and told the desk clerk to pass the word around that Paper Joe’s was the place to be. Once word got out, his room was filled with women as equally delicious and spicy as the food.

The night went by in a blur. Everyone who came to his room draped beads around Joe. “Whoa! Thank you!” Joe chuckled throughout the night. The Roman circus people were everywhere at once, drinking, dancing, laughing and performing for the crowds below. At one point, he was sure that there was a Jazz band in the room and there may have been a squad of police officers, or they might have been people costumed as police.

And then, suddenly, it stopped. The music, the laughter, the noise all came to an abrupt halt. Joe looked out over the balcony and saw a line of police on foot, in cars and on horseback driving the crowd out of the French Quarter. Behind them was a line of street sweepers cleaning up the mountains of plastic cups, cigarette butts, beads and feathers left behind by the revelers. People filed out of Joe’s room and their laughter died at the end of the hallway.

Joe watched the sad parade from his window. Mardi Gras was over. Joe decided it was time to mail himself home.