Dear Sir or Madam:
It is with no regret that on this, the ____th/st day of ____________, in the
year 21__, I inform you of my resignation. I will no longer be able to fulfill my duties in my capacity as Chief Director
of Extra-Orbital Phenomena, as I would prefer to plummet headlong from the top of the observation tower to my timely demise
on the desert floor.
Please excuse any inconvenience this may cause to the migrant custodial
staff you are sure to employ in dealing with this matter.
Arthur J. Futterman
“Looks like it’s time to print out a new one,” Art said aloud to no
one. As he had every day for the past twenty years, he had decided that instead of resuming his station in front of the monitor,
he would fill in the blanks—in pencil, of course, one couldn’t be too careful—and take what he referred
to as “Permanent Unpaid Personal Leave.” Every day for twenty years, he had carefully inserted the current date
in the blank. Every day for twenty years, he then dropped the letter to rest atop the rubble of grimy coffee mugs and stacks
of newspaper crossword puzzles that covered what might have been a coffee table. And, every day for twenty years, he took
up the letter once again to furiously erase his handwriting, stuff the letter back in the desk drawer and get dressed for
Luckily for Art, “dressed” merely meant tugging on a pair of shoes and finding
his glasses, at least on days when he had only slept in his clothes for a night or two.
“How dirty could I be?” was his mantra, since it was, to his way of thinking,
the only perk of his occupation, which required him to live in a tiny apartment in the basement of the observation tower.
His only visitors were janitors who came, not to clean up after Art, but to contribute to the mess by bringing bedraggled
robotic amputees, severed human heads with varying degrees of awareness preserved in jars of clear, green liquid, and other
components of abandoned government-sponsored scientific forays.
To a man whose early adulthood had been measured solely in IQ points and Ivy League
scholarship dollars, the concept of spending the entirety of every waking day literally waiting for a planet-destroying comet
to enter the atmosphere was more than soul-crushing; it was boring. Art had just finished his third Ph.D. program when he
was approached by the then-head of NASA, who had incidentally lost to Art in the third grade spelling bee. He was offered
a new, prestigious position, operating complex machinery designed for someone just such as he, with a strong background in
Astrophysics, Engineering, and Theoretical Math.
When Art first began his job, he had been excited at the prospect of something new.
He’d been doling out his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient stellar masses and how they moved to every higher-education
institution in the country for ten years, but never before had the government tapped him for an assignment—and what
an assignment! He’d had to sign reams of forms before he learned that he was to be one of only a handful of people who
knew that a comet which was not expected to come anywhere near Earth had mysteriously changed course. For Art, this should
have been the pinnacle of excitement—the ultimate flexing of his mighty mental muscle.
As it turned out, the most valuable and relevant experience Art brought to the job had
been gained the year when he was out of school and work altogether, bedridden with a bad case of Mono. He hadn’t opened
a single book during those months, spending the bulk of his time camped on the sofa in front of the television. He had, however,
played plenty of classic joystick-controlled video games and watched Luke Skywalker make the direct hit on the Death Star
(just like Beggar’s Canyon back home) no less than fifty times. Still, when Art realized that his prowess at Space Invaders
ranked higher on his skill set than the degree from MIT, he first thought, “well, I guess no knowledge is ever wasted.”
He’d take it, especially when it could potentially save the planet from a comet which was due to approach, according
to the most sophisticated, modern equipment, run by the Biggest Brains in the business, some time in the next hundred years.
He still bitterly remembered just how star-struck he’d been to think that he would be the one to put right a celestial
calamity taking place on the other side of the universe after forces beyond his imagining had set it in motion.
No longer resembling anything like the gung-ho up-and-comer he’d been presented
as when he was recruited, Art settled in to his chair, which had admittedly once been very expensive and comfortable but which,
like Art, had lost most of its finer qualities over the years. He positioned the Extra-Orbital Threat Elimination Apparatus,
or “the Big Red Button,” within easy arm’s reach, and powered on the other important machinery by remote-control.
As the flip of the final switch brought the wall of monitors crackling to life, Art reached with his other hand to pour a
mug full of stuff which more resembled a monster truck’s used motor oil than anything that could possibly be produced
in a coffee pot.
The percolated goo accomplished its intended task of spreading a flannel warmth through
Art’s atrophied limbs as he gingerly coaxed it down his throat. He closed his eyes, reveling in the simple, animalistic
pleasure of having this basic need met, certain that he would drowse for a few moments and then begin the day’s crossword.
There was nothing remarkable about the day thus far, nothing to distinguish it from the countless thousands of days before
it. That was until, for the first time, Arthur J. Futterman fell asleep on the job—not that he noticed.
In the brackish quagmire of Art’s consciousness, not much had changed in the transition
from waking to sleeping. Images continued to flash across the monitors; that-which-had-been-coffee began to reek as it scorched
the bottom of the carafe. Something was different, though. It only took Art a moment to realize that something very strange
was being played out before him, life-sized and in high-definition. Instead of the usual tumbleweed-infested panoramas and
zoomed-in views of the cosmos, the monitors were all displaying various angles of the next room.
Art tore his glasses from his face, furiously scrubbed at them, then slammed them back
against his eyes. When the glasses still allowed him only the same view of a diminutive, black-robed figure with a scythe,
rummaging through the drawers of his desk, Art beat on the side of his head as if to improve his reception. If only he’d
had a coat hanger and some tin foil, maybe he’d have gotten somewhere.
“—the Hell?” Art yelped once he stopped pummeling his skull, tearing
himself away to bolt to the room shown on the monitors.
“Not exactly,” called the apparition’s bug-hitting-the-zapper tenor,
“no matter what the televangelists say, we don’t really discriminate—Aha!”
Art had already been approaching the edge—the maximum level of disturbed shock
achievable by the average human at just the sound of that pestilent voice. When that voice so flippantly dismissed a few millennia
of dogma, Art reached the edge. Upon seeing Death, triumphantly waving a very familiar sheet of paper over its head, Art toppled
right over that edge to land dumbstruck with his mouth hanging open for a long moment.
“Uh—” Art eventually managed.
“Look, man, because of you, I’ve been stuck on this assignment twenty-odd
years, so now that the end is in sight, could ya do me a favor and just sit there and chill out?” came the weary reply
from the depths of the black hood.
“Can I just ask you one question?”
With a sigh that sounded more like a sizzle, it (he?) replied, “Dude, if all you
got is one question, by all means, get it out of your system and let me get back to work.”
Pausing for a moment to marvel at Death repeatedly using the word dude, Art finally asked the only question on his mind, though the answer
“Are—are you Death?” he stammered.
“Dude. That’s your big question?” came the disgusted reply. He leaned
heavily on his scythe and heaved another echoing sigh from the depths of his cowl. Art stuttered incomprehensible, strangled
syllables in answer until the little reaper couldn’t take it anymore.
“I thought you were some kind of genius or something,” he spat. If he’d
had eyes, he’d have rolled them heavenward in pleading for divine patience.
“Please,” he continued, “Give me a break. Am I Death, he asks me.
No, dude, Death is an event, or maybe a state of being, and I’m just, well,
think of me as, like, a karmic collections agent, and still an intern at that, with no benefits or tuition reimbursement
thanks to you, I might add,” he (definitely a he, Art decided) replied, the folds of his hood rustling as he shook his
head in disgust.
“Well, you sure look like Death,” Art insisted.
“No—I’m pretty sure I look like a Grim Reaper. That’s kind of
what I was going for this time, but seriously, as much as I’m digging this, could you just get a frickin’ clue?
I mean, buy a vowel or something--it’s the least you could do.”
“Okay, um, dude,” Art began, shifting his weight from one foot to the other,
unsure of how one addressed a karmic collections agent—whatever that meant—purposely masquerading as a Grim Reaper,
“what the hell, I mean, what are you talking about?”
An even more long-suffering sigh issued forth as the reaper scanned the room, searching
for a spot uncluttered enough to sit. Since Art shared his living space with a multi-billion dollar wasteland where failed
government projects went to decay, there was no such space to be had.
“You really don’t get it, do you? Why didn’t I study harder for that
Guardian Angel entrance exam? No, dude, don’t answer that. You know what a rhetorical question is, at least, right?”
Art nodded dumbly as the reaper prodded a bit of dust-coated flotsam with his foot.
Had he been in possession of enough of his wits, Art would have taken great satisfaction in seeing his visitor nonplussed
when that flotsam—one of the more cognizant heads in jars, a pretty if vacuous blond woman in her late twenties—spoke
up in protest of being disturbed.
“Hey, there, Creepy McRude! Watch it!”
“What the—” the reaper started to exclaim, then with a resigned “Oh,
screw it,” just took the interruption as par for the course.
The bug-zapperness of the grisly little intern’s voice had diminished, leaving
him sounding more like a deflating used tire when he again attempted to stick to the real issue, “Okay, look—usually,
we’re not supposed to go into all the specifics. That’s someone else’s job. There are forms you have to
fill out, lines you have to stand in—procedures, you know? But, frankly, you piss me off and I feel like you deserve
to know the kind of hell—no pun intended—you’ve put me through these last couple of decades.”
With that, Art finally grew back a little of his backbone and exclaimed, “Look,
asshole, I haven’t left this building more than a handful of times in twenty years! How the hell can I have done anything
to you? I don’t even know who or what you are!”
“So not the point,” he hissed, thrusting the scythe right up under
Art's nose, “Do you want to hear this or not? ‘Cause if not, I can just poof-you’re-gone you any time
I feel like it.”
After staring at each other in silence for a minute or so, Art dropped his eyes, sighed,
and shook his head. He’d only been holding his backbone together that long by sheer chutzpah (which is commonly known
to not withstand the stare of demons, mouthpieces of gods, or other blue-collar metaphysical underlings for very long at all).
“Good, ‘cause it’s not so much a poof as it is a splat and I really didn’t want to add clean-up-scientist-guts to
my list of things to do today.”
Art blanched, but said nothing.
“Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, you being the bane of my existence for
like twenty frickin' years. So, not to put too fine a point on it, you’re supposed to be long-since worm food, my
friend. You think it was an accident you just like, woke up one day at the ripe old age of thirty and decided your life
was over? That’s right, there ya go! Let there be light! That was all me, I’m sad to say—not for planting
the idea, but for not being a little more specific. Gave you too much freedom on wording that suicide note--I thought it'd
be better in your own words.. Stupid stupid stupid!. Fill-in-the-blanks—what was I thinking?”
He paused to smack his semblance of a forehead with the skeletal hand not clinging to
the scythe before continuing, “So, long story short, my entire job for all these years has been to sit on my ass, just
hoping you’d fill in those blanks, leave them filled out, and take the frickin’ hint! Failing that,
I’ll totally take the loophole you so awesomely provided me with today and just be done with you. Still not getting
it? Take a look.” He tossed the note in the air, making it sail around erratically and taking perverse pleasure in watching
Art scramble to catch it. Upon inspecting the document, Art saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“What? Looks fine to me,” he said, handing it back.
“Really?” came the excited hiss, which was regaining some of its former
bug-zapper glory, “Looks fan-freaking-tastic to me! You didn’t erase the date all the way!”
“So? That doesn’t mean I’m gonna jump!”
“Maybe not, but lucky for me, it's not my job to give a crap anymore.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Art demanded, his own voice growing
raspy as his mental hamster wheel once again neared terminal velocity.
“It means,” he began in a tone that was oddly reminiscent of Art’s
mother, the time she had to explain to him that under no circumstances was it acceptable to set the toaster on fire, “that
whether you live or die is so not my problem anymore. My assignment’s done. The gears that
ground to a halt twenty-some years ago when all this started are all lubed and ready to start back up.”
“What gears?” Art asked, unsure whether he should be relieved or more worried
at that point.
“Ugh, dude, seriously? Were you absent the day they taught common frickin'
sense? Think about it, dude, it’s not you, it’s your job. Why do you think we’d be spending decades
of even an intern’s time on this project? There’s way more important stuff floating around the Milky Way than
your waning golden years, specifically, a comet that’s been knocked off schedule—but that’s really not my job to talk about. You’ll have to take that up with
With that, the hamster keeled over, the wheel jumped its axle, and Art screamed, “Alright!
That’s it! Once and for all, just give me a straight answer!”
“Ugh, fine,” he sizzled, “Have it your way. You’re the only
one who can do your job—mostly because they’d probably forget to replace you if you were gone, but anyway,
if you’re not around, the comet can do its job. You people should have listened to that scientist dude and hauled ass
for the Moon fifty years ago, but you didn’t, so now, you get to eat the comet. Have a nice day.”
Art woke up with a start, disoriented, and with a splitting headache. The years spent
in that observation tower, coated mind and body with useless scientific expertise and high-octane java caught up with Art
in that moment as he made a decision. It could be, he decided, that he was an idiot for letting even such an eerily lucid
dream spook him. However, he figured he’d be an even bigger idiot to ignore the lesson it had contained.
“Eat the comet,” the little reaper-guy had said, so that’s what Art
was going to do, along with the rest of the planet if that was the price he had to pay to actually live in the world—even
if that world was so convinced of its own importance that it’d lock up a perfectly good geek on the off chance something
would threaten it during his lifetime. He refused to waste another moment, sparing not a single glance for any of the monitors
or crossword puzzles. He didn’t check to see if the coffee pot was turned off and he didn’t pay a bit of attention
to the shrill declarations of, “Oh, hell, no! Your ass is like, so not leaving me here!” coming from a dusty jar in a dusty corner of
his dusty old life.
For Chip Slade and Drew Little