By Omar El Akkad
Three brown dahlias, pressed and dried
A photograph of a meadow in spring
In the morning, just after we open, an old woman comes in. She stands in line—there’s always a line, though never a long one—and passes through the metal detector without setting it off. It’s Christmas Day and we are, as far as I can tell, the only state or federal building open. We’re open every day. You never know.
The old woman makes her way past security and over to the ticket spitter. She takes a number and sits down on one of the grey plastic chairs bolted to the floor. She waits until a man at one of the inspection desks calls her number, then she stands, removes her paperwork from her handbag, and shuffles over. Without speaking, the man takes her papers—identification, social security, proof of ownership. He looks through them, disinterested. The old woman waits.
Finally, the inspector sets the papers aside. From a desk drawer he retrieves a blank deposit form.
All right, he says, let’s see what you got.
The woman reaches into her purse and pulls out a small sandwich bag full of cloud-white fur. She slides it across the table.
The inspector picks up the bag, cautious, with the tips of his thumb and index finger. He stares at it as a jogger might stare at roadkill, repulsed but not repelled, curious about the insides of things.
A dog? the inspector asks.
Bichon Frise, the old woman replies.
That’s a dog?
The inspector starts to say something, then sighs and waves to one of his colleagues at the next desk. His colleague comes over, and he, too, picks up the bag, turns it over in his hand, holds it against the light.
Dog fur, the inspector says. His colleague nods, then shakes his head.
Not allowed, he says. Nothing perishable, nothing alive.
This isn’t perishable, the old woman replies. This isn’t alive.
Both inspectors look at each other, and when one shrugs and shakes his head again, the other does the same. Sorry, they both say, almost in unison.
This is usually the point where there’d be a fight, when the customer would demand to see a manager or start threatening lawsuits. Sometimes security gets involved. Sometimes things get undignified.
But the old woman does none of this. Carefully she puts the bag of fur back in her handbag and walks away.
Look, if you want you can go around to the office and ask for an exemption, one of the inspectors says to the old woman as she leaves. But she doesn’t turn, doesn’t acknowledge him. He looks ashamed and annoyed to feel ashamed, the way all men do when they’re forced to look at the underside of their boots.
The old woman leaves. I watch her disappear into the blue December light. Then I go back to mopping. It’s important we keep the floors clean at the government slots. People get upset if the floors aren’t clean.
An endorsement letter, signed by a cardinal
A miniature compendium of prayers for the dead
A pack of condoms
You’re taught in school that it was an oil speculator who found it. Somewhere out in southwest Arizona, where now they’ve got a museum and a gift shop but you can’t get within ten miles of the mine itself without written permission and an armed escort. In winter the wrens swirl around the place, little black dollops of life against the endless flush-red land.
It was an accident. The speculator was busy tearing the ground open with dynamite and pressure pumps. One day the dust clears and what he sees at the bottom of the crater is this purple-grey metal, shards of it everywhere. It’s softer than it looks, but not malleable by hand. It’s light but not too light.
He doesn’t know what to make of it, what value it might have. He takes a sample to a friend of his, a physicist and metallurgical engineer. He leaves it with her for a few days and when he comes back she’s still staring at it, dumbfounded. He asks her what it’s made of and she says nothing anyone’s ever seen before. It’s a new square on the periodic table, the insides of its atoms at once indecipherable and coherent.
For years there’s great excitement, mostly in academic circles. There’s a naming ceremony, a slew of papers published in Nature and Science. But what the speculator wants is a commercial use, and for a long time there is none. Save for its novelty it offers nothing. Slowly interest fades, even among researchers, and eventually it’s only the metallurgical engineer who still dedicates herself to studying the metal.
For the most part, her work comes to nothing. But one experiment yields unexpected results. The metal’s fundamental physical properties change when it’s made to form an enclosure, a closed space. From this finding, the engineer develops a theory about containment. She posits that a space enclosed by this metal has properties of superposition, and in this way there’s a place to which anything enclosed this way might travel—a distant but interlocked point on the other side of the universe perhaps, or another universe altogether. She builds a small airtight box and as an homage to her favorite physicist she places a cat’s collar inside. At first she checks on it hourly, then daily, then once a month. She tries running a current through it, tries raising and lowering the temperature. She tests the metal’s reaction to organic matter; she smears it with drops of her own blood. She subjects the thing to pressure, stress, violence. She almost burns her lab to the ground, trying.
Eventually, within certain academic circles, the engineer becomes a laughingstock of sorts, her name a shorthand for futility. She retreats from the world. The cat’s collar sits in the box for years, untouched.
Decades later, on her deathbed, she exhales for a last time and in that moment the friends and family assembled by her side hear a loud crumpling from her hallway closet, a sound like a hundred bones snapping at once. When they check the closet they find the box, collapsed in on itself. They pry it open and find it empty.
Hearing of this, the speculator remembers his friend’s old theory about the metal as a conduit of passage. He is by now nearing death himself, a prosperous but strangely unfulfilling life behind him. He commissions the building of a similar box for himself and all the staff at his mining company. He marks his with a drop of blood, asks his staff to do the same. Some do. Many refuse. He places a pocket Bible in his box. He keeps it by his bedside, and at the moment of his death, there comes the same crumpling. The Bible inside disappears.
From such smallness a universe is formed.
Three chocolate chip cookies, smuggled
A small plush unicorn, its horn half-severed
A photo album titled: Your Grandchildren
What you get, by law, is a box the size of a fist. Everyone who can prove citizenship gets one, no different than a passport or the right to vote. Out here at the North Coast station we cover most residents in the 707 area code. They haven’t split it up yet, and that makes us one of the biggest stations in the state, maybe the country.
You can see it from miles away on the turnpike, this huge grey building that looks like a row of office towers laid on their sides. The bureaucracy sits in the building out front, a couple of offices where you can get your power-of-attorney forms approved or appeal an inspector’s decision or get on a waitlist as soon as a doctor signs a Probable Viable Pregnancy form. Otherwise, it’s just the afterboxes. Hallways and hallways, rows upon rows—a storehouse of all the things people believe will follow them into the next life.
You can see the building from space, they say. It looks like fingers, like a hand reaching out.
A tiny vial of blood, smuggled
A Swiss Army Knife
Twelve gold coins
Out in the hills there’s a billionaire with a box the size of a dozen airplane hangars. Inside he’s been building a facsimile of the neighborhood he grew up in and a facsimile of the estate he lives on now. He’s building a grain silo and a water tower, a seed vault and a gun locker, a bunker and a stockpile of antibiotics. By law the doors of the box must stay open while there are workers inside.
A yearbook page
Not far from the original mine in Arizona the cops found a cult commune, its members all gone but one. In a small cabin at the center of the ranch the spiritual leader’s assistant sat next to the leader’s body, whispering a small chant of gratitude. On the other side of the property, outside a sealed, shack-sized box, they found a fading mandala in the sand and a hundred pairs of shoes.
A recipe for bundt cake
If you drive a few miles south of here, into the Bay Area proper, you’ll find the Green Hospice, where people go to die altruistically. Years ago, a technology baron donated money to build a box the size of a single-family home, and at all times the box is filled with refuse—landfill trash, nuclear waste, contaminated material from the Superfund sites. Every time a resident of the Green Hospice is on the verge of dying, the box is marked with a sample of their hair or blood, and in dying they rid the world of a small piece of its ugliness. The hospice is run by Orthodox Ascensionists. They believe the next world to be a place of infinite space and infinite grace, and so believe it a sin not to use one’s death this way, as a cleansing rite. They post pictures of every deceased, along with a picture of the garbage they take with them, and a small note of thanks. Should everyone choose to die this way, they say, the world would be made significantly cleaner.
Last Christmas the Supreme Court ruled against the assisted-dying facility in Burlington. In the year since, all fifty-four petitioners in that case have died. Only not together, and not without pain.
A bottle of aspirin
A Purple Heart
War and Peace in miniature print
Around noon, a woman and her son walk in. The boy is maybe six years old and too thin. There’s a strange device strapped to his arm; it looks like a clear phone case and there’s some kind of liquid inside. A tube snakes from the case to a needle in the crook of the boy’s arm. It appears painful and he can’t bend his arm, but he looks happy.
It must be the case that sets off the metal detector, but the security guard waves the woman and the boy through anyway. The woman takes a number, but she doesn’t get two steps toward the chairs before an inspector calls her ahead of everyone else, and if anyone in the waiting area thinks this is unfair, they don’t say it.
The woman has all kinds of paperwork, but the inspector doesn’t look at it. He smiles at the boy instead and asks him what he’s got there in his hand. A Transformer, the boy says. That’s so cool, the inspector replies.
The inspector leads the woman and her son down a hallway. I follow them, keeping my distance. I watch.
The inspector opens an empty slot. Each slot sits atop a scale, and every time the weight of the slot drops for an instant to almost nothing, a little light on the slot’s lid turns from red to amber to green. The inspector takes a gloved hand and makes a small show of pulling a single hair from the boy’s head, pretends it’s a magic trick of sorts. The boy laughs. The inspector places the hair in a tiny compartment within the slot’s lid and on the lid’s digital screen a checkmark appears.
I’ve seen this before. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. There are rules, procedures.
It’s all yours, the inspector says. He pushes the slot inwards and it pops out, revealing the inner compartment. The boy gently tries to places his toy inside, but it won’t fit. The inspector’s face drops but the boy says, Hold on. Awkwardly with one hand he manipulates the toy, turns it from robot to car, and as a car it just barely fits.
The inspector says Yay, and the boy says Yay, and as the slot slides closed the boy’s mother breaks down crying.
A scented candle
There are protestors in the parking lot. It’s a bigger crowd than usual. Usually we get them on Sundays and on Christmas Day and today happens to be both. On one side of the lot the Second Amendment people are demonstrating against the handgun ban. It’s said the standard box size for government slots was chosen specifically to be too small for guns, and I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but in the years since, they’ve come up with smaller guns, so now there’s a ban. It’s not universal. None of the rules are. In New York State you can’t store anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon; some folks have been turned away with their grandmother’s sewing kit. In Delaware, you can put a grenade in if it fits. But here in California you can’t store guns, and every Sunday someone’s out in the parking lot protesting.
On the other side of the lot is an assortment of the outraged devout. Every religion, it seems, has a branch or denomination that considers what goes on here heretical. They stop people on their way in, the same way members of the Forward Club do, but instead of trying to convince people to put the latest gadgets in their slots so as to keep the next life as advanced as this one, they try to convince them not to use the slots at all. If God exists, do you think these things will help you, they ask. And if God doesn’t exist, do you think these things will help you then?
Some people stop and listen. Most don’t. It’s hard to uppercase God in a place like this.
Otherwise it’s quiet. The most excitement we get for the rest of the day is when a detective and a plainclothes show up with a warrant. I shuffle over to the hallway where the slot they’re looking for is. I watch the guy from the law enforcement liaison’s office turn the master key. The detective looks inside. It’s empty.
When did it clear? the detective asks.
The liaison officer checks the paperwork. It never did, he says. It’s always been empty.
The detective curses. He hands the slot back to the liaison officer and walks off, the plainclothes following.
Most people would never guess it, but almost all the government slots are empty. People rush to get on waiting lists for them, rush to stake their claim as soon as their children are born, sometimes even before their children are born. But they hardly ever get around to putting anything inside. There are books you can buy, seminars you can attend, a whole industry of advice on what to bring with you. But people just don’t follow through. They die in car crashes and house fires and of sudden failures of the heart and of the blood and they never believe such things are coming and even if they did, it would make no difference. We weren’t built to think this way, to imagine the else-space of our lives. We don’t know how not to know. Here, and I’d bet at every other center, most of the government slots are taken and most of the government slots are empty.
A memory stick full of movies and songs
A small jar of sand
We close early on Christmas Day. The inspectors and the security guards and the other janitors go home, a day’s worth of time-and-a-half pocketed. I stay to do the overnight clean. It’s quiet at night. I like it when it’s quiet.
They make a sound, the boxes. It’s a soft thing, like breathing, and hardly anybody notices it. During the day it hides behind the background noise of the place, the sound of people arguing, the beep of the metal detector and the squeak of soles against the linoleum. But at night you can hear it.
It’s the sound of air rushing in. When a box empties it empties completely, and were it not for a small pneumatic hose attached to the bottom of each one, the slots would crumple in on themselves every time. The hose pumps air in, and the air wards off collapse. It’s a sound like a sharp breath through the nostrils, a whispered leavetaking.
A little after midnight a young woman starts slamming her hands on the front doors. The sound is loud enough that I hear it from one of the hallways. She’s yelling to be let in.
I walk to the lobby to see what’s going on and I make the mistake of letting her see me. They come to the center after hours sometimes and we’re never supposed to let them in. We’re supposed to ignore them and if they get too violent, we’re supposed to call the overnight guard.
But I make the mistake of letting her see me and once she does she starts begging me to come closer, to just listen. I know it’s a bad idea but I walk toward her, until I’m standing on the other side of the locked door. The evening sleet has made a mess of her. She waves papers at me, waves a key.
He doesn’t have time, she says. Please.
I can’t help you, I reply. I hold my mop up to her, as though it proves something.
Then she screams at me. Not words, just a sound, an emptying. I don’t know what to do. I take my key out; I open the door.
She pushes past me, and as she does she shoves a few sheets of paper at my chest. It’s the usual stuff—photocopies of drivers’ licenses, a power of attorney, the Expedited Processing form any doctor will fill out for a couple hundred bucks. She runs down one of the hallways. I follow, watching.
She stumbles, gets the wrong box at first, then the right one. I can tell it’s pointless before she even turns the key. The light has already changed from green to amber. But I don’t tell her. I watch her open the box, and I watch her look inside. I watch her fall to the floor.
What’s human about us is a burden, I think.
I walk to where she is. The sound of the mop-bucket’s wheels against the ground seems for the first time obscene to me. I lift the bucket slightly, and within the walls the whispered rush of nothings is once again audible. I set the bucket back down. I let the wheels squeak.
She sits there, vacant. She holds a chocolate cupcake, half-mashed in her hand. The inspectors would have never allowed it.
I want to ask her a question, but I think I already know the answer. People die a long time before they’re dead. So instead I tell her the same trite thing I’ve heard a million times, the thing the councellors say to people who show up too late, people who waited too long, people who just didn’t see it coming.
You know, they have no proof, I say. It could just as easily be these things go nowhere. It could be they just disappear. Nobody really knows.
She looks up at me and I think she’s going to slap me. Instead she laughs. You see that a lot, too, people laughing. She smears the cupcake against the floor, the way a smoker puts a cigarette out. She stands up and walks past me. She doesn’t bother taking back her forms.
Another thing you notice, working here—they don’t walk out the same way they walk in. If they show up confident, purposeful, they walk out looking at the floor. If they show up broken, they walk out with their heads held high. Something about this place does that to people. It inverts them.
I dip the mop. I clean the mess she’s left behind. There’s a window at the end of each hallway, but the sleet has turned heavy and I can’t see much outside.