The Beautiful Bureaucrat

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

by Helen Phillips

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627793766
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/11/2015
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Helen Phillips is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and the Italo Calvino Prize, among others. Her collection, And Yet They Were Happy, was also a finalist for the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns Prize, and her work has been featured on NPR's Selected Shorts and appeared in Tin House, Electric Literature, Slice, BOMB, Mississippi Review, and PEN America. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children.

Read an Excerpt

The Beautiful Bureaucrat

A Novel


By Helen Phillips

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Helen Phillips
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-377-3


CHAPTER 1

The person who interviewed her had no face. Under other circumstances — if the job market hadn't been so bleak for so long, if the summer hadn't been so glum and muggy — this might have discouraged Josephine from stepping through the door of that office in the first place. But as things were, her initial thought was: Oh, perfect, the interviewer's appearance probably deterred other applicants!

The illusion of facelessness was, of course, almost immediately explicable: The interviewer's skin bore the same grayish tint as the wall behind, the eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective glasses, the fluorescence flattened the features assembled above the genderless gray suit.

Still, the impression lingered.

Josephine placed her résumé on the oversize metal desk and smoothed the skirt of her humble but tidy brown suit. The interviewer held a bottle of Wite-Out, with which he (or she?) gestured her toward a plastic chair.

The lips, dry and faintly wry, parted to release the worst breath Josephine had ever smelled as the interviewer inquired as to whether she had seen anything unusual en route to the interview.

The most unusual thing she had seen en route to the interview was the building in which she now found herself. Exiting the subway station, turning the corner, approaching the appointed address, she was surprised to come upon a vast, windowless concrete structure stretching endlessly down the block in what was otherwise a modest residential neighborhood. The concrete wall was punctuated at regular intervals by thick metal doors. The side of the building bore an enormous yet faded "A" and "Z," superimposed over each other so that it was impossible to know which letter ought to be read first. A narrow strip of half-dead grass separated the building from the sidewalk. As per her instructions, she located the door labeled "Z"; in fact, it was the first doorway she encountered, which she decided to claim as a positive omen. The elevator was slow. The concrete hallways droned with an anxious, unidentifiable sound.

"No," Josephine lied.

"You're married," The Person with Bad Breath asked, or stated, as though this was a corollary to the first question.

"Yes," she said, surprised by the flare of joy in her voice; five years in, it still felt like a novelty to be his wife. A few months ago, days after they'd moved to this unfamiliar city, as she was unpacking boxes in the newly rented apartment, she'd thought: Has evolution really managed to culminate in this? This spoon, this cup, this plate; us, here.

"His name," The Person with Bad Breath continued. Such a parched voice; Josephine's throat ached in sympathy.

"Joseph," she replied.

"Full name."

"Joseph David Jones." It occurred to her that The Person with Bad Breath had neglected to offer up a name or a title.

"Employed."

"Yes, an administrative job not far from here." Josephine chose not to mention that he'd only gotten the job a month ago; that it had followed his own weary interminable period of unemployment; that they'd fled the hinterland in hope of finding jobs just such as these; that they'd fled in hope of hope. "Just one subway stop away, actually," she elaborated when her comment was met with silence.

"Does it bother you that your husband has such a commonplace name?"

Josephine couldn't tell whether this was an interview question, a conversational question, a rhetorical question, or a joke. But she had been unemployed for far too long to bristle at it, or at anything else The Person with Bad Breath might come up with. And indeed: She had sometimes felt that the name Joseph David Jones was not sufficient to represent him, his moods and his kindnesses.

"I kept my maiden name," she dodged.

"Newbury, Josephine Anne," The Person with Bad Breath said, without glancing at the résumé.

She awaited the timeworn quip about their shared name. Joseph/ine.

"You wish to procreate?" The Person with Bad Breath said.

Again, she didn't know if the tone was idle or mocking, kindly or dismissive. Surely it wasn't legal to ask such a thing in an interview — but, as the familiar raw longing pulsed inside her, she nodded and then crossed her fingers at her sides, as was her habit whenever this sore subject came up nowadays.

"How is your vision?" The Person with Bad Breath said.

"Twenty-twenty." She hoped there would be no further probing; her vision hadn't been tested in eight years, and distant objects had recently begun to blur and shimmer.

Before Josephine could decide whether or not she ought to ask her interviewer's name, The Person with Bad Breath abruptly stood. Josephine fumbled to follow, out of the office and down the long hallway. Once again, she noticed the sound: a sound like many cockroaches crawling behind the closed doors, interwoven occasionally with brief mechanical moans. As they walked, The Person with Bad Breath consumed three mints dispensed from a small tin drawn from an inner pocket. The bad breath became less offensive to Josephine when she saw that an attempt was being made to remedy it.

The Person with Bad Breath stopped at one of the doors and pulled out a thick clot of keys. The door opened into a small pinkish box of a room, its walls aged with tack holes and old tape. Five steps and Josephine could touch the opposite side. A metal desk and an outdated computer buzzed in the ill light of an overhead fluorescent. Beside the computer, stacks of gray files.

"Open the top file," The Person with Bad Breath instructed, directing her to the chair behind the desk.

She opened the file to a sheet of paper covered in dense typewritten text:

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

The file contained four equally dizzying pages after the first. As Josephine tried to focus on them, a headache took root behind her eyes.

The Person with Bad Breath pressed a colorless hand down onto the pages.

"Only the topmost section of the top sheet concerns you, Ms. Newbury. You never need look below the line containing the name and the date."

Her headache retreated slightly.

The Person with Bad Breath tapped the computer's mouse. The screen came to life: a dim and frozen spreadsheet behind a pop-up box demanding a clearance password.

"Capital H — Capital S — Eight — Nine — Eight — Zero — Five — Two — Four — Two — Three — Eight — One," The Person with Bad Breath recited, as Josephine's fingers located the requested characters on the keyboard.

The password pop-up box returned a red ERROR message.

"HS89805242381," The Person with Bad Breath repeated impatiently.

This time her fingers were accurate, and the spreadsheet brightened before her eyes.

"Welcome to the Database," The Person with Bad Breath said. Josephine could hear the capital "D." "You have clearance only to complete your task."

At that, Josephine smiled — hired, or so she assumed, and dying to tell him.

"My task?" she inquired, biting down her fool's grin.

"Locate the entry in the Database via the search function," The Person with Bad Breath commanded. "Use the HS number on the form."

She obeyed, carefully inputting each of the digits. The cursor leapt to the correct row. There it was: IRONS/RENA/MARIE, followed by a series of boxes all filled in with an intricate combination of letters and numbers. Only the box at the far right remained empty.

"Cross-check the number and name in the Database against the number and name on the form. The form is always correct; occasionally the Database lags behind."

The Person with Bad Breath paused, and Josephine nodded her acknowledgment. She felt extra-young, like a child going to school for the first time.

"Then input the date at the top of the form in the far right-hand column of the Database."

It made her nervous to have someone watch so intently as she performed such a simple, stupid task, typing 09072013.

But then she noticed that this was tomorrow's date. She weighed the benefit of catching an error against the rudeness of pointing it out, and mustered all her boldness.

"Shouldn't it be today's date?" she said.

"Place the file in Outgoing," The Person with Bad Breath ordered, pointing at the metal file holder on the desk.

Josephine was ashamed by the visible shakiness in her wrist as she pressed the file into place. The Person with Bad Breath took a step back and, presumably, eyed her, though it was hard to tell with those reflective glasses.

"Next file," The Person with Bad Breath said.

Josephine reached for the next file and opened it. JEAL/PALOMA/CHACO. She searched for the HS number; cross-checked (all correct); input the date on the form (09062013); placed the file in Outgoing.

"Flawless execution," The Person with Bad Breath commended.

Josephine felt a rush of tenderness toward her new boss.

"Perhaps you will find this work tedious," The Person with Bad Breath said. "It is also highly confidential. Not to be discussed with anyone at all. Including him." The "him" added suggestively, almost aggressively.

Josephine nodded. She would have nodded to anything.

"Good skin, good eyes," The Person with Bad Breath muttered, or maybe Josephine misheard, but, eager to please, she continued to nod. "HS89805242381, got it?"

"Yes," Josephine lied.

Hourly rate $XX.XX (not so very much, but so very much more than nothing), benefits, tax paperwork, the stuff of life, direct deposit in case of a change of address, sign here, 9:00 a.m. Monday, and off she went, employed, regurgitated by the concrete compound out into the receding day.

CHAPTER 2

Joseph was sitting on their bed. Their bed was out on the sidewalk in front of their building, surrounded by everything they owned, all the objects they had brought with them from the hinterland. It wasn't much, but it was theirs: the bookshelf, the wobbly table, the plant, the suitcases, the folding chairs.

She ran down the block toward him, forgetting all the celebratory plans she had made on the train coming home from the interview.

"We're evicted," he said neutrally as soon as she was standing before him, breathing hard.

She kept her eyes on their stalwart jade plant as he explained how, moments after he'd returned from work, the landlady had knocked on their door, along with several of her brothers and a stack of cardboard boxes; she was demoralized, she said, by all the late rent payments and also by certain, um, sounds that came from their apartment with alarming frequency.

"Ha," Joseph concluded.

Josephine flushed, with both shame and fury, remembering just a few mornings earlier, how she'd been crying — another day of searching for jobs, walking around worthlessly with nothing to do, wandering through the park in search of vistas, everything essentially the same as it had been in the hinterland (hinterland, hint of land, the term they used to dismiss their birthplaces, that endless suburban non-ness) — before he left for work, how he'd insisted on lying down on the bed with her even as she insisted that he leave so as not to be late. This whole summer, blinding Technicolor days interspersed with soggy days that smelled like worms. And during the heat wave earlier in the month, their apartment hot and humid with a heat and humidity unknown in the hinterland, the fridge began to make a painful thwunking sound every eight minutes, and in the dark she had felt like an alien and had desired him, her alien cohort.

At seven the next morning, the storage facility would pick everything up; Joseph had already arranged it. THIS BELONGS TO SOMEONE, he penciled on a scrap of paper. He wrapped the paper around the lampshade.

"We can't just leave our things out here alone," she protested.

But he had started off down the street toward the Four-Star Diner. In lighter moments, they'd speculated about why the Four-Star hadn't gone ahead and given itself the fifth star. She hesitated, then trudged after him. He reached his hand back for her without turning around. The diner was close enough that from the corner booth they could keep an eye on the misshapen lump of their stuff. They ordered two two-eggs-any-style-with-home-fries-and-toast-of-your-choice-plus-infinite-coffee specials.

"I got the job," Josephine remembered to tell him, her worry about how she'd keep the details of her work secret from him now displaced by the larger worry of their homelessness.

"There you go, kids," the waitress said. Her hair was a resplendent, unnatural shade of orange, the exact magical color Josephine had wanted her hair to be when she was little. The name tag on the waitress's royal-purple uniform read HILLARY.

"Perfect," Joseph said.

"Anything else?" the waitress said.

"She needs a vanilla egg cream."

Which she did.

The waitress winked and spun off.

"A toast." He raised his coffee cup. "To bureaucrats with boring office jobs. May we never discuss them at home."

Getting evicted had made him flippant. But her hands were damp and unsteady, slippery on the ceramic handle.

"Home schmome," she said.

"Diagnostic Laboratory," he said. "Agnostic Laboratory."

He was looking at the diagnostic laboratory across the street. A truck had just parked in front, blocking the "Di." Their favorite kind of coincidence.

"Good eyes," she complimented.

Hillary was the type to let them stay the whole night, and they did, drinking infinite coffee and creasing the sugar packets into origami and eating miniature grape jams straight out of the plastic squares, trying to stay awake.

* * *

It was Hillary who woke them the next morning, sliding a pair of pancake breakfasts drenched in strawberry goo onto their table. Joseph had pleather patterns from the booth's bench imprinted in his cheek. As he sat up, he looked to Josephine like a very young child, far too young to be married.

"On the house, kids," Hillary murmured.

Josephine stared at the large tattoo of a green snake winding up Hillary's forearm. She couldn't tell whether the woman was thirty-five or fifty-five.

"I tell fortunes, that's why," Hillary said, noticing her noticing the snake. "I'll tell your fortune anytime there's not a Saturday-morning breakfast crowd banging down my door, okay, sugarplum?"

Josephine smiled politely. She and Joseph didn't believe in fortunes.

* * *

Only a few of their things (both pillows, a folding chair) had been stolen off the sidewalk in the night. They arranged the small storage unit nicely, a tidy stack of boxes, the bed and bookshelf placed as one might place them in an actual bedroom. He slung a weighty arm over her shoulders and they stood in the doorway, gazing at their stuff. As he heaved the orange door downward, she kept her eyes on the jade plant — hopefully hearty enough to handle this.

* * *

It didn't seem to put the stranger off when they arrived at his door laden with luggage, as though they were ready to move into the sublet right that second, which they were. Within a couple of minutes, he'd explained the history of his name and shown them the entirety of his humid one-room apartment: a snarl of grayish sheets on the futon, whirlpools of old batteries and receipts and junk in every corner, a stately red electric guitar gleaming on a wall hook. A subway train strained past the single soot-colored window on an aboveground section of track, the same line that would moan them toward work on Monday. Throwing dirty socks and boxers into a duffel bag, grabbing the guitar from the wall, the stranger explained that the government was after him because he'd won the lottery, so he had to take a drive and sort some things out.

"If anything happens to those plates, I'll die." He pointed at four plates perched precariously upright on the narrow shelf above the mini-stove. Their green vine pattern encircled scenes of English gardens, maidens and gentlemen strolling among roses. Josephine nodded; she was always careful with things.

He left in a rush, gratefully shoving the cash they handed him into the duffel, and there they were, four walls, never mind the state of the toilet.

They collapsed onto the gray sheets. She held Joseph from behind and smelled his neck to block the other smells in the stranger's apartment. When she woke she realized the gray sheets were white sheets that hadn't been washed in months, if ever. It was dusk, the apartment plunging swiftly into a dimness deeper than the dimness of its daytime state. She felt woozy, overheated.

Outside, in the shadow of the aboveground subway track, there were no restaurants. They walked. With each step he tapped her left thigh with his right hand, a habit he'd developed in the early days of their relationship — the one tic of his that soothed her.

Eventually they came to a bodega: string cheese and peanuts and yogurt and M&M's. They sat on the loading dock of a factory that emitted the richest, yeastiest aroma, an aroma that made them hungry even as they ate. They walked around the factory, looking for a door where they could enter and buy whatever was producing that smell, but the whole building was impenetrable. If not for the fragrance, the place would have seemed abandoned.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips. Copyright © 2015 Helen Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Beautiful Bureaucrat: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You'll be rooting for the young married couple -- Josephine & Joseph from the "hinterland," and hoping that they can return there somehow. Who to trust? Lots of zany but meaningful wordplay. Is a manila file just a file or is it more? Who creates the rules? Can you get around them? A mixture of determinism and existentialism mixed with the power of love to give a dreary draining life meaning. A scary undercurrent that deepens with each chapter.