A thirty-seven year office employee for a small manufacturing firm, Francis decided one day to free up some space in his tiny cubicle. Harmless enough, one might think, but the decision had disaster written all over it.
He would do so by removing a 12-inch pot housing a ficus tree–a tree whose descent into premature senescence and hideous defoliation had accelerated only moments after, receipt in hand, Francis rolled it across the Home Depot parking lot and loaded it into his Kia.
Only a few curled leaves now remained on a depressed stem residing in Francis’ pot. That was it, except for a small white feather attached to the terminal bud. Francis attributed the feather to (1) a dirty vent that sucked in loose feathers from pigeons congregating on the roof or (2) a coworker with a hair-brained sense of humor attempting yet another way to torment the poor soul.
The lack of space proved only one reason Francis wanted to remove the pot. In a strange way, it reminded him of his other failures . . . the tired attempts to flirt with the supermarket cashier who switched shifts to avoid his bland remarks and bad teeth; the book club that unanimously banned him for raising topics unrelated to the book selection or to anything else relevant or interesting; the
blocked e-mails and Facebook unfriendings; the unnecessarily blunt notifications that he’d been ejected from free online dating sites, not by violating policy but by nettling others through his very presence. He despised his dead plant in a cheap pot—a workday symbol of his failures.
Today would be different. Francis saw his decision to remove the pot and moribund ficus as an opportunity to redirect his life toward a new and exciting path. Thus, he’d be renewed. New air would fill his lungs. New energy. A phoenix of rebirth—like a chick pecking through the calcium prison of its egg. He was sure of it. No longer a drone to drudgery. No longer numbed by a life sans stimulation. Unfortunately, the mix of exuberance and anxiety led to an early visit to the lavatory. IBS was a cruel mistress.
At 2:35 p.m., Francis, stirring a company pen around the terminally ill ficus, chose to forgo his ten-minute break. He would use the time instead to compose an email, one addressed to All Staff, that would circulate into the farthest Wi-Fi reaches of the small manufacturing plant. Uncharacteristically, he smiled and, rubbing his fingers together, typed in the SUBJECT line: Pot for Sale. Next, skipping down, he felt giddy, perhaps light-headed, a little unstrung. It was just too forward, too assuming, and his sense of protocol and reserve pressured him to retreat from such bold words.
Persevering, Francis began his email with a clarification . . . Not that kind of pot. He stopped typing and considered his coworkers, especially the crew down on the loading dock (they’d be disappointed by the qualification, no doubt).
He returned to his message and allowed the words to explode before his eyes:
FOR SALE: A “must have” simulated ceramic (plastic) pot with gently used soil and memories of a once proud ficus tree. It features a deep, forgiving catch basin for overzealous water spillers and a neutral brown tone that complements any decor. Simply email me your bid. No bid too big or too small. Bartering optional. PLUS: Free delivery. (Inspection available upon request.) Bids end today at 3:00 pm.
His fingers now dripped with sweat, and from the far reaches of his receding hairline, a rivulet warmed his nosepiece and fogged his glasses. Francis took a moment to dab his face. Then, tentatively at first, he touched the send button. He fondled it. He tapped out a melody on it. Then, summoning all the courage buried somewhere in his lower bowels, he struck it. Firmly.
Immediately, he felt an undeniable twinge of regret. Something about the way he wrote the message was wholly out of character. Everyone from coworkers to custodians would notice. And what about adding the picture? Wasn’t that just showing off? They’d begin to whisper. And what about upper management? Would they approve? Would they see this highly unorthodox email as a sign that Francis was up to something—something corrupt, perhaps, a possible descent into some an unfamiliar, and therefore undesirable, personality change, a drug-induced change, a mid-life change, a psychotic breakdown kind of change? Had he started smoking weed? No, this was not good. Rumor had already spread on the loading dock. Francis could almost feel the repercussions as the email virtually tainted the technological virtue of the small manufacturing firm, advertising his self- proclaimed peculiarity at the speed of light . . .
Francis peeked over the top of his cubicle wall. The crown of his coworker’s head, like a rooster rising in the pre-dawn light, had flicked into view. “Hey Franc-ohhh, I saw that email you sent out about the plant thing,” mused Joel, a fellow cubicle captive, “and I must say funny stuff . . .” He crunched on an apple, spitting out, “Looking for another job, bud?”
Francis turned back to his computer and began checking his emails as Joel droned on. Francis did a double take. There it was. A response. Already. Its Subject line read Looking to trade Pot for Pot.
For some reason, a little white feather had adhered, as if by static electricity, to the screen of his computer. When he plucked it off, it released a charge and a loud snap. Francis peered up at a ceiling vent above his desk. It appeared clean.
He returned to his screen, his mouth dry—his throat slightly scratchy–as he read the email.
I am interested in your “pot.” I would like to offer a trade. What I have to offer is a slightly stained, 12-cup capacity coffee pot. You must deliver your pot IN PERSON, and must be ALONE. I will accept no other offers. I live in the house directly behind the dumpsters of the liquor store. Use THREE sharp knocks so I know it’s you. COME ALONE.
Francis reviewed the offer, sent anonymously though with a company logo. He wondered which of the employees of this small manufacturing firm lived in a house “directly behind the dumpsters of the liquor store.” No one came to mind. Could it be someone who didn’t work at the firm? Could someone have hacked into his inter-office commerce? Could it be a practical joke?
It was now 2:50 p.m., ten minutes left before the bidding deadline. Francis sensed there’d be no more bids. The atmosphere in the cubicle maze grew restive. It seemed most of the employees had become uneasy by his unorthodox electronic missive. Many had already erased their contact with Francis by immediately deleting his email and then deleting it again in the TRASH file, thus beginning the process of wiping the entire ugly incident from their minds. They resented Francis for making them go through the trouble. Wincing, women removed his name from any group addresses for interoffice jokes and cute pictures of kittens climbing up little girls’ legs or clawing the noses of pit bulls–thus electronically shunning him from their inner circles. The interoffice cyber world could be a cruel mistress.
Another e-mail dinged his inbox. Francis swallowed hard. RE: Pot for Sale. It was from his manager. Francis clicked on it and found the following message, noting (1) a lack of a salutation, (2) a lack of a closing, and (3) a complete absence of the usual email-inspired pleasantries:
Please see page 3 of the employee’s handbook, paragraph 1, entitled “Time Theft.” I’ve scheduled a Monday meeting for you with Human Resources. Make arrangements with a union rep as you deem fit.
Francis dunked his head in a wastebasket and waited for the inevitable—the return of his tuna sandwich. When he scrolled down, he found a P.S. that necessitated a second trip to the wastebasket:
We’re all very disappointed in you, Francis. This is SO unlike you.
Having accomplished virtually nothing in the afternoon, preoccupied by a cyber-quagmire swallowing him whole, Francis visibly quivered, a bundle of unhinged nerves. He dabbed his face with several Kleenexes. He tried a few deep breaths, but it felt as though a feather were stuck in the back of his throat. As he tried to clear his throat, he drew the attention of his coworkers, who popped their heads out of their cubicles like long-necked geese to discover the source of all the commotion.
Returning to the email, Francis recalled how he had earlier tried to free himself of the pot and its resident ficus tree. It started this way: He had propped it up one evening after work in the wastepaper basket in the hopes that the night custodial crew would ferry it off to the back dumpster or place it on eBAY for a quick profit. Neither happened. In fact, the next morning, Francis found his pot not in the wastebasket but propped, like a centerpiece, in the middle of his desk, dirtying his papers and cracking his favorite pen. Ink had leaked all over the desktop and dripped onto the carpet below.
As he dabbed paper towels on the inky carpet, the ink happily migrating up his shirtsleeves, Francis noticed a small note tied by a hangman’s knot at the top of his expired Ficus. He unfolded it and read:
Hey Franny, what’s with trying to dump yer dum plant on us? Forgit it man. Your not dragging us down with you! Try it agin, and weel make you pay big time. Pull yerself together looser. And clean up the chicken fethers. Ya raisin’ chickens in a office?
Francis had folded the note and placed it in his pocket, spreading the ink to his new gabardine slacks. For some reason, he dared not toss it in the trash. Rubbing the ink that wouldn’t come off his fingers, he wondered where his life had gone so wrong. A wicked sneeze, without warning, interrupted his thoughts. Un-Kleenexed, his fingers both covered and colored his nose in inky hues. His allergies were acting up on top of everything else. He went for a handkerchief in his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of feathers. That was two weeks ago. Coworkers still teased Francis, asking what was the deal with his nose? Did he dip it in an inkwell, or what? Who has inkwells these days? What a weird dude, that Fran.
In a ritual that marked the ending of the shift, Francis hurried down the hall to the vending machine. Unfortunately, the machine refused to accept his crumpled dollar, ejecting it like a child sticking out its tongue. Coworkers behind him began to sigh, and tap their feet. There were audible murmurings. Someone whispered something about a pot for sale. The line tittered. Francis started to panic, as if he was trying to diffuse a bomb, running out of time. His arch nemesis, Peggy Bull, leaned over his shoulder and whisper-shouted, “Hey Fran, why don’t you bring your pot with you? Maybe it will bring you better luck!” The line erupted in derisive laughter. Fran took a deep breath and inserted the dollar. This time the machine accepted it. Francis waited as processing noises jangled in the machine and made his selection. After the beverage dropped down, he quickly retrieved it and turned to his coworkers, flashing them an apologetic smile—his crooked teeth not helping much.
“Congratulations Fran, you accomplished something today. Now move out of the durn way!”
Before giving him a chance to move, the same Peggy Bull, a big personality for whom a nickname would be redundant, shoved him out of the way. An audience surrounding them, Peggy burst out, “Hey Fran, I have an offer for your pot . . . I’ll take your pot if you do my laundry for three weeks. And NO BLEACH on my delicates!”
In unison, Peggy Bull’s audience began chanting, “Take-the-deal. Take-the-deal. Take-the-deal!”
His eyes stinging by the Vending Machine Incident with Peggy Bull, Francis gazed back down the hallway to his cubicle and returned to his desk, finding the pot right where he had left it. It felt heavier than usual as he carried it back down the hall. Maybe the events of the day had depleted his strength. He fumbled with the plant, trying to get better hand placement. The beverage he had purchased slipped out of his jacket pocket, and fell to the floor. As Francis stooped down to grab the bottle, a plant stem poked him in the eye. This was just too much. A hot rage washed over him. He squeezed the ficus between his hands, shaking it violently. Finally his muscles relaxed and he let out a long, anguished sigh. Dried plant leaves drifted to the ground. Houseplants can be a cruel mistress.
Before leaving for the day, Francis checked his email a final time. It flashed like a highway patrol cruiser at him: a follow-up to his manager’s earlier notice to meet with human resources, which meant two emails by upper management in one day, an unprecedented event, and one bad omen:
Just a reminder about your Monday meeting. All the top brass will be there. Try to dress up. Oh, and, maybe bring a cardboard box. I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary. Just bring one anyway.
Drops fell from Francis’ eyes and nasal fluids ran from his nose. His shirtsleeve was a mess of potentially billions of viral colonies, waiting to jump ship. He lugged the pot outside, a pit of dread filling his gut. Would he be making a trade? Or would he be the victim of a practical joke, perpetrated by an anonymous coworker from their small manufacturing firm? Would they have even more laughs at his expense?
The response email weighed on his mind. He wanted to see who would make such a mysterious trade. A coffee pot, after all. Old, probably useless. Cradling his pot, Francis wandered to the dumpsters behind the liquor store near the small manufacturing firm.
After waiting for a Jennie-O truck to pass, he crossed the street and knocked on the door of the house, three times, as indicated by the directions. No one answered. A rich, organic odor poured over the back fence and filled Francis’ nostrils. Still, no one answered. Francis walked over to the back fence and peeked between the slats. Hundreds of peaceful chickens filled the fenced-in lot.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” came a small voice from behind him.
Startled, Francis turned around, finding no one. Then he looked down and found a tiny woman smoking a twice-lit cigarette and puffing the smoke upward into his face. “I came about the email,” he finally said.
“Email?” the woman laughed. “I don’t even have a color TV! My phone still spins on a rotary dial!”
“Come, meet my family,” the woman insisted, and led Francis through the gate and into a maze of chicken coops and old sculptures of chicken bones and clothes pins. One sculpture reminded him of Peggy Bull. Chickens roamed peacefully, pecking at the ground, relaxed. “Do you know anything about chickens?” she asked, and answered, “Of course you don’t. Sit down on the stump, and I’ll tell you everything.” Francis complied.
Before she began, the tiny woman took the pot that Francis had been hugging and set it under a work bench with her other pots. Just like that, the pot was gone. Francis shrugged. A chicken nuzzled against his leg, purring like a contented cat.
“That’s Caesar Augustus,” she said. “And yes, she’s a girl. Chickens don’t care about stuff like that.”
“Stuff like what?” Francis asked.
The tiny woman climbed up on a pile of rocks, surrounded by hundreds of attentive chickens, cleared her throat, and lectured as if no one knew about (1) the many breeds of chickens, (2) their habits and dispositions, (3) their average egg laying per week and over a lifetime, and (4) their various mood swings depending upon the weather and the sugar content in their corn feed. She stopped occasionally to start another cigarette. She continued to explain the kindest ways (1) to butcher chickens, the healthiest ways (2) to prepare them, (3) to store them, and (4) to present them to critical relatives just looking for an excuse to complain about them. She exhaled deeply, noticing the distress in Francis’ eyes. “Butchering a chicken,” she reassured him, “doesn’t have to ruin its life.”
“Do you want to know what makes a good egg?” the tiny woman asked as she climbed down from the rock pile, continuing to smoke her homemade cigarette.
“It should be fresh?” Francis offered.
“Well, now, you make a point,” she said, “an obvious point, which of course can be tested by how much the egg floats, but you already knew that, I’m sure. No mature man can get through life without knowing about the float test.”
“Of course not,” Francis agreed. Another chicken approached Francis and seemed to smile.
“So let me ask my question again,” she said. “Do you want to know what makes a good egg?”
Francis adjusted his seating on the stump. It was wet, and he felt the moisture soaking into his underwear. From a low branch, a chicken floated down and landed on his shoulder. It felt warm and soft and comforting against his neck. It cooed like a fuzzy pigeon.
“What makes a good egg?” he finally asked. “I don’t know.”
“A happy chicken.” She gazed at him meaningfully, as if she’d just said something profound, or possibly lunch hadn’t agreed with her. “The happier the chicken, the better the egg.”
Francis rubbed his eyes. His allergies were returning. The tiny woman was gone. The chickens were gone. The odor was gone. His pot was gone.
He closed his eyes again and let the experience linger in his imagination. As if in another world, Francis smiled and repeated, “The happier the chicken, the better the egg. The happier the chicken, the better the egg.” He now understood his new mantra, even as he stepped out into traffic, even as blaring horns, squealing tires, shattering glass, and crunching metal all exploded in a multi-car collision. Pedestrians rushed to a mangled and bloodied Francis lying on the asphalt.
Leading the chain-reaction, Peggy Bull kicked open the door of her Ford 4 x 4 and heaved out into the street. She stepped over Francis and ordered the pedestrians out of her way. “Oh, no!” she cried, rubbing her fingers soothingly over the damaged metal. “You’re responsible for this, Franny! You’re going to pay!” She peered down at Francis’ limp body. “You’re going to pay,” she repeated. “Don’t think I think you can’t hear me!”
Francis groaned as a blaring ambulance screeched to a halt.
In a state that blocked out all that was happening around him, Francis returned to the chickens, pure white chickens–happy, cooing chickens that laid huge eggs and spent their days rubbing playfully against his shins or sitting for hours in his lap or propped peacefully on his shoulders. Sometimes on his head. Their spurs pulled out what little remained of his hair. He just hoped they had no expectations for their hours of roosting on his head, misidentifying wrinkles for cracks.
Flooded with opiates, Francis felt serenity overwhelm his body, saw himself running through a meadow filled with ponds and flowers, red barns and white clouds, old windmills, geese and deer, and, mostly, chickens—even as the nurses and doctors attending to him couldn’t explain the layers of feathers that kept clogging his I.V. or the little beeping monitor that started making low chirping noises.
The medical crew would schedule a technician to check out the malfunctions for the following Monday—the day of Francis’ disciplinary hearing, a hearing he’d never attend, although, given his crumpled condition, management would possibly consider rescheduling.
Floating now, as if on a gigantic pillow of chicken down, a comatose Francis clearly heard and understood the message in the low clucking noises—The happier the chicken, the better the egg. The happier the chicken, the better the egg . . .