Tom Thinks

A plain white envelope, standard size, with a Statue of Liberty stamp in the appropriate corner. His name, Tom Sanderson, and address typed on a small piece of notebook paper and taped securely to the center. No return address, the top left corner suspiciously blank. A warning sign.

He stands at his dining room table and turns the envelope over in his hands. It's not heavy, a few pages at most. Postmarked from El Paso, the day before yesterday. He slides his thumb under the flap. The adhesive feels thick and organic, and as the flap pulls away, it leaves long tendrils of off-white glue in its wake.

A convulsive flood of terror seizes Tom suddenly, and as his stomach lurches into his throat, he knows precisely why. When he was a child, his third-grade teacher once told the class a frightening and allegedly true story about a woman who went to the movies and inadvertently sat down on a syringe filled with HIV-positive blood. Accompanying the syringe, the story went, was a note reading "Congratulations, you've just been infected with the HIV virus. Have a nice life."

Tom had been extremely impressionable at the time, and the story – true or not – pierced its way into his most permanent of memories, so that fifteen years later, as he opens the envelope, his first reaction to the viscous strands of glue is a fear that it is not glue at all, but actually semen containing one or more deadly and incurable diseases.

He immediately realizes the absurdity of this notion, but he can't help thinking such things. The seeds of fear have been deeply implanted, and it is all he can do to hastily sever the necrotic branches wherever they unexpectedly bloom. And so, striking out against this new sinister bloom, he rips away the last of the flap and withdraws the contents of the envelope.

A single sheet of white copy paper, folded perfectly in thirds, its surface shaded by the heaviness of solid ink on the other side. As he unfolds it, he sees that it's a collage of some sort, dozens of faces layered over a textured orange background that spans the entire page. Adult faces, mostly Caucasian, broad smiles and intent expressions, as if something fascinating is just out of view. Attractive faces, photos from fashion magazines. Near the top left corner are the collage's only words. Hand-written in black felt-tip and surrounded by a long red oval is the message, "Today's the day."

Tom's fingers begin to tingle, and it occurs to him that his initial paranoia might not have been so absurd after all. Something on the page maybe? He leans closer, looking for traces of powder on the orange background. His eyes focus on a suspicious white speck that could very possibly be a single anthrax spore, onto which has been etched the words "have a nice life".

Stop it, he tells himself. This is ridiculous. You're acting like a child. There's a logical explanation for all of this. Nevertheless, he hurries to the kitchen and washes his hands, thoroughly scrubbing away the tingling sensation. He dries his hands on a towel, which he brings with him back into the dining room. Holding the towel over his palm like a glove, he picks up the envelope and looks again at the postmark.

El Paso. Texas. A border town. Who does he know there?

No one. But there's something about his name and address, the way they're printed on notebook paper, that gets him thinking.

Back in high school, his next door neighbor, Chester Fry, always printed things the same way. Research papers, homework assignments. It looked ridiculous. Tom remembers the time Chester asked him to deliver a note to a girl on his behalf. They were both a little old for that sort of thing, but Chester was painfully shy when it came to girls, and Tom knew that if he didn't do this for Chester, it wouldn't get done. Tom figured everyone deserved a decent shot at a Hollywood teenage romance and, as Chester stood there looking at him, the crumpled note clutched firmly in hand, Tom found himself oddly invested in Chester's wellbeing. He wanted this to go right. He told Chester to rewrite the thing by hand, but he refused, saying his handwriting was illegible. Besides, I always do it this way. It's like my signature style. My calling card. She'll love it. Ladies can't resist a man with a calling card.

Tom couldn't argue with that, so he took the note and smoothed it out and delivered it to the girl. He stood there as she opened it, as she began to laugh before reading even a single word. It was not a kind laugh, and Tom remembers perfectly the essence of that moment, the feeling of being crushed by proxy.

He has no idea where Chester is now, but he doubts that's where the letter came from. Chester had never been overly artistic or the type to send pointless collages to other men. Tom doubts if Chester even remembers him.

He drops the envelope back onto the table and uses the damp towel to retrieve the collage. The image quality is impressive, smooth and professional, obviously produced with a high-end printer at about a billion dpi, better than anything Tom can afford.

He scans the various pictures for some clue, some context in which to frame the chaos, but there's nothing, only a jumble of random images. A woman wearing oversized white headphones, a bearded man on a black Harley. Two rabbits – one brown, one white – touching noses, and below that, in the bottom right-hand corner, a tribal native, spear in hand, his yellow-painted face lifted toward the sky. His eyes intently search an unseen horizon. Today's the day, they seem to say.

Tom's thoughts turn inexplicably to a friend of a friend, a seventeen year old boy with dyed black hair, the kind of kid who always wears women's pants, t-shirts endorsing obscure rock bands, and one of those hideous white belts. Tom had met the kid a few times and liked him immediately. He was the kind of kid who never stopped smiling or making jokes, the kind who always maintained a smile so he wouldn't break down in tears. Tom could relate. He remembers trying to tell the kid that he understood, that eventually things would get better, that all the treacly stay-positive bullshit clichés were true, but the kid was too busy grinning and making obscene gestures at strangers to comprehend any of it. Tom remembers wanting to grab the kid by the shoulders, by his goddamn sequined belt, and pull him close, just hold him and make him understand that it was okay to stop smiling, to be quiet and to feel something genuine, to just be real, if only for a moment. But Tom didn't do any of those things. He wasn't brave or strong enough, and the last thing he needed was to get arrested for attempted pedophilia or inappropriate conduct with a minor, or for people to think he was Gay 4 Twinks.

He hasn't seen the kid in months. Last he heard, the kid was counting down the days till his eighteenth birthday, till he could ditch his legal guardian and catch a bus south and get drunk and lifted and disappear. Mexico maybe.

El Paso.

Tom looks again at the collage, noticing for the first time the presence of a muscular shirtless man, and how the man had been positioned behind one of the rabbits, the brown one, and the way the man's hands, outstretched over the rabbit's back, had been cut short, giving the impression that he was firmly gripping the rabbit's fur, so that with only the slightest bit of imagination, one could easily envision the man anally penetrating the unsuspecting animal Both the man's and the rabbit's expressions seem to confirm Tom's suspicions, and it occurs to him that this exactly the type of crude tableau that the kid would enjoy and would enjoy inflicting on others. Still holding the letter with the towel, Tom thinks about the kid, how maybe he had finally stopped laughing, how he had finally realized what Tom had been trying to say, and that this was his strange way of saying thank you.

Or goodbye.

Today's the day.

The collage drops from Tom's hands as he thinks about how easy it would be for the kid to get a gun, especially at the edge of Mexico. He remembers what it feels like when all your friends have passed out or smoked themselves into silence, how hot and oppressive the desolate night can be, how stagnant. He thinks about his own gun, how he hasn't touched it since he left that somber city years ago.

The towel has fallen to the floor, but he doesn't care. He picks up the page and, refolding it, tucks it back into the envelope. It seems heavier than before. Who knows, he tells himself, maybe it's not from the kid at all. Where would he get a printer like that? So maybe it's not a goodbye. He doesn't know what it is.

Today's the day. He says it out loud, turning the words over in his mouth, feeling them out. A minute ago he had been sure someone was trying to poison him, and that sense of danger, of his own fragile mortality, is still with him. He thinks about all the things he wants to do, the things he's put off because they seem inurgent or impractical or time-consuming, the things he plans to do eventually. What if it had been anthrax? What if, at this moment, he was lying on the floor, choking and gagging and fighting for air, his body turning against him, shutting itself down and reminding him to have a nice life. What would he regret most?

He thinks immediately of his blue plastic portfolio and wonders which of the apartment's many dark corners it has fallen into. Its shape is that of his mind, swollen and gathering dust, packed absurdly full with stories he has begun to write, note cards outlining unfinished plots and half-developed characters, each of them a spark, a tiny life buried in pages and pages of prose eternally in need of reworking. The energy of all these half-executed ideas has become a constant nervous pressure in his head, pushing outward, pulsing like an alarm whenever he allows himself to think of them. This alarm has been ringing for so long that is had integrated itself into the landscape of his mind. It has become a part of his self-identity. He's waiting for inspiration, he constantly tells himself, but he knows it could be a long wait. He's working longer and longer shifts these days, and he comes home exhausted, wanting nothing more than food, and an hour or so of mindless entertainment, and sleep. He knows he should force himself to sit down and do the work, muscle through the sometimes slog of his prose, but it's always such hard work and, besides, The Simpsons is coming on in a few minutes anyway. Easier to microwave something and collapse into comfort.

But today's the day, it says. He thinks about how good it would feel to finish even one of the stories, the pride he would feel, the satisfaction. He thinks about how much potential is rotting way inside his portfolio, inside of him, and the sadness of it is tangible, weighing heavily on him as he stands in his dining room. But its weight is nothing compared to the weight of another regret, this one not so close to the surface of his mind, but much deeper, twisted tightly around his core. According to the collage, today is the day he should pick up the phone and call the girl he hasn't seen in years, hasn't talked to in months for fear of seeming needy and unattractive. He imagines dialing her number, hearing her voice after all this time, and finally saying he's sorry he hasn't mentioned it sooner, but that he thinks she's beautiful and lovely and everything he could ever want in another person and that he's not sure, but he thinks he might love her, and can he drive up to see her right now and find out? Yes, right now. Right right now.

Just last night, for the first time in months, he dreamed about her. In the dream, he had x-ray vision and he could see inside everyone, through their skin and muscles and into their skeletons. In his dream, everyone had sharp things inside them, nails and knives and pieces of glass jutting from their bones. Everyone was full of hidden blades waiting to be exposed.

Except her.

Tom remembers wondering how this was possible. He'll have to ask her next time they talk. But he's still not convinced that today is the day, his day, that he's received some sort of sign, an assurance that good things will happen if he'll only take action. He sits down at the table to consider the possibilities.

No, he doesn't believe it. Not definitively. There are too many unknowns. What if everyone in the city has received an envelope just like his? What if he calls her and tells her everything and she bursts out laughing, like he's handed her a letter typed on notebook paper? What if essence of that moment is the feeling of being crushed, and this time not by proxy. And all because of a stupid collage. It's ridiculous. For all he knows, a plane could be flying low over the city at this very moment, scattering thousands of the flyers across front yards and buildings and swimming pools. Maybe this is the beginning of some bold new marketing campaign, in which, a week later, a nearly-identical collage appears in everyone's mail, this one reading " save at Wal-Mart!". Or maybe some do-gooder, out to change the world, has drained three expensive ink cartridges printing off one hundred copies of the thing, which he has folded into one hundred envelopes addressed to one hundred names selected at random from the phone book. Maybe it's meant to get people thinking. Maybe that's the whole point of it, to make people wonder. What are the implications of today being The Day? Maybe they will take this wonder with them when they leave their homes. Maybe today they will not sleepwalk onto the subway. Perhaps they will notice the details, see the beauty in a lit cigarette, in the sun's reflection on mirrored skyscrapers. The air will be cleaner, impossibly fragrant, the colors brighter, more fully saturated. Maybe the sight of a shirtless man ass-raping a rabbit will make someone smile or laugh out loud. Maybe that's the point.

Tom doesn't know. It's just a stupid piece of paper, but it's done so much to him, awoken so many memories and ideas in his head, so many images, flowing through him too fast to hold on to, only to glimpse as they rush by. They push him into his chair like a jet plane streaking upward, its nose pointed to the sky. The force of it closes his eyes, and he sinks into himself, submerged in the images. El Paso the girl the gun Chester Fry the kid the teacher the tribal native riding the motorcycle and underneath it all, a textured orange background, the color of a sunset, rich and deep like the last strong note of a favorite song, a note that echoes in the heart long after the music has faded.

And then the pressure of it is gone. There are no images, no anxiety or warning bells. For the first time in far too long, he breathes in deeply and allows himself to smile. He is in the eye of the storm and, in this moment, there is only peace. Today's the day, he thinks, and he understands that the inside edge of the storm is approaching and that very soon something is going to change. But for now there is peace. He sits there in his dining room, eyes closed, basking in the beauty of this unexpected sunset. And sure enough, as the last warm rays of orange glow fade from his mind, the phone begins to ring.