It makes no sense. The envelope is face-down on my desk, one end of its flap torn up and the short edge ripped open to the bottom. Its contents, a pile of lint, dust and hair flattened into a grainy disk between the folds of a piece of paper, is lying on the desk in front of me. I take out a pencil and prod at it, lifting one end and letting it fall back. It’s a dry, lifeless thing, matted like loose hair pulled from a comb or a clot of dust whisked out from under the dresser, with small bits of grayish lint clinging to it and cobwebby dust that stitches the filaments together. Everyone has something like this—in a corner of the bathroom or under the bed, maybe in the cushions of the couch or at the back of a closet, or under the seat of the car—the sort of simple human dirt that drifts away from us and gathers in hidden places unawares. But now it’s here on my desk and it just makes no sense.
I had settled in at work and was opening the morning’s mail when I picked up the envelope and noticed the soft bulge at its middle. I pinched the sides together and rubbed them between my fingers: it had a grainy crunch like steel wool. Hard specks pressed up through the surface of the paper and pocked the face of the envelope like grains of sand under the page of a book. This wasn’t a letter. Something had been pressed inside, some specific thing sent to me. I pried up the flap at the back edge and slit the envelope open, squeezing its edges to bow them out.
The blank sheet inside looked like any ordinary piece of business correspondence—plain white paper, folded into thirds. Maybe some scrap had needed to be enclosed, maybe a receipt or invoice had fallen away unawares and, once found on a subway platform or on the street, was soiled but still legible, still presentable enough and necessary to be included.
I pulled the paper out and opened it, and the prickly mass of lint, dust and hair slid into my palm. For a moment I had only the sensation of feeling it, light and stiff, against my skin. Then I sat up and pushed my chair back, emptying my hands above the desktop. The hairy, flattened thing drifted free and landed silently, teetering on its rim and settling in a slow, weightless fall a few inches from the edge of the desk. The paper settled over it.
Every morning, the mail is delivered in a thick interoffice envelope by an intern, a cocky kid with an unshaven face and modish haircut that contrasts with his new dress shirt and tie—the first professional outfit he’s been asked to wear, I assume. His name is Marc. “With a c,” he specifies: another affectation. He always calls out my name in the staff room and makes excuses to shake my hand, pumping it between both of his while others smile as if they’re enjoying a private joke. This morning he wheeled his cart up to my cubicle with a flourish. “Good morning!” he crowed, bright as a coffee commercial, and let the thick manila packet drop with a flat slap onto my desk. I started and looked up. “There you go,” he said slowly, brightly, as if speaking to a not particularly intelligent child. “Lots to keep you busy.” He smiled broadly and pushed on, and I imagined I heard a low chuckle from behind the cubicle wall to my left.
I sighed and reached for the packet, unwinding the string fastening its flap. It takes a moment to sort out advertisements, set memos and internal correspondence aside, and arrange the day’s mail—the true and useful postage—directly ahead of me in an orderly pile to be opened. This morning brings a bill to process, the announcement of a staff meeting in the afternoon, a hot pink flier advertising an after-work outing on Friday (which I’ll avoid) and two orders, the major tasks of my day. Between them, a blue-white edge against the others, was the envelope with its troubling contents.
I stare at the mess scattered across my desk. Is this some sort of joke, I wonder, some disgusting prank? I can’t imagine how: what sort of joke ends by mailing an envelope stuffed with meaningless refuse? I think over the past few days, try to remember anything that would make sense of this, of someone who would stoop to such a thing—to send a packet of lint, dust and hair as a noisome provocation. Something that had seemed amusing in a moment of hilarity but now arrives stale and unfunny in the morning’s mail. I think of the last time Marc surprised me in the staff room. Is this his idea—a juvenile taunt grown from his proximity to the mail? Was there something here I didn’t understand?
I reach out and pick up the envelope, examining the cancelled stamp, my address. The writing looks familiar and I study it closely but can see no one particular in these sharp and scratchy lines. I turn it over a few times, looking at it from all angles. Nothing indicates anything unusual. The return address is missing, but that’s hardly evidence of malice. Haste, perhaps, nudges the sender to drop an unidentified envelope among a dozen other things to mail, and then he adds another, covers this one up, and so the stack is dropped into the box at the end of the day and the postal service carries it away, unintentionally anonymous. Or maybe a return-address label has fallen off, one of a heap of things scattered on a sorting-room floor, lost and unattachable again. So while someone could have sent me this—a taunt or some mark of disgust—and wished to conceal his identity, I can determine nothing without direct evidence.
I sit back and cross my legs. It has already been a trying morning: a crowded subway, stifling humidity and the acrid dust of a city in late summer. I’d already broken into a sweat when I first walked into the staff room where Steve and Debbie were huddled in their daily morning conference. They broke off conversation and looked away as I come in. “Well. Yeah,” Steve said about nothing in particular. “Yeah,” Debbie repeated. I hung up my jacket and left, and I could hear them speaking again as I walked down the hallway to my desk.
I set the envelope down and lifted one edge of the paper. It had tented out on the surface of the desk, splayed open over the ugly thing, and I look under it, at the open face of the page. Nothing is written on it. I pick it up and give it a shake to be sure anything clinging from below is dislodged, then hold it up by the corner between thumb and forefinger and look at it closely. It is a plain piece of copier paper, without letterhead, as anonymous as any blank piece of paper. The fluorescent lights above me shine through it. I can see its watermark, and it’s the same brand we use here in the office. That means nothing: thousands of offices use the same brand. I examine its edges, the top and bottom: no comment, no printed remark or taunt or insult. No scrawled gotcha to make even a bad joke a joke nonetheless: the page is empty. I fold it up and, careful to cover the clump should anyone should see something so odd and disgusting in front of me, I let it drop back onto the top of the desk.
Across the aisle and beyond the padded wall of her cubicle, my neighbor Anupam yawns audibly and stretches. Her arms extend over the partition, hands knotted into straining fists above the bangles she wears on each wrist. She is tired this morning. She has her private sorrows: a week ago, after she was out a day—unusual for her—I overhear her confide in Debbie that her husband, a grave and placid man who smokes a pipe and waits quietly in his car for her every afternoon after work, has been diagnosed with emphysema. Or rather, I hear half of the conversation, which tapers off as I enter the room. “There’s no cure, of course,” she is saying with deliberate calm as I near the staff room door, her precise speech inflected with a lilting Hindi accent. “But it’s a very long disease, and medicines can help.” They look up as I enter and fall silent while I busy myself with the coffee-maker. I have always been fond of her husband, whom I assume is a kind and cheerful man: he waves as I walk past after work, taking the pipe out of his mouth as the cool smoke drifts out of the window and into the sunlight. As I fill the coffee pot and place it back on its warming ring, I glance behind me: neither is looking up or at the other, their faces a study in purposeful detachment. As I leave with my cup full, Anupam resumes: “And will he stop smoking, I ask him? He says no!” It sounds like the punch-line of a joke. Debbie grunts mirthlessly. I brood over this the rest of the day and watch that afternoon as Anupam and her husband drive off together after work.
I hear Anupam pick up her telephone, her bangles rattling as she punches in a number. We are at work on the same tasks, the tide of words and numbers settling over us both like dust. I give the envelope one last looking-over. If this morning’s delivery is a joke, then it is a bad one—and if not, then what? What does it matter? This is useless, I tell myself, a distraction to be disposed of and forgotten. I have work to do. I crumple the paper and toss it into the wastebasket beside my desk. Holding the envelope by its intact end and bending the opposite edges together to stiffen it, I brush the clump over the edge of my desk. I watch as it slides down the side and falls, missing the wastebasket and slipping to the floor between the basket and my desk.
I consider this for a moment. It’s under my desk now and, outside the basket, unlikely to be disposed of without effort on my part. While our wastebaskets are emptied at the end of each day, the office is swept only every other night, a circumstance of janitorial cutbacks, and if I do not pick up the loathsome thing and deposit it in the basket, it will crouch beneath my desk until tomorrow evening, when at last the office is swept again as it was last night. It will be there tomorrow morning as I pull out my chair and take a seat again for another day. So I have no choice. I push my chair back and crouch, one knee down, extending the stiffened envelope along the floor to scoop up the clump of lint, dust and hair.
I stand and am about to dump it into the basket when I notice that I have inadvertently added to the mess: a tangle of new refuse, no doubt hidden at the edge of the wastebasket—perhaps some overflow escaped the night before as the bin was last emptied—has now attached itself to the original cluster. It clings to one side, another mass of lint and dust and hair. For a moment I consider this, the envelope cradling both old and new refuse. I have, I realize, added to the problem. Where before I had a matted cluster of refuse the provenance of which was unknown, something which had only briefly touched my palm and rested lightly on the surface of my desk, I now have a mongrel thing made of the previous mess and elements of my daily routine: fibers of my clothing abraded as I move about at my cubicle, bits of paper and dust I scattered as I transport work to and from the desktop before me, hairs I shed as I occupy this particular place. I think about this for a moment: we are born into a world of dirt and detritus, a world of lint and dust and hair, which we swell by unwitting donation. Dumps and junkyards fill while we thrive, refuse rises in heaps, and clumps of our hair, our lint and dust, fill the space around us as we cast off the used up, replace the broken, wipe grime and dirt and filth from our possessions. The air around us swirls with the particulate slough of our lives: the smoke and ash and vaporous fumes, the fine down of our shed skin, the sputum we sneeze or cough up, the innocent humidity we exhale. Sewers pump flushed sludge to places we willfully disregard and trucks prowl among us daily, nightly to gather and take away the evidence of our existence.
I study the mash resting on the stiffened envelope in my hand. What I have done by mixing my own dross with what was sent to me this morning, I tell myself, is make this mess my own.
Our intern struts past and, without a spark of genuine interest, smiles broadly and asks, “Keeping busy?” Instinctively, I drop the loaded envelope on my desk and turn my back as if he’s caught me in some shameful act, the clump of lint, dust and hair the evidence of some private guilt delivered to me this morning with all the drama of a public revelation. But I needn’t have worried: he’s gone as quickly as he came, his braying voice scattering like dust among the cubicles. Again, I hear what I think is a soft chuckling sound from the other side of the wall. I toss the envelope away and grab a sheet of paper from my printer, folding it into thirds. Using a pen, I snag the clump and lay it carefully in the center of the center fold. I turn the edges down over it and set it aside, among the papers on my desk.
Throughout the afternoon, I try to avoid thinking about the folded page and its contents, but I am not always successful. Each time my eyes light on it, I am drawn back into speculation. What does it mean, I find myself asking, to receive the gift of another’s dirt and waste? What does it mean to fabricate so disgusting a present with all deliberate care—to locate a clump of lint, dust and hair and, in an act of petty malice, enclose it first in a piece of plain white paper (for protection? and if so, from what?), and then in an envelope? What does it mean to address the envelope and expend a stamp and, finally having chosen a recipient—someone who, all along, might have been innocent of any evil intent—to drop the envelope into the mail? And what does it mean to walk away, perhaps to board the subway in desultory indifference and settle into the rumbling pull of the ride into the darkened tunnel, knowing the ambiguous communication was already on its way?
I find myself staring absently at the column of numbers in the spreadsheet on the screen before me, at the corners darkened in their innermost angle by the film of dust that settles there, unreachable. I pull the folded paper toward me again and, careful not to spill its contents, look inside. All is as I left it: the ratted clot is thick and spongy between the sides of the page, and bits of grit fall away as I disturb it. I shake my head and sit up, reaching for a plain white envelope, and tuck the folded sheet inside, sealing its flap: all the better to contain it, to keep it out of mind.
And it is certainly better, I tell myself, not to speculate on what appears, for all sane purposes, meaningless. Perhaps a clump of lint, dust and hair, a mass brought together by pure chance, is simply and unarguably itself: a collection of refuse, irreducible and not to be pondered for meaning. As if for every fleck and strand and bit of lint, an action or event is assigned, and this patch of ugly, fibrous waste that came to me today is nothing less than a catalogue of the hopes and sins and wasted afternoons of some anonymous soul like myself who sits alone at a desk throughout the day, wondering what laughter from behind the partition wall portends? As if the series of random actions consuming our days could sort themselves into a pattern, an intelligible form, a sequence of legible design?
“Time for our meeting,” Anupam says behind me, and I am startled out of my thoughts and look up: she is standing in the aisle between our cubicles, a notebook and pencil in hand. “Time for our meeting,” she says again, and I realize that I must have met her with a look of complete incomprehension, startled awake again as I stared into the blank face of the envelope. I clear my throat and look down.
“Yes, of course.” I tap the envelope against my open palm. “Thanks. I hadn’t seen the time.”
She smiles and shifts her weight. “I’ll see you there, then.” And then she is gone. I reach for a pen and scrawl my name across the face of the envelope in my sharp and scratchy handwriting: I’ll know it that way and will sort this out later. If this clump now contains part of myself, I resolve, then it will be mine in name, under my name, as well. I stand and retrieve a pen and file folder with a few sheets of loose-leaf. At the last minute, as I am about to leave my cubicle, I turn back and tuck the envelope into the folder. No, I don’t want this drifting off, I think. It’s mine.
The meeting drags on for ninety mortal minutes. I make an effort to pay attention, but my mind drifts back to the events of the morning, and I pull out the envelope of lint, dust and hair and study my name on its face. A new idea seizes me: what if this is somehow important? What if, in some way I do not yet realize, this knot of filth carries a meaning that will only eventually reveal itself? I have spent the morning assuming I was the brunt of a prank, but what if this matte of lint, dust and hair and its arrival on my desk is the first of a series of circumstances contributing toward some greater purpose, the crucial link in a chain of events in which I am now unknowingly implicated? What if it should constitute some proof I will need but won’t have, I speculate, having set it aside or dropped it unwittingly on the subway or in the street?
I rub my thumb across my name on the envelope. What does a name really mean? I share my name with at least half a dozen others; I’ve looked them up, now and again, wondering if something I’d received unexpectedly hadn’t come to me in place of one of them. I cannot lose this, I tell myself. And a name on an envelope is not necessarily a sign of ownership, nor is it a failsafe. Anyone could find an envelope with a name on it and, knowing no more, still find themselves at a loss. For safety’s sake, then, I write in my address below my name. That should provide some security: an addressed envelope, stamped or not, is clearly the property of someone specific, with a particular name and location. I tuck the envelope back into the folder. There is some comfort in a name and address, then.
The meeting concludes and I find I have half an hour before I leave work, enough time to finish the last small tasks of the day and set things in order for tomorrow. On the way back to my desk I pass the staff room, where our intern is laughing loudly with Debbie. They suppress their laughter as I enter. I rinse out my coffee cup at the sink and leave it in the rack to dry as they whisper and chuckle to themselves.
I turn around, my hands wet. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing,” Debbie smiles at me as she stands and starts for the door, smiling back at Marc.
“Just a… personal joke,” Marc the intern shrugs as he follows her. He turns in the doorway. “Hey, you have a great one!” And he is gone. I reach for a paper towel. I can hear them giggling together again in the hallway as I take my jacket down from its hook.
At my desk I remove the envelope, file my notes from the meeting, and busy myself arranging things for tomorrow. Ahead of me on the desk is a pile of letters, the correspondence I’ve accumulated during the day, ready to send out. I fan out the stack so that the top corner is visible and, lining up the strip of stamps in my left hand, peel and stick them one by one on each waiting envelope. I keep the corners straight and make sure they’re uniformly spaced: neat enough to be seen and, eventually, cancelled on their way to delivery. When all the envelopes are stamped, I square the stack again and tuck it into the pocket of my jacket. I will mail them on my way home, as I often do: one last thing accomplished before I catch the subway.
I ride the elevator down with Anupam. “Long meeting, wasn’t it?” she asks in her soft, precise voice.
I nod. “The same things over and over. We never seem to accomplish much.”
“Always returning to where we set out from.” The elevator settles and its doors draw back. “Well, have a pleasant evening,” she smiles, and walks ahead of me through the lobby with its green glass doors beyond which her husband has pulled up and is waiting. He waves when he sees me and settles his pipe back between his teeth.
At the mailbox I pause and flip through the stack of envelopes, watching the stamps and addresses flicker past. By chance I pause at one addressed to me and remember: it contains the lint, dust and hair I received this morning. But the thought of that is unsettling here on the bright street in the full light of day. I have had enough of this. I don’t want to stop and consider again what it means to receive an anonymous parcel of waste, meaningless itself and ugly in its portents. On impulse, then, I pull the mailbox lid open and toss the stack of envelopes, all of them, inside. I let the door swing shut with a dull clang and deliberately turn and walk away, toward my subway stop. It’s only half a block ahead, and the opening in the pavement beckons like a refuge. What we lose in contemplation, I tell myself, we often find in flight.
I descend the stairs and the bitter, mechanical scent of the station rises to meet me, familiar and comforting. A train pulls out of the station from the opposite platform in a gust of warm air and dust that settles silently around me as litter on the tracks stirs and falls back, temporarily stilled between the rails. By the time I pay my fare and reach the station platform, or certainly by the time the train arrives and I board it, when at last I find my seat and settle into the rumbling pull of the ride into the darkened tunnel, I will have forgotten all about this morning and the envelope of lint, dust and hair.