I’ve really, really been dithering about posting this because it’s really, really long and because t’s a story – fiction – not a regular post. But I think it might be kind of fun so maybe people might take the time to read it. I won’t post anything new for a couple of days. I think if you’re a public servant or know a public servant or have ever dealt with a public servant you might enjoy it. Who knows? Fiction is so much riskier than straight-up opinion.
The Paper Bag
That Tuesday in July, as Martin was getting ready to go out to lunch, the departmental manager beckoned him to join the other departmental managers in the small boardroom. This was not unusual. Martin was often beckoned into impromptu meetings by the managers. The managers spent pretty much all their time in meetings discussing the pros and cons of the many decisions they were asked to make. The management team of a high profile government department was reluctant to decide anything without a great deal of discussion. Most decisions required several years’ worth of discussions before they were shelved and perhaps re-visited at a later date for follow-up discussion.
That Tuesday in July the managers had had a preliminary meeting to look at Martin’s financial report prior to the afternoon’s management meeting at which Martin would present the financial report. The issue facing the managers now was that Martin had printed his report on only one side of the paper.
“Martin, after some discussion, I’m afraid the management team is requesting that you print this report double-sided. We will be issuing a memo to all staff in the near future that all reports must be printed on both sides of the paper in keeping with the new environmental policies handed down from headquarters.” The managers were pleased to be able to cite the backing of headquarters for this decision.
Martin collected the twenty-two copies of his single-sided, thirty-page financial report from the managers and tossed them into the overflowing blue bin in the copy room. He reprinted the report in double-sided format and left the stack of reports in the big boardroom ready for the afternoon’s meeting.
Martin couldn’t help recalling the last time he’d arrived at a management meeting with his financial report printed in double-sided format. The managers had complained that his report was much thinner than usual. A lengthy discussion had ensued about whether this indicated some sort of financial crisis or whether it simply meant that Martin was so overburdened with work that he was unable to complete his assigned duties. This notion led, in turn, to a discussion about hiring an assistant for Martin. This was a topic that came up frequently because the managers were very keen on hiring assistants. The staffing process could eat up weeks, even months of meetings and discussions without the managers ever having to arrive at any sort of solution.
As always, Martin had contributed nothing to the discussion. He knew his input would be irrelevant. Martin’s entire purpose in the department consisted of generating four financial reports per year. This involved nothing more than waiting around for other sections of the department to send him data and then collating that data in the form of a report. Martin had no need of an assistant. Martin didn’t want an assistant. Martin couldn’t imagine the amount of work that would be involved in trying to keep an assistant busy. He let the managers get on with their staffing discussion though, because he knew they would eventually get around to talking themselves out of it.
“It may very well be that the sparseness of Martin’s financial report this quarter indicates that we are facing, or are about to be facing something of a financial crisis,” they finally decided. They all turned to Martin apologetically. “We are very sorry, Martin, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to provide you with an assistant at this time.”
“Not a problem,” Martin shrugged, trying to look suitably disappointed.
One of the senior managers shook Martin’s hand gratefully, “On behalf of everyone here, let me assure you, we won’t forget your compliance in this, Martin. You’re a real team player. You’re going places in this department, yessireeee.”
The only place Martin could possibly go from his current position was into management. His salary would be increased marginally and his duties would decrease to an almost nonexistence level. A promotion to manager was not something Martin relished. He couldn’t understand what kept the managers showing up for work every day, going through motions even they had to know were futile.
Martin made a mental note to avoid any action whatsoever which might inadvertently ingratiate himself further with the managers. He couldn’t face the possibility that they might actually follow up on their promise to advance his career into management.
Martin was eventually able to go out to lunch that Tuesday in July. He went to the park to eat as usual. Here he could hide away in woodsy areas among the trees and shrubbery and watch nature attending to the important business of survival; the robin fighting to tear a juicy worm out of the earth; the worm struggling to hang on to every minute of his allotted forty-eight hour life span; the squirrels zooming frantically back and forth collecting and burying nuts and seeds which they had no way of ever finding again except by accident; the spider busily spinning beautifully intricate webs to trap its next insect meal, but which only served to annoy the next human who walked by and got it caught in his or her hair.
When Martin finally got the park that Tuesday in July, however, his usual bench was occupied by a teenaged girl on one end and a large paper grocery bag on the other. This surprised Martin. He had never had to share his bench with anyone or anything in all the years he had been coming here to eat his lunch. Martin sat himself at the opposite end of the bench from the girl, next to the paper bag. Martin studied the bag for a moment. It bulged, so it was obviously full of something. Its top was neatly folded down and Martin noticed the bag was very clean and new looking. He tried not to disturb it as he unpacked his lunch. Martin wondered if the teenaged girl had placed the bag at the other end of the bench to discourage anyone else from sitting on the bench. No, the bag probably wasn’t hers. He was pretty certain teenaged girls didn’t carry around paper grocery bags. Martin didn’t think he’d ever seen a teenaged girl carrying a paper grocery bag. Come to think of it, Martin hadn’t seen anyone with a paper grocery bag for years; not in real life anyway.
On television and in the movies, beautiful women were often depicted struggling with bulging paper grocery bags; one in each arm, a baguette poking out of the top of one, some green leafy stuff out of the other. They’d be trying to unlock their apartment or car door or something equally challenging. A handsome stranger would happen by just as one of the bags ripped. Groceries would fall everywhere, then the woman would drop the other bag as well and oranges would roll down the hall or parking lot while the man and woman would scramble to pick everything up, bumping heads and laughing a lot. This was usually the start of a magical evening that would end with the pair sharing a bottle of wine in front of a crackling fire, eating Chinese food with chopsticks out of four or five of those cool cardboard cartons in which everyone on TV always got their Chinese takeaway.
The teenaged girl on the bench next to Martin seemed to him to be far too high-tech for paper grocery bags. She wore tiny earpods wired to what Martin assumed was some sort of music player hidden away in a special secret place in the backpack at her feet. A cell-phone case was clipped to the front of her jeans. At the moment she was busily poking away at the cell-phone itself with both thumbs. She was grinning and chewing noisily on a big wad of black gum.
Martin thought he’d better make absolutely sure the paper bag didn’t belong to the girl. He didn’t want to appear to be appropriating it and get himself into a lot of unnecessary trouble. He had heard how volatile teenaged girls were these days.
“Excuse me miss, is this yours?” Martin shouted to make himself heard about the beat of her earpods and the chewing of her gum. He held the bag up toward her. It was quite heavy. The girl totally ignored him. “Excuse me,” he tried again, waving one hand back and forth near her line of vision. She looked up clearly annoyed at the interruption. “Is this yours?” he asked once more, pointing back and forth between the girl and the bag.
“Huh?” she said, uninterested.
“This bag,” Martin screamed holding it in both hands and pushing it forward. “Does it belong to you?”
The teenaged girl rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. Her thumbs poked away at the cell-phone for a few seconds and then she popped one earpod out of her ear, rolled her eyes again and scowled at him. “Like, WHAT is your problem?” She chewed frantically. “I, like, do NOT want any of your sad lunch, okay?”
She made a big show of popping the earpod back into her ear and focusing once more on her cell-phone.
Carefully, Martin put the bag back down next to him on the bench and unwrapped a sandwich from his own, much smaller cloth lunch bag. Martin’s actual lunch was not in the least bit sad. He’d made himself a meatloaf and mustard sandwich with some nice rye bread he’d picked up at he farmer’s market on the weekend. The meatloaf was left over from Sunday. On Sundays, Martin always cooked himself a nice lunch – usually meatloaf or roast chicken – and then he’d make sandwiches with the leftovers during the week. Every once in a while he cooked some fish, particularly after hearing something on the news purporting the benefits of fish over meat.
Martin enjoyed lingering over his Sunday lunch, with some Jazz playing on the radio and reading through the local and national newspapers. Now and then he’d toss a morsel of his lunch to his dog, Ogilvie.
Martin thought he teenaged girl would probably think that was pretty sad as well. He had to admit it was a bit sad to have only a small beagle to share his Sunday lunch. He really should have a family at his age. It’s not like he’d been too busy pursuing an important career to find a wife, after all.
Martin had gotten the government job straight out of university and they had immediately started paying him an embarrassingly large amount of money and had given him a benefits package so comprehensive he would have been crazy to look anywhere else for employment. After a while it became impossible anyway to look at moving into the private sector for a real job. Private companies wanted nothing to do with former government employees. Martin could certainly understand why. He used to be a pretty smart guy, but he now seriously doubted that he was capable of doing an honest day’s work anymore.
As Martin ate his meatloaf sandwich, he began to wonder what exactly was in the large paper bag on the bench. That this had only just occurred to him seemed to him to be an indication of his lack of mental acuity.
The teenaged girl got up and left. Martin was alone with the bag.
The bag was too neat and clean looking to be garbage.
Martin chewed the last bit of his sandwich thoughtfully debating whether or not he ought to have a look. If he looked, there might be an unmistakable clue pointing to the owner of the bag, which meant he would have to go to the trouble of tracking him or her down to return it. More likely, the bag was full of groceries and then he’d feel obligated to bring them back to the supermarket from which they came in case some poor little old lady had lost them and was even now wandering the streets with her hungry cat while fretting about where she could have left her groceries. Martin thought a little old lady would either retrace her steps to the park looking for her groceries, or she might head straight for the supermarket. Martin couldn’t think which would be more probable.
If Martin left the bag in the park someone else might see it and keep it. If he took it to the supermarket, they would probably just shelve all the food. Of course, they might be one of those kindly, neighbourhood grocery stores who knew all their customers and would call the woman to tell her the groceries had been found. Really, when he thought about it, a kindly neighbourhood grocery store would be more likely to supply paper bags while the big supermarkets all had those plastic carry bags with the store logo all over it. Why they needed to advertise to people who were already shopping there, Martin couldn’t imagine.
Of course, there might not even be groceries in the bag. There might be a million dollars or something else valuable in it. A million dollars would definitely make him lose what little interest he had left in his career. He wouldn’t be one of those guys he sometimes saw on the news who had just won a lottery and who says, “This money isn’t going to change me. I’m going to keep on working, spend a little on home repairs and put the rest into savings.” No way, thought Martin as he peeled his orange. Who do those guys think they’re kidding anyway?
The orange didn’t look quite right to Martin. It seemed very dry and smelled odd. Maybe it had been in the fridge too long or maybe it was one of those genetically engineered oranges that contained fish genes. Martin thought the orange did smell a bit fishy. He also had some cookies in his lunch that he’d baked the night before, but he thought he’d better save those for his afternoon’s management meeting. It was always a good idea to bring along a mug of soothing tea and a sweet treat to the management meetings so he could chew, sip and nod thoughtfully as the managers talked and talked around and around whatever the issue of the moment was. Martin sometimes felt his head would explode as he listened to them digress into the most absurd conversations.
The orange in Martin’s lunch was definitely not edible. He thought about throwing it away. Instead, Martin picked up the paper grocery bag again. It seemed very heavy for a little old lady to have carried very far. He knew there wasn’t a food store nearby; not of the kindly neighbourhood variety nor of the supermarket variety. Martin shook the bag gently. It definitely didn’t feel like groceries. It felt like books or papers of some sort. Maybe it really was a million dollars.
Martin was pretty sure he could retire on that kind of money. He could buy himself a little wine bar. The idea appealed to him. He could move to Spain; buy himself a small villa on the sea. He’d read somewhere that Spain was a very inexpensive place to live. Martin could already speak a bit of Spanish. He thought he could pick up the language fairly easily. Perhaps he could even buy a wine bar in Spain! Maybe he’d pack his bags this very afternoon; taking only what he couldn’t live without and catch the next flight to Spain. His passport was up-to-date. He loved Spanish wine…
Then again, if the bag did contain a million dollars in cash, it might belong to some sort of criminal. Who else but a criminal would carry around that sort of money? Martin started to feel a bit queasy. No one loses a million dollars and then forgets about it. If Martin were to keep it, he thought he’d never feel safe, always wondering if some sort of drug gang character was after him. Didn’t mobsters usually carry their money in briefcases, though? What sort of gangster carries around his loot in a paper grocery bag?
Martin examined his dry, fishy orange. He suddenly remembered reading a story in the paper just a few weeks ago about a woman who had sold all her possessions to be a missionary or work with sick children or something in India or South America or some other third world country. She took over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars with her from the sale of her possessions. The newspaper had said she was carrying it in cash, in a travel bag that she lost during the first leg of her journey. An old man had found the bag and without another thought had turned it in. “I knew someone would be looking for it,” the old man had replied when asked about his amazing honesty.
Martin thought he remembered that the old man had found that woman’s money in a park, too. If there were money in the paper grocery bag it could very likely belong to someone like that missionary woman. Martin would have no choice but to return the money if that were the case. How could he know, though? Was it really even a possibility? How often did people convert all their possessions to cash in order to become missionaries in the third world and then lose all their cash in a park before they’ve even managed to leave the first world…. or was North America the second world?
Anyway, the most likely explanation, if there were money in the bag, was that it was related to some sort of criminal activity. Martin knew he could never bring himself to keep money that might belong to criminals. He’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for them to catch up with him. He’d never get a good night’s sleep again. He’d develop ulcers fretting over if and when they discovered who had taken their money. He wouldn’t be able to enjoy Spain or his wine bar. He’d never again have a carefree minute.
Martin sighed at the thought of the riches he might have found and lost and then packed his orange back into his lunch bag. He reminded himself that he still didn’t actually know for sure that there was money in the paper grocery bag. In fact, if he was honest with himself, he had to admit he had no idea what was in the bag. Should he even look?
Martin had to decide soon because it was almost time for his meeting with the managers. He sat and thought desperately until he had just a few minutes left before he had to go back to the office. Finally, he forced himself to unroll the top of the bag.
He did it very slowly. Martin took a deep breath and sat with the bag open on his lap for another minute. He looked around the park once more to see if anyone was around who seemed to be searching for something like a paper grocery bag full of money. There were no people in sight at all, only more squirrels. Maybe they were the same squirrels that had been there all along. Martin sighed deeply once more and peered carefully into the bag.
Martin ended up not going to his meeting after all. He called the office from a phone booth across the road from the park. Martin had been issued a Blackberry, but he didn’t know how to use it; had never had any need to use it. He told his manager, Bob, that he was sick. Bob expressed grave concern on behalf of the other managers, but Martin could hear an underlying excitement in his voice. Martin knew it was not because Bob was happy to hear of Martin’s illness, but rather because all the managers would now have to have a meeting to reschedule the financial meeting with Martin and would still have the original financial meeting to look forward to as well.
Martin didn’t have to work too hard at sounding sick when he called in, either. He actually felt quite ill. It was one thing to speculate on finding a huge amount of money, but actually seeing a paper bag stuffed full of cash was quite another thing altogether. All of Martin’s careful planning and thinking evaporated at the sight of all that money. Visions of sun-soaked Spanish beaches flashed through and out of his mind. His instincts and experience told him immediately that the contents of the bag would add up to some serious cash. There might not be a million dollars in the bag, but there seemed to be at least four or five times as much as his embarrassingly high annual salary. Could he keep it? Martin went home. He had to do some more thinking.
That Tuesday in July became the longest of Martin’s life. It wasn’t until well after three o’clock in the morning that Martin stumbled, weary and drained into the local police station clutching the now rumpled paper grocery bag in his arms. He handed over all the cash it contained. He told his story several times, was given a receipt and was instructed to check back in ninety days, at which time he could claim the cash if no one else did and if the police were unable to relate it to any crime.