[In my opinion one of the best things I’ve ever written. Originally posted on WordPress on November 16th, 2012]
Josef was eating breakfast. On most mornings he ate breakfast with his wife, but on this morning she was gone, visiting her sister who lived in another town. Josef was drinking coffee out of a mug that had a picture of a smiling rabbit on it. The mug was chipped, and his wife had urged him to throw it away, but Josef always refused.
“I like to see a happy face in the mornings,” he’d always said.
The clock on the wall of the kitchen said that it was time to go to work, but the clock on the wall of the kitchen was eight minutes fast. From time to time Josef took it down off the wall and fiddled with it, but it never helped. That clock always ran eight minutes fast.
There was a knock at the door. It took Josef a moment to remember that his wife was in another town, with her sister, and then he went to answer the door himself.
Standing in his doorway were two men from the Government. One was tall, and one was big—or maybe one was big, and the other was tall. It was hard to tell them apart. They had short haircuts and very neat, very dark suits. They didn’t ask to come in, they just came in.
Josef always tried to be polite to everyone, and he knew that it was wise to be even more polite than that with big men in neat suits who came from the Government.
“Can I help you, sirs?” he asked, “I have to go to work in a few minutes.”
“No you don’t” the big one said, “You are not going to work today.”
“Oh, my,” Josef said, “Why not?”
“Because you’re not good enough,” said the tall one.
“I’m not?” Josef asked sadly.
“Afraid not,” continued the tall one. “You’re not as smart as the other workers, and you don’t work as hard, and you make too many mistakes. You’re just not good enough.”
The big one nodded grimly in agreement.
“So I’m fired?”
“It’s a lot more serious than that,” the big one said, “ We’ve been watching you for years.” He produced a very old piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Josef.
It was a note from Josef’s second grade teacher. It read: “Josef is a nice friendly boy, but when he stacks blocks, he never stacks them straight. He also colors outside the lines frequently, and sometimes he even breaks his crayons. I am afraid that he might not be good enough when he grows up.”
“You’re not good enough to live in a nice place like this,” the tall one said, his face set in an official frown, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to be sent away.”
“When?” Josef asked, frightened.
“Right now.” The tall one said. The big one nodded again.
Josef looked around his kitchen. There was a tall jar that held the pennies that Josef had no use for at the end of the day. He had been putting pennies into it for a long time. Sometimes, when he felt sad he dumped the pennies out on the counter and counted them. It made him feel better, somehow. He’d never spent any of the pennies, but it made him feel better to know how many there were. Just then, Josef wanted to count his pennies very much. The last time he’d counted them there were almost eight dollars, and he’d put more in there since then. There were probably over eight dollars worth in the jar now.
“My wife,” Josef said suddenly, “Can I say goodbye to my wife?”
The big one shook his head. “No. You’re not good enough for her, either. She didn’t want to say anything to you, because she didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but it’s true.”
Not good enough for my wife. Josef thought about that in his kitchen, with the two Government men standing there watching him. He’d always tried to be good to her. On some Fridays he brought her peonies and put them in a jelly glass full of water on the table. Maybe that was it, Josef thought, maybe I should have brought her peonies every Friday, not just some Fridays.
“You’ll have to leave that here,” said the tall one, and Josef realized that he was still holding his mug with smiling rabbit and the chip out of it. “You’re not good enough for any of these things. You can’t even fix a clock right.”
Josef sat his mug on the counter and followed the men outside. My wife will throw it away, he though, just like she always wanted to.
There was a big dark official car outside. The Government men got into the front, and put Josef in the back.
“How far are we going?” Josef asked.
“Far enough” one of them answered. From behind, when they were sitting down, Josef c couldn’t tell them apart.
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. There was a radio up front, and sometimes a voice spoke through it. What the voice said was mostly numbers. Josef hoped for a while that some of the numbers might mean that a mistake had been made, and that the Government men would turn the car around and take him home, but then he gave up on that. No mistake had been made. He really wasn’t good enough, and never had been. In a way it was a relief to finally have it all out in the open.
He hoped that his wife would get to have a new husband, one who was good enough, and would bring her peonies every single Friday. But then, maybe she didn’t really like peonies. Maybe she had just been pretending to like them so she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. Someone who was good enough would know something like that, Josef decided.
The car drove beside a high fence for a long time. On the other side of the fence was a big flat field. Nothing seemed to be growing in the field, just some grass and weeds. It had snowed a few days ago, and there were patches of snow in the grass. The grass that wasn’t covered with snow was brown and stiff.
The car stopped beside a gap in the fence. The Government men got out, and took Josef back out of the back seat, and walked him through the gap into the field. It was very big, and very flat. All that Josef could see was the fence, and the road beside it, and miles of dead grass, with little patches of snow.
The Government men started to leave.
“Wait,” Josef cried, “What do I do now?”
The big one shrugged. It was out of his jurisdiction.
“You’ll probably die fairly soon,” the tall one said helpfully, “There’s no food or water here, and it gets pretty cold at night.” Then they got into the big dark official car and drove back towards town.
The ground was so flat that Josef could watch the car driving away for a long, long time.