The Tell-tale Tag

by William Schroeder

The Tell-Tale Tag

by

William Schroeder

Procrastination, is there a fouler beast that nips at the heels of a writer with a deadline? What of dreaded writer's block? Ghastly affliction! You curse yourself by merely whispering it in your thoughts. Deferments and delays and distractions, oh my!--they, too, conspire to cause the mutiny of our concentration and energy. Indeed, there is an army of entanglements ready to snag the quill from our hands and pin our shirt sleeves to our sides. Precious are the countless hours that wither away under these pestilent pressures, ever while the specter of panic and fear looms over our shoulders, until we, the weaver of words, the lonely lover of letters, find ourselves walking the prickly plank of our wit's end and pirouetting out on its treacherous tip. And yet, who among us have stumbled even further and off the edge of our frazzled minds, and plunged into the deep, dark sea of mystery and horror below? You say that you have? Have you really? If you say so, I must believe you. But I humbly request that you listen closely to my story anyway. It's not too late to change your mind.

     My intentions were grand and good at the beginning of that cold, October night. I vowed to spend however long it took to finish the rough draft my editor expected in his inbox the following afternoon. I began by fixing my customary cup of apple spice green tea. Oh, but do I ever need my blessed tea. .

In fact, I am nearly incapable of staring my first sentence without it. True, I have endured my share of good-natured ribbing about this from my writer's workshop acquaintances, but I remain steadfast, nonetheless, in my belief that this sweet elixir is the very catalyst of productive contemplation. My prejudice, or handicap, as others have called it, may explain my rather earnest reaction to an emergency that occurred during the preparation process. The problem arose as I was reaching for my favorite additive, that wondrous mother's milk known as honey, which was normally located on top of the stove, and found myself groping thin air instead. Well, I am incorrigibly smitten with honey, you see, and perhaps, on another night, I might have melted into inconsolable hysterics right there on the kitchen tiles and thrown my hands up in surrender to the sheer futility of it all. But not on this night, for there was work to be done, by Jove, and I wasn't going to let anything derail me from it. Thus, with the indomitable spirit characteristic of a tenacious tea lover, I immediately initiated an extensive investigation of my kitchen cupboards and pantry drawers. I meticulously inspected every nook and cranny, even my own pockets, twice, but the honey continued to elude me. I was just about to don my coat and gloves, and fetch a new bottle down at the late night grocery, when I stumbled upon the bear-shaped grail hiding in the microwave. Condiment crisis averted, I nearly swooned with relief.

"Naughty syrup, I haven't the time for hide and seek tonight." I cooed.

I added a hefty glob of honey to the tea, and with my spoon, I lazily swirled it around my mug with the frivolous ease of a daydreaming butter churner. I strolled to the study, taking a few dainty sips along the way, and placed the cup on the desk next to my lucky

banjo-playing, ceramic frog, which does his best to inspire me with his funny face and comically quaint straw hat. It was there, however, that I was alarmed yet again, this time, by the sight of the deplorable condition of my work space. Sweat stains from previous beverage bottoms tattooed the surface of my desk, forming a plate-sized orgy of Venn diagrams. Paper clips had escaped from the circular confines of their magnetic-rimmed holder. The stapler, tape dispenser, and three-hole punch were strewn willy nilly about, as if no logic at all was applied to their placement. A column of sloppily stacked floppy disks was perilously close to falling over and into the floor. And the printer, the poor neglected printer, was so very dusty, and worse, out of paper. Who could possibly work in the midst of such chaos? I spent the next half hour dutifully attending to the hygiene and utility of my desk. Once completed, I saw that there was ample space left for a candle, and wouldn't the soothing glow of natural light provide a fitting ambience for an evening of serious writing? I certainly thought it would, and so, I proceeded to the basement and retrieved a pewter candelabrum containing a single, half-spent lavender candle. The wick was buried under a layer of melted wax, but this did not ruffle me, for my trusty pocketknife rarely left my side, except during a laundry week, which, coincidentally, it was. Ten minutes later, after rummaging through a load of clothes in the dryer, I found my blade tucked away in the bib of a pair of gardening overalls, and I was able to dig out enough of the wick to light. I also carved my initials into the base of the candle, just in case the authorities needed to identify the owner in the event that it was ever lost or stolen, however remote that possibility might be.

     It was half past ten, by this time, and I began to notice a grumbling in the pit of my stomach. Hunger was my impromptu diagnosis, and I prescribed myself a plate of toast with strawberry jam. After all, I thought, the seeds of creativity cannot grow in barren soil, can they?

     Returning from the kitchen, my belly full and warm, all seemed right and ready to carry on with my appointed task, that is, until I recalled the leaky faucet in my bathroom shower that I simply couldn't remain indifferent to any longer. Twenty more minutes later, the faucet was repaired, and my toolbox was back in the shed, and also reorganized. While exiting the shed, a loose hinge on the door caught my eye, and though it had never bothered me before, it suddenly became an irritant of unparalleled proportions, and I was forced to retrieve my toolbox and address it. As soon as I had finished, I marched myself right back to the study, and promptly returned to the kitchen to reheat my tea. Back in the study again, I set my hot tea on my clean, reorganized desk, relit the candle that had gone out, and moseyed over to my wooden chest of old records in search of the appropriate music to accompany my writing. The right musical element can be highly beneficial to one's work, and as anyone knows, the selection process requires delicate precision, and cannot be done in haste. Fortunately, I have a knack in this area and was able to find a suitable piece straight away, and since the chest was already open, and since I had been planning to do it anyway, I was obliged to go ahead and categorize my live performance albums, in order of dust jacket color.

      It was near eleven when I finished and I was getting sleepy. I opened the balcony doors to let in some fresh, night air, and a blistering wind poured in, submerging the entire room in a shocking chill. It felt as if I'd been unceremoniously dipped into an Eskimo dunk tank. However, once I got used to it, it was so reinvigorating that I left the doors open, hoping to maintain my refreshing condition while I composed. I sat down and assumed the proper position, eyes forward and back straight. My hands trembled as they straddled the keyboard. I could feel the anticipation in my index fingers, yearning to be set into the familiar stirrups of the F and J keypads. Oh, how wonderfully ready I was to ride my muse until the dawn. I was mere seconds away from spurring inspiration out of the gates of my mind, when a guilt-ridden dog from a neighboring farm launched into a plaintive confession to the moon. I froze. I waited. I waited some more. There was no end to it. Evidently, he had been a very bad boy. For a long half hour, the penitent pooch continued to howl like a nervous castrati before an Easter Sunday program. Occasionally, the crooning cur would take a moment to catch its breath, giving me a few, frantic seconds to concentrate. But just as I was about to nurse an idea out of its fragile pupae stage, the heartsick hound would explode into another rousing round of repentance, leaving my thoughts trapped in a cocoon of agitation. In a juvenile attempt at retaliation, I turned the volume up on my record player during the third act of La Boheme. A soaring aria poured out the window, temporarily drowning out the melancholy mutt, as well as garnering the attention of a pack of traveling coyotes. Apparently, there were also Puccini fans, for they soon diverted from their route and camped out under my window to harmonize awhile.

The noise was unbearable, prompting me to dash over to my stereo, and violently poke at buttons until it shut off. Disappointed, but still curious and exuberant, the coyotes lingered outside my window for a few minutes longer, serenading me with their synchronized, maniacal giggling. In lieu of flowers, I considered tossing them a clump of hair that I'd torn from my scalp during their painful performance. I was glad to see them exit my courtyard and disappear over the hills and far away-- very, very far away. In comparison to the coyotes, the dour dog's depressing din was damn near delightful.

Granted, the constant wailing was most unwelcome, but I could no longer repress my sympathy for the sullen soprano, and I walked out onto the balcony to console the poor fellow.

"There, there, old chap. If it makes any difference, I forgive you!"

I listened for some kind of response, a pitch change, or small alteration in the nuance of his lonesome lamentations. I heard none. His sadness just ran too deep.

     I returned to the study and slumped into my chair. Just one paragraph, I thought. A single sentence would have sent my heels a clicking. The longer I stared into the white abyss of my computer monitor, the more it felt as though I were searching, in vain, for a long lost friend to emerge out of a snowstorm. Desperate to see something, anything at all, appear in the empty tundra in front of me, I let my fingers free associate, and the word "Crap" popped out and crawled towards the center of the screen. As far as sentiments go, it was fairly accurate, especially given the progress of the night thus far.

Still, it was a tad inelegant for my taste, so, I spent the next few minutes adjusting letters and fiddling around with font styles.

Crapola.

"Ah, yes, much better," I said to myself, "Old English Text does lend a certain flair, and-- oh my God! I must really be bored to be playing around like this!"

Now, without a doubt, boredom is a mischievous malady, and can threaten to steal the time, energy, and inspiration away from its victims. However, there is an even greater potential for disaster that arises in the dubious, sometimes horrendous, choices we make to remedy our boredom. In this particular case, I made the choice to abandon my work station and roll myself over in the desk chair to my personal library. All I was searching for was some mental refuge, and in the past, and in similar situations, those seasoned shelves had rarely failed to provide it. A brief frolic through the daffodil fields with Wordsworth, or, a tickling tale from Twain, would do me some good, I thought. I closed my eyes, and reached towards the bookshelf, confident that fate would guide my hand to whatever bit of reading might best serve me in my hour of need. When I opened my eyes, I shuddered at what I beheld in my hands. I had pulled out a book on yoga. How this bit of trendy fluff wound up rubbing hardback shoulders with an otherwise respectable collection of classics, I can offer only flimsy conjecture. I must have purchased it at a discounted price, or, perhaps, in a fit of wild whimsy, thought it might round out my library in some quaint manner. It was still as shiny as the day it was conceived on the printing press, and the taut backbone of the binder was so crisp that it cracked like a stalk of celery upon opening. Each page contained a photograph of a pony tailed woman in blue leotard and white leggings contorting herself in the most imaginative and grotesque ways. I found the pictures both perplexing and impressive. I couldn't reconcile how this woman managed such a cheerful countenance while her body was so dramatically misshapen. I presumed she must have been severely dazed, or lost in the throes of some bizarre type of euphoria, likely brought about from teetering so close to the cusp of mortal pain. But then, I turned the book over and read the back cover, and was surprised to see many words of praise from other, presumably sane, people. They all wholeheartedly recommended the activity for improving one's health, focus, stress levels, karma, and even financial prospects. Well, with blessings like these, I thought it almost rude of me not to try at least one of the more rudimentary exercises. And so, with scant regard to the potential scuffing that might befall my trousers, I prostrated myself upon the expensive

Pakistani rug in my study and assumed the position, or, the Shavasana position, to be exact. While on my back, and staring upwards, I spotted two white tags stuck to the undercarriage of my desk chair. In the soft light of my study, the tags seemed to glow with a mystical, self-generating illumination. They were beguiling and mysterious, and I was compelled to peel them off. The genesis of this strange urge, I remain impotent to explain, but, suffice it to say, it simply felt like something I needed to do. So, with my most suitably long fingernail, I scraped at the thin tag nearest me. Half way through the removal, it leapt off the bottom of the chair and into my hand. And there it rested, curled up in my palm, like the rectangular tail of an abstract kitten. I gently smoothed it out with my finger and read the lithe, black typeface that crept across its side.

(For replacement parts, please call ???-???-????)

Try as I might, I could not think of any scenario in which I'd need to use the number. After all, the chair wasn't a family heirloom. It wasn't expensive, and I had no sentimental attachment to it. The most I could say in its defense was that it was serviceable to my needs and it wasn't uncomfortable. If something on it were to break, tear, or wear out, whatever small shred of loyalty I had for it would quickly evaporate in the face of a six to eight week wait for a wing nut or armrest. It was expendable and easily replaced, and that is all. I tossed the thin scrap of paper to the side, and thought nothing more about it.

     The second tag, however, was larger, about the size of a postcard, and more firmly secured, challenging even. I eagerly eyed it up and down with a strange, almost perverse, lust. Like a snake with five fangs, my hand crept slowly towards the furthest corner of the tag, which hung down like a broken wing. I caught the unsuspecting flap between my thumb and forefinger and began to pull. I ask you to bear with me now, for what I am about to describe might have been the result of the late hour and my weariness, but I swear, nonetheless, that the chair shivered and squealed with each millimeter the tag was loosened. The sight and smell of the fastening glue being pulled apart, and those long, gooey strands holding on for dear life, was an unsettling scene to behold. I felt as though I were harvesting a patch of skin from the backside of a sentient being.

Despite this disturbance, I resisted the urge to yank the tag free. I wanted it intact. Nothing less would do. After several, sweat-drenched minutes, the tag finally surrendered, and the battle of wills between man and adhesive was over.

"Yes!" I roared, as I thrust the pulpy scab in the air and jammed my hand into the whirling blades of the ceiling fan above me. The tag was knocked from my grip and into the floor. Holding my throbbing wrist with my other hand, I looked down at the tag and read the bold, scarlet letters that bore this singular, haunting admonition.

(WARNING!!)

I turned my head and leapt backwards, as if an open flame had erupted before me, but it was too late, for the searing image of that extra exclamation point branded my eyes. A full minute passed before I thought it safe to venture another look. In smaller, but no less intimidating, red letters, came the following:

(Do Not Remove This Tag)

"Delphia's tresses! What have I done here?" I shouted.

There was more information on the tag, but the print was too small for me to read from where I stood, and I was rather apprehensive about continuing anyway. Clearly, by someone or something's standards, I had committed a crime. But it was so silly, I thought, that a dire consequence might result in my simple actions. Surely, I had not done something unpardonable. But there it was, neither a suggestion, nor a word of advice, it was, in fact, a command, a command that was printed in red ink, red like a cardinal bird, red like a cardinal sin! Should I pursue this matter any further, I wondered.

Under my breath, I cursed my unquenchable curiosity, squared my shoulders, and bent over to pick up the tag. I was astonished, and nearly thrown off balance, by the weight of it, which had multiplied by thousands since last I'd held it. It was now like a stone tablet, heavy enough that I feared my toes might be in jeopardy if I should accidentally dropped it. I was wearing slippers, so, naturally, my concerns were multiplied. Even more peculiar, was that under its surface, my fingers could detect a slight pulsation. The beat was irregular. Then again, the whole bloody thing was irregular, now wasn't it? Nonetheless, I was undeterred in my desire to study it further. In thick, hearty print, preceded by blood-colored bullets, a series of stern rapprochements appeared, the first of which, made me nauseous and dizzy.

Do not stand on this chair/Do not use this chair as a step ladder

"You fool! You thoughtless daredevil!" I cried. A week prior I had stood upon the seat

cushion and replaced one of the light bulbs in the base of the ceiling fan. The seat still wore the dusty tracks of my dirty house slippers. I glanced at the second caveat.

Use this product only for seating one person at a time.

"All-seeing Odin, How did it know?!" I yowled.

Approximately two months ago, while reading my email, I acquiesced to my lady friend's amorous advances, and allowed her to sit on my lap and stroke my hair. I sat there enraptured, purring with conceit, completely indifferent to the seat's recommended weight capacity. I chewed at my fingers and read on.

Do not use this chair unless all bolts and screws and knobs are firmly secured.

"All of them? Yes, you slapdash sluggard, all of them!" I bellowed.

If my calculations were correct, I had spare items left over after the assembly of the chair. I tossed them into my desk drawer and did not consider them again. But the chair seemed fully functional without them. Could I have been deceiving myself all this time?

Hands clamped over my face, I peered through my fingers and read one more sentence.

Every month, check all bolts, screws, and knobs, and tighten any that may be loosened.

"Mother of All Catastrophes!" I screamed.

Why, I could have been sitting on a powder keg of disaster, waiting to go off at the slightest jiggle of a wobbly washer. I kept a daily planner. Was it not worthy of any more use than to occasionally glance at its calendar or refer to its informative inserts to verify the spelling of state capitols during a game of Scrabble? A dozen questions whizzed through my mind, ricocheting around my head until they careened out of my mouth in a spattering of involuntary gibberish. In my helplessness, I tumbled backwards into childhood reflection, where the memory of a summer day on my sixth birthday clicked through my thoughts like the tiny slides of a Fischer-Price View Finder. My mother had just presented me with a new pair of slacks. She lectured me about their care, pleading with me not to play in them. But I didn't listen, and an hour later, I put them on and went outside to play in my sandbox in the backyard. It was there that I tore a hole in the knee of my new slacks on the jagged, metal edge of the dirt bucket on my toy bulldozer.

Mortified and ashamed, I lost my senses, and could think of nothing better than to bury them in the sand, where my mother, and, hopefully, my conscience, could never find them. I continued to play through the afternoon, blissfully unaware of any errors in judgment, until I went back inside for supper later that evening, and was bombarded with questions about my pants, specifically, why I wasn't wearing any. Thirty years later, that childhood memory was as clear as the moment it happened. Unfortunately, whatever relevant lessons I learned from that day had been forgotten. But they would soon be taught to me again.

     I wadded the tag up in my fist, and it was my devious intention to throw it away in the nearest dustbin. As I took aim, something bit me, and I was forced to drop the tag on the floor again. I looked at my hand, and an errant metal staple, that must have came off with the tag, had punctured my palm.

"Spiteful parchment!" I cried.

I had had enough, and with my gimpy paws, I fumbled for my pipe and a pouch of amaretto blend, and retreated to an area of relative safety and comfort to salve my wounds and strategize, the bathroom. As soon as I was parked on my porcelain perch, savoring the pleasant piquancy of my pipe, the phone began to ring. Of course, and why wouldn't it? I just sat down, after all. In my awkwardness, the best I could do was lean forward; cock an ear towards the bathroom door, and listen intently. After four rings, the answering machine engaged, and I was prepared to hear a familiar voice, likely that of my nosy editor, who was often prone to unexpected progress checks. But I heard nothing. The caller left no message.

"Curse them!" I cried out, for I recognized that irritating, silent calling card.

Undoubtedly, it was another tedious telemarketer, anticipating the chance to soft shoe some unsuspecting sleepyhead. The dead audience of technology is all those cubicle charlatans's deserve, I thought.

     My reign upon the thinking throne continued for another long, smoke-filled hour, and by then, I had run out fresh air, fresh ideas, and decent blood flow to my legs from the knees down. No matter which way I mulled it over, I kept arriving to the same conclusion; I must return to the prophetic placard and finish reading it. If it contained the details of my impending doom, so be it, I would face it like a man. But, if it suggested a prayer, an incantation, a magic word with which I could inoculate myself from penalty and punishment for my crime, perhaps, I thought, there might be some kind of happy ending to be retrieved from this horror after all. I sat a few seconds more, rubbing the leg that had fallen asleep, and then hobbled back to my study for the wicked wad of paper. I found the tag face up and flattened out, with nary a crumple in it, as if it had been waiting for me. I did not want to touch it again, so, I knelt before it instead, and squinted at the last sentence, printed in the finest of fonts, desperate for it to say something promising, something useful.

(For further information see instruction sheet)

"What? Who keeps such a thing? This is madness. Madness, I say!" I moaned.

My heart was convulsing, twisting itself into knots. There was a stirring in the air, but it wasn't a breeze. No, rather, it was like the space around me had been given a little nudge.

Out of nowhere, the first tag came cart wheeling across the rug, like a miniature tumbleweed, and bumped into my pant leg. I picked it up and read it again, seeing the same number for replacement parts. But I don't need any replacement parts, I whined.

"Stop your quibbling and pick up the phone, man! It's your only alternative!" I cried. .

I ran to my desk and snatched the cordless out of its cradle. After several rings, someone finally answered. It was a man's voice, faint and inquisitive.

"Hello? "

Hello? Well, that's a rather odd business tone to take, I thought. Nonetheless, I refrained

from reprimanding the man on the finer points of proper greeting etiquette, and with no

introduction of my own either, I catapulted directly into a breathless rant.

"My good fellow, I have done the unthinkable and I wish to come clean with it. I have torn the tags. Not slightly, or barely, but completely off the chair! I've sat two at a time in it. I've been derelict in its monthly maintenance. Quite honestly, I've not inspected it since its assembly. Speaking of which, extra parts, I have some! Oh, how I wish I'd never read those awful tags. But I did. And now, am I, like poor Actaeon of old, doomed because of it? Should I expect those infernal coyotes back at my door at any minute, rabid to tear the flesh from my bones? I have committed a crime, yes, I admit it, but please, I implore you, what is my punishment? Tell me, Sir, I must know!"

I waited for a response. There was none. All I heard was a click, and the line went dead.

"Noooo!" I screamed.

Frantic, I pushed the redial button.

The line was busy.

"Clear the line! Clear the line!" I screeched, as I tore another clump out of my hair.

I waited for what seemed like a reasonable amount of time, roughly twenty seconds, and was about to press the redial button again, when it rang in my hand, startling me out of

my skin. Clutching my chest, I answered. There was a short pause, someone cleared their throat, and then said, "Yes, excuse me, but if you could spare a moment. I was wondering if you"

My God, I thought, not another telemarketer. Vile entrepreneurs!

Enraged, I was harsh and to the point.

"If you don't mind, I am trying to place a call of unequivocal importance. My life, nay!--my very soul may depend on it. Now peddle your goods elsewhere. Good evening!"

I hung up and redialed a second time. No one answered. Not even after 36 rings.

My head was splitting and my nose tickled. I reached for a tissue and blew. I felt something burst. Blood was trickling over my lips when the phone rang yet again. Daubing at my mouth with the tissue, a single syllable answer was all I could manage.

"What?"

"I'm looking for an Alan Rensch and a couple of?" the caller inquired.

"Now listen here, sport , this is the residence of a Mr. Damien Q. Sauce. I do not know this Alan person, but I can assure you." I interrupted.

"No you misunderstand" the caller interrupted back.

"I understand that I will brook this interference no longer. Prepare to be blocked and reported, interloper!"

I checked the caller id. It was not an 800 number. I thought that a bit odd, but disregarded it and I wedged the phone in-between my armpit and dug through my desk drawer for a pen to write the number down. It was then that I made a horrifying discovery.

"Oh, dear" I sighed.

There, in the dark recesses of my desk drawer, I found the black, crooked finger of an

Allen wrench and two silver-plated lug nuts. I glanced at the caller id again, and it dawned on me; the number was local. My jaw dropped to the floor. A few seconds

passed, until the caller's muffled voice, leaking out from under my armpits, shook me out of my stupor.

'Wait! Wait! How did you get this number? Speak, man, speak!" I begged.

"From the tag on the bottom of my desk chair," the caller replied.

Slowly, I reached towards the wall outlet and disconnected the phone.

What else could I do? I slumped down onto the floor next to my desk chair. I sat there for hours, waiting and waiting, though for what, I was not sure, and did not really want to know.

In the meantime, over on the neighboring farm, the dog had stopped its barking.

I think it pitied me.

The End

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