Josh Dale holds a BA in English from Temple University and has been previously published or forthcoming in 48th Street Press, Black Elephant Literary Magazine, SickLit, The Long Island Review, Your One Phone Call, and others. You may find him acquiring paper cuts at his small press, Thirty West Publishing House. By his side binding books, is his production assistant, Daisy, a rescue Bengal.
SPEAKER OF TONGUES
Jack Simile walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma. He responded to the principal with a pompous smirk, for he knew that he had a once-in-a-lifetime gig all but officially sealed. Untitled Postage Inc., whom he interned as a senior, was willing to accept his full-time employment in lieu of post-secondary education. Jack took the offer, and as he wished his friends adieu as they packed up their parents’ station wagons, he was dutifully filling out his tax papers. He knew how to make them jealous: a new car in the driveway, fresh clothes, and a wallet full of banknotes. It was a perfect façade of achievement. However, Jack’s insurmountable riches were not easily acquired.
Once he was awarded the position, the state of his morale dropped significantly. He toiled mercilessly. He wore a standard issue postal uniform now—a flamboyant neon yellow for “sake of visibility”—with increasing displeasure. From shipments as light as a feather, to upwards of eighty pounds, he had to sort, scan, label, and pack their way across the country. He was allotted only thirty minutes for lunch, which he acquired food from the closest fast-food joint around. Despite being on his feet for ten hours, he quickly gained weight; his designer clothes would no longer fit his once trim body. He punched the clock two times in the dark, hardly seeing the light of day in the lowly warehouse. During the most arduous of shifts, he would limp home and cry himself to sleep. No money in the world was worth the intensity of his position. His friends would call him, reporting on jovial keg parties and lewd sexual encounters, while Jack could only say, “Things are good, yeah.” His pessimism outweighed the tangible items he possessed, and as the months carried on so did his master plan.
One innocuous Tuesday morning, Jack’s supervisor, Julia, came up to him and pulled him aside.
“Hey, Jack, how’re you holding up? She said with a gleaming smile. He was unaware if this was a ruse or not; none of his peers knew how to smile.
“Things are good, yeah.” He emitted. He was unaware of his conditioning.
“Great! So, I’m here to give you a quarterly review. Judging by your output, divided by your input—“
Jack’s interest wavered. His eye contact broke occasionally with heavy eyelids. Within a few moments, her voice was white noise to his ears, until she said something that would change his outlook forever.
“—and we are sending you out on a special parcel delivery, to Alphabetarius!”
Jack’s stupor dissipated.
“What? Me? Going to where?”
“Yes! There is a parcel that a client requests to be hand-delivered. You must be ready tomorrow at 5 A.M. A concierge will pick you up and take you to the airport for your ten-hour flight. Go home and pack!”
The realization of what was to come didn’t settle in until he heard the large steel doors shut behind him. The sun was kissing his face, birthing a rejuvenation. Jack skipped back home and quickly gathered his clothes. He was keen on strutting his ‘former’ self into this strange new city of Alphabetarius.
Jack strutted out of the terminal behind gold-trimmed sunglasses, a matching watch, and a navy blue suit. He carried the special parcel within a book bag. For once, he felt an importance that was unrivaled in his young life. However, as he removed the glasses to the people before him, he was shocked and appalled: their skin was covered in words!
“What in the world?” Jack stammered.
Everyone around him, from the smallest child to senior citizens, was seemingly tattooed. The older they were, the more frightful they became. It was as if their skin crawled with every second that passed. The sensory overload made Jack almost puke. However, he carried on his prominent task, navigating the gimmicky alphabet décor. Even the benches were shaped as letters.
“This place is so weird.”
Once outside the terminal, he phoned a cab and lit a cigarette. Occasionally, his hip appearance was returned with grins and cordiality by all who passed. Jack took each acknowledgment as a stroke of his ego. It wasn’t until a young boy carrying a small lunch pail down the street noticed Jack and stopped in his tracks.
“Mister, do you not like to talk?” the boy said, inspecting his bare arms and face.
“I do talk, yeah,” Jack murmured between puffs.
The boy’s curiosity piqued. “But your skin has no words on it. Are you sick?”
“I’m not from around here.”
The boy rolled up his jacket sleeve.
“Look at all of my words!”
Jack glanced down and read a few sentences of juvenile proportions. He smothered the cigarette.
“That’s cute, kid.” Jack lied. “Maybe one day I’ll be just like you.”
His comment made the boy smile widely. He waved and took off running towards a finely-dressed couple. They all had blonde hair. It seemed uncanny, but the nurturing element was present and reinforced. Jack looked away. His taxi arrived and was off before he could watch them enter the terminal.
The address on the parcel was in sight: ‘A.W. Homophone Enterprises. 232 Alpha Street’. The building was an architectural marvel, spanning dozens of stories high. It was shaped as a capital ‘A’ foregrounded by a lowercase ‘W’. Jack pondered on how a such a building could be constructed; the legs of the ‘W’ were at forty-five-degree angles. Upon entering, a young secretary greeted Jack. She was appealing to him, but her face was covered in complex jargon that he never saw before. She did not smile when they made eye contact.
“I’m Jack Simile. Here to deliver to someone by the name of Al,” he said confidently.
“Oh, you mean the Albert Wendell Homophone, the third?” the secretary snapped.
“Uh, yeah. I was told I was to be expected.”
“May I see the package first, sir?”
Jack unzipped the bag and held out the rounded and puffy envelope. The secretary scanned it briefly.
“I will send it up to him, thanks.”
The secretary sent the package up through a dumbwaiter. She then resumed typing on the computer for a few moments. Once she realized Jack hadn’t left, she looked up disdainfully.
“You can leave now, sir.”
“Oh, that’s it? No receipt? No thank you? I came all this way when I could’ve just mailed it!”
“Sir, I will call security if you do not cooperate!”
Unexpectedly, a sharp beep emitted and a masculine voice spoke out.
“Medina, please send Mr. Simile up to my office. Thank you.”
Jack laughed as the secretary complied to the voice’s command.
Jack reached the office door and knocked. A voice issued him inside. A black leather chair, poised behind an oak desk, was facing the window and a fresh burning cigar rested upon an ashtray. A bald head crested the top like a sunrise.
“Hello? I’m Jack Simile.” Jack said timidly.
“Please, Mr. Simile, have a seat. Would you like a drink? Have you tried our ‘DeltaRum’ yet?”
“No, sir. I am only eighteen,” Jack said.
The sound of liquid pouring into a glass broke a brief silence. The chair swung around slowly. He was well-fed, and his suit was just tight enough to reveal it. A clean shaven face matched his receding hairline. To Jack’s surprise, though, his skin was not covered in words.
“I am Al Homophone.” He slid the shot glass over to Jack. “Don’t worry, it’s not too strong.”
“I really shouldn’t, sir. I just need to grab what I need and—“
“Please, call me Al,” Al said warmly. “Cheers!”
Both men drank the shot. Jack sneezed afterward. Al guffawed.
“It makes everyone sneeze the first time. Must be the pepper.” He relaxed into the chair. “So, do you think about our city? Very strange place, huh?”
“To be honest, Al, it is. It’s too different.”
“To most foreigners, it’s a culture shock, seeing the people with their ‘prose logs’.”
“Where are yours?” Jack asked.
“I choose not to show them. Here, watch.”
Al snapped his fingers. A black orb manifested in his open palm. It was solid as obsidian, containing decades upon decades of words. Jack’s wide-eyed attention grew as did the orb until it was nearly a foot in diameter. Al snapped his fingers again, and it was gone.
“Wow, that was startling!” Jack barked.
“I am the architect of this city, descended from a long line of prestigious Homophones. At some point, everyone recognizes their prose logs, be it intentionally or accidentally.”
Jack felt contempt and lowered his head. Al leaned closer, scrutinizing him.
“So, you’re saying that I have a prose log too? Even though I’m not from around here?”
“Yes. I, however, cannot reveal them for you; everyone is different. But, once you do, you will decide how to read yourself, Jack.”
Al rose and obtained the package from across the room. He opened it to reveal a vinyl record.
“Ah! Thank you so much for delivering this. It was my grandfather’s first album. Jazz quartet Saxophone maestro. I miss him dearly.”
“Um, I’m going to leave. Thanks, Al.” Jack said apprehensively.
“You’re always welcomed back, Jack.”
Al nodded and shook his limp hand. Jack shut the door to a marvelous saxophone solo. He stood outside the office breathing heavily. A cold sweat trickled down his face. He made no contact with anyone aside from another emblazoned taxi driver. He remained in his motel room in solemnity. He stripped down into the nude and clench, trying any which way to summon his prose log.
“Come on, damn it!” he shouted.
His body was tense. His eyes were clenched. He grunted loudly until he heard a pop! He slowly unclosed his eyes, and to his amazement, his prose log appeared before him. He was marveled at the sight of the crawling words, yet aghast at the intensity of them. Scores of rank, derogatory words flooded his skin; a direct reflection of who he really was, beneath the façade. He scratched and clawed at his arms and legs, vying to remove them. After the savagery, he plummeted onto the floor weeping. His tears washed away the logs from his body. The evening was ill spent, yet he awoke to a new purpose.
A week had passed since Jack returned from Alphabetarius. He was back to the mundanity. Back to his typical uniform. Back to the false livelihood of material possessions. At the end of a surprisingly short shift, he approached his manager.
“Hey, uh, Julia?”
“Well isn’t it our little stud, Jack? What’s up? I was just thinking of giving you a gift card to—“
“Look. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but I’m quitting as of tonight.”
Julia’s jaw dropped.
“What? That’s impossible!”
“Personal reasons,” Jack said dryly. “I’m going to grab my stuff.”
He began walking out of the office. Julia stammered behind him. Jack remained silent. He grabbed his sweatshirt, keys, and wallet and headed for the door. Julia was practically clawing at his shirt.
“I’ll give you a raise, huh? Starting Monday. It’s yours.”
Jack sighed, resting his foot between the door and the jamb.
“No amount of money is going to keep me here. I made my decision final. Goodbye, Julia. Goodbye, Untitled Postage, Inc.”
He shut his frivolous and hardworking life behind him forever. He then snapped his fingers, allowing his prose logs to return. Instantly, some obscenities were erased and replaced with respectable language. He pulled out Al Homophone’s card out of his pocket and drew in a gratuitous breath of fresh air.
“I still have a few hours before my flight. Have a bit more work to do. Don’t want to leave a bad first impression.”