Prose Header

The Excellence of Oysters

by John Eric Ellison

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


Tom laughed. “I understand.” He raised a hand. “We may not do this the same way for the next winner, but who knows.” He shrugged. “The lottery is a poor stop-gap replacement for a failed Social Security system. Hopefully, things will improve under this new administration.”

Jim disagreed and quoted the plaque. “You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters when you can’t eat them without being sick.” Then added, “This government makes me sick.”

Laura interrupted. “So, we wait here, and you get the check and then we leave?” She shrugged. “That’s it?”

“I need to see Jim’s ID, but, yes, it is that simple.” He cleared his throat and added in an apologetic note, “I do have to beg your indulgence. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of an important errand when you arrived. I will need to ask you to wait. And your check isn’t in this office. Please, make yourselves comfortable and wait a bit. It should take between twenty and thirty minutes to finish shutting down a few systems and retrieve your check. I am sorry. I’d take you with me, but the systems are proprietary.”

Jim found it difficult to sit still and said, with some exasperation, “What choice do we have?” He fished into his back pocket and pulled out his driver’s license which Tom then inspected to his satisfaction.

After Tom left the room, they waited in silence for nearly thirty seconds before Jim said, “You know what? I don’t like sitting here. He left that door wide open, and I feel like snooping around.” There was a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Well?” He got up and walked over to place his hand on the door frame. Grinning, he asked, “Are you coming?”

Laura followed reluctantly as he playfully ushered her out into the hall with a bow and a wave of his hand.

Jim quickly took the lead in checking for open doors. There were several to choose from, but what drew his attention almost immediately was one average-looking door with a red sign on it that said, No Unauthorized Personnel Allowed.

“This one,” he said with a wicked grin and a glance at his watch. “Definitely through here. Come on, we’ll come back in fifteen minutes, tops.”

Clearly, she didn’t like the idea of taking this to a level higher than peeking through hallway doors, but she shrugged and followed less reluctantly than he expected. They entered a stairwell landing that offered an up or down direction. He chose down and they moved as quickly and quietly as possible on sturdy metal steps. They were grateful that the metal was reinforced and strong enough not to make much noise.

There were four landing platforms on descent and yet no other doors. The landings were obviously built out of a need for stability. Laura muttered something about what a pain this was going to be when they had to go back up. She was about to stop Jim from going any further when they were unexpectedly at the bottom of the stairwell. There were a few boxes piled around, but nothing out of the ordinary. The door was as drab as the one above. This time, there was a sign that read, Do Not Enter Without Proper Authorization.

“I hope that door is locked,” Laura said. “I still can’t believe they left the one up there unlocked.”

Jim winked and tried the door. It was unlocked and, to their relief mixed with trepidation, opened easily on well-oiled hinges. He nodded appreciatively and spoke with a sarcastic whisper. “At least this door is benefiting from our tax dollars. No squeaks.”

Laura’s grim expression and forced smile belied her enthusiasm to go any further, but she followed him as he entered a long well-lit hall. Despite the obvious cooling and conditioning, the air smelled like painted concrete, antiseptics, and electronics. They saw another door like the one through which they had just entered at the other end the corridor. In between, on each side, several doors awaited the stealthy couple’s intrusive inspection. All of them were closed, except for one on their right.

Jim motioned for silence. They passed through the next door. Down this next hall there were windows in every door that afforded a glimpse into each room. Apparently, Tom told them the truth regarding the personnel in this place.

This building was eerily quiet. There did not seem to be any employees around, so far. The rooms were only partially lit, and mostly by computer screens and sparse track lighting above. What little they could see was more than enough to raise their eyebrows in surprise. Except for computer equipment, nothing in these rooms seemed recognizable to the couple. They were filled to capacity with elaborate chemical laboratory apparatus, containers, and oddly specialized paraphernalia.

Jim remarked, “Looks like a laboratory down here. Something’s fishy. Don’t know if I believe that Tom guy about shutting systems down. They look operational to me.”

When they peered into the open doorway at the end of this hall, they saw a spacious area with an enormous glass tank filled with a brackish liquid placed in the middle of the room. It was surrounded by computer equipment and had several oddly constructed devices attached to the tank on three sides.

Four smaller tanks radiated out from the larger one like a clover and were filled with that same brackish water. There was a desk placed between two of the tanks near the wall opposite the entrance and facing away from the door. To the couple’s astonishment, Tom was sitting at that desk. His back was toward them.

Tom sensed a presence behind him and without turning he said, “Corey, I thought you left. I’m almost done here. I’ve got to get back upstairs before that young couple gets it into their heads to start snooping around. I wouldn’t put it past that Jim kid to—” He spun around in his chair and his face turned red, first from embarrassment and then in anger.

“Well,” Tom started, “this is awkward.” He remained seated but sat forward and raised his voice, “What are you two doing down here? I can have you arrested!”

Jim lifted his hands, indicating the room around them. His laugh was forced and irate with that same inflection that Laura recognized as the beginnings of a James Valmont tirade.

“No, Tom, the question is, why did you leave us waiting upstairs while you came down here to play with secret laboratory equipment? What is all this stuff? I’m going to blow the whistle on you and this place that has no business being in a federal revenue building. It all looks dangerous to me. It’s probably part of some lethal chemical production factory. After all, this is a perfect place for a government cover-up, in the lowest levels of a boring downtown government building. Whose awesome idea was this and why should our tax dollars be spent on it?”

Tom stood, piously insulted. “OK, mister conspiracy theorist, I’ll play your game for a minute. If this is a secret, then why aren’t there locks on the doors and lots of guards? I’ll tell you the truth. Why shouldn’t I? These are government laboratories. So what? Why shouldn’t we make the best use of space that would otherwise be wasted? Look this address up on the Internet. You will most likely find it listed in a few databases as a research facility. As for your tax dollars, federal research laboratories like this one are mostly paid for from private funding and penalty taxes.”

Tom was continuously looking over Jim’s shoulder while he spoke. Jim thought he was staring at Laura, while she glanced nervously out into the hall.

Jim remained indignant. “Mostly?” Jim grinned. “At least that was an honest admission. Private funding? I doubt that. Penalty taxes? Yea, sure, I buy that one too. Why not penalty taxes? God knows, there plenty of those.”

Tom held up his hands. “All right, that’s enough. I have a choice to make. Either I have you arrested or give you your check as planned and kick you out of the building. It would be a shame to smudge your new start on a bright future with a criminal record. I am willing to let you go without any more trouble, if you leave without a fuss, and I honestly don’t care what you tell anyone about what you’ve seen here, because I’ve told you the truth. None of this is any big deal.”

Tom picked up an envelope from the desktop and handed it to Jim. “Here is your money. Again, you may do with it what you wish. Just go back up the way you came down.”

Jim accepted the envelope with a grimace and a rueful twist at the corner of his mouth.

Tom cocked his head to one side and allowed a wicked humor into his voice. “I am curious, James.” Tom said with deliberate slowness. “Doesn’t it bother your strong sense of social justice that you now hold a check that most deserving retirees, sad to say, won’t get? God smiled on you, but what about everyone else?”

Laura shook her head and lightly slapped her forehead. She could not see Jim’s face from where she stood, but she could well imagine the red crawl up Jim’s neck into his cheeks and set his eyes on fire. She rested against the wall and knew what she was about to hear.

Jim’s hands were shaking as he folded the envelope, without opening it, and put it into his pants pocket. He stepped up to Tom. Tom seemed amused more than anything else and did not flinch away as Jim leaned forward and forcefully said, “You self-righteous government types like to invoke religious images every chance you get, don’t you?” He pointed at Tom’s chest. “It makes us take our eyes off the ball. Religion is a people’s institution and you guys use it to blindside us with sleight-of-hand while you perform your evil deeds somewhere else. Another thing you guys like to do is to make us so paranoid of other nations and cultures that we feel isolated. You want us to be paranoid!”

Jim was practically screaming by this point, and Laura was worried that he could be heard all over the building. “Well,” he continued breathlessly, “the grassroots movement is overtaking the garden, my chubby friend, and we’re on to your tricks! Private donations and penalty taxes, my butt! We’re all paying for your secrets one way or another!”

Tom smiled benignly while Jim caught his breath. Then, before James could say anything else, he looked up over Jim’s shoulder again, only this time a security guard had entered the room and startled Jim by placing a hand his shoulder.

“Corey,” Tom smirked, “I thought you’d never get here. Please, escort these two out of the building before this young man wastes any more breath on me.”

Looking squarely at Jim and wearing a serious expression, Tom added, “Really, James, what does any of that have to do with me, this place, or the lottery? Consider it a gesture of my goodwill and patience that I don’t have you thrown into jail for trespassing.” As Corey led them out of the room and down the hall, Tom raised his voice and said, “Don’t forget what I said about investing in an FSRA!”

* * *

At home, Jim took the envelope out and unfolded it. The suspense was too much for Laura. She grabbed and quickly opened it. It was true. The amount of the check was enough to provide one person with a comfortable retirement. They remembered that they could do anything they wanted to with it, so the next question Laura had was, “Where are we going to celebrate?” She was bouncing again. “How about a vacation?”

Jim laughed and said, “Why not a holiday? Let’s just deposit it and have a little fun before we get serious with the investing part.” He endorsed the check, wrote his account number on the back and replaced it into the haggard envelope.

Outside, Jim was locking the front door when a fearful frown crossed Laura’s face. “Let me see that check again.”

He pulled it out and handed it to her. “Why?”

After studying it briefly she looked like she wanted to cry. “Read this!” Her hands shook as she handed it back to him and pointed at the bottom of the check.

Jim squinted and read a line of fine type that read, in part, “Should be deposited into a federally sponsored retirement account to avoid substantial penalty taxes.” He stared at the last two words as with the two red eyes of a blood-crazed baboon. Irony bit him. Promising visions of a vacation vaporized like a magician’s trick.

Laura sounded weak with disappointment. “We can’t touch that money in an account like that. At least, not until you actually retire.” Wilting further. “Now what?”

Seconds passed in dumb silence before Jim seemed to relax a little, snapped his fingers and said, “Wait a minute. Tom did say I can do what I want with this check.” She nodded as he paused for thought. “So, we do open one of those accounts. Of course, we also take a good bit of cash at the same time. I’ll pay the penalty for the cash back.”

Good spirits were back. Laura said, “We’ve probably screwed it up for the next Lotto.”

Copyright © 2018 by John Eric Ellison

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