WORK FROM HOME by Jenn Salcido

WORK FROM HOME by Jenn Salcido

It’s not looking good for us, Jeremy thinks, as he opens the fridge and peers inside. A small, desiccated head of broccoli, provenance unknown, stinks up the whole place like farts. A pickle jar sits inert, nary a pickle floating inside. A sprig of grapes wilts on its vine. 

Jeremy shuts the door. “We don’t have any food,” he calls out to Dog, the dog. 

Dog barks. Jeremy makes a motion with his hands like what is he supposed to do about this, moves to the living room, and commences with his morning fretting routine. First, he backs his body up as far against the wall as he can, jamming his heels against the baseboards. Then he begins to pace. Dog eventually starts following him, whining every so often. 

The doorbell rings––a jangly, incongruously upbeat tune. Just as he’s about to turn the knob, the thing flings open. Jeremy was sure he had locked it but whatever. 

“Hi,” Jeremy says, warily eyeing his friend, Morris Beagle. He stands there, quiet, expectant, irritated, all of his usual states. Then he remembers how human people are supposed to act. “Uh, did you want to come in?” 

“Well, I’m already here, so,” Morris says, shuffling through the door and beginning to dismantle his scarf, coat, driving gloves, mittens, muffler, earmuffs, eye goggles, and so on and so forth, handing Jeremy a raggedy piece of neon paper. 

 “It’s an OPPORTUNITY,” he says, and snatches back the paper almost immediately. “I took THE WHOLE THING so that NO ONE ELSE would get to it first.” 

“I wasn’t done reading it, Morris.” 

“Oh, you weren’t reading it,” he scoffs. “Anyway, I can tell you everything you need to know. I’ve researched it. Thoroughly.” 

Morris ruffles the paper in front of Jeremy’s face, points at some words. He’s standing too close. Jeremy’s stomach growls and he thinks of the empty, farty fridge, and so without really understanding what he’s agreeing to, he says, “I’ll help.” 

Morris sits down and pats the sofa cushion next to him, wanting Jeremy to join. Jeremy perches as far as he possibly can from Morris. “So I called these people yesterday,” says Morris. “I talked to them more this morning and they’ve sent some onboarding materials to my work email.” 

“You don’t have a work email, Morris.” 

“I do,” says Morris. “I do; you just don’t email me there ever.” 

The room is silent for a moment save the slurps from Dog, who is licking his crotch.

“Okay, Morris,” says Jeremy. 

The flier describes the project as being “in the tech space,” and so Jeremy assumes this is going to have to do with food delivery, transportation, or pornography. None of these things are things that Jeremy would immediately dismiss, but he does have a few questions. 

“You know Relations.com?” 

Jeremy nods. He remembers seeing commercials for the service: you spit in a thing, you pay the lab, and then they send you a report about what the spit says. 

“It’s not that,” says Morris. “What it is is, it’s like that, but it’s for dogs. People like your friend here,” Morris says, motioning to Dog, completely without irony. “They’re just like us. They have chromosomes too.” 

Morris pauses to laugh heartily at himself, even slaps his knee. Jeremy is starting to feel like maybe this is a pyramid scheme. “Is this a pyramid scheme?” 

“What? No,” says Morris. “Why would you say that?” 

“It just seems like you’re trying to give me the hard sell,” says Jeremy. 

“Nah,” says Morris, and Jeremy can tell from Morris’s complete lack of facial twitching or leg jiggling that he is telling the truth. “I’m just excited about it. Don’t you ever get excited about anything?” 

Jeremy is quiet while he thinks about this. In short, the answer is probably no. But he really thinks. Inside him there is, as usual, a numbness, a feeling of deletion. 

“Okay, well, this is a problem for another day,” says Morris, his eyes bugging out in disbelief at the sheer anhedonia hanging in the room. “You might want to start by getting yourself out of this house. This house is unsettlingly beige.” 

Jeremy blinks, looks around. He’s always lived in this house.

“Anyway, so this thing––what happens is, people can send in a small sample of their dog’s blood, and the company will tell you the precise genetic composition of the dog,” says Morris. 

Jeremy looks at Dog, who looks at Jeremy, who looks at Morris, who looks at Dog. Jeremy can’t remember why he let Morris in, or if he let him in. 

“We are to help translate these reports generated by the company into layman’s terms, so that people can really have a greater understanding of the precise genetic composition of their dog,” says Morris. 

“But Morris,” says Jeremy, suppressing a yawn. “We’re not scientists. Did you even go to college? I’m sure you recall that I did not.” 

“That’s elitist and entirely besides the point,” snaps Morris. “I’m assured by the company that they supply contractors with everything needed to accurately and satisfactorily complete the job,” says Morris, who then arches an eyebrow and waves a hand toward the desktop computer as if offering a kindness, a generosity. A chance. He gawks expectantly at Jeremy. “Well? What are you waiting for?” he asks. 

Jeremy rolls his eyes again, heaves himself across the room and into a creaky rolling chair set too low to the ground. He feels like a child with Morris towering over him and breathing his login details in his ear in hot whispers. “The username is Morris Beagle,” he says. “The password is Morris Beagle.” 

What Jeremy finds in Morris’s inbox makes his vision go momentarily blurry. There’s spam, and then there’s whatever is in Morris’s inbox. It is an oscillating galaxy of nonsense so impenetrable that it occurs to Jeremy, for the first time, that maybe Morris is actually some kind of CIA heavyweight and all of his emails are encrypted. What else could it mean that he has 47 unread emails from someone/thing called Hadabadabingbong, all of which have subject lines written purely in Wingdings? 

“Are you reading my correspondence?” Morris barks, displeased with Jeremy’s lack of discretion. “Don’t even look at that. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it. I want you to open the email at the top.” 

Jeremy does as he is told, clicking on an email titled “Work From Home! Earn $.” 

*

After Morris leaves, Jeremy walks Dog down a few blocks from their development, stopping every so often to let Dog check and mark his usual spots. Spring is slowly rumbling up from the ground, the rising temperature melting down the dirty snow piles that line the street on the way to Cumberland Farms. Jeremy goes in, gets his usual (a sad approximation of an Italian hoagie). He then floats into the video rental store nextdoor, mournfully eyeing the candy he can’t afford. The plastic smell of the videotapes is so comforting, and he resists the urge to pull a couple cases close and sniff them. He runs his fingers along the spines of the Die Hard films, sighs, and goes back out to Dog. There’s $5 in his checking account; he really needs Morris’s scheme to work out this time.  

He didn’t really want to quit his job at the supermarket, he thinks, chewing on the hoagie while walking back to the house. He liked it there quite a bit. Not only for the regular paycheck, but for the sense of order inherent to its universe. He remembers walking from the bus stop before his early morning shift––the air so cold and crystalline, it was like the molecules had stopped moving entirely. He remembers how it felt to come in before anyone else was there and to start stocking the place, section by section. Making sure each of the labels faced out on the voluminous array of pasta sauces. Grinding some beans to get the coffee sampling station ready. Each and every task slotted together in the most predictable, pleasant way. 

“I’m sorry, dude,” said Ron, his manager, when he finally came back to work after getting out of the hospital. He had essentially ghosted, couldn’t bring himself to call in and let them know what was going on. “We filled your spot. You can’t just, like, not come in.” 

Jeremy had nodded, sort of loosely holding his palms out and looking down at them instead of directly into Ron’s eyes. “I get it,” he said. 

Jeremy had wanted to tell Ron so many things: how much he needed the job, sure, but also how much he’d liked it. How much he appreciated the easy, weightless interactions with strangers. How much it helped keep the darkness at bay. 

Jeremy’s temples start to throb, little silvery jellyfish coming in from the side of his vision. He tries to wipe the thoughts of that time from his mind, concentrating instead on his feet in the slush, on Dog’s delicate prance. He strains his thoughts and his body, trying to root himself in the present and down toward the earth. Sometimes when he starts down this path of memories, it’s impossible to come back; he’ll spend days sleepwalking and hollow, his mind forcibly caught in a sinister time warp. Sometimes, he admits to himself, for a little while, it feels good, like scratching a bug bite. But that’s only sometimes. 

*

Morris promised he’d come back a few days later, and now it’s a few days later, and Jeremy hasn’t opened the folders. The mail truck signals that it’s late morning, and finally Jeremy flips open the first folder, looking around the room for some kind of inspiration or assistance. Dog is stomping on his smelly sleeping cushion, curling around and around like an ouroboros. He cannot help Jeremy. 

Inside each folder, a stapled sheaf of papers awaits some kind of translation. As Jeremy feared, it’s entirely inscrutable: strings of numbers and letters, percentages and probabilities, an occasional bolded set of symbols. 

He opens the document that he downloaded from Morris’s email, the so-called onboarding information from the company. It’s pretty simple, just a word document with a list of steps. Step 1 is to open the folder. Step 2 is to read the file. Step 3 is to fill in the DNA report template with the findings. Step 4 is a black-and-white sideways smiley face.

Jeremy closes his eyes, counts to ten, and tries again to make sense of the paper. He realizes with some relief that, on the second page of each packet, there’s a copy of a questionnaire filled out by each dog’s human. “Your name, dog’s name, dog’s age, breed,” he reads aloud to the room, Dog’s ears perking up at the two mentions of dog. 

He flips back and forth between the second page and the first, the one covered in a cipher of hard science. Then, manna from heaven: a third page, which is just a printout of one to three photos, some of them even in color, different angles of the dog as chosen by its person. This first packet belongs to a dog named Godzilla, and Godzilla looks to be 100% chihuahua. Jeremy checks the second page to be sure; yes, Godzilla is, in fact, a chihuahua. 

Jeremy flips back to the third page, holding it close to his face as he squints, trying to discern if there are any subtle traces of other breeds to be found in Godzilla’s countenance. He heard once that all domesticated dogs are descended from the Gray Wolf. He looks into the pictures for evidence of the wolf, looking occasionally over at Dog, a pug mix. Dog is asleep on his cushion, his paws flicking gently back and forth as he loses himself in dreams, probably rolling in something stinky and dead. 

After what feels like hours of staring into the flattened eyes of Godzilla, Jeremy opens up a second file that he’s downloaded to the desktop, the one called DNATEMPLATEFINAL-FINAL(3).DOC. He is pleased to find it’s pretty basic. He can work with this. He starts by filling in the identifying information on the second page, a small spark of comfort starting to glow inside his heart, one he hasn’t felt since his days stocking cans and shuffling jars. This could be it, he thinks, this could be the thing I do. Buoyed by the notion, he slides through the rest of the data entry for Godzilla, feeling something continue to unclench deep within his body. 

But then he gets to the part where he’s supposed to populate a table connected to a pie chart, and this is where things get hairy. Godzilla is 100% chihuahua, he thinks again. But when he types “Chihuahua” into one column and “100%” into the other, the pie chart fills in all blue. The full circle of it looks menacing, final. Jeremy wonders how much each well-meaning soul paid for these files. He feels bad for the people on the other end, feels that he owes them some sort of more detailed information. Not just contractually––which, of course, he does––but in the broader, more relational sense. What were they hoping to find, sending in a precious vial of blood from their dog? 

Jeremy begins to experiment with the table, adding different percentages and breeds. He starts with feasible selections from a pre-set drop down menu in the file: dachshund, beagle, terrier. He futzes with percentages and watches other colors pop into the pie chart, notices the pleasing interplay of bright primary colors as he assigns varying values and breeds. If he wanted to, he sees, he could make a pie cut into four for Godzilla and it would have all of his favorite colors: blue, green, yellow, red. 

Just then, Jeremy has another idea. He opens up his web browser. Typing “dog” into the search bar, he waits for the slow roll of information to come back from the ether. Once the screen refreshes, he quickly loses himself in a never-ending stream of professional photos of dogs. Minutes pass, then half an hour, and he’s imprinting on the dogs, tilting his head to the side to match theirs. He clicks on one photo, then the next; he clicks through so many photos that when he emerges he feels slightly seasick when he looks around the room, washed ashore in reality. 

Tom, the next dog in question, is more promising. His photo is a side view, for one, so Jeremy can see more of him. Tom is long and fat, his belly straining towards the ground. His butt has one of those truncated tails, like it was vestigial instead of integral to the composition of the dog’s spine. 

Tom’s feet splay out comically in front of his low, broad body, almost like the webbed flippers of a duck. His coat is kind of a brindle color and smoother looking than you’d normally expect from a corgi. The head is all wrong, though, Jeremy thinks. Tom has little ears that flop over themselves triangularly, echoed in the striking geometry of the head itself. It is blocky, heavy-looking, like a pit bull or rottweiler. 

Then a lightning bolt. Jeremy clicks back to his browser and types “corgi” into the search bar. He clicks on a photo. Then he hits print. Then he types in “pit bull.” He clicks on another photo. He hits print again. Aligned with the whirring of the printer, something comes to life inside him. Even Dog notices, lifting his head up from his bedding to watch Jeremy rifle through the desk drawers for some scissors and glue. He makes some quick cuts, then slathers the pieces with glue. Proudly, he arranges them together on the backside of Tom’s photo printouts. It is rough, true, but it works: clearly, Tom was the result of a corgi and a pit bull who had made love. 

After pushing the pieces around a little bit here and there, and after he is satisfied with the alignment of the head on the body, and after taking a good, long look at the actual photos of Tom, Jeremy opens up another report file and starts typing. His fingers fly with a surety he feels in his very marrow. But then he is confronted by a new issue: the math problem of the pie chart had effectively stopped him in his tracks. Does a dog’s body account for 50% of its composition, the head being the other half? Or is the head merely 25%, due to the relative length of the head versus the body entire? Or should he technically be subdividing more––assigning a percentage to each leg, each paw? The tail? At this thought, Jeremy’s left shoulder starts to twitch. Noticing the twitch, his other shoulder twitches, then the original begins to twitch again, each twitch exponentially reflecting the next twitch and the next. This is a side effect of Jeremy’s medication, one he takes for anxiety, which is then exacerbated by his anxiety, multiplying infinitely. 

“FUCK,” he screams, pushing himself away from the desk. He was doing so well! Everything that had unclenched within him has gnarled itself up again like ancient tree roots. 

He shakes his hands loose. He inhales, holds it, and exhales. He looks at Dog, no longer sleeping, up on all fours and alert, the worried pathways of his forehead wrinkles on full display. 

“I’m sorry, pal,” he said, calling Dog over with a clicking noise. 

He scratches under Dog’s chin, feels himself release and relax a little when Dog closes his eyes and points his snout up. 

Jeremy lies down on the floor and tries to affect the effortless cool of a fish in a clear, cerulean sea. But his mind is on another trajectory, sinking towards shipwrecks of impossibility down below. More than anything else, this is what had led to the logical conclusion of the hospital last time: the idea that possibility was beyond him, not necessarily because of any moral failing or inherent weakness, but just because it was in one realm, and he was simply in another. Trying to explain it to the doctor at the hospital, he had likened it to standing in front of a full cupboard of food and being unable to eat, being unable to comprehend the meaning or purpose of food. More than that, even, he felt physically unable to reach into the cupboard, to comprehend the feeling of wrapping his fingers around any one item, much less pulling it down and preparing it. At least this was the closest he could come to making any sense of it, and he could tell from the doctor’s expression that it had not, in fact, made any sense at all. At the conclusion of this thought, Jeremy’s mind clicks into a familiar track, and he is thinking in pictures: the carton of Camels his roommate let him filch from, the woman who left on a Monday looking triumphant and hopeful and returned on a Friday looking like a crumpled paper bag. The ginger ale from the dayroom. The thoughts come faster and faster, the twitch traveling to other extremities. 

“Are you okay?” 

Jeremy opens his eyes. The light in the room has changed. He’s not sure how much time has gone by. Dog is in his bed, snout on paws, watching him intently. Morris, above him, peers down. 

“Yeah,” he croaks, realizing from the cobwebbiness in his throat that he may have actually fallen asleep, his body shutting down as part of a well-oiled dissociation mechanism he’d honed long ago. He gets up slowly, feeling dizzy. “I was just taking a break.” 

Without his usual machinations, Morris puts down his ever-present briefcase and goes into the kitchen. After a few minutes, he comes back with a glass of water. He opens his briefcase, extracts a small bag of trail mix, and hands it to Jeremy. “Here,” he says, “why don’t you sit down for a little bit and I’ll take a crack at it.” 

Jeremy is too tired to argue, and slides with relief onto the sofa, appreciating the cool water and the snack. Appreciating Morris. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought I had a good thing going, but I got a little hung up on some things.” 

Morris nods, assessing the papers spread out around the computer. “This is great,” he says, almost softly. “I don’t know what you’re worried about.” 

Jeremy explains it to him, most of it anyway: the process, the math, the frustration, the lack of possibility. He leaves out the twitch but knows better than to think he can hide it. Morris has been onto him for a long time, not so much about the twitch, but what lies beneath, deep down in Jeremy’s nervous system. Morris has been with him for so long, Jeremy thinks. Morris might be the kindest person he knows. 

“I think we can solve this,” says Morris in the voice of some primitive authority figure, trying to galvanize himself and Jeremy, potentially also Dog. “I really do.” 

The clouds (the screensaver is clouds) part as Morris wakes up the machine, his fingers flying with assurance whereas before Jeremy had only ever seen them hunt and peck. Jeremy finishes the crackers and feels a little trickle of life enter the base of his spine, understanding that the future is not entirely out of his grasp. Just for a second. It is enough. He gets up from the couch and hovers behind Morris, watching magic unfold. Morris is searching and zooming and cropping and printing. The high-pitched whine of the printer is getting to be a little too much for Dog, who galumphs out of the room like that’s enough of that. 

“What are you doing?” Jeremy asks, not in the usual tone reserved for when people ask Morris Beagle what he is doing. 

Then Jeremy feels as though he is in the company of a secret genius, even though he has no idea what’s happening. Isn’t that how genius is supposed to work, he wonders, thinking about all the movie montages that felt just like this very moment. 

“I think you’re not looking closely enough,” says Morris. “I don’t mean this as an affront to you or anything, let’s be clear.” 

Jeremy lets a smile creep across his face. “No, no, never.” 

“This is what I am proposing.” 

Morris gathers up the printouts and starts cutting, printer paper clippings flurrying around as he does it. Jeremy watches intently as Morris assembles a jigsaw puzzle with a glue stick: there’s an ear from a French bulldog, another ear from a Boston terrier. A muzzle from a petite German shepherd puppy, the worried eyes of a Vizsla. 

“This is truly unholy, Morris,” says Jeremy, in awe more than anything else. “I don’t think it’s going to work with the pie chart, either.” 

“Oh, fuck the pie chart!” 

“But, like, the pie chart is for the people who are paying us?” 

Morris waves this off with one hand like it’s truly some insane suggestion; the other hand stays on the mouse clicking print, print, print. “If they don’t see that this is a million times better than a pie chart, I don’t really want their money.” 

“I kind of do, though,” says Jeremy, thinking less of the food and more of all the Die Hard tapes he had to leave behind in the store. 

“We have to think bigger.” 

Morris smiles at Jeremy. Jeremy returns the smile, gestures at the screen, invites Morris to continue. There is no twitch left in Jeremy’s body now, only readiness for what comes next.


Jenn Salcido is a writer living in Los Angeles, where she reads, walks, and takes notes. Her fiction has recently appeared in Back Patio Press and JAKE. Her journalism and other work from a prior life lives on at www.jennsalcido.com. She tweets @jenneralist.

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