Henry’s office was called The Fun Box. Not often by Henry himself, but that was the name scrawled across the front awning in big, awkward letters, and it’s what Henry’s boss Marion referred to it as without fail. When people asked Henry what he did for a living he first weighed the likelihood of their ever actually finding out, such as by patronizing The Fun Box or starting a coincidental relationship with Marion or the other people who worked with him. As long as he deemed it safe, Henry said he was an environmental research journalist. If anyone asked where they might find his writing he clarified that his work was predominantly used by “international governments” and necessarily, therefore, covert. The line had once gotten him laid, but the thought of getting obligated to the forces and exposed to the woman at the same time should lying about one’s profession be declared that day’s SADFAG had utterly robbed him of the possibility of climax.
Unsafe enquirers got something like the truth: Henry wrote attraction pamphlets for a travel agency. When someone paid The Fun Box to arrange a vacation, they were bombarded with, among other unquantifiable flotsam, multiple tri-folds in which Henry attempted to make the highest-paying corporate clients look the most worthy of vacationers’ cash. He found it stultifying, which was a beigeish shade of good.
At the sight of Marion’s maroon minivan parked in front of the office entrance, Henry immediately affected a look of wide-eyed enthusiasm. The expression made his face a little sore and his stomach a little weak, at first, but in the three years since Marion’s Training Summit for Employee Attitude, the affectation and its side effects had gotten easier to bear. They were, at any rate, a lot easier to bear than Marion’s ten-hour morale seminars, ceaseless parades of slideshow psychobabble, stale bagels, and the unfettered jiggling of Marion’s ample wattle as she clucked on about travel being half hope. She never said what the other half was supposed to be.
“There’s a happy face!” She sing-songed at him as she passed by his desk moments into his arrival routine. Marion looked at him, eyebrows raised, her right hand holding a small paper cup of chickory brew somewhat aloft, her left digging into some fold or other of her hip. For a moment Henry felt an intense desire to see her perform I’m a Little Teapot, but it made his smile curl too true, which turned Marion suddenly self-conscious. “Well, back to work, then.” She shuffled off, throwing a confused frown over her shoulder at him as she went.
Henry had graduated from the California University of Pennsylvania. He hated telling people that, and occasionally had even left his diploma off of his job resume in dreadful anticipation of having to go through the entire routine with a human resources rep. The experience as a whole, in fact, from the moment he applied (under the watchful eye of his grandfather, another alumnus) to, well…Henry supposed it never really ended. He’d forever be branded with the stupidity not only of the name, but of the place, and of all the people that expected something other than stupidity from it.
He had majored in Peace Studies, which Henry still reckoned he had little idea of, especially in terms of how it could possibly constitute a major field of scholarship. That was what they had called it, “scholarship”, he’d seen the word more times than he could count. They’d praised him for it, even, his scholarship in the field of peace studies. In the end Henry left the California University of Pennsylvania with a vague sense of it being of paramount importance to be nice to people (which people? That wasn’t a question he ever asked or was asked) if you yourself wished to avoid discomfort, and several hundred thousand dollars of debt. Debt that was supposed to be ground away into dust over time as he inevitably reaped the rewards of his fine penchant for scholarship, but which in fact had increased many times over since Henry discovered that he had no idea what to do with himself and applied for the travel agency job out of desperation while walking through the town’s minimalls in search of discounted sandwiches.
It had taken Henry a lot of time and effort to convince his parents and education counselor to let him attend the California University of Pennsylvania in the first place. Most students chose to go to whatever degree-granting institution was closest to their home city; they tended also to choose to work there after graduating. Too much movement between cities, it was judged, was bad for morale, and encouraged undesirable traits, especially amongst vulnerable youths. But Pennsylvania’s distinction as the third most violent state in the union, certainly far more violent than Henry’s native Nebraska, made it a logical place to study peace, he’d argued. Given that quotas in the state were difficult to fill then for the selfsame reason, a special dispensation had been made to permit Henry limited rights of temporary relocation. By the time he had finished his basic degree nine years later, the paperwork linking him to Nebraska was far outweighed by those mentioning his residence in Pennsylvania, and returning home had become increasingly difficult. Eventually, Henry simply stopped trying to go back.