The fabric of the bus seat scratched against the man’s thighs like velcro, reaching through the wearing thin of his grey work pants with seeming intent to discomfort. The man squirmed for a few moments before finally leaning back, ceasing to notice, or at least pretending as if he didn’t. The bus rolled past towns packed with houses the man thought all looked the same – two stories, three bedrooms, and a porch swing or rocking chair out front to distract. He pulled his newspaper to his face as if he had something important to read and scratched the back of his balding head. Remaining brown hair attempted to escape, but he patted it down. Just another day.
As the bus halted two stops from his, he thought about his wife. She’d be angry he was late for dinner, and he’d tell her that he could not have gone any faster unless he took the wheel of the bus and sped ahead himself. Well, you wouldn’t want to worry the other passengers, she’d say with a smile before one kid complained about the food, or called out for help, or started crying for what would turn out to be no reason at all.
When the bus began to move again, a few more people had crowded on, and one man filled the seat next to him, surprisingly calm, as if no one would’ve taken it even if he had been the last to board.
He worked in business, the man could tell. His thick brown hair was gelled and combed under a grey fedora hat. It matched his suit, fashionable, his pants resistant to velcro. He held a newspaper under his arm, carrying it like a child kept close and safe. A thick envelope stuck out from between the black and white press. The businessman saw his seat neighbor staring and pushed the envelope in further. There, it could better read the cartoons.
The bus stopped yet again, and the businessman stood, again calm. So close to where he got on, the man thought. He watched as the businessman’s grey fedora bobbed down the bus’ stairs and disappeared into a tangle of suburban streets. Looking down to the blurred headlines of his own newspaper, the bus doors closed, and a square of white caught the man’s attention out of the corner of his eye. He folded his newspaper to the floor and reached for the white square – the envelope the businessman had left.
It was heavy and serious. His fingers toyed with its weight in wonder. And in a moment of uncharacteristic impulse, the man looked quickly side-to-side as if someone would have cared, and shoved the envelope into his jacket pocket. He sweat with its heft, and wet stains swelled noticeably on his clothes.
The bus rolled to the man’s stop, yet another street in suburbia. He nearly ran to his house, past the pair of rocking chairs decorating his front porch. He fumbled with his keys, unlocked the door with more haste than he’d recently known, and continued straight down the stairs to his basement office. The mouths of his children gaped open mid-hello. His wife held a bowl of peas and carrots in dismay.
The man slapped the envelope down on his desk and ran back up to secure the door he forgot to lock. He wiped sweat from his brow as he stared manically at the envelope. There was no writing across the front, and the back was sealed by a lick of glue. Was the envelope as important as the businessman who held it?
The man didn’t open the envelope that night. Or the next night, or any night for the next five years. Every day he toyed with it, pushing his finger into the envelope’s flap and forcing the glue to its near limit, but he never allowed it to break. Every time he felt the glue give, felt the envelope start to open just a little, he shoved it back into the metal drawer of his second-hand desk.
It seemed so significant, but would it be? Was it money? That seemed most probable. But was it a test? Would the money disappear as soon as he opened it? Was the envelope actually intended for him? It did have no name of address. Was that why the businessman sat next to him so calmly? But then why would he hide it when he saw the man looking? Was it something illegal? Was it a secret? Would he involve himself in something much bigger than himself? Did it have to do with the government? Was the businessman a spy? Was that why he was so calm? But would a spy make a mistake as large as this? Was it a mistake?
Just open the damn envelope, his wife said one night, annoyed with his prolonged obsession. It’s just a damn envelope.
But it wasn’t. Every day he wondered about its contents. At work, at home, on the bus. The words of his newspaper filled with theories that he intently read. He looked for the businessman on the bus and even got off at his stop once and wandered. He’d turned around many grey-fedora-wearing men to no avail. He watched his children grow, but at every stage, every event, the envelope stuck to the back of his balding head like an itch he couldn’t scratch. His oldest even graduated high school. The diploma she received gleamed white like the envelope for a brief moment.
Eventually, the stress became too much. Canker sores grew in his mouth like flowers in the spring, and more brown hairs escaped each day, unable to hold on any longer. And finally, in a moment of frustration, an ultimate breaking point, the man ripped the white envelope open. No letter-opener. White shreds flew haphazardly across the room.
Happy Birthday, Nephew! the colorful card read. A five dollar bill fluttered to the floor.
The next day, the man spent the five dollars on a newspaper and a pack of gum. Still, he looked at the store’s security cameras, half-expecting the police to bust in and arrest him, the five dollar bill being a pawn in some greater game. But the teenage convenience store clerk stuffed the bill into the register, and clicked it shut uneventfully.
The man read his new newspaper on the bus ride home.