The Division of Bad News
Each day, it was someone else’s turn to receive a call. When it happened to one of us, we weren’t exactly sad. Neither were we happy; in that delicate space between hope and the hum of everyday life, we were a number of different things: digging out weeds, chopping carrots with dull knives, knitting by a fire that kept dying out, dutiful fingers interlacing threads that would become a scarf or a sweater. On a bright summer day, we might not have been at home for the call, the sound of the phone echoing through the halls and reaching no one, but there weren’t many bright days in Spring Mountain. Our lives were mostly cold, our shoulders never sun-kissed. So we villagers were in the middle of a meal: a roast and vegetables, smoked fish and boiled eggs. Or maybe we were about to enjoy a slice of pie, cheeks pinked by the warmth of the oven, when suddenly we heard the ring.
As it turns out, it was a bright summer day, the first blue one in years. The clouds had been scared away by a daring sun that radiated more warmth than I could handle. On my way to work that morning, I felt a slight pressure on my brow and realized I couldn’t look up—the light was a heavy hand directing my gaze to the ground. Over on Main Street, Billy Mayer stood on a staircase, a baseball cap covering his bald spot. He held a handmade sign that read, “Ice Cream today,” and placed it over the one that read “Firewood.” I quickened the pace. I took a shortcut through some backyards and walked into a side street to the parking lot, which was empty for a Monday.
At the office, I approached my station at the end of a long hall. The window was open and the air had changed: the usual smell of stale soup had waned, and something clear, floral, made its presence known. A few employees were already hard at work, a dark card in their hands and dozens of others piled up on their desks. I put the jacket I didn’t wear on the back of my chair and sat down. On my desk sat a headset, a dictionary, and a brown envelope in wax paper with my name in all caps. Tearing the protective seal, I found what I always found: a new stack of pitch-black cards, forty or fifty of them, each bearing the name and phone number of someone from the valley. The cards looked identical, and their message was the same.
I put on my headset and dialed the numbers on the first card. The phone rang once, and I thought of all the calls I’d made in the past, the ones yet to come, and how they all started with a ring, how almost everything began with a sound. The line rang again, and I thought of the length of each ring: like saying someone’s name, like calling them.
While the phone rang a third time, I picked up my dictionary. It had been a welcome gift from my supervisor, with instructions to look up new words between calls. Words had a special weight for the Division. On a board next to the water cooler, employees were encouraged to write up synonyms and effective ways to convey the same message so that the calls wouldn’t sound robotic. With any luck, I thought, I could write a new one on the board today, one people hadn’t come up with before.
“Hello?” I heard the expectation in that woman’s greeting, the nervousness of not knowing what waited on the other side of the call. I always thought that one day, with a better phone, we would be able to hear their heartbeats.
“Am I speaking to Mrs. Kandinsky?” I asked, straight to the point. On a normal day, I probably would have buttered her up some. Good morning—is this Mrs. Kandinsky? I would have said. Or, May I speak to Mrs. Kandinsky, please? But time was of the essence. If the weather got any nicer, someone could decide to host a barbecue or celebrate a birthday at the lake. Over in Lava Springs, Mary Kelly could fancy Billy’s initiative and reopen her soda fountain store. I mean, people could get all sorts of ideas, which would result in me losing an entire day of calls that would reach no one. The stack of cards in my workstation wouldn’t shrink on its own accord. On the contrary, given all the empty chairs in the Division that day, I’d probably have to work late.
“Yes,” a woman’s voice said. “I’m Mrs. Kandinsky.”
“Mrs. Kandinsky, this is a call from the Division of Bad News. We regret to inform you that you were not the winner of the lucky draft.”
Mrs. Kandinsky breathed into the phone.
“Do you have any questions?” I said.
She hesitated. I gave her some time.
“Mr. Brooks,” she said timidly.
I knew where this was going, but I asked her anyway. “What about him?”
“We went out last week,” she said. “He makes a good steak.”
“Maybe try again in a few years?” I said.
“And my blueberries?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Kandinsky. I wish I had better news.”
“Well, thank you very much for your call,” she said. She didn’t curse me. Didn’t call me names or hang up on me. We got that a lot. But she was so polite, it almost hurt. Mrs. Kandinsky let me finish my speech. “The Division of Bad News appreciates your business, and we hope to contact you with better news in the future.”
Spring Mountain sat at the base of Rocky Mountain, a mountain under a mountain, and those who were born there grew up with a stony presence looming over their heads. As part of the St. Patricio Valley, a patron no one cared to pray to, the town was surrounded by smaller villages like Lava Springs, Houndtown, and Heckville, and it lived under the constant weight of a blanket of fog. Most houses were designed to be useful rather than beautiful, small homes with red brick roofs and faint paint. People led simple lives. Our hearts weren’t visited by burning material ambitions. Everyone’s fortunes were determined by a draw, and only one person in the valley would receive good news at a time. Sometimes that happened once a year, sometimes once every five years; the frequency wasn’t clear. It had been this way for so long, there wasn’t even a record of a time when life wasn’t like this. We didn’t even have a division of good news, that’s how little good luck there was to dish out. To make a good-luck call, the attendant would head over to a small room in the back of the Division and call the recipient behind closed doors. I had never received a good-luck call, nor had I ever made one, but I’d laid eyes on a good-luck card once, when one of our oldest employees retired and was assigned a good-luck call on her last day. As she made her way slowly to the small room, she held the card next to her chest, and through her wrinkled, papery hands, I saw a combination of colors so pleasing I almost cried in my chair: different shades of pink, red, orange and blue mixed with subtle hues of green and yellow, a beautiful thing to behold. I felt taller just looking at it.
Carol walked through the door later than her usual late. I followed the top of her head as she passed each cubicle, her dark bun bouncing like a ball, the bun she would untie and tie up over and over again between calls, and as always, I felt the urge to chop it off. She sat in the station next to me and flashed me a sly smile, followed by a wink, a movement that seemed to imply that I was complicit; that I, too, would be late one day, and wasn’t that a normal thing, a thing everyone did at some point?
In my four years working at the Division, I had not once been late.
Sitting up straight, I breathed in and pulled my head toward my right shoulder. I let the air out slowly. Stretching one’s neck was important, the head of the Division had said during an employee retreat earlier that year. Standing alone on the stage, the director turned her back to us and explained, her fingers running down her neck, that speech was affected by each small muscle and ligament, that everything was connected. She could always tell, she’d said, when the caller was relaxed, and what a painful sound when they were not. They could always tell: all calls were recorded for quality assurance. They were also transcribed, the logs cleared of curse words and placed on a shelf in the basement, an underground library housing the luck (or more frequently, the lack thereof) of each one of the valley’s inhabitants.
I stretched my neck in the opposite direction and closed my eyes. I thought of the next call I was going to make, how it would be my best one yet, when all of a sudden I was struck by a sharp smell of apples. Apple pie, apple juice, something that required an unheard amount of apples clogged my nostrils. I opened my eyes. Carol’s face was only a few inches away from mine.
I pushed my chair back. “Jesus,” I said.
Carol smiled. “Did you have a good weekend?” she asked.
“What is that smell?”
“Did you bathe in applesauce?”
“Oh,” Carol said, sounding pleased. She took a small tube of lotion from a drawer. “I got it over the weekend,” she said. She squeezed a small amount on the back of my hand. “Try it.”
She had started at the Division a few months before me, and based solely on the fact that she and I were the same age, she acted as if we were best friends.
I wiped my hand on her arm. I reached for my headset.
“Well,” Carol said. “If you must know, I had a fun weekend.” She looked both ways and whispered, “Mark and I went to the lake.”
There was also that: Carol had started seeing someone. She couldn’t help it. Although none of us would confess to harboring grandiose aspirations, our hearts ached for the tiny things like that. We adopted pets, met new people, drove with those people to the lake and, staring ahead at the silent body of water, made timid wishes—I suppose you could call them plans—for the future. Which, of course, only made the outcome all the more bitter: sometimes things took a turn for the worse within seconds of us receiving a bad-luck call. Milk would go sour in the fridge. A love interest would suddenly lose interest. A house would burn down and take the neighbor’s house with it. Some fatal car crash we would read about in the news. Still, we couldn’t help it. Though we wouldn’t openly discuss it, hope was the pale feathery thing tickling our feet at night. That’s why Carol and I had that job, and probably would have it for life. I liked to think I had learned my lesson, but Carol seemed a ways from learning hers.
I tapped the ends of my forefingers against my headset. Carol got the message. She dragged her chair back to her station, the casters leaving traces on the carpet. She unwrapped her brown envelope. I dialed the numbers on the next bad-luck card.
“Can I speak to Mr. Knox,” I said.
A loud burp sounded on the other end, and the smell of Carol’s lotion made me think that whoever was on the other side of that call had eaten pie for lunch.
“This is he.”
“I’m calling from the Division of Bad News,” I said.
A female canine. The posterior opening of a mammal’s digestive tract. A person with limited intellectual development. That would be how Mr. Knox’s insults would appear on the log.
Carol let out a scream. I looked at her. With one hand she covered her mouth, and with the other, she held out a small piece of rainbow, a piece of paper so vibrant it seemed to suck in all the colors of the room. She had been assigned a good-luck card. The first good-luck card in years had been assigned to Carol.
She stood up. She sat down. She moisturized her elbows and stood up again. She looked at me. I covered my headset. “Go,” I said and shooed her with my hand. She moved awkwardly to the back of the room. She was nervous, of course. I would have been nervous, too. On top of the surprise, whoever was assigned a good-luck call also received some luck. That’s what the rumors said, though how much luck no one knew for sure.
I heard a voice in my ear. Mr. Knox was still on the line.
One who engages in sexual activity with another person’s mother, his final insult would read in the transcript. He hung up before I could finish my speech.
Carol seemed agitated when she returned to her cubicle. Feel my hands, she said, and placed them on my forearm. Her skin felt cold and moist, like beer on a windowsill. She untied her hair. She pulled a piece of gum from a drawer. We were not supposed to discuss good-luck calls, but if someone was going to break that rule, it would be Carol. She pulled her chair close to mine. She picked up my dictionary (who knows where she’d put hers) and pretended to look up words. She pointed her index finger at a random one. Her blue nail polish was chipped on the edges.
“He was on his way out,” she said to me. “I figured he was going for ice cream or whatever, so I said to him, do you have any fun plans for the day? It’s OK to ask questions, you know.”
We didn’t know. Because they were so rare, we were not trained to make good-luck calls. We could break the news however we wanted. Also, good-luck calls were never recorded.
“But he wasn’t going out for fun,” Carol continued. “He was on his way to work, like everyone else, he said.”
She reached for a colorful pen on her desk. She opened the lid with her mouth and underlined a word on a different page. “I love how this smells,” she said. She brought the dictionary to my nose. The ink smelled like bananas.
“He is from Heckville,” she continued. I felt a heaviness in the bottom of my stomach. “Did you know that there are lumberjacks in Heckville? A dry place like that? I would never have imagined.”
My heart sank. I knew one lumberjack in Heckville.
“Well, apparently there are.” She flipped the page. “But the strangest thing was, he didn’t ask me any questions. I told him my name, said I had fantastic news for him, but he just listened. I’d hoped my happy tone would tip him off—I’m a sucker for happiness, you know me. I believe we could all stand to be a bit more cheerful—but he just let me babble on. Didn’t laugh. Didn’t cry. Isn’t that funny? Some people are like that, I suppose.”
I shuffled my bad-luck cards.
“Anyway, I finally broke the news. Well, Mr. Dave Welly from Heckville, I said. It’s my great pleasure to inform you that you’re the lucky winner of the Division’s draft.” And you know what he said?
I knew exactly what he’d said. She said it aloud, and I said it in my head: “That’s better than being tickled by a monkey.”
There was a secret trail that connected Spring Valley to Heckville. A path that was often hidden by the fog, and that for that reason remained a secret to most people. But if someone, let’s a say a couple, a man and a woman: if they drove there together at the suggestion of one of them; if parking on the trailhead, they jumped the wooden fence that had been swallowed by the vines and made their way through the dense vegetation, the shrubbery scratching their elbows like arrows, they would find it: a stretch of dirt that linked one place to the other. It would feel promising under their feet, the trail; it would feel solid like a new beginning.
About half a mile in towards Heckville, the fog would begin to recede. The path would start to clear and the colors would become sharper. The couple would reach a steep hill, and at that point, they had two choices: either to continue the trek up to the top or to walk back to the car. Now, it would take a certain type to walk back after having gone that far, especially if they were on their first date and one of them, say, the man, had recommended the trail. And if the woman had ever wondered about the difference between a rock and a stone, that initial ascent would clarify it for her: a rock was what she thought she’d stepped on before falling on her knees. A stone is what tore through her trousers and bruised her leg, a pain both sharp and hot. But suddenly, an open palm before her eyes. Her scraped hand would meet his, and he’d get her off the ground with one pull. He wouldn’t ask if she was okay; he hadn’t said much all day and she found that comforting. Instead, he’d kneel and peel the fabric of her trouser gently, like a piece of fruit. He’d examine the wound and then he’d produce an ointment from his pocket. He was that kind of man. He’d apply it to the wound: it would burn at first, then a sensation of cool. “It will be OK,” he would tell her, and that would settle it. They would continue on the trek, slower this time, the man guiding the woman by the hand through the riskiest parts. She wouldn’t sense even a drop of sweat on his palm: the texture was similar to the trees he felled, and it seemed to carry their wisdom, the way a tree could be calm and reassuring.
At the top, the whole valley would unfold before them. The houses looked like toys, the streets like the fine lines of a map. The Division building would be a narrow concrete block in the distance, the lake but a drop of water on a carpet of green extending in every direction, and whatever happened there and whomever it happened to would look so small. The sky would be a shade of blue so vivid it wouldn’t seem real. Funny, the woman would think, how the more vivid something was, the less real it seemed to be. There would be a bench at the top. They’d sit on it. She’d lay her head on his shoulder, and he’d put his arm around her waist. The silence between them would be a kind presence, and all around the song of the world: birds, bugs, the wind, the cars below. At some point, he would say “That’s better than being tickled by a monkey,” something his father used to say to him, and his grandfather too, he would explain. “It is,” she would reply. She would think that was nice, being up there with him. It was as nice a thing as it could be.
No one asked her, but if anyone had, the woman would have told them: at that moment, she made a wish. With her head on the pillow of his arm, she wished for that moment to go on forever, just that.
Say, wouldn’t it be the saddest thing if she never heard from him again?
I had never heard from him again. That had been four years ago, almost to the date. I spent the first months trying to call him, but each time I got the same message: this number has been disconnected. I assumed Dave had died. He had died for me anyway, like the ones who’d come before him, like my plants had died a few years back, like my pet lizard who had been run over by a truck. Things died. You got used to it. How do you know something will work out, I asked my supervisor when it became evident I wouldn’t hear from Dave again. When you receive a good-luck call, she’d said. Until then, assume that nothing will.
I looked out the window. Light was fading out, rosy hues succumbing to gray. A small bird landed on the windowsill. So Dave had received a good-luck call. His whole life would change, I thought, as I stretched my neck once more. Whatever life he had been living up to that point would only get better.
Carol gathered her things to leave. She hummed a tune I didn’t recognize and I could tell by the delicate manner she arranged her belongings that she was happy. She closed the window. Through the pane, I noticed that the sun had put on its neon pajamas: the clouds were stained with the final colors of the day and the air felt chilly again. Carol fastened her jacket. She reached for her keys. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. She handed me my dictionary.
I read the words she had underlined.
here n: this place <get away from ~>
here.abouts \ -bout \ adv: in this vicinity
1. here-after \ adv: after this sequence or in time 2: in some future time
2. hereafter n 1: FUTURE 2: an existence beyond earthly life.
I read them again. I thought it was funny how a small detail could change a word. It didn’t even have to be a full word; sometimes, half a word would do it.
Night fell upon the valley. The head of the Division was heading out. “Don’t stay up late,” she said as she left. And looking at the pile of cards on my desk, “Just give it to them straight.” She winked at me. Since we’d been understaffed, she probably presumed I was covering for someone. What she didn’t know was that I’d actually met my quota an hour earlier. I had simply moved all my bad-luck cards to the bottom of the pile.
The door clicked to a satisfying sound when she left, the sound of an instant coming to an end. Now it was just me and the flicker of fluorescent lights, the tired hum of the water cooler, which hadn’t worked that hard in ages. And then the sound of plastic as it wrinkled and crinkled, of me going through Carol’s trash bin and tossing all the contents on the floor. So much gum wrap—green-apple, strawberry, watermelon—her trash bin a testament to her obsession with artificial sweetness. A hairpin. Carol’s bad-luck cards from the day bearing doodles in the margins, which I thought was disrespectful. But Dave’s good-luck card was not there.
I sat in Carol’s chair and imagined for a moment what it would be like to be her. Where would she have put Dave’s card? I looked at her belongings. She kept a photo of her dog, a French poodle named Mary, in a portrait next to a candle. A pit bull had beheaded Mary the previous year, not long after Carol had received a bad-luck call from the Division, and for a week afterward she didn’t show up to work. We all had to work late to make up for her absence, a fact I resented. Her candle had a lid where the words “Jasmine Sandalwood” were written. I lifted the lid and immediately closed it. I went through her drawers. More pictures of Mary, gum, lotion, hair ties, highlighters in several colors. A holiday planner with gift lists and a holiday menu idea, a brochure of the latest real-estate development. In one of the drawers I found a box of sympathy cards with the same design on the cover: a purple octopus and the caption, “Need a hug?” I recognized that card. Carol had sent me one last time I received a bad-luck call.
Old bills. Memos. Receipts. Paystubs. Not a single one of those documents had a droplet of color in them. I threw everything on the floor and sat facing the sea of paper before me. I fought back angry tears. Carol had kept the card. Of course she had. Why wouldn’t she keep it? A beautiful good-luck card with Dave’s contact information in the middle, which, as luck would have it, I had long lost. Who knew, at this point she could be on her way to Heckville to meet him—who amongst us wasn’t desperate for something nice to happen, for change? She was probably at his doorstep right now. It was possible. Everything was possible. Dave had had good luck. Carol had Dave’s card. What a lucky day for some.
I started to clean up the mess I’d made. As I opened the bottom drawer, I noticed Carol’s dictionary deep in the bottom, dusty and hardly used. I thought of replacing my marked-up dictionary with hers. I pulled it out of the drawer and a piece of paper fell on the carpet, a bad-luck card. I picked it up. The name on it was so familiar, I couldn’t register it at first.
I read my name.
It dawned on me: I hadn’t received a bad-luck call in a long time. I really hadn’t. I thought about it. My new plants had made it through the winter. My roof was not leaking. I hadn’t caught a cold, hadn’t so much as sneezed over the past months. Even my hair was growing out nicely. I wondered how long my bad-luck card lay hidden in Carol’s dictionary, but in truth, it didn’t matter: we were supposed to make the calls the same day we were assigned them. That was the number one rule of the Division, a rule they emphasized at every gathering, and there were consequences, severe consequences, they told us, for not adhering to it. But what these consequences entailed we weren’t sure. As far as I knew, Carol was the first one to break the rule. Apple-scented Carol. Banana-pen Carol. Annoyingly optimistic Carol. Breaking the rule for me? I put everything back into the drawers. I chewed on a piece of watermelon gum. It tasted like the real fruit initially, and then like the worst thing I had ever tasted, overly sweet and repulsive. I switched off the lights and walked outside. I sat on the front steps of the Division and stared out at the darkness. Some stars danced against the blue night curtain of the sky, and I realized they were fireflies sparkling off and on, as if flickering in and out of existence. I took comfort in them. So much of life happens in obscurity, I thought. Almost all of it, really, but every now and then something glitters.
Flavia Stefani is a Brazilian American writer, a 2023-2024 Brown Handler Resident, who earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A former assistant editor at Guernica and Witness Magazine, Flavia is at work on a novel and a collection of linked stories. Born in Goiânia, she lives in San Francisco.