Phineas Burnstone, perennial idler and ne'er-do-well, whose life began with all the hope and promise of modernity and yet eventually came to nothing, has died.
He was known by acquaintances as the man who literally no longer worked, quitting his last job after declaring he had wasted too many years of his life in various modes of unproductive labor enriching other people. Burnstone's chronic malaise erupted into discontent the year he realized he was scheduled to work through the holidays. His wife, sympathetic and concerned, eventually threw her support behind his decision to quit his job, which involved copyediting broadcast news transcripts and posting them on the Internet under arresting headlines, but not before traffic problems caused him to be late for work again, this time after a semi splattered a wayward black bear across the highway, soaking the asphalt in blood and fat and pieces of matted fur, onlookers squinting through their windows into the morning darkness with mouths agape, the semi slumped in the ditch nearby with its frontend smashed in. Though traumatized, Burnstone accepted the horror of the bear carcass and the gore flung across the road, tracked by thousands of tires throughout the suburbs of Washington, D.C., saying it was just a matter of life imitating life. The one fact about the incident he never fully comprehended, however, was that his boss, possessed by some capitalist demon-spirit, he thought, refused to believe there ever was a black bear or a traffic backup or a nightmare of blood and bear guts, instead accusing Burnstone of not getting up in time to make the hour-long commute to his cubicle.
The downward spiral was evident by Thanksgiving eve when he claimed his fellow commuters in the Baltimore-Washington corridor attempted to run him off the road in a juggernaut of obscene holiday traffic. In a bewildering note to a friend, he complained:
"...they would have bumped me down the embankment as though it were some deadly derby, I tell you, just to make it to that rotting, stinking turkey in time, and a pile of squash and mashed potatoes. Sitting at their tables with that disemboweled bird before them, a ritual of gluttony and diarrhea, its browned, hairless flesh dangling from baked bone, they wouldn't have seen a difference in the world between me, lying in the ditch with my skull stove in and my eyes gored out, and that reeking turkey dead on the table..."
So Burnstone quit what would be his final job and lived for years off the generosity and goodwill of his wife, spending the better part of each day barely dressed, mostly listening to music and reading, sometimes staring out the window into cascading rain, sometimes savoring the aroma of cut summer grass, often mapping the buzzing and scraping of encroaching insects, mesmerized by howling winds, flying leaves, snow drifts, gray winter gloom.
One somnolent spring afternoon, Burnstone dropped a box on his front stoop for the mailman to pick up. He was returning books he realized he could not afford, and so deposited the hastily repackaged parcel covered in stamps by the door with the address scrawled on a piece of scrap paper taped to the top. By some kind of coincidence that day, a complete shipping workforce arrived outside his window doing daily deliveries: a FedEx, a UPS and a USPS driver all at once, their respective trucks lined up like tankers in some declining shipping port. The postal carrier--suddenly stricken by the sight of the abandoned package waiting in ambush on Burnstone's stoop, perhaps feeling the need to transcend the banality of fliers and filler, all that mail paraphernalia carried around in an oversize golf cart with the steering wheel on the wrong side, the FedEx and UPS drivers beating around by contrast in gas-guzzling arks, dressed in grave digger brown and fleet white or navy blue--is fully absorbed by the package now, himself wearing Union blue pants with a formal-looking Mason-Dixon line down the leg, and a Confederate gray shirt, flips open his cell phone to call it in. Some kind of terrorist threat? What should I do? Yeah, an emblem of the troubled times, our divided and unsafe world. The other two men overhear the conversation and wander over to get in on the moment of geopolitical importance. They huddle over the suspicious package left by a suspicious man--maybe a terrorist.
The police arrived to find Burnstone behind the door, an unemployed man wearing only a bathrobe and sandals. And although he appeared unshaven and dissolute, maybe a little deranged and up to no good, he did appear to be the sender of the package. It was only a box of unread books, and nothing criminal, so they let him off the hook.
"We're letting you off the hook, Mr. Burnstone. No handcuffs or arrest necessary this time. Couldn't take any chances, though. Did we wake you up?"
Everyone laughed. Even Burnstone smiled as a pale sun shone through the trees and the gainfully employed shippers and postman and police officers stood there on his stoop chatting it up before they drifted home to eat their barbecued suppers in the day's dying light.
Later that night as Burnstone lay awake staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep, he wondered if he could put on uniforms like those guys, shippers, postal carriers and police officers, and do their jobs day in and day out. In his mind he tried, but nothing fit. By dawn he wished he had kept the books.
Burnstone's early working experience, which probably skewed his opinion of the larger world of employment, began with his job as part-time lead smelter at a book bindery owned by a relative in a town too small to house its own free-standing bookstore. Here young Phin would shovel great heaps of used typographical slugs bearing words like American / Journal of / Ophthalmology which he dumped into a steel tank plugged into a 220-volt electrical outlet and fired above 800 degrees Fahrenheit. When his face met the blistering heat emanating from the mouth of the tank, he sometimes imagined himself a thick-headed Medieval alchemist, unburdened by reason, trying to turn base metals into gold. In truth, his labors probably did create wealth of some kind, but usually in short stacks of U.S. dollars kept at a nearby bank, since the gold standard had been abandoned long ago.
On these lead-smelting days, after a long day at high school that began with physics and chemistry, where Phineas learned that the symbol for lead in the Periodic Table of Elements was Pb, which he took as some kind of cosmic joke, and where gold, Au, had a unique atomic weight and configuration of outer-shell electrons that rarely resembled lead, Phineas would usually wear a face mask, long leather gloves and plastic safety glasses to protect himself from the painful bubbling and spattering so common in the pouring of hot, molten metals. After scooping off the dross--the dry, brown flotsam floating in a seeming sea of quicksilver--which smoldered and smoked and filled the room with what he imagined was the kind of noxious sulfur stench emanating from the eternal fires of hell, he would turn a valve with a long iron handle and liquid lead would flow into a rusty iron mold where it settled and cooled with the aid of fresh well water streaming through a network of internal chambers. But on humid days, when condensation formed along the chilled walls of the mold, the liquid lead instantly flashed water into vapor and threw a searing mist of lead projectiles. The shrapnel would sometimes strike Phineas's forehead and arms, transmogrifying his clothing with tiny silvery scales, as though the smelting of metals could even set off certain forms of human alchemy.
One day when Phineas wasn't wearing safety goggles, or maybe when he thought it was safe to remove them and gaze with clearer vision upon his freshly forming ingots of lead, something watery deep within the fiery center vaporized, hurling shrapnel into his right eye, a flying shard sinking into his cornea. Palming his inflamed socket, Phineas soon realized he couldn't blink away the irritation and approached his boss to explain what happened, his right eyelid sealed shut as he spoke.
"Another lead bar exploded."
"I got a piece of lead in my eye."
"I can't see right."
Examining the wound, his boss wondered where the safety glasses were throughout this episode, but decided that because of the nature of the injury--some sort of metallic intrusion embedded across the boy's blinker--this time Phineas required the attention of an emergency room doctor. At the hospital, the physician, appearing suddenly in a shimmering white robe, glimpsed Phineas's orb through a scope, located and flicked the metal beam out of his eye, squirted salt into the wound and told him to keep his lid closed but take up his bed and walk. Phineas complied and later emerged from the hospital wearing a thick oval eyepatch of gauze, which made him feel more like a failed pirate than an alchemist.
In the end, his cornea healed and his vision seemed okay, except in later years when he came unhinged, his friends wondering whether lead exposure left him sterile or cognitively challenged or paranoid, possibly at the beginning stages of creeping dementia. We note that, at his passing, he was father of none and of unknown intelligence, his family quietly convinced that quitting his job was a form of willful stupidity--and really quite ashamed of his inexplicable lack of initiative and subsequent aimlessness, a dreadful life spent mooching off his wife until he disappeared.
No one can say for certain how Phineas Burnstone spent his final years. His wife speculates, learning that his hair turned bright white, like a frayed flag of surrender, that he may have wandered at sea in the belly of some freighter, weathering hurricanes and ocean swells and giant whirlpools, glimpsing first-hand the Weaver's foot upon the treadle of the loom.
He wasn't that old when he finally came undone.
About the author:
Phillip Bruso lives in Massachusetts where he sometimes thinks about returning to grad school.