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The Tale of Mr. N--, a short story by Christen Roberts Comer

Updated on April 20, 2012

This is The Tale of Mr. N--, written by me, Christen Roberts Comer, presented here in three parts. This short story was written in 2000, published in the University of Rochester's literary publication Logos. COPYRIGHT CHRISTEN ROBERTS COMER - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED - DO NOT STEAL

The Tale of Mr. N--

For months they talked about the discovery of Mr. N–. The childrens eyes, caught on the wet, slow-moving lips of the storyteller, grew wider with each retelling. Their short breaths escaped in hot, painful bursts. How could it be? Why didn’t he stop? Couldn’t he see? they cried. The story teller shook her head, as she always did when they attacked her with the same questions. He could not, she said. He did only what he knew how. The children nodded. Somehow it made sense. And though they knew they could never be like him, it didn’t stop them from keeping an eye on their parents, eyeing the piles of bags in their kitchens, keeping vigil. Making sure the parents never let the pile get too large.

Just in case.


After they hacked the door to pieces and spent hours trying to get inside, they found a letter.

To Whom It May Concern:

I sincerely apologize for the wretched state of my house. Under normal circumstances, it is as well-maintained as my own person, which has been meticulous since boyhood. Both must be disastrous by the time you find this! I am shocked at how untidy my bags are and am amazed with how stale the air has become. Since I do not know how much longer I will be able to at least do the dusting, for I am quite weak, I can only picture in my mind how much worse it will be by the time you get here. You see, I have begun to lose strength. Although there are three wonderful feet in my kitchen in which I can roam freely and perform some necessary athletic acrobatics, the bags surrounding me are filled with kitchenware and not my food! I seem to have misplaced those bags. I have considered purchasing more food, but my wallet, which is in a bag in the attic, is on too high a shelf for me to reach. (I put it there by accident.) And, to be honest with you, I cannot bear to bring home another bag!

This may seem inappropriate, but I am sure that it will be some time before any person enters my home after I am no longer able to clean. So, if you will, as soon as you have read this document completely, there is a wonderful woman with fantastic black hair (dark, shiny, suffocating—absolutely stunning!) who is the only person I trust to do a satisfactory job cleaning my home—please call her immediately. I have stepped into her house on occasion and, although it is not quite as tidy as I like, it is far better than the mess in which you are most likely standing (her cleaning aids smell like citrus; a comb for the senses).

Again, I apologize. It is quite embarrassing to make such a terrible impression. I am afraid there will be no kind words for me at my burial. But I assure you, there is a very reasonable explanation for the disaster that has taken me over! Never have I been in such a chaotic state.

My name, as you must know, is Mr. N–. I moved to this town, with its beautiful Victorian architecture and fair-skinned women, six years, three months and 21 days ago. Just yesterday, I was blessed with the opportunity to peer out of a small space between the bags on top of my windowsill and saw a woman waiting for the bus across the street. She had fair skin, the kind one wishes to graze lightly with his fingers. I do not know her name, nor do I think I have ever seen her before, but should she be waiting for the bus again, I would appreciate if someone would tell her how fondly I think of her skin. I have thought this of many women in town and like them to be aware of the pleasure she has given me simply by that thin cream color stretching beautifully across her cheekbones. Seeing such things when one is as wary as I brings back purpose. Yet I fear the bags are winning, and this sudden sense of purpose, felt once more as I write it, has already been terribly snuffed.

But I digress. I must tell you how this all began.

One day (shortly after moving to this lovely town), I went shopping for the groceries I needed for the third week of the month. The shops that line the main road are quite extraordinary, offering me all sorts of opportunities to shop. I could have, if I had liked that sort of thing, requested someone do my shopping for me as there is just such a service available to me approximately two blocks down to the left. But walking down the aisles of the grocery allows me to admire the beautiful array of colors on all the boxes of cereal, and to smell the heaviness of the soup and tomato paste aisle. The produce section is wonderfully arranged with all the green produce—lined up according to shade from lightest to darkest green—along one wall. The orange produce—peppers, fruit and other various tasty foods—run perpendicular to the green. A whole garden of vivid produce! (Really, it is quite extraordinary.) These small things have brought me the same pleasure I had as a young boy, holding my mother's hand in a grocery quite similar to this one, which is why I love it so.

The man who runs the grocery is very kind and is always willing to double-bag my heavy items. Why not use paper bags? I asked him once. He pointed out that holding these plastic bags by the handle would be far simpler while walking home than hoisting paper bags in my arms. “You wouldn’t like that cummersum feelin’, Mr. N–,” he said.

Although double-bagging did add to the troubles I am divulging to you in this document, I could not stand to ask him to stop.

On this particular day, I found myself back at home, emptying my bags and carefully and neatly refolding the bags to as flat and perfect a shape as possible. That is, the bag appeared as if it had not yet been taken from the box in which all such bags are shipped! I do not know why I did this, nor do I understand why I felt compelled to save them—and each bag obtained on every shopping occasion thereafter—in that small two-inch space between my refrigerator and the kitchen wall. My mother never did such a thing and neither does my sister, so you can imagine my perplexity. Yet each shopping day, I repeated the process, breathing heavily, my heart pounding. It felt so wonderful!

I suddenly realized that I needed these bags. If I run out of the more expensive and proper wastebasket bags (the kind that are packaged in a complex manner so that when one pulls one fresh plastic-smelling white bag from the box, the top of the next bag—upon pulling—becomes easily accessible), I shall have plenty of alternatives at hand! I also realized that one day it will snow heavily and I will have, by then and for sure, misplaced my boots. Or, my boots, by that time, would be old and with holes. The crinkly, plastic shopping bags would be ideal on such an occasion for I could simply tie them around my shoes or old boots, which would be absolutely useless in the snow otherwise. I would, with the shopping bags, be completely foot-dry when I arrived to my destination! However, I have realized today that such occasions has never taken place (though I still believe the latter thought is quite ingenious), and the small space between wall and refrigerator in which I store my neatly folded shopping bags has been filled for such a long time that I was forced to perform a large reorganization operation.

The drawer in which I once stored my eating utensils had to be used. I therefore stacked the utensils neatly on my kitchen table. Then, to my dismay, the other drawer in which I once stored my spatula, whisk, strong plastic-handled ice cream scoop, white-handled can-opener, and slotted spoon also had to be used. Both drawers were quickly filled to the brim with beautifully folded bags from my grocery. I had also placed my undershirts, boxers, and casual-wear on the end of my bed in order to accommodate additional bags then stored in the oak bureau, which was given to me by my dear mother. This means, of course, that I had to sleep with my knees tucked snugly to my chest, which made it quite difficult to roll over and to also breathe normally. I slept in this manner so that I did not mess my clothes, so closely and delicately maintained by the big-bosomed woman at the laundry, which conducts its business on the corner of the main road and Boxer Street, three streets down, parallel to mine. I awoke each morning for three weeks and two days with snapping joints, a strange popping in my knees, and swollen, purple, puffy skin beneath my eyes. My lungs felt like bursting when I breathed in. (These ailments remain even though I have changed my sleeping location.)

When I walked into my bathroom on the second Friday of the previous month to attend to business I am not prepared to share with you—if you would forgive me this one selfish request—I almost broke my hip, for I was being quite careful (tip-toeing between my small, square-shaped arrangements of shaving products, cleaning products, extra shaving products should I run out, and extra cleaning products should some spill while being used) when my knee popped with an incredible bellow and, crying out in surprise (I have never heard a woman cry out like this), I nearly toppled completely backwards, feet over head! Fortunately, I grabbed the rail on which I once hung my towel just in time and avoided what would surely have been a terrible accident. I am quite positive I would be in the hospital this minute had I not thought so quickly.

But misfortune, I have learned, can sometimes bring good fortune, for upon gathering my wits about me, I was struck with a marvelous idea!

As you can well see, leaving my products and possessions lying about in piles—no matter how organized the pile—was quite dangerous (not to mention inconvenient. Since the fourth year of living in this house, I have been eating my breakfast standing by the front door—wearing my suit, jacket and snow boots, which I also slept in seeing as how all my closet space was being used to store grocery bags). So I found that if I began using the bags, my space problems would be over!

I started immediately. First, I placed all my forks in one bag, and my spoons in another. I placed my knives in one bag, and my steak knives in another and so on. I separated my serving utensils, whisk, ice cream scoop, and can-opener exactly the same way, each piece in its own bag. I then placed my boxers in one bag and my undershirts in another and proceeded to do so with all of my possessions. When I ran out of possessions, I simply purchased more (there is a fabulous 24-hour, All-U-Need on the border of the next town heading north-northwest). Unfortunately, I also continued to purchase food and thus had to purchase more personal items that I am sure I will never put to use (that is, other than to fill these bags). However, I must say, I was most delighted with the curly straws. Fantastic little things! They are sold in ‘flashy’ colors with the cutest little plastic characters topping each one. The small, painted little eyes look absolutely thrilled at the prospect of falling, loop-dee-loop, down the magnificent swirl in the straw! Quite fantastic little things! I imagine young ones hoard the darlings.

But again, I digress.

Finally, after adding to the project all the clothes I was wearing today (my suit jacket, jacket, pants, vest, dress shirt, undershirt, boxers, socks, and boots), I find that I am left with only two bags and plenty of regained space! There is at least two to three-and-a-half feet of free space in each room! Absolutely marvelous! There are, of course, some small inconveniences. For example, I have been sleeping in the bathtub for approximately four months. I have found that it is much more comfortable than my bed, which now sags considerably due to the weight of my clothing, books, photographs, bureau drawers, magazines, lamps, etc., now packaged in shopping bags and sitting on my mattress because the floor space is already being used (excluding, of course, my two feet and four inches of walking space). My cleaning schedule no longer exists, and has not for nine months, two weeks and three days. I can clean house no longer. It is absolutely impossible to keep the dust off these plastic bags! They sit together like tightly wound fish. Besides, the bag that holds my cleaning products has up and disappeared!

Despite my desire to appear proper and unsoiled in the face of men (or women) who enter my home, I simply could not keep up. I also could not go to work each morning, first because I could not find my briefcase, then because I fell completely behind in my housecleaning schedule. I know my supervisor has been trying to call me because I heard his voice on my answering machine, but he never spoke long enough for me to locate the phone by following his voice. The last message was quite short, being simply, “You're fired!” He did sound upset. If I could find the energy, I would march to his office on Lexing Street right now, located eight blocks down and two more to the left, and urge him to understand my situation, for my job is quite important to me. I find much delight in figuring my daily reports and am quite proud of the excellent tidiness with which I am able to prepare them. (Mind you, I have years of experience. One must work hard in order to produce the exceptional work that I have. You cannot expect to walk into an office one day and just know the ins-and-outs of daily reports!) Although it is a sad thing to be fired, it is also fortunate because I am too tired to remove the bags that are piled against the front door, at which hunger forces me to stare with longing. Yet I wish to rest as I do so.

But today has brought happiness and rest with it, for I have only two bags left and my heart is filled with pride, despite the sacrifices I have had to make.

Before I continue, however, by placing this pen in one bag and this document in the one remaining, I need to state clearly that should I be unable to find the proper bag with my food and other life necessities, and you find my remains, please dispose of my body properly (this would not be the case if I find the strength to get my wallet, but I doubt I will have any luck). I am afraid my body has wasted away due to the stress and hard work in which shopping has forced me to labor; therefore, eight or nine shopping bags should suffice. These bags have already been put aside, with a piece of paper in each, specifying for which parts each bag is assigned. If you cannot find my remains and find this document first, I would search for my body by the door and if not there, the bathroom, which still remains a dangerous place, so please be careful.

Send my regards to my sister, to whom I leave the dresser in my bedroom (a good, strong glue should put it back together again quite nicely). Also, if your time permits, try to contact a lawn boy; I’m sure a trim is necessary.

Thank you very much for your kindness and understanding. Do use the bag in which you find this document, and the bag that contains my furry red and green hat (which I wish to be packaged with my remains) for your shoes should there be a dreadful snowfall and you find you have misplaced your boots. I am quite confident that you will be pleased with the results.

Mr. N– of Terrace Place


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