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From “Dear Employee,” which was published in Issue 80 of Conjunctions.

The announcement came in the mail: effective immediately, everyone was assigned a new job. Pay was $0 a week. Hours negotiable.

“What?” said Redd, as he sat at his kitchen table and read his letter over again. “But what will happen to my construction contracting company?”

There would be no more construction. No more contractors either. There would be no more bankers. No more geometry teachers. No more pet emporium owners. No more hydrotherapy specialists. No more pawnshop cashiers. The reassigned jobs were different and they were new. It said this in the letter.

“But I’ve never even seen a frosted flatwoods salamander,” said Redd, who had been assigned the job of Frosted Flatwoods Salamander Finder & Protector.

This species is silvery gray with wiggly black stripes, his letter read. Adult salamanders live in the wetland grasses of Florida’s pine flatwoods. They breed in ponds. When you find one, test for Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans—a deadly fungus. If the salamander is infected, treat it with medicinal gel. This gel is located in a box in your garage. Once you have treated a salamander, find another. Test it too. Do this until frosted flatwoods salamanders have reached a sustainable population. This will likely take fifty to three hundred years.

All over the world, people squinted at the messages delivered to their homes. Many people received letters in the mail, but the messages also arrived via email, text, TV screen, homing pigeon, and, in one case, skywriting. In three cases, as a message in a bottle.

Regardless of the delivery method, the gist was the same: new jobs for everyone. Start right away.

There are no benefits offered with this position.

“Well, not traditional benefits,” said Redd’s brother, Mack, who lived in a camper van behind Redd’s house, and who had entered Redd’s kitchen unannounced to compare letters. “Humanity receives the benefit of restoring the natural habitats we have systematically and recklessly destroyed.”

Mack beamed, but Redd continued to sit quietly, reading and rereading his letter.

“I’m actually kind of excited,” Mack added—which was true. He had never been a go-getter, but his new job filled him with a sense of urgency and inspiration. Anything was possible—he hoped that Redd could see that too.

“Me, I’ve got a bit of a commute,” said Mack, still hoping to stir Redd’s interest. “Gotta head up to a salmon run in Maine to start my job as a Salmon Migration Assistant. Apparently, there’s a bucket brigade involved. And I might need to toss fish over waterfalls when they get tired.”

Redd grimaced. “Who sent these messages?” he said. “And who is enforcing this ‘work’?”

It pained Mack that Redd couldn’t grasp the bigger picture. His older brother. His idol. His boss. Out of habit, Mack gave Redd a look—the one he’d used as an employee at Redd’s construction contracting company whenever Redd told clients a gig would take three weeks tops. The look meant: don’t pretend you’re oblivious to the deep, cosmic truth of this situation, because to go against that truth will only poison your spirit and soul.

Redd didn’t notice. He never noticed. “Would anyone actually care if I didn’t show up to this job?” he said. “Maybe I’ll just loaf around all day.”

Mack opened his mouth to respond. If he knew one thing, it was that loafing was no fun if everyone else was working hard—that was why he had taken a job at Redd’s company in the first place. More importantly, why would anyone want to loaf around when being a Salmon Migration Assistant—or in Redd’scase a Frosted Flatwoods Salamander Finder & Protector—was an incredible opportunity for growth, purpose, and self-actualization within a larger matrix of interconnected organisms and ecospheres?

And Mack might have said this, had he not caught sight of Barbara through the kitchen window.

Unfortunately, he had never been big on focus.

“Hey look, there’s Barbara,” said Mack, rushing to Redd’s front door. “I wonder what job she got?”

Like many people, Barbara was mildly disgruntled by the new assignment—a disruption to her routine. But after emitting a few choice curse words, she accepted the change fairly quickly. She’d called around, and it was clear that everyone had received a letter. She could accept a disruption that was ubiquitous. If they were all being punished, at least punishment was meted out equally. After all, a letter had even found its way to Pat—her lazy, piece-of-shit ex—who lived on a houseboat and wore tinfoil hats and did not pay taxes.

Now Pat had to join a zebra mussel brigade; he’d be scraping the sharp little growths off boat hulls indefinitely. This pleased Barbara tremendously.

Sure, her new job would also be tough, but it wasn’t like her old job had been so great either—answering phones for a semicorrupt construction contracting company.

Change was hard but sometimes change was also good. She’d gotten through a lot by telling herself that. Besides the stuff with Pat, there’d been her mother’s breast cancer and then her own breast cancer. There’d been her daughter’s first overdose, followed by a second. How could a person deal with a constant sense of annihilation? By recognizing that annihilation was inevitable. That our lives were ephemeral and our fates beyond our control. Though if anyone had asked Barbara about her philosophy, she would have likely summed it up as “shit happens.”

Shit had happened.

Barbara didn’t know why, but she’d also given up asking why a long time ago. Asking why didn’t get a person anywhere, especially when it came to cancer and overdoses and womanizing assholes. When a change happened, you went with it. You laced up your goddamn shoes and kept walking. She’d done that with her mother and the cancer, and she’d done that after she found her daughter with elbows bruised and purple in the shower. She’d done that with the asshole men—once she got her head on straight—most notably after an entanglement with her boss at the construction contracting company.

With the new job assignment, it might be nice to get away from him too.

Barbara let the Florida sun beam down on her. She was walking to her new jobsite at a decommissioned water park, about a half-mile from her home in the subdivision. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her receptionist garb—her blouse, pantyhose, and heels—because the letter hadn’t mentioned anything about a uniform. Also she couldn’t be bothered.

“Hey Barb!”

The call came from the home of her former boss, where Mack—her boss’s imbecile brother—was leaning out the front door.

“What job did ya get?” he yelled.

Barbara did not slow her pace or veer from her path. She’d stopped giving yelling men the time of day years ago. She prided herself on that. And maintaining pride was another way to keep going, even when times got tough.

But she did call back over her shoulder: “Pavement Un-Paver.”

All across the world, the new workdays began. People rehabilitated rain forests and un-kudzued meadows and collected plastic bottles from beaches and decontaminated oil-spill sites in estuarine deltas via bioremediation. They nursed starving polar bears back to health. They speared invasive lionfish and restored coral reefs. Sometimes they grumbled—they were tired and dirty and bored by the tedious labor—but grumbling was part of working. Everyone knew that. Grumbling was to be expected. So they continued. They let the workdays tick by.

Children, for those wondering, were worksite interns.

Hunger, for those wondering, was addressed by eating whatever was on hand—bugs, mostly. Or scoops of algae. Mushrooms. A lionfish fillet. Though people were less hungry overall. They clocked in and kept working. It’s exciting work, right? wrote Mack in the letter he sent Barbara, referring to the fact that he too was in the migration assistance field. If there’s ever a conference or a forum, I hope we can meet up.

Barbara didn’t write back, though the letter did make her smile. She read it several times over. Then she crushed the paper into a ball and stuffed it into her mouth, chewing and swallowing it for fuel.

As for Redd, on the first day of his new job, he watched Mack hurry after Barbara, then watched the pair of them walk down the road that led out of the subdivision. Other residents filtered from their homes as well. Some clutched letters to their chests. Some talked to one another excitedly. Some ranted. Most just walked quietly to work.

Redd wanted to rant, but Mack was gone, and Barbara as well, so there was no one around to rant to. And then it was 9 AM. The workday had begun.

Redd pulled on his boots and headed outside. He was lucky, he supposed, that the pine flatwoods were so close—a couple miles from the subdivision. He knew because he’d helped build the subdivision, which had involved clearing and draining a huge swath of the surrounding swampland—or as much as he could get away with at the time.

Redd walked out behind his house, through other backyards, then brush, then irrigation ditches, then a mucky expanse of wetlands. Eventually he arrived in a grove of slash pines rising tall and spindly from an underbed of saw palmetto.

“I guess I’m clocking in,” Redd said loudly.

No one answered.

Beneath the pines, the palmetto swayed.

Redd began to look for frosted flatwoods salamanders. Hours passed. Then more. The sun set, then rose, then set again. Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. Redd had lots of time to think as he turned over leaves and peered into rotting logs. Since he was always sweaty, he reminisced about the freezing mornings he’d spent playing youth hockey while growing up in Stratford, Ontario; he thought about his brother, Mack, who had insisted on playing with him, and about all the family members who were scattered across North America whom he would likely never see again.

Not that Redd had seen any of them very often before—other than Mack.

What Redd really missed was his colleagues at the construction contracting company. They had been his real family. His life. How strange, Redd mused—though Mack had always been the muser—that a whole ecosystem of interactions could be disrupted. That network of phone calls, work orders, workplace affairs, HR complaints, watercooler conversations, and weekends of football watching could be completely upset. Turned over. Vanished. Like none of it mattered. Had ever mattered. Had ever even happened. How precious it had been: he saw that now. A person’s occupation was important but only because it existed alongside other people’s occupations, all of them as delicately linked as the spiderwebs he often walked through.

But now that was all gone—completely erased. How was that right?

Redd felt upset but he also knew he couldn’t let himself get distracted by these thoughts. There was still so much work ahead of him. After two years, he had found only one and a half frosted flatwoods salamanders. The half because a bald eagle had snatched the second one from his hand before he could apply antifungal gel.

It had been joyous, though, when he’d found the first one. Applied the gel. Set the lizard-like creature down to burrow into the damp earth. For a moment, it had made Redd feel like he was part of something bigger—like he almost understood why he was doing what he was doing. If there had been a watercooler at his new worksite, he would have sidled over to it and shared the news with his colleagues.

There was no watercooler. Instead, water dripped from palmetto leaves, hung in mists around trees, squished under his feet in a landscape that wriggled with worms and snakes and rodents and—somewhere—a few more frosted flatwoods salamanders.

Redd felt his heartbeat rattle, relax.

He got back to work.

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