by Maureen Mancini Amaturo
Desktops and laptops all over town are dark. Pens are standing in cups, and so few texts include punctuation. It’s happy hour.
Comma grabs his coat and clocks out. As usual, he walks the five lines down and four spaces over to meet Colon at their favorite bar. Colon is already atop a stool, drink in hand. He sees Comma come through the door, waves to the bartender, and holds up his Jack on the rocks. “One for my friend.” Colon greets Comma and asks, “Work late again?”
“Worst job in the world. For real.” Comma hangs his jacket on a nearby peg. “They put me in. They take me out. Then somebody else puts me in. When my review comes up, I want a new job description. I’m all over the place. I’m exhausted.”
“I’d trade with you in a heartbeat,” Colon says. “I’m bored to death. I stand there all day, and if I get a call twice, I’m lucky. Waste of time. I feel…I feel like I don’t even have much of a purpose anymore.” He sips his drink.
“I wish I knew my purpose, just wish I knew where I’m supposed to be,” Comma says. “Nobody knows. They keep movin’ me around. I’m busy all day, mostly undoing something I just did.”
“At least you’re not in Europe. You’d be a hell of a lot busier. You would have to show up every time somebody separated dollars from cents, I mean euros.”
“Always lookin’ at the bright side.” Comma reaches for some peanuts in the small, wooden bowl in front of them. “Speakin’ of Europe, did you ever get back to your cousin about that job offer?”
“Not yet,” Colon says. “I mean, it sounds good. Laying on top of a vowel here and there can’t be too hard. I know I could get away with it. I’d look just like him once I get into position.” Colon raises his empty glass signaling for a refill. “Umlaut said I could live with him for a while until I found a place of my own. He’s in Schwerin, a small town just outside Berlin. But I don’t know.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m used to America, Chicago Manual of Style and all. They haven’t phased out my job completely yet. There will always be the old AM and PM. Somebody has to tell time on the page. I’m bored, yeah, but at least nobody bothers me. And moving to a whole different country, who knows? Might be worse. In the long run, staying here ain’t a bad gig. The way things are changing so fast, I might be obsolete in a few years — retire, collect my pension, and move to Wikipedia. Just chill out, you know?” Colon shifts on his bar stool. “Remember the Dollar Sign with two vertical lines?”
“Moved to Wikipedia. Living it up down there. Started a pickle ball team, golf every day. It’s all mojitos by the pool. Cashing in on the good life. Retirement sounds better every day.”
“I hear ya.” Comma stares at his reflection in the wall mirror atop the bar. “Me? Always thought I’d grow up and work for one of those romance languages, like French or Portuguese, maybe even Romanian. Yeah, Romanian would be cool. They have Accent Marks.” Comma wiggles his eyebrows up and down and smiles.
Colon waves his hand to dismiss the thought. “They sound a lot sexier than they are. They got their problems.”
“Probably right.” Comma shrugs. “American English is complicated, but I guess I’d rather work here than anywhere else.” He grabs another handful of peanuts. “An Exclamation Point I know moved to Spain a few months ago.”
“How’s that going? Have you heard from him?”
“Showed up in a text, believe it or not. Feel bad for the guy. He’s sorry he made that move. They got him standin’ on his head over there half the time. Developed vertigo, he said.”
Colon wipes a small puddle under his glass. “Poor guy.” The front door bangs open and hits the wall. There’s a sudden burst of stomping and whistling, booming voices, loud laughter. “Speaking of Exclamation Point, here comes his posse.”
“I wish I had their job,” Comma says.
The bartender, a Pilcrow, set two more drinks in front of them and overheard. “Careful what you wish for. Thought I hated my job ‘til I lost it. Forced into retirement when on-line publishing overtook print. More paragraphs went flush left. Wasn’t much call for us anymore. And here I am.” Pilcrow shrugs. “Appreciate what you got.” Pilcrow glances at the Exclamation Points. “I wouldn’t want to be them if the last sentence on earth was ‘Look out below!’ I swear they’re addicted to their own adrenaline. Excited all the time. Always yelling. Super happy or super mad. No happy medium for those guys. Poor bastards, every one of ’em gotta have high blood pressure.” The bartender glares at the rowdy, tall group crowding around the end of the bar. “Last time they were here, had to call 911. The English Department showed up and deleted a few of ’em.”
Comma waves his finger from side to side. “Can’t call ’em that anymore.” He clears his throat. “Last election, the City Council and Mayor approved a name change. It’s the Language Arts Department now.”
“Well, pardon me.” The bartender wipes his hands on the white towel tucked into his belt. “Everybody’s grammatically correct these days.” He waves his hand. Pilcrow slips dry cocktail napkins under each of their glasses then nods toward the Exclamation Points. “Let me go see what those guys want. Between you and me, I’ll be watering down their drinks. They’re already an unruly crew. Don’t wanna see them get any more crazy than they already are. So, if you gentlemen will excuse me.”
“Good luck with that,” Colon says as the bartender walks away. He looks at Comma. “There’s an opening in the Parentheses and Brackets Division. Ever think of applying there?”
“Wouldn’t wanna work there.” Comma shakes his head and takes a sip. “Too territorial, that bunch. They form their own little groups. Hard place to break into.”
Son of a…“Say again?” Colon puts a finger to his ear. “Can’t hear you over those Exclamation Points.” They both look toward the end of the bar. “Oh, Jeez, the Hyphen group is there,” Colon says. “Looks like they brought the whole gang.”
“Now there’s a department that’s got it made.” Comma swirls the ice in his glass. “Let’s be real. Any one of them could do the job. No need for an Em-dash, En-dash, Double Hyphen, Minus Sign, and whoever else is in that crew. How specialized can you get? Talk about waste. Company is always lookin’ to cut the budget, save a few dollars. Why don’t they get rid of one or two of them?”
“Speaking of budget cuts, did you hear a few Apostrophes got suspended?”
“No way! Too bad,” Comma says. “And those guys just keep gettin’ busier and busier. Ain’t just contractions and possessives anymore. They’re gettin’ called for overtime on a regular basis, hoppin’ on at the end of lots of words these days. Just don’t make sense. Where’s the smarts in lettin’ those guys go?”
“Beats me. They should have gone straight for the Parenthetical Division. It says right in their job description they’re non-essential.”
Suddenly, the noise in the bar drops a few decibels. Comma hears the front door close and sees a Question Mark walk in. “Would you look at the curves on her.”
Question Mark sits next to Comma and raises a hand toward the bartender. She orders one Hemingway Daquiri and a Last Word with an extra cherry.
Comma pokes Colon with his elbow and winks. “Watch this.” He leans toward Question Mark. “Hello, beautiful. You here alone? You come here often? You gonna drink both of those?”
She ignores him.
“Just makin’ conversation. Never saw anyone down two different drinks like that.”
Question Mark gives Comma the finger. “The Last Word is for my boyfriend, Period.”
Comma turns to Colon. “That’s the end of that.”
Shortly after, a dark, rotund guy waddles in. Question Mark’s face lights with a flirty smile. “Looking for me?” she calls to him. He kisses her, grabs their drinks, and they go sit at a table in the back.
“Never would have put those two together,” Comma says. “Hey, let’s get outta here.” He throws a tip on the bar. “Wanna head over to The Collective? I heard some Nouns talkin’. They said it’s always crowded. It’s just a few paragraphs away from here. You never know. Maybe there’s a few Ellipses waitin’ for someone to hook up with.”
“Not in the mood. What about that new place, The Complex Compound. The Quotation Marks said it’s been packed there. They said there’s always something going on at that place. They said everybody hangs out there now.”
“Quotation Marks talk too much. Never know if what they say is fact or fiction.”
“They said there was some trouble over there the other night.”
Colon shakes his head. “Just a verbal altercation. Seems like a Subject and Verb didn’t agree.”
“That happens.” Comma looks at his watch. “Gettin’ late. Maybe we should just go home. I’m beat anyway.” He grabs one last handful of peanuts and reaches for his jacket.
“Might as well.” Colon slips his coat on, and they walk outside. He pulls his collar up against the night air. “See you on the page tomorrow, if I get an assignment. Where you gonna be? I’ll look for you. We’ll grab lunch.”
“I’m all over the place.” Comma shrugs. “Look somewhere I don’t belong. You’ll probably find me there. Good night, pal.”