Your Subscription Is Expiring
Reading Time: 11 minutes
"Your Subscription Is Expiring" originally appeared in Issue 19 of Tahoma Literary Review. As the daughter of someone who has miraculously managed to work at a newspaper for four decades, this story got my attention. I was also attracted to its reality and unreality, its subtle humour and pathos.
On the day that The Title shutters, I observe: number one, that magazines tend to die very much like the sickly plants of negligent people, leaves yellowing in full view until they are thrown into the garbage, upon which it is clear that their abject failure to be has been assured for years; and number two, that my father, whom I had disappointed by choosing a career in print media, had been right all along, a fact he might relish if still alive. Given that my observations—along with my job—are now valueless, I remain silent as my supervisor. With a progress bar on his monitor estimating the completed deletion of our office server, he tells me that there will be no severance pay and to vacate the building within the hour.
“This does remind me,” my supervisor says. He had come to the office in sneakers and a pair of running shorts that exposed spiderweb veins on his white, hairless legs. “Would you be a reference? It’s this sperm startup. They say they’re looking for somebody to head up partnerships. I reached out after the Lunar New Year giveaway. They absolutely loved our messaging.”
“What is a sperm startup?” I ask. I ignore the fact that the Lunar New Year giveaway (decorative tote bag and raffle entry with paid subscription renewal) was not only my project but one that ran two months ago, before The Title’s publisher had even declared bankruptcy.
“Something to do with icing your little guys until you and the missus are baby-ready. Did you know fertility in men is plummeting? How come nobody’s talking about that?”
The window is open, we sweat through our shirts in the middle of summer. My supervisor is a year younger than me; we are the last two of a team that had once been twenty. Together we have watched The Title’s print schedule shrink over the years, first weekly, then bi-weekly, and monthly since last year, gutted to its bare bones after employees at our Tampa fulfillment center threatened a mass exit over dwindling pay. Ours was one of several prestige brands hung out to dry as revenues tanked. We had even failed to attract the interest of an ambitious and benevolent billionaire, many a magazine’s last hope these days. A sports title sold off two years ago had named its new owner’s grandson a Pick to Watch in the upcoming draft. He signed with the Bengals, my supervisor told me one day. I didn’t know which sport that was.
My supervisor steals glances at me while stacking his hoarded gym shoes on the edge of his desk. I remember that he has asked me a question and supply my personal email. He doesn’t have anything more to say to me.
This is the future my father feared; I was diligent, punctual, I performed my duties with integrity but had no other skills that rendered me of any attraction to employers. There had been no moves to take The Title digital in the last decade; research had found a high probability that it would alienate our readership, an equal parity of men and women over thirty-five, high-net-worth heads of families, eighty-three percent of whom still renewed their subscriptions by paper mail. I will find another magazine, I think to myself, a smaller title of flickering dignity, at a decreased salary. I would stay there, writing off little slips of cardstock stamped with Alert! Alert! Your Subscription Is Expiring! until it too shuttered, and I’d find myself in a similar room, with a similar supervisor, again with no benefits, with no severance check.
Again thinking of my father, his heavy face and his coldness, the things I remembered most clearly following his separation from my mother shortly before Christmas those years ago, an inkblot that had devoured what I recalled of his kindness—and there had been kindness—after my mother left. I do think he feared for me, there was at least a small portion of the man that felt unease rather than disappointment at my choices. After all, he had stayed, he had raised me after my mother had left us in the little house, and its manicured trees in rows: living remnants of our once-perfection.
I stand, and my back is soaked through with sweat, I move through the heat as though wading in water. Three pristine copies of The Title’s final print issue lay on the chair by the door, and I stop to look at them.
“What are those doing here?” I ask.
My supervisor glances my way, then at the copies, snorts.
“Tampa sent those to us. Get this. There’s one guy left in the Legacy subscription bracket. One guy! The system already emptied out the segment so there was no way to mail it. I told them what the fuck, they just laughed at me over the phone and hung up—”
I pick up the three copies, on the cover a glossy profile of a former First Lady that might have been published today or five years ago. There is no notice, no mention of the shuttering in the editor’s letter on the first page. The end of a century-old institution. The address box in the bottom-left corner is blank. It doesn’t surprise me that the Legacy bracket, subscribers renewed at least 5 times in the past 10 years, ranked highest in loyalty, is defunct. The price point (a dollar more than the single issues sold at newsstands) was, in my words, a scam.
“One guy, huh.”
“I could let the intern deliver it by hand,” my supervisor says, “give that kid one last fuck you. That always feels good.”
“You mean this person lives here? In the city?”
My supervisor blinks at me. He digs around his table, snatching up a post-it with an address written on it. He hands it to me with a shrug. We have worked together for ten years. He is an only child. He took jogs before his lunch breaks and changed awkwardly behind his desk afterwards. Grew up out of state. I can’t think of anything else.
“Poetic,” he says. “One last guy gets his magazine the old-fashioned way. Almost makes you proud, doesn’t it?” The smell of his stacked running shoes is beginning to nauseate me. My watch reads quarter past noon.
“Yeah,” I say, my final words to him.
I step outside, into dust carried high and hot by the wind. I blink, crying tears, and glance at the address I’ve been given. I know the neighborhood, conveniently bypassed by the major bus lines. I fold the note twice and tuck it into my pocket. I slide the issues between two manila folders in my backpack, taking care not to stub any corners. One for the subscriber. I might keep the other two. If the publisher had no interest in archiving them, at the very least I would. I walk.
Behind me, my office building looms, home to the American headquarters of a German bank, an ultra-luxe gym, and an array of high-to-low retail in the lobby. I nudge shoulders down the baking sidewalk. I have enjoyed this area of the neighborhood, attracting throngs to the cobbled streets (some of the oldest in the city) and evacuating conveniently before sundown. At this hour of the day, stragglers remain, cyclists and speed walkers with free reign of the streets. I walk a mile or so, wiping my forehead dry with my grimy hands. I have given much thought to this moment in the forty-eight hours since news of The Title’s discontinuation was delivered to me by email. No job, no health insurance, not a next step in sight. And yet, what I had envisioned to be frightful and vast is instead a deep calm. I observe: that I embark on this mission willingly, that there is nothing to stop me taking the magazines home for myself, or, better yet, throwing them in the nearest garbage can and going home, perhaps to start revising my resume. I reach another mile, checking the distance on my phone, and come to that handy realization: that I am too far gone, that I, a lover of order and utility, must make use of this wasted time. My last subscriber is waiting for his issue.
My father had once received The Title at our home. I recalled its weekly arrival from a young age. I’d pass it hanging over the edge of our coffee table, half-read. He used it as a prop, the way most magazines are, being that it mattered less what was in them and more that a guest of the house could spot a stack of them by the television remote and know this was an intelligent house, my father’s magazines, my mother’s carefully pruned trees in their neat rows in the front yard. If my father ever read them, cover-to-cover, I would never know. He was far too busy for it, I suspect, travelling often for work. When he was home, he preferred to interview my mother and I over dinner, absorbing the events of our day and offering his advice on any complications and dilemmas without solicitation. This, too, changed, after my mother left home and the two of us behind, his occasional punctuations of our daily silence would be equal parts shocking and brief. I did not think such a person existed, a man with the ability to settle into a sameness that to others looked as worn and routine as time and to me resembled that of a stranger.
Somebody shouts, off to my right, and the sound jars me from my thoughts. A ratty teenager fights his way through a current of tourists to reach me and loses his balance, falling roughly into my arms. I am inundated with the smell of cigarette smoke. He backs off, embarrassed, squinting at me.
“You are…” he begins, “not the person I thought you were.”
“No, I’m sorry,” he says, gathering himself up, a knobby sweater that hangs off his shoulders and exposes a bare stretch of his skin. “I thought you were somebody else. Sorry.”
He leaves me there, casting a wide berth around a family whose mother herds her children away from him, and sits back down on the stone steps of a bank building. At his feet is a beaten rucksack. He is an insect on the pristine surface of the grey marble. The doormen would call the police soon, I think, if he stayed any longer. I cross the sidewalk over to him.
“Who did I look like?”
“Friend’s dad,” he shrugs, squinting up at me.
“You always run after people you think you recognize?”
He gestures to the steps around him. “Do I look like I have something better to do?”
A brisk wind rips through the street and he hugs himself close, breathing into his grubby hands. A suited man approaches the glass doors behind us. He wags a delicate finger at me, slowly, like a metronome at waltz-tempo.
“Have you eaten?”
The kid laughs, though I catch just before the glaze of his manufactured ease covers his face a flash of pleasant surprise.
I turn what I’m about to say over in my head, looking for faults.
“I’d like to know if you’re hungry, and if I might buy you some dinner.”
He does not think about it very hard, springing to his feet with his rucksack. He gestures with a wave of his arm, and I lead him down the sidewalk. He kicks the fallen orange leaves in his path. The taller buildings melt away, swallowed up by the sun as more and more of it, the noise, the clogged air, dissipates around us. I observe: a diner on the corner of the next block. We cross the street. I follow him inside. He slides into a booth by the windows, warming his hands.
“Whatever you want,” I tell him. A burger, a milkshake, two slices of reheated pizza and a cup of soup arrive after ten minutes of our non-conversation, and he wolfs it all and I think about how there is little hunger like his in my life, for anything.
“What are you doing here?”
“Is that a serious question?” he asks me, wiping his mouth.
I try again, wanting to please him. “What you brought you to those stairs?”
He looks at me, patiently, and I worry I’ve gone too far.
“Flunked too many classes, stole too much money. In my defense, I was seeing a guy, I was distracted. Not sure it convinced my dad.”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
He shrugs. “School started a month ago. If they wanted me back they would’ve come and found me.” The way he breaks his gaze indicates he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. I can think of no advice. He eats until he’s full, refusing my offer to bag something for him to go, something hot to keep his hands warm.
“Look at you,” he says, “Nice clothes, nice hair. You must have some cunt-y job in one of those big glass buildings.”
“I was laid off today.”
He makes a hiss between his teeth, a gesture of pain.
“Sure you want to spend all this money on me?”
I shrug. He gazes at me with apathy, or perhaps only non-judgment. I’ve never been able to tell. I remove the issues from my bag and explain my mission. He reaches for the topmost before I can stop him, smearing a corner with ketchup.
“It’s… okay,” I force myself to say. It is all it takes; I have no power to be angry with this boy. I would keep only one, then. Easier. I could have it framed, if I wished. “You take that one if you like.”
He shrugs, folding it in half and crushing it within a pocket of his rucksack. “You’re kind. Your mom and dad must love you.”
“My father is. I haven’t seen my mother in twenty-two years.”
“They were never married, actually. Didn’t believe in it.”
He makes an ‘o’ with his lips, genuinely concerned, and I am surprised at his thoughtfulness. “They break our hearts, don’t they,” he says, appearing even as he says it to shrink away from its uselessness, its honeyed-ness. “And we break theirs.”
Something true in there, I suppose. Maybe I am trying to comfort him, in supposing. I still miss my mother. I do not wonder any more why she never came back, having exhausted so much of my teens asking the same question of my father, whose non-answers only hardened me further. After my mother left, the trees in the yard, her pride and joy, grew wild and unkempt along with us. Soon, I did not care.
He finishes his food, leaning away from the empty plates. “So where are we going?”
“Your place? Hotel?” he swivels his neck, looking around the nearly empty diner. “Bathroom?”
“What? No—” I stammer, “I didn’t mean—that’s not what I want.”
He frowns, not understanding. He picks up the long spoon his milkshake came with and dips it for the dregs, as though I might swipe it all off the table in a rage.
“You know, I didn’t really peg you for discreet, the way you just walked up and asked—”
“I don’t want any of that. You just looked hungry.”
He dawdles, as if weighing my words, picking at something on his fingernail. He raises his head and I see for the first time a clearness. He really was so young. He reaches forward and takes my face in both of his hands, a strange gesture. Within them I feel his power, he is better at this than me. We pass one more moment like this, with his hands on me. Then he stands up, taking his bag with him. He hitches it over his shoulder. He digs in his back pocket for something and places it, gently, on the table between us. I peer at it, confused, until I recognize its frayed stitching: my wallet. He smiles, sheepishly at me.
“You were too easy,” he says. “But you made me feel bad.”
“My luck,” I smile.
He nods, walks past me, out the door. I pay for his meal, finding all my cards and bills intact, and see myself outside. The sky is dark overhead, the sun having dipped below sometime while we ate. A breeze wafts its way between my legs and under my arms.
With time on my hands, I begin to imagine that recipient of my efforts, the Legacy subscriber for whom I’d come this way. A single account, an exact revenue of eighty-nine dollars every fiscal year for who knows how long. It is something about there being only one. My subscriber was no longer a number, not a printed address on the lower left corner of The Title’s cover. A person. And he was here. Skeletal trees dot the overhead in their pitiful yard-wide plots in the concrete, surrounded with shed leaves. Cars sound their horns but I’ve escaped the thick of their noise. I look around the intersection, looking for my former office. Above me, a skyline extends beyond in shapes I cannot recognize. Where was I headed again? I remember the slip of paper in my pocket, but follow the sidewalk without looking down toward a line of trees.
I reach the end of a block, an intersection at which a single taxicab waits. I glance toward the lights, finding them in the driver’s favor, yet the car doesn’t move. When I approach, the back doors open, a man climbs out onto the curb, in the middle of unleashing a torrent of expletives at the turned head of the driver through the plexiglass. A woman, his wife, flaps her hand with anguish, lugging a swaddled infant in her other arm. I reach for my rolled sleeves, still damp with sweat, and unfurl them, not dressed for the wind. The cab speeds off. The couple and their child stand on the corner, the man gesticulating wildly. His wife begs him to calm down, putting their baby between them, still asleep. As I approach, the woman’s eyes dart my way, wary.
“What kind of—leaves us out here in the cold like this? It’s three goddamn miles to the hotel—”
The crosswalk flashes red, and I slow to a stop, though no cars appear at either side. For one long minute we stand, just feet apart, while they continue, in hushed tones.
“We can walk, it’s not a big deal.”
The man takes up loose handfuls of his hair, turning his face from me. His posture is familiar, somehow. I have seen a man do this to his head before. His wife bounces on her knees with the infant. The lights change. I stay where I am.
“Are you lost?” I ask.
“No, no,” the woman answers, “we’ve come from the hotel.”
I glance down the street, past rows of houses, their roofs obscured by the dense line of trees. The light has gone quickly.
“My husband left his wallet in our suite. When we told the cab driver, he told us to get out.”
The man still hasn’t looked at me. I wonder if he views the scenario as shameful, if my presence there, an able man—with a wallet—is somehow an affront to his own personhood. I glare at him, trying to make him see me.
“We’ll walk,” his wife says, “It’s no big deal.”
At that, her child wakes. We fall silent as it opens its eyes, gazes up at its mother’s face, briefly, then crunches its features together and begins to howl.
“She’s cold,” the man says with despair, “she’s going to be miserable.”
His wife transfers the infant to him, removing her coat, and double-wraps the blankets with it. The infant makes no notice, continuing to scream. I glance around the houses, my breath escaping into the air as wisps of fog, and fear someone may call the police. The woman coos helplessly, making hopeful little faces met only with more screaming.
The issue, I know, contains several pages of cardstock subscription renewal inserts, including one made of a specialty plastic foil. Slightly lustrous, costing the printer triple that of our regulation cardstock, the insert had not been removed, nor could it be, given that the files had already gone to Tampa. While my ears begin to ring from the girl’s noises, I produce one of the two remaining copies in my bag. The couple has forgotten me, crowded around their daughter. They stop as I open the issue, finding the insert, and tear it from the binding.
“Any chance she’d like this?” I ask, offering it up. The man scowls at me, unrestrained, but the woman takes it. She bites the thumb of her mitten off and presents the peculiar piece of paper to her daughter, “Georgia, Georgia look how shiny—”
We watch as the girl’s screams subside. She blinks, curiously, at the sparkly insert, then fusses, moving her shoulders. The woman frees her arms from the blankets, and she reaches for it. Her tiny fingers close around it, crinkling the paper. When she releases it, it unfurls, without a crease. Her squeal is different, enraptured by her gift. Her parents exchange looks, their eyes come to me. I offer up the issue.
“Please, take this.” I say, “The product is voided now that the insert’s been removed.”
The woman takes it. I watch it disappear within the folds of her purse. One left. Which was alright, I say to myself. The last I would keep safe. The girl in her arms is quiet, crushing and releasing the shiny insert over and over. A gentle snow falls overhead. The man tugs at the woman’s arm, and cross the street, leaving me there. They are almost to the other side when the woman turns her head.
I stare after her for a moment before they are swallowed up under a faulty streetlight. “Christmas,” I repeat to myself. It couldn’t be Christmas. I begin to shiver.
Another mile, the snow is dry enough to blanket the sidewalk, numbing the soles of my feet. I draw my arms tightly around me, walking faster. The mailboxes tell me the house is another block at most, perhaps the next intersection. I am breathing too hard to tamp my growing elation. Despite giving up my two spare copies, my mission remains intact. I will have done something with my day. I will hand the issue personally to my last subscriber, perhaps tell him a story of The Title’s last days, a magazine that once controlled a budget in the billions, its own skyscraper deep in the city. Did he know that its senior editors could once take out interest free loans directly from the publisher to purchase homes and for other large expenses? Did he know it was one of the first magazines in the world to employ women reporters? If I am lucky, I may even be invited inside, for a drink, for dinner with him and his family. What a glorious way for a friendship to start, one we could tell everybody we knew at parties.
I pass the great oak, its roots so large that they have upended the concrete slats above them, causing jagged cracks that neighbor children have chipped keepsakes from. I stand a while, looking at it, the tree over which I’d fallen off my bike at the age of seven, skinning my knee so bad that the blood had run in thick rivers down into my sock. Snow has piled around its roots. I step cautiously over. Where my bearings have before been vague, I can feel them sharpening. It occurs to me now: I’ve grown up here. My feet carry over the cracks and dips in the sidewalk with knowing, I walked them every day from school for the tenderest period of my childhood, before my mother left. I know these routes. I pause, overcome. I don’t remember the address my supervisor had provided. I reach into my pocket for the paper and come up empty. I pat myself down, straining for a number, for letters. I search for another minute. Rather than admit I am lost, I keep walking.
I have come upon the house. And what I see at last are the trees, bare yet filling the handsome shapes I remember with their crooked branches. I raise the lever on the gate, passing through, leaving deep wells of slush in my footprints. The trees tower around me, swaying, offering little moans of age. I pull from my bag the third issue. I am climbing the porch steps. The columns are lit with the string lights from the basement. As I’ve grown older, I’ve commandeered their arrangement, and it often occurs to me that I am now the only one who remembers to put them up anymore. I arrive at the door. I remember the key and dig it from the soil of the empty planter under the doorbell. I see myself inside, stomping my feet, leaving cakes of dirty snow in the shapes of the grooves on my boot soles.
“That you?” I hear him. His voice has come from around the corner of the stairs, the kitchen where I have commonly found some wrapped celery and peanut butter, perhaps raisins, a snack my mother left out for me after I’d already headed to school. It is strange that he’d be home.
In my socks I pass the stairs, glimpsing the tree, a five-footer this year, laden with our baubles and tinsel from the green chest in the basement. I proceed into the light. My father stands with his back to the sink. A brief look around confirms there is in fact, no snack laid out for me today.
My father smiles, clasping his hands together at his waist, looking at me.
“So. No school ‘til next year,” he says, “How’s it feel?”
I move my head to the left and right. I’m still holding the issue up to my chest. He notices it, and a shadow falls on his face. He reaches his hand out.
“Yeah… I’ll… I’ll take that.”
I hand it to him. He sets the magazine aside, where it captures light from above within its glossy cover. I observe: that little white box. The name, my father’s, the address, mistakenly switched with that of a house four hundred miles away, the place he’d really been visiting all these years for his work trips, outside it another lawn, in it another living room, another tree, a wife, children.
“How old are they?” I had asked him, when he visited my room the night my mother had gone to my aunt’s. It was unknown if she’d be back to spend Christmas. My father had withdrawn his hand from my back, as I’d asked the question. He was silent. I looked at him with one eye where I lay my head on my pillow.
“The girl is four, the two boys are eight and eleven.”
Perhaps this had been the moment, after it all, of my own undoing, of his. The moment I realized that his eldest son, my step-brother, was two years older than me. That I, and my mother, were the second home, and not them.
In the kitchen, my father cups the back of my neck in the dry warmth of his palm. My mother will not return. I remind her of the lie, I suppose. I have never watched her make my after-school snack; I wonder if her hands shook while she made it, if I am merely the keepsake of an evil act and that is why she does not want me anymore.
“Merry Christmas,” my father says.
I nod, returning his little smile, and watch something in him crumble a little further into his foundations.
“It’s late,” he says, finally, “You should go to bed.”I turn around. I climb the stairs in my socks, reaching the second-floor landing and the door to my room. With my foot, I prod it open, and shake myself free of my pants and sweater, leaving them pooled on the floor. In the window is my view of the front yard between the trees, the blue fencing, the bare patch of dirt in our lawn where not even the professionals could coax new grass. I’d watched them sod the area from here, only for the next season’s rains to pool there and drown it all. Sinking into my bed loosens my tight spine and I breathe the clean sheets. I observe: the corners of my bedroom converge, drawing closed, then open, like lungs. One by one the house’s noises die, the hum of the radiator, the wind on walls outside, my father’s footsteps on the floorboards below. I close my eyes.