he height of the counter and its angle in relation to his swivel chair aggravates James Coverstone. He is not a tall man, but all things considered, he is far from short. And yet, behind the lobby desk, his eyeline sits barely two inches above the highest point of the counter. Occasionally he extends his spine and peers out into the large foyer, watches the self-consciously sentient crowds come and go in tandem with the train schedules.
A woman with a long floral print dress and a nose piercing has just exited the Joseph Beuys exhibit and is heading toward the sloped counter. Her hair dyed red and frayed at the ends, she passes him a black rectangle with earphones wrapped around it, smiles, tells him that the Ipod is, like her, divorced from its other half. She found it, she explains, on a seat opposite a Beuys self-portrait.
Coverstone thanks her, notes down the time and the location of the lost item, and then places it in a drawer alongside three cellphones, a pair of glasses, a hotel key card for room 119, a flash drive and an expired university ID card. The drawer has a Post-It note reading “Lost Propperty” stuck to its front. The supplemental letter is another source of frustration for Coverstone.
* * *
is night is haunted by electronic ghosts. Feverish dreams persist on the subway ride to the museum the following day: the amputation of an Ipod, an Iphone, of eyeglasses, walking sticks and other prostheses, from faceless people. He should note this down for his next therapy session, he tells himself. Instead he scribbles in a Moleskine notebook the narrow outline of an Ipod Nano.
As the day passes, the drawer fills a little further. Coverstone records a pair of sunglasses that complement the other already in the drawer, and a woman with a small child hands him a thin, blue sweater that she found in the bathroom.
If it wasn’t bright pink I don’t think I’d have seen it. The man wearing a t-shirt with a strange swoosh of colour passes Coverstone a cellphone found in a video installation upstairs. Isn’t the Marley stuff amazing? Coverstone nods in response. Later, an unsheathed umbrella scuppers the “Lost Propperty” drawer, and he has to lean it between the corner of his desk and the wall. It is, he discovers, another Beuys orphan.
His shift ends at 8 p.m. As he rises and looks out into the lobby, he opens the drawer and extracts the black Ipod, before collecting his things from the staff room and leaving for the day.
* * *
he subway car jolts out of the station the next morning. The earphones are in his ears, but so far Coverstone has been too busy scrolling through the list of artists to actually listen to any of the mp3s. An item out of context, he thinks, might still reveal something of its owner. He recognises most of the band names.
Instead, he chooses a band named Sandsturm and presses play. The thrash of guitar accompanies the shunting tracks and the train arcs into a tunnel. Perhaps the monochrome gaze of Joseph Beuys caused the Ipod’s other half to abandon it in the exhibition space of a moderately successful museum.
Behind the slanted desk, Coverstone spends the day playing solitaire at his computer. The PC is pure artifice. It does not have internet access, and is there merely to suggest that Coverstone’s job is more important than it really is. Over the course of the day, several items – including a contact lens case, a baseball cap, and another pair of eyeglasses – are added to the drawer. A child’s shoe lands on the counter and slides onto the table before Coverstone can look up to examine its source.
As the rain falls outside that evening, he steps out and opens the orphaned Beuys umbrella over his head. Water patters onto the plastic canopy, and Coverstone imagines that he is someone else, that he is more important than, in actual fact, he is.
* * *
t is the end of the day. The man says: James, I’m sorry. Coverstone takes the envelope, lifts the unsealed flap, and pulls out the letter. It is not even signed. Let me know if you need anything. The man walks away from the lobby desk, and Coverstone slumps in his chair, his eyeline sinking beneath the angle of the counter. He reads no further than “We regret to inform you” before understanding what this means. He has been cast off, fired, laid off, retired, disposed of, he is the equivalent of an unwanted Polaroid or a worn-down shoe.
Coverstone smiles, then tosses the pink slip into the trash. He then disposes of the Post-It reading Lost Propperty, and then opens the drawer.
Minutes later, he walks into the Beuys exhibit. The space is empty, the lights dimmed. From his bag he withdraws the thin Ipod, its battery expired and its screen dark, and he places it on the cushioned seat opposite a screen-printed portrait of the artist. In one corner of the room, Coverstone leans the umbrella up against a pedestal that is supporting a sculpture of a typewriter.
In the women’s bathroom, he drapes the sweater over the paper towel dispenser and, after checking the list in his pocket and seeing that the university ID was found in one of the stalls, drops the card with a plink into a toilet bowl.
Within an hour, Coverstone has dispersed his collection with care, examining the list and placing each item in the appropriate location. The permanent collection houses three cellphones and both pairs of glasses, while he installs in the rest rooms both the contact lens case and the hotel key card. Finally, the last cellphone, the baseball cap, and the flash drive find their respective homes.
Back in the lobby, Coverstone retrieves the small blue and white tennis shoe from his bag. A single, child-size sneaker divorced from its companion. He places it on the counter and watches it slide onto his desk, then smiles, and heads for the exit. [ends]