“Oh, Nothing” will forever stand out in my oeuvre as the first piece of my writing to receive print publication. It is also my least favorite of everything I have written, aside from college papers and a certain high school report. In 2017, I was submitting stories to a variety of journals. Being a writer, I was paid in rejection notices. A published author whom I briefly knew told me that one had nothing to lose aiming high. Only after the more “respectable” journals turned you down should you send your work to smaller ones. Accepting his belief, as an afterthought, I sent Illumination a story I considered unworthy of a “respectable” journal: “Oh, Nothing.” Careless, I neither revised the text whatsoever nor, I later discovered, trimmed the story to satisfy the journal’s length requirements. I unfairly dismissed Illumination, but at the time I considered this submission tantamount to chucking a piece of garbage in the bin.
Imagine my surprise, a few months later, when I received an email telling me that, with some tweaks from the fiction editor Madison Knobloch, “Oh, Nothing” would be printed in the fall 2017 issue. Knobloch later told me “Oh, Nothing” was the first submission she read that she knew she had to accept.
The idea of “Oh, Nothing” occurred to me in my sophomore year of high school when I considered entering a short story contest. I did not put finger to keyboard and write the story until many months after the deadline. These lines from MOTHER 3 planted the idea in my mind: “Inside the mailbox was absolutely nothing. Nothing after nothing came bursting out.” In context, the scene is haunting. However, I found the idea of “nothing” as an object intriguing, a concept only possible in a written rather than visual medium.
In terms of exploring this wordplay, “Oh, Nothing” succeeds. The sense of being surrounded with useless junk also has a broad appeal, and I expect this hook is what caught Knobloch’s attention. However, Pamela, Trisha, Greenblatt, and Sivasubramanian are one-dimensional cutouts. The ending twist is borderline nonsense. Acceptable for a parable, perhaps, but what does this parable teach? The call for balance between “stuff” and “nothing” smacks of a cowardly “both-sides-ism” left more muddled from the question of to what, exactly, “stuff” and “nothing” correspond. This is obfuscation to hide the fact that the author has nothing to communicate. While “The Beach Guy” and my other High School Stories are no masterpieces, I prefer every one of them to “Oh, Nothing.” Now that I have finished lowering your expectations, please enjoy the story.
(This story was originally published in Illumination: Undergraduate Journal of the Humanities Fall 2017 edition.)
From her postbox Pamela was surprised to draw a cardboard package about the size of a football. She was surprised because she had not ordered anything, and she was aware of no occasion warranting a gift from anybody. Attached to the top of the box was an envelope. Pamela did not recognize the return address.
After setting the box on her kitchen table, Pamela opened the envelope and read the letter within.
I thought you might find this useful, so I went ahead and sent it to you. There is plenty more where this came from.
Pamela knew nobody named Sivasubramanian, or if she did, she did not remember the name. And that was a pretty memorable name.
Upon opening the box, she discovered that nothing was inside. Rather than leave the nothing on her table, Pamela, needing a place to put it, settled on a shelf stuffed with magazines of gossip and un-bought items, beside box sets of romantic comedies and TV dramas. She hadn’t thought there was any extra room there, but once she put nothing by the magazines, it seemed to her there was less something. And really, she had an awful lot of something.
A week to the day after this incident, Pamela came home and discovered that Sivasubramanian had sent her another box of nothing. She put it on the shelf with the other nothing. Day after day she told herself or was told she would watch those episodes or read that article, and fill out these sheets and write those emails, and read that book and watch that film. When her budget prohibited such media, she felt inclined to purchase them anyway. Thus, her flat filled up, over time, with what can only be described as stuff. This stuff occupied every surface and lurked behind every door, even that one on the fridge: filled with food as it was, she could never find something to eat.
As a result, she thought having a little nothing here and there was relieving. Once again, a week after that day, she received another box of nothing. The week after that and after that and after that it was the same. Pamela began looking forward to these gifts. She had never thought nothing could be worth more than nothing, but she was beginning to appreciate its aesthetic and spiritual qualities. Simply lying in it made her calm. In fact, nothing seemed to endure better than her stuff: If she stepped on a Blu-ray Disc, the result was shards. If she stepped on nothing, the result was continued wholeness.
A few months later, Pamela’s employer could no longer afford to pay the number of people who held her position in the company, and so, slicing the rope that bound her lifebuoy, cast Pamela adrift again. In this sea of uncertainty, Pamela searched for a new job. She struggled to find one, and her financial reserves dwindled. How frustrating the whole situation was. This money, this job—simply stuff of another kind. And so even in this time, the nothing Pamela received seemed pleasant to her. With nothing, she, for however fleeting a moment, could liberate herself from finances, from something, from stuff.
One day, Pamela had a friend over.
“Your place seems roomier every time I visit,” said her friend, Tasha Platitude.
Pamela explained that somebody kept sending her nothing in the post. She had been accumulating a stock of it. “At this point I bet I have more nothing than anyone else I know,” said Pamela.
“I wish I had less stuff,” said Tasha. “It’s so stressful.”
“Would you like some nothing? I have plenty.”
With nothing in tow, after they ate dinner and watched one of those movies from Pamela’s shelves of stuff, Tasha departed.
At about this time, Pamela had an idea. Her sole steady income was not in anything, but in nothing. Why not sell it? If people wanted stuff, Tasha demonstrated they also wanted nothing—and people pay good money for what they want.
Pamela discussed the idea with Tasha and soon began selling nothing on the Internet. Initially, her customers thought adding nothing to long wishlists of stuff was strange, but nonetheless a few brave pioneers ordered nothing from her. Their positive feedback swelled Pamela’s rating until she was a seller anyone would trust, with numerous regulars, seeking, in increasing quantities, nothing, nothing, nothing. In certain online circles, she became almost a legend, memetic, the first person to profit at honestly selling nothing. Whether this credit pushed her resume over the hump, Pamela got a job again. While nothing fancy, helping out at a car dealership paid plenty, when combined with the nothing money.
At lunch one day, Tasha said, “Hey, um, Pamela. I’m the one who gave you the idea to sell nothing, right?”
“Maybe you could sell me some nothing? I really appreciate what you already gave me, but I want more. It gives me this feeling like my problems don’t matter. You know, I’ve been reading about nothing, and it has a lot of cool properties. Some Eastern philosophers advocate returning to the void…”
Selling to friends seemed a bit questionable, but Pamela was not one to decline income. Soon enough, other people she knew solicited nothing, for even her poor friends had long suffered their fill of stuff. “Stuff,” as Tasha mentioned once, “is what makes people poor to start with.” Through word of mouth, more and more locals around Pamela’s flat and the surrounding streets started counterbalancing their stuff with nothing.
But Pamela had a problem: nothing sold faster than her patron was sending it. She was forced to make promises and copy-paste so many emails about when she would have more. Why, nothing had left her with more stuff to do.
Desperate, Pamela sent a letter to the return address on the boxes of nothing:
Thank you so much for not giving me anything! All my life, all I’ve ever gotten was stuff. What a change of pace. In fact, our town is glutted with more stuff than any town should be. Please send even less, if possible, perhaps three times less each week. I am selling it, as nothing is worth a lot. Of course, you could have a share of the profits. Please let me know.
Your humble partner,
Pamela agonized over whether Sivasubramanian would concede. Making the request at all, she worried, would dissuade her benefactor from sending her any more nothing. Every day up until the day of that week’s delivery, Pamela felt the concern on her shoulders. How had she lived so long without nothing?
At last the day arrived, and in her postbox, Pamela discovered a box filled with three times as much nothing as usual. She literally jumped for joy. Over the next several several months, Pamela’s nothing business had elevated her income to heights she would never have thought possible, and there was even nothing left for herself. There was so much nothing she occasionally wondered why she ought to bother seeking work—jobs were nothing but more stuff, and she could buy plenty of that with her money anyway.
Among Pamela’s neighbors, in one of the condos the landlord did not control, were Mr. and Mrs. Greenblatt, both plump and dedicated to their corporate masters. Ever since Pamela started her nothing business, Mr. Greenblatt believed there was something suspect about her. He noticed her receiving many packages and eating more extravagantly than he felt someone of her economic status would be able to. That his wife told him spying on Pamela was “creepy” did not deter him. As Pamela went in and out of her flat, Mr. Greenblatt could sometimes catch a glimpse through her open door, and seeing a lack of stuff lining her walls, he grew wary.
Eventually, Mr. Greenblatt, mustering his nerve, confronted a woman he had once observed speaking with Pamela, hungering for details of Pamela’s no doubt malicious schemes. Because Pamela was hardly scheming, Mr. Greenblatt had no trouble learning that Pamela was selling nothing to supplement her income.
“Nothing?” said Mr. Greenblatt slowly.
Later that evening, over their hamburgers, kale, and wine, Mr. Greenblatt said to Mrs. Greenblatt, “That crazy woman’s been selling nothing! Have you ever heard of such nonsense?”
“Young people don’t appreciate what a nickel is worth.”
“What dopes! You and I—we spent our lives investing in this stuff around us. It’s the reward for being grownups, what we’ve reaped for our labors. Aren’t you happier streaming all those movies than you’d be without ’em? Aren’t we better off with our cash wads and credit cards? Aren’t we happier living now instead of squandering our money on some ‘future’ that we’ll be too dead to enjoy? And these kids not only think nothing is better, they’re willing to pay money for it!”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s something nice about nothing, if these kids are—”
“My own wife, speaking that way! We should get all we can, while we can.”
Since Pamela continued profiting from her shipments of nothing, and more and more people began purchasing nothing, began thirsting for nothing as cure for the lack of purpose in their dull, stuff-addled lives, she found herself hiring a few employees to deliver and advertise. The first of these was Tasha Platitude, whose experience with PR and passion for nothing soon propelled Pamela’s sales figures higher than she ever expected. Sivasubramanian upped the shipments again to meet the demand.
Mr. Greenblatt, concealing himself around corners and behind utility poles, bitterly watched Tasha persuade ever more people that they needed nothing.
“When we’re born, our minds fizzle from nothing into neurons,” he heard Tasha saying, “and when we die, we fizzle out into nothing. Reality can’t even be objectively proven to exist. Reality is nothing. In other words, all that stuff is only clouding your understanding of what’s real, what’s truly human. Why listen to all these stuff-peddling fat cats when you could get right to the nature of things with our nothing?”
Another sale for Tasha. And once a single sale was made, if the person were not too involved with their stuff, nine times out of ten, the customer would return to free up that much more space in their life.
At last, Mr. Greenblatt, sulking in his leather chair, files stacked on either of his sides and shelves of unopened computer games behind, decided he would purchase nothing, see what all the fuss was about. He had bought everything else.
Pamela did not expect to find Mr. Greenblatt shuffling around at her door like a man defeated.
“Can I buy nothing?” he asked.
“Sure. How much?”
On the floor in front of his leather chair, Mr. Greenblatt dumped out his new nothing. Not sure how to use it, he tried placing it on his lap, on his coffee table, on his head. However, he found this waste of his time repugnant, for there he could imagine nothing generating no wealth. “Nothing—that’s what comes from nothing,” said Mr. Greenblatt.
From colleagues at her former job, Pamela discovered that her old manager had gone missing. A search party eventually discovered him, gamboling about in a field among and going on about nothing, nothing, nothing. “‘Who cares about my job?’ he said,” Pamela read in a newspaper article detailing the incident. “‘Nothing is so much simpler. Careers, money—all that’s only artificial. Nothing is real.’”
Pamela felt responsible, though somehow glad, but surely this was an isolated case.
Yet as she considered the behavior of her customers and neighbors, Pamela realized that all of them were creeping further and further from stuff and nearer and nearer to nothing. Not nothing as a relief, but the absolute nothing of a void, or so she thought. Pamela started packaging a document with her sales cautioning against overexposure. Not as if there had been an FDA-approved study of nothing.
But cases of overuse only increased. Soon enough, half of the block practically shut down, enveloped in nothing. Bills went unpaid, films unwatched, books unread. As long as they were confident in nothing, who cared about that stuff? Pamela endeavored to remind them of the world, but most refused to cooperate. All their lives, they were burdened, exhausted, and abused by stuff—among nothing, they were peaceful and all were equally insubstantial. Which was better? Was it even a choice?
“Don’t feel bad,” Tasha told Pamela, plaintively sulking back from another of her jobs. “This has been humanity’s goal for millennia: to find peace. This Sivasubramanian is practically a savior.”
Sivasubramanian! Pamela’s eyes widened, her pace quickened, and bidding Tasha farewell, she hurried home. She wrote Sivasubramanian a new letter:
Please stop sending nothing. I have had enough, thanks.
With the letter sent, her chest fizzed with anticipation. Not so much for her own sake, as the nothing money would last her at least a few months’ rent. If this didn’t work, she could be the one who doomed the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Mr. Greenblatt was startled to find Tasha Platitude ringing his doorbell, a box of nothing in tow. Telling Mrs. Greenblatt to hide in the wardrobe, Mr. Greenblatt opened the door and demanded to know what Tasha wanted.
“If stuff is so much better than nothing,” said Tasha, “then I should be able to notice if I lived with it for a while. I did for years, but never analytically, you know.”
“Eh? You’re begging stuff from me, is that it?”
“Let’s have a contest. You have to live with nothing for the same amount of time that I live with stuff, let’s say a week. We’ll analyze the merits of each. If we’re both rational, we should be able to figure out which one is best, shouldn’t we? If a guy who had always been on fire and thought that burning was swell had the chance to be not on fire, he’d have to be able to tell which state was better, right?”
Mr. Greenblatt rubbed his chin, crinkled his forehead, and massaged his neck flab. At last, he agreed. He would be proven right once and for all.
At first, Mr. Greenblatt knew that nothing could sway him from his beliefs. This would only be a final reaffirmation of what he already knew. But as the days went by, he discovered that there was more to nothing than nothing. In fact, as nothing offered him time to think, he realized that, all these years, he had passed his life laboring for others, laboring over stuff in exchange for other stuff to use to buy stuff to which he would become dependent enough to labor over more stuff for other people with more stuff than him in exchange for even more stuff. Those TV dramas, nice shoes, fancy wines, unplayed computer games, and the cash and debit cards that let him buy more and more of them never really brought him more than fleeting pleasure. Did they even bring him that? Was something, was stuff, was this river of suffering he had lived for—was it only a narcotic to which he was addicted? A narcotic that clouded his perception of reality? Was reality nothing?
As Mr. Greenblatt’s doubts awakened, so did Tasha’s. Initially, she was confident that stuff could not tempt one so schooled in nothing. As the days went by, however, she recalled the when she herself had enjoyed stuff, so many years ago, before its many iterations overwhelmed her. Firing up her TV again, she stayed up all night watching whole seasons of her favorite dramas and comedies, and remembered all the pleasure these had given her once, even if finding the money for their purchase had bought certain anxieties too. She realized that, for all the negative aspects of humanity’s development of stuff into its present vast state, there were positives too: people were brought together, more informed, production capacity maximized to enable a life with house fans and toilet paper rolls. Without stuff, she would not have been able to appreciate the value of nothing. Did nothing have value, though? Was nothing even real? Or was it only a narcotic that ensnared the defeated—ensnared her? A narcotic that clouded her perception of reality? Was reality something?
Pamela became more conscious of a dwindling number of customers and coworkers. A few were out on holiday, but what had pulled most away was nothing. Without the pretext of Sivasubramanian cutting off shipments, Pamela had been hesitant to close her nothing operation out of trepidation over how Tasha might respond. Since the weekend, Tasha had vanished. Pamela wondered if Tasha hadn’t also fallen victim to her own success. The town seemed to be on the brink of a catastrophe, or a ponderous shift.
Concerned as she was that her friend might be in trouble, Pamela felt also that Tasha was no longer the Tasha she once knew, and that this might be the only chance to close the operation. Pamela sent apologetic letters to the many regular customers and closed her online shop. Her other couple employees would forgive her, and if she would, in the end, be impoverished, fine. Stuff was only nothing.
However, once the nothing stopped coming, many loyal customers were quite upset. Initially a few, those with somewhat greater inclinations toward their stuff, appeared asking for her at the building’s door or sent her emails of indignation, but soon she understood how upset her decision had made the others. The very individuals whom she intended to help by closing her store were, as they were jolted from their cosmic stupors, confused and upset. They wanted nothing, and they stormed to Pamela’s place to get it.
Pamela first encountered these people ahead and perturbed during an evening walk and took a different route to avoid them. But soon she realized she could not evade them forever, especially as their numbers had quadrupled that final day before Sivasubramanian’s routine delivery—or lack thereof—drew nearer. Even enlisting her friends’ help—those of her friends who did not side with these unhappy customers—she was unable to totally shake them. In addition to their threatening presences, she received threatening emails. Perhaps nothing didn’t enlighten the masses much after all.
When the day of Shrödinger’s delivery arrived, Pamela was afraid to leave her flat to check the postbox. However, mustering her courage after a small, gravelly granola bar breakfast, she ventured out the door to make her way downstairs to the postbox. As the sound of her steps resounded eerily around her, the sound of other footsteps built up behind.
Sure enough, shambling from doorways were several former customers, with longish hair and in bewildering dazes. Pamela, in an only slightly subpar state of health, was easily able to outpace her fanatical pursuers. Still, the spiritually offended are not to be underestimated.
Outmaneuvering Pamela, a group thought they had cornered her in the stairwell, all hands greedy for nothing. Pamela fled into a corridor, and then to the other stairwell, this time at her swiftest run, though this route to the postbox was rather roundabout. Exhausted members of the mob groaning for nothing, nothing, nothing offered no respite, grabbing for Pamela, imploring her to let them have their meaning back.
“I realized I was part of something bigger than myself,” she heard one shout. “I was part of the void! And you wanna steal that from me!”
What was this? What had Pamela done?
Pamela wavered meters from the postbox. She rushed towards it, as if she expected what was inside could save her, but when it was practically within her grasp, a bulbous man scrambled into her path and knocked her back—Mr. Greenblatt, out despite Mrs. Greenblatt’s best efforts to stop him. Pamela saw that whatever had kept him restrained was gone.
“Pamela,” said Mr. Greenblatt, “I never realized how wonderful nothing was! I wasted my life collecting stuff. I don’t need to do other men’s work anymore. The world can go to hell—it’s all stuff, anyway. If you won’t sell us nothing, we’ll take it.”
“But Greenblatt, you—how did you end up like this?”
“Your pious friend Platitude showed me the light.”
At that moment, Tasha Platitude, in as much of a daze as the rest of Pamela’s adversaries and with far heavier bags beneath her eyes, hurried towards Mr. Greenblatt, shouting, “Nothing is worthless! It was just our imaginations. I wasted my time not getting more stuff! Pamela, I’ll keep this fanatic away from you.” And, evidently believing herself to be one of the action heroes from that series she finished watching last night, Tasha attempted to attack Mr. Greenblatt.
Whether she or Mr. Greenblatt was in any state to grapple, Tasha pulling the man to the floor bought Pamela enough time to reach the postbox. Inside were only bills and ads. Whatever happened to her, at least this town, already glutted with more nothing than any town should be, would receive no more.
The honk of a car horn drew Pamela’s attention, and turning her head to the door panes, she saw a gleaming limousine. From a rolled down window, a friendly hand beckoned to her. With all other options seemingly eliminated for now, Pamela wavered but, seeing more of the mob closing ranks around the building, approached the limousine.
The back door swung open, revealing a smartly dressed gentleman. Pamela did not recognize him.
“Hi, Pamela,” he said. “I am Sivasubramanian. Please, come in. There’s plenty of room.”
Pamela rode away with Sivasubramanian.
“Would you like some wine?” said Sivasubramanian. “I have a nice Bordeaux here.”
“What are you doing? We need to go back. Tasha saved me. I can’t leave her there.”
Pamela noticed that in the seat beside Sivasubramanian’s was a stack of philosophical books.
“You read those?”
“Well, even if you don’t want any wine, I think I might as well enjoy a glass.” He uncorked the bottle and poured some out for himself. After taking a whiff, he took a ruddy sip.
“Why did you send me all that nothing?” said Pamela.
“An experiment,” said Sivasubramanian, “to teach a lesson about the somethings and nothings that abound in the world. Do you understand, Pamela?”
“But look what you’ve done to all those people. How could you? And how did you know the same thing wouldn’t happen to me?”
“I didn’t. But based on what info was available about you, I deduced that you were not the type to let her priorities be skewed too far. Data mining and all that. I felt confident something enlightening would happen. But obviously I could not be certain what you’d do. You were not totally taken in by the nothing because you had the profits you were reaping from it. In other words, something to counterbalance the nothing. Those people who were hounding you are simply suffering from withdrawal, as they did when they first switched from stuff to nothing. Soon, in a society so seeped with it, they will be stuff addicts again.”
“You sound awfully confident!”
“You’ll see that I’m right before long. People are fickle. I’m happy you did the wise thing in the end, shutting down your little nothing racket, Pamela. Even so, you may want to lay low for a while. I’ll cover your expenses in the meantime. Isn’t that something? Well, it’s nothing to me.”
Sipping more wine, Sivasubramanian opened one of his books, a volume of Spinoza, on his lap.
“You shouldn’t have done all this,” said Pamela. “I don’t get your silly lesson.”
“Ignoring that ‘silly’ remark, I am not only teaching you a lesson, Pamela. I hope you will help me adapt these events into a story, so that, set into writing forever, anyone who reads of them will understand what happened here. Such a story is not only morally justified, but you could definitely have a cut of any cash it yields being published. What do you say?”