The Puzzle Factory is a self-contained short story which forms the first part of A BUTTERFLY IN PHILADELPHIA
Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews called A Butterfly in Philadelphia “…one of the strange comic masterpieces that you’re quite lucky to run across once in a very great while.”
The Puzzle Factory
Text copyright © 2015, 2016 by Bruce Hartman
Published by Swallow Tail Press
1. The Puzzle Factory
You can blame me, if you’ve got to blame somebody, for the train wreck that started at the puzzle factory. It wasn’t Charlie’s fault or Audrey’s or even Jeff Pangborn’s, though he hired Stupid Butchie who set the whole disaster in motion. And why does it got to be somebody’s fault if things don’t fit together exactly the way they’re supposed to? I didn’t make this world, or those puzzles either. All I did was jumble up the pieces.
The place was called Artistic Puzzles Inc. and it was in South Philly near Passyunk and Washington. I took the bus down there every night, listening to hip hop tracks through my headphones which the driver, if he was white, would make me turn down so low I could hardly hear them. Believe it or not that shop ran twenty-four hours a day like the world needed those Masterpieces of Western Art jigsaw puzzles more than food or clothes or TVs or anything else you could think of. Every night it’s the same routine, just me and a swarm of retarded cats with seven or eight toes on each foot that scratch and hiss and try to climb my leg when I run the die press. Old Mr. Pangborn shuffles in every morning but his son Jeff, who wears a suit and tie and shows up maybe once a month, seems to make all the decisions. Audrey the bookkeeper sits in her glassed-in booth, way too old to be hot but she’s still working on it with her long fingernails that click over the keys of her computer. From midnight to eight it’s just me running the die press until Charlie comes in for the day shift and we work together a couple hours sorting out the puzzles and setting up the next run. Charlie looks like a 300-pound white styrofoam Mr. Potato Head with the ears stuck on too low and a few tufts of orange hair on top. He has some blotchy spots on his left hand where he got it caught in the die press trying to save one of the retarded cats.
“Spencer,” Charlie tells me my first day, “you just spent the night chopping up the Masterpieces of Western Art into 1000 pieces.”
“Get out of here,” I tell him.
“See this?” He shows me his hand with the blotches on it that looks like some girl’s face. “This was supposed to be the Mona Lisa.”
The whole job I learn in about fifteen minutes. First you glue the prints on the cardboard in the glue press and then you run them through the die press and a thousand little pieces drop in coded bins so the Vietnamese ladies at 6th and Tasker can put them in boxes with the right labels on them. In the morning after Charlie gets there we make coffee and joke around until Audrey starts making eyes at me.
“Don’t look now,” Charlie says one morning, “but the cougar’s getting ready to pounce.”
“No way I’m going in that bookkeeper booth.”
Audrey calls to me from the doorway. “Spencer! Could I talk to you for a minute?”
“I’ve got your back, buddy,” Charlie whispers, and we march together toward her office.
“Charlie,” she says, “you better get out on the loading dock to help Stupid Butchie before Jeff sees you standing around.”
Stupid Butchie’s a college boy hired by Jeff, who’s his uncle. He don’t wear a suit and tie but he looks like he’s aiming for one. Mr. Pangborn and Jeff call him Stupid Butchie but we’re not allowed to call him that because he’s a member of the family.
Mr. Pangborn’s about a hundred years old and when he cracks a smile you can hear it across the room. He don’t do any work but sometimes he’ll stand and watch me like he’s trying to learn the job. One day we’re taking our coffee break and Stupid Butchie asks him where to find the broom.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Pangborn says. “Ask the colored kid.”
He means me. “I’m African American,” I tell him.
Mr. Pangborn looks blank as a slice of white bread before you put the peanut butter on it.
“He’s African American,” Charlie explains.
Mr. Pangborn stares like he never seen me before. “What part of Africa are you from?”
Everybody laughs except me. They’re racists, naturally, like all white people, and I know they’d lock me up in chains and throw away the key if they could make me work for nothing. But besides the chains, what’ve they got worth talking about? All they’ve got is the Masterpieces of Western Art cut up in 1000 pieces, and what’s Western about them I don’t know, I don’t see no cowboys and Indians, just naked white women and babies that look like little old men and piles of fruit like you can see every day in the produce department. They call them masterpieces because if you mess with them long enough you end up with the same picture you started out with, and that’s the best these people can come up with after two thousand years. It reminds me of my cousin Shawn, who just turned 16. Shawn burns CDs about pimps and ho’s on his laptop and sells them to old ladies at church suppers, then on Sunday he sings in the choir about Jesus. His mother, my Aunt Lorraine, says he’s really a con artist, because the old ladies think the CDs are about Jesus too and he knows they don’t have CD players to listen to them on. But one way or the other he’s creating something, not just chopping something up that already exists. It bothers me when he says I’ve got no gifts or talents and nothing to contribute to the world. That’s what my teachers used to say too. I was a waste of their time. Nobody noticed when I stopped going to school, not even Aunt Lorraine, though she was mad when she found out later. Aunt Lorraine likes to say that everybody’s got a little spark in him no matter who he is, even if he’s got no job and no money, even if he’s a killer on death row, he’s got a little spark in him that could make the world a better place. A little spark of what I don’t know, but mine was burning so low by the time I got that job at the puzzle factory even Aunt Lorraine agreed I had nothing to contribute to the world. I was almost 20.
“Why’d you quit school, Spencer?” Charlie asks me one morning while we’re taking a break on the loading dock, feeding the retarded cats.
“They said I’m my own worst enemy,” I tell him. “I’ve got such low self-esteem it gives me a too high opinion of myself. I’m a know-it-all who don’t know anything.”
“I graduated over twenty years ago but a lot of good it did me,” Charlie says.
“And they were always treating me like I’m a victim of something. I’m a victim of poverty and the welfare system, discrimination, miseducation, low expectations, the ruling class, the underclass, crime, the cops, the Republicans, the Democrats, lead poisoning, budget cuts—and finally, it dawns on me, I’m a victim of them, the people who’re always telling me what a victim I am. And you know what? It’s not just me. They want everybody in the world to think they’re a victim, like it’s one big prison you can’t escape from, so they can keep guarding the doors. Well, I’m tired of all that. I’m going to stop being a victim.”
Charlie rolls his eyes around in his big potato head, thinking it over. “How you going to do that?”
“I’m going to stop being an effect and start being a cause.”
Charlie takes a minute to think that one over. “Good luck.”
“How about you?”
“I’m not a victim of anything,” he says, shaking his head like he’s sorry to admit it. “Except myself.”
Every morning Stupid Butchie goes in the van to take the puzzles to the Vietnamese ladies at 6th and Tasker who put them in boxes and stick the stickers on the boxes and he brings back what they did the day before to be shrink wrapped and stacked on the pallets until the truck comes to pick them up. But one day something goes wrong. Mr. Pangborn starts pacing around like a guard dog, squinting his eyes at everybody like we’re some kind of criminal, his son Jeff in the suit and tie comes in and yells at Audrey back in her walled off glass world like we’re not supposed to notice. I hear it all. The licensing company that owns the masterpieces says we’re missing hundreds of them. Can’t account for them, they say, even though we log out all the puzzles like we’re supposed to. They hire a detective and after about a week he begins to suspect Stupid Butchie. He follows him one morning and Stupid Butchie stops the van in front of a garage at 8th and Reed and unloads about half the load—puzzles, boxes, lids, labels—and stashes it in the garage, then he goes on and delivers the rest to the Vietnamese like nothing happened. When he comes back Mr. Pangborn calls the cops and they search the garage and find Stupid Butchie set up a whole operation in there, a regular puzzle factory of his own. Gotta hand it to the dog, though it was the beginning of the end for the rest of us. Stupid Butchie assembled the boxes, poured in the puzzles, stuck on the lids and the labels and even had his own shrink wrap machine in there to make it look official. Then he went around selling his own puzzles to stores and collecting his own cash like he owned the business. The licensing company had him arrested but Jeff got him a lawyer and they dropped the charges. For the rest of us, things don’t look so good. The licensing company’s threatening to take back the masterpieces and put us out of business.
Now Jeff Pangborn’s in Audrey’s bookkeeper booth yelling at her all morning long while me and Charlie listen at the door. “The bank’s got a lean on all our asses,” he tells her. “If we lose the license we won’t be able to pay the bank and we’ll have no choice but to sell our asses to the Chinese.” I sure hope my ass ain’t included.
“You think the licensing company might back off?” Audrey asks Jeff.
“It’ll take a miracle,” Jeff tells her.
“Don’t give up hope,” she tells him. “A butterfly in China can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world just by flapping its wings.”
Those Chinese, I’m thinking. Is there anything they can’t do?
The door flies open and Jeff sails out, glaring at me and Charlie like we’re the ones who just wrecked his business.
“Try to look like you’re working,” he says. “Even if you’re not.”
I’m listening but not listening, my mind’s on the die press that I forgot to turn off. Corner of my eye I can see one of the cats squatting on Whistler’s Mother.
“You! I’m talking to you.” He’s talking to me. “You got attention issues? Maybe you’ve got ADHD.”
“Not yet,” I tell him. “Just regular cable.”
Audrey and Charlie start to laugh so I laugh too. Jeff don’t think it’s so funny. He looks like his necktie’s choking him and his face swells up red as a plum. “You think this is funny?” He pokes his finger at me. “Pretty soon your job will be going to China. Let’s see how funny you think that is.”
That night I’m chopping up a piece of modern art called Chaos Scape 19 by Armand Brigantine and I’m wondering, did this dude spill his paint set before he got around to painting the picture? The first time I look at it I think it must have got screwed up in the glue press, but no, Charlie says, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. By the second or third time I chop it up, I start to understand why this Armand dude might have painted it the way he did. Maybe he’s tired of always doing what the man wants him to do, tired of being called stupid, tired of being an effect instead of a cause. He wants to break free, cause a ruckus, like that butterfly in China. Tell people that butterfly don’t have to be in China—it could be anywhere, could be right here in Philadelphia. Or maybe, I’m thinking, he’s trying to paint something that can’t be painted at all. He’s trying to understand something much bigger than himself and this is all he could see of it.
After a long night on the die press I feel like I’m just part of the machine. When I stop and close my eyes that machine keeps running inside my head. By the time Charlie comes in at eight I’m delirious from lack of sleep because it’s always a hundred degrees in my house on account of Aunt Lorraine’s sick bird. So when we collect the puzzle bins to be boxed and labeled by the Vietnamese ladies at Sixth and Tasker, I get a sudden urge. It just comes over me, I don’t know why. I guess I just don’t want to be part of the machine anymore.
I take a handful of puzzle pieces from one bin and drop them in another bin, and then a handful from that bin and drop them in another bin—they’re mostly from the same masterpiece, Chaos Scape 19, by Armand Brigantine, but I mix a few others in too—and so on down the line, till they’re all jumbled together, one big puzzle spread through a hundred bins, soon to be in a hundred boxes. If it’s a masterpiece, it’s my masterpiece now and nobody else’s.
Charlie sees what I’m doing and tries to stop me. “Why in hell are you doing that, Spencer?”
“Do I got to have a reason?”
He looks at me like he might be sick, his eyes darting over his shoulder in case Mr. Pangborn or Audrey is watching. “Sure you’ve got to have a reason,” he says. “You wouldn’t do something like that—”
“You think that butterfly in China’s got to have a reason before he flaps his wings? No, sir, he just flaps them, and that’s it!”
I wish I’d listened to Charlie and tried to unscramble those puzzles before we sent them out. It never occurred to me that anybody’d have a heart attack or go bankrupt or lose their house or go crazy just because of what I did, and even if I’d seen that coming I probably wouldn’t have considered it my problem, any more than that Chinese butterfly, flapping its wings some summer morning in Shanghai, could imagine a hurricane blowing down houses on the other side of the world.
The first sign of trouble comes about six weeks later. The licensing company agreed to back off but put us on probation. “No more screw ups,” Jeff warns me and Charlie one morning, as if it’s us instead of his nephew Stupid Butchie who robbed the place. “Or it’s all over.”
I nod and keep my mouth shut and so does Charlie, though we both know a Class 5 hurricane is on its way. We keep our fingers crossed but sure enough the puzzles start coming back. First by ones and twos, then cartons full, then whole shipments of Chaos Scape 19 are being dumped on the loading dock. Audrey calls Macy’s and they tell her they sent the puzzles back on account of customer complaints. They don’t want any more of our masterpieces.
We can hear Jeff yelling at Audrey over the phone. “What the hell are they complaining about?”
“Nobody can put the puzzles together.”
When Audrey’s not looking, Charlie and I have to laugh. “Naturally they can’t put them together,” I tell Charlie. “You can’t put any of them together if you don’t have all of them.”
That makes Charlie stop laughing. “Jeff’s gonna fire our ass and sell everything to the Chinese. And you know what? I could care less. I wasted enough of my life in this place.”
He picks up one of the puzzle boxes and shakes it. “This is all I accomplished in life. A million jumbled up pieces of crap like this one.”
Two weeks later Jeff calls us together outside Audrey’s bookkeeper booth and tells us the licensing company pulled the plug. The business’s been sold to the Chinese, who made their own deal with the licensing company. We’ve got three days to finish what we’re doing and hand the whole lot, equipment and inventory and all, over to the Chinese. We work like dogs and before you know it that last night arrives.
It’s three A.M. and we’re all there, me and Charlie and Audrey and Mr. Pangborn and the retarded cats. The cats know something’s wrong, they’re all racing around and howling like it’s the end of the world. Mr. Pangborn don’t look much better. Charlie and Audrey feel a little sentimental about shutting down. Audrey’s got a big bottle of vodka and a couple six packs and we pull up some folding chairs and take turns drinking shots and washing them down with beer, the cats crawling all over our laps and jumping away when we try to push them off. Charlie wiggles his left hand like a puppet and tells dirty jokes in a squeaky voice that’s supposed to be the Mona Lisa, and he and Audrey sing a few old rock and roll songs but they end up laughing too much to sing. Then Audrey starts to cry, thinking about the old times when she started working there and they had about ten people on a shift. “I can find another job,” she tells Charlie, “but it’s never gonna be the same.” She says that over and over again until Charlie wraps his fat white arms around her and almost falls off his folding chair trying to comfort her. Then he joins in with the crying. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he tells Audrey, sobbing and wailing like it’s his mother’s funeral. “I don’t know how I’m gonna feed my kids.” He pulls out a picture from his wallet and shows us. He has four kids and from the picture I can see why he’s worried about feeding them. The smallest one weighs about three hundred pounds.
Mr. Pangborn don’t laugh or cry or take a drink. He just sits on his folding chair staring at Audrey and Charlie and me like he never seen us before. Audrey tries to include him in the conversation. “How’s Mrs. Pangborn doing in the nursing home?” she asks him. He shakes his head like he don’t understand the question.
“Mr. Pangborn’s afraid his son’s going to stick him in the nursing home with his wife,” Audrey tells me.
“Why would he do that?” I ask.
“To get rid of him.”
“Jeff is evil,” Charlie explains.
“He has no redeeming social value,” Audrey says.
Mr. Pangborn looks at me like he’s hoping I disagree. “Everybody’s got a little spark in him,” I tell him. “No matter who he is. Even if he’s a killer on death row.”
“You don’t know Jeff,” Audrey tells me.
Mr. Pangborn stares back like he’s thanking me for saying something good about his son. Then he stands up and reaches in his pocket and pulls out three brand new $100 bills and hands them to us. “I want you to have these,” he tells us. “Whatever you do, don’t tell Jeff.” Then he steps in his office and shuts the door behind him. Mr. Pangborn’s a good man.
Audrey and Charlie stop crying when they see the $100 bills and Audrey celebrates by pouring some more shots. The money makes me happy too—there’s some new shoes I’ve been wanting to buy. Audrey holds up her shot glass like a toast and catches my eye. “For old time’s sake,” she tells me, peeking across the rim of her glass. “We’ll probably never see each other again.” She gives me a little wink and points with her eyes toward her bookkeeper booth, where the lighting looks softer than usual.
When Charlie heads for the bathroom, Audrey tugs me into her booth and pulls down the shades, then throws herself on me, digging her long fingernails into my back like fish hooks.
“You go for younger guys?” I ask her, trying to pull away.
“A little younger,” she giggles. “I’m not exactly old.”
Not exactly, I’m thinking. Just sort of a ballpark estimate.
“I prefer to call it experience,” she says.
She glides closer and I stumble against her desk, knocking her knickknacks and pictures on the floor. She pushes me farther until I’m backed against the wall.
“Well, if you go for younger guys.” I tell her, “you came to the right place. I’m so young, this here is my first pair of long pants.”
She wraps her arms around my neck and pulls me closer.
“I’ve still got my baby teeth.”
She stands on her toes and kisses me on the mouth.
“Hey, want to see my collection of Star Wars figures?”
I’m thinking about how to escape when I see Charlie peeking in one of the windows where the shade don’t go all the way down, grinning like a dog. I jump away from Audrey and catch up to him and pin him face down over the die press with the conveyor running. He’s about six inches away from becoming a masterpiece of western art and he knows it. “How’d you like to have your ass chopped up in 1000 pieces and stuck in a box so some 12 year old girl can spend her summer vacation trying to put it back together?”
“Easy now”—he sounds worried—“just let me go.”
“Because if that’s what you want, just tell me and I can take care of that for you.”
“Spencer, please! You feed me to that machine, who’s gonna feed my kids?” And he starts crying again. This time it’s serious, it goes on for about ten minutes after I turn off the die press. I have to hug Charlie like he hugged Audrey to calm him down, only Charlie’s not like Audrey, he’s like a big slippery side of beef you can hardly get your arms around to reach the other side.
“Here, Charlie,” I tell him when he stops crying. “Take this $100 bill Mr. Pangborn gave me—”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
“It’s just a loan. So you can feed the kids until you find another job. Then you can pay me back.”
“What you gonna do?”
“Keep on living with Aunt Lorraine. She don’t charge me nothing.”
“OK.” He snatches the bill out of my hand. “I’ll pay you back.”
“You’re damn right you’ll pay me back,” I tell him, “or your ass’s gonna be the fattest, ugliest masterpiece that ever hung on a wall.”
We both laugh and Audrey laughs too. She’s out of the booth now and still a little hot in the face but trying to show me and Charlie that nothing happened between us, just some fun like a game of hoops because she knows she’ll never see me again. Only I can tell she’s disappointed we stopped when we did. She says maybe we ought to get together again sometime, just the two of us, for old time’s sake. I’m too young for old time’s sake, I want to tell her. But I just smile and let her talk. I know I’ll never see her again.
It’s eight o’clock and we’re expecting Jeff and the Chinese in an hour. Audrey drives out in the van to pick up the last of the finished boxes from the Vietnamese, which, I can’t help noticing, happen to be Chaos Scape 19 by Armand Brigantine. When she brings them back she takes her calculator into Mr. Pangborn’s office and shuts the door.
Mr. Pangborn comes out of his office with Audrey, his face looking green and heavy. He takes one of the boxes off the pallet and hands it to Audrey. “Here,” he tells her. “I want you to have this.” Then he hands one to me and Charlie. “And you too, fellas. Take one of these for yourself.”
“For good luck.”
Then he sort of gags and his eyeballs roll up in his head and he topples over clutching his chest. I throw myself down and pound his chest and breathe in his mouth like they do on TV but it don’t do any good. I move his arms around but they feel limp as a couple of ropes. I beat his chest and blow every breath of air I have inside me into Mr. Pangborn until I don’t have any left for myself. And then I see that look, that look I’ll never forget—suddenly Mr. Pangborn opens his eyes and smiles like he caught a glimpse of something far, far away and I realize he’s dead, but that look stays on his face. I fall over and curl up on top of him gasping and shaking like a baby.
Audrey kneels down and lays her hand on my head and the other one on my shoulder, crying until the ambulance arrives. Charlie brings the EMTs through the front door at the same time as Jeff and the Chinese pull up at the loading dock in back.
“What’s going on?” Jeff stomps in. “The Chinese are here to pick this stuff up. Where’s my father?”
“Mr. Pangborn’s dead,” I tell him.
“Now? He had to die right now?”
“Your father saw his world coming apart,” Charlie tells Jeff.
Jeff’s face looks red as a cherry bomb about to explode. “You’re fired! All of you! Get the hell out of here!”
For two months I take it easy, collecting unemployment and sweltering in front of the TV with Shawn. Then Charlie calls and keeps me on the phone a long time. “I still can’t find a job,” he says. “Nobody wants to hire a guy who spent fifteen years in a puzzle factory. It’s like being an ex-con. How about you? What’re you doing?”
“Moving on to bigger things,” I tell him, on purpose a little vague. I’m thinking of going back to school for my GED but I don’t want to tell Charlie that.
“Better things, anyway.”
“What’re you talking about?”
He keeps asking and I keep stalling him off. Aunt Lorraine asks me the same question about ten times a day and I don’t answer. I’m keeping my little spark to myself until I decide what to do with it.
“I still owe you that hundred dollars,” Charlie says, like I need reminding. “But you know,” he says, “I gotta feed the kids.”
I think back on that picture he showed me of his kids grinning like a row of pumpkins in their Eagles jerseys, bulked up to about the same weight as the offensive line and probably just as dangerous if you don’t feed them. I feel sad when I picture those kids going hungry, but the situation’s not hopeless—maybe I can help set it right. “You can pay me back when you find a job,” I tell Charlie, “or when the kids stop eating. Whichever comes first.”
“Thanks, Spencer. I’ll never forget this. Hey, you heard about all the lawsuits being filed against Artistic Puzzles?”
“I thought they went bankrupt.”
“They did, but there’s still lawsuits. Audrey told me about it.”
“What’re they suing about?”
“Chaos Scape 19. Audrey says there’s people going berserk all over the world from trying to put that puzzle together.”
“You believe that?” I ask him. “That’s just some lawyer telling a story so he can make a million dollars suing somebody.”
“You don’t think it has anything to do with… you know, the puzzles being scrambled up?”
“No way, man. Something bad happens, they just find somebody to sue. And you know what, Charlie? As long as that somebody is Jeff Pangborn, they’ve got my vote.”
Charlie laughs, but he’s still worried. “What if you’re wrong?”
“Don’t blame me,” I tell him. “I’m only the butterfly.”
I hope you enjoyed “The Puzzle Factory.” This story is the first part of a novel entitled A Butterfly in Philadelphia, which continues the adventures of Spencer, Charlie and Audrey, together with Jeff Pangborn, his teenage daughter Lindsay, and a number of other unforgettable characters. A Butterfly in Philadelphia is a satirical comic novel and at the same time a coming of age story for the two narrators, Spencer Casey and Lindsay Pangborn, who, like most young people, manage to navigate successfully through the chaos they inflict on the world. You can buy A Butterfly in Philadelphia as an ebook or paperback through various vendors. It is also available at many book stores. More information can be found on my website, .
Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews called A Butterfly in Philadelphia a “comic masterpiece.” I hope you will read and enjoy it!
About the Author
Bruce Hartman lives with his wife in Philadelphia. His previous books include The Philosophical Detective (published by Swallow Tail Press in 2014), The Rules of Dreaming (2013), The Muse of Violence (2013), and Perfectly Healthy Man Drops Dead (Salvo Press, 2008). After *A Butterfly in Philadelphia,_ another satirical novel, [[*Big Data Is Watching You!]_] was published in November 2015. You can read more on his website and blog, .
[+ Kirkus Reviews+] awarded The Rules of Dreaming its Kirkus Star for Books of Exceptional Merit and selected it as one of the “Top 100 Indie Books of 2013.” Kirkus called the book, “A mind-bending marriage of ambitious literary theory and classic murder mystery… An exciting, original take on the literary mystery genre.”
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This story forms part one of
A Butterfly in Philadelphia
Text copyright 2015, 2016 by Bruce Hartman
All Rights Reserved
Published by Swallow Tail Press
Philadelphia, PA, USA
Front cover photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Spencer Casey is a 20-year-old high school dropout who works in a failing puzzle factory in Philadelphia, chopping up Masterpieces of Western Art into jigsaw puzzles. He is tired of being an effect instead of a cause. On the night before the factory is to close, inspired by the image of a butterfly flapping its wings in China, he scrambles the pieces of a painting called “Chaos Scape 19” and sends his own ripples of chaos into the world. “The Puzzle Factory” forms the first part of A BUTTERFLY IN PHILADELPHIA, a satirical comic novel centering around the two narrators, Spencer Casey and Lindsay Pangborn, who, like most young people, manage to navigate successfully through the chaos they inflict on the world.