Monthly Junk Mail Coupons

Douglas W. Milliken
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Central Question:

Will you ever stop suffering?

I never asked for it, but it comes anyway: a packet fat with coupons in my mailbox every month. I scan the coupons religiously, on the hunt not for bargains—I don’t think I’ve redeemed more than three coupons in my life—but for errors made by the printers. The best example is a coupon for a free trial membership to a swimming pool, on which is centered a clip-art image of a woman swimming, mouth open in an almost-panicked O while water churns around her. The colors are set all wrong: the water is red, the woman’s skin green. A zombie girl flailing in a pool of frothy blood.

In search of comparable silliness, I tear through the January coupons. Most are discounts on pizzas I do not want and offers for carpet cleaning I do not need. But midway through, what I see stops me. It’s not another zombie, though the woman at the bottom left corner does appear trapped in some kind of perpetual un-death. Skin sickly and bespectacled eyes sunken, she’s showing some teeth but not necessarily smiling. But what stops me is the block text spanning the page: WILL YOU EVER STOP SUFFERING?

Let’s forget the exact details of my private life in this moment (it’s bad—why else would I be looking for fun among coupons?), and let’s forget that this is an advertisement for something someone is trying to sell (access to a fibromyalgia therapy group). You are living your daily life and you unexpectedly receive, from a stranger, a message that contains a presupposition: you are suffering. Did you know you are suffering? How exactly do you suffer? Maybe you should think about it some more.

Furthermore, the question implies an answer to itself: no. You will never stop suffering. Do you think the withered zombie in the corner will stop suffering? She will not. And she is no less special than you are. You are the same. You will always suffer. This message from a stranger is a promise and a threat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s not fair to embed universal truths among the innocuous babble of junk mail. I get the lesson—that it’s hunger that keeps the lion alive, that without the sharp bite in our bellies (or our hearts, or our bones) we wouldn’t seek to solve the pain, make it go away. But it’s not a lesson I’m happy to relearn—which I suppose is the point. I no longer enjoy scanning my monthly packet of coupons, but I keep my zombie women together, under magnets on the fridge.

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