One occupational hazard of my job is occasionally getting weird shit in the mail. Some weird shit I like, like the lady who drew pictures on manila sales tags with cryptic messages like “Can I help you? You missed a good moment when I walked down to the lake.” Some of it confuses and disturbs me, like the guy who sent a magnet showing old women talking about penises and a birthday card with cartoon lesbians excited about a giant dildo–and it was nowhere near my birthday. And some of it grosses me out: last week I got a package that included a tiny fetus of indeterminate species (but definitely not human) in a baggie filled with red liquid. That was pretty revolting, though I’m flattered that the responsible party was brave enough to risk federal prosecution just to send me a present.

But one package last May really freaked me out. A brown envelope addressed to me showed up at my house with no postmark. Where the return address should have been there was just the name Liz Birch and the word “Packit!” Inside was a photo of a blond woman and a cat, a couple short stories about an unnamed writer who was missing and possibly dead dotted with names of places I frequent, and the floor plan of an apartment a few blocks away from mine. I’d just moved, none of my friends had been over yet, and I hadn’t informed the post office of the change.

At first I thought about sleeping elsewhere for the night. Then I reconsidered–it was probably some kind of arty malarkey delivered by some press whore. I liked the stories, actually. They had a private quality, like the writer was talking to herself. But I was determined not to satisfy this person’s jones for publicity.

A month later I got a brown envelope, again with no postmark, full of soft feathery fluff, maple tree whirligigs, a drawing of teeth, and a surreal sort of miniplay:

(toms sin is warm winter is over it’s spring!)

sunburnt buildings: it’s april 7th tommy!

tommy: hurray!

The space for the return address said Tommy D’Angelo, and again the “Packit!”

Within a few days I’d figured out most of the mystery. I found Liz Birch on Friendster and saw that she knows my friend Margaret Chapman. I e-mailed Chapman and got the scoop. Chapman, Birch, and D’Angelo are former schoolmates from the Art Institute. They decided to take 45 people–each artist selected 15 friends–on a literary journey by mail. Everyone’s first two envelopes came from the strangers; only the third envelope bore a familiar name.

Chapman’s package finally arrived a little over a month ago. Besides a hand-bound booklet about two girls growing up in the westward-ho expansion era who were kidnapped and then left in the woods, she included a map of the Union and Central Pacific railroad routes, tiny illustrations of giant rocks in Kentucky, and a little calico fabric pouch filled with a plastic cowgirl trinket, printouts of old tintype photos, and a scrap of paper the size of a fortune-cookie fortune: “clear out a little home among the bones and make our bed,” it said.

I got one more envelope a couple weeks ago. Inside were these instructions: “Pack this empty Packit full! Create your own Packit as best you see fit. Feel free to be unedited & uncut–this is for an anonymous Packit raffle exchange!”

Per the instructions, last Saturday afternoon I showed up in the courtyard of Phyllis’ Musical Inn with my Packit, which included a mock rough draft of one of my columns, plus a torn-out copy of the real thing, a friend’s poems about hyenas, a romantic Hallmark card that I’d glued shut, and the fetus, which had turned into goo. I gave it to Chapman and she gave me a scrap of paper with the letter B on it. When my letter was called, I learned, I would get someone else’s Packit.

I ran up to a young woman with blond hair and big brown sunglasses who was smoking a cigarette. I knew from her Friendster picture that this was Liz Birch. “You scared the shit out of me!” I exclaimed, shoving her shoulder. She laughed and pushed me back.

Birch has always been infatuated with the shipping of goods. “One of my favorite pictures of myself in the future is getting and shipping and receiving lots of things,” she says. “I’d be the one who understands where they all go. It just seems like a really awesome thing to have a walkie-talkie and have a huge dolly of boxes. . . . That’s what I really want to do with my life.” Chapman, meanwhile, has been making packets and kits since she was a kid putting together boxes of games for her siblings. Now, she says, “I have my screen-printing kit, my embroidery kit, my beading kit. I just like to keep things in little boxes. It’s the way I like things.” And D’Angelo, says Chapman, “had been thinking about the epistolary quality of writing in general and about giving away stuff.” All these tendencies came together in the Packit project. “We just decided to send stuff out, individually, to people,” says Chapman.

I wandered through the couple dozen folks who’d gathered as they gently fondled the contents of their gifts. One couple sat on the cement poring over a handwritten bio of Fannie Lou Hamer, a handwritten account of the Haymarket riot, and a page cut out of the creator’s seventh grade journal. A friend of Chapman’s showed me his loot: a rectangular slice of an old album cover painted with Wite-Out and decorated with stick-on lettering. Inside was half an LP with letters stuck on to spell cicadas whirring.

My friend Annie sat at a table despondently rifling through her Packit. It contained a page cut from a magazine about “botched boob jobs” that’d been fixed, complete with before and after pictures: swollen udders with hard raisins way underneath traded in for turbo tits, rock-hard curdles smoothed out, a crooked nipple blob set tidy. She also got lots of porno shots of naked shaved women cut up almost like snowflakes; dictionary entries for such relevant words as abnegation, denial, and nihilism; and a few capsules full of fake blood, one of which broke all over her hands, staining them pink for the rest of the day. She’d filled her own Packit with homemade chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies and a logic puzzle she’d written about a cookie-eating contest.

When my letter was called I giddily ran up to get my Packit. Chapman handed me the envelope. It felt really flat. I reached in and pulled out a single sheet of white paper. About halfway down in a tiny lowercase font was the message: “you just have to wonder why.” Yeah, I guess so.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.