Gilbert Butterman had long felt doomed by his name. It was, all at once, common, comical, goofy, mundane, and, most importantly, inciting of reactions varying in nature but sharing in the quality of negativity. During his adolescence, Gilbert, like all children, was unaware of the world and the cruelty of which it is capable. He was, all at once, common, comical, goofy, mundane, and, most importantly, . . . happy-go-lucky.
When Gilbert was twelve-years-old, however, he entered the seventh grade. He entered the seventh grade in a new school in a new city in a new state. His father, a bank manager, had been transferred from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, earlier that summer. It did not take long. It did not take an entire day, in fact. By lunch of his first day in the new school, Gilbert Butterman understood that the reason his name had not haunted him until that point in his life was that previously all the people in his life had known and accepted his name because they had learned it in kindergarten, at the innocent age of five.
In other words, Gilbert's classmates in Richmond had not snickered and pointed each and every time his name was announced during roll call. They had not tripped him in the hallway and knocked his lunch tray out of his hands. They had not refused to talk to him or insisted on referring to him only as 'Buttman,' 'Buttface,' or 'Butthead.' They had never asked the question, "What's a Gilbert," whenever his name had come up in a conversation near a person who did not know him.
Ever since that day, essentially every moment since the start of that day, Gilbert believed whole-heartedly that his name was a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he could not break the mold in which his name encased him. He attempted everything. He was determined. He joined the band, the soccer team, and the drama club but never made it through a single rehearsal, practice, or meeting. He drastically altered his wardrobe and personality, almost on a weekly basis. He insisted on having a variety of nicknames, including 'Flash,' 'Skip,' and, with complete ignorance of its meaning, "G-spot.' Nothing worked. He remained Gilbert Butterman. Geeky Gilbert. Gilbert the Butt. Gilbert the butt of all jokes.
Twenty-five years later, Gilbert Butterman sat at the desk in his cubicle. He was a sales associate offering advertising space in a mid-sized Philadelphia newspaper at a reasonable cost. He had worked in the office for twelve years, making him the longest tenured employee on his floor. Despite his seniority, the curse of his birth certificate remained in tact and unfettered. Gilbert's co-workers, even the temps, interns, and employees fifteen years his junior, treated him like the dunce meant to add comic relief in every typical movie about summer camp.
That was one of the biggest problems, Gilbert believed. The typicality of it all. It was his heaviest cross to bear. He did not laugh at the jokes, the insults, the nicknames, or the pranks. But only because he could not laugh at them. He could not laugh inasmuch as it was not funny. During one of his many phases in the seventh grade, Gilbert had attempted to become part of the joke, part of the laughing. To embody the concept that if you are laughing with others, then others cannot be laughing at you. But, as with everything else he had tried, it failed, miserably.
Gilbert honestly believed that if a person, any person, heckled him with the appropriate degree of originality and wit, then he would laugh. That he would recognize and appreciate the humor. But, instead, people had long relied on the same old jokes and other moronic, less common jokes. He did not laugh not because he did not understand the joke. He did not laugh not because he was the focus of an insult. He did not laugh simply because the joke or insult was not funny. And that was that, or at least it should have been, in Gilbert's mind.
Instead, people, particularly his co-workers, saw his displeased reactions as a sign of sadness, or agitation, or anger even. And this interpretation only served to encourage their joviality and to inspire increased rudeness. Sensitivity is a bacon cheeseburger for a starving bully. Even if it is simply the appearance of sensitivity.
When considering this aspect of his reality, Gilbert often reflected on one particular instance. One perfect and infuriating example. He was leaving the office on an otherwise regular evening, only abnormal in the fact that he was not the last one to leave due to excessive amounts of superfluous work having been thrust upon him at the last minute. As he was doing exiting, the cute, young receptionist, Janice, questioned whether Gilbert had an umbrella because it was raining outside. Brett Pennington, a then second year sales associate, was standing by the reception desk pretending to be enthralled by Janice's fake fingernails. And, after hearing her concern, Brett quipped, by his standards, "Why would he need an umbrella? Turds don't melt."
Gilbert heard the remark. He heard every word of it and he heard it clearly. As such, Gilbert closed his eyes, lowered his head, clenched his jaw, and started walking silently toward the exit. If only he could have left the office without further comment, Gilbert felt that he could have effectively floated above and away from the situation. But no, that was asking too much. It had been inevitable. And he had known it.
"Ahhh, come on, Gil-butt. Lighten up. I'm only joking."
"No, you are not," Gilbert had thought to himself. "That is not a joke. It is neither funny nor clever nor imaginative nor logical. If it had been a joke, an actual joke, I might have laughed. Heck, even if you were being dry and ironic, I might have laughed. But, no, Brett. You would not even understand what those words mean in the context of personality."
That particular instance occurred roughly eight years earlier, and that was the way of things during the eight years thereafter. The only significant change was that Brett Pennington had become Gilbert's boss along the way, having leapfrogged Gilbert by several rungs. This, however, did very little to curb Brett's immaturity, at least with respect to Gilbert.
Gilbert was sitting at the desk in his cubicle eating only a fortune cookie for lunch. He assumed but did not bother to confirm that at that same moment, Brett Pennington was eating Kung Pao chicken that he had swiped from the office refrigerator despite Gilbert having clearly labeled it as his. No matter. Gilbert was accustomed to such pitfalls in the course of his daily life. He cracked open the sugary cookie and placed the separated crumbs and bits quickly into his mouth before they could breach the crevices between his fingers.
After licking both palms clean, because he was hungry and had no other recourse for food, Gilbert unfolded the fortune in full expectation of a dash of false encouragement. Gilbert, however, was stunned to read the worst fortune he could imagine. A fortune so shocking that a sense of dread filtered down his spinal column and crawled to the endings of each and every one of his nerves. Gilbert's life dictated that he not attempt to cultivate signs of optimism, but he had decided that, if nothing else, this had helped immunize him to signs of pessimism. But this, his fortune, could not be ignored.
"You have a burning desire to visit the Great Pyramid of Giza."
A fortune that was not even a fortune. Gilbert could not let go of this notion. A fortune was a person's fate, lot, or destiny. A fortune was something that would happen to a person. A fortune was not a conjecture about the interests or wants of a person. Gilbert suddenly found himself longingly reminiscing about a four-month period several winters earlier. During that time, Brett had found it hysterical and well worth the company's time to have his personal assistant, Janice, the former receptionist, confiscate Gilbert's fortune cookies. She would then delicately open the plastic wrapping, replace the fortune with a replica, and skillfully re-seal the wrapper. The replica fortunes all read the same, "You suck, Gilbert." After the third or fourth time, Gilbert had even found himself admiring Janice's stealth artistry and wondering what productive good she actually might have been capable if properly managed.
Whatever the case, Gilbert could not shake his case of the spooks. A life of no real hope was one thing. A life with no false hope was another thing. But a life with a fortune that predicts neither fortune nor hope was something not even he had considered. Something was amiss. He felt it. He knew it. He knew it the way an experienced soldier knows that an invisible and soundless enemy is lurking beyond the trees waiting to ambush.
Gilbert made an impulse decision. It was entirely unlike him, both to act on impulse and the actual decision itself. He shut down his computer, closed his briefcase, and snatched his decade-old suit jacket off the back of his chair as he hurried from his cubicle. He was leaving work, early. And he was not planning on telling a soul any form of an excuse. His day was doomed, and the only way he saw to minimize the inevitable damage was to secure privacy from the public that had taunted him for so long.
Though he was strong in his decision, it did occur to Gilbert that there would be certain repercussions for his unauthorized actions. But it also occurred to him that he had not missed a single day of work in over a decade and had even worked holidays when the rest of the office was empty. In fact, he had missed even part of a day only once. Though Gilbert did not realize it at the time, that day was exactly a year earlier. Besides, Gilbert assured himself, Brett Pennington would surely find his weekdays far less entertaining without his favorite punching bag.
Gilbert rushed through the cubicle corridors and office hallways while purposefully avoiding all eye contact. He cut through the bathroom, bypassing the office kitchen area, and turned past the receptionist's desk. He sensed a question being asked of him in a feminine voice, followed by a remark in a masculine voice. The standard pattern of his office interactions. But Gilbert did not hear the question, or the remark. He heard no word of it, clearly or otherwise. It was only noise, not sound. Gilbert closed his eyes, lowered his head, clenched his jaw, and continued walking ardently toward the exit.
Gilbert finally arrived at the common area of the building floor. There were three other businesses occupying various spaces around him. Though he did not dare look at the doors to his office, he was conscious with every subtle sense he could muster as to whether he had been followed. He stood in between six elevator doors, three on each side of him, and he felt confident that he was free and clear. He had emphatically pressed the down button six or seven times and was suffering the excruciating wait for the first ding of arrival.
In his mind, Gilbert was retreating back to seventh grade. Back to his awakening of what life had in store for him. Back to his desperate efforts to change that fate. Back to all of his failures. He started to wonder. He started to rationalize. Though against his nature and defense mechanisms, rationalizing was proving to be an effective distraction from the stress of being stranded amidst his getaway. Thus, Gilbert started to consider whether his attempts at self-transformation at the age of twelve were, perhaps, actually wise, despite lacking in results. Perhaps he was simply too young to succeed in the changes he desired.
After all, Gilbert thought, it was not the orgasm that felt good; it was the moment before orgasm. It was not sleep that felt good; it was the act of falling asleep. And, for Gilbert, it was not the idea of being a good person that felt good; it was the idea of being a better person. What Gilbert did not realize, however, what he could not realize, what he would have had to be insane to realize, was that he, an ill-fated, under-appreciated, and bedeviled human being, had unwittingly traded being lucky in life, for being lucky in love.
In fact, even if a person he trusted and respected, though there was no such person in his life, had tried to explain to Gilbert his good fortune at that moment in the hallway, he would not have had the chance to appreciate it. Gilbert had placed himself inches in front of the door signaled for arrival. This was his moment. A rare moment of freedom and escape. And three seconds later any commentary on the concept of good luck would be totally lost on him forever.
As the elevator doors started to spread open, Gilbert vaguely saw a flesh-colored blur through his bifocals. What he would understand, several confused moments later, was that the distorted image was that of the knuckles of a young woman's fist. In other words, Gilbert had been punched. He had been punched squarely in the face. The force of the punch exploded his nose and knocked him off his feet. His back landed on the thin and well-trampled carpet with a thud and a crackle.
At first, all Gilbert could hear was his own guttural and monotone moaning. His body was positioned on the floor as though he were preparing to make a snow angel. That was until the typical warm and salty taste of blood trickled over his upper lip. Gilbert quickly placed both of his hands over and around his nose in an attempt to contain the bleeding. With his eyes quickly tearing up and his bifocals having been knocked well off his face, Gilbert could not make out the figures in the elevator. He could only hear them. The voices of a guy and a girl. Though stunned and apologetic, each voice was filled with unsuccessfully repressed laughter.
"Oh my God! I'm so sorry, mister! I'm so, so, so sorry!"
"Holy shit! I can't believe you punched him! And right in the face!"
"Shut up, Tim! This is your fault!"
"My fault! You're the one who punched him! And right in the face!"
"Mister! Mister, are you ok!? Oh my God! I am so sorry!"
"Sorry!? Sorry for what!? Punching him!? Right in the face!?"
"Tim, shut up! Mister!? Oh my God! It was just a stupid dare! Tim made me do it!"
"Ha! Made you do what!? Punch that guy!? Right in the face!?"
"Shut up! He dared me to punch my arm through the door without looking! Before they could open! I didn't even see you! I can't believe you were standing there! And so close!"
"Sir, I have never met this girl before in my life! Ha ha!"
"Mister!? I'm so sorry! Are you ok!? Please be ok! Mister!? . . . I'm sorry!"
The voices trailed off as the elevator doors closed, though Gilbert could still make out the faint sounds of laughter for several seconds thereafter. He started to have trouble breathing as the blood clogging his nose was draining into his mouth. He had to risk the integrity of his freshly dry cleaned dress shirt and sit upright. He cringed at the thought of the stains crop-dusting his outfit as he exhaled deeply. The pain was bearable, but the bewilderment was overbearing. He had not left work early in more than . . . had it been a year, he finally realized. And upon opting to do so, he was randomly punched in the face on a dare by a young woman. Further, if the young woman had been so concerned and sympathetic, why did she not check to see if he was ok, or at least hold the elevator for him?
"Good . . . fucking . . . Lord. What is the matter with you?"
Gilbert had calmed his breathing but was still having trouble seeing. He felt around but had yet to retrieve his glasses. He turned his head toward the sound of the voice with his left hand pinching the upper portion of his nostrils together. It did not matter. He had recognized the voice immediately. It was, of course, Brett Pennington.
"Christ, Gil-butt! What are you, fifty-fucking-years-old? And you're still getting kiddy nose bleeds?"
"I'm huree-even," Gilbert tried to clarify.
"Look at you. You're pathetic. I can't have you coming back into the office looking like that. You'll make people sick. And I mean more so than usual. Get yourself together and just get out of here. Go home to your apartment or shack or box or whatever. And I'm docking you a sick day. Good fucking Lord. You're hopeless."
"Ewe you see my gwasses," Gilbert asked with one hand still covering his mouth and nose.
It was too late. Well, that was not true. Not true at all. Brett heard Gilbert's question but simply had no intention of helping him. He walked back into the office mumbling additional disgust.
Gilbert spent the next ten minutes on his knees using his hands like windshield wipers. He eventually located his bifocals and sat back down on the floor. Shockingly, they were not broken or even cracked. The frames, however, were bent, crooked. Gilbert suspected that he must look like a dullard. That with the glasses on he must look exactly how people described him to their friends and family outside of the office. But, the point was, Gilbert was able to look, able to see. He glanced over his left shoulder, then his right, and marveled at how far away from the elevator and his body that his briefcase had flown after he was punched just one time . . . by a girl.
Gilbert did not consider for a single second re-entering his office to use the bathroom. He feared the worst about his appearance. But he feared being seen in his office even more. He was a big enough target without the additional ammunition of a busted face. He looked briefly at the closed elevator doors that were obscurely reflective. He could only discern the outline of his face and general shapes. He could not examine with any specificity the extent of the damage to his nose and attire.
Gilbert desperately wanted to leave. He wanted to stand, pick up his briefcase, hit the elevator call button one final time that day, and not look back. But Gilbert felt his vision failing as he became too light-headed to stand. Then he felt his breathing slow as he felt too light-headed to even continue sitting upright. He was about to spend the beginning of his first sick day in exactly a year lying flat and semi-unconscious on the floor of the common space.
Not that he should have been surprised. It was his first sick day since that last sick day. That terrible day a year earlier to the day. He should have reminded himself about the course of actions on that day before he decided to leave work early again. But his decision-making had been rash and instinctive, not well considered. Gilbert had not felt ill on that day either. The only reason that he had finally chosen to take the afternoon off was at the repeated insistence of his wife. She must have called him at least fifteen times that morning while he was at work.
In those days, Gilbert often passed the bus ride home from work fixated on the thought of his wife. How had he convinced her to marry him? That was the question that every person who met his wife would always ask him. And a question that he was forced to even ask himself. So loving, so caring. Intelligent and witty. She would do anything to make Gilbert happy, to make him smile. And she always succeeded, despite the downtrodden mood Gilbert often succumbed to after a day in his office. And beautiful. So beautiful. A successful fashion model . . .
It was inevitably at that point that Gilbert's daydream would become too unrealistic for him to continue the fantasy. The fantasy about having such a wonderful and sexy wife, about having something that his co-workers, even Brett Pennington, could not match. Something to hold over them. To hold over everyone.
Instead, he had married Daphne. She was attractive, in her way. In her ordinary sort of way. Gilbert had admitted to himself many times that they had never approached the concept of a fairytale romance. That neither of them had ever been head over heels, blown away, or completely smitten with the other. But she had stayed with him. She had stuck. And Gilbert appreciated that, inasmuch as no one else in his life ever had. And he felt obligated to reward her with marriage and loyalty.
Over the course of their six years of marriage, however, Daphne had grown bored. And, at worst, even resentful, Gilbert feared. They did not fight or yell or scream. But they did not laugh or enjoy or appreciate. They were, in the minimalistic sense of the word, together.
Gilbert had exited the building that day without incident. As he walked across the street and down one block to his bus stop, Gilbert heard his cell phone ring. He checked his phone and was relieved that the call was not from Daphne. His phone rang one final time after a short delay, indicating that he had received a voicemail message. Despite being certain that it was a telemarketer or automated message of some sort, as he rarely, if ever, received a call from a friend, or family member, or acquaintance, or anyone besides his wife, who actually wanted to talk to him for social reasons, he decided to listen to it anyway.
Gilbert was navigating through the process of passwords and ones and twos on his phone as he finally arrived at the bus stop. Never having left work so early in the day, he was unsure of the schedule and, therefore, how long he would have to wait. He also did not care. At least he was free. Free and clear. Brett Pennington was not nearby. Neither was Janice nor any of his co-workers. He was standing in the comfort of strangers. People who would not bother him.
Three seconds later, Gilbert's cell phone was plucked from his right hand holding it next to his ear and tossed forcefully down the alley behind the bus stop. Despite his life experiences, Gilbert was absolutely shocked. He panicked. He turned around quickly and his eyes attempted to follow the sound of his cell phone bouncing down the narrow, filthy street. He looked to his right and saw a perfectly normal looking young man, the person who had obviously swiped and immediately disposed of his property. The young man was not in a rush. He was not nervous or devious looking. He walked casually and without looking back.
Gilbert was bewildered by the lackadaisicalness of it all. He did not know the young man. He was sure of it. And the young man gained nothing by his actions, not even taking the opportunity to point and laugh, and he did not bother to escape the situation without detection.
"What was the point? Who would do such a thing? And why?" These questions filtered through Gilbert's mind in a cycle. Gilbert had long been the target of specific and discriminating torment, but at least those people achieved some level of pleasure from their despicable actions. "Did this guy sincerely just harass me for absolutely no reason with no personal gain? Has my mere existence inspired such arbitrary action? A stranger, a complete and non-deviant stranger, just threw my cell phone down an alley? How does that happen?"
Gilbert looked up the main street. Then he looked down the alley. He looked back up the main street. Then back down the alley. He repeated this process for three or four minutes, until he finally saw his bus. It was several stoplights in the distance. For some reason, this finally forced Gilbert into action. Although he could have ran down the alley, retrieved his phone, and returned to the bus stop several minutes earlier, he had been unable to do so without the motivation of the sight of his bus approaching.
Gilbert hopped and skipped, careful to avoid all water puddles and unnaturally gross looking objects and patches as he made his way down the alley. He found himself standing above a small pool of opaque liquid. He had no educated guess as to the plausible identity of the substance. The only thing he did recognize was the tip of the antenna on his cell phone ever so slightly jutting out of the ooze. Of course his phone would land there. It could have happened no other way, not for Gilbert Butterman.
Gilbert straddled the disturbing puddle and gingerly tried to pick up his phone. He felt the pressure of knowing that his bus was surely arriving at his stop in seventy-seven seconds. He also felt the terror of touching the dark and spoiled substance beneath him. His fingertips desperately squeezed together around the exposed portion of the antenna and he began lifting it into the air. The liquid filth dripped off his phone in eerily large plops.
The voice was calm and casual. It was friendly and innocuous. It was appropriate and normal. And it scared Gilbert beyond the point of sanity. Decades of persecution and pestering had instilled a hair trigger flight reaction in his brain. Unfortunately, however, Gilbert's body was never able to physically react in line with his brain's emergency instructions.
His hands failed first. His fingers, to be more accurate. The phone antenna slipped from between his fingertips and Gilbert began to wildly reach and grab to catch it. Similar to his thousands of days of gym class fiascos, he was unable to do so. Instead, Gilbert managed only to keep tapping and knocking the phone into the air. Had he been a comedic juggler, the audience would have been applauding.
Gilbert leaned forward to chase the bungling phone and, in doing so, stepped violently in the poodle of filth, splashing it all over his pants and even his jacket. He continued stumbling forward as he chased the bouncing phone with less and less likelihood of success. He was loosing his footing as both his torso and the phone neared closer to hitting the ground. And that was exactly what happened. Gilbert crashed to the ground, scraping his chin, elbows, and knees on the unevenly paved alley. He felt a montage of sharp pain, clothes tearing, and foulness on his hands and fingers. When he looked up, he saw his phone three feet in front of him lying under a dumpster.
"Jesus, dude. What the fuck? Are you ok?"
Despite the pain, Gilbert leapt immediately to his feet, both as part of his brain's hair trigger flight reaction and to remove himself from the variety of hideous secretions on which he was certainly lying. Gilbert, his body still in panic mode, looked at the source of the questions. He saw a young man, perhaps thirty-years-old, dressed in casual clothing but dressed well. In his mind, Gilbert thought he looked "hip," though he understood that he was the last person in the world qualified to make such a determination. The man reached under the dumpster and easily removed Gilbert's cell phone without dirtying himself.
"Is this yours? This what you were after?"
"Uhh . . ."
"Dude, is this your phone? Are you ok?"
"No? No what? You're not ok?"
"Yes, that is my phone."
"Jesus, dude. Calm down. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"I don't know. Nothing. Everything."
"Look, what's your name?"
"Umm . . . Flash."
"Gilbert. My name is Gilbert."
"Gilbert? Are you serious?"
"Well, yes, I am actually."
"Ok, Flash. I'm Derrick. Now, is this your phone?"
"Yes, it is."
"Ok. Now we're getting somewhere. Here ya go."
"Now, how you feelin'? You all right?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Hmm. You might wanna get that knee looked at. Who knows what sort of infection you could get around here."
"Oh, right. Definitely. I definitely will."
"And I would definitely burn those clothes too."
"Yes, well, maybe just some dry cleaning. I know an excellent dry cleaner."
"No, dude. I mean I would definitely burn those clothes, no matter how fucking good your dry cleaner is. And any clothes you have like them, for that matter."
"What . . . I don't, uhh . . ."
"That was a joke, Flash. You know, a joke? I'm joking with you?"
Gilbert was nervous. He had no idea how to react to the situation. The man, Derrick, was grinning and nodding in such a manner that Gilbert actually felt warm, safe. He imagined briefly that it was the way a normal person felt when they were talking to someone who was trying to be friendly and helpful.
"Ha! I'm sorry. I'm not used to laughing much."
"Jesus, Flash. You really need to chill. What the fuck happened in your life?"
"I, uhh . . . it's just that . . ."
"Look, forget it. You're cool now, right?"
"You're ok? Feel ok? Got your bearings? All that stuff?"
"Oh, right. Yes. I am. I am super cool. And, again, I'm sorry. And thank you. I really should thank you for . . ."
"Nah, nah. Forget all that. I didn't do anything."
"No, really. Thank you. And, sorry, but I really need to run. I can see my bus and I . . ."
"Ok, ok. Just a sec though. Just one more thing there, Flash."
"Gimme your wallet."
"Yeah, I'm gonna need to see your wallet."
"Why? Because I'm a fucking cop. That's why."
"Oh, ok . . . wait, you are? You're a cop? But why would a cop need to see . . ."
"Jesus, Flash. I'm not a fucking cop. I'm going to rob you now. And I need to see your wallet to do that. Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with you?"
"I don't . . . you're robbing me? Why?"
"You can't be this fucking dumb. Why? Why am I robbing you? Why does anyone rob anyone? What, you think I'm gonna say I need the money to buy a kidney for my daughter? Fuck! I'm robbing you because you have money that I don't have. And that's the kind of money I like."
"But you were so nice and considerate . . ."
"Well, yeah. Have to say, I did feel sorry for you there for a sec, what with you spiking yourself on the ground and all. But that's passed."
"You don't even have a weapon?"
"Well, maybe I do, maybe I don't. Maybe there's a gun in my belt. Maybe not. Maybe a knife. Who knows?"
"You know. You have to know."
"Jesus, Flash. Of course I know. The point is, if I do have one, and I do use it, and I get caught, I go from simple robbery to robbery with a deadly weapon. That's a lot more serious, you know? So, I look at you and, I mean, look at you. I figure I don't need to risk it because I can rob you without a weapon. Fuck, you almost knocked yourself out on your own."
"That's a fair point. But I still don't see . . ."
"Fuck, flash. Hand me your wallet right now, or I'll bury you under that dumpster."
"Understood. Here you go."
"About time. Let's see what you got here."
"Oh, wait. This was all one big scheme, wasn't it? I get it now."
"Sure, Flash. Whatever."
"That's why that other guy threw my phone down here. You two are in cahoots."
"Cahoots? That what you said?"
"Yes. It makes sense now. That guy didn't just throw my phone down here because I motivated some sort of repressed anger or rage in him. He did it because he was your partner."
"Yes. He was your partner. And as part of your collaboration, he threw my phone down this alley so that you could approach me, befriend me, and then rob me without witnesses. I see now."
"Flash, seriously, what the fuck are you talking about? I don't have a partner. I did not befriend you. I'm not in, what did you call it?"
"Yeah, that. If some guy threw your phone, that's a you problem. Nothing to do with me."
"Are you sure? Because I would feel much better . . ."
"Fuck, Flash! Two dollars? You only have two dollars? Is there some secret compartment I'm missing in here or what?"
"No, Derrick. There isn't. I, uhh . . ."
"You're a grown man! What are you, forty-five-years-old?"
"And you only have two fucking dollars!?"
"Well, jeez, Derrick. I'm sorry. I don't know what to say."
"I can't fucking believe this."
"Oh, wait. I might have some change in my pocket. Hang on. Let me check."
"What? What the fuck is wrong with you? I don't want your fucking change. It's got to be covered in shit by now anyway."
"Damn it, Flash. If you haven't figured it out yet. That's shit down there that you were laying in. Hobo shit. Stray dog shit. Rat shit. Whatever shit it is, it is shit."
"Oh my God. Are you joshing me?"
"Am I joshing you? Flash, I am . . . fuck. Ok, ok. Just give me a sec here. I'm getting too pissed to think."
"Well, Derrick. As you can see, I have a credit card. I know it's only just the one, but that's something, right?"
"No, Flash, it's fucking not. How far do you think I'm gonna get using a credit card when you report it stolen as soon as I leave, or as soon as you wake up after knocking yourself unconscious trying to get away from a bee. Unless I killed you."
"Ah! Uh, umm . . ."
"Stop shitting your pants, Flash. I'm not gonna kill you. I don't kick helpless animals, so I'm not gonna kill you."
"Thank you, Derrick. I appreciate that."
"Look, Flash, here's what we're gonna do. You know that I could beat you senseless, right?"
"Good. So, what we're gonna do is, we're gonna walk down the street over there till we find a bank machine. And then you're gonna take out as much cash as you can and give it to me. How's that sound?"
"Well . . ."
"I hope I'm not imposing, Derrick, but could we walk a few extra blocks until we find a Harper's Bank machine? If I use a different bank, I have to pay a two-dollar surcharge. And then Harper's Bank charges me an extra fee . . ."
"No! Stop talking. Shut the fuck up, Flash. The first bank machine we see. I don't care what bank it is. I'll even let you keep the two fucking dollars in your wallet to cover the surcharge, you asshole."
"Asshole? Considering the circumstances, I hardly think that it is I who is acting like the . . . oh, no. Wait a second. We can't do that."
"What? We can't do what?"
"We can't use my bank card."
"What? Why not?"
"Your wife? You're married? Someone married you?"
"Yes, actually, someone did, Derrick."
"Yeah, well, so the fuck what?"
"Well, this morning, before I went to work, she, my wife, asked me if I would walk down the street and withdrawal some cash for her so that she could go shopping for a new pant suit."
"She asked, Flash?"
"Does she work?"
"No. But I don't see . . ."
"Does she have a car?"
"Well, we have one car. So I take public transportation to work so that she can . . ."
"And the pant suit. What's that for?"
"Well, nothing. She just wanted a new one."
"Flash, what you meant to say was, your wife made you walk your dumbass to the bank to get your money for her while she did nothing."
"Wait just a second, Derrick. You have no right . . ."
"Forget it. Just fucking forget it. What does that have to do with this, Flash, huh?"
"Well, she needed a really nice pant suit. Not just your run-of-the-mill pant suit. So, at the bank, I, well . . ."
"What, Flash? What?"
"I withdrew two hundred dollars. And I gave it all to her. And according to the terms of my contractual agreement with my bank, I can only . . ."
"Fuck, Flash! Are you telling me that you're maxed out? This card is worthless?"
"Well, it's not worthless. It's just, well, worthless, for the next sixteen or seventeen hours or so."
"Un-fucking-believable! Jesus, Flash! You're so fucking pathetic. You know that?"
"Yes, honestly, I do."
"You've crossed some sort of weird fucking line of pathetic where you're so pathetic you're easy to rob, but you're so fucking pathetic you can't be robbed even if you wanted to be robbed. It's fucking crazy!"
"Again, Derrick. I apologize."
"You apologize? What is that? What does that mean? You're apologizing to me? Jesus, Flash. Is this a prank? Am I being pranked? Do you do this on purpose? Nobody could be this fucking pathetic unless they were doing it on purpose. Are you this pathetic on purpose?"
"No, Derrick, this is just me. I can't help it. But, frankly, I have to say something. In this modern world of digital information and currency-free transactions, I find it hard to believe that a reasonable living can be had robbing people. Nobody carries a great deal of cash on their person anymore, right? Are the glory days of the pickpockets and muggers not long since past? Perhaps you simply need to find a different profession, or angle, as I think you guys call it."
"Yes. You know, hoodlums? Ruffians? Gangsters, right?"
"Jesus, Flash. I'm really starting to fucking hate you, you know that?"
"What? Hate me? I already apologized, Derrick. What more do you want from me?"
"Shit. Look, ok. Let's go. Come on."
"Let's go? Go where?"
"I'm at least getting a lunch out this. Won't be a complete waste of my time."
"A waste of your time? I missed my bus."
"Yeah, well, you're gonna be missing some teeth if you don't get me some food. Let's go."
"Ok, ok. Fine. Where are we going? What do you want?"
"Give me your phone." "What?"
"Flash, give me your fucking phone. Just in case you get the balls to try to run away from me and somehow manage not to fall down and hurt yourself."
"But . . ."
"Flash? I'm getting pretty fucking annoyed here." "Ok, ok. Here. Fine. Take it."
"Wipe it off first. That's disgusting. Use your jacket."
"Derrick, I'm not sure if anyone has ever told you this or not, but you are not a very nice person."
"Whatever. Ok, Flash. Just come over to this deli window and get me two hot dogs."
"With your credit card, dumbass. You didn't max that out buying your wife a new dress for her to lay on the couch in, did you?"
"No. Well, I don't think so. She has a card too."
"Two hot dogs, got it. Is that it? No beverage? No toppings?"
"Shit. Yeah, umm, watch out, Flash. I got this. Ma'am, get me a coke and two hot dogs . . . with onions and relish, and a little mustard."
"Seriously? That's what you eat?"
"Flash, just pay the lady and don't worry about it. Ok?"
"Fine, Derrick. I'm just looking out for . . ."
"Shut it, Flash. And you better not have been getting ready to say you were looking out for me. You can't even look out for yourself."
"Is that really necessary at this point? I've been more than cooperative."
"Fair enough. Now, get back over here. I need to eat."
"Actually, I have to admit. That does look good. Can I have a bite?"
"What? Are you fucking crazy? What is wrong with you?"
"I only asked for a bite. I can tear a piece off using one of your napkins. It will be completely sanitary."
"You're asking me, a you-called gangster, who just robbed this food from you for a bite? Jesus, Flash. You should have got your own."
"Well, I wasn't really thinking about that, Derrick. I've never ordered lunch as a hostage before."
"I can't take you anymore, Flash. Here. Here's your fucking phone. Go get it."
"What? No way! Derrick? Why? Why do that? That is unbelievable."
Gilbert watched as Derrick walked down the street, again casually and without a care in the world let alone any single care about having just committed an arrestable crime, a felony, in fact. Gilbert could see his head bend down to take another bite of hot dog as he disappeared into the sparse crowds of pedestrians.
With an odd sense of relief and acceptance, Gilbert began to walk back down the same alley to once again retrieve his cell phone. This time, however, he did not bother to avoid any of the hazards and muck, inasmuch as the hazards and muck were already well engrained on his clothing and skin.
Ten minutes later, Gilbert had the bench at the bus stop all to himself. There were several other people waiting at the same stop, but the mere sight of Gilbert had motivated them all to wait behind the awning. Gilbert, disheveled, filthy, and bloodied, sat solemnly alone, looking as though he had just been thrown out of a moving car.
To look at him, Gilbert could have been the most disheartened man in the world. But he was not, for the most part. All things considered, it had been a typical day.
As he had attempted to do upon first approaching the bus stop, Gilbert lifted his phone within inches of his ear, careful not to press it against his skin, and navigated again through the process of passwords and ones and twos. Gilbert had two voicemail messages. The first message was from a nurse at a suburban hospital informing Gilbert that his wife had been admitted to the emergency room after getting in a car wreck. The second message was from a doctor at the same suburban hospital informing Gilbert that his wife had suffered major internal bleeding and that her heart was failing, and that he should rush to the hospital as soon as possible, because she only had minutes to live. Gilbert checked his watch. The message had been left thirty-two minutes earlier.
"Gilbert? Gilbert, are you awake? Are you alive?"
Gilbert blinked his eyes several times and waited the few required seconds before becoming aware that he was still lying on the common space floor.
"Oh, thank God. You look awful. I thought you were dead."
"Hello, Janice," were the only words Gilbert could muster. He decided to lean up and immediately regretted it. A rhythmic throb circumnavigated his skull in beats of two.
"Well, Gilbert, this feels silly now, but there is a registered letter for you. The mailman is at the reception desk. He needs you to sign for it. Brett walked by and told me you might be out here."
"He said you were taking a sick day, but, wow, I had no idea. You look horrible."
"I'm fine, Janice. Thank you for your concern."
"Well, Gilbert, should I tell the mailman to come back tomorrow? Or next week?"
"No, Janice. Do not do that. I'll be right there."
"Are you sure, Gilbert? You look like you really need to go to the doctor, or the emergency room."
"Janice, I'm fine. I'll be right there."
"But Gilbert, you look like . . ."
"Janice, please. I apologize for being short with you. But I really do not want to hear the end of that sentence. I'll be right there."
Janice finally forfeited her protests and walked with quick steps and short strides in her high-heeled shoes back into the office. Before standing up, Gilbert softly touched his face, the sides of his nostrils, and the skin over his upper lip. The bleeding had stopped, as should have been expected, and his fingers could only feel the scabby surface of dried blood around his nose and mouth and in spots along his cheeks.
He needed an aspirin. He wanted six aspirins. That was clear. But otherwise, Gilbert rose to his feet without issue or discomfort. He began to straighten his tie and thought about tucking in the left side of his dress shirt, but all such efforts suddenly struck him as harebrained. Perhaps he did have a burning desire to see the Great Pyramid of Giza, but it would be absurd to want to polish it.
Gilbert opened the door to his office and walked nonchalantly up to the receptionist's desk. Despite his urges to be mannerly, the mailman cringed as his gaze fixed firmly on Gilbert's face.
"Good afternoon, sir. I believe you have a letter for me?"
"Oh, umm, you are, let's see here, you're Gilbert?"
"Yes, sir. Gilbert Butterman."
"Well, uh, are you sure?" "Am I sure? Am I sure that I am Gilbert Butterman? Look at me. Yes, sir. I am completely sure. I am Gilbert Butterman. Would you like to see some identification?"
"Umm . . . no. No, that's ok. Just sign right here, please."
"Can do. Here you go, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Butterman. And . . . have a good day?"
"Yes, sir. You too. Thank you."
For no reason at all, other than the loopy feeling of his light-headedness, Gilbert looked at a confused Janice standing beside the desk, held up the letter, puckered his cheeks, and raised his eyebrows twice, the equivalent of winking with one's eyes open. He walked over to the empty chairs by the wall, sat down, placed his briefcase on the chair beside him, and crossed his legs. Before opening the envelope, Gilbert attempted to adjust his glasses, but to no avail. They were stuck crooked. Out of his left eye, he could see the bottom of the frame. Out of his right eye, he could see the top of the frame.
Gilbert exhaled deliberately, as he had for many, many years before opening any sort of letter or package in order to prepare himself. He could feel Janice's eyes still on him, but he did not bother to acknowledge them. Gilbert removed a pen from his breast pocket and delicately inserted it into the small opening at the corner of the envelope. A long history of paper cuts, including one on his tongue trying to remove a fortune from its sugary cocoon, had trained him well. He dragged the pen along the entire length of the envelope and blew a gust of his breath to force it open.
Gilbert removed the letter and unfolded it. He tilted his head down to the right to help his eyes have a wider field of vision and, to his childish amusement, it actually worked to a certain extent. He read the letter in its entirety. Then he read the letter again. Then he read the name and address of the intended recipient six more times.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. It had to be. Could he trust his eyes, even with his innovative head tilt? Did he have a concussion? Probably, but that should not have been a factor. Was he daydreaming? Was he back on the bus years earlier envisioning being met at the door by his loving, fashion model wife? Was he still lying unconscious on the floor in front of the elevator doors?
"Janice, what is my name?"
"What . . . is . . . my . . . name?"
"I don't understand. I, uhh . . ."
"Janice, please, just tell me. What is my name?"
"Gilbert, it's Gilbert."
"Gilbert. It's . . . your name is Gilbert Butterman."
"Yes, it is. Isn't it? And what a fine name, don't you think?"
"Well, Gilbert, I don't . . . yeah, it's ok, I guess."
"Ok? Just ok? Janice, trust me. Gilbert Butterman is a splendid name. It is a glorious name. It is heavenly. It is the name of names."
"Gilbert, I really think you need to see a . . ."
"Janice, I feel fine. I feel great. I feel energized and exceptional. I am right as pie."
"But, Gilbert, your face . . ."
"Stop talking now, Janice."
"Gilbert! Ugg. That is very uncalled for and . . ."
"Janice, I said stop talking. Stop talking to me. Now and forever."
Gilbert ignored any further sounds that may have emanated from Janice's mouth. He exhaled again before taking another, another, and yet another look at the letter. But, this time, the exhale was one of bliss, not caution. He had to read it again, and again, and again.
"Dear, Mr. Butterman -- We apologize for the delay. During the course of our investigation, the paperwork regarding the claim on your deceased wife's life insurance policy was mishandled. Enclosed please find a check for $856,342.86. Again, we apologize for the hold-up, and we are sorry for your loss."
And there he sat. Gilbert did not stand and jump or scream and cheer. He merely sat. He sat in the lobby of the office that had been his second home, his second nightmare, for twelve years. He sat in the core of the world that had preyed upon him for the better part of his adult life. He sat and waited.
He waited for soon-to-be former co-workers to walk past. Whether they were oblivious to his presence, pleasant or nasty, it did not matter. He would only grin and stare with apathy. Due to the check in his hand, Gilbert could now afford disgust. A distinct and real disgust that was all his own. But, no, apathy was all that his soon-to-be former co-workers could afford from him. That is, with one exception. Brett Pennington, of course.
Gilbert did not know how he would react to Brett. He had no frame of reference. No frame of reference for leverage or strength. Not once in his life had he ever considered being in a position to quit his job. Not once in his life had he ever considered being filled with enough courage and self-assurance to be secure with his place in the world. Not once had he ever had such a real and tangible nugget of gold to hold over Brett Pennington and all the people of his ilk.
But, he had time. Gilbert now had all the time he wanted. He owned his time. He was the sole and supreme master of his time. If he had not decided on a course of action whenever it was that Brett Pennington eventually walked by, he would simply wait. He could afford to sit and wait. He could afford everything. And he would do so, sit and wait, until the time was just right. Until the time was just. Until he had decided upon the right and just words.
Seventy-five minutes later, Gilbert still had the chairs in the lobby all to himself. There were no clients in the office at that moment, but all of his co-workers had to leave at some point. In the mean time, Gilbert, disheveled, buffoonish, and bloodied, sat solemnly alone, looking as though he had just had his nose broken by an otherwise sweet, playful, young girl.
To look at him, Gilbert could have been the most disheartened man in the world. But he was not, not in any conceivable way. All things considered, it had been a typical day, with one immeasurable exception. Gilbert had finally realized the fruits of being lucky in love.