by Desmond Warzel
If I’d been driving, he’d have been scenery and I never would have noticed him.
But his presence on the Victory Bridge that evening coincided with one of my periodic, fleeting dalliances with healthy living; I’d left the car at work that afternoon in favor of jogging home.
He was perched on the railing halfway across, feet dangling freely in the open air, shoulders slumped, head bowed; his hands were at his lap, fingers interlaced, thumbs twiddling. He looked like someone waiting for a bus.
I looked around for help. There wasn’t a car in sight, and the walkway was empty except for the two of us.
“Hey!” I yelled, and realized I had no idea what to say next.
The man didn’t look up.
All I could think of were clichés, so I stitched them together as best I could. “Uh . . . you still have a lot to live for . . . it can’t be that bad . . . we can talk about it . . . you know, darkest before the dawn, and, uh, whatnot.”
“Zig Ziglar you’re not,” said the man, glancing up at me. He had several days’ growth of beard, but his hair was neat, and his overcoat, though wrinkled, was clean and whole.
I wondered if I ought to try muscling him down off the railing. My only wrestling experience had been in gym class, and I’d usually finished the period with my feet hooked over my ears.
“You’re right on time, though,” he continued. “Just like all the others.”
“Look, man, I don’t know what to tell you. But this isn’t the answer. Come on; we’ll get a beer, we’ll talk it out.”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks for your concern.”
“You jump in that river, I promise you: Clarence the angel isn’t coming down from heaven to jump in after you. The water’s six inches deep here.”
“You’ve got it backwards; Clarence jumped first, and Jimmy Stewart jumped in after him.”
He sighed. “Don’t worry. I’m not jumping today. And if I ever do, nothing can prevent it.” He swung his legs up and over the railing. Such sudden motion in such a precarious place had me reaching out reflexively to steady him; he took no notice, and hopped down onto the walkway.
“See you around,” he said.
“Wait: let me walk you to the end of the bridge. Do me that courtesy. Because if I leave you here, and I read in tomorrow’s paper that you jumped the minute I left? That’ll put me right off my Froot Loops.”
“I knew you’d ask me to do that,” he said. “Fine; let’s go.”
“I’ll buy you a cheeseburger for your trouble.” So much for healthy living. “Merrick’s is just on the other side of the river.”
“Let me buy you a cheeseburger instead. I could use the diversion.”
“Suit yourself.” It hadn’t occurred to me that he had any money.
“We’ll go to Lou’s. Merrick’s is closed today.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “They’re open twenty-four hours. I don’t think they’ve closed since the blackout. . . ”
But when we reached the other side, we found that the eternal purple-and-pink-neon glow of Merrick’s Diner had been snuffed out. CLOSED FOR REMODELING, explained a piece of posterboard in the front window.
“Lou’s it is,” I said. “You must live around here, then?”
“Never set foot here before today.”
“Then how’d you know?”
“That’s a long story.”
“So you’ll tell it to me over a cheeseburger.”
Lou’s Diner and Merrick’s Diner (and, for that matter, all diners worthy of the name) were essentially alike. In fact, Lou’s was just Merrick’s “turned up to eleven,” as they say: the neon was brighter, the prices higher, the waitresses snippier, their fingernails longer, sharper, and more garishly decorated.
The cheeseburgers were slightly greasier, as well. This should have bothered me more than it did. My relationship with grease was purely binary, and it took very little to push the needle from HATE to LOVE. A single bite from a Lou’s Diner cheeseburger sufficed.
(As for my new friend, now that I saw him with his overcoat off, he needed a few more calories in his life.)
A swig of Diet Pepsi steeled me for awkward conversation, and I finally broke the silence. “Three questions: what’s your name, what’s your trouble, and how did you know Merrick’s was closed?”
“My name is Emil Huxworth.”
“The hell you say.”
“How bad could life possibly get for someone named Huxworth? You belong on a Monopoly box.”
Emil shrugged. “I’ll address your other questions, too. But you might want to eat a little more first.”
“Because when I do, you may feel like leaving.”
“All right. This won’t take long, because the answer is the same for both: I can see into the future.”
“I’m still here. I don’t believe you, but I’m still here.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Is that the gag? You wait for stuff to happen, then just say you knew it would?”
“I predicted the other diner would be closed. I’d never heard of Merrick’s until just that minute.”
“I can explain that. You’re lying, that’s all.”
He sighed. “Hold on.” He reached for his overcoat, balled up on the seat next to him, and fumbled though its rumpled depths, finally coming up with a pen. “Now,” he said, pulling a stack of napkins from the dispenser, “you haven’t told me your name yet. Right?”
I had to think about it. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Hold on.” He wrote something on the top napkin, making slow, smooth strokes with the pen so the paper wouldn’t tear. He curled his other hand around the napkin so I couldn’t see, like an elementary-school kid keeping his neighbor from copying off of him.
“So what’s your name?” he asked.
“What if I don’t tell you?”
“Fine. It’s Wayne Mercer.”
Emil Huxworth held up the napkin. I clutched at my chest, not because the shock of seeing WAYNE MERCER printed there in neat block letters had induced cardiac arrest (though it was a near miss), but because I thought I must have absentmindedly put my nametag back on after I’d changed for my jog.
“Lucky guess,” I said, scrambling for an explanation. “Or we’ve met before, and I just don’t remember. Maybe I’ve waited on you. Do you shop for office supplies much?”
Emil selected a fresh napkin. “Say something else that no one could guess. Just let me get it down first.” I looked away while he wrote; I wanted a fair test.
When he’d finished, I thought for a second, took a deep breath, and said, “Carl Sandburg, Estes Kefauver, and I had just gotten off the number eleven bus when Truman Capote leapt out from behind a mauve trash can and stabbed me between the third and fourth ribs.”
Emil handed me the napkin. He’d predicted it word-for-word.
“So how far into the future can you see?” I asked, picking up my cheeseburger once more.
“About fifteen to thirty minutes.”
“Perfect. Eat up. We have an appointment.”
“With Marcella down the convenience store. She’s going to sell us tonight’s winning lottery ticket.”
“That won’t work.”
“Well, I don’t want to get into the whole nature of causality, but if it were that easy, I’d be living on a yacht, not hanging around on bridges.”
“Eat. We’ll figure it out on the way.”
Remember elementary school? Remember taking turns reading aloud? Remember your impatience during the slowest reader’s turn? The frustration you felt because you could only grit your teeth and wait for him to finish his tentative, meandering journey to the end of the paragraph?
That’s how I felt walking to the convenience store with Emil. He was in something less than a hurry. I wanted to seize him by his overcoat sleeve and drag him down the sidewalk. But, there are only so many liberties you can take in an acquaintanceship of half an hour, so etiquette demanded that I endure his sullenness.
“You must have aced high school and college,” I said. “You’d see the tests beforehand, with just enough time to look up the answers you didn’t know.”
“That’s just it,” said Emil. “I can only see the future; I can’t change it. That’s why this lottery scheme won’t work.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m just a passive observer. I can only see the events that I can’t change. The only time I ever see lottery numbers is when I won’t be able to buy a ticket in time.”
“So, for instance, when you told me my name . . .”
“I knew it because you were about to say it.”
“And if I hadn’t said it?”
“Then I wouldn’t have known it.”
Anyone who can follow that has more of a clue than I ever did. Had I understood – and believed – what he was saying, I’d have realized there was no point in buying a ticket. But in Emil Huxworth I saw only a sad sack with no imagination and no idea of his potential. And I saw an opportunity for an idealistic fellow like me to elevate this poor soul. And, mostly, I saw dollar signs.
At long last we reached my block. At the far end was my apartment building. At the near end was the object of my quest: a convenience store with the beguiling name of FOOD DEAL, my broker of choice for lottery tickets. Emil reluctantly followed me inside.
“It’s Wednesday,” I said, mostly to myself. “No big jackpots tonight, just the Pick Five. Still, three hundred grand is a good start. Right, Emil?” He was staring noncommittally at a rack of Hostess Fruit Pies.
I looked at my watch. “It’s six thirty now. The drawing’s at seven. The cut-off’s at six forty-five. Think you can come up with some numbers in the next fifteen minutes?”
“No. I’ve been very clear about that.”
“We’ll split the money, you know. I’m not trying to take advantage.”
“It’s not that.”
“I saved your life, you know.”
“Not actually. But . . .” He raised a hand to his forehead, and his eyes got wide.
“I see the numbers,” he said with genuine wonder.
“Give me your pen, man. Hurry up before you lose them.”
I wrote the numbers on the back of my hand as Emil recited them.
“This isn’t good,” he said. “It’s not supposed to work this way.”
“Meaning we’ll probably be dead before we reach the counter. Tandem heart attacks, a building collapse–it might be anything.”
“There’s another possibility,” I said. “We could be the rightful winners.”
“I have to admit I didn’t consider that. Neither would you, if you’d lived my life.”
I pulled a crumpled twenty from the pocket of my jogging shorts (my wallet was locked in my office, but I always carry a little something for the muggers). “No reward without risk,” I said. “Onward!”
Fate had smiled on us just in time, too. FOOD DEAL, as far as I could tell, had just two employees. There was Marcella, the owner, whose unremitting sociability and indefatigably cheerful demeanor were frankly excessive in a woman whose job involved marking cans of Coke up to $1.10. And there was The Other Guy: a young fellow with no name tag who always stood unmoving behind the counter, arms crossed, watching foreign musicals on a portable DVD player when he wasn’t glowering at the customers.
Emil and I had been the unknowing recipients of The Other Guy’s murderous stare during our entire conversation; looking at him now, it was clear that the sight of two lurking men conversing in hushed tones was more than he could bear, and we were lucky he hadn’t already called the police.
I could feel his gaze pressing on me like a gun barrel against my temple as I filled out the betting slip. When I handed it to him and he realized I was only spending a dollar, I thought he might draw a weapon for real. When I gave him a twenty, he looked like he might burst into flames.
We departed FOOD DEAL. This time, I did drag Emil by the arm, hastily pocketing the ticket and my change as we went.
“See?” I said, once we were safely out on the sidewalk. “We bought a ticket and lived.” Barely, I added to myself.
“It takes a lot to surprise me, but you’ve managed it,” said Emil. “We still won’t win, though.”
“You know, for someone who greeted me by criticizing my motivational speaking skills, you sure are a downer. Tell me, O Bluebird of Happiness, who does win?”
“That, I can’t see.”
“Everybody has to be wrong sometime-”
“-but not many people get to be wrong to the tune of three hundred bills. Come on; it’s almost time.”
Emil lowered himself gingerly onto my couch, looking as if he were afraid it might break. (It was a possibility.) He sat with his hands carefully folded, as if he were afraid to touch anything unnecessarily.
“Relax, already,” I said. “Have a little faith.”
“I wouldn’t know how. It’s been nothing but absolute certainty all my life. Where would faith fit in?”
“Then why keep trying to kill yourself, unless you have faith that someday you’ll be able to go through with it?”
“Touché. All right, maybe I’m being closed-minded. Maybe this is a turning point for me.”
“That’s the spirit.” It was two minutes to seven. I flipped on the TV and sprawled in the nearest chair, a hideous thing of white leather too comfortable to replace.
The drawing commenced. Pick Three: 6-8-8, who cares; Pick Four: 6-0-6-9, get on with it. They started up the Pick Five machine; Emil sat up and took notice in spite of himself. The balls entered the chute, 27-4-13-28-26, and I didn’t have to check the ticket to know we’d won; the numbers were still scrawled across the back of my hand.
My heart raced and my head felt light; it was like asking Valerie Foust to the prom all over again. “What did I tell you?” I affected a calm I didn’t feel. “And this is only the beginning.”
“We didn’t win.”
“Now you’re just being annoying on purpose. Find a new tune to sing. Hell, you can buy one-”
“I don’t know who won, but-”
There came a brutal pounding on my apartment door.
“Now I know,” he finished.
The pounding grew quicker and more insistent. “Hey, Mercer! Open up!”
Keith Carillo was my neighbor across the hall. His face would be familiar to anyone who’s looked up “boor” in the dictionary. Knowing the onslaught would continue until the door gave in or I did, I bade him enter. “Keep quiet about our jackpot,” I whispered. “He’ll be over here ten times a day looking for a loan.”
The door flew open, the knob caroming off the wall and leaving a faint mark. Carillo lounged in the doorway, wearing sweatpants and an ancient high school football jersey that had given up trying to contain his girth.
“Guess what?” He declined to wait for my answer. “I just won the lottery. Three hundred grand, baby!”
Multiple winning tickets. I hadn’t thought of that. Of all the people to have to split it with. Still, I’d have the pleasure of spoiling half his good news.
“A hundred and fifty grand, I’m sorry to say. At most.”
Carillo ignored me. “And the hell of it is, I didn’t even buy a ticket. Found it on the sidewalk out front.”
I wanted to breathe, or at least blink, but could do neither. My hand, having more sense than the rest of me, made its way into the pocket of my jogging shorts.
“That ain’t all,” said Carillo.
My pocket was empty.
“Guess what was lying right next to it?” asked Carillo.
“Nineteen dollars!” yelled Carillo.
“When it rains, it pours,” I said weakly.
“First thing I’m doing is getting the hell out of this dump,” said Carillo. “So you won’t be seeing me around here anymore.”
“We all have our crosses to bear.”
“Well, don’t start bawling, Mercer. Maybe I’ll come by your store and spread some of this dough around. I been in the market for a new pencil.” He glanced at the couch, noticing Emil for the first time. “You better get it together,” he said as he retreated to his own apartment. “You’re attracting a way lower class of man these days.”
Responding to such comments only prolonged his presence, so Carillo got the last word as always.
“I told you so,” said Emil, massaging his temples. “The cliché is, ‘I don’t want to say I told you so,’ but face it: I told you so.”
I shut the door behind Carillo, trying to think.
“We got close,” I said. “Admit it: this is as close as you’ve ever gotten.”
“We were just careless. We’ll crack this thing. You’re the talent, I’m the brains. Look, I know it’s early, but I’m fried; I’m hitting the sack. Are you staying somewhere?”
“Do I look like someone who has an address?”
“You’ve got the couch, then. We’ll try again tomorrow. And don’t worry; I won’t murder you in your sleep.”
“I know you won’t. Not in the next fifteen to thirty minutes, anyway.”
“You’re not going to murder me, are you?”
“Not in the next fifteen to thirty minutes.”
I woke at dawn, quite alive. Dueling breakfast smells drew me to the kitchen.
“I figured eggs would be acceptable,” said Emil, “seeing as you’ve got six dozen in the refrigerator.”
“Dietary self-flagellation; when you only use the whites, you go through twice as many.”
“I’ve got two omelets going. Host takes first choice.”
Knowing the sorry state of my cupboards, I feared asking about the ingredients. I soldiered ahead anyway, and found my fears justified.
“What’s in the brown one?”
“Some canned chili I found.”
“And the orange?”
“Leftover General Tso’s chicken.”
“I choose the brown. I’m not sure why.”
The canned-chili omelet was surprisingly tasty; in combination with coffee, it approached deliciousness.
Emil devoured his Day-Glo concoction with alacrity; maybe he was being polite, or maybe it really was that good. After all, he’d known as soon as he asked that I’d pick the chili, right?
The omelets gone, we sipped at coffee.
“There are some things we ought to discuss,” I said finally.
“You’re a bum. You make great coffee – better than I’ve ever wrung out of that infernal machine – but you’re a bum.”
“Don’t mince words; tell me how you really feel.”
“No home, no job, no friends, no other clothes, no money-”
“I have a few dollars.”
“The point is, you’re sane. More or less. You’re not in some alley talking to the bricks. So what gives?”
“Have you ever felt as though life has no meaning?”
“I sell paper clips – actually, I supervise people who sell paper clips.”
“Exactly. Your job is bad enough when you just think that nothing you do matters. Imagine knowing it for certain.”
“So you finally reached a breaking point.”
“I took a walk. I figured one of three things would happen: I’d get up the nerve to kill myself, or I’d run out of money and starve to death.”
“Or some epiphany would change my outlook.” Emil took a long swallow of coffee “I’m not holding my breath.”
“You don’t need to. Last night, for a while, you really thought we might win, right?”
“I admit it. Grudgingly.”
“You thought that you – and your gift – just might have a purpose after all.”
“To make you rich?”
“What better purpose? You met me just as your money and your life were about to run out. That’s not a coincidence. That’s fate.”
“I don’t believe in fate.”
“Fate is the only thing you believe in! Fate, destiny–whatever you call it, you can’t escape it. Nobody knows that better than you. So quit running! Face your future! We were so close last night! We can do this!” My enthusiasm had started out fake, but quickly spun out of control and now I was caught up in my own hype. “What do you say, Emil?”
“I’d say you ought to get ready for work.”
“There’s plenty of time. It’s just a fifteen-minute drive.”
“Only if you have a second car. You jogged home yesterday.”
“Oh, hell.” I made a mad dash back to the bedroom. “Can I trust you not to off yourself while I’m gone?” I hollered.
“For at least the next fifteen to thirty minutes.”
I emerged once more, having dressed at random.
“You’re wearing that?”
“I’ll change at work.”
“Into yesterday’s clothes?”
“Like they’d notice. You have your nerve, anyway; how many days in a row is it for your outfit?”
“You’re a cruel man, Wayne Mercer.”
“You’ll be here when I get back?”
“That far in the future, who can say?” replied Emil, waving a dismissive hand. “But for you, I’ll do my best.”
Not only was Emil still there when I returned, but the dishes (four days’ worth) were done, the carpet vacuumed, and the bathroom purged of nascent bacterial civilizations. Emil himself, having showered and shaved, looked very close to respectable. He’d liberated a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt from my dresser. “I predicted you wouldn’t mind,” he said.
I’d picked up a couple of grilled chicken salads on the way home; it was light fare, but I needed to make up for the prior twenty-four hours’ red-meat-and-egg-yolk bacchanalia. Emil dug in with gratitude and enthusiasm as always.
“Here’s how we’ll work it,” I said when we’d finished. “You sit tight while I go to the store. When the numbers come to you-”
“-if they come to you, call me and I’ll buy the ticket.”
“Why would that work?”
“If we split up, we can trick it into thinking you can’t benefit from the information.”
“Your . . . you know. Your thing that you have.”
“It’s not an entity.”
“I’m not so sure.”
When the time came, I headed for FOOD DEAL. Marcella was absent again, so I wandered the aisles (both of them), feigning interest in the comparative Nutrition Facts of various Pringles flavors – anything to avoid The Other Guy’s gaze. The six forty-five cut-off arrived with nary a peep from my cellphone.
I started for the door. The Other Guy’s facial expression suggested that if I didn’t buy something, I’d find myself in the morgue with a Slim Jim through my heart. Grabbing something from the nearest shelf, I paid and departed. I was halfway home before the evening air scoured my synapses clean of FOOD DEAL’s incense-tinged atmosphere and I thought to inspect my purchase.
Pork rinds. Family size. And I’d had such high hopes of restarting my diet.
“I told you so,” said Emil when I returned. “Yesterday was a fluke. It won’t happen again.”
And he went on telling me so. I’d come home from work each day to a clean apartment and a fine dinner, then off to the convenience store to bear the hostile attention of The Other Guy (Marcella still persisting in her absence) before meekly departing, none the richer.
(If it strains credulity that I let the guy crash at my place for that long, then I guess I haven’t made it clear how badly I wanted to exploit him. If it seems unlikely that he’d gravitate so readily to the roles of cook and housekeeper, all I can say is that the best medicine for someone who’s weary of living is to give him something to live for – and you’d be surprised how little it takes.)
We kept at it for a whole month. Emil continued to insist that the entire exercise was pointless, but he couldn’t chisel away at my optimism. The evidence was on my side; we’d already enriched that reprobate Carillo. There had to be a way to make Emil’s talent benefit us.
Then something happened that surprised even me: Emil got the lottery numbers twice in one week.
The first time, I made like Charlie Bucket and ran home from FOOD DEAL with the ticket clutched tightly in my fist. So keenly was my attention focused on that paper slip that I tripped on a curb and did a header into the crosswalk; so sublime was my elation that my torn slacks and bleeding forehead escaped my notice entirely.
I arrived at home (without further incident) to find Emil slumped on the couch, a glass of Alka-Seltzer cradled in one hand. I stepped over his splayed legs and sat next to him. “Chin up, buckaroo.” I propped the ticket against the lamp on the end-table so I could admire it. “It’s almost Miller time.”
“I need some fresh air.”
“You’ll be able to buy all the fresh air you want,” I said, but Emil was already halfway to the door.
I hadn’t noticed that both living-room windows were open.
Remember what happened to the tiny volume of air in your dorm room with the window and door open at the same time? How the resulting wind tunnel would kick up air currents capable of confounding Lockheed Martin’s brightest minds?
My ticket was up and out the window before I even realized what was happening. I got there just in time to watch it flutter gracefully down to the street and glide neatly into the storm sewer, while behind me the TV announcer recited the exact sequence of numbers Emil had predicted.
I didn’t stay morose for long, because three days later Emil received yet another signal from on high.
This time, I brought home the ticket, shooed Emil out for an evening constitutional, locked all the doors and windows, and took up my post on the couch. I held the ticket with both hands and didn’t let go.
Emil came home twenty minutes later to find a bathtub-shaped hole in the ceiling, and the corresponding tub resting in two large pieces atop the splintered remains of the end-table. The excessive quantity of water responsible for the tub’s descent (wherein it missed me by inches) was soaked into the couch, the carpet, my clothes–and my formerly-winning lottery ticket, which now bore no numbers at all, winning or otherwise.
“It’s times like this I wish I believed in God,” said Emil. “This would be a lot easier to take.”
“How’s that?” I asked, staring at my soggy ticket.
“A wrathful deity, anyone can comprehend. But this,” he said, sweeping his arms to indicate the entire sodden tableau, “this is the very universe itself telling us to back off.”
“You said there was no entity involved.”
“There isn’t. That’s the frightening part. Pardon my use of the vernacular, Wayne, but this is freaking me the hell out. We need to take a break.”
I was too wet to argue.
But I couldn’t let it go for good.
“What about gambling?” I said the next morning. Emil and I were watching the contractors as they commenced the repair of our ceiling. “Placing a bet doesn’t affect the event itself.”
“Sports take time; it would be hours too late to bet by the time I knew the outcome. Besides which–”
“What about horse races? They only last a few minutes.”
“Besides which, I was about to say, there’s no gambling in this state, which means either getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, taking time off work for a road trip, or giving your credit card number to some website in the Cayman Islands. You have plenty of time to decide, because I said I needed a break and I meant it.”
“Fine. No more voodoo. We’ll just be roommates.”
We made lousy roommates.
I can’t say we had nothing in common. How would I know? Getting Emil to open up about his past was like trying to get the last inch of ketchup out of the bottle: frustrating, exhausting, and certain to have you reaching for a knife eventually.
As a result, much of our time together in the apartment passed in silence. We had TV, of course (I can attest that Jeopardy! is no fun to watch with someone who can answer before Alex even reads the clues), and Emil spent many evenings reading (though his mind was always several pages ahead of his physical place in the book, a paradox he had inured himself to). He quickly exhausted my meager library, and though I offered to buy more, he declined, and gamely started reading my collection over again. “In my case, what difference does it make?” he’d ask. I elected not to argue.
We limped along that way for a couple of weeks. I didn’t look him in the face very much; I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw there. No jury would ever convict Emil Huxworth of excessive joviality, but my taking him in had put a brightness in his eyes that was now fading fast. He was turning back into the man I’d found perched on the Victory Bridge.
He knew it, too. “I think it might be time for me to move on,” he told me one evening. “I’m more grateful than I can express, but I don’t think I’m cut out to be a housewife.”
“Then don’t be one.”
“I’d rather be a housewife than a mooch.”
“Give me a break.”
“I suffer from an intimate knowledge of world’s inevitabilities. Trust me: when certainty is your problem, laundry and dishes are no solution. There’s nothing more certain than laundry and dishes.”
“You need a change of situation. Let me think about this. Don’t run off.”
I slept on Emil’s problem. The next morning, I offered him a job.
He accepted immediately. In fact, I barely got the words out.
“Don’t you want to take time to consider the offer?”
“I’ve been considering the offer for twenty minutes,” said Emil. “Remember who you’re talking to.”
The paperwork went surprisingly smoothly (who expects a suicidal vagrant to be carrying his Social Security card and two forms of identification?). The address on Emil’s driver’s license was most of the way across the country. I wondered how much cash he’d started out with, to have schlepped or thumbed all that distance and only just be running out when I’d found him.
“Ever worked retail before?” I asked, handing him a newly-minted name tag.
“This is a hell of a time to ask that, don’t you think?”
“That depends on the answer.”
“The answer is no.”
“I wouldn’t worry. I have a feeling sales is right up your alley. You’ll have the item in the customer’s hand before he asks for it.”
“If I could hand it to him before he asks for it, then he wouldn’t ask for it.”
I was still having some trouble with the logic of Emil’s peculiar circumstances. So sue me for not being Stephen Hawking.
Emil turned out, if not great, was at least passable. Compared to the level of service you usually get these days, he was downright gregarious: his willingness to make eye contact and speak above a mumble put him way up on the kids at Burger King, and his clean-shaven face and neatly-tucked shirt were more than you see in even the nicest stores.
He lasted three weeks.
The problem was, he started off so well that I quickly stopped paying him any special attention. As a result, when he faced his first big test, I was asleep at the switch.
Had I seen the lady come in, I’d have interposed myself. But corporate had finally granted my store a long-needed remodeling, in advance of which they’d sent a sheaf of poorly-copied merchandising plan-o-grams; I’d marshaled the day’s full measure of concentration in making heads or tails of them, and when I finally looked up, she’d had Emil cornered in the paper aisle for upwards of half an hour.
Every retail drone knows this lady. They started cloning her in 1955, and today there’s one for every store.
Packages of paper were scattered from one end of the aisle to the other. The woman had insisted on inspecting every last brand and variety. Now she stood oblivious amidst the chaos, a middle-aged vision in polyester; she clutched a ream in each hand and her gaze swept back and forth between them, even though from where I stood, they were absolutely identical.
Poor Emil was slumped against a wall of printers, staring miserably at the floor He didn’t look good; where he wasn’t flushed, he was deathly pale.
The customer dropped both packages casually on the floor, selected two more identical reams from the shelf, and resumed her scrutiny. “But which one is the best?” An innocuous question, unless it’s asked fifteen times in thirty minutes. And fifteen is one too many for anyone.
“Madam,” he said, “this is the most pointless decision on record. And I know something about pointlessness.”
The woman held out the package in her right hand. “So you’re saying this one is best.”
Emil turned the color of a damson plum. I’d never seen that before.
“Lady!” he yelled. “What earthly difference could it make? You have nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than shop for paper; how important can you be? What occasion could possibly merit this kind of scrutiny? You’ve cured cancer and you need to print out your Nobel acceptance speech? Jesus Christ has returned to Earth and you’ve been hired to write the New New Testament? What is it? I beg of you, I plead with you, I grovel before you, tell me. What could it be?”
A pen slipped from someone’s fingers and hit the carpet. I heard it from across the store.
There were two ways this could end: 1) she’s scandalized and runs out of the store without looking back; or 2) she’s indignant and demands to see the manager. I prayed for the former; all the customer service training on Earth couldn’t have prepared me to smooth this situation over.
God must not have been paying attention, because something finally went my way; she turned in a swirl of polyester and bolted for the door, the two reams of paper thumping, forgotten, to the floor.
Somewhere in the store, an anonymous soul (whether employee or customer, I know not) began a slow deliberate clap, which spread to a few more people before thankfully petering out.
I had to can Emil. Too many witnesses. The other employees beseeched me to keep him on; his outburst had brought their innermost fantasies to life and made him their hero. Emil, for his part, was content to quit, and when we departed that afternoon, he received a standing ovation. He almost looked happy. How many of us ever get to go out on a high note like that?
Somehow, he maintained his elevated mood for upwards of three weeks. It was, dare I say it, almost a pleasure having him in the apartment. So when he started acting squirrelly again, I noticed right away.
It was early on a Friday evening. I stared slack-jawed at the open refrigerator, seeking dinnertime inspiration. Emil was seated at my seldom-used desk, scribbling something on a piece of paper. I only looked up when I heard him rifling through the drawers. His hands shook and he was sweating like crazy.
“I’m borrowing an envelope and a stamp,” he explained when he saw me watching.
“Borrowing? You’ll give them back when you’re done?” The joke didn’t land.
Emil stood up, knocking the chair over, and crammed the envelope in his pants pocket. “I’m going for a walk,” he said. “I have to mail this.”
“I was thinking about supper. Will you be right back?”
He wiped the sweat from his forehead. A tired smile worked its way onto his face. “Now that, my good friend, is a question I honestly can’t answer.”
“I’ll come with you, then.”
“No, I need you to go to the store.” He handed me a sweat-soaked slip of paper with five numbers written on it. “Get a lottery ticket. These will work.”
“Then come with me. Mail your letter on the way.”
“I’m going in the other direction. Just humor me.” With that, Emil made for the door. I caught him by the shirt collar as he fumbled with the latch. “Give me a break, will you? I need to leave. Now.”
“The faster you explain, the sooner you can leave.”
He turned to face me. “My. . . talent seems to have run its course. It’s sort of a relief, actually.”
“You’ve stopped seeing the future?”
“Not just yet. I still have a few minute’s worth, hence the lottery numbers. After that, it just goes black.”
“Don’t be dense. Obviously one of two things is happening: the world’s about to end, or I’m about to die. Hopefully, just the latter.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Go buy the ticket. It’s the ultimate loophole; I can pick a winner if I drop dead before I can collect.”
“Let’s say I believe you. Where are you running off to?”
“I have no idea how it will happen. I want to get to someplace in the open with no people around, in case it’s something ridiculous like a helicopter falling on me.”
Emil grasped me by the shoulders. It was such an uncharacteristically intimate gesture from him that I was shocked into silence.
“You can’t fight fate.”
“You said when we met you didn’t believe in fate.”
“You’ve been a great friend. Thank you for everything. Buy the ticket.” Emil opened the door and was gone.
I wanted to follow, but indecision held me back. If what Emil said was true, then running off to do something as banal as buying lottery tickets was downright obscene, last request or not. On the other hand, if Emil’s dignity was really my concern, why force him to spend his last moments on Earth being hounded through the streets like a pickpocket?
Few enough of us get any say in the way we exit this world. I left Emil to his own devices and went to FOOD DEAL for the ticket.
It took a little longer than usual to get there. My head was swimming, and I’d had to choose my steps carefully. If there’d been anyone in line ahead of me, I’d have been too late.
I thanked God for small blessings when I saw that Marcella was back behind the counter and I’d be spared the wrath of The Other Guy. But I’d spoken too soon; she’d been on vacation visiting relatives, and insisted on sharing all the latest gossip about the sister in Mexico City, the aunt in Belize, and the cousin in Buenos Aires. I tried to bail out over Panama, but she noticed me edging toward the door and seized my arm in both hands while she finished her story. It sounded like a long and expensive trip; I guess selling people milk at seven dollars a gallon is a lucrative field.
Half an hour had elapsed by the time Marcella released me. I shoved the ticket in my pocket and headed in the general direction of home, determined to find Emil.
It wasn’t that hard. There’s a tiny park next to the river, tucked away behind a wall of shrubbery. Just a few trees and some benches. Most people don’t know it’s there, but Emil evidently did.
He was seated on a bench facing the water. He was already gone when I got there. I called the authorities, and they came and took him away. They’d find that he died of some ordinary thing like a stroke or heart attack and they’d wonder why he didn’t call 911. I could explain that he’d seen the final curtain descending regardless, and who wouldn’t rather pass his final moments among whispering branches and cavorting squirrels rather than blaring sirens and shouting paramedics? But would they understand?
It was difficult to picture someone like Emil having family, but they’d search nonetheless. Anyone they found would probably feel relief and little else, and I couldn’t condemn that; it was probably like being related to a hardcore addict or someone with a painful, terminal disease. I’d likely have to make the final arrangements myself. I hoped his newfound admirers at the store would show up for the service. I didn’t want it to be just Emil and me.
I announced Emil’s death at work the next morning. It got quiet and stayed that way. I felt like I was working in my own crypt.
I stopped at McDonald’s on the way home, health be damned. Going directly from Emil’s sublime cooking to my own would have required a decompression chamber. It wasn’t until I changed into my jeans (my dress pants having one more day in them if I didn’t slop Big Mac sauce on them) that I remembered the ticket in my pocket. I scared up that day’s newspaper and turned to the lottery results.
My ticket: 13-17-27-31-32.
The drawing: 5-7-15-16-26.
Not one match. Par for the course. I couldn’t even get mad. I tossed the paper and ticket in the wastebasket and sifted through the day’s mail while I ate.
Emil had managed to mail his letter before he’d died. It was right there next to the electric bill, addressed to me. There was no mistaking the handwriting.
Inside, the single slip of paper, with a single sentence: YOU’LL NEVER LEARN, WILL YOU?
I don’t know, Emil. Was I supposed to learn something? Would it have killed you to quit moping for five minutes and just tell me, if it was that important?
What was it? Life is futile? Life is precious? There but for the grace of God go I? Be careful what you wish for?
Don’t talk to strangers?
Or was I just supposed to realize how damned lucky I was to have a friend so thoughtful that he’d spend the final minutes of his life playing a joke on me?
Yeah, that one.
Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. These have appeared in such nifty places as Daily Science Fiction, the venerable Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and, of course, Abyss & Apex (check out his viral A&A story“Wikihistory” here – Ed.) He lives in northwestern Pennsylvania.