Hundred-​​million-​​dollar man

Gerald steps on the bus, a smile beam­ing amidst a salt-​​and-​​pepper beard that grace­fully com­pli­ments his smooth, chestnut-​​toned skin. He holds his right hand in the air, proudly show­ing off what he imag­ines to be a lot­tery ticket, dis­play­ing it to the bus and to his com­pan­ion. The bus dri­ver, rec­og­niz­ing the card in Gerald’s hand as a one of the city’s sub­si­dized bus passes, looks at Gerald for three-​​and-​​a-​​half beats, then turns his eyes back to the road as he presses the but­ton clos­ing the front door of the bus.

Gerald’s com­pan­ion hasn’t moved his feet. He stands on the side­walk, shout­ing, “Hundred mil­lion dol­lar man! Have you seen my friend? He’s a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lar man!” The bus begins to move, and Gerald, head held high, shuf­fles down the aisle before deposit­ing him­self in a seat near the back door of the bus.

You’re gonna make it, Gerald!” the friend calls out. The friend’s words are inaudi­ble, since the win­dows are sealed against the hot after­noon sun, but his enthu­si­asm is appar­ent from the move­ment of his fists punch­ing the air as he shouts his prophecy.

Seated and look­ing for­ward as his friend passes from view, Gerald’s city-​​man habits try to kick in, telling him to kill the smile, even if he’s thrilled to death. But his beam­ing smile can only be tamed ever-​​so-​​slightly, just enough to show every­one that he’s really try­ing. In case they’re look­ing. And he hopes they’re look­ing. Because he doesn’t care if they’re look­ing. He’s a hundred-​​million-​​dollar man, after all.

Gerald rides the bus, his would-​​be lot­tery ticket rub­bing against his quadri­ceps like some­thing more substantial—perhaps a credit card—in his pocket. He can’t help but think about that lot­tery ticket. He has all but for­got­ten the book that he nes­tled in the crook of his left arm and pressed against his rib cage. The title is obscured by his arm, but the publisher-​​author declares itself in clear, gold-​​foil let­ters that stand out from the for­est green, faux leather cover: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gerald’s smile can’t be con­tained the whole ride home.

Monday, September 292008

Eric walks slowly down State Street, his back bent under the weight of his shoul­der bag and the suit coat he had shoved between his bag and his body. Though the sun set on Chicago hours ago, there was no need to don a jacket this evening, which feels more like sum­mer than fall even this late in September. Street lamps stare down hard at the side­walks, fill­ing the air with their harsh, flu­o­res­cent light. Apart from them, Eric is almost entirely alone. Only a few cars and buses keep him com­pany. (The bums sleep­ing in the side entrances of the busi­ness tow­ers are all but invis­i­ble to him.)

Plodding—one foot, then the other, and again—Eric pauses when he rec­og­nizes the shiny exte­rior of one of the local news sta­tions. Raising his head, he catches the tail end of the update on the ticker that runs out­side the build­ing. In blaz­ing orange let­ters, he reads, “LARGEST DROP IN NYSE HISTORY.” Eric blinks once, twice, and sighs. This is not news to him. Then he glances at the next item: “BOMBS EXPLO—.” That’s not his story. He puts his head down, and starts trudg­ing anew.

* * *

Empty. That’s what his head is: utterly empty. To think about any­thing now would be too much. It’s all he can do to keep focus long enough to under­stand what words say on the news­pa­pers and lit­ter that cross his path. More than any­thing, he must keep walk­ing. If he comes to an inter­sec­tion with a don’t-walk sig­nal, he ignores it or turns. He knows he must stop sometime.

To stop, though, would feel like death. It would give his mind a chance to move beyond the day’s events. In Washington, hun­dreds of rep­re­sen­ta­tives had thumbed their noses at their bet­ters, refus­ing to fix the tur­moil in the finan­cial sec­tor and among traders. In New York, traders—frightened by Washington—pulled their clients’ money out of the stock mar­ket with the firm con­vic­tion that it would not be there to pull out tomor­row. In Chicago, Merc traders did their best to save their dreams.

All of them except Eric, that is, for he had no more dreams to save. With the day’s col­lapse, he lost noth­ing; every­thing con­crete he’d lost weeks ear­lier. But today, strug­gling to break back into the black but only falling fur­ther into the read, he real­ized he couldn’t make it.  With that real­iza­tion, he had noticed his pulse quick­en­ing, sweat bead­ing on his brow, and his stom­ach twist­ing and shrink and then to leap­ing into his throat. He gained a com­pletely novel under­stand­ing: he can fear. Before, he hadn’t had the time to be afraid. Earlier today, though, his tomor­rows gaped open wide before him as rav­en­ous, gnash­ing beasts that would con­sume him, each in turn. These hereto­fore unknown creatures—tomorrows that threat­ened rather than beckoned—shocked Eric.

* * *

Suddenly, Eric sees that he has stepped onto a bridge. He stops and turns to look at the river below. A breeze blows gen­tly, whis­per­ing in his ears. He closes his eyes and lifts his head to catch the gen­tle caresses more fully against his cheek. He opens his eyes, look­ing up toward the sky­line. ‘Pretty,’ he thinks, ‘and pretty damn impres­sive.’ As a boy, this had always been his favorite spot, look­ing up at all the mono­liths around him. For the first time in a decade, he notices the build­ings and remem­bers his love for them as mar­vels of man’s genius. Hell, even Donald Trump’s mon­strous tower—one-third of its 90-​​plus floors built—looks kind of pretty tonight.

He feels a buzzing in his pocket. He reaches into it and lifts out his phone, but not before the buzzing ends. “13 Missed Calls,” the screen tells him. He opens the phone, and scrolls through the list: 6 from his mother, 3 from work, and the rest from friends and that chick he met in Toronto last month. He goes back up to the most recently missed call, squeezes his eyes and holds his breath for a moment, and then presses “Send.”

Hiya,” he says, when he hears a voice on the other end. A ques­tion comes through. “I know, I know, I’m sorry. It’s been—a day.” Another ques­tion. “I dunno, Mom. I don’t even want to think about tomor­row.” Yet more ques­tions, insis­tent. “Well I gotta—.” Eric pauses, fum­bling for words.

Sucking the air in deeply, he regains his com­po­sure. “Yeah, you know what? Yeah, I’ll be there.” Questions again, but less insis­tent. “Whatever you had for din­ner is fine, Mom. I’ll just stick it in the microwave.”

Oh, and Mom. I’m sorry I missed Sunday din­ner last night. I just—.” Now, he’s inter­rupted by a com­mand, and then the voice on the other end goes away. Eric brings his hand down from his ear, looks at the phone, and smiles. “Okay, Mom. I love you too.”