As the shadow waiteth on the substance, even so true honour attendeth upon goodness.
- Akhenaton?, Egyptian King and Monotheist (c. B.C. 1375)
Chapter 1: The Pool
James Nabano. When meeting co-workers for the first time, you might hear him say, “Call me Jimmy,” but on the occasions when his name was used, people always went back to the office default of calling him “James.” He looked like a James. He looked like his mom might have dressed him and combed his hair – far too stiff and buttoned up for this environment.
His was a cubicle in a telemarketing boiler room full of cubicles, but even in an environment filled full of nondescript little work spaces, his cubicle seemed more . . . nondescript than most. No photos of family, no stickers or funny signs, no trinkets, momentos or diversionary gadgets, nothing more than the phone and computer the company had supplied.
“Nabano? More like Na-bonehead. Have you heard that guy deliver his pitch?”
“What the hell’s a Nabano anyways? I mean, if his name was Nabonski at least we’d know he’s a Pollack, or if he was a Nabisco we’d know he’s American . . . “
“Nabisco isn’t a name, you idiot, it’s like the National Biscuit Company or something.”
” . . . but where the hell does a Nabano come from?”
“Nabano sounds kind of Mexican or like an Indian or something. He doesn’t look it though.”
But no one ever gave it any thought to ask him where he was from.
There was something about James that just rubbed people the wrong way. It wasn’t that he was arrogant or smug or standoffish, it was just that he seemed totally uninterested in really bonding with people or being a part of the gang. I guess you could say he just seemed lacking in anything you could define as a personality. He wasn’t really timid or shy, he wasn’t cocky or an asshole, he wasn’t someone you would call a nerd, he wasn’t a bumbler or an idiot, he was just . . . there.
So he went about his business, making his phone calls and reading his script and people gave up on asking him if he wanted to join them for lunch (actually if they thought about it, they probably couldn’t be sure if they ever tried asking in the first place) and the party invites and the lottery pools and the March Madness tournament brackets seemed as if they made their way around the room avoiding his cubicle entirely of their own accord.
So when their cell phones began ringing with the incoming call from the unknown number around a quarter till eight that night, it came from just about as unexpected a source as they could imagine.
“Hello, Darren? Hi, this is Jimmy from work . . . it’s James, James Nabano? . . . Oh not much, I was just having a little get together at my apartment tonight and I was hoping you could make it over . . . Why are you laughing? . . . No, I’m not kidding . . . I know it’s kind of short notice . . . I realize that, but if you could just . . . listen, I have something that you need to see.”
It was something about how he delivered that last line and how it came from such an unexpected source – what could James Nabano possibly have that I need to see? – that put the hook in them and got all three of them to agree to show up.
They began showing up around eight-thirty. As the first and then the second waited for the third, the conversation was stilted and aimless. First thing through the door, each asking what it was that James had for them to see, but James made it clear he wanted to wait until all three of them were there.
By nine o’clock, all three of them had sauntered in. They were a bit surprised at their own rising curiosity but they did their best to play it cool.
“So what’s the big secret, James?” Susan said with a sexy exhalation that was equal parts playful and mocking.
“You probably noticed I didn’t come in to work today?” A slight nod of a head and a bit of an “Mmmph” were the only replies. “Well as a matter of fact, I’m never going to have to work with you people again.”
“That’s what you brought us over here for? To tell us you’re quitting?” Darren asked incredulously.
“Well whoop-de-fricken’ do,” Johnny said. “The only part you got wrong is that the party’s not tonight, the party starts tomorrow when you don’t show up for work.”
“Remember when I told you there was something you needed to see?”
“Well here it is.”
He held up a little square slip of light yellow paper. It had one set of six computer generated numbers printed across it.
“I checked it and I checked it again. I checked it a third time. And a fourth.”
A couple jaws began dropping.
“What did you hit, four numbers? Five?” Susan asked, already feeling the truth was far more unimaginable.
“What I hit was one-hundred and thirty-seven million.” He drew out the last words slowly, emphasizing each number with a little snap of the ticket towards the open air.
“The numbers were posted last night. I was the only winner.” James started laughing in disbelief at his own good fortune. “I hardly ever even play, but you guys had that lottery pool going around yesterday and no one even thought to ask me if I wanted to put my $10 in the pool, so I was there buying my Slurpee after work and I figured what the heck, why not tack on an extra dollar for a lottery ticket.”
Now all their jaws were dropped, literally, three mouths hung wide open.
“I don’t believe it.” Susan said, in a daze. “You’re kidding us, right?” But somehow she didn’t think he was.
Johnny was thinking quickly. “Dude, I totally asked you if you wanted to pitch in $10, you don’t remember?” But as soon as he was spinning the lie, he knew that he’d picked the wrong lie because their daily words were so few and far between that you know James would have remembered if Johnny had asked him. Johnny was instantly wishing he’d gone with the, “Dude, I was totally going to ask you … ” line instead but it was too late.
“It’s cool guys, you don’t have to lie, even though you never included me in on anything, no hard feelings.”
No hard feelings? Johnny thought to himself. You’re the one with no hard feelings???
“Listen, we all know it sucks balls at work,” this was getting surreal on top of surreal, hearing James use a phrase like, “it sucks balls”, it was so un-James-like, “but I’m going to go for that lump sum tomorrow and as soon as I have the money in my account, I’m going to buy everyone at work one of those very same cruise line trips they have us selling all day long.”
Whether he was that freaking clueless and thought this was some sort of benevolent act or not, this was like adding insult to injury because after making cold calls all day every day and trying to get people to listen to your spiel about what a once in a lifetime opportunity this cruise would be, the last thing in the world you wanted to be was one of those people on that freakin’ ship.
“I already started on the champagne, I’ve gotta piss like a race horse.” Again, who was this James guy throwing out phrases like “piss like a race horse?” It was like winning the lotto had turned this little mouse of a man into Rodney Dangerfield or something. “The bottle’s over there, there’s some glasses in the cupboards, you guys can help yourselves.”
As James closed the door to the bathroom, Johnny could almost see him furtively tucking that ticket away in some hidden spot in the bathroom, like a squirrel squirreling away his golden nut.
Johnny kept his voice down as he swore, “Motherfucker! Here we all are, stuck down in that shit hole of a place where we work, everyone banding together to put their $10 into the lottery pool every time it gets up around $100 million and this asshole never joins in. Dude goes out and spends one freakin’ dollar at the 7/11 and now he’s a megamillionaire? Fuck that!”
“And then he invites us all over to rub it in our faces!” Darren said.
Susan just sat and shook her head, her eyes staring far beyond the floor beneath her feet.
“This is bullshit. It’s just fucking wrong. We’ve probably poured in $300 between us on those pools and this guy sinks one goddamn dollar in with his slurpee and comes out a winner?” Johnny said, completely stunned.
Susan remained quiet. It was silent from the other side of the door and she could imagine James, ear pressed to the door, listening to them, covering his mouth, trying to hold down a giggle.
“He wants to buy us off with a cruise,” Darren said. His brain had slowed to a crawl trying to process the facts in slow succession, one by one.
The door swung open. The toilet had never flushed.
“You guys haven’t poured yourselves a drink. Come on guys, we’re partying!”
Suddenly Darren stood up. His fists were clenched. He looked like a single-frame caricature of Taz, the tazmanian devil, all shoulders raised and muscles bulging. “You’re going to share that ticket with us because you work with us. You’re in the pool, whether you like it or not.”
“I certainly am not. You guys should be glad I’m even buying you all a cruise the way you treated me.”
“How did we treat you, James?” Susan asked. “We were never mean to you, we never did anything to you!” She said, her voice ending on a note that was almost pleading.
“That’s exactly it, you never did anything to me, you never included me in on anything. I’d rather you guys would’ve been jerks to me than the way it was. It was like I didn’t even exist there.” He’d been looking at Susan, but suddenly there was Darren again, another step closer.
“You’re sharing that money, bitch.” Darren said to James. Darren was like a tightly wound ball of rage, ready to explode. Suddenly, all the glee that James had been feeling was gone.
“I think you guys had better leave now,” he said, his voice now starting to tremble.
“Here’s how it’s going to be, tomorrow I’m going to cash that ticket and you’re going to thank me for letting you have a share of it.”
James stared at him, disbelieving. This Darren who suddenly stood menacingly in front of him was an entirely different person from the one he knew at work, like a completely different creature. James looked at the other two for help and they were obviously just as amazed at Darren’s transformation as he was. The two of them were just staring, hypnotized by the scene.
The fist sailed from Darren’s side without warning, the rest of his body practically unmoving. It landed with a pop and James was going down the instant it connected, fist, jaw and body, all moving together in one smooth arc.
“Oh shit, dude!” Johnny said. To Susan: “Did you see that? Oh shit, that was like a punch straight out of a movie! One shot, lights out, ho-lee shit!” He looked from Susan back to Darren in awe, wild eyed and a bit giddy with admiration. Darren stood, unmoving.
“I think he’s bleeding out his head,” Susan said, with the first tremors of horror beginning to twitch across her face.
Johnny shifted his expression of awe away from Darren and looked back to James for the first time since he’d hit the floor. Darren stood, frozen in pose, like something that had been unplugged.
“Oh shit.” Johnny said.
The back of James’ head was squarely planted on the edge of a row of bricks that extended out from the flooring of the fireplace.
The pool of blood expanded slowly across the bricks and down to the carpet in front.
Johnny’s amazement and admiration were instantly transformed to shock, fear and anger. “Dude, what the fuck did you do that for?” he nearly screamed.
“Keep it down, shit, keep it down.” Susan said, looking back and forth frantically from wall to wall as if her eyes could tell her how thick the walls were, wondering if the neighbors had heard anything.
Through the insanity of the moment, it came to her clearly then that there hadn’t been anything that sounded close to what a neighbor would call a disturbance.
There was an unnerving moment of absolute silence as the pool continued to spread.
“I may have thrown the punch, but you better realize, if you guys wanna split the money, you’re in on this just as much as I am.”