Mike now has no less than 12, no more than 36, hours left to live. He is eating a sandwich. He is looking down at the letter he never sent and trying to piece it out. It’s hard to read while your eating, but he only has a little time.
He wrote this to his ex-girlfriend. He isn’t sure whether she is the best thing that’s happened to him, someone he never should have left, or whether it’s one more example of how horribly he can fuck up his life when he’s left alone. At any rate he has decided to contact her.
He reads the letter, but something isn’t clear to him. Or rather, it’s clear, every sentence fairly coherent and all in order, but just that. He can’t decide whether it has a good style, or feeling, or whether it’s bad. It just looks like a string of sentences to him. He’s read it too many times, and now he isn’t sure at all. The way you can’t tell whether a simple word is spelled correctly, because it has become strange to you.
He drips something on the letter. He decides to rework it on his computer later, throws the letter away, and eats the last messy bits of his lunch.
For the longest time, his desk -- one of about fifty in this large room -- has faced another desk, and Mike has grown accustomed to looking at the back of a man he would never recognize face forward. This man is striking simply because he has too much hair on his neck and back, and it bunches out of his collar as if he were a bag of hair underneath. It doesn’t disgust Mike for some reason, but he feels like it should.
This man wants to die now, but will not until much later. He has been working on his novel for four years, telling himself he is a financial analyst to keep writing. He also has a conviction that he will finish the book and then die of sickness or overwork, or maybe some horrible, dramatic accident. But he will not finish, and he will die in a hospital bed -- a very old man surrounded by a large family. It will be conventional in a way that would horrify him now, but will actually be very comforting when the time comes.
“Look,” they will say, “he’s coming around.”
His eyes will open briefly, he will say something that will be in dispute for years to come, and then close them again. His breath will hitch once, and then a half again, barely noticeable. And his family will all feel almost relieved that he looks peaceful, and his end has come to this.
They won’t know his last thoughts.
“I’m very thirsty,” he will think, “Need a drink.” And then he will think confused things: a feeling like waking up and finding your way around in the dark. Then, right before his thoughts disintegrate into a mix of half-impulses, he’ll feel a sensation of running.
Back in the hospital room, the family will wander off. Already they will be reinterpreting his last words, and his youngest grandson will actually already have the word order wrong, and remember it wrong, until he’s told it to a good number of people. This wrong remembering will be the one that they all pass down. Fifty years later, it will be written in a nonfiction account of one descendant’s family.
Mike looks away from the man and concentrates on his screen. He has been tracking the peso for the last two days now, and he expects it to go up. When it begins to go up, he will take the raw data he’s been downloading every few hours, and create a report on the company’s next deal. This is interesting to him in a bloodless way, and it keeps him from thinking about his ex-girlfriend.
This work is very complex. It can give you a strange, giddy feeling just trying to comprehend it. You make a deposit on a piece of property with a loan you’ve gotten. And it’s not a simple matter of regular payments subtracted from profits either: you get your money and give your money at various times depending on what’s required. A big chunk here for fit-up and construction. A little chunk from the tenants and then a refinancing. And at all times you have to be making the money back, reinvesting it, and making a return on the return.
All of it comes down to a few simple percentages: Internal Rate of Return, profits and losses for the quarter. But getting from here to there: taking an independent snapshot of any one particular time is maddening. You begin to think that what you give away is never really gone and what you get is never really yours.
The numbers don’t make any sense. They lock up in his head, just numbers now. He’s going down the elevator to get his software, thinking about the doctors appointment, the lump in his throat, and his smoking.
One thought’s gone, and another comes to him, idly. He can’t figure out what to say in the letter. He’s written it, he thinks, maybe four or five times. Not the whole letter -- but each individual sentence, or most of them, written and rewritten until he can’t tell one from the other even now. He wonders what she’s doing, and tries to make a guess. It’s Sunday; Jesus, he’s working on Sunday too. She must be back from home, sitting down to her desk, wherever that is, and trying to make some sense of her law books. She must be tired.
She must miss him, he thinks, even under all the anger. She has to. He feels sorry and pleased with himself at the same time. He thinks there must be a combination of sentences he’s already written that would make her take him back. He knows he is on to something. He knows the words are there, in all the drafts he’s written. But he doesn’t know the order, or which of the wordings to use. Like a padlock, he figures. A simples series of choices, 1 to 30, that multiply over and over until you need the answer written out for you before you try it. And underneath this, he thinks it will work because they would be good together. And underneath that, he doesn’t think so at all.
He cheated on her once, and he might do it again. There were lots of reasons, but it might just be something in him. He wants to believe he never would, but even now he can see it happening to him. The only chance -- he doesn’t even know he knows this -- is that she might believe they should love each other. And if she believed it, maybe it would be true.
He goes down to the Accounting Department and gets the software. He should have done this before, he thinks. It can take the numbers he has, this program, and turn them into a chart that will work. Then he’ll be able to just look at the graph and see what the deal really is.
The software is a pirated copy that has been circulated by two young computer experts who work here. They received it by mail from a man who cracked the code for copying it, before it was even out on the market. The man who cracked this code is already dead, from more or less natural causes. His wife gets very little money from all his work, because most of it wasn’t sold for very much.
She has a good career however, and will live a long time. Childless now, she will marry again in a few years and have a daughter who will be very close to her, so close that the child’s whole young adult life will scare her profoundly. But maybe this is good. She’ll think so, at any rate.
Upstairs Mike is letting the computer do the analysis for him. It feels like cheating, but there’s not much he can do. He wonders if knowing that they would be good together; knowing he would be happy with his ex-girlfriend, would make him straighten up and be good.
Does knowing you’ll be happy make you happy? And if so, how do you know in the first place? He knows he wants to love her. Is that the same thing as loving her? And if not, what would be? He wonders how he can get himself across to her, and then he wonders if he really should in the first place. Maybe he should lie -- just a little -- to get her back so he can prove the lie true. His head hurts, and the lump in his throat tugs at him when he moves. It’s a few hours later, and he has less time to live.
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