Gilbert Combs ran from his truck with its new “G.C. Contracting Services” logo, dropping his tool kit on the driveway. He bent toward a dog crumpled but not crushed behind another pickup truck with no logo, only rust. The manufactured houses — dozens of them here on the west side, thousands more nearby and millions nationwide — provided him with steady employment, as they peeled apart when the dust and glue settled. His own had been unloaded down the street, half his jobs within walking distance thanks to a part-time contract with the management.
Several bearers of the future walked past the accident, white kids spying Gilbert’s tools which sparkled in pawnshop-to-meth possibility. Gilbert called these kids the Temptations, for they always moved in groups and tried to look smooth. If they gangbanged, he imagined they attacked in Motown steps. They slumped when they walked, not from the weight of the world but that of the moon, for the Temptations belonged at the Apollo, not here in the sun, which should love them as fresh worshippers but only made their drugged eyes hurt. They moved from one house to the next, wherever somebody’s parents would be absent, and then they turned more lunar, colder by the hour. They hid their speed like rockets.
He looked away from the tallest kid, Kyle, who shifted Gilbert’s gears into four-wheel thought. “Why think about them,” Gilbert wondered. “They’re stuck in the mud.” Anyway, a wounded dog lay in his hands. It seemed okay, breathing hard, perhaps shocked but not in shock.
“I’ll drive to the animal hospital,” he told the dog’s owner, an old man Gilbert recognized but did not know by name. “Get in.”
“We can take my mine.”
They lifted the dog into the cab.
“Your bitch got hit,” Kyle said, all but one of the other kids laughing.
They backed out of the driveway, the dog between them. When the old man bought the house, he must have thought, “How spacious, considering the cost. The sounds of children will be nice as I grow older and forget my working days.” But the neighborhood had gone downhill. Gilbert would have warned him, having lived in this neighborhood for almost a decade, “These aren’t those kind of kids. They don’t ride bikes. They steal bikes.” Perhaps in retirement, the old man would forget how he once felt when the alarm clock rang, or possibly he would recall it every morning, the way some put the past behind and others kept it in front.
Kyle slapped the youngest kid’s head. “‘Bitch’ means ‘dog,’ stupid.”
“They make me sick,” the old man said. “Dumb kids.”
“Deaf and dumb,” Gilbert said. “Might as well throw blind in the mix.”
“Do they love anything?”
“There’s less here to love,” Gilbert said, realizing what he meant.
“Aren’t you the guy –”
“I’m the guy. I live around the bend, down by the fake lake.”
“Cotton’s high.” Gilbert sneezed. “Floats in the air.”
“We’re all floating here, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean this isn’t a place a person lives on two feet. It sweeps you off your feet.”
“Like my dog,” the man said.
“You couldn’t have hit him too hard.”
“No, but she was running at the car. She doesn’t like it when I leave.”
The nearest main road featured businesses in manufactured strips. Gilbert glanced over and wondered if the old man missed bygone times. He must have remembered something other than this, and while the world certainly couldn’t have been much better, it must have better concealed itself. Once there were dime stores and now there were dollar stores, but the former at least tried to fool the customer with glittery presentation. Now it was all laid out: “We’re not interested in your feelings. Gimme a dollar.”
“What’s wrong,” Gilbert said, “with your place?”
“Why’d you call me?”
“Oh! It leaks. I smell gas.”
“You ever think how these places don’t have basements? They could make a hole in the ground. Of course, that can’t be manufactured somewhere else. They’d have to use a shovel and dig.”
“I worry about tornados. I do. I dread the sirens. Where would we run, the community center? But it’s built just like the rest of the places. It has a basement, though.”
“Maybe they’re trying to kill us with tornadoes. Maybe they want to gas us.”
The old man scratched the dog’s head. “That’s crazy.”
“I’m just kidding. They don’t want to kill us. It’s cheaper to feed us. We’re safe. You and I will be around for a long time. Why? I don’t know. That’s another question.”
“I can see why you’re angry. It shouldn’t have happened.”
They arrived at the clinic and hauled the stunned dog inside. The old man spoke to a receptionist who had seen everything that could happen to animals, and her cool made the old man feel better. She was tall, white and thin, a menthol cigarette. For a moment, Gilbert wanted a smoke, but then he remembered his wife and her attorneys had taken half his money and most of his libido. They let him know that in the future, somebody else would do the screwing.
August 17th through the 24th of the previous year had been quite boring, according to Time Magazine. A graph showed how people were living longer than they had before, of course. In fifty years, little old white men in backwards baseball caps would slump with one hand on their steering wheels, cheap speakers cracking under the bass. Hundredth birthdays would be common and no one would make a fuss about it. A tenth wedding anniversary, now that would be worth celebrating, extraordinary, nearly miraculous. Gilbert believed people married the way they moved into manufactured homes: The future looked spacious, until the dust and glue settled. Then the houses fell apart, and there was less room with the accumulating products, also manufactured, exactly as the invitations and marriage certificates and divorce decrees had been manufactured, even — especially — as the love songs played at the wedding receptions had been manufactured. Dollar store love.
Gilbert watched the old man carry his dog toward the waiting room chairs. “That dog,” Gilbert thought, “came from one of those pet chains. Even the goddamn pets are manufactured.”
“How long’s he have to wait?” Gilbert said.
“She,” the old man said. “Hold on, Dolly.”
“She’s a good dog. She’ll be okay.”
A woman emerged from a door. “Mr. Gutierrez? You can bring Dolly in now.”
Did the dog dream of real lakes? Did she come equipped with such scenes in mind? Or, if she saw them on TV, did she suspect those places existed in three dimensions somewhere, perhaps Africa? “Well,” Gilbert concluded, “she might as well get used to illusion. Around here, it’s the only thing that doesn’t fall apart.”
The bike had fallen apart. Gilbert’s attorney had said, “You see, it’s right here on the warranty. You put it together, Gilbert. That’s the simple fact, and we can’t get around it.”
“I thought you specialize in getting around simple facts?”
“That may be the case, but some facts are bigger than others, and this particular fact is huge.”
“There should have been two or even three nuts supporting that seat.”
“But there was one, and it was loose. They’ll dig up everything they can to prove why you might have left it loose, including divorce papers, which, as you know, mention in quite some detail your history of drinking. They might argue that if the judge had correctly interpreted this history, none of it would have happened. Surely a bicycle company can’t make allowances for alcoholism. No jury would award a dime. Anyway, it would never get to a jury.”
“It wasn’t my fault. That’s the point, not the money.”
“I know it’s not the money, Gilbert, but shouldn’t you consider that perhaps it was your fault? Why not get the realization over with? You had the wrench in your own hand, and for whatever reason — a reason any of us could understand — you didn’t turn it, say, five more degrees.”
“But I turned it five degrees and more. It came loose. It wasn’t manufactured properly. Can’t we argue that if my wife hadn’t have gotten so much money, I might have been able to afford a better bike?”
“Let it rest, Gilbert.”
“Proper rest is all she needs, Mr. Gutierrez,” the veterinarian said, emerging from the door with the old man and his dog. “I see no fractures. She responds well. Just keep her inside. She’ll let you know when she’s ready, but come back in a week, just to be sure.”
So kind, the veterinarian. How could she handle these cases all day, every day? Gilbert did not believe in saints. He believed some people were born with a great capacity to empathize and others with none and others with so much that they were run over like the dog by a mechanism beyond their understanding. God, if there was one, had established the operating principle of the future: Those with the least responsibility would bear the most.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Gutierrez.
Gilbert believed Mr. Gutierrez was responsible. He could have been driving a tank and barreled over a platoon so long as the platoon failed to bark a warning louder than the tank. But what about his reasons for drinking? Perhaps someone else was responsible for that. In the big picture, responsibility extended so many miles that it swallowed the earth. With the weight of all that responsibility, Mr. Gutierrez drank even more, if he was anything like the kind of drinker Gilbert had been.
“Sir, can we stop at the store on the way home? I shouldn’t drive, as you said.”
“You really need it, huh?”
Mr. Gutierrez hugged the dog. “I guess you know all about it? The way it is?”
“I remember when I go to gas stations and see a guy buying beer the minute the clerk unlocks the glass doors. Six a.m., to be precise. I was timely.”
“What made you quit?”
“You can guess.”
“I would have drank more.”
“The gas started leaking and turned to poison.”
“But you’ll fix that for me, right?”
“What a question,” thought Gilbert. “I’ll fix it,” he said, “but it’ll start leaking again.”
“It has been my experience that we’re always waiting for a leak, though not the one you’re thinking of right now.”
“You’re right. Please hurry.”
Gilbert drove with empathetic haste, Mr. Gutierrez bracing himself in a tangle of positions. Thinking to make two stops one, Gilbert pulled into a gas station from which his passenger returned with relief and a twelve pack.
Mr. Gutierrez began to tremble the rest of the way to his house. When they arrived, he hurried inside where, Gilbert knew, the twelve cans would disappear faster than had been predicted. Mr. Gutierrez would fall asleep knowing he should have bought a twenty-four pack, already nervous about the impaired trip back to the store, especially when his wounded dog would be left alone. But for a while, the moments just before sleep, he would feel such a lifting that astral projection might seem the only explanation.
Gilbert said goodbye with a nod and the feeling that he should warn the neighbors to stay off the road in approximately two hours and, when that time arrived, for exactly the number of minutes it took to drive at precisely the speed limit and in as straight a line as possible the 3.5 miles to the gas station.
“Good luck,” Gilbert wanted to say, “and I don’t mean the dog.”
He began to back out of the driveway when he remembered his tools. The box was gone, an insurance matter, but so was the wrench, another matter. The wrench, by his account evidence of innocence, and by the manufacturer’s account, if it had been necessary, virtually a weapon, now rested — he knew it — on the K-Mart table of a Temptations’ home, the tools turning around and around in those grubby, meth-caked hands, their value under consideration: “How much, you think?” And to prove it, the streets were empty, and all he saw were the identical mailboxes in a row, beige like the aluminum houses, hungry for bills and well-fed.
Down this street, on that day, Jasmine had rode her bike in the awful light which let one know the place benefitted only by darkness, which filled its gaps and seemed to make it solid when otherwise it floated, like a UFO, alien in its technology, weird strangers inside, up to no good when they smiled and worse when they didn’t. Exceptions existed, true, like Mr. Gutierrez, a good man, Gilbert assumed, except for the manslaughter conviction that loomed every time he drove to the gas station for beer. And others, too, like the woman, Mrs. Henderson, who held Jasmine’s head and tried to stop the bleeding when there was no bleeding, only a skull fracture from striking the pavement which caused a state of shock Mrs. Henderson imagined had to be the result of blood loss. And Harry — no one knew his last name — who managed the gas station and rarely left his house at night, and happened to have that Monday off, awakening from his daytime sleep to the sound of the accident, running outside and administering what first aid he knew, which accurately consisted of, “Don’t move her. Don’t touch her. Call an ambulance.” And Harriet Burchfield, who stopped her minivan and called an ambulance, then kept insisting, “I’ll drive her, I’ll drive her; they’re taking too long.” But Harry said, “No, she needs a paramedic, fast.” And Gilbert, who had wondered how far his daughter had ventured, ready to let her have it since the bike was brand new, her riding skills not too sharp, and she had promised not to go far. He never asked much of her, as he was not in a position, he felt, to play the dictator. When a half-hour had passed, he told himself, “That’s enough,” and went outside to witness fifteen houses north a pile of bicycle and girl — his girl, Jasmine — blond hair glowing, he would never forget.
They all stood over her, trapped in the unspoken appraisal that Jasmine was already dead. No one heard anyone breathe, though gasps were audible. Gilbert saw that the bar holding the seat had collapsed, and he remembered raising it because Jasmine was tall for her age, taller than the average height for the bike’s suggested age group, another fact his attorney had dismissed because a company could not take into account anomalies of growth. He focused on blame because the other choice was the blue eyes which seemed to absorb the sky until Harry closed them.
Gilbert rode with Jasmine in the ambulance and took a cab home after the inevitable nothing-can-be-done-we’re-sorry-we-tried-everything-everything-and-maybe-it’s-best discussion. He asked the cab driver to stop at the very gas station where Harry worked and in which Mr. Gutierrez had bought his beer. Gilbert almost bought beer, planning a relapse that would have him drunk for every phone call, every meeting with the funeral home director, the funeral itself, and the three months which would proceed it.
Then he remembered shaking in the middle of the night, when he could only stop himself by drinking again. He knew he must find some goal, a finite mission, upon which to focus, or he would start drinking.
That day, he called the attorney. The next day, they met in a little wood-paneled office with ducks on the wall. The attorney was pleasant but warned Gilbert that liability laws had been tightened and what would have been a case a month before wasn’t necessarily a case now.
Gilbert kept the wrench, proving to himself he knew how to use it, reclaiming its innocence and his. When he fixed a toilet or a faucet, he saw himself performing surgery on Jasmine, bringing her back to life at the last second. Each day, she was reborn, and each night, she died.
Now the wrench was gone. He climbed into his truck and followed the curves around the ridiculously named streets — Camelot Avenue, Merlin’s Court — listening for booming music from a house with drawn shades. He knew where most of the kids lived. He stopped in front of their houses and honked his horn, but no one came outside. He repeated the circuit five times. Perhaps they had already fled to the pawn shop, the nearest one just a mile away. He drove that distance and pulled into the parking lot, ready to pay anything for a ten-dollar wrench.
“No tools today,” the clerk said. “Give it about an hour or two. You ever read those little crime notices in the paper? Some guy leaves his tools out just about every single day. They disappear. Tools are shiny. Can’t miss ’em.”
“But you accept the tools anyway?”
“How am I supposed to know they’re stolen?”
“The crime notices in the paper.”
“And if I assume everything that comes in here’s stolen, how’m I supposed to run a business?”
“That’s a business?”
“The IRS thinks so.”
“Look, if you get a black toolkit with a wrench — ”
“Lots of black toolkits. Lots of wrenches.”
On the way back to the neighborhood, the gas station beckoned, seemed to know Gilbert’s name and want to reach a cement arm toward him, shake hands and say, “How ya doin’? Been a while. To the cabinets. You remember the cabinets, right? Now’s a good time. Now’s a mighty fine time, indeed.”
He felt the pull, the suck backwards that would lead to the suck on the bottle, mama’s breast or his own thumb. He had no philosophy about abstinence; he had simply quit. Now he wanted lists and steps, a how-to book, but none were at hand. As usual, it wasn’t the alcohol he wanted. What he wanted was the churn in his gut to quit production, to stop buttering him up before it creamed him. He imagined tomorrow morning, kidneys aching, vision blurred, nerves spitting sparks like shot plugs. He knew he must focus on something more than mere relief.
He decided he would kill the Temptations. All he had to do was wait until they loped down the street and then, foot on the pedal, he would run them over with his truck. With any luck, they would be standing where Jasmine had died. The score would not be even, but it would be closer and worth a bet.
Still no sign of them, not on Camelot Avenue or Merlin’s Court. He drove past Mr. Gutierrez, sitting on the stoop with beer in hand, and waved. Mr. Gutierrez looked for a moment as though he had never met Gilbert, then finally raised an arm and waved furiously for his helpmate to return. Gilbert reversed the truck.
“I see those boys earlier. They got your tools. Probably gonna use the screwdriver and steal a car. I saw it in the big kid’s pocket, that and a wrench. Might not have been yours but what’s the chance they’re not? Then they went up the street and who knows where from there?”
“Maybe they decided to wait until night.”
“You should call the cops.”
“Yeah, I should.”
Mr. Gutierrez stood to open his screen door. “Dolly, she’s better already. She’s glad to be home.”
“I’d keep her off the streets tonight.”
“I’ll see you later. I want to talk to you.”
Gilbert drove home and parked. Inside, the house was hot and pale. The walls remained barren, no photos or paintings or prints or posters, and shelves held no Russian nesting eggs or hummel dolls, nor was there a Jasmine room left exactly as it had been but rather emptied of every object, never entered, door closed. Except for work, Gilbert rarely had anywhere to go, yet he never wanted to stay. He spent his time the way one drops pennies and doesn’t bother picking them up. In this one way, he knew how the Temptations felt. The neighborhood had been zoned for monotony.
Before coming here, he had lived in a better community of identical homes. Mandy made good money. She worked in the corporate office of the local Pepsi distributor, had graduated from the satellite of a major university, and refused to believe Gilbert when he said he had no intentions of finishing his degree in fine arts. If he could see them now, he would look at the metal sculptures he once welded through the eyes of a bored girl, specifically then-girlfriend Mandy, who hadn’t understood their commentary but did believe that Gilbert could one day teach the fine arts to the tune of 30,000 a year, which combined with her salary would help move them to the neighborhood of slightly larger identical houses she had in mind. She wanted lots of children, but Gilbert wanted one. They settled on Jasmine, or more accurately had divorced approximately nine months before a sister or brother could be produced, their daughter’s birth marking not only the gift of life but the symbol of Gilbert’s hopeless condition, proving that nothing would change him, paint the ambitious streak, push his pedal and take the foot off his brakes. “Your foot,” Mandy had clarified.
“What will the family think? She was just born.”
“I have to go back to work in a few weeks. I’m supposed to leave Jas with you?”
“Jasmine. Don’t call her Jas. I don’t like it. It sounds like one of your new energy drinks.”
It all happened so fast, Mandy moving out with Jasmine, first to an apartment. The papers were served. Gilbert had to go to court and suffer the exploration of his financial records, which when played at the low speed of expert accountants produced a dreary song. The judge refused to consider that Mandy had suspiciously developed a new relationship within weeks of her leaving. Gilbert was forced to attend AA classes after passing out with Jasmine in his care. He learned quite a bit from the AA meetings. He learned he would rather quit drinking than attend meetings about quitting drinking.
He arranged to meet with the park’s manager, hoping sympathy would help his cause. During his two years of college, he had worked for contractors to pay tuition and could handle a welding gun and other tools. The manager told Gilbert he could deal with minor disasters if willing to accept a little less pay than the current contractor, who spent more time telling clients about his recent born-again experience than performing repairs.
So, with his new job and sobriety, Gilbert had been awarded by the court one weekend visit with Jasmine per month, for starters. His business accumulated precisely because he did not attempt to gain customers by telling them his memoir, just as the manager had promised.
“This is what I say, Gilbert. A lot of these contractors, they’re Jesus freaks. They come to your house and spend all day talking about how they keep getting jobs now that they go to church, a miracle, just as the preacher promised. The customer scratches his chin and thinks, ‘Yep, that’s where I got the reference, from somebody at church.’ Not long after the tilled portion of the profits drop in the basket, a cabinet drops off the wall, the pipes leak, and Jesus Christ weeps for the construction industry. You keep doing what you’re doing, a good job with a quiet mouth, and the business will come. It’s not a miracle or a blessing, except to find a businessman who doesn’t think his paycheck comes from God and his work order from the devil. That’s as good a miracle as we can expect.”
For the next few years, Gilbert learned to welcome the soft light of mornings which had once been so hard and the harder light of afternoons which had once been impossible. Having long ago abandoned his youthful artistic concerns, and shorn of alcohol’s artistic license, he found that certain slants of sun made temporary paintings everywhere he looked, aided by curtains and window frames, angled into an explainable magic which lost none of its beauty for lack of chemical perception tricks or supernatural cause. The world was what it was, and if one ignored what others tried to make of it, there was something in it worth the humiliations he endured, including the new husband who stood outside smoking European cigarettes whenever Mandy — now Mandarin — came inside to pick up Jasmine and say goodbye with what always sounded like finality.
He bought a bike for Jasmine, the best he could afford, made by â€“â€“ , a brand he recognized from his youth. He built it on the Saturday morning when she was to arrive, and he had hurried because the construction took longer than predicted.
Considering that a degree might hang on his wall, one that would have provided him greater income to buy a better make of bicycle, or even have it assembled, it was his fault. But right where he would have hung the degree, above the television, glowed what he might have interpreted as a miraculously blue shadow of duskfall. This refreshed his mind, cooled his memories, and once again only his mission mattered.
Soon it was dark, and he waited at his window. At around this time, the Temptations always passed his house, and they did. He waited until they had ambled a hundred yards beyond, and then he went outside and started his truck. He backed out of the driveway, thinking that he was refuting his own theory that responsibility moved upwards, from the kids to their parents to their parents’ situations to the exploiters of that situation to — who knew where it stopped? It went backwards, too, but the dead couldn’t take the fall. His determination slipped, but he aimed the truck at the gang and accelerated, not as fast as he had planned but still gaining speed. He wondered if he would jam the gas or swerve.
And then he saw, in Kyle’s right hand, the toolbox. The kids turned. He pulled to the side of the street and climbed out of the truck.
“Gimme that box.”
“This?” Kyle said. “This is mine. My old man bought it.”
“Then open it up. I’ve got a label on the inside. Maybe you peeled it off. You’re pretty smart, but not smart enough to scrub the whole label off.”
“I’m not opening shit.”
“Gimme that box.”
“Then just gimme the wrench. All I want is the wrench.”
Gilbert approached the group. Besides Kyle, the rest were small and skinny. He could scare a few of those off first and then deal with Kyle. He made a move to grab the smallest, the one who now half-understood the meaning of “bitch,” but before he could snatch a collar, a boot found his crotch. He went down to plenty of laughter and then two kids had his arms pinned and Kyle leaned in close.
“Gimme the wrench.” Kyle opened his palm and someone put the wrench inside it. “You want your wrench?”
“Come on, don’t,” the smallest kid said.
“You shut up, bitch,” Kyle said to the kid. Then, to Gilbert, he said, “You sniff your wrench out? Know it’s yours? Then here’s your fucking wrench.”
The little kid was yelling, “Just leave him alone.”
The wrench pinched Gilbert’s nose as Kyle tightened it. He kept tightening until it stood straight by itself, cheap and light.
“Let the Tin Man go,” Kyle ordered, and they carried on toward other streets, laughing and slapping the little kid’s head while Gilbert loosened the wrench.
The next morning, he emerged from the house with nose heavily bandaged, for it had refused to stop bleeding after all the aspirin he had taken. But he hated hospitals and had no intention of seeking treatment. He would rather visit the veterinarian, so much more humanitarian. She wouldn’t interrogate him about his health habits as if he were to blame for every ailment but only say, “Good boy, good boy! There, there.”
He went to the shed with wrench in pocket. He found his welding equipment, and then he pulled off the sheet that hid Jasmine’s bike. He took the bike and equipment to the driveway. It was a rainy day and he thought, “Perfect. We’re doing everything different this time.”
First he tightened the nut, and he found that — rightly tighty, lefty loosey — it began to spin when maximum pressure was applied, more pressure than any home mechanic could be expected to enforce. With blue flame, he welded the seat in just the position it had been when had he sent Jasmine on her way. He let the seat settle for a while, and then he climbed on top. It held him. It would hold anybody.
He heard crying. He looked up to see the smallest kid walking past the house.
“Come here,” Gilbert said.
“No, I didn’t do it. I didn’t do anything.”
“I know. Just come here.”
The kid looked around, hesitated, and finally walked up the driveway.
“What? You gonna hit me, too?”
“That’s why you’re crying?”
“He punched me first thing this morning. I woke up on the floor, and Kyle punched me. Then he threw me out. He said I don’t belong. Shithead.”
“Yeah, he’s a shithead,” Gilbert said. “You ever ride a bike?”
“You wanna take this one for a spin?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, take a ride. Kyle sleeps late, I bet.”
“Yeah, usually. Okay.”
Gilbert let go of the bike. The kid took it and climbed atop the seat. He spun in a half-circle and rode out of the driveway.
“He’s not coming back,” Gilbert thought.
He watched the kid cross the spot where Jasmine had fallen. The kid kept going until the end of the street. There, he seemed to stop as if to ponder, for a turn in one direction would take him straight to the pawn shop. Instead, he turned the bike around and headed back to Gilbert’s house.
When the kid arrived, Gilbert said, “You want a bike, not to sell but to ride?”
“I guess I need something to do now.”
“You can have it soon.”
Gilbert loaded the bike into his truck.
“Where you taking it?”
“You’re too young to worry about that, but I’ll be back. Next time you see me, you can have it. Or just stop by and knock. Now go home and lock the door.”
“I’ll have to climb through the window.”
“Then go in my house and wait. I’ll be back soon.”
Along the way to the attorney’s office, Gilbert imagined his speech about how he had not only welded the seat but would, when the time came, turn a girl’s bike into a boy’s. Then his voice would rise, as if in courtroom summation: “Don’t you see? We’re transferring responsibility downwards when it should move upwards.”
“You mean,” the attorney would say, “God, ultimately?”
“I don’t know about God,” Gilbert would answer.
That’s exactly how it was going to happen. The attorney would lean forward, tap a pencil on his desk. “Hmm,” he would say, thinking. “Maybe. Just maybe.”
“You really think we might have a case?”
“I think we do, Gilbert. I think we’ve got a case.”
He pulled into the office building parking lot. Five minutes later, he walked down the hallway with all the conviction he had possessed the first time. But when he arrived, the “Attorney at Law” sign on the door was gone. He opened the door to see the lawyer packing his files into boxes.
“You can’t quit,” Gilbert said. “I got a case now.”
“Don’t make me laugh. The legislators just tightened the screws on us. Which is funny, since they’re all lawyers. Of course, my wife doesn’t think it’s so funny because I just cancelled our golf club membership and put the house on the block.” The attorney picked up his framed law degree, ran his hands across the dust and left a trail of smeared fingerprints. “Here,” he said. “Keep it. Maybe you can build a paper airplane. Have a nice flight.”
Gilbert accepted the degree. Once home, he hung it above the television with the kid’s help. Then he went outside, took the bike out of the truck and watched the kid ride it toward home.
That week, Gilbert’s libido returned. During visits to assist Mr. Gutierrez in alcohol withdrawal, Gilbert met the old man’s niece, a nice-looking woman with a great capacity for making men forget their pasts. Soon, the two lived together in Gilbert’s house, and Mr. Gutierrez would stop by for coffee. The contracting business was good, but Gilbert would never lose the zeal of a first-year attorney, certain that all six billion of his clients were innocent.