By: Matt Nagin
All day the phone rang. Bill Cartwright owed everyone: Wells Fargo, Visa, Home Depot, even a gastroenterologist on Madison Avenue who charged exorbitant prices for the snazziest colonoscopy in town.
Bill intended to pay them all back. He was a man of integrity. Still, he was a terrible spendthrift. His psychiatrist claimed this resulted from his failure to consistently take lithium (he’d forget, he’d claim, when really he’d miss the feeling of being manic).
Before long, owing to bipolar disorder, he’d charge up six credit cards, darting from store to store in the mall—possessed, determined, ready to grab every last product and hurl it into his walk-in closet with a sense of relief. During his last bender, in addition to lesser priced items he’d purchased a Swarovski Crystal Zebra, a Chagall colored chalk drawing, and a helmet worn by Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.
Throw in student loans, trading losses in oil futures and an overpriced apartment in Brooklyn Heights and he was totally buried. He attended Underearners Anonymous. Hated it, but reluctantly went.
A few members tried to offer emotional support. Identified with his wildly embellished stories. Others like his sponsor pleaded for a loan—and—when he provided it—simply disappeared. Worse still, after six months of attending U.A. meetings, he was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.
Bill answered the phone now, gave his name, and listened as a bank representative said “Mr. Cartwright, do you realize you are in debt fourteen-thousand six-hundred and seventy-eight dollars to HSBC?”
“How do you intend to pay?”
“Mr. Cartwright, you’re leaving us no choice but to refer you to debt collection services.”
“Go for it.”
“No need to worry Mr. Cartwright. Yes we’re freezing your credit cards and this may impede your ability to get a home loan. But all is not lost since we want to work something out with you.”
“Do you have tonight’s winning lotto numbers?”
“Funny. But Mr. Cartwright, we should be serious, your credit rating is 308. Scores rarely run this low!”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “Look, I want to pay. Really, I do. But I can’t right now.”
“That’s why we need to get you on a payment plan.”
Cartwright rubbed his goatee. “As long as I don’t have to make the payments, I like the idea of a plan.”
“Another joke,” the representative said. “We appreciate that. There’s no reason to take ourselves too seriously. Tell you what, I’ll have a representative call you tomorrow to review the details.”
Bill thanked the rep. and hung up.
Cartwright was doing his best. His supermarket job barely covered expenses. Even after obtaining a sizeable inheritance he was still in the red.
He tried. Of late, he’d been taking lithium more regularly. He’d also stopped blowing thousands of dollars per week gambling at Aqueduct and Belmont. Not that this eliminated his problems. The interest payments on his debt were high. Getting even seemed improbable.
The phone rang again. “Can I speak with Bill Cartwright please?”
“Bill Cartwright, are you aware you owe Bank of America thirty-four thousand dollars and seventy-two cents?”
“You have the wrong guy.”
“This is a different Bill Cartwright. Of course I share the same name and number as the man you’re calling, but trust me this Bill is debt free.”
The guy on the phone checked Cartwright’s address, which the debtor admitted was correct.
“Sir,” he said, “it seems you are the correct Bill Cartwright. So how about we put together a payment plan?”
“That’s what I like to hear. We’ll start right away.”
“Sorry. The other Bill Cartwright just showed up. We’re going out to dinner. Anyway, I suggest you get the money from him!”
One of the two Bill Cartwrights hung up.
Cartwright graduated from Princeton with a degree in Philosophy. Perhaps as a way of getting all the Heidegger, Descartes and Wittgenstein out of his system, he went on a two-month bender through Europe with a hippie chick who had very hairy armpits and made her own macrame jewelry.
The trip had many highlights—a music festival on the Danube, some playful banter with expats at a bar in Prague, dropping LSD in the thermal baths in Budapest. The problem was they eventually landed in a Slovakian prison for transporting four grams of cocaine on the Eurorail. This really put a damper on the trip and, shortly after spending eight months in jail, they broke up. Or, rather, she dumped him for the prison guard.
Cartwright returned home to even worse luck with the job market. His educational background got him interviews. But he wasn’t very personable. Then, too, he failed to sufficiently ingratiate himself with the supercilious, flesh-eating zombies who ran every last H.R. department.
After failing on countless job interviews, and couch surfing for nine months, he took a position at a local supermarket. Twenty-three years later he was still working the same job.
Over the next few days, the phone kept ringing till Cartwright yanked the cord out the wall. Better. Landlines sucked.
Cartwright spent the weekend drinking malt liquor while reading Wait Until Spring Bandini. This was his fourth time returning to this John Fante novel. Everyone else went for Ask The Dust, but this book, he felt, had a unique poetic sensibility wedded to a terrific plot.
Invariably he would view novels through a philosophical lens. This time he considered the book in light of Hegel, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari, even Plato.
This philosophical inquiry seemed to be going well when his cat, Quixote, began to squeal. The little bastard wanted a fresh can of salmon. Bah!
“Go hump a windmill, you whiny ingrate!”
More squealing. He shook his head, feeding the cat solely so he would pipe down.
Next he flipped on the old boob tube. Kardashians. Cupcake Wars. 16 And Pregnant. What campy, soulless productions! His apartment was a wellspring for third-rate louses on weird, narcissistic benders!
Cartwright sighed. He considered blinding himself like Oedipus. Freedom. An escape. A desperate attempt to generate sanity! Then, upon contemplating the medical bills that would follow such an act, he decided to simply go for a walk.
The streets were swarmed with various hucksters such as cellphone salesmen yabbering on about free phones with a two-year plan. One proselytizer, off in the corner in a sharp lime green suit, offered Cartwright 50$ to listen to a lecture on a timeshare. What did he have to lose?
Inside they had graphs, pie charts, cinematic promos. Cartwright was particularly struck by the villas in Cabo overlooking magical caves featuring dozens of bikini models playing beach volleyball.
“I’ll take a three-bedroom suite,” he said as he stared longingly at an expansive ocean vista.
The guy ran all fourteen of Cartwright’s credit cards. Each was declined. He then asked for a bank routing number, quickly learning the account had “insufficient funds.” All around him suckers were getting applause from the staff after they signed a contract. A bottle of champagne would be popped open, the drinks poured in champagne flutes that looked straight out of Dollar General.
“Sir,” the salesman said finally. “It seems you cannot afford this timeshare.”
“Sir, it seems you’re a genius!”
“You’re wasting my time.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“You owe me fifty bucks.”
“You said you could afford our properties, so I’m afraid the fifty-dollar bonus is invalidated.”
“I see how it is. The old bait and switch. Well, I have news for you, I’ve got my own timeshare I’m selling.”
Cartwright showed him pictures of timeshares online that were half the price of those he’d been pitched.
“You’re trying to sell a timeshare to a timeshare salesman?” the salesman asked, incredulous.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
“Sold,” Cartwright replied. “Pay me the fifty and I’m gone.”
Cartwright looked determined. He clutched the desk as if intent on making a stand. The man grimaced, shook his head, and, at last, handed Cartwright fifty bucks. Cartwright left, whistling joyously. For once, in some small way, he’d won.
Over the years Cartwright had worked nearly every position at the supermarket: cart boy, stock boy, cashier, price checker, shipping clerk, tuna can leveler. Bill’s latest job was deli counter attendant—a .25 cent promotion, which, given the magnitude of his debts, could easily have been a sketch by Nichols and May.
He was thinking about the insanity of what he owed when the cart boy approached and started preaching about Jesus. Bill needed to take Christ as his Lord and Savior. The best place to do was The Methodist Prayer Group on Staten Island.
He told the cartboy there was very little chance his sins would be absolved in some whacko church in Staten Island. Besides, there was no record of a historical Jesus. The whole concept was stolen from Horus, the Egyptian God, who shared so many similarities with Jesus that the only logical conclusion was this fabrication was generated by manipulative authorities to control a dim-witted public.
“Screw you!” the cart boy said.
“Screw me? No, screw you and your holier-than-thou cart boy propaganda!”
The cart boy grinned, then returned to lining up carts. As he did so he insulted the failure’s mother in harsh tones. Annoyed, Bill hurled a cart into the snow, the wheels caressing the sky, the body of the cart seemingly moaning like a bull stabbed by a matador under the hot Madrid sun.
“Burn in hell!” the cart boy said, righting the cart.
“Gladly,” Bill replied.
“Appreciate the compliment.”
“You’re a monster!”
“Look,” Cartwright said. “All this religious mumbo jumbo is just a way to suck up all your funds and deplete your inner strength. Honestly, my friend, spreading the word of God MAKES YOU THE MONSTER!”
Ten minutes later Cartwright sauntered in, affixed his apron to his waist, and got to work. He took orders, filled out receipts, rang customers up, and worked the slicer assiduously: ham, capicola, salami, turkey.
The blade made quite the racket. Often when he unwrapped a slab of meat, or toasted bread, he would think about how the supermarket was like a weird alien ship headed nowhere. All was organized. Efficiency was the clarion call.
And yet what was the point of any of it? Success or failure? Income or poverty? Love or strife? We were all tourists in a Bardo, counting the moments until the final kaleidoscopic whirl hurled us into an errant dimension beyond our control.
Bill was no different than any other, a nightingale trapped behind bars, a delicate creature imprisoned by the colorfulness of his being. And yet there was a part of him that needed the cage. Imprisonment offered perspective.
An old Spanish maid with crooked teeth wanted two pounds of Boar’s Head Ham. She banged her cane against the counter. Mi hijo es infirma. Rapido! The bones in her face fidgeted. He priced the ham on the butcher paper before staring down the pit that became her soulless mouth.
Next she cursed at the woman behind her who was trying to ask Bill a question while waving her greasy cane. Rapido! she cried once more as he wrapped up her ham as rapido as possible.
Bah! Twenty-three years at this crummy market. So many lunatics—and they all wanted deli meat! Every day he confronted new freaks that annoyed him more than those from the day before. What hope was there for a guy like Cartwright—a guy not all that well-adjusted in the first place—in such a demented world?
Later that afternoon, Cartwright bumped into a fellow Princeton alumni. James Hendricks wore a Brooks Brothers suit with a pocket square folded perfectly, patent leather shoes, and navy-blue suspenders. They chatted for a bit before Hendricks said: “So, Cartwright, where do you summer?”
“Here,” Cartwright said, pointing to Fifth Avenue.
Hendricks nodded. “Beats Fire Island, right?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Anything beats Fire Island Cartwright. That’s obvious.”
Cartwright thought of how the only decent place he’d managed to vacation in recent years was Atlantic City—and he’d slept in his car, brushing his teeth in the bathroom a few feet from the final craps tables in the Tropicana. He’d lost too much shooting dice, then had to borrow money from random tourists to be able to afford the tolls home.
“Julie and I summer in Cape Cod now,” Hendricks continued. “It’s this five-bedroom cottage with a wine cellar and a kidney-shaped in-ground pool. Of course with three kids it doesn’t quite cut it.”
“Only five bedrooms,” Bill sneered. “How do you manage?”
“It’s difficult,” Hendricks replied, not catching his irony. “The kids want a game room like Rosenberg’s got in East Hampton. You remember Rosenberg, don’t you?”
“The mortgage broker with the weird mole.”
“He’s a mortgage securities analyst. And the mole has been removed.”
“You mean Rosenberg got whacked?”
“No. Rosenberg’s got it good. Sometimes I wish I had his life.”
“Borrow the mole. He’s not using it anymore.”
Hendricks pressed his temples with his pale, fidgety hand.
“Always the comedian, aren’t we Cartwright? Godforsaken Cartwright! You know you really haven’t changed.”
“You haven’t either. Unfortunately.” As Cartwright said this he sipped from his .99 cent Arizona Iced Tea.
“Here.” Hendricks said, handing Bill his business card. “Call my secretary and set up lunch next week at Jean-Georges. Or The Cornell Club if you wanna slum.”
“I suppose I could suffer through the Cornell Club.”
“I know what you mean. It’s tough being caught there, considering the outsized returns of Greenwood Volatility last quarter. You saw the write-up we got in Forbes, no?”
“Hendricks your head is shoved way too far up your own ass. I’m sorry, but how do you breathe when you’re always sucking on your own ass fumes?”
Hendricks straightened out his Kiton-Green Cashmere-Silk Tie. “I’ll let that comment slide because I know you don’t mean it. Next Friday at Jean-Georges then?”
“Sure,” Cartwright said. “And after that I’ll take you to Fire Island.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“I’m not. We’ll meet at the gay beach at Cherry Grove. Bring your go-go boots and assless chaps. Toodaloo!”
The next morning Cartwright fed his leftover cereal and milk to Quixote, threw on his overcoat, and, in a kind of panic, purchased a tall stack of Powerball lottery tickets. If he couldn’t earn his way out of debt perhaps luck would save him.
He sat on a park bench and reviewed the tickets, imagining the universe finally opening up for him. He’d go on a whirlwind romance across Bolivia. Skydive in Fiji. Start an artist colony in Ketchikan, Alaska. He had so many wondrous plans!
“Bill!” his sister cried.
He didn’t look up.
“Bill, I’m talking to you!”
“I haven’t seen you in two years.”
“Best two years of my life.”
Bill continued to be mesmerized by his lotto tickets; they seemed filled with majestic potential. Money was overrated; money didn’t make you happy; and yet money meant freedom. It was better to be unhappy and free than unhappy and in chains.
In a bit of a trance, Cartwright scurried down a side street, a thick fog hovering over the dumpsters. Margaret followed him, the click of her heels echoing like artillery fire. Couldn’t she let him be? After all he’d endured on her behalf, didn’t he deserve a respite? She told him all about her problems as she walked, begging him to come upstairs for a visit.
Bill didn’t say.
“It’s Aaron, isn’t it?”
“He’s really sorry.”
Bill would never forget the time the crazy Scotsman pinned him against the ottoman and beat him with the rage of Ike Turner.
“He’s changed Bill. He’s really turned over a new leaf.”
“Is that leaf filled with cocaine?”
“No Bill. He quit all toxic substances. You wouldn’t even recognize him.”
The idea of Aaron changing seemed preposterous as the idea that a leprechaun sat hovering over a pot of gold at the end of the nearest rainbow.
“I really gotta go.”
“Wait,” Margaret said. “I have a gift for you. In my apartment. All I need is five minutes.”
Begrudgingly, and with a sense of dismay, Cartwright followed his sister upstairs.
As they marched up the five rickety flights, Margaret’s bulbous hips swayed in synchronicity with the creaking banister. She didn’t seem all that healthy, which could perhaps be explained by the fact that she had lupus, a gimp left leg and, last he’d heard, cervical cancer. He felt bad for her. It was impossible not to feel this way, particularly since she was dating a guy who was about as genial as The Zodiac Killer.
There were times that he wished they had more of a relationship. He’d think of the moments they’d played on the swings in elementary school, or the all-night Monopoly games, and regret how matters had turned out. But it was a matter of self-preservation. Every time he’d let her in she’d managed to screw up any semblance of order in his world.
His sister opened the door, fifteen people crying out “SURPRISE!” This was incredibly kind. Truly, she’d meant well. Balloons. Streamers. Ice-cream cake. A number of old acquaintances gathering round to sing “Happy Birthday!”
And yet, the truth was, he’d have preferred an earthquake, a hurricane, a deadly plague. He tried to enjoy himself. But the whole shebang seemed horribly phony. Worse still, the singing was terribly off-key.
Then, too, honoring getting closer to death seemed ridiculous. Your vibrancy was declining, your window of opportunity for accomplishment narrowing, and illness loomed on the horizon. Yet these brute realities were the justification for a party? Bah! Ten times bah!
He wasn’t happy on birthdays, not even when the cake was outstanding. How could he be this year in particular? After all, nothing would change the fact that he was 46 years old and had very little to show for his efforts!
In the corner, sipping from a double scotch, Aaron mumbled to himself about the fact that the Queen Of The South football team lost a match that afternoon. So much for quitting ‘toxic substances.’ Clearly, Margaret had lied.
Strangely, despite his numerous flaws, Bill found Aaron relatable. The outsider. The guy filled with a thousand secret animosities. The irony of identifying with this rogue was not lost on him. For Aaron cursed, spat, drank, and beat Margaret regularly.
Many nights Margaret would dial him up, sobbing. Once she showed up at his front door with wild hair and a ripped dress. He’d insisted she go to the police. But she never listened.
On the last night he’d seen her before cutting off all contact she was in the hospital. She had a black eye. A chipped tooth. Her leg was broken in three places. And there was a mishapen lump on the side of her head.
“Wanna tell us what happened?” a cop asked.
“Margaret!” Bill said, shaking his head disapprovingly.
“What?” she went on, the other cop writing notes on a little pad. “Aaron wasn’t involved!”
Bill had gone over to the house with a bat to try to scare Aaron into treating his sister right. Bad idea. Aaron ripped the bat from his hands. He then pinned him against the ottoman and beat him until he was hardly recognizable. His jaw was so badly broken it had to be wired shut.
“Stop,” he’d pleaded.
Aaron punched and kicked till he was barely conscious.
“Goddamnit!” Bill kept saying. “Stop, you bastard!”
The hospital bill was atrocious. They didn’t let him out for two weeks. After that he’d decided he’d had enough of them both. He’d held to that too…until now.
As Bill approached the bowl of candy corns, Aaron stumbled over. His breath stunk and he had the eyes of a sick wolf.
“How’s the jaw, eh?” Aaron asked.
Cartwright didn’t say anything.
“I SAID, HOW’S THE JAW, EH?”
“Almost back to normal.”
“I suppose I’ll have to break it again then, aye?”
“Just a joke mate.”
“If you say so.”
Aaron moved in, menacingly.
“What?” Bill asked. “It wasn’t funny.”
“You don’t know what’s funny. You work at a supermarket, yah cold cut slicin’ bitch!”
Margaret noticed the tension.
“Aaron, honey, can you help me with the paper plates?”
“Help yourself, yah lousy nag!”
“Easy,” Bill said.
“That’s exactly right. Your sister’s easy.”
“Really. That’s where you’re taking this?”
“Easy and dumb. A dumb whore!”
“He’s drunk Bill,” Margaret said, “Ignore him.”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here, yeh fat worthless cunt!”
Bill tried to control himself. Best not to engage. And yet the way he spoke about his sister coupled with the way he’d been pummeled two years earlier made something within him snap. He cursed out Aaron in virulent terms, his face hot red, eyes wiry.
After that it was like déjà vu. Aaron threw Bill’s head to the ground and started stomping on it. Thick work boots. The whole entourage could hear the eerie thuds. Pain in the back of his head radiating through his body.
Margaret cried out in terror, pleading with Aaron to stop. She tried to pull him off, but he was strong. You couldn’t be fooled by the pictures of him in Edinburgh playing the bagpipes in a kilt. He was a vicious hoodlum who just happened to have a predilection for plaid skirts.
Finally, Aaron stormed out the apartment. Margaret held Bill’s head. He could barely see straight. The room spun.
“I’m sorry,” Margaret said.
“Call…an…ambulance,” Cartwright replied.
Margaret did so and then returned to find her brother sprawled out on the floor. “Oh god,” she said. “Why?”
Bill passed out.
Christmas Eve he was home alone, a mound of ice pressed against his skull. He examined the E.R. report. Torn cartilage in his ear. Brain contusion. Skull fracture. He kept bleeding out his nose, which the doctors assured him was normal. How comforting! The fact that this was expected made it so much more tolerable!
His brothers called to check up on him. All three were lawyers, as his late father had been, and had large families with well-mannered kids studying at elite New York City private schools.
They vacationed in Turks & Caicos. Read The Wall Street Journal. Shared coffee cake recipes and always seemed so concerned about the survival of the goddamn pandas.
This year, like every other, they sent Christmas Cards. He examined them now. They fit a pattern. Kids in the front, parents in the back. A well-decorated tree. The smallest child sucking on a candy cane. Blonde locks combed to the side. Smiles plastered on every face as if installed by a general contractor.
Family. Community. Love. No one could argue with the importance of these verities, and yet he liked it on the fringe, on the outskirts, where the only rule was to break them all.
Sure he had a job. An apartment. A few friends. But he’d never really advanced in terms of his career; seemed to spend decades in a veritable wasteland. He was a failure. By nearly all conventional measures this was his reality. It was hard to accept—at times.
Damn. He was drunk. Had lost count of all the Wild Turkey shots. He fumbled with his pocket. Yanked out the forty Powerball Jackpot Tickets. Numbers were already drawn. He tried his smartphone, but realized the battery had died.
He flipped on the television and found a reporter announcing the weather. A show on deadly sharks. A reality show featuring mobster wives desperate to whack each other. The whole room rose and fell like a lifeboat in a tempest. He booted up his laptop.
A fight erupted between a husband and wife next door. He could hear them yelling expletives through the wall. The man insisted his wife was cheating. She banged his friend while he was in Hong Kong on business. He called her an evil, conniving bitch—and—as the night wore on—much worse.
Bill checked the Powerball numbers on his laptop. Not with excitement. Just morbid curiosity. He’d fail again—for sure. This ritual was a way to magnify his shortcomings. Wallow, if you will. Self-loathing was almost a religion for Bill.
And yet—as the numbers emerged—and he checked them—and double-checked them—he realized—preposterously—he’d won. The pain seemed to dissipate. His belly shook. This couldn’t be. He’d won! He’d really won! And not some pyrrhic victory like with the timeshare salesman. This was the win that changed it all!
From this day forward he would no longer be a supermarket flunky. No more a guy who floundered perpetually in the doldrums. Instead, he was a success! A legendary champion!
Fifty-eight million dollars. How could this be? How could his entire reality be changed in a single instant?
He did another few shots of Wild Turkey, put his arms behind his head, and sunk back into the couch. It all was becoming clear. He’d buy the supermarket and fire the cart boy. Tell him to ask Jesus for a new job. Then he’d start his own hedge fund, buy a pimped out summer home, and brag to Hendricks. “Five bedrooms. A measly five bedrooms,” he’d say to Hendricks. “We have twenty-six bedrooms in Sag Harbor. Anything less is insufferable!”
Finally, he’d buy all the timeshares peddled by the chop shop down the street, and just for the hell of it burn them down. That would be cool to watch. But even cooler would be taking pictures and sending them back to the timeshare salesmen with a note that read “Enjoy your inventory, assholes!”
Finally, he’d not only pay down all his debt with Bank of America, but call them and ask them if they needed a bridge loan? That’s right, he’d bail out those stupid, entitled banking turds purely out of spite.
And yet—beneath the feelings of excitement—jubilation even—was trepidation. All would change. Externally, he would be a success. But would he feel he’d earned it? Would his new life truly matter?
He ripped up the winning lottery ticket. It was better this way. Better to suffer, better to eke out a meager existence, better to make his way through the dense brambles. Better to be a failure.
He collapsed on the futon, drool sliding down his chin, eyes daggers that seemed to defy the workings of an indifferent universe. No one owned him. He determined his own path. He’d succeed on his own merits or revel in his failure eternally. There was no other way.
Just then the phone rang. Hendricks. He was pissed off Cartwright never showed up at Jean-Georges. He was a busy man. Heads of state wanted to dine with him. He’d just finished an interview on the Bloomberg Network covering the crypto boom and would be on CNBC next. Who the hell was Cartwright to mess up a perfectly good reservation?
Cartwright picked up the phone and let Hendricks have it. Just crushed the guy. Then the HSBC bastard called and he had a field day with him too. Finally, he called the cart boy and told him he’d been saved by Barney The Purple Dinosaur, who, as far as he could tell, loved the cart boy way more than Jesus. Cartwright never realized it, until now, but he didn’t need the big win. No. He was way ahead.
Matt Nagin’s fiction has been published in ‘Beautiful Losers,’ ‘In Recovery Magazine’ and ‘Void Magazine’ among others. Tenth Street Press published his humor book ‘Do Not Feed The Clown’ in 2019, and he’s also published three poetry books. His poem ‘If We Are Doomed’ won The 2018 Spirit First Editor’s Choice Poetry Award.