From Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, April 2012). Originally published in McSweeney’s.
Have you ever wondered what word is most frequently uttered by people about to die a violent death? MIT carried out a comprehensive study of the question among heterogeneous communities in North America and discovered that the word is none other than fuck. Eight percent of those about to die say “What the fuck,” 6 percent say only “Fuck,” and there’s another 2.8 percent that say “Fuck you,” though in their case, of course, you is the last word, even if fuck overshadows it irrefutably. And what does Jeremy Kleinman say a minute before he checks out? He says, “Without cheese.” Jeremy says that because he’s ordering something in a cheeseburger restaurant called Cheesus Christ. They don’t have plain hamburgers on the menu, so Jeremy, who keeps kosher, asks for a cheeseburger without cheese. The shift manager in the restaurant doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Lots of customers have asked her for that in the past, so many that she felt the need to report on it in a series of detailed e-mails to the CEO of the Cheesus Christ chain, whose office is in Atlanta. She suggested that he add a plain hamburger to the menu. “A lot of people ask me for it, but at the moment, they have to order a cheeseburger without cheese, which is cagey and a little embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for me, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, for the whole chain. It makes me feel like a technocrat, and for the customers, the chain comes off as an inflexible organization they have to trick in order to get what they want.” The CEO never replied to her e-mails, and for her, that was even more embarrassing and humiliating than all those times customers asked her for cheeseburgers without cheese. When a dedicated employee turns to her employer with a problem, especially one related to the workplace, the least he can do is acknowledge her existence. The CEO could have written her that it was being handled or that, while he appreciated her turning to him, he unfortunately couldn’t make any changes to the menu, or a million other bullshit replies of that kind. But he didn’t. He didn’t write anything. And that made her feel like she was invisible. Just like that night in New Haven when her boyfriend Nick started hitting on the waitress while she herself was sitting next to him at the bar. She’d cried then, and Nick hadn’t even known why, and that same night, she’d packed her things and left. Mutual friends had called a few weeks later to tell her Nick had killed himself. None of them openly blamed her for what happened, but there was something in the way they told her about it, something accusing, though she couldn’t even say what. In any case, when the CEO didn’t answer her e-mails, she thought about quitting her job. But what happened with Nick stopped her from doing that, and it wasn’t as if she thought the CEO of Cheesus Christ would commit suicide when he heard that the shift manager of some crummy branch in the northeast had quit, but still. The truth is that if the CEO had heard she’d quit because of him, he actually would have killed himself. The truth is that if the CEO had heard that the African white lion had become extinct because of illegal hunting, he would have killed himself. He would even have killed himself after hearing something more trivial, for instance, that it was going to rain tomorrow. The CEO of the Cheesus Christ restaurant chain suffered from severe clinical depression. His colleagues at work knew that, but were careful not to spread this painful fact around, mostly because they respected his privacy, but also because it could have instantly sent stock prices crashing. After all, what does the stock market sell us if not the unfounded hope of a rosy future? And a CEO with clinical depression is not exactly the ideal ambassador for that kind of message. The CEO of Cheesus Christ, who totally understood how problematic his emotional state was, both personally and publicly, tried medication. That didn’t help at all. The pills were prescribed to him by a doctor from Iraq who had been granted refugee status in the United States after his family was accidentally blown up by an F-16 trying to assassinate Saddam Hussein’s sons. His wife, father, and two small sons were killed, and only his older daughter, Suha, survived. In an interview on CNN, the doctor said that despite his personal tragedy, he wasn’t angry at the American people. But the truth is that he was. He was more than angry. He was boiling with rage toward the American people. But he knew that if he wanted a green card, he had to lie about it. As he lied, he thought about his dead family and his living daughter. He lied because he believed that an American education would be good for her. How wrong he was. His daughter became pregnant at fifteen by some fat white-trash kid who was a year ahead of her at school and refused to acknowledge the baby. Due to complications at birth, the baby was born retarded. In the States, just like almost anywhere else, when you’re a fifteen-year-old single mother of a retarded child, for all intents and purposes, your fate is sealed. There’s probably some made-for-TV movie that claims that isn’t the case, that you can still find love and have a career and who knows what else. But that’s only a movie. In real life, the minute they told her that her baby was retarded it was as if a game over” sign in neon lights was flashing in the air above her head. Maybe if her father had told the truth on CNN and they hadn’t gone to the States, her fate would have been different. And if Nick hadn’t hit on that bottle blonde in the bar, his situation and the shift manager’s would have been much better too. And if the CEO of the Cheesus Christ chain had gotten the right medication, his situation would have been just great. And if that crazy guy in the cheeseburger restaurant hadn’t stabbed Jeremy Kleinman, Jeremy Kleinman’s state would be alive, which in most people’s opinion, is a lot better than the dead state he now found himself in. He didn’t die right away. He gasped, tried to say something, but the shift manager, who was holding his hand, told him not to speak, to save his strength. He didn’t speak, he tried to save his strength. Tried, but couldn’t. There’s a theory, also out of MIT I think, about the butterfly effect: a butterfly flutters its wings on a beach in Brazil, and as a result, a tornado starts up on the other side of the world. The tornado appears in the original example. They could have thought up a different example in which the flutter of butterfly wings causes badly needed rain, but the scientists who developed the theory chose a tornado, and not because, like the CEO of Cheesus Christ, they were clinically depressed. It’s because the scientists who specialize in probability know that the chance of something detrimental occurring is a thousand times greater than the chance of something beneficial happening. “Hold my hand” is what Jeremy Kleinman wanted to say to the shift manager as his life leaked out of him like chocolate milk from a punctured carton, “Hold it and don’t let go, whatever happens.” But he didn’t say that because she asked him not to speak. He didn’t say that because he didn’t need to—she held his sweaty hand till he died. For a long time after that, actually. She held his hand till the paramedics asked her if she was his wife. Three days later, she got an e-mail from the CEO. That incident in her branch had made him decide to sell the chain and retire. The decision brought him far enough out of his depression to make him start answering his e-mails. He answered them from his laptop, sitting on a gorgeous beach in Brazil. In his long e-mail, he wrote that she was absolutely right and he would pass on her carefully reasoned request to the new CEO. As he pressed send, his finger touched the wings of a butterfly sleeping on the keyboard. The butterfly fluttered its wings. Somewhere on the other side of the world, evil winds began to blow.