Riding the MTD bus to work today, I count forty-one blue cars, like the kid in the song years ago where he says God is a girl. I count things because it calms me. My therapist says I worry too much. But counting takes my mind off thinking I’ll die of cancer or heart disease or hating my job. At least when I die, I’ll find out if God is actually a girl.
We arrive at the Goleta business park. I walk three blocks to the factory, count twelve more blue cars, then file up the fifteen steps past the guard onto the accounting floor.
I’m a cost accountant at the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) Company, and I hate my job. The AFMs measure surfaces at the nanometer level—four thousand times smaller than a human hair. That’s not only beyond the comprehension of most people, but the tools being used—cantilevers and probes and lasers—are so small they can’t be seen by human eyes.
The boss, Big Bill Dandridge, doesn’t care about my problems. “Samuel, if it was easy, they’d call it easy, but it’s not; that’s why they call it work. Now get it done.”
Each day I can’t wait to get back home alone, lie on my pillow, and count sheep. Then maybe like Hamlet: “I’ll sleep, perchance to dream.” Possibly my dreams will show me the job I should be doing instead of this one.
Today, Big Bill says, “Get with Amar, the engineer on the third floor. We need to price out his new wet AFM. Then get with Mei on the first floor to do the inventory.”
Amar, the wet AFM guy, describes his new invention as being able to measure a drop of liquid, coloring the various atoms so he can analyze the atomic structure, then using that information to replicate anything: a vintage wine, cancer-eating cells, or a vaccine. He says this new AFM will make so much money.
“But what will it cost?” I ask.
He doesn’t know the cost of the parts, how much time it will take to build, or whether new machinery is necessary for manufacturing. He just wants credit for being God, the inventor.
Depressed, I head back to my cubicle.
Since I can’t get any useful information, I make the numbers up and hope no one notices.
Across the cubicle divider is Accounts Payable. Betty, the AP clerk, is yelling into the phone at whoever wants their invoice paid today. She’s overworked—too many bills to pay and only one person to do it. She cries almost every day. Last night, I decided to talk to her today. Helping her might push aside my own worries.
I lean over the cubicle wall. Invoices are piled everywhere: on her desk, the floor, atop all the file cabinets. Disgusted with whoever she is talking to, she throws some invoices against the cubicle wall and slams the phone down. I count seven invoices as they fall to the floor.
“Hello,” I say. “My name is Sam.”
She looks up. “Why are you staring at me?”
“I heard you yelling.”
She says, “I hate this job. The last AP person didn’t always enter invoices into the AP system or file them in the cabinets. And she didn’t pay bills that were difficult to figure out. No wonder she got fired. So Big Bill ordered me to look up each invoice in both the file cabinets and the AP system. Who the hell has time to look up invoices twice? AFM has Star Wars technology and more money than God, but their billing system is from the Civil War.”
I don’t know what to say. However, since Betty mentioned God and hating her job, I think we have some things in common. It seems she’s confiding in me, but in code, like I have to decipher what she’s saying.
I feel she’s reaching out to me, asking me to help her. Maybe she’s afraid too. Working here, I often feel like that. Usually, I find my eyes watering when I’m outside walking on my break.
An idea forms in my head. “Give me a minute.” I walk around the divider to Betty’s cubicle. Her head is in her hands, and she silently cries at her desk, her shoulders shaking. She doesn’t know I’m standing here yet. I wonder, Should I cough? She’s wearing a floral dress that looks like one of my mom’s from the sixties, with bright blue sandals. I check and see that she has ten toes, look up and count ten fingers and two breasts. Her hair, in disarray, falls wildly down her back. A string pulls behind my breastbone. I start picking up the seven invoices she threw.
She yelps. “Why are you doing that?”
“I thought it would help you.”
“Could you at least make some noise when you visit me?” She doesn’t look mad, more like concerned something is happening that she didn’t plan for. Maybe I should’ve coughed.
Then she says, “Anyway, I doubt there’s much you can do to help, but thanks. Us folks in the high turnover jobs don’t have much pull. I mean, your job has the highest turnover rate in the company. You’ll be lucky if anyone gets to know your name before you’re gone.”
I decide to test her. “What’s my name?”
“You just said it was Sam.”
“See, at least you know my name.” I smile at her, trying to be hopeful.
She starts laughing. It’s a wonderful sound, like a gurgling waterfall. Then she stops abruptly, crooks her head, and stares at me like she’s never seen me before.
So I tell her about my idea. “What if you pull the payment information directly from the company’s checking account, instead of the invoice system? You would instantly be able to see if an invoice has been paid.”
Silence builds as I wait for her to say something. Then it looks like a lightbulb pops on behind her eyes. She says, “No way would Bill let me see the checking account.”
“Tell him it’s just for verification purposes.”
“He doesn’t listen to me. But if you told him, he might go for it.”
That doesn’t sound reasonable; I just started working here. “I don’t think you should tell anyone it’s my idea. Everyone will praise you if it’s your solution.”
She thinks some more. “I’ll talk to Big Bill after lunch.” She dries her eyes, walks over to me, and takes the invoices I picked up out of my hand. She playfully bops me on the head with them.
Later that morning, I’m in the clean room downstairs, trying to do the inventory. I’m wearing what they call “the bunny suit,” all white from the booties over my shoes to the shower cap over my hair. Mei, the woman assigned to escort me, orders me to check off a $1,200 box of twenty probes from the inventory list. I have the box in my hand, but I can’t see any probes inside. I say this to Mei. She laughs through her mask.
“You ninny, they’re four thousand times smaller than a human hair; of course, you can’t see them.”
“Then how can I verify what I’m doing?” I look into her eyes and silently plead for help. Think. “How did the other cost accountants do this inventory?”
“They checked the box when I told them to.”
My sanity is being questioned. I sigh. “I guess I don’t care.”
In my mind, I hear my accounting teacher say I’d better care. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, don’t do it.
Mei touches my bunny-suited arm with her gloved hand. “If you don’t sign off, they’ll fire you like they fired the last guy.”
But I have to pay rent. So I sign. Mei gives me a thumbs-up. Oh God, do I need a new job?
After lunch, Betty enters my cubicle. This has never happened before. My cubicle now seems lighter, brighter, with Betty in it.
“I told Big Bill it was your idea. I said you heard me crying, asked what the problem was, and then you came up with a solution. I told him you’re a great employee, thinking of me like that. He said he didn’t care, no way in hell was he letting me access the company checking account.”
Big Bill enters my cubicle and sees the two of us talking. “Betty, get back to work. And you, Samuel, in my office now.”
I follow him to his office and watch him walk around his desk and sit his large rear end in an oversized leather chair. As he sits, I see something written in the bottom corner on his monthly desktop calendar. It’s upside down to me, but I have no trouble reading it: 12thKn!ght. Numbers, upper and lowercase letters, a special character, a deliberately misspelled word—it’s obviously a password of some kind.
The possibilities jump out at me.
As he berates me for trying to solve Betty’s problem, I look around the room. Amidst the standard accounting and management books in his bookcase is a one-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays. My mind starts racing. I’m pretty sure I can also guess what his user ID is.
“No more bullshit suggestions, do your own damn job, stay out of my business. Now get back to work.”
I immediately go to my PC and make a query link in Excel to the AFM checking account. A couple of tries gets me Bill’s user ID, and the password works perfectly. Then I quickly go around and show Betty how to use the query to determine if a check has been cut for any invoice. I swear her to secrecy.
The rest of the day, she hums like a bird at a feeder, the fast-beating sound of hummingbird wings. She talks to me right before I go home.
“Everything’s peachy. I’m almost through all of today’s bills. This’ll be the first day since I started that I won’t fall further behind. All thanks to you.” She smiles and leaves.
At dusk on Saturday afternoon, I’m walking to see my therapist. I cross a new-mown soccer field heading to Donna’s office. There are thousands of starlings flying everywhere. They dance in the sky, morphing into different shapes called a murmuration. Shapes like mushrooms and seashells, snakes and dinosaurs, angels and ghosts. What a wonder. I could watch for hours. It’s a whirling, ever-changing pattern.
When I tell Donna what I saw, she says, “You’re lucky enough to witness beauty today. It should stop you from worrying about the future.”
“I couldn’t count all the starlings; I felt free. As if I’d stepped outside of myself. It was a wonderful place to be, without worry.”
“I’m glad you were able to experience that. How long did that feeling last?”
“Until I started thinking about Hamlet again.”
“Okay, and when you start thinking about Hamlet, what comes up?”
“I think about what he went through, how he knew what Claudius did and still couldn’t revenge his father’s death.”
“And do you feel you have something to revenge?”
“My parents dying earlier than they should have.”
“Mm-hmm. And realistically, is that something you could have prevented?”
“Maybe not. Maybe I could have prevented other things. My dad was a skin-covered time bomb. You never knew when he would explode.” I feel a surge of bile in my stomach as I remember getting smacked with his fists.
“He’s the past. You need to move on to your future. You need to find a girlfriend, or a hobby, something to stop focusing so much on yourself.”
“But I’m different than everyone else.”
“Everyone is different, and if you’re more different, that’s not the point; the point of life is to enjoy what you have, now. Don’t live your life in fear of what might go wrong, but in anticipation of what can make you happy. Work your life toward that happiness.”
It sounds like she’s talking about Betty. So I tell her what I did to help Betty and how Betty responded. Donna is ecstatic. She says I’m making real progress.
I feel like I’m getting somewhere in life. Maybe I’m finally starting to live like a normal person, being who I was born to be.
Each day, Betty seems happier than the day before.
On Friday morning, I hear her singing along to “Under the Boardwalk.”
Later, she comes over to my cubicle. She’s a new Betty. Her clothes look smart: a blue-and-white sailor top with blue slacks; her hair is shorter and multicolored.
She says, “I’d like to pay you back for your help. Can I take you out to dinner tonight?”
Never has a girl asked me out. I don’t know how to respond. I’m scared I’ll make the wrong decision.
She says, “You don’t have to answer right away; we’ve got all day.”
I nod yes.
“Well, what is it? Yes, you’ll go to dinner with me or, yes, you’ll think about it?”
“Dinner.” My tongue struggles to catch up to my mind.
“Cool, let’s do Italian. I know this trattoria downtown.”
I nod yes, again. She walks out of my cubicle, and I remember to breathe.
At dinner, Betty continues being this new person, talking about cruises she wants to take and moving into a nicer apartment and how much my help means to her. I count the tables, the waiters, and how many bottles of wine are on the menu. Over spaghetti and meatballs, she asks me why I’m so quiet. I don’t want to tell her I’m afraid to die and that I count things all the time to ease my mind.
But I have to say something. “I think about Hamlet a lot.”
“Hamlet? Like the play?” The corner of her mouth goes up as if she’s about to laugh.
“Prince Hamlet, not his dad, the king.”
“There were two of them?”
“Hamlet’s fatal flaw was procrastination; he should’ve killed his uncle Claudius as soon as he found out Claudius poisoned his father. But Hamlet was afraid to die.”
She stares at me like I have an extra eyeball. “Are you afraid to die?”
I take a deep breath before I answer. She’s either gonna like what I say or think I’m crazy. I really want her to like me.
“Yes. My parents both died badly. My mom had throat cancer from smoking. My dad got liver cancer from drinking. I don’t want to die like them, wasting away in a hospital bed.”
“Everybody has to die of something.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
She says, “Do you drink or smoke?”
“You need to live a little.”
It sounds like she understands me. I smile at her. I want to help her, make her happier.
“I like your smile.” She continues telling me how her life is moving forward.
“I’m afraid,” I say. “I’m pretty sure what I did last week was falsify inventory records.”
“Don’t worry,” Betty says. “It happens all the time at AFM.”
That night in bed, I forget to count sheep.
On Wednesday, Betty asks me out to dinner again. This time we go to Playa Azul Mexican restaurant. I order enchiladas, and Betty gets a huge tostada.
“I’m moving to a new apartment downtown. Could you help me move my stuff?”
What a quick development. “Sure, when are you moving?”
“In two weeks.”
“Isn’t it expensive, an apartment downtown?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I got a raise because the bills are getting paid faster now.”
“I wish I could get a better job; I’d like a nicer apartment.”
“You could move in with me.”
The whole table starts swimming in front of my eyes. My green enchilada sauce seems to bubble, like molten lava. Since my parents died, I’ve always lived alone; I hate it.
“I don’t think I could afford it.” I’m surprised I’m able to say even that much.
“You wouldn’t have to pay; I can cover the rent.”
Now I know something is going wildly strange.
We move Betty into her one-bedroom apartment with built-in bookcases a block off restaurant row. Downtown Santa Barbara smells of night-blooming jasmine.
I ask, “If I move in, where would I sleep?”
She puts her arms around me and kisses me on the cheek. “With me.”
I move in right away. My brain worries something will go wrong, but not having to pay rent is almost better than having sex. And during sex, I never think about counting or Hamlet. The first couple weeks are the closest I’ve been to happy in my whole life.
Betty buys me sharp new clothes and shoes, saying I need to dress for the job I want, not the one I have. I complain about my job. Betty says I can quit—she loves me, she’ll marry me and will help me get the job I want.
I’ve waited half my life for someone to say they love me. I’m spinning, light-headed.
So I quit my AFM job. We set the wedding date, start meeting with caterers, looking at venues and invitations. Now I know God is a girl—and her name is Betty.
Being with Betty, especially sleeping curled up along her back, takes me far away from thinking about myself.
My life has picked up speed. I’m home most of the time while Betty is at work. I fill out employment applications, watch the Cooking Channel, and try out recipes. When Betty comes home, I rub her feet and talk about our future. She calls me her househusband. I ask if she doesn’t want to quit AFM also; she says no, she’s finally happy with her job, thanks to me. What a change in my life.
Three nights later, we’re in bed after making love, tired, drifting off to sleep when I hear pounding at the door.
“Open up,” someone yells.
Immediately I worry the building is on fire. I shake Betty awake and tell her to dress; I think we have to evacuate.
When we open the door, both of us in pajamas, it’s the police. They arrest us for embezzlement. I don’t know what’s going on. My insides feel plugged with putty.
We get bailed out and arrive back home the next day. Betty is crying; she looks like she has reverted to her old self. I ask what the hell happened.
Betty says, “I was just augmenting my salary by borrowing from AFM against my future earnings.”
“But that’s stealing,” I say.
“I was gonna pay it back.”
“Every thief says that.”
“Don’t call me a thief. I need you to support me in this. It was your idea.”
“I did not advise you to steal money.”
“You got me access to the company’s bank account. You put that money in my hands. You tempted me. And I used that money to take care of you.”
I feel like I’m in an alternate universe.
The next day, Betty moves out and rents her own apartment. She hires a private lawyer. I have to make do with a public defender.
At the trial, Betty testifies it was all my idea. Big Bill says I stole his user ID and password. Mei testifies I checked off boxes of invisible probes and said, “I don’t care.” Amar says I falsified the cost of his wet AFM.
My lawyer and I counter that I got none of the money. It all went to Betty.
Betty swears she spent most of the money on me. She says she bought the chinos, walking shoes, and checkered shirt I’m wearing at Nordstrom. She paid my rent. She spent thousands planning our wedding. She says I quit my job and lazed around the apartment all day.
Clouds darken the stained-glass window above the judge’s head.
Betty gets three years in prison; I get five.
Girls always avoided me, and I avoided them because I couldn’t take disappointment. Then Betty was nice to me, and everything was transformed. I should’ve known something was wrong. And now I’ve lost everything and will suffer a fate worse than Hamlet’s death.
Two years later, a letter arrives from Betty. I’m in the Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, without any friends. I work in the office and help some of the guards with their taxes. They protect me.
Betty says she’s sorry now. She loves me and she’ll wait for me.
Outside my prison cell window, it’s dusk and the starlings are doing their murmuration. One of the shapes resembles the ghost of Hamlet.
Betty appears to be asking for help again, but her remorse is four thousand times smaller than it should be.
I can’t go backward. I have to work toward happiness.