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The news came just after dinner via a telephone call from a representative of an organization called Extraordinary Adventures. It was early evening, April 8, just as the sun had dipped behind Unit C, when the residual orange softened and dissolved like the yolk of a broken egg.
“I’m calling for an Edsel … Bronfman?” a woman said, or asked. “Not sure I have that right.” She sounded tired, a little put out, irritated by his very name. “It’s Bronfman or … Branfmon.”
“This is Edsel Bronfman,” Edsel Bronfman said, tentatively, as if he actually might not be Edsel Bronfman, or was admitting to it under duress. He waited for the woman to respond, and time seemed to move so slowly, as he steeled himself for what was almost certainly bad news. Something had happened to his mother, or he had been fired from his job, or it was possibly his doctor, whom he had seen just last week for a checkup and who had told him he was fine, everything was fine—fine!—but who may have just gotten his blood work back and discovered that something was terribly, terribly wrong. “You’re thirty-four,” the doctor would say. “It was bound to happen. Lucky to have lived as long as you did with a case of what you’ve got.” Bronfman’s capacity to anticipate the worst possible scenario in any circumstance was a skill he had been practicing since boyhood. He had become remarkably good at it.
But it was none of those things. In the background, he could hear the muted discordant symphony of other voices, other men and women, chirping and droning, crackling and buzzing. A truck thundered by on the small highway bordering his complex, a bone-rattling sound so explosive that he winced. He’d almost gotten used to it. Or so he told himself.
Finally, she spoke.
“My name is Carla D’Angelo, Mr. Bronfman, Operator 61217, and I’m calling from Extraordinary Adventures. This call may be recorded for quality and training purposes. I hope I’m not disturbing you. Because I have some good news for you, Mr. Bronfman.”
This caught him off guard. He couldn’t remember if anyone had ever said that to him before.
“Very good. You won!”
The exclamation point was a little forced, but she sold it. Carla had a smoker’s voice, scratchy and deep for a woman. It reminded him a little of his mother, whose voice, owing to a pack-a-day habit, had the same qualities. In the interlude between hearing the news that he had won and the time it took for him to absorb it, Edsel Bronfman heard three or four or five other voices echoing the same: You’ve won! You’ve won! You’ve won!
“What have I won?” he asked. “How? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Yes,” she said, not really responding to his queries or his confusion. She sounded as if she was reading from a script. “You’ve won a weekend in Destin, Florida, courtesy of Sandscapes Condominiums. Your lodging for the weekend is complimentary, completely free. A continental breakfast is included as well, at no charge to you. All we ask in return is that you attend a short hour-long presentation about Sandscapes and the charms of Destin, Florida. It’s the time-share of your dreams, Mr. Branfman. We want Destin to be your destination, so you can experience firsthand the flawless excellence and luxury that is Sandscapes. It’s extraordinary—this I can guarantee, and it will be an extraordinary adventure. That’s why we’re called Extraordinary Adventures.” She took a deep, sad breath.
“I still don’t understand,” he said. “How did I ‘win’ this?”
He turned away from the setting sun and wandered into the kitchen. On his little wooden table, pilgrim-simple, the last few strands of spaghetti and red sauce were congealing into a sticky semi-permanence, not unlike the plastic reproductions of food being displayed in front of some restaurants now. A box of Cheerios, a bag of Minute Rice, and the TV Guide were on the counter by the stove.
“Yes. Exactly how.”
Bronfman wasn’t so much suspicious as in a state of curious disbelief. He had never won anything before, not in all the thirty-four years he’d been alive. But then he had never really tried to win anything, either.
“Have you ever dropped your business card into one of those jars?” she asked him. For the first time she sounded like a real person. “They have them at restaurants, diners, bars, et cetera.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I might have.” He really might have. Once. At a deli he frequented once or twice a month. Dropped his card in a jar there. That actually might have happened.
Against all of his better instincts, Bronfman was getting excited.
“So you’re saying that out of all the cards in one of those jars my card was drawn? Out of all of them.”
“Yes, they drew your card,” she said.
“Wow,” he said. It was finally sinking in: he had won something, something free, something he had accomplished just by being alive. “This is amazing.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s like a dream come true, right?” Did he hear her laugh? No. Well, maybe. And maybe she should. Because even though he knew very well that this was one of those prizes anyone could win, that it really had nothing to do with him at all, it didn’t matter. Another card could have been chosen. Even in cases like this you could lose, and he hadn’t lost. He had won! Lives were determined in this way: by random phone calls, bulk mailings, flyers posted in the break room at work, and garish roadside advertisements. He lived where he lived now, King’s Manor, because of exclamatory signage promising the First Month Free! No, King’s Manor was not the safest complex in Birmingham: there was a history of nefarious goings-on in the neighborhood. Nor was it the quietest. There was the little freeway right next to it, and about a hundred yards away, hidden behind a tree line, was a dog pound, and those dogs sure knew how to howl, sometimes very late into the night. But still, a free month? He was enjoying his first free month now, and a few times a day he’d think of it, especially when the trucks went by: I am living somewhere entirely free of charge. Much of his mail was addressed to Current Resident or Occupant, but that was as good as its being addressed to him, because he was the current resident, he was the occupant, and he took advantage of these flyers as if they were addressed to him personally. He looked forward to getting and going through his mail. Special Offers were everywhere.
“So,” Bronfman said. “All I have to do is present myself at Sandscapes Condominiums in Destin, Florida, and other than the one-hour presentation there are absolutely no strings attached?” He felt it was his duty to ask, because there were always strings attached. But Carla D’Angelo assured him: apart from the short presentation, which she had mentioned, there was not a single strand.
“It will be quite a treat,” she said.
“It sounds like it.”
“Destin is beautiful. You and your companion—”
“Wait,” he said. “Wait. My companion?”
“The prize is for two: you and a companion. Your wife, a girlfriend, a … boyfriend—you know, anybody like that.”
“But I don’t have a companion,” he said.
Bronfman heard a pause on Carla’s end of the line and, in the background, a faraway female voice say, “Congratulations!” Carla said, “It was written on the jar, Mr. Bronfman. The offer is valid for you and a companion. You have to have a companion.”
“Why? Why a companion? I don’t understand.”
“I really don’t know, either.” He was pushing her to the limit with his niggling questions. She just wanted to get this over with, to go home, watch TV, sleep. “I’m just making the telephone calls here. I don’t make the rules. It has something to do with sell rates: couples are more likely to buy a time-share condo than singles.”
“Well,” he said, sighing, “that’s a string. That’s definitely a string.”
“That’s a string attached. You said there weren’t any strings.”
“It was written on the jar. In black and white. Strings are invisible. So, technically, this is not a string.”
“And what else? Do I have to be six feet tall with curly blond hair?” Bronfman was five-ten, with straight thin brown hair that he parted on the left and combed over scallop style.
“No,” she said, sighing. “But there is—”
“One other thing. Winners have to claim the prize by a certain date. In your case, it has to be used by June twenty-sixth. On June twenty-seventh, the offer expires.”
“Carla,” he said, moderately exasperated, which was about as exasperated as Bronfman ever got. “I’m sorry, but that does sound like yet another string.”
“It was written on the jar, Mr. Bronfman. I don’t know what to tell you. You have to have a companion, and the offer has to be used within—let me do the math—seventy-nine days. That’s just the way it is.”
He could hear her thinking. When she spoke again, her voice had softened. “Isn’t there anyone you could take?”
“Thank you for asking,” he said. “But I don’t think so.” This reality—the harsh and undeniable truth of it—made him wince a little. He would have liked to have a companion, but his desire for one was not commensurate with his effort to get one. He did not put himself out there, as his mother might say—wherever out there was. Bronfman’s feet were stuck in cement shoes. “Not at this time I don’t, anyway. No one I would feel really comfortable with in a condominium at the beach. For an entire weekend. That’s some pretty serious stuff.”
“Indeed,” Carla said. “You wouldn’t want to take just anybody. On the other hand, you could think of it as an opportunity to really get to know someone before you took the next big step.”
“That’s an idea,” he said, pretending to mull it over. But there was in fact no one Bronfman had taken even a little step with, not of late or for some time or, strictly speaking, ever. There was not even anyone he could consider and then reject, unless he counted his mother. Tomorrow was her birthday, and this would be the perfect gift. But this was not the sort of companion Extraordinary Adventures was after; even Bronfman knew that. Not the kind he was after, either. They wanted him to take a romantic companion, and that he did not have. Four years ago he had gone out with a woman named Cheryl Jones, twice—dinner the first time and the second to a bluegrass concert in Jefferson Park. During the course of the concert chiggers ate her legs, and that signaled an end to whatever it was they might have had. And three years ago he had gone on a date with the sister of Mike McFee, who worked in receivables. Courtney. Her brown hair was cut the way Bronfman’s hair had been cut in the third grade: close to the skull, so close that you could see the bumps there, and ragged. They had been planning on going to dinner and a movie, but she contracted food poisoning from the shrimp-cocktail appetizer and had to go home. They had known each other for only a few hours, but Bronfman counted it as a date. Since then he hadn’t been on actual dates but something more like outings with large groups of folk from work in which some of the people were couples but others were individual men and women coalescing into this one large protoplasmic mass.
It’s difficult for adults without a strong social network to meet new people; he had read an article about it. And he knew there were apps for that sort of thing, and websites where people actually advertised themselves like automobiles or sofas, most likely based on fictional self-assessments. But he had yet to open himself up to the amorphous digital world; he did not trust it at all. Like a vegetarian living on a pig farm, Bronfman felt misplaced in the twenty-first century. He would have been a happy man with just a few modern conveniences—a car, electricity, warm water. He did not have a smartphone, or even a computer in his home, though he worked with one at the office and was fine with that. But the computer was a tool for him, not a lifestyle. His life was simple: he had his job, his apartment, and his mother. His world was triangulated like this, from point A to point B to point C. His life could be summarized by the first three letters in the alphabet.
Bronfman noted a hint of warm dryer lint in the air. A motorcycle gang whooshed by. And he could hear Carla breathing. She was giving him all the time in the world. But his air pipe felt a bit constricted, as if he were breathing through a sock, and the fingers clutching the phone were shaking just a little.
Carla D’Angelo, Operator 61217, broke the pensive silence. When next she spoke, it was in a whisper. “Couldn’t you just fudge a little bit here?”
“Just say there’s someone even if there isn’t? Then when the time came you could go to the condo by yourself and say your wife was sick or something like that?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that. I don’t fudge.”
“Well, that’s a good quality.”
Carla D’Angelo took a very deep breath and exhaled directly into her headset. She was weary. The voices of the others in the room with her were getting louder, rising to a grating crescendo. Clearly, she had other calls she needed to make, other “winners.” But she stayed on this call, with him. That was kind. Bronfman didn’t mind the attention at all.
“So,” she said. “What do you think, Mr. Bronfman? A weekend at the beach sounds pretty good to me.”
“What do I think? I think it sounds pretty good as well. In a way. But I don’t think I can,” he said. “It sounds nice, very nice, even extraordinary, but the requirements you mentioned would seem to exclude me. That’s pretty clear.”
“Not necessarily,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Very necessarily.”
“Mr. Bronfman? Hello?” The connection had faltered. It crackled and sputtered and sparked. It sounded as if Carla D’Angelo were speaking to him from a tin can on the other side of the world now, or from space. He had to listen closely. Plus she was whispering, which made it all the more difficult.
“What I mean is, you have seventy-nine days, Mr. Bronfman. Anything could happen in seventy-nine days. That’s almost three full months! You sound like a nice man. Women like nice men. I do. Believe me, most of you aren’t nice. Most men fudge, to put it lightly. And who knows? You may not even need that long. Lives are changed in a day, Edsel, they’re changed in a moment. You have to open yourself up to life. Face your greatest fears. Discover what it means to be alive in the world.” Her words simmered in his soul. “Think about it this way: Maybe these aren’t strings we’ve attached to this amazing offer. Maybe they’re lifelines. This is something you need to do.”
She paused as if to let that sink in. A moment passed and the connection resolved. The line sputtered like a wet fuse on an old firecracker and then cleared up. He could hear the grating yackety-yak of the other operators again. Odd. Maybe she’d gone outside for a cigarette.
“But,” she went on, “if this doesn’t sound like something you’d be interested in, or able to do, I understand. The truth is, Edsel—”
No one called him Edsel. Why was she calling him Edsel?
“—and I hate to put it like this, but there are lots of other cards in the jar.”
She was eager to end the call now, clearly, so she could tell her operator friends about him. This guy, this Branfman guy, get a load of this. And no doubt she was working on commission. Still, what she said to him: Maybe they’re not strings. Maybe they’re lifelines. That sounded like something important. It sounded like valuable information, something Carla D’Angelo probably didn’t share with everybody.
She hung with him in the shared silence, connected by this miracle of telephony that Bronfman did not even remotely understand.
He was immersed in this moment—underwater—so quiet. His apartment, small and simple as a moderately priced interstate motel room, all synthetic wood and pale-lime carpet, felt very still, hushed, expectant. The pound dogs ceased their howling. Even his neighbor, who was known to manufacture sound at disturbingly high levels—music, screaming, laughter, phantom breakage—was quiet now. The entire frenetic complex he lived in was uncharacteristically at peace.
“Okay,” he said. The word fell out of his mouth like a bad tooth being pulled: it hurt, but it had to happen. He had to say it. He had to say it even though it really made no sense for him to say it. It was a trust exercise with his own life.
“Okay?” She sounded as shocked as he was. “Are you sure?”
She waited for affirmation, and he was about to give it. But then he remembered the day he dropped his card in the jar. It was two months ago, in February, at Goldstein’s Delicatessen, his favorite place to eat in Birmingham, and thus his favorite place to eat in the entire world. It was a cold day. He wore an orange woolen scarf his mother had given him many years ago, one a co-worker had told him was a lady’s scarf. (Bronfman had said, still felt secure in saying, “Scarves don’t have genders.”) He remembered that it even snowed a little that day, a flurry, and it so rarely snowed in Birmingham. He remembered that. He had his lunch—Goldstein’s Famous Reuben—and it was excellent, as it always was, and he finished up and was heading back to work. The jar was on a table next to the gumball machines, the kind he never saw anymore, where red and blue and yellow gumballs were on display in the transparent globe, the repository for a more colorful universe, and seemed so bygone-era-ish to Bronfman, like LPs and pay-phone booths. And there was this big jar that had once been used to store Goldstein’s Famous Ice Tea but now was half-full of business cards, what looked liked hundreds of them, of all shapes and sizes and colors, but most of them, like his, the traditional size and color—white, 3.5 by 2 inches. He remembered removing a card from his wallet. Edsel Bronfman, Account Executive, Shipping. Martin Imports. He never used his cards. He didn’t know why he had been issued a card at all. He had never been in the company of other junior executive shipping managers, never been at meetings where he might exchange cards for future reference. But he kept them in his wallet just in case, and that day he had seen the jar and written his home number on the back of one and for no real reason dropped it in.
“Mr. Bronfman?” she said.
Maybe this was the reason. Maybe it was for this extraordinary adventure. Maybe this was a sign of some kind, getting this call from Carla D’Angelo. Because this man, Bronfman, was a man who had come home from work that day, as he did every day, and opened his mail (three invitations for low-interest-rate credit cards, a postcard offering him ten percent off his next purchase somewhere he’d never been, his water bill), made dinner (pasta with red sauce, steamed broccoli, a slice of bread), and had only just sat down in the chair facing the television, remote in hand, to watch a show about hoarders when he remembered the sunset, and stood by his window to watch it. He was still in the same clothes he’d put on that morning: gray slacks, pale-blue oxford shirt, red-and-blue striped tie, and black shoes. He had loosened his tie a bit and unbuttoned the top button. Somehow he always forgot how tight his collar was and, unbuttoning it, discovered, as he had the day before and would tomorrow, that for the first time all day he could actually breathe, could feel the oxygen moving to his extremities. Bronfman was thin. His physical angularity suggested faulty construction. Surely the arm wasn’t meant to be connected that way, so high on the shoulder. Couldn’t an inch or two be taken off the legs without any real loss of functionality? In its current state, the nose appeared to be more ornamental than functional. Could that be smoothed down, or removed entirely and replaced by another? He was an imperfect man. All that being said, he was, for the most part, inoffensive, and not without potential. It didn’t really matter what he looked like, though, because he felt so rarely seen. He was a man who was overlooked by everyone, maybe because he had been standing in one place for such a very long time.
But this phone call. This Carla D’Angelo. Destin. Extraordinary Adventures. It meant something. Everything meant something. He yearned to believe things happened for a reason, and this was a thing. Thanks to Carla D’Angelo, there was a crack in the shell of his life now—an almost imperceptible crack, but one that let in a little bit of light, and one through which he could see a sliver of the world outside himself. The world he saw was a big place, a bright place, full of paralyzing possibility. Plus, it had a beach.
Bronfman wanted to go there, and he wanted to go there with a companion.
“Hello?” said Carla D’Angelo. “Earth to Mr. Bronfman? Are you still there?”
“Still here,” Bronfman said. “Still here.”
But not, he hoped, for long.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Wallace