Excerpt: Patrick Somerville, "Armstrong"


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"Armstrong," by Patrick Somerville

We moved into our new offices on a Thursday and they burned down completely around 3:00, so we were out of the new offices and back into the old offices on Friday morning. Armstrong was the one who started the fire, I think. I saw him messing around with the shredder after I got back from lunch, and then later I could hear him spraying WD-40 into it, and we all know how those things can spark up and get overheated. When I saw him outside after the evacuation he was sitting in the back of the ambulance with the oxygen mask and his hair was sticking straight up. I didn’t say anything to Fred or Gwen or any of the others because I need Armstrong, even though he’s an idiot, and I actually like the old offices better anyway.

“Let’s get going,” says my dad. “We’ve gotta be there by two, Val said.”

“This isn’t normal,” I say.

“She wants to do it.”

“That doesn’t make it normal.”

“It does for us. Today it’s normal.”

We leave the house, and Dad asks if he can drive my car. He always does this. His is stuck inside of his garage because the garage door doesn’t work anymore, and he never even intimates that he is going to fix it, and his nice 2005 Nissan Maxima is going to waste. I agree to let him drive, and one block later, after he runs over a pedestrian crossing sign and wildly guides the car back to the road, I make him pull over in a 7-11 parking lot and we switch. At least he admits that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there anymore. He just calmly pulls the car in and we switch and that’s that. No discussion. Maybe this is why he doesn’t care about the door.

At Valerie’s house we attend the funeral of her hamster solemnly and have cheese and crackers afterward, at the wake. The total attendance of the funeral and the wake is three. Me, Dad, and Valerie.

“So Val,” I say to her. “There’s this guy at work.”

“Oh yeah?” she says. She’s usually up for things like this. She’s not at all bitter about being by herself, and besides, I don’t often try to set her up. She is beautiful, and I love her to death, but she is strange, and needs someone who’s right for her. I think of her as a fully realized individual, but I have also concluded that it’s hard for fully realized individuals in this world. Right now she is wearing black pajama pants, a black t-shirt, black socks, a black fanny-pack, and she has a black scarf tied around her head. She has crumbs from the crackers all over her chest, and is watching me, smiling.

“What’s he like?”

“He’s about five-five, not exactly bald,” I say to start. Best to be honest.


“He loves animals like you.” I am thinking of the time Armstrong brought the fishbowl into the office to liven up the third floor break room and then completely forgot about the fish. It got ugly. One day I went in there and found Diane Hodgkins reaching in by hand, picking out the fish and dropping them into a Ziploc. She was crying. 

“That’s good,” she says.

“The most important thing,” I say, “is that I can just feel the good inside of him. You know? When you’re walking past someone and you can just feel it?” This is completely true. Armstrong gives off something, just like Val. I love him to death. Now he’s divorced and he hardly gets to see his kids because they live in California, and I want—no, need—something good to happen to him, too. My sister is something good.

“That’s a sweet endorsement, actually,” says Val. “That makes me want to meet him.” She removes a curry mint from her fanny pack and puts it into her mouth.

“That makes me want to meet him, too,” says Dad.

Val’s hamster died for unknown reasons, and she has it in her head that it was murdered by the landlord. She invited him to the wake and the funeral, and after we’re through with the crackers she tries to claim that since he didn’t come, he is guilty.

“That’s a stretch,” I say to Val.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” she says.

“What is that?” asks Dad. “Rumsfeld?”

“You haven’t met the guy,” Val says, still talking about her landlord. “He’s shady. He’s always standing out in the parking lot, washing his car. Every day, I mean. In little shorts. Smoking cigarettes.” She looks down, as though this last detail has confused her. “He told me once he wants to be a banker.”

“Are you still feeling down about all of this?” I ask her. “The death? It’s okay to admit it.”

“No, actually,” she says. “He was just a hamster. I always wanted to let him out of his tank and see whether he would run out of the house. How long do you think it would take for him to start thinking of the house as a kind of tank, do you think?” She looks at me wide-eyed.  

“I don’t know.”

“I had fantasies about how strange it would be for this brown hamster to be sitting in a tree in the park, hanging out with pigeons. Intense fantasies.”

“That would be something,” says Dad.

“What do you think the pigeons would think?” asks Val, turning to him. Now we are locked on to the kind of dialectic she likes. “Do you think they’d reject him for being unable to fly?”

I tell Dad it’s time for us to go. 

“Let me know,” I say to Val on my way out, “if you’re interested in the date with Armstrong.”

“Okay,” she says. “I am.”

“He’s a good guy.”

“I trust you.”


*   *   *

Armstrong is the type of guy who makes the office bearable for me. If he weren’t there making all the mistakes that he makes—mistakes like accidentally spilling toner all over the carpet by the Xerox machine and then walking around with more toner on the bottom of his shoes, accidentally forgetting to make sure the legend lines up right with the map we’re putting out to give to people on the tour, accidentally sending emails meant for me to anyone else in the office whose name also begins with the letter R, accidentally pulling his hamstring while trying to roll his chair down the hall to someone else’s office while still sitting, accidentally tripping over the extension cord downstairs that’s hooked up to the whole server and shutting us down for two days, accidentally going on vacation without leaving a vacation greeting on his voicemail so a couple hundred messages pile up and I have to run damage control the whole time he’s gone, accidentally addressing Ray, who is gay, as “Gay” in a meeting, accidentally leaving the top off of his instant ravioli and spraying the red sauce all over the microwave, accidentally farting in the elevator right before Gwen climbs on board, and accidentally burning down the new offices—the office would run like a well-oiled machine, and we’d be efficient and productive. This is my worst nightmare. 

If we run like a well-oiled machine, and are efficient and productive, then Fred and Gwen get the credit, and they get crazy, totally crazy, and make my life a living hell. So I want Armstrong to stay around as long as possible. I have no idea why he hasn’t been fired yet. If I were his boss, I would see no alternative but to fire him.

“You wanna get some chili for lunch, chief?” Armstrong asks me on the phone. 

“Sure, Armstrong,” I say. “I’ll see you down there.”

I have a two-inch by two-inch window in my office, and after I put down the phone, I roll my chair over to it and look out at the other building, across the alley. If I crank my chair up as high as it goes, I can get a good angle and see a bird’s nest built into the top of a tree on the corner out front. Right now the chicks are all cheeping, and as I watch, the mother lands on the edge and starts distributing something, one by one. I take it as a sign. I think of my own mother, who is dead.

At lunchtime we walk the five-minute walk together and enter Chili Jack’s. Armstrong gets confused inside of the entranceway because he is standing too close to the door and the door swings out, not in, but eventually he backs out of the way and we go inside. Chili Jack’s is one of my favorites. They have one item on the menu, so in effect you have already made your meal choice by entering the building. I appreciate Chili Jack taking me out of the equation completely. 

“So listen, Armstrong,” I say to him, once we sit down. He is stuffing a napkin into the front of his shirt, and I note this, because it’s a responsible thing to do. I am starting to plan.

“Pass the hot sauce,” says Armstrong, pointing. “The really hot one.”

“You remember my sister?” He met her once, I know, at the company picnic. I brought her along to show her the people I work with, because she didn’t believe me whenever I told her. But then she was there on the sidelines when Gwen tried to play volleyball with everyone else and sprained her ankle in the uneven grass of the park and fainted on the spot, and everybody panicked, as though Gwen wasn’t a human being but rather an emperor or a czar. They brought in the ambulances, and I remember being annoyed because it was my serve next, and we were winning, and it was just a sprained ankle.

“Not really,” says Armstrong. “Why?”

“I want to set you two up.”

“I don’t know, man,” says Armstrong, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”

He tells me he might not be ready. His divorce was only final, he tells me, four years ago, and since he was married for twelve years it seems to him that it’s going to take eight more years to get over his wife.

“That means you’re not going to see anyone until you’re forty-four,” I point out.

“I know,” he says. “I’m looking forward to that age.”

“Listen, Armstrong,” I say. “Your formula isn’t right. Life isn’t long enough for you to achieve full recovery.”

“I’m just not in any hurry,” he says. There is an amazing amount of chili on the napkin, and one small chunk, I see, has even landed inside of his collar, and is slowly sinking down toward his neck.

I help him with it. 

“She’s great,” I say, after we’ve done our best to get the spot out. “She’s worth overlapping into your mourning period.”

“What’s she like?”

“I don’t know,” I say, shrugging. “Sweet. She’s just a sweet human being.”

He is nodding now, and I think my persistence is paying off. Armstrong isn’t used to people treating him this way—treating him like he may be worth something—and his anxiety boundaries are falling apart.

“Is she hot?” he asks me.

“This is my sister.”

“You can still tell,” says Armstrong. “I could always tell with my sisters. People are lying when they say they can’t tell whether their siblings are hot. Or their parents.”

“All right,” I say. “I’ll tell her you’ll call.”

Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.