This is a short story I wrote, when I was getting pretty upset at certain problems I believe we face as a culture of modern Americans. My hope was to create a simple story that helps us ask questions of ourselves. It asks that you allow yourself to sort of “settle in” to the narrative…
You’re at home, watching TV.
There’s a knock on the door.
You pause the DVR and open the door. Standing tall on your doorstep is a mysterious man. His tophat and cloak are black, so you know for sure that he is mysterious. Something white shoots from depths of the cloak.
He extends a gloved hand, and you grasp the snowy fingers. He smiles, and sharp eyes meet your searching gaze. He speaks in a smooth and resonant tone: “I am a mysterious man, and I have something for you. It is an opportunity for you and your family. Let’s say you’ll listen to my extraordinary proposal about this opportunity, because first I will give you one discovery.”
“Dude, you are creeping me out,” you say to the mysterious man. In your head you say exactly that. On the surface of your face, the polite smile slips. The smile’s grip falters a moment, but it clings again and manages to hold your lips shut. Before you say anything, he extends his other hand.
His palm is open and it offers a small box with a rounded top. The box is shiny, and it’s in your hand without thinking. Your fingertips enjoy the smooth surface. It is heavy, and you inspect it further. The left half of the box is a deep shiny black, its right half a glossy total white. On the top is a glass dome, and under the dome is a button. The button is perfectly gray.
The man continues, as you feel the weight of the box in your hand: “You now hold a discovery. It is an opportunity that now belongs to you. You may execute a decision, or throw the box away. On the top, you see a button. Yes?”
You look up from the box, at the mysterious man.
“I’m really not interested in buying anything.” You say this part out loud, in a clear and not-too-forceful voice. You lift the box and offer it back to the mysterious man.
He smiles and opens both palms toward you. One glove is black, and one is white. Neither reaches for the box. He simply holds out his open hands. His calm and sharp eyes fix your gaze.
“You now know of the box, and so the discovery is yours. You may send me away and throw away the box, without ever knowing what it offers you and your family. If you choose to know more, I will tell you of one certainty, and one small probability. Both come with the box.” He does not blink.
The box lays in your hand, and you shift it to the other. It occurs to you that you didn’t have to open the door for this guy. The box has a surprising heft as you pass it from one hand to the other. It feels expensive.
Your smile fades as you look at the mysterious man. Is this a spooky sales pitch, a dupe, or just a gag? But this guy’s tophat is a nice touch. It does seem to fit him, even he’s wearing it in the wrong century. And you can always shut the door. The weight of the box is solid, as is the gaze of the mysterious man. “Okay. Shoot. What does the box do?”
“It provides a certainty. The certainty is this – if you press the button you will receive one year’s salary.” He makes a sweeping gesture with one white glove. The words hang in the air. You don’t quite notice yourself taking a small step back towards your own door and the warmth of home.
The box might make a nice paperweight. You can tell people “A mysterious man gave it to me” when they see it on your desk. Then you remember you don’t really stack papers anywhere windy. Also, the DVR is almost full. Your polite smile falls, and you replace it with the Extra Fake Smile. The one that says, “take this smile as my parting gift.”
He sees your smile and does not blink. “If you press that button you will have the money. That is certain.” He reaches in his large cloak. This time, you take a step back, and notice it.
He pulls out a 2-gallon Ziplock filled with money.
Sure enough, there’s a whole year’s salary in a big plastic bag. Thick green stacks in wide rubber bands. You stare for a moment, thinking your eyes have zoomed in somehow before you notice you took a step forward again.
Your ears are even wider than your eyes, but you try to compose. How best to continue this conversation? “Hey. I like the whole tophat thing you’ve got going on. What’s this about, though? You want me to press a button so bad, that you’ll give me a bag of money?”
He continues. “My desire is not the issue. You have an opportunity. The decision is now yours. As I have said, pushing the button comes with one certainty for you, and a shift in probability for someone else. Someone else’s life may be affected by the accompanying shift in probability that comes with the certainty for you. Or not. You will never know for sure whether or not your decision was responsible for affecting anyone else’s life.”
You notice your mouth is hanging open slightly. You close it. “What does the box really do if I push the button?”
His tone is even. “The button brings one certainty for you, and a small shift in probability for someone you will never meet.”
“Okay.” You look over his shoulder for a camera crew, and glance left and right. He stands alone. You try and match his even tone, but you don’t do a great job of it. “So why don’t you tell me… exactly what this shift in probability is?”
You shift your head and try to peek under the brim of the tophat. It occurs to you that you might be checking for horns. A quick bemused smile nudges into the side of your face when you notice that was exactly why you looked.
His black hand reaches for the tophat, dropping it to his chest where he straightens the brim with white and black gloved fingers. The dark exposed hair is the hair of a mysterious man. One without horns.
He continues: “A probability is a relative possibility that an event will occur. That event may not happen, whether or not you push the button. That event may happen, whether or not you push the button. Your pushing the button only slightly increases the probability of the event.”
What the hell? You wonder. Then you think of the big bag full of money tucked under his cloak. “I’m sorry, but this is plenty weird. What are you talking about? I mean, okay. I get the relative possibility thing. What exactly is the event that the probability will shift in?”
His response is succinct. “Someone you will never meet will have a 2% increase in their chance of developing cancer during their life.”
He runs both hands down the front of his jacket, smoothing it. “You now know the certainty and the relative shift in possibility that both come with pressing the button. The box is yours to do with as you wish. Good day.” He turns and leaves.
Blink. “Whoa. Wait.” The back of his jacket and tophat are unwrinkled and he walks away unhurried. “Hey!” You follow a few steps and he’s gone.
The box sits in your hands. It feels very heavy now.
After a long, long time, you shut the door. You sit down in front of the TV, still holding the box. Then you get up and put it on the table by your bed. You try to watch TV.
You lay on the bed. You look at the box. Surely, the guy is crazy. And what if he’s not? Then he had a hidden camera on you. There has to be somebody watching. Are they watching you now from a tiny camera on the box? Laughing their asses off? You stare at it. It’s no bigger than a jewelry box for a ring. What’s inside it? The round glass dome on the top has a hinge on the back. The little button is gray and round. Maybe you should just open the dome, and take a closer look at this thing. What’s really going to happen if you push the button?
Everyone will jump out if you press the button, right? Like a surprise party. Will they be laughing? Surely, if you push the button, everyone will jump out. Like an intervention. Will they crowd around you and be totally silent, and point their fingers at you?
But what if that tophat guy IS crazy. Like, actually crazy. Insane. What if he’s crazy enough to hand you that bag of cash for pushing a little button?
The box doesn’t feel filled with dynamite. Press it with a broom handle? What harm could come from pressing the button on a little box?
The box sits on the table and the gray button stares at you. You decide to do nothing. You decide to sleep. You sleep poorly.
You’re a little surprised that the box is still next to your bed when you wake up.
The next evening, as you are holding the box in your hands, you hear a knock at the door. You jump a little and shove the box in your pocket. A quick, guilty move. But you make sure to clutch the glass dome shut as you slide it in your pocket.
A man in a white labcoat and thick glasses stands outside.
“Hi there. I’m from Stafford Medical Research. Did a mysterious man give you a box last night? With a button on it?”
You smile big. Finally. Here’s where the guys with cameras jump out, or whatever. “Yeah.”
The man looks at you. “He probably told you it might give somebody cancer, or at least increase their chances of it.” The relief is like a flood. One way or another, here is somebody who knows what is going on.
Questions pour out of you. “What’s with that guy? Is he crazy?”
“Some of us think he is.” His magnified eyes flash as the lenses shift on his cheeks, when his smile lifts them.
“So what about the box? What happens if I press the button?” you ask.
He blinks, and his eyes find yours through the glasses. He shakes his head. The weight of the glasses wobbles them on his face. “I’ve got to tell you, If you press it, the money always shows up. That’s all I’ve ever observed.”
You stare at the labcoat. There’s a nice pen in a plastic holder over his heart. His slacks are immaculate, not a dog hair over a crease. He has a stethoscope, and it hangs at a reassuring angle under his lapel. The man glows fresh and pure. You try and figure out what to ask next.
The doctor is down the steps before you open your mouth.
“Hey!” And he’s gone.
You back into the house. You close the door and lean against it. You stand there for a long time and breathe.
The little glass dome on top of the box flips open easy and smooth. The gray button makes a sound so small you can’t hear it. You feel it click under your fingertip.
You stare at the box in your palm, and at your other hand. You sigh, and your body begins to slump against the door. You are halfway through the sigh when there’s a knock at the door. It rumbles your back, and you leap from it and choke. Your face flushes. Here comes the camera crew. Or whatever.
Slowly, you open the door. The mysterious man is standing there. Both arms are extended. Between his gloves is a Ziploc bag stuffed with a whole year’s salary.
“A certainty.” He says, and looks you in the eye.
“What did I just do?” You ask it softly as you reach for the cash.
He’s already down the steps.
That night, you sleep. With bundles of hundred-dollar-bills in your bed. You have dreams of a blue ocean. Just before you wake, you have a vision of the bright sharp gleam off a razor’s edge.
You wake up and count the money, again. You make plans for it all day.
The evening comes. There is a knock at the door.
Here we go. The mysterious man will be standing there surrounded by a camera crew pointing at you. Will they ask for all the money back?
It’s the guy in the white labcoat.
“Hello.” he says.
You respond by looking at him with your mouth slightly open. Wondering. Waiting for some axe to fall.
“He gave you the cash, right?”
A shot of cold adrenaline runs through you, and your mind flashes a picture of where you hid the bag. But you answer honestly. “Yes. He did.”
“Like I said, every time, man.” he says, smiling a little and shaking his head. “Got something for you.”
You wince, waiting for cameras and people to pop out and gasp and point.
The doctor extends his palm. In it sits a box. It has a gray button.
“We’ve been working on it. We’re pretty sure it works the same way the last one did. I’ll sell it to you for a week’s worth of your CEO salary.”