I'm standing up from my chair to stretch when a tall man walks into the office. He pulls a stubby, black revolver out of his pants pocket and says, "Okay everybody, listen up. I want all the money from the safe and make it quick." He gestures with the revolver to the conference room door. My boss, Gina, looks terrified. Nobody moves or says anything.
"Hurry up, damn it," the tall man says. "The safe."
Gina takes her hands off her mouth and manages, "This isn't a bank. There is no safe."
"The hell this isn't a bank," the tall man barks. "You were robbed just last week. I read about it in the paper. Now, I want the money."
"We were?" Gina squeaks. "Robbed? Here?"
I start thinking this is all a big joke, some office prank initiation for me that the five other employees are in on. A big, sick joke. Then again, the bank next door did get robbed last week.
The tall man walks in front of my desk. "You," he says, pointing the snout of the revolver at my chest. "What do you do here?"
Gina pipes up, "This is a literary magazine. We publish stories, poems—"
"Shut up or I'll shoot you," the tall man snaps, glaring at her. He pauses and thinks, his gun still trained on my chest. "Say, why don't you write me a poem?" he says. "I'd like that."
It's initiation, I think.
Gina shakes her head. She looks like she's going to cry.
"This isn't a joke," I report to the tall man.
"A poem," he demands.
"A poem," I repeat, buying time.
The tall man pulls the hammer back on the revolver. "Ten seconds," he says. "Nine, eight…"
"A poem," Gina whimpers. "Please."
I speak. "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper…"
"Plagiarist!" he shouts, shaking the gun at me. "I want originality."
I didn't think he'd know.
Gina and the others are staring at me, rigid in their chairs.
"Just give me a minute," I tell him, holding up my pointer finger. "Just a minute and I'll have something perfect."
"Deadline's now, poet man."
I look out the window. It's raining. I hope somebody walking by sees what's going on in here. "I've got it," I tell him. "The rain splashes on concrete, streams into sewer drains. Surely there's a rainbow in the future."
The tall man with the gun starts to giggle. His laugh sounds like a wind-up doll, high-pitched and mechanical. With his free hand he's holding his forehead, trembling with laughter.
"You call that poetry?" he says.
"Look," I say, growing irritated. "I can rework it if you want. I just need—"
"What I want," the tall man says, cutting me off. "What I want is something more character-centered. Understand?" He wipes the tears from his eyes. "Is that so hard to do?"
I sigh. "Okay, I'll try" I say. I start again. "Over open sea a man walks the plank, white rope choking his wrists. Falling, he doesn't think about drowning, or sharks. He wonders what the water temperature is, if last night's rain has made it any warmer."
The tall man clears his throat. "I don't understand," he says, scratching his head. "Why is he thinking about the water temperature when he's about to die? It's a bit unrealistic."
"It's a poem," I say. "It doesn't have to be realistic." I think about lunging for the revolver. It's only a couple feet in front of me. But if I missed it would be all over.
"What about this," the tall man says, wagging the gun in the air as he talks. "What about: Falling, all he can think of is drowning and sharks. One, or both, is bound to kill him." He smiles at me, pleased.
I'm ready to tell the tall man about subtlety when the office door blows open. Three policemen charge into the office, guns out. "Drop your weapon!" they yell, but the tall man has already dropped his revolver, startled by the bang from the door swinging into the wall. In a matter of seconds they twist him to the ground and slap on handcuffs. Gina is screaming. Everyone has popped out of their chairs.
As the policemen wrangle him up off the floor, the tall man says, as if to everyone, "What right does he have to judge poetry when he can't write it himself?"