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“Stupid eff-ing emails,” Stan said. “Joyce was on a blast list for losers who collect Batman toys. They send out a dozen emails a day.” Stan stabbed the Delete key with a stiff index finger. “They’re all like her. Unemployed.”

“Joyce was into Batman?” Joel said.

Stan leaned back, swinging his head close to the carpeted wall of his cubicle. “She wasn’t much into working, that’s all I know,” he said. “I’ve been reviewing her Inbox since she got herself fired, and I haven’t seen a lick of labor in there.”

Joel peeked at Stan’s computer screen. Stan had Joyce’s inbox in his Outlook tree, along with Daniel, Melissa, Jose, Gary, Lucille, Cindy, Bud, Brock … the inboxes of departed coworkers stretched down his screen.

Management had fired Bud nine months ago. He was a drunk, they said. Joel wondered, what would he find if he searched for “vodka” in Bud’s inbox? Lucille had red hair and wore a track suit to work one day. Brock had worked for one week. Maybe less? He had a complicated surname, a j, a k, an h, and an i all strung together, and Joel, after practicing its pronunciation all week, never got a chance to say it in public. Brock’s email was probably nothing more than paperwork, health-insurance forms, W-2, dress code. Messages that weren’t supposed to last longer than him.

Stan started a laugh, put his hand over his mouth. “Joyce has an email from a site, imarriedbatman.com. Check this out.” He waved Joel closer. A window popped up on the screen, with Joyce, her flat face planted atop a big white dress, standing next to a thick man in a molded Batman outfit. She was holding a bouquet of plastic flowers. Her teeth, stained from years of smoking, glowed yellow behind the frowsy veil. The browning lace bunched at her shoulders. The Batman did not smile. Shadows hid his eyes.

“Crazy girl, huh?” Stan said. “She went to this site a lot. You gotta wonder, what was she looking for?”

Joel stared at the screen, and when he didn’t respond, Stan clicked on the picture. It flipped to another photo, a different bride with black hair and a quiet face. Each click brought up a new picture, another bride, sometimes a groom, holding the same flowers, standing next to the same brooding Batman, in front of the same misty canvas with the yellow Bat Signal shining in the top-left corner.

After clicking through a few pictures, Stan said, “Batman’s a zillionaire, right?”

“Technically Bruce Wayne is the billionaire.”

Stan grinned. “Huge house. Hundreds of rooms. I’d blow Batman, if it would get me in the mansion.”

“Batman is his dark alter ego,” Joel said. “Some might even say Batman is the real person, and Bruce Wayne is the façade. When you deal with Bruce, you reach a point like a brick wall. Unless you know Batman, you can’t go any deeper.”

“So how did Robin do it?”

Stan laughed. Joel did not. He watched the flipping Bat wedding pictures. They could have been taken on the same day, like school pictures, with dozens of dressed-up betrothed waiting in line to exchange Bat nuptials.

Stan sniffed the humorless air between them and puffed up into an officious posture. “She wasn’t happy here,” he said. “You could tell by her mail. Bosses were right to lose her. Saved time for everyone.”

“How do you know?” Joel said.

“What?”

“That she wasn’t happy. What did she write?”

“You start to see patterns, after looking through so much email.” He leaned back again, and this time he did bump his head on his cubicle wall, a painless thud against the thin fabric, but his chest deflated from the surprise impact. “You start by looking at patterns on personal emails. The shorter the time between receive and respond, the less happy they are.” He tapped his temple. “Their head isn’t in the work, you see. Normally you have to switch gears, to get your head from work to personal. If they respond too quickly, there’s no switch. Shortest time I ever recorded, 1.18 seconds. Brock. That guy barely had time to write an email between Receive and Send. Then you look at the difference in response times between personal and work emails. If the Response Ratio between work and personal emails is more than two to one, then you got an employee who is not in the game.”

“So Joyce, she didn’t say anything about the office? The people here?”

“Her ratio was 5.879 to 1,” Stan said. He pointed to a company-branded notepad next to his keyboard, where he had written out long lines of numbers. “Her head was not here. I tell ya, I need to write a book about this stuff. It beats playing with Batman toys.”

Joel wanted to ask for Joyce’s personal email or phone number, but he did not. He figured he was precluding Stan’s denial and a recitation of company policy about privacy and personal information, but other deep-seated reasons contributed—fear of scorn, rejection, failure, all blended together until nothing truly explained his silence.

He went back to his desk but avoided his computer. He sorted paper invoices, making several mistakes in alphabetization. He was thinking about Joyce. She had worked for six months, a blond with a pleasant face, not one that stood out in the muted pallor in the office, but she had carried an imperative as she passed his desk, which she did four times each day, on her way to the parking garage for a smoke. Each time, Joel searched for something to say to her, but the current of expectation prickling his forearms also compressed his lungs, and he was left chewing on smoke-stained air as she passed.

Now, too late, he was thinking about Batman. The first Batman movie, the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, had opened on his birthday, the first summer after his escape from high school, and with four former classmates, one guy and three girls, none with memorable names, they went to the local premier squeezed into his Chevy Cavalier like survivors climbing onto a lifeboat. They saw the movie then went to Jack-In-The-Box, where they started a small fire with their greasy taco wrappers. They were quick to stamp it out, giggling like Jokers, and as they ran out, Joel looking back, smoke filled all corners of that boxy glass building like the aftermath of a spectacularly failed experiment in chemistry class.

Then they went to a party, and there, in the keg line, he casually mentioned Batman and his birthday. Soon everyone wanted to know what he thought about the movie. Could you believe Keaton as the Caped Crusader? Was Nicholson awesome as the Joker? They grouped around him, like the first time he wore cologne in junior high, and all the girls, even the cheerleaders, took turns burying their faces in his shirt, as if he were wearing a suit of roses.

Joel had to use his computer to crosscheck an address on an invoice. He rolled over to his monitor, launched the customer database. He glanced back, over both shoulders, then popped open his browser and searched for “Batman Toy Lists.” There were many. He recognized the list name from Stan’s PC, Batman and the Toy Wonder, and clicked to join.

Members uploaded their toy lists, and the system matched your list to others with the same action figures, playsets, accessories, and could even connect you with someone who has that one missing Riddler or Catwoman to complete your collection. Joel recounted the toys he’d had as a kid. Building blocks. LEGOs. G.I. Joe. Nothing with Batman. Nothing to connect with Joyce. Joel’s fate was intertwined with the movie Batman, not the toy Batman.

He would have to marry Batman.

He get in that carousel of pictures, and Joyce would see him, former coworker, in a sharp tuxedo, standing next to Batman, grinning at her like a Joker.

She would have to email him since they now shared a spouse. It was an imperative she would not ignore.

How long would it take her to see Joel among all those other wedding pictures?

He went to imarriedbatman.com. There was a schedule in a side column – the next photo session was in two weeks at the triannual Sci-Fi and Toy Expo. In the main matrimonial frame was a tall redheaded bride, taller than Batman, with a proud, round face. She didn’t smile but tilted her head back, as if to impose some austerity on the ceremony. Joel started clicking through the pictures. After twenty-three clicks, he saw the same picture of the redhead. The site shuffled its picture display, pulling at random from its pool of photos. Joel put a paper next to his keyboard and started a count, recording each new face with an f or an m and taking care not to double-count Bat spouses when their pictures repeated. He saw Joyce after ten minutes, capitalized her F on the sheet, and kept clicking. The office closed at six o’clock, and Joel was still clicking, writing. When he had clicked for 30 minutes without seeing a new face, he stopped and counted the letters. 413 total. Only 57 were men. He liked those odds.

 
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