If Arnie Philbert asked his father about his mother Mr. Philbert would always get out the boy’s birth certificate that proved her name had been named Eleanor Philbert and she had died on the same day Arnie had been born. Then Mr. Philbert would repeat how when the nurse had put the bundle in his arms he hadn’t known how to go on. The baby was so little. How was he to keep it alive? Rather than ask the nurse what to do Mr. Philbert had looked for signs because that was how he decided which bus to ride, which flat to rent, job to take, or loaf of bread to buy each day.
With the tiny baby still sleeping in his arms Mr. Philbert had wandered the hospital looking and looking for the crucial sign. Finally he noticed a woman in the cafeteria helping her four children assemble a breakfast. They all looked healthy so he’d asked her how she kept them alive. Before she could answer one of her little girls held up a box of Lucky Charms cereal and said, “Quick Mama, I need some more or I’ll just die.”
That was the first of many signs that had together determined the course of Arnie’s life but now his father was dead. The flat was too quiet and the meals too lonely. Life had lost its…. What ? Life had lost its life. Then Arnie snapped out of his reverie when he heard a squeal of wheels, and a woman’s scream. He was falling, falling into the path of a speeding car. Arnie grabbed his lucky rabbit’s foot with his left hand and threw his right hand over his St. Christopher’s medal.
Time slowed. The car was nearly on him. Nothing would stop it now. Someone grabbed at his coat. The impact of the asphalt on his face shattered his breath. The car crunched over his briefcase and stopped. Just there. Without touching him.
“It was a miracle?” exclaimed a pretty woman as she helped him to his feet and dusted off his clothes. She chattered nervously about his phenomenal luck but Arnie’s eyes were on his pathetic rabbit’s foot that was now peeking out from under the car’s left front tire. Instinctively he reached for his St. Christopher’s medal. It was gone. The chain must have snapped! The buffalo nickel in his shoe had vanished completely. Anearby child pointed to the drain grate. It had rolled away. The woman moaned, “Oh dear, you have lost all your lucky charms.” The car backed up and his crumpled briefcase disgorged a shattered globe that no longer held a four-leaf clover.
What should he do now? Arnie needed a sign. Had the charms protected him or had he survived only because he’d lost them just in time? Was it even safe for him to go home now that he had no protection? Certainly no girl had ever looked at him so tenderly before. Not a pretty girl. And this one was very pretty. And the child had noticed him, even smiled at him. No one had ever noticed Arnie Philbert before. How to proceed?
Then something caught his eye from across the street where a deliveryman was opening his van’s rear door and taking out a large carton upon which was written the answer Arnie suddenly realized he had always wanted to find, ‘Cheerios’.
The Sustained Comedy (Portrait of an Object) painted by Marsden Hartley in 1939
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, PA USA