Black Ribbon Award

A WORLD OF SORROW

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I’d like everyone to take a moment and listen. Just … listen to the room around us.

Silence.

Do you hear that sound?

Silence. A chair creaks.

That’s the sound the world makes when it’s decided that you no longer have anything to offer it. You have nothing to say, nothing to feel, and nothing to do.

Perhaps you know what that sound is like. Perhaps you’ve found yourself hearing it sometimes, and then, without any advance notice, you are hearing it often, and with steadily decreasing moments of relent. It’s a yawning kind of sound forming, as it were, a personal invisible dome. Sure, you can cry out, you can prove and reprove your worth. You’re free enough in yourself to do that, you’re not a mime in a box. But your sound, your contributions, will not carry very far. You are as the spider, and the world is as the boulder rolling toward, over, and past you.

Now if we could just see these domes, we’d find that quite a few of us are covered with them. We’re like ghosts in finely smoothed sheets. I am one of these people. And I’d like to tell you my story.

There was a time when I had some kind of value in the world, when I could be counted as a member of it in reasonable standing. I’m quite sure of this, though the details as to what I did to have that esteem are foggy now. Foggy, anyway, compared to the state in which I found myself at a later juncture and in which I have remained ever since. It felt like I had taken a wrong turn into a desolate bombed-out village and the road behind me just disappeared the further I went into it. There is no map for such a place, of course. It’s something you have to navigate yourself. And believe you me, I was lost for the longest time. It was a long and winding journey to find my way around it; but I managed eventually.

Something happened, you see, when I reached a particularly low point. Isn’t that always how it is? You can’t get any traction until you’ve reached rock bottom. Anyway … one night the sound of the world got a little too deafening. I tried everything I could to at least muffle it, but nothing was working. So—and I only admit this because it’s crucial to what follows—I took an unusual step; unusual for me, anyway. I did a Google search, I made a call, and a person came to my door. This person provided certain services that can be tailored at the individual patron’s discretion, shall we say. I didn’t quite know what I wanted, so this person and I both sat stiffly in my living room. Nothing happened for what seemed like almost an hour. And I could hear that sound just rising up and over us like a flood waiting to drown both of us with malicious intent. I panicked and asked “How did yo—” and before I could finish my question this person just exploded with tears and sobs, and sustained them for well over the time I had been allotted. I was shocked, of course, and a little confused. I almost hadn’t noticed that this person’s cries were sending all other sounds scurrying away like furry woodland creatures at the sight of a wolf.

By the end of the session I found I was onto something. That person wouldn’t come back; so I hired out others and had them do much the same thing. After a while, however, it got to be a rather expensive habit, on my purse and on my energy trying to figure out how to bring what I wanted out of them. And because the real thing had had so potent an effect, internet searches were not going to cut it. So I put my mind to it, I don’t think I’ve put my mind harder to anything in my life, and came up with a solution. After two years, I’ve found it.

This is uCry. Sure, it looks like your run-of-the-mill modern day car key, but in this tiny device is the answer to a very big problem. uCry is especially designed to stifle the overpowering hum of the world’s negation with the ambience of human sadness. It is equipped with a single red button and a point sensor. Its use is simple. Place your thumb on the button, each uCry is customized to its user’s thumbprint and will vibrate twice when it recognizes the print and will deliver a light shock to any print it doesn’t. Once you activate it, point the device at any person’s head, when you feel another quick vibration, press the button and the tears will flow in an instant.

What it does is send a sharp, precise signal to the amygdala, that part of our brain that controls mood, memory, and emotion. The signal will trigger that part of the brain to conjure the most recent sad memory of anyone you point it at, causing a crying episode lasting 45 minutes on average. For that time, all of your troubles will be a secondary matter, not even. All with the push of a button.

There are a few disclaimers that come with uCry, of course.

First, and this one goes without saying, do not use the device indiscriminately. Though it can be applied to anyone, and there’s as yet no legal restriction in doing so, the ethic of consent applies here as a matter of simple decency. Get permission if you are to use it. Perhaps a complete stranger will oblige, but in most cases this will be someone you know and trust and who in turn trusts you.

Second, use the device in a place you know well, preferably a place indoors and sparsely peopled. Related to that, follow the device’s directives to the letter. That is, don’t use it on someone when it hasn’t vibrated. Doing so may misfire and trigger an adverse response that renders your surroundings unsafe.

And third, do not, under any circumstances, use the device on yourself. That’s not how its design was intended. That’s why it’s called uCry and not iCry. And also if you have permission for only one person, please wait no less than six hours to use it on them again.

This version of uCry is the first just out of its beta stage. It underwent considerable testing and reconfiguration, and we’re ready to take it to the market. It is our hope that reaching the projected sales figures will allow for us to make improvements and upgrades. I see little preventing us from improving the signal’s aim and intensity to lengthen the crying fits to, say, an hour, an hour and a half, maybe even longer than that. Our proposed premium membership will include a network to help you get the most use out of the device. My early experiences have guided the making of a database listing confirmed voluntary subjects, based on psychological makeup and experiences, who will make themselves available on your request, and at no extra charge for you.

The possibilities with uCry are without end. If enough are purchased we may see a complete atmospheric shift in the quality of life. We may never leave our desolate village; we may never be able to crack our domes—not completely, anyway. But uCry offers us some hope that the sound of the world bearing down on us can be abated somewhat by a world of sorrow.

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A BRIEF STATEMENT

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Before we begin, and if it pleases everyone, I’d like to preface with a brief statement about love.

Now I should never generalize, but I think it is among the safer assumptions out there that we’ve all asked for advice about love. We’ve asked advice about what it is, how it should feel, and how to keep it right where you want it once you’ve managed to find it. And more often than not, that advice, whether from friends or family or paid experts, is to never be afraid. I guess there’s something to that. The power is in its simple obviousness. Of course. Courage levels all obstacles and routs all bugbears. It enlivens and emboldens our clearest, proudest selves. Hesitate, even for a second, and perish.

But I think that there’s something to that fear. In fact, it makes quite a good deal of sense when we step back and really look at what it is we are afraid of. Failure, yes, that is obvious; but that’s not all! Break that fear down to its parts and you get fear of unfulfilling, fear of shaming, fear of numbness, fear of complacency, fear of embarrassing, fear of being bad, fear of causing pain, and fear of disappointing.

I think that these fears are perfectly healthy.

Now before you step in and naysay, take a moment to think about the fears I put forth. The astute listener will note that they go only in one way. I made no mention of fear of being unfulfilled or of being hurt or of being disappointed. Certainly these fears are real and worthy of confronting. They are the fears of loneliness. They are lurid and surreal fears that come only after the unfulfillment, hurt, and disappointment have manifested. But these fears, in short, have little—nothing, in fact—to do with love.

Love is about being able to set yourself aside. It is about being so unconcerned with your own distastes and negating proclivities as to feel bulletproof in the face of any misfortune. I suppose that is something we all know in our heart of hearts. It may, depending on the translation used, even double a gloss on St. Paul. But I think we forget it enough times that it bears occasional redux. Certainly I forgot it, and count many of my struggles in the matter to its being forgotten. Indeed, I remembered it only recently, though in a rather happenstance and unusual way.

For a very long time I owned this car. Well, it’s not really a car, exactly; I’m using it as a stand-in for something more embarrassing. But I had this car, and, as I said, I had it for a long time. For a long enough time that in driving it I’ve had many ups and downs with its functionality. Some days it was better at getting me to where I needed or wanted to go than it was in other days. On the bad days I often found myself saying some hurtful things about it, and sometimes to it. I will not repeat them here, but sometimes I’d go so far as to say them as I was driving it. And in one of these moments, I so lost my bearings that I locked my keys in the car while the car was still running. As I waited for the police, sitting on the pavement, banging my head against the door, I had this sudden epiphany. This was my fault. And not only this but every other instance of tension and dysfunction could be traced back to me as their source.

The car never set any detailed conditions nor did it make any explicit promises. It came into my life with a very basic, straightforward purpose. As I used it, it was mine to make or to break. Of course, I broke it but it did not break me. Rather, I broke myself. The more time I spent with the car, the more I came to appreciate the simplicity of it and the complications I put upon it in our cohabitation. The more I ruminated on those complications, the greater responsibility I felt to make things right.

What is this if it is not love? Is not love, after all is said and done, the act of making things right? Making things right is among the hardest of our abstract duties, but it is made all the more worthwhile when done for someone who—or something that—can never disappoint. This makes it seem a bit one-sided, but the beauty of love is finding that person who dreads your disappointment every bit as you dread theirs. It’s not easy, but finding that balance, and remembering what’s lost with imbalance, is one of the greatest boons to personal joy. It is second only to the knowledge that each thing made right, side by side with love, vanquishes one gratuitous wrong thing from our concerns.

With that sentiment in mind, let’s move on to address this internal liability report for our processing plants. How the hell is this worse than the independent audit? For fuck’s sake, accidents have doubled. Not only are we up to our Adam’s apples eyeballs in nondisclosure settlements, we’re really stretching the ontological limitations of what properly constitutes “head cheese.” Shit, people.

… AND ALSO MARGARET

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Continued from part one.

Scene: The oil drum, late afternoon.

PEGGY stands over the drum. She tore the plastic wrap off of the magazine and is flipping through it with indifference. She lets a centerfold fall down. Silence. She tosses it blithely into the fire.

She sits on the lawn chair. She takes a piece of paper, folded four ways, out of her pocket, unfolds it, and reads it over. Silence.

She takes out a pen, holds it to her leg and crosses something out. She struggles to write something over it. She places the paper on the arm of the chair and struggles to write only slightly less.

PEGGY [under her breath]: Though every home may be dark … every gaze hostile … [Trails off. Silence.] And every tree leafless and crooked … [Trails off. Silence. Marks the paper.] You … you … [sardonically] are the wind beneath my fucking wings. [Crumples paper. Limply tosses it toward the drum only for it to fall to the ground.] Shit.

Silence.

Scene: The counter, a few minutes later. GRETA is checking out CUSTOMER 4 and bagging her items. PEGGY enters and takes her place on the crate.

GRETA: So that’s an ice-scraper, two cans of instant chicken noodle soup, one can of instant broccoli cheddar soup, the medium coffee, and cotton swabs.

CUSTOMER 4: That’s it.

GRETA: That’s going to come to 36 total.

CUSTOMER 4: Do you take debit?

GRETA: Yes, but there’s a glitch in the system that makes the debit minimum 200 dollars.

CUSTOMER 4: Oh.

GRETA: I can’t interest you in an extra ice-scraper … or three? You never know when they’re bound to break.

CUSTOMER 4 [going into her wallet]: Oh, that’s fine. I’m almost certain there are three more at home. [Takes cash out and hands it to GRETA.] Cash is fine.

GRETA: Fair enough. [Goes into register and givers her change.] Have a good day.

CUSTOMER 4 [taking hold of the bag]: You, too. [Goes to leave. Stops.] And thank you.

GRETA: Take care.

CUSTOMER 4 exits. Door chimes. GRETA’s face shifts from cheery to stoic. PEGGY takes out her phone and stares at it.

PEGGY: That’s like the most anyone’s bought here all day. [Pause.] Possibly even all week.

Silence.

GRETA: I had the strangest experience while you were out.

PEGGY: Mmm

GRETA: I was helping that woman with the milk for her coffee. I took her over to the dairy section and was going through the cartons. It was not as easy as I expected it would be as it turned out that nearly every carton of cream and nearly every carton of whole milk were nearing or just past their sell-by dates.

PEGGY: Gross.

GRETA: I kept going further and further back into the cold case. It felt like going on an archeological dig … like peeling back layers of the earth. I kept on apologizing as I went back further in time. And each time she smiled and said it was fine. I froze for a few seconds, but it seemed like minutes. I got down and was about to ask her if skim or heavy cream would be a problem.

PEGGY: Mmm.

GRETA: I was in panic mode. [Pause.] Anyway, when I was about to tell her I closed the door and saw my reflection.

PEGGY: Your future self?

GRETA: No, I saw myself as I am … and I saw the woman taking a photo of me with her phone. Our reflections locked eyes as the fake shutter sound went off, and very quickly averted.

PEGGY: People do that all the time. You’re probably on Snapchat right now.

GRETA: I don’t think so.

PEGGY: She probably snapped you from the car before she peeled off. She probably used you to shame her kids. You’re her shining example of … something.

GRETA: I’m not sure she’s the type.

PEGGY: When do you learn who’s got what on their phones? Psych 300?

GRETA: It’s not that it’s … a connection we had. Like she saw something in me she recognized so deeply she had to make a record of it. [Pause.] Like what if it’s the opposite of what I see?

PEGGY: As in …

GRETA: As in the opposite kind of vision. Like she’s seeing a kind of past of hers. One that she didn’t take.

PEGGY: So is it a better past or a worse past? How does that work if her future already became her present?

GRETA: I was too afraid to ask. I felt like a figment, so I decided to show her around the store. Took her through all the aisles. She was game. I even convinced her to buy some extra items. With each one we seemed to feel more fulfilled, at least about our situation. [Silence.] Maybe I will stay here after all.

PEGGY: What about the bunker showroom? The power suit?

GRETA: Those are probably just metaphors.

Pause.

PEGGY: Probably. [Pause.] Was the heavy cream fine?

GRETA: More or less.

Scene: Counter, later in the evening. GRETA is on the crate staring at PEGGY’s phone. PEGGY is sitting at the register. Silence.

Door chimes. CUSTOMER 5, a thin man in a black suit and carrying a briefcase, approaches the counter.

PEGGY [affectless]: Yeah?

CUSTOMER 5: Is your bathroom out back?

PEGGY: Yeah.

CUSTOMER 5: Do you mind if I have the key to it?

PEGGY: Nobody shits for free.

CUSTOMER 5: I’m not shitting.

PEGGY: Policy doesn’t change with the function.

CUSTOMER 5: I’ll buy something after I go.

PEGGY: Gross.

CUSTOMER 5: On my honor.

GRETA: Leave your belongings where we can see them.

CUSTOMER 5: I’m not gonna steal your bathroom key. What good would that do me?

GRETA: Nothing. [She gets up, reaches under the counter and throws a key at CUSTOMER 5.] But them’s the rules.

CUSTOMER 5: Hold on a second. [He goes into the aisles and returns to the counter with two cans of Red Bull.] Just these. [Places cans on the counter.] Got a long drive ahead of me.

PEGGY: It’s not our policy to judge the habits of our patrons …

CUSTOMER: 5: What’s that?

PEGGY: I feel like it’s my professional obligation to warn you not to drink these all at once.

CUSTOMER 5: Is it?

PEGGY: They’re liable to burst your heart wide open. It happened to a friend of mine. It was the close of the fall semester, just before finals. He had three end of term papers due over a two day period. No professor in their right minds would grant him any more extensions. So you know what he did?

CUSTOMER 5: OD’d on Red Bull before he could finish his papers?

PEGGY: No, he choked on a Cheeto playing Call of Duty. The Red Bull thing is just a lie we tell ourselves.

CUSTOMER 5: Hell of a way to mourn a friend.

PEGGY: It’s what he would have wanted.

CUSTOMER 5 [smiling]: What do I owe you?

PEGGY: 12 dollars.

CUSTOMER 5 goes into his breast pocket for his wallet and takes out two bills.

CUSTOMER 5: There you go.

PEGGY [taking the bills, looks back to GRETA]: Madam? [GRETA hunches forward without looking up, pushes a button and opens the register. PEGGY takes out his change.] Three is your change.

CUSTOMER 5: Thanks. [Crouches down and opens up his briefcase, stands back up with two brochures.] You wouldn’t mind if I—

PEGGY: Can I ask you something?

CUSTOMER 5: Uhm … sure … but quickly, please.

PEGGY: Are you looking to get into murder?

CUSTOMER 5: Excuse me?

PEGGY: You kind of give off that look of wanting to.

CUSTOMER 5 [bemused curiosity]: What do I give off exactly?

PEGGY [mock flirtation]: It’s not something I can just summarize for you. A vibe is all.

CUSTOMER 5: A vibe?

PEGGY [mock flirtation]: But if you wanted to get into murder, there’s no better place to do it. You could kill us both. Zero of these cameras actually work. You can dismember us. Bury us out in the hills. You can take your sweet time. No one would find out for at least two months.

GRETA remains fixed on the phone.

CUSTOMER 5: Okay.

PEGGY: But before you do anything, can I just ask … could you … spare me?

CUSTOMER 5: Spare you?

PEGGY: And If I’m not being too forward … can I … come with you?

CUSTOMER 5: What?

PEGGY: I’ve been behind this counter for nearly two years. I’ve seen nearly a hundred people come and go through that door. And every now and then I spot someone with a special something—that vibe—and wonder, “Is this the one? Is this the one who’s going to take me away from all of this shit?” It used to be that I’d gladly settle for a cold dirt womb somewhere. I used to laugh at the idea of animals possibly fornicating on me. Defecating, until the End of Days. I would see it as my way of doing what I can to help keep legacies alive.

CUSTOMER 5: We all want to feel like we’re doing our part.

PEGGY: But suddenly I feel like taking the bull by the horns, the gun by the barrel, the axe by the handle, the duct tape by the roll, whatever it is you’d use. Get out on the open road and never look back. [Pause.] We can dispose of Cheyenne here together.

CUSTOMER 5: Her nametag says Gret—

PEGGY: Never mind what Cheyenne tells you, she’s sly fox, and she bites. I don’t bite. Or I won’t bite you … unless … no, no. I’m getting ahead of myself. But I’d be your number one, most loyal, least yielding partner in crime. I’ve worked with her for as long as I’ve been here. I know most of her fears and vulnerabilities. We probably don’t have to bury her, either. We could just leaver her in the ice chest out back. No one ever uses it. It’d be a cinch … and the tip of what I’m seeing even now [tilts her head high as if staring upward] as a very tall iceberg.

Silence. CUSTOMER 5 leaves the bathroom key, Red Bulls, and the brochures on the counter and exits. Door chimes. GRETA picks up a brochure.

GRETA: They’re opening a meditation atrium off exit seven.

PEGGY [hunches glumly over the counter]: I’m losing my edge in my old age. [Opens one of the Red Bulls and drinks from it.]

GRETA [covers her mouth to stifle laughter]: Look at this. [Shows PEGGY her phone.]

PEGGY [astonished]: Wow.

GRETA: You’ll thank me when the bombs do drop.

Scene: The oil drum, night. GRETA is pacing around it, close enough to be seen in the glow of the flame. A few seconds pass, she stands still. Silence.

She turns around and looks at the open field. She takes out her phone and turns on the flashlight.  

She walks into the field, finds the skull of a pile of bones from a wild dog.  

She picks up the skull and walks back towards the lawn chair.  

She stops mid-walk and spots the ice chest on the side of the store. She walks towards it, opens it up looks in. Pause. She climbs inside and closes it.

Scene: PEGGY is leaning against the front of the counter, looking at her phone, and playing with the cross necklace she’s taken out from under her uniform shirt. Door chimes as GRETA enters to the back of the counter. Silence.

PEGGY turns around and leans over the counter but doesn’t look up.

GRETA: Any business while I was out?

PEGGY: No. [Pause.] Cold?

GRETA: Not where I was.

Silence.

PEGGY: Wanna flip a coin for who does the mopping?

GRETA: You gave away your last quarter.

PEGGY: Get one out of the register.

Pause.

GRETA [smiling]: Open the register and we’ll do it.

PEGGY: Fuck you. [Returns to looking at her phone.]

GRETA: I’ll deal with it [Goes to get up.] You’re not even on the schedule today.

PEGGY [having a sudden epiphany]: Oh yeah.

Door chimes. Enter CUSTOMER 6, a man dressed as a clown. His wig is off though his hair is still covered. His face is have exposed as his makeup has partly run off. He is exhausted. GRETA and PEGGY stand still. He stops in front of the counter.

CUSTOMER 6: Hi.

GRETA: Hi …

CUSTOMER 6: Coffee?

GRETA: Over there.

GRETA and PEGGY both point to their left.

CUSTOMER 6: Thanks. [He exits into the store, the girls watch him in bemusement as if tracking the movements of a benign ghost. Silence. He returns to the counter with a cup of coffee.] Hey where do you keep the No-Doz?

GRETA: Normally it’s on aisle six.

CUSTOMER 6: Uh huh?

GRETA: But we just ran out. There’s more coming next week.

CUSTOMER 6: I won’t need it next week. [Pause.] I mean I will, but …

GRETA [ashamed]: I’m sorry.

PEGGY: You want coffee and No-Doz?

CUSTOMER 6: I’m on hour two of a four-hour drive. [Pause.] Speaking of which, you wouldn’t happen to know how to get to the Interstate from here, would you?

GRETA: Make a right.

CUSTOMER 6: Sure.

GRETA: Go down 15 miles. Not the next turn-off, but the one after it.

PEGGY: The sign is missing crucial information, so it’s hard to tell.

CUSTOMER 6: What else is new, eh?

GRETA: If you reach an abandoned bookmobile you’ve gone too far.

CUSTOMER 6: Sure. [Pause. Takes coffee.] Anyway, thanks guys. Take it easy.

BOTH: Take it easy.

CUSTOMER 6 exits, door chimes. Silence.

PEGGY: He didn’t pay.

Silence.

GRETA: He paid.

END.

MARGARET …

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Scene: A convenience store on an empty rural highway. At the side of the building is a flaming oil drum, two lawn chairs, an old ice chest, and a field.

Inside, GRETA sits behind the counter staring out into the store. PEGGY sits behind her on a crate looking at her phone. They are beach wearing uniform shirts, though PEGGY is wearing hers awkwardly over a sweatshirt, and a necklace is obscured by both. They are each of late college age. 

PEGGY: Are clowns actual peo—

GRETA: Yes.

PEGGY: You didn’t let me finish! I want—

GRETA: I didn’t let you finish because I knew what you were going to ask.

PEGGY: You suddenly know the vast storage of my mind? The intricate circuitry my thoughts travel through?

GRETA: I know enough to know that your mind is more like a vending machine than a circuit board.

PEGGY: Oh?

GRETA: And you are its only customer, and you get the same thing every time.

PEGGY: Okay, but since when have vending machine users ever been adventurous?

GRETA: They can be.

PEGGY: Or any customer for anything?

GRETA: It’s possible.

PEGGY: Since when has anyone walked into this store and said, “Hm, Skoal doesn’t really do it for me. I’ll switch to Yoo-hoo!”?

GRETA: That’s a bit extreme.

PEGGY: How so?

GRETA: Wouldn’t a Skoal chewer—if he were tired of Skoal—switch to another tobacco? And wouldn’t a Yoo-hoo drinker—if he were tired of Yoo-hoo—switch to Nesquik … or something?

PEGGY: That proves my point more than it does yours.

GRETA: Whatever. [Long pause.] I don’t even get the issue with clowns. Clowns aren’t even scary.

PEGGY: I’m not talking in terms of scary. I’m talking in terms of general oddity. Like, it’s so odd that clowns are clowns and clowns are still called for.

GRETA: Did a clown do something to you when you were little? Did your mom hire a clown for your birthday party, make a giraffe out of balloons, and pop it in front of you for the sick pleasure?

PEGGY: What? No.

GRETA: Or did your dad take you to the circus where you saw a clown catch fire? And having seen the flaming clown, were you so tormented by guilt that you focus all of your intellect trying to understand the clown mindset so as to prevent more clown burnings from happening by preventing more clowns? [Pause.] Or do you … want to burn more clowns?

PEGGY: What are you my therapist?

GRETA: Yes, I’m using you as a guinea pig as all psych majors do.

PEGGY: Look … teachers I get. Pastors I get. Witches I get. Even Chili’s managers I kind of get. Clowns I don’t get.

GRETA: What’s not to get? A calling is a calling.

PEGGY: John Wayne Gacy.

GRETA: What about him?

PEGGY: Would you consider him as answering a calling?

GRETA: Being a clown was not his calling. He was murderer first and a clown second … not even second. That’s just some shitty detail the public latched onto at the expense of clowning at large.

PEGGY: Can we establish this then: not every clown is a murderer …

GRETA: Oh God.

PEGGY: But every murderer is, in some way, a clown.

GRETA: No, for the 500th time.

PEGGY: Whatever.

Silence.

GRETA: Doctors.

PEGGY: What?

Door chimes.

GRETA: Doctors. I never got them.

PEGGY: Really?

GRETA: I never saw the appeal.

PEGGY: Of healing people?

GRETA: I never understood the drive.

PEGGY: I mean, it seems like a ton of work.

GRETA: Maybe it’s not doctors but the kinds of doctors—all the varieties. Like, forget proctologists or urologists. What about podiatrists?

PEGGY: What makes someone a podiatrist?

GRETA: What makes someone get up one day and declare, “I’m going to make my living staring at other people’s feet. People’s feet will pay for my yacht or condo or whatever.”?

PEGGY: Feet are kind of important.

GRETA: I know, I just can’t process it.

Pause.

PEGGY: Ever consider examining yourself about your foot issues?

GRETA: I don’t have—

Enter CUSTOMER 1, a middle-aged man in business casual, carrying a cup of coffee.

CUSTOMER 1: What’s this about feet then?

GRETA: Oh! Nothing … nothing.

PEGGY: She’s terrified of them.

GRETA: Be quiet!

PEGGY: Every night she dreams of feet flying into her room and having a barbeque out of her.

CUSTOMER 1: Don’t we all have that dream?

PEGGY: Do your dream feet rotate a spit with their big toe? 

CUSTOMER 1: I can’t say that they do. [Chuckles.] Can I get some cigarettes?

GRETA: What brand?

CUSTOMER 1: Benson and Hedges.

GRETA: Sure. [Brings down a pack of cigarettes and hands it to the customer.] Six dollars.

CUSTOMER 1: And a small coffee.

GRETA: Cigarettes and coffee: 12 dollars. [Takes money from customer.] Out of 20. [Gives him change.] Thanks so much.

CUSTOMER 1: Yeah have a good one.

PEGGY: You got any advice?

Pause.

CUSTOMER 1: When your wiper fluid refill light goes off … don’t wait.

PEGGY: Okay then.

CUSTOMER 1: Take care, you two.

CUSTOMER 1 exits.

GRETA: What the fuck, Peggy?

PEGGY: Oh be quiet. You know, my clown issue is not as weird as your doctor issue. I can more or less avoid clowns for the rest of my life. You could have a sprain or something and you’ll have to get a referral.

GRETA: If you have kids you’re not going to avoid clowns.

PEGGY: I haven’t thought that far.

GRETA: Well there you go.

PEGGY: Okay, so what? Let’s say I have kids. Let’s say five years from now I have one.

GRETA: Seven.

PEGGY: Okay seven. Let’s say I have a kid. So five years from that—so 12 years—we start doing the birthday party thing regularly. Going to birthday parties. Having birthday parties. That’s a long time from right now. You think clowns are going to have the monopoly over kids’ entertainment? Get out. I’m talking, like, holograms. No kid, and no kid of mine, is going to go straight to a clown. They’re going to go to something cool. Like … Big Bird … or something. And it’s going to sing “Baby Beluga.”

GRETA: Okay.

PEGGY: And also … maybe … some kind of sensory orb that you can touch and hug. It glows and it gives off heat and makes sounds. Not like words, but soothing white noise.

GRETA: Ever consider switching majors from anthropology to IT and development?

PEGGY: Make fun all you want, the future comes at you fast. Clowns need to prepare themselves for the clownpocalypse. [Pause.] And anyway, I don’t think I’ll have to worry. I might not even have children.

GRETA: What would you do then?

PEGGY: Not see clowns or affection orbs, for one. [Pause.] I don’t know. I can stick it out here.

GRETA: Are you sure about that?

PEGGY: Why not?

GRETA: I don’t know. You ever think maybe you, too, would become obsolete?

PEGGY: Bullshit.

GRETA: Think about it.

PEGGY: Nope. Never.

GRETA: Think 12 years from now, no one in their right mind would go to a convenience store.

PEGGY: Like anyone hardly does it now.

GRETA: Yeah but even less.

PEGGY: Where are they going to get cigarettes?

GRETA: An app.

PEGGY: What about milk?

GRETA: App.

PEGGY: Lottery tickets?

GRETA: Money will be abolished.

PEGGY: Coffee? Will coffee be bought with an app?

GRETA: No, coffee will be bought on the deep web because it will be outlawed.

PEGGY: With what currency?

GRETA: I don’t know. [Pause.] Human tears.

Door chimes. CUSTOMER 2 walks past them, he is a leaner, middle-aged man in outdoor work clothes.

CUSTOMER 2: Ladies.

PEGGY: Hi.

GRETA: Welcome.

CUSTOMER 2 exits out of view.

PEGGY: Why are you smiling?

GRETA: I’m just thinking of you sitting in a retirement home with all the redundant clowns. On the bright side, all your questions will be answered at last.

PEGGY: Whatever. [Checks her phone.]

Silence.

GRETA: I’m gonna get a smoke. Mind the store?

PEGGY [still looking at her phone]: Uh huh.

GRETA [mockingly]: Coolio.

GRETA grabs her coat from under the counter and exit. The door chimes as she does. Silence. CUSTOMER 2 walks up to the counter. Silence. CUSTOMER 2 clears his throat.

PEGGY: Oh, sorry.

CUSTOMER 2: No prob.

PEGGY: Did you find what you were looking for?

CUSTOMER 2: No.

PEGGY: Oh.

Pause.

CUSTOMER 2: Can I get a scratch-off?

PEGGY: Sure, which one?

CUSTOMER 2: Doesn’t matter.

PEGGY picks one at random and hands it to him.

PEGGY: That’ll be six dollars.

CUSTOMER 2 [getting out his wallet]: Okay. [Hands her the cash.]

PEGGY: Out of 10. [Goes into the register and struggles to open it. She smiles at him in embarrassment.] Sorry. Sorry.

CUSTOMER 2 is scratching the card with his keys.

Scene: Outside the store by the flaming oil drum and chairs. GRETA is standing over it smoking a cigarette. There is a hat on the lawn chair opposite her.

GRETA [to the hat]: It went okay. [Pause.] It went okay on the outset. It’s that feeling of diversion that drives it in the beginning, right? Something new. It’s that something that puts dynamite under the everyday monotony that has come to consume your every waking moment. [Pause.] Then that became monotonous as well. It’s like a broken record. And it always feels like I’m the only one with that broken record. [Pause. Turns away to no one in particular.] He was nice. No. He was kind. But not all the time, and never unkind toward me. He knew how to deal it out. He was proportioned correctly. Kind in the right proportion, acerbic in the right proportion. [Pause.] Afraid in the right proportion. Well-proportioned people have a way of making you feel like you’re all in pieces. And it’s you who has to figure out where everything goes before they come. Or it’s dead before it’s born. [Dabs ashes into the oil drum. Silence. Looks back at the hat.] I know I should quit.

Scene: The store counter. PEGGY is still struggling with the register, looking more flustered. CUSTOMER 2 stands stiffly but explicitly agitated. The door chimes and GRETA returns to the counter.

PEGGY: Damn this thing.

GRETA: What’s the matter?

PEGGY: I can’t get this guy his change.

GRETA presses a single button and the register opens.

GRETA [cheerily to CUSTOMER 2]: Anything else you need help with?

CUSTOMER 2: I won.

GRETA: Oh, how much?

CUSTOMER [showing the scratch-off to them]: Six dollars.

GRETA: Congratulations! Peggy, give him his prize.

PEGGY hands him back his 10-dollar bill.

CUSTOMER 2: You two have a great day.

GRETA: Sure will.

CUSTOMER 2 exits. Door chimes. Silence.

GRETA: You’re probably going to have to know how to open the register if you’re going to stay here.

PEGGY: No need to rub it in.

GRETA: You don’t think I’m going to be here with you to bail you out?

PEGGY: Well …

GRETA: Or do you?

PEGGY: Where do you have to be anyway?

GRETA: I can think of a few places I could be other than here.

PEGGY: Running your own quack practice? Doing clinical trials?

GRETA: Peggy, psychotherapy is a dignified profession.

PEGGY: Sor-ry.

GRETA: Well … it is for others, I’m sure. For me it’s something I just do for fun. I don’t think there will be much use for psychology where I’m sure to end up. [Pause.] Then again …

PEGGY: Where’s that?

GRETA: Dad’s hardware shop. Specifically the bunker contracting expansion. There’s been an uptick in demand for that service and he wants in. He needs all the help he can get.

PEGGY: Bunkers … as in for bombs?

GRETA: The very same. Right now he has my brother and sister working round the clock with custom models to accommodate all possible yard sizes and home types. There’s one of ranch homes, there’s one for mcmansions, there’s one for Victorians, one for colonials; I assume there’s one just as unique for modernist estates. That’s what they tell me anyway.

PEGGY [sardonically]: No apps for that?

GRETA: Not for foreign intrusion, no.

Door chimes.

PEGGY: What will you do?

GRETA: I don’t know. But lately I’ve had this recurring experience where I gaze into any reflective surface, and every time this poised, bob-cut, and powers-suited woman is staring back at me. Almost through me. She bares an uncanny resemblance to me.

PEGGY: Any reason to doubt it?

GRETA: The power suit is purple; it’s not my most flattering color. [Pause.] But the more I see it the more I find myself staring right back, and for longer stretches of time. Soon the staring contest ends. The frame widens and pans out to a showroom: the windowless kind that sort of resembles a museum. She’s greeting whole families and showing them around our latest models. One season panic rooms might be popular, another the more midsize shelters might be the hot item. But no matter what, she talks to them as though she knows every inch of every product. Her face shows total candor and patience. She knows right away why they are interacting with her. It is one of the few times they will mee—

CUSTOMER 3, an older man of retirement age wearing a cardigan over another sweater, hobbles slowly to the counter.

CUSTOMER 3: Excuse me, miss?

GRETA: Yes? I’m sorry. Can I help you?

CUSTOMER 3: Can I ask you a [lowers his head and voice] discreet question?

GRETA [warily]: Sure.

PEGGY: I’ll … [Gets ready to leave.]

CUSTOMER 3: No, no. It’s fine. I’ve no reason not to trust the both of you. [Pause.] Now, your magazine section …

GRETA: Yes?

CUSTOMER 3: It’s … lacking. It’s lacking in certain features.

GRETA: What are you looking for?

CUSTOMER 3: I’m not sure how I should word this, but … I may have missed some time. I miss time sometimes, in my old age. I don’t feel as though I’m getting slower myself, but that everyone is getting faster. It’s like I’m chasing a bus that’s getting farther and farther away, while I stay at the same speed on the sidewalk. Except the bus is society, you see? [Pause.] Anyway, so pardon me if I seem slow in asking but … has … it been banned?

PEGGY: What is “It”?

CUSTOMER 3: The … pornographic materials.

GRETA: Oh … uhm … well …

CUSTOMER 3: I didn’t see them over there. Are they not over there?

GRETA: Actually, no. They haven’t been banned. But they are still inappropriate for people under 18, so we just keep them over here with us. [Points to the corner behind the counter.]

CUSTOMER 3: Oh … I see.

GRETA: But, I should add, times have changed and there’s less selection than there once was.

CUSTOMER 3: Oh. [Pause.] So there’s no … Swank anymore?

GRETA: No

CUSTOMER 3: No … Spunk?

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3: No … High-End?

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3: No … Hades’ Delight?

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3: No … Hades’ Delight: Leg-Only edition?

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3: No … Viper?

Pause.

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3: No … A Squire?

PEGGY: Esquire isn’t a porn mag.

CUSTOMER 3: No … A-space-Squire.

PEGGY: Aaaah ha.

GRETA: No.

CUSTOMER 3 [bewildered, almost dizzied]: Oh wow. Oh my. What strange world is this?

GRETA: Would you like … Peggy what do we actually have?

PEGGY [peering around the rack]: Uhm … looks like Playboy, Penthouse Variations, and Jugggs. [Comes back to the counter.] That’s Jugggs with three g’s.

Door chimes. CUSTOMER 4, a middle-aged women in gym clothes, walks past the counter.

GRETA: So what do you say to those?

CUSTOMER 3: I … I don’t know what to think anymore. [Pause.] Perhaps … [looks down at the candy rack] … perhaps I will take some gum. [Bends down and picks up a pack of gum.] Fruit-flavored. That seems about right. [Places it on the counter.]

GRETA: That’s it?

CUSTOMER 3 [smiling]: That’s it.

GRETA: Very well. That’s six dollars.

CUSTOMER 3 goes into his pocket and takes out some crumpled cash.

CUSTOMER 3: That’s three, four, five … hold on. [He digs through another pocket and drops coins on the counter.] Okay … five-ten, five-twenty, five-twenty-five, five-fifty, five-sixty, five-seventy, five-seventy-five, five-seventy-six … oh, oh no. I was sure I had exact change.

GRETA: It’s … it’s okay, sir. Really.

CUSTOMER 3: Perhaps a check would …

GRETA: No, no, it’s fine, we can cover it.

PEGGY [digging through pockets]: Sure. Here we go. [Holds up a coin.] A whole quarter for ya.

CUSTOMER 3: Oh, thank you kindly. Have a lovely day, both of you. [Goes to leave.]

GRETA: I’m sorry we couldn’t help you.

CUSTOMER 3 stops and turns around.

CUSTOMER 3: You’ve helped me maybe more than anyone ever has.

CUSTOMER 3 nods and exits. Door chimes.

GRETA: I’m not sure how to take that.

PEGGY: Try taking it in the best way possible. Showroom You will thank you later, I’m sure. [Goes back to the rack, comes back with a magazine.] Hey this issue of Jugggs looks like it’s from 1991. You could probably make some good money off of this.

CUSTOMER 4 approaches the counter.

CUSTOMER 4: Excuse me …

GRETA: Yes, mam?

PEGGY [reading the cover]: “Gary Hart’s Secret Tart.” What?

GRETA: Peggy!

PEGGY looks at CUSTOMER 4 and abruptly hides the magazine.

CUSTOMER 4 [oblivious]: Sorry, but I was wondering if you had more cream for your coffee. I tried putting the last of it in but it took on that consistency old cream sometimes gives coffee. You know, like it has a dermal infection? I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to open another carton up or …

GRETA: Oh it’s no problem. [Comes around to the front of the counter.] Follow me, I’ll get one out of the fridge. [Leads CUSTOMER 4 back into the store.] It was straight cream, right?

CUSTOMER 4: Whole milk is fine, too.

PEGGY is left at the counter by herself. She takes the magazine and GRETA’s jacket and exits. Door chimes.

END OF PART ONE.

NO EMERGENCY

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OPEN TO an emergency broadcast screen.

CUT TO a public access studio. In the center are two chairs and a table for interviews. To the left is a stage for musical performance. To the right is a desk for news. In the back wall there are a series of TV screens that intermittently loop footage of bands performing, burning buildings, toppled statues, and cheering crowds. “NO EMERGENCY” is displayed in slowly blinking neon letters.

The studio is dark. The shadowed outline of REX can be seen sitting in one of the chairs. Loud music plays.

ANNOUNCER: Coming live from Braddock, this No Emergency, your number one source of information and enlightenment related to the happenings of the Cooperative and the concerns of its people. This is a show for you, and is hosted by one of you each week. Tonight’s host is Rex Holtzer, age 41, a former history teacher.

Lights go up, the music fades. REX sits in the chair in a relaxed but unnatural pose. He has never performed on television before. He is bearded and dressed casually but not comfortably in a flannel shirt, slim jeans, and Vans. His ankle is fitted with a tracker and on his wrist is a black and red-striped wristband.

REX: [stilted, in a warmth that is forced] Good evening and welcome to No Emergency. As we said, my name is Rex Holtzer and I’m excited—and if I’m being honest somewhat humbled and overwhelmed—to be your host. [Glances off to the side to receive the direction to stand. Walks fumblingly over in front of the news desk.] We’ve prepared a great show for you. We have a field report on our latest and most ambitious sustainability plan and youth training program. Later I will also be speaking with a high-ranking member of one of our committees about their latest policies and how they will affect us. And of course we will have the latest song from Thomasine Pain herself, supported as always by her band and advisors The Ideal Male Form. But at the risk of spoiling you further, let’s go over to the No Emergency news desk.

CUT TO black screen with “NEWS” flashing in white digitized letters.

CUT TO REX settling into the news desk and eyeing the teleprompter.

REX: A rally broke out in Kim Gordon Park in Pittsburgh last Monday. Hundreds of citizens flocked onto the grounds with banners and flyers, converging before the statue of Calvin Johnson. When attendees of the rally were questioned as to its purpose, reasons included a celebration of the recent wave of bank purges, the demolition of an unspecified church, or to glorify the whole of Thomasine’s achievements to date, suggesting that the rally was spontaneous. It was, observers added, positive, authentic, and with a containable amount of property damage.

A planned rally is in the works following a successful raid on a warehouse just outside Steubenville last month. Quality Control units responded to intelligence reports indicating that a ring of normalizers had convened there. 15 people were taken into custody along with mixing boards, laptops, unapproved records and books, as well as a mimeograph machine and normalizing written material meant for copying and distribution. The rally will be held next Wednesday night the Tesco Vee Assembly Hall and will feature live music, the burning of the contraband, and the special punishment of three of the cabal’s leaders to be revealed the night of.

Last Thursday’s Citizen’s Forum was held to clarify changes to policies on available educational materials for learning group ages 10 to 14. Distribution centers across the Cooperative will now withhold additional textbooks and related materials in subjects including reading, health, and social studies determined as being insufficiently authentic. The Quality Control would not disclose the names of the texts and have yet to set a timetable for their replacement.

The Home Committee released a report addressing rumors of food shortages that have plagued the Cooperative since its founding nearly four years ago. The report is based on an extensive investigation of food banks and garden areas, as well as a survey sent out to 250 sub-communes at random to be answered honestly without fear of reprisal or censure. The report concluded that while many rumors proved to be just that, there was nonetheless room for improvement. Thomasine Pain and the Ideal Male Form announced by way of their last seven-inch their intention to address these challenges dynamically. Over the past several months that plan has been implemented by the opening of 20 training centers for food production and distribution. It’s being overseen by the Enrichment Committee as a part of its youth-centric program bringing citizens from ages 15 to 22 more directly into the operations of the Cooperative.

Which brings me to our feature report of the evening. I had the opportunity to visit one of these facilities the other week. My visit to the undisclosed center gave me a never-before-seen look into the process by which our youth is trained to make our collective future a brighter one.

CUT TO REX standing in a field, he is holding a microphone, wearing a pea coat over a rumpled cardigan, a t-shirt, and sweatpants. His face and head are shaven and one of his eyes is blackened. His posture is informal.

REX: [to the director] Are we …?
DIRECTOR: [off-camera] Goddammit.

Quick cut to a black screen. Cut back to REX standing more formally, “FEATURE REPORT” blinks under him in white text.

REX: This is the Equal Vision Enrichment Compound. It is the latest of the youth training centers to go into operation under the new sustainability plan.

CUT TO images of the training facility with REX narrating over them. They show a clean and orderly center, resembling a summer camp, with young people working diligently in fields, doing exercises, happily taking directions from instructors both in the field and in classroom settings, and relaxing on the grounds. Everyone wears the same uniform: jeans, tennis shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt. Trainees are in blue; instructors are in red.

Since its opening, 500 young people from all backgrounds and with varying skill sets have been sent here to receive a hands-on education. They will be trained in all the necessary life practices required to manage the system and perpetuate the ideals of the Cooperative. Specifically they will learn how to produce and sustain food for their communities and assure that no citizen—young or old, healthy or sick—is left behind. These early weeks are dedicated to orientation and fitness training before the planting seasons are underway. So says Compound chief training coordinator, Stephen.

CUT TO STEPHEN in close-up.

STEPHEN: I can’t say I was nervous about opening the center, but it is a big undertaking to make sure these kids get what they need. We accommodate all kinds here. No one is left out whether they’re more brain or more brawn. Everyone will have their role and everyone will help everyone else …
REX: As equals?
STEPHEN: As equals, yeah. No one will be above anyone else. It’s all for the same goal. It’s a big undertaking. But an important one. I’m psyched to get it going.

CUT TO JENNA, a farmer, pointing out empty planting areas to REX.

JENNA: Over here we’re thinking some of your basic produce, some squash, maybe some tomatoes. Over here we’ll focus on grains and if things progress well we’ll talk about bread-making ….
REX: [voice over] Jenna is a farming expert with 15 years experience. She has worked in urban as well as rural settings with a focus on making organic eating the standard of the Cooperative.

CUT TO JENNA in close-up.

JENNA: I’ve always dreamed, since I was in college … I’ve always dreamed of being able to apply sustainable farming and nutrition on a wider scale. I’m so honored that we live in this society that makes it a priority, and instills it in the next generation as a necessity and as a good—it ’s moral, what we’re accomplishing.

CUT TO REX walking with DAVID, a youth in training.

REX: [voice over] One member of this next generation is 16 year old David, who came to the compound from Erie. He says being here has given him a sense of structure and purpose, and he has high hopes for program.

CUT TO DAVID in close-up.

DAVID: Back home … there wasn’t much goin’ on … jus’ … hanging around hassling the cops being hassled by cops. … I’ve been expelled from school, and they just kinda sent me here … my mom was like [makes a mock-shrugging expression] “This is it” … so here I am.
REX: What do you plan to learn here?
DAVID: Everything, I guess. Plant some seeds. [Pause.] Raise some chickens. [Pause.] I don’t know if we have chickens, but that’d be cool.

CUT TO trainee LAUREN in close-up.

REX: [voice over] Lauren is another trainee here. Lauren wouldn’t tell me her exact age or where she came from, but she is just as eager to benefit from the program as David.
LAUREN: I was lost after I left college. Lost. Didn’t know what I was doing.
REX: Did you graduate?
LAUREN: I transferred but I didn’t finish. … I did a lot of things I regret.
REX: Can you tell me—
LAUREN: Lotta molly.
REX: Molly?
LAUREN: Some cocaine. More molly than cocaine. That was my thing for a while. … I guess I wanna be useful. I wanna learn new things. I wanna know how things work. I never thought about that.
REX: How society works?
LAUREN: [smiles and nods] Something like that.

CUT TO trainees doing exercise drills.

REX: [voice over] Of course the Compound is about more than sustainability to Stephen, who comes to it from the Quality Control units where he was an officer.

CUT TO STEPHEN in close-up.

STEPHEN: Yeah we want to see the kids planting the plants and picking the vegetables and the fruit and all that. We want to see the citizens get fed. That’s fine, that’s all good. But as I see it, we need them to be ready.
REX: Ready for …
STEPHEN: Anything. To be ready for anything. I’ve got a whole course structured in for ground defense, security, and basic preparedness. [Pause.] We need to be prepared.

Pan out to STEPHEN and REX, who turns to the camera.

REX: And with that, back to the studio.

CUT TO REX seated in the interview area.

REX: A promising program, which we’ll be sure to keep track of at the show. [Pause.] “Quality Control” is a term we’ve been hearing quite a lot of over the last year or so. But for many of us it’s not a term we know much about. So to help clarify the term and what it means for us, we’ve invited Rooter, who works on the Authenticity Committee, the branch tasked with Quality Control. Rooter, thank you for joining us.

CUT TO ROOTER sitting opposite REX, he is poised and professional in demeanor with a warm, benevolent smile. He is dressed in black denim with black boots, a red shirt, and a leather jacket.

ROOTER: Of course.

Cut back and forth as each person speaks.

REX: So how did the policy come about?
ROOTER: I can’t remember, actually. It seems like we’ve always done it but it’s just not had a name before.
REX: Ah, I see …
ROOTER: I guess you could say it’s more focused than it once was. It used to be just keeping order. Order’s not the right word … uhm … of keeping those who were sent out from getting back in. It was our Exclusion Order. That was a big component of the ugly times right after the establishment of the Cooperative. Some people weren’t interested in cooperating, see? So the band had a difficult choice—necessary, but difficult—to draw a line [makes a cutting motion with his arm] separating those who won’t cooperate from everyone else.
REX: Yes, that makes sense.
ROOTER: But any student of revolution knows that clean houses don’t stay clean after one mess is gone. Hence Quality Control. Quality Control is the ordinance by which the Cooperative self-polices. The forces of normalization still pose a real threat to the authenticity the Cooperative strives to maintain. It is up to everyone to beat it back.
REX: How does someone become a part of the Quality Control Unit?
ROOTER: Citizens are automatic deputies of Quality Control. It is in their best interest to be alert to any shifts in mood in their communities.
REX: How is a shift detected?
ROOTER: It’s not really for us to say what does and does not shift a mood. It’s up to the communities to determine that themselves. And it might differ from place to place. But communities log onto the Quality Control message boards and file their complaints, and we see those. EDM, we’ve noticed, is a persistent problem across communities.
REX: EDM?
ROOTER: Yeah. Also just bad file sharing in general. The internet is spottier than it once was, an unfortunate outcome, don’t get me wrong, but also a blessing. We can monitor it and pinpoint inauthentic activity with awesome precision. Such as, oh, to pull an example out of thin air, downloading televised material we don’t broadcast.
REX: Yes.
ROOTER: But I don’t really need to explain that, right?
REX: No … no you don’t
ROOTER: But, if anyone wants to go from deputy to officer in Quality Control, those citizens need to stay active and to maintain Quality Control for its own sake, not as a stepping-stone. We recruit as much on strength of character as on results.
REX: That sounds like the right approach.
ROOTER: It’s custodial work, but everyone at the end of the day is a custodian.
REX: Rooter, thank you for coming on and clarifying our tasks.
ROOTER: Any time.

CUT TO pan out of the interview area. REX stands up and walks over to the sound stage.

REX: But that’s enough talk for one show. It’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for. Thomasine Pain and the Ideal Male Form have a new song that will put these new policies into perspective, and to remind us why we are all here.

CUT TO the sound stage where THOMASINE stands statuesque and straight-faced in front her four band members: three men on guitar and bass and another woman on drums. They are all dressed as classic crust punks. The band members are less coordinated getting their instruments ready. They show more fatigue and sullenness from balancing band and state duties. THOMASINE looks back at the band, who stiffen and position themselves to play.

THOMASINE: [looking deadly earnest into the camera] This song is called “Not Them.” One, two, three.

Feedback blares before a sudden blast of noise. (Think D-beat stuff like Discharge and Nails.) THOMASINE’s vocals cannot be deciphered. Captions at the bottom of the the screen read: TRUE FREEDOM / IS BEING TIGHT WITH YOUR FRIENDS / THE COMMON CAUSE / IS THE TRUTH WE DEFEND … TRUE HAPPINESS / IS BOUND BY LOYALTY / STAND SIDE BY SIDE AND HAND IN HAND / FOR A JUST SOCIETY … DO YOU KNOW YOUR FRIENDS / IT’S NOT THEM / IT’S NOT THEM / IT’S NOT THEM / IT’S NOT THEM

The music stops and returns to searing feedback. The band stands stiffly and silently before the feed is abruptly cut.

CUT TO REX seated in the interview area, a machine replaces the table at his right. His appearance is more serene and more resigned. 

REX: A fantastic performance as always. One so raw and authentic, that it makes me nostalgic for the days when the band were living out of their van and spreading their message in places I’ve never heard of. Be sure to attend your next community forum where copies of the “Not Them” seven-inch single will be available.

But the conclusion of the performance means that we’ve come to the conclusion of our broadcast. And so now … a personal note.

“PERSONAL NOTE” blinks at the bottom of the scream.

Never in any of my wildest expectations have I ever thought I would be here today. And I think I speak not just for myself, but for the viewers as well. What a crazy few years it’s been for countless citizens of the Cooperative. In the shockingly brief lifespan of this society, I’ve seen things, I’ve done things, I’ve said things, and I’ve thought things I never knew I was capable of. Times of upheaval, of uncertainty, have a way of … articulating your character in ways stability won’t allow.

Three FIGURES in black suits and masks appear behind him. FIGURE 1 is stands behind the machine. FIGURE 2 stands behind REX holding the electrodes connected to it. FIGURE 3 stands to the left of REX and observes. REX begins to unbutton his shirt, revealing scars and burns on his chest.

I suppose in some strange way I am privileged to have experienced it. In this light, the vision of the Cooperative and Thomasine’s mobilization of it has never been clearer. Thank you, Thomasine, for what you have given me, in spite, and to some extent, because of circumstances that brought me to accept it.

And that blinking light is telling me that my— … our time is up.

FIGURE 3 applies a topical liquid onto REX‘s temples and chest where FIGURE 2 attaches the electrodes.

Please come again next week with a new host to showcase the immense progress of the Cooperative and another performance of Thomasine Pain and the Ideal Male Form. Thank you, and good night.

FIGURE 1 kneels in front of REX and places a gag muzzle over his mouth. FIGURE 3 puts a black bag over his head. She motions to the man to switch on the machine, which makes a charging up sound when he does.

FIGURE 3 holds up three fingers and silently counts down to one.

FIGURE 1 presses a knob and REX’s body tenses up. He stops after 10 seconds. FIGURE 2 checks REX’s vitals.

FIGURE 3 points up to indicate a voltage increase. FIGURE 1 repeats.

REX falls from the chair and seizes.

FIGURE 3 points up for another increase. FIGURE 1 obeys. FIGURE 3 points up two more times and FIGURE 1 obeys each time. After the second, FIGURE 3 folds his/her hand to indicate sufficient voltage, and counts down. FIGURE 1 switches the knob two more times for five seconds. REX is dead. Two guards enter to cover his body and carry him off. The FIGURES bow for the viewers.

CUT TO the emergency broadcast screen.

FIVE VERY SHORT PLAYS FOR TABLES

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PLAY no. 1: PATTERN BALDNESS

Scene: A corporate boardroom, identical men in black suits fill the seats of the conference table. All but two men are hunched over. The CEO is standing over the shoulder of the VP in a rage.

CEO: [screams over the VP’s head six times at three second intervals]
VP: [clutches at his chest, at the third scream blood pours out of his shirt as his heart bursts]

CURTAIN

***

PLAY no. 2: MORE LIKE SUCK-ULENT

Scene: A mid-20th century dining room. Seated on the long side are a teenage SON and preadolescent DAUGHTER waiting for dinner. A BABY is in a highchair next to one of the end chairs. Atop the table is the FATHER, fully clothed and alive but hogtied and marinated with a honey glaze. An apple is in his mouth. His face is relaxed and his eyes are serene.

Enter MOTHER from the kitchen door in an evening gown and apron, twirling around the table while humming Engelbert Humperdinck’s “After the Lovin’.” She brandishes a carving knife and prong, clanging them together rhythmically as if sharpening the knife. She sways to the rhythm,  the SON and DAUGHTER join her in unison with their knives and forks.

BABY: [spits out its pacifier]: Run—don’t walk—to your local supermarket, and get your very own while supplies last.

CURTAIN

***

PLAY no. 3: CHICAGO NOPE

Scene: A hospital operating room. A PATIENT is on the operating table prepared for surgery. NURSE 1 moderates the PATIENT’s vitals. NURSE 2 stands by to assist the DOCTOR.

Enter the DOCTOR in full scrubs and mask, holding a scalpel in one hand and a clamp in the other. Both hands are gloveless. He looks down briefly at the patient.

NURSE 1: The patient is anesthetized and all vital signs are stable, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Very good. I will now make an incision on the abdo—
NURSE 2: Your gloves, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Oh yes. [he puts down his scalpel and clamp and pulls rubber gloves tightly over his hands. As he does so, he gazes wistfully at the patient and turns to NURSE 2] This may seem silly but … I always felt like I was the patient and they were my surgeons.

CURTAIN

***

PLAY no. 4: BRIGHT YOUNG CHROME THING

Scene: Television studio for a public broadcasting talk show. A HOST, in a dark suit and a warm and earnest expression, sits at a circular table across from a large ROBOT wearing a bandana over its glassy top.

HOST: Good evening, viewers. My guest tonight is the TITAN 9000, the latest operating model of a verbal processing AI unit made in collaboration with NVIDIA and The Paris Review. It’s here to talk about its debut novel To Code Man, the Python and English translations of which have soared up the bestseller list. There’s even talk that TITAN 9000 might become the first AI unit to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Thank you for your taking the time to speak with us, TITAN 9000.
ROBOT: 001111010101010111100000101010
HOST: [leaning in with his hand on his chin] So, TITAN 9000, critics have marked To Code Man as the ascendant catalyst of a new paradigm shift in fiction, which they have dubbed [looks down at notes] “artificial hysterical realism.” It seems, in other words, that your novel breathes new life into the long-dormant humanist project. [pause] I suppose my question is …

Enter TIME TRAVELLER who shoots the HOST in the chest with a ray gun and dies hunched over the table.

TIME TRAVELLER: [looking into the camera] I had to do it. I had to do it to change the fu—

The room goes black. When the lights go back up it is now an elegant minimally styled apartment kitchen where a MAN and WOMAN sit stiffly at a table, wearing reflective black spheres over their heads and specialized gloves.

MAN: Position the bolt pistol just so. [pause] Yes … yes right there.
WOMAN: [motions her arm outward as if holding a gun and presses the trigger]
MAN: You’ve been practicing.

CURTAIN

***

PLAY no. 5: THE SOULCRAFTSMAN: A SILENT OPERA IN FOUR ACTS

ACT ONE

Scene: A home workshop, wood is piled at its center. Enter a lean MAN in his late-30s, unshaven, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, a work apron, steel toe boots, and goggles. He stands silently before the pile. He takes a deep breath. Silence.

ACT TWO

The workshop some time later. The MAN is building a table. He has grown a fuller beard. He is sweating and his sleeves are rolled up. His focus is singularly on the table and nothing else. A WOMAN enters the room carrying a tray with a bowl of steaming soup. She places it on the workbench, sits on a corner stool and gazes at him without expression. The MAN takes no notice.

ACT THREE

The workshop. The MAN is lacquering the table. His beard is much longer, down just over his stomach. His shirt is off. He is surrounded by several trays with now-cold bowls of soup.

ACT FOUR

The workshop. The MAN stands silently and blankly before a finished table. He is wearing nothing but his apron, boots, and goggles. His beard is still longer. He is holding a chainsaw. The WOMAN stares blankly before the audience while holding hands with a teenage BOY dressed in a full football uniform, their free hands are both holding lit sparklers.

MAN: [turns to the audience] Meet my beautiful life partner.

The MAN turns on the chainsaw and revs it.

CURTAIN

DARK INTERESTS

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Scene: Stone bench in a cemetery on an overcast winter afternoon. A male GOTH, mid- to late-20s, sits hunched over while his thumb glides rhythmically over his phone screen. There are two Starbucks cups placed at either side of him. After a few seconds of silence, an OLD MAN, mid-70s, hobbles slowly to the bench with a walking stick and sits next to him. The GOTH glances briefly and blankly at him before looking back at his phone. More silence.

Old Man: Are you …

Goth: Sorry what?

Old Man: Sorry … didn’t mean to bother.

Goth: No … no. It’s fine. I’ve been zoning out.

Old Man: Are you … um …

Goth: Yeah?

Old Man: … in … mourning?

Goth: Oh, um, no. No, not really.

Old Man: Ah.

Goth: Yeah.

Silence.

Old Man: Are you, if I can put it another way, mourning … generally?

Goth: Mourning generally?

Old Man: Yes.

Goth: I don’t understand.

Old Man: I suppose, what I’m trying to say is, is that I might have asked a silly question.

Goth: Have you?

Old Man: Maybe even a stupid question.

Goth: Well I don—

Old Man: Of course they always say there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Goth: I’ve heard that, yeah.

Old Man: There are, though, stupid sayings.

Goth: I guess.

Old Man: And that is one of them. [Pause.] Because that was a stupid question.

Goth: I wouldn’t say that.

Old Man: No you wouldn’t, nice boy like you, but the odds are in stupidity’s favor here.

Goth: How so?

Old Man: Easy. This is one of the oldest graveyards within a 50 or so mile radius.

Goth: Sure.

Old Man: It’s very well known on various … websites, you could call them, for its aesthetic allure. There are, I’d hazard, no burials that took place here after, I don’t know, the 1950s. You know what was going on in the 1950s? A whole lot of nothing.

Goth: I wouldn’t know, really.

Old Man: Take my word for it. But, to get back to my point, I think it would be a safe assumption for me to say that you might not have immediate or even distant relatives buried in this graveyard.

Goth: Well … you’re right.

Old Man: Ah ha! So then it would also be a safe assumption for me to say that you are a general mourner. Now by that I mean you mourn no one person buried here, but you in your own way mourn all those buried in all manners throughout the world. [Pause.] And, if I can be bolder here, all those as yet unburied.

Goth: I never really thought about it.

Old Man: I won’t assume much more than that.

Pause.

Goth: Some people are offended by that.

Old Man: By what?

Goth: By my having … dark interests.

Old Man: Who could possibly take offense to that? In this day and age? Where the levels of quirk and idiosyncrasy in personal hobbies have never been higher?

Goth: Just … people.

Old Man: “Just people.” People on that shiny rectangle there?

Goth: Sure.

Old Man: They barely qualify. What do they know? What is even the matter with “dark” interests? Is it not of value to drift up and down these rows of old headstones? Checking the dates, ages of death, the clever designs, and haunting elegies? Is it not a reflection of our inevitable destinies and of the fortune of having a proper and peaceful resting place? [Pause.] What you need is to forget the silent judges, and be with likeminded people. [Pause.] No maybe that’s not the word I want. Simila— … no. Well, you know what I mean. People like you. People who mourn the buried and as yet unburied as you do right now.

Goth: Well, as a matter of fact, that’s what I was hoping to do today.

Old Man: Oh?

Goth: I was hoping to meet this girl. But that was supposed to be almost an hour ago and …

Old Man: Stood up?

Goth: Seems like it. The perils of online dating, I guess.

Old Man: Oh you met her on … what’s it called …

Goth: No … um, I met her on c0v3n.

Old Man: Coven?

Goth: No, c0v3n. Lowercase c, with a zero in place of the o and a three in place of the e.

Old Man: I see.

Goth: Here, let me show you. [Moves closer, holding phone screen so the OLD MAN can see.] So the app will randomly generate a user of your gender preference, like usual, but also practice preference. Like, are you into witches, wizards, high priestesses, vampires, glampires, enchantresses, druids, esoteric magicians? That kind of thing.

Old Man: What’s your preference?

Goth: I’m a splatterpunk looking for a rivethead.

Old Man: I see.

Goth: And so if you are interested you press the star pentagram, which casts a “charm spell.”

Old Man: That’s … Wiccan? Which is good?

Goth: With this interface it is. So if you’re not interested you press the goat head pentagram on the right, which casts a “death hex,” and you never see them again.

Old Man: And who was supposed to me today’s lucky lady?

Goth: Right here.

Old Man: Meredith … Jeanine.

Goth: Jeanine Meredith actually.

Old Man: Oh, well the grey streak really brings out the eyes. Did you tell her that?

Goth: No.

Old Man: Kid you’ve got a lot to learn. [Pause.] But don’t let it get you down. You’ll get into the swing of things. At least you got coffee for her.

Goth: What, oh no, this one is mine; this one was here when I got here.

Old Man: This might be fortune giving you a nudge.

Goth: Yeah. [Pause.] Yeah. [Pause.] So, I take it you’re in mourning? Actual mourning, I mean.

Old Man: Well, my grandfather and grandmother over back that way.

Goth: I’m sorry.

Old Man: Don’t be. I barely remember them at all. I was a boy when both of them keeled over. In fact my grandfather’s walking stick—this thing here—is the first thing I ever inherited.

Goth: Ah cool.

Old Man: Shit lot of good it does me now. Crotchety bastard was a foot and a half shorter than I am. [Pause.] But … you could say that I am in mourning.

Goth: How so?

Old Man: I, too, was stood up by a … similarly minded woman.

Goth: Really?

Old Man: Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that. You see, I’m not as unfamiliar with “dark” interests as it may appear. In fact, you could say I had quite a few growing up. Like you I was gloom-minded, dressed like an undertaker nearly every day. Dyed my hair with shoe polish. Of course back then there was no newfangled internet as you might guess. Phones were connected to wires and were operated with rotary dials. I bet you or someone you know has one for the aesthetic appeal.

Goth: Well not—

Old Man: Well you’re goddamn right; those things are beauts. But we didn’t have things like c0v3n. We had maybe personal ads. But those were dicey. Every now and then you’d hear about a “Blind Date Killer” or a “Backpage Bandit.” Terrible stuff. Luckily I was the only boy with dark interests in town, which made dating the only girl with dark interests in town much easier. Dina Allen was her name. Maybe not by conventional—even darkly interested—standards a pretty girl, but boy did she have the look and the sense of a sorceress. I don’t know that we ever dated seriously. But we had a routine. Poe at school, Baudelaire at home. Roger Corman at the drive-in, Mario Bava in the city. We requested Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on the radio every chance we got and danced to it in my rec room whenever it played. And of course frequent sojourns to this very cemetery.

Goth: Really?

Old Man: But we were savvy about it and avoided Mischief Night and Halloween when all the other idiots suddenly remembered it existed. We’d go on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We’d watch the fireworks on the Fourth. And for the two Valentine’s Days I knew her, we’d pick our favorite epitaphs and put them in cards, and exchange them on this very bench.

Goth: Wow. [Pause.] So what happened?

Old Man: Well, that’s a bit more complicated, as I said, but … one summer, I’d say between junior and senior year this was, we’d go to the cemetery quite a lot. I think it’s because we both had jobs nearby. She was at the pool snack bar, I was over there.

Goth: At Chipotle?

Old Man: It used to be my father’s dental practice. Anyway, one night we came here doing our usual thing. Nothing racy, mind you. Yes, sometimes we’d kiss, sometimes while lying on slabs. But mostly we’d just be together. Avoiding our mutually drearier situations including but not limited to being the only people with dark interests in town. Now you see that mausoleum all the way at the edge there, the one with the opened gate?

Goth: Yeah.

Old Man: One of the oldest plots in this place, for the first rector of this church. It was our favorite place in here. We’d sit and make up stories about the rector. That he was this powerful warlock and that he would cause women and children to disappear in service to his satanic desires.

Goth: [laughs]

Old Man: Yeah, so stupid in retrospect. One night we had some of her dad’s bourbon, each taking some strong swigs out of it and she started running all over the place. I happily and dizzyingly chased after her. I found her swinging on the loose gate of the rector’s tomb reciting parts of Le Spleen de Paris. She was amazing like that. I told her to get down but she went inside. I followed her in. She was sitting on the slab smiling more giggling and giddy than I’d ever seen her. She came back down, said something not really comprehensible then so a lot less so now, and gave me a burning bourbon-scented kiss on the lips. Then she ran out. I saw her duck around back of the mausoleum. I thought I was chasing her around it but when I stopped she was neither in front of me nor behind me. She was nowhere. I called out to her. Nothing. I ran into the woods just behind the tomb but only vomited. I went home and vomited some more. Never saw her again.

Goth: Did you tell anyone?

Old Man: Of course I did! I may have had dark interests but I was no blackguard. I called her home and asked where she was. Her parents said they were about to ask me the same question. So they called the cops and I gave a painstakingly pathetic rendition of that night for the police report. But with so little other evidence to go on they just treated it like a runaway.

Goth: Were there suspicions?

Old Man: Of me? No. Ridicule, though … plenty of ridicule. [Pause.] I don’t want to say the town broke me, but … after a while some regular items in my wardrobe became less regular. Traded in the black suits for cardigans and denim. I washed most of the shoe polish out of my hair. My first car was an Oldsmobile 98, not a hearse. My favorite book is A Fan’s Notes—go figure. [Pause.] But I stuck around. Got a degree in library science, and I’d come back here every so often. Hoping she’d come back and we’d carry on as always but mostly to mourn what’s probably lost forever. I don’t know what else I can do. I tried keeping her memory alive in the local lore forums but the moderators are fucking draconian. [Pause.] One thing I never got rid of, though, was this. [Goes into his coat pocket and takes out a small pin.] It’s pin with a skeleton on it. She gave it to me one Halloween.

Goth: That’s really awesome.

Old Man: Got kind of rusty over time.

Goth: It’s still pretty cool.

Old Man: I see no reason not to give it to you.

Goth: I … I don’t thin—

Old Man: No, I insist. It doesn’t seem right to hold onto this.

Goth: I … Are you sure?

Old Man: At least I know you’d appreciate it. [Hands over the pin.]

Goth: Thank you, sir.

Old Man: Don’t mention it. [Pause.] You should probably work on your charm offensive, though. And maybe consider coffee before the tombstone stroll.

Goth: [laughing, fixing the pin on his jacket lapel] Yeah, thanks again. It looks nice!

Old Man: So it does. Glad to pass it on. [Pause.] Is there even coffee in that other cup?

Goth: Good question. Let me— [Opens the lid of the cup, winces, places it under the bench.] Oh good God no.

RENTER’S REMORSE

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The green door is found at the back of the house that I rent with two other men. None of us have any good answers for it. Visitors—whether friends, family, or prospective lovers—open it in hopes of finding a bathroom, only to meet an eight-inch indentation of the surrounding plaster wall.

Every time this happens we get the same look from everyone, one that suggests we’d been hoodwinked in some intangible way; or as if we’d been lazy, or desperate to get out from under our parents’ basements. It’s as if, to them, our situation has only deteriorated. Evidently we shouldn’t have bothered.

When the realtor was showing us the place, she avoided the door somewhat unnaturally. When we made gestures toward it she turned it back on us, wondering how such fine young men became so out of touch with the wider culture. “These days,” she told us, “a single house can have many doors—too many to count. Some are purely utilitarian. Some are purely decorative.” Our landlord, God bless him, acts as if “green door” is the one phrase in English he hasn’t mastered.

Not that any of us are complaining. Far from it. All things considered, we live in an adequate house that is almost pushing beyond the threshold into good. It’s affordable between the three of us, well insulated in the winter and well ventilated in the summer. The neighborhood is fine and the neighbors don’t mind if we have more than a handful of people over from time to time. Sure, the Wi-Fi gives out every couple of days, the house has some cracks, creeks, and rodent issues befitting its age, and there’s a Rottweiler with no tags walking up and down the street every so often, but at least we’re within reasonable distance from everyone’s work. Yet … the door … it’s just there, and almost insists on being so. We’re not actually sure if that room is for living or storing. We keep a mop and bucket in the corner and a few chairs around. We use it mostly to smoke when it’s cold. There’s a small window that lets us see out into the backyard.

We like to think that the room represents life in some way. The window is the small portal into wider adventure and opportunity. The green door is a more accessible passage to obstruction and stasis. A mutual friend was actually quite fascinated by the door. Though not fat, he had a protruding gut from steady alcohol intake, and was quite humorous about it. After we fed him some more beer, he stood in the wall indentation and laughed as the door bounced off of his jiggling abdomen. “I’m gonna sick the Zoning Board on you’ll [sic],” he slurred repeatedly. It took two of us to hold back our housemate Ryan lest he put the guest in a coma.

We try to not to let it sit in our minds that we’re those people, who settled on the property with the design flaw. Most days it’s fine. Save one night when I was getting the recycling ready and came back to the room to find Ryan sitting tensely against the wall across from the door, clutching a broom.

“Oh I was wondering where that went,” I said offhandedly.

“You don’t hear it?” he replied.

“I hear a lot of things.”

“But not it?”

“What is it?”

“Forget it, this doesn’t concern you.”

“Well, it does kind of.”

He said nothing further. And with nothing further to do than to return to my room and text “house meeting tomorrow night work?” to Adam, my other housemate, who was asleep, as if that would somehow help. I got the “ok” reply in the morning.

There was no sign of Ryan the next day. The broom was where he left it, though I suspected a pile of magazines I had missed being tied up and left on the kitchen table was his doing. I texted him about the meeting, by lunch it was still undelivered.

I decided to work from home, setting up a makeshift office in the kitchen. I made some coffee, put on Discover Weekly, and poured over my spreadsheets. After about three hours, the names, figures, and overall purpose of my job seemed to lose some clarity, but it was like having an unobtrusive day visitor at the table with me. My company’s home-office policy is lax up to a point, but for the first time in my professional life I could kick back before noon with my hands clasped behind my head and say “I could get used to this.” And with no elevator ride between me and my wind-chilled cigarettes, the back room was more inviting than ever.

It was about two in the afternoon and I was on my third break. It started to snow outside, a light accumulation of thick flakes, like drifting shreds of cotton. I tuned out my other obligations, both sensory and professional, as I watched the flakes arrange themselves onto the yellow grass. It was a good 10 minutes before a sudden but familiar squeal shocked me back to attention.

I turned around and the green door was open. A man I did not recognize was peering halfway in from the other side. He was young, acne-pocked, with a well trimmed and thoroughly pomaded head of blond hair. He was wearing a varsity sweater, but I could not see from what school or in which sport. But in his left arm I saw a copy of Walden, an war adventure comic book, and what looked like an algebra textbook all in retro packaging that lacked the wear and tear of lost time. Behind him I heard the faint swelling of other voices.

I lost track of time again staring silently at this boy whose eyes were frantically darting to me and to the rest of the room, as if he still trying to figure just what his mistake was. From his side I heard a bell go off. “Shit” was all he said, realizing finally that he was late and not where he was supposed to be, and shut the door. When I went to open it all I found was what was always there. I slapped the plaster surface hard as if that was really going to accomplish anything.

Ryan had still not received my text, so I did the unthinkable and called him. It expectedly went to voicemail.

“I’ve come back! I’ve comeback!” Ryan yelled in his recorded message. “Apparitions … of all shapes and contents. I want to describe them all! I’ve come back! And I’m nev— [beeeeeeeeeep]” I hung up, having no talent for voicemail.

I returned to my kitchen-workspace, opened a Word document and mulled over the most delicate way I could explain this to Craigslist users.

A WINTER WALK

andrew_wyeth_snow_2

I am not by nature a melancholy person. This attribute appears rather distinct in the colder months, when it seems everyone else is inseparably infatuated by therapy lights. I never understood it, quite plainly. Sure, the cold itself is a bitter mistress, but winter taken as a whole is a delight that can hardly be rivaled. Not even summer is quite as splendid or as invigorating as winter is. And there are few things quite as enchanting as going out just after everything around me has been freshly powered with snow. It is like waking up in an alternate, and much improved, version of the world.

Last year I found myself fortunate to have had three days out of a week in December with snowfall, not a common thing in this part of the country. So for the first time in a few years I had no excuse not to go out and literally walk in a winter wonderland. True, the most indication we have in our neighborhood of the approach of Christmastime are a few sparsely decorated homes and the tree-shaped adornments that stay up in the lamp posts well past Valentine’s Day. Though at least much of their tinsel had not yet been shed by the elements.

On one such walk I came by a lake not too far from my home. It’s not really a lake, I think. More of a glorified pond, with neither the space nor a sturdy enough frozen foundation to accommodate more than maybe one ice skater at a time. So it is usually a rather peaceful place this time of year, a kind of untouched oasis, like a mediocre painting of unknown origin in an odds-and-ends shop just waiting to fill a dentist’s wall come to life. Walking toward it, however, I saw that it was not entirely deserted. One figure sat on the stone bench at the edge of the lake, hunched over in a blue puffer. It was Daryl, who lived a few houses down from me. I can’t say we’re friends, but my wife and I got on fairly cordially with him and his wife as couples in the same just-on-the-cusp-of-middle age demographic tend to do once they’ve hacked suburban home ownership. So I felt I had enough reason to approach him.

“I hope the Mrs. is getting you one of those ergonomic chairs for Christmas,” I said with the pep of freshly certified middle school math teacher.

“What?” Daryl answered more sullenly.

“From Sweden. If you lurch your shoulders down like that for long enough you’ll be a hunchback by 45.”

“What are you, the posture police?”

“No … I … from just over there you could pass for something made out of stone.”

“Funny you should mention stone.”

“Pardon?”

“I was just thinking about rocks.”

“Like about geology?”

“No, like Medusa. Lately I’ve been thinking about that myth from the perspective of the victims. Of the people who made eye contact with her and were henceforth petrified.”

“I see,” I said as I took the space on the bench beside him.

“I think ‘victim’ is a misnomer. I’m starting to wonder if it is not such a stroke of poor luck to find yourself transformed into a rock. I guess it’s terrifying in the process but I imagine you’d get used to it eventually. Just think, a life without flesh, without consciousness, conscience, or memory.”

“Well … I never thou—”

“No hunger, no desires, no pain.”

“It seems interesting in the abstract, yeah.”

“I think the myth would be improved if Medusa’s ‘victims’ were at least given the option of being transformed moreover into a boulder. I don’t think it’s enough to be free of human material but not also the human form. You should be able to have less than even that.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“It just seems better to be shapeless and indefinite. I see a large rock and am actually quite comforted by how unknowable it is to me and how unknowable I am to it. I touch it and feel its cold. It may not know the cold I give it in return, but it’s there.”

“Ah ha, well … I mean you cert—“

“And another thing about boulders … they cannot be moved. Or they cannot be moved without a lot of effort and risk of injury. You can’t deal with them passively or ignore them completely. It’s there but it’s not … present. Maybe that’s not how it goes.”

“Maybe I was wrong. I hope you get a pet rock for Christmas!”

Daryl did not react to my joke, not because it was bad (though upon reflection it probably was) but because he was transfixed, staring in a silent, contented glaze toward the icy lake, which was giving off a notable heat and, upon looking at it myself, flames. They were thin flames of pale blue and orange, as if we stood before a giant flambé.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing, Daryl?” I asked. It was futile; he was clearly attracted to something and paid no mind to me. I walked up to the edge of the lake but was knocked onto the snow by a wave of heat. “Holy shit, what the hell is going on?”

I looked over at Daryl again, now standing and moving towards the lake himself. A hole had broken through at the center of the ice, and crawling out was a figure of indeterminate shape. It was red, that much was certain, but otherwise enshrouded in a kind of erratically pixelated distortion, like an image on a badly tracked video. From the increasingly serene look on Daryl it appeared that he was seeing something different, perhaps even recognizable. His serenity grew as the figure walked across the ice and reached out an appendage to invite him on, which he took gladly. And they waltzed across the flaming lake. Their rhythm was seamless, though I heard no music. After a few minutes another breach was made in the ice and they spun slowly into the water. The flames vaporized and the holes were covered again, as if nothing had happened.

I took a rock and a stick and walked carefully onto the ice, but I fell through on my fifth or sixth step. The depth went just under my knees.

The remainder of my holidays had me fixed on making sense of what I saw. Yet each new day of trying seemed more impossible than the last. Research into local and state lore offered no near equivalent of what I saw. There were no reported chemical or industrial mishaps either. No black vans speeding to the lake to take readings. No aviator-sporting strangers coming to my door to “ask me a few questions.” In fact no one did, not least of all Daryl’s wife, who I last saw just before New Year’s making a snowman with their daughter. She waved me down and we made some small talk about the weather and potholes while their daughter was finding the best angle to memorialize their creation with her phone.

After a while I just asked flat out: “Is Daryl around?”

“Who?” she replied quizzically.

“Your husband.”

Oh. Oh. Oh. Yeah. Of course. Sorry. Brain fart,” she forced a chuckle, which I replicated. “He’s out of town for a while. Consulting. You know how it is.”

“Over Christmas?”

“Oh, we never really did much for the holidays. His work is pretty important.”

“What is his work, I don’t think he ever told me.”

“You know,” she said tapping her finger against her cheek in mock pensiveness, “that’s a good question. Oh sweetie, don’t drop your phone in the snow, you just got that.”

Soon I began to return to the lake at the approximate time the incident took place. First every day, then every week from the day, and then pretty soon every month—all to no effect. Soon it was nearing spring and I was running out of options.

Walking back, however, I stumbled over a small rock on the sidewalk. I would have kicked it away in annoyance but for the epiphany it gave me. Thinking back on Daryl’s final words I got the sense that he was one of the melancholics, and that that might somehow connect with his flaming ice waltz. So I returned to the lake again and tried to assume Daryl’s mindset and to replicate his thoughts. But it was not easy. My happy, rational disposition could not fathom what drove his mind to appreciate rock formations as he did; or rather, his desire to be anything other than what he was at that moment. Much to my disappointment I was still happy with who I was, and content to live my life.

It wasn’t until I got I got home that I realized that my answer was right under my roof for the past six years. It had somehow escaped me that my wife was just then approaching week two of her most recent sleep marathon. I was quite annoyed with her that she did not inform me. She usually doesn’t, of course, but this time she could have helped, given me pointers, clued me in. No matter, I realized. She could still help me. It took a day of coaxing but I managed to get her outside to join me to the lake.

I walked briskly and excitedly on my usual route. My wife hobbled a few feet behind in her own puffer jacket, sweatpants, and slippers, the wind moving her stringy, matted hair about like limp tentacles. Sometimes she would wander off as if she was looking on the streets of our town for the very first time and had to lead her by hand. Once we reached the lake, however, the situation was less than ideal. Much of the snow had melted by then, it was an indifferent 42 degrees, and the lake was half-thawed. I sat her down on the bench just as Daryl was. And waited.

“What are we doing here?” she asked in her half-wakened fry that ground like a can opener.

“Just getting some air, isn’t it nice?”

“Not especially.”

She was in the right headspace, but the agitation was starting to boil. Surely something would give now, I thought to myself. I put in so much effort, goddammit. I deserved some kind of payoff. But minutes passed, and nothing. I sat down next to her in resignation, feeling an unprecedented sense of failure. But when I turned to my wife to ask if she wanted to go back home, I was faced with the most bright-eyed and exuberant expression, one I had not seen since maybe our wedding. Something was happening. But as I was getting my phone ready toward the lake I saw nothing. Then a feeling started to come over me, starting at the feet and moving steadily upward, a kind of heaviness and tension. Soon I was paralyzed from the waist down, then from above the waist up through my neck and to the very tippy top of my skull. More than that I was frozen, not just frozen, but petrified.

As you can see, there was a lot of wishful thinking in Daryl’s ramblings. I’ve achieved his dream of life as a rock, and yet I retain just enough cognizance to replay these moments over and over and over again, and all the while still conscious of what’s happening around me. I never left the bench, and no one seems to notice that I am there for the duration. They sure make use of me, make no mistake: for their shit, for their spit, for their vomit, their cigarettes, their cum on occasion. I receive it all, like a Christmas without end.

As far as I know, Daryl never came back out of the lake. I sometimes have enough remaining synaptic energy to think of what I’d do to him if he ever did, provided I regained the power. He would be fortunate to exit just as he entered, though, amid the fresh snows of December, which are still not common enough, for my taste. I appreciate their purification more than I ever thought possible.

THE SPECTRUM OF OBSOLESCENCE

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Reading the New Yorker this week, I came upon a feature by Tobi Haslett on Susan Sontag that included this quote of hers: “What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which … they belong.”

The story of Susan Sontag is one of decline, from the heights she reached as a critic of unrivaled elegance and intimidating authority to the tragic lows to which she fell as a dithering and dilettantish fictionist. It’s a story written by other critics, of course, disillusioned by the fact that Susan Sontag herself had become disillusioned with her work and its value. “Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete,” Haslett writes, “that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance.”

I would do the piece an injustice to go on about it at length, but it is quite fascinated by the melancholy of Sontag’s later years that seemed to spark a quest for meaning about her vocation. As Sontag is among the few people of confirmed genius, I hardly begrudge her attempts to apply it elsewhere (though Haslett argues that success was mixed), but I’m at the same time surprised it took her such a long time to come to that conclusion. Chalk it up to the times, perhaps: that vaunted mid-20th century aristocracy of ideas that offered enough solvency to put off facing the darker truth of intellectual uselessness.

We of the blistered 21st century know better. Intellectuals are ever the brick-heavy iPod of forgotten yore. Alas, genius of Sontag’s kind is hard to come by, making helplessness endemic.

But fear not! For I have looked into the matter and divined a whole spectrum of obsolescence, which clearly shows that not all descents into it are equal. Indeed, it appears we’ve been going about it all wrong. We’ve been estimating intellectual merit on a passion-based scale of dispensability. No one is dispensable, of course, but every so often one or two intellectuals are indispensable leaving everyone else in an odd lurch. No more! Now everyone shall know precisely where they stand and, if nothing else, find clarity. I’ve come up with five intellectual types, listed them in order of most to least indispensable before revealing their more accurate obsolescence reading.

So peruse the list, find out where you stand, do it with a coworker or a significant other and compare, it’s probably fun.

The True-ass Believer
Of all the groups, the True Believers are by far the most respected and the most envied. Not for bad reason. True Believers are characterized by fearlessness. Nothing in their general makeup exists to filter their courage, to sedate their resolve, or to obscure their clarity. They take a stand and refuse to settle. This has lent them an air of simplicity, at least with preferred True Believers. Less preferred True Believers betray some notable distinctions. Some are so earnest (à la Robespierre) that they make you want to commission a contraption that claws your eyes out, slits your throat, and uploads the procedure to YouTube. Some are quite clever (à la Pascal) and make you want to do much the same thing. True Believers are not an especially wise bunch, but they have ample heart and energy for what they care about. If metal bands could coalesce into single individuals, this is the type they would be.

True Believers are exposed to considerable risk of obsolescence. They live or die (sometimes literally) by the temper of the times. If one does not have a high threshold for suffering or great personal security, it is a frightful gamble. These are hard terms, but terms they are likely to accept, as they only see the task before them, which only force will restrain them from achieving. Compromise or evenhandedness is worse than death. What is death or purging compared to the disgraceful ostracism of having survived? Ah, to not be Edward Dmytryk, that is Heaven, the True Believer says in the mirror in the morning and on the guillotine in the afternoon.

Obsolescence probability: 50 percent
Risk factors: Aside from temporal shifts, obstinacy, a taste for chaos, and inability to impose order.
Notable True Believers: Ian MacKaye, Mencius Moldbug, Amanda Marcotte, dog owners, Trump era Mike Cernovich, Kurt Vonnegut

The Hard-as-shit Pragmatist
No one wants to be a Pragmatist, or really to ever have to deal with one. Generally they are quite humorless and boring. They think almost entirely in figures, parts, outcomes, balances, contingencies, and logistics. They appreciate a grand vision only insofar as they are able to dismantle it and reassemble it once they’ve determined the most essential parts and the most efficient process. They are quite sensitive about an apparent absence of belief and go to such lengths to delineate their beliefs as to appear bloodless and, um, somewhat subjective.

And yet, Pragmatists are ever in need. What they lack in humor they more than make up for in flexibility. They can accommodate the views of all sorts and take on working relationships without much thought to optics or pleasantries. And they have a sharper than usual sense of calling things as they see them. Where the more intransigent among us see nothing but light, the Pragmatist is leering at the shadows just out of view. It’s a peculiar set of talents, and not talents one can hone so much as talents one gets to have and continuously apply.

Obsolescence probability: 30 percent
Risk factors: No social skills whatever. None. Zero. Total losers.
Notable Pragmatists: Megan McArdle, Edmund Burke, Henry Rollins, Hillary Clinton, mainline Protestants, 85 percent of the American population

The Craven-motherfucking Opportunist
The Opportunist is the closet humans have come to an animal. It’s not so much that they have failed to evolve into human decency, but that they may have evolved away from it, beyond it even. It is as if the Opportunists saw the True Believers and the Pragmatists, took their worst qualities, and made them worse still by utilizing them for the narrowest possible purpose. From the True Believers, the Opportunists take their single-minded determination and slash-and-burn intensity. From the Pragmatists, they take their rigorous cost-benefit cast of mind. The Opportunists mix them into a self-serving protein shake, which makes them more agile predators. What do they hunt? Whatever sustains them. Once that no longer does, they move on to the next kill. Such instincts may, at first, appear exciting, even noble; but Opportunists can’t commit for very long before substantial demands are made on them, and so they are prone to quick leaps. Many crash and burn; but others settle into a predictable pattern, once people see their animalistic habits, they are treated as such, and placed in a kind of zoo of public understanding, watched as much for curiosity as for security.

Obsolescence probability: 87.7 percent
Risk factors: Ends-justify-means instincts, nocturnal.
Notable Opportunists: John McCain, Gamergate era Mike Cernovich, human sexuality professors, actual good journalists, non-pet owners, the Duke of Marlborough

The Chickenshit Cynic
Some may find this inclusion to be redundant. After all, are not Pragmatists and Opportunists guided predominantly by cynicism? I’ll concede that. But one must concede as well that Pragmatists and Opportunists are, at bottom, principled groups. Granted their principles are somewhat malnourished but they have enough strength to drag their respective sleds on the right path with little wavering or drifting. Cynics, on the other hand, are confused by principles. I’m not even sure they can identify a principle should a principle present itself.

The dumbest of our categories, Cynics are attuned to the music of rather than the meaning behind signals, codes, and tics. Some might say they have a sensitive intuition, others an emotional intelligence. They will make reference to “political correctness” or “nuance” or “intersectionality,” but don’t expect them to stop and explain any of them. Who has the time? Cynics could not accommodate substance even if they wanted to. It weighs down on their chests like cinderblocks. Not that any of it matters, because they more or less reinvent language by sheer self-assurance. The lack of seriousness with which they see their opponents and the masses obscures but does not outweigh how seriously they take themselves. The Cynics are lonely, having mastered all that needs mastering—by their own curriculum, of course—and standing monumentally on a column that only fits one.

Obsolescence probability: 99.99999999999999999 percent
Risk factors: Stupidity, replaceability.
Notable Cynics: Christopher Hitchens, Paul Joseph Watson, et al., Damien Hirst, Tumblr users, Cum Town, et al., Lord Bolingbroke

The Unimpeachable Nihilist
“Nihilist” is lately an abused term, often as a term of abuse. A Nihilist is supposedly one who disregards the #actual good in favor of the totally deplorable, and does so flagrantly and spitefully. The espousals of this Nihilist just so happen to align with whatever set of beliefs the accuser disdains. In fact, every one of the aforementioned types can and will have the label foisted onto them at one time or another.

To speak of Nihilists in this fashion means to make the assumptions that Nihilists (a) actively choose this role and (b) relish it having done so, making Nihilists little more than trolls. Not at all the case. Indeed, Nihilists find being so all very draining. They are as horses being ridden across the great plain by an ornery truth that insists on kicking their sides. They get no water, certainly no rest; they are only driving to a destination that is somehow both ominous and getting further off the more they move. Why it falls onto them to undertake this is not known, only accepted. Occasionally Nihilists harbor fantasies about being “saved” from their trials, but at the end of the day they are just that. Nihilists can only live one way, they cannot begrudge those who do not see what they have seen but can’t really help them either. Nihilists live beyond provocation, beyond expectation. To be nothing of consequence, to be nothing of magnitude, to be nothing, that is Heaven, Nihilists say to themselves on their commute, binging This is Us, or at the birth of their children.

Obsolescence probability: zero percent
Risk factors: None that I can recall.
Notable Nihilists: Ambrose Bierce, Mark Rothko, Adlai Stevenson, Fr. James Martin, SJ, ferret owners