Black Ribbon Award

THE HEGEMONY OF ADULTING

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I have two approaches when it comes to attending parties: show up very early or show up very late. By “late,” of course, I mean the following afternoon when it is certifiable that every guest has left but all the Solo cups, pizza boxes, roaches, and small mirrors (if applicable) are still strewn about like a bomb went off and when the bathrooms are still disgusting. I find these approaches to be greatly congenial to my temperament, which craves not the thrill of the spectacle but the intimacy of its being carefully assembled beforehand or totally dismantled after the fact. Needless to say, the frequency at which I am invited to parties has steadily dwindled over time.

This is no less true of metaphorical parties. And indeed this is the case now as I find myself late to the pornography party that came and went last weekend.

As Twitter seeks to resemble the brute meritocracy of high school more and more, I seek refuge further and further from it. Yet I still could not help hearing through the grapevine that never ceases to grow that Ross Douthat threw a “ban porn” rager in his online corner and simply everyone who was anyone was there. I’ve been early to pornography parties before, which is awkward enough, but showing up late to a pornography party, even a metaphorical one, is quite like the old saying that one should never bring a knife to a gunfight, except there are much different … tools involved. But here I am, and I hold my nose accordingly.

Douthat’s piece is a standard spiel from conservatives who have achieved a certain level of prominence in the center-left forum. He tries to persuade those who would be his enemies that they are, quite contrary to their blasé conventions, his friends. They share a common ground that culture is in a bad way, with sexual mores being entirely tangled and lopsided as either gross power play or “joyless mimetic spamming.” We must seek to be better to one another, ergo we must seek to be virtuous. “So if you want better men by any standard,” writes Douthat, “there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle.”

It doesn’t appear that his pitch was altogether successful. But I believe there is reason for this.

Anti-porn crusaders are familiar with the standard line of pro-porn argument that pornography won’t be banned until humanity has ceded its dominion over earth to a less depraved species. Douthat was perhaps moved to write what he did when his employer published Maggie Jones’s long feature on “porn education” three days earlier. It tells of the push of sex studies professors introducing “critical thinking” courses on pornography to high school students. As one professor puts it, such classes are “grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.” Hannah Witton, a YouTube vlogger who focuses on sexuality, also sounds the education horn in her video “The Benefits of Porn.” Granted, her pointers are not entirely consistent. Porn helps people in relationships open up about their desires and boundaries, and it provides escape when those sexual desires prove disappointing. But that seems beside the point, and indeed implies a much grander aim.

I suspect that pornography doesn’t factor too heavily in the schemes of the sex positive. It is, as the porn literacy teachers imply, something they’ve come to accept, albeit gladly. It is not sex sex, let’s be clear. It’s an ideal, or in any case it is a kind of magical realism. Whatever it is, though, it is not offensive or an aberration, but something that should be encountered, acknowledged, and not shunned. It’s a part of a ritual: a rite of passage. It is the entryway rather to than the final destination of the new adulthood.

Over the advocacy of pornography, or whatever atomized issue is presently at stake for them, is the blanket gospel of the maturity the advocates are demonstrating. It is less a concern to ask why a world takes this or that form than it is to adjust to its norms and to assimilate. This particular world is one that favors freedom, but a very joyous and extroverted sort. It’s the kind of freedom that comes to resemble mandatory fun as it depends on the assumption that one would be foolish or actively antagonistic not to want to bask in the bacchanalia. But of course there are such people, people who are awkward, people who have scruples, people with morals founded out of sight or while the screens were in sleep mode, people who are low energy, people who are fearful but who can’t really say why, people who had fun exactly once and felt awful, people who don’t care to talk right now, people who don’t live in cities, people who can’t afford to move, people who dropped out of school, people who need rather than luxuriate libraries, people who require considerable effort to be happy, people who may never be happy, people who are at least content and may not be interested in any ideas of happiness others are selling, among others.

It’s wrong to assume that sex positive advocates disparage these types of people. It is probably better to say that they simply don’t notice them, and when they do it is generally met with bewilderment. The negativists may be vulnerable to offensive notions, but they themselves are too strange to truly offend. The positivists will show compassion, if not empathy, but might lose patience once the negativists prove immobile on certain principles. But of course the prestige self-help movement where sex positivists thrive has become less ideologically inert, while remaining tonally so. Soon people like Jordan Peterson shrewdly come to take the place the last person who gave up left behind.

Ultimately it is less interesting in parsing the justification or logistics that go into restricting pornography. If it comes it comes, and no one crusader may have any significant say in how it does. The implications of that shift, no matter what, will be messy and any benefits derived from it will not be apparent after maybe a couple of generational turnovers. What’s more interesting, and for my part more important, is to figure out how to jump off of this pendulum that swings violently between repression and liberation, and which calls for an all-consuming hegemony on either end. The greatest case against pornography, and the world in which it thrives, is that sooner or later it’s going to get boring.

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WHY I WRITE SUCH GOOD POSTS

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Last month held a significant anniversary for me. 10 years ago—January 24 to be exact—a box containing 300 copies of the first issue of Biopsy magazine was delivered to my door. After a year and a half of false starts it finally came together, physical evidence of a thing I conceived in my head to be used at my discretion. Of course I gave them out to whoever would take them. Somehow, over the course of five years, we managed to repeat this process three more times.

The onset of the anniversary came to me sporadically over the course of last year. Throughout that, it occurred to me that I might be in a position to mark it. How this was to be done I could not say. An “event” was out of the question. We never held events for Biopsy while it existed, what point is it to have one now, for a magazine whose core audience was never fixed and whose other creator has effectively moved on to better things? Indeed, thinking about what to do merely reminded me of the poor logistics I brought to the entire operation. In the end, the anniversary was rather muted; in part because of the event I mentioned in the previous post, and in part because there simply wasn’t occasion for it.

I had taken plenty of opportunities in the past to wax triumphal about my zine. I’m sure that even—perhaps especially—at its most tongue-in-cheek, such triumphalism over a burgeoning and unproven endeavor could come off as perplexing or hard to swallow. But that is the paradox of triumphalism, which works like the inverse of nostalgia. With nostalgia, one realizes that the good old days were good long after they’ve occurred and have had time for the rough patches to be smoothed over. When one is triumphal, it is often in the heat of excitement in real time, before the moment’s faults and lesions can be gleaned.

But of course this triumphalism was not limited to me. Indeed, much of my own was propelled by a much louder instance that I could not avoid for what seems like Biopsy’s entire existence.

Blogosphere is not a term one hears very often these days. In fact it seems like I am the only one who brings it up anymore. When I think of it, I’m reminded of the scene in the 1980s-set 1999 film SLC Punk in which a monied German weed dealer is showing off his laser disc to a bored Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian. The dealer has that glee people sometimes convey when they see what looks like a past being heaped onto the funeral pyre by a risen future-present, but rendered ridiculous with over a decade of hindsight—you know, when DVDs were on the cusp. But my memory of 2008-2013 was rife with such moments before the hindsight, and I was somewhat more than bored with hearing them.

I’ve thought of the Dish as a blogazine for quite a while now. The model we’ve groped our way toward combines the agility of a pond-skater with the ability to deep dive at any moment. And its reader-generated content makes it a product of a collective mind as well as an individual one, a bull-session as well as an individual’s thinking out loud. Who knew this evolution was possible even a year or two ago?

That’s Andrew Sullivan writing on The Dish, his then Atlantic-affiliated blog, in 2010. I read The Dish fairly habitually in its heyday; it was by no means a poor source of information and reading material in a time of media upheaval. (My own work was even linked on it.) But I would sour on Sullivan every so often when he would post those self-congratulatory hosannas, often accompanied by images of empty magazine racks, to how swimmingly he and others were navigating this upheaval. “But that’s the joy of this new medium,” he concluded. “We still don’t know where it will go next. And we’re all improvising like mad. What’s not to love?”

In truth, I can see his point. Sullivan and others where experimenting with ways to compel readers to care about substantial journalism. Print was buckling under a changing market. Sullivan, a magazine veteran was looking to adapt while a host of young upstarts were gaining entry through this new medium. Even Biopsy had a blog component, but I didn’t consider it until someone told me to do it. But in the end I could only see blogs, “blogazines,” and bloggers as benign antagonists. It all seemed rather convenient, gushy, and presumptuous to boldly usher in this new era with so many people with less ingenuity struggling to keep their professional lifelines connected. (In addition to Biopsy I was working at a failing magazine publisher that, come to think of it, sill owes me money.) They were not enemies to me personally but to my stringent notions of work and craftsmanship. My view of that time period was as a lone prophet diving strange and subversive ideas with a darkly bewitching aesthetic while precocious Cool Kids were talking VERY LOUDLY about Sarah Palin, the surge working, voter demographic charts, or Julia Allison.

10 years later I can say that Biopsy was unique, even, I think, among the independent (maga)zine crowd. At my most triumphal I compared it to Carnival of Souls, a Z-grade horror film with (mostly credible) art house ambitions. Biopsy was more atmospheric than intellectual, portending, as a friend pointed out, a generational malaise to which the remaining generation had not yet caught up. It was also the most effective way for me to admit that Biopsy was very, very flawed. It was perhaps the purest product of which a 20-something could conceive, infused as it was with over-fired ambition, immaturity, inexperience, isolation, anxiety, and patent lack of self-awareness. There was an urge to get something accomplished and to derive merit from it. More than that, I wanted each issue to me a testament to my abilities should I get hit by a bus soon after one was printed.

Needless to say, I’m very glad I was not hit by a bus. With time, the Biopsysphere and blogosphere would become less separate and, in fact, they would find overlap. But this is perhaps due in no small part to our respective ‘spheres coming at the same crossroads. Some of us needed to do something else. Blogging in the late-‘00s ideation burned itself out on too much rapid-fire commentary and quantitative hairsplitting. For the most talent blogging veterans, the ultimate endgame was being less concerned with experimentation and more with just giving readers information in the most complete form possible, which meant a return to web-calibrated magazines and print-calibrated websites. For me it was accepting the necessity of being somehow a part of a professional web of sorts, though more than that, accepting certain limitations and just generally trying to be more socially cohesive. Also, I am very obviously writing on a blog now while, oddly enough, Andrew Sullivan is back at a magazine.

Occasionally people have put to me the suggestion of starting Biopsy again. Some of these are probably in jest, responses no doubt to the aforementioned triumphalism. But even the serious suggestions are not compelling for me. First are my limitations as a manager and editor. The four issues break down in revealing ways. The first two had me trying and failing to be an editor, or some mismatched idea of what an editor was. The last two, the issues I still share with people, mark when I became a writer in earnest. But I can’t also just sit down and write a Biopsy article, some of which seem labored in subsequent reading because they were often padded for space. I also can’t tell if they are more muddled or more amusing/sophisticated predecessors to the current crop of “edgy” online pablum.

If Biopsy is of any importance it is at least in its establishing of a mode of working. So long as avenues are available to me, I am always going to do fugitive work. Sometimes it will be to set foundations to building on ideas, other times it will be as a more self-indulgent end in itself. One medium—print or web—is not superior to another. Each has its own distinct benefits and detriments, neither lacks potential for prestige, they just reach it differently, or at least at different times.

In any case, the search for the perfect all-purpose medium is of less interest to me than testing the limits of any one idea I may have with a range of options, at least with text. Here just happens to be the most proper place at the moment to explore them. I am not a zinester because I no longer put in the work. I am also not a blogger because I don’t seem to be reader-friendly. I would not be averse to having some work gatecrash Kool-Aid man-like into a #conversation without immediately stumbling face-first to the floor. More often, however, the best work I can manage on here is to take on a succession of personal fixations, examine each one with as much precision as I can manage, and render unto the public their ultimate condition. Kind of like some kind of form of medical testing but in prose, which seems kind of familiar.

TL;DR: I became a better writer.

THE HEAVY METAL CLASSROOM: A REMEMBRANCE

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Teen me, circa 2000.

It was lyrics day in Creative Writing, an elective I jumped at the chance to take during, I think, the first marking period of the spring semester of my sophomore year at Governor Livingston High School. So, winter 2000. I remember very little of what I accomplished in that class. Though I do remember some very terrible “joke” “poems” I wrote that my teacher Miss Sample decided to tolerate, as she always had, and not add to my grade, much to my incredible fortune.

It’s not fun actually remembering a lot of this time, if I’m being honest. It was a low point in my adolescence, at turns pathetic and simply embarrassing. I don’t think I’d been more insecure, more clueless, or unhappier than I was at that point. But I remember lyrics day! That fun day when we get to set aside the rigors of craft and discipline to bask in the glow of our own, obviously faultless, pop cultural tastes.

Miss Sample set up the stereo. There was a usual procession. “Doll Heart” by Hole, I’m pretty sure, was one of them; at least one Tori Amos song appeared as well.  Not bad by any means, but having resolved the previous year to go punk, then, like a month later, to go rivethead, then circling back to straight edge before summer, I wanted to go one further. By then I was a connoisseur of the extreme; a sommelier of the fringe. Granted that came about largely in isolation. I scoured histories and collected “essential” albums with my limited resources—special ordering at Scotti’s in Summit, or getting someone to drive me to Curmudgeon in Edison, a record store that had no parking lot. One such acquisition was MIA by The Germs, a compilation of the early Los Angeles punk band’s entire body of work, all 17 of their songs. Darby Crash was a self-destructive, nihilistic idiot. He was also a poetic genius, and so what better time than that moment to showcase it? I stood up, played “Lexicon Devil.” I can’t say that most people in the class shared my enthusiasm. Miss Sample, if I recall, wasn’t unimpressed (and going back over those lyrics again, rightly so), but so much for that.

I can’t remember if Chris went before me or after me, but I remember his presentation being more successful. Chris was a senior. We sat in the back corner of the classroom in a mini-fiefdom of other “weird” students, which given the class was saying something. Chris was unlike me, he was routinely in better spirits; he had a sense of humor that combined the jovial, the dark, the gross, and the absurd in the proper proportions. He was a musician and played in a few bands. His typical facial expression was a blend of the impish and the cheerful. It was the same expression he made as he stood before the class and pressed play on Miss Sample’s stereo, blasting forth The Dillinger Escape Plan’s “Jim Fear” off of Calculating Infinity. The band’s debut album had just been released the previous fall and I didn’t take to them right away. But Chris read off the band’s enigmatic, staccato lyrics and mesmerized me. “Alfresco slapsticked/Foam mouth sunshine/Slash her and bash her porno freak/Throw another crap cake on the stove, Jimmy/The flaming hermit/The lonely fool.

So Dillinger Escape Plan lyrics are actually kind of terrible. But that moment sticks out as rather monumental all the same. It signified the opening up of an entire world that I didn’t think could possibly exist. A culture that was at once self-contained and self-refined. It was an intimidating one, of course, driven by pride and passion, a resilient stridency that there was nothing else going on that was better than this. What dumb luck for us that we were at least half-correct. Chris, who had a genius for being unencumbered by petty bullshit, whether related to high school or the scene, was a generous and patient guide through this world. He introduced me to several bands, he was partial to Lou Barlow’s projects Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, as well as the burgeoning emo luminaries Grade and The Promise Ring.

We started our own project, little evidence of which actually exists outside of a few t-shirts (designed by me) and maybe some photo footage (not that I particularly want to know). It was called Morgancore, featuring me on vocals and Chris on acoustic guitar. We debuted at that year’s Teen Arts Festival, performing before a packed lecture hall at Union County College. The evaluating teacher indulged us and the students were amused, more or less. With the addition of drums we played one and a half more “performances.” To some it might appear that I was making a total fool of myself. It wasn’t exactly wise, I’ll give you that, but it wasn’t something I can look back on and regret.

What I do regret, though, was what it took to remember this. I had never properly forgotten any of it, but time has a way of rearranging boxed memories into new corners, each more mildewed than the last. Our friendship drifted as these tend to do, and was more or less relegated to Facebook interactions that went from occasional to infrequent before dropping off entirely. We had some reconnection over the fact that he would go on to attend my college to get his nursing degree. He never seemed to lose that joy that stood out above most others in GL. Indeed, attending his wake reminded me of his justly earned class individualist and friendliest senior superlatives. But his passing is a reality I’m coming around to gradually. I left a gap wide open, which now will never be closed.

Chris was the kind of person who will cause countless other people to have similar flashbacks. I make no claim that this is among the most significant, and certainly I do not mean to set aside the other memories of this kind I’ve made and would go on to make with others. But loss has a way of sending us back to the mind’s account ledgers to review what we owe and to whom we owe it. Because we never self-invent as independently as we think we do. Often we’re sent back to our personal wind changes, whether breezes or gusts, and are grateful they blew in a certain way. It leaves me, as surely as it leaves others, at turns thankful and sorry.

THE PHANTOM CURVE

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Let me make this perfectly clear. Right from the start. Before we commence. With why we are here. To avert any confusion. This—all of this, all that you see here, all that you sit within—is mine. It’s not yours and it’s not ours. It’s mine. You see me pointing at anyone else but me? This space has been deemed mine for the allotted time we have together. So, from 10:45 AM and until 11:45 AM, it will be bound by rules crafted by me. And I use “crafted” knowingly. Because this is a workshop—and everything is workshopped.

In fact, let that be the first rule. Prepare for labor-intensification the likes of which you have not seen before. Yes, some of you are students I’ve had in semesters’ past, and you think you have my approach and my style down pat. Maybe you did, once. But like I said: everything is workshopped. I shall repeat with emphasis: fucking everything is fucking workshopped. That means I have gone to previous classes, assessed painstakingly every weakness and struck them out. Then I pored over the strengths and infused them with greater strength still. I have no idea how these revisions will play out over the course of the semester. But I’m assured that this demonstrate why I ask the very same of you in this class. You will be craftspeople. And this extends to your marginal contributions. Emails asking for office appointments or any doctors notes that look dashed-off, “stream-of-consciousness,” or have any other indications of ironic postmodern carelessness will be disregarded.

The second rule is show up promptly. I enter that door at exactly 10:45. I expect to see two things upon entering. First I want to see everyone seated at a desk. The desks should be arranged in a circle. You are responsible for the width and curvature of that circle. The focal point of the circle is the desk, of which I will always sit on the edge and never at its seat. Anyone who is not seated will be removed. Anyone who is late will be denied entry. Sit out in the hall, lean under the window between the bushes, I don’t care. Process your penalty any way you like. Second is that everyone must have their notebooks on your desk and opened to your most recent entry.

The third rule, then, is to have entries written within 12 hours leading up to each class. I do not impose strictures as to length or content. If you fill up a notebook in a night then you buy a new notebook. But they must be, shall we say, freestyle. The first things that come to your heads, place them on the page. Do so legibly; I will select one of you to read your passage out loud before continuing with class without further comment. My hope is that by the end of this semester you will have an idea of our natural filth and of the importance of always being clean.

The fourth rule is class participation. The volume and candor of an opinion is always proportional to the impracticality of the opinion and to the lack of authority the giver of the opinion holds. The greater the impracticality and the lesser the authority, the more permissible the volume. So speak up and speak often.

The fifth rule: get acquainted to the point of intimacy with the syllabus, even if I haven’t, or even if I have but don’t feel like following it. I could, for instance, be stricken with a personal matter that I want explore in detail using the format of this class. Or I could be vexed by a conflict on The Great British Baking Show. That is no concern of yours, do not deviate from the syllabus.

The sixth rule: your scarf is a distraction. Now outside the classroom that’s just an observation. So really the sixth rule is that in this room, at this time, any observation can and often will be a rule.

The seventh rule: those who sit to the left of me, you are on the men’s side. Those who sit to the right of me, you are on the women’s side. I will not tell you which side you have to be on. You’re not in the Real World yet, but you are adults. You come into this class, you make a conscious decision about where you sit on a given day, and you must abide by the customs, the norms, and the cues of the side on which your desk is found.

Finally, you are not bound by me to adhere to these rules. I am not a taskmaster and I offend easily at insinuations of being perceived as one, let alone having to act as one. But I will not overlook those who break them. You see … I’m grading you on two tiers. The first tier is the academic tier. It’s the covenant we make to the world outside of this room that something tangible has been accomplished. It must be satisfied whether we like it or not. The consequences may well prove cataclysmic to all if even one of us, willfully or not, breaks it.

But even so, the first tier is a formality compared to the second, and higher, tier: my personal evaluation of each and every one of you. I do not share these evaluations with anyone. Rather, I compile them myself and keep them in a safe place for my immediate reference. When or how they will be referenced I do not know. It depends entirely on you and how you chose to conduct yourself in this classroom … at this time. I allow you to assume that careful observance of these rules translates more or less into positive evaluations, and that they might benefit you long after this class is over. But assume along with that that this tier does not function with the same metrical logic as institutional grades do. I cannot clarify more than that because what good would it do to clarify a curve you cannot see, and which I’d prefer not to have anyone outside of this room know I am applying? Just know that it is a curve and that is bends for everyone in every way you can imagine it being bent.

Now that I have established the rules of the classroom, we will sit together in silence for the remaining half-hour, as I have left the syllabi in my office, which is not even in this building.

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.

A BRIEF STATEMENT

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If it’s all right with 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 as 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

5150031

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 …

1400w

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 apportioned correctly. Kind in the right amount, acerbic in the right amount. [Pause.] Afraid in the right amount. 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

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 12.29.34 AM

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