By Art Hanlon
Michael left Seattle the year people were getting in touch with their anger. All morning he began to notice the angry everywhere, as if one of nature's great rolling tides had reversed, flooding backwards through a well-worn channel with overwhelming lunar weight. When he ambled over to Alicia’s office, his former office wife, she pulled her face out of her hands, rolled her eyes, and sighed, saying that the angry would be with us always. “Now can’t you just go and leave it alone?”
Michael turned toward his cubicle just across and three over from Alicia’s office. It wasn't very big, but there were places in it, rare shadows where he felt safe. He often positioned himself so when he looked up from his computer, his gaze rested on the railroad map pinned to the wall. But the map was no longer on the wall. During the week, Michael had cleaned his cubicle of personal gear. He emptied his desk, stripped the walls. He had neither received nor given notice, and yet things had spiraled down to an end here, just as in several places before. He had exhausted his allotment of last chances. It must have been a watershed year for everyone including himself, who closed the loop on this part of his life by dropping acid. Right now. Right under their noses.
This morning federal agents were in the building again. Three times in one week. The Treasury Department wanted to talk to Ted Holloway, the CEO of TellAll. Later, the agents filed out of Holloway's office with grim Rushmore expressions squeezed between polished jowls. These were serious men. When Holloway stepped into the hallway, he tried to assemble an appropriate nothing-to-worry-about expression, his eyes in constant motion, his lips nervously trying to remember how to smile. The agents had been here before, but this time Michael thought the timing was right and waited for the perp walk, the leg irons, the handcuffs on Holloway's wrists.
“Routine check,” Holloway joked.
Yeah, sure. The agents were on Holloway’s trail and closing in. None too soon. Be patient. How much evidence did they need, anyway? One of the agents looked familiar. Each time the T-men had been to the office, Michael and one of the beefiest agents exchanged glances with a kind of recognition. The agent, Cooney on his name tag, walked up to Michael’s cubicle and, resting his arm on the partition, said between clenched teeth, “In 1975 you were in Cuba. You and your girlfriend. Might be you’ll get the chance to go back? Maybe the Gitmo brig?” Cooney slid his arms off the top of the cubicle wall, walked to the elevator, looked back once, and then slowly returned, rhythmically rapping his knuckles against the partition as he walked. “By the way, how did somebody like you get a secret-level clearance to work on this project?”
Michael laughed in Cooney’s face. “You guys gave it to me.” ¡Venceremos te Saluda!
When Michael left Alicia’s office, she called after him, “What’s the matter? Are your feelings hurt?” The angry are with us always. Michael walked mean with frustration. His feelings were hurt enough so that when he saw the three white capsules in his camera case, not even remembering when he put them there, he just tossed his head back and popped two of them, washing them down with the cold coffee dregs left in his custom coffee cup. Michael was indifferent even as he swallowed because he recognized that the acid, kept unrefrigerated in a small film canister for years, was probably too old to have any effect. Then he thought: What the fuck did I do that for? He thought about TellAll, an application development company that made extensive use of other companies’ source code to come up with special “information-accessing solutions.” The final product was an application that didn’t mind its own business as it snaked its way into whatever cell phone or computer that happened to be in the vicinity, the product’s only feature. Let’s see: feature or bug, feature or bug? Michael laughed. It’s both.
At his desk, Michael stared at his terminal, trying to see beyond his reflection into the spaceless pulse of the algorithm. He was the leader of an underground movement with one member. Balance had to be restored in the universe. He had a partisan’s map in his mind, but it was such a strange terrain, all coordinates and interstices, a difficult place to stage a cyber ambush where there wasn't so much as a virtual blade of grass to hide behind. Nevertheless, an ambush was exactly what he had in mind. These people had to be stopped. He rubbed his hands together and typed what he needed to type. Michael had five more lines of script to complete an executable file, but he stopped typing and stored the incomplete file in his private bin directory under an alias on an obscure back-end server.
Later Michael leaned out from his desk so he could see his framed bit of the world at large, an actual window at the end of the passageway, dark with rain, darker than the surveillant brightness within that burned off any shadow, flattened any contour that promised a visual escape route. Michael pulled his tie through his collar, feeling its friction, folded it end over end several times, and placed it, a neat, oblong, knitted box, on his desk next to the third white tablet in the camera case. His ceramic cup with the company logo rested on the center of the desk blotter where a brown ring circled the twentieth of December. Little dust motes floated on the oily surface of the coffee. He beheld what would be his third hit in two hours, the first two having been pretty much a flop. He scooped the tablet up with a piece of paper and slid it back and forth in the crease without letting it fall, then put it in his desk drawer. A question: Why am I doing this? A hundred generations of chimps rattled keyboards in his brain. An answer: Perhaps a search for the superordinary rational in the midst of unrequited life. Michael liked the sound of that. He pulled a pen from the inside pocket of his corduroy sports jacket, then a small, black Moleskine notebook held shut with rubber bands from his side pocket, and scratched the words down. On the other hand, he thought, maybe I'm just closing the loop in a rather drastic way; my wont in days of yore. An old tech insight. I’m making a silly melodramatic gesture, Michael thought. An empty gesture. This acid, at one time the portal to Xanadu, a world of color and profound meaning, is too ancient to have any effect at all.
Bored, Michael began walking the passageway, gathering intelligence. He passed several cubicles where some of the other content providers had pinned photographs of themselves as children under their nameplates. When he crossed paths with another hallway prowler, he withheld the facial twitch that sufficed for a greeting in the office. The others had a sixth sense about these things and were positioning themselves for advantage when his cubicle, so close to the window, became vacant. Michael knew that friendships would be destroyed with his leaving the scene. He walked for a quarter of an hour, earning roughly eight dollars and seventy-five cents, circling the same cubicles and their annoyed occupants again and again until he paused by the window. His window. The rain had slackened, and Michael could see the slick, wet parking lot with its vacant, white-lined slots pointing at the building, chevrons angled into centerlines like the empennage of an economic indicator. Splintered stakes held up a few cedar saplings in the corners. The asphalt surface of the deserted parking lot shone and reflected the spindly branches of the winter trees.
“You're awfully quiet today.” Dave Freeling came up from behind and spoke over Michael's shoulder. Dave had designed a crucial segment of the mysterious new software for the company, and his contract was consequently protected to a certain extent by the management's need to not appear ungrateful; or at least until Freeling's ideas became their ideas. “You got the blues, man, I can tell.” A slight reedy bend in Dave's voice suggested irony, although Dave had by now trained himself to be unaware of his own intentions. He was always surprised when someone pointed them out.
“Who?” Pointed finger at self. “Me?”
“I have it on good authority that the rumor about all the contractors being let go is not true, or at least premature, if that’s what's bothering you.” Dave looked out the window with an air of looking at, but not quite seeing the view for the first time. “You realize, of course, they have you right where they want you.” Dave nodded sagely, his right hand hanging at his side, the other hand in his pocket shaking his keys as if he held a tiny animal by the neck.
“I suppose.” Michael sighed.
“Right,” Freeling said. “You've been here—what—a year?”
“I don't keep track.”
“One year on a contract like this and you're out of the market—workwise, at least as a contractor,” Dave said. “Next thing you know, they'll make you some lowball offer to go permanent, and you'll be working on prototypes forever. You will bloody well have to go for it. Ninety days, man. That's the absolute outside limit on any contract.”
Both men gazed down at the parking area, where several bedraggled figures loitered in the corners. Always there, they sat on the curb of the grass-covered divider that halved the lot. The marketing types on the third floor called them speed bumps.
A tall, lumpy figure, enshrouded in an army poncho and wearing a black, woolen watch cap, slowly pushed a shopping cart piled high with bulging, green garbage bags. The cart listed to one side, one of its casters spinning wildly under the basket. The figure walked with great awkwardness, a bear’s body incongruously supported by the long, articulated legs of a water bird. Every few steps the bear had to step around and rebalance the load by pushing ineffectually from the side. At first Michael couldn't tell if the figure was a man or a woman, since all human features were obscured by multiple scarves, but soon Michael decided that it was a man's walk under the flapping tent of the poncho.
Michael's interest quickened a bit when the man looked up and, seeing he was being watched, pulled his scarves down with an arthritic claw of a finger and opened his mouth in a toothless grin. When Michael waved, the man waved back. Dave, surprised, glanced over at Michael to say something, but Michael kept waving and smiling, and he changed his mind. The man turned and called to the others, and all of them looked up, their faces oozing red- and white-streaked grins and began waving. Michael nudged Dave. “C'mon, Dave, say hello, once they were working white guys like you and me.” Dave smiled weakly, raised his arm at a right angle as if he were reciting the oath of citizenship, and swiveled his hand back and forth on its wrist—the Queen’s wave. Michael reached over and pushed up hard on Dave's elbow. “Wave, goddamnit.”
Dave pulled his arm away and backed down the passageway. “You fuck, wave at them yourself, you're the one who’s going to be down there with them.”
Michael kept waving as if he had spent his entire life at sea and was seeing the land of his birth for the first time. They, in turn, couldn't get enough and waved and beckoned. Come on down. Then it began raining harder, and the whole parking lot crew witlessly turned their faces straight up for a drink of mute rain, their second favorite Seattle beverage. A truck passed in the street below, and the floor bounced under Michael's feet. He hadn't noticed that happening before. He saw the rainbow sign like a sun dog in his peripheral vision, glassine, shimmering, and convex, verging on transparency. Fabric covered everything, and Michael felt that if he didn't step carefully, his feet would rip right through the floor.
Back at his desk, Michael rocked in his three-position desk chair with its adjustable arms. He tried all three positions and selected the factory default to make ready for the next occupant. Thus situated, he peeked into Dave's cubicle. Dave raised his head from his newspaper, looked resentfully at Michael, tucked his head, and resumed reading. Michael considered Dave in the abstract, the desk jockey, the systems analyst who didn't recognize the quality of his own ideas unless some young dork in a suit repeated them as his own. The heavy eyebrows and lowered cranial arch, his flared nostrils, the hair tufting out of his ears, the paunch that began under his second chin. Michael would tolerate Dave's tirades because he knew that Dave, in his middle fifties, and a bankrupt twice over, knew himself to be at the bitter end of an unbound paper trail, the sheaves of which fluttered in all directions from the Research Triangle to Silicon Valley. Michael called it the endless ream. Dave had amassed a lifetime of disconnected eight-hour days, even missing the sixties as they went by, and it was important for him to believe that failure and pointlessness were epidemic. Michael wanted to know how that was done.
A characteristic crackle of static electricity in the passageway. Michael could read the acoustics in that field disturbance and knew it was Alicia in her always rushed, always aggressive style. She spoke over her shoulder as she passed Michael's cube. “They need help setting up for the presentation, why don't you go in there and give them a hand.” Alicia waved in the general direction of the conference room. “Or are you too good for that?”
“I remember when she used to proposition you in the hallways.” Dave was back. All was forgiven.
“And then nail me to the wall in meetings.”
“You took it like a man, that's all I can say. How long ago did you and Alicia, um, you know…”
“Don't start, Dave, please.”
Dave took a step back. “Where the hell do you get off being so goddamn demoralized? I mean it ain't like you're falling from a great height.”
Alicia. Her eyes were nothing like the sun. Alicia the determined. Alicia the demented. Alicia the damned. Alicia the beautiful? Not at first, but more so as Michael got to know her. Twenty years ago in New York, they’d been lovers, and Michael’s bold entrance last year into the conference room to interview for a job at TellAll, so long after their New York affair, shocked Alicia into astonished silence. When she got control of her voice, she looked across her desk at Michael and—so memorable, so thrilling—the way she drilled Michael with her number one laser stare, and said, “Of all the job interviews, in all the towns, in all the world, you walk into mine.”
Michael’s response, “Shall we sing ‘La Marseillaise’?” forced her to smile unwillingly and shake her head at the mean way life had unfolded for her. Was it karma or pharma pushing his outrageous insouciance this time? She would never know.
Michael, casual, nonchalant, acted as though not so much time had passed since their reproachful and very public breakup on the Manhattan Bridge. Her interviewer voice trembled ever so slightly, losing its icy impregnability. At that point, Ted Holloway, in his double-vented European suit, his tieless Hawaiian shirt, walked into the conference room, picked up Michael’s résumé, read it, asked a few questions, and, pleased that Michael knew so much more about UNIX than your average technical writer, hired him on the spot. Holloway, the man on the go, abruptly turned and left the conference room, leaving Alicia to stare at Michael. Michael recognized her expression as the same one she wore at age twenty-one, when he first laid eyes on her as she recited Edna St. Vincent Millay from memory, declaiming dramatically in front of twenty or so friends, actors, writers, artists crowded into Michael’s East Village apartment. Someone had brought her to the party on Michael’s birthday and ended up leaving her there. Later, they worked together as waitstaff at Bud Freidman’s Improvisation on Forty-Fourth Street. In the daytime they took improv acting classes where they learned to never refuse a tendered gambit. They almost killed themselves volunteering to harvest vegetables at the food co-op farm upstate near Poughkeepsie. Their one and only show business job was as extras in a Robert Frank movie being filmed at the Sixth Avenue automat.
Michael had always found Alicia’s haughty stare strangely erotic as it dared anyone to defy her. More than dared: ravenously invited—in love with conflict. The cold apartment on Tenth Street and Avenue A. Winter of ’65. Four a.m. The Fugs on the stereo. Alicia wearing the threadbare coat with the fur around the collar but unbuttonable in front. Nineteen degrees outside and she had worn a denim miniskirt. She smoked then, although every time she lit up, she’d announce that she was trying to quit. She didn’t have to work to be the center of attention—a glorious enigma with a voice passive but loud, the embodiment of the yin when it’s in charge. An image crossed Michael’s mind: Alicia amid the empty bottles, the wineglasses down to dregs, the broken glass on the floor, the joints and roach clips on the table, the pure white lines on the mirror, the filthy snow on the windowsills, her eyes half-closed with stoned fatigue after a long night. The way she tossed her long, wild hair back and hummed along with Tuli Kupferberg.
Morning morning Feel so lonesome in the morning Morning morning Morning brings me grief
He remembered with repressed grief the last good-bye, the last get-the-fuck-out-of-my-life, the last phlegm-filled hack of a fare-thee-well, the last drained droplet of whatever it was that drew them together sliding down Alicia’s glorious cheek. He remembered well the evening standing midway on the bridge for all of those Brooklyn hipsters to see, when out of exhausted rage, she slapped his face.
For the first few months after Michael signed on, they warily circled, trying to keep out of each other’s way. But as time passed, something happened: the way she positioned herself so she couldn’t help but be noticed, their eyes meeting too frequently to be unintentional—the proximity to his face of her shapely ass as she bent over his desk to press Enter when electronically signing his time sheet. The hours they spent in her corner office talking about, oh, the movies, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woodstock, Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, favorite bands, the Velvet Underground soundtrack to their former East Village lives, the inevitability of Altamont and Cielo Drive, the good old days trying to find work as extras for Woody Allen, and last but not least, with a sudden shift in perspective, stock options.
Last year at the annual TellAll Christmas party held at Duck Interrupted, an upscale restaurant on Western Avenue, not far from the building, Alicia and Michael arrived tipsy and too late to find a seat at the long banquet table where the others made toasts and boasts. The maître d found them a small table for two, the lights low, the ceilings high, the tea candles flickering in the melted wax, still, to be sure, well within the visual range of those sitting at the banquet table. Michael studied the shadows crossing Alicia’s face until she used both hands to push her hair back from her face and let candlelight brighten her still visible cheekbones, her strict aversion to eye contact. It was easy for Michael to imagine her as a spy trying to extract information to bring America to its knees—a small Beretta Bobcat in her purse to facilitate the flow of information and terminate the interview. Michael remained expressionless when Alicia’s shoeless foot found his leg under the table. The tablecloths hung low off the table, and nobody saw her place her foot directly onto Michael’s crotch. She had to slide down in her chair to do it, and people, especially Holloway, must have noticed her slouching in an unnatural position, talking loud in incomprehensible, disconnected phrases, speaking in tongues, throwing her head back and laughing. Their eyes mutually signaled yes to the improvisation (never refuse a gambit) and Michael took off his shoe and reached his leg to slide his foot along Alicia’s thigh. Turnaround is fair play. He made formless sounds, grunts, nothing more than syllables, if even that, and she nodded, and laughed, coughing up some kind of reply like extras on a movie set, faking conversation while the leading actors did their star turn in front of the cameras.
Watermelonwatermelonwatermelon. She brought her thighs together and clasped his foot in place as she closed her eyes and squirmed in her chair. Michael flexed his toes, and Alicia’s chair bumped and scraped on the floor as it slowly skipped a few inches to the left. Michael’s chair squeaked a few inches to the right. By the time all twelve feet were back on the floor, the rest of the TellAll gang at the banquet table had gone silent. Alicia abruptly sat up straight, put her chin in her hand, and looked at Michael intently as if she were truly fascinated by his nutshell explication of W.V. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The waiter arrived at the table, and Alicia, imperiously, peremptorily said, “Not now.” The waiter moved off, mumbling to himself. Finally, Michael and Alicia were the only TellAll staff remaining in the restaurant. At closing time, they finished their drinks and staggered toward the door. Michael tried to help Alicia on with her jacket, but her arm couldn’t find the sleeve. Michael groused, “Hell, is this a damn jacket or a goddamn pup tent?” Alicia fell back into Michael’s arms and stayed there, ducking her head and pumping her butt into his crotch, erasing the smiles of the stragglers lining up at the maître d’s station. The air outside was bitingly cold, the sky clear, and Orion, wheeling above, remained, as always, on the hunt.
Alicia’s house was in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. The porch was high off the street and accessible by a stone staircase that disappeared under an arch of rhododendron branches. Michael turned off the ignition, and they sat in silence, listening to the engine tick as it cooled off. The house was quiet. No sign of sentient life. They kissed a long, sloppy kiss, her hand with its painted fingernails gently caressing the back of his neck.
Michael whispered into Alicia’s neck, “Recite something by Millay.”
Alicia abruptly pulled away and faced the windshield, suddenly sober, her hands withdrawn to her lap, folded in the prayer position, her back straight as a duchess. “I don’t remember any of that anymore,” she said. She stared through the windshield, her eyes focused on the front door of her house, the Christmas wreath askew, its red ribbon loose and dangling like an untied shoelace. “I’m sorry, but I think I’ve made a horrible mistake.”
Alicia’s promotion came in the spring. Holloway gave her a bigger office in another corner. Michael was no dummy; he’d already read the gossip columnists in the Stranger and The Seattle Times mentioning how Ted Holloway, accompanied by his newly promoted project manager, had been seen socializing at a Seattle Art Museum patron’s reception. Alicia had worked hard for her allies, and now all they wanted was for Michael to shut up and listen, and then translate what they had just said into the kind of English that would sell, sell, sell.
Michael looked out the window to watch a pack of joggers run in place while waiting for the traffic light to change. The clouds had started to break up, the sun was out, the streets still slick with the morning’s rain, the air crisp. It took a moment to recognize Alicia in her non-bounce halter and spandex shorts running in tight, little circles with her long hair tied in back bobbing up and down. She raised her wrist to check the time, then zipped out into traffic against the light. Michael picked up his tie, threw it over the cubicle wall. The woman in the next cubicle said, “Hey!” He didn’t want Alicia to go to jail with the rest of them, but if that’s the way it had to be to restore balance in the universe, so be it. Michael washed down the third hit of acid with cold coffee. Even a placebo buzz would do. Anything to make these last hours bearable.
Dave Freeling popped in Michael’s cubicle again, coffee cup hanging from his forefinger, not enough self-confidence to be offended by Michael’s uninterruptable window gazing, his remote fugue state, his grunting monosyllabic responses. “Are you going to the presentation?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m going. I have to. Are you ready?” Dave paused. “They’re fighting over who gets to go to Washington D.C. with Alicia and Holloway in a chartered Learjet.”
“Alicia?” Going to Washington? With Holloway? “Why not just download the whole package?”
“Security. Harold's real sensitive about it. That's the biggest problem—they’re taking an entire set of documentation and about forty floppy disks.” Dave did a Groucho with his eyebrows. “Harold was all set to go, but Alicia had lunch with Ted the other day. Next thing, Holloway tells Harold Alicia goes with him to D.C.”
Michael could see that caterers had lined up carts of covered trays in the hallway. This was to be no ordinary meeting. Nine men and two women gathered around a large, cherrywood table in the executive conference room, all sitting except for Harold Benzeen, the program manager. Benzeen stood at the whiteboard, holding a marker. Michael found a seat just as Harold gestured toward the door. “Close that, will you, Dave?” From his chair, Dave stretched his leg and swung the door shut with his foot.
Harold drew a squarish shape on the board, looked at it for a moment, erased it, and drew it again. The second attempt resembled a wet slice of bread. “I'm not an artist,” Harold said for about the eight billionth time in his career. He turned to the group, hands pressed together as if praying, and touched the tips of his fingers to the bottom of his chin. “What are we here for? Bob?”
Bob Ekblan, a staff designer, looked up with barely concealed irritation. “Uh, I believe this is the last review before the beta release?”
“No, Bob, beta release isn't going to happen with this product. I told you that at the last meeting. Do you know why? Does anyone know why? Let's pool our minds here. Why we're paid.” Michael said nothing, deciding to keep his peace until Harold got around to him. It was a pattern. Writers, or content providers as management called them, were always last. In the meantime, Michael treated meetings as just so much entertainment.
Harold controlled his meetings even when attended by people senior to him, taking every opportunity to rise from his seat and draw complicated diagrams on the board and then explicate their meaning. Somehow, he had convinced each manager above him that he or she was his personal mentor. Harold had a habit of disparaging people's ideas in front of their supervisors. In California, where he grew up, he was a whiz kid in a special program with other brilliant kids, one of whom later appeared on television talk shows explaining why he killed his parents with an ax. Harold told the story as if basking in reflected glory. Needless to say, Harold’s major management tool was applied stress. Alicia was his only competition, and she was not yet at the meeting. “Anyone?”
Randall Evenson used the backs of his thumbs to roll a pencil back and forth on the table. Bob Ekblan closed his eyes and pointed his index fingers at his temples, scrunching up his face as if his mind was trying to shit a stainless steel quadratic equation. The two men at the end of the table could have been twin brothers, but they were not. Pudgy, pasty, blonde, and frowning, they waited petulantly for the meeting to get technical. They were German application developers who had been brought into the company from WISTA Silicon Allee in Berlin to do nothing but think on salary for a full year. One of them, Gerhard, spoke slowly with a barely detectable German accent, “We call it Clean Sweep—”
Karl, the other developer, interrupted. “It's not, though, not completely.”
“If we had more memory, say the newest chip—”
“Still wouldn't matter, the ratio of search would remain—”
“But on another order of magnitude—”
“Well, that's the whole point, it's like saturation bombing an entire city—”
“To take out a single person—”
“Which actually could be a viable strategy—”
“Depending on who the single person—”
“Hold it, hold it, hold it.” Bob opened his eyes, his forefingers like ice tongs to each temple. The equation was about to plop into the collective mind pool. Bob’s eyeballs clicked back and forth, covering the room. “Anybody see Star Trek last night?”
“I did,” Melanie answered, floral skirt to her sandaled heels; Peruvian, off-the-shoulder, white blouse with red trim, turquoise bracelets jangling. “It was hilarious. They had something called a miniaturizing window which Spock invented so Vulcans could mate with earth women.” Harold, who had stopped listening, began drawing a tic-tac-toe matrix on the board.
Dave broke in. “You mean shrink them down to size?”
Melanie glared at him. “You could go to jail for that remark,” she said.
Dave laughed, but Melanie wasn't joking.
Bob picked it up. “No, no, I saw it. Vulcans have this incredible private parts expansion when they go into heat. Vulcan men will suddenly look like they're riding on a pair of Siamese elephants when they, you know”—here, Bob looks around and licks his lips—“get turned on.” Scattered laughter, derisive and dismissive, did not deter Bob from continuing.
Dave whispered to Michael, “Probably happens in meetings a lot.”
“On the bridge, actually,” Bob said. “They show it. Spock hits his head on the ceiling. Anyway, Vulcans gotta get relieved or, you know, whole planets can explode, wiping out countless civilizations—”
“Oh, he's been frozen somewhere in the Klingon's home galaxy. That's the whole plot. They have to somehow get to Kirk and revive him before he's completely crystallized and shatters into a billion shards of crystallized ego, but then Spock, who’s running through the navigation coordinates in his mind and giving them to Chekov, gets this enormous crush on Uhura.”
“A crush, huh?”
“Yeah, they had to clear the bridge, and no one could get back in until Uhura found the miniaturizing window on her console.”
“Are you sure that was Star Trek?”
Bob looked down at the table with a quizzical expression. “I think so.”
“I like the new Star Trek better,” someone said.
Evenson scowled at Ekblan, “That wasn’t Star Trek, you doofus, that was Saturday Night Live.”
Two workers from Grounds struggled to wheel in a television set raised on a metal stand high enough so everyone in a crowded room could see the large, 54-inch screen. Alicia, her hair wet from her post-jogging shower, pushed her way into the room, forcing one of the workers to flatten against the stand, his face jerking up toward the sky in a subservient reflex. He said, “Excuse me,” to the ceiling, but Alicia ignored him. Dave started to laugh and then looked down quickly.
“Michael, you can set up the terminal?” Alicia said without looking at him.
Michael’s spatial awareness was slowly becoming multidimensional, but he managed to connect Alicia’s terminal to the television screen, making sure she could see the screen without glare. Then he returned to his own terminal at the opposite end of the table. Michael sat just as Harold stepped back from his tic-tac-toe matrix. Michael tried to catch Alicia’s eye. She stood at the end of the table with one hand on her hip, the other on the back of an empty chair, aware of Michael’s searching gaze, but ignoring him. Harold was talking.
“All we have to do is get them to agree to let us into their files and then give us their credit card number.”
Alicia shook her head. “I suppose you think people are just going to let anyone call in and search their files.”
“We do it when they register the product.”
“Without telling them?”
Harold looked around. “I don't think we have to. There is no law that says we have to. We'll wordsmith in a six-point font the registration instructions in such a way that when they agree to buy updates, they also agree to let us search the files on their hard disk. Anyway, we don't call them, we make them call us. We'll give them free shit if they actually register. The only problem is the usability tests show that people don't want to register the product.”
Harold picked up an eraser and began to touch up the corners of the tic-tac-toe pattern. “That's where Michael comes in,” he said. “I’m sure Michael can write something creative to bring them around. You’ve done that before, haven’t you, Mike?”
Michael only nodded and glanced at a bookcase against one wall. No help there. The shelves were filled with loose-leaf binders. In slack times at the office, Michael would read the dictionary, tracking down the meanings of certain words. For a short while, he brought antique dictionaries to the office so he could look up arcane definitions and, in this way, be granted access to tribal memories that would give the life of his mind an extended context. But now after a year of being an accessory to the employment of language as camouflage, as concealment, deception, and subterfuge, Michael saw the words of commerce as meaningless babble, promises formulated in language that contained the terms of its own invalidation.
A following sea lifted Michael and pushed him from behind—a strangely familiar surge somewhere in what he liked to call his psyche. The chemical invasion was afoot—the transition to Xanadu—the moon in Scorpio. Did that make him effete? He tried to ready himself for the long, backward slide down the other side of the second hit. It seemed so long ago that he lost his shades, and he had never gotten around to replacing them. A walking bulletin board. Michael closed his eyes but then, terrified at what he saw, opened them quickly, swearing not to do that again for the foreseeable future. He still had enough left of his quickly draining lucidity to attend to business. But it had better be right now.
The conference room was silent. Eye contact avoided. No voice trusted enough by its owner to emit a sound neutral enough to be considered civil. Alicia began sorting her demo documentation. She pushed her wet hair behind her ears with both hands and brushed her nose with the knuckle of her forefinger. She was working hard for the trip to D.C., two little ridges furrowed between her eyebrows angled down toward her nose. Michael wondered if she would find someone who could love those little furrows soon to be permanent, some masochist who found ecstasy in constant disapproval.
The others in the room, bored, started drifting to the hallway on a break, or to the coffee machine in the supply room. Eventually Michael was left in the room with the two programmers, who were staring into space, facing away from the TV screen. Michael addressed his keyboard, created a folder he named CHARRD, and then rode an electronic back road to another folder on the company server. He copied the code he had been working on earlier. His moment had come, and it was time to say, So long, it’s been good to know you. He pasted the script to the directory he had just created and then deleted his private folder. He scrolled down to where he had left off and typed the remaining four lines.
“Hurry up.” Alicia had walked the length of the table and erased Harold’s diagram. Harold, abashed, backed off. Michael’s hearing was acute. He could hear the tiny, crackling sounds in the air as Alicia passed, static electricity like miniature whips snapping in her wake.He could hear the micro windstorms of everyone breathing as they filed into the conference room.
As Michael struggled to do his task, the air stirred around him as if pushed by an approaching train. He began to detect currents. He felt its textures upon his face. He tried to think deeply but couldn't dispel the sensation that he merely rested on the dark surface of his mind like a pond walker skating on a stream. Michael wondered why his personality couldn't just erode at a normal pace like everyone else's. He finished typing, and desolate of any remorse or anguish, he placed the script in an .exe file and copied it into an email addressed to Alicia. He typed Alicia’s promotion in the subject line and pressed Send just before that third hit of acid, accelerated by the first two hits, came on like a pack of howling dire wolves.Michael refocused to see Dave’s greenish image reflected on his terminal screen, crouching behind him to see what Michael had typed. Dave’s eyes were hooded, his lower lip protruding sadly from between his drooping cheeks. He pulled back and stared at Michael as if watching the slow collapse of a burning cathedral. Then he vanished.
The walls in the hallway parted with a small hydraulic sigh, and Ted Holloway, in a white linen suit, entered the conference room and leisurely moved around shaking hands. Harold Benzeen trailed behind like a loyal sergeant major, one hand in his pocket, smiling benignly at Holloway's bland witticisms. Visibly moved by the effort before him, Ted Holloway imparted the hard-won generalities of lessons learned in the business world, casting them down indiscriminately, as if petals from a garland. Holloway caught up to Alicia, and not even bothering to find a corner, or an empty office, he placed his hand on Alicia's back and then absentmindedly let it drop lower to claw one cheek as Alicia, standing on tiptoes with her pelvis arched forward, smiled the smile. Michael felt a surge of regret, but to his surprise, the rage he had depended on for so long to cancel remorse, failed to show up. He was now adrift.
The hydraulic doors parted once more, and the federal agents who had been interrogating Holloway entered the room. What timing! Michael, his spirit refreshed, quietly rejoiced; this was too good to be true, that rarity of rarities: a white-collar bust.
The agents walked over to the table. “Let's have a look,” Agent Cooney said. Holloway nodded and signaled the caterers to bring in the feast. The agents nodded back with festive smiles and gathered behind Alicia’s chair to see what she was doing. What was this?
“Alicia,” Holloway said, “show our customers what they’ve been waiting for.”
With a strange sense of vertigo, Michael fell through his own mind as he realized the agents were not here to arrest Holloway; they were the customers arriving for the delivery of the application that didn’t mind its own business.
Alicia was a multitasker, and when she sat down at the terminal and went through the procedures for installation, she also opened her email. There was no message, just a single .exe link. She reflexively clicked on the link, and instantly the image of a silver fish appeared on her computer monitor and on the linked television screen looking directly at her and everyone else in the room. She frowned. “That's not right.” She tried some keys. Then tapped the keyboard at random. “What is this? It's locked up.”
For a moment, when the fish opened its mouth and bit a hole in the background of the user screen, no one moved or said anything. Then when streams of letters and numbers began pouring out of the hole and into the fish's mouth, they all shouted at once.
“Control C, Control C, turn it off! Turn it off!” Arms with capable hands stretched across the conference table but couldn't reach the keyboard. It was a fish with lips. And the lips were made to go up and down as integers and letters were sucked down. Holloway calmly walked up to Alicia’s computer and turned it off.
Holloway waited a few moments until the hum of residual electricity in the computer died away, then calmly rebooted. The fish returned, swallowing the database one byte at a time.
Holloway was very calm. “It's already migrated to the root file system.”
“Turn it off,” Harold said.
Holloway’s voice rose as if he were the first to comprehend the obvious. “No. It doesn't matter. We may as well watch and see what it does.”
They watched the screen until nothing more emerged. The fish, a sockeye salmon of a type that doesn't come around anymore, turned sideways and devoured the interface background. Then it bent its body around in a U shape and, beginning with its tail, ate itself until nothing remained except two red eyes. The eyes blinked once and slowly closed, leaving a black screen. Then there was a moment of silence before Alicia, red with fury, stood up and pointed at Michael. The ridges over her eyes spread all the way out to her temples, a cordillera of anger. “You… you did this.”
Michael looked over at Holloway surrounded by acolytes, the living center of a wreath awash with pink, face-filled blossoms. Something serious began happening to time, and everything that moved swarmed with afterimages. A song ran through Michael's head, slamming doors all the way. He addressed Holloway before him in his white suit.
“Are you from Laredo?” Michael was dismayed at his inability to convey the delicate logic of what he had just said. His throat hurt; his stomach was in knots. Michael, buzzing away within the fabric of his perceptions like a bumbling bee caught behind a screen door, became aware of Agent Cooney looming over him, his mouth opening and closing in preparation for what he had to say.
“Say,” Cooney began, “can you show us how you did that?”
Michael imagined himself over at his window, facing the entire office, only he was eight feet tall, his head brushing the ceiling, and he had black, filigree wings. He would spread those wings, so bat-like in their hinged, articulated metacarpals, their webbing of thin, velvet membranes, and enfold friend and enemy alike, gather them to the encaged piece of spoiling meat he called his heart and demonstrate how an abandoned soul gets its warmth.
“Sure,” Michael said.
Cooney straightened. His suit resumed its tubular integrity. He crossed his arms and, holding one elbow, stroked his chin as if searching for a beard. “Let’s talk.”
Two weeks later, sitting in the back seat of Cooney’s black, bulletproof SUV, Michael took a final look at the bleak, industrial building where TellAll lived. Freeling, Benzeen, Holloway were standing at a window. His window. They didn’t wave but just watched as Cooney drove Michael away to his new career. A government job of all things, temporary quarters in a house in Silver Springs until he found his own place, travel pay, security clearance, language lessons, paid moving expenses to Washington D.C. At a separate window closer to the corner, Michael saw Alicia standing alone. She was smiling, her hands clasped under her chin, and Michael could almost know what she was thinking. Her smile had turned into a single laugh. She mouthed at Michael as he was leaving, Look at you. Michael had worked at TellAll for a year, but his profile had never been as high in the company as when he hit the speed bump on his way out.
Art Hanlon was born in Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the Marine Corps, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, taking a bachelor’s degree in American history and English, and a master’s degree in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a country blues musician, a theater set carpenter, a technical writer, and a book editor before returning to the University of California Riverside Palm Desert for an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He is currently an associate poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. His song, Spokane, won first prize in the 2005 Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington. His essays and fiction have appeared in Surfing Illustrated, Art Access, Narrative Magazine, Coachella Review, Please See Me, and Kelp Journal. His essay The Brilliant Present was included in the Special Mention section of the 2019 Pushcart Prize Anthology.