Suzanne Church almost never had to bother with the blue blazer these days. Back at the height of the dot-boom, she’d put on her business journalist drag—blazer, blue sailcloth shirt, khaki trousers, loafers—just about every day, putting in her obligatory appearances at splashy press-conferences for high-flying IPOs and mergers. These days, it was mostly work at home or one day a week at the San Jose Mercury News’s office, in comfortable light sweaters with loose necks and loose cotton pants that she could wear straight to yoga after shutting her computer’s lid.
Blue blazer today, and she wasn’t the only one. There was Reedy from the NYT’s Silicon Valley office, and Tribbey from the WSJ, and that despicable rat-toothed jumped-up gossip columnist from one of the UK tech-rags, and many others besides. Old home week, blue blazers fresh from the dry-cleaning bags that had guarded them since the last time the NASDAQ broke 5,000.
The man of the hour was Landon Kettlewell — the kind of outlandish prep-school name that always seemed a little made up to her—the new CEO and front for the majority owners of Kodak/Duracell. The despicable Brit had already started calling them Kodacell. Buying the company was pure Kettlewell: shrewd, weird, and ethical in a twisted way.
“Why the hell have you done this, Landon?” Kettlewell asked himself into his tie-mic. Ties and suits for the new Kodacell execs in the room, like surfers playing dress-up. “Why buy two dinosaurs and stick ’em together? Will they mate and give birth to a new generation of less-endangered dinosaurs?”
He shook his head and walked to a different part of the stage, thumbing a PowerPoint remote that advanced his slide on the jumbotron to a picture of a couple of unhappy cartoon brontos staring desolately at an empty nest. “Probably not. But there is a good case for what we’ve just done, and with your indulgence, I’m going to lay it out for you now.”
“Let’s hope he sticks to the cartoons,” Rat-Toothed hissed beside her. His breath smelled like he’d been gargling turds. He had a not-so-secret crush on her and liked to demonstrate his alpha-maleness by making half-witticisms into her ear. “They’re about his speed.”
She twisted in her seat and pointedly hunched over her computer’s screen, to which she’d taped a thin sheet of polarized plastic that made it opaque to anyone shoulder-surfing her. Being a halfway attractive woman in Silicon Valley was more of a pain in the ass than she’d expected, back when she’d been covering rustbelt shenanigans in Detroit, back when there was an auto industry in Detroit.
The worst part was that the Brit’s reportage was just spleen-filled editorializing on the lack of ethics in the valley’s board-rooms (a favorite subject of hers, which no doubt accounted for his fellow-feeling), and it was also the crux of Kettlewell’s schtick. The spectacle of an exec who talked ethics enraged Rat-Toothed more than the vilest baby-killers. He was the kind of revolutionary who liked his firing squads arranged in a circle.
“I’m not that dumb, folks,” Kettlewell said, provoking a stagey laugh from Mr Rat-Tooth. “Here’s the thing: the market had valued these companies at less than their cash on hand. They have twenty billion in the bank and a 16 billion dollar market-cap. We just made four billion dollars, just by buying up the stock and taking control of the company. We could shut the doors, stick the money in our pockets, and retire.”
Suzanne took notes. She knew all this, but Kettlewell gave good sound-bite, and talked slow in deference to the kind of reporter who preferred a notebook to a recorder. “But we’re not gonna do that.” He hunkered down on his haunches at the edge of the stage, letting his tie dangle, staring spacily at the journalists and analysts. “Kodacell is bigger than that.” He’d read his email that morning then, and seen Rat-Toothed’s new moniker. “Kodacell has goodwill. It has infrastructure. Administrators. Physical plant. Supplier relationships. Distribution and logistics. These companies have a lot of useful plumbing and a lot of priceless reputation.
“What we don’t have is a product. There aren’t enough buyers for batteries or film—or any of the other stuff we make—to occupy or support all that infrastructure. These companies slept through the dot-boom and the dot-bust, trundling along as though none of it mattered. There are parts of these businesses that haven’t changed since the fifties.
“We’re not the only ones. Technology has challenged and killed businesses from every sector. Hell, IBM doesn’t make computers anymore! The very idea of a travel agent is inconceivably weird today! And the record labels, oy, the poor, crazy, suicidal, stupid record labels. Don’t get me started.
“Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That’s not to say that there’s no money out there to be had, but the money won’t come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like ’General Electric’ and ’General Mills’ and ’General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.
“We will brute-force the problem-space of capitalism in the twenty first century. Our business plan is simple: we will hire the smartest people we can find and put them in small teams. They will go into the field with funding and communications infrastructure—all that stuff we have left over from the era of batteries and film—behind them, capitalized to find a place to live and work, and a job to do. A business to start. Our company isn’t a project that we pull together on, it’s a network of like-minded, cooperating autonomous teams, all of which are empowered to do whatever they want, provided that it returns something to our coffers. We will explore and exhaust the realm of commercial opportunities, and seek constantly to refine our tactics to mine those opportunities, and fill our hungry belly. This company isn’t a company anymore: this company is a network, an approach, a sensibility.”
Suzanne’s fingers clattered over her keyboard. The Brit chuckled nastily. “Nice talk, considering he just made a hundred thousand people redundant,” he said. Suzanne tried to shut him out: yes, Kettlewell was firing a company’s worth of people, but he was also saving the company itself. The prospectus had a decent severance for all those departing workers, and the ones who’d taken advantage of the company stock-buying plan would find their pensions augmented by whatever this new scheme could rake in. If it worked.
“Mr Kettlewell?” Rat-Toothed had clambered to his hind legs.
“Yes, Freddy?” Freddy was Rat-Toothed’s given name, though Suzanne was hard pressed to ever retain it for more than a few minutes at a time. Kettlewell knew every business-journalist in the Valley by name, though. It was a CEO thing.
“Where will you recruit this new workforce from? And what kind of entrepreneurial things will they be doing to ’exhaust the realm of commercial activities’?”
“Freddy, we don’t have to recruit anyone. They’re beating a path to our door. This is a nation of manic entrepreneurs, the kind of people who’ve been inventing businesses from video arcades to photomats for centuries.” Freddy scowled skeptically, his jumble of grey tombstone teeth protruding. “Come on, Freddy, you ever hear of the Grameen Bank?”
Freddy nodded slowly. “In India, right?”
“Bangladesh. Bankers travel from village to village on foot and by bus, finding small co-ops who need tiny amounts of credit to buy a cellphone or a goat or a loom in order to grow. The bankers make the loans and advise the entrepreneurs, and the payback rate is fifty times higher than the rate at a regular lending institution. They don’t even have a written lending agreement: entrepreneurs—real, hard-working entrepreneurs—you can trust on a handshake.”
“You’re going to help Americans who lost their jobs in your factories buy goats and cellphones?”
“We’re going to give them loans and coordination to start businesses that use information, materials science, commodified software and hardware designs, and creativity to wring a profit from the air around us. Here, catch!” He dug into his suit-jacket and flung a small object toward Freddy, who fumbled it. It fell onto Suzanne’s keyboard.
She picked it up. It looked like a keychain laser-pointer, or maybe a novelty light-saber.
“Switch it on, Suzanne, please, and shine it, oh, on that wall there.” Kettlewell pointed at the upholstered retractable wall that divided the hotel ballroom into two functional spaces.
Suzanne twisted the end and pointed it. A crisp rectangle of green laser-light lit up the wall.
“Now, watch this,” Kettlewell said.
NOW WATCH THIS
The words materialized in the middle of the rectangle on the distant wall.
“Testing one two three,” Kettlewell said.
TESTING ONE TWO THREE
“Donde esta el bano?”
WHERE IS THE BATHROOM
“What is it?” said Suzanne. Her hand wobbled a little and the distant letters danced.
WHAT IS IT
“This is a new artifact designed and executed by five previously out-of-work engineers in Athens, Georgia. They’ve mated a tiny Linux box with some speaker-independent continuous speech recognition software, a free software translation engine that can translate between any of twelve languages, and an extremely high-resolution LCD that blocks out words in the path of the laser-pointer.
“Turn this on, point it at a wall, and start talking. Everything said shows up on the wall, in the language of your choosing, regardless of what language the speaker was speaking.”
All the while, Kettlewell’s words were scrolling by in black block caps on that distant wall: crisp, laser-edged letters.
“This thing wasn’t invented. All the parts necessary to make this go were just lying around. It was assembled. A gal in a garage, her brother the marketing guy, her husband overseeing manufacturing in Belgrade. They needed a couple grand to get it all going, and they’ll need some life-support while they find their natural market.
“They got twenty grand from Kodacell this week. Half of it a loan, half of it equity. And we put them on the payroll, with benefits. They’re part freelancer, part employee, in a team with backing and advice from across the whole business.
“It was easy to do once. We’re going to do it ten thousand times this year. We’re sending out talent scouts, like the artists and representation people the record labels used to use, and they’re going to sign up a lot of these bands for us, and help them to cut records, to start businesses that push out to the edges of business.
“So, Freddy, to answer your question, no, we’re not giving them loans to buy cellphones and goats.”
Kettlewell beamed. Suzanne twisted the laser-pointer off and made ready to toss it back to the stage, but Kettlewell waved her off.
“Keep it,” he said. It was suddenly odd to hear him speak without the text crawl on that distant wall. She put the laser pointer in her pocket and reflected that it had the authentic feel of cool, disposable technology: the kind of thing on its way from a startup’s distant supplier to the schwag bags at high-end technology conferences to blister-packs of six hanging in the impulse aisle at Fry’s.
She tried to imagine the technology conferences she’d been to with the addition of the subtitling and translation and couldn’t do it. Not conferences. Something else. A kids’ toy? A tool for Starbucks-smashing anti-globalists, planning strategy before a WTO riot? She patted her pocket.
Freddy hissed and bubbled like a teakettle beside her, fuming. “What a cock,” he muttered. “Thinks he’s going to hire ten thousand teams to replace his workforce, doesn’t say a word about what that lot is meant to be doing now he’s shitcanned them all. Utter bullshit. Irrational exuberance gone berserk.”
Suzanne had a perverse impulse to turn the wand back on and splash Freddy’s bilious words across the ceiling, and the thought made her giggle. She suppressed it and kept on piling up notes, thinking about the structure of the story she’d file that day.
Kettlewell pulled out some charts and another surfer in a suit came forward to talk money, walking them through the financials. She’d read them already and decided that they were a pretty credible bit of fiction, so she let her mind wander.
She was a hundred miles away when the ballroom doors burst open and the unionized laborers of the former Kodak and the former Duracell poured in on them, tossing literature into the air so that it snowed angry leaflets. They had a big drum and a bugle, and they shook tambourines. The hotel rent-a-cops occasionally darted forward and grabbed a protestor by the arm, but her colleagues would immediately swarm them and pry her loose and drag her back into the body of the demonstration. Freddy grinned and shouted something at Kettlewell, but it was lost in the din. The journalists took a lot of pictures.
Suzanne closed her computer’s lid and snatched a leaflet out of the air. WHAT ABOUT US? it began, and talked about the workers who’d been at Kodak and Duracell for twenty, thirty, even forty years, who had been conspicuously absent from Kettlewell’s stated plans to date.
She twisted the laser-pointer to life and pointed it back at the wall. Leaning in very close, she said, “What are your plans for your existing workforce, Mr Kettlewell?”
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR YOUR EXISTING WORKFORCE MR KETTLEWELL
She repeated the question several times, refreshing the text so that it scrolled like a stock ticker across that upholstered wall, an illuminated focus that gradually drew all the attention in the room. The protestors saw it and began to laugh, then they read it aloud in ragged unison, until it became a chant: WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS—thump of the big drum—FOR YOUR EXISTING WORKFORCE thump MR thump KETTLEWELL?
Suzanne felt her cheeks warm. Kettlewell was looking at her with something like a smile. She liked him, but that was a personal thing and this was a truth thing. She was a little embarrassed that she had let him finish his spiel without calling him on that obvious question. She felt tricked, somehow. Well, she was making up for it now.
On the stage, the surfer-boys in suits were confabbing, holding their thumbs over their tie-mics. Finally, Kettlewell stepped up and held up his own laser-pointer, painting another rectangle of light beside Suzanne’s.
“I’m glad you asked that, Suzanne,” he said, his voice barely audible.
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED THAT SUZANNE
The journalists chuckled. Even the chanters laughed a little. They quieted down.
“I’ll tell you, there’s a downside to living in this age of wonders: we are moving too fast and outstripping the ability of our institutions to keep pace with the changes in the world.”
Freddy leaned over her shoulder, blowing shit-breath in her ear. “Translation: you’re ass-fucked, the lot of you.”
TRANSLATION YOUR ASS FUCKED THE LOT OF YOU
Suzanne yelped as the words appeared on the wall and reflexively swung the pointer around, painting them on the ceiling, the opposite wall, and then, finally, in miniature, on her computer’s lid. She twisted the pointer off.
Freddy had the decency to look slightly embarrassed and he slunk away to the very end of the row of seats, scooting from chair to chair on his narrow butt. On stage, Kettlewell was pretending very hard that he hadn’t seen the profanity, and that he couldn’t hear the jeering from the protestors now, even though it had grown so loud that he could no longer be heard over it. He kept on talking, and the words scrolled over the far wall.
THERE IS NO WORLD IN WHICH KODAK AND DURACELL GO ON MAKING FILM AND BATTERIES
THE COMPANIES HAVE MONEY IN THE BANK BUT IT HEMORRHAGES OUT THE DOOR EVERY DAY
WE ARE MAKING THINGS THAT NO ONE WANTS TO BUY
THIS PLAN INCLUDES A GENEROUS SEVERANCE FOR THOSE STAFFERS WORKING IN THE PARTS OF THE BUSINESS THAT WILL CLOSE DOWN
— Suzanne admired the twisted, long-way-around way of saying, “the people we’re firing.” Pure CEO passive voice. She couldn’t type notes and read off the wall at the same time. She whipped out her little snapshot and monkeyed with it until it was in video mode and then started shooting the ticker.
BUT IF WE ARE TO MAKE GOOD ON THAT SEVERANCE WE NEED TO BE IN BUSINESS
WE NEED TO BE BRINGING IN A PROFIT SO THAT WE CAN MEET OUR OBLIGATIONS TO ALL OUR STAKEHOLDERS SHAREHOLDERS AND WORKFORCE ALIKE
WE CAN’T PAY A PENNY IN SEVERANCE IF WE’RE BANKRUPT
WE ARE HIRING 50000 NEW EMPLOYEES THIS YEAR AND THERE’S NOTHING THAT SAYS THAT THOSE NEW PEOPLE CAN’T COME FROM WITHIN
CURRENT EMPLOYEES WILL BE GIVEN CONSIDERATION BY OUR SCOUTS
ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS A DEEPLY AMERICAN PRACTICE AND OUR WORKERS ARE AS CAPABLE OF ENTREPRENEURIAL ACTION AS ANYONE
I AM CONFIDENT WE WILL FIND MANY OF OUR NEW HIRES FROM WITHIN OUR EXISTING WORKFORCE
I SAY THIS TO OUR EMPLOYEES IF YOU HAVE EVER DREAMED OF STRIKING OUT ON YOUR OWN EXECUTING ON SOME AMAZING IDEA AND NEVER FOUND THE MEANS TO DO IT NOW IS THE TIME AND WE ARE THE PEOPLE TO HELP
Suzanne couldn’t help but admire the pluck it took to keep speaking into the pointer, despite the howls and bangs.
“C’mon, I’m gonna grab some bagels before the protestors get to them,” Freddy said, plucking at her arm—apparently, this was his version of a charming pickup line. She shook him off authoritatively, with a whip-crack of her elbow.
Freddy stood there for a minute and then moved off. She waited to see if Kettlewell would say anything more, but he twisted the pointer off, shrugged, and waved at the hooting protestors and the analysts and the journalists and walked off-stage with the rest of the surfers in suits.
She got some comments from a few of the protestors, some details. Worked for Kodak or Duracell all their lives. Gave everything to the company. Took voluntary pay-cuts under the old management five times in ten years to keep the business afloat, now facing layoffs as a big fat thank-you-suckers. So many kids. Such and such a mortgage.
She knew these stories from Detroit: she’d filed enough copy with varying renditions of it to last a lifetime. Silicon Valley was supposed to be different. Growth and entrepreneurship—a failed company was just a stepping-stone to a successful one, can’t win them all, dust yourself off and get back to the garage and start inventing. There’s a whole world waiting out there!
Mother of three. Dad whose bright daughter’s university fund was raided to make ends meet during the “temporary” austerity measures. This one has a Down’s Syndrome kid and that one worked through three back surgeries to help meet production deadlines.
Half an hour before she’d been full of that old Silicon Valley optimism, the sense that there was a better world a-borning around her. Now she was back in that old rustbelt funk, with the feeling that she was witness not to a beginning, but to a perpetual ending, a cycle of destruction that would tear down everything solid and reliable in the world.
She packed up her laptop and stepped out into the parking lot. Across the freeway, she could make out the bones of the Great America fun-park roller-coasters whipping around and around in the warm California sun.
These little tech-hamlets down the 101 were deceptively utopian. All the homeless people were miles north on the streets of San Francisco, where pedestrian marks for panhandling could be had, where the crack was sold on corners instead of out of the trunks of fresh-faced, friendly coke-dealers’ cars. Down here it was giant malls, purpose-built dot-com buildings, and the occasional fun-park. Palo Alto was a university-town theme-park, provided you steered clear of the wrong side of the tracks, the East Palo Alto slums that were practically shanties.
Christ, she was getting melancholy. She didn’t want to go into the office—not today. Not when she was in this kind of mood. She would go home and put her blazer back in the closet and change into yoga togs and write her column and have some good coffee.
She nailed up the copy in an hour and emailed it to her editor and poured herself a glass of Napa red (the local vintages in Michigan likewise left something to be desired) and settled onto her porch, overlooking the big reservoir off 280 near San Mateo.
The house had been worth a small fortune at the start of the dot-boom, but now, in the resurgent property boom, it was worth a large fortune and then some. She could conceivably sell this badly built little shack with its leaky hot-tub for enough money to retire on, if she wanted to live out the rest of her days in Sri Lanka or Nebraska.
“You’ve got no business feeling poorly, young lady,” she said to herself. “You are as well set-up as you could have dreamed, and you are right in the thick of the weirdest and best time the world has yet seen. And Landon Kettlewell knows your name.”
She finished the wine and opened her computer. It was dark enough now with the sun set behind the hills that she could read the screen. The Web was full of interesting things, her email full of challenging notes from her readers, and her editor had already signed off on her column.
She was getting ready to shut the lid and head for bed, so she pulled her mail once more.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Embedded journalist?
Thanks for keeping me honest today, Suzanne. It’s the hardest question we’re facing today: what happens when all the things you’re good at are no good to anyone anymore? I hope we’re going to answer that with the new model.
You do good work, madam. I’d be honored if you’d consider joining one of our little teams for a couple months and chronicling what they do. I feel like we’re making history here and we need someone to chronicle it.
I don’t know if you can square this with the Merc, and I suppose that we should be doing this through my PR people and your editor, but there comes a time about this time every night when I’m just too goddamned hyper to bother with all that stuff and I want to just DO SOMETHING instead of ask someone else to start a process to investigate the possibility of someday possibly maybe doing something.
Will you do something with us, if we can make it work? 100 percent access, no oversight? Say you will. Please.
She stared at her screen. It was like a work of art; just look at that return address, “[email protected]”—for kodacell.com to be live and accepting mail, it had to have been registered the day before. She had a vision of Kettlewell checking his email at midnight before his big press-conference, catching Freddy’s column, and registering kodacell.com on the spot, then waking up some sysadmin to get a mail server answering at skunkworks.kodacell.com. Last she’d heard, Lockheed-Martin was threatening to sue anyone who used their trademarked term “Skunk Works” to describe a generic R&D department. That meant that Kettlewell had moved so fast that he hadn’t even run this project by legal. She was willing to bet that he’d already ordered new business-cards with the address on them.
There was a guy she knew, an editor at a mag who’d assigned himself a plum article that he’d run on his own cover. He’d gotten a book-deal out of it. A half-million dollar book-deal. If Kettlewell was right, then the exclusive book on the inside of the first year at Kodacell could easily make that advance. And the props would be mad, as the kids said.
Kettlebelly! It was such a stupid frat-boy nickname, but it made her smile. He wasn’t taking himself seriously, or maybe he was, but he wasn’t being a pompous ass about it. He was serious about changing the world and frivolous about everything else. She’d have a hard time being an objective reporter if she said yes to this.
She couldn’t possibly decide at this hour. She needed a night’s sleep and she had to talk this over with the Merc. If she had a boyfriend, she’d have to talk it over with him, but that wasn’t a problem in her life these days.
She spread on some expensive duty-free French wrinkle-cream and brushed her teeth and put on her nightie and double-checked the door locks and did all the normal things she did of an evening. Then she folded back her sheets, plumped her pillows and stared at them.
She turned on her heel and stalked back to her computer and thumped the spacebar until the thing woke from sleep.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Embedded journalist?
Kettlebelly: that is one dumb nickname. I couldn’t possibly associate myself with a grown man who calls himself Kettlebelly.
So stop calling yourself Kettlebelly, immediately. If you can do that, we’ve got a deal.
There had come a day when her readers acquired email and the paper ran her address with her byline, and her readers had begun to write her and write her and write her. Some were amazing, informative, thoughtful notes. Some were the vilest, most bilious trolling. In order to deal with these notes, she had taught herself to pause, breathe, and re-read any email message before clicking send.
The reflex kicked in now and she re-read her note to Kettlebelly—Kettlewell! — and felt a crimp in her guts. Then she hit send.
She needed to pee, and apparently had done for some time, without realizing it. She was on the toilet when she heard the ping of new incoming mail.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Embedded journalist?
I will never call myself Kettlebelly again.
Oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit. She did a little two-step at her bed’s edge. Tomorrow she’d go see her editor about this, but it just felt right, and exciting, like she was on the brink of an event that would change her life forever.
It took her three hours of mindless Web-surfing, including a truly dreary Hot-Or-Not clicktrance and an hour’s worth of fiddling with tweets from the press-conference, before she was able to lull herself to sleep. As she nodded off, she thought that Kettlewell’s insomnia was as contagious as his excitement.
Hollywood, Florida’s biggest junkyard was situated in the rubble of a half-built ghost-mall off Taft Street. Suzanne’s Miami airport rental car came with a GPS, but the little box hadn’t ever heard of the mall; it was off the map. So she took a moment in the sweltering parking-lot of her coffin hotel to call her interview subject again and get better coordinates.
“Yeah, it’s ’cause they never finished building the mall, so the address hasn’t been included in the USGS maps. The open GPSes all have these better maps made by geohackers, but the rental car companies have got a real hard-on for official map-data. Morons. Hang on, lemme get my GPS out and I’ll get you some decent lat-long.”
His voice had a pleasant, youthful, midwestern sound, like a Canadian newscaster: friendly and enthusiastic as a puppy. His name was Perry Gibbons, and if Kettlewell was to be believed, he was the most promising prospect identified by Kodacell’s talent-scouts.
The ghost-mall was just one of many along Taft Street, ranging in size from little corner plazas to gigantic palaces with broken-in atria and cracked parking lots. A lot of the malls in California had crashed, but they’d been turned into flea-markets or day-cares, or, if they’d been abandoned, they hadn’t been abandoned like this, left to go to ruin. This reminded her of Detroit before she’d left, whole swaths of the inner city emptied of people, neighborhoods condemned and bulldozed and, in a couple of weird cases, actually farmed by enterprising city-dwellers who planted crops, kept livestock, and rode their mini tractors beneath the beam of the defunct white-elephant monorail.
The other commonality this stretch of road shared with Detroit was the obesity of the people she passed. She’d felt a little self-conscious that morning, dressing in a light short-sleeved blouse and a pair of shorts—nothing else would do, the weather was so hot and drippy that even closed-toe shoes would have been intolerable. At 45, her legs had slight cellulite saddlebags and her tummy wasn’t the washboard it had been when she was 25. But here, on this stretch of road populated by people so fat they could barely walk, so fat that they were de-sexed marshmallows with faces like inflatable toys, she felt like a toothpick.
The GPS queeped when she came up on the junkyard, a sprawling, half-built discount mall whose waist-high walls had been used to parcel out different kinds of sorted waste. The mall had been planned with wide indoor boulevards between the shops wide enough for two lanes of traffic, and she cruised those lanes now in the hertzmobile, looking for a human. Once she reached the center of the mall—a dry fountain filled with dusty Christmas-tree ornaments—she stopped and leaned on the horn.
She got out of the car and called, “Hello? Perry?” She could have phoned him but it always seemed so wasteful spending money on airtime when you were trying to talk to someone within shouting range.
“Suzanne!” The voice came from her left. She shielded her eyes from the sun’s glare and peered down a spoke of mall-lane and caught her first glimpse of Perry Gibbons. He was standing in the basket of a tall cherry-picker, barechested and brown. He wore a sun-visor and big work gloves, and big, baggy shorts whose pockets jangled as he shinnied down the crane’s neck.
She started toward him tentatively. Not a lot of business-reporting assignments involved spending time with half-naked, sun-baked dudes in remote southern junkyards. Still, he sounded nice.
“Hello!” she called. He was young, 22 or 23, and already had squint-creases at the corners of his eyes. He had a brace on one wrist and his steel-toed boots were the mottled grey of a grease-puddle on the floor of a muffler and brake shop.
He grinned and tugged off a glove, stuck out his hand. “A pleasure. Sorry for the trouble finding this place. It’s not easy to get to, but it’s cheap as hell.”
“I believe it.” She looked around again—the heaps of interesting trash, the fountain-dish filled with thousands of shining ornaments. The smell was a mixture of machine-oil and salt, jungle air, Florida swamp and Detroit steel. “So, this place is pretty cool. Looks like you’ve got pretty much everything you could imagine.”
“And then some.” This was spoken by another man, one who puffed heavily up from behind her. He was enormous, not just tall but fat, as big around as a barrel. His green tee-shirt read IT’S FUN TO USE LEARNING FOR EVIL! in blocky, pixelated letters. He took her hand and shook it. “I love your blog,” he said. “I read it all the time.” He had three chins, and eyes that were nearly lost in his apple cheeks.
“Meet Lester,” Perry said. “My partner.”
“Sidekick,” Lester said with a huge wink. “Sysadmin slash hardware hacker slash dogsbody slashdot org.”
She chuckled. Nerd humor. Ar ar ar.
“Right, let’s get started. You wanna see what I do, right?” Perry said.
“That’s right,” Suzanne said.
“Lead the way, Lester,” Perry said, and gestured with an arm, deep into the center of the junkpile. “All right, check this stuff out as we go.” He stuck his hand through the unglazed window of a never-built shop and plucked out a toy in a battered box. “I love these things,” he said, handing it to her.
She took it. It was a Sesame Street Elmo doll, labeled BOOGIE WOOGIE ELMO.
“That’s from the great Elmo Crash,” Perry said, taking back the box and expertly extracting the Elmo like he was shelling a nut. “The last and greatest generation of Elmoid technology, cast into an uncaring world that bought millions of Li’l Tagger washable graffiti kits instead after Rosie gave them two thumbs up on her Christmas shopping guide.
“Poor Elmo was an orphan, and every junkyard in the world has mountains of mint-in-package BWEs, getting rained on, waiting to start their long, half-million-year decomposition.
“But check this out.” He flicked a multitool off his belt and extracted a short, sharp scalpel-blade. He slit the grinning, disco-suited Elmo open from chin to groin and shucked its furry exterior and the foam tissue that overlaid its skeleton. He slid the blade under the plastic cover on its ass and revealed a little printed circuit board.
“That’s an entire Atom processor on a chip, there,” he said. “Each limb and the head have their own subcontrollers. There’s a high-powered digital-to-analog rig for letting him sing and dance to new songs, and an analog-to-digital converter array for converting spoken and danced commands to motions. Basically, you dance and sing for Elmo and he’ll dance and sing back for you.”
Suzanne nodded. She’d missed that toy, which was a pity. She had a five year old goddaughter in Minneapolis who would have loved a Boogie Woogie Elmo.
They had come to a giant barn, set at the edge of a story-and-a-half’s worth of anchor store. “This used to be where the contractors kept their heavy equipment,” Lester rumbled, aiming a car-door remote at the door, which queeped and opened.
Inside, it was cool and bright, the chugging air-conditioners efficiently blasting purified air over the many work-surfaces. The barn was a good 25 feet tall, with a loft and a catwalk circling it halfway up. It was lined with metallic shelves stacked neatly with labeled boxes of parts scrounged from the junkyard.
Perry set Elmo down on a workbench and worked a miniature USB cable into his chest-cavity. The other end terminated with a PDA with a small rubberized photovoltaic cell on the front.
“This thing is running InstallParty—it can recognize any hardware and build and install a Linux distro on it without human intervention. They used a ton of different suppliers for the BWE, so every one is a little different, depending on who was offering the cheapest parts the day it was built. InstallParty doesn’t care, though: one-click and away it goes.” The PDA was doing all kinds of funny dances on its screen, montages of playful photoshopping of public figures matted into historical fine art.
“All done. Now, have a look—this is a Linux computer with some of the most advanced robotics ever engineered. No sweatshop stuff, either, see this? The solder is too precise to be done by hand—that’s because it’s from India. If it was from Cambodia, you’d see all kinds of wobble in the solder: that means that tiny, clever hands were used to create it, which means that somewhere in the device’s karmic history, there’s a sweatshop full of crippled children inhaling solder fumes until they keel over and are dumped in a ditch. This is the good stuff.
“So we have this karmically clean robot with infinitely malleable computation and a bunch of robotic capabilities. I’ve turned these things into wall-climbing monkeys; I’ve modded them for a woman from the University of Miami at the Jackson Memorial who used their capability to ape human motions in physiotherapy programs with nerve-damage cases. But the best thing I’ve done with them so far is the Distributed Boogie Woogie Elmo Motor Vehicle Operation Cluster. Come on,” he said, and took off deeper into the barn’s depths.
They came to a dusty, stripped-down Smart car, one of those tiny two-seat electric cars you could literally buy out of a vending machine in Europe. It was barely recognizable, having been reduced to its roll-cage, drive-train and control-panel. A gang of naked robot Elmos were piled into it.
“Wake up boys, time for a demo!” Perry shouted, and they sat up and made canned, tinny Elmo “oh boy” noises, climbing into position on the pedals, around the wheel, and on the gear-tree.
“I got the idea when I was teaching an Elmo to play Mario Brothers. I thought it’d get a decent diggdotting. I could get it to speedrun all of the first level using an old paddle I’d found and rehabilitated, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. The dead mall across the way is a drive-in theater, and I was out front watching the silent movies, and one of them showed all these cute little furry animated whatevers collectively driving a car. It’s a really old sight-gag, I mean, like racial memory old. I’d seen the Little Rascals do the same bit, with Alfalfa on the wheel and Buckwheat and Spanky on the brake and clutch and the doggy working the gearshift.
“And I thought, Shit, I could do that with Elmos. They don’t have any networking capability, but they can talk and they can parse spoken commands, so all I need is to designate one for left and one for right and one for fast and one for slow and one to be the eyes, barking orders and they should be able to do this. And it works! They even adjust their balance and centers of gravity when the car swerves to stay upright at their posts. Check it out.” He turned to the car. “Driving Elmos, ten-HUT!” They snapped upright and ticked salutes off their naked plastic noggins. “In circles, DRIVE,” he called. The Elmos scrambled into position and fired up the car and in short order they were doing donuts in the car’s little indoor pasture.
“Elmos, HALT” Perry shouted and the car stopped silently, rocking gently. “Stand DOWN.” The Elmos sat down with a series of tiny thumps.
Suzanne found herself applauding. “That was amazing,” she said. “Really impressive. So that’s what you’re going to do for Kodacell, make these things out of recycled toys?”
Lester chuckled. “Nope, not quite. That’s just for starters. The Elmos are all about the universal availability of cycles and apparatus. Everywhere you look, there’s devices for free that have everything you need to make anything do anything.
“But have a look at part two, c’mere.” He lumbered off in another direction, and Suzanne and Perry trailed along behind him.
“This is Lester’s workshop,” Perry said, as they passed through a set of swinging double doors and into a cluttered wonderland. Where Perry’s domain had been clean and neatly organized, Lester’s area was a happy shambles. His shelves weren’t orderly, but rather, crammed with looming piles of amazing junk: thrift-store wedding dresses, plaster statues of bowling monkeys, box kites, knee-high tin knights-in-armor, seashells painted with American flags, presidential action-figures, paste jewelry and antique cough-drop tins.
“You know how they say a sculptor starts with a block of marble and chips away everything that doesn’t look like a statue? Like he can see the statue in the block? I get like that with garbage: I see the pieces on the heaps and in roadside trash and I can just see how it can go together, like this.”
He reached down below a work-table and hoisted up a huge triptych made out of three hinged car-doors stood on end. Carefully, he unfolded it and stood it like a screen on the cracked concrete floor.
The inside of the car-doors had been stripped clean and polished to a high metal gleam that glowed like sterling silver. Spot-welded to it were all manner of soda tins, pounded flat and cut into gears, chutes, springs and other mechanical apparatus.
“It’s a mechanical calculator,” he said proudly. “About half as powerful as Univac. I milled all the parts using a laser-cutter. What you do is, fill this hopper with GI Joe heads, and this hopper with Barbie heads. Crank this wheel and it will drop a number of M&Ms equal to the product of the two values into this hopper, here.” He put three scuffed GI Joe heads in one hopper and four scrofulous Barbies in another and began to crank, slowly. A music-box beside the crank played a slow, irregular rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” while the hundreds of little coin-sized gears turned, flipping switches and adding and removing tension to springs. After the weasel popped a few times, twelve brown M&Ms fell into an outstretched rubber hand. He picked them out carefully and offered them to her. “It’s OK. They’re not from the trash,” he said. “I buy them in bulk.” He turned his broad back to her and heaved a huge galvanized tin washtub full of brown M&Ms in her direction. “See, it’s a bit-bucket!” he said.
Suzanne giggled in spite of herself. “You guys are hilarious,” she said. “This is really good, exciting nerdy stuff.” The gears on the mechanical computer were really sharp and precise; they looked like you could cut yourself on them. When they ground over the polished surfaces of the car-doors, they made a sound like a box of toothpicks falling to the floor: click-click, clickclickclick, click. She turned the crank until twelve more brown M&Ms fell out.
“Who’s the Van Halen fan?”
Lester beamed. “Might as well jump—JUMP!” He mimed heavy-metal air-guitar and thrashed his shorn head up and down as though he were headbanging with a mighty mane of hair-band locks. “You’re the first one to get the joke!” he said. “Even Perry didn’t get it!”
“Get what?” Perry said, also grinning.
“Van Halen had this thing where if there were any brown M&Ms in their dressing room they’d trash it and refuse to play. When I was a kid, I used to dream about being so famous that I could act like that much of a prick. Ever since, I’ve afforded a great personal significance to brown M&Ms.”
She laughed again. Then she frowned a little. “Look, I hate to break this party up, but I came here because Kettlebelly—crap, Kettlewell—said that you guys exemplified everything that he wanted to do with Kodacell. This stuff you’ve done is all very interesting, it’s killer art, but I don’t see the business-angle. So, can you help me out here?”
“That’s step three,” Perry said. “C’mere.” He led her back to his workspace, to a platform surrounded by articulated arms terminated in webcams, like a grocery scale in the embrace of a metal spider. “Three-dee scanner,” he said, producing a Barbie head from Lester’s machine and dropping it on the scales. He prodded a button and a nearby screen filled with a three-dimensional model of the head, flattened on the side where it touched the surface. He turned the head over and scanned again and now there were two digital versions of the head on the screen. He moused one over the other until they lined up, right-clicked a drop-down menu, selected an option and then they were merged, rotating.
“Once we’ve got the three-dee scan, it’s basically Plasticine.” He distorted the Barbie head, stretching it and squeezing it with the mouse. “So we can take a real object and make this kind of protean hyper-object out of it, or drop it down to a wireframe and skin it with any bitmap, like this.” More fast mousing—Barbie’s head turned into a gridded mesh, fine filaments stretching off along each mussed strand of plastic hair. Then a Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup label wrapped around her like a stocking being pulled over her head. There was something stupendously weird and simultaneously very comic about the sight, the kind of inherent comedy in a cartoon stretched out on a blob of Silly Putty.
“So we can build anything out of interesting junk, with any shape, and then we can digitize the shape. Then we can do anything we like with the shape. Then we can output the shape.” He typed quickly and another machine, sealed and mammoth like an outsized photocopier, started to grunt and churn. The air filled with a smell like Saran Wrap in a microwave.
“The goop we use in this thing is epoxy-based. You wouldn’t want to build a car out of it, but it makes a mean doll-house. The last stage of the output switches to inks, so you get whatever bitmap you’ve skinned your object with baked right in. It does about one cubic inch per minute, so this job should be almost done now.”
He drummed his fingers on top of the machine for a moment and then it stopped chunking and something inside it went clunk. He lifted a lid and reached inside and plucked out the barbie head, stretched and distorted, skinned with a Campbell’s Soup label. He handed it to Suzanne. She expected it to be warm, like a squashed penny from a machine on Fisherman’s Wharf, but it was cool and had the seamless texture of a plastic margarine tub and the heft of a paperweight.
“So, that’s the business,” Lester said. “Or so we’re told. We’ve been making cool stuff and selling it to collectors on the web for you know, gigantic bucks. We move one or two pieces a month at about ten grand per. But Kettlebelly says he’s going to industrialize us, alienate us from the product of our labor, and turn us into an assembly line.”
“He didn’t say any such thing,” Perry said. Suzanne was aware that her ears had grown points. Perry gave Lester an affectionate slug in the shoulder. “Lester’s only kidding. What we need is a couple of dogsbodies and some bigger printers and we’ll be able to turn out more modest devices by the hundred or possibly the thousand. We can tweak the designs really easily because nothing is coming off a mold, so there’s no setup charge, so we can do limited runs of a hundred, redesign, do another hundred. We can make ’em to order. “
“And we need an MBA,” Lester said. “Kodacell’s sending us a business manager to help us turn junk into pesos.”
“Yeah,” Perry said, with a worried flick of his eyes. “Yeah, a business manager.”
“So, I’ve known some business geeks who aren’t total assholes,” Lester said. “Who care about what they’re doing and the people they’re doing it with. Respectful and mindful. It’s like lawyers—they’re not all scumbags. Some of them are totally awesome and save your ass.”
Suzanne took all this in, jotting notes on an old-fashioned spiral-bound shirt-pocket notebook. “When’s he arriving?”
“Next week,” Lester said. “We’ve cleared him a space to work and everything. He’s someone that Kettlewell’s people recruited up in Ithaca and he’s going to move here to work with us, sight unseen. Crazy, huh?”
“Crazy,” Suzanne agreed.
“Right,” Perry said. “That’s next week, and this aft we’ve got some work to do, but now I’m ready for lunch. You guys ready for lunch?”
Something about food and really fat guys, it seemed like an awkward question to Suzanne, like asking someone who’d been horribly disfigured by burns if he wanted to toast a marshmallow. But Lester didn’t react to the question—of course not, he had to eat, everyone had to eat.
“Yeah, let’s do the IHOP.” Lester trundled back to his half of the workspace, then came back with a cane in one hand. “There’s like three places to eat within walking distance of here if you don’t count the mobile Mexican burrito wagon, which I don’t, since it’s a rolling advertisement for dysentery. The IHOP is the least objectionable of those.”
“We could drive somewhere,” Suzanne said. It was coming up on noon and the heat once they got outside into the mall’s ruins was like the steam off a dishwasher. She plucked at her blouse a couple of times.
“It’s the only chance to exercise we get,” Perry said. “It’s pretty much impossible to live or work within walking distance of anything down here. You end up living in your car.”
And so they hiked along the side of the road. The sidewalk was a curious mix of old and new, the concrete unworn but still overgrown by tall sawgrass thriving in the Florida heat. It brushed up against her ankles, hard and sharp, unlike the grass back home.
They were walking parallel to a ditch filled with sluggish, brackish water and populated by singing frogs, ducks, ibises, and mosquitoes in great number. Across the way were empty lots, ghost-plazas, dead filling stations. Behind one of the filling stations, a cluster of tents and shacks.
“Squatters?” she asked, pointing to the shantytown.
“Yeah,” Perry said. “Lots of that down here. Some of them are the paramilitary wing of the AARP, old trailer-home retirees who’ve run out of money and just set up camp here. Some are bums and junkies, some are runaways. It’s not as bad as it looks—they’re pretty comfy in there. We bring ’em furniture and other good pickings that show up at the junkyard. The homeless with the wherewithal to build shantytowns, they haven’t gone all animal like the shopping cart people and the scary beachcombers.” He waved across the malarial ditch to an old man in a pair of pressed khaki shorts and a crisp Bermuda shirt. “Hey Francis!” he called. The old man waved back. “We’ll have some IHOP for you ’bout an hour!” The old man ticked a salute off his creased forehead.
“Francis is a good guy. Used to be an aerospace engineer if you can believe it. Wife had medical problems and he went bust taking care of her. When she died, he ended up here in his double-wide and never left. Kind of the unofficial mayor of this little patch.”
Suzanne stared after Francis. He had a bit of a gimpy leg, a limp she could spot even from here. Beside her, Lester was puffing. No one was comfortable walking in Florida, it seemed.
It took another half hour to reach the IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, which sat opposite a mini-mall with only one still-breathing store, a place that advertised 99-cent t-shirts, which struck Suzanne as profoundly depressing. There was a junkie out front of 99-Cent Tees, a woman with a leathery tan and a tiny tank-top and shorts that made her look a little like a Tenderloin hooker, but not with that rat’s-nest hair, not even in the ’Loin. She wobbled uncertainly across the parking lot to them.
“Excuse me,” she said, with an improbable Valley Girl accent. “Excuse me? I’m hoping to get something to eat, it’s for my kid, she’s nursing, gotta keep my strength up.” Her naked arms and legs were badly tracked out, and Suzanne had a horrified realization that among the stains on her tank-top were a pair of spreading pools of breast milk, dampening old white, crusted patches over her sagging breasts. “For my baby. A dollar would help, a dollar.”
There were homeless like this in San Francisco, too. In San Jose as well, she supposed, but she didn’t know where they hid. But something about this woman, cracked out and tracked out, it freaked her out. She dug into her purse and got out a five dollar bill and handed it to the homeless woman. The woman smiled a snaggletoothed stumpy grin and reached for it, then, abruptly, grabbed hold of Suzanne’s wrist. Her grip was damp and weak.
“Don’t you fucking look at me like that. You’re not better than me, bitch!” Suzanne tugged free and stepped back quickly. “That’s right, run away! Bitch! Fuck you! Enjoy your lunch!”
She was shaking. Perry and Lester closed ranks around her. Lester moved to confront the homeless woman.
“The fuck you want lard ass? You wanna fuck with me? I got a knife, you know, cut your ears off and feed ’em to ya.”
Lester cocked his head like the RCA Victor dog. He towered over the skinny junkie, and was five or six times wider than her.
“You all right?” he said gently.
“Oh yeah, I’m just fine,” she said. “Why, you looking for a party?”
He laughed. “You’re joking—I’d crush you!”
She laughed too, a less crazy, more relaxed sound. Lester’s voice was a low, soothing rumble. “I don’t think my friend thinks she’s any better than you. I think she just wanted to help you out.”
The junkie flicked her eyes back and forth. “Listen can you spare a dollar for my baby?”
“I think she just wanted to help you. Can I get you some lunch?”
“Fuckers won’t let me in—won’t let me use the toilet even. It’s not humane. Don’t want to go in the bushes. Not dignified to go in the bushes.”
“That’s true,” he said. “What if I get you some take out, you got a shady place you could eat it? Nursing’s hungry work.”
The junkie cocked her head. Then she laughed. “Yeah, OK, yeah. Sure—thanks, thanks a lot!”
Lester motioned her over to the menu in the IHOP window and waited with her while she picked out a helping of caramel-apple waffles, sausage links, fried eggs, hash browns, coffee, orange juice and a chocolate malted. “Is that all?” he said, laughing, laughing, both of them laughing, all of them laughing at the incredible, outrageous meal.
They went in and waited by the podium. The greeter, a black guy with corn-rows, nodded at Lester and Perry like an old friend. “Hey Tony,” Lester said. “Can you get us a go-bag with some take-out for the lady outside before we sit down?” He recited the astounding order.
Tony shook his head and ducked it. “OK, be right up,” he said. “You want to sit while you’re waiting?”
“We’ll wait here, thanks,” Lester said. “Don’t want her to think we’re bailing on her.” He turned and waved at her.
“She’s mean, you know—be careful.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Lester said.
Suzanne marveled at Lester’s equanimity. Nothing got his goat. The doggie bag arrived. “I put some extra napkins and a couple of wet-naps in there,” Tony said, handing it to him.
“Great!” Lester said. “You guys sit down, I’ll be back in a second.”
Perry motioned for Suzanne to follow him to a booth. He laughed. “Lester’s a good guy,” he said. “The best guy I know, you know?”
“How do you know him?” she asked, taking out her notepad.
“He was the sysadmin at a company that was making three-dee printers, and I was a tech at a company that was buying them, and the products didn’t work, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with him troubleshooting them. We’d get together in our off-hours and hack around with neat little workbench projects, stuff we’d come up with at work. When both companies went under, we got a bunch of their equipment at bankruptcy auctions. Lester’s uncle owned the junkyard and he offered us space to set up our workshops and the rest is history.”
Lester joined them again. He was laughing. “She is funny,” he said. “Kept hefting the sack and saying, ’Christ what those bastards put on a plate, no wonder this country’s so goddamned fat!’” Perry laughed, too. Suzanne chuckled nervously and looked away.
He slid into the booth next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s OK. I’m a guy who weighs nearly 400 pounds. I know I’m a big, fat guy. If I was sensitive about it, I couldn’t last ten minutes. I’m not proud of being as big as I am, but I’m not ashamed either. I’m OK with it.”
“You wouldn’t lose weight if you could?”
“Sure, why not? But I’ve concluded it’s not an option anymore. I was always a fat kid, and so I never got good at sports, never got that habit. Now I’ve got this huge deficit when I sit down to exercise, because I’m lugging around all this lard. Can’t run more than a few steps. Walking’s about it. Couldn’t join a pick-up game of baseball or get out on the tennis court. I never learned to cook, either, though I suppose I could. But mostly I eat out, and I try to order sensibly, but just look at the crap they feed us at the places we can get to—there aren’t any health food restaurants in the strip malls. Look at this menu,” he said, tapping a pornographic glossy picture of a stack of glistening waffles oozing with some kind of high-fructose lube. “Caramel pancakes with whipped cream, maple syrup and canned strawberries. When I was a kid, we called that candy. These people will sell you an eight dollar, 18 ounce plate of candy with a side of sausage, eggs, biscuits, bacon and a pint of orange juice. Even if you order this stuff and eat a third of it, a quarter of it, that’s probably too much, and when you’ve got a lot of food in front of you, it’s pretty hard to know when to stop.”
“Sure, will-power. Will-power nothing. The thing is, when three quarters of America are obese, when half are dangerously obese, like me, years off our lives from all the fat—that tells you that this isn’t a will-power problem. We didn’t get less willful in the last fifty years. Might as well say that all those people who died of the plague lacked the will-power to keep their houses free of rats. Fat isn’t moral, it’s epidemiological. There are a small number of people, a tiny minority, whose genes are short-circuited in a way that makes them less prone to retaining nutrients. That’s a maladaptive trait through most of human history—burning unnecessary calories when you’ve got to chase down an antelope to get more, that’s no way to live long enough to pass on your genes! So you and Perry over here with your little skinny selves, able to pack away transfats and high-fructose corn-syrup and a pound of candy for breakfast at the IHOP, you’re not doing this on will-power—you’re doing it by expressing the somatotype of a recessive, counter-survival gene.
“Would I like to be thinner? Sure. But I’m not gonna let the fact that I’m genetically better suited to famine than feast get to me. Speaking of, let’s eat. Tony, c’mere, buddy. I want a plate of candy!” He was smiling, and brave, and at that moment, Suzanne thought that she could get a crush on this guy, this big, smart, talented, funny, lovable guy. Then reality snapped back and she saw him as he was, sexless, lumpy, almost grotesque. The overlay of his, what, his inner beauty on that exterior, it disoriented her. She looked back over her notes.
“So, you say that there’s a third coming out to work with you?”
“To live with us,” Perry said. “That’s part of the deal. Geek houses, like in the old college days. We’re going to be a power-trio: two geeks and a suit, lean and mean. The suit’s name is Tjan, and he’s Singaporean by way of London by way of Ithaca, where Kettlebelly found him. We’ve talked on the phone a couple times and he’s moving down next week.”
“He’s moving down without ever having met you?”
“Yeah, that’s the way it goes. It’s like the army or something for us: once you’re in you get dispatched here or there. It was in the contract. We already had a place down here with room for Tjan, so we put some fresh linen on the guest-bed and laid in an extra toothbrush.”
“It’s a little nervous-making,” Lester said. “Perry and I get along great, but I haven’t had such good luck with business-types. It’s not that I’m some kind of idealist who doesn’t get the need to make money, but they can be so condescending, you know?”
Suzanne nodded. “That’s a two-way street, you know. ’Suits’ don’t like being talked down to by engineers.”
Lester raised a hand. “Guilty as charged.”
“So what’re you planning to do for the rest of the week?” It was Wednesday, and she’d counted on getting this part of the story by Saturday, but here she was going to have to wait, clearly, until this Tjan arrived.
“Same stuff as we always do. We build crazy stuff out of junk, sell it to collectors, and have fun. We could go to the Thunderbird Drive In tonight if you want, it’s a real classic, flea-market by day and drive in by night, practically the last one standing.”
Perry cut in. “Or we could go to South Beach and get a good meal, if that’s more your speed.”
“Naw,” Suzanne said. “Drive in sounds great, especially if it’s such a dying breed. Better get a visit in while there’s still time.”
They tried to treat her but she wouldn’t let them. She never let anyone buy her so much as a cup of coffee. It was an old journalism-school drill, and she was practically the only scribbler she knew who hewed to it: some of the whores on the Silicon Valley papers took in free computers, trips, even spa days! — but she had never wavered.
The afternoon passed quickly and enchantingly. Perry was working on a knee-high, articulated Frankenstein monster built out of hand-painted seashells from a beach-side kitsch market. They said GOD BLESS AMERICA and SOUVENIR OF FLORIDA and CONCH REPUBLIC and each had to be fitted out for a motor custom built to conform to its contours.
“When it’s done, it will make toast.”
“Yeah, separate a single slice off a loaf, load it into a top-loading slice-toaster, depress the lever, time the toast-cycle, retrieve the toast and butter it. I got the idea from old-time backup-tape loaders. This plus a toaster will function as a loosely coupled single system.”
“OK, that’s really cool, but I have to ask the boring question, Perry. Why? Why build a toast-robot?”
Perry stopped working and dusted his hands off. He was really built, and his shaggy hair made him look younger than his crows-feet suggested. He turned a seashell with a half-built motor in it over and spun it like a top on the hand-painted WEATHER IS HERE/WISH YOU WERE BEAUTIFUL legend.
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? The simple answer: people buy them. Collectors. So it’s a good hobby business, but that’s not really it.
“It’s like this: engineering is all about constraint. Given a span of foo feet and materials of tensile strength of bar, build a bridge that doesn’t go all fubared. Write a fun video-game for an eight-bit console that’ll fit in 32K. Build the fastest airplane, or the one with the largest carrying capacity… But these days, there’s not much traditional constraint. I’ve got the engineer’s most dangerous luxury: plenty. All the computational cycles I’ll ever need. Easy and rapid prototyping. Precision tools.
“Now, it may be that there is a suite of tasks lurking in potentia that demand all this resource and more—maybe I’m like some locomotive engineer declaring that 60 miles per hour is the pinnacle of machine velocity, that speed is cracked. But I don’t see many of those problems—none that interest me.
“What I’ve got here are my own constraints. I’m challenging myself, using found objects and making stuff that throws all this computational capacity at, you know, these trivial problems, like car-driving Elmo clusters and seashell toaster-robots. We have so much capacity that the trivia expands to fill it. And all that capacity is junk-capacity, it’s leftovers. There’s enough computational capacity in a junkyard to launch a space-program, and that’s by design. Remember the iPod? Why do you think it was so prone to scratching and going all gunky after a year in your pocket? Why would Apple build a handheld technology out of materials that turned to shit if you looked at them cross-eyed? It’s because the iPod was only meant to last a year!
“It’s like tailfins—they were cool in the Tailfin Cretaceous, but wouldn’t it have been better if they could have disappeared from view when they became aesthetically obsolete, when the space age withered up and blew away? Oh, not really, obviously, because it’s nice to see a well-maintained land-yacht on the highway every now and again, if only for variety’s sake, but if you’re going to design something that is meant to be au fait then presumably you should have some planned obsolescence in there, some end-of-lifing strategy for the aesthetic crash that follows any couture movement. Here, check this out.”
He handed her a white brick, the size of a deck of cards. It took her a moment to recognize it as an iPod. “Christ, it’s huge,” she said.
“Yeah, isn’t it just. Remember how small and shiny this thing was when it shipped? ’A thousand songs in your pocket!’”
That made her actually laugh out loud. She fished in her pocket for her earbuds and dropped them on the table where they clattered like M&Ms. “I think I’ve got about 40,000 songs on those. Haven’t run out of space yet, either.”
He rolled the buds around in his palm like a pair of dice. “You won’t—I stopped keeping track of mine after I added my hundred-thousandth audiobook. I’ve got a bunch of the Library of Congress in mine as high-rez scans, too. A copy of the Internet Archive, every post ever made on Usenet… Basically, these things are infinitely capacious, given the size of the media we work with today.” He rolled the buds out on the workbench and laughed. “And that’s just the point! Tomorrow, we’ll have some new extra fat kind of media and some new task to perform with it and some new storage medium that will make these things look like an old iPod. Before that happens, you want this to wear out and scuff up or get lost—”
“I lose those things all the time, like a set a month.”
“There you go then! The iPods were too big to lose like that, but just look at them.” The iPod’s chrome was scratched to the point of being fogged, like the mirror in a gas-station toilet. The screen was almost unreadable for all the scratches. “They had scratch-proof materials and hard plastics back then. They chose to build these things out of Saran Wrap and tin-foil so that by the time they doubled in capacity next year, you’d have already worn yours out and wouldn’t feel bad about junking them.
“So I’m building a tape-loading seashell robot toaster out of discarded obsolete technology because the world is full of capacious, capable, disposable junk and it cries out to be used again. It’s a potlatch: I have so much material and computational wealth that I can afford to waste it on frivolous junk. I think that’s why the collectors buy it, anyway.”
“That brings us back to the question of your relationship with Kodacell. They want to do what, exactly, with you?”
“Well, we’ve been playing with some mass-production techniques, the three-dee printer and so on. When Kettlebelly called me, he said that he wanted to see about using the scanner and so on to make a lot of these things, at a low price-point. It’s pretty perverse when you think about it: using modern technology to build replicas of obsolete technology rescued from the dump, when these replicas are bound to end up back here at the dump!” He laughed. He had nice laugh-lines around his eyes. “Anyway, it’s something that Lester and I had talked about for a long time, but never really got around to. Too much like retail. It’s bad enough dealing with a couple dozen collectors who’ll pay ten grand for a sculpture: who wants to deal with ten thousand customers who’ll go a dollar each for the same thing?”
“But you figure that this Tjan character will handle all the customer stuff?”
“That’s the idea: he’ll run the business side, we’ll get more time to hack; everyone gets paid. Kodacell’s got some micro-sized marketing agencies, specialized PR firms, creative shippers, all kinds of little three-person outfits that they’ve promised to hook us up with. Tjan interfaces with them, we do our thing, enrich the shareholders, get stock ourselves. It’s supposed to be all upside. Hell, if it doesn’t work we can just walk away and find another dump and go back into the collectors’ market.”
He picked up his half-finished shell and swung a lamp with a magnifying lens built into it over his workspace. “Hey, just a sec, OK? I’ve just figured out what I was doing wrong before.” He took up a little tweezers and a plastic rod and probed for a moment, then daubed some solder down inside the shell’s guts. He tweezed a wire to a contact and the shell made a motorized sound, a peg sticking out of it began to move rhythmically.
“Got it,” he said. He set it down. “I don’t expect I’m going to be doing many more of these projects after next week. This kind of design, we could never mass-produce it.” He looked a little wistful, and Suzanne suppressed a smile. What a tortured artiste this Florida junkyard engineer was!
As the long day drew to a close, they went out for a walk in the twilight’s cool in the yard. The sopping humidity of the day settled around them as the sun set in a long summer blaze that turned the dry fountain full of Christmas ornaments into a luminescent bowl of jewels.
“I got some real progress today,” Lester said. He had a cane with him and he was limping heavily. “Got the printer to output complete mechanical logical gates, all in one piece, Almost no assembly, just daisy-chain them on a board. And I’ve been working on a standard snap-on system for lego-bricking each gate to the next. It’s going to make it a lot easier to ramp up production.”
“Yeah?” Perry said. He asked a technical question about the printer, something about the goop’s tensile strength that Suzanne couldn’t follow. They went at it, hammer and tongs, talking through the abstruse details faster than she could follow, walking more and more quickly past the vast heaps of dead technology and half-built mall stores.
She let them get ahead of her and stopped to gather her thoughts. She turned around to take it all in and that’s when she caught sight of the kids sneaking into Perry and Lester’s lab.
“Hey!” she shouted, in her loudest Detroit voice. “What are you doing there?” There were three of them, in Miami Dolphins jerseys and shiny bald-shaved heads and little shorts, the latest inexplicable rapper style which made them look more like drag queens in mufti than tough-guys.
They rounded on her. They were heavyset and their eyebrows were bleached blond. They had been sneaking into the lab’s side-door, looking about as inconspicuous as a trio of nuns.
“Get lost!” she shouted. “Get out of here! Perry, Lester!”
They were coming closer now. They didn’t move so well, puffing in the heat, but they clearly had mayhem on their minds. She reached into her purse for her pepper spray and held it before her dramatically, but they didn’t stop coming.
Suddenly, the air was rent by the loudest sound she’d ever heard, like she’d put her head inside a foghorn. She flinched and misted a cloud of aerosol capsicum ahead of her. She had the presence of mind to step back quickly, before catching a blowback, but she wasn’t quick enough, for her eyes and nose started to burn and water. The sound wouldn’t stop, it just kept going on, a sound like her head was too small to contain her brain, a sound that made her teeth ache. The three kids had stopped and staggered off.
“You OK?” The voice sounded like it was coming from far, far away, though Lester was right in front of her. She found that she’d dropped to her knees in the teeth of that astonishing noise.
She let him help her to her feet. “Jesus,” she said, putting a hand to her ears. They rang like she’d been at a rave all night. “What the hell?”
“Anti-personnel sonic device,” Lester said. She realized that he was shouting, but she could barely hear it. “It doesn’t do any permanent damage, but it’ll scare off most anyone. Those kids probably live in the shanty-town we passed this morning. More and more of them are joining gangs. They’re our neighbors, so we don’t want to shoot them or anything.”
She nodded. The ringing in her ears was subsiding a little. Lester steadied her. She leaned on him. He was big and solid. He wore the same cologne as her father had, she realized.
She moved away from him and smoothed out her shorts, dusting off her knees. “Did you invent that?”
“Made it using a HOWTO I found online,” he said. “Lot of kids around here up to no good. It’s pretty much a homebrew civil defense siren—rugged and cheap.”
She put a finger in each ear and scratched at the itchy buzzing. When she removed them, her hearing was almost back to normal. “I once had an upstairs neighbor in Cambridge who had a stereo system that loud—never thought I’d hear it again.”
Perry came and joined them. “I followed them a bit, they’re way gone now. I think I recognized one of them from the campsite. I’ll talk to Francis about it and see if he can set them right.”
“Have you been broken into before?”
“A few times. Mostly what we worry about is someone trashing the printers. Everything else is easy to replace, but when Lester’s old employer went bust we bought up about fifty of these things at the auction and I don’t know where we’d lay hands on them again. Computers are cheap and it’s not like anyone could really steal all this junk.” He flashed her his good-looking, confident smile again.
“What time do the movies start?”
Lester checked his watch. “About an hour after sunset. If we leave now we can get a real dinner at a Haitian place I know and then head over to the Thunderbird. I’ll hide under a blanket in the back seat so that we can save on admission!”
She’d done that many times as a kid, her father shushing her and her brother as they giggled beneath the blankets. The thought of giant Lester doing it made her chuckle. “I think we can afford to pay for you,” she said.
The dinner was good—fiery spicy fish and good music in an old tiki bar with peeling grass wallpaper that managed to look vaguely Haitian. The waiters spoke Spanish, not French, though. She let herself be talked into two bottles of beer—about one and a half more than she would normally take—but she didn’t get light-headed. The heat and humidity seemed to rinse the alcohol right out of her bloodstream.
They got to the movies just at dusk. It was just like she remembered from being a little girl and coming with her parents. Children in pajamas climbed over a jungle-gym to one side of the lot. Ranked rows of cars faced the huge, grubby white projection walls. They even showed one of those scratchy old “Let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves a treat” cartoon shorts with the dancing hot-dogs before the movie.
The nostalgia filled her up like a balloon expanding in her chest. She hadn’t ever seen a computer until she was ten years old, and that had been the size of a chest-freezer, with less capability than one of the active printed-computer cards that came in glossy fashion magazines with come-ons for perfume and weight-loss.
The world had been stood on its head so many times in the intervening thirty-plus years that it was literally dizzying—or was that the beer having a delayed effect? Suddenly all the certainties she rested on—her 401k, her house, her ability to navigate the professional world in a competent manner—seemed to be built on shifting sands.
They’d come in Lester’s car, a homemade auto built around two electric Smart cars joined together to form a kind of mini-sedan with room enough for Lester to slide into the driver’s perch with room to spare. Once they arrived, they unpacked clever folding chairs and sat them beside the car, rolled down the windows, and turned up the speakers. It was a warm night, but not sticky the way it had been that day, and the kiss of the wind that rustled the leaves of the tall palms ringing the theater was like balm.
The movie was something forgettable about bumbling detectives on the moon, one of those trendy new things acted entirely by animated dead actors who combined the virtues of box-office draw and cheap labor. There might have been a couple of fictional actors in there too, it was hard to say, she’d never really followed the movies except as a place to escape to. There was real magic and escape in a drive-in, though, with the palpable evidence of all those other breathing humans in the darkened night watching the magic story flicker past on the screen, something that went right into her hindbrain. Before she knew it, her eyelids were drooping and then she found herself jerking awake. This happened a couple times before Lester slipped a pillow under her head and she sank into it and fell into sleep.
She woke at the closing credits and realized that she’d managed to prop the pillow on Lester’s barrel-chest. She snapped her head up and then smiled embarrassedly at him. “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “You snore like a bandsaw, you know it?”
She blushed. “I don’t!”
“You do,” he said.
Perry, on her other side nodded. “You do.”
“God,” she said.
“Don’t worry, you haven’t got anything on Lester,” Perry said. “I’ve gone into his room some mornings and found all the pictures lying on the floor, vibrated off their hooks.”
It seemed to her that Lester was blushing now.
“I’m sorry if I spoiled the movie,” she said.
“Don’t sweat it,” Lester said, clearly grateful for the change of subject. “It was a lousy movie anyway. You drowned out some truly foul dialogue.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“C’mon, let’s go back to the office and get you your car. It’s an hour to Miami from here.”
She was wide awake by the time she parked the rent-a-car in the coffin-hotel’s parking lot and crawled into her room, slapping the air-con buttons up to full to clear out the stifling air that had baked into the interior during the day.
She lay on her back in the dark coffin for a long time, eyes open and slowly adjusting to the idiot lights on the control panel, until it seemed that she was lying in a space capsule hurtling through the universe at relativistic speeds, leaving behind history, the world, everything she knew. She sat up, wide awake, on West Coast time suddenly, and there was no way she would fall asleep now, but she lay back down and then she did, finally.
The alarm woke her seemingly five minutes later. She did a couple laps around the parking lot, padding around, stretching her legs, trying to clear her head—her internal clock thought that it was 4AM, but at 7AM on the east coast, the sun was up and the heat had begun to sizzle all the available moisture into the air. She left the hotel and drove around Miami for a while. She needed to find some toiletries and then a cafe where she could sit down and file some copy. She’d tweeted a bunch of working notes and posted a few things to her blog the day before, but her editor expected something more coherent for those who preferred their news a little more digested.
By the time she arrived at Perry’s junkyard, the day had tipped for afternoon, the sun no longer straight overhead, the heat a little softer than it had been the day before. She settled in for another day of watching the guys work, asking the occasional question. The column she’d ended up filing had been a kind of wait-and-see piece, describing the cool culture these two had going between them, and asking if it could survive scaling up to mass production. Now she experimented with their works-in-progress, sculptures and machines that almost worked, or didn’t work at all, but that showed the scope of their creativity. Kettlewell thought that there were a thousand, ten thousand people as creative as these two out there, waiting to be discovered. Could it be true?
“Sure,” Perry said, “why not? We’re just here because someone dropped the barrier to entry, made it possible for a couple of tinkerers to get a lot of materials and to assemble them without knowing a whole lot about advanced materials science. Wasn’t it like this when the Internet was starting out?”
“Woah,” Suzanne said. “I just realized that you wouldn’t really remember those days, back in the early nineties.”
“Sure I remember them. I was a kid, but I remember them fine!”
She felt very old. “The thing was that no one really suspected that there were so many liberal arts majors lurking in the nation’s universities, dying to drop out and learn perl and HTML.”
Perry cocked his head. “Yeah, I guess that’s analogous. The legacy of the dotcom years for me is all this free infrastructure, very cheap network connections and hosting companies and so on. That, I guess, combined with people willing to use it. I never really thought of it, but there must have been a lot of people hanging around in the old days who thought email and the net were pretty sketchy, right?”
She waved her hands at him. “Perry, lad, you don’t know the half of it. There are still executives in the rustbelt who spend bailout money on secretaries to print out their email and then dictate replies into tape recorders to be typed and sent.”
He furrowed his thick eyebrows. “You’re joking,” he said
She put her hand on her heart. “I kid you not. I knew people in the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. There are whole industries in this country that are living in the last century.
“Well, for me, all that dotcommie stuff was like putting down a good base, making it easy for people like me to get parts and build-logs and to find hardware hackers to jam with.”
Perry got engrossed in a tricky bit of engine-in-seashell then and she wandered over to Lester, who was printing out more Barbie heads for a much larger version of his mechanical computer. “It’ll be able to add, subtract, and multiply any two numbers up to 99,” he said. “It took decades to build a vacuum-tube machine that could do that much—I’m doing it with switches in just three revs. In your face, UNIVAC!”
She laughed. He had a huge bag of laser-cut soda-can switches that he was soldering onto a variety of substrates from polished car-doors to a bamboo tiki-bar. She looked closely at the solder. “Is this what sweatshop solder looks like?”
He looked confused, then said, “Oh! Right, Perry’s thing. Yeah, anything not done by a robot has this artisanal quality of blobbiness, which I quite like, it’s aesthetic, like a painting with visible brushstrokes. But Perry’s right: if you see solder like this on anything that there are a million of, then you know that it was laid down by kids and women working for slave wages. There’s no way it’s cheaper to make a million solders by hand than by robot unless your labor force is locked in, force-fed amphetamine, and destroyed for anything except prostitution inside of five years. But here, in something like this, so handmade and one of a kind, I think it gives it a nice cargo-cult neoprimitive feel. Like a field of hand-tilled furrows.”
She nodded. Today she was keeping her computer out, writing down quotes and tweeting thoughts as they came. They worked side by side in companionable silence for a while as she killed a couple thousand spams and he laid down a couple dozen blobs of solder.
“How do you like Florida?” he said, after straightening up and cracking his back.
She barely stopped typing, deep into some email: “It’s all right, I suppose.”
“There’s great stuff here if you know where to look. Want me to show you around a little tonight? It’s Friday, after all.”
“Sounds good. Is Perry free?”
It took her a second to register that he hadn’t answered. She looked up and saw he was blushing to the tips of his ears. “I thought we could go out just the two of us. Dinner and a walk around the deco stuff on Miami Beach?”
“Oh,” she said. And the weird thing was, she took it seriously for a second. She hadn’t been on a date in something like a year, and he was a really nice guy and so forth. But professional ethics made that impossible, and besides.
And besides. He was huge. He’d told her he weighed nearly 400 pounds. So fat, he was, essentially, sexless. Round and unshaped, doughy.
All of these thoughts in an instant and then she said, “Oh, well. Listen, Lester, it’s about professional ethics. I’m here on a story and you guys are really swell, but I’m here to be objective. That means no dating. Sorry.” She said it in the same firm tones as she’d used to turn down their offer to treat her at the IHOP: a fact of life, something she just didn’t do. Like turning down a glass of beer by saying, “No thanks, I don’t drink.” No value judgment.
But she could see that she had let her thinking show on her face, if only for the briefest moment. Lester stiffened and his nostrils flared. He wiped his hands on his thighs, then said, in a light tone, “Sure, no problem. I understand completely. Should have thought of that. Sorry!”
“No problem,” she said. She pretended to work on her email a while longer, then said, “Well, I think I’ll call it a day. See you Monday for Tjan’s arrival, right?”
“Right!” he said, too brightly, and she slunk away to her car.
She spent the weekend blogging and seeing the beach. The people on the beach seemed to be of another species from the ones she saw walking the streets of Hollywood and Miami and Lauderdale. They had freakishly perfect bodies, the kind of thing you saw in an anatomical drawing or a comic-book—so much muscular definition that they were practically cross-hatched. She even tried out the nude beach, intrigued to see these perfect specimens in the all-together, but she chickened out when she realized that she’d need a substantial wax-job before her body hair was brought down to norms for that strip of sand.
She did get an eyeful of several anatomically correct drawings before taking off again. It made her uncomfortably horny and aware of how long it had been since her last date. That got her thinking of poor Lester, buried underneath all that flesh, and that got her thinking about the life she’d chosen for herself, covering the weird world of tech where the ground never stood still long enough for her to get her balance.
So she retreated to blog in a cafe, posting snippets and impressions from her days with the boys, along with photos. Her readers were all over it, commenting like mad. Half of them thought it was disgusting—so much suffering and waste in the world and these guys were inventing $10,000 toys out of garbage. The other half wanted to know where to go to buy one for themselves. Halfway through Sunday, her laptop battery finally died, needing a fresh weekly charge, so she retreated again, to the coffin, to wait for Monday and the new day that would dawn for Perry and Lester and Kodacell—and her.
Tjan turned out to be a lot older than she’d expected. She’d pictured him as about 28, smart and preppie like they all were when they were fresh out of B-school and full of Management Wisdom. Instead, he was about forty, balding, with a little pot-belly and thinning hair. He dressed like an English professor, blue-jeans and a checked shirt and a tweedy sports-coat that he’d shucked within seconds of leaving the terminal at Miami airport and stepping into the blast-furnace heat.
They’d all come in Lester’s big, crazy car, and squishing back in with Tjan’s suitcases was like a geometry trick. She found herself half on Perry’s lap, hugging half a big duffel-bag that seemed to be full of bricks.
“Books,” Tjan said. “Just a little personal library. It’s a bad habit, moving the physical objects around, but I’m addicted.” He had a calm voice that might in fact be a little dull, a prof’s monotone.
They brought him to Perry and Lester’s place, which was three condos with the dividing walls knocked out in a complex that had long rust-streaks down its sides and rickety balconies that had been eaten away by salt air. There was a guardhouse at the front of the complex, but it was shuttered, abandoned, and graffiti tagged.
Tjan stepped out of the car and put his hands on his hips and considered the building. “It could use a coat of paint,” he said. Suzanne looked closely at him—he was so deadpan, it was hard to tell what was on his mind. But he slipped her a wink.
“Yeah,” Perry said. “It could at that. On the bright side: spacious, cheap and there’s a pool. There’s a lot of this down here since the housing market crashed. The condo association here dissolved about four years ago, so there’s not really anyone who’s in charge of all the common spaces and stuff, just a few condo owners and speculators who own the apartments. Suckers, I’m thinking. Our rent has gone down twice this year, just for asking. I’m thinking we could probably get them to pay us to live here and just keep out the bums and stuff.”
The living quarters were nearly indistinguishable from the workshop at the junkyard: strewn with cool devices in various stages of disassembly, detritus and art. The plates and dishes and glasses all had IHOP and Cracker Barrel logos on them. “From thrift shops,” Lester explained. “Old people steal them when they get their earlybird specials, and then when they die their kids give them to Goodwill. Cheapest way to get a matched set around here.”
Tjan circled the three adjoined cracker-box condos like a dog circling his basket. Finally, he picked an unoccupied master bedroom with moldy lace curtains and a motel-art painting of an abstract landscape over the headboard. He set his suitcase down on the faux-Chinoise chest of drawers and said, “Right, I’m done. Let’s get to work.”
They took him to the workshop next and his expression hardly changed as they showed him around, showed him their cabinets of wonders. When they were done, he let them walk him to the IHOP and he ordered the most austere thing on the menu, a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich that was technically on the kids’ menu—a kids’ menu at a place where the grownups could order a plate of candy!
“So,” Perry said. “So, Tjan, come on buddy, give it to me straight—you hate it? Love it? Can’t understand it?”
Tjan set down his sandwich. “You boys are very talented,” he said. “They’re very good inventions. There are lots of opportunities for synergy within Kodacell: marketing, logistics, even packing materials. There’s a little aerogel startup in Oregon that Kodacell is underwriting that you could use for padding when you ship.”
Perry and Lester looked at him expectantly. Suzanne broke the silence. “Tjan, did you have any artistic or design ideas about the things that these guys are making?”
Tjan took another bite of sandwich and sipped at his milk. “Well, you’ll have to come up with a name for them, something that identifies them. Also, I think you should be careful with trademarked objects. Any time you need to bring in an IP lawyer, you’re going to run into huge costs and time delays.”
They waited again. “That’s it?” Perry said. “Nothing about the designs themselves?”
“I’m the business-manager. That’s editorial. I’m artistically autistic. Not my job to help you design things. It’s my job to sell the things you design.”
“Would it matter what it was we were making? Would you feel the same if it was toothbrushes or staplers?”
Tjan smiled. “If you were making staplers I wouldn’t be here, because there’s no profit in staplers. Too many competitors. Toothbrushes are a possibility, if you were making something really revolutionary. People buy about 1.6 toothbrushes a year, so there’s lots of opportunity to come up with an innovative design that sells at a good profit over marginal cost for a couple seasons before it gets cloned or out-innovated. What you people are making has an edge because it’s you making it, very bespoke and distinctive. I think it will take some time for the world to emerge an effective competitor to these goods, provided that you can build an initial marketplace mass-interest in them. There aren’t enough people out there who know how to combine all the things you’ve combined here. The system makes it hard to sell anything above the marginal cost of goods, unless you have a really innovative idea, which can’t stay innovative for long, so you need continuous invention and re-invention too. You two fellows appear to be doing that. I don’t know anything definitive about the aesthetic qualities of your gadgets, nor how useful they’ll be, but I do understand their distinctiveness, so that’s why I’m here.”
It was longer than all the speeches he’d delivered since arriving, put together. Suzanne nodded and made some notes. Perry looked him up and down.
“You’re, what, an ex-B-school prof from Cornell, right?”
“Yes, for a few years. And I ran a company for a while, doing import-export from emerging economy states in the former Soviet bloc.”
“I see,” Perry said. “So you’re into what, a new company every 18 months or something?”
“Oh no,” Tjan said, and he had a little twinkle in his eye and the tiniest hint of a smile. “Oh no. Every six months. A year at the outside. That’s my deal. I’m the business guy with the short attention span.”
“I see,” Perry said. “Kettlewell didn’t mention this.”
At the junkyard, Tjan wandered around the Elmo-propelled Smart car and peered at its innards, watched the Elmos negotiate their balance and position with minute movements and acoustic signals. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” he said. “You guys aren’t temperamentally suited to doing just one thing.”
Lester laughed. “He’s got you there, dude,” he said, slapping Perry on the shoulder.
Suzanne got Tjan out for dinner that night. “My dad was in import-export and we travelled a lot, all over Asia and then the former Soviets. He sent me away when I was 16 to finish school in the States, and there was no question but that I would go to Stanford for business school.”
“Nice to meet a fellow Californian,” she said, and sipped her wine. They’d gone to one of the famed Miami deco restaurants and the fish in front of her was practically a sculpture, so thoroughly plated it was.
“Well, I’m as Californian as…”
“…as possible, under the circumstances,” she said and laughed. “It’s a Canadian joke, but it applies equally well to Californians. So you were in B-school when?”
“Ninety eight to 2001. Interesting times to be in the Valley. I read your column, you know.”
She looked down at her plate. A lot of people had read the column back then. Women columnists were rare in tech, and she supposed she was good at it, too. “I hope I get remembered as more than the chronicler of the dot-com boom, though,” she said.
“Oh, you will,” he said. “You’ll be remembered as the chronicler of this—what Kettlewell and Perry and Lester are doing.”
“What you’re doing, too, right?”
“Oh, yes, what I’m doing too.”
A robot rollerbladed past on the boardwalk, turning the occasional somersault. “I should have them build some of those,” Tjan said, watching the crowd turn to regard it. It hopped onto and off of the curb, expertly steered around the wandering couples and the occasional homeless person. It had a banner it streamed out behind it: CAP’N JACKS PAINTBALL AND FANBOAT TOURS GET SHOT AND GET WET MIAMI KEY WEST LAUDERDALE.
“You think they can?”
“Sure,” Tjan said. “Those two can build anything. That’s the point: any moderately skilled practitioner can build anything these days, for practically nothing. Back in the old days, the blacksmith just made every bit of ironmongery everyone needed, one piece at a time, at his forge. That’s where we’re at. Every industry that required a factory yesterday only needs a garage today. It’s a real return to fundamentals. What no one ever could do was join up all the smithies and all the smiths and make them into a single logical network with a single set of objectives. That’s new and it’s what I plan on making hay out of. This will be much bigger than dot-com. It will be much harder, too—bigger crests, deeper troughs. This is something to chronicle all right: it will make dot-com look like a warm up for the main show.
“We’re going to create a new class of artisans who can change careers every 10 months, inventing new jobs that hadn’t been imagined a year before.”
“That’s a pretty unstable market,” Suzanne said, and ate some fish.
“That’s a functional market. Here’s what I think the point of a good market is. In a good market, you invent something and you charge all the market will bear for it. Someone else figures out how to do it cheaper, or decides they can do it for a slimmer margin—not the same thing, you know, in the first case someone is more efficient and in the second they’re just less greedy or less ambitious. They do it and so you have to drop your prices to compete. Then someone comes along who’s less greedy or more efficient than both of you and undercuts you again, and again, and again, until eventually you get down to a kind of firmament, a baseline that you can’t go lower than, the cheapest you can produce a good and stay in business. That’s why straightpins, machine screws and reams of paper all cost basically nothing, and make damned little profit for their manufacturers.
“So if you want to make a big profit, you’ve got to start over again, invent something new, and milk it for all you can before the first imitator shows up. The more this happens, the cheaper and better everything gets. It’s how we got here, you see. It’s what the system is for. We’re approaching a kind of pure and perfect state now, with competition and invention getting easier and easier—it’s producing a kind of superabundance that’s amazing to watch. My kids just surf it, make themselves over every six months, learn a new interface, a new entertainment, you name it. Change-surfers…” He trailed off.
“You have kids?”
“In St Petersburg, with their mother.”
She could tell by his tone that it had been the wrong question to ask. He was looking hangdog. “Well, it must be nice to be so much closer to them than you were in Ithaca.”
“What? No, no. The St Petersburg in Russia.”
“Oh,” she said.
They concentrated on their food for a while.
“You know,” he said, after they’d ordered coffee and desert, “it’s all about abundance. I want my kids to grow up with abundance, and whatever is going on right now, it’s providing abundance in abundance. The self-storage industry is bigger than the recording industry, did you know that? All they do is provide a place to put stuff that we own that we can’t find room for—that’s superabundance.”
“I have a locker in Milpitas,” she said.
“There you go. It’s a growth industry.” He drank his coffee. On the way back to their cars, he said, “My daughter, Lyenitchka, is four, and my son, Sasha, is one. I haven’t lived with their mother in three years.” He made a face. “Sasha’s circumstances were complicated. They’re good kids, though. It just couldn’t work with their mother. She’s Russian, and connected—that’s how we met, I was hustling for my import-export business and she had some good connections—so after the divorce there was no question of my taking the kids with me. But they’re good kids.”
“Do you see them?”
“We videoconference. Who knew that long-distance divorce was the killer app for videoconferencing?”
That week, Suzanne tweeted constantly, filed two columns, and blogged ten or more items a day: photos, bits of discussion between Lester, Perry and Tjan, a couple videos of the Boogie Woogie Elmos doing improbable things. Turned out that there was quite a cult following for the BWE, and the news that there was a trove of some thousands of them in a Hollywood dump sent a half-dozen pilgrims winging their way across the nation to score some for the collectors’ market. Perry wouldn’t even take their money: “Fella,” he told one persistent dealer, “I got forty thousand of these things. I won’t miss a couple dozen. Just call it good karma.”
When Tjan found out about it he pursed his lips for a moment, then said, “Let me know if someone wants to pay us money, please. I think you were right, but I’d like to have a say, all right?”
Perry looked at Suzanne, who was videoing this exchange with her keychain. Then he looked back at Tjan, “Yeah, of course. Sorry—force of habit. No harm done, though, right?”
That footage got downloaded a couple hundred times that night, but once it got slashdotted by a couple of high-profile headline aggregators, she found her server hammered with a hundred thousand requests. The Merc had the horsepower to serve them all, but you never knew: every once in a while, the web hit another tipping point and grew by an order of magnitude or so, and then all the server-provisioning—calculated to survive the old slashdottings—shredded like wet kleenex.
From: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Embedded journalist?
This stuff is amazing. Amazing! Christ, I should put you on the payroll. Forget I wrote that. But i should. You’ve got a fantastic eye. I have never felt as in touch with my own business as I do at this moment. Not to mention proud! Proud—you’ve made me so proud of the work these guys are doing, proud to have some role in it.
She read it sitting up in her coffin, just one of several hundred emails from that day’s blog-posts and column. She laughed and dropped it in her folder of correspondence to answer. It was nearly midnight, too late to get into it with Kettlewell.
Then her computer rang—the net-phone she forwarded her cellphone to when her computer was live and connected. She’d started doing that a couple years back, when soft-phones really stabilized, and her phone bills had dropped to less than twenty bucks a month, down from several hundred. It wasn’t that she spent a lot of time within arm’s reach of a live computer, but given that calls routed through the laptop were free, she was perfectly willing to defer her calls until she was.
“Hi Jimmy,” she said—her editor, back in San Jose. 9PM Pacific time on a weeknight was still working hours for him.
“Suzanne,” he said.
She waited. She’d half expected him to call with a little shower of praise, an echo of Kettlewell’s note. Jimmy wasn’t the most effusive editor she’d had, but it made his little moments of praise more valuable for their rarity.
“Suzanne,” he said again.
“Jimmy,” she said. “It’s late here. What’s up?”
“So, it’s like this. I love your reports but it’s not Silicon Valley news. It’s Miami news. McClatchy handed me a thirty percent cut this morning and I’m going to the bone. I am firing a third of the newsroom today. Now, you are a stupendous writer and so I said to myself, ‘I can fire her or I can bring her home and have her write about Silicon Valley again,’ and I knew what the answer had to be. So I need you to come home, just wrap it up and come home.”
He finished speaking and she found herself staring at her computer’s screen. Her hands were gripping the laptop’s edges so tightly it hurt, and the machine made a plasticky squeak as it began to bend.
“I can’t do that, Jimmy. This is stuff that Silicon Valley needs to know about. This may not be what’s happening in Silicon Valley, but it sure as shit is what’s happening to Silicon Valley.” She hated that she’d cussed—she hadn’t meant to. “I know you’re in a hard spot, but this is the story I need to cover right now.”
“Suzanne, I’m cutting a third of the newsroom. We’re going to be covering stories within driving distance of this office for the foreseeable future, and that’s it. I don’t disagree with a single thing you just said, but it doesn’t matter: if I leave you where you are, I’ll have to cut the guy who covers the school boards and the city councils. I can’t do that, not if I want to remain a daily newspaper editor.”
“I see,” she said. “Can I think about it?”
“Think about what, Suzanne? This has not been the best day for me, I have to tell you, but I don’t see what there is to think about. This newspaper no longer has correspondents who work in Miami and London and Paris and New York. As of today, that stuff comes from bloggers, or off the wire, or whatever—but not from our payroll. You work for this newspaper, so you need to come back here, because the job you’re doing does not exist any longer. The job you have with us is here. You’ve missed the night-flight, but there’s a direct flight tomorrow morning that’ll have you back by lunchtime tomorrow, and we can sit down together then and talk about it, all right?”
“I think—” She felt that oh-shit-oh-shit feeling again, that needing-to-pee feeling, that tension from her toes to her nose. “Jimmy,” she said. “I need a leave of absence, OK?”
“What? Suzanne, I’m sure we owe you some vacation but now isn’t the time—”
“Not a vacation, Jimmy. Six months leave of absence, without pay.” Her savings could cover it. She could put some banner ads on her blog. Florida was cheap. She could rent out her place in California. She was six steps into the plan and it had only taken ten seconds and she had no doubts whatsoever. She could talk to that book-agent who’d pinged her last year, see about getting an advance on a book about Kodacell.
“Are you quitting?”
“No, Jimmy—well, not unless you make me. But I need to stay here.”
“The work you’re doing there is fine, Suzanne, but I worked really hard to protect your job here and this isn’t going to help make that happen.”
“What are you saying?”
“If you want to work for the Merc, you need to fly back to San Jose, where the Merc is published. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”
No, he couldn’t. She sympathized with him. She was really well paid by the Merc. Keeping her on would mean firing two junior writers. He’d cut her a lot of breaks along the way, too—let her feel out the Valley in her own way. It had paid off for both of them, but he’d taken the risk when a lot of people wouldn’t have. She’d be a fool to walk away from all that.
She opened her mouth to tell him that she’d be on the plane in the morning, and what came out was, “Jimmy, I really appreciate all the work you’ve done for me, but this is the story I need to write. I’m sorry about that.”
“Suzanne,” he said.
“Thank you, Jimmy,” she said. “I’ll get back to California when I get a lull and sort out the details—my employee card and stuff.”
“You know what you’re doing, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I do.”
When she unscrewed her earpiece, she discovered that her neck was killing her. That made her realize that she was a forty-five-year-old woman in America without health insurance. Or regular income. She was a journalist without a journalistic organ.
She’d have to tell Kettlewell, who would no doubt offer to put her on the payroll. She couldn’t do that, of course. Neutrality was hard enough to maintain, never mind being financially compromised.
She stepped out of the coffin and sniffed the salty air. Living in the coffin was expensive. She’d need to get a condo or something. A place with a kitchen where she could prep meals. She figured that Perry’s building would probably have a vacancy or two.
The second business that Tjan took Perry into was even more successful than the first, and that was saying something. It only took a week for Tjan to get Perry and Lester cranking on a Kitchen Gnome design that mashed together some Homeland Security gait-recognition software with a big solid-state hard-disk and a microphone and a little camera, all packaged together in one of a couple hundred designs of a garden-gnome figurine that stood six inches tall. It could recognize every member of a household by the way they walked and play back voice-memos for each. It turned out to be a killer tool for context-sensitive reminders to kids to do the dishes, and for husbands, wives and roommates to nag each other without getting on each others’ nerves. Tjan was really jazzed about it, as it tied in with some theories he had about the changing US demographic, trending towards blended households in urban centers, with three or more adults co-habitating.
“This is a rich vein,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Living communally is hard, and technology can make it easier. Roommate ware. It’s the wave of the future.”
There was another Kodacell group in San Francisco, a design outfit with a bunch of stringers who could design the gnomes for them and they did great work. The gnomes were slightly lewd-looking, and they were the product of a generative algorithm that varied each one. Some of the designs that fell out of the algorithm were jaw-droppingly weird—Perry kept a three-eyed, six-armed version on his desk. They tooled up to make them by the hundred, then the thousand,then the tens of thousand. The fact that each one was different kept their margins up, but as the Gnomes gained popularity their sales were steadily eroded by knock-offs, mostly from Eastern Europe.
The knockoffs weren’t as cool-looking—though they were certainly weirder looking, like the offspring of a Norwegian troll and an anime robot—but they were more feature-rich. Some smart hacker in Russia was packing all kinds of functionality onto a single chip, so that their trolls cost less and did more: burglar alarms, baby-monitors, streaming Internet radio source, and low-reliability medical diagnostic that relied on quack analysis of eye pigment, tongue coating and other newage (rhymes with sewage) indicators.
Lester came back from the Dollar Store with a big bag of trolls, a dozen different models, and dumped them out on Tjan’s desk, up in old foreman’s offices on the catwalk above the workspaces. “Christ, would you look at these? They’re selling them for less than our cost to manufacture. How do we compete with this?”
“We don’t,” Tjan said, and rubbed his belly. “Now we do the next thing.”
“What’s the next thing?” Perry said.
“Well, the first one delivered a return-on-investment at about twenty times the rate of any Kodak or Duracell business unit in the history of either company. But I’d like to shoot for thirty to forty times next, if that’s all right with you. So let’s go see what you’ve invented this week and how we can commercialize it.”
Perry and Lester just looked at each other. Finally, Lester said, “Can you repeat that?”
“The typical ROI for a Kodacell unit in the old days was about four percent. If you put a hundred dollars in, you’d get a hundred and four dollars out, and it would take about a year to realize. Of course, in the old days, they wouldn’t have touched a new business unless they could put a hundred million in and get a hundred and four million out. Four million bucks is four million bucks.
“But here, the company put fifty thousand into these dolls and three months later, they took seventy thousand out, after paying our salaries and bonuses. That’s a forty percent ROI. Seventy thousand bucks isn’t four million bucks, but forty percent is forty percent. Not to mention that our business drove similar margins in three other business units.”
“I thought we’d screwed up by letting these guys eat our lunch,” Lester said, indicating the dollar-store trolls.
“Nope, we got in while the margins were high, made a good return, and now we’ll get out as the margins drop. That’s not screwing up, that’s doing the right thing. The next time around, we’ll do something more capital intensive and we’ll take out an even higher margin: so show me something that’ll cost two hundred grand to get going and that we can pull a hundred and sixty thou’s worth of profit out of for Kodacell in three months. Let’s do something ambitious this time around.”
Suzanne took copious notes. There’d been a couple weeks’ awkwardness early on about her scribbling as they talked, or videoing with her keychain. But once she’d moved into the building with the guys, taking a condo on the next floor up, she’d become just a member of the team, albeit a member who tweeted nearly every word they uttered to a feed that was adding new subscribers by the tens of thousands.
“So, Perry, what have you got for Tjan?” she asked.
“I came up with the last one,” he said, grinning—they always ended up grinning when Tjan ran down economics for them. “Let Lester take this one.”
Lester looked shy—he’d never fully recovered from Suzanne turning him down and when she was in the room, he always looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. He participated in the message boards on her blog though, the most prolific poster in a field with thousands of very prolific posters. When he posted, others listened: he was witty, charming and always right.
“Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about roommate-ware, ’cause I know that Tjan’s just crazy for that stuff. I’ve been handicapped by the fact that you guys are such excellent roomies, so I have to think back to my college days to remember what a bad roommate is like, where the friction is. Mostly, it comes down to resource contention, though: I wanna cook, but your dishes are in the sink; I wanna do laundry but your boxers are in the dryer; I wanna watch TV, but your crap is all over the living room sofa.”
Living upstairs from the guys gave her fresh insight into how the Kodacell philosophy would work out. Kettlewell was really big on communal living, putting these people into each other’s pockets like the old-time geek houses of pizza-eating hackers, getting that in-the-trenches camaraderie. It had taken a weekend to put the most precious stuff in her California house into storage and then turn over the keys to a realtor who’d sort out leasing it for her. The monthly check from the realtor left more than enough for her to pay the rent in Florida and then some, and once the UPS man dropped off the five boxes of personal effects she’d chosen, she was practically at home.
She sat alone over the guys’ apartments in the evenings, windows open so that their muffled conversations could drift in and form the soundtrack as she wrote her columns. It made her feel curiously with, but not of, their movement—a reasonable proxy for journalistic objectivity in this age of relativism.
“Resource contention readily decomposes into a bunch of smaller problems, with distinctive solutions. Take dishes: every dishwasher should be designed with a ’clean’ and a ’dirty’ compartment—basically, two logical dishwashers. You take clean dishes out of the clean side, use them, and put them into the dirty side. When the dirty side is full, the clean side is empty, so you cycle the dishwasher and the clean side becomes dirty and vice-versa. I had some sketches for designs that would make this happen, but it didn’t feel right: making dishwashers is too industrial for us. I either like making big chunks of art or little silver things you can carry in your pocket.”
She smiled despite herself. She was drawing a half-million readers a day by doing near-to-nothing besides repeating the mind-blowing conversations around her. It had taken her a month to consider putting ads on the site—lots of feelers from blog “micro-labels” who wanted to get her under management and into their banner networks, and she broke down when one of them showed her a little spreadsheet detailing the kind of long green she could expect to bring in from a couple of little banners, with her getting the right to personally approve every advertiser in the network. The first month, she’d made more money than all but the most senior writers on the Merc. The next month, she’d outstripped her own old salary. She’d covered commercial blogs, the flamboyant attention-whores who’d bought stupid cars and ridiculous bimbos with the money, but she’d always assumed they were in a different league from a newspaper scribbler. Now she supposed all the money meant that she should make it official and phone in a resignation to Jimmy, but they’d left it pretty ambiguous as to whether she was retiring or taking a leave of absence and she was reluctant to collapse that waveform into the certainty of saying goodbye to her old life.
“So I got to thinking about snitch-tags, radio frequency ID gizmos. Remember those? When we started talking about them a decade ago, all the privacy people went crazy, totally sure that these things would be bad news. The geeks dismissed them as not understanding the technology. Supposedly, an RFID can only be read from a couple inches away—if someone wanted to find out what RFIDs you had on your person, they’d have to wand you, and you’d know about it.”
“Yeah, that was bull,” Perry said. “I mean, sure you can’t read an RFID unless it’s been excited with electromagnetic radiation, and sure you can’t do that from a hundred yards without frying everything between you and the target. But if you had a subway turnstile with an exciter built into it, you could snipe all the tag numbers from a distant roof with a directional antenna. If those things had caught on, there’d be exciters everywhere and you’d be able to track anyone you wanted—Christ, they even put RFIDs in the hundred-dollar bill for a while! Pickpockets could have figured out whose purse was worth snatching from half a mile a way!”
“All true,” Lester said. “But that didn’t stop these guys. There are still a couple of them around, limping along without many customers. They print the tags with inkjets, sized down to about a third the size of a grain of rice. Mostly used in supply-chain management and such. They can supply them on the cheap.
“Which brings me to my idea: why not tag everything in a group household, and use the tags to figure out who left the dishes in the sink, who took the hammer out and didn’t put it back, who put the empty milk-carton back in the fridge, and who’s got the TV remote? It won’t solve resource contention, but it will limit the social factors that contribute to it.” He looked around at them. “We can make it fun, you know, make cool RFID sticker designs, mod the little gnome dolls to act as terminals for getting reports.”
Suzanne found herself nodding along. She could use this kind of thing, even though she lived alone, just to help her find out where she left her glasses and the TV remote.
Perry shook his head, though. “When I was a kid, I had a really bad relationship with my mom. She was really smart, but she didn’t have a lot of time to reason things out with me, so often as not she’d get out of arguing with me by just changing her story. So I’d say, ’Ma, can I go to the mall this aft?’ and she’d say, ‘Sure, no problem.’ Then when I was getting ready to leave the house, she’d ask me where I thought I was going. I’d say, ‘To the mall, you said!’ and she’d just deny it. Just deny it, point blank.
“I don’t think she even knew she was doing it. I think when I asked her if I could go, she’d just absentmindedly say yes, but when it actually came time to go out, she’d suddenly remember all my unfinished chores, my homework, all the reasons I should stay home. I think every kid gets this from their folks, but it made me fucking crazy. So I got a mini tape recorder and I started to tape her when she gave me permission. I thought I’d really nail her the next time she changed her tune, play her own words back in her ear.
“So I tried it, and you know what happened? She gave me nine kinds of holy hell for wearing a wire and then she said it didn’t matter what she’d said that morning, she was my mother and I had chores to do and no how was I going anywhere now that I’d started sneaking around the house with a hidden recorder. She took it away and threw it in the trash. And to top it off, she called me ’J. Edgar’ for a month.
“So here’s my question: how would you feel if the next time you left the dishes in the sink, I showed up with the audit trail for the dishes and waved it in your face? How would we get from that point to a happy, harmonious household? I think you’ve mistaken the cause for the effect. The problem with dishes in the sink isn’t just that it’s a pain when I want to cook a meal: it’s that when you leave them in the sink, you’re being inconsiderate. And the reason you’ve left them in the sink, as you’ve pointed out, is that putting dishes in the dishwasher is a pain in the ass: you have to bend over, you have to empty it out, and so on. If we moved the dishwasher into the kitchen cupboards and turned half of them into a dirty side and half into a clean side, then disposing of dishes would be as easy as getting them out.”
Lester laughed, and so did Tjan. “Yeah, yeah—OK. Point taken. But these RFID things, they’re so frigging cheap and potentially useful. I just can’t believe that they’ve never found a single really compelling use in all this time. It just seems like an opportunity that’s going to waste.”
“Maybe it’s a dead end. Maybe it’s an ornithopter. Inventors spent hundreds of years trying to build an airplane that flew by flapping its wings, and it was all a rat-hole.”
“I guess,” Lester said. “But I don’t like the idea.”
“Like it or don’t, “ Perry said, “doesn’t affect whether it’s true or not.”
But Lester had a sparkle in his eye, and he disappeared into his workshop for a week, and wouldn’t let them in, which was unheard of for the big, gregarious giant. He liked to drag the others in whenever he accomplished anything of note, show it off to them like a big kid.
That was Sunday. Monday, Suzanne got a call from her realtor. “Your tenants have vanished,” she said.
“Vanished?” The couple who’d rented her place had been as reliable as anyone she’d ever met in the Valley. He worked at a PR agency, she worked in marketing at Google. Or maybe he worked in marketing and she was in PR at Google—whatever, they were affluent, well-spoken, and had paid the extortionate rent she’d charged without batting an eye.
“They normally paypal the rent to me on the first, but not this month. I called and left voicemail the next day, then followed up with an email. Yesterday I went by the house and it was empty. All their stuff was gone. No food in the fridge. I think they might have taken your home theater stuff, too.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Suzanne said. It was 11AM in Florida and she was into her second glass of lemonade as the sun began to superheat the air. Back in California, it was 8AM. Her realtor was pulling long hours, and it wasn’t her fault. “Sorry. Right. OK, what about the deposit?”
“You waived it.”
She had. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time. The distant owner of the condo she was renting in Florida hadn’t asked for one. “So I did. Now what?”
“You want to swear out a complaint against them?”
“With the police?”
“Yeah. Breach of contract. Theft, if they took the home theater. We can take them to collections, too.”
Goddamned marketing people had the collective morals of a snake. All of them useless, conniving, shallow—she never should have…
“Yeah, OK. And what about the house?”
“We can find you another tenant by the end of the month, I’m sure. Maybe a little earlier. Have you thought any more about selling it?”
She hadn’t, though the realtor brought it up every time they spoke. “Is now a good time?”
“Lot of new millionaires in the Valley shopping for houses, Suzanne. More than I’ve seen in years.” She named a sum that was a third higher than the last time they’d talked it over.
“Is it peaking?”
“Who knows? It might go up, it might collapse again. But now is the best time to sell in the past ten years. You’d be smart to do it.”
She took a deep breath. The Valley was dead, full of venal marketing people and buck-chasers. Here in Florida, she was on the cusp of the next thing, and it wasn’t happening in the Valley: it was happening everywhere except the Valley, in the cheap places where innovation could happen at low rents. Leaky hot tub, incredible property taxes, and the crazy roller-coaster ride—up 20 percent this month, down forty next. The bubble was going to burst some day and she should sell out now.
“Sell it,” she said.
“You’re going to be a wealthy lady,” the realtor said.
“Right,” Suzanne said.
“I have a buyer, Suzanne. I didn’t want to pressure you. But I can sell it by Friday. Close escrow next week. Cash in hand by the fifteenth.”
“Jesus,” she said. “You’re joking.”
“No joke,” the realtor said. “I’ve got a waiting list for houses on your block.”
And so Suzanne got on an airplane that night and flew back to San Jose and took a pricey taxi back to her place. The marketdroids had left it in pretty good shape, clean and tidy, clean sheets in the linen cupboard. She made up her bed and reflected that this would be the last time she made this bed—the next time she stripped the sheets, they’d go into a long-term storage box. She’d done this before, on her way out of Detroit, packing up a life into boxes and shoving it into storage. What had Tjan said? “The self-storage industry is bigger than the recording industry, did you know that? All they do is provide a place to put stuff that we own that we can’t find room for—that’s superabundance.”
Before bed she posted a classified on Craigslist for a couple helpers to work on boxing stuff, emailed Jimmy to see if he wanted lunch, and looked up the address for the central police station to swear out her complaint. The amp, speakers, and A/V switcher were all missing from her home theater.
She had a dozen helpers to choose from the next morning. She picked two who came with decent references, marveling that it was suddenly possible in Silicon Valley to get anyone to show up anywhere for ten bucks an hour. The police sergeant who took the complaint was sympathetic and agreed with her choice to get out of town. “I’ve had it with this place, too. Soon as my kids are out of high-school I’m moving back to Montana. I miss the weather.”
She didn’t think of the marketdroids again until the next day, when she and her helpers were boxing up the last of her things and loading them into her U-Haul. Then a BMW convertible screeched around the corner and burned rubber up to her door.
The woman marketdroid was driving, looking crazy and disheveled, eyes red-rimmed, one heel broken off of her shoes.
“What the FUCK is your problem, lady?” she said, as she leapt out of her car and stalked toward Suzanne.
Instinctively, Suzanne shrank back and dropped the box of books she was holding. It spilled out over her lawn.
“Fiona?” she said. “What’s happened?”
“I was arrested. They came to my workplace and led me out in handcuffs. I had to make bail.”
Suzanne’s stomach shrank to a little pebble, impossibly heavy. “What was I supposed to do? You two took off with my home theater!”
“What home theater? Everything was right where you left it when I went. I haven’t lived here in weeks. Tom left me last month and I moved out.”
“You moved out?”
“Yeah, bitch, I moved out. Tom was your tenant, not me. If he ripped something off, that’s between you and him.”
“Look, Fiona, wait, hold up a second. I tried to call you, I sent you email. No one was paying the rent, no one told me that you’d moved out, and no one answered when I tried to find out what had happened.”
“That sounds like an explanation, she said, hissing. “I’m waiting for a fucking apology. They took me to prison.”
Suzanne knew that the local lockup was a long way from prison. “I apologize,” she said. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? Would you like to use the shower or anything?”
The woman glared at her a moment longer, then slowly folded in on herself, collapsing, coughing and sobbing on the lawn.
Suzanne stood with her arms at her sides for a moment. Her Craigslist helpers had gone home, so she was all alone, and this woman, whom she’d met only once before, in passing, was clearly having some real problems. Not the kind of thing she dealt with a lot—her life didn’t include much person-to-person hand-holding.
But what can you do? She knelt beside Fiona in the grass and took her hand. “Let’s get you inside, OK?”
At first it was as though she hadn’t heard, but slowly she straightened up and let Suzanne lead her into the house. She was twenty-two, twenty-three, young enough to be Suzanne’s daughter if Suzanne had gone in for that sort of thing. Suzanne helped her to the sofa and sat her down amid the boxes still waiting to go into the U-Haul. The kitchen was packed up, but she had a couple bottles of Diet Coke in the cooler and she handed one to the girl.
“I’m really sorry, Fiona. Why didn’t you answer my calls or email?”
She looked at Suzanne, her eyes lost in streaks of mascara. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to talk about it. He lost his job last month and kind of went crazy, told me he didn’t want the responsibility anymore. What responsibility? But he told me to go, told me it would be best for both of us if we were apart. I thought it was another girl, but I don’t know. Maybe it was just craziness. Everyone I know out here is crazy. They all work a hundred hours a week, they get fired or quit their jobs every five months. Everything is so expensive. My rent is three quarters of my salary.”
“It’s really hard,” Suzanne said, thinking of the easy, lazy days in Florida, the hackers’ idyll that Perry and Lester enjoyed in their workshops.
“Tom was on antidepressants, but he didn’t like taking them. When he was on them, he was pretty good, but when he went off, he turned into… I don’t know. He’d cry a lot, and shout. It wasn’t a good relationship, but we moved out here from Oregon together, and I’d known him all my life. He was a little moody before, but not like he was here.”
“When did you speak to him last?” Suzanne had found a couple of blister-packs of anti-depressants in the medicine chest. She hoped that wasn’t Tom’s only supply.
“We haven’t spoken since I moved out.”
An hour later, the mystery was solved. The police went to Tom’s workplace and discovered that he’d been fired the week before. They tried the GPS in his car and it finked him out as being in a ghost mall’s parking lot near his old office. He was dead behind the wheel, a gun in his hand, shot through the heart.
Suzanne took the call and though she tried to keep her end of the conversation quiet and neutral, Fiona—still on the sofa, drinking the warm, flat Coke—knew. She let out a moan like a dog that’s been kicked, and then a scream. For Suzanne, it was all unreal, senseless. The cops told her that her home theater components were found in the trunk of the car. No note.
“God, oh God, Jesus, you selfish shit fucking bastard,” Fiona sobbed. Awkwardly, Suzanne sat down beside her and took her into a one-armed hug. Her helpers were meeting her at the self-storage the next day to help her unload the U-Haul.
“Do you have someone who can stay with you tonight?” Suzanne asked, praying the answer was yes. She had a house to move out of. Christ, she felt so cold-blooded, but she was on a goddamned schedule.
“Yes, I guess.” Fiona scrubbed at her eyes with her fists. “Sure.”
Suzanne sighed. The lie was plain. “Who?”
Fiona stood up and smoothed out her skirt. “I’m sorry,” she said, and started for the door.
Groaning inwardly, Suzanne blocked her. “You’ll stay on the sofa,” she said. “You’re not driving in this state. I’ll order in pizza. Pepperoni mushroom OK?”
Looking defeated, Fiona turned on her heel and went back to the sofa.
Over pizza, Suzanne pulled a few details out of her. Tom had fallen into a funk when the layoffs had started in his office—they were endemic across the Valley, another bust was upon them. His behavior had grown worse and worse, and she’d finally left, or been thrown out, it wasn’t clear. She was on thin ice at Google, and they were laying people off too, and she was convinced that being led out in handcuffs would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I should move back to Oregon,” she said, dropping her slice back on the box-top.
Suzanne had heard a lot of people talk about giving up on the Valley since she’d moved there. It was a common thing, being beaten down by life in the Bay Area. You were supposed to insert a pep talk here, something about hanging in, about the opportunities here.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s a good idea. You’re young, and there’s a life for you there. You can start something up, or go to work for someone else’s startup.” It felt weird coming out of her mouth, like a betrayal of the Valley, of some tribal loyalty to this tech-Mecca. But after all, wasn’t she selling up and moving east?
“There’s nothing in Oregon,” Fiona said, snuffling.
“There’s something everywhere. Let me tell you about some friends of mine in Florida,” and she told her, and as she told her, she told herself. Hearing it spoken aloud, even after having written about it and written about it, and been there and DONE it, it was different. She came to understand how fucking cool it all was, this new, entrepreneurial, inventive, amazing thing she was engaged in. She’d loved the contrast of nimble software companies when compared with gigantic, brutal auto companies, but what her boys were doing, it made the software companies look like lumbering lummoxes, crashing around with their fifty employees and their big purpose-built offices.
Fiona was disbelieving, then interested, then excited. “They just make this stuff, do it, then make something else?”
“Exactly—no permanence except for the team, and they support each other, live and work together. You’d think that because they live and work together that they don’t have any balance, but it’s the opposite: they book off work at four or sometimes earlier, go to movies, go out and have fun, read books, play catch. It’s amazing. I’m never coming back here.”
And she never would.
She told her editor about this. She told her friends who came to a send-off party at a bar she used to go to when she went into the office a lot. She told her cab driver who picked her up to take her to the airport and she told the bemused engineer who sat next to her all the way back to Miami. She had the presence of mind not to tell the couple who bought her house for a sum of money that seemed to have at least one extra zero at the end—maybe two.
And so when she got back to Miami, she hardly noticed the incredible obesity of the man who took the money for the gas in her leased car—now that she was here for the long haul she’d have to look into getting Lester to help her buy a used Smart-car from a junker lot—and the tin roofs of the shantytowns she passed looked tropical and quaint. The smell of swamp and salt, the pea-soup humidity, the bass thunder of the boom-cars in the traffic around her—it was like some kind of sweet homecoming for her.
Tjan was in the condo when she got home and he spotted her from the balcony, where he’d been sunning himself and helped her bring up her suitcases of things she couldn’t bear to put in storage.
“Come down to our place for a cup of coffee once you’re settled in,” he said, leaving her. She sluiced off the airplane grease that had filled her pores on the long flight from San Jose to Miami and changed into a cheap sun-dress and a pair of flip-flops that she’d bought at the Thunderbird Flea Market and headed down to their place.
Tjan opened the door with a flourish and she stepped in and stopped short. When she’d left, the place had been a reflection of their jumbled lives: gizmos, dishes, parts, tools and clothes strewn everywhere in a kind of joyful, eye-watering hyper-mess, like an enormous kitchen junk-drawer.
Now the place was spotless—and what’s more, it was minimalist. The floor was not only clean, it was visible. Lining the walls were translucent white plastic tubs stacked to the ceiling.
“You like it?”
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Like Ikea meets Barbarella. What happened here?”
Tjan did a little two-step. “It was Lester’s idea. Have a look in the boxes.”
She pulled a couple of the tubs out. They were jam-packed with books, tools, cruft and crud—all the crap that had previously cluttered the shelves and the floor and the sofa and the coffee table.
“Watch this,” he said. He unvelcroed a wireless keyboard from the side of the TV and began to type: T-H-E C-O. . The field autocompleted itself: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and brought up a picture of a beaten-up paperback along with links to web-stores, reviews, and the full text. Tjan gestured with his chin and she saw that the front of one of the tubs was pulsing with a soft blue glow. Tjan went and pulled open the tub and fished for a second before producing the book.
“Try it,” he said, handing her the keyboard. She began to type experimentally: U-N and up came UNDERWEAR (14). “No way,” she said.
“Way,” Tjan said, and hit return, bringing up a thumbnail gallery of fourteen pairs of underwear. He tabbed over each, picked out a pair of Simpsons boxers, and hit return. A different tub started glowing.
“Lester finally found a socially beneficial use for RFIDs. We’re going to get rich!”
“I don’t think I understand,” she said.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to the junkyard. Lester explains this really well.”
He did, too, losing all of the shyness she remembered, his eyes glowing, his sausage-thick fingers dancing.
“Have you ever alphabetized your hard drive? I mean, have you ever spent any time concerning yourself with where on your hard drive your files are stored, which sectors contain which files? Computers abstract away the tedious, physical properties of files and leave us with handles that we use to persistently refer to them, regardless of which part of the hard drive currently holds those particular bits. So I thought, with RFIDs, you could do this with the real world, just tag everything and have your furniture keep track of where it is.
“One of the big barriers to roommate harmony is the correct disposition of stuff. When you leave your book on the sofa, I have to move it before I can sit down and watch TV. Then you come after me and ask me where I put your book. Then we have a fight. There’s stuff that you don’t know where it goes, and stuff that you don’t know where it’s been put, and stuff that has nowhere to put it. But with tags and a smart chest of drawers, you can just put your stuff wherever there’s room and ask the physical space to keep track of what’s where from moment to moment.
“There’s still the problem of getting everything tagged and described, but that’s a service business opportunity, and where you’ve got other shared identifiers like ISBNs you could use a cameraphone to snap the bar-codes and look them up against public databases. The whole thing could be coordinated around ’spring cleaning’ events where you go through your stuff and photograph it, tag it, describe it—good for your insurance and for forensics if you get robbed, too.”
He stopped and beamed, folding his fingers over his belly. “So, that’s it, basically.”
Perry slapped him on the shoulder and Tjan drummed his forefingers like a heavy-metal drummer on the side of the workbench they were gathered around.
They were all waiting for her. “Well, it’s very cool,” she said, at last. “But, the whole white-plastic-tub thing. It makes your apartment look like an Ikea showroom. Kind of inhumanly minimalist. We’re Americans, we like celebrating our stuff.”
“Well, OK, fair enough,” Lester said, nodding. “You don’t have to put everything away, of course. And you can still have all the decor you want. This is about clutter control.”
“Exactly,” Perry said. “Come check out Lester’s lab.”
“OK, this is pretty perfect,” Suzanne said. The clutter was gone, disappeared into the white tubs that were stacked high on every shelf, leaving the work-surfaces clear. But Lester’s works-in-progress, his keepsakes, his sculptures and triptychs were still out, looking like venerated museum pieces in the stark tidiness that prevailed otherwise.
Tjan took her through the spreadsheets. “There are ten teams that do closet-organizing in the network, and a bunch of shippers, packers, movers, and storage experts. A few furniture companies. We adopted the interface from some free software inventory-management apps that were built for illiterate service employees. Lots of big pictures and autocompletion. And we’ve bought a hundred RFID printers from a company that was so grateful for a new customer that they’re shipping us 150 of them, so we can print these things at about a million per hour. The plan is to start our sales through the consultants at the same time as we start showing at trade-shows for furniture companies. We’ve already got a huge order from a couple of local old-folks’ homes.”
They walked to the IHOP to have a celebratory lunch. Being back in Florida felt just right to her. Francis, the leader of the paramilitary wing of the AARP, threw them a salute and blew her a kiss, and even Lester’s nursing junkie friend seemed to be in a good mood.
When they were done, they brought take-out bags for the junkie and Francis in the shantytown.
“I want to make some technology for those guys,” Perry said as they sat in front of Francis’s RV drinking cowboy coffee cooked over a banked wood-stove off to one side. “Room-mate-ware for homeless people.”
Francis uncrossed his bony ankles and scratched at his mosquito bites. “A lot of people think that we don’t buy stuff, but it’s not true,” he said. “I shop hard for bargains, but there’s lots of stuff I spend more on because of my lifestyle than I would if I had a real house and steady electricity. When I had a chest-freezer, I could bulk buy ground round for about a tenth of what I pay now when I go to the grocery store and get enough for one night’s dinner. The alternative is using propane to keep the fridge going overnight, and that’s not cheap, either. So I’m a kind of premium customer. Back at Boeing, we loved the people who made small orders, because we could charge them such a premium for custom work, while the big airlines wanted stuff done so cheap that half the time we lost money on the deal.”
Perry nodded. “There you have it—roommate-ware for homeless people, a great and untapped market.”
Suzanne cocked her head and looked at him. “You’re sounding awfully commerce-oriented for a pure and unsullied engineer, you know?”
He ducked his head and grinned and looked about twelve years old. “It’s infectious. Those little kitchen gnomes, we sold nearly a half-million of those things, not to mention all the spin-offs. That’s a half-million lives—a half-million households—that we changed just by thinking up something cool and making it real. These RFID things of Lester’s—we’ll sign a couple million customers with those. People will change everything about how they live from moment to moment because of something Lester thought up in my junkyard over there.”
“Well, there’s thirty million of us living in what the social workers call ‘marginal housing,’” Francis said, grinning wryly. He had a funny smile that Suzanne had found adorable until he explained that he had an untreated dental abscess that he couldn’t afford to get fixed. “So that’s a lot of difference you could make.”
“Yeah,” Perry said. “Yeah, it sure is.”
That night, she found herself still blogging and answering emails—they always piled up when she travelled and took a couple of late nights to clear out—after nine PM, sitting alone in a pool of light in the back corner of Lester’s workshop that she had staked out as her office. She yawned and stretched and listened to her old back crackle. She hated feeling old, and late nights made her feel old—feel every extra ounce of fat on her tummy, feel the lines bracketing her mouth and the little bag of skin under her chin.
She stood up and pulled on a light jacket and began to switch off lights and get ready to head home. As she poked her head in Tjan’s office, she saw that she wasn’t the only one working late.
“Hey, you,” she said. “Isn’t it time you got going?”
He jumped like he’d been stuck with a pin and gave a little yelp. “Sorry,” he said, “didn’t hear you.”
He had a cardboard box on his desk and had been filling it with his personal effects—little one-off inventions the guys had made for him, personal fetishes and tchotchkes, a framed picture of his kids.
He sighed and cracked his knuckles. “Might as well tell you now as tomorrow morning. I’m resigning.”
She felt a flash of anger and then forced it down and forcibly replaced it with professional distance and curiosity. Mentally she licked her pencil-tip and flipped to a blank page in her reporter’s notebook.
“I’ve had another offer, in Westchester County. Westinghouse has spun out its own version of Kodacell and they’re looking for a new vice-president to run the division. That’s me.”
“Good job,” she said. “Congratulations, Mr Vice-President.”
He shook his head. “I emailed Kettlewell half an hour ago. I’m leaving in the morning. I’m going to say goodbye to the guys over breakfast.”
“Not much notice,” she said.
“Nope,” he said, a note of anger creeping into his voice. “My contract lets Kodacell fire me on one day’s notice, so I insisted on the right to quit on the same terms. Maybe Kettlewell will get his lawyers to write better boilerplate from here on in.”
When she had an angry interview, she habitually changed the subject to something sensitive: angry people often say more than they intend to. She did it instinctively, not really meaning to psy-ops Tjan, whom she thought of as a friend, but not letting that get in the way of the story. “Westinghouse is doing what, exactly?”
“It’ll be as big as Kodacell’s operation in a year,” he said. “George Westinghouse personally funded Tesla’s research, you know. The company understands funding individual entrepreneurs. I’m going to be training the talent scouts and mentoring the financial people, then turning them loose to sign up entrepreneurs for the Westinghouse network. There’s a competitive market for garage inventors now.” He laughed. “Go ahead and print that,” he said. “Blog it tonight. There’s competition now. We’re giving two points more equity and charging half a point less on equity than the Kodacell network.”
“That’s amazing, Tjan. I hope you’ll keep in touch with me—I’d love to follow your story.”
“Count on it,” he said. He laughed. “I’m getting a week off every eight weeks to scout Russia. They’ve got an incredible culture of entrepreneurship.”
“Plus you’ll get to see your kids,” Suzanne said. “That’s really good.”
“Plus, I’ll get to see my kids,” he admitted.
“How much money is Westinghouse putting into the project?” she asked, replacing her notional notebook with a real one, pulled from her purse.
“I don’t have numbers, but they’ve shut down the whole appliances division to clear the budget for it.” She nodded—she’d seen news of the layoffs on the wires. Mass demonstrations, people out of work after twenty years’ service. “So it’s a big budget.”
“They must have been impressed with the quarterlies from Kodacell.”
Tjan folded down the flaps on his box and drummed his fingers on it, squinting at her. “You’re joking, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suzanne, they were impressed by you. Everyone knows that quarterly numbers are easy to cook—anything less than two annual reports is as likely to be enronning as real fortune-making. But your dispatches from here—they’re what sold them. It’s what’s convincing everyone. Kettlewell said that three quarters of his new recruits come on board after reading your descriptions of this place. That’s how I ended up here.”
She shook her head. “That’s very flattering, Tjan, but—”
He waved her off and then, surprisingly, came around the desk and hugged her. “But nothing, Suzanne. Kettlewell, Lester, Perry—they’re all basically big kids. Full of enthusiasm and invention, but they’ve got the emotional maturity and sense of scale of hyperactive five year olds. You and me, we’re grownups. People take us seriously. It’s easy to get a kid excited, but when a grownup chimes in you know there’s some there there.”
Suzanne recovered herself after a second and put away her notepad. “I’m just the person who writes it all down. You people are making it happen.”
“In ten years’ time, they’ll remember you and not us,” Tjan said. “You should get Kettlewell to put you on the payroll.”
Kettlewell himself turned up the next day. Suzanne had developed an intuitive sense of the flight-times from the west coast and so for a second she couldn’t figure out how he could possibly be standing there—nothing in the sky could get him from San Jose to Miami for a seven AM arrival.
“Private jet,” he said, and had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Kodak had eight of them and Duracell had five. We’ve been trying to sell them all off but no one wants a used jet these days, not even Saudi princes or Columbian drug-lords.”
“So, basically, it was going to waste.”
He smiled and looked eighteen—she really did feel like the only grownup sometimes—and said, “Zackly—it’s practically environmental. Where’s Tjan?”
“Downstairs saying goodbye to the guys, I think.”
“OK,” he said. “Are you coming?”
She grabbed her notebook and a pen and beat him out the door of her rented condo.
“What’s this all about,” Tjan said, looking wary. The guys were hang-dog and curious looking, slightly in awe of Kettlewell, who did little to put them at their ease—he was staring intensely at Tjan.
“Exit interview,” he said. “Company policy.”
Tjan rolled his eyes. “Come on,” he said. “I’ve got a flight to catch in an hour.”
“I could give you a lift,” Kettlewell said.
“You want to do the exit interview between here and the airport?”
“I could give you a lift to JFK. I’ve got the jet warmed up and waiting.”
Sometimes, Suzanne managed to forget that Kodacell was a multi-billion dollar operation and that Kettlewell was at its helm, but other times the point was very clear.
“Come on,” he said, “we’ll make a day of it. We can stop on the way and pick up some barbecue to eat on the plane. I’ll even let you keep your seat in the reclining position during take-off and landing. Hell, you can turn your cell-phone on—just don’t tell the Transport Security Administration!”
Tjan looked cornered, then resigned. “Sounds good to me,” he said and Kettlewell shouldered one of the two huge duffel-bags that were sitting by the door.
“Hi, Kettlewell,” Perry said.
Kettlewell set down the duffel. “Sorry, sorry. Lester, Perry, it’s really good to see you. I’ll bring Suzanne back tonight and we’ll all go out for dinner, OK?”
Suzanne blinked. “I’m coming along?”
“I sure hope so,” Kettlewell said.
Perry and Lester accompanied them down in the elevator.
“Private jet, huh?” Perry said. “Never been in one of those.”
Kettlewell told them about his adventures trying to sell off Kodacell’s private air force.
“Send one of them our way, then,” Lester said.
“Do you fly?” Kettlewell said.
“No,” Perry said. “Lester wants to take it apart. Right, Les?”
Lester nodded. “Lots of cool junk in a private jet.”
“These things are worth millions, guys,” Kettlewell said.
“No, someone paid millions for them,” Perry said. “They’re worth whatever you can sell them for.”
Kettlewell laughed. “You’ve had an influence around here, Tjan,” he said. Tjan managed a small, tight smile.
Kettlewell had a driver waiting outside of the building who loaded the duffels into the spacious trunk of a spotless dark town-car whose doors chunked shut with an expensive sound.
“I want you to know that I’m really not angry at all, OK?” Kettlewell said.
Tjan nodded. He had the look of a man who was steeling himself for a turn in an interrogation chamber. He’d barely said a word since Kettlewell arrived. For his part, Kettlewell appeared oblivious to all of this, though Suzanne was pretty sure that he understood exactly how uncomfortable this was making Tjan.
“The thing is, six months ago, nearly everyone was convinced that I was a fucking moron, that I was about to piss away ten billion dollars of other people’s money on a stupid doomed idea. Now they’re copying me and poaching my best people. So this is good news for me, though I’m going to have to find a new business manager for those two before they get picked up for turning planes into component pieces.”
Suzanne’s PDA vibrated whenever the number of online news stories mentioning her or Kodacell or Kettlewell increased or decreased sharply. She used to try to read everything, but it was impossible to keep up—now all she wanted was to keep track of whether the interestingness-index was on the uptick or downtick.
It had started to buzz that morning and the pitch had increased steadily until it was actually uncomfortable in her pocket. Irritated, she yanked it out and was about to switch it off when the lead article caught her eye.
KODACELL LOSES TJAN TO WESTINGHOUSE
The by-line was Freddy. Feeling like a character in a horror movie who can’t resist the compulsion to look under the bed, Suzanne thumbed the PDA’s wheel and brought up the whole article.
:: Kodacell business-manager Tjan Lee Tang, whose adventures we’ve
:: followed through Suzanne Church’s gushing, besotted blog posts
She looked away and reflexively reached toward the delete button. The innuendo that she was romantically involved with one or more of the guys had circulated on her blog’s message boards and around the diggdots ever since she’d started writing about them. No woman could possibly be writing about this stuff because it was important—she had to be “with the band,” a groupie or a whore.
Combine that with Rat-Toothed Freddy’s sneering tone and she was instantly sent into heart-thundering rage. She deleted the post and looked out the window. Her pager buzzed some more and she looked down. The same article, being picked up on blogs, on some of the bigger diggdots, and an AP wire.
She forced herself to re-open it.
:: has been hired to head up a new business unit on behalf of the
:: multinational giant Westinghouse. The appointment stands as more
:: proof of Church’s power to cloud men’s minds with pretty empty
:: words about the half-baked dot-com schemes that have oozed out of
:: Silicon Valley and into every empty and dead American suburb.
It was hypnotic, like staring into the eyes of a serpent. Her pulse actually thudded in her ears for a second before she took a few deep breaths and calmed down enough to finish the article, which was just more of the same: nasty personal attacks, sniping, and innuendo. Freddy even managed to imply that she was screwing all of them—and Kettlewell besides.
Kettlewell leaned over her shoulder and read.
“You should send him an email,” he said. “That’s disgusting. That’s not reportage.”
“Never get into a pissing match with a skunk,” she said. “What Freddy wants is for me to send him mail that he can publish along with more snarky commentary. When the guy you’re arguing with controls the venue you’re arguing in, you can’t possibly win.”
“So blog him,” Kettlewell said. “Correct the record.”
“The record is correct,” she said. “It’s never been incorrect. I’ve written an exhaustive record that is there for everyone to see. If people believe this, no amount of correction will help.”
Kettlewell made a face like a little boy who’d been told he couldn’t have a toy. “That guy is poison,” he said. “Those quote-marks around blog.”
“Let him add his quote-marks,” she said. “My daily readership is higher than the Merc’s paid circulation this week.” It was true. After a short uphill climb from her new URL, she’d accumulated enough readers that the advertising revenue dwarfed her old salary at the Merc, an astonishing happenstance that nevertheless kept her bank-account full. She clicked a little. “Besides, look at this, there are three dozen links pointing at this story so far and all of them are critical of him. We don’t need to stick up for ourselves—the world will.”
Saying it calmed her and now they were at the airport. They cruised into a private gate, away from the militarized gulag that fronted Miami International. A courteous security guard waved them through and the driver confidently piloted the car up to a wheeled jetway beside a cute, stubby little toy jet. On the side, in cursive script, was the plane’s name: Suzanne.
She looked accusatorially at Kettlewell.
“It was called that when I bought the company,” he said, expressionless but somehow mirthful behind his curved surfer shades. “But I kept it because I liked the private joke.”
“Just no one tell Freddy that you’ve got an airplane with my name on it or we’ll never hear the fucking end of it.”
She covered her mouth, regretting her language, and Kettlewell laughed, and so did Tjan, and somehow the ice was broken between them.
“No way flying this thing is cost-effective,” Tjan said. “Your CFO should be kicking your ass.”
“It’s a little indulgence,” Kettlewell said, bounding up the steps and shaking hands with a small, neat woman pilot, an African-American with corn-rows peeking out under her smart peaked cap. “Once you’ve flown in your own bird, you never go back.”
“This is a monstrosity,” Tjan said as he boarded. “What this thing eats up in hangar fees alone would be enough to bankroll three or four teams.” He settled into an oversized Barcalounger of a seat and accepted a glass of orange juice that the pilot poured for him. “Thank you, and no offense.”
“None taken,” she said. “I agree one hundred percent.”
“See,” Tjan said.
Suzanne took her own seat and her own glass and buckled in and watched the two of them, warming up for the main event, realizing that she’d been brought along as a kind of opening act.
“They paying you more?”
“Yup,” Tjan said. “All on the back-end. Half a point on every dollar brought in by a team I coach or whose members I mentor.”
Kettlewell whistled. “That’s a big share,” he said.
“If I can make my numbers, I’ll take home a million this year.”
“You’ll make those numbers. Good negotiations. Why didn’t you ask us for the same deal?”
“Would you have given it to me?”
“You’re a star,” Kettlewell said, nodding at Suzanne, whose invisibility to the conversation popped like a bubble. “Thanks to her.”
“Thanks, Suzanne,” Tjan said.
Suzanne blushed. “Come on, guys.”
Tjan shook his head. “She doesn’t really understand. It’s actually kind of charming.”
“We might have matched the offer.”
“You guys are first to market. You’ve got a lot of procedures in place. I wanted to reinvent some wheels.”
“We’re too conservative for you?”
Tjan grinned wickedly. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m going to do business in Russia.”
Kettlewell grunted and pounded his orange juice. Around them, the jet’s windows flashed white as they broke through the clouds and the ten thousand foot bell sounded.
“How the hell are you going to make anything that doesn’t collapse under its own weight in Russia?”
“The corruption’s a problem, sure,” Tjan said. “But it’s offset by the entrepreneurship. Some of those cats make the Chinese look lazy and unimaginative. It’s a shame that so much of their efforts have been centered on graft, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be focused on making an honest ruble.”
They fell into a discussion of the minutiae of Perry and Lester’s businesses, franker than any business discussion she’d ever heard. Tjan talked about the places where they’d screwed up, and places where they’d scored big, and about all the plans he’d made for Westinghouse, the connections he had in Russia. He even talked about his kids and his ex in St Petersburg, and Kettlewell admitted that he’d known about them already.
For Kettlewell’s part, he opened the proverbial kimono wide, telling Tjan about conflicts within the board of directors, poisonous holdovers from the pre-Kodacell days who sabotaged the company from within with petty bureaucracy, even the problems he was having with his family over the long hours they were working. He opened the minibar and cracked a bottle of champagne to toast Tjan’s new job, and they mixed it with more orange juice, and then there were bagels and schmear, fresh fruit, power bars, and canned Starbucks coffees with deadly amounts of sugar and caffeine.
When Kettlewell disappeared into the tiny—but marble-appointed—bathroom, Suzanne found herself sitting alone with Tjan, almost knee to knee, lightheaded from lack of sleep and champagne and altitude.
“Some trip,” she said.
“You’re the best,” he said, wobbling a little. “You know that? Just the best. The stuff you write about these guys, it makes me want to stand up and salute. You make us all seem so fucking glorious. We’re going to end up taking over the world because you inspire us so. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, because you’re not very self-conscious about it right now, but Suzanne, you won’t believe it because you’re so goddamned modest, too. It’s what makes your writing so right, so believable—”
Kettlewell stepped out of the bathroom. “Touching down soon,” he said, and patted them each on the shoulder as he took his seat. “So that’s about it, then,” he said, and leaned back and closed his eyes. Suzanne was accustomed to thinking of him as twenty-something, the boyish age of the magazine cover portraits from the start of his career. Now, eyes closed on his private jet, harsh upper atmosphere sun painting his face, his crowsfeet and the deep vertical brackets around his mouth revealed him for someone pushing a youthful forty, kept young by exercise and fun and the animation of his ideas.
“Guess so,” Tjan said, slumping. “This has been one of the more memorable experiences of my life, Kettlewell, Suzanne. Not entirely pleasant, but pleasant on the whole. A magical time in the clouds.”
“Once you’ve flown private, you’ll never go back to coach,” Kettlewell said, smiling, eyes still closed. “You still think my CFO should spank me for not selling this thing?”
“No,” Tjan said. “In ten years, if we do our jobs, there won’t be five companies on earth that can afford this kind of thing—it’ll be like building a cathedral after the Protestant Reformation. While we have the chance, we should keep these things in the sky. But you should give one to Lester and Perry to take apart.”
“I was planning to,” Kettlewell said. “Thanks.”
Suzanne and Kettlewell got off the plane and Tjan didn’t look back when they’d landed at JFK. “Should we go into town and get some bialy to bring back to Miami?” Kettlewell said, squinting at the bright day on the tarmac.
“Bring deli to Miami?”
“Right, right,” he said. “Forget I asked. Besides, we’d have to charter a chopper to get into Manhattan and back without dying in traffic.”
Something about the light through the open hatch or the sound or the smell—something indefinably New York—made her yearn for Miami. The great cities of commerce like New York and San Francisco seemed too real for her, while the suburbs of Florida were a kind of endless summer camp, a dreamtime where anything was possible.
“Let’s go,” she said. The champagne buzz had crashed and she had a touch of headache. “I’m bushed.”
“Me too,” Kettlewell said. “I left San Jose last night to get into Miami before Tjan left. Not much sleep. Gonna put my seat back and catch some winks, if that’s OK?”
“Good plan,” Suzanne said.
Embarrassingly, when they were fully reclined, their seats nearly touched, forming something like a double bed. Suzanne lay awake in the hum of the jets for a while, conscious of the breathing human beside her, the first man she’d done anything like share a bed with in at least a year. The last thing she remembered was the ten thousand foot bell going off and then she slipped away into sleep.
:: Perry thought that they’d sell a million Home Awares in six
:: months. Lester thought he was nuts, that number was too high.
:: “Please,” he said, “I invented these things but there aren’t a
:: million roommate households in all of America. We’ll sell half
:: a million tops, total.
Lester always complained when she quoted him directly in her blog posts, but she thought he secretly enjoyed it.
:: Today the boys shipped their millionth unit. It took six weeks.
They’d uncorked a bottle of champagne when unit one million shipped. They hadn’t actually shipped it, per se. The manufacturing was spread out across forty different teams all across the country, even a couple of Canadian teams. The RFID printer company had re-hired half the workers they’d laid off the year before, and had them all working overtime to meet demand.
:: What’s exciting about this isn’t just the money that these guys
:: have made off of it, or the money that Kodacell will return to
:: its shareholders, it’s the ecosystem that these things have
:: enabled. There’re at least ten competing commercial systems for
:: organizing, tagging, sharing, and describing Home Aware objects.
:: Parents love them for their kids. School teachers love them.
:: Seniors’ homes.
The seniors’ homes had been Francis’s idea. They’d brought him in to oversee some of the production engineering, along with some of the young braves who ran around the squatter camps. Francis knew which ones were biddable and he kept them to heel. In the evenings, he’d join the guys and Suzanne up on the roof of the workshop on folding chairs, with beers, watching the sweaty sunset.
:: They’re not the sole supplier. That’s what an ecosystem is all
:: about, creating value for a lot of players. All this competition
:: is great news for you and me, because it’s already driven the
:: price of Home Aware goods down by forty percent. That means that
:: Lester and Perry are going to have to invent something new, soon,
:: before the margin disappears altogether—and that’s also good
:: news for you and me.
“Are you coming?” Lester had dated a girl for a while, someone he met on Craigslist, but she’d dumped him and Perry had confided that she’d left him because he didn’t live up to the press he’d gotten in Suzanne’s column. When he got dumped, he became even touchier about Suzanne, caught at a distance from her that was defined by equal parts of desire and resentment.
“Up in a minute,” she said, trying to keep her smile light and noncommittal. Lester was very nice, but there were times when she caught him staring at her like a kicked puppy and it made her uncomfortable. Naturally, this increased his discomfort as well.
On the roof they already had a cooler of beers going and beside it a huge plastic tub of brightly colored machine-parts.
“Jet engine,” Perry said. The months had put a couple pounds on him and new wrinkles, and given him some grey at the temples, and laugh lines inside his laugh lines. Perry was always laughing at everything around them (“They fucking pay me to do this,” he’d told her once, before literally collapsing to the floor, rolling with uncontrollable hysteria). He laughed again.
“Good old Kettlebelly,” she said. “Must have broken his heart.”
Francis held up a curved piece of cowling. “This thing wasn’t going to last anyway. See the distortion here and here? This thing was designed in a virtual wind-tunnel and machine-lathed. We tried that a couple times, but the wind-tunnel sims were never detailed enough and the forms that flew well in the machine always died a premature death in the sky. Another two years and he’d have had to have it rebuilt anyway, and the Koreans who built this charge shitloads for parts.”
“Too bad,” Lester said. “It’s pretty. Gorgeous, even.” He mimed its curve in the air with a pudgy hand, that elegant swoop.
“Aerospace loves the virtual wind-tunnel,” Francis said, and glared at the cowling. “You can use evolutionary algorithms in the sim and come up with really efficient designs, in theory. And computers are cheaper than engineers.”
“Is that why you were laid off?” Suzanne said.
“I wasn’t laid off, girl,” he said. He jiggled his lame foot. “I retired at 65 and was all set up but the pension plan went bust. So I missed a month of medical and they cut me off and I ended up uninsured. When the wife took sick, bam, that was it, wiped right out. But I’m not bitter—why should the poor be allowed to live, huh?”
His acolytes, three teenagers in do-rags from the shantytown, laughed and went on to pitching bottle-caps off the edge of the roof.
“Stop that, now,” he said, “you’re getting the junkyard all dirty. Christ, you’d think that they grew up in some kind of zoo.” When Francis drank, he got a little mean, a little dark.
“So, kids,” Perry said, wandering over to them, hands in pockets. Silhouetted against the setting sun, biceps bulging, muscular chest tapering to his narrow hips, he looked like a Greek statue. “What do you think of the stuff we’re building?”
They looked at their toes. “’S OK,” one of them grunted.
“Answer the man,” Francis snapped. “Complete sentences, looking up and at him, like you’ve got a shred of self-respect. Christ, what are you, five years old?”
They shifted uncomfortably. “It’s fine,” one of them said.
“Would you use it at home?”
One of them snorted. “No, man. My dad steals anything nice we get and sells it.”
“Oh,” Perry said.
“Fucker broke in the other night and I caught him with my ipod. Nearly took his fucking head off with my cannon before I saw who it was. Fucking juice-head.”
“You should have fucked him up,” one of the other kids said. “My ma pushed my pops in front of a bus one day to get rid of him, guy broke both his legs and never came back.”
Suzanne knew it was meant to shock them, but that didn’t take away from its shockingness. In the warm fog of writing and living in Florida, it was easy to forget that these people lived in a squatter camp and were technically criminals, and received no protection from the law.
Perry, though, just squinted into the sun and nodded. “Have you ever tried burglar alarms?”
The kids laughed derisively and Suzanne winced, but Perry was undaunted. “You could be sure that you woke up whenever anyone entered, set up a light and siren to scare them off.”
“I want one that fires spears,” the one with the juice-head father said.
“Blowtorches,” said the one whose mother pushed his father under a bus.
“I want a force-field,” the third one said, speaking for the first time. “I want something that will keep anyone from coming in, period, so I don’t have to sleep one eye up, ’cause I’ll be safe.”
The other two nodded, slowly.
“Damn straight,” Francis said.
That was the last time Francis’s acolytes joined them on the rooftop. Instead, when they finished work they went home, walking slowly and talking in low murmurs. With just the grownups on the roof, it was a lot more subdued.
“What’s that smoke?” Lester said, pointing at the black billowing column off to the west, in the sunset’s glare.
“House-fire,” Francis said. “Has to be. Or a big fucking car-wreck, maybe.”
Perry ran down the stairs and came back up with a pair of high-power binox. “Francis, that’s your place,” he said after a second’s fiddling. He handed the binox to Francis. “Just hit the button and they’ll self-stabilize.”
“That’s my place,” Francis said. “Oh, Christ.” He’d gone gray and seemed to have sobered up instantly. His lips were wet, his eyes bright.
They drove over at speed, Suzanne wedged into Lester’s frankensmartcar, practically under his armpit, and Perry traveling with Francis. Lester still wore the same cologne as her father, and when she opened the window, its smell was replaced by the burning-tires smell of the fire.
They arrived to discover a fire-truck parked on the side of the freeway nearest the shantytown. The fire-fighters were standing soberly beside it, watching the fire rage across the canal.
They rushed for the footbridge and a firefighter blocked their way.
“Sorry, it’s not safe,” he said. He was Latino, good looking, like a movie star, bronze skin flickering with copper highlights from the fire.
“I live there,” Francis said. “That’s my home.”
The firefighter looked away. “It’s not safe,” he said.
“Why aren’t you fighting the fire?” Suzanne said.
Francis’s head snapped around. “You’re not fighting the fire! You’re going to let our houses burn!”
A couple more fire-fighters trickled over. Across the river, the fire had consumed half of the little settlement. Some of the residents were operating a slow and ponderous bucket-brigade from the canal, while others ran into the unburned buildings and emerged clutching armloads of belongings, bits of furniture, boxes of photos.
“Sir,” the movie-star said, “the owner of this property has asked us not to intervene. Since there’s no imminent risk to life and no risk of the burn spreading off his property, we can’t trespass to put out the fire. Our hands are tied.”
“The owner?” Francis spat. “This land is in title dispute. The court case has been underway for twenty years now. What owner?”
The movie-star shrugged. “That’s all I know, sir.”
Across the canal, the fire was spreading, and the bucket brigade was falling back. Suzanne could feel the heat now, like putting your face in the steam from a boiling kettle.
Francis seethed, looking from the firemen and their truck back to the fire. He looked like he was going to pop something, or start shouting, or charge into the flames.
Suzanne grabbed his hand and walked him over to the truck and grabbed the first firefighter she encountered.
“I’m Suzanne Church, from the San Jose Mercury News, a McClatchy paper. I’d like to speak to the commanding officer on the scene, please.” She hadn’t been with the Merc for months, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to say, I’m Suzanne Church with SuzanneChurch.org. She was pretty sure that no matter how high her readership was and how profitable her ad sales were, the fire-fighter wouldn’t have been galvanized into the action that was invoked when she mentioned the name of a real newspaper.
He hopped to, quickly moving to an older man, tapping him on the shoulder, whispering in his ear. Suzanne squeezed Francis’s hand as the fire-chief approached them. She extended her hand and talked fast. “Suzanne Church,” she said, and took out her notebook, the key prop in any set piece involving a reporter. “I’m told that you are going to let those homes burn because someone representing himself as the title-holder to that property has denied you entry. However, I’m also told that the title to that land is in dispute and has been in the courts for decades. Can you resolve this for me, Chief…?”
“Chief Brian Wannamaker,” he said. He was her age, with the leathery skin of a Florida native who spent a lot of time out of doors. “I’m afraid I have no comment for you at this time.”
Suzanne kept her face deadpan, and gave Francis’s hand a warning squeeze to keep him quiet. He was trembling now. “I see. You can’t comment, you can’t fight the fire. Is that what you’d like me to write in tomorrow’s paper?”
The Chief looked at the fire for a moment. Across the canal, the bucket-brigaders were losing worse than ever. He frowned and Suzanne saw that his hands were clenched into fists. “Let me make a call, OK?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and stepped behind the fire-engine, reaching for his cellphone.
Suzanne strained to hear his conversation, but it was inaudible over the crackle of the fire. When she turned around again, Francis was gone. She caught sight of him again in just a moment, running for the canal, then jumping in and landing badly in the shallow, swampy water. He hobbled across to the opposite bank and began to laboriously climb it.
A second later, Perry followed. Then Lester.
“Chief!” she said, going around the engine and pointing. The Chief had the phone clamped to his head still, but when he saw what was going on, he snapped it shut, dropped it in his pocket and started barking orders.
Now the fire-fighters moved, boiling across the bridge, uncoiling hoses, strapping on tanks and masks. They worked in easy, fluid concert, and it was only seconds before the water and foam hit the flames and the smoke changed to white steam.
The shantytown residents cheered. The fire slowly receded. Perry and Lester had Francis, holding him back from charging into the fray as the fire-fighters executed their clockwork dance.
The steam was hot enough to scald, and Suzanne pulled the collar of her blouse up over her face. Around her were the shantytowners, mothers with small children, old men, and a seemingly endless parade of thug-life teenagers, the boys in miniature cycling shorts and do-rags, the girls in bandeau tops, glitter makeup, and skirts made from overlapping strips of rag, like post-apocalyptic hula outfits. Their faces were tight, angry, smudged with smoke and pinkened by the heat.
She saw the one whose father had reportedly been pushed under a bus by his mother, and he grimaced at her. “What we gonna do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you all right? Is your family all right?”
“Don’t got nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go,” he said. “Don’t even have a change of clothes. My moms won’t stop crying.”
There were tears in his eyes. He was all of fifteen, she realized. He’d seemed much older on the roof. She gathered him into her arms and gave him a hug. He was stiff and awkward at first and then he kind of melted into her, weeping on her shoulder. She stroked his back and murmured reassuringly. Some of the other shantytowners looked at the spectacle, then looked away. Even a couple of his homeboys—whom she’d have bet would have laughed and pointed at this show of weakness—only looked and then passed on. One had tears streaking the smoke smudges on his face.
For someone who isn’t good at comforting people, I seem to be doing a lot of it, she thought.
Francis and Lester and Perry found her and Francis gave the boy a gruff hug and told him everything would be fine.
The fire was out now, the firefighter hosing down the last embers, going through the crowd and checking for injuries. A TV news crew had set up and a pretty black reporter in her twenties was doing a stand up.
“The illegal squatter community has long been identified as a problem area for gang and drug activity by the Broward County Sheriff’s office. The destruction here seems total, but it’s impossible to say whether this spells the end of this encampment, or whether the denizens will rebuild and stay on.”
Suzanne burned with shame. That could have been her. When she’d first seen this place, it had been like something out of a documentary on Ethiopia. As she’d come to know it, it had grown homier. The residents built piecemeal, one wall at a time, one window, one poured concrete floor, as they could afford it. None of them had mortgages, but they had neat vegetable gardens and walkways spelled out in white stones with garden gnomes standing guard.
The reporter was staring at her—and naturally so; she’d been staring at the reporter. Glaring at her.
“My RV,” Francis said, pointing, distracting her. It was a charred wreck. He went to the melted doors and opened them, stepping back as a puff of smoke rose from the inside. A fire-fighter spotted it and diverted a stream of water into the interior, soaking Francis and whatever hadn’t burned. He turned and shouted something at the fire-fighter, but he was already hosing down something else.
Inside Francis’s trailer, they salvaged a drenched photo-album, a few tools, and a lock-box with some of his papers in it. He had backed up his laptop to his watch that morning, so his data was safe. “I kept meaning to scan these in,” he said, paging through the photos in the soaked album. “Should have done it.”
Night was falling, the mosquitoes singing and buzzing. The neat little laneways and homey, patchwork buildings lay in ruins around them.
The shantytowners clustered in little groups or picked through the ruins. Drivers of passing cars slowed down to rubberneck, and a few shouted filthy, vengeful things at them. Suzanne took pictures of their license plates. She’d publish them when she got home.
A light drizzle fell. Children cried. The swampy sounds of cicadas and frogs and mosquitoes filled the growing dark and then the streetlights flicked on all down the river of highway, painting everything in blue-white mercury glow.
“We’ve got to get tents up,” Francis said. He grabbed a couple of young men and gave them orders, things to look for—fresh water, plastic sheeting, anything with which to erect shelters.
Lester started to help them, and Perry stood with his hands on his hips, next to Suzanne.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “This is a fucking disaster. I mean, these people are used to living rough, but this—” he broke off, waving his hands helplessly. He wiped his palms off on his butt, then grabbed Francis.
“Get them going,” he said. “Get them to gather up their stuff and walk them down to our place. We’ve got space for everyone for now at least.”
Francis looked like he was going to say something, then he stopped. He climbed precariously up on the hood of Lester’s car and shouted for people to gather round. The boys he bossed around took up the call and it wasn’t long before nearly everyone was gathered around them.
“Can everyone hear? This is as loud as I go.”
There were murmurs of assent. Suzanne had seen him meet with his people before in the daylight and the good times, seen the respect they afforded to him. He wasn’t the leader, per se, but when he spoke, people listened. It was a characteristic she’d encountered in the auto-trade and in technology, in the ones the others all gravitated to. Charismatics.
“We’ve got a place to stay a bit up the road for tonight. It’s about a half hour walk. It’s indoors and there’s toilets, but maybe not much to make beds out of. Take what you can carry for about a mile, you can come back tomorrow for the rest. You don’t have to come, but this isn’t going to be any fun tonight.”
A woman came forward. She was young, but not young enough to be a homegirl. She had long dark hair and she twisted her hands as she spoke in a soft voice to Francis. “What about our stuff? We can’t leave it here tonight. It’s all we’ve got.”
Francis nodded. “We need ten people to stand guard in two shifts of five tonight. Young people. You’ll get flashlights and phones, coffee and whatever else we can give you. Just keep the rubberneckers out.” The rubberneckers were out of earshot. The account they’d get of this would come from the news-anchor who’d tell them how dangerous and dirty this place was. They’d never see what Suzanne saw, ten men and women forming up to one side of the crowd. Young braves and homegirls, people her age, their faces solemn.
Francis oversaw the gathering up of belongings. Suzanne had never had a sense of how many people lived in the shantytown but now she could count them as they massed up by the roadside and began to walk: a hundred, a little more than a hundred. More if you counted the surprising number of babies.
Lester conferred briefly with Francis and then Francis tapped three of the old timers and two of the mothers with babes in arms and they crammed into Lester’s car and he took off. Suzanne walked by the roadside with the long line of refugees, listening to their murmuring conversation, and in a few minutes, Lester was back to pick up more people, at Francis’s discretion.
Perry was beside her now, his eyes a million miles away.
“What now?” she said.
“We put them in the workshop tonight, tomorrow we help them build houses.”
“At your place? You’re going to let them stay?”
“Why not? We don’t use half of that land. The landlord gets his check every month. Hasn’t been by in five years. He won’t care.”
She took a couple more steps. “Perry, I’m going to write about this,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. They walked further. A small child was crying. “Of course you are. Well, fuck the landlord. I’ll sic Kettlewell on him if he squawks.”
“What do you think Kettlewell will think about all this?”
“This? Look, this is what I’ve been saying all along. We need to make products for these people. They’re a huge untapped market.”
What she wanted to ask was What would Tjan say about this? but they didn’t talk about Tjan these days. Kettlewell had promised them a new business manager for weeks, but none had appeared. Perry had taken over more and more of the managerial roles, and was getting less and less workshop time in. She could tell it frustrated him. In her discussions with Kettlewell, he’d confided that it had turned out to be harder to find suits than it was finding wildly inventive nerds. Lots of people wanted to run businesses, but the number who actually seemed likely to be capable of doing so was only a small fraction.
They could see the junkyard now. Perry pulled out his phone and called his server and touch-toned the codes to turn on all the lights and unlock all the doors.
They lost a couple of kids in the aisles of miraculous junk, and Francis had to send out bigger kids to find them and bring them back, holding the treasures they’d found to their chests. Lester kept going back for more old-timers, more mothers, more stragglers, operating his ferry service until they were all indoors in the workshop.
“This is the place,” Francis said. “We’ll stay indoors here tonight. Toilets are there and there—orderly lines, no shoving.”
“What about food?” asked a man with a small boy sleeping over his shoulder.
“This isn’t the Red Cross, Al,” Francis snapped. “We’ll organize food for ourselves in the morning.”
Perry whispered in his ear. Francis shook his head, and Perry whispered some more.
“There will be food in the morning. This is Perry. It’s his place. He’s going to go to Costco for us when they open.”
The crowd cheered and a few of the women hugged him. Some of the men shook his hand. Perry blushed. Suzanne smiled. These people were good people. They’d been through more than Suzanne could imagine. It felt right that she could help them—like making up for every panhandler she’d ignored and every passed-out drunk she’d stepped over.
There were no blankets, there were no beds. The squatters slept on the concrete floor. Young couples spooned under tables. Children snuggled between their parents, or held onto their mothers. As the squatters dossed down and as Suzanne walked past them to get to her car her heart broke a hundred times. She felt like one of those Depression-era photographers walking through an Okie camp, a rending visual at each corner.
Back at her rented condo, she found herself at the foot of her comfortable bed with its thick duvet—she liked keeping the AC turned up enough to snuggle under a blanket—and the four pillows. She was in her jammies, but she couldn’t climb in between those sheets.
And then she was back in her car with all her blankets, sheets, pillows, big towels—even the sofa cushions, which the landlord was not going to be happy about—and speeding back to the workshop.
She let herself in and set about distributing the blankets and pillows and towels, picking out the families, the old people. A woman—apparently able-bodied and young, but skinny—sat up and said, “Hey, where’s one for me?” Suzanne recognized the voice. The junkie from the IHOP. Lester’s friend. The one who’d grabbed her and cursed her.
She didn’t want to give the woman a blanket. She only had two left and there were old people lying on the bare floor.
“Where’s one for me?” the woman said more loudly. Some of the sleepers stirred. Some of them sat up.
Suzanne was shaking. Who the hell was she to decide who got a blanket? Did being rude to her at the IHOP disqualify you from getting bedding when your house burned down?
Suzanne gave her a blanket, and she snatched one of the sofa cushions besides.
It’s why she’s still alive, Suzanne thought. How she’s survived.
She gave away the last blanket and went home to sleep on her naked bed underneath an old coat, a rolled-up sweater for a pillow. After her shower, she dried herself on tee-shirts, having given away all her towels to use as bedding.
The new shantytown went up fast—faster than she’d dreamed possible. The boys helped. Lester downloaded all the information he could find on temporary shelters—building out of mud, out of sandbags, out of corrugated cardboard and sheets of plastic—and they tried them all. Some of the houses had two or more rickety-seeming stories, but they all felt solid enough as she toured them, snapping photos of proud homesteaders standing next to their handiwork.
Little things went missing from the workshops—tools, easily pawned books and keepsakes, Perry’s wallet—and they all started locking their desk-drawers. There were junkies in among the squatters, and desperate people, and immoral people, them too. One day she found that her cute little gold earrings weren’t beside her desk-lamp, where she’d left them the night before and she practically burst into tears, feeling set-upon on all sides.
She found the earrings later that day, at the bottom of her purse, and that only made things worse. Even though she hadn’t voiced a single accusation, she’d accused every one of the squatters in her mind that day. She found herself unable to meet their eyes for the rest of the week.
“I have to write about this,” she said to Perry. “This is part of the story.” She’d stayed clear of it for a month, but she couldn’t go on writing about the successes of the Home Aware without writing about the workforce that was turning out the devices and add-ons by the thousands, all around her, in impromptu factories with impromptu workers.
“Why?” Perry said. He’d been a dervish, filling orders, training people, fighting fires. By nightfall, he was hollow-eyed and snappish. Lester didn’t join them on the roof anymore. He liked to hang out with Francis and some of the young men and pitch horseshoes down in the shantytown, or tinker with the composting toilets he’d been installing at strategic crossroads through the town. “Can’t you just concentrate on the business?”
“Perry, this is the business. Kettlewell hasn’t sent a replacement for Tjan and you’ve filled in and you’ve turned this place into something like a worker-owned co-op. That’s important news—the point of this exercise is to try all the different businesses that are possible and see what works. If you’ve found something that works, I should write about it. Especially since it’s not just solving Kodacell’s problem, it’s solving the problem for all of those people, too.”
Perry drank his beer in sullen silence. “I don’t want Kettlewell to get more involved in this. It’s going good. Scrutiny could kill it.”
“You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about here,” she said. “There’s nothing here that isn’t as it should be.”
Perry looked at her for a long moment. He was at the end of his fuse, trying to do too much, and she regretted having brought it up. “You do what you have to do,” he said.
:: The original shantytown was astonishing. Built around a nexus of
:: trailers and RVs that didn’t look in the least roadworthy, the
:: settlers had added dwelling on dwelling to their little patch of
:: land. They started with plastic sheeting and poles, and when they
:: could afford it, they replaced the sheets, one at a time, with
:: bricks or poured concrete and re-bar. They thatched their roofs
:: with palm-leaves, shingles, linoleum, corrugated tin—even
:: plywood with flattened beer-cans. Some walls were wood. Some had
:: windows. Some were made from old car-doors, with hand-cranked
:: handles to lower them in the day, then roll them up again at
:: night when the mosquitoes came out. Most of the settlers slept on
:: A second wave had moved into the settlement, just as I arrived,
:: and rather than building out—and farther away from their
:: neighbors’ latrines, water-pump and mysterious sources of
:: electrical power—they built up, on top of the existing
:: structures, shoring up the walls where necessary. It wasn’t
:: hurricane proof, but neither are the cracker-box condos that
:: “property owners” occupy. They made contractual arrangements with
:: the dwellers of the first stories, paid them rent. A couple with
:: second-story rooms opposite one another in one of the narrow
:: “streets” consummated their relationship by building a sky-bridge
:: between their rooms, paying joint rent to two landlords.
:: The thing these motley houses had in common, all of them, was
:: ingenuity and pride of work. They had neat vegetable gardens,
:: flower-boxes, and fresh paint. They had kids’ bikes leaned up
:: against their walls, and the smell of good cooking in the air.
:: They were homely homes.
:: Many of the people who lived in these houses worked regular
:: service jobs, walking three miles to the nearest city bus stop
:: every morning and three miles back every evening. They sent
:: their kids to school, faking local addresses with PO boxes. Some
:: were retired. Some were just down on their luck.
:: They helped each other. When something precious was stolen, the
:: community pitched in to find the thieves. When one of them
:: started a little business selling sodas or sandwiches out of her
:: shanty, the others patronized her. When someone needed medical
:: care, they chipped in for a taxi to the free clinic, or someone
:: with a working car drove them. They were like the neighbors of
:: the long-lamented American town, an ideal of civic virtue that is
:: so remote in our ancestry as to have become mythical. There were
:: eyes on the street here, proud residents who knew what everyone
:: was about and saw to it that bad behavior was curbed before it
:: could get started.
:: Somehow, it burned down. The fire department won’t investigate,
:: because this was an illegal homestead, so they don’t much care
:: about how the fire started. It took most of the homes, and most
:: of their meager possessions. The water got the rest. The fire
:: department wouldn’t fight the fire at first, because someone at
:: city hall said that the land’s owner wouldn’t let them on the
:: property. As it turns out, the owner of that sad strip of land
:: between an orange grove and the side of a four-lane highway is
:: unknown—a decades-old dispute over title has left it in legal
:: limbo that let the squatters settle there. It’s suspicious all
:: right—various entities had tried to evict the squatters
:: before, but the legal hassles left them in happy limbo. What the
:: law couldn’t accomplish, the fire did.
:: The story has a happy ending. The boys have moved the squatters
:: into their factory, and now they have “live-work” condos that
:: look like something Dr Seuss designed [photo gallery]. Like the
:: Central Park shantytown of the last century, these look like they
:: were “constructed by crazy poets and distributed by a whirlwind
:: that had been drinking,” as a press account of the day had it.
:: Last year, the city completed a new housing project nearby to
:: here, and social workers descended on the shantytowners to get
:: them to pick up and move to these low-rent high-rises. The
:: shantytowners wouldn’t go: “It was too expensive,” said Mrs X,
:: who doesn’t want her family back in Oklahoma to know she’s
:: squatting with her husband and their young daughter. “We can’t
:: afford any rent, not if we want to put food on the table on
:: what we earn.”
:: She made the right decision: the housing project is an urban
:: renewal nightmare, filled with crime and junkies, the kind of
:: place where little old ladies triple-chain their doors and order
:: in groceries that they pay for with direct debit, unwilling to
:: keep any cash around.
:: The squatter village was a shantytown, but it was no slum. It was
:: a neighborhood that could be improved. And the boys are doing
:: that: having relocated the village to their grounds, they’re
:: inventing and remixing new techniques for building cheap and
:: homey shelter fast. [profile: ten shanties and the technology
:: inside them]
The response was enormous and passionate. Dozens of readers wrote to tell her that she’d been taken in by these crooks who had stolen the land they squatted. She’d expected that—she’d felt that way herself, when she’d first walked past the shantytown.
But what surprised her more were the message-board posts and emails from homeless people who’d been living in their cars, on the streets, in squatted houses or in shanties. To read these, you’d think that half her readership was sleeping rough and getting online at libraries, Starbuckses, and stumbled wireless networks that they accessed with antique laptops on street-corners.
“Kettlewell’s coming down to see this,” Perry said.
Her stomach lurched. She’d gotten the boys in trouble. “Is he mad?”
“I couldn’t tell—I got voicemail at three AM.” Midnight in San Jose, the hour at which Kettlewell got his mad impulses. “He’ll be here this afternoon.”
“That jet makes it too easy for him to get around,” she said, and stretched out her back. Sitting at her desk all morning answering emails and cleaning up some draft posts before blogging them had her in knots. It was practically lunch-time.
“Perry,” she began, then trailed off.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I know why you did it. Christ, we wouldn’t be where we are if you hadn’t written about us. I’m in no position to tell you to stop now.” He swallowed. The month since the shantytowners had moved in had put five years on him. His tan was fading, the wrinkles around his eyes deeper, grey salting his stubbly beard and short hair. “But you’ll help me with Kettlewell, right?”
“I’ll come along and write down what he says,” she said. “That usually helps.”
:: Kodacell is supposed to be a new way of doing business.
:: Decentralized, net-savvy, really twenty-first century. The
:: suck-up tech press and tech-addled bloggers have been trumpeting
:: its triumph over all other modes of commerce.
:: But what does decentralization really mean? On her “blog” this
:: week, former journalist Suzanne Church reports that the inmates
:: running the flagship Kodacell asylum in suburban Florida have
:: invited an entire village of homeless squatters to take up
:: residence at their factory premises.
:: Describing their illegal homesteading as “live-work” condos that
:: Dr Seuss might have designed, Kodacell shill Church goes on to
:: describe how this captive, live-in audience has been converted to
:: a workforce for Kodacell’s most profitable unit (“most
:: profitable” is a relative term: to date, this unit has turned a
:: profit of about 1.5 million, per the last quarterly report; by
:: contrast the old Kodak’s most profitable unit made twenty times
:: that in its last quarter of operation).
:: America has a grand tradition of this kind of indentured living:
:: the coal-barons’ company towns of the 19th century are the
:: original model for this kind of industrial practice in the USA.
:: Substandard housing and only one employer in town—that’s the
:: kind of brave new world that Church’s boyfriend Kettlewell has
:: A reader writes: “I live near the shantytown that was relocated
:: to the Kodacell factory in Florida. It was a dangerous slum full
:: of drug dealers. None of the parents in my neighborhood let their
:: kids ride their bikes along the road that passed it by—it was
:: a haven for all kinds of down-and-out trash.”
:: There you have it, the future of the American workforce:
:: down-and-out junkie squatters working for starvation wages.
“Kettlewell, you can’t let jerks like Freddy run this company. He’s just looking to sell banner-space. This is how the Brit rags write—it’s all meanspirited sniping.” Suzanne had never seen Kettlewell so frustrated. His surfer good looks were fading fast—he was getting a little paunch on him and his cheeks were sagging off his bones into the beginnings of jowls. His car had pulled up to the end of the driveway and he’d gotten out and walked through the shantytown with the air of a man in a dream. The truckers who pulled in and out all week picking up orders had occasionally had a curious word at the odd little settlement, but for Suzanne it had all but disappeared into her normal experience. Kettlewell made it strange and even a little outrageous, just by his stiff, outraged walk through its streets.
“You think I’m letting Freddy drive this decision?” He had spittle flecks on the corners of his mouth. “Christ, Suzanne, you’re supposed to be the adult around here.”
Perry looked up from the floor in front of him, which he had been staring at intently. Suzanne caught his involuntary glare at Kettlewell before he dropped his eyes again. Lester put a big meaty paw on Perry’s shoulder. Kettlewell was oblivious.
“Those people can’t stay, all right? The shareholders are baying for blood. The fucking liability—Christ, what if one of those places burns down? What if one of them knifes another one? We’re on the hook for everything they do. We could end up being on the hook for a fucking cholera epidemic.”
Irrationally, Suzanne burned with anger at Freddy. He had written every venal, bilious word with the hope that it would result in a scene just like this one. And not because he had any substantive objection to what was going on: simply because he had a need to deride that which others hailed. He wasn’t afflicting the mighty, though: he was taking on the very meekest, people who had nothing, including a means of speaking up for themselves.
Perry looked up. “You’ve asked me to come up with something new and incredible every three to six months. Well, this is new and incredible. We’ve built a living lab on our doorstep for exploring an enormous market opportunity to provide low-cost, sustainable technology for use by a substantial segment of the population who have no fixed address. There are millions of American squatters and billions of squatters worldwide. They have money to spend and no one else is trying to get it from them.”
Kettlewell thrust his chin forward. “How many millions? How much money do they have to spend? How do you know that any of this will make us a single cent? Where’s the market research? Was there any? Or did you just invite a hundred hobos to pitch their tent out front of my factory on the strength of your half-assed guesses?”
Lester held up a hand. “We don’t have any market research, Kettlewell, because we don’t have a business-manager on the team anymore. Perry’s been taking that over as well as his regular work, and he’s been working himself sick for you. We’re flying by the seat of our pants here because you haven’t sent us a pilot.”
“You need an MBA to tell you not to turn your workplace into a slum?” Kettlewell said. He was boiling. Suzanne very carefully pulled out her pad and wrote this down. It was all she had, but sometimes it was enough.
Kettlewell noticed. “Get out,” he said. “I want to talk with these two alone.”
“No,” Suzanne said. “That’s not our deal. I get to document everything. That’s the deal.”
Kettlewell glared at her, and then he deflated. He sagged and took two steps to the chair behind Perry’s desk and collapsed into it.
“Put the notebook away, Suzanne, please?”
She silently shook her head at him. He locked eyes with her for a moment, then nodded curtly. She resumed writing.
“Guys, the major shareholders are going to start dumping their stock this week. A couple of pension funds, a merchant bank. It’s about ten, fifteen percent of the company. When that happens, our ticker price is going to fall by sixty percent or more.”
“They’re going to short us because they don’t like what we’ve done here?” Perry said. “Christ, that’s ridiculous!”
Kettlewell sighed and put his face in his hands, scrubbed at his eyes. “No, Perry, no. They’re doing it because they can’t figure out how to value us. Our business units have an industry-high return on investment, but there’s not enough of them. We’ve only signed a thousand teams and we wanted ten thousand, so ninety percent of the money we had to spend is sitting in the bank at garbage interest rates. We need to soak up that money with big projects—the Hoover Dam, Hong Kong Disneyland, the Big Dig. All we’ve got are little projects.”
“So it’s not our fault then, is it?” Lester said. Perry was staring out the window.
“No, it’s not your fault, but this doesn’t help. This is a disaster waiting to turn into a catastrophe.”
“Calm down, Landon,” Perry said. “Calm down for a sec and listen to me, OK?”
Kettlewell looked at him and sighed. “Go ahead.”
“There are more than a billion squatters worldwide. San Francisco has been giving out tents and shopping carts ever since they ran out of shelter beds in the nineties. From Copenhagen to Capetown, there are more and more people who are going off the grid, often in the middle of cities.”
Suzanne nodded. “They farm Detroit, in the ruins of old buildings. Raise crops and sell them. Chickens, too. Even pigs.”
“There’s something there. These people have money, like I said. They buy and sell in the stream of commerce. They often have to buy at a premium because the services and goods available to them are limited—think of how a homeless person can’t take advantage of bulk-packaged perishables because she doesn’t have a fridge. They are the spirit of ingenuity, too—they mod their cars, caves, anything they can find to be living quarters. They turn RVs into permanent homes. They know more about tents, sleeping bags and cardboard than any UN SHELTER specialist. These people need housing, goods, appliances, you name it. It’s what Tjan used to call a green-field market: no one else knows it’s there. You want something you can spend ungodly amounts of money on? This is it. Get every team in the company to come up with products for these people. Soak up every cent they spend. Better us providing them with quality goods at reasonable prices than letting them get ripped off by the profiteers who have a captive market. This plant is a living lab: this is the kind of market intelligence you can’t buy, right here. We should set up more of these. Invite squatters all over the country to move onto our grounds, test out our products, help us design, build and market them. We can recruit traveling salespeople to go door to door in the shanties and take orders. Shit, man, you talk about the Grameen Bank all the time—why not go into business providing these people with easy microcredit without preying on them the way the banks do? Then we could loan them money to buy things that we sell them that they use to better their lives and earn more money so they can pay us back and buy more things and borrow more money—”
Kettlewell held up a hand. “I like the theory. It’s a nice story. But I have to sell this to my Board, and they want more than stories: where can I get the research to back this up?”
“We’re it,” Perry said. “This place, right here. There’s no numbers to prove what I’m saying is right because everyone who knows it’s right is too busy chasing after it and no one else believes it. But right here, if we’re allowed to do this—right here we can prove it. We’ve got the capital in our account, we’re profitable, and we can roll those profits back into more R&D for the future of the company.”
Suzanne was writing so fast she was getting a hand cramp. Perry had never given speeches like this, even a month before. Tjan’s leaving had hurt them all, but the growth it had precipitated in Perry was stunning.
Kettlewell argued more, but Perry was a steamroller and Suzanne was writing down what everyone said and that kept it all civil, like a silent camera rolling in the corner of the room. No one looked at her, but she was the thing they were conspicuously not looking at.
Francis took the news calmly. “Sound business strategy. Basically, it’s what I’ve been telling you to do all along, so I’m bound to like it.”
It took a couple weeks to hive off the Home Aware stuff to some of the other Kodacell business-units. Perry flew a bunch, spending days in Minnesota, Oregon, Ohio, and Michigan overseeing the retooling efforts that would let him focus on his new project.
By the time he got back, Lester had retooled their own workspace, converting it to four functional areas: communications, shelter, food and entertainment. “They were Francis’s idea,” he said. Francis’s gimpy leg was bothering him more and more, but he’d overseen the work from a rolling ergonomic office-chair. “It’s his version of the hierarchy of needs—stuff he knows for sure we can sell.”
It was the first time the boys had launched something new without knowing what it was, where they’d started with a niche and decided to fill it instead of starting with an idea and looking for a niche for it.
“You’re going to underestimate the research time,” Francis said during one of their flip-chart brainstorms, where they had been covering sheet after sheet with ideas for products they could build. “Everyone underestimates research time. Deciding what to make is always harder than making it.” He’d been drinking less since he’d gotten involved in the retooling effort, waking earlier, bossing around his young-blood posse to get him paper, bricks, Tinkertoys.
He was right. Suzanne steadily recorded the weeks ticking by as the four competing labs focus-grouped, designed, tested and scrapped all manner of “tchotchkes for tramps,” as Freddy had dubbed it in a spiraling series of ever-more-bilious columns. But the press was mostly positive: camera crews liked to come by and shoot the compound. One time, the pretty black reporter from the night of the fire came by and said very nice things during her standup. Her name was Maria and she was happy to talk shop with Suzanne, endlessly fascinated by a “real” journalist who’d gone permanently slumming on the Internet.
“The problem is that all this stuff is too specialized, it has too many prerequisites,” Perry said, staring at a waterproof, cement-impregnated bag that could be filled with a hose, allowed to dry, and used as a self-contained room. “This thing is great for refugees, but it’s too one-size-fits all for squatters. They have to be able to heavily customize everything they use to fit into really specialized niches.”
More squatters had arrived to take up residence with them—families, friends, a couple of dodgy drifters—and a third story was going onto the buildings in the camp. They were even more Dr Seussian than the first round, idiosyncratic structures that had to be built light to avoid crushing the floors below them, hanging out over the narrow streets, corkscrewing like vines seeking sun.
He kept staring, and would have been staring still had he not heard the sirens. Three blue-and-white Broward County sheriff’s cars were racing down the access road into their dead mall, sirens howling, lights blazing.
They screeched to a halt at the shantytown’s edge and their doors flew open. Four cops moved quickly into the shantytown, while two more worked the radios, sheltering by the cars.
“Jesus Christ,” Perry said. He ran for the door, but Suzanne grabbed him.
“Don’t run toward armed cops,” she said. “Don’t do anything that looks threatening. Slow down, Perry.”
He took a couple deep breaths. Then he looked around his lab for a while, frantically muttering, “Where the fuck did I put it?”
“Use Home Aware,” she said. He shook his head, grimaced, went to a keyboard and typed MEGAPHONE. One of the lab-drawers started to throb with a white glow.
He pulled out the megaphone and went to his window.
“ATTENTION POLICE,” he said. “THIS IS THE LEASEHOLDER FOR THIS PROPERTY. WHY ARE YOU RUNNING AROUND WITH YOUR GUNS DRAWN? WHAT IS GOING ON?”
The police at the cars looked toward the workshop, then back to the shantytown, then back to the workshop.
“SERIOUSLY. THIS IS NOT COOL. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
One of the cops grabbed the mic for his own loudhailer. “THIS IS THE BROWARD COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. WE HAVE RECEIVED INTELLIGENCE THAT AN ARMED FUGITIVE IS ON THESE PREMISES. WE HAVE COME TO RETRIEVE HIM.”
“WELL, THAT’S WEIRD. NONE OF THE CHILDREN, CIVILIANS AND HARDWORKING PEOPLE HERE ARE FUGITIVES AS FAR AS I KNOW. CERTAINLY THERE’S NO ONE ARMED AROUND HERE. WHY DON’T YOU GET BACK IN YOUR CARS AND I’LL COME OUT AND WE’LL RESOLVE THIS LIKE CIVILIZED PEOPLE, OK?”
The cop shook his head and reached for his mic again, and then there were two gunshots, a scream, and a third.
Perry ran for the door and Suzanne chased after him, trying to stop him. The cops at the cars were talking intently into their radios, though it was impossible to know if they were talking to their comrades in the shantytown or to their headquarters. Perry burst out of the factory door and there was another shot and he spun around, staggered back a step, and fell down like a sack of grain. There was blood around his head. Suzanne stuck her hand in her mouth to stifle a scream and stood helplessly in the doorway of the workshop, just a few paces from Perry.
Lester came up behind her and firmly moved her aside. He lumbered deliberately and slowly and fearlessly to Perry’s side, knelt beside him, touched him gently. His face was grey. Perry thrashed softly and Suzanne let out a sound like a cry, then remembered herself and took out her camera and began to shoot and shoot and shoot: the cops, Lester with Perry like a tragic Pieta, the shantytowners running back and forth screaming. Snap of the cops getting out of their cars, guns in hands, snap of them fanning out around the shantytown, snap of them coming closer and closer, snap of a cop pointing his gun at Lester, ordering him away from Perry, snap of a cop approaching her.
“It’s live,” she said, not looking up from the viewfinder. “Going out live to my blog. Daily readership half a million. They’re watching you now, every move. Do you understand?”
The officer said, “Put the camera down, ma’am.”
She held the camera. “I can’t quote the First Amendment from memory, not exactly, but I know it well enough that I’m not moving this camera. It’s live, you understand—every move is going out live, right now.”
The officer stepped back, turned his head, muttered in his mic.
“There’s an ambulance coming,” he said. “Your friend was shot with a nonlethal rubber bullet.”
“He’s bleeding from the head,” Lester said. “From the eye.”
Ambulance sirens in the distance. Lester stroked Perry’s hair. Suzanne took a step back and panned it over Perry’s ruined face, bloody and swollen. The rubber bullet must have taken him either right in the eye or just over it.
“Perry Mason Gibbons was unarmed and posed no threat to Sheriff’s Deputy Badge Number 5724—” she zoomed in on it—“when he was shot with a rubber bullet in the eye. He is unconscious and bloody on the ground in front of the workshop where he has worked quietly and unassumingly to invent and manufacture new technologies.”
The cop knew when to cut his losses. He turned aside and walked back into the shantytown, leaving Suzanne to turn her camera on Perry, on the EMTs who evacced him to the ambulance, on the three injured shantytowners who were on the ambulance with him, on the corpse they wheeled out on his own gurney, one of the newcomers to the shantytown, a man she didn’t recognize.
They operated on Perry all that night, gingerly tweezing fragments of bone from his shattered left orbit out of his eye and face. Some had floated to the back of the socket and posed a special risk of brain damage, the doctor explained into her camera.
Lester was a rock, sitting silently in the waiting room, talking calmly and firmly with the cops and over the phone to Kettlewell and the specially impaneled board-room full of Kodacell lawyers who wanted to micromanage this. Rat-Toothed Freddy filed a column in which he called her a “grandstanding bint,” and accused Kodacell of harboring dangerous fugitives. He’d dug up the fact that one of the newcomers to the shantytown—not the one they’d killed, that was a bystander—was wanted for holding up a liquor-store with a corkscrew the year before.
Lester unscrewed his earphone and scrubbed at his eyes. Impulsively, she leaned over and gave him a hug. He stiffened up at first but then relaxed and enfolded her in his huge, warm arms. She could barely make her arms meet around his broad, soft back—it was like hugging a giant loaf of bread. She squeezed tighter and he did too. He was a good hugger.
“You holding in there, kiddo?” she said.
“Yeah,” he murmured into her neck. “No.” He squeezed tighter. “As well as I need to, anyway.”
The doctor pried them apart to tell them that the EEG and fMRI were both negative for any brain-damage, and that they’d managed to salvage the eye, probably. Kodacell was springing for all the care he needed, cash money, no dorking around with the fucking HMO, so the doctors had put him through every machine on the premises in a series of farcically expensive tests.
“I hope they sue the cops for the costs,” the doctor said. She was Pakistani or Bangladeshi, with a faint accent, and very pretty even with the dark circles under her eyes. “I read your columns,” she said, shaking Suzanne’s hand. “I admire the work you do,” she said, shaking Lester’s hand. “I was born in Delhi. We were squatters who were given a deed to our home and then evicted because we couldn’t pay the taxes. We had to build again, in the rains, outside of the city, and then again when we were evicted again.”
She had two brothers who were working for startups like Kodacell’s, but run by other firms: one was backed by McDonald’s, the other by the AFL–CIO’s investment arm. Suzanne did a little interview with her about her brothers’ projects—a bike-helmet that had been algorithmically evolved for minimum weight and maximum protection; a smart skylight that deformed itself to follow light based on simple phototropic controllers. The brother working on bike-helmets was riding a tiger and could barely keep up with orders; he was consuming about half of the operational capacity of the McDonald’s network and climbing fast.
Lester joined in, digging on the details. He’d been following the skylights in blogs and on a list or two, and he’d heard of the doctor’s brother, which really tweaked her, she was visibly proud of her family.
“But your work is most important. Things for the homeless. We get them in here sometimes, hurt, off the ambulances. We usually turn them away again. The ones who sell off the highway medians and at the traffic lights.” Suzanne had seen them, selling homemade cookies, oranges, flowers, newspapers, plasticky toys, sad or beautiful handicrafts. She had a carved coconut covered in intricate scrimshaw that she’d bought from a little girl who was all skin and bones except for her malnourished pot-belly.
“They get hit by cars?”
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Deliberately, too. Or beaten up.”
Perry was moved out of the operating theater to a recovery room and then to a private room and by then they were ready to collapse, though there was so much email in response to her posts that she ended up pounding on her computer’s keyboard all the way home as Lester drove them, squeezing the bridge of his nose to stay awake. She didn’t even take her clothes off before collapsing into bed.
“They need the tools to make any other tools,” is what Perry said when he returned from the hospital, the side of his head still swaddled in bandages that draped over his injured eye. They’d shaved his head at his insistence, saying that he wasn’t going to try to keep his hair clean with all the bandages. It made him look younger, and his fine skull-bones stood out through his thin scalp when he finally came home. Before he’d looked like a outdoorsman engineer: now he looked like a radical, a pirate.
“They need the tools that will let them build anything else, for free, and use it or sell it.” He gestured at the rapid prototyping machines they had, the three-dee printer and scanner setups. “I mean something like that, but I want it to be capable of printing out the parts necessary to assemble another one. Machines that can reproduce themselves.”
Francis shifted in his seat. “What are they supposed to do with those?”
“Everything,” Perry said, his eye glinting. “Make your kitchen fixtures. Make your shoes and hat. Make your kids’ toys—if it’s in the stores, it should be a downloadable too. Make toolchests and tools. Make it and build it and sell it. Make other printers and sell them. Make machines that make the goop we feed into the printers. Teach a man to fish, Francis, teach a man to fucking fish. No top-down ’solutions’ driven by ’market research’”—his finger-quotes oozed sarcasm—“the thing that we need to do is make these people the authors of their own destiny.”
They put up the sign that night: AUTHOR OF YOUR OWN DESTINY, hung over the workshop door. Suzanne trailed after Perry transcribing the rants that spilled out of his mouth as he explained it to Lester and Francis, and then to Kettlewell when he called, and then to the pretty young black lady from the TV who by now had figured out that there was a real story in her backyard, then to an NPR man on the phone, and then to a CNN crew who drove in from Miami and filmed the shantytown and the workshop like Japanese tourists at Disney World, never having ventured into the skanky, failed strip-mall suburbs just outside of town.
Francis had a protege who had a real dab touch with the 3-D printers. The manufacturer, Lester’s former employer, had been out of business for two years by then, so all the service on the machines had to be done on the premises. Francis’s protege—the one who claimed his mother had pushed his father under a bus, his name was Jason—watched Lester work on recalcitrant machines silently for a couple days, then started to hand him the tool he needed next without having to be asked. Then he diagnosed a problem that had stumped Lester all morning. Then he suggested an improvement to the feedstock pump that increased the mean time between failures by a couple hours.
“No, man, no, not like that,” Jason said to one of the small gang of boys he was bossing. “Gently, or you’ll snap it off.” The boy snapped it off and Jason pulled another replacement part out of a tub and said, “See, like this,” and snapped it on. The small gang of boys regarded him with something like awe.
“How come no girls?” Suzanne said as she interviewed him while he took a smoke-break. Perry had banned cigarettes from all indoor workshops, nominally to keep flames away from the various industrial chemicals and such, but really just to encourage the shantytowners to give up the habit that they couldn’t afford anyway. He’d also leaned on the shantytowners who’d opened up small shops in their houses to keep cigs out of the town, without a lot of success.
“Girls aren’t interested in this stuff, lady.”
“You think?” There was a time when she would have objected, but it was better to let these guys say it out loud, hear themselves say it.
“No. Maybe where you come from, OK? Don’t know. But here girls are different. They do good in school but when they have babies they’re done. I mean, hey, it’s not like I don’t want girls in the team, they’d be great. I love girls. They fuckin’ work, you know. No bullshit, no screwing around. But I know every girl in this place and none of ’em are even interested, OK?”
Suzanne cocked one eyebrow just a little and Jason shifted uncomfortably. He scratched his bare midriff and shuffled. “I do, all of them. Why would they? One girl, a roomful of boys, it’d be gross. They’d act like jerks. There’s no way we’d get anything done.”
Suzanne lifted her eyebrow one hair higher. He squirmed harder.
“So all right, that’s not their fault. But I got enough work, all right? Too much to do without spending time on that. It’s not like any girls have asked to join up. I’m not keeping them out.”
Suzanne jotted a couple of notes, keeping perfectly mum.
“Well, I’d like to have them in the workshop, OK? Maybe I should ask some of them if they’d come. Shit, if I can teach these apes, I can teach a girl. They’re smart. Girls’d make this place a little better to work in. Lots of them trying to support their families, so they need the money, too.”
There was a girl there by the afternoon. The next day, there were two more. They seemed like quick studies, despite their youth and their lip-gloss. Suzanne approved.
Lester stayed long enough to see the first prototype printer-printers running, then he lit out with a duffel bag jammed into the back of his modded Smart car. “Where are you going?” Suzanne said as Perry looked on gloomily. “I’ll come and visit you. I want to follow your story.” Truth be told, she was sorry to see him go, very sorry. He was such a rock, such an anchor for Perry’s new crazy pirate energy and for the madness around them. He hadn’t given much notice (not to her—Perry didn’t seem that surprised).
“I can’t really talk about it,” he said. “Nondisclosure.”
“So it’s a new job,” she said. “You’re going to work for Tjan?” Tjan’s Westinghouse operation was fully rocking. He had fifty teams up the eastern seaboard, ten in the midwest and was rumored to have twice as many in Eastern Europe.
He grinned. “Oh, Suzanne, don’t try to journalist me.” He reached out and hugged her in a cloud of her father’s cologne. “You’re fantastic, you know that? No, I’m not going to a job. It’s a thing that’s an amazing opportunity, you know?”
She didn’t, but then he was gone and boy did she miss him.
Perry and she went out for dinner in Miami the next night with a PhD candidate from Pepperdine’s B-school, eating at the same deco patio that she’d dined at with Tjan. Perry wore a white shirt open to reveal his tangle of wiry chest hair and the waitress couldn’t keep her eyes off of him. He had a permanent squint now, and a scar that made his eyebrow into a series of small hills.
“I was just in Greensboro, Miss,” the PhD candidate said. He was in his mid-twenties, young and slick, his only nod to academe a small goatee. “I used to spend summers there with my grandpa.” He talked fast, flecks of spittle in the corners of his mouth, eyes wide, fork stabbing blindly at the bits of crab-cake on his plate. “There wasn’t anything left there, just a couple gas-stations and a 7-Eleven, shit, they’d even closed the Wal-Mart. But now, but now, it’s alive again, it’s buzzing and hopping. Every empty storefront is full of people playing and tinkering, just a little bit of money in their pockets from a bank or a company or a fund. They’re doing the dumbest things, mind you: tooled-leather laptop cases, switchblade knives with thumb drives in the handles, singing and dancing lawn-Santas that yodel like hillbillies.”
“I’d buy a tooled-leather laptop case,” Perry said, swilling a sweaty bottle of beer. He waggled his funny eyebrow and rubbed his fuzzy scalp.
“The rate of employment is something like ninety-five percent, which it hasn’t been in like a hundred years. If you’re not inventing stuff, you’re keeping the books for someone who is, or making sandwiches for them, or driving delivery vehicles around. It’s like a tiny, distributed gold rush.”
“Or like the New Deal,” Suzanne said. That was how she’d come to invite him down, after she’d read his paper coining the term New Work to describe what Perry was up to, comparing it to Roosevelt’s public-investment plan that spent America free of the Depression.
“Yeah, exactly, exactly! I’ve got research that shows that one in five Americans is employed in the New Work industry. Twenty percent!”
Perry’s lazy eye opened a little wider. “No way,” he said.
“Way,” the PhD candidate said. He finished his caipirinha and shook the crushed ice at a passing waiter, who nodded and ambled to the bar to get him a fresh one. “You should get on the road and write about some of these guys,” he said to Suzanne. “They need some ink, some phosphors. They’re pulling up stakes and moving to the small towns their parents came from, or to abandoned suburbs, and just doing it. Bravest fucking thing you’ve seen in your life.”
The PhD candidate stayed out the week, and went home with a suitcase full of the parts necessary to build a three-dee printer that could print out all of the parts necessary to build a three-dee printer.
Lester emailed her from wherever it was he’d gone, and told her about the lovely time he was having. It made her miss him sharply. Perry was hardly ever around for her now, buried in his work, buried with the kids from the shantytown and with Francis. She looked over her last month’s blogs and realized that she’d been turning in variations on the same theme for all that time. She knew it was time to pack a duffel bag of her own and go see the bravest fucking thing she’d seen in her life.
“Bye, Perry,” she said, stopping by his workbench. He looked up at her and saw the bag and his funny eyebrow wobbled.
“Leaving for good?” he said. He sounded unexpectedly bitter.
“No!” she said. “No! Just a couple weeks. Going to get the rest of the story. But I’ll be back, count on it.”
He grunted and slumped. He was looking a lot older now, and beaten down. His hair, growing out, was half grey, and he’d gotten gaunt, his cheekbones and forehead springing out of his face. On impulse, she gave him a hug like the ones she’d shared with Lester. He returned it woodenly at first, then with genuine warmth. “I will be back, you know,” she said. “You’ve got plenty to do here, anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Course I do.”
She kissed him firmly on the cheek and stepped out the door and into her car and drove to Miami International.
Tjan met her at Logan and took her bag. “I’m surprised you had the time to meet me,” she said. The months had been good to him, slimming down his pot-belly and putting a twinkle in his eye.
“I’ve got a good organization,” he said, as they motored away toward Rhode Island, through strip-mall suburbs and past boarded-up chain restaurants. Everywhere there were signs of industry: workshops in old storefronts, roadside stands selling disposable music players, digital whoopee cushions, and so forth. “I barely have to put in an appearance.”
Tjan yawned hugely and constantly. “Jet-lag,” he apologized. “Got back from Russia a couple days ago.”
“Did you see your kids?” she said. “How’s business there?”
“I saw my kids,” he said, and grinned. “They’re amazing, you know that? Good kids, unbelievably smart. Real little operators. The older one, Lyenitchka, is running a baby-sitting service—not baby-sitting herself, you see, but recruiting other kids to do the sitting for her while she skims a management fee and runs the quality control.”
“She’s your daughter all right,” she said. “So tell me everything about the Westinghouse projects.”
She’d been following them, of course, lots of different little startups, each with its own blogs and such. But Tjan was quite fearless about taking her through their profits and losses and taking notes on it all kept her busy until she reached her hotel. Tjan dropped her off and promised to pick her up the next morning for a VIP tour of the best of his teams, and she went to check in.
She was in the middle of receiving her key when someone grabbed her shoulder and squeezed it. “Suzanne bloody Church! What are you doing here, love?”
The smell of his breath was like a dead thing, left to fester. She turned around slowly, not wanting to believe that of all the hotels in rural Rhode Island, she ended up checking into the same one as Rat-Toothed Freddy.
“Hey, Freddy,” she said. Seeing him gave her an atavistic urge to stab him repeatedly in the throat with the hotel stick-pen. He was unshaven, his gawky Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, and he swallowed and smiled wetly. “Nice to see you.”
“Fantastic to see you, too! I’m here covering a shareholder meeting for Westinghouse, is that what you’re here for, too?”
“No,” she said. She knew the meeting was on that week, but hadn’t planned on attending it. She was done with press conferences, preferring on-the-ground reporting. “Well, nice to see you.”
“Oh, do stay for a drink,” he said, grinning more widely, exposing those grey teeth in a shark’s smile. “Come on—they have a free cocktail hour in this place. I’ll have to report you to the journalist’s union if you turn down a free drink.”
“I don’t think ’bloggers’ have to worry about the journalist’s union,” she said, making sarcastic finger-quotes in case he didn’t get the message. He still didn’t. He laughed instead.
“Oh, love, I’m sure they’ll still have you even if you have lapsed away from the one true faith.”
“Good night, Freddy,” was all she could manage to get out without actually hissing through her teeth.
“OK, good night,” he said, moving in to give her a hug. As he loomed toward her, she snapped.
“Freeze, mister. You are not my friend. I do not want to touch you. You have poor personal hygiene and your breath smells like an overflowing camp-toilet. You write vicious personal attacks on me and on the people I care about. You are unfair, meanspirited, and you write badly. The only day I wouldn’t piss on you, Freddy, is the day you were on fire. Now get the fuck out of my way before I kick your tiny little testicles up through the roof of your reeking mouth.”
She said it quietly, but the desk-clerks behind her overheard it anyway and giggled. Freddy’s smile only wobbled, but then returned, broader than ever.
“Well said,” he said and gave her a single golf-clap. “Sleep well, Suzanne.”
She boiled all the way to her room and when she came over hungry, she ordered in room service, not wanting to take the chance that Rat-Toothed Freddy would still be in the lobby.
Tjan met her as she was finishing her coffee in the breakfast room. She hadn’t seen Freddy yet.
“I’ve got five projects slated for you to visit today,” Tjan said, sliding into the booth beside her. Funnily now that he was in the cold northeast, he was dressing like a Floridian in blue jeans and a Hawai’ian barkcloth shirt with a bright spatter of pineapples and Oscar Mayer Wienermobiles. Back in Florida, he’d favored unflattering nylon slacks and white shirts with ironed collars.
The projects were fascinating and familiar. The cultural differences that distinguished New England New Work from Florida New Work were small but telling: a lot more woodcraft, in a part of the country where many people had grown up in their grandfathers’ woodworking shops. A little more unreflexive kitsch, like the homely kittens and puppies that marched around the reactive, waterproof, smash-proof screens integrated into a bio-monitoring crib.
At the fourth site, she was ambushed by a flying hug. Tjan laughed as she nearly went down under the weight of a strong, young woman who flung her arms around Suzanne’s neck. “Holy crap it’s good to see you!”
Suzanne untangled herself and got a look at her hugger. She had short mousy hair, twinkling blue eyes, and was dressed in overalls and a pretty flowered blouse, scuffed work boots and stained and torn work-gloves. “Uh…” she said, then it clicked. “Fiona?”
“Yeah! Didn’t Tjan tell you I was here?” The last time she’d seen this woman, she was weeping over pizza and getting ready to give up on life. Now she was practically vibrating.
“Uh, no,” she said, shooting a look at Tjan, who was smiling like the Buddha and pretending to inspect a pair of shoes with gyroscopically stabilized retractable wheels in the heels.
“I’ve been here for months! I went back to Oregon, like you told me to, and then I saw a recruiting ad for Westinghouse and I sent them my CV and then I got a videoconference interview and then, bam, I was on an airplane to Rhode Island!”
Suzanne blinked. I told you to go back to Oregon? Well, maybe she had. That was a lifetime ago.
The workshop was another dead mall, this one a horseshoe of storefronts separated by flimsy gyprock. The Westinghousers had cut through the walls with drywall knives to join all the stores together. The air was permeated with the familiar Saran-Wrap-in-a-microwave tang of three-dee printers. The parking lot was given over to some larger apparatus and a fantastical children’s jungle-gym in the shape of a baroque, spired pirate fortress, with elegantly curved turrets, corkscrew sky-bridges, and flying buttresses crusted over with ornate, grotesque gargoyles. Children swarmed over it like ants, screeching with pleasure.
“Well, you’re looking really good, Fiona,” Suzanne said. Still not great with people, she thought. Fiona, though, was indeed looking good, and beaming. She wasn’t wearing the crust of cosmetics and hair-care products she’d affected in the corporate Silicon Valley world. She glowed pink.
“Suzanne,” Fiona said, getting serious now, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. “I can’t thank you enough for this. This has saved my life. It gave me something to live for. For the first time in my life, I am doing something I’m proud of. I go to bed every night thankful and happy that I ended up here. Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you.”
Suzanne tried not to squirm. Fiona gave her another long hug. “It’s all your doing,” Suzanne said at last. “I just told you about it. You’ve made this happen for you, OK?”
“OK,” Fiona said, “but I still wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I love you, Suzanne.”
Ick. Suzanne gave her another perfunctory hug and got the hell out of Dodge.
“What’s with the jungle-gym?” It really had been something, fun and Martian-looking.
“That’s the big one,” Tjan said with a big grin. “Most people don’t even notice it, they think it’s daycare or something. Well, that’s how it started out, but then some of the sensor people started noodling with jungle-gym components that could tell how often they were played with. They started modding the gym every night, adding variations on the elements that saw the most action, removing the duds. Then the CAD people added an algorithm that would take the sensor data and generate random variations on the same basis. Finally, some of the robotics people got in on the act so that the best of the computer-evolved designs could be instantiated automatically: now it’s a self-modifying jungle-gym. The kids love it. It is the crack cocaine of jungle-gyms, though we won’t be using that in the marketing copy, of course.”
“Of course,” Suzanne said dryly. She’d automatically reached for her notepad and started writing when Tjan started talking. Now, reviewing her notes, she knew that she was going to have to go back and get some photos of this. She asked Tjan about it.
“The robots go all night, you know. Not much sleep if you do that.”
No going back to the hotel to see Freddy, what a pity. “I’ll grab a couple blankets from the hotel to keep warm,” she said.
“Oh, you needn’t,” he said. “That crew has a set of bleachers with gas-heaters for the night crew and their family to watch from. It’s pretty gorgeous, if you ask me.”
They had a hasty supper of burgers at a drive-through and then went back to the jungle-gym project. Suzanne ensconced herself at someone’s vacated desk for a couple hours and caught up on email before finally emerging as the sun was dipping swollen and red behind the mall. She set herself up on the bleachers, and Fiona found her with a thermos of coffee and a flask of whisky. They snuggled under a blanket amid a small crowd of geeks, an outdoor slumber party under the gas-heaters’ roar.
Gradually, the robots made an appearance. Most of them humped along like inchworms, carrying chunks of new playground apparatus in coils of their long bodies. Some deployed manipulator arms, though they didn’t have much by way of hands at their ends. “We just use rare-earth magnets,” Fiona said. “Less fiddly than trying to get artificial vision that can accurately grasp the bars.”
Tjan nudged her and pointed to a new tower that was going up. The robots were twisting around themselves to form a scaffold, while various of their number crawled higher and higher, snapping modular pieces of high-impact plastic together with snick sounds that were audible over the whine of their motors.
Suzanne switched on her camera’s night-vision mode and got shooting. “Where did you get all these robots?”
Tjan grinned. “It’s an open design—the EPA hired Westinghouse to build these to work on sensing and removing volatile organic compounds on Superfund sites. Because we did the work for the government, we had to agree not to claim any design copyright or patents in the outcome. There’s a freaking warehouse full of this stuff at Westinghouse, all kinds of crazy things that Westinghouse abandoned because they weren’t proprietary enough and they were worried that they’d have to compete on the open market if they tried to productize them. Suits us just fine, though.”
The field was aswarm with glinting metal inchworm robots now, shifting back and forth, boiling and roiling and picking up enormous chunks of climber like cartoon ants carrying away a picnic basket. The playground was being transformed before her eyes, in ways gross and subtle, and it was enchanting to watch.
“Can I go out and have a look?” she said. “I mean, is it safe?”
“Sure,” Fiona said. “Of course! Our robots won’t harm you; they just nuzzle you and then change direction.”
“Still, try to stay out of their way,” Tjan said. “Some of that stuff they’re moving around is heavy.”
So she waded out onto the playground and carefully picked her way through the robot swarm. Some crawled over her toes. A couple twined between her feet and nearly tripped her up and once she stepped on one and it went still and waited politely for her to step off.
Once in the thick of it all, she switched on her video and began to record through the night filter. Standing there amid the whirl and racket and undulating motion of the jungle gym as it reconfigured itself, she felt like she’d arrived at some posthuman future where the world no longer needed her or her kind. Like humanity’s creations had evolved past their inventors.
She was going to have to do a lot of writing before bed.
Freddy was checking out in the lobby when Tjan dropped her off at 5AM. It was impossible to sneak past him, and he gave her a nasty, bucktoothed smile as she passed by him. It distracted her and made the writing come more slowly, but she was a pro and her readers had sent in a lot of kind mail, and there was one from Lester, still away on his mysterious errand but sounding happier than he had in months, positively giddy.
She set the alarm-clock so that she could be awake for her next stop, outside of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where some local millionaires had backed a dozen New Work teams.
Another three weeks of this stuff and she’d get to go home—Florida. The condo was home now, and the junkyard. Hot and sticky and inventive and ever-changing. She fell asleep thinking of it and smiling.
It was two weeks more before Lester caught up with her, in Detroit of all places. Going back to the old place hadn’t been her idea, she’d been dragged back by impassioned pleas from the local Ford and GM New Work teams, who were second-generation-unemployed, old rust-belt families who’d rebooted with money from the companies that had wrung their profit from their ancestors and abandoned them.
The big focus in the rustbelt was eradicating the car. Some were building robots that could decommission leaky gas-stations and crater out the toxic soil. Some were building car-disassembly plants that reclaimed materials from the old beasts’ interiors. Between the Ford and GM teams with their latest bail-out and those funded by the UAW out of the settlements they’d won from the auto-makers, Detroit was springing up anew.
Lester emailed her and said that he’d seen on her blog that she was headed to Detroit, and did she want to meet him for dinner, being as he’d be in town too?
They ate at Devil’s Night, a restaurant in one of the reclaimed mansions in Brush Park, a neighborhood of wood-frame buildings that teenagers had all but burned to the ground over several decades’ worth of Halloweens. In Detroit, Devil’s Night was the pre-Halloween tradition of torching abandoned buildings, and all of Brush Park had been abandoned for years, its handsome houses attractive targets for midnight firebugs.
Reclaiming these buildings was an artisanal practice of urethaning the charred wood and adding clever putty, cement, and glass to preserve the look of a burned out hulk while restoring structural integrity. One entire floor of the restaurant was missing, having been replaced by polished tempered one-way glass that let upstairs diners look down on the bald spots and cleavage of those eating below.
Suzanne showed up a few minutes late, having gotten lost wandering the streets of a Detroit that had rewritten its map in the decades since she’d left. She was flustered, and not just because she was running late. There was a lingering awkwardness between her and Lester and her elation at seeing him again had an inescapable undercurrent of dread.
When the waiter pointed out her table, she told him he was mistaken. Lester wasn’t there, some stranger was: short-haired, burly, with a few days’ stubble. He wore a smart blazer and a loose striped cotton shirt underneath. He was beaming at her.
“Suzanne,” he said.
Her jaw literally dropped. She realized she was standing with her mouth open and shut it with a snap. “Lester?” she said, wonderingly.
He got up, still smiling, even laughing a little, and gave her a hug. It was Lester all right. That smell was unmistakable, and those big, warm paws he called hands.
When he let go of her, he laughed again. “Oh, Suzanne, I could not have asked for any better reaction than this. Thank you.” They were drawing stares. Dazedly, she sat down. So did he.
“Lester?” she said again.
“Yes, it’s me,” he said. “I’ll tell you about it over dinner. The waiter wants to take our drink orders.”
Theatrically, she ordered a double Scotch. The waiter rattled off the specials and Suzanne picked one at random. So did Lester.
“So,” he said, patting his washboard tummy. “You want to know how I got to this in ten weeks, huh?”
“Can I take notes?” Suzanne said, pulling out her pad.
“Oh by all means,” he said. “I got a discount on my treatments on the basis that you would end up taking notes.”
The clinic was in St Petersburg, Russia, in a neighborhood filled with Russian dentists who catered to American health tourists who didn’t want to pay US prices for crowns. The treatment hadn’t originated there: The electromuscular stimulation and chemical therapy for skin-tightening was standard for rich new mothers in Hollywood who wanted to get rid of pregnancy bellies. The appetite-suppressing hormones had been used in the Mexican pharma industry for years. Stem-cells had been an effective substitute for steroids when it came to building muscle in professional athletic circles the world round. Genomic therapy using genes cribbed from hummingbirds boosted metabolism so that the body burned 10,000 calories a day sitting still.
But the St Petersburg clinic had ripped, mixed and burned these different procedures to make a single, holistic treatment that had dropped Lester from 400 to 175 pounds in ten weeks.
“Is that safe?” she said.
“Everyone asks that,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, it’s safe if they’re monitoring you and standing by with lots of diagnostic equipment. But if you’re willing to take slower losses, you can go on a way less intensive regime that won’t require supervision. This stuff is the next big grey-market pharma gold. They’re violating all kinds of pharma patents, of course, but that’s what Cuba and Canada are for, right? Inside of a year, every fat person in America is going to have a bottle of pills in his pocket, and inside of two years, there won’t be any fat people.”
She shook her head. “You look… Lester, you look incredible. I’m so proud of you.”
He ducked his head. He really did look amazing. Dropping the weight had taken off ten years, and between that and the haircut and the new clothes, he was practically unrecognizable.
“Does Perry know?”
“Yeah,” Lester said. “I talked it over with him before I opted for it. Tjan had mentioned it in passing, it was a business his ex-wife was tangled up with through her mafiyeh connections, and once I had researched it online and talked to some people who’d had the treatment, including a couple MDs, I decided to just do it.”
It had cost nearly everything he’d made from Kodacell, but it was a small price to pay. He insisted on getting dinner.
Afterward, they strolled through the fragrant evening down Woodward Avenue, past the deco skyscrapers and the plowed fields and community gardens, their livestock pens making soft animal noises.
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Lester,” she said truthfully. She’d really missed him, even though his participation on her message boards had hardly let up (though it had started coming in at weird hours, something explained by the fact that he’d been in Russia). Walking alongside of him, smelling his smell, seeing him only out of the corner of her eye, it was like nothing had changed.
“It’s great to see you again too.” Tentatively, he took her hand in his big paw. His hand was warm but not sweaty, and she realized it had been a long time since anyone had held her hand. Heart pounding, she gave his hand a squeeze.
Their conversation and their walk rambled on, with no outward acknowledgment of the contact of hand on hand, but her hand squeezed his softly now and again, or he squeezed hers, and then they were at her hotel. How did that happen? she asked herself.
But then they were having a nightcap, and then he was in the elevator with her and then he was at the door of her room, and the blood was roaring in her ears as she stuck her credit-card in the reader to open it.
Wait, she tried to say. Lester, hang on a second, is what she tried to say, but her tongue was thick in her mouth. He stepped through the door with her, then said, “Uh, I need to use the bathroom.”
With relief, she directed him to the small water closet. The room was basic—now that she was her own boss, she wasn’t springing for Crowne Plazas and Hiltons, this was practically a coffin—and there was nowhere to sit except the bed. Her laptop was open and there was a lot of email in her inbox, but for once, she didn’t care. She was keenly attuned to the water noises coming from behind the door, each new sound making her jump a little. What was he doing in there, inserting a fucking diaphragm?
She heard him work the latch on the door and she put on her best smile. Her stomach was full of butterflies. He smiled back and sat down on the bed next to her, taking her hand again. His hand was moist from being washed, and a little slippery. She didn’t mind. Wordlessly, she put her head on his barrel chest. His heart was racing, and so was hers.
Gradually, they leaned back, until they were side by side on the bed, her head still on his chest. Moving like she was in a dream, she lifted her head from his chest and stared into his eyes. They were wide and scared. She kissed him, softly. His lips were trembling and unyielding. She kissed him more insistently, running her hands over his chest and shoulders, putting one leg over him. He closed his eyes and kissed her back. He wasn’t bad, but he was scared or nervous and all jittery.
She kissed his throat, breathing in the smell, savoring the rough texture of his three-day beard. Tentatively, he put his hands on her back, stroked her, worked gradually towards her bottom. Then he stopped.
“What’s wrong?” she said, propping herself up on her forearms, still straddling him.
She saw that there were tears in his eyes.
“Lester? What’s wrong?”
He opened his mouth and then shut it. Tears slid off his face into his ears. She blotted them with a corner of hotel-pillow.
She stroked his hair. “Lester?”
He gave out a choked sob and pushed her away. He sat up and put his face in his hands. His back heaved. She stroked his shoulders tentatively.
Finally, he seemed to get himself under control. He sniffled.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Lester, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t do this,” he said. “I…”
“Just tell me,” she said. “Whatever it is, tell me.”
“You didn’t want me before.” He said it simply without accusation, but it stung like he’d slapped her in the face.
“Oh, Lester,” she said, moving to hug him, but he pushed her away.
“I have to go,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height. He was tall, though he’d never seemed it before, but oh, he was tall, six foot four or taller. He filled the room. His eyes were red and swollen, but he put on a smile for her. “Thanks, Suzanne. It was really good to see you again. I’ll see you in Florida.”
She stood up and moved quickly to him, stood on tiptoe to put her arms around his neck and hug him fiercely. He hugged her back and she kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll see you in Florida,” she said.
And then he was gone. She sat on the edge of her bed and waited for tears, but they didn’t come. So she picked up her laptop and started to work through her mountain of email.
When she saw him again, he was coming down the drive leading to the shantytown and the factory. She was having tea in the tea-room that had opened in a corkscrew spire high above the rest of the shantytown. The lady who operated it called herself Mrs Torrence, and she was exquisitely antique but by no means frail, and when she worked the ropes on her dumbwaiter to bring up supplies from the loading area on the ground, her biceps stood at attention like Popeye’s. There was a rumor that Mrs Torrence used to be a man, or still was, under her skirts, but Suzanne didn’t pay attention to it.
Lester came down the drive grinning and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Perry had evidently been expecting him, for he came racing through the shantytown and pelted down the roadway and threw himself at Lester, grabbing him in a crazy, exuberant, whooping hug. Francis gimped out a moment later and gave him a solemn handshake. She hadn’t blogged their meeting in Detroit, so if Francis and Perry knew about Lester’s transformation, they’d found out without hearing it from her.
She finished recording the homecoming from Mrs Torrence’s crow’s nest, then paid the grinning old bag and took the stairs two at a time, hurrying to catch up with Lester and his crowd.
Lester accepted her hug warmly but distantly, letting go a fraction of a second before she did. She didn’t let it get to her. He had drawn a crowd now, with Francis’s protege printer-techs in the innermost circle, and he was recounting the story of his transformation. He had them as spellbound as a roomful of Ewoks listening to C3PO.
“Shit, why don’t we sell that stuff?” Jason said. He’d taken a real interest in the business end of their three-dee printer project.
“Too much competition,” Lester said. “There are already a dozen shops tooling up to make bathtub versions of the therapy here in America. Hundreds more in Eastern Europe. There just won’t be any profit in it by the time we get to market. Getting thin on the cheap’s going to be easy. Hell, all it takes to do it is the stuff you’d use for a meth lab. You can buy all that in a kit from a catalog.”
Jason nodded, but looked unconvinced.
Suzanne took Lester’s return as her cue to write about his transformation. She snapped more pics of him, added some video. He gave her ten minutes’ description of the therapies he’d undergone, and named a price for the therapy that was substantially lower than a couple weeks at a Hollywood fat-farm, and far more effective.
The response was amazing. Every TV news-crew in the greater Miami area made a pilgrimage to their factory to film Lester working in a tight t-shirt over a three-dee printer, wrangling huge vats of epoxy-mix goop in the sun with sweat beading over his big, straining biceps.
Her message boards exploded. It seemed that a heretofore unsuspected contingent of her growing readership was substantially obese. And they had friends. Lester eventually gave up on posting, just so he could get some work done. They had the printers to the point where they could turn out new printers, but the whole system was temperamental and needed careful nursing. Lester was more interested in what people had to say on the engineering message-boards than chatting with the fatties.
The fatties were skeptical and hopeful in equal measures. The big fight was over whether there was anything to this, whether Lester would keep the weight off, whether the new skinny Lester was really Lester, whether he’d undergone surgery or had his stomach stapled. America’s wallets had been cleaned out by so many snake-oil peddlers with a “cure” for obesity that no one could believe what they saw, no matter how much they wanted to.
Lord, but it was bringing in the readers, not to mention the advertising dollars. The clearing price for a thousand weight-loss ads targeted to affluent, obese English-speakers was over fifty bucks, as compared with her customary CPM of three bucks a thou. Inside of a week, she’d made enough to buy a car. It was weird being her own circulation and ad-sales department, but it wasn’t as hard as she’d worried it might be—and it was intensely satisfying to have such a nose-to-tail understanding of the economics of her production.
“You should go,” Lester told her as she clicked him through her earnings spreadsheet. “Jesus, this is insane. You know that these fatties actually follow me around on the net now, asking me questions in message boards about engineering? The board moderators are asking me to post under an assumed name. Madame, your public has spoken. There is a dire need for your skills in St Petersburg. Go. They have chandeliers in the subways and caviar on tap. All the blini you can eat. Bear steaks.”
She shook her head and slurped at the tea he’d brought her. “You’re joking. It’s all mafiyeh there. Scary stuff. Besides, I’m covering this beat right now, New Work.”
“New Work isn’t going anywhere, Suzanne. We’ll be here when you get back. And this story is one that needs your touch. They’re micro-entrepreneurs solving post-industrial problems. It’s the same story you’ve been covering here, but with a different angle. Take that money and buy yourself a business-class ticket to St Petersburg and spend a couple weeks on the job. You’ll clean up. They could use the publicity, too—someone to go and drill down on which clinics are legit and which ones are clip-joints. You’re perfect for the gig.”
“I don’t know,” she said. She closed her eyes. Taking big chances had gotten her this far and it would take her farther, she knew. The world was your oyster if you could stomach a little risk.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, hell yeah. You’re totally right, Lester.”
“What you said!”
“It’s cheers,” he said. “You’ll need to know that if you’re going to make time in Petrograd. Let me go send some email and get you set up. You book a ticket.”
And just like that she was off to Russia. Lester insisted that she buy a business-class ticket, and she discovered to her bemusement that British Airways had about three classes above business, presumably with even more exclusive classes reserved to royalty and peers of the realm. She luxuriated in fourteen hours of reclining seats and warm peanuts and in-flight connectivity, running a brief videoconference with Lester just because she could. Tjan had sent her a guide to the hotels and she’d opted for the Pribaltiyskaya, a crumbling Stalin-era four-star of spectacular, Vegasesque dimensions. The facade revealed the tragedy of the USSR’s unrequited love-affair with concrete, as did the cracks running up the walls of the lobby.
They checked her into the hotel with the nosiest questionnaire ever, a two-pager on government stationary that demanded to know her profession, employer, city of birth, details of family, and so forth. An American businessman next to her at the check-in counter saw her puzzling over it. “Just make stuff up,” he said. “I always write that I come from 123 Fake Street, Anytown, California, and that I work as a professional paper-hanger. They don’t check on it, except maybe the mob when they’re figuring out who to mug. First time in Russia?”
“It shows, huh?”
“You get used to it,” he said. “I come here every month on business. You just need to understand that if it seems ridiculous and too bad to be true, it is. They have lots of rules here, but no one follows ’em. Just ignore any unreasonable request and you’ll fit right in.”
“That’s good advice,” she said. He was middle-aged, but so was she, and he had nice eyes and no wedding ring.
“Get a whole night’s sleep, don’t drink the so-called ’champagne’ and don’t change money on the streets. Did you bring melatonin and modafinil?”
She stared blankly at him. “Drugs?”
“Sure. One tonight to sleep, one in the morning to wake up, and do it again tomorrow and you’ll be un-lagged. No booze or caffeine, either, not for the first couple days. Melatonin’s over the counter, even in the States, and modafinil’s practically legal. I have extra, here.” He dug in his travel bag and came up with some generic Walgreens bottles.
“That’s OK,” she said, handing her credit card to a pretty young clerk. “Thanks, though.”
He shook his head. “It’s your funeral,” he said. “Jet-lag is way worse for you than this stuff. It’s over the counter stateside. I don’t leave home without it. Anyway, I’m in room 1422. If it’s two in the morning and you’re staring at the ceiling and regretting it, call me and I’ll send some down.”
Was he hitting on her? Christ, she was so tired, she could barely see straight. There was no way she was going to need any help getting to sleep. She thanked him again and rolled her suitcase across the cavernous lobby with its gigantic chandeliers and to the elevators.
But sleep didn’t come. The network connection cost a fortune—something she hadn’t seen in years—and the number of worms and probes bouncing off her firewall was astronomical. The connection was slow and frustrating. Come 2AM, she was, indeed, staring at the ceiling.
Would you take drugs offered by a stranger in a hotel lobby? They were in a Walgreens bottle for chrissakes. How bad could they be? She picked up the house-phone on the chipped bedstand and punched his hotel room.
“Oh Christ, I woke you up,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“’Sok. Lady from check-in, right? Gimme your room number, I’ll send up a melatonin now and a modafinil for the morning. No sweatski.”
“Uh,” she hadn’t thought about giving a strange man her room number. In for a penny, in for a pound. “2813,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Geoff,” he said. “It’s Geoff. New York—upper West Side. Work in health products.”
“Suzanne,” she said. “Florida, lately. I’m a writer.”
“Good night, Suzanne. Pills are en route.”
“Good night, Geoff. Thanks.”
“Tip the porter a euro, or a couple bucks. Don’t bother with rubles.”
“Oh,” she said. It had been a long time since her last visit overseas. She’d forgotten how much minutiae was involved.
He hung up. She put on a robe and waited. The porter took about fifteen minutes, and handed her a little envelope with two pills in it. He was about fifteen, with a bad mustache and bad skin, and bad teeth that he displayed when she handed him a couple of dollar bills.
A minute later, she was back on the phone.
“Which one is which?”
“Little white one is melatonin. That’s for now. My bad.”
She saw him again in the breakfast room, loading a plate with hard-boiled eggs, potato pancakes, the ubiquitous caviar, salami, and cheeses. In his other hand he balanced a vat of porridge with strawberry jam and enough dried fruit to keep a parrot zoo happy for a month.
“How do you keep your girlish figure if you eat like that?” she said, settling down at his table.
“Ah, that’s a professional matter,” he said. “And I make it a point never to discuss bizniz before I’ve had two cups of coffee.” He poured himself a cup of decaf. “This is number two.”
She picked her way through her cornflakes and fruit salad. “I always feel like I don’t get my money’s worth out of buffet breakfasts,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll make up for you.” He pounded his coffee and poured another cup. “Humanity returns,” he said, rubbing his thighs. “Marthter, the creature waketh!” he said in high Igor.
“You are really into, uh, substances, aren’t you?” she said.
“I am a firm believer in better living through chemistry,” he said. He pounded another coffee. “Ahhh. Coffee and modafinil are an amazing combo.”
She’d taken hers that morning when the alarm got her up. She’d been so tired that it actually made her feel nauseated to climb out of bed, but the modafinil was getting her going. She knew a little about the drug, and figured that if the TSA approved it for use by commercial pilots, it couldn’t be that bad for you.
“So, my girlish figure. I work for a firm that has partners here in Petersburg who work on cutting-edge pharma products, including some stuff the FDA is dragging its heels on, despite widespread acceptance in many nations, this one included. One of these is a pill that overclocks your metabolism. I’ve been on it for a year now, and even though I am a stone calorie freak and pack away five or six thousand calories a day, I don’t gain an ounce. I actually have to remember to eat enough so that my ribs don’t start showing.”
Suzanne watched him gobble another thousand calories. “Is it healthy?”
“Compared to what? Being fat? Yes. Running ten miles a day and eating a balanced diet of organic fruit and nuts? No. But when the average American gets the majority of her calories from soda-pop, ’healthy’ is a pretty loaded term.”
It reminded her of that talk with Lester, a lifetime ago in the IHOP. Slowly, she found herself telling him about Lester’s story.
“Wait a second, you’re Suzanne Church? New Work Church? San Jose Mercury News Church?”
She blushed. “You can’t possibly have heard of me,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. “Sure. I shoulder-surfed your name off the check-in form and did a background check on you last night just so I could chat you up over breakfast.”
It was a joke, but it gave her a funny, creeped-out feeling. “You’re kidding?”
“I’m kidding. I’ve been reading you for freaking years. I followed Lester’s story in detail. Professional interest. You’re the voice of our generation, woman. I’d be a philistine if I didn’t read your column.”
“You’re not making me any less embarrassed, you know.” It took an effort of will to keep from squirming.
He laughed hard enough to attract stares. “All right, I did spend the night googling you. Better?”
“If that’s the alternative, I’ll take famous, I suppose,” she said.
“You’re here writing about the weight loss clinics, then?”
“Yes,” she said. It wasn’t a secret, but she hadn’t actually gone out of her way to mention it. After all, there might not be any kind of story after all. And somewhere in the back of her mind was the idea that she didn’t want to tip off some well-funded newsroom to send out its own investigative team and get her scoop.
“That is fantastic,” he said. “That’s just, wow, that’s the best news I’ve had all year. You taking an interest in our stuff, it’s going to really push it over the edge. You’d think that selling weight-loss to Americans would be easy, but not if it involves any kind of travel: 80 percent of those lazy insular fucks don’t even have passports. Ha. Don’t quote that. Ha.”
“Ha,” she said. “Don’t worry, I won’t. Look, how about this, we’ll meet in the lobby around nine, after dinner, for a cup of coffee and an interview?” She had gone from intrigued to flattered to creeped-out with this guy, and besides, she had her first clinic visit scheduled for ten and it was coming up on nine and who knew what a Russian rush-hour looked like?
“Oh. OK. But you’ve got to let me schedule you for a visit to some of our clinics and plants—just to see what a professional shop we run here. No gold-teeth-shiny-suit places like you’d get if you just picked the top Google AdWord. Really American-standard places, better even, Scandinavian-standard, a lot of our doctors come over from Sweden and Denmark to get out from under the socialist medicine systems there. They run a tight ship, ya shore, you betcha,” he delivered this last in a broad Swedish bork-bork-bork.
“Um,” she said. “It all depends on scheduling. Let’s sort it out tonight, OK?”
“OK,” he said. “Can’t wait.” He stood up with her and gave her a long, two-handed handshake. “It’s a real honor to meet you, Suzanne. You’re one of my real heros, you know that?”
“Um,” she said again. “Thanks, Geoff.”
He seemed to sense that he’d come on too strong. He looked like he was about to apologize.
“That’s really kind of you to say,” she said. “It’ll be good to catch up tonight.”
He brightened. It was easy enough to be kind, after all.
She had the front desk call her a taxi—she’d been repeatedly warned off of gypsy cabs and any vehicle that one procured by means of a wandering tout. She got into the back, had the doorman repeat the directions to Lester’s clinic twice to the cabbie, watched him switch on the meter and checked the tariff, then settled in to watch St Petersburg go flying by.
She switched on her phone and watched it struggle to associate with a Russian network. They were on the road for all of five minutes—long enough to note the looming bulk of the Hermitage and the ripples left by official cars slicing through the traffic with their blue blinking lights—when her phone went nutso. She looked at it—she had ten texts, half a dozen voicemails, a dozen new clipped articles, and it was ringing with a number in New York.
She bumped the New York call to voicemail. She didn’t recognize the number. Besides, if the world had come to an end while she was asleep, she wanted to know some details before she talked to anyone about it. She paged back through the texts in reverse chronological—the last five were increasingly panicked messages from Lester and Perry. Then one from Tjan. Then one from Kettlebelly. They all wanted to discuss “the news” whatever that was. One from her old editor at the Merc asking if she was available for comment about “the news.” Tjan, too. The first one was from Rat-Toothed Freddy, that snake.
“Kodacell’s creditors calling in debts. Share price below one cent. Imminent NASDAQ de-listing. Comments?”
Her stomach went cold, her breakfast congealed into a hard lump. The clipped articles had quotes from Kettlewell (“We will see to it that all our employees are paid, our creditors are reimbursed, and our shareholders are well-done-by through an orderly wind-down”), Perry (“Fuck it—I was doing this shit before Kodacell, don’t expect to stop now”) and Lester (“It was too beautiful and cool to be real, I guess.”) Where she was mentioned, it was usually in a snide context that made her out to be a disgraced pitchwoman for a failed movement.
Which she was. Basically.
Her phone rang. Kettlewell.
“Hi, Kettlewell,” she said.
“Where have you been?” he said. He sounded really edgy. It was the middle of the night in California.
“I’m in St Petersburg,” she said. “In Russia. I only found out about ten seconds ago. What happened?”
“Oh Christ. Who knows? Cascading failure. Fell short of last quarter’s estimates, which started a slide. Then a couple lawsuits filed. Then some unfavorable press. The share price kept falling, and things got worse. Your basic clusterfuck.”
“But you guys had great numbers overall—”
“Sure, if you looked at them our way, they were great. If you looked at them the way the Street looks at them, we were in deep shit. Analysts couldn’t figure out how to value us. Add a little market chaos and some old score-settling assholes, like that fucker Freddy, and it’s a wonder we lasted as long as we did. They’re already calling us the twenty first century Enron.”
“Kettlewell,” she said, “I lived through a couple of these, and something’s not right. When the dotcoms were going under, their CEOs kept telling everyone everything was all right, right up to the last minute. They didn’t throw in the towel. They stood like captains on the bridge of sinking ships.”
“So what’s going on here. It sounds like you’re whipped. Why aren’t you fighting? There were lots of dotcoms that tanked, but a few of those deep-in-denial CEOs pulled it off, restructured and came out of it alive. Why are you giving up?”
“Suzanne, oh, Suzanne.” He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “You think that this happened overnight? You think that this problem just cropped up yesterday and I tossed in the towel?”
“Yeah. We’ve been tanking for months. I’ve been standing on the bridge of this sinking ship with my biggest smile pasted on for two consecutive quarters now. I’ve thrown out the most impressive reality distortion field the business world has ever seen. Just because I’m giving up doesn’t mean I gave up without a fight.”
Suzanne had never been good at condolences. She hated funerals. “Landon, I’m sorry. It must have been very hard—”
“Yeah,” he said. “Well, sure. I wanted you to have the scoop on this, but I had to talk to the press once the story broke, you understand.”
“I understand,” she said. “Scoops aren’t that important anyway. I’ll tell you what. I’ll post a short piece on this right away, just saying, ’Yes, it’s true, and I’m getting details. Then I’ll do interviews with you and Lester and Perry and put up something longer in a couple of hours. Does that work?”
He laughed again, no humor in it. “Yeah, that’ll be fine.”
“No, no,” he said. “No, it’s OK.”
“Look, I just want to write about this in a way that honors what you’ve done over the past two years. I’ve never been present at the birth of anything remotely this important. It deserves to be described well.”
It sounded like he might be crying. There was a snuffling sound. “You’ve been amazing, Suzanne. We couldn’t have done it without you. No one could have described it better. Great deeds are irrelevant if no one knows about them or remembers them.”
Her phone was beeping. She snuck a peek. It was her old editor. “Listen,” she said. “I have to go. There’s a call coming in I have to take. I can call you right back.”
“Don’t,” he said. “It’s OK. I’m busy here anyway. This is a big day.” His laugh was like a dog’s bark.
“Take care of yourself, Kettlewell,” she said. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
“Nil carborundum illegitimis to you, too.”
She clicked over to her editor. “Jimmy,” she said. “Long time no speak. Sorry I missed your calls before—I’m in Russia on a story.”
“Hello, Suzanne,” he said. His voice had an odd, strained quality, or maybe that was just her mood, projecting. “I’m sorry, Suzanne. You’ve been doing good work. The best work of your career, if you ask me. I follow it closely.”
It made her feel a little better. She’d been uncomfortable about the way she and Jimmy had parted ways, but this was vindicating. It emboldened her. “Jimmy, what the hell do I do now?”
“Christ, Suzanne, I don’t know. I’ll tell you what not to do, though. Off the record.”
“Off the record.”
“Don’t do what I’ve done. Don’t hang grimly onto the last planks from the sinking ship, chronicling the last few struggling, sinking schmucks’ demise. It’s no fun being the stenographer for the fall of a great empire. Find something else to cover.”
The words made her heart sink. Poor Jimmy, stuck there in the Merc’s once-great newsroom, while the world crumbled around him. It must have been heartbreaking.
“Thanks,” she said. “You want an interview?”
“What? No, woman. I’m not a ghoul. I wanted to call and make sure you were all right.”
“Jimmy, you’re a prince. But I’ll be OK. I land on my feet. You’ve got someone covering this story, so give her my number and have her call me and I’ll give her a quote.”
“It’s fine, Jimmy.”
“Suzanne,” he said. “We don’t cover that kind of thing from our newsroom anymore. Just local stuff. National coverage comes from the wires or from the McClatchy national newsroom.”
She sucked in air. Could it be possible? Her first thought when Jimmy called was that she’d made a terrible mistake by leaving the Merc, but if this was what the paper had come to, she had left just in time, even if her own life-raft was sinking, it had kept her afloat for a while.
“The offer still stands, Jimmy. I’ll talk to anyone you want to assign.”
“You’re a sweetheart, Suzanne. What are you in Russia for?”
She told him. Screw scoops, anyway. Not like Jimmy was going to send anyone to Russia, he couldn’t even afford to dispatch a reporter to Marin County by the sounds of things.
“What a story!” he said. “Man!”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah I guess it is.”
“You guess? Suzanne, this is the single most important issue in practically every American’s life—there isn’t one in a thousand who doesn’t worry endlessly about his weight.”
“Well, I have been getting really good numbers on this.” She named the figure. He sucked air between his teeth. “That’s what the whole freaking chain does on a top story, Suzanne. You’re outperforming fifty local papers combined.”
“Hell yeah,” he said. “Maybe I should ask you for a job.”
When he got off the phone, she spoke to Perry, and then to Lester. Lester said that he wanted to go traveling and see his old friends in Russia and that if she was still around in a couple weeks, maybe he’d see her there. Perry was morose and grimly determined. He was on the verge of shipping his three-dee printers and he was sure he could do it, even if he didn’t have the Kodacell network for marketing and logistics. He didn’t even seem to register it when she told him that she was going to be spending some time in Russia.
Then she had to go into the clinic and ask intelligent questions and take pictures and record audio and jot notes and pay attention to the small details so that she would be able to write the best account possible.
They dressed well in Russia, in the clinics. Business casual, but well tailored and made from good material. The Europeans knew from textiles, and expert tailoring seemed to be in cheap supply here.
She’d have to get someone to run her up a blue blazer and a white shirt and a decent skirt. It would be nice to get back into grown-up clothes after a couple years’ worth of Florida casual.
She’d see Geoff after dinner that night, get more detail for the story. There was something big here in the medical tourism angle—not just weight loss but gene therapy, too, and voodoo stem-cell stuff and advanced prostheses and even some crazy performance enhancement stuff that had kept Russia out of the past Olympics.
She typed her story notes and answered the phone calls. One special call she returned once she was sitting in her room, relaxed, with a cup of coffee from the in-room coffee-maker.
“Hello, Freddy,” she said.
“Suzanne, darling!” He sounded like he was breathing hard.
“What can I do for you?”
“Just wanted a quote, love, something for color.”
“Oh, I’ve got a quote for you.” She’d given the quote a lot of thought. Living with the squatters had broadened her vocabulary magnificently.
“And those are your good points,” she said, taking a sip of coffee. “Goodbye, Freddy.”