The drive from Orlando down to Hollywood got worse every time Sammy took it. The turnpike tolls went up every year and the road surface quality declined, and the gas prices at the clip-joints were heart-attack-inducing. When Sammy started at Disney Imagineering a decade before, the company had covered your actual expenses—just collect the receipts and turn them in for cash back. But since Parks had been spun off into a separate company with its own shareholders, the new austerity measures meant that the bean-counters in Burbank set a maximum per-mile reimbursement and never mind the actual expense.
Enough of this competitive intelligence work and Sammy would go broke.
Off the turnpike, it was even worse. The shantytowns multiplied and multiplied. Laundry lines stretched out in the parking-lots of former strip-malls. Every traffic-light clogged with aggressive techno-tchotchke vendors, the squeegee bums of the twenty-first century, with their pornographic animatronic dollies and infinitely varied robot dogs. Disney World still sucked in a fair number of tourists (though not nearly so many as in its golden day), but they were staying away from Miami in droves. The snowbirds had died off in a great demographic spasm over the past decade, and their children lacked the financial wherewithal to even think of over-wintering in their parents’ now-derelict condos.
The area around the dead Wal-Mart was particularly awful. The shanties here rose three, even four stories into the air, clustered together to make medieval street-mazes. Broward County had long since stopped enforcing the property claims of the bankruptcy courts that managed the real-estate interests of the former owners of the fields and malls that had been turned into the new towns.
By the time he pulled into the Wal-Mart’s enormous parking lot, the day had heated up, his air-con had conked, and he’d accumulated a comet-tail of urchins who wanted to sell him a computer-generated bust of himself in the style of a Roman emperor—they worked on affiliate commission for some three-dee printer jerk in the shanties, and they had a real aggressive pitch, practically flinging their samples at him.
He pushed past them and wandered through the open-air market stalls, a kind of cruel parody of the long-gone Florida flea-markets. These gypsies sold fabricated parts that could be modded to make single-shot zip guns and/or bongs and/or illegal-gain wireless antennae. They sold fruit smoothies and suspicious “beef” jerky. They sold bootleg hardcopies of Mexican fotonovelas and bound printouts of Japanese fan-produced tentacle-porn comics. It was all damnably eye-catching and intriguing, even though Sammy knew that it was all junk.
Finally, he reached the ticket-window in front of the Wal-Mart and slapped down five bucks on the counter. The guy behind the counter was the kind of character that kept the tourists away from Florida: shaven-headed, with one cockeyed eyebrow that looked like a set of hills, a three-day beard and skin tanned like wrinkled leather.
“Hi again!” Sammy said, brightly. Working at Disney taught you to talk happy even when your stomach was crawling—the castmember’s grin.
“Back again?” the guy behind the counter laughed. He was missing a canine tooth and it made him look even more sketchy. “Christ, dude, we’ll have to invent a season’s pass for you.”
“Just can’t stay away,” Sammy said.
“You’re not the only one. You’re a hell of a customer for the ride, but you haven’t got anything on some of the people I get here—people who come practically every day. It’s flattering, I tell you.”
“You made this, then?”
“Yeah,” he said, swelling up with a little pigeon-chested puff of pride. “Me and Lester, over there.” He gestured at a fit, greying man sitting on a stool before a small cocktail bar built into a scavenged Orange Julius stand—God knew where these people got all their crap from. He had the look of one of the fatkins, unnaturally thin and muscled and yet somehow lazy, the combination of a ten kilocalorie diet, zero body-fat and non-steroidal muscle enhancers. Ten years ago, he would have been a model, but today he was just another ex-tubbalard with a serious food habit. Time was that Disney World was nigh-unnavigable from all the powered wheelchairs carting around morbidly obese Americans who couldn’t walk from ride to ride, but these days it looked more like an ad for a gymnasium, full of generically buff fatkins in tight-fitting clothes.
“Good work!” he said again in castmemberese. “You should be very proud!”
The proprietor smiled and took a long pull off a straw hooked into the distiller beside him. “Go on, get in there—flatterer!”
Sammy stepped through the glass doors and found himself in an air-conditioned cave of seemingly infinite dimension. The old Wal-Mart had been the size of five football fields, and a cunning arrangement of curtains and baffles managed to convey all that space without revealing its contents. Before him was the ride vehicle, in a single shaft of spotlight.
Gingerly, he stepped into it. The design was familiar—there had been a glut of these things before the fatkins movement took hold, stair-climbing wheelchairs that used gyro-stabilizers to pitch, yaw, stand and sit in a perpetual controlled fall. The Disney World veterans of their heyday remembered them as failure-prone behemoths that you needed a forklift to budge when they died, but the ride people had done something to improve on the design. These things performed as well as the originals, though they were certainly knock-offs—nohow were these cats shelling out fifty grand a pop for the real deal.
The upholstered seat puffed clouds of dust into the spotlight’s shaft as he settled into the chair and did up his lap-belt. The little LCD set into the control panel lit up and started to play the standard video spiel, narrated in grizzled voice-over.
WELCOME TO THE CABINET OF WONDERS
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AMERICA HELD OUT THE PROMISE OF A NEW WAY OF LIVING AND WORKING. THE NEW WORK BOOM OF THE TEENS WAS A PERIOD OF UNPARALLELED INVENTION, A CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY NOT SEEN SINCE THE TIME OF EDISON—AND UNLIKE EDISON, THE PEOPLE WHO INVENTED THE NEW WORK REVOLUTION WEREN’T RIP-OFF ARTISTS AND FRAUDS.
THEIR MARVELOUS INVENTIONS EMERGED AT THE RATE OF FIVE OR SIX PER WEEK. SOME DANCED, SOME SANG, SOME WERE HELPMEETS AND SOME WERE MERE JESTERS.
TODAY, NEARLY ALL OF THESE WONDERFUL THINGS HAVE VANISHED WITH THE COLLAPSE OF NEW WORK. THEY’VE ENDED UP BACK IN THE TRASH HEAPS THAT INSPIRED THEM.
HERE IN THE CABINET OF WONDERS, WE ARE PRESERVING THESE LAST REMNANTS OF THE GOLDEN AGE, A SINGLE BEACON OF LIGHT IN A TIME OF DARKNESS.
AS YOU MOVE THROUGH THE RIDESPACE, PLEASE REMAIN SEATED. HOWEVER, YOU MAY PAUSE YOUR VEHICLE TO GET A CLOSER LOOK BY MOVING THE JOYSTICK TOWARD YOURSELF. PULL THE JOYSTICK UP TO CUE NARRATION ABOUT ANY OBJECT.
MOVE THE JOYSTICK TO THE LEFT, TOWARDS THE MINUS-ONE, IF YOU THINK AN ITEM IS UGLY, UNWORTHY OR MISPLACED. MOVE THE JOYSTICK TO THE RIGHT, TOWARD THE PLUS-ONE, IF YOU THINK AN ITEM IS PARTICULARLY PLEASING. YOUR FEEDBACK WILL BE FACTORED INTO THE CONTINUOUS REARRANGEMENT OF THE CABINET, WHICH TAKES PLACE ON A MINUTE-BY-MINUTE BASIS, DRIVEN BY THE ROBOTS YOU MAY SEE CRAWLING AROUND THE FLOOR OF THE CABINET.
THE RIDE LASTS BETWEEN TEN MINUTES AND AN HOUR, DEPENDING ON HOW OFTEN YOU PAUSE.
PLEASE ENJOY YOURSELF, AND REMEMBER WHEN WE WERE GOLDEN.
This plus-one/minus-one business was new to him. It had been a mere four days since he’d been up here, but like so many other of his visits, they’d made major rehabs to their ride in the amount of time it would have taken Imagineering to write a memo about the possibility of holding a design-review meeting.
He velcroed his camera’s wireless eye to his lapel, tapped the preset to correct for low light and motion, and hit the joystick. The wheelchair stood up with wobbly grace, and began to roll forward on two wheels, heeling over precipitously as it cornered into the main space of the ride. The gyros could take it, he knew, but it still thrilled him the way that a fast, out-of-control go-kart did, miles away from the safe rides back in Disney.
The chair screeched around a corner and pulled into the first scene, a diorama littered with cross-sectioned cars. Each one was kitted out with different crazy technologies—dashboard gods that monitored and transmitted traffic heuristics, parallel-parking autopilots, peer-to-peer music-sharing boxes, even an amphibious retrofit on a little hybrid that apparently worked, converting the little Bug into a water-Bug.
The chair swooped around each one, pausing while the narration played back reminisces by the inventors, or sometimes by the owners of the old gizmos. The stories were pithy and sweet and always funny. These were artifacts scavenged from the first days of a better nation that had died a-borning.
Then on to the kitchen, and the bathrooms—bathroom after bathroom, with better toilets, better showers, better tubs, better floors and better lights—bedrooms, kids’ rooms. One after another, a hyper museum.
The decor was miles ahead of where it had been the last time he’d been through. There were lots of weird grace-notes, like taxidermied alligators, vintage tourist pennants, chintz lamps, and tiny dioramae of action figures.
He paused in front of a fabric printer surrounded by custom tees and knit caps and three-dee video-game figurines machine-crocheted from bright yarns, and was passed by another chair. In it was a cute woman in her thirties, white-blond shaggy hair luminous in the spotlight over the soft-goods. She paused her chair and lovingly reached out to set down a pair of appliqued shorts with organic LEDs pulsing and swirling around the waistband. “Give it a plus-one, OK? These were my best sellers,” she said, smiling a dazzling beach-bunny smile at him. She wheeled away and paused at the next diorama to set down a doll-house in a child’s room diorama.
Wow—they were getting user-generated content in the ride. Holy crap.
He finished out the ride with a keen hand on the plus-one/minus-one lever, carefully voting for the best stuff and against the stuff that looked out of place—like a pornographic ceramic bong that someone had left in the midst of a clockwork animatronic jug-band made from stitched-together stuffed animals.
Then it was over, and he was debarking in what had been the Wal-Mart’s garden center. The new bright sun made him tear up, and he fished out his shades.
“Hey, mister, c’mere, I’ve got something better than sunglasses for you!” The guy who beckoned him over to a market-stall had the look of an aging bangbanger: shaved head, tattoos, ridiculous cycling shorts with some gut hanging over them.
“See these? Polarizing contact-lenses—prescription or optically neutral. Everyone in India is into these things, but we make ’em right here in Florida.” He lifted a half-sphere of filmy plastic from his case and peeled back his eyelid and popped it in. His whole iris was tinted black, along with most of the whites of his eyes. Geometric shapes like Maori tattoos were rendered in charcoal grey across the lenses. “I can print you up a set in five minutes, ten bucks for plain, twenty if you want them bit-mapped.”
“I think I’ll stick with my shades, thanks,” Sammy said.
“C’mon, the ladies love these things. Real conversation starter. Make you look all anime and shit, guy like you can try this kind of thing out for twenty bucks, you know, won’t hurt.”
“That’s all right,” Sammy said.
“Just try a pair on, then, how about that. I printed an extra set last Wednesday and they’ve only got a shelf-life of a week, so these’ll only be good for another day. Fresh in a sealed package. You like ’em. you buy a pair at full price, c’mon that’s as good as you’re going to get.”
Before Sammy knew it, he was taking receipt of a sealed plastic packet in hot pink with a perforated strip down one side. “Uh, thanks…” he said, as he began to tuck it into a pocket. He hated hard-sells, he was no good at them. It was why he bought all his cars online now.
“Naw, that’s not the deal, you got to try them on, otherwise how can you buy them once you fall in love with ’em? They’re safe man, go on, it’s easy, just like putting in a big contact lens.”
Sammy thought about just walking away, but the other vendors were watching him now, and the scrutiny sapped his will. “My hands are too dirty for this,” he said. The vendor silently passed him a sealed sterile wipe, grinning.
Knowing he was had, he wiped his hands, tore open the package, took out the lenses and popped them one at a time into his eyes. He blinked a couple times. The world was solarized and grey, like he was seeing it through a tinted windscreen.
“Oh man, you look bad-ass,” the vendor said. He held up a hand mirror.
Sammy looked. His eyes were shiny black beads, like a mouse’s eyes, solid save for a subtle tracery of Mickey Mouse heads at the corners. The trademark infringement made him grin, hard and spitless. He looked ten years younger, like those late-teen hipsters whose parents dragged them to Walt Disney World, who showed up in bangbanger threads and sneered and scratched their groins and made loud remarks about how suckballs it all was. His conservative buzz-cut looked more like a retro-skinhead thing, and his smooth-shaved, round cheeks made him boyish.
“Those are good for two days tops—your eyes start getting itchy, you just toss ’em. You want a pair that’s good for a week, twenty dollah with the Mickeys. I got Donalds and Astro Boys and all kinds of shit, just have a look through my flash book. Some stuff I drew myself, even.”
Playing along now, Sammy let himself be led on a tour of the flash-book, which featured the kind of art he was accustomed to seeing in tattoo parlor windows: skulls and snakes and scorpions and naked ladies. Mickey Mouse giving the finger, Daisy Duck with a strap-on, Minnie Mouse as a dominatrix. The company offered a bounty for turning in trademark infringers, but somehow he doubted that the company lawyers would be able to send this squatter a cease-and-desist letter.
In the end, he bought one of each of the Disney sets.
“You like the mouse, huh?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I never been. Too expensive. This is all the ride I want, right here.” He gestured at the dead Wal-Mart.
“You like that huh?”
“Man, it’s cool! I go on that sometimes, just to see what it’s turned into. I like that it’s always different. And I like that people add their own stuff. It makes me feel, you know…”
Suddenly, the vendor dropped his hard-case bangbanger facade. “Those were the best days of my life. I was building three-dee printers, making them run. My older brother liked to fix cars, and so did my old man, but who needs a car, where you going to go? The stuff I built, man, it could make anything. I don’t know why or how it ended, but while it was going, I felt like the king of the goddamned world.”
It felt less fun and ironic now. There were tears bright on the vendor’s black-bead eyes. He was in his mid-twenties, younger than he’d seemed at first. If he’d been dressed like a suburban home-owner, he would have looked like someone smart and accomplished, with lively features and clever hands. Sammy felt obscurely ashamed.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I spent those years working a straight job, so it didn’t really touch me.”
“That’s your loss, man,” the vendor said. The printer behind him was spitting out the last of Sammy’s contact-lenses, in sealed plastic wrap. The vendor wrapped them up and put them in a brown liquor-store bag.
Sammy plodded through the rest of the market with his paper bag. It was all so depressing. The numbers at Disney World were down, way down, and it was his job to figure out how to bring them up again, without spending too much money. He’d done it before a couple of times, with the live-action role-playing stuff, and with the rebuild of Fantasyland as an ironic goth hangout (being a wholly separate entity from the old Walt Disney Company had its advantages). But to do it a third time—Christ, he had no idea how he’d get there. These weird-ass Wal-Mart squatters had seemed promising, but could you possibly transplant something like this to a high-throughput, professional location-based entertainment product?
The urchins were still in the parking lot with their Roman emperor busts. He held his hands out to ward them off and found himself holding onto a bust of his own head. One of the little rats had gotten a three-dee scan of his head while he was walking by and had made the bust on spec. He looked older in Roman emperor guise than he did in his mind’s eye, old and tired, like an emperor in decline.
“Twenty dollah man, twenty, twenty,” the kid said. He was about 12, and still chubby, with long hair that frizzed away from his head in a dandelion halo.
“Ten,” Sammy said, clutching his tired head. It was smooth as epoxy resin, and surprisingly light. There was a lot of different goop you could run through those three-dee printers, but whatever they’d used for this, it was featherweight.
The kid looked shrewd. “Twenty dollah and I get rid of these other kids, OK?”
Sammy laughed. He passed the kid a twenty, taking care to tuck his wallet deep into the inside pocket of his jacket. The kid whistled shrilly and the rest of the kids melted away. The entrepreneur made the twenty disappear, tapped the side of his nose, and took off running back into the market stalls.
It was hot and muggy and Sammy was tired, and the drive back to Orlando was another five hours if the traffic was against him—and these days, everything was against him.
Perry’s funny eyebrow twitched as he counted out the day’s take. This gig was all cream, all profit. His overheads amounted to a couple hundred a month to Jason and his crew to help with the robot and machinery maintenance in the Wal-Mart, half that to some of the shantytown girls to dust and sweep after closing, and a retainer to a bangbanger pack that ran security at the ride and in the market. Plus he got the market-stall rents, and so when the day was over, only the first hundred bucks out of the till went into overheads and the rest split even-steven with Lester.
Lester waited impatiently, watching him count twice before splitting the stack. Perry rolled up his take and dropped it into a hidden pocket sewn into his cargo shorts.
“Someday you’re going to get lucky and some chick is going to reach down and freak out, buddy,” Lester said.
“Better she finds my bank-roll than my prostate,” Perry said. Lester spent a lot of time thinking about getting lucky, making up for a lifetime of bad luck with girls.
“OK, let’s get changed,” Lester said. As usual, he was wearing tight-fitting jeans that owed a little debt to the bangbanger cycling shorts, something you would have had to go to a gay bar to see when Perry was in college. His shirt clung to his pecs and was tailored down to his narrow waist. It was a fatkins style, the kind of thing you couldn’t wear unless you had a uniquely adversarial relationship with your body and metabolism.
“No, Lester, no.” Perry said. “I said I’d go on this double date with you, but I didn’t say anything about letting you dress me up for it.” The two girls were a pair that Lester had met at a fatkins club in South Beach the week before, and he’d camera-phoned their pic to Perry with a scrawled drunken note about which one was his. They were attractive enough, but the monotonic fatkins devotion to sybartism was so tiresome. Perry didn’t see much point in hooking up with a girl he couldn’t have a good technical discussion with.
“Come on, it’s good stuff, you’ll love it.”
“If I have to change clothes, I’m not interested.” Perry folded his arms. In truth, he wasn’t interested, period. He liked his little kingdom there, and he could get everything he needed from burritos to RAM at the market. He had a chest freezer full of bankruptcy sale organic MREs, for variety.
“Just the shirt then—I had it printed just for you.”
Perry raised his funny eyebrow. “Let’s see it.”
Lester turned to his latest car, a trike with huge, electric blue back tires, and popped the trunk, rummaged, and proudly emerged holding a bright blue Hawai’ian print shirt.
“Lester, are those. . turds?”
“It’s transgressivist moderne,” Lester said, hopping from foot to foot. “Saw it in the New York Times, brought the pic to Gabriela in the market, she cloned it, printed it, and sent it out for stitching—an extra ten buck for same-day service.”
“I am not wearing a shirt covered in steaming piles of shit, Lester. No, no, no. A googol times no.”
Lester laughed. “Christ, I had you going, didn’t I? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t actually have let you go out in public wearing this. But how about this?” he said with a flourish, and brought out another shirt. Something stretchy and iridescent, like an oil-slick. It was sleeveless. “It’ll really work with your biceps and pecs. Also: looks pretty good compared to the turd shirt, doesn’t it? Go on, try it on.”
“Lester Banks, you are the gayest straight man I know,” Perry said. He shucked his sweaty tee and slipped into the shirt. Lester gave him a big thumbs-up. He examined his reflection in the blacked-out glass doors of the Wal-Mart.
“Yeah, OK,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Your enthusiasm, your best feature,” Lester said.
Their dates were two brunettes with deep tans and whole-eye cosmetic contacts that hid their pupils in favor of featureless expanses of white, so they looked like their eyes had rolled back into their heads, or maybe like they were wearing cue-balls for glass eyes. Like most of the fatkins girls Perry had met, they dressed to the nines, ate like pigs, drank like fishes, and talked about nothing but biotech.
“So I’m thinking, sure, mitochrondrial lengthening sounds like it should work, but if that’s so, why have we been screwing around with it for thirty years without accomplishing anything?” His date, Moira, worked at a law office, and she came up to his chest, and it was hard to tell with those eyes, but it seemed like she was totally oblivious to his complete indifference to mitochondria.
He nodded and tried not to look bored. South Beach wasn’t what it had once been, or maybe Perry had changed. He used to love to come here to people-watch, but the weirdos of South Beach seemed too precious when compared with the denizens of his own little settlement out on the Hollywood freeway.
“Let’s go for a walk on the beach,” Lester said, digging out his wallet and rubbing his card over the pay-patch on the table.
“Good idea,” Perry said. Anything to get off this patio and away from the insufferable club music thundering out of the speakers pole-mounted directly over their table.
The beach was gorgeous, so there was that. The sunset behind them stained the ocean bloody and the sand was fine and clean. Around their feet, Dade County beachcombers wormed endlessly through the sand, filtering out all the gunk, cig butts, condoms, needles, wrappers, loose change, wedding rings, and forgotten sunglasses. Perry nudged one with his toe and it roombaed away, following its instinct to avoid human contact.
“How do you figure they keep the vags from busting those open for whatever they’ve got in their bellies?” Perry said, looking over his date’s head at Lester, who was holding hands with his girl, carrying her shoes in his free hand.
“Huh? Oh, those things are built like tanks. Have to be to keep the sand out. You need about four hours with an air-hammer to bust one open.”
“You tried it?”
Lester laughed. “Who, me?”
Now it was Perry’s date’s turn to be bored. She wandered away toward the boardwalk, with its strip of novelty sellers. Perry followed, because he had a professional interest in the kind of wares they carried. Most of them originated on one of his printers, after all. Plus, it was the gentlemanly thing to do.
“What have we here?” he said as he pulled up alongside her. She was trying on a bracelet of odd, bony beads.
“Ectopic fetuses,” she said. “You know, like the Christian fundies use for stem-cell research? You quicken an unfertilized egg in vitro and you get a little ball of fur and bone and skin and stem-cells. It can never be a human, so it has no soul, so it’s not murder to harvest them.”
The vendor, a Turkish teenager with a luxurious mustache, nodded. “Every bead made from naturally occurring foetus-bones.” He handed one to Perry.
It was dry and fragile in his hand. The bones were warm and porous, and in tortured Elephant Man shapes that he recoiled from atavistically.
“Good price,” the Turkish kid said. He had practically no accent at all, and was wearing a Japanese baseball-team uniform and spray-on foot-coverings. Thoroughly Americanized. “Look here,” he said, and gestured at a little corner of his table.
It was covered in roses made from fabric—small and crude, with pin-backs. Perry picked one up. It had a certain naive charm. The fabric was some kind of very delicate leather—
“It’s skin,” his date said. “Foetal skin.”
He dropped it. His fingers tingled with the echo of the feeling of the leather. Jesus I hate biotech. The rose fluttered past the table to the sandy boardwalk, and the Turkish kid picked it up and blew it clean.
“Sorry,” Perry said, sticking his hands in his pockets. His date bought a bracelet and a matching choker made of tiny bones and teeth, and the Turkish kid, leering, helped her fasten the necklace. When they returned to Lester and his date, Perry knew the evening was at a close. The girls played a couple rounds of eye-hockey, unreadable behind their lenses, and Perry shrugged apologetically at Lester.
“Well then,” Lester said, “it sure has been a nice night.” Lester got smooched when they saw the girls off in a pedicab. In the buzz and hum of its flywheel, Perry got a damp and unenthusiastic handshake.
“Win some, lose some,” Lester said as the girls rolled away in a flash of muscular calves from the pair of beach-perfect cabbies pedaling the thing.
“You’re not angry?” Perry said.
“Nah,” Lester said. “I get laid too much as it is. Saps me of my precious bodily fluids. Gotta keep some chi inside, you know?”
Perry raised up his funny eyebrow and made it dance.
“Oh, OK,” Lester said. “You got me. I’m meeting mine later, after she drops her friend off.”
“I’ll get a cab home then, shall I?”
“Take my car,” Lester said. “I’ll get a ride back in the morning. No way you’ll get a taxi to take you to our neighborhood at this hour.”
Perry’s car had been up on blocks for a month, awaiting his attention to its failing brakes and mushy steering. So it was nice to get behind the wheel of Lester’s Big Daddy Roth trike and give it a little gas out on the interstate, the smell of the swamp and biodiesel from the big rigs streaming past the windscreen. The road was dark and treacherous with potholes, but Perry got into the rhythm of it and found he didn’t want to go home, quite, so he kept driving, into the night. He told himself that he was scouting dead malls for future expansion, but he had kids who’d video-documented the status of all the likely candidates in the hood, and he kept tabs on his choicest morsels via daily sat photos that he subscribed to in his morning feed.
What the hell was he doing with his life? The Wal-Mart ride was a lark—it had been Lester’s idea, but Lester had lost interest and Perry had done most of the work. They weren’t quite squatting the Wal-Mart: Perry paid rent to a state commission that collected in escrow for the absentee landlord. It was a fine life, but the days blurred one into the next, directionless. Building the ride had been fun, setting up the market had been fun, but running them—well, he might as well be running a laundromat for all the mental acuity his current job required.
“You miss it,” he said to himself over the whistle of the wind and the hiss of the fat contact-patches on the rear tires. “You want to be back in the shit, inventing stuff, making it all happen.”
For the hundredth time, he thought about calling Suzanne Church. He missed her, too, and not just because she made him famous (and now he was no longer famous). She put it all in perspective for him, and egged him on to greater things. She’d been their audience, and they’d all performed for her, back in the golden days.
It was, what, 5AM in Russia? Or was it two in the afternoon? He had her number on his speed-dial, but he never rang it. He didn’t know what he’d tell her.
He could call Tjan, or even Kettlebelly, just ring them out of the blue, veterans together shooting the shit. Maybe they could have a Kodacell reunion, and get together to sing the company song, wearing the company t-shirt.
He pulled the car off at a truck stop and bought an ice-cream novelty from a vending machine with a robotic claw that scooped the ice-cream, mushed it into the cone, then gave it a haircut so that it looked like Astro Boy’s head, then extended the cone on a robotic claw. It made him smile. Someone had invented this thing. It could have been him. He knew where you could download vision-system libraries, and force-feedback libraries. He knew where you could get plans for the robotics, and off-the-shelf motors and sensors. Christ, these days he had a good idea where you could get the ice-cream wholesale, and which crooked vending-machine interests he’d have to grease to get his stuff into truck-stops.
He was thirty four years old, he was single and childless, and he was eating an ice-cream in a deserted truck-stop at two in the morning by the side of a freeway in south Florida. He bossed a low-budget tourist attraction and he ran a pirate flea-market.
What the hell was he doing with his life?
Getting mugged, that’s what.
They came out of the woods near the picnic tables, four bangbangers, but young ones, in their early teens. Two had guns—nothing fancy, just AK-47s run off a computer-controlled mill somewhere in an industrial park. You saw them all over the place, easy as pie to make, but the ammo was a lot harder to come by. So maybe they were unloaded.
Speaking of unloaded. He was about to piss his pants.
“Wallet,” one of them said. He had a bad mustache that reminded him of the Turkish kid on the beach. Probably the same hormones that gave kids mustaches gave them bad ideas like selling fetus jewelry or sticking up people by the ice-cream machines at late night truck-stops. “Keys,” he said. “Phone,” he added.
Perry slowly set down the ice-cream cone on the lid of the trash-can beside him. He’d only eaten one spike off Astro-Boy’s head.
His vision telescoped down so that he was looking at that kid, at his mustache, at the gun in his hands. He was reaching for his wallet, slowly. He’d need to hitch a ride back to town. Canceling the credit-cards would be tough, since he’d stored all the identity-theft passwords and numbers in his phone, which they were about to take off him. And he’d have to cancel the phone, for that matter.
“Do you have an older brother named Jason?” his mouth said, while his hands were still being mugged.
“Works a stall by the Wal-Mart ride, selling contact lenses?”
The kid’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t know me, man. You don’t want to know me. Better for your health if you don’t know me.”
His hands were passing over his phone, his wallet, his keys—Lester’s keys. Lester would be glad to have an excuse to build a new car.
“Only I own the Wal-Mart ride, and I’ve known Jason a long time. I gave him his first job, fixing the printers. You look like him.”
The kid’s three buddies were beginning their slow fade into the background. The kid was visibly on the horns of a dilemma. The gun wavered. Perry’s knees turned to water.
“You’re that guy?” the kid said. He peered closer. “Shit, you are.”
“Keep it all,” Perry said. His mouth wasn’t so smart. Knowing who mugged you wasn’t good for your health.
“Shit,” the kid said. The gun wavered. Wavered.
“Come on,” one of his buddies said. “Come on, man!”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” the kid said, his voice flat.
Perry knew he was a dead man.
“I’m really sorry,” the kid said, once his friends were out of range.
“Me too,” said Perry.
“You won’t tell my brother?”
Perry froze. Time dilated. He realized that his fists were clenched so tight that his knuckles hurt. He realized that he had a zit on the back of his neck that was rubbing against his collar. He realized that the kid had a paperback book stuck in the waistband of his bangbanger shorts, which was unusual. It was a fantasy novel. A Conan novel. Wow.
Time snapped back.
“I won’t tell your brother,” he said. Then he surprised himself, “But you’ve got to give me back the credit-cards and leave the car at the market in the morning.”
The kid nodded. Then he seemed to realize he was holding a gun on Perry. He lowered it. “Yeah, that’s fair,” he said. “Can’t use the fucking cards these days anyway.”
“Yeah,” Perry said. “Well, there’s some cash there anyway.” He realized he had five hundred bucks in a roll in a hidden pocket in his shorts.
“You get home OK?”
“I’ll thumb a ride,” Perry said.
“I can call you a taxi,” the kid said. “It’s not safe to hang around here.”
“That’s really nice of you,” Perry said. “Thanks.”
The kid took out a little phone and prodded it for a minute. “On the way,” he said. “The guns aren’t loaded.”
“Oh, well,” Perry said. “Good to know.”
An awkward silence spread between them. “Look, I’m really sorry,” the kid said. “We don’t really do this. It’s our first night. My brother would really kill me.”
“I won’t tell him,” Perry said. His heart was beating again, not thundering or keeping ominously still. “But you know, this isn’t smart. You’re going to stick someone up who has bullets and he’s gonna shoot you.”
“We’ll get ammo,” the kid said.
“And shoot him? That’s only a little better, you know.”
“What do you want me to say?” the kid said, looking young and petulant. “I apologized.”
“Come by tomorrow with the car and let’s talk, all right?”
Lester didn’t even notice that his car was missing until the kid drove up with it, and when he asked about it, Perry just raised his funny eyebrow at him. That funny eyebrow, it had the power to cloud men’s minds.
“What’s your name?” Perry asked the kid, giving him the spare stool by the ticket-window. It was after lunch time, when the punishing heat slowed everyone to a sticky crawl, and the crowd was thin—one or two customers every half hour.
“Glenn,” the kid said. In full daylight, he looked older. Perry had noticed that the shantytowners never stopped dressing like teenagers, wearing the fashions of their youths forever, so that a walk through the market was like a tour through the teen fashions of the last thirty years.
“Glenn, you did me a real solid last night.”
Glenn squirmed on his stool. “I’m sorry about that—”
“Me too,” Perry said. “But not as sorry as I might have been. You said it was your first night. Is that true?”
“Car-jacking, sure,” the kid said.
“But you get into other shit, don’t you? Mugging? Selling a little dope? Something like that?”
“Everyone does that,” Glenn said. He looked sullen.
“Maybe,” Perry said. “And then a lot of them end up doing a stretch in a work-camp. Sometimes they get bit by water-moccasins and don’t come out. Sometimes, one of the other prisoners hits them over the head with a shovel. Sometimes you just lose three to five years of your life to digging ditches.”
Glenn said nothing.
“I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life,” Perry said. “But you seem like a decent kid, so I figure there’s more in store for you than getting killed or locked up. I know that’s pretty normal around here, but you don’t have to go that way. Your brother didn’t.”
“What the fuck do you know about it, anyway?” The kid was up now, body language saying he wanted to get far away, fast.
“I could ask around the market,” Perry said, as though the kid hadn’t spoken. “Someone here has got to be looking for someone to help out. You could open your own stall.”
The kid said, “It’s all just selling junk to idiots. What kind of job is that for a man?”
“Selling people stuff they can’t be bothered to make for themselves is a time-honored way of making a living. There used to be professional portrait photographers who’d take a pic of your family for money. They were even considered artists. Besides, you don’t have to sell stuff you download. You can invent stuff and print that.”
“Get over it. Those days are over. No one cares about inventions anymore.”
It nailed Perry between the eyes, like a slaughterhouse bolt. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. He didn’t want to talk to this kid any more than this kid wanted to talk to him. “Well, if I can’t talk you out of it, it’s your own business. .” He started to rearrange his ticket-desk.
The kid saw his opportunity for freedom and bolted. He was probably headed for his brother’s stall and then the long walk to wherever he planned on spending his day. Everything was a long walk from here, or you could wait for the busses that ran on the hour during business-hours.
Perry checked out the car, cleaned out the empties and the roaches and twists from the back seat, then parked it. A couple more people came by to ride his ride, and he took their money.
Lester had just finished his largest-ever flattened-soda-can mechanical computer, it snaked back and forth across the whole of the old Wal-Mart solarium, sheets of pressboard with precision-cut gears mounted on aviation bearings—Francis had helped him with those. All day, he’d been listening to the racket of it grinding through its mighty 0.001KHz calculations, dumping carloads of M&Ms into its output hopper. You programmed it with regulation baseballs, footballs, soccer-balls, and wiffleballs: dump them in the input hopper and they would be sorted into the correct chutes to trigger the operations. With a whopping one kilobit of memory, the thing could best any of the early vacuum tube computers without a single electrical component, and Lester was ready to finally declare victory over the cursed Univac.
Perry let himself be coaxed into the work-room, deputizing Francis to man the ticket-desk, and watched admiringly as Lester put the machine through its paces.
“You’ve done it,” Perry said.
“Well, I gotta blog it,” Lester said. “Run some benchmarks, really test it out against the old monsters. I’m thinking of using it to brute-force the old Nazi Enigma code. That’ll show those dirty Nazi bastards! We’ll win the war yet!”
Perry found himself giggling. “You’re the best, man,” he said to Lester. “It’s good that there’s at least one sane person around here.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Perry.”
“I was talking about you, Lester.”
“Uh-oh,” Lester said. He scooped a double handful of brown M&Ms up from the output hopper and munched them. “It’s not a good sign when you start accusing me of being the grownup in our partnership. Have some M&Ms and tell me about it.”
Perry did, unburdening himself to his old pal, his roommate of ten years, the guy he’d gone to war with and started businesses with and collaborated with.
“You’re restless, Perry,” Lester said. He put nine golf-balls, a ping-pong ball, and another nine golf balls in the machine’s input hopper. Two and a third seconds later, eighty one M&Ms dropped into the output hopper. “You’re just bored. You’re a maker, and you’re running things instead of making things.”
“No one cares about made things anymore, Les.”
“That’s sort of true,” Lester said. “I’ll allow you that. But it’s only sort of true. What you’re missing is how much people care about organizations still. That was the really important thing about the New Work: the way we could all come together to execute, without a lot of top-down management. The bangbanger arms dealers, the bio-terrorists and fatkins suppliers—they all run on social institutions that we perfected back then. You’ve got something like that here with your market, a fluid social institution that you couldn’t have had ten or fifteen years ago.”
“If you say so,” Perry said. The M&Ms were giving him heartburn. Cheap chocolate didn’t really agree with his stomach.
“I do. And so the answer is staring you right in the face: go invent some social institutions. You’ve got one creeping up here in the ride. There are little blogospheres of fans who coordinate what they’re going to bring down and where they’re going to put it. Build on that.”
“No one’s going to haul ass across the country to ride this ride, Les. Get real.”
“Course not.” Lester beamed at him. “I’ve got one word for you, man: franchise!”
“Build dupes of this thing. Print out anything that’s a one of a kind, run them as franchises.”
“Won’t work,” Perry said. “Like you said, this thing works because of the hardcore of volunteer curators who add their own stuff to it—it’s always different. Those franchises would all be static, or would diverge… It’d just be boring compared to this.”
“Why should they diverge? Why should they be static? You could network them, dude! What happens in one, happens in all. The curators wouldn’t just be updating one exhibit, but all of them. Thousands of them. Millions of them. A gigantic physical wiki. Oh, it’d be so very very very cool, Perry. A cool social institution.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
“I’m gonna. But I need someone to run the project. Someone who’s good at getting people all pointed in the same direction. You, pal. You’re my hero on this stuff.”
“You’re such a flatterer.”
“You love it, baby,” Lester said, and fluttered his long eyelashes. “Like the lady said to the stamp collector, philately will get you everywhere.”
“Oy,” Perry said. “You’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me, I’m a volunteer!”
Lester dropped six golf-balls and a heavy medicine ball down the hopper. The machine ground and chattered, then started dropping hundred-loads of M&Ms—100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700—then some change.
“What operation was that?” Perry said. He’d never seen Lester pull out the medicine ball.
“Figure it out,” Lester said.
Perry thought for a moment. Six squared? Six cubed? Log six? “Six factorial? My God you’re weird, Les.”
“Genius is never appreciated.” He scooped up a double-handful of brown M&Ms. “In your face, Von Neumann! Let’s see your precious ENIAC top this!”
A month later, Perry was clearing security at Miami International, looking awkward in long trousers, closed-sole shoes, and a denim jacket. It was autumn in Boston, and he couldn’t show up in flip-flops and a pair of cutoffs. The security guards gave his leathery, lopsided face a hard look. He grinned like a pirate and made his funny eyebrow twitch, a stunt that earned him half an hour behind the screen and a date with Doctor Jellyfinger.
“What, exactly, do you think I’ve got hidden up there?” he asked as he gripped the railing and tried not to let the illegitimati carborundum.
“It’s procedure, sir.”
“Well, the doc said my prostate was the size of a guava about a month ago—in your professional opinion, has it shrunk or grown? I mean, while you’re up there.”
The TSA man didn’t like that at all. A minute later, Perry was buckling up and leaving the little room with an exaggerated bowlegged gait. He tipped an imaginary hat at the guard’s retreating back and said, “Call me!” in a stagey voice.
It was the last bit of fun he had for the next four hours, crammed in the tin can full of recycled discount air-traveller flatulence and the clatter of fingers on keyboards and the gabble of a hundred phone conversations as the salarymen on the flight stole a few minutes of cramped productivity from the dead travel time.
Touching down in Boston and getting his luggage, he felt like he’d landed on an alien planet. The feeling of disorientation and foreignness was new to Perry. He was used to being supremely comfortable, in control—confident. But he was nervous now, maybe even scared, a little.
He dialed Tjan. “I’ve got my bags,” he said.
“I’ll be right around,” Tjan said. “Really looking forward to seeing you.”
There were more cops than passengers in the arrivals area at Logan, and they watched Tjan warily as he pulled up and swung open a door of his little sports-car.
“What the fuck is this, a Porsche?” Perry said as he folded himself awkwardly into the front seat, stepping in through the sun-roof, pulling his bag down into his lap after him.
“It’s a Lada. I had it imported—they’re all over Russia. Evolutionary algorithm used to produce a minimum-materials/maximum-strength chassis. It’s nice to see you, Perry.”
“It’s nice to see you, Tjan,” he said. The car was so low to the ground that it felt like he was riding luge. Tjan hammered mercilessly on the gearbox, rocketing them to Cambridge at such speed that Perry barely had time to admire the foliage, except at stop-lights.
They were around the campus now, taking a screeching right off Mass Ave onto a tree-lined street of homely two-storey brick houses. Tjan pulled up in front of one and popped the sun-roof. The cold air that rushed in was as crisp as an apple, unlike any breath of air to be had in Florida, where there was always a mushiness, a feeling of air that had been filtered through the moist lungs of Florida’s teeming fauna.
Perry climbed out of the little Russian sports-car and twisted his back and raised his arms over his head until his spine gave and popped and crackled.
Tjan followed, and then he shut down the car with a remote that made it go through an impressive and stylish series of clicks, clunks and chirps before settling down over its wheels, dropping the chassis to a muffler-scraping centimeter off the ground.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you your room.”
Tjan’s porch sagged, with a couple kids’ bikes triple-locked to it and an all-covering chalk mosaic over every inch of it. The wood creaked and gave beneath their feet.
The door sprang open and revealed a pretty little girl, nine or ten years old, in blue-jeans and a hoodie sweater that went nearly to her ankles, the long sleeves bunched up like beach-balls on her forearms. The hood hung down to her butt—it was East Coast bangbanger, as reinterpreted through the malls.
“Daddy!” she said, and put her arms around Tjan’s waist, squeezing hard.
He pried her loose and then hoisted her by the armpits up to eye-height. “What have you done to your brother?”
“Nothing he didn’t deserve,” she said, with a smile that showed dimples and made her little nose wrinkle.
Tjan looked over at Perry. “This is my daughter, Lyenitchka, who is about to be locked in the coal cellar until she learns to stop torturing her younger brother. Lyenitchka, this is Perry Gibbons, upon whom you have already made an irreparably bad first impression.” He shook her gently Perrywards.
“Hello, Perry,” she said, giggling, holding out one hand. She had a faint accent, which made her sound like a tiny, skinny Bond villainess.
He shook gravely. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
“You got your kids,” Perry said, once she was gone.
“For the school year. Me and the ex, we had a heart-to-heart about the Russian education system and ended up here: I get the kids from September to June, but not Christmases or Easter holidays. She gets them the rest of the time, and takes them to a family dacha in Ukraine, where she assures me there are hardly any mafiyeh kids to influence my darling daughter.”
“You must be loving this,” Perry said.
Tjan’s face went serious. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“I’m really happy for you, buddy.”
They had burgers in the back-yard, cooking on an electric grill that was caked with the smoking grease of a summer’s worth of outdoor meals. The plastic table-cloth was weighed down with painted rocks and the corners blew up in the freshening autumn winds. Lyenitchka’s little brother appeared when the burgers began to spit and smoke on the grill, a seven-year-old in metallic mesh trousers and shirt wrought with the logo of a cartoon Cossack holding a laser-sword aloft.
“Sasha, meet Perry.” Sasha looked away, then went off to swing on a tire-swing hanging from the big tree.
“You’ve got good kids,” Perry said, handing Tjan a beer from the cooler under the picnic table.
“Yup,” Tjan said. He flipped the burgers and then looked at both of them. Lyenitchka was pushing her brother on the swing, a little too hard. Tjan smiled and looked back down at his burgers.
Tjan cut the burgers in half and dressed them to his kids’ exacting standards. They picked at them, pushed them onto each other’s plates and got some into their mouths.
“I’ve read your briefing on the ride,” Tjan said, once his kids had finished and eaten half a package of Chutney Oreos for dessert. “It’s pretty weird stuff.”
Perry nodded and cracked another beer. The cool air was weirding him out, awakening some atavistic instinct to seek a cave. “Yup, weird as hell. But they love it. Not just the geeks, either, though they eat it up, you should see it. Obsessive doesn’t begin to cover it. But the civilians come by the hundreds, too. You should hear them when they come out: ’Jee-zus, I’d forgotten about those dishwasher-stackers, they were wicked! Where can I get one of those these days you figger?’ The nostalgia’s thick enough to cut with a knife.”
Tjan nodded. “I’ve been going over your books, but I can’t figure out if you’re profitable.”
“Sorry, that’s me. I’m pretty good at keeping track of numbers, but getting them massaged into a coherent picture—”
“Yeah, I know.” Tjan got a far-away look. “How’d you make out on Kodacell, Perry? Finance-wise?”
“Enough to open the ride, buy a car. Didn’t lose anything.”
“Ah.” Tjan fiddled with his beer. “Listen, I got rich off of Westinghouse. Not fuck-the-service-here-I’m-buying-this-restaurant rich, but rich enough that I never have to work again. I can spend the rest of my life in this yard, flipping burgers, taking care of my kids, and looking at porn.”
“Well, you were the suit. Getting rich is what suits do. I’m just a grunt.”
Tjan had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Now here’s the thing. I don’t have to work, but, Perry, I have no idea what I’m going to do if I don’t work. The kids are at school all day. Do you have any idea how much daytime TV sucks? Playing the stock market is completely nuts, it’s all gone sideways and upside down. I got an education so I wouldn’t have to flip burgers for the rest of my life.”
“What are you saying, Tjan?”
“I’m saying yes,” Tjan said, grinning piratically. “I’m saying that I’ll join your little weird-ass hobby business and I’ll open another ride here for the Massholes. I’ll help you run the franchising op, collect fees, make it profitable.”
Perry felt his face tighten.
“What? I thought you’d be happy about this.”
“I am,” Perry said. “But you’re misunderstanding something. These aren’t meant to be profitable businesses. I’m done with that. These are art, or community, or something. They’re museums. Lester calls them wunderkammers—cabinets of wonders. There’s no franchising op the way you’re talking about it. It’s ad hoc. It’s a protocol we all agree on, not a business arrangement.”
Tjan grunted. “I don’t think I understand the difference between a agreed-upon protocol and a business arrangement.” He held up his hand to fend off Perry’s next remark. “But it doesn’t matter. You can let people have the franchise for free. You can claim that you’re not letting anyone have anything, that they’re letting themselves in for their franchise. It doesn’t matter to me.
“But Perry, here’s something you’re going to have to understand: it’s going to be nearly impossible not to make a business out of this. Businesses are great structures for managing big projects. It’s like trying to develop the ability to walk without developing a skeleton. Once in a blue moon, you get an octopus, but for the most part, you get skeletons. Skeletons are good shit.”
“Tjan, I want you to come on board to help me create an octopus,” Perry said.
“I can try,” Tjan said, “but it won’t be easy. When you do cool stuff, you end up making money.”
“Fine,” Perry said. “Make money. But keep it to a minimum, OK?”
The next time Perry turned up at Logan, it was colder than the inside of an icebox and shitting down grey snow with the consistency of frozen custard.
“Great weather for an opening,” he said, once he’d climbed through the roof of Tjan’s car and gotten snow all over the leather upholstery. “Sorry about the car.”
“Don’t sweat it, the kids are murder on leather. I should trade this thing in on something that’s less of a deathtrap anyway.”
Tjan was balder than he’d been in September, and skinnier. He had a three-day beard that further hollowed out his normally round cheeks. The Lada sports-car fishtailed a little as they navigated the tunnels back toward Cambridge, the roads slick and icy.
“We scored an excellent location,” Tjan said. “I told you that, but check this out.” They were right in the middle of a built-up area of Boston, something that felt like a banking district, with impressive towers. It took Perry a minute to figure out what Tjan was pointing at.
“That’s the site?” There was a mall on the corner, with a boarded up derelict Hyatt overtopping it, rising high into the sky. “But it’s right in the middle of town!”
“Boston’s not Florida,” Tjan said. “Lots of people here don’t have cars. There were some dead malls out in Worcester and the like, but I got this place for nothing. The owners haven’t paid taxes in the ten years since the hotel folded, and the only shops that were left open were a couple of Azerbaijani import-export guys, selling junky stuff from India.
“We gutted the whole second floor and turned the ground-floor food-court into a flea-market. There’s an old tunnel connecting this to the T and I managed to get it re-opened, so I expect we’ll get some walk-in.”
Perry marveled. Tjan had a suit’s knack for pulling off the ambitious. Perry had never tried to even rent an apartment in a big city, figuring that any place where land was at a premium was a place where people willing to spend more than him could be found. Give him a ghost-mall that was off the GPS grid anytime.
“Have you managed to fill the flea market?” It had taken Perry a long time to fill his, and still he had a couple of dogs—a tarot reader and a bong stall, a guy selling high-pressure spray-paint cans and a discount porn stall that sold naked shovelware by the petabyte.
“Yeah, I got proteges up and down New England. A lot of them settled here after the crash. One place is as good as another, and the housing was wicked-cheap once the economy disappeared. They upped stakes and came to Boston as soon as I put the word out. I think everyone’s waiting for the next big thing.”
“Perry, New Work is the most important thing that ever happened to some of those people. It was the high-point of their lives. It was the only time they ever felt useful.”
Perry shook his head. “Don’t you think that’s sad?”
Tjan negotiated a tricky tunnel interchange and got the car pointed to Cambridge. “No, Perry, I don’t think it’s sad. Jesus Christ, you can’t believe that. Why do you think I’m helping you? You and me and all the rest of them, we did something important. The world changed. It’s continuing to change. Have you stopped to think that one in five American workers picked up and moved somewhere else to do New Work projects? That’s one of the largest American resettlements since the dustbowl. The average New Work collective shipped more inventions per year than Edison Labs at its peak. In a hundred years, when they remember the centuries that were America’s, they’ll count this one among them, because of what we made.
“So no, Perry, I don’t think it’s sad.”
“I’m sorry. Sorry, OK? I didn’t mean it that way. But it’s tragic, isn’t it, that the dream ended? That they’re all living out there in the boonies, thinking of their glory days?”
“Yes, that is sad. But that’s why I agreed to do the ride—not to freeze the old projects in amber, but to create a new project that we can all participate in again. These people uprooted their lives to follow us, it’s the least we can do to give them something back for that.”
Perry stewed on that the rest of the way to Tjan’s, staring at the sleet, hand resting against the icy window-glass.
Sammy checked in to a Comfort Inn tucked into the thirty-seventh storey of the Bank of America building in downtown Boston. The lobby was empty, the security-guard’s desk unmanned. B of A was in receivership, and not doing so hot at that, as the fact that they had let out their executive floors to a discount business-hotel testified.
The room was fine, though—small and windowless, but fine: power, shower, toilet and bed, all he demanded in a hotel room. He ate the packet of nuts he’d bought at the airport before jumping on the T and then checked his email. He had more of it than he could possibly answer—he didn’t think he’d ever had an empty in-box.
But he picked off anything that looked important, including a note from his ex-, who was now living in the Keys on a squatter beach and wanted to know if he could loan her a hundred bucks. No sense of how she’d pay him back without work. But Michelle was resourceful and probably good for it. He paypalled it to her, feeling like a sucker for hoping that she might repay it in person. He’d been single since she’d left him the year before and he was lonely and hard-up.
He’d landed at two and by the time he was done with all the bullshit, it was after dinner time and he was hungry as hell. Boston was full of taco-wagons and kebab stands that he’d passed on the walk in, and he hustled out onto the street to see if any were still open. He got a huge garlicky kebab and ate it in the lee of a frozen ATM shelter, wolfing it without tasting it.
He went and scouted the location of the new ride. He’d gotten wind of it online—none of his idiot colleagues could be bothered to read the public email lists of the competitors they were supposedly in charge of oppo researching. Shaking loose the budget to get a discount flight to Boston had been a major coup, requiring horse-trading, blackmail, and passive-aggressive gaming of the system. With the ridiculously low per-diem and hotel allowance he’d still go home a couple hundred bucks out-of-pocket. Why did he even do his job? He should just play by the rules and get nothing done.
And get fired. Or passed up for promotion, which was practically the same thing.
The new ride was in an impressive urban mall. He’d spent his college years in Philly and had passed many a happy day in malls like this one, cruising for girls or camping out on a bench with his books and a smoothie. Unlike the crappy roadside malls of Florida, there had been nothing but the best stores in them, the property values too high to make anything but high-margin, high-turnover, high-ticket shops viable.
So it was especially sad to see this mall turned over to the junky stalls and junkier ride—like a fat, washed-up supermodel sentenced to a talk-show appearance for her shoplifting arrests. He approached the doors with trepidation. He was resolved not to buy anything from the market—no busts or contact lenses—and had stuck his wallet in his front pocket on the way over.
The mall was like a sauna. He shucked his jacket and sweater and hung them over one arm. The whole ground floor had been given over to flimsy market-stalls. He skulked among them, trying to simultaneously take note of their contents and avoid their owners’ notice.
He came to realize that he needn’t skulk. It seemed like half of Boston had turned out—not just young people, either. There were plenty of tweedy academics, big working-class Southie boys with thick accents, recent immigrants with Scandie-chic clothes. They chattered and laughed and mixed freely and ate hot food out of huge cauldrons or off of clever electric grills. The smells made his stomach growl, even though he’d just polished off a kebab the size of his head.
The buzz of the crowd reminded him of something, what was it? A premiere, that was it. When they opened a new ride or area at the Park, there was the same sense of thrilling anticipation, of excitement and eagerness. That made it worse—these people had no business being this excited about something so. . lowbrow? Cheap? Whatever it was, it wasn’t worthy.
They were shopping like fiends. A mother with a baby on her hip pushed past him, her stroller piled high with shopping bags screened with giant, pixellated Belgian pastries. She was laughing and the baby on her hip was laughing too.
He headed for the escalator, whose treads had been anodized in bright colors, something he’d never seen before. He let it carry him upstairs, but looked down, and so he was nearly at the top before he realized that the guy from the Florida ride was standing there, handing out fliers and staring at Sammy like he knew him from somewhere.
It was too late to avoid him. Sammy put on his best castmember smile. “Hello there!”
The guy grinned and wiggled his eyebrow. “I know you from somewhere,” he said slowly.
“From Florida,” Sammy said, with an apologetic shrug. “I came up to see the opening.”
“No way!” The guy had a huge smile now, looked like was going to hug him. “You’re shitting me!”
“What can I say? I’m a fan.”
“That’s incredible. Hey, Tjan, come here and meet this guy. What’s your name?”
Sammy tried to think of another name, but drew a blank. “Mickey,” he said at last, kicking himself.
“Tjan, this is Mickey. He’s a regular on the ride in Florida and he’s come up here just to see the opening.”
Tjan had short hair and sallow skin, and dressed like an accountant, but his eyes were bright and sharp as they took Sammy in, looking him up and down quickly. “Well that’s certainly flattering.” He reached into his creased blazer and pulled out a slip of paper. “Have a couple comp tickets then—the least we can do for your loyalty.” The paper was festooned with holograms and smart-cards and raised bumps containing RFIDs, but Sammy knew that you could buy standard anti-counterfeiting stock like it from a mail-order catalog.
“That’s mighty generous of you,” he said, shaking Tjan’s dry, firm hand.
“Our pleasure,” the other guy said. “Better get in line, though, or you’re gonna be waiting a long, long time.” He had a satisfied expression. Sammy saw that what he’d mistaken for a crowd of people was in fact a long, jostling queue stretching all the way around the escalator mezzanine and off one of the mall’s side corridors.
Feeling like he’d averted a disaster, Sammy followed the length of the queue until he came to its end. He popped in a headphone and set up his headline reader to text-to-speech his day’s news. He’d fallen behind, what with the air travel and all. Most of the stuff in his cache came in from his co-workers, and it was the most insipid crap anyway, but he had to listen to it or he’d be odd man out at the watercooler when he got back.
He listened with half an ear and considered the gigantic crowd stretching away as far as the eye could see. Compared with the re-opening of Fantasyland, it was nothing—goths from all over the world had flocked to central Florida for that, Germans and Greeks and Japanese and even some from Mumbai and Russia. They’d filled the park to capacity, thrilled with the delightful perversity of chirpy old Disney World remade as a goth theme park.
But a line this long in Boston, in the dead of winter, for something whose sole attraction was that there was another one like it by a shitty forgotten b-road outside of Miami? Christ on an Omnimover.
The line moved, just a little surge, and there was a cheer all down the mall’s length. People poured past him headed for the line’s tail, vibrating with excitement. But the line didn’t move again for five minutes, then ten. Then another surge, but maybe that was just people crowding together more. Some of the people in line were drinking beers out of paper bags and getting raucous.
“What’s going on?” someone hollered from behind him. The cry was taken up, and then the line shuddered and moved forward some. Then nothing.
Thinking, screw this, Sammy got out of line and walked to the front. Tjan was there, working the velvet rope, letting people through in dribs and drabs. He caught sight of Sammy and gave him a solemn nod. “They’re all taking too long to ride,” he said. “I tell them fifteen minutes max, get back in line if you want to see more, but what can you do?”
Sammy nodded sympathetically. The guy with the funny eyebrow put in an appearance from behind the heavy black curtains. “Send through two more,” he said, and grabbed Sammy, tugging him in.
Behind the curtain, it was dim and spotlit, almost identical to Florida, and half a dozen vehicles waited. Sammy slid into one and let the spiel wash over him.
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AMERICA HELD OUT THE PROMISE OF A NEW WAY OF LIVING AND WORKING. THE NEW WORK BOOM OF THE TEENS WAS A PERIOD OF UNPARALLELED INVENTION, A CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY NOT SEEN SINCE THE TIME OF EDISON—AND UNLIKE EDISON, THE PEOPLE WHO INVENTED THE NEW WORK REVOLUTION WEREN’T RIP-OFF ARTISTS AND FRAUDS.
The layout was slightly different due to the support pillars, but as similar to the Florida version as geography allowed. Robots humped underfoot moving objects, keeping them in sync with the changes in Florida. He’d read on the message boards that Florida would stay open late so that the riders could collaborate with the attendees at the Boston premiere, tweeting back and forth to one another.
The other chairs in the ride crawled around each exhibit, reversing and turning slowly. Riders brought their chairs up alongside one another and conferred in low voices, over the narration from the scenery. He thought he saw a couple making out—a common enough occurrence in dark rides that he’d even exploited a few times when planning out rides that would be likely to attract amorous teenagers. They had a key demographic: too young to leave home, old enough to pay practically anything for a private spot to score some nookie.
The air smelled of three-d printer, the cheap smell of truck-stops where vending machines outputted cheap kids’ toys. Here it wasn’t cheap, though: here it smelled futuristic, like the first time someone had handed him a printed prop for one of his rides—it had been a head for an updated Small World ride. Then it had smelled like something foreign and new and exciting and frightening, like the first days of a different world.
Smelling that again, remembering the crowds outside waiting to get in, Sammy started to get a sick feeling, the kebab rebounding on him. Moving as if in a dream, he reached down into his lap and drew out a small utility knife. There would be infrared cameras, but he knew from experience that they couldn’t see through ride vehicles.
Slowly, he fingered the access panel’s underside until he found a loose corner. He snicked out the knife’s little blade—he’d brought an entire suitcase just so he could have a checked bag to store this in—and tugged at the cables inside. He sawed at them with small movements, feeling the copper wires inside the insulation give way one strand at a time. The chair moved jerkily, then not at all. He snipped a few more wires just to be sure, then tucked them all away.
“Hey!” he called. “My chair’s dead!” He had fetched up in a central pathway where the chairs tried to run cloverleafs around four displays. A couple chairs swerved around him. He thumped the panel dramatically, then stepped out and shook his head. He contrived to step on three robots on the way to another chair.
“Is yours working?” he asked the kid riding in it, all of ten years old and of indefinite gender.
“Yeah,” the kid said. It scooted over. “There’s room for both of us, get in.”
Christ, don’t they have stranger-danger in the north? He climbed in beside the kid and contrived to slide one sly hand under the panel. Teasing out the wires the second time was easier, even one-handed. He sliced through five large bundles this time before the chair ground to a halt, its gyros whining and rocking it from side-to-side.
The kid looked at him and frowned. “These things are shit,” it said with real vehemence, climbing down and kicking one of its tires, and then kicking a couple of the floor-level robots for good measure. They’d landed another great breakdown spot: directly in front of a ranked display of raygun-shaped appliances and objects. He remembered seeing that one in its nascent stage, back in Florida—just a couple of toy guns, which were presently joined by three more, then there were ten, then fifty, then a high wall of them, striking and charming. The chair’s breakdown position neatly blocked the way.
“Guess we’d better walk out,” he said. He stepped on a couple more robots, making oops noises. The kid enthusiastically kicked robots out of its way. Chairs swerved around them as other riders tried to navigate. They were approaching the exit when Sammy spotted a charge-plate for the robots. They were standard issue for robotic vacuum cleaners and other semi-autonomous appliances, and he’d had one in his old apartment. They were supposed to be safe as anything, but a friend’s toddler had crawled over to his and shoved a stack of dimes into its recessed jack and one of them had shorted it out in a smoking, fizzing fireworks display.
“You go on ahead, I’m going to tie my shoes.”
Sammy bent down beside the charge plate, his back to the kid and the imagined cameras that were capturing his every move, and slipped the stack of coins he’d taken from his pocket into the little slot where the robots inserted their charging stamen.
The ensuing shower of sparks was more dramatic than he’d remembered—maybe it was the darkened room. The kid shrieked and ran for the EXIT sign, and he took off too, at a good clip. They’d get the ride up and running soon enough, but maybe not tonight, not if they couldn’t get the two chairs he’d toasted out of the room.
There was the beginnings of chaos at the exit. There was that Tjan character, giving him an intense look. He tried to head for the down escalator, but Tjan cut him off.
“What’s going on in there?”
“Damnedest thing,” he said, trying to keep his face composed. “My chair died. Then another one—a little kid was riding in it. Then there was a lot of electrical sparks, and I walked out. Crazy.”
Tjan cocked his head. “I hope you’re not hurt. We could have a doctor look at you; there are a couple around tonight.”
It had never occurred to Sammy that professional types might turn out for a ride like this, but of course it was obvious. There were probably off-duty cops, local politicians, lawyers, and the like.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about me. Maybe you should send someone in for the people still in there, though?”
“That’s being taken care of. I’m just sorry you came all the way from Florida for this kind of disappointment. That’s just brutal.” Tjan’s measuring stare was even more intense.
“Uh, it’s OK. I had meetings here this week. This was just a cool bonus.”
“Who do you work for, Mickey?”
“Insurance company,” he said.
“That’d be Norwich Union, then, right? They’ve got a headquarters here.”
Sammy knew how this went. Norwich Union didn’t have headquarters here. Or they did. He’d have to outguess Tjan with his answer.
“Are you going to stay open tonight?”
Tjan nodded, though it wasn’t clear whether he was nodding because he was answering in the affirmative or because his suspicions had been confirmed.
“Well then, I should be going.”
Tjan put out a hand. “Oh, please stay. I’m sure we’ll be running soon; you should get a whole ride through.”
“No, really, I have to go.” He shook off the hand and pelted down the escalator and out into the freezing night. His blood sang in his ears. They probably wouldn’t get the ride running that night at all. They probably would send that whole carnival crowd home, disappointed. He’d won some kind of little victory over something.
He’d felt more confident of his victory when he was concerned with the guy with the funny eyebrow—with Perry. He’d seemed little more than a bum, a vag. But this Tjan reminded him of the climbers he’d met through his career at Walt Disney World: keenly observant and fast formulators of strategies. Someone who could add two and two before you’d know that there was such a thing as four.
Sammy walked back to his hotel as quickly as he could, given the icy sidewalks underfoot, and by the time he got to the lobby of the old office tower his face hurt—forehead, cheeks and nose. He’d booked his return flight for a day later, thinking he’d do more reccies of the new site before writing his report and heading home, but there was no way he was facing down that Tjan guy again.
What had prompted him to sabotage the ride? It was something primal, something he hadn’t been in any real control of. He’d been in some kind of fugue-state. But he’d packed the little knife in his suitcase and he’d slipped it into his pocket before leaving the room. So how instinctive could it possibly have been?
He had a vision of the carnival atmosphere in the market stalls outside and knew that even after the ride had broken down, the crowd had lingered, laughing and browsing and enjoying a night’s respite from the world and the cold city. The Whos down in Who-ville had gone on singing even after he’d Grinched their ride.
That was it. The ride didn’t just make use of user-created content—it was user-created content. He could never convince his bosses in Orlando to let him build anything remotely like this, and given enough time, it would surely overtake them. That Tjan—someone like him wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t some serious money opportunity on the line.
He’d seen the future that night and he had no place in it.
It only took a week on the Boston ride before they had their third and fourth nodes. The third was outside of San Francisco, in a gigantic ghost-mall that was already being used as a flea-market. They had two former anchor-stores, one of which was being squatted by artists who needed studio space. The other one made a perfect location for a new ride, and the geeks who planned on building it had cut their teeth building elaborate Burning Man confectioneries together, so Perry gave them his blessing.
The fourth was to open in Raleigh, in the Research Triangle, where the strip malls ran one into the next. The soft-spoken, bitingly ironic southerners who proposed it were the daughters of old IBM blue-tie stalwarts who’d been running a women’s tech collective since they realized they couldn’t afford college and dropped out together. They wanted to see how much admission they could charge if they let it be known that they would plow their profits into scholarship funds for local women.
Perry couldn’t believe that these people wanted to open their own rides, nor that they thought they needed his permission to do so. He was reminded of the glory days of New Work, when every day there were fifty New Work sites with a hundred new gizmos, popping up on the mailing lists, looking for distributors, recruiting, competing, swarming, arguing, forming and reforming. Watching Tjan cut the deals whereby these people were granted permission to open their own editions of the ride felt like that, and weirder still.
“Why do they need our permission? The API’s wide open. They can just implement. Are they sheep or something?”
Tjan gave him an old-fashioned look. “They’re being polite, Perry—they’re giving you face for being the progenitor of the ride.”
“I don’t like it,” Perry said. “I didn’t get anyone’s permission to include their junk in the ride. When we get a printer to clone something that someone brings here, we don’t get their permission. Why the hell is seeking permission considered so polite? Shit, why not send me a letter asking me if I mind receiving an email? Where does it end?”
“They’re trying to be nice to you Perry, that’s all.”
“Well I don’t like it,” Perry said. “How about this: from now on when someone asks for permission we tell them no, we don’t give out or withhold permission for joining the network, but we hope that they’ll join it anyway. Maybe put up a FAQ on the site.”
“You’ll just confuse people.”
“I won’t be confusing them, man! I’ll be educating them!”
“How about if you add a Creative Commons license to it? Some of them are very liberal.”
“I don’t want to license this. You have to own something to license it. A license is a way of saying, ‘Without this license, you’re forbidden to do this.’ You don’t need a license to click a link and load a webpage—no one has to give you permission to do this and no one could take it away from you. Licensing just gives people even worse ideas about ownership and permission and property!”
“It’s your show,” Tjan said.
“No it isn’t! That’s the point!”
“OK, OK, it’s not your show. But we’ll do it your way. You are a lovable, cranky weirdo, you know it?”
They did it Perry’s way. He was scheduled to go back to Florida a few days later, but he changed his ticket to go out to San Francisco and meet with the crew who were implementing the ride there. One of them taught interaction design at SFSU and brought him in to talk to the students. He wasn’t sure what he was going to talk to them about, but when he got there, he found himself telling the story of how he and Lester and Tjan and Suzanne and Kettlebelly had built and lost the New Work movement, without even trying. It was a fun story to tell from start to finish, and they talked through the lunch break and then a group of students took him to a bar in the Mission with a big outdoor patio where he went on telling war stories until the sun had set and he’d drunk so much beer he couldn’t tell stories any longer.
They were all ten or fifteen years younger than him, and the girls were pretty and androgynous and the boys were also pretty and androgynous, not that he really swung that way. Still, it was fine being surrounded by the catcalling, joking, bullshitting crowd of young, pretty, flirty people. They hugged him a lot, and two of the prettier girls (who, he later realized, were a lot more interested in each other than him) took him back to a capsule hotel built across three parking-spots and poured him into bed and tucked him in.
He had a burrito the size of a football for breakfast, stuffed with shredded pig-parts and two kinds of sloppy beans. He washed it down with a quart of a cinnamon/rice drink called horchata that was served ice-cold and did wonders for his hangover.
A couple hours’ noodling on his laptop and a couple bags of Tecate later and he was feeling almost human. Early mariachis strolled the street with electric guitars that controlled little tribes of dancing, singing knee-high animatronics, belting out old Jose Alfredo Jimenez tunes.
It was shaping up to be a good day. His laptop rang and he screwed in his headset and started talking to Tjan.
“Man, this place is excellent,” he said. “I had the best night I’ve had in years last night.”
“Well then you’ll love this: there’s a crew in Madison that want to do the same thing and could use a little guidance. They spoke to me this morning and said they’d be happy to spring for the airfare. Can you make a six o’clock flight at SFO?”
They gave him cheese in Madison and introduced him to the biohackers who were the spiritual progeny of the quirky moment when Madison was one of six places where stem cells could be legally researched. The biohackers gave him the willies. One had gills. One glowed in the dark. One was orange and claimed to photosynthesize.
He got his hosts to bring him to the ratskeller where they sat down to comedy-sized beers and huge, suspicious steaming wursts.
“Where’s your site?”
“We were thinking of building one—there’s a lot of farmland around here.” Either the speaker was sixteen years old or Perry was getting to be such a drunken old fart that everyone seemed sixteen. He wasn’t old enough to shave, anyway. Perry tried to remember his name and couldn’t. Jet-lag or sleepdep or whatever.
“That’s pretty weird. Everywhere else, they’re just moving into spaces that have been left vacant.”
“We haven’t got many of those. All the offices and stuff are being occupied by heavily funded startups.”
“Heavily funded startups? In this day and age?”
“Superbabies,” the kid said with a shrug. “It’s all anyone here thinks about anymore. That and cancer cures. I think superbabies are crazy—imagine being a twenty-year-old superbaby, with two-decade-old technology in your genes. In your germline! Breeding other obsolete superbabies. Crazy. But the Chinese are investing heavily.”
“So no dead malls? Christ, that’s like running out of sand or hydrogen or something. Are we still in America?”
The kid laughed. “The campus is building more student housing because none of us can afford the rents around here anymore. But there’s lots of farmland, like I said. Won’t be a problem to throw up a prefab and put the ride inside it. It’ll be like putting up a haunted cornfield at Halloween. Used to do that every year to raise money for the ACLU, back in Nebraska.”
“Wow.” He wanted to say, They have the ACLU in Nebraska? but he knew that wasn’t fair. The midwesterners he’d met had generally been kick-ass geeks and hackers, so he had no call to turn his nose up at this kid. “So why do you want to do this?”
The kid grinned. “Because there’s got to be a way to do something cool without moving to New York. I like it around here. Don’t want to live in some run-down defaulted shit-built condo where the mice are hunchbacked. Like the wide-open spaces. But I don’t want to be a farmer or an academic or run a student bar. All that stuff is a dead-end, I can see it from here. I mean, who drinks beer anymore? There’s much sweeter highs out there in the real world.”
Perry looked at his beer. It was in a themed stein with Germano-Gothic gingerbread worked into the finish. It felt like it had been printed from some kind of ceramic/epoxy hybrid. You could get them at traveling carny midways, too.
“I like beer,” he said.
“But you’re—” The kid broke off.
“Old,” Perry said. “’Sok. You’re what, 16?”
“21,” the kid said. “I’m a late bloomer. Devoting resources to more important things than puberty.”
Two more kids slid into their booth, a boy and a girl who actually did look 21. “Hey Luke,” the girl said, kissing him on the cheek.
Luke, that was his name. Perry came up with a mnemonic so he wouldn’t forget it again—Nebraska baby-faced farm boy, that was like Luke Skywalker. He pictured the kid swinging a lightsaber and knew he’d keep the name for good now.
“This is Perry Gibbons,” Luke said. “Perry, this is Hilda and Ernie. Guys, Perry’s the guy who built the ride I was telling you about.”
Ernie shook his hand. “Man, that’s the coolest shit I’ve ever seen, wow. What the hell are you doing here? I love that stuff. Wow.”
Hilda flicked his ear. “Stop drooling, fanboy,” she said.
Ernie rubbed his ear. Perry nodded uncertainly.
“Sorry. It’s just—well, I’m a big fan is all.”
“That’s really nice of you,” Perry said. He’d met a couple people in Boston and San Francisco who called themselves his fans, and he hadn’t known what to say to them, either. Back in the New Work days he’d meet reporters who called themselves fans, but that was just blowing smoke. Now he was meeting people who seemed to really mean it. Not many, thank God.
“He’s just like a puppy,” Hilda said, pinching Ernie’s cheek. “All enthusiasm.”
Ernie rubbed his cheek. Luke reached out abruptly and tousled both of their hair. “These two are going to help me build the ride,” he said. “Hilda’s an amazing fundraiser. Last year she ran the fundraising for a whole walk-in clinic.”
“Women’s health clinic or something?” Perry asked. He was starting to sober up a little. Hilda was one of those incredible, pneumatic midwestern girls that he’d seen at five minute intervals since getting off his flight in Madison. He didn’t think he’d ever met one like her.
“No,” Hilda said. “Metabolic health. Lots of people get the fatkins treatment at puberty, either because their fatkins parents talk them into it or because they hate their baby fat.”
Perry shook his head. “Come again?”
“You think eating ten thousand calories a day is easy? It’s hell on your digestive system. Not to mention you spend a fortune on food. A lot of people get to college and just switch to high-calorie powdered supplements because they can’t afford enough real food to stay healthy, so you’ve got all these kids sucking down vanilla slurry all day just to keep from starving. We provide counseling and mitigation therapies to kids who want it.”
“And when they get out of college—do they get the treatment again?”
“You can’t. The mitigation’s permanent. People who take it have to go through the rest of their lives taking supplements and eating sensibly and exercising.”
“Do they get fat?”
She looked away, then down, then back up at him. “Yes, most of them do. How could they not? Everything around them is geared at people who need to eat five times as much as they do. Even the salads all have protein powder mixed in with them. But it is possible to eat right. You’ve never had the treatment, have you?”
Perry shook his head. “Trick metabolism though. I can eat like a hog and not put on an ounce.”
Hilda reached out and squeezed his bicep. “Really—and I suppose that all that lean muscle there is part of your trick metabolism, too?”
She left her hand where it was.
“OK, I do a fair bit of physical labor too. But I’m just saying—if they get fat again after they reverse the treatment—”
“There are worse things than being fat.”
Her hand still hadn’t moved. He looked at Ernie, whom he’d assumed was her boyfriend, to see how he was taking it. Ernie was looking somewhere else, though, across the ratshkeller, at the huge TV that was showing competitive multiplayer gaming, apparently some kind of championships. It was as confusing as a hundred air-hockey games being played on the same board, with thousands of zipping, jumping, firing entities and jump-cuts so fast that Perry couldn’t imagine how you’d make sense of it.
The girl’s hand was still on his arm, and it was warm. His mouth was dry but more beer would be a bad idea. “How about some water?” he said, in a bit of a croak.
Luke jumped up to get some, and a silence fell over the table. “So this clinic, how’d you fundraise for it?”
“Papercraft,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who are into paper-folding and we modded a bunch of patterns. We did really big pieces, too—bed-frames, sofas, kitchen-tables, chairs—”
“Like actual furniture?”
“Like actual furniture,” she said with a solemn nod. “We used huge sheets of paper and treated them with stiffening, waterproofing and fireproofing agents. We did a frat house’s outdoor bar and sauna, with a wind-dynamo—I even made a steam engine.”
“You made a steam engine out of paper?” He was agog.
“You mean to say that you’re surprised by building stuff out of unusual materials?”
Perry laughed. “Point taken.”
“We just got a couple hundred students to do some folding in their spare time and then sold it on. Everyone on campus needs bookshelves, so we started with those—using accordion-folded arched supports under each shelf. We could paint or print designs on them, too, but a lot of people liked them all-white. Then we did chairs, desks, kitchenette sets, placemats—you name it. I called the designs ‘Multiple Origami.’”
Perry sprayed beer out his nose. “That’s awesome!” he said, wiping up the mess with a kleenex that she extracted from a folded paper purse. Looking closely, he realized that the white baseball cap she was wearing was also folded out of paper.
She laughed and rummaged some more in her handbag, coming up with a piece of stiff card. Working quickly and nimbly, she gave it a few deft folds along pre-scored lines, and a moment later she was holding a baseball hat that was the twin of the one she was wearing. She leaned over the table and popped it on his head.
Luke came back with the water and set it down between them, pouring out glasses for everyone.
“Smooth lid,” he said, touching the bill of Perry’s cap.
“Thanks,” Perry said, draining his water and pouring another glass. “Well, you people certainly have some pretty cool stuff going on here.”
“This is a great town,” Luke said expansively, as though he had travelled extensively and settled on Madison, Wisconsin as a truly international hotspot. “We’re going to build a kick-ass ride.”
“You going to make it all out of paper?”
“Some of it, anyway,” Luke said. “Hilda wouldn’t have it any other way, right?”
“This one’s your show, Luke,” she said. “I’m just a fundraiser.”
“Anyone hungry?” Hilda said. “I want to go eat something that doesn’t have unidentified organ-meat mixed in.”
“Go on without me,” Ernie said. “I got money on this game.”
“Homework,” Luke said.
Perry had just eaten, and had planned on spending this night in his room catching up on email. “Yeah, I’m starving,” he said. He felt like a high-school kid, but in a good way.
They went out for Ukrainian food, which Perry had never had before, but the crepes and the blood sausage were tasty enough. Mostly, though, he was paying attention to Hilda, who was running down her war stories from the Multiple Origami fundraiser. There were funny ones, sad ones, scary ones, triumphant ones.
Every one of her stories reminded him of one of his own. She was an organizer and so was he and they’d been through practically the same shit. They drank gallons of coffee afterward, getting chucked out when the restaurant closed and migrating to a cafe on the main drag where they had low tables and sofas, and they never stopped talking.
“You know,” Hilda said, stretching and yawning, “it’s coming up on four AM.”
“No way,” he said, but his watch confirmed it. “Christ.” He tried to think of a casual way of asking her to sleep with him. For all their talking, they’d hardly touched on romance—or maybe there’d been romance in every word.
“I’ll walk you to your hotel,” she said.
“Hey, that’s really nice of you,” he said. His voice sounded fakey and forced in his ears. All of a sudden, he wasn’t tired at all, instead his heart was hammering in his chest and his blood sang in his ears.
There was hardly any talk on the way back to the hotel, just the awareness of her steps and his in time with one another over the cold late-winter streets. No traffic at that hour, and hardly a sound from any of the windows they passed. The town was theirs.
At the door to his hotel—another stack of the ubiquitous capsules, these geared to visiting parents—they stopped. They were looking at one another like a couple of googly-eyed kids at the end of a date in a sitcom.
“Um, what’s your major?” he said.
“Pure math,” she said.
“I think I know what that is,” he said. It was freezing out on the street. “Theory, right?”
“Pure math as opposed to applied math,” she said. “Do you really care about this?”
“Um,” he said. “Well, yes. But not very much.”
“I’ll come into your hotel room, but we’re not having sex, OK?”
“OK,” he said.
There was room enough for the two of them in the capsule, but only just. These were prefabbed in bulk and they came in different sizes—in the Midwest they were large, the ones stacked up in San Francisco parking spots were small. Still, he and Hilda were almost in each other’s laps, and he could smell her, feel wisps of her hair tickling his ear.
“You’re really nice,” he said. Late at night, his ability to be flippant evaporated. He was left with simple truths, simply declared. “I like you a lot.”
“Well then you’ll have to come back to Madison and check in on the ride, won’t you?”
“Um,” he said. He had a planning meeting with Luke and the rest of his gang the next day, then he was supposed to be headed for Omaha, where Tjan had set up another crew for him to speak to. At this rate, he would get back to Florida some time in June.
“Perry, you’re not a career activist, are you?”
“Nope,” he said. “I hadn’t really imagined that there was such a thing.”
“My parents. Both of them. Here’s what being a career activist means: you are on the road most of the time. When you get on the road, you meet people, have intense experiences with them—like going to war or touring with a band. You fall in love a thousand times. And then you leave all those people behind. You get off a plane, turn some strangers into best friends, get on a plane and forget them until you come back into town, and then you take it all back up again.
“If you want to survive this, you’ve got to love that. You’ve got to get off a plane, meet people, fall in love with them, treasure every moment, and know that moments are all you have. Then you get on a plane again and you love them forever. Otherwise, every new meeting is sour because you know how soon it will end. It’s like starting to say your summer-camp goodbyes before you’ve even unpacked your duffel-bag. You’ve got to embrace—or at least forget—that every gig will end in a day or two.”
Perry took a moment to understand this, swallowed a couple times, then nodded. Lots of people had come in and out of his factory and his ride over the years. Lester came and went. Suzanne was gone. Tjan was gone but was back again. Kettlebelly was no longer in his life at all, a ghost of a memory with a great smile and good cologne. Already he was forgetting the faces in Boston, the faces in San Francisco. Hilda would be a memory in a month.
Hilda patted his hand. “I have friends in practically every city in America. My folks campaigned for stem cells up and down every red state in the country. I even met superman before he died. He knew my name. I spent ten years on the road with them, back and forth. The Bush years, a couple years afterward. You can live this way and you can be happy, but you’ve got to have right mind.
“What it means is you’ve got to be able to say things to people you meet, like, ‘You’re really nice,’ and mean it, really mean it. But you’ve also got to be cool with the fact that really nice people will fall out of your life every week, twice a week, and fall back into it or not. I think you’re very nice, too, but we’re not gonna be a couple, ever. Even if we slept together tonight, you’d be gone tomorrow night. What you need to ask yourself is whether you want to have friends in every city who are glad to see you when you get off the plane, or ex-girlfriends in every city who might show up with their new boyfriends, or not at all.”
“Are you telling me this to explain why we’re not going to sleep together? I just figured you were dating that guy, Ernie.”
“Ernie’s my brother,” she said. “And yeah, that’s kind of why I’m telling you this. I’ve never gone on what you might call a date. With my friends, it tends to be more like, you work together, you hang out together, you catch yourself looking into one another’s eyes a couple times, then you do a little circling around and then you end up in your bed or their bed having hard, energetic sex and then you sort out some details and then it lasts as long as it lasts. We’ve done a compressed version of that tonight, and we’re up to the sex, and so I thought we should lay some things on the table, you should forgive the expression.”
Perry thought back to his double-date with Lester. The girl had been pretty and intelligent and would have taken him home if he’d made the least effort. He hadn’t, though. This girl was inappropriate in so many ways: young, rooted to a city thousands of miles from home—why had he brought her back to the hotel?
A thought struck him. “Why do you think I’m going to be getting on and off planes for the rest of my life? I’ve got a home to get to.”
“You haven’t been reading the message boards, have you?”
“Which message boards?”
“For ride-builders. There are projects starting up everywhere. People like what they’ve heard and what they’ve seen, and they remember you from the old days and want to get in on the magic you’re going to bring. A lot of us know each other anyway, from other joint projects. Everyone’s passing the hat to raise your airfare and arguing about who’s sofa you’re going to stay on.”
He’d known that they were there. There were always message-boards. But they were just talk—he never bothered to read them. That was Lester’s job. He wanted to make stuff, not chatter. “Jesus, when the hell was someone going to tell me?”
“Your guy in Boston, we’ve been talking to him. He said not to bug you, that you were busy enough as it is.”
He did, did he? In the old days, Tjan had been in charge of planning and he’d been in charge of the ideas: in charge of what to plan. Had they come full circle without him noticing? If they had, was that so bad?
“Man, I was really looking forward to spending a couple nights in my own bed.”
“Is it much more comfortable than this one?” She thumped the narrow coffin-bed, which was surprisingly comfortable, adjustable, heated, and massaging.
He snorted. “OK, I sleep on a futon on the floor back home, but it’s the principle of the thing. I just miss home, I guess.”
“So go home for a couple days after this stop, or the next one. Charge up your batteries and do your laundry. But I have a feeling that home is going to be your suitcase pretty soon, Perry my dear.” Her voice was thick with sleep, her eyes heavy-lidded and bleary.
“You’re probably right.” He yawned as he spoke. “Hell, I know you’re right. You’re a real smarty.”
“And I’m too tired to go home,” she said, “so I’m a smarty who’s staying with you.”
He was suddenly wide awake, his heart thumping. “Um, OK,” he said, trying to sound casual.
He turned back the sheets, then, standing facing into the cramped corner, took off his jeans and shoes and socks, climbing in between the sheets in his underwear and tee. There were undressing noises—exquisite ones—and then she slithered in behind him, snuggled up against him. With a jolt, he realized that her bare breasts were pressed to his back. Her arm came around him and rested on his stomach, which jumped like a spring uncoiling. He felt certain his erection was emitting a faint cherry-red glow. Her breath was on his neck.
He thought about casually rolling onto his back so that he could kiss her, but remembered her admonition that they would not be having sex. Her fingertips traced small circles on his stomach. Each time they grazed his navel, his stomach did a flip.
He was totally awake now, and when her lips very softly—so softly he barely felt it—brushed against the base of his skull, he let out a soft moan. Her lips returned, and then her teeth, worrying at the tendons at the back of his neck with increasing roughness, an exquisite pain-pleasure that was electric. He was panting, her hand was flat on his stomach now, gripping him. His erection strained toward it.
Her hips ground against him and she moved her mouth toward his ear, nipping at it, the tip of her tongue touching the whorls there. Her hand was on the move now, sliding over his ribs, her fingertips at his nipple, softly and then harder, giving it an abrupt hard pinch that had some fingernail in it, like a bite from little teeth. He yelped and she giggled in his ear, sending shivers up his spine.
He reached back behind him awkwardly and put his hand on her ass, discovering that she was bare there, too. It was wide and hard, foam rubber over steel, and he kneaded it, digging his fingers in. She groaned in his ear and tugged him onto his back.
As soon as his shoulders hit the narrow bed, she was on him, her elbows on his biceps, pinning him down, her breasts in his face, fragrant and soft. Her hot, bare crotch ground against his underwear. He bit at her tits, hard little bites that made her gasp. He found a stiff nipple and sucked it into his mouth, beating at it with his tongue. She pressed her crotch harder against his, hissed something that might have been yesssss.
She straightened up so that she was straddling him and looking imperiously down on him. Her braids swung before her. Her eyes were exultant. Her face was set in an expression of fierce concentration as she rocked on him.
He dug his fingers into her ass again, all the way around, so that they brushed against her labia, her asshole. He pulled at her, dragging her up her body, tugging her vagina toward his mouth. Once she saw what he was after, she knee-walked up the bed in three or four quick steps and then she was on his face. Her smell and her taste and her texture and temperature filled his senses, blotting out the room, blotting out introspection, blotting out everything except for the sweet urgency.
He sucked at her labia before slipping his tongue up her length, letting it tickle her ass, her opening, her clit. In response, she ground against him, planting her opening over his mouth and he tongue-fucked her in hard, fast strokes. She reached back and took hold of his cock, slipping her small, strong hand under the waistband of his boxers and curling it around his rigid shaft, pumping vigorously.
He moaned into her pussy and that set her shuddering. Now he had her clit sucked into his mouth and he was lapping at its engorged length with short strokes. Her thighs were clamped over his ears, but he could still make out her cries, timed with the shuddering of her thighs, the spasmodic grip on his cock.
Abruptly she rolled off of him and the world came back. They hadn’t kissed yet. They hadn’t said a word. She lay beside him, half on top of him, shuddering and making kittenish sounds. He kissed her softly, then more forcefully. She bit at his lips and his tongue, sucking it into her mouth and chewing at it while her fingernails raked his back.
Her breathing became more regular and she tugged at the waistband of his boxers. He got the message and yanked them off, his cock springing free and rocking slightly, twitching in time with his pulse. She smiled a cat-ate-the-canary grin and went to work kissing his neck, his chest—hard bites on his nipples that made him yelp and arch his back—his stomach, his hips, his pubes, his thighs. The teasing was excruciating and exquisite. Her juices dried on his face, the smell caught in his nose, refreshing his eros with every breath.
Her tongue lapped eagerly at his balls like a cat with a saucer of milk. Long, slow strokes, over his sack, over the skin between his balls and his thighs, over his perineum, tickling his ass as he’d tickled hers. She pulled back and spat out a pube and laughed and dove back in, sucking softly at his sack, then, in one swift motion, taking his cock to the hilt.
He shouted and then moaned and her head bobbed furiously along the length of his shaft, her hand squeezing his balls. It took only moments before he dug his hands hard into the mattress and groaned through clenched teeth and fired spasm after spasm down her throat, her nose in his pubes, his cock down her throat to the base. She refused to let him go, swirling her tongue over the head while he was still super-sensitive, making him grunt and twitch and buck involuntarily, all the while her hand caressing his balls, rubbing at his prostate over the spot between his balls and his ass.
Finally she worked her way back up his body licking her lips and kissing as she went.
“Hello,” she said as she buried her face in his throat.
“Wow,” he said.
“So if you’re going to be able to live in the moment and have no regrets, this is a pretty good place to start. It’d be a hell of a shock if we saw each other twice in the next year—are we going to be able to be friends when we do? Will the fact that I fucked your brains out make things awkward?”
“That’s why you jumped me?”
“No, not really. I was horny and you’re hot. But that’s a good post-facto reason.”
“I see. You know, you haven’t actually fucked my brains out,” he said.
“Yet,” she said. She retrieved her backpack from beside the bed, dug around it in, and produced a strip of condoms. “Yet.”
He licked his lips in anticipation, and a moment later she was unrolling the condom down his shaft with her talented mouth. He laughed and then took her by the waist and flipped her onto her back. She grabbed her ankles and pulled her legs wide and he dove between her, dragging the still-sensitive tip of his cock up and down the length of her vulva a couple times before sawing it in and out of her opening, sinking to the hilt.
He wanted to fuck her gently but she groaned urgent demands in his ear to pound her harder, making satisfied sounds each time his balls clapped against her ass.
She pushed him off her and turned over, raising her ass in the air, pulling her labia apart and looking over her shoulder at him. They fucked doggy-style then, until his legs trembled and his knees ached, and then she climbed on him and rocked back and forth, grinding her clit against his pubis, pushing him so deep inside her. He mauled her tits and felt the pressure build in his balls. He pulled her to him, thrust wildly, and she hissed dirty encouragement in his ear, begging him to fill her, ordering him to pound her harder. The stimulation in his brain and between his legs was too much to bear and he came, lifting them both off the bed with his spasms.
“Wow,” he said.
“Yum,” she said.
“Jesus, it’s 8AM,” he said. “I’ve got to meet with Luke in three hours.”
“So let’s take a shower now, and set an alarm for half an hour before he’s due,” she said. “Got anything to eat.”
“That’s what I like about you Hilda,” he said. “Businesslike. Vigorous. Living life to the hilt.”
Her dimples were pretty and luminous in the hints of light emerging from under the blinds. “Feed me,” she said, and nipped at his earlobe.
In the shoebox-sized fridge, he had a cow-shaped brick of Wisconsin cheddar that he’d been given when he stepped off the plane. They broke chunks off it and ate it in bed, then started in on the bag of soy crispies his hosts in San Francisco had given him. They showered slowly together, scrubbing one-another’s backs, set an alarm, and sacked out for just a few hours before the alarm roused them.
They dressed like strangers, not embarrassed, just too groggy to take much notice of one another. Perry’s muscles ached pleasantly, and there was another ache, dull and faint, even more pleasant, in his balls.
Once they were fully clothed, she grabbed him and gave him a long hug, and a warm kiss that started on his throat and moved to his mouth, with just a hint of tongue at the end.
“You’re a good man, Perry Gibbons,” she said. “Thanks for a lovely night. Remember what I told you, though: no regrets, no looking back. Be happy about this—don’t mope, don’t miss me. Go on to your next city and make new friends and have new conversations, and when we see each other again, be my friend without any awkwardness. All right?”
“I get it,” he said. He felt slightly irritated. “Only one thing. We weren’t going to sleep together.”
“You regret it?”
“Of course not,” he said. “But it’s going to make this injunction of yours hard to understand. I’m not good at anonymous one night stands.”
She raised one eyebrow at him. “Earth to Perry: this wasn’t anonymous, and it wasn’t a one-night stand. It was an intimate, loving relationship that happened to be compressed into a single day.”
“Sure. If I’d been with you for a month or two, I would have fallen in love. You’re just my type. So I think of you as someone I love. That’s why I want to make sure you understand what this all means.”
“You’re a very interesting person,” he said.
“I’m smart,” she said, and cuddled him again. “You’re smart. So be smart about this and it’ll be forever sweet.”
She left him off at the spot where he was supposed to meet Luke and the rest of his planning team to go over schematics and theory and practice. All of these discussions could happen online—they did, in fact—but there was something about the face-to-face connection. The meeting ran six hours before he was finally saved by his impending flight to Nebraska.
Sleepdep came down on him like a hammer as he checked in for his flight and began the ritual security-clearing buck-and-wing. He missed a cue or two and ended up getting a “detailed hand search” but even that didn’t wake him up. He fell asleep in the waiting room and in the plane, in the taxi to his hotel.
But when he dropped down onto his hotel bed, he couldn’t sleep. The hotel was the spitting image of the one he’d left in Wisconsin, minus Hilda and the musky smell the two of them had left behind after their roll in the hay.
It had been years since he’d had a regular girlfriend and he’d never missed it. There had been women, high-libido fatkins girls and random strangers, some who came back for a date or two. But no one who’d meant anything or whom he’d wanted to mean anything. The closest he’d come had been—he sat up with a start and realized that the last woman he’d had any strong feelings for had been Suzanne Church.
Kettlewell emerged from New Work rich. He’d taken home large bonuses every year that Kodacell had experienced growth—a better metric than turning an actual ahem profit—and he’d invested in a diverse portfolio that had everything from soybeans to software in it, along with real estate (oops) and fine art. He believed in the New Work, believed in it with every fiber of his being, but an undiverse portfolio was flat-out irresponsible.
The New Work crash had killed the net worth of a lot of irresponsible people.
Living in the Caymans got boring after a year. The kids hated the international school, scuba diving amazed him by going from endlessly, meditatively fascinating to deadly dull in less than a year. He didn’t want to sail. He didn’t want to get drunk. He didn’t want to join the creepy zillionaires on their sex tours of the Caribbean and wouldn’t have even if his wife would have stood for it.
A year after the New Work crash, he filed a 1040 with the IRS and paid them forty million dollars in back taxes and penalties, and repatriated his wealth to an American bank.
Now he lived in a renovated housing project on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, all upscale now with restored, kitschy window-bars and vintage linoleum and stucco ceilings. He had four units over two floors, with cleverly knocked-through walls and a spiral staircase. The kids freaking loved the staircase.
Suzanne Church called him from SFO to let him know that she was on her way in, having cleared security and customs after a scant hour. He found himself unaccountably nervous about her now, and realized with a little giggle that he had something like a crush on her. Nothing serious—nothing his wife needed to worry about—but she was smart and funny and attractive and incisive and fearless, and it was a hell of a combination.
The kids were away at school and his wife was having a couple of days camping with the girls in Yosemite, which facts lent a little charge to Suzanne’s impending visit. He looked up the AirBART schedule and calculated how long he had until she arrived at the 24th Street station, a brisk 20 minute walk from his place.
Minutes, just minutes. He checked the guest-room and then did a quick mirror check. His months in the Caymans had given him a deep tan that he’d kept up despite San Francisco’s grey skies. He still looked like a surfer, albeit with just a little daddy-paunch—he’d gained more weight through his wife’s pregnancies than she had and only hard, aneurysm-inducing cycling over and around Potrero Hill had knocked it off again. His jeans’ neat rows of pockets and Mobius seams were a little outdated, but they looked good on him, as did his Hawai’ian print shirt with its machine-screw motif.
Finally he plopped down to read a book and waited for Suzanne, and managed to get through a whole page in the intervening ten minutes.
“Kettlebelly!” she hollered as she came through the door. She took him in a hug that smelled of stale airplane and restless sleep and gave him a thorough squeezing.
She held him at arm’s length and they sized each other up. She’d been a well-preserved mid-forties when he’d seen her last, buttoned-down in a California-yoga-addict way. Now she was years older, and her time in Russia had given her a forest of smile-lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes. She had a sad, wise turn to her face that he’d never seen there before, like a painted Pieta. Her hands had gone a little wrinkly, her knuckles more prominent, but her fingernails were beautifully manicured and her clothes were stylish, foreign, exotic and European.
She laughed huskily and said, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Ouch,” he said. “I’m older and wiser, I’ll have you know.”
“It doesn’t show,” she said. “I’m older, but no wiser.”
He took her hand and looked at the simple platinum band on her finger. “But you’re married now—nothing wises you up faster in my experience.”
She looked at her hand. “Oh, that. No. That’s just to keep the wolves at bay. Married women aren’t the same kinds of targets that single ones are. Give me water, and then a beer, please.”
Glad to have something to do, he busied himself in the kitchen while she prowled the place. “I remember when these places were bombed-out, real ghettos.”
“What did you mean about being a target?”
“St Pete’s, you know. Lawless state. Everyone’s on the make. I had a bodyguard most of the time, but if I wanted to go to a restaurant, I didn’t want to have to fend off the dating-service mafiyeh who wanted to offer me the deal of a lifetime on a green-card marriage.”
“It’s another world, Landon. You know what the big panic there is this week? A cult of ecstatic evangelical Christians who ’hypnotize’ women in the shopping malls and steal their babies to raise as soldiers to the Lord. God knows how much of it is true. These guys don’t bathe, and dress in heavy coats with big beards all year round. I mean, freaky, really freaky.”
“They hypnotize women?”
“Weird, yeah? And the driving! Anyone over the age of fifty who knows how to drive got there by being an apparat in the Soviet days, which means that they learned to drive when the roads were empty. They don’t signal, they straddle lanes, they can’t park—I mean, they really can’t park. And drunk! Everyone, all the time! You’ve never seen the like. Imagine a frat party the next day, with a lot of innocent bystanders, hookers, muggers and pickpockets.”
Landon looked at her. She was animated and vivid, thin—age had brought out her cheekbones and her eyes. Had she had a chin-tuck? It was common enough—all the medical tourists loved Russia. Maybe she was just well-preserved.
She made a show of sniffing herself. “Phew! I need a shower! Can I borrow your facilities?”
“Sure,” he said. “I put clean towels out in the kids’ bathroom—upstairs and second on the right.”
She came down with her fine hair slicked back over her ears, her face scrubbed and shining. “I’m a new woman,” she said. “Let’s go somewhere and eat something, OK?”
He took her for pupusas at a Salvadoran place on Goat Hill. They slogged up and down the hills and valleys, taking the steps cut into the steep sides, walking past the Painted Ladies—grand, gaudy Victorian wood-frames—and the wobbly, heavy canvas bubble-houses that had sprung up where the big quake and landslides had washed away parts of the hills.
“I’d forgotten that they had hills like that,” she said, greedily guzzling an horchata. Her face was streaked with sweat and flushed—it made her look prettier, younger.
“My son and I walk them every day.”
“You drag a little kid up and down that every day? Christ, that’s child abuse!”
“Well, he poops out after a couple of peaks and I end up carrying him.”
“You carry him? You must be some kind of superman.” She gave his bicep a squeeze, then his thigh, then slapped his butt. “A fine specimen. Your wife’s a lucky woman.”
He grinned. Having his wife in the conversation made him feel less at risk. That’s right, I’m married and we both know it. This is just fun flirting. Nothing more.
They bit into their pupusas—stuffed cornmeal dumplings filled with grilled pork and topped with shredded cabbage and hot sauce—and grunted and ate and ordered more.
“What are these called again?”
“Pupusas, from El Salvador.”
“Humph. In my day, we ate Mexican burritos the size of a football, and we were grateful.”
“No one eats burritos anymore,” he said, then covered his mouth, aware of how pretentious that sounded.
“Dahling,” she said, “burritos are so 2005. You must try a pupusa—it’s what all the most charming Central American peasants are eating now.”
They both laughed and stuffed their faces more. “Well, it was either here or one of the fatkins places with the triple-decker stuffed pizzas, and I figured—”
“They really do that?”
“The fatkins? Yeah—anything to get that magical 10,000 calories any day. It must be the same in Russia, right? I mean, they invented it.”
“Maybe for fifteen minutes. But most of them don’t bother—they get a little metabolic tweak, not a wide-open throttle like that. Christ, what it must do to your digestive system to process 10,000 calories a day!”
“Chacun a son gout,” he said, essaying a Gallic shrug.
She laughed again and they ate some more. “I’m starting to feel human at last.”
“It’s still mid-afternoon, but my circadian thinks it’s 2AM. I need to do something to stay awake or I’ll be up at four tomorrow morning.”
“I have some modafinil,” he said.
“Swore ’em off. Let’s go for a walk.”
They did a little more hill-climbing and then headed into the Mission and window-shopped the North African tchotchke emporia that were crowding out the Mexican rodeo shops and hairdressers. The skin drums and rattles were laser-etched with intricate designs—Coca Cola logos, the UN Access to Essential Medicines Charter, Disney characters. It put them both in mind of the old days of the New Work, and the subject came up again, hesitant at first and then a full-bore reminisce.
Suzanne told him stories of the things that Perry and Lester had done that she’d never dared report on, the ways they’d skirted the law and his orders. He told her a few stories of his own, and they rocked with laughter in the street, staggering like drunks, pounding each other on the backs, gripping their knees and stomachs and doubling over to the curious glances of the passers-by.
It was fine, that day, Landon thought. Some kind of great sorrow that he’d forgotten he’d carried lifted from him and his chest and shoulders expanded and he breathed easy. What was the sorrow? The death of the New Work. The death of the dot-coms. The death of everything he’d considered important and worthy, its fading into tawdry, cheap nostalgia.
They were sitting in the grass in Dolores Park now, watching the dogs and their people romp among the robot pooper-scoopers. He had his arm around her shoulders, like war-buddies on a bender (he told himself) and not like a middle-aged man flirting with a woman he hadn’t seen in years.
And then they were lying down, the ache of laughter in their bellies, the sun on their faces, the barks and happy shouts around them. Their hands twined together (but that was friendly too, Arab men held hands walking down the street as a way of showing friendship).
Now their talk had banked down to coals, throwing off an occasional spark when one or the other would remember some funny anecdote and grunt out a word or two that would set them both to gingerly chuckling. But their hands were tied and their breathing was in sync, and their flanks were touching and it wasn’t just friendly.
Abruptly, she shook her hand free and rolled on her side. “Listen, married man, I think that’s enough of that.”
He felt his face go red. His ears rang. “Suzanne—what—” He was sputtering.
“No harm no foul, but let’s keep it friendly, all right.”
The spell was broken, and the sorrow came back. He looked for the right thing to say. “God I miss it,” he said. “Oh, Suzanne, God, I miss it so much, every day.”
Her face fell, too. “Yeah.” She looked away. “I really thought we were changing the world.”
“We were,” he said. “We did.”
“Yeah,” she said again. “But it didn’t matter in the end, did it? Now we’re older and our work is forgotten and it’s all come to nothing. Petersburg is nice, but who gives a shit? Is that what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, hang around Petersburg blogging about the mafiyeh and medical tourism? Just shoot me now.”
“I miss the people. I’d meet ten amazing creative geniuses every day—at least! Then I’d give them money and they’d make amazing stuff happen with it. The closest I come to that now is my kids, watching them learn and build stuff, which is really great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing like the old days.”
“I miss Lester. And Perry. Tjan. The whole gang of them, really.” She propped herself up on one elbow and then shocked him by kissing him hard on the cheek. “Thanks, Kettlebelly. Thank you so much for putting me in the middle of all that. You changed my life, that’s for sure.”
He felt the imprint of her lips glowing on his cheek and grinned. “OK, here’s an idea: let’s go buy a couple bottles of wine, sit on my patio, get a glow on, and then call Perry and see what he’s up to.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” she said. “That’s a very good one.”
A few hours later, they sat on the horsehair club-sofa in Kettlewell’s living room and hit a number he’d never taken out of his speed-dial. “Hi, this is Perry. Leave a message.”
“Perry!” they chorused. They looked at each other, at a loss for what to say next, then dissolved in peals of laughter.
“Perry, it’s Suzanne and Kettlebelly. What the hell are you up to? Call us!”
They looked at the phone with renewed hilarity and laughed some more. But by the time the sun was setting over Potrero Hill and Suzanne’s jet-lag was beating her up again, they’d both descended into their own personal funks. Suzanne went up to the guest room and put herself to bed, not bothering to brush her teeth or even change into her nightie.
Perry touched down in Miami in a near-coma, his eyes gummed shut by several days’ worth of hangovers chased by drink. Sleep deprivation made him uncoordinated, so he tripped twice deplaning, and his voice was a barely audible rasp, his throat sore with a cold he’d picked up in Texas or maybe it was Oklahoma.
Lester was waiting beyond the luggage carousels, grinning like a holy fool, tall and broad-shouldered and tanned, dressed in fatkins pimped-out finery, all tight stretch-fabrics and glitter.
“Oh man, you look like shit,” he said, breaking off from the fatkins girl he’d been chatting up. Perry noticed that he was holding his phone, a sure sign that he’d gotten her number.
“Ten,” Perry said, grinning through the snotty rheum of his cold. “Ten rides.”
“Ten rides?” Lester said.
“Ten. San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Madison, Bellingham, Chapel Hill and—” He faltered. “And—Shit. I forget. It’s all written down.”
Lester took his bag from him and set it down, then crushed him in an enormous, muscular hug that whiffed slightly of the ketosis fumes that all the fatkins exuded.
“You did good, cowboy,” he said. “Let’s mosey back to the ranch, feed you and put you to bed, s’awright?”
“Can I sleep in?”
Lester laughed and slipped one of Perry’s arms over his shoulders and picked up his suitcase and walked them back through the parking lot to his latest hotrod.
Perry breathed in the hot, wet air as they went, feeling it open his chest and nasal passages. His eyes were at half mast, but the sight of the sickly roadside palms, the wandering vendors on the traffic islands with their net bags full of ipods and vpods—he was home, and his body knew it.
Lester cooked him a huge plate of scrambled eggs with corned beef, pastrami, salami and cheese, with a mountain of sauerkraut on top. “There you go, fatten you up. You’re all skinny and haggard, buddy.” Lester was an expert at throwing together high-calorie meals on short order.
Perry stuffed away as much as he could, then collapsed on his old bed with his old sheets and his old pillows, and in seconds he was sleeping the best sleep he’d had in months.
When he woke the next day, his cold had turned into a horrible, wet, crusty thing that practically had his face glued to his pillow. Lester came in, took a good look at him, and came back with a quart of fresh orange juice, a pot of tea, and a stack of dry toast, along with a pack of cold pills.
“Take all of this and then come down to the ride when you’re ready. I’ll hold down the fort for another couple days if that’s what it takes.”
Perry spent the day in his bathrobe, shuttling between the living room and the sun-chairs on the patio, letting the heat bake some of the snot out of his head. Lester’s kindness and his cold made him nostalgic for his youth, when his father doted on his illnesses.
Perry’s father was a little man. Perry—no giant himself—was taller than the old man by the time he turned 13. His father had always reminded him of some clever furry animal, a raccoon or badger. He had tiny hands and his movements were small and precise and careful.
They were mostly cordial and friendly, but distant. His father worked as a CAD/CAM manager in a machine shop, though he’d started out his career as a plain old machinist. Of all the machinists he’d started with at the shop, only he had weathered the transition to the new computerized devices. The others had all lost their jobs or taken early retirement or just quit, but his father had taken to CAD/CAM with total abandon, losing himself in the screens and staggering home bleary after ten or fifteen hours in front of the screen.
But that all changed when Perry took ill. Perry’s father loved to play nurse. He’d book off from work and stay home, ferrying up gallons of tea and beef broth, flat ginger-ale and dry toast, cold tablets and cough syrup. He’d open the windows when it was warm and then run around the house shutting them at the first sign of a cool breeze.
Best of all was what his father would do when Perry got restless: he and Perry would go down to the living-room, where the upright piano stood. It had been Perry’s grandfather’s, and the old man—who’d died before Perry was born—had been a jazz pianist who’d played sessions with everyone from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington.
“You ready, P?” his father would ask.
Perry always nodded, watching his father sit down at the bench and try a few notes.
Then his father would play, tinkling and then pounding, running up and down the keyboard in an improvised jazz recital that could go for hours, sometimes only ending once Perry’s mom came home from work at the framing shop.
Nothing in Perry’s life since had the power to capture him the way his father’s music did. His fingers danced, literally danced on the keys, walking up and down them like a pair of high-kicking legs, making little comedy movements. The little stubby fingers with their tufts of hair on the knuckles, like goat’s legs, nimbly prancing and turning.
And then there was the music. Perry sometimes played with the piano and he’d figured out that if you hit every other key with three fingers, you got a chord. But Perry’s dad almost never made chords: he made anti-chords, sounds that involved those mysterious black keys and clashed in a way that was precisely not a chord, that jangled and jarred.
The anti-chords made up anti-tunes. Somewhere in the music there’d be one or more melodies, often the stuff that Perry listened to in his room, but sometimes old jazz and blues standards.
The music would settle into long runs of improvisational noise that wasn’t quite noise. That was the best stuff, because Perry could never tell if there was a melody in there. Sometimes he’d be sure that he had the know of it, could tell what was coming next, a segue into “Here Comes the Sun” or “Let the Good Times Roll” or “Merrily We Roll Along,” but then his father would get to that spot and he’d move into something else, some other latent pattern that was unmistakable in hindsight.
There was a joke his dad liked, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” This was funny in just that way: you expected one thing, you got something else, and when your expectations fell apart like that, it was pure hilarity. You wanted to clutch your sides and roll on the floor sometimes, it was so funny.
His dad usually closed his eyes while he played, squeezing them shut, letting his mouth hang open slightly. Sometimes he grunted or scatted along with his playing but more often he grunted out something that was kind of the opposite of what he was playing, just like sometimes the melody and rhythms he played on the piano were sometimes the opposite of the song he was playing, something that was exactly and perfectly opposite, so you couldn’t hear it without hearing the thing it was the opposite of.
The game would end when his dad began to improvise on parts of the piano besides the keys, knocking on it, reaching in to pluck its strings like a harp, rattling Perry’s teacup on its saucer just so.
Nothing made him feel better faster. It was a tonic, a fine one, better than pills and tea and toast, daytime TV and flat ginger-ale.
As Perry got older, he and the old man had their share of fights over the normal things: girls, partying, school… But every time Perry took ill, he was transported back to his boyhood and those amazing piano recitals, his father’s stubby fingers doing their comic high-kicks and pratfalls on the keys, the grunting anti-song in the back of his throat, those crazy finales with teacups and piano strings.
Now he stared morosely at the empty swimming pool six stories below his balcony, filled with blowing garbage, leaves, and a huge wasps’ nest. His father’s music was in his ears, distantly now and fading with his cold. He should call the old man, back home in Westchester County, retired now. They talked only rarely these days, three or four times a year on birthdays and anniversaries. No fight had started their silence, only busy lives grown apart.
He should call the old man, but instead he got dressed and went for a jog around the block, trying to get the wet sick wheeze out of his whistling breath, stopping a couple times to blow his nose. The sun was like a blowtorch on his hair, which had grown out of his normal duckling fuzz into something much shaggier. His head baked, the cold baked with it, and by the time he got home and chugged a quart of orange juice, he was feeling fully human again and ready for a shower, street clothes and a turn at the old ticket-window at work.
The queue snaked all the way through the market and out to the street, where the line had a casual, party kind of atmosphere. The market kids were doing a brisk business in popsicles, homemade colas, and clever origami stools and sun-beds made from recycled cardboard. Some of the kids recognized him and waved, then returned to their hustle.
He followed the queue through the stalls. The vendors were happier than the kids, if that was possible, selling stuff as fast as they could set it out. The queue had every conceivable kind of person in it: old and young, hipsters and conservative rawboned southerners, Latina moms with their babies, stone-faced urban homeboys, crackers, and Miami Beach queers in pastel shorts. There were old Jewish couples and smartly turned out European tourists with their funny two-tone shag cuts and the filter masks that they smoked around. There was a no-fooling Korean tour group, of the sort he’d seen now and again in Disney World, led by a smart lady in a sweltering little suit, holding an umbrella over her head.
“Lester, what the fuck?” he said, grinning and laughing as he clapped Lester on the shoulder, taking a young mall-goth’s five bucks out of a hand whose fingernails were painted with chipped black polish. “What the hell is going on here?”
Lester laughed. “I was saving this for a surprise, buddy. Record crowds—growing every day. There’s a line up in the morning no matter how early I open and no matter what time I close, I turn people away.”
“How’d they all find out about it?”
Lester shrugged. “Word of mouth,” he said. “Best advertising you can have. Shit, Perry, you just got back from ten cities where they want to clone this thing—how did they find out about it?”
Perry shook his head and marveled at the queue some more. The Korean tour group was coming up on them, and Perry nudged Lester aside and got out his ticket-roll, the familiar movements lovely after all that time on the road.
The tour guide put a stack of twenties down on the counter. “I got fifty of ’em,” she said. “That’s two hundred and fifty bucks.” She had an American accent, somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Perry had been expecting a Korean accent, broken English.
Perry riffled the bills. “I’ll take your word for it.”
She winked at him. “They got off the plane and they were all like, ’Screw Disney, we have one of those in Seoul, what’s new, what’s American?’ So I took them here. You guys totally rock.”
He could have kissed her. His heart took wing. “In you go,” he said. “Lester will get you the extra ride vehicles.”
“They’re all in there already,” he said. “I’ve been running the whole fleet for two weeks and I’ve got ten more on order.”
Perry whistled. “You shoulda said,” he said, then turned back to the tour guide. “It might be a little bit of a wait.”
“Ten, fifteen minutes,” Lester said.
“No problem,” she said. “They’ll wait till kingdom come, provided there’s good shopping to be had.” Indeed the tour group was at the center of a pack of vendor-kids, hawking busts and tattoos, contacts and action-figures, kitchenware and cigarette lighters.
Once she was gone, Lester gave his shoulder another squeeze. “I hired two more kids to bring the ride cars back around to the entrance.” When Perry had left, that had been a once-daily chore, something you did before shutting down for the night.
“Holy crap,” Perry said, watching the tour group edge toward the entrance, slip inside in ones and twos.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Lester said. “And wait till you see the ride!”
Perry didn’t get a chance to ride until much later that day, once the sun had set and the last market-stall had been shut and the last rider had been chased home, when he and Lester slugged back bottles of flat distilled water from their humidity-still and sat on the ticket counter to get the weight off their tired feet.
“Now we ride,” Lester said. “You’re going to love this.”
The first thing he noticed was that the ride had become a lot less open. When he’d left, there’d been the sense that you were in a giant room—all that dead Wal-Mart—with little exhibits spread around it, like the trade-floor at a monster-car show. But now the exhibits had been arranged out of one another’s sight-lines, and some of the taller pieces had been upended to form baffles. It was much more like a carny haunted house trade-show floor now.
The car circled slowly in the first “room,” which had accumulated a lot of junk that wasn’t mad inventions from the heyday of New Work. There was a chipped doll-cradle, and a small collection of girls’ dolls, a purse spilled on the floor with photos of young girls clowning at a birthday party. He reached for the joystick with irritation and slammed it toward minus one—what the hell was this crap?
Next was a room full of boys’ tanks and cars and trading cards, some in careful packages and frames, some lovingly scuffed and beaten up. They were from all eras, and he recognized some of his beloved toys from his own boyhood among the mix. The items were arranged in concentric rings—one of the robots’ default patterns for displaying materials—around a writhing tower of juddering, shuddering domestic robots that had piled one atop the other. The vogue for these had been mercifully brief, but it had been intense, and for Perry, the juxtaposition of the cars and the cards, the tanks and the robots made something catch in his throat. There was a statement here about the drive to automate household chores and the simple pleasure of rolling an imaginary tank over the imaginary armies of your imaginary enemies. So, too, something about the collecting urge, the need to get every card in a set, and then to get each in perfect condition, and then to arrange them in perfect order, and then to forget them altogether.
His hand had been jerking the joystick to plus one all this time and now he became consciously aware of this.
The next room had many of the old inventions he remembered, but they were arranged not on gleaming silver tables, but were mixed in with heaps of clothing, mountains of the brightly colored ubiquitous t-shirts that had gone hand in hand with every New Work invention and crew. Mixed in among them were some vintage tees from the dotcom era, and perched on top of the mountain, staring glassily at him, was a little girl-doll that looked familiar; he was almost certain that he’d seen her in the first doll room.
The next room was built out of pieces of the old “kitchen” display, but there was disarray now, dishes in the sink and a plate on the counter with a cigarette butted out in the middle of it. Another plate lay in three pieces on the linoleum before it.
The next room was carpeted with flattened soda tins that crunched under the chair’s wheels. In the center of them, a neat workbench with ranked tools.
The ride went on and on, each room utterly different from how he’d left it, but somehow familiar too. The ride he’d left had celebrated the New Work and the people who’d made it happen, and so did this ride, but this ride was less linear, less about display more—
“It’s a story,” he said when he got off.
“I think so too,” Lester said. “It’s been getting more and more story-like. The way that doll keeps reappearing. I think that someone had like ten of them and just tossed them out at regular intervals and then the plus-oneing snuck one into every scene.”
“It’s got scenes! That’s what they are, scenes. It’s like a Disney ride, one of those dark rides in Fantasyland.”
“Except those suck and our ride rocks. It’s more like Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“Have it your way. Whatever, how freaking weird is that?”
“Not so weird. People see stories like they see faces in clouds. Once we gave them the ability to subtract the stuff that felt wrong and reinforce the stuff that felt right, it was only natural that they’d anthropomorphize the world into a story.”
Perry shook his head. “You think?”
“We have this guy, a cultural studies prof, who comes practically every day. He’s been telling me all about it. Stories are how we understand the world, and technology is how we choose our stories.
“Check out the Greeks. All those Greek plays, they end with the deus ex machina—the playwright gets tired of writing, so he trots a god out on stage to simply point a finger at the players and make it all better. You can’t do that in a story today, but back then, they didn’t have the tools to help them observe and record the world, so as far as they could tell, that’s how stuff worked!
“Today we understand a little more about the world, so our stories are about people figuring out what’s causing their troubles and changing stuff so that those causes go away. Causal stories for a causal universe. Thinking about the world in terms of causes and effects makes you seek out causes and effects—even where there are none. Watch how gamblers play, that weird cargo-cult feeling that the roulette wheel came up black a third time in a row so the next spin will make it red. It’s not superstition, it’s kind of the opposite—it’s causality run amok.”
“So this is the story that has emerged from our collective unconscious?”
Lester laughed. “That’s a little pretentious, I think. It’s more like those Japanese crabs.”
“Which Japanese crabs?”
“Weren’t you there when Tjan was talking about this? Or was that in Russia? Anyway. There are these crabs in Japan, and if they have anything that looks like a face on the backs of their shells, the fishermen throw them back because it’s bad luck to eat a crab with a face on its shell. So the crabs with face-like shells have more babies. Which means that gradually, the crabs’ shells get more face-like, since all non-face-like shells are eliminated from the gene-pool. This leads the fishermen to raise the bar on their selection criteria, so they will eat crabs with shells that are a little face-like, but not very face-like. So all the slightly face-like crab-shells are eliminated, leaving behind moderately face-like shells. This gets repeated over several generations, and now you’ve got these crabs that have vivid faces on their shells.
“We let our riders eliminate all the non-story-like elements from the ride, and so what’s left behind is more and more story-like.”
“But the plus-one/minus-one lever is too crude for this, right? We should give them a pointer or something so they can specify individual elements they don’t like.”
“You want to encourage this?”
Lester nodded vigorously. “Of course I do. I just thought that you’d be a little less enthusiastic about it, you know, because so much of the New Work stuff is being de-emphasized.”
“You kidding? This is what the New Work was all about: group creation! I couldn’t be happier about it. Seriously—this is so much cooler than anything that I could have built. And now with the network coming online soon—wow. Imagine it. It’s going to be so fucking weird, bro.”
“Amen,” Lester said. He looked at his watch and yelped. “Shit, late for a date! Can you get yourself home?”
“Sure,” Perry said. “Brought my wheels. See you later—have a good one.”
“She’s amazing,” Lester said. “Used to weigh 900 pounds and was shut in for ten years. Man has she got an imagination on her. She can do this thing—”
Perry put his hands over his ears. “La la la I’m not listening to you. TMI, Lester. Seriously. Way way TMI.”
Lester shook his head. “You are such a prude, dude.”
Perry thought about Hilda for a fleeting moment, and then grinned. “That’s me, a total puritan. Go. Be safe.”
“Safe, sound, and slippery,” Lester said, and got in his car.
Perry looked around at the shuttered market, rooftops glinting in the rosy tropical sunset. Man he’d missed those sunsets. He snorted up damp lungsful of the tropical air and smelled dinners cooking at the shantytown across the street. It was different and bigger and more elaborate every time he visited it, which was always less often than he wished.
There was a good barbecue place there, Dirty Max’s, just a hole in the wall with a pit out back and the friendliest people. There was always a mob scene around there, locals greasy from the ribs in their hands, a big bucket overflowing with discarded bones.
Wandering towards it, he was amazed by how much bigger it had grown since his last visit. Most buildings had had two stories, though a few had three. Now almost all had four, leaning drunkenly toward each other across the streets. Power cables, network cables and clotheslines gave the overhead spaces the look of a carelessly spun spider’s web. The new stories were most remarkable because of what Francis had explained to him about the way that additional stories got added: most people rented out or sold the right to build on top of their buildings, and then the new upstairs neighbors in turn sold their rights on. Sometimes you’d get a third-storey dweller who’d want to build atop two adjacent buildings to make an extra-wide apartment for a big family, and that required negotiating with all of the “owners” of each floor of both buildings.
Just looking at it made his head hurt with all the tangled property and ownership relationships embodied in the high spaces. He heard the easy chatter out the open windows and music and crying babies. Kids ran through the streets, laughing and chasing each other or bouncing balls or playing some kind of networked RPG with their phones that had them peeking around corners, seeing another player and shrieking and running off.
The grill-woman at the barbecue joint greeted him by name and the men and women around it made space for him. It was friendly and companionable, and after a moment Francis wandered up with a couple of his proteges. They carried boxes of beer.
“Hey hey,” Francis said. “Home again, huh?”
“Home again,” Perry said. He wiped rib-sauce off his fingers and shook Francis’s hand warmly. “God, I’ve missed this place.”
“We missed having you,” Francis said. “Big crowds across the way, too. Seems like you hit on something.”
Perry shook his head and smiled and ate his ribs. “What’s the story around here?”
“Lots and lots,” Francis said. “There’s a whole net-community thing happening. Lots of traffic on the AARP message-boards from other people setting these up around the country.”
“So you’ve hit on something, too.”
“Naw. When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. When it’s squatter time, you get squats. You know they want to open a 7-Eleven here?”
“No!” Perry laughed and choked on ribs and then guzzled some beer to wash it all down.
Francis put a wrinkled hand over his heart. He still wore his wedding band, Perry saw, despite his wife’s being gone for decades. “I swear it. Just there.” He pointed to one of the busier corners.
“We told them to fuck off,” Francis said. “We’ve got lots of community-owned businesses around here that do everything a 7-Eleven could do for us, without taking the wealth out of our community and sending it to some corporate jack-off. Some soreheads wanted to see how much money we could get out of them, but I just kept telling them—whatever 7-Eleven gives us, it’ll only be because they think they can get more out of us. They saw reason. Besides, I’m in charge—I always win my arguments.”
“You are the most benevolent of dictators,” Perry said. He began to work on another beer. Beer tasted better outside in the heat and the barbecue smoke.
“I’m glad someone thinks so,” Francis said.
“The 7-Eleven thing left a lot of people pissed at me. There’s plenty around here that don’t remember the way it started off. To them, I’m just some alter kocker who’s keeping them down.”
“Is it serious?” Perry knew that there was the potential for serious, major lawlessness from his little settlement. It wasn’t a failing condo complex rented out to Filipina domestics and weird entrepreneurs like him. It was a place where the cops would love an excuse to come in with riot batons (his funny eyebrow twitched) and gas, the kind of place where there almost certainly were a few very bad people living their lives. Miami had bad people, too, but the bad people in Miami weren’t his problem.
And the bad people and the potential chaos were what he loved about the place, too. He’d grown up in the kind of place where everything was predictable and safe and he’d hated every minute of it. The glorious chaos around him was just as he liked it. The wood-smoke curled up his nose, fragrant and all-consuming.
“I don’t know anymore. I thought I’d retire and settle down and take up painting. Now I’m basically a mob boss. Not the bad kind, but still. It’s a lot of work.”
“Pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Perry saw the shocked look on Francis’s face and added hastily, “Sorry—not calling you a pimp. It’s a song lyric is all.”
“We got pimps here now. Whores, too. You name it, we got it. It’s still a good place to live—better than Miami, if you ask me—but it could go real animal. Bad, bad animal.”
Hard to believe, standing there in the wood-smoke, licking his fingers, drinking his beer. His cold seemed to have been baked out by the steamy swampy heat.
“Well, Francis, if anyone knows how to keep peace, it’s you.”
“Social workers come around, say the same thing. But there’s people around here with little kids, they worry that the social workers could force them out, take away their children.”
It wasn’t like Francis to complain like this, it wasn’t in his nature, but here it was. The strain of running things was showing on him. Perry wondered if his own strain was showing that way. Did he complain more these days? Maybe he did.
An uncomfortable silence descended upon them. Perry drank his beer, morosely. He thought of how ridiculous it was to be morose about the possibility that he was being morose, but there you had it.
Finally his phone rang and saved him from further conversation. He looked at the display and shook his head. It was Kettlewell again. That first voicemail had made him laugh aloud, but when they hadn’t called back for a couple days, he’d figured that they had just had a little too much wine and placed the call.
Now they were calling back, and it was still pretty early on the West Coast. Too early for them to have had too much wine, unless they’d really changed.
“Perry Perry Perry!” It was Kettlebelly. He sounded like he might be drunk, or merely punch-drunk with excitement. Perry remembered that he got that way sometimes.
“Kettlewell, how are you doing?”
“I’m here too, Perry. I cashed in my return ticket.”
“Yeah,” she said. She too sounded punchy, like they’d been having a fit of the giggles just before calling. “Kettlewell’s family have taken me in, wayward wanderer that I am.”
“You two sound pretty, um, happy.”
“We’ve been having an amazing time,” Kettlewell said. His speakerphone made him sound like he was at the bottom of a well. “Mostly reminiscing about you guys. What the hell are you up to? We tried to follow it on the net, but it’s all jumbled. What’s this about a story?”
“I keep reading about this ride of yours and its story. I couldn’t make any sense of it.”
“I haven’t read any of this, but Lester and I were talking about some stuff to do with stories tonight. I didn’t know anyone else was talking about this, though. Where’d you see it?”
“I’ll email it to you,” Suzanne said. “I was going to blog it tonight anyway.”
“So you two are just hanging around San Francisco giggling and walking down memory lane?”
“Well, yeah! It’s about time, too. We’ve all been separated for too long. We want a reunion, Perry.”
“We want to come down for a visit and see what you’re doing and hang out. You wouldn’t believe how much fun we’ve been having, Perry, seriously.” Kettlewell sounded like he’d been huffing nitrous or something. “Have you been having fun?”
He thought about the question. “Um, kind of?” He told them about his travels, a quick thumbnail sketch, struggling to remember which city he’d been to when, leaving out the crazy sex—which came back to him in a rush, that night with Hilda in the coffin, like a warm hallucination. “On balance, yes. It’s been fun.”
“Right, so we want to come down and have fun with you and Lester. He’s still hanging around, right?”
Lester had told him about the history he had with Suzanne, and there was something in the way she asked after Lester that suggested to Perry that there was still something there.
“You kidding? You’d have to pry us apart with a crowbar.”
“See, I told you so,” Suzanne said. “This guy thought that Lester might have gotten bored and wandered off.”
“Never! Plus anyone who follows his message board traffic and blogs would know that he was right here, minding the shop.” And you’re reading his blog, aren’t you, Suzanne? He didn’t need to say it. He could almost hear her blush over the line.
“So how about tomorrow?”
“For us coming to town. I’ll bring the wife and kids. We’ll rent out a couple hotel rooms and spend a week there. It’ll be a blast.”
“We could get the morning flight and be there for breakfast. You got a good hotel? Not a coffin hotel, not with the kids.”
Perry’s heart beat faster. He did miss these two, and they were so punchy, so gleeful. He’d love to see them. He muted his phone.
“Hey, Francis? That guesthouse down the road, is it still running?”
“Lulu’s? Sure. They just built another storey and took over the top floor of the place next door.”
“Perfect.” He unmuted. “How’d you like to stay in a squatter guesthouse in the shantytown?”
“Um,” Kettlewell said, but Suzanne laughed.
“Oh hell yes,” she said. “Get that look off your face, Kettlewell, this is an adventure.”
“We’d love it,” Kettlewell said.
“Great, I’ll make you a reservation. How long are you staying?”
“Until we leave,” Suzanne said.
“Right,” Perry said and laughed himself. They were different people, these two, from the people he remembered, but they were also old friends. And they were coming to see him tomorrow. “OK, lemme go make your reservations.”
Francis walked him over and the landlord fussed over the two of them like they were visiting dignitaries. Perry looked the place over and it was completely charming. He spotted what he thought was probably a hooker and a trick taking a room for the night, but you got that at the Hilton, too.
By the time he got home he was sure that he’d sleep like a log. He could barely keep his eyes open on the drive. But after he climbed into bed and closed his eyes, he found that he couldn’t sleep at all. Something about being back in his own room in his own bed felt alien and exciting. He got up and paced the apartment and then Lester came home from his date with the fatkins nympho, full of improbable stories and covered in little hickeys.
“You won’t believe who’s coming for a visit,” Perry said.
“Steve Jobs. He’s come down from the lamasery and renounced Buddhism. He wants to give a free computer to every visitor.”
“Close,” Perry said. “Kettlebelly and Suzanne Church. Coming tomorrow for a stay of unspecified duration. It’s a reunion. It’s a reunion you big sonofabitch! Woot! Woot!” Perry did a little two-step. “A reunion!”
Lester looked confused for a second, and then for another second he looked, what, upset? and then he was grinning and jumping up and down with Perry. “Reunion!”
He felt like he’d barely gotten to sleep when his phone rang. The clock showed six AM, and it was Kettlebelly and Suzanne, bleary, jet-lagged and grouchy from their one-hour post-flight security processing.
“We want breakfast,” Suzanne said.
“We’ve gotta open the ride, Suzanne.”
“At six in the morning? Come on, you’ve got hours yet before you have to be at work. How about you and Lester meet us at the IHOP?”
“Jesus,” he said.
“Come on! Kettlebelly’s kids are dying for something to eat and his wife looks like she’s ready to eat him. It’s been years, dude! Get your ass in the shower and down to the International House of Pancakes!”
Lester didn’t rouse easy, but Perry knew all the tricks for getting his old pal out of bed, they were practically married after all.
They arrived just in time for the morning rush but Tony greeted them with a smile and sent them straight to the front of the line. Lester ordered his usual (“Bring me three pounds of candy with a side of ground animal parts and potatoes”) and they waited nervously for Suzanne and the clan Kettlewell to turn up.
They arrived in a huge bustle of taxis and luggage and two wide-eyed, jet-lagged children hanging off of Kettlewell and Mrs Kettlewell, whom neither of them had ever met. She was a small, youthful woman in her mid-forties with artfully styled hair and big, abstract chunky silver jewelry. Suzanne had gone all Eurochic, rail-thin and smoking, with quiet, understated dark clothes. Kettlewell had a real daddy belly on him now, a little pot that his daughter thumped rhythmically from her perch on his hip.
“Sit, sit,” Perry said to them, getting up to help them stack their luggage at either end of the long table down the middle of the IHOP. Big family groups with tons of luggage were par for the course in Florida, so they didn’t really draw much attention beyond mild irritation from the patrons they jostled as they got everyone seated.
Perry was mildly amused to see that Lester and Suzanne ended up sitting next to one another and were already chatting avidly and close up, in soft voices that they had to lean in very tight to hear.
He was next to Mrs Kettlewell, whose name, it transpired, was Eva—“As in Extra-Vehicular Activity,” she said, geeking out with him. Kettlewell was in the bathroom with his daughter and son, and Mrs Kettlewell—Eva—seemed relieved at the chance for a little adult conversation.
“You must be a very patient woman,” Perry said, laughing at all the ticklish noise and motion of their group.
“Oh, that’s me all right,” Eva said. “Patience is my virtue. And you?”
“Oh, patience is something I value very much in other people.” Perry said. It made Eva laugh, which showed off her pretty laugh-lines and dimples. He could see how this woman and Kettlewell must complement each other.
She rocked her head from side to side and took a long swig of the coffee that their waiter had distributed around the table, topping up from the carafe he’d left behind. “Thank God for legal stimulants.”
“Traveling with larvae is always a challenge,” she said. “But they dug it hard. You should have seen them at the windows.”
“They’d never been on a plane before?”
“I like to go camping,” she said with a shrug. “Landon’s always on me to take the kids to Hawaii or whatever, but I’m always like, ‘Man, you spend half your fucking life in a tin can—why do you want to start your holidays in one? Let’s go to Yosemite and get muddy.’ I haven’t even taken them to Disneyland!”
Perry put the back of his hand to his forehead. “That’s heresy around here,” he said. “You going to take them to Disney World while you’re in Florida? It’s a lot bigger, you know—and it’s a different division. Really different feel, or so I’m told.”
“You kidding? Perry, we came here for your ride. It’s famous, you know.”
“Net.famous, maybe. A little.” He felt his cheeks burning. “Well, there will be one in your neck of the woods soon enough.” He told her about the Burning Man collective and the plan to build one down the 101, south of San Francisco International.
Kettlebelly returned then with the kids, and he managed to get them into their seats while sucking back a coffee and eating a biscuit from the basket in the center of the table, breaking off bits to shove in the kids’ mouths whenever they protested.
“These are some way tired kids,” he said, leaning over to give his wife a kiss. Perry thought he saw Suzanne flick a look at them then, but it might have been his imagination. Suzanne and Lester were off in their own world, after all.
“The plane almost crashed,” said the little girl next to Perry. She had a halo of curly hair like a dandelion clock and big solemn dark eyes and a big wet mouth set between apple-round cheeks.
“Did it really?” Perry said. She was seven or eight he thought, the bossy big sister who’d been giving orders to her little brother from the moment they came through the door.
She nodded solemnly. He looked at Eva, who shrugged.
“Really?” he said.
“Really,” she said, nodding vigorously now. “There were terrists on the plane who wanted to blow it up, but the sky marshas stopped them.”
“How could you tell they were ’terrists’?”
She clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “They were whispering,” she said. “Just like on Captain President and the Freedom Fighters.” He knew something of this cartoon, mostly because of all the knock-off merch for sale in the market stalls in front of the ride.
“I see,” he said. “Well, I’m glad the Sky Marshas stopped them. Do you want pancakes?”
“I want caramel apple chocolate pancakes with blueberry banana sauce,” she said, rolling one pudgy finger along the description in the glossy menu, beneath an oozing food-porn photo. “And my brother wants a chocolate milkshake and a short stack of happy face clown waffles with strawberry sauce, but not too many because he’s still a baby and can’t eat much.”
“You’ll become as fat as your daddy if you eat like that,” Perry said. Eva snorted beside him.
“No,” she said. “I’m gonna be a fatkins.”
“I see,” he said. Eva shook her head.
“It’s the goddamned fatkins agitprop games,” Eva said. “They come free with everything now—digital cameras, phones, even in cereal boxes. You have to eat a minimum number of calories per level or you starve to death. This one is a champeen.”
“I’m nationally ranked,” the little girl said, not looking up from the menu.
Perry looked across the table and discovered that Suzanne had covered Lester’s hand with hers and that Lester was laughing along with her at something funny. Something about that made him a little freaked out, like Lester was making time with his sister or their mom.
“Suzanne,” he said. “What’s happening with you these days, anyway?”
“Petersburg is what’s happening with me,” she said, with a hoarse little chuckle. “Petersburg is like Detroit crossed with Paris. Completely decrepit and decadent. There’s a serial killer who’s been working the streets for five years there and the biggest obstacle to catching him is that the first cops on the scene let rubberneckers bribe them to take home evidence as souvenirs.”
“No way!” Lester said.
“Oh, da, big vay,” she said, dropping into a comical Boris and Natasha accent. “Bolshoi vay.”
“So why are you there?”
“It’s like home for me. It’s got enough of Detroit’s old brutal, earthy feel, plus enough of Silicon Valley’s manic hustle, it just feels right.”
“You going to settle in there?”
“Well, put that way, no. I couldn’t hack it for the long term. But at this time in my life, it’s been just right. But it’s good to get back to the States, too. I’m thinking of hanging out here for a couple months. Russia’s so cheap, I’ve got a ton saved up. Might as well blow it before inflation kills it.”
“You keep your money in rubles?”
“Hell no—no one uses rubles except tourists. I’m worried about another run of US inflation. I mean, have you looked around lately? You’re living in a third world country, buddy.”
A waiter came between them, handing out heaping, steaming plates of food. Lester, who’d finished his first breakfast while they waited, had ordered a second breakfast, which arrived along with the rest of them. Mountains of food stacked up on the table, side-plates crowding jugs of apple juice and carafes of coffee.
Incredibly, the food kept coming—multiple syrup-jugs, plates of hash-browns, baskets of biscuits and bowls of white sausage gravy. Perry hadn’t paid much attention when orders were being taken, but from the looks of things, he was eating with a bunch of IHOP virgins, unaccustomed to the astonishing portions to be had there.
He cocked his funny eyebrow at Suzanne, who laughed. “OK, not quite a third-world country. But not a real industrial nation anymore, either. Maybe more like the end-days of Rome or something. Drowning in wealth and wallowing in poverty.” She forked up a mouthful of hash browns and chased them with coffee. Perry attacked his own plate.
Kettlewell fed the kids, sneaking bites in-between, while Eva looked on approvingly. “You’re a good man, Landon Kettlewell,” she said, slicing up her steak and eggs into small, precise cubes, wielding the knife like an artist.
“You just enjoy your breakfast, my queen,” he said, spooning oatmeal with raisins, bananas, granola and boysenberry jam into the little boy’s mouth.
“We got you presents,” the little girl said, taking a break from shoveling banana-chocolate caramel apples into her mouth.
“Really?” Perry raised his funny eyebrow and she giggled. He did it again, making it writhe like a snake. She snarfed choco-banana across the table, then scooped it up and put it back in her mouth.
She nodded vigorously. “Dad, give them their presents!”
Kettlewell said, “Someone has to feed your brother, you know.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. She forked up some of his oatmeal and attempted to get it into the little boy’s face. “Presents!”
Kettlewell dug through the luggage-cluster under the table and came up with an overstuffed diaper bag, then pawed through it for a long time, urged on by his daughter who kept chanting “Presents! Presents! Presents!” while attempting to feed her little brother. Eva and Lester and Suzanne took up the chant. They were drawing stares from nearby tables, but Perry didn’t mind. He was laughing so hard his sides hurt.
Finally Kettlewell held a paper bag aloft triumphantly, then clapped a hand over his daughter’s mouth and shushed the rest.
“You guys are really hard to shop for,” he said. “What the hell do you get for two guys who not only have everything, but make everything?”
Suzanne nodded. “Damned right. We spent a whole day looking for something.”
“What is it?”
“Well,” Kettlewell said. “We figured that it should be something useful, not decorative. You guys have decorative coming out of your asses. So that left us with tools. We wanted to find you a tool that you didn’t have, and that you would appreciate.”
Suzanne picked up the story. “I thought we should get you an antique tool, something so well-made that it was still usable. But to be useful, it had to be something no one had improved on, and that had in fact been degraded by modern manufacturing techniques.
“At first we looked at old tape-measures, but I remembered that you guys were mostly using keychain laser range-finders these days. Screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers were all out—I couldn’t find a damned thing that looked any better than what you had around here. The state of the art is genuinely progressing.
“There were a lot of nice old brass spirit-levels and hand-lathed plumb-bobs but they were more decorative than useful by a damned sight. Great old steel work-helmets looked cool, but they weighed about a hundred times what the safety helmets around here weigh.
“We were going to give in and try to bring you guys a big goddamned tube-amp, or maybe some Inuit glass knives, but I didn’t see you having much of a use for either.
“Which is how we came to give up on tools per se and switched over to leisure—sports tools. There was a much richer vein. Wooden bats, oh yes, and real pigskin footballs that had nice idiosyncratic spin that you’d have to learn to compensate for. But when we found these, we knew we’d hit pay-dirt.”
She picked up Kettlewell’s paper sack with a flourish and unzipped it. A moment later she presented them with two identical packages wrapped in coarse linen paper hand-stamped with Victorian woodcuts of sporting men swinging bats and charging the line with pigskins under their arms.
The kids echoed it. “These are the best presents,” the little girl confided in Perry as he picked delicately at the exquisite paper.
The paper gave way in folds and curls, and then he and Lester both held their treasures aloft.
“Baseball gloves!” Perry said.
“A catcher’s mitt and a fielder’s glove,” Kettlewell said. “You look at that catcher’s mitt. 1910!” It was black and bulbous, the leather soft and yielding, with a patina of fine cracks like an old painting. It smelled like oil and leather, an old rich smell like a gentleman’s club or an expensive briefcase. Perry tried it on and it molded itself to his hand, snug and comfortable. It practically cried out to have a ball thrown at it.
“And this fielder’s glove,” Kettlewell went on, pointing at the glove Lester held. It was the more traditional tan color, comically large like the glove of a cartoon character. It too had the look of ancient, well-loved leather, the same mysterious smell of hide and oil. Perry touched it with a finger and it felt like a woman’s cheek, smooth and soft. “Rawlings XPG6. The Mickey Mantle. Early 1960s—the ultimate glove.”
“You got the whole sales pitch, huh, darling?” Eva said, not unkindly, but Kettlewell flushed and glared at her for a moment.
Perry broke in. “Guys, these are—wow. Incredible.”
“They’re better than the modern product,” Suzanne said. “That’s the point. You can’t print these or fab these. They’re wonderful because they’re so well made and so well-used! The only way to make a glove this good would be to fab it and then give it to several generations of baseball players to love and use for fifty to a hundred years.”
Perry turned over the catcher’s mitt. Over a hundred years old. This wasn’t something to go in a glass case. Suzanne was right: this was a great glove because people had played with it, all the time. It needed to be played with or it would get out of practice.
“I guess we’re going to have to buy a baseball,” Perry said.
The little girl beside him started bouncing up and down.
“Show him,” Suzanne said, and the girl dove under the table and came up with two white, fresh hard balls. Once he fitted one to the pocket of his glove, it felt so perfectly right—like a key in a lock. This pocket had held a lot of balls over the years.
Lester had put a ball in the pocket of his glove, too. He tossed it lightly in the air and caught it, then repeated the trick. The look of visceral satisfaction on his face was unmistakable.
“These are great presents, guys,” Perry said. “Seriously. Well done.”
They all beamed and murmured and then the ball Lester was tossing crashed to the table and broke a pitcher of blueberry syrup, upset a carafe of orange juice, and rolled to a stop in the chocolate mess in front of the little girl, who laughed and laughed and laughed.
“And that is why we don’t play with balls indoors,” Suzanne said, looking as stern as she could while obviously trying very hard not to bust out laughing.
The waiters were accustomed to wiping up spills and Lester was awkwardly helpful. While they were getting everything set to rights again, Perry looked at Eva and saw her lips tightly pursed as she considered her husband. He followed Kettlebelly’s gaze and saw that he was watching Suzanne (who was laughingly restraining Lester from doing any more “cleaning”) intently. In a flash, Perry thought he had come to understanding. Oh dear, he thought.
The kids loved the shanty-town. The little girl—Ada, “like the programming language,” Eva said—insisted on being set down so she could tread the cracked cement walkways herself, head whipping back and forth to take the crazy-leaning buildings in, eyes following the zipping motor-bikes and bicycles as they wove in and out of the busy streets. The shantytowners were used to tourists in their midst. A few yardies gave them the hairy eyeball, but then they saw Perry was along and they found something else to pay attention to. That made Perry feel obscurely proud. He’d been absent for months, but even the corner boys knew who he was and didn’t want to screw with him.
The guesthouse’s landlady greeted them at the door, alerted to their coming by the jungle telegraph. She shook Perry’s hand warmly, gave Ada a lollipop, and chucked the little boy (Pascal, “like the programming language,” said Eva, with an eye-roll) under the chin. Check-in was a lot simpler than at a coffin-hotel or a Hilton: just a brief discussion of the available rooms and a quick tour. The Kettlewells opted for the lofty attic, which could fit two three-quarter width beds and a crib, and overlooked the curving streets from a high vantage; Suzanne took a more quotidian room just below, with lovely tile mosaics made from snipped-out sections of plastic fruit and smashed novelty soda bottles. (The landlady privately assured Perry that her euphemistic “hourly trade” was in a different part of the guesthouse altogether, with its own staircase).
A few hours later, Perry was alone again, working his ticket counter. The Kettlewells were having naps, Lester and Suzanne had gone off to see some sights, and the crowd for the ride was already large, snaking through the market, thick with vendors and hustling kids trying to pry the visitors loose of their bankrolls.
He felt like doing a carny barker spiel, Step right up, step right up, this way to the great egress! But the morning’s visitors didn’t seem all that frivolous—they were serious-faced and sober.
“Everything OK?” he asked a girl who was riding for at least the second time. She was a midwestern-looking giantess in her early twenties with big white front teeth and broad shoulders, wearing a faded Hoosiers ball-cap and a lot of coral jewelry. “I mean, you don’t look like you’re having a fun time.”
“It’s the story,” she said. “I read about it online and I didn’t really believe it, but now I totally see it. But you made it, right? It didn’t just… happen, did it?”
“No, it just happened,” Perry said. This girl was a little spooky-looking. He put his hand over his heart. “On my honor.”
“It can’t be,” she said. “I mean, the story is like right there. Someone must have made it.”
“Maybe they did,” Perry said. “Maybe a bunch of people thought it would be fun to make a story out of the ride and came by to do it.”
“That’s probably it,” the girl said. “The other thing, that’s just ridiculous.”
She was gone and on the ride before he could ask her what this meant, and the three bangbangers behind her just wanted tickets, not conversation.
An hour later, she was back.
“I mean the message boards,” she said. “Don’t you follow your referers? There’s a guy in Osceola who says that this is, I don’t know, like the story that’s inside our collective unconsciousness.” Perry restrained a smile at the malapropism. “Anyway a lot of people agree. I don’t think so, though. No offense, mister, but I think that this is just a prank or something.”
“Something,” Perry said. But she rode twice more that day, and she wasn’t the only one. It was a day of many repeat riders, and the market-stall people came by to complain that the visitors weren’t buying much besides the occasional ice-cream or pork cracklin.
Perry shrugged and told them to find something that these people wanted to buy, then. One or two of the miniatures guys got gleams in their eyes and bought tickets for the ride (Perry charged them half price) and Perry knew that by the time the day was out, there’d be souvenir ride-replicas to be had.
Lester and Suzanne came by after lunchtime and Lester relieved him, leaving him to escort Suzanne back to the shantytown and the Kettlewells.
“You two seem to be getting on well,” Perry said, jerking his head back at Lester as they walked through the market.
Suzanne looked away. “This is amazing, Perry,” she said, waving her hand at the market stalls, a gesture that took in the spires of the shantytown and the ride, too. “You have done something…stupendous, you know it? I mean, if you had a slightly different temperament, I’d call this a cult. But it seems like you’re not in charge of anything—”
“That’s for sure!”
“—even though you’re still definitely leading things.”
“No way—I just go where I’m told. Tjan’s leading.”
“I spoke to Tjan before we came out, and he points the finger at you. ‘I’m just keeping the books and closing the contracts.’ That’s a direct quote.”
“Well maybe no one’s leading. Not everything needs a leader, right?”
Suzanne shook her head at him. “There’s a leader, sweetie, and it’s you. Have a look around. Last I checked, there were three more rides going operational this week, and five more in the next month. Just looking at your speaking calendar gave me a headache—”
“I have a speaking calendar?”
“You do indeed, and it’s a busy one. You knew that though, right?”
Tjan sent him email all the time telling him about this group or that, where he was supposed to go and give a talk, but he’d never seen a calendar. But who had time to look at the website anymore?
“I suppose. I knew I was supposed to get on a plane again in a couple weeks.”
“So that’s what a leader is—someone who gets people mobilized and moving.”
“I met a girl in Madison, Wisconsin, you’d probably get along with.” Thinking of Hilda made him smile and feel a little horny, a little wistful. He hadn’t gotten fucked in mind and body like that since his twenties.
“Maybe I’ll meet her. Is she working on a local ride?”
“You’re going to go to the other rides?”
“I got to write about something, Perry. Otherwise my pageviews fall off and I can’t pay my rent. This is a story—a big one, and no one else has noticed it yet. That kind of story can turn into the kind of money you buy a house with. I’m speaking from experience here.”
She put her hand over her heart. “I’m good at spotting these. Man, you’ve got a cult on your hands here.”
“The story people. I’ve been reading the message boards and blogs. It’s where I get all my best tips.”
Perry shook his head. Everyone else was more on top of this stuff than him. He was going to have to spend less time hacking the ride and more time reading the interweb, clearly.
“It was all Lester’s idea, anyway,” he said.
She looked down with an unreadable expression. He hazarded a guess as to what that was about.
“Things are getting tight between you two, huh?”
“Christ it doesn’t show that much does it?”
“No,” he lied. “I just know Lester is all.”
“He’s something else,” she said.
Suzanne needed some sundries, so he directed her to a little bodega in the back room of one of the houses. He told her he’d meet her at the guesthouse and took a seat in the lobby. He was still beat from the cold and the jet-lag, the work and the sheer exhaustion.
On the road he’d had momentum dragging him from one thing to the next, flights to catch, speeches to make. Back at home, confronted with routine, it was like his inertia was disappearing.
Eva Kettlewell thundered down the stairs three at a time with a sound like a barely controlled fall, burst into the lobby and headed for the door, her back rigid, her arms swinging, her face a picture of rage.
She went out the door like a flash and then stood in the street for a moment before striking out, seemingly at random.
Uh-oh, Perry thought.
Sammy didn’t dare go back to the ride for weeks after the debacle in Boston. He’d been spotted by the Chinese guy and the bummy-looking guy who said he’d designed the ride, that much was sure. They probably suspected him of having sabotaged the Boston ride.
But he couldn’t stay away. Work was dismal. The other execs at Disney World were all amazingly petty, and always worse so before the quarterly numbers came out. Management liked to chase any kind of bad numbers with a few ritual beheadings.
The new Fantasyland had been a feather in Sammy’s cap that had kept him safe from politics for a long time, but not anymore. Now it was getting run down: cigarette burns, graffiti, and every now and again someone would find a couple having pervy eyeliner sex in the bushes.
He’d loved to work openings in Fantasyland’s heyday. He’d stand just past the castle-gate and watch the flocking crowds of black-clad, lightly sweating, white-faced goth kids pour through it, blinking in the unnatural light of the morning. A lot of them took drugs and partied all night and then capped it off with an early morning at Fantasyland—Disney had done focus groups, and they’d started selling the chewy things that soothed the clenched jaws brought on by dance-drugs.
But now he hated the raven-garbed customers who sallied into his park like they owned the joint. A girl—maybe 16—walked past on vinyl platform heels with two gigantic men in their thirties behind her, led on thin black leather leashes. A group of whippet-thin boys in grey dusters with impossibly high sprays of teased electric blue hair followed. Then a group of heavily pierced older women, their faces rattling.
Then it was a river of black, kids in chains and leather, leathery grownups who dressed like surly kids. They formed neat queues by their favorite rides—the haunted houses, the graveyard walk-through, the coffin coaster, the river of blood—and puffed cloves through smokeless hookahs. At least he hoped it was cloves.
The castmembers in Sammy’s Fantasyland were no better than the guests. They were pierced, dyed, teased, and branded to within an inch of their lives, even gothier than the goths who made the long pilgrimages to ride his unwholesome rides.
The worst of it was that there weren’t enough of them anymore. The goth scene, which had shown every sign of surging and re-surging every five years, seemed finally to be dying. Numbers were down. A couple of goth-themed parks in the area had shuttered, as had the marshy one in New Orleans (admittedly that might have been more to do with the cholera outbreak).
Last month, he’d shut down the goth toddler-clothing shop and put its wares on deep online discount. All his little nieces and nephews were getting bat-wing onesies, skull platform-booties and temporary hair-dye and tattoos for Christmas. Now he just had to get rid of the other ten million bucks’ worth of merch.
“Morning, Death,” he said. The kid’s real name was Darren Weinberger, but he insisted on being called Death Waits, which given his pudgy round cheeks and generally eager-to-please demeanor, was funny enough that it had taken Sammy a full year to learn to control his grin when he said it.
“Sammy! Good morning—how’re you doing?”
“The numbers stink,” Sammy said. “You must have noticed.”
Death’s grin vanished. “I noticed. Time for a new ride, maybe.” No one called them “attractions” anymore—all that old Orwellian Disneyspeak had been abolished. “They love the coaster and the free-fall. Thrill rides are always crowd-pleasers.”
Death Waits had worked at Disney for three years now, since the age of 16, and he had grown up coming to the park, one of the rare Orlando locals. Sammy had come to rely on him for what he thought of as insight into the “goth street.” He never said that aloud, because he knew how much it sounded like “whatever you crazy kids are into these days.”
But this wasn’t helpful. “I know that everyone likes thrill rides, but how the hell can you compete with the gypsy coasters?” They set up their coasters by the road and ran them until there was an injury serious enough to draw the law—a week or two at best. You could order the DIY coaster kits from a number of suppliers across the US and Mexico, put them up with cranes and semi-skilled labor and wishful thinking, start taking tickets, and when the inevitable catastrophe ensued, you could be packed and on the lam in a couple hours.
“Gypsy coasters? They suck. We’ve got theming. Our rides are art. That stuff is just engineering.” Death Waits was a good kid, but he was a serious imbiber of the kool-aid. “Maybe try dance parties again?” They’d tried a string of all-night raves, but the fights, drugs, and sex were just too much for the upper management, no matter how much money they brought in.
Sammy shook his head morosely. “I’ve told you that a company this size can’t afford the risks from that sort of thing.” A few more goths straggled in. They headed for the walk-through, which probably meant they planned to get high or make out, something he’d given up on trying to prevent. Anything to get the numbers up. He and the security staff had come to an understanding on this and no one was telling his boss or his colleagues.
“I should just bulldoze the whole fucking thing and start over. What comes after goth, anyway? Are ravers back? Hippies? Punks? Chavs?”
Death Waits was staring at him with round eyes. “You wouldn’t really—”
He waved at the kid. This was his whole life. “No, Death, no. We’re not going to bulldoze this place. You’ve got a job for life here.” It was a lie of such amazing callousness that Sammy felt a twinge of remorse while saying it. Those twinges didn’t come often. But Death Waits looked a lot happier once the words were out of his mouth—goths with big candy-apple cheeks were pretty unconvincing gloom-meisters.
Sammy stalked back to the nearest utilidor entrance, over by what had been the Pinocchio Village Haus. He’d turned the redesign over to a designer who’d started out as a lit major and whose admiration for the dark and twisted elements of the original Pinocchio tale by Carlo Collodi shone through. Now it featured murals of donkeys being flensed by fish, hectic Pleasure Island. Hanged Pinocchio on his gibbet dangled over the condiment bar, twitching and thrashing. The smell of stale grease rose from it like a miasma, clashing with the patchouli they pumped out from the underground misters.
Down into the tunnels and then into a golf cart and out to his office. He had time to paw desultorily at the mountain of merchandise samples that had come in over the week since he’d last tackled it—every plaster-skull vendor and silver cross-maker in the world saw him as a ticket to easy street. None had twigged to the fact that they were reducing their goth-themed merch these days. Still, going through merch had been his task for three years now and it was a hard habit to break. He liked the lick-and-stick wounds with dancing maggots that were activated by body-heat. The skeletal bikers with flocking algorithms that led them into noisy demolition derbies were a great idea, too, since you’d have to buy another set after a couple hours’ play.
His desk was throbbing pink, which meant that he was late for something. He slapped at it, read the message that came up, remembered that there was a weekly status meeting for theme-leaders that he’d been specifically instructed to attend. He didn’t go to these things if he could help it. The time-markers who ran Adventureland and Tomorrowland and so on were all boring curatorial types who thought that change was what you gave a sucker back from a ten at a frozen-banana wagon.
The theme-leaders met in a sumptuous board-room that had been themed in the glory years of the unified Walt Disney Company. It had renewable tropical hardwood panelling, a beautiful garden and a koi pond, and an aviary that teemed with chirruping bright birds borrowed from the Animal Kingdom menagerie. The table was a slab of slate with a brushed finish over its pits and shelves, the chairs were so ergonomic that they had zero adjustment controls, because they knew much better than you ever could how to arrange themselves for your maximum comfort.
He was the last one through the door, and they all turned to stare at him. They all dressed for shit, in old fashioned slacks and high-tech walking shoes, company pocket-tees or baseball jerseys. None of them had a haircut that was worth a damn, not even the two women execs who co-ran Main Street. They dressed like the Middle Americans they catered to, or maybe a little better.
Sammy had always been a sharp dresser. He liked shirts that looked like good cotton but had a little stretch built into them so they rested tight at his chest, which was big, and tight at his waist, which was small. He liked jeans in whatever style jeans were being worn in Barcelona that year, which meant black jeans cut very square and wide-legged, ironed stiff without a crease. He had shades that had been designed to make his face look a little vulpine, a trait that he’d always known he had. It put people on edge if you looked a little wolfy.
He stopped outside the door of the board-room and squared up his shoulders. He was the youngest person on the board, and he’d always been the biggest, cockiest bastard in the room. He had to remember that if he was going to survive this next hour.
He came through the door and stopped and looked at the people around the table and waited for everyone to notice him. They looked so midwestern and goofy, and he gave them his wolfy smile—hello, little piggies, here to blow your house down.
“Hey, kids,” he said, and grabbed the coffee carafe and a mug off the sideboard. He filled his cup, then passed the carafe off, as though every meeting began with the passing-around of the low-grade stimulants. He settled into his seat and looked around expectantly.
“Glad you could make it, Sammy.” That was Wiener, who generally chaired the meetings. Theoretically, it was a rotating chairship, but there’s a certain kind of person who naturally ends up running every meeting, and Ron Wiener was that kind of person. He co-ran Tomorrowland with three faceless nonentities who had been promoted above their competence due to his inexplicable loyalty to them, and between the four of them, they’d managed to keep Tomorrowland the most embarrassingly badly themed part of the park. “We were just talking about you.”
“I love being the subject of conversation,” Sammy said. He slurped loudly at his coffee.
“What we were talking about was the utilization numbers from Fantasyland.”
Which sucked, Sammy knew. They’d been in free-fall for months now, and looking around at those cow-like midwestern faces, Sammy understood that it was time for the knives to come out.
“They suck,” Sammy said brightly. “That’s why we’re about to change things up.”
That preempted them. “Can you explain that some?” Wiener said, clicking his pen and squaring up his notepad. These jerks and their paper-fetish.
Sammy did his best thinking on his feet and on the move. Confident. Wolfy. You’re better than these jerks with their pads and their corn-fed notions. He sucked in a breath and began to pace and use his hands.
“We’re going to take out every under-utilized ride in the land, effective immediately. Lay off the dead-wood employees. We’re going to get a couple off-the-shelf thrill rides and give them a solid working-over for theming—build our own ride vehicles, queue areas and enclosures, big ones, weenies that will draw your eye from outside the main gate. But that’s just a stopgap.
“Next I’m going to start focus-grouping the fatkins. They’re ready-made for this stuff. All about having fun. Most of those ex-fatties used to pack this place when they were stuck in electric wheelchairs, but now they’re too busy—” he stopped himself from saying “fucking”—“Having more adult fun to come back, but anyone who can afford fatkins has discretionary income and we should have a piece of it.
“It’s hard to say without research, but I’m willing to bet that these guys will respond strongly to nostalgia. I’m thinking of reinstating the old Fantasyland dark-rides, digging parts out of storage, whatever we haven’t auctioned off on the collectibles market, anyway, and cloning the rest, but remaking them with a little, you know, darkness. Like the Pinocchio thing, but more so. Captain Hook’s grisly death. Tinker Bell’s inherent porniness. What kind of friendship did Snow White have with the dwarfs? You see where I’m going. Ironic—we haven’t done ironic in a long time. It’s probably due for a comeback.”
They stared at him in shocked silence.
“You say you’re going to do this when?” Wiener said. He’d want to know so he could get someone senior to intervene.
“You know, research first. We’ll shut down the crap rides next week and can the dead-wood. Want to commission the research today if I can. Start work on the filler thrill-rides next week too.”
He sat down. They continued to boggle.
“You’re serious about this?”
“About what? Getting rid of unprofitable stuff? Researching profitable directions? Yes and yes.”
There were other routine agenda items, which reminded Sammy of why he didn’t come to these meetings. He spent the time surfing readymade coasters and checking the intranet for engineer availability. He was just getting into the HR records to see who he’d have to lay off when they finally wound down and he sauntered out, giving his wolfy grin to all, with a special flash of it for Wiener.
“Death, I’d like a word, please?”
“I’d be delighted.” Death talked like someone who’d learned to talk by being a precocious reader. He over-pronounced his words, spoke in complete sentences, and paused at the commas. Sammy knew that speech pattern well, since he’d worked hard to train himself out of it. It was a geek accent, and it made you sound like a smart-ass instead of a sharp operator. You got that way if you grew up trying to talk with a grown-up vocabulary and a child’s control of your speech-muscles; you learned to hold your chin and cheeks still while you spoke to give you a little precision-boost. That was the geek accent.
“Remember what we talked about this morning?”
“Building a thrill ride?”
“Yes,” Sammy said. He’d forgotten that Death Waits had suggested that in the first place. Good—that was a good spin. “I’ve decided to take your suggestion. Of course, we need to make room for it, so I’m going to shut down some of the crap—you know which ones I mean.”
Death Waits was green under his white makeup. “You mean—”
“All the walk-throughs. The coffin coaster, of course. The flying bats. Maybe one or two others. And I’m going to need to make some layoffs, of course. Gotta make room.”
“You’re going to lay people off? How many people? We’re already barely staffed.” Death was the official arbiter of shift-changing, schedule-swapping and cross-scheduling. If you wanted to take an afternoon off to get your mom out of the hospital or your dad out of jail, he was the one to talk to.
“That’s why I’m coming to you. If I shut down six of the rides—” Death gasped. Fantasyland had 10 rides in total. “Six of the rides. How many of the senior staffers can I get rid of and still have the warm bodies to keep everything running?” Senior people cost a lot more than the teenagers who came through. He could hire six juniors for what Death cost him. Frigging Florida labor laws meant that you had to give cost-of-living raises every year, and it added up.
Death looked like he was going to cry.
“I’ve got my own estimates,” Sammy said. “But I wanted to get a reality check from you, since you’re right there, on the ground. I’d hate to leave too much fat on the bone.”
He knew what effect this would have on the kid. Death blinked back his tears, put his fist under his chin and pulled out his phone and started scribbling on it. He had a list of every employee in there and he began to transfer names from it to another place.
“They’ll be back, right? To operate the new rides?”
“The ones we don’t bring back, we’ll get them unemployment counseling. Enroll them in a networking club for the jobless, one of the really good ones. We can get a group rate. A job reference from this place goes a long way, too. They’ll be OK.”
Death looked at him, a long look. The kid wasn’t stupid, Sammy knew. None of these people were stupid, not Wiener, not the kid, not the goths who led each other around Fantasyland on leashes. Not the fatkins who’d soon pack the place. They were none of them stupid. They were just—soft. Unwilling to make the hard choices. Sammy was good at hard choices.
Perry got home that night and walked in on Lester and Suzanne. They were tangled on the living-room carpet, mostly naked, and Lester blushed right to his ass-cheeks when Perry came through the door.
“Sorry, sorry!” Lester called as he grabbed a sofa cushion and passed it to Suzanne, then got one for himself. Perry averted his eyes and tried not to laugh.
“Jesus, guys, what’s wrong with the bedroom?”
“We would’ve gotten there eventually,” Lester said as he helped Suzanne to her feet. Perry pointedly turned to face the wall. “You were supposed to be at dinner with the gang,” Lester said.
“Close-up on the ride was crazy. Everything was changing and the printers were out of goop. Lots of action on the network—Boston and San Francisco are introducing a lot of new items to the ride. By the time I got to the guest-house, the Kettlewells were already putting the kids to bed.” He decided not to mention Eva’s angry storm-out to Suzanne. No doubt she had already figured out that all was not well in the House of Kettlewell.
“Sorry, sorry,” Lester said. “Let’s talk about this later, OK? Sorry.”
They scurried off to Lester’s room and Perry whipped out a computer, put on some short humor videos in shuffle-mode, and grabbed a big tub of spare parts he kept around to fiddle with. It could be soothing to take apart and reassemble a complex mechanism, and sometimes you got ideas from it.
Five minutes later, he heard the shower running and then Suzanne came into the living room.
“I’m going to order some food. What do you feel like?”
“Whatever you get, you’ll have to order it from one of the fatkins places. It’s not practical to feed Lester any other way. Get me a small chicken tikka pizza.”
She pored over the stack of menus in the kitchen. “Does Food in Twenty Minutes really deliver in 20 minutes?”
“Usually 15. They do most of the prep in the vans and use a lot of predictive math in their routing. There’s usually a van within about ten minutes of here, no matter what the traffic. They deliver to traffic-jams, too, on scooters.”
Suzanne made a face. “I thought Russia was weird.” She showed the number on the brochure to her phone and then started to order.
Lester came out a minute later, dressed to the nines as always. He was barely capable of entering his bedroom without effecting a wardrobe change.
He gave Perry a slightly pissed off look and Perry shrugged apologetically, though he didn’t feel all that bad. Lester’s fault.
Christ on a bike, it was weird to think of the two of them together, especially going at it on the living room rug like a couple of horny teens. Suzanne had always been the grownup in their little family. But that had been back when there was a big company involved. Something about being a piece of a big company made you want to act like you’d always figured grownups should act. Once you were a free agent, there wasn’t any reason not to embrace your urges.
When the food came, the two of them attacked it like hungry dogs. It was clear that they’d forgotten their embarrassment and were planning another retreat to the bedroom once they’d refueled. Perry left.
“Hey, Francis.” Francis was sitting on the second-storey balcony of his mayoral house, surveying the electric glow of the shantytown. As usual now, he was alone, without any of his old gang of boys hanging around him. He waved an arm toward Perry and beckoned him inside, buzzing him in with his phone.
Perry tracked up the narrow stairs, wondering how Francis negotiated them with his bad knee and his propensity to have one beer too many.
“What’s the good word?”
“Oh, not much,” Perry said. He helped himself to a beer. They made it in the shantytown and fortified it with fruits, like a Belgian beer. The resulting suds were strong and sweet. This one was raspberry and it tasted a little pink, like red soda.
“Your friends aren’t getting along too good, is what I hear.”
“Really.” Nothing was much of a secret in this place.
“The little woman’s taken a room of her own down the road. My wife did that to me once. Crazy broad. That’s their way sometimes. Get so mad they just need to walk away.”
“I get that mad, too,” Perry said.
“Oh, hell, me too, all the time. But men usually don’t have the guts to pack a suitcase and light out. Women have the guts. They’re nothing but guts.”
Perry cursed. Why hadn’t Kettlebelly called him? What was going on?
He called Kettlebelly.
“Hi, Landon. What’s up?”
“Yeah, how are things?”
“Well, I hear Eva took off. That sort of thing. Anything we can talk about?”
Kettlewell didn’t say anything.
“Should I come over?”
“No,” he said. “I’ll meet you somewhere. Where?”
Francis wordlessly passed Kettlewell a beer as he stepped out onto the terrace.
“They’re in a motel not far from here. The kids love coffins.”
Francis opened another beer for himself. “Hard to imagine a kid loved a coffin more than your kids loved this place this afternoon.”
“Eva’s pretty steamed at me. It just hasn’t been very good since I retired. I guess I’m pretty hard to live with all the time.”
Perry nodded. “I can see that.”
“Thanks,” Kettlewell said. “Also.” He took a pull off his beer. “Also I had an affair.”
Both men sucked air between their teeth.
“With her best friend.”
Perry coughed a little.
“While Eva was pregnant.”
“You’re still breathing? Patient woman,” Francis said.
“She’s a good woman,” Kettlewell said. “The best. Mother of my children. But it made her a little crazy-jealous.”
“So what’s the plan, Kettlewell? You’re a good man with a plan,” Perry said.
“I have to give her a night off to cool down and then we’ll see. Never any point in doing this while she’s hot. Tomorrow morning, it’ll come together.”
The next morning, Perry found himself desperately embroiled in ordering more goop for the three-dee printers. Lots more. The other rides had finally come online in the night, after interminable network screw-ups and malfing robots and printers and scanners that wouldn’t cooperate, but now there were seven rides in the network, seven rides whose riders were rearranging, adding and subtracting, and there was reconciling to do. The printers hummed and hummed.
“The natives are restless,” Lester said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the growing queue of would-be riders. “We going to be ready to open soon?”
Perry had fallen into a classic nerd trap of having almost solved a problem and not realizing that the last three percent of the solution would take as long as the rest of it put together. Meanwhile, the ride was in a shambles as robots attempted to print and arrange objects to mirror those around the nation.
“Soon soon,” Perry said. He stood up and looked around at the shambles. “I lie. This crap won’t be ready for hours yet. Sorry. Fuck it. Open up.”
“I know, I know, but that’s the deal with the ride. It’s got to get in sync. You know we’ve been working on this for months now. It’s just growing pains. Here, I’ll give you back your money you come back tomorrow, it’ll all be set to rights.”
The angry rider was a regular, one of the people who came by every morning to ride before work. She was gaunt and tall and geeky and talked like an engineer, with the nerd accent.
“What kind of printer?” Lester broke in. Perry hid his snicker with a cough. Lester would get her talking about the ins and outs of her printer, talking shop, and before you knew it she’d be mollified.
Perry sold another ticket, and another.
“Hi again!” It was the creepy guy, the suit who’d shown up in Boston. Tjan had a crazy theory about why he’d left the Boston launch in such a hurry, but who knew?
“Hi there,” Perry said. “Long time no see. Back from Boston, huh?”
“For months.” The guy was grinning and sweating and didn’t look good. He had a fresh bruise on his cheek with a couple of knuckle prints clearly visible. “Can’t wait to get back on the ride. It’s been too long.”
Sammy had been through a rehab and knew how they went. You laid off a bunch of people in one fast, hard big bang. Hired some unemployment coaches for the senior unionized employees, scheduled a couple of “networking events” where they could mingle with other unemployed slobs and pass around home-made business cards.
You needed a Judas goat, someone who’d talk up the rehab to the other employees, whom you could rely on. Death Waits had been his judas goat for the Fantasyland goth makeover. He’d tirelessly evangelized the idea to his co-workers, had found goth tru-fans who’d blog the hell out of every inch of the rehab, had run every errand no matter how menial.
But his passion didn’t carry over to dismantling the goth rehab. Sammy should have anticipated that, but he had totally failed to do so. He was just so used to thinking of Death Waits as someone who was a never-questioning slave to the park.
“Come on, cheer up! Look at how cool these thrill rides are going to be. Those were your idea, you know. Check out the coffin-cars and the little photo-op at the end that photoshops all the riders into zombies. That’s got to be right up your alley, right? Your friends are going to love this.”
Death moped as only a goth could. He performed his duties slowly and unenthusiastically. When Sammy pinned him down with a direct question, he let his bangs fall over his eyes, looked down at his feet, and went silent.
“Come on, what the hell is going on? The fences were supposed to be up this morning!” The plan had been to get the maintenance crews in before rope-drop to fence off the doomed rides so that the dismantling could begin. But when he’d shown up at eight, there was no sign of the fences, no sign of the maintenance crews and the rides were all fully staffed.
Death looked at his feet. Sammy bubbled with rage. If you couldn’t trust your own people, you were lost. There were already enough people around the park looking for a way to wrong-foot him.
“Death, I’m talking to you. For Christ’s sake, don’t be such a goddamned baby. You shut down the goddamned rides and send those glue-sniffers home. I want a wrecking crew here by lunchtime.”
Death Waits looked at his feet some more. His floppy black wings of hair covered his face, but from the snuffling noises, Sammy knew there was some crying going on underneath all that hair.
“Suck it up,” he said. “Or go home.”
Sammy turned on his heel and started for the door, and that was when Death Waits leapt on his back, dragged him to the ground and started punching him. He wasn’t much of a puncher, but he did have a lot of chunky silver skull-rings that really stung. He pasted a couple good ones on Sammy before Sammy came to his senses and threw the skinny kid off of him. Strangely, Sammy’s anger was dissipated by the actual, physical violence. He had never thrown a punch in his life and he was willing to bet the same was true of Death Waits. There was something almost funny about an actual punch-up.
Death Waits picked himself up and looked at Sammy. The kid’s eyeliner was in smears down his cheeks and his hair was standing up on end. Sammy shook his head slowly.
“Don’t bother cleaning out your locker. I’ll have your things sent to you. And don’t stop on your way out of the park, either.”
He could have called security, but that would have meant sitting there with Death Waits until they arrived. The kid would go and he would never come back. He was disgraced.
And leave he did. Sammy had Death Wait’s employee pass deactivated and the contents of his locker—patchouli-reeking black tee-shirts and blunt eyeliner pencils—sent by last-class mail to his house. He cut off Death Waits’s benefits. He had the deadwood rides shuttered and commenced their destruction, handing over any piece recognizable as coming from a ride to the company’s auction department to list online. Anything to add black to his bottom line.
But his cheek throbbed where Death had laid into him, and he’d lost his fire for the new project. Were fatkins a decent-sized market segment? He should have commissioned research on it. But he’d needed to get a plan in the can in time to mollify the executive committee. Plus he knew what his eyes told him every day: the park was full of fatkins, and always had been.
The ghost of Death Waits was everywhere. Sammy had to figure out for himself whom to fire, and how to do it. He didn’t really know any of the goth kids that worked the rides these days. Death Waits had hired and led them. There were lots of crying fits and threats, and the kids he didn’t fire acted like they were next, and if it hadn’t been for the need to keep revenue flowing, Sammy would have canned all of them.
Then he caught wind of what they were all doing with their severance pay: traveling south to Hollywood and riding that goddamned frankenride in the dead Wal-Mart, trying to turn it into goth paradise. Judging from the message-boards he surfed, the whole thing had been Death Waits’s idea. Goddamn it.
It was Boston all over again. He’d pulled the plug and the machine kept on moving. The hoardings went up and the rides came down, but all his former employees and their weird eyeliner pervert pals all went somewhere else and partied on just the same. His attendance numbers were way down, and the photobloggers posting shots of black clouds of goths at the frankenride made it clear where they’d all gone.
Fine, he thought, fine. Let’s go have a look.
The guy with the funny eyebrow made him immediately, but didn’t seem to be suspicious. Maybe they never figured out what he’d done in Boston. The goth kids were busy in the market stalls or hanging around smoking clove and patchouli hookahs and they ignored him as a square and beneath their notice.
The ride had changed a great deal since his last fated visit. He’d heard about The Story, of course—the dark-ride press had reported on it in an editorial that week. But now The Story—which, as he could perceive it, was an orderly progression of what seemed to be someone’s life unfolding from childhood naivete to adolescent exuberance to adult cynicism to a nostalgic, elderly delight—was augmented by familiar accoutrements.
There was a robot zombie-head from one of the rides he’d torn down yesterday. And here was half the sign from the coffin coaster. A bat-wing bush from the hedge-maze. The little bastards had stolen the deconstructed ride-debris and brought it here.
By the time he got off the ride, he was grinning ferociously. By tomorrow there’d be copies of all that trademarked ride-stuff rolling off the printers in ten cities around the United States. That was a major bit of illegal activity, and he knew where he could find some hungry attack-lawyers who’d love to argue about it. He jumped on the ride again and got his camera configured for low-light shooting.
Eva showed up on Perry’s doorstep that night after dinner. Lester and Suzanne had gone off to the beach and Perry was alone, updating his inventory of tchotchkes with a camera and an old computer, getting everything stickered with RFIDs.
She had the kids in tow. Ada spotted the two old, lovely baseball mitts on the crowded coffee table and made a bee-line for them, putting one over each hand and walking around smacking them together to hear the leathery sound, snooping in drawers and peering at the business-end of an arc-welder that Perry hastily snapped up and put on a high shelf, which winked once to let him know that it had tracked the movement and noted the location of the tool.
The little boy, Pascal, rode on his mother’s hip. Eva had clearly had a bit of a cry, but had gotten over it. Now she was determined, with her jaw thrust out and her chin up-tilted.
“I don’t know what to do about him. He’s been driving me crazy since he retired. You know he had an affair?”
“He told me.”
She laughed. “He tells everyone. He’s boasting, you know? Whatever. I know why he did it. Mid-life crisis. But before that, it was early-adulthood crisis. And adolescent crisis. That guy doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s a good man, but he’s out of his fucking mind if he’s not juggling a hundred balls.”
Perry tried out a noncommittal shrug.
“You’re his buddy, I know. But you have to see that it’s true, right? I love him, I really do, but he’s got a self-destructive streak a mile wide. It doesn’t matter how much he loves me or the kids, if he’s not torturing himself with work, he’s got to come up with something else to screw up his life. I thought that we were going to spend the next twenty years raising the kids, doing volunteer work, and traveling. Not much chance of that though. You saw how he was looking at Suzanne.”
“You think he and Suzanne—”
“No, I asked him and he said no. Then I talked to her and she told me that she wouldn’t ever let something like that happen. Her I believe.” She sat down and dandled the little boy until he gurgled contentedly. Perry heard Ada going crazy in the kitchen with a mechanical sphincter he’d been building. “Rides are a lot of fun, Perry. Your ride, it’s amazing. But I don’t want to ride a ride for the rest of my life, and Landon is a ride that doesn’t stop. You can’t get off.”
Perry was at a loss. “I’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than six months, Eva. I’ve got no business giving you advice on this stuff. Kettlewell is pretty amazing, though. It sounds like you’ve got him pretty wired, right? You know that if he’s busy, he’s happy, and when he’s slack, he’s miserable. Sounds like if you keep him busy, he’ll be the kind of guy you want him to be, even if you won’t have much time to play with him.”
She unholstered a tit and stuck it in the boy’s mouth and Perry looked at the carpet. She laughed. “You are such a geek,” she said. “OK, fine. I hear what you’re saying. So how do I get him busy again? Can you use him around here?”
“Here?” Perry thought about it. “I don’t think we need much empire building around here.”
“I thought you’d say that. Perry, what the hell am I going to do?”
There was a tremendous crash from the kitchen, a shriek of surprise, then a small “oops.”
“Ada!” Eva called. “What now?”
“I was playing ball in the house,” Ada said in the same small voice. “Even though you have told me not to. And I broke something. I should have listened to you.”
Eva shook her head. “Plays me like a goddamned cello,” she said. “I’m sorry, Perry. We’ll pay for whatever it was.”
He patted her arm. “You forget who you’re talking to. I love fixing stuff. Don’t sweat it.”
“Whatever—I’ll buy you one and you can use it for parts. Ada! What did you break, anyway?”
“Made of seashells, by the toaster. It’s twitching.”
“Toast-making seashell robot,” Perry said. “No sweat—it was due for an overhaul, anyway.”
“Christ,” she said. “Toast-making seashell robot?”
“Kettlewell is why we gave up making that kind of thing,” he said.
“Have you seen him?”
“I’ve seen him.”
“How penitent was he?”
He thought back to Kettlewell’s long puss on Francis’s terrace. “Yeah, pretty penitent. He’s pretty worried, I’d say.”
She nodded. “All right then. Maybe he’s learned a lesson. Ada! Stop breaking things and get your shoes back on!”
“We going back to Daddy?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Good,” Ada said.
They were barely out the door when Suzanne and Lester came in. They nodded at Perry and disappeared into the bedroom. Ten minutes later, Suzanne stomped out again. She barely looked at Perry as she disappeared into the corridor, slamming the door behind her.
Perry waited five minutes to see if Lester would come out on his own. This happened sometimes with the fatkins girls; love among the fatkins was stormy and unpredictable and Lester seemed to like bragging about the melt-downs they experienced, each one an oddity of sybaritic fatkins culture to boast about.
But Lester didn’t come out this time. Perry thought about calling him or sending him an email. Finally, Perry went and knocked at his door.
“Oh, go back to the living room, I’ll come out, I’ll come out.”
Perry went back and moused desultorily at some ride-fan blogs for a while, listening for Lester’s door opening. Finally, out he came, long-faced and puffy-eyed.
Perry shook his head. Was everyone miserable tonight?
“Hello, Lester,” he said. “Something on your mind?”
He barked a humorless laugh. “With her, I’m still fat.”
Perry nodded as though he understood, though he didn’t.
“Since fatkins, I’ve felt like, I don’t know, a real person. When I was big, I was invisible and totally asexual. I didn’t think about having sex with anyone and no one ever thought about having sex with me. When I felt something for a woman, it was more like a big, romantic love, like I was a beast and she was a beauty and we could enjoy some kind of chaste, spiritual love.
“Fatkins made me…whole. A whole person, with a life below my belt as well as above my neck. I know it looks gross and desperate to you, but to me it’s a celebration. Every time I get together with a fatkins girl and we’re, you know, partying—for both of us it becomes something really intimate. A denial of pain. A fuck you to the universe that made us so gross and untouchable.”
“And with her, you’re still fat, huh?”
Lester winced. “Yeah, it’s my problem. I guess I really resent her for not wanting me when I was big, though I totally get why she wouldn’t have.”
“Maybe you’re angry that she wants you now.”
“Huh.” Lester looked at his hands, which he was dry-washing in his lap. “OK, maybe. Why should she want me now? I’m the same person, after all.”
“Except that you’re whole now.”
“Urk.” Lester started pacing. “Who broke the toast-robot?”
“Kettlewell’s daughter, Ada. Eva was over with the kids. She moved out on Kettlebelly.” He thought about whether he should tell Lester. What the hell. “She thinks he’s in love with Suzanne.”
“Jesus,” Lester said. “Maybe we should swap. I’ll take Eva and he can take Suzanne.”
“You’re such a pig,” Perry said.
“You know us fatkins—fuck, food and folly.”
“So what’s going on with you and Suzanne now?”
“She’s gone away until I can get naked around her without either bursting into tears or making sarcastic remarks.”
Jesus. Crying. Perry couldn’t remember when he’d ever seen Lester cry. It was waterworks city these days around here.
“Ah.” Perry just wanted this day to be over. He missed Hilda, though he barely knew her. It would have been nice to have someone here at home with him, someone he could cuddle up to in bed and talk this all out with. Maybe he should call Tjan. He hit the button on his computer that made the TV blink the time in Morse code. It was 1AM. He’d have to be up in six hours to get the ride up and running. Screw all this, he was going to bed. He hadn’t even gotten a single email from Hilda since he’d left Madison. Not that he’d sent one to her, of course.
Lester was still snoring when Perry slipped out of the condo, a bulb of juice and a microwavable venison and quail-egg breakfast burrito under his arm. He had a little glove-box microwave and by the time he hit his first red light, the burrito was nuclear-hot and ready to eat. He gobbled it one-handed while he made his way to the ride.
There were two cop cars at the end of the driveway leading to the parking lot. Broward County sheriff’s deputy black-and-whites, parked horizontally to blockade the drive.
Perry pulled over and got out of his car slowly, keeping his hands in plain sight. The doors of the cruisers opened, too. The deputies already had their mirrorshades on, though the sun was still rising, and they set down their coffees on the hood of the cars.
“This yours?” A deputy said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the flea market and the ride.
Perry knew better than to answer any questions. “Can I help you?”
“We’re shutting you down, buddy, sorry.” The cop was young, Latina and female, her partner was older, white and male, with the ruddy complexion that Perry associated with old time Florida cops.
“What’s the charge?”
“There’s no charge,” the male cop said. He sounded like he was angry already and anything Perry said would just make him angrier. “We charge you if we’re going to arrest you. We’re enforcing an injunction. Now, if you try to get past us, we’ll come up with a charge and then we’ll arrest you.”
“Can I see the injunction?”
“Sure, you can go to the courthouse and see the injunction.”
“Aren’t you supposed to have a copy of it to show to me?”
“Am I?” The cop’s grin was mean and impatient.
“Can I go and get some stuff from my office?”
“If you want to get arrested you can.” He pulled a dyspeptic face and drank some coffee, then got back into his cruiser.
The other cop had the grace to look faintly embarrassed at her asshole partner, but then she, too, got back in her car.
Perry thought furiously about this. The cop was clearly itching to bust his ass. Maybe he hated the ride, or this duty, or maybe he hated Perry—maybe he was one of the cops who had raided the shantytown all those years before. Perry had taken a pretty big settlement off the county over the shot in his head, and it was a sure bet that a lot of cops had suffered for it and now harbored some enmity for him.
As bad as this was, it was about to get worse. The goth kids who’d been hanging around in droves lately—they didn’t seem like the sort with a lot of good instincts when it came to dealing with authority figures. Then there were the flea-market stall owners, who’d be coming over the road to open their shops in an hour or so. This could get really goddamned ugly.
He needed a lawyer, and someone to front for him with the lawyer. He could call Tjan—he would call him, in fact, but not just yet. There were limits to what Tjan could do from Boston, after all.
He got back in his car and peeled across the road to the shantytown and the guesthouse.
“Kettlewell!” He thumped the door. “Come on, Landon, it’s me, Perry. It’s an emergency.”
He heard Eva curse, then heard movement. “Whazzit?”
“Sorry, man, I wouldn’t have woken you but it’s a real emergency.”
“No. Cops. They’ve shut down the ride.”
Kettlewell opened the door a crack and stared at him with a red-rimmed, hung-over eye. “Cops shut down the ride?”
“Yeah, they say there’s an injunction.”
“Gimme a sec, gotta put some pants on.” He closed the door. As Perry listened to the sounds of him getting dressed, he reflected that he’d done Eva the favor she’d been seeking: he’d found something to keep Kettlewell busy.
Kettlewell quizzed him intensely as they drove back across the road to the police-cars. He called Tjan and got voicemail, left a brief message, then got out of the car and stood still outside it, waving at the cop-cars.
The male cop looked even more dyspeptic.
“Hi there! I wondered if I could get you to explain what’s going on here so we can open up shop again?”
“We’ve shut you down to enforce an injunction.”
“What injunction is that?”
“A court injunction.”
The cop looked really angry for a second, then he got back in his car and fished around. “Broward County.” He sounded aggrieved.
“Is that the injunction there?” Kettlewell said.
“No,” the cop said, too quickly. They both knew he was lying, jerking them around.
“Can I see it? Does it have information about who to talk to to get the injunction lifted?” Kettlewell’s tone was even, pleasant and very adult. The voice of someone used to being obeyed.
“You’ll have to go to the courthouse. They open in a couple hours.”
“I’d really like to see it.”
“Oh for chrissakes,” the female cop said. “Just show it to them, Tom. God.” She spat on the ground. Her partner gave her a look, then handed the paper over to Kettlewell, who pored over it intently. Perry shoulder surfed him and gathered that they were being shut down for infringing Disney Parks Company trademarks. That was weird. You could hardly go ten feet in Florida without tripping over a bootleg Mickey, so why should the market-stalls’ Mickey designs trigger legal action?
“All right, then,” Kettlewell said. “Let’s make some phone calls.”
They got in the car and drove across the road to the shantytown. There was a tea-house that opened early and they commandeered its window table and spread out their things. Perry called Lester and woke him up. It took two or three tries to get his head around it—Lester couldn’t figure out why they’d shut down the market-stalls, but once he got that the ride was down too, he woke up fast and promised to meet them.
Kettlewell’s conversation with Tjan was a lot more heated. Perry tried to eavesdrop but couldn’t make any sense of it.
“All the rides are down,” he said once he’d dropped the phone to bounce a couple times on the tabletop, making the coffees shiver. “Every one of them was shut down by the cops this morning.”
“You’re shitting me. But they don’t all sell the same stuff.”
“They were shut down because of Disney trademarks in the ride itself, or so it seems. Now, what are we going to do? Tjan’s hired a lawyer for the Boston group and we can hire one for here, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to hire fixers everywhere that there’s a ride. That’s going to be really expensive. Disney’s filed all the injunctions at the state level—they have an industry association they work through that has cooperating attorneys in every city in the country, so it was easy for them.”
“Yeah. Who did you piss off, Perry?”
Damned if he knew. He literally couldn’t think of a single person who’d want to do this—someone had convinced the Disney company to clobber him like Godzilla going after Tokyo. It just didn’t make any sense.
“So what do we do?”
Kettlewell looked at him. “I have no clue, Perry. You aren’t a company. You aren’t a network of companies. You aren’t an industry association. No one can speak for you. You can’t lobby or even field a spokesman. I mean, none of that stuff works for you—and that’s the only way I know to fight back in court.”
“I thought we were immune to this stuff. If there’s no one to sue, how can they sue us?”
“If there’s no one to sue, there’s no one to show up in court and object, either.”
“I don’t think we can incorporate you in time to make a difference,” Kettlewell said. “So we need to think of something else.”
Suzanne slid into the booth beside them. Her hair was tied back and her makeup was spare and severe. She had on European-cut trousers, high like a bolero-dancer’s, and a loose, flowing white cotton over-shirt on top of a luminescent pink tank. Perry couldn’t tell whether it was formal or informal, but it looked good and a little intimidatingly foreign. She didn’t meet Perry’s eye.
“Brief me,” she said. She held out her phone and put it in record mode.
Kettlewell ran it down quickly and she nodded, jotting notes.
“So what happens next?”
“Not much we can do,” Kettlewell said.
“The riders will be along shortly. Oh, and the merchants.” Perry still couldn’t catch her eye.
“I’ll go take some pictures,” she said.
“Be careful,” Perry said.
She mugged for him. “Sweetie, I take pictures of the mafiyeh.” Then it was all right between them again, somehow.
“Right,” Kettlewell said. “How’s our time looking?”
“Got thirty minutes until the first of the merchants show up. An hour until the riders start turning up.”
“You don’t have a lawyer, do you?”
Perry quirked his funny eyebrow.
“Stupid question. OK. Right, I’ll make some more calls. Let’s get some people out of bed.”
“What can I do?”
Kettlewell looked at him. “Huh. Um. This is really my beat now. I suppose you could go keep Suzanne company.”
“Something wrong with Suzanne?”
“Nothing’s wrong with Suzanne,” he said. “OK, off I go.”
He set off on foot. The shantytown had woken up now, people getting ready for the hike to the early busses into places where the few remaining jobs were.
He took his phone out and tossed it from hand to hand. Then he called the number that he’d programmed in all those days ago in Madison but had never bothered to call. He forgot until the ringing started that it was another time-zone there—an hour or two earlier. But when Hilda answered, she sounded wide awake.
“Nice of you to call,” she said.
“Nice of you to answer.” Her voice sent a thrill up his spine.
“We’ve got cops outside of the ride here,” she said. “We’ve only been live for a week, too.”
“They’re at every ride,” he said. “They shut us down too.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“What am I going to do about it?”
“Sure, this is your thing, Perry. We woke up and discovered the cops this morning and the first thing everyone did was wonder when you’d call with the plan.”
“You’re kidding. What do I know about cops?”
“What do any of us know about cops? All we know is we built this thing after you came and talked to us about it and now it’s been shut down, so we’re waiting for you to tell us what to do next.”
He groaned and sat down on a curb. “Oh, crap.”
Then she sighed heavily at the other end. “OK, Perry, you need to pull it together. We need you now. We need something that explains what’s going on, what to do next, and how to do it. There’s a lot of energy out here, a lot of people ready to fight. Just point us in the right direction.”
“I have a guy who’s trying to figure that out right now.”
“Perfect. Now you need to set up a conference call with every ride operator so we can talk this over. Get online and post a time and an address. I’ll chat it up and make some calls. You make some calls too. Everyone likes to hear from you. They like to know you’re on their side.”
“Right,” he said, getting back to his feet, turning around to get his computer out of his trunk. “Right. That’s totally the right thing to do. I’m on it.”
“Good man,” she said.
A little pause stretched between them. “So,” he said. “How you doing, apart from all this?”
Her laugh was merry. “I thought you’d never ask. I’m looking forward to your next visit, is how I’m doing.”
“Of course really.”
“You sounded a little pissed at me there is all.” He sounded like a lovesick teenager. “I mean—” He broke off.
“Your ass needed kicking, was all.” Pause. “I’m not pissed at you, though. When are you coming for a visit?”
“Got me,” he said. “I guess I should, right?” He really sounded like a teenager.
“You need to visit all the sites, check in on how we’re doing.” Pause. “Plus you should come hang out with me some.”
He almost pointed out all her warnings about only having a one-night stand and not missing the people he was away from and so forth, but stayed his tongue. The fact that she wanted him to come for a visit was overshadowing everything, even the looming crisis with the cops.
“It’s a deal.”
He almost said, “You hang up first,” but that would have been too much. Instead he just kept the phone at his ear until he heard her click.
Suzanne was pointing and shooting like mad. Perry sat down on the cracked pavement beside her and unfolded his computer and started sending out emails, setting up a conference-channel. He gave Suzanne a short version of his talk with Hilda, being careful not to give a hint of his feelings for her.
“She sounds like a sensible girl,” Suzanne said. “You should go and pay her another visit.”
He blushed and she socked him in the shoulder.
“Take your call,” she said. The cops were giving them the hairy eyeball, and Perry screwed in his headset.
The conference channel was filling up. Perry checked off names as reps from all the rides came online. There was a lot of tight, tense chatter, jokes about the fuzz.
“OK,” Perry said. “Let’s get it started. There’s cops blockading every ride, right? Use the poll please.” He posted a poll to the conference page and it quickly got to 100 percent green. “So I just found the cops outside of mine, too, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I’ve got some dough for a lawyer, but I can’t afford lawyers for everyone. To make that work, we’d have to fly attorneys to every city with a ride in it, and that’s not practical as I’m sure you can tell.”
A half-dozen flags went up in the conference page. “I need someone to play moderator, ’cause I can’t talk and mod at the same time. How about you, Hilda?”
“OK,” she said. “I’m Hilda Hammersen, from the Madison group. Post one-line summaries of your points and I’ll set a speaker order.”
The conference page filled up. There was the official back channel at the bottom where the text was spilling by too fast for Perry to parse, and he knew that there were lots of unofficial back-channels in use, too. He covered the mic and sighed. He had nothing to say to these people. He didn’t have any answers.
“Right. So who knows what we should do?” The back-channel went crazy. Hilda started green-lighting speakers with their flags up.
“Why are you asking us, Perry? You’ve got to run this.” The voice was petulant and Perry saw that it was one of the Boston crew, which made him wonder what Tjan was going to do when he discovered that Perry was doing this.
The page pinkened and then sank into red. The other people on the call clearly thought this was BS, which was a relief to Perry. Hilda cued up the next speaker.
“We could set up information pickets at the gates to each ride hitting people up for donations for our legal defense—get the press to cover it and maybe we could bring in enough to fight all the injunctions.”
The pink lightened a little, went back to neutral white, turned a little green. Perry slowed down the back-channel a little and skimmed it:
:: No way could we bring in enough, that’s like 30 grand each I get a couple hundred people here in the morning and that would mean a hundred and fifty bucks each
:: No no it’s totally do-able we can raise that easy just set up some paypals and publicize the shit out of it
The next speaker was talking. “What if we got the maintenance bots to break open the doors and carry the ride outside where everyone can see it?”
Bright red. Dumb idea.
Perry broke in. “I’m worried that when people show up it’ll provoke some kind of confrontation with the law. It could get ugly here. How can we keep that cooled out?”
“That’s totally got to be our top priority,” Hilda said.
Next speaker. “OK, so the best way to keep people calm is to tell them that there’s an alternative to going nuts, which maybe could be raising money for a legal defense.”
Green-ish. “What about finding pro-bono lawyers? What about the ACLU or EFF?”
The back-channel filled up with URLs and phone numbers and email addresses.
“OK, time’s running out here,” Perry said. “You guys need to organize a call-around to those orgs and see if they’ll help us out. Pass the hat at your rides, try to find lawyers. Everyone keep reporting in all day—especially if you get a win anywhere. I’m going to go take care of things here.”
Hilda IMed him—“Good luck, Perry. You’ll kick ass.”
Perry started to IM back, but a shadow fell across his screen. It was Jason, who ran the contact-lens stall. He was staring at the two cop-cars quizzically, looking groggy but growing alarmed.
Perry closed his lid and got to his feet. “Morning, Jason.” Behind Jason were five or six other vendors. The sellers who lived in the shantytown and could therefore walk to work were always first in. Soon the commuters would start arriving in their beater cars.
“Hey, Perry,” Jason said. He was chewing on an unlit cigarette, a disgusting habit that was only marginally less gross than smoking them. He’d tried toothpicks, but nothing would satisfy his oral cravings like a filter-tip. At least he didn’t light them. “What’s up?”
Perry told him what he knew, which wasn’t much. Jason listened carefully, as did the other vendors who arrived. “They’re fucking with you, man. The cops, Disney, all of them. Just fucking with you. You go ahead and hire a lawyer to go to the court for you and see how far it gets you. They’re not playing by any rules, they’re not interested in the law you broke or whatever. They just want to fuck with you.”
Suzanne appeared over Perry’s shoulder.
“I’m Suzanne Church, Jason. I’m a reporter.”
“Sure, I know you. You were there when they burned down the old place.”
“That was me. I think you’re right. They’re fucking with you guys. I want to report on that because it might be that exposing it makes it harder to continue. Can I record what you guys say and do?”
Jason grinned and slid the soggy cig from one corner of his mouth to the other and back again. “Sure, that’s cool with me.” He turned to the other sellers: “You guys don’t mind, do you?” They joked and laughed and said no. Perry let out a breath slowly. These guys didn’t want a confrontation with the cops—they knew better than him that they couldn’t win that one.
Suzanne started interviewing them. The cops got out of their cars and stared at them. The woman cop had her mirrorshades on now, and so the both of them looked hard and eyeless. Perry looked away quickly.
The vendors with cars were pulling them around to the roadside leading up to the ride, unpacking merchandise and setting it out on their hoods. Vendors from the shantytown headed home and came back with folding tables and blankets. These guys were business-people. They weren’t going to let the law stand in the way of putting food on the table for their families.
The cops got back into their cars. Kettlewell worked his way cautiously across the freeway, climbing laboriously over the median. He had changed into a smart blazer and slacks, with a crisp white shirt that hid his incipient belly. He looked like the Kettlewell of old, the kind of man used to giving orders and getting respect.
“Hey, man,” Perry said. Kettlewell’s easy smile was reassuring.
“Perry,” he said, throwing an arm around his shoulders and leading him away. “Come here and talk with me.”
They stood in the lee of one of the sickly palms that stood by the roadside. The day was coming up hot and Perry’s t-shirt stuck to his chest, though Kettlewell seemed dry and in control.
“What’s going on, Perry?”
“Well, we did a phoner this morning with all the ride operators. They’re going to work on raising money for the defense and getting pro-bono lawyers from the EFF or the ACLU or something.”
Kettlewell did a double-take. “Wait, what? They’re going to ask the ACLU? They can’t be trusted, Perry. They’re impact litigators—they’ll take cases to make a point, even when it’s not in their clients’ best interests.”
“What could be more in our interests than getting lawyers to fight these bogus injunctions?”
Kettlewell blew out a long breath. “OK, table it. Table it. Here’s what I’ve been pulling together: we’ve got a shitkicking corporate firm that used to handle the Kodacell business that’s sending out a partner to go to the Broward County court this morning to get the injunction lifted. They’re doing this as a freebie, but I told them that they could handle the business if we put together all the rides into one entity.”
Now it was Perry’s turn to boggle. “What kind of entity?”
“We have to incorporate them all, get them all under one umbrella so that we can defend them all in one go. Otherwise there’s no way we’re going to be able to save them. Without a corporate entity, it’s like trying to herd cats. Besides, you need some kind of structure, a formal constitution or something for this thing. You’ve got a network protocol, and that’s it. There’s money at stake here—potentially some big money—and you can’t run something like that on a handshake. It’s too vulnerable. You’ll get embezzled or sued into oblivion before you even have a chance to grow. So I’ve started the paperwork to get everything under one banner.”
Perry counted to ten, backwards. “Landon, I’m really thankful that you’re helping us out here. You’re probably going to save our asses. But you can’t put everything under one banner—you can’t just declare to these people that their projects are ours—”
“Of course they’re yours. They’re using your IP, your protocols, your designs…. If they don’t come on board, you can just threaten to sue them—”
“Landon! Please listen to me. We are not going to effect a hostile takeover of my friends. They are equal owners of everything we do here. And no offense, but if you ever mention suing other projects over our ’IP’”—he made sarcastic finger quotes—“then we’re through having any discussions about this. OK?”
Kettlewell snorted air through his nostrils. “My apologies, I didn’t realize that this was such a sensitive area for you.” Perry boggled at this—lawsuits against ride operators! “But I can get that. Here’s the thing, Perry. Without some kind of fast-moving structure you’re going to be dead. Even if we repel the boarders this morning, they’ll be back tomorrow and the day after. You need something stronger than a bunch of friends who have loose agreements. You need a legal entity that can speak for everyone. Maybe that’s a co-op or a charity or something else, but it’s got to exist. You may not think you have any say over these other rides, but does everyone else agree? What if you get sued for someone’s bad deeds in Minneapolis? What if some ride operator sues you to put you out of business?”
Perry’s head swam. He hated conversations like this. He didn’t have any good answer for Kettlewell’s objections, but it was ridiculous. No one from a ride was going to sue him. Or maybe they would, if he got all grabby and went MINE MINE MINE and incorporated everything with him at the top. Hilda said he was the one they all looked to, but that was because he would never try to hijack their projects.
“No to all of it. We have to defend this thing, but we’re not going to do it by trying to tie everyone down to contracts and agreements where I get to control everything. Maybe a co-op is the right way to go, but we can’t just declare a co-op and force everyone to be members. We have to get everyone to agree, everyone who’s involved, and then they can elect a council or something and work out some kind of uniform agreement. I mean, that’s how all the good free software projects work. There’s authority, but it’s not all unilateral and imperious. I’m not interested in that. I’d rather shut this down than declare myself pope-emperor of ride-land.”
Kettlewell scrubbed his eyes with his fists. Up close, the lines in his face were deep-sunk, his eyeballs bloodshot and hung over. “You’re killing me, you know that? What good is principle going to do when they knock this fucking thing down and slap you with a gigantic lawsuit?”
Perry shrugged. “I really appreciate what you’ve done, but I’d rather lose it than fuck it up.”
They stared at each other for a long time. Cars whizzed past. Perry felt like a big jerk. Kettlewell had done amazing work for him this morning, just out of the goodness of his own heart, and Perry had repaid him by being a stiff-necked dickwad. He felt an overwhelming desire to take it back, just put Kettlewell in charge and let him run the whole show. Just shrug his shoulders and abdicate.
He looked down at the ground and up into the straggly palms, then heaved a sigh.
“Landon, I’m sorry, OK, but that’s just how it is. I totally dig that you’re saying that we’re risking everything by not doing it your way, but from my seat, doing it your way will kill it anyway. So we need a better answer.”
Kettlewell scrubbed his eyes some more. “You and my wife sound like you’d get along.”
Perry waited for him to go on, but it became clear he had nothing more to say.
Perry went back to the cop cars just as the first gang of goths showed up to take a ride.