I bought Lotto tickets. I read sad poems and cursed.
Later, I'd tell people that this was all during my Blue Period, where everything eventually came back to porn, where German leisure pants with gigantic blue trapezoids started to seem okay in the privacy of my own home. Blue because I wanted love and money but got a blue plastic boat cover for Christmas from my grandfather in Baden Baden along with the pants. Blue for all the things I kept trying to say without saying to Ex-fiancée Lori's answering machine in the blue hours of the night. Blue for all the yeahs and I-told-you-sos of the world served back to me by sarcastic waiters in blue aprons. Blue because I didn't own a boat to put under the boat cover. And blue because that's exactly how things went. You wanted gold. You wanted suffrage and diversity and the warm sun and chocolates for everyone; instead you got a blue nightmare, everybody's face closed and creased like good-bye stationary with blue trim from an ex-fiancée, living now in Point Azul, where the ocean reflects the sky.
Every day, I hoped life would improve, and every day it didn't. My neighbor, Sid, an ex-long-haul trucker who'd had a nervous breakdown and found god, came over in the evenings with a case of Olympia because he didn't own a TV. Changing his life for Jesus meant giving up his sinful trucking ways in favor of becoming a cobbler or a farmer—something biblical and profound—only he didn't like touching other people's old shoes and he was offended by manure. So he set out to become a tailor. Now he was more of a seamstress, his electric Singer whirring and clicking at all hours on the other side of the wall.
Sid belched a Sid-belch, a low, wet one, and didn't apologize. But I wasn't asking. He didn't tell me about salvation, and I didn't mention his constant belching and farting. We drank Olympia, watched CNN. Half the time, I didn't even know he was there, caught up as I was in the difficulties of my blue life and my overall failure at everything.
I suppose I tolerated his visits because everyone I knew thought I was worthless in some way, and I generally agreed with them. The sum of Sid's criticism, however, was: "Will, you know, you should get that shirt altered. It takes less than two minutes to put on one button. I hate for you to hear it like this, but it'll make that shirt look a whole lot better." And then nothing for the rest of the night. I could live with that.
Tonight, CNN had been interviewing troops back from the Persian Gulf, who'd begun to have visions, possibly due to the use of so much depleted uranium in the rounds.
"It's basically, uh, we feel, having been there on the ground, a lot of us have come to feel, basically, seriously, that god is a dirty bomb." 22-year-old Sgt. Evan Fulton. Hair in tufts. Sunken eyes.
"Excuse me, did I just hear you say that god is a dirty bomb?"
"Uh, yeah, basically."
Sid moaned. "Oh man. This is it." Olympia can poised in front of his lips. "The end times."
"Hey," I flicked the channel up one to Cops. "You better take it easy with that fire and brimstone shit."
~ ~ ~
Something had to be done.
I took a singles cruise to Catalina, telling myself it was the thing. But it wasn't the thing, and I wound up drunk in the corner, yelling over the music with a balding French woman who didn't believe the moon landing had happened.
"Accept it," she said. "It was all just simulation."
"Stimulation?" I asked.
"You're all the same," she said.
I drove up the coast with a children's theater troupe, playing Boy Jim in The Pirates of O'Claire. No one complained that I was long past boyhood and that the culottes I wore made me look like an aged clown from a failing backwoods circus—until a kid in the audience squeaked out "He's no boy!" when I crept from my barrel in scene two. For the rest of the afternoon, waves of eight-year-old laughter came in all the wrong places.
I signed up for Buddhist golf lessons and got to the point of realizing that the desire to hit a birdie was my main obstacle in achieving detachment. When I'd put one squarely in the lake, my caddy would wrap his orange robes more tightly around himself, clasp his hands, and smile beatifically: "Do you not see that it is not the ball that traverses the distance, rather, it is only yourself?" After three days of that, I nodded and threw the club in after it.
In theory, I still had a job teaching prescriptive grammar at Mesa Del Mar, a high school in the suburbs of San Diego. It was a good job until I browbeat the strong safety of the football team to tears and had to settle with his parents in arbitration. I took a forced leave of absence. They took him to Provençe. And I'd have to take a psych evaluation before coming back next semester.
Sam Perganov, the principal, had been all too clear: "Don't think of it as a suspension, Will. Think of it as a chance to get back in touch with your inner imperatives." Sam: who benched 350 and could never go back to the Ukraine. "You've got to learn how to relax, mellow out a bit, work with the students instead of viewing them with such hostility." He cracked his knuckles and I nodded politely.
What kind of high school suspends its teachers for speaking harshly to a student? I asked this over and over, but I knew the answer. People were getting nervous. People were out of touch with their inner imperatives. The kids might have already gained access to caseless ammo and Belgian anti-tank weapons—not hard to come by, I hear, on the playground. There were rumors that a band of sophomores was circulating a bootlegged copy of The Battle of Algiers, that they had their own handshake, that they'd dug a network of catacombs under the faculty lot. They said the kids could even recognize the local candidates for mayor and knew what voting was.
Something had to be done. The PTA had to unite, stay the course, communicate in ways that everybody could easily understand, reestablish decency and homespun American values everywhere. To this end, Mesa Del Mar did away with art, band, and English classes, replacing them with community service, music appreciation, and prescriptive grammar. Speech was limited to delivering pre-nineteenth century Celtic valedictions. The school went on permanent orange alert. There was talk of metal detectors, random body searches, loyalty oaths, a guard tower on the upper field. German Shepherds.
Maybe because of all the strife and upheaval, at various low moments, in little outtakes of despair, I worried that I'd never get in touch with my inner self, that the enlightenment Sam Perganov said I needed was forever beyond me. I worried that when it got down to taking whatever come-back-to-work polygraph they no doubt planned to give me under a scorching interrogation lamp in the faculty lounge, they'd write my name on the floor in red chalk and I'd be so nervous I'd stutter, answer all the questions wrong, and FAIL, FAIL, FAIL, FAIL, FAIL.
It got humid. Then it rained for a week.
Fifteen days had passed in my mandatory leave of absence. And I'd begun getting up at 10 in the morning, spending all day in my pajamas surfing the internet. Since I was not, technically, jobless, I felt I should be looking up new ways of presenting The Common Grammatical Errors, novel ways to split an infinitive, unique applications for the m-dash. But all I found was porn.
Always and forever there are the great golden felicitations of internet porn to revive you. One click and you're whisked away to a shimmering paradise where nothing is forbidden, where interactive webcams offer you orgasmic surveillance and total control: live college dorm girls in bondage, four girls and two guys, three guys and one girl, three guys who look like girls, naked people in Hungarian leather who send you instant messages, naked people in bulky black shoes who want to know: Are you cut? Uncut?, defecation, exfoliation, weightlifters, anorexics, amateurs, analingusts, anal linguists, downloading and uploading, The Pleasures of the Orient, Fully Interactive Orgies with Indigenous Peoples. You control the cameras. You control the action, sahib.
With the interactive sites, you could change the angle of the shots, instant message the participants with suggestions, and they might stop to answer:
TURBODOG: Cindie, I think you should be on your back.
CINDIE FOXX: Oh, yes, Turbodog, that's a good idea.
Of course, there's no accounting for taste. Whenever I logged off, I had to face up to the brutal reality of being in my pajamas at 2:30 PM. For the first time in my life, I was on forced leave, forced to relax, and I could give the information superhighway my undivided attention. I started a blog. I called Ex-fiancée Lori, and asked her answering machine for its opinion. I thought seriously about air quality and emission standards all over the world. I walked around my apartment and looked at discolored creases in the walls. Nothing is worse than a vacation.
I kept my TV on CNN, volume way down. The glassy-eyed talking heads with wrinkled mouths comforted me like distant aunts and uncles at a wake who don't know what to say, their voices just low enough to make no sense. Mmmffuga . . . mmmmimosa . . . have a sherdgu . . . mekkeh . . . last time in grasm . . . hbongoggrd . . . rrmurdel . . . ah, exactly, brnl . . . .
Couldn't be. On-screen they were showing recent footage of Japanese protesters being gassed, flame-blossom Molotov cocktails in the street, sci-fi riot cops behind tower shields. I pictured Wolf Blitzer saying, "Why don't we all just go down and get a mimosa? The girls from the BBC are already there, dog. And they party." Two-for-one Molotov cocktails. Happy hour in Aomori Prefecture.
On the other TV (the back-up set: be prepared), the local San Diego news seemed just as grim but in a maudlin way. Concerned parents and faculty were holding a candlelit prayer-in in Mesa Del Mar's gym, singing "We Shall Overcome." Their reasons for doing this were unclear to me. Maybe it was due to the group of dissident sophomores and their tunnels. Maybe it was something else entirely. Everyone had fat green ribbons tied around their left wrists. The real question was, why wasn't I invited? I'm cool. I could go to a prayer-in.
TURBODOG: Cindie, would you go to a prayer-in with me?
CINDIE FOXX: I love prayer-ins, Turbodog.
It's an indisputable fact of life that we all need to be watched. Webcams, surveillance, the sense that somebody has an eye on us is a good thing. It helps us flag the warning signs. It helps protect us from ourselves. That's why, when Susan Thorrson called me and said "What's that clicking on the line? Do you hear that clicking?" I checked my Caller I.D., saw "IDENTIFICATION BLOCKED", and knew immediately it was her. I also knew that the clicking didn't matter. In the new openness of a perfectly surveilled culture, everything, even sexual fetishes, will be style points—like gourmet beers or a choice of socks: are you really going for the argyle today? You're so naughty.
And why else would Susan be calling me? Actually, she was also a teacher of prescriptive grammar at Mesa Del Mar, so she could have been calling for any prescriptive reason. But, since I was looking at Amateur Hardcore Webcams right then, I just assumed . . . and the assumption was natural and okay and nothing to be ashamed of.
"Don't mind the clicking," I said. "Susan, I sense the reason for your call. I took these Buddhist golf lessons and, I don't know, they gave me a kind of intuition."
"This isn't Susan. I don't know any Susan." She hung up.
Two minutes later, she called back. "This is not Susan," she said. "Understand?"
I said I understood completely. I said I understood more than she knew and that it was okay and that I felt I was finally coming to know her inner imperatives.
The webcams pulsed in the darkness of my bedroom. Cindie Foxx was gone and now Pretty Pouty Petra was doing a striptease wrapped in the Confederate flag. Someone off-camera lobbed dried apricots at her breasts, breasts that looked far older than the rest of her—even though the site assured me that "All Models are 18-20 Years of Age." Every now and then, she'd stagger and take a swig off the Heineken she kept around the corner of the white sofa behind her. Amateur webcams. Amateurs, not professionals, are allowed to drink Heineken when stripping off the Confederate flag. It was fascinating.
"We need to talk," said Susan. "A lot of rumors are going around."
"Of course. We should talk. We are, after all, consenting adults."
"I think I'm in trouble," she said. "Certain issues have come to light."
"Nonsense. There's no reason to feel ashamed about anything. Meet me for dinner tonight, and we'll embrace this new openness together. I've been wanting to embrace it with you, for some time."
Petra was now on the sofa, straddling a muscle-bound military man with a bristling crew-cut while she twirled the Confederate flag over her head like a lasso and guffawed.
Susan said she'd be by around 8, but she sounded disoriented, maybe ecstatic. Maybe she was finally coming to realize that her true inner imperatives had little, if anything, to do with prescription and everything to do with visualization, fantasization, tantalization.
"I think I'm being watched."
"That's okay." I said, "A lot of people are into that."
~ ~ ~
In order to keep up with the new security improvements, I'd bought a Land Rover with the last of my savings. It wasn't quite bulletproof, not quite a Hummer, but it still had enough solidity to discourage sniper fire. I threw a good tint job on it the day I drove off the lot. You'd have to aim straight through the front windshield if you wanted to target my head.
I parked the Rover across from Mesa Del Mar, cracked the side window just enough for my binoculars, and checked things out. They'd fired the old crossing guard, substituting a senior on top of the administration building with his own binoculars and a notebook. Every time I did this, I watched him watching me. He was always there, recording anything suspicious. I imagined him taking down my license plate, my description, noting the time. I stuck my hand out and waved. He took that down, too.
On my visits I often noticed unmarked vehicles with zoom lenses pointing out their windows at the principal's office, the nurse's office, the upper field. Snap, snap, snap: oh yes, we have pictures. Fotographia. We have your sons and daughters. We better than have them. They've been uploaded, data mined, ported, resolved, pattern recognized, plotted-and-slotted, trajectorized. We know about the sophomore tunnels. We have animatronicized the secret handshake. We're watching your little Che right now via our supersexy Hungarian_leather.ru uplink.
Tension was thick in the air. People covered their faces, looked down, spent as little time in the open as possible. Everywhere on campus blinds were swaying, drapes had telling spaces, figures disappeared behind corners. But I wanted to get up and dance. I wanted to get out of my high-end, high-target-profile sport utility vehicle and do a tarantella along the tops of cars parked parallel to the administration building while people off-screen lobbed dried apricots at me. Dance like some pixilated Charlie Chaplain. You control the action, sahib.
I got out of the Land Rover and stood on the sidewalk, looking up at my friend on the roof across the street. Part of me knew this was suicidal. One does not stand on a sidewalk beside an open SUV door in southern California and not expect to be a target: bad positioning, leaving oneself vulnerable to rabid dogs and carjackings, government snipers, tsetse flies, chronic masturbators in second-floor windows. But something about my young accomplice with the field glasses and notebook moved me. He was a tragic yet hopeful figure, scribbling feverishly, trying to get it all down, as if that were possible.
I raised my hand in peace, noting Sam Perganov's stricken white face peeking around his office blinds. And I wondered if Sam was joyous or terrified or joyously terrified like me, about to burst, as my feet did a little shuffle on the pavement. I wished I could step into his skin to see me seeing him seeing me. I grinned and waved at both Sam and my buddy on the roof. I wished Pretty Pouty Petra were there, all wrapped up in stars 'n bars and full of Heinekens.
CINDIE FOXX: Yes, Turbodog?
TURBODOG: Do you think Paul Virilio was right when he wrote that systems of modern surveillance have precipitated a new obliviousness to the element of interpretative subjectivity that is always at play in the act of looking?
CINDIE FOXX: Oh, yes, Turbodog, that's a good idea.
~ ~ ~
And here was Susan Thorrson sitting across the table from me, Cantonese food imminent. And I knew that one cannot have flirtatious tête-à-tête with svelte female grammarian while obsessing about surveillance. So I tried to put it out of my mind, but I was feeling a little shaky, a little less than fine.
Susan seemed about to cry. It was fairly clear that there would be no naked self-realizations after dinner at my apartment, no Heinekens, no uninhibited exchanges on a white sofa while we photographed each other and guffawed. Consequently, I felt like I should either be recording our conversation for my own protection or escaping through the kitchen. I was sure I had done nothing wrong.
Susan looked both beautiful and disturbed in the red vinyl booth, sitting up against the gigantic Cantonese lobster tank. She sighed and stared at her plate of orange chicken and shrimp fried rice. She seemed so unhappy I didn't have the heart to tell her the truth about orange chicken, about how each cubic centimeter of it would soon be fulminating in her pores. Zinc oxide, copper gluconate, monosodium glutamate, manganese sulfate, pyriodoxide hydrochloride, yellow-6, blue-12, all smoking its way through her system like Chinese mustard gas. Carcinogenic. Morbid degeneration. Kills one in six albino test mice. She raised a dainty, well-measured bite of chicken to a perfect Pouty Petra mouth.
"Are you listening to me? They've got me on tape," she said.
I watched her chew, heard the hissing of woks in the kitchen. They were cooking with napalm, whole sections of jungle going up in towers of fire just so jefe could get his tangy chicken. And in the meantime Susan's cell walls collapsed, vacuoles filling with boiling blue-12 death fluid.
"You shouldn't get upset," I said. "Turn yourself in for whatever you've done and you'll feel better."
"As of this morning, I know they're listening to me." For a moment, she looked less pretty and pouty and more like Ex-fiancée Lori: eyes narrowed, calculating, figuring her options.
Susan lowered her voice and leaned in: "I used the phrase 'subject-predicate' but, on their equipment, I don't know. Every time I used it, it sounded like 'subject-proletariat.' They played the tape for me, my own voice. They think I'm in with that student group. I said I didn't know a damn thing about any tunnels."
She swallowed shrimp fried rice. I watched her throat as she did it: napalm over the rainforest. Albino test mice buried in unmarked graves.
"Level with them first thing tomorrow," I said. "Just tell the truth and remember, they have the technology. They're always watching. It's for our own protection. It's important that you understand that." Enunciating over the salt shaker, I thought of Sam Perganov sitting in the back of an unmarked van smiling and nodding.
"They want me to take a lie detector test. They've got an old reel-to-reel in a closet in the gym. The whole place is wired. How do you think they got me on tape?"
Was the black lobster crawling right up to the aquarium glass over her shoulder so it could get a better look at me? The Cantonese music sounded sped up.
"Is there something wrong with you? You haven't eaten a thing."
"That lobster," I said, "doesn't have a name. One of these days, somebody's going to take it out and knock its head open or boil it alive. But, for now, we can see it and it can see us. Everybody's safe. We know where we stand. Right?" A trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck.
She glanced over her shoulder at the lobster, then started inching out of the booth, a frozen smile on her face.
Later, I would tell people that Susan Thorrson and I met for some innocent Cantonese chicken. I'd say I had nothing to do with the lobster and, while its death was tragic, I have no knowledge of any prior communications with it or its associates. Cameras in my face. Toxic air. My name on the ground in red chalk.
"How's the orange chicken?" I asked.
~ ~ ~
I walked straight home from my dinner with Susan thinking that maybe, just maybe, the truth about orange chicken was at the very heart of the matter. Too much manganese sulfate and your brow begins to slope, cheeks elongate, ears grow large. Too much copper gluconate and you can't stop talking, too little and you start to float. Exceed the recipe for pyriodoxide hydrochloride and you're a yipping dachshund, while a massive overdose of zinc oxide gives fluency in Middle English and impedes higher brain functions. Thow thynkest now, how sholde I don al this? But the ugly truth: the subject-proletariat has no idea what's in their chicken or who's dipping their woks in smoldering vats of napalm by the light of the moon.
Running fingers through my hair, I questioned everything, wondering if these were actually my thoughts and emotions or just additives, blue-12, yellow-6 bubbling across the brainpan. Was this a test? Even now, was I being recorded? Was all of this going down in some permanent record—"Will Dent's Reactions to Various Psycho-chemical Stimuli"—along with my handwriting homework from second grade and how many moving violations I had as a teenager? Later, if I tried to describe these feelings, would people understand me? Would they even hear the words? Or would my mouth be moving to a different language, dubbed like in the kung fu movies of my youth? I'd be screaming:
Help me, I fear this is a hostile world!
Help me, I fear anything might explode at any minute! That there are mics in the palm trees! That Sam Perganov knows which side of the bed I like to sleep on! But they'd hear: damn you! Come out and fight! You think you know kung fu?!
I opened my door and the place was ransacked. All the drawers in my scuffed porter's desk were upside-down on the floor, curtains ripped, refrigerator on its side and hissing. I wondered what the ransackers could possibly have been looking for when they pulled up the floorboards, and what sort of tool could have made such splintered edges. How long had it taken them to decide to slash the cushions in the sofa? Was this before or after they cut open the mattress? And why had they gone through the trouble of clogging the toilet with wadded-up newspaper and flushing it repeatedly until it overflowed? Of course, there were no answers. The refrigerator could only hiss.
Staring at the holes in the floor, I dialed Ex-fiancée Lori but, of course, her machine answered for her. I dialed Susan. "If you're listening to me, don't call back." I'd begun to preface all my calls with this. If she didn't call me back, I'd already requested it. If she did, she was already at a disadvantage. Ingenious, I know. "I don't understand why they've ransacked my apartment. I've done nothing wrong. You know how well-groomed I am, how much love I have for teaching prescriptive grammar and for . . . the principal."
As I stared at the wreckage, I tried to picture who could have done such a thing and realized I hadn't checked all the rooms. My leg started jiggling. I began to sweat all over again.
"I think of our school as more than just a high school. It's a growing experience for young adults. And our principal, he's like a father, a real leader."
That black lobster looking at me through the glass. One of these days, they're going to take it out back and knock its head open, boil it alive.
"I didn't mean to browbeat anyone on the football team. I go to all the games. I love my students. Those kids are my life."
In fact, I would have liked to get the strong safety on tape. Maybe start a webcam: www.amateurbrowbeatings.com. Interrogation lamp, name chalked at his feet: You! Don't you know what an obscure pronoun reference is?! Did you have any idea what you were doing when you let that participle dangle? The violence? The depravity? Did it occur to you that you were completely destroying that sentence? Are you not ashamed? Horrified at your behavior? . . . We have been watching you for some time.
I hung up gently, as gently as I could with sweaty palms, nerves clenching the pit of my stomach, trying to recall the last time I ate or what, if anything, I'd had to drink beyond a sip of lukewarm Souchong with Susan and the lobster. In the bathroom, I sat on the edge of the tub, hugged myself, and stared at my shoes in an inch of overflowed water.
~ ~ ~
Because Susan insisted that I not call her Susan, I thought it only appropriate that she not call me Will. Soon we stopped answering each other's calls altogether. We simply let it ring twice, hung up, then let it ring twice again. That was our signal to meet at the doughnut shop across from Mesa Del Mar. We'd sit in pink plastic chairs and stare through the front window at German Shepherds doing sniff-searches of incoming students.
She would be Gail and I would be Tom and, to the rest of the world, we were married and had a townhouse. We spoke only in code. If she said, "I'm going to Africa tomorrow," it meant she'd be teaching school. The doughnut shop was "Home Base." Sam Perganov was "The Man." Surveillance was "The Radar." I wanted to refer to the things Susan ate at the doughnut shop as "The Poison," but I didn't dare. She sucked down crullers and cups of black coffee as if they were enchanted, some sort of mystic EMP-chaff that would keep her invisible as we sat and brooded and stared at our school.
Meanwhile, days passed in the wreckage of my apartment. I lived in the debris the way rats will after the last bomb drops and all that's left are piles of jagged concrete and twisted rebar sticking out of the ground. Sometimes, I laughed hysterically at the clogged toilet.
Out of mercy or sheer ineptitude, the ransackers had spared my computer and only bashed in the monitor. I immediately bought a new flat-screen on credit so that, when I wasn't at the doughnut shop or doing super-slow gangster rolls past the front of Mesa Del Mar in my Land Rover, I could send Susan short emails Re: The Man in Africa. Was I falling in love with her? I wondered: were we sending each other mixed messages, or was it the real thing? There was no way to know. If you can't trust your phone lines and you don't have broadband, how can you trust your feelings? I wondered what code word I'd use if I had to say how I felt about her.
Good Sid, the born-again trucker, kept me company—a corpulent, stinking, latter-day Friar Tuck. We drank blessed Olympia Tumwater and watched the president get re-elected.
And, every night, I danced around my shattered bureau, did pirouettes between splintered holes in the floor, cooed sweet nothings to my hissing fridge. Sometimes, I laughed. Sometimes, I cried. I learned that the m-dash should be replaced by a colon when preceding a formal clarifying or emphatic clause. I spent hours on Amateur Hardcore Webcams probing the nature of life. I ate my dinners watching riot police club protesters in the famed cities of antiquity. Nightsticks in Nasiriyah. Teargas in Gifu. Bullets over Burgas.
~ ~ ~
Gail and Tom had their last doughnut rendezvous on a Sunday that felt like a Monday—the last day before Tom was supposed to go across the street to the Teacher's Conference Room and talk about his feelings. The Man in Africa demanded it: a psych evaluation that could be videotaped and sent to the parents of the browbeaten, traumatized strong safety currently nursing his delicate sensibilities in a small, yet restful, French chateau. If all went as planned and Tom showed the proper remorse for raising his voice, the parents would be satisfied enough to let their son return to the United States, would drop the remaining portion of their suit against the school district, and the boy would finish out the semester with a guaranteed B+ in the course. The Man would rehire Tom. All would be forgiven.
Across the street, the German Shepards doing sniff-searches were, at that moment, making more than Tom. The air smelled like warm buttermilk.
"Do you realize those dogs . . ." said Tom, but Gail wasn't listening.
"Look at that car," she said, "the off-blue one. It drives past, what, like three or four times every time we're sitting here. Have you noticed that? Is that significant?"
"Probably just a parent dropping a student off." I looked but none of the cars going by were blue. I hadn't once mentioned blue to Susan. How could she have known the relationship I had with that color? How could she? Could she? No one says "off-blue."
Tom tried to keep a straight face but, suddenly, he felt angry. Ugly, bitter insights sizzled across the brainpan.
"How could you do this to Tom?" I said. "How could you? Tom is very pissed."
"Has it occurred to you that you're not the most stable person?"
"Has it occurred to you, Gail, that Tom trusted you?"
She rolled her eyes and took a small bite of lethal cruller. But it was a telling bite, a studied bite, a bite far too measured even for the pretty and pouty of the world, who enjoy everything except Heinekens in the most proscribed amounts.
"I don't think I can hang out with you anymore," she said to her coffee.
"Your bite betrays you," I said, "just as you've betrayed me. You've been working for him all along, haven't you. And all this time I thought we had something."
"We have nothing." She took another bite, bigger this time, and squinted at the distant football team scrimmaging on the upper field—minus, of course, our strong safety, who was busy rebuilding his emotional security over Celery Rémoulade and Crème Brulée.
"You're nothing but a tool for The Man," I said.
She was a henchwoman, a hypocrite, a desperada trying to hold on to her lousy job. So desperate, in fact, that she'd gone undercover for Sam Perganov just to find out if I was a problem.
Susan looked at me. "You've got a problem," she said, "that needs professional attention."
I blinked. The whole world, for the briefest instant, had gone completely blue.
~ ~ ~
I didn't know a damn thing about any tunnels.
I would have said as much to my psych evaluator, but he didn't ask me whether I'd seen the Battle of Algiers, whether I could do the handshake. He didn't mention rioters in Japan, or pollution in the water and how it made me feel.
He merely turned on the video camera behind him and asked, "Would you mind an implant?"
"A small one." My psych evaluator smiled. His name was Mel, and he had the broad American smile of Masons and ministers. People in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had that smile, and in Salem, and the Ohio River Valley, and at the Alamo.
"What does it do?"
"You'll never know it's there."
"But how come I'd want one?"
"You don't want to be left behind, do you? It's cutting-edge."
We looked at each other, but silence seemed to make Mel uneasy. He drummed his fingers on the table, loosened his tie.
"It's nothing. It's next to nothing. You won't even think about it. It monitors the Ph in your skin to give us a general sense of how you're feeling. And it helps us find you in emergencies. Harmless. I'm not kidding."
He took off his watch and showed me a faint dime-shaped bruise on the underside of his wrist. "That's it," he said. "It's that simple."
"Simple." I felt cold and thought of Cantonese lobster, thought of making a break for the door.
Mel took my right hand firmly in both of his and flashed me a winning smile. "You know why I'm so happy, Will? I used to get enraged. I used to get completely out of control. But now, if some guy gets in my face, some—person—thinks he's too good for what I have to offer, know what I do?"
"Not a damn thing. I don't get angry." He let go and put his feet up on the table, mopped his forehead with the back of his sleeve, then looked down at his belly and smiled. "The district sends out a troubleshooter, and I sit back and take it easy. It really is that simple."
He said the implants would soon be standard issue for all high school teachers throughout the state, but right now focus was on English and art. Speech, drama, philosophy, and history teachers were strongly encouraged. "College professors, on the other hand," he whispered, "are a whole different thing."
Did I agree to the implant because I was afraid that if I didn't Mel would come across the table and bite out my trachea or blind me with his thumbs? Maybe. I wondered if some of Mel's troubleshooters had already troubleshot the inside of my apartment.
"I'm a team player," I said, clenching my fist under the table.
"I knew you were," said Mel.
~ ~ ~
Later, I'd stop telling people anything at all. I'd give up the single life for Ethical Abstinence and leave dating cruises for the balding French. And, yes, I'd get my old job back.
It didn't take long before I found Jesus and realized that that was Sid's motive for coming over all along. It all goes back to the Tumwater, I guess. Sitting in my living room, farting and belching with Sid to the CNN loop, I watched our president smile the good smile, and I realized that we were in a stronger America; Jesus loved us; and the half-dead fern hanging over the breakfast nook wasn't actually recording me.
The rows of Olympia cans in my new hissless fridge gleam when I open the door. Their very presence testifies to my goodness. I open the fridge and say, "Testify," and in some parallel universe where America is right and free and no longer threatened by the slavering unwashed hordes beyond its borders, they answer me: "Amen, brother."
And Susan Thorrson? She met a bad end. They caught her on tape doing something illegal but no one knows what. It's not my business. Justice will prevail.
"Here it comes," says Sid, "the Apo-ca-lypse." Some kind of new uranium-based weapons system being tested outside of Reno. We both laugh hysterically for as long as we can.