Chapter 6 – Going Home

February 16th, 2010 § 0 comments

The time bell went off and the screen shrank to a dot. He stood his lifeless body up, removed the squeaky skull cap of CellPack, reached for the ceiling, touched his toes and marched out the door to join the others. His bladder was backing up into his kidneys, poisoning his blood. Something was using a nerve in his lower back for a kick drum. The usual Friday crowd stood around outside the steel doors to the bathroom, nobody but a few jawbones talking.

They were all headed towards the Friday assembly. There were five assembly rooms, one for every eight floors. Felix’s was on the 16th floor. He worked on the third. It was a good enough walk, if he could avoid the crowd.

Monday morning and Friday evening assemblies were the kind of ritualized affairs no one even bothered to make fun of. If you were to go into a room full of Intellatrawlers and start cutting up about Chairman Aung Thwin’s Friday sermon on excellence, with dead on impersonations of his voice and slightly exaggerated pantomimes of his characteristic moves, no one would laugh, they would stare glassily and wonder what you were talking about. People showed up, took their seats, fixed their eyes upon their chairman’s cheaply reproduced three dimensional alias and watched it deliver his thoughts on a number of recurrent themes, in an emotionally distressing monotone, like a man who never blinks. Often these talks touched on loyalty, work, and life’s uncertainty.

Small spurs off the main Intellatrawl Trunk were dark, crammed with cell like offices, but the main hallways were brightly lit and the walls were painted in bold colors, the sorts of colors that make us happy, green, yellow and pink. The floors were unpolished stone, they felt cool to the foot. The air smelled faintly of the woods, of wet bark and wild flowers blooming in the first morning light. Overhead were signs of encouragement, in vibrant neon.

EXCELLENCE BEGINS WITH YOU

TO BE ON TOP STAY ON TOP

THE PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Some were more topical or exhortatory than others:

OUR VOICE IS YOUR VOICE AT STATE

DON’T FORGET TO ELECT

RAINY DAYS DON’T MEAN DISMAL DAYS

These bright bromides passed above the heads of Intellatrawl associates without catching their eyes, but new employees were sometimes puzzled by them, getting bumped along the way if they paused to figure them out.

Felix and the others strode up to the 16th floor. It was a long, slightly banked hall. From any spot a person could see three floors in either direction. Without a murmur they filed in and took their usual seats, not assigned but assumed by custom. His was almost precisely in the middle of the raked room. The walls were brown metal rods on a white clay background, and the seats were white, composite buckets. The whole room pitched down towards the small presentation area, where a wooden podium was set up. No one wasted time in getting seated, they didn’t clear their throats or cough. The lights overhead dimmed and some serene yet inspiring music warbled out of the walls. The wall behind the podium glowed a dark blue and in walked Chairman Aung’s holographic alias, in a simple paper suit. He wore round, steel framed glasses, had a full head of black hair and skin so white you could powder it for house paint. His eyes were serious, dark, like pits beneath his brows and his red mouth was fixed. He flickered, almost at one point zipped out, and walked to the podium. Once enough time had elapsed for the entire Intellatrawl nation to come to attention, he smiled.

“Greetings my friends. It is Friday, the end of our week. I know you are all tired with your final effort, that last mile to which you always give your all, with unflagging attention and devotion. I thank you all. Not a penny here is earned unless you go out and earn it.

“This week I’d like to remind you that every effort towards excellence is its own reward and that you can expect both love and perfection to be a part of your organizational lives.

“The Motivated associate doesn’t wait for perfection to happen but seizes upon every opportunity to achieve it, to proactively perfect our workplace and take Intellatrawl all the way to the top, where we belong.

“But just as love and perfection exist in our organizational lives, so might they elude us at home. And so, as we leave each other on this beautiful Friday evening to join our families at home, let us remind ourselves that life may not be perfect. Our children cry for no reason at all. They throw food on the floor, curse and run off. Our husbands and wives betray us or we betray them. Our parents live in far off places, stubbornly refusing to come to their senses, suffering diseases and dementias caused by the long and painful decades of loss, followed by their brave reclamations.

“Though we may, through the miracle of genetic medicine, live to the Methuselean ages of 110 or 120, many of us will fail to establish stem cell lines, or will die of an unnamed disease with no known treatment.

“Accidents, disasters, and crime beset us. We do not control our world. Failure is surely a part of life and we must learn to accept and even embrace it.

“Until Monday then, I leave you all in peace.”

Chairman Aung, oscillating at his customary rate, traveled across the room and vanished in a spark.

The associates stood and left, in waves of grey and tan suits, linen, hemp and cotton, and playing above this wave, a few coats of loosely woven metal, gossamer capes of gold, bare shoulders showing through, copper headscarves and platinum wraps, pastel synthetic jackets with one belly button and shoulder pads. White shirts and crepe shoes and loose black pants stood at the doors and merged.

After about a half an hour Felix exited the Intellatrawl door. He and Veronica did not yet own a hovercraft. They commuted via Amphibatrains, to their home in Rockland, on the west bank of the Hudson.

He struggled to breathe. The air smelled of burning rubber. Hovercraft droned about in the evening light, into celadon sky. Gnat swarms caught on his eyes and lips, he brushed them off and spit. He still felt flutters of joy on Friday afternoons, walking quickly even with the late summer heat. Free of the chair, of the graphs and numbers, of the bleeps. And the feeling would persist till right before he opened his door and realized Veronica was about to offer up to his lips her medicated cheek.

He stood on the concrete platform, beneath a composite shelter, nonreflective, grey and violet and pink, watching for the Amphibatrains. The train arrived silently and hissed to a stop. It was like a glass log with dorsal, wing and tail fins. The doors popped up and Felix entered the chilly car in a crowd of Intellatrawl associates. They pushed and wiggled into position. Felix got a seat between two people.

He tried not to look at anyone directly. He looked at people’s knees and waists and rear ends. He looked at his feet. He tried looking at the bamboo and pines on the hills, and pampas grass growing thick on the slopes between land and water. No matter what he looked at, he could still smell and feel all the people. It wasn’t like he could read their thoughts, it was like he could feel the volume of internal chatter. Like insects chewing leaves.

Slowly the car filled with murmurs. The man in the black wool suit to his left spun into a restless sleep and began to snore fitfully. The train hummed and rocked, picking up speed. As the liquor went around, voices grew louder, and soon there was laughter.

Felix divided their relationship up into three stages. Stage one began imperceptibly almost, with a flickering between their eyes, of signals sent and not received, received but never sent. An evanescent thing between them that developed of its own accord into a crush. They read together in the library, drank in the afternoons at a variety of grad student dives on Broadway. They participated in a staged reading of The Tempest, rode out to New Jersey on the Amphibatrains to drive cars, spent afternoons in November wandering the gentle ruins of Central Park or the decayed halls of the Museum of Natural History.

Soon they were living together, in a crusty old apartment on 106th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. They sweated and fucked in front of a roaring fan, watched t.v. all night and drank cheap espresso in the mornings in their underwear, watching the angry, impatient, lovely world conspire below. They were wholly for each other. No one else existed except as barrier or entertainment. The ugliness and folly of the world stood at a comic distance. All discord was resolved in the system of their boundless bodies. As the practical demands of life intruded they experienced a redivision of their collective self into two functioning, differentiated selves that nonetheless incorporated so much of the other that what they became was two complementary composites. Where one left off and the other began was permeable.

Felix looked at the sleeping man’s head, at the pores of his skin in the shaky light, the pink scratch left by a razor on his jaw, the hair growing out of his ear, the grease shining on his nose, the flecks of dandruff on his scalp. Mucus gurgled in his throat, soft palatal tissue throbbing like a bullfrog.

The woman on his right, with the dry, nearly transparent skin of a centenarian, peered through red Bakelite reading glasses at a sheet of silver electraweave displaying the news. She had black synthetic hair, glossy as if wet, and a perfect set of teeth. The rest of her was flaking off beneath and around these two formidable features. The train dipped down and headed for the river.

They had never planned on any kind of career at all. All their plans were of travel. Then school was over and they had to go to work. The first job offer either received was in sales. Veronica had applied to a small but growing company that distributed outdoor gear for hiking and skiing, located in a strip mall in the Poconos. They moved to a small studio apartment not far from work, on the edge of a state park. Here the first stage rocketed into the second, the great complacency.

It proved to be a delightful setting for the exploration of, and surrendering of, dreams. Slowly they settled into jobs, Felix processing the orders, Veronica handling virtual sales. Soon he was a supervisor and she managed all the operations.

The apartment was the third floor of a small, two hundred year-old house. They had a kitchenette, shower and toilet cubicle, double bed, dresser and two chairs around a tiny circular table. If a storm was up they could go to the basement, but the age of the house was reassuring, and the area was not prone to tornadoes. For the first time in their lives they were free of their parents’ expectations, of school, of their own crush.

Now instead of virtual mountains and virtual kayaks on virtual streams they could hike the state park and rent a canoe to take out on the relatively tame rivers in the area. They boated through townships and wooded hills, sailed on lakes, swam in reservoirs and climbed small mountains. Not far away was a CarPark with over two hundred k of road. There were stop lights and turn signals, potholes and yield signs, sharp turns and straightaways long enough to go 100 miles an hour.

They thought that one day they could buy a country house and a car of their own.

Years passed in this way, in which they took morning kisses and Sunday afternoons sprawled naked in front of the t.v. as a matter of course. But then the Intellatrawl jobs came up, through an associate they dealt with there, a buyer and seller of antique inventories. Without thinking about what they were leaving behind, assuming the additional money would give them more of what they had, time and joy, they bit and moved to Rockland.

Life on the west bank of the Hudson was more varied, more cosmopolitan. The views of the river from the levee park were grand, but the trees were genetically modified pines and bamboo, they had no smell, and they could never ride a horse. They had a Shakespeare subscription and ate out in nice restaurants and the one bedroom on the cul de sac was much larger. If the climate was hotter, nastier, more humid, at least their home had perfect air, and space for clothes and things.

With the extra money they decided to start a stem cell line and have children. They bought a cryovac package deal and Veronica produced six embryos in five years. Two would be children, the remaining four would go to the stem cell line. The package included two non-inheritable genetic modifications. They chose longevity and musical talent over dozens of options, like height, beauty or athletic ability.

It was a form of coasting, a life drifting into ritual. Friday French food, virtual book club, sex three times a week, yearly vacations somewhere in the far north or the Rockies. Christmas with her parents in Florida, Thanksgiving with his parents at a hotel in Manhattan. They were no longer saving for a car, but for a hovercraft.

The ritual, starting with work, began to degenerate into a stultifying sterility. It was in fact not a life either of them had ever dreamed of having. They had no friends to speak of because they hated people like themselves. And the selves they loved in each other were disappearing, under a load of dull routine.

Now the newspapers spread between their nude bodies were no longer flimsy hemp but copper electraweave. Even so it served as a prop for an empty voice: “There’s a rock trio playing an all Hendrix program on original equipment, Saturday night.”

“Do you want to see the Jazz Orchestra play on the levee?”

“Ellington?”

“No, Basie.”

“Look, there’s a total sound immersion at three. Your body becomes the instrument. Feel what it was to be Bach’s organ.”

Their faces, more beautiful at 35 than at 25, eyes like still drops of human pain in an endless, frigid dimension of space, the candle light between their irises, as they sat in a calm, poised against black restaurant windows. “The rolls are warm tonight.”

“Did you get the real butter?”

“I’ve never had New Zealand lamb.”

“Maybe,” he said, picking apart a chicken breast with knife and fork, “we should become vegetarians.” He often thought this while eating extruded meat products, but why bring it up while slicing into the real thing?

The train dipped down suddenly. He looked out the window. As the cars uncoupled (without slowing down a bit), he felt the moment of freefall; thrilling, to be suspended in nothingness, however briefly, before striking the water, each car heading across the Hudson to a different rail link. He never tired of watching the thick tubes with their quiet green and red reflectors at intervals on the top, the blinking tail fins and dorsals, each car nosing through the rough water while a carnival of other crafts evaded the wake. It was a silent world, hot and attractive but removed, far beyond the hard thick walls of the amphibatrains.

Veronica was the first to crack. The prolonged stasis of the second stage provoked the chaos of the third. It was like an aesthetic, a creative renaissance marmorialized in a classical period followed by decadence.

It started with complaints–work was boring, stupid–then became metaphysical, why do we work so hard, for what? But this was their agreement, silently negotiated, a future they conspired to make.

“Couldn’t we move out west?”

But everyone was moving out west, there were no jobs. That was when he unwittingly became the voice of reason. It was a voice poised against himself. He hated the cul de sac as well, and the job, and the idea of a job. In the midst of this initial churn they reacted by clinging together tighter, more desperately. They’d come home from work, bathe and then begin to fuck, wordlessly, brutally, tearing away at something they didn’t understand, trying to rend the curtain that had descended between them. One night as he was ramming away at her, as she bucked to meet his pelvis and he collapsed onto her sweating breasts, his lips pulsing in her ear and little gasps escaping he felt a trickle of hot liquid on his cheek. He lifted off and looked down. For the first time Veronica’s eyes had that raw red look that would become so familiar.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m just so afraid.”

“Afraid? Of what?”

“Of losing you.”

Gently, he said, “Oh baby,” and touched her cheek, tears brimming up in his own eyes now. “Never. You will never lose me, I would never go. Never.”

But that was probably not what she had in mind.

Over the next few years their meals became more and more catatonic. She was often ill, vomiting for days on end. She broke things, injured herself, didn’t talk but brooded incessantly over things. They saw the Intellatrawl doctor. He prescribed physical therapy, walks, swimming and meditation. Then came the medicines, anti emetics, appetite stimulants, tranquilizers. They rarely made love and when they did it was quiet and desperate or mechanical, a release of his load of semen and her load of guilt. Everything they had once enjoyed was now a source of pain.

Then came the deaths. Her father was bitten by a rabid bat while sleeping out one night on the everglades, and didn’t know it until it was too late for treatment. He went mad and Veronica’s mother shot him and then herself. A year later Felix’s father had a series of strokes and lay in a coma awaiting reconstructive brain surgery. His mother, in a paroxysm of grief, overrode the program controls of her hovercraft and it crashed fifteen k out in the Gulf of Mexico. It felt then like some monstrous beast had arisen to raven their lives.

Now she began to rave and he found himself drinking alone after work, just to avoid going home to the scenes and abuse.

Intellatrawl Dr. Tarlton prescribed her first course of Euphorics, saying that grief was natural but Euphorics could restore her balance. Nothing worked. She went on medical leave and was finally fired.

They had to live on his income alone now. Everything grew precarious. There would be no more saving up for a house or a hovercraft. No more fantasies of moving out west or to Alaska. No recreational car. His job just covered the necessities, insurance, retirement fund. It was just enough to keep them alive. He worried about everything. He worried about the embryos and stem cell line. He worried about his own dumbfounded confusion and melancholy, his need to somehow smother an outraged protest against life, his need to demolish every conscious thought with alcohol. He was worried that Veronica would do something genuinely crazy.

Of late, he began to feel jealous even. Thoughts nibbled away at him, that she might be with someone else during the day, that she might be masturbating. Even her madness made him jealous. As she drifted off he became possessive and this he experienced as a kind of insanity, as one part of him warred against the other.

The amphibatrains reassembled as they crossed in a breathtaking, technological ballet and then bumped up onto the rail at the Newburg tunnel, a brief, steep climb up through the towering levee and onto dry land. In a few minutes they hissed into the station. The snoring man sucked in breath, his eyes popped open and he stood, with Felix and the old woman. They exited the car.

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