Chapter 15 – The Pursuit of Excellence

March 31st, 2011 § 1 comment

“Perfection,” the corpuscular, oscillating alias of Chairman Aung said, “is the ideal we may never attain but must constantly strive towards. Excellence is the means to that end, the path we choose to take, ever mindful of the destination.

“A ruthless honesty, dedication to fact, respect for process, a relentless pursuit of that which we know to be the end of all action-by these fruits shall we know the true Intellatrawl Associate.

“Let us begin this new day, the first of the week, as we would a journey through an unknown and dangerous wilderness beyond which lies a golden field, fresh water and great happiness.”

Felix filed out of the auditorium and walked down his stretch of the long spiral, in a herd of white, tan, grey and metallic mesh, with the occasional pastel silk like a dried flower in a bouquet of grass.

Over the course of the uneventful day he mused, sucking on ice chips, reviewing the stream of BioWatch data, productivity figures mutating upward or downward by the second. In his gut he realized that jealousy was the simple, elegant explanation that fit all the facts. He would rather have her sick and his than well with her heart in another world. But what was sickness and what was health? The concepts were unclear. If a person is happy in a delusion can they be well? Could he even be sure it was a delusion? Was it just a lovely dream that left its gentle mark on her day? Didn’t he really envy her peace of mind?

Anger was justified; the contract had changed. The woman he had fallen in love with, with whom he had negotiated a life, and who occupied with him an edge, had fallen off to one side. He kept his part of their bargain by grabbing hold of her sleeve, pulling her back up after a great suspenseful struggle with snapping stitches and fraying cuffs Just when she slipped from his grasp and fell he grabbed her by the hair and flung her to safety. Now she went and fell off the other side and could fly, she didn’t need him.

There was something in her silences, her frank and imploring eyes ever watchful of him that led him to believe she did actually need him but he felt in himself some resistance. The need was gravitational almost, an attractive power that meant to suck him into whatever alternate reality she haunted. Every time she dropped a green pill into her palm and swallowed it his stomach tightened, as if she were talking to a lover. He could not follow her there. He didn’t want to. It was wrong.

He ate his sandwich mechanically at the urinal, the smell of ammonia and disinfectant disguising the processed meat taste and mustard, For exercise he walked to the fortieth floor and back and sat down at his BioWatch WorkStation, red and green lights dancing on the bubbles of CellPack encasing his head.

At six o’clock the screens shrank to a dot and he shuffled out to the Amphibatrains. His tolerance of things was growing brittle. Chairman Aung’s paeans to the glories of excellence (at one time benign palliatives he took in the same attenuated spirit with which they were offered) began to seem idiotic, malevolent even. The air on the Amphibatrains was no longer a little stale but fetid. The man seated next to him was no longer ugly in the normal shabby way but vile, monstrous. Pores gaped and oozed. Dandruff was the sloughed scale of reptilian heads. People sat consuming filth. He felt like he was wandering among toads.

Peter poured him his second martini and he sank deeper into a misanthropic gloom. The doors opened and another regular entered, a man with a pile of spongy hair and a long rippling nose. A big talker. Possessive of his bartender’s attention, Felix stiffened with hostility. The man was repellant, a sports enthusiast who knew the performance records and genealogies of all the major players of every sport. He knew who had what gene and which company they were contracted to, even the history of bids and trades. He had mastered the human sports pedigree and shared this cornucopia of useless information with all in earshot.

The man ordered his fruit juice drink, a glass of moody reds and oranges, layered, intricate, sweet, and Peter executed the complicated procedure of juice and liquor pours while the man discoursed on the fate of Iranian tobogganers and Costa Rican high divers. Felix read Peter’s paper, turning from the murder and mayhem of Midtown, where Police Chief Pradip Herskovitz was on the verge of declaring marshal law, to the serene uncertainties of the business section. MONOZONE ROCKET! Fueled by foreign sales of its latest Euphoric, Paregane, Monozone’s stock price hit record levels today, out performing all other pharmaceuticals. Not since Broadway Inc’s spectacular climb of two years ago has anything like it been seen around the world. Paregane, an over-the-counter drug in Asia and Africa, is only approved for prescription use in this country. But if Owen Bradlee, project supervisor and chief advisor to General Priss Valdez has his way, Paregane will be on the shelves here by the end of the year. “It’s a juggernaut,” he said, adding, “It’s as close to a panacea we are likely to see in our lifetimes.” Unlike other mood altering drugs Paregane is not a stimulant, there is no ‘crash’ associated with its use, nor is it addictive.

His eyes clouded. It was time to go. He was sinking slowly into the milieu, the stool was comfortable, and the air salubrious despite the chatterbox seated four spaces down. Two women who worked for Intellatrawl swung in giddily laughing.

“Hey Felix,” the one on the left said, the red head whose name he could never remember. “Going so soon?”

“My wife made dinner.”

“Isn’t that nice,” said Nadine, the other one, the one with a two inch high helmet of natural black hair twinkling with raindrops.

Suddenly, and with regret he signed the check, slipped out the door and rode his bike home through a strong, wet wind. It wasn’t rain exactly. It wasn’t even cool. It was a hot, industrial wind blowing around random drops of atmospheric liquid.

The lights of the living room were blinding at first, the smell of dinner revolting, the sight of Veronica (calm, regal) guilt and terror inducing. Her lips swelled up off of her teeth and her eyes fell on him like a disturbance, her vigor and health a rebuke. She smiled, tentatively, almost as if she were afraid to say anything. Why should she be afraid, he wondered. What does she see? “Hello. Have a good day?” Obviously she had decided to forget about the argument in the morning. It hadn’t gone anywhere for him, it’s killing animus was still alive. He wondered what he was doing there, withering beneath her electric gaze, the palpating energy of her body. “Dinner’s almost ready,” she said, the smell of hot dogs filling the room. “Do you want salad or broccoli?”

He sat down on the couch and looked up at her. She wore a loosely belted paisley silk robe that fell to her knees and was open between her breasts. One hand was placed provocatively upon her hip and the other held a long, two-pronged fork.

“Salad,” he said, staring at the t.v, from which issued the flat, nasal voice of a virtual announcer.

Nervously she approached the couch and stood over him, lustrous, resilient, pliable, full. Her shadow fell on his face; his skin grew hot. He felt her eyes probing his gut. They were the kind of eyes he could never hide from. They always came for him, through his many masks, self defenses, shifting personae and found out the place where he felt the pains and joys and contingencies of existence, where he himself existed as both known and knowing. She ferreted out his love for her even when it hid from himself. He tried to ignore her but she sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. Then she stood and returned to the kitchen. It was, he knew, an invitation.

He stared at the white plate trying not to smell or see the pale, pink, sweating hot dog with a twizzle of bright mustard running down its length. Instead he tried to get enthusiastic about the little pile of greens with orange dressing on the side.

“It hardly qualifies as food, I know,” she said. “But they’re cheap.”

“Have you ever seen the animal they grind up to make these?” he asked, spearing it with a fork and holding it up like a specimen for display.

She thought about it and asked, “Seriously?”

He put it down on the plate and munched on the salad. “Yes.”

“At a state fair when I was a kid, in Georgia. There was a warehouse of industrial pigs.”

He nodded. “Vestigial legs. Kind of like land whales. Feed in one end, shit out the other.”

She laughed. “Sort of like an elegant reduction of existence itself, wouldn’t you say?” She looked at the table. “We can’t afford better now.”

He didn’t feel like talking. He just wanted to drink and go to sleep. With effort he tried to maintain his end of things while also avoiding a fight, but this was difficult because the only things they had to talk about were the very things they fought about. “Do you ever feel sick about the pigs?” he asked.

Warily she ventured, “Of course. I could get tofu.”

“Bean Curd.” He let the words hang there like an implication of dirtiness. “Better for us, better for the environment. Pud food.” He sawed the tip of the hot dog off and chewed. Smoky rubber fell apart between his teeth.

She became pensive. “I feel sick, Felix, about everything.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. I thought Paregane took care of that. I thought you’d found paradise.”

“I’m not afraid anymore. Not afraid to live anyway. But I didn’t stop thinking Felix, I didn’t cease to exist. I feel the perennial lousiness, the desultory, grimy, inane mess we’ve made of our lives, and of the world.” Laboriously she chewed a bit of her salad and sighed. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We used to be better. Remember–”

“Before you were sick? No, not really. It’s like it chewed my life up and spat it out and now here we are, alone–”

“That’s not what I meant. And we’re not alone. We have each other.”

“You may have me but I don’t have you. You’re–you’re off somewhere all the time where the food is good.”

“Please don’t yell. You never yelled at me before.”

“I’m yelling at myself. I can’t live up to you now.” He sputtered looking for words.

“I’ve applied for work.”

He put his fork down. “Why didn’t you say so? Where?”

“I didn’t want to fight with you. Every morning we fight and at night you come home drunk, late. I’m afraid of you now Felix. Not of legless pigs. Not of hot dogs. You.”

“Where’s this job?” he demanded.

“Alaska.”

“Great!” He slammed down his fork and stood. “First you go nuts on me, then you take a hike to Shangri-La, and now you announce over dinner that you’re leaving me to live in another country?”

“I won’t take the job if you won’t come with me,” she said calmly.

He worked her over with his eyes. “What’s the point.”

“To change our lives. Live according to our dreams, our beliefs, our desires.”

Now he was incredulous. “Isn’t that what we’re doing? Isn’t that the whole point? Of the jobs, the money? To travel–”

“No, not travel, not vacation, for real. There’s a job in Fairbanks, managing a tour outfit’s office. The pay’s lousy but we can make it.”

Felix felt his brain cramp up. Her eyes opened on him and she asked, “Will you at least consider it?” The eyes stirred up his nerves; they were little feelers, tactile tips, extensions of a visionless brain. They crawled up along the inner edge. He sat down and stared at his plate, afraid to look at her, but he did. He looked up from the warm tube of meat with its knotted tip sliced off, so that the contents bulged a bit out of the silicon casing.

“Come with me,” she said.

And now he knew she wasn’t talking about Alaska.

“If you want to live, come with me.”

Mechanically he began to rub his forehead with an open hand, up over his hair and down. An odor, the odor, crept between them. What is that? What? He fired words, names at it but it evaded all his thoughts and yet maddeningly it–the odor–entered his nostrils, entered his mind and sank to his bowels and groin. Like her eyes, those hypnotic waters sketched with gold, stirring him up from within till his cock began to swell and tug, pud no more. No, he wanted to scream, rubbing his forehead, blinking. It didn’t smell like sweat. It didn’t smell like cunt or like butt or breath. It didn’t smell like her hair or her flesh. It didn’t smell like fruit or flowers or like an animal, not like wet fur, not like shit, not like semen. It hovered in- between these things and places, these vents, it was floral, piney, like pepper, like heat, like something deep inside, like fucking, glandular, fishy, feathery, imaginary, slow and relentless, attractive, dark; it fermented, bred, grew, like crystals it multiplied, like wet wood and leaves rotting in the rain it spawned and fed, like everything and nothing at all.

“We have no money,” he said, weakly.

“Then let’s sell the embryos.”

Felix was aghast. He didn’t need to say a thing; his expression was a horde of scorn and terror.

“Look at you! Felix, we’re people. We can have children naturally.”

“What, so they get sick and die at an early age, no longevity, no cloned organ transplants, no–”

“Yes, we give birth and we die naturally, the way people always have done and still do. Do you think most people can afford to sock away a few embryos? That a stem cell line is some sort of entitlement, some sort of necessity? I’ve done the math. We have six months. We can sell off all our stock and the embryos. Then we fly to Winnipeg and buy a car and drive to Fairbanks. We can camp out on the way. Look, the embryos will pay for all that and leave us a little cash to live on till I can start work. You can find a job there too.

I know it.”

“But it’s so cold in Alaska.”

“Yeah, and dark. But it’s not this–this–”she reached across the small white table and touched his clenched hand. He looked at her, into her eyes and face and saw through to the Veronica he had always known, always trusted, always loved. Tears surged into her eyes. They glazed up and glistened. “I know why she killed him now,” she said.

“Why?” he asked, knowing right away that the she was her mother.

“She didn’t want to leave him behind. She didn’t want to be alone and neither did he. It was the only way.”

For a moment he imagined she was about to kill him and he felt suddenly exhausted by a surge of adrenaline.

“No,” she laughed. “I’m not going to kill you. My god, you should see your eyes. Look, when I was lying there in that bathtub, all I could think of was our freedom, that soon I’d be nothing at all and you’d be free. Don’t you see? I didn’t want or need to take you with me, not your body. In me, in here,” she touched his hands and touched her heart, “that’s where you live, you’re always with me.”

He shook his head. “No, this is a gentle kind of madness, a safe delusion, a plan that has us abandon all we’ve worked for, to sit for six months at a time in darkness, half a year and half our life spent in dreams. But I still live in a world of daylight, and you grow stronger and stranger every day.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way.” She stood and ran down the stairs. He pushed his plate away and collapsed into torpor. She stomped up the stairs and stood over him, panting, redolent of sex. “Look here. I have enough.” She held up the brown glass bottle and twisted off the top. “I don’t want to be alone. Come with me, I say.” She shook out a little green pill and held it out to him in her open hand. “No one has to know.”

Fear crept up his throat and furred his neck and back with cold. They were at a threshold he didn’t understand and was afraid to cross but he couldn’t stand the alienation anymore, couldn’t stand being unhinged from her. He wanted to regain a sense of imbedded reality; he didn’t want to drift through life like an impostor playing himself. He wanted the world back, he wanted to hate with satisfaction and love with fulfillment. He took the pill, dropped it in his mouth and swallowed it down with pale flavorless beer. The warmth of her smile didn’t spread to him. He felt worse than ever, like he’d done something irrevocable. But at least he would have her.

§ One Response to “Chapter 15 – The Pursuit of Excellence”

  • Wastrel says:

    Perhaps it’s just me, but occasionally the audio cuts out this chapter, leaving out words.

  • § Leave a Reply

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