The Button (part 2)

data

Part 2 of 3

He sat on a minimalistic yet comfortable chair in a sparsely decorated office. After a minute of waiting, Mr. Snell – a tall, thin, man in his sixties wearing a suit and modern angular glasses – briskly strode in to the office and sat behind the desk. He opened the file and scanned the single sheet of paper in it with a few subtle nods.

“Why are you here?”

“Uh, the lady told me to wait –“

“No, I mean why are you here?” he repeated in a curious but not unfriendly manner before he began to answer his own question. “You see, Mr. Perkins (this surprised Scott as he had not told anyone there his last name), there were events going back to the beginning of time that led us to where we are now; from your walk from the coffee shop to your conception on your parent’s honeymoon in New Orleans, even all the way back to when a fish dragged itself from a primordial tide pool.”

“How do you know –“

“We experience time with directionality; we can reflect back on a fixed past or speculate on a malleable future. But this directionality is a human invention. The basic laws of physics are what I describe as time symmetrical. For instance, if one filmed the planets of our solar system from a great distance and played that film in reverse, the laws of physics would appear correct. Nothing, apart from our acquired knowledge of how the planets should move, would seem amiss. Now, what if I told you that we can apply that principle to our own lives, and that by mapping out the paths to how we got here we can predict where we are going?”

“I’d say…go on?” he said sounding intrigued.

“People have been flooding the world with,” Snell paused, his eyes brightened with enthusiasm and hands splayed open “massive amounts of data! And quite voluntarily I should add,” he said, sounding slightly defensive. “In its infancy, data mining was used for such pedestrian things as whom to target advertisements for say, eyeglasses. People began to build more complex algorithms  for everything from public health research to government espionage. But the level of sophistication today is unmatched. My team has created a neural network; the system is always learning, constantly stacking and layering. No, there was no eureka moment, it was just a matter of time before the data built up and technology caught up, that hidden patterns revealed themselves. The cities we move to, the cars we drive, the people we fall in love with…that was an easy one actually” he said with a slight laugh. “We deduce your “type” as they say from where your eyes linger on an online photo, from your social media contacts, from your family history. We know where you live, where you spend time, whom you’re likely to run into. The accuracy of our forecasts is remarkable. Quite remarkable,” he restated with a squint for emphasis. “You’re a bright fellow; you can see what I’m getting at.”

“Oh yeah,” he said even though he wasn’t sure about either statement.

“We at Alhazen Corporation are offering you a glimpse into your future. For a nominal fee, and by invite only,“ Mr. Snell smiled, chin slightly raised with self-satisfaction.

“Ok. But why not sell it, you could make a killing if you can do what you claim.”

“Excellent question! The wealthy already have every advantage: top pick of the gene pool, access to the best medical care, advantages in education, list goes on and on. I simply want to level the playing field. Predictive knowledge can be extremely helpful to have in your back pocket. I want to help balance the scales so to speak, which have gotten rather askew as I’m sure a man of your…station has noticed. To be quite frank,” Snell’s voice became quiet, “yes, it is true that I have found success and financial reward later in life. But this was not always the case. I come from quite humble means. We are an aggregate of our experiences, and mine have certainly shaped me. And that is not just an important life lesson, it is a core concept of our work here: Ex praeterito, futuro: From the past, the future!”

“Now,” pulling a stack of papers out of a drawer and sliding it over the desk “first you must sign these releases, non-disclosure forms, and so forth. This is Ms. Thea, she will be your personal guide.”

Right on cue, the office door opened to the sound of heels softly clacking. A young woman around Scott’s age walked and stood next to Mr. Snell. She was wearing a short-sleeved blouse and black knee-length skirt, her chestnut hair sleekly pulled into a ponytail.

“I must point out that one thing we cannot foresee is how you will react to the images you will be shown.” added Snell. “That is where Thea comes in. She will guide you through the process and help deal with any…aftermath of what you learn about your future. This is not for everyone. Please take a minute to consider if you really want to do this.”

The Button (part 3)

button

Part 3 of 3

Scott sat at a large hardwood table in a room barely lit by a single lamp above it. The perimeter of the room was in shadow but he got the impression of it being vast and empty, save for the table and chair. The sole item on the table is a low profile silver box, the housing seamless with rounded edges and corners, with a four inch pearl button on the top softly glowing. He became aware of the hum of electronic equipment emanating from the darkness, buzzing in frequencies at the limits of human perception.

Thea handed him a pair of wrap-around goggles, black with a tiny red LED blinking.

“Pressing the button activates the experience. Whenever you’re ready,” she said with one hand on the door.

“Did you press it?”

“Mr. Perkins, let’s stay focused on the matter at hand.”

“I was just curious…it might help me decide – you know, to get a different take on it.”

“It’s personal.”

“So that’s a yes? What did you see?”

“It’s…personal.”

She left the room and he was alone, gazing motionless at the opal iridescent object before him.

~

“Do you want to go over it one more time? In case you remember anything more you’d like to document while it’s fresh in your memory?”

She sat upright at her desk, her glasses now off, taking an occasional note while a tiny video camera on a gooseneck stand recorded the debriefing session.

“No…no, I think that’s all I can remember,” he said softly, as if just waking up from a dream. “The main stuff anyway.” He restated: “Lying in bed, in that room, and there was someone there in bed with me. I couldn’t see her face. The room was pretty nice, I must have done alright for myself.”

“The details are important. Sometimes the system has a strange way of revealing its predictions. Take as long as you need,” she said reassuringly.

“Wait, there’s something else. I just remembered. The person next to me…she started to roll over but all I could see was her shoulder. There was a…like a scar or something. It was shaped like an X.”

Thea began to make note of his comment, her pen became motionless then fell from her hand.

“What did you just say?”

“A scar. Like an X. On her shoulder.”

“That’s…not possible.”

He looked up and saw a look somewhere in between disbelief and alarm.

“Oh my god,” she said. “This can’t be happening.”

“Huh?”

Sliding her left sleeve up to her shoulder, she revealed the mark he described.

“My brother pushed me into a fence when I was seven.”

“Wow, that’s a weird coincidence. What are the odds!” And then he finally understood. “Oh. Wait…wow. So did you see me in your session? What did – “

“Just stop! Please.”

They sat in silence for a moment, neither of them sure what to say.

“So…what do we do now? Cause we know –“

“No,” she said, cutting him off again. “We don’t really know anything for sure. Maybe that’s just one possible path. It’s not 100% accurate. I think.”

“But maybe this is good news?”

“Good news? Look, everybody who comes in here, they all think they’re going to get a leg up in life. Like the future is some secret they suddenly they’re in on. But I see them struggle with what they’ve learned. It’s a gift that people don’t really understand, and it’s never what they want it to be. You don’t get answers, you just get more questions,” she stated wearily.

“Well what’s the point of it then?” asked Scott.

Sheepishly: “I don’t know.”

A longer pause this time. They both listened to the sheets of rain on the windows, which had picked up considerably.

“You should know, I have a boyfriend. I live with my boyfriend. We’re happy,” she said, aware of how hollow her voice sounded in the confined concrete office overlooking the harbor, where the spring rain blurred the distinction between sea and clouds. “If you don’t have anything else to document, then maybe our session is over.”

“Ok…” He felt like the moment called for a profound truth to be said, but all that came out was “Will I see you again?”

She stared at her desk for what seemed like a long time.

“Yeah,” she said with quiet resignation. “You probably will.”

###

The Pet Store

“Hey, enough with those puppy-dog eyes! You’re making me sad.”

“Well, since he is a puppy dog, that’s gonna be hard not to do,” replied Gabby from behind the store counter, eyes not leaving the calculator as she pecked away a stream of numbers with one manicured finger. “Besides, you keep talking to me and I might lose my place, girl. Are those empty cages cleaned and ready for any new arrivals?”

Kat had been helping out at Gabby’s store for a few weeks now, just another in a series of jobs she held since graduating from MassArt several years ago. Most of them had not worked out, for one reason or another, as her résumé grew more and more dislocated. She couldn’t stomach the corporate cubicle atmosphere of the publishing company (“It’s like high school all over again!”); was asked to leave from her internship at the museum (“You’d think a place that celebrates creativity wouldn’t have a stick up their ass about punctuality.”); and fell victim to the economy as her job at the whole foods market was eliminated. So on and so forth.

“Ugh, yeah almost. Doesn’t this bother you?” asked Kat, now wandering away from the glass enclosed area where the puppies and kittens were kept. Rows of identical cages lined one of the walls, ten or so across and about four high. Some occupants peeked though the bars hopefully, some resigned themselves to a faux hibernation, and some paced nervously. A fluorescent light buzzed away overhead and occasionally flickered. Kat began to feel woozy.

“I mean, they’re all cooped up in those little boxes, waiting helplessly for somebody to come along and take them away,” she said, now leaning on the customer-side of the counter. “Day after day they’re still in their sad cages. And even if they get lucky, maybe the person who takes them home sucks. Like, as a pet owner.”

“I guess I feel like I’m trying to help them. I felt a little bad at first but now I don’t think about it no more,” Gabby said matter-of-factually in her Dominican-via-Boston accent.

This was followed by the ding-ding! of the brass bell on the store door.

“Ladies!”

“That all for this week, Russell?” asked Gabby, squinting as she sized up the stack of cardboard boxes on his dolly.

“Yeah, got a couple boxes in the truck still,” said Russell as he eased the hand truck over the lip of the door and into the shop. It was stacked quite high but perfectly balanced. He was only in his mid 20’s, with tattooed forearms thick from years of wrangling deliveries through the decaying shops and warehouses of East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere.

“Invoice?”

Handing over a folded yellow copy: “Here ya go.”

Kat slowly began to turn away from the counter where Gabby and Russell stood, hoping no sudden movements would me her less noticeable. Her green eyes, framed by her black glasses and black bangs (dyed), darted nervously back to the wall of cages she was previously trying to avoid.

“Hi, how are ya?”

“You know. Busy.”

“How do you like workin’ here so fah? Mrs. G treating’ you ok?” he asked with a glance back to the manager, who didn’t look up from double checking the invoice.

“Um, yeah. She’s great.” It was the truth, really. Though fifteen years apart in age and from different racial and economic backgrounds they got along quite well. Gabby was barely an acquaintance when she offered Kat the job at the pet shop, but could sense that Kat needed her help.

(an awkward pause)

“Uh, you doing anything this weekend?”

“Working, got some other stuff to do. Anyway…” she said, repeatedly glancing back to the work she had previously been pretending to do and was now seriously contemplating starting.

“Right, right. You’re busy. Same here, I got more deliveries. It never stops!” he said with a head shake and a grin.

“Right…”

“So – “ interjected Gabby. “There should be a box of collars and the bag of hamster feed too.”

“Oh right, lemme grab that.” Before dashing back to his idling brown truck to retrieve the last of the boxes, Russell gave a glance back towards where Kat had been standing but she had already disappeared behind a display of leashes and brushes.

“He likes you,” said Gabby after the bell rang again, signaling his departure. “ You should go out with him.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” said the voice from behind the display. “I don’t know him. Besides, I’m just here to work, not for a social club.” This sounded like an excuse even to herself, as she became aware of how much procrastination she had been up to that morning.

“He’s cute. You won’t get to know him if you don’t talk to him…” she said in a mother-knows-best tone.

Kat nodded without turning around to face Gabby and steeled herself to go back to the clean and prep cages.

~

Late in the day, the ineffectual February sun had already dipped below the horizon, leaving a clear but starless sky above the city. The streets were walled off with dirty brown snow banks as Kat disembarked the 2nd of the two busses she takes to and from home. The bus hissed, brakes squealed, as it lurched away. As she neared her apartment building she checked her phone. No missed calls. No nothing. A man, apparently just as engrossed in his phone, bumped into her on the sidewalk and offered no apology.

Her building loomed above her: a five story box of brick and concrete. Rows of apartments, each with a tiny balcony surrounded by metal railing bars. Suddenly a wave of fatigue washed over her, as she keyed open the outer glass door to the grimy lobby. She passed identical door after door until she found her apartment, went inside, dropped her bag, and tossed her ear buds on the coffee table. A horn blared from the street below as Kat stood staring out the window at the rows of building upon building, fading off into the distance.

All Today’s Parties

“Winning…” he said in a hushed sing-song voice as he stubbed out the roach and knocked back the watery dregs of a rye on the rocks.  No need for the hushed tones, after all he was home alone on this wintery Tuesday at 1:26PM.  His wife, along with most responsible adults, was at work.  A hot, protracted, shower was next up on the docket – alongside binge-watching a cable TV show on Netflix, a romp involving himself and an adult website, and several actual important items which would get bumped yet again to tomorrow’s schedule.

His daily foray into the fleshy underbelly of the world wide web yielded an amusing thought: “That site described them as mature women, but the things they’re doing…I don’t think so!”  But there was nobody around to share this quip with.  It would be lost on the cat.  And maybe a retraction is in order: porn is hardly the “underbelly” of the web.  It’s one of the main limbs, a fully-articulated prime mover.

As his buzz was cresting (always a bittersweet thing since it’s all downhill from there), he tuned in and began nodding to the droning toms-and-tambourine beat of “Venus in Furs” and cranked the volume on his tiny kitchen stereo.  Waves of psychedelic guitar and woozy strings washed over him, as Lou Reed croaked about tasting whips and bleeding and mistresses.

Through the window, in the woods beyond the perimeter of his yard, he became vaguely aware of dark shapes moving about.  Vultures?  Perhaps not. Large wild turkeys, cloaked in deep brown-black plumage in stark contrast to the fresh white powder smothering the land, were present. Several skulked about and would disappear behind the bare trees now and again, possibly to resurface later, feverishly, in his anxious, fearful dreams.

Smacking the Bishop

Vinnie hung his head.  The ideas would not come, as they had not for quite some time.  His masturbation blog, Thus Spanked Tharathustra, had been a neglected, malnourished child lately.  “Three entries in two months…” he lamented, “could I have run out of ideas?”  Stylistically, he relished going into exquisite details of each technique, each new apparatus being reviewed, and each sensation it yielded.  But now he felt lucky to slap together a paragraph.

He had been through many phases in documenting self-stimulated nirvana, and none of them had brought him to “The God Zone” which Vinnie promised his readers was most certainly out there – and attainable.

He tried all shapes and manners of toys including cock rings and anal beads (which he grew in the habit of extracting rather quickly, as if struggling to start a reluctant snow-blower), prostate milking, ballsack tugging, an obtuse method of his own invention called “The Egyptian Gasmask,” various lotions, natural and synthetic furs.  But all came up short and he was beginning to lose faith.  His body didn’t feel like a temple.  More like a used car dealership.Vinnie stared at the tablet screen absently; the flickering image of the five naked dudes huddled over a kneeling, 18 year old, Japanese girl barely registering.  His trance was broken by a soft knock at the door.  “Uh, yes?” he asked.  The gentle voice one the other side reminded him: “Pardon me Father Vincent, but Mass begins in five minutes.”