20140610

Pancake Spring

Mandy did not learn that her granddad was dead from her family, from Facebook, from the police, from a witch, from a Wikipedia article, or from Jezebel.  She learned about it from a representative of the International House of Pancakes, the company that Mandy’s granddad Russell Irwin Fox started back in nineteen hundred and fifty one, back when coffee cost a dime and a television set cost exactly the same price as it does now.

She was stoned and sitting cross-legged on the tiny concrete balcony of her apartment, smoking cigarettes and ashing into the same dead plant that was here when she moved in.  She was staring at the storage closet at the opposite end of her balcony. The closet was painted a deep forest green. She didn’t have a key for the storage closet: it was locked with a sizable deadbolt, and so therefore the closet gained mysterious, occult-like properties whenever she got high and found herself staring at it, listening to the shrieking summer cicadas, a noise which, when commingled with the ringing in her ears from her weed-pumping heart, made her feel like she was slowly merging with the universe and also slowly going insane. She liked to imagine that there was a Soviet nuclear bomb in there, something leftover and forgotten from the Reagan years, and the digital timer was slowly counting down to nul.

She was thinking about Kip and how things were not going well.  It was politics: she was basically a punk and he was basically a fascist.  Everybody seemed to think he was only pretending, but she was pretty sure that deep down in his gleaming steel heart, he was always wearing leather boots and kicking a baby in the face for The Future. They needed to break up, but she wasn’t sure how. Their fucked-up sex life was regular, malignant, and satisfying. Also, she owed him four hundred dollars, a whole month’s rent.

Her doorbell rang and she quickly put her cigarette out. She left the balcony, and stood in her bathroom in the dark.  The doorbell kept ringing, interspersed now with intermittent knocking.

“Amanda?  Amanda Fox?” shouted a British man, definitely not her landlord.  “I am with the International House of Pancakes, Amanda, and I really need to talk to you about your grandfather. If you are at home, please answer the door. I am only going to be in Austin for three more days. ”

She sighed, flushed the toilet so she would seem not-crazy, and put on a sweatshirt.

“I will come back tomorrow,” he said.  “I am leaving my card, and—“

“No, no,” she said, unlocking the door and opening it right as the toilet crescendoed.  “I’m here.”

He stood there on her doorstep, wearing a full business suit even though he was soaked in sweat.  He was thin and round-faced and pale and bespectacled and there was a corona of acne covering his hairline, where his hair gel mixed with his sweat and flesh juices. He was holding a glass vase full of white flowers.

“Aha,” he said.  “Sorry about the yelling, but I came by yesterday and the day before, and there wasn’t anybody home and you don’t seem to ever answer your phone or check your email… and my job, my actual job right now, is to get in touch with you in order to give you a very alarming sum of money.  I am here from our London office.  It’s sort of a working vacation, you see. I mean, um, tragic circumstances and all.  Sorry about the circumstances, first and foremost, above all else.”

He coughed into his hand.

“I don’t have a phone,” she said.  “So I don’t know who you’ve actually been calling. And I barely check my email; just have it to pay my electricity bill once a month. Sorry! What’s up? Who are you?”

“My name is Rory,” he said furtively.  “Very nice to meet you. May I come in?”

She frowned, not really into this idea.

“I mean, it is a bit of a private matter, I’m afraid.  Sort of a corporate thing, really. Can’t really speak about it where just anyone could hear. The money is real, I promise. Ha ha ha!”

He laughed as if somebody had just pointed a gun at him and said: laugh, motherfucker, laugh with your whole face.

He held the vase full of flowers out to her.

“Ah yes, and these are for you!” he said.  “I’ve been buying fresh ones every day just in case, so they are fresh. I am very sorry for your loss.”

“My loss?”

He frowned, darkening.

“Yes, well,” he said.  “I mean, perhaps you and your grandfather weren’t very close.  I mean, I have heard that this is the case.”

“My granddad?”

He was silent. 

“Oh Lord,” he said.  “You don’t know then, do you?  No one told you. I’m so sorry.”

She took the flowers from him, inferring the rest.  She let the door swing open wider. She backed into her living room, and collapsed into a bean bag chair beside a massive plastic yellow table where she had been breaking up weed.  She fished her pack of cigarettes out of her pants pocket.

The representative from IHOP tentatively crept into her apartment and then gently shut the door behind him.

“Sit,” she said.

He lowered himself into the other bean bag chair, his knees popping and his suit pants riding up so high she could see his pale skinny shins.

“I am going to smoke this cigarette,” she said before flicking her lighter.

“Yes, of course, go ahead,” he said.

“So what killed him?” she asked, lighting the cigarette. “Did he break his hip? Was it cancer?”

“I don’t actually know,” said Rory.  “I mean, I work in the London office, you see and just recently transferred to the States.  I think I am here because I am so new and nobody else wanted to be about this particular business. It is a weird old world.”

“Well, you are doing fucking great at your new job, Rory,” said Mandy.

Rory turned bright red.  He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a check which was folded neatly down the middle.

“This is for you, and then I have some papers for you to sign, if you don’t mind, and then I will be out of here and that will be that.”

Mandy looked at the check, frowning.

“This is a lot of money,” she said. “This is life-changing money.”

“Ha!” said Rory.  “Yes, I’m sure it’s no true solace, but there it is. Something to have.”

“What’s the deal here? My granddad hated us. I think the last time I saw him, he wouldn’t stop talking about how I was going to grow up to be a phone sex prostitute.  I was thirteen and he told my mom I needed to get spanked for texting at dinner. That was before he disowned her, back when we still lived in California. She was high.  I wanted to be high.  He was a horrible hateful old man.”

“Yes, actually, it’s a little bit funny, really.  This money isn’t from his will, although it is related to your actual inheritance.  Your actual inheritance is a particularly odd bit of intellectual property. Worthless to you; very valuable to us. This money represents an offer from the International House of Pancakes to...hmmmm…purchase something that’s been deeded to you, uh, perhaps in a not entirely kind or, rather, charitable way.”

Rory took two folders from his suitcase and set them on the yellow table, carefully moving the weed to one side with the side of his hand.  One folder was pink and one folder was blue.

“Deeded to me?”

“I guess, ha, it is a bit funny really, with what you said about his being concerned about your telephone usage and texting in your early years.  He has actually deeded you the IHOP social media accounts, which we did not actually know that he had the rights to use and manage, but which were specifically enumerated to him several decades ago in a contract about computer game rights—OF ALL THINGS! CAN YOU IMAGINE AN IHOP COMPUTER GAME?—but which was never updated nor examined.  We were able to get in touch with Facebook and with Tumblr in order to have those accounts shut down and reopened, keeping our same followers and so on, but unfortunately the good people at Twitter have been exceedingly difficult about allowing us to exchange executorship and management without your express agreement.  They have run into some trouble with this recently, it seems, with some early novelty accounts. So they want to keep everything to some kind of official legal standard, which is fine, just a bit annoying.”

“What are you saying?  My granddad gave me the Twitter account to IHOP in his will?”

“Ha ha, yes, exactly that,” said Rory.  “Perhaps it was intended to be some kind of chastisement or life lesson, but I assure you that it is worth a great deal to the International House of Pancakes. As our sum presented suggests, we are willing to compensate you quite adequately if you will just go ahead and deed the account right back over to us so we can continue posting deals, specials, news, and additions to our menu to our three and a half million followers who crave our daily IHOP updates and pancake-related jests.”

“Wait a second,” said Mandy.  “You mean I have three million Twitter followers now?”

“Well, the International House of Pancakes does.  But yes, I suppose you could say that, as a temporary and hilarious quirk of circumstance. Ha!  It’s funny to think about.  Now these papers stipulate that…”

 “I don’t even have a smart phone.”

“Aha,” said Rory.  “So you can see that such an account is very much useless to you, and vital to us, and so therefore this sum of money should exchange hands as soon as possible. We’ll just sign all the papers in this blue folder here and I will be on my way.”

“What’s in the pink folder?”

“Oh, that’s nothing, that’s just the account information which I am legally required to give to you, though the password will of course be changing once you take the money and sign these forms.  Just a formality, really. Part of “Twitter law,” which is really quite fascinating. Gosh, I wish I had the time to explain it all.”

Mandy picked up the pink folder.  Rory watched her, joggling his knees, not sure how bean bag chairs were supposed to make you feel mellow, or how any human beings could tolerate these insane Texas temperatures.

“The password is MARIOKART6969,” said Mandy. “Come on, man. Really?”

“Yes, well, the way I hear it, one of our marketing interns set up the account back in 2006, and this has stayed sort of an inside joke.”

“What happens if I don’t take the money?” said Mandy. 

“What a fun thing to think about,” said Rory.  “In that case, we would of course be forced to set up a new account and people would slowly trickle over to us as soon as they realized they were no longer getting official information from the real International House of Pancakes. We would also be forced to file an injunction against you. If you ask around and consult with experts, you will discover that the amount we are offering is more than fair and reflects our wish to respect the only granddaughter of our founder.”

Mandy didn’t say anything.  She carried the pink folder onto her balcony, lighting another cigarette.

“Let’s sit outside for a minute,” said Mandy.  “I need to think.”

She opened up two lawn chairs and they sat in the heat, smoking as she leafed through the folder.  The vase full of flowers was on the ground between them.

“This shit is pretty hilarious,” said Mandy.  “This is like giving your porn account to charity when you die.”

Rory didn’t say anything. Sweat and oil covered him like latex, sealing his juices inside a slick and dripping membrane.

He closed his eyes in silence while she smoked and read.

“Let me see your phone,” she said finally.  “You have a smart phone?”

He handed her his phone.  She frowned at it, pressing buttons.

“How do I get on the internet?”

He opened a browser for her. 

“Cool,” she said.  “Oh never mind, there is a button that takes you directly to Twitter.  Neat.”

“Hang on,” said Rory. “Hold on now. What are you doing?”

She sat on the railing of the balcony, swinging her legs.  She typed for a few minutes, starting to smile, and then she tossed him back his phone.  She stood up, took all the flowers out of the vase, and festooned them around the lawn chairs.  She poured out the water.  She looked around for people watching, and then she threw the vase as far as she could into the parking lot. It smashed into jagged multitudes, making a chalk-white smear.

“Come on,” she said.  “Let’s go. I am done mourning and I am also sober now.”

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“To IHOP,” she said.  “We are going to get free pancakes.  All pancakes are free at the IHOP on Cesar Chavez today.”

“They are?”

 “Sure. Free Twitter pancakes. It has already been retweeted 11 times.”

Mandy hopped over her balcony and started walking out of the complex.  Rory followed her, running to catch up.  He was looking up the number for the IHOP on Cesar Chavez, and then he was calling and explaining the situation to them, telling them corporate would cover it, telling them there was an emergency, telling them they should only extend the offer to people who specifically asked for it.

“What are you doing?” seethed Rory.

“Let me see your phone again,” she said.  “Don’t worry. I just need to make a phone call.”

He hesitated.  He took his phone out of his pocket.

She snatched the phone out of his hand. She dialed a number while he glared at her.

“Hey daddybags, meet me over at IHOP,” she said.  “It’s an emergency.”

“Why don’t you have your own phone?” asked Rory. 

“Technology is bullshit now,” said Mandy.  “What is cool about a smartphone?  Everybody has a smart phone. Old racists with blood diseases have smart phones. YOU have a smart phone. I can always get someone else to look something up for me. It is not very hard to pretend that every single person these days is your own personal robot slave.”

Kip was waiting for them when they arrived, straddling his bicycle in the parking lot.

Kip had a tattoo of an elaborate "< a >" on one forearm and an equally elaborate "< /a >" on the other one.

(“Anchors,” he once explained to her.  “You know, like a sailor.”)

“Kip designs websites for Nazis and skinheads,” Mandy explained to Rory.

“Hey man, I will write code for anyone,” said Kip.  “Market forces and freedom of speech and all that.”

“But he specializes in websites for North American hate groups,” said Mandy.  “Somebody has to do it right? His other favorite thing to talk about in the world is torture, which was part of the initial attraction, but now I’m not so sure. He is my boyfriend.”

“What do you mean you’re not so sure?” asked Kip.

“What do you mean torture?” asked Rory.

“You know,” said Kip.  “Coercive violence.  Pain with goals.”

They got a booth and all ordered coffee.

“So what’s going on?” asked Kip. “You said it was an emergency.”

“It is an emergency,” said Mandy.  “An emergency of FUN.”

The waitress returned with coffee.  She was built like a matador, whip-thin with veiny forearms. Mandy knew her name was Dinah, like Alice’s cat.

“What a day,” said Mandy. “Free pancakes!  You must be busy, Dinah.  I bet you are going crazy.”

Dinah was suspicious.

“Haven’t heard anything about any free pancakes,” said Dinah. 

“It’s a thing,” said Mandy.  “Today only.  It’s on the internet.”

Mandy ordered six short stacks “for the table” and a side of sausage.

Dinah snorted and walked away.  “Lemme check on that,” she said.

“Hey, I want to see your phone for a sec,” Mandy said to Kip.  Kip handed her his phone. She logged into Twitter and typed while he watched.

HI KIP #WHATISUPKIPYOUASSHOLE she typed, messaging him.

She handed his phone back to him and it buzzed in his hand.

“You hacked the IHOP twitter account,” said Kip. “Cool.”

“Not exactly,” said Mandy.  “I never told you my granddad started IHOP?”

“I thought you were joking,” he said.  “I thought we always ate here because of the free refills on coffee and the strong American values.”

“We always eat here because it is the best restaurant in the world,” said Mandy.  “Let me see your phone again.”

Kip handed it back to her.

“Man, the IHOP twitter feed is just a bunch of hipster jokes about pancakes,” said Mandy.  “Every single tweet is some annoying joke about a pancake.”

 “Is this about money?” asked Rory. “You want more money? Is this extortion?

 “Just a minute,” said Mandy.  “I am trying to write something. Ya’ll should talk about torture or something.”

“What are you more interested in,” asked Kip. “Theory or practice?”

“Why do you know so much about torture?” asked Rory, exasperated.  “Who are you people?”

Mandy opened a new Tweet.

FOR THE MONTH OF MAY, IHOP WILL BE TAKING YOUR POLITICAL ASYLUM REQUESTS AND HONORING ALL EASTERN EUROPEAN VISAS #PANCAKESPRING

She chuckled to herself.

“Twitter is really stupid,” she said.

IHOP HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CRUCIBLE 4 CNTRVERSL IDEAS ABOUT LIBERTY COME 4 THE PANCAKES STAY 4 THE PRTCTD RADICAL DISCOURSE #PANCAKESPRING

“With respect to Western torture techniques, we are really seeing something special happening lately,” said Kip.  “It’s been taking place since the Global War on Terror, really, but watching it happen is great for the industry as a whole.  Sort of a torture revolution, really. Nobody talks about it.”

“Kip is a fascist,” said Mandy. “I used to be into that, uh, romantically.”

“Yeah, right,” said Kip uncertainly.

Rory stared at his coffee, unsure of what to do or what to say.

“What do you mean ‘torture revolution?’” asked Rory, trying to be nice.

“What we are seeing is the supplanting of Vintage Prep with French Modern techniques all over the world, but especially in America and other western countries,” said Kip.  “It’s rad.  I never expected such an enlightened outlook coming from us, you know?  South Africa, maybe.  I wonder if internet porn has something to do with it? Probably, right?”

“You have to explain the difference,” said Mandy.  “Not everybody spend their afternoons reading torture blogs and masturbating to 80s children’s cartoons.  I can’t believe I used to think you were so hot and cool.”

“It’s a rivalry as old as the seasons,” said Kip, glaring at her. “Vintage Prep torture techniques are things you wouldn’t even really consider torture, because they are so awesome and ubiquitous. For instance, handcuffs, right?  Or being forced to be inside a jail cell?  Or prison guards looking the other way whilst you get raped by some of your fellow inmates to teach you a lesson about class and manners?  All of these techniques have filtered down over the years from the finest Anglo-Saxon prep schools, and have been modified and adjusted to fit our modern incarceration needs.  Forced sitting, forced standing, solitary confinement.  Terrible food that makes you sick.  Stuff like that. It is the kind of cruelty that children do to each other, with the main goal of inflicting maximum psychological damage without requiring many resources.  It is also the kind of torture that anyone can do and which requires no specialists, which is great because you don’t want somebody on your payroll whose job title is ‘torturer.’   You can keep somebody in solitary confinement their entire life and people will just shrug, though this is probably the worst thing you can possibly do to a living creature of planet earth.  But what I am saying is that Vintage Prep torture techniques are giving way to French Modern, and not just in South America or Southeast Asia or China or Russia.  But everywhere, everywhere!”

YES THIS OFFER IS FOR RL @TheRealEdwardSnowden she tweeted

And:

IHOP IS PROUD TO ANNNCE THAT WE WILL NOW BE OFFERING PLTCL ASYLM AND LGL PRTCTN 2 WHISTLEBLOWERS, DISSIDENTS & FUGEES WRLDWDE #PANCAKESPRING

“What is French Modern, then?” asked Rory, miserably.

BRING YR SLEEPING BAG DISSIDENTS! #PANCAKESPRING
And:

FREE COFFEE AND PANCAKES ALL NIGHT LONG N XCHNG FOR LEAKING INFORMATION ABOUT THE SRVLLNCE STATE TO JRNLSTS #PANCAKESPRING

“These were the techniques that the Nazis and the Vichy government developed jointly together to deal with the French Resistance, basically,” said Kip.  “Now this is top notch stuff, stuff meant to break people without leaving a mark.  Until the Germans started employing French professionals, they were just snapping people’s fingers and beating them senseless while tied to chairs.  That doesn’t work at all. You don’t get the feeling that your torturer is enjoying it, that they don’t care whether you talk or not.  French Modern techniques are artful, require professional attention, and do not scar.  Most famously used in Algiers and throughout South America during the Cold War, we are talking here about electricity, experimental surgery, and water stuff, coupled with acts of explicit sexual degradation which are designed to tap into a subject’s unconscious needs and make them fall in a kind of submissive 'love state' with the torturer.”

“Which definitely wears off after awhile,” muttered Mandy.

Kip looked at her.  Frowning.  Hard.

“You think uh…French Modern is better than Vintage Prep?” asked Rory.

“Almost certainly,” said Kip.  “French Modern is passionate romance; Vintage Prep is a cold sexless marriage. I admire you British, I really do.  Very efficient, very careful.  But with French Modern, people are interacting in a hands-on, intimate way instead of just coldly extracting confessions through the brutality of time and the body’s own natural weaknesses.  It’s artisanal.  It’s authentic. It’s professional, not a relationship of convenience.  It’s a craft, like Martha Stewart, you know?  Which means we will get scientific data about torture, figuring out whether it really even works or not, and we will have professionals doing this work instead of amateurs, leading to fewer casualties, fewer mistakes, and vast harm reduction across the world.  Everybody knows French Modern techniques work better, and once we get prisoners signing release forms, we will…”

THERE IS NO STRCTRL CLASS STRATIFICATION AT IHOP, THERE IS NO INSTITUTIONAL DISFIGUREMENT OF THE HUMAN SOUL #PANCAKESPRING

 THERE IS ONLY COFFEE AND PANCAKES AND SOMETIMES WAFFLES #PANCAKESPRING

“…we will finally be able to make torture a permanent institution instead of just a scary word that means whatever bad thing you want it to mean.”

They all sat there in silence for awhile, pondering torture as a permanent institution and pancakes, respectively.

“Rory,” said Mandy.  “I am not going to do a deal.  I am not going to sell you back this Twitter account.  I will tell you why for four hundred dollars.”

“Fucking Christ,” said Rory.  “I am not going to give you four hundred dollars just to tell me why we are going to have to sue you.”

“There’s an ATM in the front of the restaurant,” she said. “Call your boss or whatever.”

Rory threw his napkin down on the table and stood up.

“We are breaking up,” Mandy said to Kip as soon as Rory was gone.  “I can’t hang out with any dudes from Stormfront anymore at your damn 'shitkicker' bars.  It’s not funny anymore.  Maybe it never was.  It’s fine to have ironic and cruel beliefs about things, but like, maybe that’s what fascism actually is, you know? Everybody just saying the worst things and playing pretend. You are good at sex, but lots of people are good at sex. I can find about ten people as good as you on the internet in about ten minutes.”

“But you hate the internet,” said Kip.

"That was before I had a twitter account," said Mandy.

Kip slunk down lower in his booth.  He started sulking. 

Rory returned, glaring at her.  He handed her the cash and she handed the cash to Kip.

“Why are you being such a jerk?” asked Rory.

“Yeah,” said Kip. “How come?”

“Because I believe in things for real, including IHOP, especially IHOP,” said Mandy. “It's basically the UN, but tons better. An international organization dedicated to pancakes. You can sue me if you want, but god help me, I will be the voice of pancakes until you cut my throat.  It is my destiny.”

“You should take the money,” said Rory.

“Being poor as shit never changed anybody’s life,” said Kip.   

“Fuck you dude,” said Mandy.  “I just paid you back!”

“Listen,” said Rory.  “What do you mean you believe in IHOP?  I mean, I sympathise: I vote labor when I am back home. But it’s just a stupid corporation same as the rest, same as Twitter, you know? Just take the money.”

“There was only one restaurant in the town where I grew up, the town we moved to after my mom left California. I spent every Saturday night there.  Every time I snuck out of my house, it was always to go to IHOP.  This was before the internet, so nobody believed me when I told them my grandfather started this place.  It didn’t matter. IHOP is the opposite of Twitter.  It’s a place where real people talk about real shit face to face over giant plates of cheap food.  There are infinite coffee refills for infinite problems. How many people do you think have fallen in love inside an IHOP?  How many people have written beautiful novels sitting at an IHOP, or come up with crazy ideas that have changed the world?”

They looked around the restaurant.  No one seemed to be falling in love or writing a novel.  


But they could have been.  There were plenty of empty booths.

“You are going to have to get your own phone,” said Kip.  “You sure as hell aren’t going to use mine.”

Mandy turned around in the booth and tapped the guy in the next booth over on his shoulder.  He was a giant man with a luscious and disgusting beard who was eating a massive plate of chicken fried steak alone and reading the entirety of the New York Times.  It looked like he probably did this every day.  There was a battered Graham Greene novel on one corner of the table and a personal bottle of hand sanitizer.

“Hey man,” said Mandy.  “Can I use your phone?”

“Um,” said the man, trying to be polite.  “What for?  I mean, I can dial the number for you.”

“No, I just need to tweet something,” she said. 

“I don’t use Twitter,” he said.

“Oh, me neither,” she said.  “It’s for IHOP.”

She started to explain.  Rory sighed and got up to leave.  Kip followed him, realizing she was just going to keep ignoring him, and plus also they were broken up now.

ARISE YE WORKERS FROM YOUR SLUMBERS! ARISE YE PRISONERS OF WANTS! IT IS TIME FOR PANCAKES she tweeted.  She handed the phone back to the man with the hand sanitizer, just as her six plates of pancakes arrived, just as the Soviet nuke locked up in her storage closet counted three, counted two, counted one, counted zero.



20140420

Food As Love

“I know you have all heard this from me a bajillion kajillion times, but we aren’t food as love,” said T.J. Maxx, Director of Concepts at Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM). “We are food as fucking. And not just like: good fucking that you do listening to old disco on a Sunday morning to piss off the neighbors, all fake animal noises and trying to rattle the chandelier with your cock. We are food as nasty fucking, the kind of fucking where the leftovers smeared on the vinyl cause diseases, the kind that would snap your prostate like a rubber band if you did it for real, the kind of fucking that you can only do to yourself in your head.”

It was Tuesday morning at 4 AM, the beginning of the power hour, when everyone’s testosterone levels were spiking due to their circadian rhythms and the cortisol levels in their plasma. It was the hour where everyone at Yum was required to be at work, when the bars closed up in North American cities and when Yum! Brands acquired its most valuable customers in its Taco Bells, Kentucky Fried Chickens, and Pizza Huts, the people who were only there because there was no place else to go. It was also when traffic at all of the porn sites that Yum! owned through its shell corporations spiked, meaning that the marketing data clusters were at their most raw and strong.

Tuesday was also corporate fetish day at Yum! Brands, which meant everybody was dressed more or less in traditional skirts, pantsuits, suits, ties, leather, latex, and purple dog collars that revealed that they all worked for Concepts. Employees at other departments wore different colored dog collars to show their allegiances; this was a fun tradition that everyone loved.

T.J. Maxx was the only person in the room not wearing a dog collar. His massive sclerotic neck strained out of his black leather business suit. He had purchased the rights to his Yum name, T.J. Maxx, after the clothing store had gone out of business, taking out a small business loan while he was just a junior project manager. His mother had once worked at a T.J. Maxx, his father had been arrested for destroying cars at the same T.J. Maxx with a set of golf clubs stolen from the parking lot.

Along with his preternatural grasp of food dynamics and international taste barometry, his invention of the Nacho Pocket had made him a legend. But it had been a full season since Concepts had done anything that penetrated the North American whofuckingcaresasphere.

T.J. Maxx was depressed. His job situation felt volatile, “in question.” He was simultaneously delivering a morning speech and playing Mortal Kombat on the building across the street, projecting the game onto the side of the building using the ten thousand lumens projector built into his belt buckle.

“I feel like I can’t breathe, people,” he said. “I feel like you are strangling me to death with your bad ideas. Call me traditional, but I think breath play should be between a man and a woman, or like a sexy uncle and his curious nephew, not a Concepts team and a cool-as-wintergreen Concepts director on deadline. Get your fingers outta my throat people.”

Liu Kang transformed into a dragon and immolated Sub-Zero. Everyone clapped.

“Alright, that’s your speech for the day,” he said. “Be freakishly motivated and come up with something as good as Candybacon Scotch Egg Grenados or Pop Tart Wafflefries or even Tortilla Soup Dumplings. Alright, now everybody file out quietly with your heads held at 90 degrees to the ground like I just pulled out a gun and killed your best friend without even blinking. Time to make the food of tomorrow.”

The room cleared. He sat down on the conference table, facing the window, making a personal decision not to make eye contact with anyone today.

“It’s Sheila Pitch Black Hollow Void’s birthday,” said Brian Ass, his assistant slash bodyguard slash lover slash personal trainer. “What should I get her?”

“She just did an in-house lateral, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, she moved from Carbs to Sauces,” he said. “Paycut, but she gets the Kowloon Lab, which means vat organs to play with and no FDA.”

“Fuck her,” said T.J. Maxx. “Get her a vintage Hustler Magazine from the month she was born. I want her to know what her diabetic coma dad was thinking about when her scumbag mom was milking him for conception sperm. Also, I want a picture of her mom. And some privacy.” Brian bowed and left.

T.J. Maxx didn’t turn around, but he could tell he still wasn’t alone.

“Who’s there?”

“Um, I don’t think you know me. I’m not actually supposed to be here.”

T.J. Maxx wanted to look and see who was talking, but he mastered himself and continued staring out the window, checking his email using his belt projector. He could see people working across the street at Google scowling at him.

“What’s your name?”

“Are you asking me my real name or my Yum! name sir?”

“Why the fuck would I want to know your real name? Were your parents creative people?”

“No sir,” she said. “Then my name is Henrietta Poe.”

“Poe? Like the French writer?”

“Sure,” said Henrietta uncertainly.

“You get your spirit power from some dead French writer, huh? Okay; that’s kinky. You aren’t wearing one of my collars, so I can’t fuck you if you are disappointing, so what good are you to me?”

She didn’t answer. He sniffed, noting the persistent smell of sun-warm skin and human dander.

“You are still here. How is that possible? You are fired.”

“Well, I’m HR, so you can’t fire me,” said Henrietta. “But I don’t want to stay in HR. I want to be in Concepts.”

“What did you study in school?”

“Well, I studied psychology.

“WRONG. I hire bartenders, MALE strippers, ex-kindergarten teachers, and deejays. That’s my fucking thing. I am already annoyed with you."

“Is this your office?” she asked him. “It seems like a conference room.”

“Wherever I am standing is my office.”

“HR is really dry,” said Henrietta. “I mean, we do scenes like everybody else, but it is all like weird tense spanking stuff and fussy meticulous European “rules porn,” and I thought I would like it, but I don’t. I want to be in a more primal division, with a chance to make a difference.”

“It doesn’t get more primal than Concepts,” he said, sighing, not looking away from the window. He caught himself squinting into the reflection of the glass, trying to make out her image, but then he relaxed his eyes and went dead inside.

“You are a psychologist?”

“I mean, I studied psychology.”

“I think I am depressed,” said T.J. Maxx. “I don’t really know why.”

“That is not really something I am qualified to talk about.”

“I don’t know how women relate to men anymore. I mean I used to know exactly how it was. Women related to men exactly like men related to jobs. There are shitty jobs and good jobs. There are careers. There is love, which is the job equivalent of getting paid to sit around and masturbate and drink cherry Coke from a glass slipper that Blondie used to wear. My job is love to me, and so I always tried to be love to women who could tolerate me. But now I don’t even know anymore.”

“You seem like a complicated man,” said Henrietta Poe. “It is good to have feelings.”

“At Concepts, we hire: strippers, deejays, bartenders, comic book artists, gas station clerks with good tattoos. We teach them to do the bullshit corporate jobs. Um, why? Because they are smart and full of life and know how to fucking kick ass at thinking. It is about ten hundred thousand times easier to teach a cool bartender who has life coming out of her damn eyeballs how to do Quickbooks than it is to teach some go-getter business major from Indiana how to manage a useful coke addiction.”

“I think the problem is that you are looking for a new idea,” said Henrietta. “A new kind of pizza, a new kind of gordita, a new kind of milkshake. The idea doesn’t matter as much anymore. We have a real strength here that we aren’t using. The strength is in our corporate culture itself. I tried to tell people in HR, but…”

“What do you mean 'our culture'? Wait, wait, wait…”

T.J. Maxx was silent.

“Maybe something like a gusher…but with nacho cheese…” he said.

He frowned.

“No, that’s terrible, never mind,” he said.

“What do we do here, you know?" asked Henrietta. "I mean, what is daily life here at Yum! Brands, as a corporate entity with broad, global goals?”

“We make porn and we make food that people are actually going to eat,” said T.J. Maxx. “We are also a music label, I think.”

“But isn’t it strange that we never combine these things?” asked Henrietta. “I mean, I am in HR, so I deal with the culture here as an organic, single entity. But I think all these discrete divisions are keeping us from growing how we should be growing.”

“We can’t put porn in advertising,” said T.J. Maxx. “That’s illegal. And also you can’t eat porn. And also it doesn't work; they've done tests. There is a barrier you can't cross.”

T.J. Maxx was silent.

“What are you suggesting? You have a new Concept package?”

“I do,” said Henrietta Poe.

“Well, what is it? You officially have my interest.”

“It is already happening.”

“What do you mean?”

“It started happening as soon as I walked in the room. Concept, marketing, advertising, suggestion, hypnotic post-suggestion, lingering buzzfry, synapse flare, chatterspray, presocial positioning, social rollout, post-social entrenchment, backlash redeploy. Everything. Maybe it started happening a little before I walked in the room, depending on what works for context. I’m not an editor.”

“You are very brave and full of shit.”

“This is the next, obvious iteration in what we do here. We make porn. We make food. Get ready to make both.”

She had a very elegant clasp purse. He could see it in the reflection of the glass. He tried to see what she was taking out of it. It was long and pink, like a flashlight. She came up behind him, close enough that he could feel the hem of her gingham dress on his leather pants.

“I’m gonna do you first and then you can do me when you are good and angry,” she said, reaching under her skirt. “I assume this room is wired to record? Video, hologram, Blueray, whatever?”

“Of course,” he said. “What if I miss something somebody says? We make ideas here.”

“Perfect,” she said. “Consider this my application to Concepts.”

She pantsed him. He didn’t flinch.

“Listen asshole,” she said to his asshole. “It doesn’t matter what dumb idea you come up with. It can be genius, it can be bullshit, it doesn’t matter. While I am fucking you, you are gonna let your mind wander and try to relax, okay? And one of your ideas is gonna come forward in your mind and then you are gonna turn around and start fucking me and you are gonna scream it to the world. And that’s gonna be the thing that everybody buys. Because of this video. Because they saw the concept getting born and they were right there at the beginning. And because every one of our pornos for the whole next cycle is gonna feature whatever you blurt out when you are getting reamed by my little pink strap-on. We are merging divisions. We’re never gonna be able to put porn in advertising; you are right about that. So we are gonna put advertising in porn.”

"Wait," he said. She paused.

“That…could work,” he said.

She pushed his face against the glass. He pressed a button on his belt buckle so he could see what was happening in the room on the building across the street. Something in his heart stirred. He wanted to know her real name. He wanted to know what that dead French writer meant to her.

“Say, listen,” he said.

“You aren’t gonna like this,” she said. “You are about to get Crunchwrapped Supremed.”

“I was wondering about your real name,” he said.

He tried to turn around and look at her, but her hand was on his neck and she had spread his legs too wide and he was unbalanced and there was no way to do it without snapping his own neck.

“Shut up and think about food,” she said.

20140321

Ladykiller

Tre took the entire weekend to change his profile status from “IN A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH THE DEVIL” to “ENGAGED TO JESSICA TRAPPER.”

He almost waited too long. Jess’s hurtness was seeping out of the walls like ectoplasm, almost manifesting physically in the apartment they shared.

“It doesn’t matter what it says on Facebook,” he lied casually, when she asked him.  “This is about us: not all those assholes on Facebook.”

“I changed it in the bathroom literally ten minutes after I said yes,” she said, squeezing one of his thighs as she curled up against him, trying to be more amused by her own response to her own joy than upset by his willful rejection of this extremely clear and obvious new rule w/r/t love.

“We are gonna talk about Facebook in the future like our parents talk about cocaine,” he said.  “Man, I can’t even remember that decade. I was on Facebook the whole time. I met your mother on Facebook.  I did so much Facebook that my balls went numb and I could only fuck on Facebook.  You want to see pictures?  They are on Facebook.”

“You sure you aren’t having second thoughts about being relationshipped?” she asked him.

“You make it sound non-consensual,” he said.

“9 times out of 10 it’s somebody you already know,” she said.

“The real problem is relationship culture,” he said.

 Eventually, she decided he was merely being dumb and not having “secret thoughts.”  She drifted off to sleep beside him.

But Tre lay awake all night, watching who liked the post and responding to the comments.

At Buzzfeed the next day, Tre felt doomed.  He coasted through work, trying to get as much done as possible. Everyone kept sarcastically congratulating him, which didn’t help. He figured out thirteen things that only people born in 1990 would know, and then he left early.

Jess had her Pilates class on Mondays so they usually both fended for themselves when it came to dinner. He wasn’t sure what to do.

He drove over to a strip center where they sometimes went for Appalachian food.  There was a Chili’s there. He would go to Chili’s. Chili’s was the right place. It was a place you went when your life was over and you were ready to die.

He got a glass of wine and a plate of fried cheese at the bar.

He took a long gulp of the bad wine, feeling cursed, and opened Facebook on his phone.

He started looking through the profiles of old girlfriends, trying to figure out what qualities they had in common, besides dating him.  Maybe if he could determine some essential quality they shared he would find out something useful about himself, something he could use as a wedge or weapon.    

He resisted the temptation to “like” anything they posted or to make any comments.  Surely doing so now, post-engagement, would seem hostile. 

“Drone over there just bought you a drink,” said the bartender. “What do you want?”

“The fuck?” said Tre.

“Are you Tre?” said the bartender.  “Drone said your name was Tre.  You want another glass of wine or like top shelf Scotch or what?”

Tre craned his neck over his shoulder.  He had never seen a drone in person before. 

“Over there,” said the bartender.  “By the bathroom. ”

The drone slumped along one side of a vinyl booth, smiling at him with high definition red lips and big soft cartoon eyes.  It was female-shaped. It was wearing a tight black dress and was sitting over a fizzy cocktail that had been purchased purely for decoration. The drone’s proportions were disorienting and hallucinogenic: the six-tone skin rippled in metallic tones, showcasing abstract animated tattoos that seemed to change hue and texture based on the amount of indirect light it absorbed from the stained glass bar fluorescents.

“I’ve never seen one in real life before,” said the bartender.  “Somebody you know?”

“I really doubt it,” said Tre.

As he stared, the drone stood up and arched its back.  Everyone in the restaurant was watching the machine seduce him. They were laughing at him and pointing, or else gawking and taking pictures.

Tre found himself slipping off of his barstool and walking over, his head swimming, his heart filling with quiet murder.  He had to talk to the drone or it would keep trying to get his attention. He slid into the booth and sipped his drink.

“Hello,” said the drone in its digitally-altered machine register. There was a human being on the other end of that voice typing words to him. Some hidden secret subjectivity. It was entirely possible that people didn’t have any kind of external soul that mattered and might survive death, but this drone definitely did.

“Do I know you?” asked Tre.

“Sure,” said the drone. “Sure you do.”

“Then do you mind if I inquire as to who is piloting this magnificent machine that is buying me drinks?”

“I am Anonymous, lol,” said the drone in the same throaty but uninflected half-tone voice.  “Does Anonymous get you hard?  Does Anonymous make you feel sex feelings lol?”

Tre set his drink down carefully on a Chili’s coaster.  The drone immediately slid around so that it was sitting right next to him.  It leaned in so that it was touching his thigh.  There was a warm hum coming from inside the drone that he could feel through the plastic seat.  He could feel it vibrating his prostate; pulling at his testicles.  The smell coming from the drone was simultaneously musky and artificial, like a werewolf that had just fucked a rack of fashion magazines.

“No seriously,” he asked.  “Who is in there?”

“I hear you are getting married,” said the drone.  “That must be exciting.  Such a change lol.”

“Do you know me for real or are you just learning stuff about me right now on the internet?”

“Come on now Tre,” said the drone.  “Relax a little bit.  Talking to us is like praying.  We only want to help you and we have the power to do it.”

The drone reached over and put one firm flexiflesh hand on his thigh.
 “Do you want to see a picture?” asked the drone.  “Something exciting?”

“I need to go,” said Tre.  His phone vibrated and he looked down.  He had a message.  He opened it.  It was a picture of the drone all tied up with a ball gag.  There was semen, or some kind of semen substitute, trickling down its haunches and it was looking trustingly at the camera.  There was a poster on the wall behind the drone for “Finding Nemo.”

“Do you like that?” asked the drone.  “Does it excite you?”

The image was sudden and shocking.  It was an exact replica from a series of photos he had taken of his college girlfriend in her dorm room, back long ago before people realized that everything digital was permanent.  It was a perfect replica in every detail.

The picture was still on one of his old hard drives.  His forehead broke out in a cold sweat.  That’s where it had to come from. When was the last time he had connected that hard drive to a computer?

“Where did you get this?” he asked. 

“Do you want to see more?” asked the drone. “We just want to make you happy lol. We can make more, if you like.  Tonight.  Right now. We can have all the sex! LOL!”

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Tre. 

“I thought you were leaving?” said the drone, bemused.  “Well, if you are going to stay, we should talk about interesting subjects.”

“What do you want to talk about?” asked Tre.  He was stalling.  He needed to think.  This could be an old friend; an old enemy.  Someone he had hurt in the past.  Some thirteen-year-old kid. Why today?  Did it have something to do with changing his relationship status?  Had somebody been watching him all along, waiting for him to finally decide to “settle down” before striking? 

They didn’t have to live anywhere close to him.  They could be on the other side of the world.

It didn’t have to be someone alone, either.  It could be a team of people. A bunch of his friends could have all chipped in together and rented the drone for the evening, and they were now fucking with him, all sitting around with beers laughing and debating what to type next.  One person at the controls, another busily hacking his laptop, another person figuring out what to say next to make him sweat. They didn’t even have to be American.  They could be feeding everything through a language filter.

He had no power here.

He realized all of a sudden that he was very turned on.  He needed to focus; to keep his mind away from the very real creature in front of him made out of silicon and rubber and firm warm plastic, he tried to imagine a bald and overweight middle aged-man chain-smoking in front of a bank of computers, pacing back and forth, barking out orders to acne-faced teenagers who were pulling levers and cackling, all wearing Skrillex t-shirts.

“Relax,” said the drone.  “We can talk about your fiancée if you like.  She seems nice lol.  How long have you known her?”

“Four years or so,” said Tre. 

“You seem nervous,” said the drone.  “Don’t be nervous.  How did you guys meet?”

Tre paused.  He needed to ascertain what the drone knew about him in order to figure out who it was.  Anybody could find out facts about him.  They were everywhere; nothing was private anymore.  He needed to know the color and shape and taste of these facts in order to triangulate the drone’s likely pilot.

“We met at a little crab restaurant,” said Tre.  “I was there with a buddy and we sat at the bar.  She wasn’t ordinarily a bartender there, she was normally a server, but she was filling in for the night and we got to talking.”

“Did you go home with her right away?” asked the drone.  “Are you a player? LOL.”

“What does it matter?  Don’t you already know the answer?”

“Does she know how you met?” asked the drone.

“What do you mean?” said Tre.

“I mean, if I asked her how you met, would she tell the same story?”

“Yes,” said Tre.  “Of course.”

“So you haven’t told her.”

“Told her what?”

“About your buddy the doctor,” said the drone.  “And the program the two of you made to have a good time in bars. About LadyKiller lol.”

Tre’s mouth went dry.  The drone leaned in close, seeming to taste the aroma of his panic. He and Peter had sworn each other to secrecy about that.  In fact, his shame and revulsion was so complete that he had mostly manage to convince himself it had never happened.  Where was Peter now?  He was practicing medicine in Florida.  He was happy.  This couldn’t be Peter.  But what if Peter had a secret livejournal or something?

He wanted to run away, but the drone was too dangerous.  It knew everything about him, and he didn’t know what it wanted or who it was yet.  It was like a cat, flipping him over onto his back and watching him scramble to his feet before flipping him over again, staring at him, watching him struggle, trying to learn something about the nature of struggle itself.

“You should tell the truth when people ask,” said the drone.  “It’s a much better story lol.  One night your friend the doctor was drunk on tequila after passing one of his big doctor exams. He had recently dissected a cadaver that had died from a self-inflicted drug overdose and he was having an existential crisis because the cadaver had such glorious and stirring breast implants.  He Facebook messaged you about it. He had been worried about his sexual response to a dead woman, and you tried to cheer him up by going as far as you could along with him, talking about breast implants and how they all had to have RFID tags embedded inside them so that they could be tracked for insurance and emergency purposes.  And then you said: maybe we could track those RFIDs in living people.  With the right open data algorithm, you could find all the people with breast implants in a 300-yard radius and match them up to their Facebook profiles.  You both spent the next month coding it up.  It was good code lol! And even though you found a few people with plates in their knees and artificial limbs, it worked like a goddamn charm, yo. You got so laid. You got ten thousand times laid. You became a sex hero! You had weird confidence, knowing things about people before you even said hello.  And THAT’S how you met your fiancée.  It was good and smart.  We salute you.”

“How do you know all that?”

“Because we care about you,” said the drone. “We are Anonymous.  We are legion. Sometimes we are benevolent lol and reward those who serve the world. It was a brilliant program. Did you know that people still use it to this very day? You are almost a hero in certain circles. In other circles you are not a hero at all. There are many circles.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Tre.

“Ladykiller,” said the drone.  “Was that your title or your friend Peter’s?”

“That was me,” he said weakly.

Tre realized now that it didn’t matter who was piloting the drone.  He was in an extremely precarious  situation and he needed to get away.

“What do you want from me?” 

“We don’t want anything,” said the drone.  “We are giving ourselves to you as a wedding present, like a fruit basket. You can do whatever you want to us.  We are yours to keep.  We thought about hacking a power user on Fetlife and sending some willing slave from the bottom of a leather family to you as a gift but this is more clean. We will both keep our secrets: you won’t tell anyone what happened, and we won’t tell you who we really are. It will be so fun for both of us. This whole body is artificial.  Have you ever wanted to fuck the internet? LOL.”

The drone reached into its purse and pulled out a band-aid colored pill bottle.  The drone shook the bottle, rattling the contents.

“What are those?” asked Tre.  “Now you want to drug me?”

“They are harmless,” said the drone.  “Just sugar.  But they are password pills.  For the suite.”

“I can’t stay with you,” said Tre.  “I have to get home. You are trying to hurt me somehow.”

“You don’t have to stay the night,” said the drone.  “You can leave whenever you like. But you should really come with us.  So we can be alone together. I bet you aren’t really honest with your…desires…until you are alone with someone lol.”

A shadow fell across his face.

There was somebody standing over them.

The bartender was standing at their table, grinning knowingly. 

“Your car is ready,” said the bartender.

Tre followed the drone out of the restaurant, unsure of how to get away.  Could he run?  He found himself getting into the backseat of the car beside the drone.  The car didn’t have a driver.  It navigated the streets carefully and persistently, tinted windows concealing this terrifying vacuity from other drivers on the road.

The drone slipped its hands down Tre’s pants and encouraged him to feel the warmth of its perfect mouth, the wetness of its breath. 

“You have to take one of the pills whenever you want to come up,” said the drone.  “Your stomach acids will dissolve the coating and prime the transmitter.  It is temporary; a bit like a glow stick.  By the time it stops working, you have to be gone, or otherwise security will be called.  You can take another pill if you want to come see us again. We are a present to you.  For all you have done.  From Anonymous.  For the lulz.”

Tre dryswallowed one of the pills and put the rest in his pocket.

The lobby of the building they stopped in front of was also empty.   The elevator snapped open.  There were no buttons in the elevator; just smooth metal on every side.

“It is scanning the pill inside you,” said the drone.

The elevator opened on the top floor suite.

“This is nice, isn’t it,” said the drone.  “Facebook tells us whose birthday it is and who is in a relationship and who is having kids.  We ‘like’ these things.  We say: ‘happy birthday.’ Facebook measures how responsive we are to our peers, and to ads, and how much money we make based on the trips we take and the wonderful things we buy and the exciting jobs we have.  And when we want to fuck somebody with a drone as a present, Facebook makes it so easy, doesn’t it?  Everything is so nice now lol. 

Tre waited for the drone to turn its head to walk deeper into the suite.

And then he slammed into it from behind, tackling it to the ground. The drone was not made for combat or battle.  Its responses were silky and catlike as he straddled it and got his knees onto its shoulderblades. He put his boot on its neck.

“Lol,” said the drone.  “You mad?”

His phone beeped at him.  Alerts.  Hadn’t he turned his ringer off?

There was a marble side table by the foyer.  With his boot still on the drone’s neck, he swept a ficus and an antique clock from the tabletop and then picked up the table by the base.  He swung the table around and broke the legs off.  He just wanted the slab of marble.

The drone writhed beneath him, stroking his ankle seductively.  He slammed the piece of marble into the drone’s head, cracking it.  He heaved and sweated, bringing the slab of marble down again and again.  His phone kept bleeping at him.  It was nearly a constant irritating whine now, alerts streaming from his pants pocket. 

“Shut up,” he said.

Any piece of the drone that moved, he bashed it with the slab of marble.  He was precise and consistent.  The fingers twitched; he bashed them.  An eyelid fluttered; he smashed it as hard as he could, making sparks, sending chips of marble flying. 

Eventually, the drone lay completely still on the soft rug beneath him.  He was sweating and kept burping up stomach acid, though he felt nothing but cold inside.

It’s the equivalent of breaking a camera, he thought to himself.  The fact that it feels like murder is part of the camera’s new defense mechanism.

He leaned against the door of his suite and finally checked his phone.  The alerts were all from Facebook. There were thousands of them and they were still coming in.

He scrolled over to his Facebook wall.  It was filled with pictures of him from every angle smashing the drone.  The only text accompanying the pictures was a frowny face.  There were thousands of them; each moment captured in beautiful three-tone sepia.  Too many to delete.

He looked for the camera taking the pictures.  Was it in the ceiling tiles?  Was it embedded in the door frame?

He was up on a chair using his phone to look at Facebook with one hand and searching the ceiling tiles with the other when the security guard unlocked the door.

“I had to smash it,” said Tre.  “It was hacking my computer.”

“The cops are on their way,” she said.  “Just so you know.”

“Man,” he said.  “Why did you call the cops? It’s a fucking ROBOT!”

“It calls the cops automatically, dude,” said the security guard.  “Do you know how much these things cost? You basically just crashed somebody’s yacht, dude.”

“Whose apartment is this?” asked Tre.

“You mean you don’t even know where you are?” asked the security guard, laughing. 

His phone was ringing.  It was Jessica.  He put his phone on the ground and started smashing it with the slab of marble, gritting his teeth so hard that they squeaked and his gums frothed, while the security guard just shook her head and laughed, not getting too close, quietly taking video with her phone just in case the cops had questions.