Personalitech, the scrappy Silicon Alley tech company that hired me as an assistant avatar artist, had two equally irritating mottos. One was “put a face on it.” The other was “game it up.”
I had only been working there for a couple of weeks when my boss stumbled into the office I shared with the other assistant avatar artists and pointed right at me. I hadn’t even had any coffee yet.
“All the senior avatar artists are hungover, and so I need you to come with me to a bar and drink with the CEO of Caterpillar right now and make rough sketches for his Stocklet. We are already running late. Come on, come on, come on!”
“It is 8 AM in the morning,” I said, trying to make sense of it all.
“Ed doesn’t drink,” she said, turning to Ed, one of the other assistant artists who made it to work on time.
“And Io is eight months pregnant,” she said, pointing at the other assistant artist, a young lady named Ionia who was indeed resting her tiny hands on her freakishly swollen belly.
“So that leaves you,” said my boss.
“Game it up,” said Ionia, smiling without pleasantness.
My boss, Korine Attlisberger, was head of the Personalitech Stocklets initiative. We hadn’t launched yet, even though we had fifty-two working Stocklet designs and solid contracts with every publicly traded corporation in America. Stocklets had signed up everyone except for a few holdouts like Walmart who were waiting for us to go live before joining us.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ll fill you in on the way.”
I followed her out the door and we got in a cab.
She didn’t say anything for awhile. She took a handful of aspirin and washed it down with flat ginger ale from her purse.
“Just sit there and doodle during the meeting,” she said, staring out the cab’s window. “Don’t have ideas. If he asks to see anything you’ve drawn, tell him that the sketches are too preliminary and that revealing anything at this stage would be counterproductive to your creative process. Tell him we always do it this way. If he demands to see something you’ve drawn, if he absolutely demands it, show him an avatar for Gazprom. You worked on Gazprom, right?”
“Where are all the senior avatar artists this morning?” I asked. “I don’t get paid enough to do this.”
“There was a wedding last night,” said Korine. “They all got smashed. So did I. But their jobs aren’t on the line. Mine is. So now yours is, too. The Caterpillar CEO is only in town for one day. It’s a surprise visit.”
“You are hungover and we are going drinking?” I said. “Is that a good idea?”
“My head is pounding like basketball practice in a gym with great acoustics,” said Korine. “I wish I was dead. But since when has anything I ever wished for come true? The CEO of Caterpillar is a man named Hammer Bromwich. Everyone says he is very nice. He is consistently rated one of the most beloved CEOs in the country by his own employees. We just have to get through a few drinks, some cheap friendly bullshit, and some breakfast. Then you can have the rest of the day off.”
She reached over and tapped the cab driver on the shoulder.
“This is it,” she said.
The bar was called “ASPERGILLUM.” The name was charred into a frame of lacquered oak. The bar was nestled into an empty side street between two massive midtown office buildings. This kept tourists from stumbling in accidentally and finding themselves seated at a place they couldn’t afford.
Korine checked her phone, “fed” the gilded tamagotchi that dangled from her neck on a solid gold chain, and then we hurried inside.
There was only one person there waiting for us, but he took up an entire table. Hammer Bromwich was enormous. At a certain point, you passed from mere obesity into the sort of statuesque gigantism that becomes a kind of charismatic asset: people can’t look away from you. Hammer must have weighed six hundred pounds and was only average height. He was sitting in front of a pint glass full of whiskey from which he was sipping delicately, as if from a teacup. His fine features were cramped into the very center of his perfectly round face, a face ringed with fat like the bunched head of a pig on a plate.
“The good people from Personalitech!” he roared. “The people people! Game it up! Put a face on it! Come and join me! Sit down, sit down, sit down, and let’s all get something tasty and expensive to eat!”
“I’m Korine,” said my boss, putting her hand out to shake. “We spoke on the phone.”
“Of course!” shouted Hammer Bromwich. “Call me Ham. HAM BROMWICH! SOUNDS DELICIOUS, DON’T IT? And who is this?”
“This is just the avatar artist,” said Korine. “He is going to do some preliminary sketches for your Stocklet while we have some breakfast and a chat. Pay no attention to him. I’m not even sure he speaks English.”
I smiled and waved cheerfully. I sat down in a chair at the corner of the table and took my tablet out of my messenger bag. I switched it on and opened my graphics editor. I knew how avatars for Stocklets were supposed to function, though I technically had never made one yet. I figured now was as good of a time as any to try my hand, especially since I wouldn’t be showing it to anyone.
“Excuse me,” said Ham, leaning toward Korine with a leering grin, nearly knocking the table over with his girth and grabbing his pint of whiskey just in time to keep it from crashing to the floor. “Is that a tamagotchi around your neck?”
“Why, yes it is,” said Korine, fingering her gilded charm.
Hammer Bromwich roared with laughter.
“I haven’t seen a tamagotchi since my daughter was in middle school,” he said. “She must have gone through about fourteen of those damn Japanese toilet cloggers! I remember running to Kmart in the middle of the goddamn night – 2 AM! – trying to track down a new one to complete her little collection! She’s about your age. I guess that makes sense. Good lord! Is that tamagotchi still WORKING?”
“Not only is it still working,” said Korine. “It is the first and only tamagotchi I have ever owned. And it is still alive. I have never needed to reset it.”
“That’s not possible,” said Ham. “The little bastards die of natural causes. And you have to feed them five times a day. I remember that much.”
“I have never missed a feeding,” said Korine. “I play with my tamagotchi for at least an hour each day, at precisely the same time each day. My tamagotchi is on a perfect, regular schedule. If you never deviate from the original calibration, they never die, even accidentally. They were designed to teach children how to behave themselves and be disciplined. This is the secret of the tamagotchi.”
“I’ve never missed a feeding either,” said Ham, laughing. “But I wouldn’t exactly call myself DISCIPLINED! Don’t the batteries die?”
“When it is time to change the batteries – I change them once a month -- I open the egg up and I keep it going on life support with a homemade charging station that my father helped me build,” said Korine. “He was an electrical engineer. I cried so hard when I learned that my tamagotchi would eventually run out of batteries. But he taught me that there is no problem that can’t be solved.”
The waiter came over to take our drink order.
“Another pint of whiskey!” said Ham. “No, better make that gin. It is still early. Gin is the lightest liquor. It is practically weightless.”
“I will have lemonade,” said Korine quietly. “The artist will have a single beer. Domestic.”
“Is that all you want?” asked Ham, stunned. “It all on me, obviously.”
I opened my mouth, but Korine was faster.
“We want our artist to do good work,” said Korine. “Nothing sloppy.”
“So you must really like tamagotchis,” said Ham.
“My little egg on a chain makes me feel….correct,” said Korine. “Anyway, I got the idea for Stocklets from tamagotchis, so I must respect the original device. Also, my keepsake reminds me of my father. I want to honor him. I want to blend avarice and companionship for a new market of very young capitalists and for their developmentally-stunted older siblings and parents. He would have understood this better than anyone.”
“I have to tell you,” said Ham. “I’m not absolutely clear on what a Stocklet is or what it does. My secretary tried to explain it to me, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was hoping you would be able to explain it to me this morning. HOPEFULLY I WILL REMEMBER LATER! HA HA HA!”
“Certainly,” said Korine. “We envision Stocklets as the natural merger between the stock market, between information processing technology, and between cell phones. We are making Pokemon from crystallizations of global capital. Each publicly traded corporation will have a Stocklet available to buy for your phone by purchasing one share of the corporation’s stock. The Stocklet changes and morphs each day as the stock goes up or down, and becomes more powerful if the person buys more stock in that company. People will either be able to sell their Stocklets for cash outright from Personalitech, or trade them to other people. Absorbing other people’s Stocklets will also be possible. The Stocklet will serve as channel for the regular dissemination of shareholder information, in addition to being a corporate representative and mascot.”
“And how will you make money?” asked Ham.
“Corporations are paying us to make their Stocklet and to create a well-designed platform where they can be easily bought, sold, and traded,” said Korine. “We take a percentage from the Stocklet market. We are working with Nintendo, Bitcoin, and the NSA already to create a secure trading floor. Let’s say you want to buy your grandson some stock for Christmas, but you are afraid he won’t be grateful. Purchasing a Stocklet for him will ensure that he understands that something tangible has been purchased, something that grows and shrinks and lives in the world. We are bringing corporations to life. If corporations are going to have rights, they also ought to have bodies.”
“That’s a little bit terrifying,” said Ham. “But I like it. It is good business. I suppose if everybody else is going to be on board, Caterpillar ought to be on board, too. You said on the phone that almost everybody has already bought their Stocklets? Apple? IBM? Exxon? PetroChina?”
“Yes, all the major players are already partners,” said Korine. “We are predicting a spring launch. We have been test marketing in elementary schools for some years now. There are a few holdouts who are waiting to see what happens. Berkshire Hathaway, for instance. But the fact is that no one can STOP us from making Stocklets for their corporations, and most people see the utility in coming aboard early and being part of the development process.”
“For a fee, obviously,” joked Ham.
“Nothing is free,” said Korine. “At Personalitech, we know how to do two things: put a face on it and game it up. We think we can sell the very idea of capitalism to a whole new generation who trust games more than they trust the idea of ownership.”
The waiter arrived with the drinks.
“Anything to eat?” said the waiter almost under his breath. He was good at his job. He was a ghost.
“I will have a couple plates of your fine beef enchiladas,” said Ham. “I also want six deviled eggs. They aren’t on the menu, but I want them anyway. I will also have some of this fried cornbread right here. That looks delicious. Very subversive. Tell the chef that I ‘get’ what he is doing.”
“Of course sir,” said the waiter. “Excellent sir. And you madam?”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” said Korine. She was visibly upset at the mere mention of food. She made a face, and I knew sour bile fumes had risen to the back of her throat.
“Now Korine,” said Ham. “You can’t make me eat here ALONE. I chose this place because you said you liked oysters. Well, this place has the best oysters in the whole city. I asked around. I averaged star ratings. I asked people who know. Who REALLY know. They all said to come here.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” said Korine. “Really, I’m fine.”
“Nonsense,” said Ham. “Bring her a couple dozen oysters.”
“NO,’ said Korine. She blinked rapidly. I thought she might throw up right here at the table. Instead, she took a sip of lemonade.
“Well, maybe I will have one,” said Korine. “Just one.”
“One dozen?” asked the waiter.
“One oyster,” said Korine miserably.
“Very good, madam,” said the waiter.
“Now hold on,” said Ham, irritated. “If she is ordering ONE OYSTER, then I want you to bring back the biggest oyster you’ve got, okay? In fact, I don’t just want the biggest oyster you’ve got: I want THE BIGGEST OYSTER I’VE EVER SEEN! Make some phone calls! This woman is trying to revolutionize capitalism right here at this table! I don’t want her to leave here saying I only fed her one oyster, unless that oyster was THE KING OF OYSTERS. THE EMPEROR OF THE OYSTER GALAXY! You understand me?”
“Of course, sir,” said the waiter. “I will do my best, sir.”
“No hard feelings,” said Ham, relaxing. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. You are a good kid and you are doing a great job. Here’s a hundred bucks.”
He peeled cash from a stack and shoved it in the waiter’s shirt pocket. The waiter dematerialized.
“Now I feel awful,” said Ham. “I hate it when I lose my temper.”
“It didn’t look like you lost your temper to me,” said Korine. “You were perfectly reasonable and pleasant.”
“So what is your artist doing over there exactly?” said Ham, turning to me. “I hear him skritch-skratching away, but he DOESN’T SPEAK.”
“He is making sketches. He is trying to capture the spirit of Caterpillar.”
I gave Ham a thumbs up.
“The spirit of Caterpillar, eh?” said Ham. “Let me see if I can help you. We make massive machines that move the heavens and earth. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough tractors, cranes, dumptrucks, and wrecking balls. I played with steel trucks in my backyard all day long, making cities out of hard-packed earth and mud. Now our machines do that all over the planet.”
“Your employees love you,” Korine said. “According to the internet.”
“WE BRIBE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM,” said Ham. “Health care for everybody. Vacations for everybody. We have the best engineers, the best sales force, and the best repair agents. We get the best people because we offer them the best packages. Nobody WANTS to work for a living. So we try to make it as painless as possible. There is no bullshit at a construction site. We built our company on a solid foundation, without any modern marketing bullshit. It’s like mixing concrete: if you build your company with too much bullshit mixed in, eventually you will collapse into dust.”
“Where does the word Caterpillar come from?” asked Korine.
“Strong as a Caterpillar,” said Ham, simply.
“I’ve never heard that expression before,” said Korine.
“It’s an expression,” said Ham. “Tough as a Caterpillar. That’s where the word pillar comes from. Caterpillar.”
“I had no idea,” said Korine.
“Is this helping you?” he asked me.
I gave him another thumbs up.
Ham’s phone rang. The ringtone was the theme to “The Gummi Bears” television show.
“My daughter loves the Gummi Bears,” he said apologetically. “She calls me her big bouncing Poppa Gummi Bear. Hello? Hello? Baby Bromwich?”
He listened for awhile while his eyes searched the nothingness in front of him.
“Oh god,” he said. “Oh god, oh god. Well, give her the week off. Give her the month off! Paid, of course, paid. And send her something nice. What does she like? Hmmm. Let me try to remember what her desk looks like. I’ve got it! She loves little porcelain clowns. Get her ten good ones. Ones she doesn’t have. Go by her place. Take an inventory. Get her new ones. God. That’s awful. I’ll swing by her apartment when I am in Atlanta. Get the clowns and let her know that she can take all the time she needs and that her job is safe.”
He hung up.
“Sorry,” he said. “One of the receptionists in our Atlanta office just lost her husband. Killed in a car accident. He was drinking. Drinking for days! Really, she’ll be better off, if you want my honest opinion. But she loved him, so it will be tough. Tough as a Caterpillar. God, that’s awful. Could I get another gin over here?”
The waiter brought another pint of gin and told us all that our food was on the way.
“Alice has had a terrible year,” he said. “Just terrible. Her son Aubrey had to have surgery on his testicles and now she might never have grandchildren. Have you heard of this? They said he had an ectopic testicle fetus growing in there. I didn’t even know that was possible. They say it has something to do with the amount of estrogen in the meat supply these days. Did you know that testicles can swell up and carry a fetus just like a womb? They are stretchy as hell. Evidently, the fetus was living off of retrojected seminal fluid. Isn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard? Poor Alice in Atlanta.”
The waiter swished through the restaurant doors and then returned with Ham’s enchiladas, deviled eggs, and cornbread. The portions were massive. Korine put her napkin over her nose, wincing discreetly. Next, the waiter returned with a plate for her. He set the plate down in front of her and she turned a pale shade of green and nestled her face in the crook of her arm.
“Now that is a giant oyster,” said Ham. “I am actually impressed. THAT IS ONE GIANT OYSTER. ALL HAIL THE EMPEROR OF THE OYSTER GALAXY!”
“This is a Gulf Coast Tar Oyster,” said the waiter. “The grow on the offshore oil derricks, feeding on the slurry from passing ships, growing big and fat in the warm, tepid waters where pirates used to ply their trade. They are minty and sassy, and there are notes of tuna, sour cream, licorice, and champagne. Very choice. Very delicate. An excellent decision, madam.”
Ham peeled off another couple hundred from his wad and gave it to the waiter.
“Make sure you share that with everyone in the kitchen,” he said.
The oyster was the size of a dinner plate. It was served on a bed of rock ice. The meat of the oyster was as large as a chicken breast, and it jiggled like jello while the waiter stood there with folded hands. He gave Korine a knife and fork.
“You may need these,” cautioned the waiter. “Or would you rather have a spoon?”
The oyster-meat trembled, sloshing around in the lemony cocktail sauce that Ham poured around the edges for her.
“Yum!” he said. “Let me see you take a bite.”
Korine cut into the oyster with the same determination as a battlefield medic. The knife buried itself in the oyster’s gelatinous hide, and purple ooze spilled out from the incision like pus from an infected wound. Korine carefully set the knife down beside her plate.
“What was I talking about?” said Ham, puzzled. “Oh yes, ectopic testicle babies. Evidently, the thing had been growing in poor Aubrey’s little nuts for months. He didn’t even notice until it started to kick. Can you believe that? God, look at that oyster. They are still alive, you know. The only animal you can eat alive!”
“I need to wash my hands,” said Korine. “Excuse me.”
She got up from the table quickly and ran across the room. I poked the oyster with her knife.
I sketched for a little while, and then ran some animation routines. Something was taking shape under my fingers as I sat at that table in “ASPERGILLUM.” Ham was half finished with his second plate of enchiladas when he put his napkin down beside his plate and let out a heaving sigh.
“I hope this works,” said Ham. “I don’t know you and I have never met you, but between you and me, I am worried about Caterpillar. I am worried about my company and its future. Everything is digital now, but Caterpillar has always been about people. PEOPLE building things. PEOPLE moving the earth. Making homes for PEOPLE to live in and buildings for PEOPLE to work in. Every year, it seems like it gets harder and harder. But we always find a way to treat our employees with respect. They get the best health care we can provide. Paid vacations. Early retirement. Mentor programs and education programs. I don’t think of us like a corporation. I think of us like a better, more efficient government. I want to employ as many people as possible so they don’t have to work for Walmart, or in an Apple factory, or sorting books and shoes for Amazon.”
“You sound like a real good boss,” I said.
“Boss?” said Ham. “They are MY boss. I am just a nice soft place where the employees of Caterpillar can land.”
He patted his massive belly.
“How is it coming over there?” he asked me. “Are you getting anywhere? I want to see it when you are done.”
“These are just preliminary sketches,” I said. “Revealing anything at this stage would be counterproductive to my creative process.”
“Surely you have some ideas,” said Ham.
“Oh of course,” I said.
“Can you tell me about them?”
“I’d rather not,” I said. “I’m not supposed to.”
“She’s in the bathroom,” he said. “She’ll never know”
“I could lose my job,” I said.
“Let me peek over your shoulder,” he said.
“We never do it that way,” I said.
“Tell me something,” he said. “Will people really buy these things? How important is this, really?”
“We have been test-marketing them in private elementary schools for gifted children in Connecticut,” I said. “We give them to the kids for free. They love them. They fight over them. Kids get beat up on the playground. Gifted kids.”
Ham scooped the mustard middle out of the deviled eggs and made a pile of glop on the side of his plate. He twisted his finger into his napkin and began to wipe the eggs clean of bedevilment. He pulled six Cadbury cream eggs from his pocket and unwrapped them methodically, making another pile. There was one cream egg for each deviled egg.
“The Caterpillar Stocklet should be strong and powerful,” he said. “They should be some kind of strong, powerful machine. You know: something dangerous and powerful. Not like me. I’m just a big tub of goo. The Stocklet should be a machine that can crush rocks and fire missiles and dig holes straight through the earth. That’s how people should be thinking about Caterpillar.”
I frowned. That wasn’t what I was sketching at all. I opened another file and made some quick changes, revising my design on the fly.
Ham carefully cut the cream eggs in half, and then he poured the thick sugary yolk into each deviled egg half. He ate the chocolate shells after he emptied them, licking his fingers clean.
“Deviled cream eggs,” he said. “The cream part mixes with the mustard and paprika residue quite nicely. Do you want one?”
“No thank you,” I said.
He ate a few while I sketched. His big lips chewed each egg with bovine precision. He seemed to be growing agitated by the silence between us.
“Let me see what you’ve got so far,” he asked, standing up. The table shook as he moved it aside. Korine’s oyster wobbled like a pudding.
“I really shouldn’t show you,” I said. “I was commanded not to show you.”
“I’m the nicest guy in the whole world,” he said. “You won’t get in trouble. I take care of my people.”
He came around the table and stood next to me, breathing heavy. I closed my tablet and switched it off.
“Show me!” he said, punching me in the shoulder jokingly. “Show me! Show me! SHOW ME!”
He peeled off some hundred dollar bills and fanned them into my lap. I picked them up and put them in a neat stack. We were at an impasse.
“Okay,” I said, switching my tablet back on. “But you have to promise not to get mad or tell Korine.”
“I promise,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the bathroom where Korine had disappeared.
I opened the file where I had been sketching the Caterpillar Stocklet. I took a deep breath.
“So it’s like this,” I said. “It starts as a cute little bug. And it eats and eats and eats. When the stock grows, the bug gets fatter and fatter and jollier and jollier. It expands and gets all big and happy. And then, once it reaches a certain size, if the stock goes DOWN, the bug hardens all of a sudden. It turns into a bionic wasp. It seals up. See the tight muscles? It is a killer, dangerous wasp now. It is all sleek and deadly, just like you said. But it is a cycle. A process. If the stock grows again, the wasp starts to get fatter and fatter. It blimps up, getting bulkier and jollier. And then, after a certain point, when the stock drops again the fat happy wasp turns into something else. Maybe a bear robot! Maybe a leopard robot! It keeps morphing, you see? It is never finished, and it is either growing and expanding like a big jolly fatso or it is getting harder and leaner. But the essence will always be the same.”
“And what is that?” asked Ham with a tremor in his voice. I realized something was terribly wrong. “What is the essence of Caterpillar?”
“YOU are,” I said. “Right? You! Put a face on it is what we always say. I am putting your face on Caterpillar!”
He trundled away from me. He sat down at a different table. He looked like I’d punched him. He wiped his face with his hands. His lip quivered.
At that moment, Korine came out of the bathroom. She looked at Ham and she looked at me. She saw the drawings on my screen and she saw his furrowed brow.
“You’re fired,” said Korine blankly, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s me,” said Ham. “You are right. Caterpillar is me. I am a big fat asshole. And Caterpillar is doomed!”
“No!” I said. “That’s not what I meant at all! It’s art! It is growing and changing but it is always lovable! Not like Microsoft! Not like IBM!”
Ham started to sob. I got up to comfort him, but Korine knocked me aside.
“I said you were fired,” snarled Korine. “Now get out of here. Leave the tablet. Leave the drawings. They don’t belong to you. You are dismissed. Your contract has been terminated.”
I stuffed the stack of hundreds in my pockets as I headed for the door. The waiter ran ahead of me to open it, and I stepped back into the cold NYC streets, suddenly unemployed again. I didn’t know what had happened. I was confused, angry, thrust back once again into the mystery of my future.