It was a cool, late October afternoon when I was finally dismissed from my "duties" at the reassignment center. The rubber room's plastic chairs and dank asbestos aroma were gone for good. The air outside was calm yet bracing. Rather than hop on a bus, I decided to walk the twenty blocks back to my apartment while I savored this new, hesitant freedom.
He was sitting on concrete steps leading up to a brick apartment when I walked past. He asked me for a cigarette, to which I replied, no, I don't smoke. His outstretched palm was smooth and adorned with a glistening wrist watch, his navy blue blazer cuff betraying a lighter hued shirt beneath with a mother-of-pearl button. I marveled that he didn't have the money to buy his own smokes.
Oh, this? He replied, pulling up the collar of his blazer with a flick of each wrist, noticing my glance. Yes, I had money once, he said, staring down at my ragged sneakers.
Once? I asked, stopping to hear a story. It was a good night for a story. The fancy sitter's coarse brown hair, ruffled by the wind and likely many days without a shower, disguised a pair of slicing pale blue eyes.
The man sighed and said, I used to work as an assessor for charter schools, opening, closing, redeveloping programs. People felt like they could trust my words even though my words were sometimes harsh, sometimes damning. At the end of the day, I was like a magician whose only trick was his enthusiasm and sincerity. When I said they would work, they believed they could. This whole nation believed.
At this, he grew silent and stared at the sidewalk. I felt little sympathy for the man until he unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows.
I started to change, the man whispered. Slowly, patterns of words began to show up in black ink all over my body, twisting the words I knew and loved so well. When I presented, the words were in my way, shifting every second before I could speak them, revealing me for the charlatan I am--again, he fell silent.
I leaned in closer to examine his arm. Undulating lines of text snaked together in a sea of information like a living tattoo. At first, I could discern nothing. And then, ever so slowly, I discovered the nascent threads of a tale rippling into a single line.
The wolf huddled beneath the sheets, eagerly awaiting his feast. Months in planning: hunters eaten, mobile devices scrutinized for all possible scraps of language, houses spotted, grandmothers "sorted out." The wolf knew that issues were possible; he considered himself the brightest of all of his species and would doubtlessly overcome any obstacle set in his path.
All of this for one young morsel. "Oh, the things wolves must do!" the literate wolf chuckled to himself. Unfortunately, the chuckling was a scary sound, coming from a wolf, and the wolf knew this, so he quickly silenced himself.
Knock-knock, the door reverberated, making the wolf's heart pound quicker than ever before. It was time. He fastened his pink, polka dot, "hand-me-down" bonnet to his head and adjusted himself in bed before rasping "Come in!"
The door opened and in pranced a young, lithe body in a red hood carrying a wicker basket. She is older than she seems, the wolf thought, but so chaste and guileless at heart! He wrapped his own hairy arms around himself to avoid squealing with delight, since wolf squeals are terrifying sounds.
The girl immediately regarded him with suspicion. Surely her grandmother was not covered in so much fur, unless that was the disease that had forced the girl's mother to extoll upon her the virtues of looking after the elderly. That must be it, the girl thought. Her mother must be incapable of looking at such an insufferably hairy grandma.
"Come closer, my darling," the wolf-grandma whispered.
The girl edged towards him slowly, worried that she might accidentally get grandma fur on her Sunday best.
"My, what big arms you have, grandma!" the girl stated, noting that her grandmother was remarkably well built for a sick woman.
"The better to hang you with, my darling," said grandma, spreading her arms wide.
Ignoring the odd word choice and her own extreme desire to not be hugged by a furry, powerful woman, the girl obliged. "Wow, what big eyes you have!"
"The better to cease you with, my darling," said grandma.
"Pardon?" asked the girl.
"See you with. Darling."
"And what big ears you have!"
"The better to hearse you with, love."
Chilling implications began to form in the girl's brain, but she brushed them aside. "Hearse, grandma?"
"Hearse? Hare? Hear, hear. It's hear, dear. Oh me, my ears are not quite what they… oh dear," wolf-grandma stuttered revealing sharp teeth beneath her black lips.
"My, what sharp teeth you have!" the girl exclaimed, shocked at the level of deformity caused by her grandmother's ailment, wondering whether the biscuits she had purchased would even be digestible with a mouth that sharp and pointy.
"The better to abate you with, my sweetling!" the wolf roared.
The girl winced. Talking to her grandma had become quite difficult with her sickness.
"Abate, abet, teat, ta-ta!" the wolf attempted.
"Ta-ta?" the girl asked incredulously.
And then he garbled her up.
What the hell did I just read, I asked, dumbfounded and rubbing my weary eyes.
The man began to cry. It gets worse, he said, and he unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and exposed the upper part of his breast bone, words crossing across it seemingly at random. Can you see why I was fired? Can you see why it was a stretch for me to get even the words I needed to say to be effective at my job out?
I could see the myriad dreams of a convoluted society rippling across his skin. I could see every future, every frustration, and every poorly worded sex scene that would ever assail the bestseller list with feverish over-acceptance. Nauseously, I began to drift amongst the words like a barrel tossed into an ocean.
Geoffrey, on stage in less than one minute, found himself awestruck in the possibility that he might wet himself with nervousness, and that the very first speech on the subject of post-human development, with a real technological product to validate it, would be one where the speaker wet himself. No make-up story would ever save his company from the humiliation and the news briefs targeted purely at his soaked trousers. The people would laugh at him and the future as if his stained crotch had determined the destiny of the entire human race.
Then the reverie broke with the thunderous applause of the tech convention's assembly hall. Time to put on a show, he thought as a microphone was thrust into his face.
"Hello, ladies and gentlemen," he began. "In 2037, a mere two years time, we will be testing our first public models of the EXCEL 21, the world's first thought-to-spreadsheet tool."
Rapturous applause shook the broad auditorium; although, Geoffrey nervously noted the significant number of paired glowing orbs in the audience. The proliferation of eye-implant hardware had been the precursor to EXCEL 21; he would simply have to sell the audience on the notion that their I-Spies and Googly Eyes were worth replacing. He wondered, in a small part of his brain, how his company's new technology would help support a crowd worth of people who felt like their tools entitled them to ignore a speaker. He shoved it aside.
"Our system scans all the matrices of your brain for all of the relevant data points that you could possibly need. You can speed-process data while constructing your charts and figures on the fly. Never before has such an articulate breakdown of that old 'you only use 10% of your brain at any given time' myth been uttered or demonstrated."
"What if your knowledge of data and what works in analysis is wrong?" one young statistician asked.
"We have exhaustively mined the brains of today's most brilliant mathematicians and statistical scientists to derive the formulae for our program. You can make the program do what you choose, but it works at its best when you focus on one real world problem. May I perform a demonstration?" Geoffrey asked.
Again, applause. Is this real? Geoffrey wondered. Am I really here with this many people , selling a future?
He put the Protocol Helmet over his head and flexed his fingers against the white touch screen in front of him, sending live feeds of his actions to the devices of all of the concerned audience. "OK everyone," he said. "I will begin to think about the aggregated attendance data of all TEXPO conferences ever, just to give you an idea of how quickly I can consolidate information."
It worked! Within seconds of finger flicking and concentration, Geoffrey had organized a nice, reliable and valid proof of all attendance data simultaneously. It was a little boring to look at, but the crowd--
--started tittering nervously, with some gasps and plenty of laugher. What's going on, Geoffrey wondered, and found the spreadsheet he had created become populated with things that he knew would end his career.
Women's "ideal" bust sizes began to be listed in their own column as if they were their own yearly event. What the hell? Geoffrey thought. But as other columns like "ratio of female attention to level of degree," and "relative tightness of sex organs relative to age and location," and "quotient of pudding required to suffice as a lubricant " began to emerge, the problem became incredibly clear.
All of those famous mathematicians whose brains were used to create the program's knowledge of data accumulation had inadvertently filled the machine with the most grievously geeky notions of sex that had ever been conceived, which was now exploding across the screen in line graphs that were made to look like naked women. Even if they would not normally be expected to openly talk about raunchy subjects, somewhere, in the backs of all of their minds, a towering libido scowled from behind a thick textbook.
Geoffrey's rising star died immediately, but the device received millions of dollars in backing that same night, eventually being marketed as a "imagine them naked" program that could realistically use bodily profiles, combined with the power of your own imagination, to produce a realistic naked picture of anyone. Naturally teens picked it up, and a new era of personal privacy violations and cyber-bullying began.
I shuddered involuntarily. This man is a monster, I thought. Then, I wondered how long I had been staring at his chest. It must have become awkward, because he was now tipped back against the steps and sleeping. I witnessed the last story, creeping up his neck and slithering into his nose as if it was running away from the rest.
Where are you going, I asked, talking to the seemingly alive body text as it crawled up there.
The fancy-sitter with the word tattoos is strangling me while muttering foreign syllables. All of the words twist up his wrists and then finger tips and then across my body as I gradually feel the language slide into my mouth. I feel the gripping realities and the duplicity and everything he is and has been, elongating my soul as if the rubber room is now in my veins. As if I will never be free again.
And as I begin to die, I hear him sing--oh say can you sieve by the donzerly light? And it's the "Star Spangled Banger" taken out of context so completely that all I can do is gasp my death rattle while he moves on to mangling the "Prattle Hyman of the Old Republican."
Is this my fate? To perish in the hands of a lifelong dissembler turned shaman of nonsense? With what passes for sympathy, I tuck a twenty dollar bill into the collar of his shirt while he sleeps and walk as quickly as I can towards my house, knowing that my wife will be waiting for me, the lights will be on, and hot food can be made soon. Tomorrow will be a better day, I say, while the dark city hearkens to me with intermittent lamp posts and headlights.