ro: I’m the placard guy. When I see them come off the ramp, I start my speech.
“Welcome to our country,” I say. “I’m your Tour Pro. May I carry your bags?”
“No?” (I sigh. They always say no.)
[There are two of them, by the way. Jafe, a senior VP, and Ms Brudge, Holly, I think, some sort of division director, or CMS expert. Both Lux Corp. execs. My job: to get them to their night digs with the usual pre-fab incidents and no more.]
We make our way through the terminal, past the guards half asleep under stained felt kepis, their untrustworthy Belgian rifles slung barrel down across their shoulders. Through the double doors, a beautiful night awaits us, along with the usual beggars. “Ignore them,” I tell our visitors. “Nor should you be concerned about that sound like the wings of flies beating against tin pots, as one of our poets once described, quite inaccurately it seems to me, distant gunfire. A certain amount of political instability is to be expected in a touristic zone such as ours, no?”
[I wanted these protagonists from the Great Country to know the truth about our sad locality. For though our business districts gleam with the wet luster of crime just as theirs do, and our national stades are just as grand, for though our sand strands be as fine as any in the moond aroond, yea, brother, sister, if you wants to smoke some shit, sure we got the cracks too — it’s true: our people are vulgar. Even when they do the same as your people.]
But I keep my silence, as per dictate, and anyway we’re soon on the beautiful Rue Macabresando (and walking because that’s what the touristic manual dictates), and now I’m a little dizzy moving through the occulae of curated theatrics, market fleshes, quaint exotics, the carnival lights wheeling, and the crowd curling like the dendrite spirals of cocaine psychosis. I let them wander off a bit, their packaged event calendar flowin’ as per schema, and in a way it’s a wonderful night. We pass a bar where music is pouring forth from the ultimate band that began it all and reigns today, the Bitter Ikons, a song about the world they hail from — when all to a sudden, I lose them in the crowd! Ach! No, son, I think, and then I paranoid an instant. I think I see the Jafe’s red tie flash but no, it’s only that big fleshpot Amazonian hangs on the corner of Macabresando and Lustrada, stripping off her red bra and waving it in the air. Somewhere in the tour book it says this can happen but I never believed it. The Jafe is flat gone. I glimpse her, Ms Brudge, looking wan, dragging her ultra-thin wheeled travel bag determined-like, but then she’s swallowed in the crowd. My agency gone be pissed.
And then my cell goes off. I answer, of course. It’s Itahl from the main office. We speak in our peculiar argot going back many generations of Call of Duty: Black Ops.
“Visor down n’ war-ready, boss.”
“Big gonad that Jafe, no.”
“Got him net and tuck, yo. Way they be rackin dis night?”
“Course the Ravena. 3 bis A.”
Thank the good green heavens. I had forgot where they stayin’ at, and Itahl just slipped me the name. The Ravena. (And anyway, they can’t get outside, can they? Beyond the ringed and involute spectacle? And even off-script is a script, no?)
Jafe: So after giving the twit from Tour Pro the slip, Jafe japed in the crowd, his follicles curled like scorpion tails, and his pubis aching from all the whamming. Four minutes with that Amazonian had revised all his sexual politics. Back home that would have cost an eel and a peg. He felt suddenly like tiny exotics were gyring his brain parts, which had become vaginal. This was real travel. His wife Cheryl was a million miles from all this.
[On the eve of his trip, his boss, Clementine Wink — he of the tranched bets in our murky markets© — called the Jafe into his office: “It’s not so much that you produce the spectacle,” he said, “as that the spectacle lives in the many platforms where we roll the bloody heads of our victims like casino dice, and only in you Jafe, Jafe, in your heart-lounge with its plush velvet and bordello sperm feel, yes, in you alone, that the critical work can be done” — and now Clem’s whispering as though these are his last words in the charnel house world of his spreadsheets: “All you have to do is show up. That will move markets. You are not in the loop. You are the loop. Of course we’re taking this beyond merchandise. I’ve said this before: we’ll sell them consumption. The genius. Selling the selling, we are.”]
Jafe smiled to himself, and thinking now: When I squirted into the Amazonian in that little ornate room with the lymphatic cisterns, she shuddered like a V-8 engine starting up. And I told myself as it happened: I am the Jafe, I move markets. With my product I barely have to wince. Consumption sells, my friend. And we are selling tonight. In the solitary cotton fields, in the poker lounges and bus stations, all over the famous flailing hills, stage lit in starlight — Jafe thought suddenly of calling Cheryl as he moved through the sweat-truckled streets and then thought: fuck that. Be a skeezer. Shower and shave, then let’s blow this town wide open.
Pro: My duties are clear. Find the motherfuckers. They’re heading toward the Hotel Ravena, as far as I know. It’s in the Lido District, where everything is being renovated. Meaning the chances the Ravena is where it was last week are three decimals on the far side of zero. There’s hotels in the Lido they tear down and rebuild on a new site daily. The guests never even know it — their rooms exactly the same even to the toothbrush tipped over on the sink but they’re four blocks over, and somebody made a killing. Fast metabolisms are moving through us just this way. The speed of the money becomes the money. And fuck, I’m an 8 percenter (which used to be called Middle Caste). Forget the Starvelings, the Subalterns, the Substratas — in other words, the rest of them.
I’m sketching a world for you. Go ahead, don’t believe me.
I reach what appears to be the Ravena and enter. It looks like a graveyard, and the desk clerk like one of the grave markers.
I flash my tourist officer badge and take the stairs. I’m three rooms down the hallway when I hear it. Of course it’s sex, only more so. If pornography is mechanized exteriorized, consumable sexuality, this is God-in-the-machine shit so wired it’s like ether, not exchange. Outside the Jafe’s room I dally. These love sounds, as a dew-like film laid gentle on some possible non-fictive heaven sward, filter honey-like into my ears.
Point being, why do I linger. I’m a sworn officer. I’m his Tour Pro. What is not arranged is not real. I’m about to knock but just then a young woman appears at the end of the hallway. She’s clearly a damned pageant of old woes, her eyes bitten hollow with sorrow.
She approaches me shyly, and then without warning drops to her knees and unfastens me.
“Sorry, sister,” I call out. “I’m on duty.”
She begins to tell me her story. I oddly can’t feel a thing. The thought dawns on me that I’m at risk of becoming part of a Spectacular Chain. I’ve heard of them. Those in the room replicating some a priori spectacle (a porn vid, a childhood meme), me, Nata (the name of my interlocutor as she informed me) linked in this endless reflexivity of disposable sensation.
And here I begin to catch a glimmer of real awareness, a piercing of the ultimate non-consumable dark within me, that perhaps this was the truth of the pleasure loops all along, since the thing-itself is always happening elsewhere (in the room, for gods sakes, those svelte sounds), and always three levels of reality: life as we live it which is death, the performances we watch, and the third level, the gutter sucking real world of the elites and their power sumps, and I their diplomat, for regardless of what the Jafe is up to in that room, what has Bitter Ikon, the greatest band in the world, exported if not the power struggles of its elites.
Yet as my Nata tells me her tale of life-wrung woes, I don’t feel a thing — though why are those tears in my eyes as she tells. I’ve read about this dysplasia, of course, how those who suffer it are left to drain away the years sorrowing over ‘fate’ and other imaginary fables of woebegones. Oh God help me. Yet Nata spoke.
Nata: Nata walking with great sorrow in her mind down a nondescript street in the city — this was perhaps not the “beginning” of her story, though it was the “first element,” if I am intuiting properly, or did she actually tell it? She was about fifteen at the time, and it would be foolish to say this was a turning point because the turning points had already come and gone. It was late evening, the sky in the east fading to the deepening undersea dark of night and the sky to the west, where the ocean lay, casting up a pale and frothy cartoon blue. The street was lined with shops mostly closed, though light was spilling from some sort of café at the other end as well as energetic but possibly soothing music. A few pedestrians were moving along in that languid after-work saunter of the world over.
She was remembering a conversation with her mom, about what she could not remember (and as always with mom a never-ending skirl of amphibologies), and she remembered that her mom gave her really bad advice, and that she, Nata, knew this even at her young age, and knew too, somehow, in a not quite preverbal way, that her mom’s love for her, her daughter, had quite literally squeezed out of her, her mom, just about every almost, you-could-say, human quality, and especially good judgment.
Anyway, cut to the chase. Nata’s story was the old one. Her father an anonymous conventioneer who met her mom when she was a facilitator at an international trade show. He split for the Argentine or Ohio before poor Nata swam the birth canal for freedom. Her mom’s bad fate to have a brother, Boxso. They were living in the apartment — the one they moved to after the convention work dried up and mom was officially declared, based on tax information, a Substrata. Why bother telling it, like something out of Emile Zola. The brother’s celebrity gossip site, needing just a few more dollars, mom working her fingers to the bone at a call center. Long story, Boxso absconds, mom leaps from the balcony of their third-floor apartment. Nata, age 10, was quickly remanded to foster care.
The whole thing, though perhaps only half consciously clocked, offended Nata’s nascent narrative sense. Poor Nata. Her version of intelligence was ever to be one of those flickering oil lamps that lights the entrances to seedy amusement parks. Intelligence for her then, no bonus. In some ways she thrived as an orphan, but by her mid-teens she had had enough of the sing-alongs and marshmallow roasts — she ran, as, in a sense, she was expected to, and was, as of the day she was walking down the street, living at a communal house on the corner of Alpha and 13th (in the gaming zine zone known as Alpha Bet City).
At the end of the street she turned in at the café, sat at a table off to the side and sipped a Krul. She waved off the inevitable sailors and watched the night come on. Nothing really bad had happened to her yet. Two years later, she would meet a guy, not a bad guy at all, Rodge, a local businessman, a hustler, who treated her well, but from time to time they’d smoke the cracks — just weekends, on special nights of carnival lights — but still they’d smoke the cracks, and it wasn’t long, of course it wasn’t. But all of that was to come. The Nata to come. All the nots to come of Nata. Tonight she was just a girl with a cup of Krul, looking into the street and letting the life flow past her, watching it with curiosity, as if it were not a wild beast —or even if it were, someone would tame it for her. That was Nata. She told her story. I felt nothing. Then the sex inside 33 A stopped, and in the vacuum of silence, like the ending of essential music, I came like Roy Rogers.
“That was the Modern Blowjob,” she said.
I stuffed a bill in her bra. “Go buy yerself a starbuck,” I said.
And she was up and gone and then in the silent hall I rapped on the door.
Ms Holly Brudge: Shit, thought Ms Holly Brudge. Really. These fucking foreign. And that fuck-sweat Jafe, cutting out. She thinks, trundling the TravelPro with retractable wheels behind: Must of walked maybe what, five miles in this moiling mush of human vile. Must of passed three buy zones. Bloody fisted buyers having it out. Toaster ovens, purtzels, sheet rock guides, micros, old tube radios, hand-held winch retractor shielding, gabardine cloth, conduit pipe molding, aluminum shims, water dispersion valves, anthels (silver ion), blade guides, a really fine five-speed Hamilton Beach multipurpose. One street lit up in TV screens. All the dark corners of their souls lit up, and then a darker street, voices coiling from doorways, and the brief pleasure caverns of coral mouths glimmering an instant in half light. Further on, hash slingers drip their sweat into fryers. The grease so slick she slid. And on and on, diagonalling the city in its waxing uproar as the night deepened on and on.
And she thinks: They don’t even see me. Real business is invisible. Wink might have said. Now she walks through streets of great crystal palaces of one-armed bandits glitter-gleaming wet, shiny as sex flesh. Yargh, yargh, cry the boys, the old ladies, the dreamers lost in their thrill machines. A crowd of plug uglies sauntering. Just then, someone shouts: Hey lady, want a lick of the cracks. Ah, not so invisible after all. She walks on apace. Quickening her. The zone changes again. This time to subterranean vaults, dim hallways, doorway-eyes burning like drops of molten yuck.
She casts about for the familiar, and just then a sodden boy, dimmed in drink, carrying a crate, quite empty, falls in beside her stride for stride. She turns confidently, demands: “What do you want.”
“Not a turd furling thing,” he responds. He seems to be one of the local exotics. She’s heard about these revolutionaries. She can see the crate might not even be functional: the wood’s flimsy as balsa.
“Why are you carrying that,” she says pointing, imperious.
“I’m not,” he says. “If I was carrying it it would have something in it.”
“You’re not selling then,” Ms Holly says.
“I’m always selling.”
“How do you know.”
“Breathing, ain’t I.” And adds: “You’re from the Bitter Ikons I’ll bet.”
“It’s a band,” she says smugly. “A person can’t be from a band.”
“We don’t think it’s a band. We think it’s a brand.”
“I’ll buy your crate from you,” she says, ignoring him. “Is it for sale.”
“Of course it’s not for sale,” he says. “How much do you want to pay for it.”
She throws a seductive curve into her voice: “I have a cash settled OTC derivative in my bag. I’ll sign it over to you.” (Of course she knows it’s worse than amortized junk.)
He shrugs, scratches his testicles through his jeans. “That won’t float,” he finally says. In silence they keep walking. They seem to be reaching an outskirts, though for an instant she wonders if it’s a set used and reused a thousand times for moments just like this one. There are shops, and shopkeepers rolling up the usual striped awnings and beyond them harbor lights, burning on buoys, perhaps, and music from yachts pouring forth. And suddenly Ms Holly Brudge knows she will probably never find the hotel, and somehow knows also that the business of business is to leave marks in the metabolism of nature, just as the business of love is to create a business. She turns then to the boy, sees that he’s like one of those ocean goers in Melville. She knows she has one chance [the text abruptly ends here in an erratic line].
Pro: I use my monkey key. The door swings open. But instead of Jafe and some starlet, I find myself staring at a room entirely vacant, a bed whose coverlet is smooth as a young face, and there before the bed, like a second door or portal, a black-green screen like the deep ocean at the edge of last light, and only when I step on the lush (but still cheap I can tell) carpet, does it spring to life, the life of light pouring forth into its sex churn. The loop is beautiful, the actors beautiful in the loop, the loop beautiful in its standard production values, its intentional cheesiness in that mimicry of the true art of the early modern post colonial porn vid, perhaps Bitter Ikon’s greatest invention. This is a better fuck, more removed from life, more purified, if you will, into its constituent elements. And yet truly someone produced that dream, so it’s more than real. Just then my phone rings. Of course it’s Itahl.
“Hey bro,’ he says, “seen the ticker. Something craze in the index. Numbers wow. Ikons sellin’ looks to me like. But the people ain’t buyin’. The people ain’t. Or somethin’.”
“They ain’t?’ I says. I suddenly know what it’s about. A set up. And I the fall guy.”
“No, they ain’t, bro.”
“I feel amer,” I says. “Bitter. It’s the Ikons, man. Got new game for us sucks. The cracks don’t even matter now.”
And that’s when the simplicity of the world’s numbers comes clear, and my depression grows fierce as inelastic demand. And then I say what I know is true, though Itahl will hate me: “The Ikons sellin’,” I says, “and we buyin’ —the sellin’.”
And then Itahl just scream. Cause he know just what it mean. ‘Got to go,’ I says. Hang up to his hammer-headed voice and turn and run, like I some kind of sailor on a ship of grievous sin, bound down the stairs, past the skeletal figment of the desk clerk who raises a bony clacking goodbye hand and into the street where against all creed and my sworn oath as a Tour Pro, I sweat those streets of the Lido under the now blithe blue-black intaglio of night, amid the gun twirlers and baton girls, and the many sequined dress rehearsals, and run, thinking that the true fictive’s the only real, beyond all packages of three nights and four days, and all expenses paid, amid the gorgeous productions, and I had bummed it bad. And never a glimpse of my dear Nata, my sorrow, nor Jafe, nor Ms Brudge do I peep. And I just stare at them glitter streets and dark holed window hovels of my town all sorrowful, and the one thing I knows for sure: ain’t nothin’ can stop the Ikons sellin’. Ain’t nothin’ can stop us buyin’. And then I think: Sing it like the songs they sell us, man, sing it like we buy it, and that’s when the old song that started it all came to my mind, the one by the Ikon’s founder (they say Johnpaulringo was his name), wrote many generations back, a little fragment only come down to us which we sing for what comfort it bring us, and lord, do I belt it out at the top of my lungs, as though it will save me:
What’s new pussycat, whoa, wo, whoa,
What’s new pussycat, whoa, wo, whoa, wo.
— Peter Vilbig is a writer based in New York City. A former journalist, his short fiction has appeared in Tin House, Shenandoah, 3:AM Magazine (Paris), Drunken Boat, Baltimore Review, The Linnet’s Wings (Ireland), and Saranac Review, among other publications. This story is dedicated to Jérôme Cornette.