Abdication

war is over

The Korean peninsula would benefit from a lack of US involvement. It’s time for Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea, and Japan to move beyond historically tenuous regional relationships and petty maritime border bickering. It’s time to find a solution to nuclear weapons in North Korea without the American Wild Card. It’s time to end the war on the Korean peninsula and remove a foreign military force that abuses the South Korean population, supports crime networks and human trafficking, and destabilizes the peace. War on the Korean peninsula would be one of the great cataclysms of our age. We, as humans, can prevent it from ever happening.

It’s time for America to become one nation among many nations. The false stasis of Pax Americana thoroughly disproved and the prophets of the miserable World Order (their words, not mine) revealed as cynical mouthpieces for their exploitative tribe. They who sold the illusion of stability, progress, liberty, and equilibrium as they handed out small pox blankets and nuclear guarantees.

When we take a good look at the American elite throughout history, we find only the veneer of nobility. Underneath, they are the rot.

Our hallowed elite, sitting in mahogany halls.

We are observed in rot-filled homes forming mutinous mouths.

Our hallowed elite, opinions weighted with fortune.

We are observed in hole-filled streets grasping at the future.

 

Their walls climb above our heads until they own the sky.

Our lives are bought and sold as holy consumption dissolves on the tongues of the faithful.

Their deaths electrify our minds and topple our world.

Our lives are programs we run to complete blocks of time worth what the market pays.

 

Our hallowed elite, caressed now by Asclepius.

We are observed in sick-filled offices clutching our pills.

Our hallowed elite, outsource empathy for comfort.

We are observed in our trauma-filled relationships,

We are observed in our anger-filled failures,

We who lack the will to triumph over all beings.

 

Their halls are the halls we build for them,

Our homes are the homes they told us to build.

Their opinions are the opinions we lend value,

Our futures are the futures they told us we should have.

No.
That’s not right.
Don’t get so caught up in duality, you punks.
That’s a one way ticket to the extremist clown car.
And that’s already plenty crowded enough.

We are hallowed.

Our lives are hallowed.

We are elites.

Our world is what we create.

But every moment is a direction.

And look at the direction we’re going.

I’m dressed for the occasion :-).

The Pile – Chapter Nine

Summer had descended on DC and the days were saturated with humidity and exhaustion. The air conditioning of the Red Roof Inn was on the fritz, plunging their rooms into an abysmal and suffocating heat that battered their bodies with relentless waves of stagnant air. Asher and Raymond could no longer work long hours within the confines of their rooms, and as Anacostia lacked a café culture to support their needs, the pair was forced to furtively slip into suburban coffee chains whenever they posted. Nico was found sweating at various construction sites around the district or cooling herself in her architect’s offices downtown. Though Chandra had spent a considerable portion of her life lacking climate control in the slums of Dhaka, she was now acclimatized to comfort. Her escape was her pleasantly cool laboratory where, to Asher’s great displeasure, she was now spending the majority of her nights.

But Chandra was furious. Working with Dr. Slovache was proving exceptionally difficult, particularly when his ludicrous hypotheses were corroborated by her rigorous experimentation. His unorthodox methods, which included staging fights between burly men and injecting the world’s deadliest diseases into human test subjects, were producing clear and respectable results. The tests were also exceedingly media friendly, allowing the surprisingly camera savvy Slovache to bill himself as America’s preeminent scientific mind. His teleconferenced guest appearances on news outlets invariably produced an outbreak of widely shared quotes and too-fantastic-to-be-real video clips. Chandra’s own experiments, by contrast, were far too technical and lacking in shirtless men pummeling one another to capture the public’s imagination or explain over a talking head accusing her of “playing God”. Her stints in mass media, often arranged by Asher, were consistently characterized by two aspects; her obvious scientific brilliance, and the obvious confusion her obvious scientific brilliance inflicted on the program’s host.  This earned her a public reputation for standoffish elitism and arrogance.

The usual bile-filled internet commentariat developed a special sort of hatred for Dr. Sen. As an attractive minority woman who was clearly more intelligent than everyone around her and didn’t attempt to hide it, the wrath she faced from the resentful masses was fierce. It seemed open season for racist and sexist remarks on any article that mentioned her name even in passing. Though Chandra was far too busy to spend any time reading the vileness spewed across the fiber-optic landscape, the concerned looks from the other scientists at the NFVS project did occasionally disturb her concentration.

Her curiosity eventually got the better of her and she read an article on a conservative news source detailing her most recent interview. The article itself was insulting, with coded usage of “frigid” and “feisty” as descriptors of her demeanor, and the strange inclusion of her marital status in a column where the topic was an interview on her new method of mapping electron distribution in alkali metals. But the comment section was what truly seared her spirit. The white-hot hatred espoused by people who, as far as Chandra knew, she’d never met or done anything particularly nasty to, was startling. How could a person hate someone they’d only seen a handful of times in media reports?

But hate they did. The most common word used to describe her, “Bitch”, was disappointingly uncreative. “Terrorist” was equally mundane. She’d grown accustomed to western media portraying anyone with her skin color as threatening. “Terrorist Bitch” was a bit better; at least it showed a neuronal spark. As she waded through comment after comment attacking her, reply after reply agreeing with or cheering on the hatred, she began to feel a weight sag within her. Though she’d initially felt some amusement over the time and energy these poor souls put into hating her for whatever petty reason they’d contrived, reading thousands of anonymous voices calling for someone to “rape the monkey with a splintered cross” or to “do what her barbarian family should have done and stone her to death” soon found Chandra trembling alone at her desk. After a moment of wondering at the base nature of humanity, she turned off her computer and went back to work.

Chandra’s growing negative public profile eventually consummated in the bluster of a porkish, red-faced conservative television host who interrupted her while she was calmly trying to break down the role quarks played in preventing an atom’s transmission of violence to demand she scale back her “uppity tone” while she was a guest in his country and on his program. When Chandra spoke to him harshly over his outrageously sexist tone and racist declaration, the host defended himself by claiming nothing he’d said was remotely racist or sexist and that she was being an overly sensitive enforcer of Politically Correct fascism. He then ambushed her with a question on a sexual assault case she’d filed against a professor during her days at Yale.

“You accused this man of sexually assaulting you, but the allegation was never proven. However, you continued to hound and attack this man as part of your prestigious university’s “institutionalized misogyny” in an op-ed you penned for your campus paper. Even after the university convened a panel and dropped the case, you took part in a rally against men. Are you a radical feminist? And don’t you feel the need to apologize to this man, whose name you dragged through the mud with allegations that were proven false?”

Rather than respond, the good Dr. Sen promptly walked off the set and refused to participate in any further interviews with “these dark-age cretins,” as she lamented to a righteously enraged Asher on their trip back to Anacostia. Any future mention of Dr. Sen within popular culture was always prefaced with the video and a description of her final, controversial interview. The swine-infused host used the media’s temporary focus on the event to make the rounds on sympathetic talk shows to defend his position and promote his new book, How We Defend Us: The Growing Threat of Multiculturalism in the Age of Non-Violence.

Now that the public was reassured that important people were making important progress on this important situation, Modern Issue’s influence saw a marked decline in daily readership. Their promotion of Dr. Sen, in conjunction with their daily discussion of controversial topics, began to turn readers off due to the site’s “negative vibes.” Their name was suddenly synonymous with troublemaking and boat-rocking. Conservative pundits began smearing their liberal colleagues as “Modern Issue readers” to signify their target was disruptive to the good order of their newly stable society. The liberal talking heads defined so responded by vehemently denying their association with the fringe publication. Now was a time for stability and business as usual, institutional editorials proclaimed, failing to cite Asher’s original articles for the creation of the idea. The media’s mantra was clear: dissenting voices were unwelcome and unwanted.

Modern Issue’s new place in the political lexicon frustrated both Asher and Raymond, though not enough to change the content of their posts. Chandra urged Asher to abandon his public defense of her qualities, insisting she was happy to stay out of the spotlight and simply utilize the limitless resources provided to the NFVS project to conduct personal research. But Asher steadfastly refused to comply, believing that pragmatism was not an adequate course of action in this particular situation. There were certain positions, he stated, that could not be compromised. Therefore, between Asher’s increasing vitriol and Raymond’s constant stream of contentious columns, Modern Issue returned to the periphery of the public’s consciousness.

Chandra’s guilt at being a contributing factor in Modern Issue’s decline, along with the incorporation of the accumulation of the population’s directed hatred into her psyche, increased her tension at work. Though she privately considered Dr. Slovache an idiot, she maintained an amiable working relationship with the eccentric scientist by adopting a pliant and submissive façade that bowed to his nonsensical whims with the goal of getting him to leave her office as quickly as possible. This front was severely debilitated as her personal turmoil took a toll on her energy. His intrusions into her workspace begging her to explain basic scientific principles hindered her progress and tested her patience. On more than one occasion she barely stopped herself from mercilessly berating his abilities and driving him from her sight. Only the joy she experienced in relation to her work’s rapid advancement, despite Dr. Slovache’s occasional incursions, allowed Chandra to endure the incompetence of her superior.

Dr. Sen’s support staff continued to shock her with their usefulness. During her exile, she’d adapted to running a lab by herself; performing every task in every experiment with tedious precision. With competent assistants, however, Chandra found she had more time to develop theories. Though it was initially difficult to trust in the abilities of the other scientists, her subordinates gradually proved their general aptitude. Some of her colleagues even went as far as mildly impressing her when asked to employ advanced laboratory techniques. She was further surprised when a few of the more experienced members of her staff proved capable of offering intelligent suggestions and feedback on the course of their current project. Chandra, for the first time, began to enjoy working with a team of people who, while not exactly her peers, had something to offer her beyond the limited capacity she’d come to expect from other human beings. Her most advanced research however, which she defined as anything that would lead a reasonable person to conclude the supernatural nature of violence, was kept closely guarded at her private workstation.

Though outside her field of expertise, Chandra had begun an inquiry into the biological effects of NFVS. After weeks of testing samples for levels of violence during the process of mitosis, she’d reached a startling conclusion; human cells were now, for lack of a better term, immortal. The full implications for the human process of aging was uncovered when Chandra witnessed the complete reparation of a human cell within twenty replications. By the twentieth cycle, the health of the genetic code and length of the telomeres taken from an eighty-year old subject had returned to peak levels of efficiency, similar to something one might expect in a healthy twenty-three year old. Upon further testing from every scientific angle she could imagine, Dr. Sen concluded that human beings could still be born and grow older, but as they approached the age of optimal cell health, somewhere around twenty-three-years-old, the cell’s would reach an equilibrium and future replications would merely produce equally healthy copies. The lack of available violence meant human cells could only improve and never degrade. Her research also implied that human beings older than twenty-three would see their corporeal form gradually return to the zenith of physical health as their cells replicated. In the coming years, Chandra foresaw an unprecedented and catastrophic population explosion among the human race unless dramatic measures were taken.

As Dr. Sen was finalizing the notes from her private research to present to Nico, Asher, and Raymond so the group could decide on the best course of action to account for this shocking new information, Dr. Slovache strolled into her office unannounced. He was nearly next to her before she noticed his wheezing presence.

Existing near Hubert Slovache’s physical form was decidedly unpleasant. He seemed to ooze an aura that soaked the nearby recipient with the feeling that a shower was the most vital action they could take in the next half-hour. The jowls weighing down his sagging features were folded an incalculable number of times and always shiny with perspiration. Two strands of hair lay psychotically across the otherwise smooth dome of his cranium, linking each unkempt tuft of greying auburn hair like a stereotypical rope bridge unimaginative action movies set in distant jungles use to heighten tension. When observing these narrow threads of hope, one couldn’t help but imagine the curator carefully arranging their placement each morning in a delusional attempt to reclaim ground lost long ago to age and the scourge of male-pattern baldness. With so much of his body protected from soap by other parts of his body, Slovache also carried an array of unspeakable odors, infecting and tainting every surrounding surface.

His recent acumen in media relations, incomprehensible to those who knew Dr. Slovache personally, was due in great measure to his insistence on being interviewed via satellite from his office after ample preparation and a miraculous transformation involving a finely-crafted, all-natural, diminished male follicle assistance apparatus and the heroic efforts of his personal assistant/make-up magician. The smell was avoided and his limited charm could shine through the layers of caked beauty masking his flaccid countenance.

Unfortunately for Chandra, her interaction with Hubert Slovache on this occasion was sans satellite and the smell couldn’t be avoided. It was always a surprise which genre of rot he’d bring along. It constantly changed and rarely repeated. Chandra wasn’t previously aware there were so many different olfactory variations in the sensation of spoilage. At least the open sewers in Dhaka were consistent; an odor you could grow accustomed to and count on welcoming you home after a long journey to less pungent portions of the city. The constant cycling in Slovache’s stench meant adaptation was impossible; and every day brought new rank suffering.

Today her nostrils filled with the unmistakable smell of over-ripe durian. She was amazed that a man who prided himself on sticking to “All-American” fare, no matter what part of the world his search for mythological truth brought him to, could be blessed with the ability to acquire such internationally diverse aromas.

Chandra suppressed a gag and looked up, “Oh, Dr. Slovache, I did not hear you come in. I am just finishing for today,” she said as she attempted to stash her notes.

“Dr. Sen,” Slovache rasped in his guttural grumble of a voice, “How is your research into NFVS’s effect on the ageing progressing?”

“Oh!” Chandra started. She’d forgotten she’d mentioned the research to a curdled cottage-cheese scented Slovache one day in desperation to remove him from the range of her nostrils, “It is going well, but there are complications. It is a very difficult process. I have to measure the varying length of the telomeres in cells and compare that to the frequency of mitosis, but we are slogging on.”

“Well I’m sure you’re doing the best you can. I’d be happy to assist, but I just can’t find the time to get down here too often. We’ve got the quarterfinal bouts coming up, you know. Speaking of, were you interested in placing bets? Just between you and me, my money’s on Abrahams. Murrey has a mean right hook, but as it doesn’t really do anything on the violent side anymore, the fights are wars of attrition now. Abrahams has the patience to sit there and wait it out.”

Eyes watering, Chandra declined, “No…no I think not. I have never been a fan of bloodsport. I should be getting home I think.”

Chandra stood up to leave, grabbing the file to take back to Anacostia. Either she stood up too fast or Slovache’s durian flavoring proved too much for her. She awoke moments later having crumpled back into her chair, papers scattered across the floor.

“Oh dear! Are you alright? Feeling a little under the weather? Maybe you should take some time off? I know the press can be rough sometimes, and that last interview was awfully unfair,” Slovache said in the kindest tone he believed he could manage. He bent to gather the fallen sheets of paper.

Chandra was recovering her senses and panicking, “I am sorry; I am not sure what happened. Please do not trouble yourself, Dr. Slovache. I can pick those up.”

But it was too late. Slovache had seen the title of her report, “Immortality induced when cells lack the necessary Spirit of Violence? What does this mean Dr. Sen? The Spirit of Violence?”

“Just a theory, Dr. Slovache, just a theory,” Chandra attempted to assuage his curiosity.

“Please fill me in. It sounds fascinating.”

Half-terrified and half-relieved she was forced to reveal her work, Chandra related the details of her studies. While it was clear Dr. Slovache couldn’t follow the data, he jumped at the idea of a supernatural force.

When she finished, Slovache was giddy, “We must tell people!”

Chandra balked, “Well, sir, I am afraid the data is not quite ready yet. I still need to run a few more…”

“I’m convinced! I’m head of this project and I think we should all refocus our efforts on your research.”

“But…sir…the implications…if this got out now…”

“The truth is what the public deserves! I’ve spent my whole career trying to bring the truth to light. I’ll not compromise now!”

Chandra berated herself silently for her olfactory sensitivity, but she was tired of being attacked while uncovering the secrets of NFVS. She strove to help her species, but she’d been painted as a villain. Sharing her data felt like unburdening her soul during confessional, but here her priest was an inquisitor, and his zealotry condemned her to persecution. Chandra was momentarily abandoned by her robust mental faculties and dutifully followed a manic Dr. Slovache to the atrium.

After gathering their staff for a general meeting, Dr. Slovache presented, in his limited capacity, Chandra’s new research. His conclusion was met with pronounced silence.

“You mean, we won’t age?” a curious intern asked in the stillness.

“That’s right, once we reach the age of…what is it? 23?” Slovache looked at Chandra, who nodded, “We’ll no longer physically age.”

“So…if violence can’t kill us, diseases can’t kill us…and now we don’t age, how do we die?” an elderly biologist asked.

Slovache looked at Chandra, urging her to respond. Mechanically, Chandra stated, “At this point, I do not see death as a functional possibility. However it may be that we have not exhausted every possible avenue.”

“What you’re saying is…it’s possible humans are now immortal?” another young intern ventured.

“That is possible,” Chandra conceded.

“So I think that just about proves it!” Slovache spoke triumphantly, “There is a force at work here from beyond the physical realm. We’re now dealing with spiritual matters, people. The esteemed Dr. Sen has shown us the way.”

“I’m simply presenting my findings,” Chandra stated.

“These are more than findings, Dr. Sen, this is a new doctrine! You’ve introduced us to the way of the Spirit of Violence! We must understand our spiritual nature if we’re to understand violence,” Slovache said in a voice that’d taken the tenor of a Sunday sermon.

“…This is just Science,” Chandra said, annoyed her biological extrapolations were having a greater impact than her well-plotted physics data sets, “If you want to talk about supernatural evidence, we have to talk about the unknown force acting on our atoms, not your idea of a ‘Spirit’”

The room began to murmur, with most veteran scientists scoffing at the notion of a spiritual force at work in the violence issue.

“Why’re we talking about ghosts and goblins? We’re a serious and vital research facility. We’re here to use real Science to understand,” a pudgy physicist called out in anger.

“We’re wasting time! Let’s review your findings, Dr. Sen. That’s what real scientists do,” the elderly biologist stated, shooting Slovache a poisoned glance around the word ‘real’.

“Stop! I’m the lead researcher here! And Dr. Sen’s findings have convinced me!” Slovache shouted in a frothy zeal. His carefully placed strands of hair were displaced by the force of his movements and swung down from the crown of his head, where they hung precariously over his face, stretching from his temple all the way down to his collar.

“You haven’t even tested her data!” a lanky botanist yelled.

“I don’t need to! I have faith in Dr. Sen, and there can be no other explanation!” Slovache responded, his face and jowls reddening with rage.

“Wait a moment…” attempted Chandra.

“This is insane. This is not science. I’ll not be part of such an absurd project!” the physicist retorted as he stomped out.

“Don’t worry! We don’t require any of you! If you refuse to take this leap of faith by accepting hard scientific evidence, you have no place on this project!” His tenuous strands of hair flapped and flopped from the side of his head as his spittle laced diatribe attacked the assemblage.

The entirety of the scientific team, save for two interns, left muttering mutinously. The interns cautiously approached a seething Dr. Slovache.

“Excuse me, sir. If we stay can we get promoted and paid like real scientists?” one of the women asked timidly.

“No! You’re interns!” Slovache yelled back.

“Oh, well then fuck you, asshole,” she spat as both followed the exodus.

Slovache turned to Chandra, “Good. Now we can get some actual work done. We need to prepare this for my upcoming monthly congressional progress report.”

“Dr. Slovache, I don’t know if we should unveil this quite yet. The public’s reaction…”

“Baloney! With your data we’ve got all the evidence we need,” Slovache dismissed her, then paused, considering her point a second time, “Actually, I think it’d be best if you take the lead on this, Dr. Sen. I want you to present the testimony.”

“But Dr. Slovache! You are the lead researcher! This is your project! Congress expects the testimony to come from you.”

“Yes…well…I think because you discovered it, you should have the honor of presenting it to the world! You deserve it!” Slovache said, nervously observing her reaction.

“Very well then. I will begin preparations tomorrow,” Chandra responded stiffly, understanding her situation.

After this unfortunate detour, Dr. Sen gathered her summarized data once again and left for the day.

Back at the Red Roof Inn, an exhausted Chandra walked met with a cheery Nico, Asher, and Raymond. Since Nico’s shift in tactics, a decision that initially infuriated Asher, there’d been a marked improvement in the group’s overall morale. This climb in spirit came despite the recent decline in the popularity of Modern Issue[1].

Nico and Raymond, to all outward appearances, seemed an idyllic, blissfully happy young couple. When not busy working on their own projects, they were occupied with teasing and debating one another on all manner of issues with a gaiety usually reserved for fictionalized cinema romances. Their happiness and enthusiasm were infectious, making each return to the succor of the motel refuge a rejuvenating experience after Chandra’s strain with the media and at work.

“I have what might be considered a bit of news,” she announced as the group turned to greet her return.

“Welcome back! I’m always a fan of news,” Raymond answered her.

Chandra proceeded to relate the recent laboratorial happenings to her shocked congregation.

“Slovache wants you to testify?” Nico questioned, “But why?”

Asher appeared pensive, “I think he realized the potential political fallout and doesn’t want to be the face of the theory. Chandra has a pretty questionable reputation on the Hill, so he figures she can bear the brunt of the criticism.”

“That is my thinking as well,” Chandra agreed, “I do not believe the public is ready for this concept. I…I am sorry to you all…”

“Oh no! Please Chandra, don’t be. We understand how you must have felt. It had to happen eventually. We’ll all deal with this together,” Nico comforted her.

“Raymond was probably going to slip up and spill the beans sooner or later, so it’s better it happened like this,” Asher joked.

“Hey! I’ve been exceedingly careful with our beans, thank you. But yeah Chandra, I’m glad you did it! Any change is exciting change! Besides, you wanted to go public with this months ago, didn’t you?”

“I did. But after witnessing the reactions of my colleagues, people who have been exposed to a great deal of research that might lead to these conclusions; I am highly concerned.”

“How’re we going to handle this?” Raymond asked.

They each weighed various options. After an extended period of group contemplation, it was Asher who spoke, “Let’s just present the full, unadulterated theory and let the chips fall where they may.”

The other three looked at one another with concern. “Doesn’t that seem a bit reckless, Asher? And this is me asking.” Raymond said.

“Would not such a shock plunge society back into chaos?” Chandra wondered.

“Probably, But so what?” Asher said casually, smiling at them placidly.

“Asher! What’s wrong with you!?” Raymond was aghast at his friend’s uncharacteristic demeanor.

“Look, we’ve been charting a pragmatic course this entire time, and it’s gotten us nowhere. We bungled the Slovache thing and Modern Issue is on life-support In terms of influence. A little chaos might throw us back into the mix, especially when the catalyst is coming from our happy little band.”

“Is this about personal power, Asher?” Nico asked. The room was strangely tense.

“No. It’s not about your power or my power,” Asher responded tersely, “It’s about what’s good for the world. Raymond’s been rattling off columns about the positives of enlightened dictatorship, and I think he’s right.”

“But that’s just theory, Asher! Who’d be qualified to rule?” Raymond was upset at the thought of his theories being put into practice.

“Who better than us?” Asher asked the three rigid faces following his words, “I’m not saying we should be a bunch of power mad wanna-be dictators; I’m saying the perspective and balance of power we have in this group would serve the world well if it were applied to the global policymaking process.”

“You want to use my theory to destabilize the world, and then use Raymond’s theory after we chart a path to power?” Chandra asked skeptically.

“Your theory is valid, correct?” Asher asked intently.

“Yes…but…”

“Then all we’re doing is telling people the truth. Whatever happens after that is human nature.”

“But you know what will happen!” Nico protested.

“Probably, but why should we keep this from the public? Nobody can be hurt anyways, at least not physically, right? The stakes and risks are significantly lower.”

“I…guess,” Raymond allowed.

“Don’t you want to try out one of your theories for real? On the national stage?” Asher pushed Raymond.

“I suppose I do…but…”

“I’m not doing this for myself! We can make a better world, but only if we work together.”

“I’m not sure about this, Asher. Humanity is unpredictable when it comes to spirituality,” Nico warned.

“What’s gonna happen? The Crusades?” laughed Asher, “An inquisition? There’s no violence anymore. The only way to control people is through ideas. And there’s no one in the world with better ideas than us.”

They each agreed with him, but not one of them had even admitted this thought to themselves, let alone another human being. They felt violated; as if Asher had broken the cardinal rule of their existence. Their entire lives had been a balance between their absolute belief in their personal superiority and their unwavering commitment to egalitarianism. With this levy breached, they were terrified where their impulses would lead them.

“If we’re going down this road we have to take real steps to make sure we’re working for the good of our species. The glory of our personal egos can’t cloud that.” Nico insisted.

“Of course! Besides, how’d we feel glorified anyways? It’s not like we care about the opinions of the peasantry.”

Uncomfortable silence.

“I’m joking! Jesus! You know we’re all committed to the general welfare of humanity. Power is pointless. The real rush comes from knowing we’re advancing our species by seeing policies we created work effectively on the macro level.”

“My god, I was worried,” Raymond sighed in relief, “I thought we’d lost you to megalomania.”

“I don’t think we need worry about that,” Asher grinned at them, “I really don’t see how people get so hopped up on the idea of power and control. If you consider yourself better than the people you’ve designated as your rightful subjects, how is it stimulating to wield power over them? Wouldn’t it just feel like the natural order?”

“People derive pleasure from absolute power scenarios. Children enjoy the power they possess when destroying an ant colony, regardless of how the ants feel about this use of power. Impunity from repercussions when committing such an act on creatures considered powerless is what enhances their enjoyment,” Chandra responded.

“I suppose that could be true. I think it’s a shallow and unfulfilling impulse. Isn’t it more satisfying to exist amongst respected peers?”

The group continued their pleasant debate on the nature of power having unanimously, though uneasily, decided to seize it.

They spent the days leading up to Chandra’s testimony positioning their ideas. Asher and Raymond published and prepared a litany of articles extolling Dr. Sen’s countless virtues. Nico secured the acquisition of numerous media outlets the group could steer to subtly promote their interests after the revelations of Chandra Sen rocked society. Raymond also brought Dr. DeMasters into their scheme, insisting his perspective was a crucial missing ingredient. DeMasters was highly ambivalent as to their bid for power, but the thought of passing uncompromised reforms once they held sway was too tempting a proposition to oppose.

On the day of the testimony, having prepared as well as possible, the troupe escorted Chandra to the hearing on the Hill.

While the others waited outside the classified hearing, Chanda assumed her place in front of the panel of politicians. The room was crowded with security personnel and aides[2].

The committee chairperson, Senator Stovall (R-OK), welcomed Chandra with his contrived rustic mannerism, “We’re grateful you could fill in for Dr. Slovache today and are sure you’ll do your best.”

Chandra looked annoyed but maintained her professionalism, “Thank you for having me, it is a pleasure to be here and I do apologize for the absence of Dr. Slovache. Our revered head researcher felt I was the most qualified individual to testify today. It was my research that led to our most recent discovery.”

The Senator smiled condescendingly, “Yes, I’m sure. Please proceed with your progress report.”

Chandra detailed the specifics of her research in highly technical language. The committee was lost after her first sentence and frequently interrupted her to ask for “less science-y” terms. Chandra endeavored to oblige, but found difficulty in attempting to simplify her advanced research into the single-syllable rhetoric the committee required. By the time she reached her findings, the entire panel was thoroughly exasperated. However, when she launched into the portion of her conclusion Asher had written for the occasion, the panel’s mood became downright cantankerous. Upon the use of the phrase “Spirit of Violence,” near pandemonium broke out within the chamber.

“Stop! What in the world are you saying?” demanded a furious Senator Stovall, “What’s this pagan nonsense you’re spouting off?”

“I am simply relating to the panel the conclusions and findings of my research. The Spirit of Violence is a scientifically verifiable force related to…”

“We’ll not continue this blasphemy in the hallowed halls of Congress!” Stovall shouted, “You’re removed from this project!”

“Very well.  We have our data. And we have already released this to the press.”

Stovall was stunned, “Your research is classified! You‘ve committed treason!”

“Treason?”

“You’ve betrayed the interests of this nation!”

“This nation has betrayed the interests of our species, but I do not call you traitors. You are ignorant cowards and fools.”

“Arrest her!”

Personnel from the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigations descended on Chandra, who languorously thwarted their adamant efforts to seize her by walking out of their ineffective grasp as a frothing Stovall screamed, “Seize that terrorist bitch!” The hapless agents desperately wished to comply with their orders but were powerless without access to violence. Asher and Raymond quickly joined Chandra as she strode out of the chamber and the three of them ran to a waiting vehicle. Nico slipped out a separate entrance to avoid public association.

They spent the next few hours ensuring they’d lost their tails, finally returning to Anacostia in high and hopeful spirits, ready to begin their ascent.

[1] Asher dismissed the downward trend in readership, believing the next inevitable crisis would see their numbers rise once more.

[2] The Hill had recently implemented its “Take an Intern, Leave an Intern” program to great fanfare and general acclaim. Whenever an aide required additional assistance, they could call the Hill Intern Pool (HIP), which would miraculously deliver a new intern. Ostensibly the program was supposed to allow interns an opportunity to see all sides of Congress by loaning them out to various offices, which would return them so they could be loaned again. In reality, offices only took interns, never left, and congressional intern staffs had swelled well into the hundreds. No one knew where the HIP kept finding fresh, qualified bodies* for the Hill’s infinite and delicate purposes, but everyone was too busy with work to check.

*HIP found these interns fairly easily by hiring thousands of previously rejected applicants who’d been equally qualified in every way other than their family connections.

The Pile – Chapter Eight

After her hectoring from Dr. Francis DeMasters, the need to change the abhorrent living conditions in her new neighborhood filled Nico with purpose. With no source of fresh food, no bohemian coffee shops, no underground theaters, and no safely edgy bodegas, she felt the population of Anacostia lacked opportunities and fuel to express its true identity and culture. The blight of gentrification, however, was ever on her mind, filling her with revulsion at the prospect of unintended consequences. If these cultural bastions were to spring to life, the subsequent cost of living increases would make the newly revitalized district unlivable for the very people she was trying to help. Her first order of business was to circumvent this issue by purchasing the whole of Anacostia.

Initially, this was not particularly difficult. Land was cheap and owners were happy to sell for the inflated price Nico was offering. But as word got around that a new slumlord was systematically buying every scrap of property, building owners became difficult, with some demanding outrageous sums for run-down piles of rubble barely fit to house the rats living beneath their rotting floorboards[1]. But she paid it. Money was trivial compared to her vision.

Her board of directors was apoplectic. They harangued her for irresponsibility, claiming she would ruin herself if she continued. But as they’d made the same claim when she briefed them on the LLS, Nico merely humored the room of worried, wrinkled white men out of pity. From her room at the Red Roof Inn, she held daily teleconferences with her accountants and lawyers, but the news was always the same; her wise investment choices were soaring, leaving enough petty cash to run the entire LLS system at a loss for fifty years with money left to buy D.C. twice over. The board’s case was groundless, but to demonstrate she was a good sport she increased each of their shares by .1%. Nico assumed this gesture resolved the matter and moved on.

The lynchpin in her plan was the erection of a new Anacostia Performing Arts Center and Theater (APACT) to her extremely specific specifications. When the neighborhood began to buzz with culture, she’d use APACT to test her ideas for dance projects on a micro level, before she introduced them to the world. By experimenting in this low risk environment, she’d refine her ideas before she took the great personal risk of exposing her artistic sensibilities to haute culture. She envisioned future discussion of the Anacostia “scene,” a time and place that would surely become synonymous with boundless creativity and a renewal of the human imagination.

Nico felt the inclusion of experimental art projects would deeply enhance the lives of the residents of Anacostia. The more radical the project, the more rapidly their appreciation for the art world would grow. If she was conservative and merely introduced them to Classical, Baroque, and Impressionistic movements, she felt their palate would only grow at a moderate pace. By applying the theory of convergence, Nico knew she could stimulate rapid growth of artistic sensibilities through the use of radical contemporary movements. Her post-modern dance non-performances would be a central pillar in the education of the future aesthetic elites of Anacostia.

Her scheme moved forward, and the final lot was purchased in mid-April. While Nico was busy buying land, Asher was assisting Chandra in establishing herself as the preeminent thinker on the investigation into Non-Functional Violence Syndrome, or NFVS[2].

Over the same period, Raymond’s time was split between helping Asher write for Modern Issue, accompanying and assisting Nico in her real-estate venture, and frequent lunches with Dr. DeMasters, who was surprisingly tolerant of the exuberant Raymond. He’d often return to Nico gushing[3] about a new theory on racial identity, novel strategies for community engagements, or interesting anecdotes from DeMasters’s colorful past. Though occasionally nettled by his obsession with DeMasters, Nico found Raymond’s passion and adept strategies for community engagements useful when incorporated into her own project.

The closer Nico drew to Raymond, the harder it was to intentionally treat him poorly. She caught herself slipping into tender utterances or caressing him with delicate looks, reassuming her painted-on identity by pummeling his ego only after she realized her mistake. These radical variances were as difficult for her as they were for Raymond. She kept them up, however, as they seemed to be working exactly as Asher predicted. Raymond appeared enamored with her without his usual hyper-analysis of how or why he felt that way.

Nico was now unsure how or when she’d transition out of the charade. How long must this continue, she wondered, and when would Raymond be ready to love her without nuance? In part, she was perturbed her mind even manifested these questions. They made her feel subservient to Raymond; like he held power over her. To this she reminded herself she was as in control of this situation as she was for any project. This was her work. Her real desire for Raymond did not give him power over her.

Nico’s frequent inconsistencies in her treatment of Raymond attracted the notice of a curious Chandra, who approached Nico about the matter on an afternoon that found the two alone at the Red Roof Inn.

“Nico, I have a question, and I hope I am not making myself into a nuisance,” Chandra said apprehensively, knocking on the doorframe of Nico’s open room.

“Never, Chandra! I’m happy to have a chance to speak privately for once. Please, ask away!”

“Well, it is about Raymond,” Chandra said, taking a seat across from Nico.

“Oh…What about him?”

“I have noticed that your relationship seems rather erratic. You appear to care for him very much one moment, and then you become, if I may, imperious and condescending the next. Am I mistaken in this observation?”

“Have you spoken to Asher about this?”

“Oh no! I would never! I would not wish to speak of you behind your back!”

“Ahh, well, he’d explain the situation. I know it seems strange, but it’s something I’ve got to do. Unfortunately for my own sanity it’s the only way Raymond works.”

“I do not understand what you mean by this. You must treat Raymond with disdain? To what end?”

“I think you’ve noticed by now that Raymond’s a very…peculiar man?”

“Well…Yes, I have noticed his unique nature. Though I think we are, each of us, quite particular in our own ways.”

“True, but Raymond’s particularness is particularly bothersome for someone who might want to be close to him.”

“How so? He seems a lovely and thoughtful person. He strikes me as a unique and valuable person, but one who misunderstands what this means about his place in the world.”

“That’s just the problem. He’s too thoughtful and too neurotic to ever let himself feel something without building a mountain of justifications to accompany it. You’ve got to trick him into feeling something without having him realize he’s feeling it.”

“That is absurd!” laughed Chandra before collecting herself, “I apologize, I did not mean to imply…”

“No, of course you’re right. It’s absurd. But if I want to be with him so the he can achieve his full potential, it’s what I have to do.”

“Why would you wish to adapt yourself to him? Why can he not compromise and meet you halfway? It seems unfair to both of you.”

“Asher knows him best and this was his plan. Besides, I enjoy projects. It’s just one more thing to work on. But…I must admit, and I’m sure you’ve noticed, the strain of this particular venture is wearing on me.”

“Asher may know him well, but perhaps that makes him blind to what Raymond really needs. I know it is not my place, but I do not think you will ever create a happy or healthy relationship using Asher’s method. Raymond must change to be happy. Catering to his neurosis will simply entrench him further.”

“So then…you think we’re wrong? What else could I do?”

“Talk to him about this. Have an honest conversation with Raymond in which you tell him that if he wants to be with you, he must improve himself. Then tell him what he should do to improve.”

“But how? Don’t you think that’ll just increase his neurosis?”

“I think you need to give Raymond more credit. He is neurotic, but he seems strong as well. He must be if he was able to survive so many years of constant harassment from his own thoughts. Furthermore, I do not believe you are the type of person who is attracted to weak willed individuals. Am I correct?”

“I…yes. I think you are.”

“I think we are the same. We are both attracted to men who offer us what the rest of the world cannot; the potential for challenge and perhaps even an equal. I do not believe you would feel attracted to a man as weak as how you describe Raymond.”

“This is…is this true?” an increasingly excited Nico stammered, “So you think I can talk to him and he can become better through his own will?”

“Give him a direction and support and I think so.”

“Thank you, Chandra. You give me hope.”

“Of course, Nico. I think it would be wonderful to see you both happy. But please do not thank me until it works.”

Nico hugged Chandra, for her kindness and her insight, and slid back into her seat with a newly forged sense of intimacy between the two of them. They spent the remainder of the afternoon laughing and telling one another tales from their rich lives, discussing Chandra’s work on NFVS and Nico’s community restoration project, and debating various philosophies of aesthetics, an area in which they both possessed a keen interest.

Asher and Raymond returned in the evening to find Chandra and Nico smoking pot[4] and pondering the legacy of Duchamp. This newly created faction within their group caused low to middling level of consternation for the two men, who’d become accustomed to the frigid relationship between the two women. This thawing shifted the balance of power within their collective and made the fate of future decisions unclear.

Nico spent the next few days ruminating on Chandra’s idea while she contacted architects, city planners, health food logisticians, her personal choreographers, and direct trade sources for coffee beans. Making the decision to follow Chandra’s advice, Nico felt she had to execute on this new initiative immediately, before she was inundated with community meetings, building plans, and contracts for new commercial tenants.

On a night in which Chandra was working late with Asher at the lab, Nico collected Raymond from the desk where he was furiously scribbling notes for an article on the value of enlightened dictatorship in a world with no violence, and sat him down for a talk.

They sat facing one another on the cheap plastic chairs populating the suites. The controlled temperature of their room was always too warm and stuffy or too cool and dry. Today it was warm, adding to the feeling of claustrophobic cloistering within the modest room. Nico placed her hand on Raymond’s, who was sitting stiffly with his arms resting on his thighs.

“Raymond, I want to be with you.”

Raymond furrowed his brow; this was not what he’d imagined. He’d assumed she disagreed with his premise that without violence, the major risk to their own people posed by dictatorial governments vanished, making them the most efficient and effective form of government. He recovered adequately from his surprise to respond, “That is good.”

“I’m glad you think so. But we also have a problem, and that’s what we need to talk about.”

“There’s a problem? But…I’m sorry for not knowing right away. I think about our relationship a lot and…”

“I know you do, and that’s part of our problem,” she sighed, “I’m going to level with you, Raymond. I knew Asher from my past. We met when I was living in Paris for a few months after I graduated and…we were together briefly…”

“Really? Well, to be honest actually I already knew.”

“You…what!? You knew!?”

“Yeah, I mean, just from how quickly things became tense between the two of you it was kind of obvious you guys knew one another previously. That…and I heard you talking about me when we were having breakfast the morning violence stopped.”

“Why didn’t you say something!? I feel like an idiot!”

“Oh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to make you feel bad about it! I just…well I was really touched you guys cared about me so much and didn’t want to mess up your carefully mapped out plans. It was kind of fun!”

“You…so you knew we were talking about you?”

“Yeah! Actually sometimes I made excuses to go out and run errands to leave the two of you alone because I liked to think about you talking about me. Sorry…I know that’s impossibly self-absorbed.”

“I guess you’re a better actor than either of us.”

“Oh no, you were both so convincing. Maybe if I hadn’t overheard that first conversation I wouldn’t have known. You’re so good at it though!”

“I…thanks.”

“One thing I didn’t know is that you and Asher had been together romantically. That’s definitely something I didn’t pick up on.”

“I’m sorry for lying to you for so long, and I promise I have no feelings other than respect for Asher.”

“Oh, it’s totally alright. I think I’ve always been platonically in love with him, so I can’t blame anyone else for feeling the same way, though I’m sure with slightly sexier thoughts. Did you know we tried to have sex once? We thought we were in love,” he began to laugh, remembering the experience, “It wasn’t very pleasant, which I guess was unfortunate because he’s a very attractive man and I would’ve been very lucky.”

“What!? You and Asher tried to have sex?”

“Sure, in college. It seemed like the thing to do. We figured we enjoyed one another’s company, so why not give it a go? But we’re both obstinately straight. Anyways, sorry for the tangent, you just reminded me of that. So why the secrecy? It’s no big deal, obviously. Asher would’ve known that I wouldn’t care.”

“Well, it wasn’t that we thought you’d be upset by our past connection, it was part of our…plan.”

“What sort of devilish machinations did the two of you cook up?”

“You’re a very difficult person, Raymond.”

“Undeniably.”

“Taking into account what you told me about yourself as well as the way Asher talked about you, it seemed that if I approached our relationship from what I guess we’d call a ‘normal’ angle, you couldn’t have handled it.”

Nico was sweating. The warmth of the room and tautness of her emotion were proving a taxing combination.

“That seems like a pretty fair assessment. I recognize that I’ve sabotaged the majority of my relationships.”

“So knowing that, what Asher and I devised was a stratagem to ensure you fell in love with me before you let your neurosis get the better of you.”

“Wow! That’s really nice of you guys! You actually did that? You talked about me with Asher to that extent? Jesus, I feel like a mental patient!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel…”

“Oh! No! No, No, No! I’m completely ecstatic! I can’t believe your feelings were so strong that you went through all that trouble! Thank you, Nico.”

Raymond leaned over to kiss Nico, who shooed him away.

“Well, I’m not done yet,”

“Alright then, but hurry. That bed seems criminally neglected.”

“To continue, I’ve been using the strategy of purposefully treating you poorly while remaining supportive emotionally and physically to keep you off balance and allow time for your raw emotions to develop organically.”

“Ahh, that does explain a few things. Organically, huh? Was that what all those colorful Squidge visits were about?

“Mr. Squidge’s offers? No, those were just tests. I wanted to be sure of who you were before our first date.”

“Jesus, Nico! So I guess I passed?”

“No, not really. You were supposed to negotiate with Mr. Squidge in order to secure an opportunity to see me. You just refused his offers outright like an idiot, so I assumed you weren’t interested. After the third visit I concluded you didn’t have feelings for me and gave up. But after a week or two I was thinking there might be something more to it, especially after Mr. Squidge told me how absurdly proud of yourself you seemed. Then I remembered Asher also went to Trotsky and had mentioned his odd friend Raymond who he’d crucified white children with, so I reached out and he explained how you work.”

“What a strange world. How chance plays into our lives constantly amazes me.”

“It’s odd, I agree. But after Asher explained, the whole thing made more sense. And I guess you could say I was hooked.”

“Naturally. Neurosis is the world’s greatest aphrodisiac.”

“I thought propaganda was the greatest aphrodisiac?”

“Well…I guess there are lots of nice aphrodisiacs. So you were saying how attracted you were to me?”

“Yes, I suppose. So I called you about that date with clear instructions from Asher. And you know the rest. Now, however, I think I made a mistake.”

“A mistake? What do you mean? Have I done something? I…”

“Calm down! I didn’t mean being with you. Remember what I said at the beginning of this conversation? The mistake I’m talking about is in the strategy I’ve been using.”

“Really? Why?”

“First off, being abusive towards you has taken a toll on me. Have you noticed me being intermittently nicer?”

“No, Not really.”

“You’re truly a master observer. Well, both Asher and Chandra have noticed, particularly Chandra.”

“Oh! I feel so enigmatic!”

“Yeah, well she took the opportunity when you and Asher were out doing those interviews to talk to me.”

“Is that why you guys were so chummy when we came back? Asher and I were both a little disturbed by that.”

“Why? What’s so disturbing about Chandra and me developing a bond independent of our male companions?”

“Oh, I mean nothing is wrong with it! Of course not! We were just surprised by such a dramatic change in your relationship.”

“Sure. Sounds suspiciously like you were concerned the female portion of our collective might speak in a unified voice instead of remaining as the divided toadies of our strong, male leaders.”

“No! I swear that wasn’t it! I even brought that up to Asher, but we debated it for a while and decided…”

“Good god! I was joking Raymond. While I’m sure I could’ve kept that up for an hour, and as much as I love watching you get worked up, that isn’t the point. Basically what Chandra told me changed my whole outlook on us.”

“And what was that?”

“It seems she has a higher opinion of you than either Asher or myself.”

“Really? I thought she thought I was an idiot!”

“I know, I was surprised too. But for whatever reason, she does. Her exact words were ‘He’s unique and valuable, but only if he lets himself be.’”

“Well that’s a nice way to be described. I want to be unique and valuable…”

“So do we. And she also thinks you can handle a normal relationship, but only if you change,” Nico said, looking into his crystalline eyes urging him to understand.

“Change? I mean, I’m all about self-improvement, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good. That’s along the lines of what I’m talking about. It seems that with my other strategy, I was killing myself trying to adapt to you. But you know you aren’t a happy or healthy person.”

“Well…I wouldn’t go that far…”

“You aren’t. Come on Raymond, do you really feel happy with who you are and how you feel about the world right now?”

“I…I guess you’re right…” he said slowly, ”I want to be happy, but I think I’ve become so comfortable with feeling unhappy that happiness actually feels less…easy, or comfortable. But, I think I want to be happy. I don’t want to feel content with my own suffering. I…I don’t know how though. If I ever feel content…I don’t know how to justify feeling content. There is so much wrong in the world…how can we ever justify being happy with anything? Especially as a white male I…”

“Raymond, look at me.”

“I…I think you help me feel less crazy. So does Asher, but I suppose you’re right, and I’m not happy.”

“Right, and so why would I adapt to that world? We can work on this together, but you need to change; you need to adapt to my world. If we can do that I think we have a good chance of experiencing some pretty legitimate happiness. Do you see Asher and Chandra? Asher has never been happy either, like you and for similar reasons. But with her, he feels justifiably content. We can have that too, Raymond.”

“I know we can, Nico. I’m so completely aware you’re everything I’ve ever desired to experience in another human being. But…I don’t know how. I want to be happy, but how?”

“As I said, we’ll do this together. I can help you. There are some very clear steps to take, you just have to be willing to commit to the effort.”

“I am, I promise I am!” Raymond swore to her, his voice rising “If you help me, I know I can be better.”

“I know you can!” Nico spoke happily, tears glimmering in her eyes, “And we can build a healthy life together!”

“So then, what do I have to do?”

“We’ll start that tomorrow, for now I just needed to know if you’re willing to change. You’ll feel so much better for it, I promise! But presently, I think you were right about that bed.”

Nico lay across Raymond’s chest resting happily. Raymond lay awake staring at the cracked plaster ceiling, drifting through his ever-shifting thoughts.

[1] Let alone the children orphaned by a recent bad batch of Alligator-Face aka Swiss Cheese aka Jesus Juice aka JJs, the hot new synthetic drug that made the user feel like a messiah* and look like an Alligator**.

*Which messiah was always, remarkably, dependent on the personal religion of each individual user. The clergy had no explanation for this phenomenon.
** Zoologists issued a strongly worded letter correcting the misleading name. Through careful examination, the scientists had determined it made people look more like Crocodiles.

[2] This phrase had emerged after an intense debate between the four permanent residents of the Anacostia Red Roof Inn. Chandra felt it was time to come forth with her theory on the spiritual nature of the non-violent epidemic and believed labeling the issue as “syndrome” was a misnomer that implied a physical source. In a rare departure from their typically resolute bloc, Asher joined Raymond and Nico in disagreeing, stating that the presentation of her spiritual theory must be approached with caution. He believed it should only be revealed when the evidence was both irrefutable and held the possibility of being broken down into non-technical talking points. If they presented the theory before they were prepared, he argued, the impact on society could be disastrous. Chandra grudgingly deferred to the political and social considerations of their argument and officially labeled the subject of her research NFVS.

[3] Nico enjoyed letting Raymond rant for long intervals as it gave her a break from playing her assumed character. She gained a great deal more from watching him enjoy listening to himself talk about his ideas than the actual content of the ideas themselves.

[4] Sour Diesel, coincidentally a favorite of both women.

The Pile – Chapter Seven

In the weeks that followed, Modern Issue’s traffic increased tremendously. In response, the MI team upgraded their infrastructure and redoubled their efforts.

The jump in visitor numbers to the site, they surmised, could be attributed to the serious and unstable times in which they were living. Serious and unstable times necessitated the ascendance of serious and stable leaders. MI’s reputation as the only online news source without a section devoted to spotting celebrity cellulite positioned Asher and Raymond as the type of luminary voices the cowering masses craved.

Though they’d received numerous requests to appear as guests on cable news television programs, the plucky writers decided confining their thoughts to the written word would only enhance their staid credibility. And so the two men were publicly debated, flogged, defended, plagiarized, appreciated, berated, and worshiped without ever appearing in public or revealing the highly guarded secret location of MI HQ.

As for the writing itself, Asher did the majority of the heavy lifting, with Raymond serving to challenge and refine. Whenever Raymond did personally pen an article, it was often the most hotly contested item of the news cycle. The preponderance of public opinion usually expressed outrage, leaving a few key academic defenders to tout the article’s misinterpreted brilliance. Subjects for these commentaries ranged from discussions on the implementation of a new, definitely not-racist poll test for the modern era that would allow a democratic country to give higher or lower voting values to ‘educated votes’ vs. ‘uneducated votes,’ to calls for the complete dismantling of the defense and intelligence communities, with the saved funds transferred directly to education and social welfare programs. The two MI editors shared an alphabetically determined byline on every article published, whether it was the sober, thoroughly vetted pieces produced by Asher, or the incendiary screeds conceived by Raymond. Though Raymond’s positions often frustrated Asher’s pragmatic sensibilities with their lack of grounded realism, he couldn’t deny their traffic-generating capabilities.

While Asher spent a sizeable portion of his time writing in his room, Nico and Raymond spent their time exploring Anacostia and developing plans for their future.

After years of intensely social travels and adventures, Asher appreciated this new solitude. At every other point in his life he’d been driven by his mania to seek out unique situations and brilliant individuals. Asher’s deeply rooted conviction was that somehow, if he gained enough knowledge and learned the right combination of secrets about the world from its diverse inhabitants, he, Asher Rose, could fix humanity.

Asher also accepted that he was better at everything than everyone else, though he also understood it was extremely important that his fellow man accept this idea subconsciously without ever consciously acknowledging the truth. He spent exorbitant amounts of his seemingly unlimited energy striking this balance.

Unlike Raymond, who shared Asher’s passion for new experiences but had always struggled to attain his ideal in-group, Asher seemed to suffer from an over-abundance of lovable companions. Asher’s pool of acquired and cherished intimates was daunting. In every new location he seemed to bump into the pre-eminent thinkers of the region through pure happenstance; his luck in meeting ‘the right sort of person’ was unmatched. The effect his presence had on those around him, which tended to draw out the finest passion and creativity a person had to offer, also contributed to his vast and intensely interesting network of confidantes. Asher’s dissatisfaction came from loving each of these special individuals deeply and thoroughly while also experiencing the acute itching within his soul to never rest until he’d figured out how to fix his species. When that irritation bore deeper, an inflamed passion for his cause overwhelmed his love for those around him and forced him to move on, breaking him in two each time. A piece of Asher’s love remained behind whenever he left a place, scattering his soul across the surface of the Earth and causing him to forever feel the pull of each one of his many lives.  The anguish he endured as he left each portion of his love behind he accepted as a necessary sacrifice to his ultimate goal, and he sustained himself with visions of a future he’d shape. Down to his core, Asher knew he was to be the one who’d discover how to save humanity from itself.

The weeks of global chaos following the cessation of functional violence served as a platform for Asher to publicly espouse a number of ideas he’d collected during his travels. While his end goal was a radical departure from current societal norms, he felt that smaller, pragmatic steps would allow for a less disruptive transformative process and mitigate the negative impact and reaction this change would inflict upon and illicit from the demographic losing the most power. To this effect, he identified that the single most important task was to first reestablish an approximation of order. For this he bent the slant of his verbiage to encourage his fellow citizens to calm down.

Asher’s main thrust in his “Great Calming Down Campaign” (GCD) was that a submission to the authority of historical elites would give humanity adequate time to regroup and understand the full implications of a reality without violence. Chaos, he argued, was not the time for a radical change in government operations. The current state of affairs was not conducive to the substantial preparations necessary for civilization to adapt to its new paradigm. Therefore returning to the status quo, for the time being, was essential.

Governments seized this message and trumpeted it to their citizens. After weeks of both subliminal and explicit barrages of GCD messaging, riotous populations slowly scaled back, heeling to the sides of their traditional masters. Unfortunately for Asher, any public recognition of his contribution would have undermined the hard-won authority carved out by the reestablished establishment wielding his words. But he knew that they knew, and for now that was enough.

Barely a week after society stabilized, Asher received a private email from an important advisor to an important world leader seeking his help.

Dear Mr. Rose,

I know you know that I know what you have done for your nation. I know you understand why we cannot formally acknowledge your hand in the process, but let me assure you that the administration knows it is indebted to your important contribution. If you wish to continue serving your country in the same capacity, we need your voice once more. I have insisted on the need for an increase in the nation’s scientific research budget to find the cause behind this situation. Other advisers disagree, however, insisting a time of doubt must be met with an increase in defense spending. They believe our best hope lies in adapting our fighting forces to new modes of non-violent combat. The President seems to be leaning towards this course of action due to intelligence reports of the Chinese and Russians investing heavily in their own non-violent warfare programs. If you believe in the continued greatness of this nation, I implore you to lend your highly public voice to this debate in favor of scientific development. I await your reply and wish you the best regardless of your decision.

Humbly and Sincerely,

ZMF

The email threw Asher into a frenzy. It held the stink of corruption and served as an impeachment of his journalistic integrity. Though he’d been debating this very same issue and had come down on the side of scientific research, this new development humbly and sincerely mucked up the works.

He now had to weigh the merits of writing about the prescription he believed would serve the nation best against the risk of being exposed as the administration’s lackey. Even if that wasn’t technically true, even the hint could be used against him as blackmail. Hours of contemplation led nowhere, so he decided to do what he always used to do at Trotsky when he couldn’t make up his mind; consult Raymond.

While he was waiting for his friend to return from an outing with Nico, he received another email.

Mr. Rose,

You know who I am so I’ll keep this brief. I acknowledge that we’ve had differences in the past, but this moment in history transcends the divide between our political beliefs. I will do you the service of acknowledging that your voice carries weight. It’s your duty, as a member of this great nation, to use that voice for a matter of national security. Right now the leader of this glorious country is in danger of making a grave error by abandoning our armed forces to support a pipe dream. Now more than ever we require the bulwark of our military to reinforce and reassure the frightened citizens of our beautiful land that their government is still here protecting them from all threats. I agree that we need to invest in science, but science that takes place under the supervision of our department and for the purpose of finding a way to circumvent the new restrictions limiting the capabilities of our forces. Make no mistake; America’s enemies are doing just that with no hesitation as we speak. Join the cause and do your part. Your nation needs you.

Very respectfully,

ROBERT L. BLOMBELL

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE

THE PENTAGON

 

***This is private communication. Failure to keep it as such would be considered a breach of the National Paramount Need for Secrecy Act (NPNSA). The consequences would be in line with the provisions defined within that legislation***

Asher finished reading and sat back with a broad smile of relief.  “Thank god!” he thought. With this email he could expose governmental corruption and support his original plan in a single article. Of course, Blombell would deny the correspondence, but even the idea that he sent a letter attempting to influence and threaten Asher would destroy the Military First Bloc, allowing the liberal caucus to ram through substantial reductions in defense spending in order to substantially increase allotments for scientific spending. It was perfect.

When Raymond and Nico returned, Asher explained the recent developments.

“Are you serious?! That’s fantastic!” Raymond exclaimed before Asher finished reading Blombell’s email, “The guy’s done!”

After Nico admonished him for interrupting and Asher told them the rest of his idea, Raymond continued, “That’s great! I totally support this decision!”

“Of course you do,” Nico said. “Asher, isn’t this going to invite retribution? That sounded like a fairly stern warning.”

“Sure, but what could they possibly do to us, realistically?” Asher replied casually. “I guess they could break our stuff, but it’s not like they can threaten us personally. Worst case scenario is we move the operation to Europe. I know some people there who could help us…”

“We all know some people in Europe who could help us!” Nico objected. “That’s not the point!

“I don’t know any people in Europe who could help us…”

Nico ignored him, “I can’t do that! I’m in the middle of a project here and it’s just starting to come together! I’m not about to abandon it to follow you guys in exile to Europe!”

Asher and Raymond were surprised by her unexpected vehemence, “Nico, that’s not what’s going to happen. Don’t you think this is important too?” Raymond asked carefully.

“Yes! Of course it’s important! But it can’t interfere with my work.”

“Well alright then, if things get too hot here, I’ll go alone. You and Raymond stay to do…wait, what’re you doing anyway?” Asher said, regretfully aware that he’d been so absorbed in his own machinations that he had no idea what Nico was doing.

“A local development project that’s going to breathe life into this neighborhood!” Raymond said.

“What sort of redevelopment?”

“We’re going to gentrify the area without gentrifying the area,” Nico said.

Asher appeared nonplussed, “I have no idea what that means.”

“You’ll see when it’s ready,” she answered, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”

As she strode out, she looked over her shoulder and called, “Raymond? Would you care to join me?”

“Yeah, of course I would. But only when you aren’t using me as a pawn against Asher,” he replied.

Nico turned and glanced at him in surprise. She then looked to Asher and slowly walked back into the room, taking a moment to reflect before sighing, “I’m sorry. You’re right, I’m sorry. I was being childish. I respect what you’re doing Asher, I just feel like it’s overshadowing my own project.”

“I understand, and I didn’t mean for that to happen. We’ve both got important goals. I don’t want one to take precedence over the other. Thanks for talking about it instead of holding a grudge,” Asher replied.

“It’s not about holding a grudge, it’s about making sure you don’t stampede over other people’s goals with your ego.”

“My ego is…yes I understand.”

“As long as you both understand and accept.”

“I do.”

“Well good, then everything’s fine.”

Raymond laughed nervously, “Jesus, not following you might’ve been the hardest thing I’ve done in my whole life!”

“It doesn’t exactly have stiff competition,” Asher replied, “So is this alright with you, Nico? I’ll support the scientific agenda and only use the honorable Secretary Blombell’s email if it looks like the legislation is about to fail.”

“Perfect. Besides, I think exposing corruption within the government might destabilize the fragile peace you fought for. Your whole argument was to trust the authorities, right?”

“Oh…shit! You’re right!” Asher realized, astounded, “How did I miss that?”

“Don’t worry about it. Not even you can think of everything. Now I really am off to bed. Raymond, last chance.”

“Coming!” he shouted, bolting out after her.

Asher laughed and turned to his derelict computer to write his new policy position.

The blowback from their official stance was tepid and manageable. In total, the group only endured two raids by ineffectively armed-to-the-teeth thugs, who, for all their brutishness and threats, only managed to smash the hard drive of a single computer[1].

Thanks to support from Modern Issue, the Scientific Redistribution Act easily cleared the House and Senate, cutting the defense budget by nearly 1/64th. The massive influx of new funding stimulated a flurry of interest as to who the administration would name to head the team researching ineffective violence. With the United States’ direction clear, international rivals followed in kind, increasing their own science budgets and establishing their own teams of top researchers. The stakes were high; the first nation to discover the answer to humanity’s violence problem would hold a monopoly on power. The strictest levels of security were established to guard the secrecy of the research, hindered only modestly by an inability to shoot trespassers on sight.

Candidates for the position of lead researcher were suggested and dismissed daily. As no scientist had any pre-existing empirical knowledge of the subject, and no one was quite sure which discipline the problem belonged to, potentials from every field were considered. After much debate, Nico, Asher, and Raymond agreed on the public endorsement of a brilliant epidemiologist from Bangladesh named Dr. Chandra Sen, whom Asher had met while working with the World Health Organization in Dakar. Though relatively unknown outside the international disease circuit, Dr. Sen was something of an anomaly. She held a doctorate in both epidemiology and quantum mechanics, which she’d managed to acquire from Princeton by the age of twenty-four in spectacular fashion.

In what’d turned into an academic urban legend, Dr. Sen is said to have defended her two theses on the same day. As the story goes, after completing her quantum mechanics defense, a demonstration that’d reduced an elderly physics professor in attendance to a state of catatonic shock[2], she rushed from the room and across the Princeton campus to the biology department, arriving in time to begin her celebrated epidemiology defense 15 minutes later.

After graduation, Dr. Sen was hired as an unpaid intern by the World Health Organization, which sent her as part of a quick reaction force to Senegal to investigate a deadly Rubella outbreak. Within two weeks of the team’s arrival, Dr. Sen had not only eliminated Rubella, but had, in her free time, developed a machine that could locate any virus in any biological host, send microscopic mechanisms into the body, and cleanse the infected cells while also destroying the virus itself. She proudly described her invention as “the ultimate weapon in germ warfare.” This new machine, she explained to her superiors, could be attuned to seek out any viral strain and boasted of the cheap, recyclable materials used in the process, which meant the machine could deploy quickly and effectively anywhere in the world.

Her seniors, heavy investors in major pharmaceutical companies, responded by asking if anyone else knew about the machine. When she answered yes, they had her followed, terrified that curing every virus-based disease would make their jobs redundant and crash the Big Pharm market. A week after her proposal, her hotel room and lab were broken into, her machines destroyed, and schematics stolen. Fortunately for Dr. Sen, she’d met Asher Rose two days prior and was sleeping with him at the time of the break-in, saving her from falling into the alleged clutches of the alleged World Health Organization toughs. Asher comforted the disillusioned doctor as best he could and, through his extensive network of contacts, found her an ideal location to hide while continuing her work[3].

With her life no longer in danger due to the recently validated impotence of hired muscle, Asher felt confident he could call Chandra out of her protected location and help establish her as an important voice in the scientific community.

Dr. Sen arrived from her undisclosed location appearing no worse for wear despite her trying ordeal. Though the trip had been moderately inconvenienced when her plane was blown up at 32,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the rescue craft had collected the majority of the somewhat irked passengers scattered across the fifty-square mile search area within a few short days and delivered Chandra to D.C. only a week-and-a-half behind schedule.

Asher and Raymond met her in the airport lobby where, at the sight of Asher, Chandra broke into a smile and a sprint. The sprint, though primarily a testament to the joy Dr. Sen felt at seeing Mr. Rose again, also served the utilitarian purpose of helping her escape the clutches of a pair of burly Big Pharm brutes who’d been waiting to welcome her to D.C. with a burlap sack. As she rushed into Asher’s embrace, the ruffians retreated, momentarily stymied.

“Asher! I am extremely pleased to see you!” Chandra said. She spoke with a barely detectable accent, a formal tone and diction that clipped the end of each word and added an air of efficiency to her demeanor even in casual conversation.

With concealed admiration, Asher noted her exile had conferred an extra note of gravity to her already staid countenance, through which Chandra projected a stunning, fiery, and undeniable intellect, barely contained beneath her sepia-touched skin. She was definitively professional, with the harsh lines of her dark suit jacket and pants contributing to her already intimidating presence. Asher did wonder how she’d come across the pristinely tailored and pressed outfit after falling from a burning airplane and drifting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a week, but he refrained from asking and chose to simply be impressed by her ingenuity.

“I’m happy to see you as well, Chandra,” Asher replied, “You look well.”

“They blew up your plane!” Raymond exclaimed.

“I suppose they did,” Chandra agreed, “My apologies, but I do not believe I know your name.”

“Oops, that’s my fault,” Asher apologized, “Chandra, this is Raymond Clock. I’m sure I mentioned him to you at one point or another.”

“Oh! The famous Mr. Clock who crucified children with you at your university! I found that anecdote endlessly entertaining,” Chandra said, smiling and cordially shaking Raymond’s hand.

“We should get you back to our headquarters,” Raymond said, enjoying the dramatic cloak-and-dagger of his words, “I’m sure those nice men will be back with more guys and more bags. Not that you, or we, really have anything to worry about anymore.”

“Yes, it is fascinating actually,” Dr. Sen began, “I was working on some theories while floating on my luggage.”

She relayed her ideas to them on the journey home, during which they changed cars four times, drove in two circles around the city, and entered three separate homes in three separate neighborhoods, walking in the front door and out the back where they slipped into a new vehicle waiting in the garage. They finally arrived in Anacostia near midnight, exhausted not by their rigorous journey, but by the intense debate raging within the party.

Dr. Sen’s theory was at the center of their disagreement. She held that violence was not a physical function, as it was assumed, but rather a spiritual one. During her exile, while operating her makeshift particle accelerator, she’d identified an unknown and unexplainable force working on quantum particles during moments of destruction. She’d not discussed this force with anyone, believing it required further study before the shocking revelation was brought before her peers. This discovery defied every conceivable explanation within the realm of known science, leading her to the conclusion that she’d discovered something supernatural, “the fingerprints of God.” Raymond immediately scoffed and interjected, though he was quickly shouted down by Asher, who asked Chandra to continue.

She went on to explain that when violence stopped for all mankind at the exact same moment, it was the result of this supernatural force making a sentient decision. When she ran the same destruction tests, that force had no effect on atoms of human origin. It was impossible, Chandra posited, for a non-sentient force to distinguish between a human and non-human carbon atom. Therefore, this force must have a will and purpose. Raymond again interrupted and was again berated by Asher, who wondered if she knew how to replicate the force. The doctor explained that the reason this force must be supernatural, beyond the posited sentience, was that it was completely impossible to replicate. Somehow it existed outside the hallowed halls of High Science.

Raymond, who could not contain himself after this pronouncement, challenged her with the idea that humanity merely lacked the sophistication of technology or proper scientific knowledge to understand the force; that lightning must have appeared supernatural to cavemen. Chandra agreed with him and stated simply, “Someday I expect God will be taxonomically classified.” To Raymond’s surprise, Asher, an even more militant non-believer than he, thought Chandra had the right of things, though he sounded just as mystified. He explained that he’d always demanded evidence of God, or anything supernatural, and he’d be just as bad as the blindly religious if he refused to accept evidence when it was presented by the greatest scientist of their generation.

They continued arguing, touching on physics, philosophy, and the essentials of religious dogma as they made their way back to the Red Roof Inn.

Once safely home, the party split, with Raymond bidding them goodnight and entering the room he occasionally shared with Nico, leaving Asher and Chandra alone.

They crossed into Asher’s bedroom.

“Raymond is quite passionate. I admire his argument, though I strongly believe he misunderstands my meaning. I have never been religious and do not consider this a religious idea. It is merely a new discovery and the most plausible explanation happens to be supernatural,” Chandra said as they came to rest on Asher’s bed.

“That he is. And neither have I, but your argument’s as startling as it is convincing. You’re going to change the world,” Asher said, pulling off her blazer.

“I am thrilled with the prospect. My laboratory facilities were beneath sub-par in my hideaway. It will be wonderful to be well-funded again,” Chandra said, unbuckling Asher’s belt and sliding on top of him.

“You’ll have the best equipment and personnel in the world. You’ll finally be exactly where you’re supposed to be,” Asher said, turning off the light.

Nothing had changed during their year apart.

The next few days were spent preparing to announce Modern Issue’s support for Dr. Chandra Sen’s appointment to head the government’s research team. Asher realized his fears regarding Chandra were well-founded. Normally capable of producing entire policy positions in a single afternoon, it’d taken him nearly two days to produce a satisfactory announcement. While Raymond and Nico assured him it was the most brilliant piece he’d written, Asher was deeply disturbed by this drop in productivity. The happiness steadily enveloping every corner of his mind was proving too seductive to reject. He felt he was becoming a better person, but not in the direction he thought he desired.

The group made their declaration on Monday, April 2nd. The pantheon of talking heads, anointed by fame to share their carefully measured hot takes with the world, admired Chandra in general terms, but their praised lacked passion[4]. As the news cycle progressed, the tide turned against Chandra, until her background, family history, professional choices, dating profiles, fashion sense, and mental competency were all brought under scrutiny by these super-sleuth newshounds. Dr. Sen’s name was destined to disappear from the conversation by the end of the day until a Fuck You News[5] anchor, Bratley Manlove, subtly implied Chandra’s race and/or gender might have something to do with her lack of qualifications:

“I’m not saying she isn’t smart. She’s definitely a smart person, no one is saying she isn’t. She very smart, I just think she isn’t right for the role.

“Why’s that, Bratley?”

“I mean, you’ve seen pictures. Does that look like a lead scientist to you?”

The reaction from social media was predictably hyperbolic.

Hundreds of online groups were organized, petitions were signed, and calls to Congress were made in support of the first female of color Lead Researcher for the United States of America. The usual progressive firebrands bloviated about what a giant step forward this would be for America as a nation while online activists posted and shared the best takedowns of the racists at Fuck You News and demanded the immediate public tarring and feathering of Bratley Manlove. The hysteria mounted until Fuck You News capitulated to their sponsors and fired Manlove.

At this, hundreds of online groups were organized, petitions were signed, and calls to Congress were made in support of Bratley Manlove. The usual conservative firebrands bloviated about what a giant step backwards this was for America as a nation while online activists posted and shared the best takedowns of liberals and Dr. Chandra Sen, whom many called Dr. Slut[6]. The hysteria mounted until the popular group Anti-Fascist Anti-Fascists (AFAF) presented Dr. Hubert Slovache as their preferred candidate.

“Are they serious?” Raymond asked.

“Of course they aren’t. They’re human trolls, man. This is what they do. Just ignore their joke and it’ll go away.” Asher replied.

Nico and Chandra were unconvinced.

Over the weekend the nomination of Slovache dominated the news cycle. Dr. Slovache, a well-known cryptozoologist, was brought onto Fuck You News to defend his candidacy.

During the hour long interview, the good doctor discussed the intimate anatomy of and threat posed by the Mexican Chupacabra, the veracity of the Nephilim sightings by our boys and girls in Afghanistan and what that meant for the end times, his theory about how the moral decay of America was partly, not completely, but partly, at least a little, why not? to blame for non-functioning violence, and the fact that Ricky should have definitely picked Jill as his on-screen mating partner on the recent season finale of “Man make Money and Sex” because Jackie had the look of a two-timer. The interview was an instant viral sensation and Dr. Hubert Slovache became a household name overnight.

Progressives were apoplectic. After a series of increasingly non-violent confrontations between Anti-Fascists and AFAF, both sides were ready to start burning everyone else’s homes down again. Chandra, seeing the damage her nomination was causing, chose to bypass the situation and subsume her ego by publicly suggesting, through a video-post on Modern Issue, that Dr. Slovache take the helm while she take on the role of Assistant Lead Researcher for the United States of America.

The following week the United States Senate confirmed Dr. Hubert Slovache to lead the groundbreaking scientific investigation to discover the nature of non-functioning violence.

[1] In truth the thugs would’ve been entirely unsuccessful had it not been for Raymond’s charitable nature. When the uselessness of the second incursion was made abundantly clear to the assailants after Nico, Asher, and Raymond played a cruel game of keep-away-catch with the computer over their heads, the political heavies became self-conscious and embarrassed, with one turning to the other and swearing that “This had never happened to him before.” At this point, Raymond’s natural empathy flared up and, despite Asher’s objections, he handed one of the laptops to the pitiable goon. The man seized the machine and viciously smashed it to pieces while snarling a warning of future repercussions. As they were walking out, the man turned back to Raymond with tears sparkling in the crinkled corners of his soft green eyes and mouthed a silent, “thank you,” before slamming the door violently.

Asher’s half-hearted reprimand was met with a sincere pronouncement that the poor man needed to smash that computer much more than they needed to preserve it, and that it was their responsibility to help anyone they had the power to assist. Asher was too amused with this absurdity to argue. Besides, the impact of the loss was negligible for Asher as he’d already published his articles for the day and had no new material on the drive. Raymond had lost a bit more: half an article calling for action on a ten-point plan to transition humanity to global governance. Neither of the writers mourned this loss with any true grief, however, as they agreed the plan became a bit muddled around point six. In all, the raids did very little to disturb their daily operations.

 

[2] This renowned academic, head of the most prestigious quantum mechanics professional publication, Quarky Quandaries, and a gatekeeper in the field, spent the remainder of his short existence* as a leading Male Scientist’s Rights Advocate (MSRA) highlighting important statistics such as the 5% drop in the proportion of male scientists receiving government funding** over the last 30 years.

*Cause of Death: Heart-failure during a 72-hour MSRA rant-in
**From 95% to 90%

[3] Asher’s brief encounter with Dr. Sen in Dakar, approximately one year prior to Nico contacting him to talk about Raymond, had produced a sense of contentment he’d never experienced again. During the extraordinary week before he arranged her escape, he’d temporarily ceased feeling the thrum that drove him elsewhere. For a moment Asher was satisfied with who he was and who he was supposed to be. Though it terrified him and he consciously decided he should never feel that way again, he’d spent the remainder of his wanderings attempting to recapture that feeling.

Dr. Sen was the obvious choice for the appointment as lead researcher on the government’s non-violence project, but Asher hadn’t suggested her. Raymond, to whom Asher had told the full story of his journey and who was particularly impressed by the saga of the brilliant epidemiologist, suggested Chandra during the group’s debate. For Asher, the world stood at a crossroads of history and civilization and he feared the effect Chandra would have on his ambition and passion. However, as he couldn’t deny she was the perfect candidate for the position, he contacted her through the channels he’d maintained and initiated their reunion.

[4] As one erudite sophist put it during his segment on Real News Now, brought to you by PfizerExxonMobil, “I just don’t trust her with my future or the future of my children. She may be smart, but she lacks…she lacks something.”

[5] Formerly known as Crocodile News, which reorganized after its entire male staff was arrested for running a sex dungeon for conservative preteens.

[6] Among other things.

The Pile – Chapter Six

Thankfully, Good Hope Road was not on fire when the black luxury vehicle stopped at its destination: the Anacostia Red Roof Inn.

Nico, Asher, and Raymond exited the car and walked towards the hotel’s entrance. They were not greeted as they entered nor did they find anyone manning the front desk. Asher located the desk’s bell and attempted to ring, but found it was out of service. So they resorted to yelling.

“Hello!? Excuse us! We’d like three rooms, please!” Asher called to the grimy corners of the dimly lit room.

Silence answered, followed by the clattering of what sounded like metal pans and the scuffling of heavy feet. A large, light-skinned black man in a stained Red Roof Inn uniform scurried out of a back room and took his place behind the counter.

“How mayeth I helpest thou, good sir?”

“We need three rooms, please.” Asher repeated.

“Doth thou prefereth smoking or non-smoking accommodations?”

“Non-smoking, all three please.”

“Very good. Jackqualenya shalt lead thee to thy chambers forthwith. Jackqualenya! Comest thou out from thy hole to showeth these gentle folk to their quarters!” the man shouted roughly, directing his voice up the central staircase.

“Mindeth thy barbed tongue, Nooroozeleff, before I plucketh it from thy mouth,” came the surly response from a morbidly obese woman making her way down to the group one painful footstep at a time. “Forsooth, tis not commoneth to looketh upon folk of yonder shade standing within our halls.”

“We have come from across the river seeking refuge from chaos,” Asher explained.

“This land of Anacostia containeth its own chaos, thou shalt find no respite here,” warned the clerk.

Nico spoke plainly, “We prefer the known chaos of Anacostia to the unknown chaos of the neighborhood we just came from.”

“Very well strange travelers, we knoweth not of what thy speaketh, but if thy coin is good we haveth rooms for succor,” Nooroozeleff conceded as he created their bill, “How longeth shall thy be resting with us?

The group looked around in confusion, having not yet considered this question. Asher spoke for everyone, “Indefinitely.”

“Very good, sir. Thou canst payeth byeth the weeketh. Jackqualenya, taketh our guests to yonder master suites oneth the second floor. “

“Righteth this way,” called the chambermaid as she struggled back up the stairs to lead them to the rooms.

The accommodations were not much to speak of; the beds were lumpy in the wrong places, the smell of stale cigarettes betrayed the meaninglessness of the non-smoking designation, and the lights hummed with a faint but noticeable buzz. But there was running water, small refrigerators that worked in two of the three rooms, televisions that received the major news stations, and, most importantly, an internet connection. The group settled in, familiarized themselves with the peculiarities of their quarters, and met in Raymond’s bedroom to watch the news.

Broadcast news was blaring more of the same, with two major headlines bleating on about violence “no long working” and how predominantly affluent youths were engaging in widespread heavy “political demonstrations” through looting, robbing, and terrorizing the populations of most major urban centers. Across the world, the situation was the same: in countries with large power disparities, society was destabilized and cities were burning. But in nations “run by peasants,” as one talking head elegantly phrased it, the populace remained remarkably calm, with only a slight uptick in the destruction of property on a mass scale.

The cohort of professionals occupying their screen was at a loss to explain this phenomenon. Fortunately these luminaries were saved from their public stupefaction when a representative from the National Rifle Association pointed out that if the United States had more guns in the hands of more citizens the entire situation could have been avoided. This comment went viral and triggered a firestorm of debate, with every news channel playing it on a seemingly endless loop. This helped channel the attention of their pundits to an issue they were much better versed in shouting about.

Turning the television off in disgust, Raymond faced his confidantes. “What a pack of idiots. If it were poor people or minorities looting they’d be quick to condemn the culture, system, people…whatever. But god help us if it’s the powerful or the whites who are out of control. We can’t even process that as a society!”

“That’s fairly self-evident,” Nico added, “But the real mystery is why these groups? What’s specifically motivating these demographics?”

“I’ve been giving that a lot of thought ever since we met that jackass MB outside…” Asher started.

“MB? What’s an MB?” Nico interrupted.

“Oh, right. Sorry. It’s a term Raymond and I used in college to describe all our favorite people. It stands for ‘myopic bourgeoisie.’”

“Clever…continue.”

“I appreciate your permission. But what I think it might be is that the privileged are the most repressed group in this country…”

“What’re you talking about!? Repressed!? They’re the historical oppressors…” Raymond broke in.

“Calm down, race traitor,” Asher said, preventing the boulder of Raymond’s indignation from tumbling down the mountain of his self-righteousness, “I know how eager you are to prove you aren’t ‘one of them,’ but just listen for a second, okay? I’m not talking about you…entirely.” Asher smiled as Nico patted Raymond’s head condescendingly.

“There, there, snowball. We know you’re one of the good ones.”

“Watch out, members of historically oppressed minority groups, if you keep on with this type of talk I’m liable to start stripping your lands of trillions of dollars in resources and labor and classify you into tiered ethnic categories between which I’ll sow strife until it’s politically and economically expedient for me to leave. Of course I’ll do that anyways regardless of your actions, then blame you for your broken economy and culture and failed governments and offer token ‘aid’ and loans. These will serve to further sink your economy into recession and debt after the poorly targeted/distributed aid stifles economic growth and is plundered and invested in our art and real estate markets by your corrupt elites, who I’ll tolerate so that my people can loot whatever fruits your anemic economy produces with poorly structured trade deals. The political demands I thought would be best for your nation based on my own economic ideology and attached as a qualification to the aid and/or loans will stymie the development of a strong and competitive domestic industry while interest builds, precluding reinvestment until your country goes bankrupt. After you’re bankrupt, we’ll buy everything and control your land and lives remotely, again. All this while I pretend, validated by a global media I control, I’m a charitable saint for helping out this regrettably and inexplicably destitute people,” Raymond joked[1].

“…Thanks, Raymond. Alright, so the privileged, other than our dear Raymond here, are the most repressed group in this country because of the social pressures placed on them by the necessary authoritarianism of political correctness…”

“What? Political correctness? Why would we consider that a negative social pressure?” interjected Raymond once more, “The only people with an issue with political correctness are people who want freedom from the burden of censoring the shitty thoughts caused by their shitty culture or upbringing!”

“Are you done?” Asher asked, “Because I wasn’t, so shut up and let me finish.”

“Sorry…” muttered Raymond, disgruntled.

“Okay, so political correctness is not a negative thing, as you pointed out, but it is a restraint that constantly suppresses people who do have the desire and tendency to say things that traumatize other people. When you place a person in a society where every thought they have is labeled “offensive,” it tends to build up pretty powerful repressed rage and resentment. When the threat of violent reprisal is removed, all of that resentment is unleashed and we get…well, this.” Asher concluded proudly, gesturing towards the now blank television.

“I can accept that there might be a lot of repressed offensiveness in the privileged class, but isn’t there just as much repressed anger in oppressed populations who’ve been oppressed for generations?” Raymond probed.

“Of course they’re oppressed,” Nico interposed, “But if I understand Asher’s theory correctly I think it manifests itself in a different way. When you’re the historical oppressor class and are forced to repress, within one or two generations, your true thoughts and feelings towards those who both history and your own socialization places beneath you, it’s arguably a more intense personal repression than the anger caused by the everyday insults endured by demographics who’ve borne them throughout their existence and already have psychological and cultural mechanisms in place to cope with the trauma.”

“But how could a privileged oppressor class possibly face a more intense or detrimental societal repression than the oppression caused by the accumulation of hundreds of years’ worth of violence inflicted on the oppressed by both institutionalized and systematic means created by those very oppressors you claim are so oppressed!” Raymond exclaimed, willing himself to disagree with their conclusions.

“Look, we’re not saying it’s correct or just,” Nico responded, “But I think Asher’s theory makes a lot of sense. The intensity is amplified by the minimal amount of historical time dominant cultures have had to adjust to this new politically correct order.”

“Right,” Asher agreed, “it seems like every day a new word, expression, or cultural touchstone is revealed to have controversial roots. The screws keep tightening faster and faster and the more privileged a person’s been, historically, the faster the ground disappears beneath them.”

“But that ground wasn’t theirs to claim in the first place! I’m a white male and I don’t feel that at all!” Raymond continued.

“Well you don’t identify with your racial or gender group, do you?” Nico asked.

“No… I suppose I don’t.”

“Then it’s a little difficult for you to say how a privileged white male feels when you don’t feel like a white male,”

“Besides, we’re just talking about a theory. The fact remains that the privileged, many of them white, many of them male, many of them coming from means, started rioting after violence stopped existing. If you can think of a better theory, let us know. Until then, this is the best we’ve got.” Asher concluded, “So what now?”

Nico answered, “We need to find somewhere to stock up and purchase a few creature comforts to help us settle in.”

They left their retreat at the Red Roof Inn to explore their environment and search for supplies they’d need to survive as refugees[2].

According to Nooroozeleff, who they consulted before they set out, there was a single market where the entire neighborhood shopped for daily goods. However, when the group arrived, they found little more than a corner store with a paltry selection of frozen meals and slowly rotating processed meats stocked from an undisclosed source and filled with undisclosed ingredients. The attendant appeared confused by their presence, but not enough so that it disturbed his professional demeanor.

“How mayeth I helpeth thee?”

“We’re looking for somewhere to buy groceries and computer supplies,” Nico said.

“We haveth food aplenty here, as thy eyes can bear witness. But if automation thy seeketh, maketh thy way one blocketh down to the emporium of that jumped-up rascal, Frankie Sublime. Looketh upon yonder sign,” the man instructed, shuffling from behind his counter to point down the road to a gaudy red neon sign fashioned into a crude, smiling cowboy’s face with the words “Francis Sublime’s Computer Exchange Warehouse” inscribed on the brim of the wiry 10-gallon hat.

“Why a cowboy?” Raymond wondered aloud.

“Thou shalt haveth to asketh Frankie himself. Steel thyself for that encounter, a verbal assault thou shalt have if thou doth chooseth to parlay with the cur. Yonder purveyor of electronic goods is queer.”

“Thanks for the warning. So…is this all the food you have?” Raymond asked.

“The selection pleaseth thee not, white one?” came a gruff voice from the back of the store.

A rail-thin man with vitiligo-splotched skin and a lazy left-eye staring in all directions stepped out from behind the Slim Jims and walked up the aisle with a threatening saunter.

“Constantine, thou wouldst do well to respecteth mine own customers,” the clerk chided, his hand slowly making its way beneath the counter.

“Do not troubleth thyself by reachingeth for thine impotent weapon, cur. Hath thee not heardeth the news? This sorry lot hasteth recently escapethed from the madness of the whites. How for thee, snowflake,” he turned to Raymond, “art thou hereth to burn?”

Raymond blanched, “No, sir, not at all, I’m not one of them. I know I’m white, but I can’t help that and do understand that I benefit from being part of the historical oppressor class, and so I can never make up for what my ancestors…”

Asher stepped in before the situation got out of hand, “We’re not looking for trouble, man. Yes, we did just come from the burnings, but we’re running from them, not taking part in them.”

“And thou believeth Anacostia is the propereth place to flee? A place of safety?” the man laughed, revealing a mouth full of dying teeth, “This world hath truly gone mad. Thy presence is not welcometh, but thy presence is not unwelcometh either.”

With these words he bought his pack of Nutter Butters and exited the store, the metal bell on the doorframe jingling as he left.

“What did that mean?” Raymond asked the room.

“I think he just meant people will notice us, but maybe no one really cares? Maybe? I didn’t really understand either,” Nico said.

“Do not bothereth thy minds with Constantine. The man recently losteth his partner to the scourge of overdosage,” the clerk explained.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Raymond replied.

“It was hardeth oneth poor Constantine. The Christian medical facility attendingeth to the dying body of the partner, Gabriel, wouldst not recognize the right of Constantine to visiteth before Gabriel expired. Eveneth direr, the bank hath seizethed their domicile, though the couple hath occupiedeth the structure together for nearly one score years. Though I ameth a devout man, something appeareth wrong with yonder circumstance.”

“Wait, Constantine is…” Raymond began, “That’s horrible! This is just one more reason why we need to normalize non-traditional relationships and make the law more flexible right now!”

The clerk’s tone and demeanor shifted abruptly, “Homosexuality iseth a sin. What happened to Constantine mayeth not be righteth, but that changeth naught in the eyes of our Lord.”

“Ahh…well that’s one opinion,” Raymond stumbled, his mind jostled by the man’s unexpected statement, “I guess we’ll just…”

“’Tis no opinion, sir. ‘Tis God’s will. Thou wouldst do besteth to remembereth it as such in these end times.  Our toleration of the sodomites has broughteth about this calamitous ruin,” the attendant preached, his voice swelling.

“I wouldn’t exactly call being unable to use violence ‘calamitous ruin,’” Raymond laughed, looking to his uncomfortable companions for support.

“Raymond! Let’s go!” said Nico sternly as she attempted to grab his arm and drag him towards the door, though her grip that felt more like a caress.

“The heathens shall be purged! It is his will!” railed the corner-shop clerk.

“Purged using what? Violence doesn’t work anymore!” Raymond shouted as Nico and Asher forced him out onto the sidewalk in front of the store through the sheer force of their combined disapproval.

“What’s wrong with you?” Nico berated.

“What? What do you mean? How could I leave a bigot unchallenged?”

“Nothing you could’ve said was going to change his mind, Raymond. It just caused a scene,” she sighed.

“We have to shine a light on the dirty crevices of humanity to ferret out the cockroaches!” Raymond huffed passionately, “Asher, you know what I’m talking about! We used to do this all the time at Trotsky!”

Asher shifted his weight awkwardly as they stood on the chilly gray sidewalk flanked by rows of dilapidated buildings pasted with disingenuously optimistic real estate advertisements. “We were young, Raymond. We’ve got to be pragmatic now. I mean, I think that was the only store selling any kind of food in this whole area.”

“How does getting into shouting matches with crazy people qualify you for your self-anointed ‘Champion of Righteousness and Truth’ title?” asked Nico testily.

“Why is it that whenever I do or say something you’re both so quick to point out how wrong I am? I’m getting tired of being in the minority!” Raymond said, wounded.

“Get used to being a minority, we’re in Anacostia now, buddy,” Asher joked in an attempt at levity.

“You know what I mean!”

“I respect you too much to coddle you, Raymond. When you’re wrong, we’re going to disagree with you.” Nico told him, frankly, “Maybe you’ve been wrong a lot recently. Just be right more and we’ll be on your side.”

“Do you want us to start being fake with you, Clocky?” Asher put more delicately.

“No, I suppose you’re both right,” Raymond conceded, “Sorry. I don’t mean to be so touchy.”

“There, there,” Nico cooed condescendingly, patting his arm, “Anyways, we need to check out this computer place so we can get you two online again and I can video-conference into my board meetings.”

With everything patched up, they walked to the blinking neon cowboy head in silence.

Entering the grungy interior, they were greeted by March to the Scaffold blaring from a stereo system behind a heavily fortified counter. A tall, well-built man with his back to the door was conducting an imaginary orchestra.

Asher began, “Excuse me, sir?”

The man whirled and paused the music in one swift movement, plunging the room into a vacuum of noise.

“What’s up?”

“Yes, hello there, we’re looking for some laptops. Basically just for word processing and video calls.” Nico inquired.

“Yep. They’re right there,” the man motioned to a stack of boxes in the far corner of the cluttered space.

“I see…thank you,” Nico intoned as the trio moved towards the computer pile.

“They’re $600 each. If you want a mouse and speakers and all that shit, add $100. If you’re buying more than one, I’ll give you a 5% discount for each additional system you purchase,”

“These kind of suck,” Raymond whispered to the others. His attempt at private criticism proved futile in the stillness of the claustrophobic space.

“They’re the best you’re gonna find in Anacostia, but feel free to browse the other stores.”

“We’ll take three plus the extras you mentioned,” Nico responded blithely, her eyes willing Raymond to behave.

Asher made small talk with the man as he gathered their items, “So…why a cowboy?”

“Why not?” the man replied.

“I mean, it seems a little strange for the neighborhood…”

“Because I’m black and this is a predominantly black neighborhood and the cowboy is an American icon of white male dominance and imperialistic tendencies through your quasi-spiritual founding myth of manifest destiny?”

“What? Yeah! It is!” Raymond chimed in enthusiastically.

“Now look what you did,” Nico said in wearied amusement.

“What did I do?” the man asked.

“Raymond here is very excitable when it comes to proving his non-white bona fides,” Asher explained.

“You?” the man turned to Raymond, his voice shifting slightly, “You’re into racial theory?”

“Yes! It’s actually one of my favorite things to talk about!” Raymond leapt at the words, ignoring the backflips Nico and Asher’s eyeballs performed.

“I must admit it’s refreshing to talk to someone who knows what the hell I’m talking about,” the man allowed, “This country’s an intellectual wasteland.”

“Yeah, I know how you feel. It’s all I want to talk about, but people either don’t care or find it pretentious. But it’s so important and infinitely interesting, and there’s always more to learn because the situation is constantly shifting!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, man. I’m Francis Sublime and this is my shop.” As he offered his hand to Raymond, he visibly paused before continuing, “I assume you’re Raymond Clock then? What circumstances conspired to bring Nico Leftiè, Asher Rose, and yourself to my shop in Anacostia?”

The three friends’ eyes darted to one another, caught off-guard by the man’s unexpected knowledge. Raymond answered after a moment, “You…you know who we are, all of us?”

The man laughed, “Sure! I’m a pretty avid reader and, at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, my memory is perfect. You and Mr. Rose look exactly like your site’s bio pictures, and Ms. Leftiè has a fairly well-photographed face; certainly not one it takes someone with my memory to recall. But don’t think I’ve got you at too much of a disadvantage; I’m sure you know me as well. You cite me enough that I should probably earn royalties from most of your posts.”

“What? I don’t believe I know a Francis Sublime, do you guys?” Raymond asked Nico and Asher, who shook their heads.

“No, probably none of you knows Francis Sublime. But I’m sure you’re familiar with Francis DeMasters.”

“Francis De…Francis DeMasters is dead! He, whatever pronoun is right, died in Liberia like four years ago! There were like…pictures of his body and stuff!” Raymond stuttered.

“Yes, well that was the result of some creative engineering on my part and no small amount of money passing into the hands of some well-placed Liberian officials. I got a new passport as Francis Sublime of Liberia, cut my hair, lost weight, and here I am,” he explained in a matter-of-fact voice.

“I…this is unbelievable…do you guys believe this?” Raymond turned once more to Nico and Asher.

“I can see it now, Dr. DeMasters. It’s truly an honor to meet you,” Asher said, offering his hand after spending a moment studying the man’s face.

“You’re the closest we have to a modern hero,” Nico remarked, “I was horribly upset when I read about your death.”

“But why, Dr. DeMasters? Why did you fake your death? Your work was so important and inspiring! Your thesis on systemic post-modern suppression, commoditization, and acquisition of racial and gender identities in hyper-capitalist societies changed my life!” Raymond gushed.

“Thank you, I appreciate your kindness, but I’m not a hero or even someone to be admired. You must understand,” Dr. DeMasters implored.

“What do you mean? Your campaign to equalize educational funding, student demographics, and quality teacher distribution across the nation’s school districts was amazing!” Raymond fawned.

“Did it work? Is it equal now?” DeMasters responded bitterly.

“Well…no…but you were trying! And you got the DeMasters Educational Fairness and Equality Act passed!” Raymond encouraged, “Of course it had some problems, but everything that goes through Congress is compromised. It’s amazing you got anything that progressive and forward-thinking passed at all!”

“That’s some politico double-talk bullshit. Complicated problems need complex, carefully crafted solutions. Making idiotic compromises so the opposition can have their political pound of flesh is one of the many reasons this democracy failed. As the problems our nation faced became more convoluted, the compromised half-measures from the white male elite didn’t cut it anymore. We let this country rot to hell and there was nothing we could do about it because of the type of system we let ourselves become.”

“Isn’t there still hope though? We can always change it around!” Raymond urged.

“No. We’re finished as a civilization. Our elite Caucasian patriarchy never deserved to survive in the first place. Shay’s Rebellion would’ve been a fitting end to prevent the subsequent 250 years of war and violence that’s only spread and metastasized as we seized the role of imperialistic hegemon from our former colonial masters.”

Nico, Asher, and Raymond were visibly uncomfortable. DeMasters noticed.

“If you need an example, look no further than my legislation. It did more harm than good and discredited the entire movement. They destroyed the most crucial features, like building public transportation infrastructure and housing for displaced students. What was left was an unfunded mandate for students and teachers to pay their own way to attend or work in schools scattered across different states and cities! It was an unmitigated disaster!”

“It was,” Asher agreed, “But it wasn’t your fault, sir. Between the Teacher’s Union and the privatization caucus, you never really had a chance.”

“It wasn’t their names on the bill,” Dr. DeMasters spat.

“That isn’t fair to you, sir!” Raymond objected, “People knew what happened. You killed yourself because of that?”

“I figured it was the only way to move on with my life. I was receiving daily death threats from Parent-Teacher Associations, and frankly, I was ashamed. I’d never failed before in my whole life, and this failure was so massively spectacular that I didn’t see any way to recover. So I threw in the towel on all the ‘change the world’ bullshit and now I’m just trying to keep my life simple and happy.”

Nico answered coldly. “How could you just quit when so many people were depending on your guidance?”

“Why should I exist for them to depend on me? Why can’t they stand up and depend on themselves? I came from nothing and gave life my best shot, accomplishing more than most human beings could ever dream. Unfortunately, this reality isn’t going to be fixed, so I made the choice to go back to nothing, having learned my lessons. I don’t owe anyone a damn thing.”

“Why are you telling us this if you’re living this great new simple and secretive life?” Nico continued to probe.

“What’s the point of keeping this a secret now? Violence doesn’t exist anymore, what can anyone do to me? And I’m sure none of you want your identities widely revealed around here, so it seemed like a safe bet. I figured at least I could squeeze a decent conversation out of you lot, but it seems I’m just going to be prosecuted for my faults instead.”

“No, no! I would love to chat! We all would!” Raymond glared at Nico, who returned his ire with equal ferocity.

“Then answer my question. What brings two political writers and a philanthropic heiress to Anacostia?”

“We’re refugees.” Asher admitted, “We just came across the river earlier today. It’s complete insanity over there.”

“Nothing can hurt you.”

“That’s true, I suppose,” Asher replied, “but our homes were burned to the ground. How could we get any work done in that type of instability? ”

“Fair enough,” admitted DeMasters, “this is everything, right?” he motioned to the large heap of electronics.

“Should be,” Raymond answered, “thanks, Dr. DeMasters.”

“I’m just selling you some shitty computers, Mr. Clock; but you’re welcome. The total comes to $1,890 with your bulk discount. Ms Leftiè, can you afford it?”

Nico produced her credit card and smiled, “I’ll manage. Thank you for your concern.”

As they gathered their haul, DeMasters addressed Nico once more, “It’s strange, you’re not at all as I expected. You’re very precise and official in your interviews, but it’s always belied by a warm undercurrent. Now, however, I don’t sense any warmth coming from you at all. What’s your true self, Ms. Leftiè?”

His direct questioning stunned Nico. Asher interceded, “I’ve heard of your reputation for decanting souls, but I’m amazed to see it in action. Ms. Leftiè has had a fairly troubling day. Watching one of her buildings burn down and being cut off from her board meetings has been…”

Nico broke in, annoyed, “I am perfectly capable of answering for myself, Mr. Rose, but thank you for your effort. As for your assessment, Dr. DeMasters, I must say I’m disappointed. All you’re detecting is fatigue and hunger. We’ve just moved into a new home and haven’t eaten anything substantial since lunch, and it seems the prospect of getting a decent meal is rather remote given the rather limited selection at the local ‘market.’”

DeMasters’ face clouded with anger. “And why do you think that is, Ms. Leftiè? Why do you think every reputable store in this neighborhood has folded up shop? Why do you think the only food sold here is subsidized, processed shit with little nutritional value, resulting in epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental illnesses, and innumerable other illnesses within our population? I apologize your organic grocery is not catering to this broken down corner of the city, but maybe you should think about the cause of an issue before you complain about it.”

Nico was embarrassed but resolute, “I’m sorry; I spoke without weighing the full content and context of my words. Of course you’re right about the social ills plaguing this place, but I would appreciate it if you check your tone in speaking with me. I think you might find the way you’re addressing me differs from how you speak to my male colleagues here.”

“Why…I’m just…” DeMasters blustered.

Nico cut him off, “I’m sure it’s unintentional. I know you as a champion for the rights of the oppressed, so I’m sure this is a simple slip-up.”

Asher looked at the impassive Nico and fuming DeMasters, “So…we should probably get back to settling in. On that subject, what do you eat here, Dr. Demasters?”

“Food. It’s not gourmet, but it’s what people who don’t know anything about health call regular. And if you’re going to be part of this community, you’re going to have to settle for that. There’re good rib and chicken places and the rest of the stereotypes,  and fast food chains occasionally make a go of opening a business every once and a while. Mostly I just eat shit, but not too much, mostly plants when I can get them, and then exercise to make up for the rest.”

“Thanks for the help!” Asher said, intent on concluding the conversation.

“I would love to get dinner sometime, Dr. Demasters! Are you free?” Raymond burst out.

“I’m sure I can squeeze in a dinner. Give me your number and I’ll let you know.”

Raymond scrawled his contact information on a scrap of paper and joined the others in bidding farewell to Francis Sublime. They left the store and walked their newly purchased essentials through the darkened neighborhood.

When the group reached their room at the Red Roof Inn, they settled on pizza as an appropriate first meal for their new life, a dish they’d not eaten in a combined fifteen years. They ordered pepperoni because they didn’t know how to order anything else. Raymond volunteered to retrieve the pie, leaving Nico and Asher with enough time to resume their extremely delayed conversation from that morning.

“I don’t know if I can keep this up, Asher. I’m so exhausted.” Nico lamented from her prostrate position on the uncomfortable bed.

“You’re performing splendidly though! It’s exactly what he needs!” Asher encouraged, striding over to sit next to her.

“DeMasters saw right through me! I’m so sick of being this stereotype!”

“Do you want Raymond to improve?”

“Yes, of course I do!”

“Then you have to continue like this. He’ll never be happy with someone who’s nice to him. This is the only way he works: abuse him mentally and his love and respect for you will grow.”

“I don’t understand! Wasn’t he hurt today by our constant berating? He’s pulling further away.”

“No, that’s not true. Hurting his pride like that is good for him and for you. It might be a strong negative emotion at first, but if you remain mentally abusive but emotionally supportive, the strong negative emotions will transition to strong positive emotions.”

“And this helps you with your project?”

“Yes.”

“Does it matter to you how I feel about him?”

“It’d be better if you loved him, to be sure.”

“I’m not sure I can. I feel more connected to him than any other person I’ve ever met, but that isn’t translating into love.”

“What’s your complaint?”

“He’s a challenging person to tolerate all the time.”

“I know, but just remember what we’re making sure he experiences. That alone should help you empathize.”

“I don’t lack empathy for him, just patience.”

“Fall in love with him, you’ll gain more patience.”

“Sounds like circular logic to me. I think the only way I can fall in love is to turn it into a project.”

“Do you think you can sustain when you’re finished?”

“Do you really think Raymond will ever be a finished?”

Asher laughed, “No, I suppose not. I’m sure he’ll find some new existential crises to fret over.”

“He will, and I have my other projects to consider.”

“Those things are trivialities compared to what we’re doing.”

“Compared to what you claim we’re doing. I’m going along with it for now because it makes sense, but I promise you, Asher Rose, one whiff of self-aggrandizement or personal power plays and I’ll come after you with everything I’ve got.”

“Slow down there, Ms. Leftie.” He emphasized her unaccented name for effect, “You ramped that up pretty fast. From Raymond to targeted assassinations in two seconds flat.”

“We’re tinkering with the world, Asher. I’m not interested in your bullshit.”

“Nico, do you have a problem with me?”

“No more so than I ever have.”

“I’ve grown up a lot.”

“Haven’t we all.”

“I don’t deserve this and you’re being self-righteous.”

“I’m tired. You’re not the one who has to keep up…”

Raymond strode into the room carrying a pizza.

“My card was declined! There’s some issue with my bank account. I told the pizza place my room number and they said I could take it home on credit…Do you think it’s because I’m white, like subconsciously they classified me as less likely to steal because I’m from the historical oppressor class? Or is me thinking that an unconscious bias where I’m classifying white people as less likely to steal and so that’s what I think they think? I’ve felt horrible thinking about it the entire walk back.”

Nico looked up from the bed, “Shut up and just give us the food; we’re starving. Here, take my card and go pay.”

“Alright then, I’ll be back!”

“You’re a natural. Even I can’t tell you’re faking,” Asher praised once Raymond was gone.

“Thanks. It’s a little easier when I’m really hungry and he sounds like such a jackass. I just don’t want to get used to acting like this, though I admit it’s more efficient than being decent.”

“It is. It’s also the best way to make civilization uncivilized. Where would we be without our contrived social niceties and the buffer of our politically correct manners?”

“Burning down houses in Georgetown, obviously,” Nico quipped as she opened the box to observe puddles of orange grease pooled inside burned pepperoni slices, themselves floating on whitish goo and tomato paste. “Do we have any forks?”

 

[1] In a single breath

[2] It was fortunate that the fortunes of both Nico and Asher were held in private overseas accounts and invested in industries unaffected by violence. Luckily, the international financial system had remained largely intact thanks to the vandalism almost exclusively targeting non-corporate, locally owned and operated businesses and charities. Raymond, who’d insisted on investing what money he’d saved into regional art projects, was rendered destitute when the organic co-op and art gallery where he owned a 25% stake was burned to the ground and its fields salted during an inebriated re-enactment of Sherman’s March to the Sea performed by the nearby town’s high school lacrosse team.

The Pile – Chapter Five

It was 9am EST on Saturday, February 7th. Raymond Clock was in his kitchen preparing a kosher, gluten-free, organic, small batch, artisanal, grass-fed, macrobiotic (and microbiotic), virgin-harvested, corporation-averse, authenticity-enhanced, nano-lymbically-tweezed, glarblegloobally-globalled breakfast for three[1]. Though he was by no means even a moderately skilled cook, Raymond had labored to perfect at least two “prestige” dishes for each of the three traditional daily meals, which he deployed sparingly and only for important moments in his life. Asher, having lived with Raymond for four years, was well-acquainted with each of Raymond’s go-to meals and always knew it was an auspicious day in the eyes of his friend when he spotted cumin, quinoa, or bay leaves sitting on the kitchen counter[2].

For Raymond, this morning certainly held bay leaf-level significance. In the three weeks since Asher’s arrival, his personal and professional life had undergone a dramatic transformation. Among other changes, he’d finally left his long-held internship position at Mudsling Nation, against the mild protests of his superiors, and started a digital news and opinion publication with Asher.

After an intense effort to convince his colleague to adopt “The Sisyphus Missives” as their new endeavor’s moniker, Raymond consented to the sober use of “Modern Issue,” admitting this title was more professional and less unbearably pompous. In an attempt to make the new outfit feel official, and with the lack of furnishings in Raymond’s home proving detrimental to his occasional romantic ambitions, Asher secured the townhouse adjacent to Raymond’s as a sleeping quarters and operations center. There the duo spent hours each day planning their strategy and crafting policy positions.

Though Asher gladly offered to pay his bills, Raymond insisted on keeping his position at the asylum in order to continue paying his own way. When questioned, he explained that it wasn’t an issue of being less socialist than Asher, and it wasn’t a matter of pride; Raymond merely held the idea that anyone could die at any moment and if Asher died while Raymond was relying on him to pay for his basic sustenance it would leave Raymond in a lurch. Asher thanked Raymond for thinking about the possibility of his death and dropped the subject.

The duo prepared. They debated, they wrote, they compiled ideas, and, in less time than either gentleman expected, they published.

The initial launch of Modern Issue, heavily promoted through blanket ad buys in key media markets, was met with confusion and anger from the general public. The MI email account was inundated with angry letters alleging the website was too hard to navigate, with most users claiming they were unable to locate the Lifestyles or Sports Nightlife Out on the Town Photos of People Having the Best Time There is to Have at a Club or a Bar or Maybe Just on the Street or Something Because That’s Neat Too sections. Asher and Raymond answered these by informing the aggrieved that the site would never contain any celebrity information, New Age medical advice, or beauty tips; a proclamation that sent shockwaves throughout the media watchdog infrastructure and every corner of the World Wide Web.

The strong unique visitor numbers logged during their launch week quickly dwindled to a mere twenty hits per day. Nineteen of these IP addresses came from within the beltway, with the remainder apparently located somewhere in Jakarta. Though the pair was disheartened, they consoled themselves with the idea that their brand of journalism catered to a rarified group of highly literate individuals interested in serious issues written by serious people. Refusing to fail, however, Asher convinced a writer from The New Yorker, whom he’d saved from certain death by smuggling her out of Zimbabwe in a sack of turnips[3], to profile Raymond and himself. After the flattering profile was printed, littered with statements like, “The bold writing style and ideas at Modern Issue are shocking the political discourse in America,” the site experienced a massive surge in popularity amongst the “self-defined cultural elite” demographic.

Buoyed by his newfound professional success, Raymond’s private struggles felt increasingly manageable. Since Asher’s fortuitous arrival, Nico had called Raymond to meet at least every other day, sometimes spending entire afternoons and evenings in his company. With each meeting their intimacy grew, though Raymond felt she was purposefully obfuscating part of herself. He chalked this up to a fear of committing fully and leaving herself vulnerable given the important position she held. Even with their issues however, Raymond acknowledged the marked improvement in his circumstances.

Despite this blooming emotional attachment, Nico initially insisted on maintaining their previously agreed-upon arrangement. If they slept together, she demanded they book rooms at a nearby hotel rather than stay at one of their homes. Raymond once made the mistake of preparing by packing an overnight bag in the event the evening ended with him sleeping abroad. When Nico saw the bag she became irritated and canceled their plans for the day. He never packed an overnight bag again and was subsequently forced to rely on the mercy and competence of that evening’s hotel staff for his assorted sundries.

Three weeks after Asher’s arrival, Nico relented and suggested sleeping at Raymond’s home once again. To Raymond, this event signaled a tectonic shift in their relationship. Thus, the morning of February 7th found Raymond cooking an important breakfast for his best friend and whatever Nico was.

After an hour of preparation his soft idlis, charcuterie plates, super-fruit salads, and French roast French pressed coffees were ready. He was putting the finishing folds in the artistically arranged napkins when Nico came down and Asher came over.

“My, my, you’re a real global gourmet,” Nico remarked as she entered the dining area.

“It’s glarblegloobally-globalled!” Raymond said with pride.

“Don’t let him fool you, he may be able to make a mean chutney, but ask him to toast bread and you’ve got a five-alarm fire on your hands. Hi, I’m Asher Rose by the way. Thanks for the introductions, Raymond. It’s a pleasure to formally meet you.”

As the two people he cared for most greeted one another, Raymond playfully objected, “That was one time! And it was only a two-alarm fire!”

“Three,” corrected Asher, “Your idlis looks pretty good today.”

“Idlis!? Mr. Squidge will be pleased. He’s always going on about how I should eat more idlis,” Nico mused.

“Is that Alistair Squidge? A partner at SQ&B?” Asher asked, surprised.

“The same.”

“He’s been my parents’ lawyer for years! Small world!”

“I’m pretty sure a law firm known for representing billionaires services a fairly small community,” Raymond joked, motioning for them to join him at the table.

“Good point,” Asher admitted, “I always heard he was a very…unique character.”

“I assure you he is,” Raymond nodded, “When he first came to my door I thought he was trying to save my soul.”

“He’s got a very particular manner, that’s true,” Nico permitted, “but he’s an absolute pro and an unbelievably brilliant legal mind.”

“So I’ve heard,” replied Asher, “now Ms. Leftiè, I’ve had a burning question to ask ever since Raymond mentioned he knew you, if I may.”

Raymond looked nervously at Nico, but she seemed in good spirits, “Certainly, Mr. Rose. What’s on your mind?”

“Since its creation three years ago, the LLS project has not met with much success in its stated goal of ‘inspiring the temporarily unfortunate in seeking modes to independently maintain and exceed their new existence.’ Do you plan to stay your present course? And what do you see as your ultimate goal?”

Raymond nibbled at a corner of his idli, eyes darting between his fellow diners. Nico took a sip of coffee and answered calmly, “You’re right that those are two rather incendiary questions for someone you’ve just met. I‘ve discussed this with Raymond at length, so I suppose I’m a bit surprised he’s not explained it to you. This coffee is great, by the way.”

“Actually, Raymond is very vague on details as far as the subject of ‘you’ is concerned. I think he feels he has to protect your privacy. I can assure you however, he’s somewhat adorable when he does mention you. I can tell he wants to rave, but he holds himself back out of some contrived sense of nobility.”

Raymond spluttered into his cup, spilling the dark liquid down his front as they both turned towards him.

“I…I think…I wanted to…I thought that’s what you preferred,” he managed, staring at the stains settling into his clothing.

“Isn’t he absurd and lovely?” Nico glowed with only a hint of sarcasm, turning from the blots of brown liquid Raymond was sopping up back to Asher.

“Oh, undoubtedly. I’ve never even dreamed of meeting another person like him,” They both laughed as Raymond’s face turned the color of ripe strawberries.

“You’re horrible people,” he responded in faux-testy outrage.

“We certainly are. But in answer to your question, Mr. Rose, I’m well aware of the failings of the LLS. Sometimes the fruit our intentions bear do not resemble the ends we desired. However, by being adaptable we can still make the best of these things. So though I wanted to inspire the residents to go to work, eliminating homelessness is an acceptable consolation prize. Don’t you think?”

“But don’t you feel frustrated that you’re just pouring money into other people’s lives with no real benefit to society other than getting people off the street? Oh, and Raymond, the jamón is lovely.”

“Of course I want people to do exactly what I want them to do. But I refuse to force the issue; it needs to happen of their own volition. Besides, I think about the type of society I want to live in and homelessness has no place, so I’m still working to shape the world into what I want even without directly accomplishing my primary goal.”

“To what end, though? Aren’t they just going to bleed you dry of resources and then return to their former lives?”

“First, I think you underestimate the extent of my resources. Second, the end itself doesn’t matter as much, or so I realized. I’m helping these people right now, every day. Their lives are better, now. Who knows what could happen tomorrow? We could all be dead.”

“That sounds like one of Raymond’s ideas.”

Nico looked at Raymond, who was surreptitiously sucking the stained portions of his shirt, “He’s got some interesting perspectives on how to live. What are you doing?”

Hastily dropping his shirt from his mouth, Raymond responded, “I’m sorry. Saliva is a natural solvent, so I thought maybe I could save the shirt.”

Nico and Asher laughed.

“So basically you’re saying ‘carpe diem’ with your goals?”

“Not quite. When we have long-term goals we can lose sight of the suffering right in front of us. We tell ourselves we’re attempting to relieve suffering in a more significant or permanent way, which justifies not helping people adjacent to us. It’s tricky, because of course we should focus on long-term goals as well, but we’ve got to have some balance.”

“So what long-term goals are you focusing on?”

“We’ve got this program to stock each room with philosophy and literature in hopes that…for God’s sake, Raymond! Just go change your shirt or something!” Nico interrupted herself to reprimand a startled Raymond, who was gnawing on his sleeve.

“Oh…yes. That’s a good idea…” he muttered, making his way upstairs.

Nico and Asher shook their heads with bemused exasperation.

“Are his parents the same way? When I ask, he just tells a few highly rehearsed stories about his childhood. I can’t really get a good feel for it.”

Asher furrowed his brow and shook his head, “No, not at all. They’re…complicated. He doesn’t speak poorly of them, but he’s mentioned opiates, emotional abuse, shame, boredom from lack of stimulation; a pretty sad story from what he’s shared with me, though that’s also limited. He’s cagey about his past, like he wants us to pretend he doesn’t have one and the present Raymond is the only Raymond there’s ever been. I warned you about him.”

Nico sighed, “I know, and I’m being careful. I even did that whole ‘I want you to be my dog’ speech. It seems like it’s working and I think he’s some type of happy, but he constantly worries me. That book he’s writing! Have you read it?”

“Are we going anywhere after this?” Raymond called down.

“Yeah, let’s walk around the Mall a bit; it looks lovely outside.” Asher yelled back before lowering his voice, “I have…and I know what you’re thinking. But Raymond’s always had a depressive streak, detailing the horrors of the world is just his way of dealing with it.”

“The stuff he’s writing isn’t a healthy expression. It’s tormenting him. It’s self-destructive.”

“He’s got this uncanny ability to look the worst things square in the eyes, learn from them, and share those lessons with others in a way they can understand. I don’t desire that role, do you?”

“I don’t shrink away from horror…”

“Yeah, but you don’t embrace it like he does.”

“Does one have to embrace horror and violence to know why it’s bad?”

“No, not necessarily, but when we’re trying to accomplish the things we’re trying to accomplish, it helps. I saw some real horror while traveling and…”

“What, at one of your cocktail parties in Paris?”

“I do more than attend galas and cocktail parties.”

“Do you?”

“I’ve seen more than I care to see of the world. There’s no one out there who’s going to keep humans from destroying themselves. You know the state of things, if we don’t figure out how to do it soon, no one will have to.”

“And Raymond? Why Raymond?”

“I trust him. I know his values. I know what he stands for and I know his limitations. He’s a gifted writer, but his real use is, like I said, his ability to synthesize trauma.”

“Let him experience trauma so you don’t have to?”

“Look, do you think you’re the first woman who’s helped me with Raymond?”

“There’s no need to get petty. I care about him and want him to be happy. That has nothing to do with us.”

“Raymond’s fine, he just needs the right guidance and motivation. Being in love with you will provide him with the stability he needs to achieve his potential.”

“Without addressing his traumas? Can’t he just live and be happy?”

“Can you?”

“Like I said, this has nothing do to with us.”

“Raymond needs to pursue greatness or else he’s lost. He can’t just drift, it’s not in him. He needs constant activity and strong external stimuli or else all the horror he’s absorbed catches up to him.”

“Why not help his psyche then? Jungian analysis, sensory deprivation, meditation, pot, all this stuff could help.”

“And make him content with the world? That doesn’t seem helpful. We’re trying to change things, not settle for them. He needs that energy.”

“So we’ll just lead him along like a…”

“Like a dog, you said it. It’s for his own good. I care about him just as much as you, probably more after living with him for four years. I’m confident I know what he needs. This is the life he would choose.”

“Are you both ready?” Raymond shouted as he galloped down the stairs in an entirely new outfit.

“I think we are. Let’s leave the cleanup for later,” Asher said, staring at Nico sternly.

Nico agreed, “Of course. Let me grab my coat.”

Raymond, chatting about the meaning of life, drifted blissfully in front of his companions. It was an unseasonably warm February afternoon in the seat of Western hegemony.

As part of their sojourn, the trio was keen to investigate a recent development involving the beloved cherry trees near the Jefferson Memorial. The city was abuzz with rumors from the Tidal Basin claiming the sakura were infected with the dreaded brown rot blossom blight. Though the usual talking heads speculated the disease had been introduced by foreign saboteurs, or even as an act of terrorism, the conclusion from experts on an independent commission tasked to investigate the matter concluded the organic fertilizer used in the National Park Service’s recent “Back to Earth” initiative was the most likely culprit. They recommended immediate action by combining a rigorous fungicide regime and advanced pruning techniques to stymie the spread of the infection. However, with the non-defense budget as tight as it was, right-wing members of Congress and the media immediately seized upon the issue as a symbol of governmental incompetence and waste.

Hearings were called in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where committee members grilled the Director of Park Services on how her department made the mistake of infecting these vital representatives of American pride and glory. The Director admitted responsibility for the fertile error and, after spending a week under heavy fire, decided spending more quality time with her dog was a priority.

The fallout from “Sakura-gate,” the media’s designation for the incident, resulted in a vote on the House floor blocking an appropriations bill containing a rider allocating funds to fight the blight[4]. In a press conference with the majority whip and other members of the conservative caucus after the vote, congressmen[5] were quoted as saying, “This is a win for the American people and American values. We cannot throw away the future of our children on frivolous government waste. Besides, we won’t know if this blight actually exists until the blossoming of these beautiful tokens of friendship from our Asian allies. From the facts we’ve been presented by the Congressional Fungal Blight Office (CFBO) about the black [sic] rot blossom blight, it only kills the blossoms themselves, so we don’t have to worry about the actual trees being affected, just the extemporaneous flowers. We’re happy to let the liberals waste their own time and money saving flowers.”

When Nico, Asher, and Raymond arrived at the Tidal Basin, they noted the visibly diseased trees. Asher, who had taken two plant pathology courses in college, informed them that the gummy ooze and twig dieback was more indicative of bacterial cankers than brown rot blossom blight. If the Park Services didn’t act quickly, the vegetation of the entire Basin would most likely die in a few months. This revelation stimulated a spirited discussion on the nature of responsible governance as they made their way to Raymond’s favorite Thai restaurant in the city, just north of George Washington University’s campus.

Walking into the restaurant they were met with a strangely hushed atmosphere; the only sound being a news report every eyeball in the establishment was observing avidly. The group turned their heads to read the confusing headline, “Where Did Violence Go?” scrolling under a journalist standing in front of an ethnically diverse group of men and women in suits harmlessly punching and kicking one another on a newsroom set.

“What in the world?” Nico goggled as they witnessed the disorienting sight of news professionals pummeling one another. They observed as a 20-something script boy comically wound-up and swung his fist with full force straight into the smiling face of a well-known female anchor. The blow landed, but nothing else happened.

The earnest reporter standing in front of the camera cut in, “Yes, we’re getting reports from around the globe today that violence is no longer working. There is speculation on social media that this may be the work of foreign saboteurs or perhaps even a terrorist plot. At this point, it’s simply too early to tell. One thing is certain, however; humanity has never experienced anything like this in our history. This is Reza Ahman reporting from the SMN studios in Atlanta. Back to you, John.”

The field reporter tossed to an anchor, who launched into a story on the search for a missing three-year-old white child from Tulsa.

“What in the hell?” Asher turned to Nico and Raymond, completely at a loss.

As the discombobulated triumvirate tried to piece together their thoughts, they were interrupted by a commotion outside.  They turned in time to see a wooden chair crashing through the large glass window of the restaurant, revealing a pair of drunken, smirking young men on the other side.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the enraged manager of the business screamed as he sprinted out to confront them.

“Whatever the fuck we feel like,” the two white boys slurred, “What’re you gonna to do about it?”

The furious man lashed out with a crushing strike into the face of the nearest youth, whose cackling only increased after nothing happened.

“Nice try, Bing-Bong. Now go make us some General Tso’s,” they gleefully called as the two upstanding members of society ran off, leaving their violent attacker trembling with confusion and impotent rage.

Raymond ran out to him, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry for white people. I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. I’m so sorry…”

“It’s fine, man. It wasn’t you, but I appreciate it. I should be used to these GW fucks by now, racist little shits. I know I shouldn’t have, but this is the first time they’ve caused this much damage and I kind of lost it,” grunted the manager through his slowly unclenching jaw.

“What happened when you punched him though? I don’t understand what happened there. Just…it looked like you connected, but he didn’t even flinch. “ Asher asked as he walked out to join them with Nico.

“I’ve got no clue. It was like when I punched him everything seemed normal, but the moment he was supposed to be hurt, nothing happened. My fist didn’t even feel the impact. I just felt his skin, like I was placing my hand gently on his face. I…don’t know,” the man said, beginning to tremble.

“Okay, well let’s get this cleaned up at least,” Nico said cheerily, motioning towards the shattered glass, “And please, let me pay for a replacement. That was horrible.”

“But you had nothing to do with it!” the confused food service operator said, blinking.

“It’s the least I can do. Please don’t worry about it. It’s really my pleasure,” Nico responded with comfortable grandeur.

“Honestly, you don’t have to…” protested the man, weakly.

“But I want to,” insisted Nico, pulling out her checkbook, “Who do I make this out to?”

“I don’t understand…why?’ he looked at her in bewilderment.

“Because I have the ability, which makes it my responsibility,” she replied curtly. “Now who does this check go to?”

“…Thai Bay LLC…thank you…really, thank you,” the man uttered, dazed.

“You don’t have to thank me, I could do no less,” she said as she magnanimously scribbled the amount with a flourish and nonchalantly handed the rectangular paper to the wide-eyed manager.

“Alright then, now that we’ve confirmed our humanity, let’s eat. I’m in the mood for curry,” Asher urged.

As they ate, a parade of befuddled scientists, politicians, economists, religious leaders, and military experts graced the buzzing television, each with a separate explanation for the recent dramatic alteration of reality. There were wild reports of roving bands of thugs who had figured out how to make violence work again and were seizing power in Budapest; tribal shamans in the Democratic People’s Republic of the Republic of Zaire and/or Congo performing strange software updates that turned their laptops into sacred instruments of destruction; and a small boy in rural Wisconsin who’d spent the last three months teaching his pet squirrel how to change the television channel and was now, according to anonymous Agency sources, working with the Central Intelligence Agency on a black ops project to militarize animals. After each new story, the anchor reminded the audience that these reports were unverified and SMN was simply reporting on the most popular trending topics across various social media platforms.

Nico, Asher, and Raymond seemed collectively unable to speak. These events were too new, too far removed from anything they’d ever even speculated on, and they had too little information to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with anyone other than their own neurons, though even that felt mildly mortifying. They watched the news and ate their curry with an uncharacteristic reticence.

Taking their leave from the vandalized establishment, the group began walking back to Raymond’s. Each had extensive experience navigating urban environments and never once had allowed themselves to fear for their safety, as they considered that type of fear fraught with racial overtones. Now, with young men running anywhere they pleased, burning and pillaging at leisure, the trio felt justifiably and defensibly terrified. Parts of the city previously considered stable and certain demographics previously considered safe were suddenly decidedly much less so, eliminating the refuge the privileged never knew they relied on so heavily until this moment.

They picked through the quickly spiraling chaos, passing scores of police officers on every street who’d been reduced to pleading with young people to cease their massively destructive tom-foolery. Turning onto Raymond’s street presented them with a shocking sight: the entire block was ablaze. Raymond rushed ahead before his companions could react and darted into the raging fire engulfing his abode. Nico and Asher remained outside, frantic with worry. Eternal minutes later, a smoking and ashen Raymond emerged carrying two objects.

“What in god’s name is wrong with you!?” shouted an irate Nico as Raymond trotted up with soot and ash flying behind him in waves.

“Are you insane? You could have been killed!” Asher added furiously.

“Oh no, I don’t think so. I think whatever that non-violence thing is means we can’t be hurt by anything,” Raymond explained as he came to a stop in front of them and attempted to catch his breath.

“Did you know that? What was worth going in there and taking that risk?” Nico mentally throttled him.

“Well…I wanted to get these.” he said, holding up his charred copies of The Myth of Sisyphus and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

“Alright, I’ll give you Sisyphus because you’re insane and obsessed, but why the Freire?” Asher asked, abandoning his anger.

“This is the copy that I bought the day Nico and I…our first date at Busboy’s,” Raymond managed, his face glowing red in the shifting light of the consuming flames.

“I hate you,” Nico said in a voice filled with disgust and adoration.

Raymond grinned broadly, “Even though the fire won’t injure us, I don’t think sleeping on a burning bed would suit our tastes. How about the LLS?”

“Aren’t you upset about your house? Everything you own is in there!” Nico exclaimed, confused by his remarkable calm.

“I guess I’m upset, I don’t like the idea of having all my stuff destroyed.” Raymond said, looking at the towering inferno with a placid detachment, “But, it’s just stuff, right? I would feel really materialistic if I was inconsolable about the destruction of my possessions. It’s weirdly calming though, and everything is too interesting right now to worry about something as trivial as my house burning down. Also, look at it! I’ve never seen a burning building before, let alone a burning block!”

“Raymond…”

The group wandered over to the LLS, marveling at the dynamic scene the rows of burning townhouses painted. They were met with an even more drama at the tower, which was being eaten away by the same flames devouring Raymond’s home.

“I’m sorry Nico…” Raymond spoke softly, placing his hand tenderly on the small of her back in a gesture he hoped indicated solidarity and comfort.

“It’s fine, I have boatloads of insurance on the thing,” she said dismissively, “though I’m pretty put out these fires are going to increase the percentage of homelessness in the US for the first time in three years. I feel like I own that number.”

“But it’s kind of out of your…holy shit!” Asher yelled, his eyes following the plummeting form of a human body that’d just dropped from the top of the LLS.

Raymond rushed to the fallen figure, which sprang up before he’d covered half the distance, hooting maniacally with drunken guffaws.

“Williams?” Raymond shouted, recognizing the stereotypical MB LLS volunteer, “Are you alright? What are you doing?”

“Fucking around. Clock, you fucking faggot,” slurred Williams as he staggered towards Raymond.

“Excuse me? I’m not gay but it doesn’t matter! That’s a disgusting thing to say!” Raymond seethed self-righteously.

“Fuck you,” Williams said with arrogant disdain, “You think the PC police are coming for me? We can do or say anything we want and nothing can hurt us. So fuck off.”

With that he weaved back into the burning building.

Raymond, shaken and disturbed, turned to Asher and Nico, “What are we going to do? Everyone’s gone insane!”

“Is it everyone? I have a theory. Nico, is your driver a white, Christian male of means?” Asher asked hurriedly.

“No, he’s…”

“Thank god. Alright, call him up. I think I know of a place we can regroup in relative safety.”

“Umm…Asher, we can’t be hurt apparently, I think we’re pretty much safe anywhere,” Raymond noted.

“Fine. I mean a place that isn’t currently nor is likely soon to be on fire. Nico, please call your driver!”

 

[1] None of this particular meal’s participants kept kosher or cared about the meaning of these labels, but Raymond held that the more labels with which a meal was affixed, the higher the perceived quality of that meal.

[2]Sample “prestige” dish:

Lamb Chops with Cilantro Chimichurri and Quinoa Salad

Prep Time: 40 minutes Cook Time: 45 Minutes Serves: 3

Ingredients

Chimichurri Sauce

  • 1 cup firmly packed fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Quinoa Salad

  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup quinoa (white, red or multicolored)
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, well washed and diced
  • 1 large sweet potato, diced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
  • 3 tablespoons fresh scallions, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lamb Chops

  • 6 lamb chops (2 pounds)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3/4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 tablespoon fresh rosemary

Directions

For the chimichurri sauce:

  1. Puree cilantro and olive oil, add lime juice, garlic, cumin. cayenne and salt.
  2. Pulse thoroughly.
  3. Transfer sauce to a small serv­ing bowl, cover, and set aside.
  4. Refrigerate

For the quinoa salad:

  1. Bring vegetable stock to a boil and stir in quinoa.
  2. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the stock is absorbed.
  3. Remove from heat.
  4. While quinoa is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat.
  5. Add leek and sweet potato, sauté until tender.
  6. In a large bowl, gently mix quinoa with leek and sweet potato.
  7. Add the basil and scallions and mix well.
  8. Drizzle with 1/4 cup olive oil and add lemon juice.
  9. Stir gently.
  10. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
  11. Serve warm or at room temperature.

For the lamb chops:

  1. Preheat grill or broiler.
  2. Rub meat with cut sides of garlic.
  3. Lightly salt and pepper chops, then rub with olive oil.
  4. Coat chops with rosemary.
  5. Grill or broil chops for about 7 minutes per side for medium-rare.
  6. Let meat sit for 5 to 10 minutes prior to serving.

For assembly:

  1. To serve, place a mound of quinoa salad on each plate.
  2. Lean 2 chops at an angle against quinoa.
  3. Drizzle chimichurri sauce onto chops.

 

[3] Asher also seduced and slept with this veteran journalist.

[4] The “rider” was, in reality, merely the standard budgetary item for the National Park Service’s pesticide and fungicide supply. That this number had actually decreased from the previous fiscal year due to switching bulk pesticide contracts from Dead’r’n Hell Bugs Inc. (DDRH, -29.34%) to Mondo Dead Inc. (MONDD +37.29%) was a nuance absent from the rhetoric surrounding Sakura-gate.

[5] Gender inclusive pronouns are unsurprisingly unnecessary when describing members of this particular caucus.

The Pile – Chapter Four

A steadily expanding sliver of light stretching from Tantalum (Ta) to Rhodium (RH) cut across the Periodic Table of the Elements. Measuring approximately 1 meter in width and .75 meters in length, the chart was the centerpiece of the décor bedecking Raymond Clock’s living quarters. He’d built it himself with a pack of picture flashcards. The deck was assembled in proper rows and columns with tape holding the left side of each card to the wall. This innovation, besides making Raymond feel very clever, allowed the curious observer to flip each card and delve into the specifics of each building block of the universe. When Raymond opened his eyes to the world, his gaze was met by Nico Leftiè draped in his bed sheet reading about the reactivity of Cesium (Cs).

Sensing him stir, Nico asked, “Did you know Cesium literally explodes when it touches water?”

Happily but groggily, Raymond responded, “Sure, but I think it has to be cold or something first.”

Nico smiled and walked around the dimly lit room peering at the posters covering his walls. She saw indie band tour promotion posters, vintage Miles Davis concert advertisements, the French print of a Kurosawa film premier, scenes from every broad genre of nation and culture, replications of dramatic Goya pieces, and radical propaganda from the Spanish Civil War, Russian Civil War, Chinese Civil War, and the liberation campaign of the Arabian peninsula famously involving T.A. Lawrence during World War One.

“You’ve curated a nice little collection of culture here. Do all the girls swoon at the sight of a Spanish revolutionary proclaiming, ‘Los Libros anarquistas son armas contra el Fascismo’?”

His wits returned to him and he grinned, “Didn’t you know, Nico? Propaganda is humanity’s greatest aphrodisiac.”

“Well aren’t we all sorts of post-coital clever,” she hummed blissfully as she slid back inside the folds of the linen to rest beside Raymond. “You get naked with a person one time and all of a sudden they assume you’re on a first name basis.”

“My humblest of apologies Mademoiselle Leftiè. You can rest assured that in the future I will observe proper decorum at all times.”

“See that you do.”

Nico and Raymond stared up at the fabric mobile of the Milky Way Galaxy Raymond had sewn together in an unprecedented burst of craftiness. The lumpy, misshapen balls of fabric twirled on their fish strings against the backdrop of a white-paint-speckled black sheet meant to represent the stars.

“So…was everything alright last night?” Raymond asked sheepishly after a moment of silent reflection.

“Yes… Well, you’re very…attentive. It was strange to have sex with someone who seemed entirely focused on providing pleasure rather than experiencing pleasure themselves.

“Well for me, sex is a kind of performance, like an overly-intimate ballet duet. Both dancers have their part to play and I’ve always wanted to be really good at performing my piece for whenever I encountered an extraordinary person, so I practiced and tried to learn new techniques and read up on the latest theory.”

“What do you mean ‘practiced’? Like, you slept with women just so you could get better at sex?”

Instantly horrified by how he felt that idea portrayed him, Raymond clarified, “No, no, I’m sorry. That isn’t what I meant! Practiced as in each woman I slept with was a unique and remarkable experience, so I was always learning how to become a more adaptive and creative sexual partner. Each person had such wonderful individuality in the way they reacted when stimulated in specific areas of their body. Each new experience forced me to retool my style and method to perfectly suit my fellow sexual pioneer. When I say practice, I’m talking about practicing this flexibility and becoming adept at gleaning from my partner’s reactions what I should do next.”

“Why don’t you just ask? Can’t you just ask me, ‘Hey Nico, does that work or do you know some other method that works better’? Because, you know, it’s my body and all. That basically makes me an expert on how to pleasure it.”

“Sure!” he parried eagerly, “I could and I have. But seriously, not every woman is an expert on what might pleasure her body. Sometimes people just don’t experiment, or they have a history of bad partners without knowing they have a history of bad partners. So sometimes, with permission of course, you have to see if something works without being told what to do.”

“You can get into dangerous territory with that type of thinking pretty quickly.”

“How so?”

“Sometimes even asking is exerting pressure on a person to comply with something that could be interpreted as a request. I understand you just mean you’re asking for permission to do something she might enjoy, but she might feel like you really want a specific thing in bed and are requesting she comply. This seems like you’re pressuring her because if she denies what you want, it might upset you or diminish your sexual pleasure. If she cares about you then she cares about you experiencing pleasure just as much as you care about her experiencing pleasure. So when you ask to do something it can feel pretty obligatory for her.”

Raymond paused and contemplated this idea before replying. “That’s a risk I’d not really considered. Let’s make a deal then; if I ever ask you something during sex, whether it’s a personal request or a question about your preference, please reply with complete honesty and without any regard for upsetting me. Is that okay?”

“Well first of all, I don’t need to make a deal as I would do that anyway. Second, you assume we’ll sleep together in the future?”

“Wait, what? Isn’t this the start of a relationship, or if not a relationship yet, at least some sort of romantic affair?”

“To be frank”, Nico began, drawing herself up to sit on the bed, “I’m not sure what this is. I wanted to sleep with you and spend time with you, so I did. I don’t know whether that satisfied me or whether I want to continue spending time with you and sleeping with you. I don’t really like the concept of traditional relationships.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume. I understand what you mean though. I’ve never really been a fan of normal relationships either; monogamy’s pretty unnatural for our biological impulses, I suppose.”

“That isn’t what I meant and I don’t support the idea of biological determinism. I acknowledge biology plays a strong role in pushing us in certain directions, but, particularly in the realm of romance, I feel that people use it as an excuse to justify a selfish behavior they choose to pursue.”

“So…” mumbled Raymond in confusion, “Why are you unsure about the projected idea of perhaps thinking about the possibility of considering a relationship with me.”

“I’m sorry for this, Raymond.” she said, holding his gaze with her own. “I really am. I wish my feelings were simpler and that I could just be with you and be happy, because I do like you. However, it isn’t simple and my feelings are complicated. Maybe we can build towards something, maybe it will never happen; honestly I don’t know. But I know I can’t commit to a traditionally defined relationship with you right now.”

With difficulty, Raymond managed, “Ahh yes, that makes sense. I understand. But, if I may ask; I’m trying to understand what you might want to get out of knowing me.”

Nico looked into Raymond’s eyes with carefully concealed hope, monitoring them for their reaction. “I want you to be my dog, Raymond. I want you to be available and come whenever I call. That is the type of relationship I want. Can you do that? I understand if I’m asking you to do something you can’t.”

Shards of glass tumbled from his throat, “I can do that. Don’t worry about me.”

“Are you alright?”

“Of course, I’m always okay.”

“I hope so. I do want to see you, but I can only see you at my pace and on my terms. I know this because I know me. I know I would feel suffocated by anything else. And…as I said, I have no idea if this will work, but I think one day it might be nice to be in a real relationship with you. Please though, please do not let yourself believe we will ever be in that type of relationship. If you do, I think it’ll ruin everything.”

“I will do my best.” he said woodenly, “I can control myself.”

Nico and Raymond pondered the roughly sewn planets and fake stars.

“Why are the planets so oddly shaped?” Nico asked after an extended period of silence.

“I’m not very good at sewing,” he responded in a hollow tone.

“Why didn’t you practice until you became better, and then create something to display?”

“I could say the same thing to God.”

“Don’t’ start being trite, you’re above that. I’m sorry you’re upset, but, as I’ve said multiple times, I do still want to talk to you. I enjoy talking to you more than I’ve enjoyed anything in my recent memory. It does mean something to me; I just can’t give you exactly what you want.”

“I’m sorry; I suppose I’m just recovering from the mild shock and disappointment. But you’re right; I can’t demand anything from you. Okay. So I guess there are two reasons for my commitment to sub-amateur design. First, I sort of like the aesthetic. I think it has a type of raw charm to it; trying and failing can be very endearing. I look at it and it reminds me of all the things I’m not very good at, but also lets me know that just because I’m not good at something doesn’t mean I can’t still use my creativity. That creativity will simply be judged by my own individual standard.”

“That’s a nice thought, though I think I value seeing the evidence of hard work that went into a craft honed over years of practice.”

“That’s probably right. My idea is most likely a justification of laziness. So that’s why I have a second reason. Basically, someone who strives and creates after practicing and practicing leaves themselves exposed to stronger criticism than someone who’s trying something for the first time. There’s a built-in expectation from the audience of the veteran professional. I would say most of the time, though few admit it, the result of the professional’s creativity rarely meets the standard set by the audience’s imagination. Maybe they might even tell one another they’re satisfied, but probably only because we’re so used to disappointing our dreams. Being an amateur or worse means you don’t deal with any of those imaginations or expectations. So when these conditions are in place your creativity can almost universally exceed zero.”

“That’s even more of a justification for laziness!”

“I’m fully committed to justifying my laziness, I just wanted to explain the nature of that commitment. Besides, if art is the transfer of ideas from one brain to another via whatever medium, why spend time on perfection if a lesser example serves just as well?”

“How are you so wonderful and so insufferable at the same time?”

“I’m big on diversity.”

“What time is it!?” she gasped; now noticing the strength and tone of the light infiltrating the room.

Checking his phone, Raymond informed her it was currently 10:43AM.

“Shit!” Nico yelled, springing out of bed, “I’m late for a board meeting.”

She scrambled to make herself ready as Raymond threw something on to see her out the door. Though desperately wishing to ask when he would see her again, he restrained himself, heeding her dire warning. Walking downstairs behind her, he thought that maybe this enforced stoicism might even be a source of entertainment and growth. He was born to be a martyr.

As Nico walked out the door, she turned back to him and said, “I’ll call you,” before hurrying down the street to the intersection two blocks from his home where she’d told her driver to have a car waiting.

A week elapsed before Raymond received a phone call. The entity on the other end was not Nico Leftiè, but rather Raymond’s closest friend from his days studying International Revolutionary Politics with a minor in Thinking Globally and Acting Locally at the small liberal arts institution Trotsky University[1], Asher Rose.

Raymond and Asher had achieved a minor level of notoriety around the TU campus for their overnight art installations and well-loved music venue, The Grotesque Grotto. Asher, who’d been born in Korea but was promptly adopted by an exorbitantly wealthy Jewish family from Kansas, served as artistic director, financial backer, planner, talent, and primary labor for the vast majority of their projects. Raymond provided a more holistic type of support, something Asher never complained about and always appreciated.  Where Raymond’s work elicited uncomfortable nods of polite non-disapproval, Asher’s natural talent garnered him rave reviews and adoring fans. If Raymond had ever felt jealous of Asher, neither of them was aware as Asher’s inclusive spirit always made Raymond feel equally loved and successful.

The friends had met as roommates in a dormitory for international students they’d both mistakenly been assigned to; Asher due to his ethnic background and Raymond due to a clerical error in the housing office. Raymond’s experiences within Pap Smear Tower[2] had a dramatic effect on his worldview, solidifying his idea that all human beings all over the world are the same and cultural differences are artificial edifices emplaced and promoted by entrenched elites to separate and control segments of humanity. Asher and Raymond would spend hours every night on the dormitory-standard bunk-beds debating this and thousands of other thoughts that passed between them; continually refining, codifying, destroying, and recasting their personal philosophies. Asher was always the more grounded thinker, tethering Raymond’s lofty ideals to reality, or bringing them back down to terra if they began to resemble the ill-fated Icarus. The friends loved one another as deeply as non-romantic love allowed, even attempting to take the next step to see if the possibility of experiencing sexual desire for one another existed. The ensuing twenty minutes of physical awkwardness left them equally displeased with the results and confirmed their regrettable heterosexuality.

When college ended, Asher was taken from Raymond by his insatiable urge to wander. He implored Raymond to accompany him to continue their adventures, but Raymond, in the only decision he regretted, turned him down to set his own course. The absence of Asher seemed to remove a piece of his own identity. After being so attuned to the mind of another, Raymond felt out-of-balance without him. Though he developed numerous friendships in the years following their parting, no one brought sense and meaning to his life in the same way Asher had. Or at least not until Nico.

Raymond was speaking to Asher for the first time in more than four years. Both men initially felt the time and distance hovering between them, obfuscating the other.

“Raymond! I’m so happy to hear your voice! It’s been so long!” Asher gushed in intimately familiar tones. It was a voice Raymond knew better than his own, making the slightly stilted cordiality jarring.

“I’m happy to hear from you, Asher. Is everything alright?”

“Sure! When has anything ever gone wrong for me? You used to say I got all my bad luck out of the way when my birth parents died and the universe has felt guilty for it ever since, remember?”

“Ha! I remember!” Raymond said, genuinely laughing while fondly recalling the recurring joke he used whenever something extraordinarily fortunate befell Asher, which seemed to happen with a much higher frequency than a random, unbiased reality should allow. “Have you balanced out your Karma yet?”

“I guess not, though I’ve surely spent the last four years trying. Wow, there are so many stories I’ve got to tell you! I’m glad you’ve got the same number from college or else I’d have had to hire someone to track you down.”

“Ummm…we have the internet…”

“I refuse to paste my life all over social media. It’s just so gaudy! I don’t have the time or desire to keep up digital appearances when I’m actually doing things.”

“Well, that’s not the only point…”

“I know, it’s considered an obligation now, but you of all people, really…”

“Yes, yes, you’re right, as usual.”

“Oh, who knows? Tweets could end up saving us all. Anyways, where are you living now?”

“I’m working for Mudsling Nation and a mental asylum in D.C.”

“Of course you are! Okay! I’m in New York; I just got back to the US like thirty minutes ago. Could I fly down today and stay at your place for a while?”

“Absolutely! I live in Georgetown, but I don’t have a car to pick you up. Though I’m sure you’ll manage. I’ll text you my address.”

“Fantastic! I’ll see you in a few hours! I’m so happy we’re seeing each other again!”

“Same here. Bye, Asher!”

Raymond knew no affectations or showy baubles were necessary to impress Asher, so rather than cleaning his place and carefully littering the apartment with interesting objects, he chose to relax in his single piece of living room furniture and reminisce.

For a relationship where one member was, from the perspective of an outside observer, so entirely dominant, it was surprising even to Raymond that the thought of envy or jealousy had never impacted their dynamic. From the first moment they met, Asher had never treated Raymond as anything less than an equal; never caring that it was he, Asher, who paid for and created 90% of their ideas. Even when one of the few projects Raymond did conceive, a display in the campus quad involving faux-crucified white children, signs with information about the ongoing massacre occurring south of Lake Malawi, and panels asking the question “Would you care more if the victims were white?”, flopped and received a scathing review in the Trotsky Times[3], Asher stood in the line of fire to share equal blame for something he’d attempted to dissuade Raymond from undertaking. Neither money nor talent, both of which Asher maintained a near monopoly on in the relationship, ever came between them. This was entirely thanks to Asher’s genial and genuine belief that everything was transient; that one’s situation in life was nothing more than the summation of a random series of chances and choices that had preceded that moment. Thus his possession of money and natural talent meant absolutely nothing.

Adrift in warm memories of his faithful cohort, and feeling hopeful for his future, Raymond slid into a pleasant slumber.

Vibrant memories flitted in and out of his mind: Asher’s resolute and reassuring laughter rescuing him whenever Raymond began to sink into depression; Nico’s haughty eyes masked by strands of blue-streaked hair rumpled in the same way as on the morning they awoke under the same roof; smiling, crucified white children waving to their apoplectic parents. They drifted in front of him, accompanying his aimless voyage through an endless space as comfortable as his mother’s amniotic fluid.

Abruptly, the soothing scene cleared and the haze lifted from his mind. He found himself back inside the concrete starkness of The Grotesque Grotto. The basement venue had always been subjected to a frustrating level of flooding. No matter how many renovations Asher paid for, the water never seemed to abate. This gave the Grotto an eternally musty odor, which Raymond and Asher worked into the venue’s dark cave-themed interior. Raymond looked around and his eyes fell upon the crucified children, who were now nailed to their crosses rather than tied, crying out for his help. In the murky room, thick gray fog spouting from a machine Raymond insisted enhanced every musical performance by making the event an “ethereal, visually engrossing experience”[4] billowed around the screeching, waxen figures. He watched in fixated horror as blood languorously oozed from their punctured hands and dripped down their bodies, creating dark red lines running the length of their bare torsos.  He rushed to help them down from off their crosses, away from their torture. As he pulled at the bindings, their voices harmonized into a soul-splitting “NO!” Drawing back again, Raymond looked on in shock and confusion as Nico and Asher stepped out of the shadows and urged him to save the forsaken.

“You must help them, Raymond! Only you can help them, Raymond!” They called amid the resumed cries of the crucified. He attempted to ease the pain of the afflicted by lowering one of the crosses to the floor. The reaction from the stricken child was so violent that instead of gently placing the heavy beam on the ground, his startled hands slipped, causing the full weight to crash to the floor on top of the wailing youth. The unfortunate’s life was extinguished amid a blood-chilling squeal and the blunt crunch of unforgiving wood crushing a skull. Trembling with terror and tears, Raymond turned back to Nico and Asher, who wore identical, appalled expressions.

“Monster! You hideous fiend! You have the power to help, but all you do is destroy!”

They turned their backs on him and disappeared. Left alone in the foggy Grotto with the still howling youngsters and the bloody corpse of their dead companion bound to the overturned cross, Raymond despaired. At that moment, a shift in mood lifted the fog and the venue’s bright spotlight hit an object on the floor just a few paces in front of him. He stooped with his fingers mere centimeters away from the surface of the unknown object glinting in the harsh white light.

“Is that my knife?” he asked himself, though the answer sped ahead of the last syllable as it slithered across his cortex. His thin fingers embraced the blackened handle as if delicately caressing the body of a new lover; hesitantly at first, but with increasing confidence as the touch is gladly received. The blade came with his hand as he stood upright, now noting the stillness and silence that had descended. He looked to the children, the crimson streams still trickling down their wan forms; they were smiling at him.

“Yes,” they whispered to him, “Yes,” they intoned, their volume rising, “Yes,” they repeated until their voices became a steady chant bidding him to act. A terrible shock of understanding staggered his body and dropped him to his knees as he gripped the implement on which the abhorrent, bulging eyes of his young preceptors were greedily affixed. “Yes,” they called to him, “Yes,” they willed him, “Yes,” they demanded. Rising once more, he pitched himself forward, possessed with depraved purpose. He neared a child and watched himself lift the knife. Heavily veined eyes quivering with rapture looked unflinchingly into his own. A blade plunged into a chest.

He awoke to a steady knocking on his front door. His rest had lasted too long and Asher had arrived.

“Hello my dear, you look like hell,” were Asher’s first words to him.

Asher had always been a beautiful man, but the creature who entered was beyond anything in Raymond’s memory. He was a gorgeous and lithe animal with dark hair and brilliant light-hazel eyes sparkling with good natured kindness and a love of life. His features were enhanced and infused with years of enriching experiences, giving his presence an instantly fascinating quality. He possessed a level of infectious energy and vitality that might qualify for the World Health Organization’s definition of Risk Group 4, indirectly transmitting his spirit of limitless possibilities to all surrounding biological organisms. This aspect of Asher’s character made him a much sought after commodity for people of all stations in life. His good humor allowed him to oblige those wishing to use him, though his charmed existence always saw him come out on top during any attempt to exploit his gifts.

“Even you’d look mildly less deified if you’d had the dream I just woke from.”

“You’re sleeping your days away now? Come on, surely you have some projects in the works that require your keen intellect. But tell me about this dream.”

Raymond related what he remembered of the experience to a dutifully respectful Asher. After finishing, the iridescent Mr. Rose beamed at him.

“I don’t think that’s such a horrible dream! Sure there were some unpleasant aspects and strong themes, definitely wouldn’t get by with a PG-13, but I think it was full of confidence and hope as well! We always knew you were destined for something great, we just didn’t know it would involve stabbing those poor crucified kids from TU. Ha! I remember the look on the faces of their parents when they walked up and saw little Jimmy Shithead bare-chested, placidly waving from up on a cross. I thought they were going to crucify you for real!”

Asher’s diffusion of Raymond’s intensity worked wonders on his psyche, deflating the accumulated stress through the comfort of old memories with his closest friend.

“I was just happy TU’s admin board didn’t kick me out for that one. After a few years of reflection, I have to admit you were probably right about the Cracker Crucifixion Project being a bad idea,” Raymond chuckled.

“Probably? That’s a bit of an understatement.”

“I mean, the idea was sound! Speaking of Southern Malawi though, have you been following the most recent lobbying efforts regarding the PPA?”

Asher grimaced, “Yeah…God, what a bunch of amateurs! I’ve only heard basics, but those jokers sound horrible.”

“Oh they are; I promise you. They’re treating Manda like a legitimate actor! Do they really think some idiotic awareness campaign using minimally informed college students, memes, and pop culture credibility is going to help this incredibly complex issue? Apparently they even got Senator Lomax all hot and bothered about it. The other day he was on C-Span raving about the need for drone attacks around Monkey Bay. The PPA isn’t even operating in that region anymore! It’s seriously a mess.”

“Yeah, I totally agree. I read your awesome column a few weeks ago on Mudsling. You’re too good for that crappy site and you know it. Why don’t you start your own? You’re a great writer with great ideas, and people are starting to recognize your name, or your pseudonyms at least. Seriously!” he enthused, seeing Raymond’s skepticism, “I was just talking with this Russian foreign ministry official I’m friends with about one of your columns on the importance of defining Islam as a normalized part of a malleable European culture. He told me he’d read a few of your pieces and enjoyed your perspective and passion.”

“Wait, who was it? Where did you meet him? That’s ridiculously cool!”

“Do you remember Gleb Kirillov from our first year in Pap Smear?”

“Sure, though I remember him as pretty pompous. When I tried to talk to him about The Brothers Karamazov he said something about how I could never really understand Dostoevski because I wasn’t Russian. I got mad, remember I was like 18, and said that translations are different, of course, but that I could still understand the concepts and enjoy the work. Then I mentioned that at least English has Dickens, Shakespeare, and Joyce. After he responded by saying they were all overrated and Shakespeare didn’t even write anything, I got too upset and left the study room.”

“Yeah, he’s still an idiot, but he’s got some great friends! So I was on this trip to Moscow with this group of eunuch nudists who were pretty well known in the Kiev music scene for doing these crazy renditions of Carmina Burana in the middle of winter and…”

“Wait, wait, what! Eunuch nudists? Where did you meet eunuch nudists?”

“Oh, while I was helping set up a new music venue in Kiev for a few months. Cool dudes.”

“Why were you setting up a venue in Kiev?”

“Oh, well when I was doing some work as a photojournalist in Syria we…”

“You were in Syria?! What the hell, Asher!”

“I mean, yeah, I stopped by, but I wasn’t really even that close to the war. And I was only there because I was in Tokyo and met this amazing woman who…”

“Stop! Seriously…what? Just start at the beginning, man.”

And so Asher regaled Raymond with tales from his years of travel, which saw him meet a mysterious love interest on every continent including Antarctica, accidentally get drawn into and end up leading a successful neo-Marxist revolt in Western Sahara, become a national rock icon in Ukraine, a folk hero in Bhutan, and a demi-god to a previously undiscovered tribe on an uncharted island 152 KM off the southern coast of Sumatra[5].

“If it wasn’t you telling me this, I wouldn’t believe a word of it. Didn’t you worry about the whole white male imperialist fantasy problem? It seems like a few of those experiences were right on the edge.”

“I know, that’s one of the reasons I had to move around. Being non-white and Jewish did help a little with that dilemma, but I acknowledge that I was raised by white parents and benefited a great deal from white privilege. So whenever people started propping me up as a leader, I had to take a step back and be like ‘Whoa guys, I’m just here to support your self-determination.’ It was frustrating.”

“I can imagine! Okay, so while I don’t have anything even slightly as entertaining as all that, I did have something pretty nuts happen to me recently.”

“Hit me,” said Asher, leaning forward eagerly.

“Have you heard of Nico Leftiè?” Raymond asked cautiously.

“Who hasn’t? What about her?” Asher responded, clearly intrigued.

“Well, what have you heard about her?”

“Basically that she’s like the most elusive billionaire in the world. And I know Leftiè’s Luxury Suites are a horrible idea if you want to get the homeless to work, but there’s no denying they’ve basically eradicated the issue of homelessness in the US.”

“Well, of course you’re right but…you see, so I kind of ran into her while I was volunteering at an LLS and…basically I’m sort of in a type of…romantic agreement or something with her at the moment. I’m not really sure what it is…”

“What?” Are you serious!? That’s insane! How did you let me babble on with a bombshell like that waiting to be unleashed? How did this happen? Tell me everything!”

Now it was Raymond’s turn to tell a story, which he did in extreme detail, only concealing the episodes that would violate Nico’s privacy and dignity. When he finished, he faced an open-mouthed Asher.

“You turned down millions of dollars, an ambassadorship, and the chance to manage your favorite band because of a stupid principle about keeping your word or something?”

“…Basically.”

“You’re both the dumbest and most respectable person I could ever hope to know. You know I love you, but Jesus Christ, Raymond! How did they even find out about all that stuff?”

“Probably from my social media. That information isn’t exactly hidden from the public, which you’d know if you ever set one up. Though I guess this is just one more clear demonstration on how you’re smarter than the rest of us for never making one.”

“Lazier is more likely. So you’re just waiting for her to call you? Are you alright? And are you still writing that suicide book? Why didn’t you contact me before you did something so stupid?”

“I would have! But I had no idea how to get in touch with you!”

“Sorry…That’s my fault. I was so focused on just living in the moment and having all these direct experiences; I really wish you came with me.”

“Honestly, so do I.”

“Well it’s past now, and we’re together again. Besides, you don’t seem to be living a horrible life at the moment.”

“…Asher, why did you come back?”

“Well…” Asher began, a strange ripple of discomfort moving across his features, “I was bored. Everything was easy as a nomad. If a situation became unstable, I could just move on. I met people, but everything always felt temporary. I liked it at first, but it started to feel like a cancer hollowing out all my interactions. Experiencing one event or culture in one part of the world made me want to experience other events and other cultures in other parts of the world. There’s always more to do. But I knew if I moved on too quickly I would turn into a damn tourist and not really have a chance to understand a place. And I couldn’t stay too long because I needed to collect more and more experiences. It was like a mania. So my life became this painful equilibrium of staying just long enough to feel connected to the people who lived in a place, and then as soon as that happened, as soon as I felt like I’d made these deep connections, it was time to go. Honestly the whole thing was exhausting for my soul, or whatever you want to call it.”

“I’m sorry, Asher. That sounds draining and depressing.”

“Don’t feel too sorry for me now!” Asher said, perking up, “I did see about 30 countries and met thousands of incredible people, so I can’t complain! Just the complaints of a poor, self-absorbed bourgeoisie with too much time to think.”

“What are your plans, then? Any idea where you’ll settle? From your story, that seems like what you’ve decided on, right?”

“I’ll have to see what’s in the cards, but my immediate plans involve hanging out with you. We can get that old Room 436 creative synergy flowing again!”

“That’s a lovely idea! There are so many projects I wanted to work on, but nothing ever felt the same without you.”

“I know how you feel. In all of those adventures, after each one I always thought about how much I wished you were there with me.”

“But now I am.”

“As long as we’re on the topic of projects, why don’t we start a media company? Right now! I have the whole thing planned out. We can purchase a domain and start in with initial teaser advertisements. It can be really small and direct at first, with just the two of us as writers. There’s nothing out there like that right now; as in nothing entirely issue and philosophy based with two of our generation’s greatest minds working with substantial financial backing!”

“I am so on board with that. I…” Raymond was interrupted by the vibration of his cracked cellular telephone.

“It’s Nico! I’m sorry, just a moment.”

He darted out of the room to take the call, leaving Asher to smile and begin preparing their new venture.

[1] Trotsky University had recently changed its name from Che Guevera University, which itself had been a change from John Lenin University. The frequent name changes were directly related to the school charter’s unique rule stating that the student body possessed ultimate authority and could collectively decide on anything they wished to implement with a simple majority vote during the student elections each spring. This rule gave the school a reputation for possessing one of the more colorful campuses in the country, with university buildings being repainted nearly every year in highly vivid, often clashing, tones and patterns.

[2] The unfortunately named building was changed to Mary Shelley Hall their Junior Year after a vigorous campaign by the residents of the building. However, it was changed again the following year, much to the displeasure of its inhabitants, to Cock-Mongler Ranch after an unprecedented political effort from TU’s lone fraternity, Alpha Sigma Sigma.

[3] As Asher pointed out while attempting to cheer Raymond up, the review didn’t focus on the idea or philosophy, but rather on his use of children between the ages of seven and ten, whom Raymond had become acquainted with at a local tutoring and mentoring center. The review’s main argument was that Raymond hadn’t received permission from the children’s parents, and that the event was held during hours the kids were supposed to be studying rather than hanging from a cross, ostensibly sans flash cards.

[4] From the Trotsky Times’ review of the Death is the Opiate of the Masses performance at the Grotto; an event Asher had engineered as a surprise for Raymond’s 21st birthday.

[5] The pseudonym/deity-handle he used throughout each of these scenarios was always Jay Orpheus.

The Pile – Chapter Three

By the time Nico called Raymond, exactly one month after Mr. Squidge’s blue period, his goal was well over half complete. The bleak grayness that infected the soul of society following the holiday season had done nothing to diminish Raymond’s upbeat outlook, bolstered by his single-minded determination to complete his work, send it off to a publisher, and promptly take his own life. His plans and financial situation demanded he continue his daily trudge to the mental asylum, using hours in-between dutifully changing bedpans to furiously scribble in his notebook. After completing each shift, he would journey home and compile his ravings into a palatable narrative.

The encounter with Nico Leftiè was slipping away like a nightmare unraveling as the conscious mind remembers it’s supposed to control the waking world. When Raymond heard her voice on the other end announcing itself as Ms. Leftiè, the plunge back into the void proved traumatic. However, it also the seeded growth for a naïve hope, which fiercely flung itself into battle against his fear, ensuring a scenario of Mutually Assured Destruction for his psyche.

“Mr. Clock, this is Nico Leftiè. I would like to meet to discuss your idea. When are you available?”

Raymond hesitated, unsure if this was his actual reality or just another in the hundreds of moments he’d imagined Nico saying just that. Deciding that this was most likely really reality because he distinctly remembered eating apple-cinnamon granola that morning and breakfast had never played a role in any of his fantasies before, he replied.

“Hello, Ms. Leftiè, it’s a pleasure to hear from you. I am available any day after 4pm.”

“Good. Let’s meet today at 6. Where do you prefer?”

“Oh, yes that works,” Raymond stalled, panicking slightly at the sudden requirement to think of a suitable place to encounter her overwhelming force. There was no time to carefully consider and vet his options, so he chose something both safe and familiar. “Let’s meet at the Busboy’s and Poets just off U Street. Is that acceptable?”

“Perfect. I’ll see you there at 6.”

She hung up.

Delirious, and with hope steadily taking the high ground, Raymond began to prepare.

He finally chose his outfit after cycling through every bit of clothing in his closet. Under normal circumstances Raymond would make a selection from one of three predominant styles[1] according to his mood, his projected surroundings, and the image he wished to instill in the minds of those he would likely encounter throughout his day. This was a special situation, however, and required special consideration.

Costume in place, he sat down to write to condense the hours that existed between now and Nico. Though he spent nearly twenty-three-and-a-half-minutes valiantly attempting to produce his usual brilliance, his mind, normally an unfettered source of creative material, was entirely unable to put even the simplest thought down on paper.  Reaching the limit of tolerable frustration, Raymond put his novel aside and decided to instead walk the distance to U Street to pass the time.

Prior to the Nico affair, one of Raymond’s favorite activities had been strolling through the streets of his city with a hot cup of coffee in his black-leather encased hand from which he would occasionally sip. Music piped into his brain served as both a barrier distancing him from the world and an inspirational soundtrack for his wanderings[2].

Casually walking down New Hampshire Avenue towards Dupont Circle, Raymond wondered whether a move was just what he needed. It was probably about time, he thought to himself, as it was only when he’d exhausted his interest in exploring side streets that he would ever stoop to taking a mainstream route like New Hampshire Avenue. Maybe this city was spent for him and a fresh start in an unfamiliar place would renew his joie de vivre. But he reminded himself he’d be committing suicide soon and the time consuming logistical tasks involved in a major inter-city transfer would most certainly delay his planned execution.

As he walked, Raymond noticed his environment seemed more defined than usual; clearer. The air was brisk but not biting, and the waning light of the approaching evening glistened on the surface of the westerly oriented structures lining his path. During these golden moments, the world adopted an ethereal radiance with the power to flood the underdeveloped sensory organ of any human being unfortunate enough to stop and notice. This poor soul must then contend with the unfathomable sensation of unadulterated and devastating transient beauty that passed the enthralled witness with no regard for their yearning to embrace and possess.

Raymond wished he’d remembered his camera. He forgave his mistake with the knowledge that forgetting his camera meant he wholly understood the truly temporal nature of beauty and thus preserved the meaning of this beauty in its natural form. Rather than muddy the experience attempting to capture and commoditize the visceral splendor, Raymond could take in the full depth of the aesthetic event[3].

He arrived at Busboy’s and Poets thirty minutes early, immersed in thought. His premature arrival provided ample time to arrange the environment to work in his favor during this crucial summit. Now that he was here, he was rather pleased with his quick thinking in the selection of this location; there wasn’t another spot in the city where he felt more comfortable or naturally at ease. The establishment served as an all-in-one liberal-hipster stronghold, with a well-stocked, politically-focused bookstore, a screen for movie nights, a stage for live bands and poetry readings, and a vegan-friendly menu.  Having previously served on the staff, Raymond knew the majority of the servers by name, which helped increase his confidence significantly. On a sudden, inspired impulse, he decided to purchase Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed from the café’s store, a book he already owned but did not physically possess[4]. In Raymond’s mind, having the book on hand, just in case it came up during any possible conversation with Nico, certainly couldn’t hurt.

His unexpected purchase left him with less than ten minutes to strategically position himself for Nico’s arrival. His goal was to project a calm, detached posture; one not indicative of his eager anticipation of her arrival, but not entirely indifferent either. After cycling through a number of candidates, Raymond decided to go with leaning his shoulder on a light pole with his arms and legs crossed while watching the clouds drift over the dying embers of the late-evening sun.

Time Passed.

Raymond believed it was now past the proposed 6pm meeting time, but was not sure. He feared if Nico saw him look at his watch as she approached, she’d consider him impatient.

In a calculated risk, Raymond reached into his pocket to retrieve his cellular telephone, the only time-keeping device on his person. His grip, however, was not as firm as it should have been and as he withdrew the small machine with his usual stylized gesture, it slipped from his grasp and soared through the air, landing on the sidewalk precisely one meter to the northeast. His fight or flight instincts immediately seized control of his brain functions, and his first impulse was to cut his losses and beat a hasty retreat back home, leaving the object where it had fallen. He battled this idea with the belief that the situation could be salvaged if he acted with decisive haste.

As scurried across the immeasurable distance and bent to retrieve his phone, a recognizable voice immediately filled him with dread, “This seems to be a motif running through our meetings, Mr. Clock.”

Momentarily frozen by the shock he felt at being caught outside his planned posture, Raymond remained stooped with his fingers mere centimeters away from the surface of the now cracked casing.

“Is that yours?”

Raymond looked at his phone and replied, “No, it isn’t,” then hesitated, calculated, and corrected himself, “Or, I mean yes, this is my mine. I dropped it just a moment ago.” At that, he picked up the shattered device and hastily shoved the shards into his pocket.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m not sure of anything.”

“You seem sure of yourself when it comes to selling your idea to me.”

Raymond sighed, “That’s one of the things I’m the least sure about, but I think what I’m doing is right. Or, not right as in good and evil, just… it’s what the person I want to be would do.”

Nico paused to consider, “Who do you want to be, Mr. Clock?”

“To be frank, I’m not sure. It kind of fluctuates. But I know what I respect and what I think I should respect. So I guess I want to be the type of person the type of person I want to be would respect. Does that make sense?”

“Well, it’s a little convoluted and navel-gazing, but I like it.”

Raymond’s soul swelled in his body. He didn’t know what he was doing and wasn’t following any plan or set strategy of engagement, but she’d said she liked something he’d said. He supposed he should continue making things up based on what she said and how he felt about it rather than trying to follow his script.

“I’m glad then. I don’t really know a way to live that lacks convolution and the incessant gazing of navels. But, you know, it’s the idea of knowing yourself so that you can know exactly how you can best affect the surrounding world, right?”

She responded placidly, “I agree with you, Raymond, we all have weaknesses we have to quantify and keep in check.”

The use of his first name by Nico Leftiè catalyzed a series of electrical signals firing throughout his brain in an increasingly powerful chain reaction that eventually reached the tip of each appendage. Raymond felt this sensation was so overwhelming he would suffocate from the uncontrollable and choking excitement welling up within his breast. He tried very hard to mask his emotions.

“I think one of my weaknesses might be finding the act of standing outside in sub-freezing temperatures not particularly enjoyable, so maybe it might be possible to discuss my impressive and substantial list of other weaknesses indoors?”

“That’s the second good idea you’ve had. After you, Mr. Clock.”

As they approached the entrance to Busboy’s and Poets together, Raymond considered the door conundrum. He dearly wished to demonstrate his manners and good graces, but he was afraid if he opened the door for her, Nico would consider him chauvinistic for infantilizing her by stripping of her equality in the name of an antiquated system based on outmoded gender roles.  Thinking quickly, Raymond decided to open the door for her while stating, “I am opening the door for a human being I respect and would like to be polite towards. I do not mean or intend to degrade your status as an equal through this act, as it has nothing to do with gender. However if you feel degraded in any way, I do apologize and hope you take my intentions into account.”

Nico looked at him in a shocked bewilderment that swiftly transformed into appreciative bemusement as she realized what he meant. “That’s kind of you Mr. Clock, but aren’t you just saying that to convince me of your feminist credentials as you strip me of my humanity?”

“That’s definitely a possibility; while I’d like to think of myself as self-aware enough to notice something like that; I could very easily be a subconscious sexist. I promise I’ll try hard to not do anything that might strip you of your equality or humanity, but please let me know if you feel I’ve violated this at all and I’ll correct myself. I can’t swear that I’ll not make any mistakes. I am a member of the historical oppressor class, but I do swear to work to get better through those mistakes.”

Taken aback by the adamant sincerity of his tone and the sheer length of the apology he delivered as she stood in the open door of the café, Nico replied as she walked inside, “I was actually joking, but thank you for saying that. Just try to dial down the intensity. It can feel a bit overwhelming. “

Walking in after her, Raymond joked, “Right. Well I guess you know another weakness. Anyways I’ll do my best, though I admit I enjoy living intensely.”

They made their way to the host podium. The man there recognized Raymond with a brief nod of acknowledgement and was about to take them to their table when Raymond loudly declared, “Sisyphus, party of 2.”

“Yes…Hi, Raymond. I know. Follow me.”

“Sisyphus? Really? Is this level of pretension like an everyday thing for you, or is this like a special occasion because I’m here?”

Embarrassed by his misstep, Raymond muttered back, “Ahh, I just kind of…well, I mean, what I want to say is: do you know The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus?”

“Yes, of course, and he’s an existential hero and all that. It’s wonderful and meaningful and important literature. But aren’t you trivializing it by using it in the same way you would use some dumb pop-culture reference? If you want to talk about it, let’s talk about it like adults. I don’t really care about the bumper stickers you paste all over yourself to project some ideal image of how you want to be seen.”

They sat down in the corner booth Raymond had specifically reserved for its secluded position and relative privacy. He was both terrified and exhilarated by what Nico had just said. She could see through his pretension! All the smoke and mirrors he used to construct his characters were useless with her. This discovery awoke within him a terrifying but liberating freedom. It was new, and for that he reveled in it.

“That’s a good point. I think the problem is I know love is dependent on chance and luck. Oh, sorry Christian, I’ll just have water if that’s ok?” Raymond said, turning from Nico to the impatiently waiting waiter.

“Water is fine for me as well.” Nico said before turning back to Raymond. “I’m confused as to how the probability of love is related to you appropriating works of art as accessories.”

“Ahh…well that’s the frustration! These things, like Camus and Paulo Freire,” He motioned to the book he’d placed on the table, “Are incredibly important and meaningful to me, but I’ve no idea how to adequately express that in a pithy statement. Finding love, or someone I have the ability to love who also loves me, is extremely rare, I know that. The only way I can think to increase my chances of finding a person like that is to telegraph my taste and worldview as blatantly as possible, so I’ve accepted acts like blaring music as I drive around with my windows rolled down, ostentatiously holding meaningful books I’m reading, and blasting serious thoughts and opinions across the channels of social media as necessary evils in my desperate gambit to connect with other people.”

“But don’t you think the type of person you’d be attracted to wouldn’t be attracted to someone who does all those things?” Nico queried.

“Hmm, perhaps. But then what do I do? I’m constantly haunted by lost opportunities. I could risk not mentioning my love of Fritz Lang, but what if someone around me really loves Fritz Lang too and that’s the launching point for a relationship that will change my life? I have to go to every event and take every possible chance just to increase the probability that I’ll meet someone who sees the way the world works in a way that’s similar to me.”

“Do you really feel so misunderstood and exceptional?”

“Yes! Absolutely! I hope everyone feels misunderstood and exceptional, because they are. It’s impossible for me to understand the world from your exact perspective, and you can’t understand it from my exact perspective. I mean, it might even be impossible to understand the world from your own exact perspective! But we spend our entire lives trying to interact with ourselves and everyone around us. Sometimes it’s horribly difficult to empathize with other human beings, so we get angry at one another when we feel this intolerable friction between opposing ideas. From this we get hate and conflict, right? Okay, but on the other side, and I think this is ridiculously rare, you find a person whose worldview and perspective you can almost completely empathize with, meaning you can, for the first time in your entire existence, feel like you’re not alone and that another human being actually has a chance at understanding you.”

Throughout his wild gesticulating and fervent rhetoric, Nico was amazed to note that he actually seemed to believe in this simplistic and naïve view of humanity. She felt a twinge of jealousy at the lofty heights to which his passion seemed to ascend, misguided though it may be. For a moment she even felt slightly uplifted. Despite the fleetingly breathtaking nature and style of his speech and subject, such nonsense was soon halted by her intellect.

“Mr. Clock, you’re inspiring. But you’re wrong. I’m sorry that you’re lonely, but the world is not some simple dichotomy where you connect to like-minded human beings through empathy and where a lack of empathy causes all conflict. Every situation is infinitely nuanced and unique. Empathy might be important, but it isn’t the only thing.”

“I…agree, but only from a certain perspective; the world is far more complicated than I’m making it out to be. But I feel that sometimes we have to focus on a single, simple idea if we’re ever going to achieve any measure of happiness. Every thought I have has an additional thought analyzing the thinking of that first thought. These layers of complexity might be the most honest or realistic, but I don’t think they leave any room for experiencing real emotions.”

Nico looked at Raymond with a steady, thoughtful gaze before carefully phrasing her next words.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about for myself. I have a sensory deprivation tank I use and…”

“Sensory deprivation!?”

“Yes, I…well it’s just for my personal use.”

“What happens when you deprive your senses?”

“Your brain creates a new reality where you get to choose which parts of your experiences and beliefs you want to include.”

“That…sounds terrifying.”

“Only if you’re terrified of what’s in your brain.”

“Layers of complexity cloaking my reality?”

“Constructs we’ve created to serve as a narrative.”

“What’s the narrative?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. We create structures to encase our souls and serve as the false edifice of our being. We pursue ideal states of what we feel we’re required to be if we’re going to be judged in ways we’ve been indoctrinated to deem as acceptable. The only sincerities we allow ourselves are the small doses prescribed as inoculants against appraisals finding us ‘uncaring,’ ‘pretentious,’ or even ‘sociopathic.’ But how are we who wield sincerity as a defense not sociopaths? How could we even conceive of not toiling to craft our desired image in the mind of the world; consciously choosing to present what’s under that veneer, a life of lattices and bulwarks we constructed to prevent reality from ever touching us? With our entire existence entrenched in this self-deception, what is even the initial step we might take to recognize what we are? If what we’ve created is an existence where we can still feel a facsimile of happiness, though filtered through the guises we’ve adopted, why is that not good enough? Though they’re only imitations of emotions, they’re still fluctuations in the middling hum of banality present during every other moment we experience. So then, if we’re to strip away our protections, are the real, full, and robust emotions we might potentially achieve vastly superior? I have no idea; I’ve never been in that situation and know of no one who has. So then why even take a chance on that unknown reward? Sometimes I think suicide is the only ‘real’ act, but even the decision to commit suicide is impossible to uncouple from our Golem, freeing us from the influence of the narratives that guide our lives. And so suicide instead serves as the ultimate absurdity; an existential insult to the concept of sincerity. The world we’ve created is the world we deserve, inane and mediocre.”

“I know.” Raymond admitted after the seeming-eternity of silence following Nico’s calm and measured diatribe, during which the surly waiter had brought their waters and left again without taking their orders after it became obvious they’d failed to notice him.  “But why can’t we at least try to transcend that trap, escape the inanity? Maybe it’s impossible, but I see less of a point in not trying than I do in making the effort. For me, it all comes back to Sisyphus. I believe it’s possible to recognize the hopelessness of our meaningless fate while still holding out hope that maybe, somehow, there’s still a way to understand ourselves, feel connected to others, and learn how to give our lives some type of meaning. Only we have to keep trying, even if we know it’s almost certain we’ll fail.”

“Are you a religious person?” she asked, shifting tones.

“No, actually I’m fairly anti-religious.” he responded with startled bewilderment. “Why, are you?”

“Definitely not. I was wondering because your level of faith is astounding. You speak of ‘transcendence’ and ‘meaning’ with all the zeal of the most ardent religious fanatics. Do you have room for doubt?”

He laughed with relief, “Of course! I’m nothing without my doubt! I would never say or think I’m totally right; in reality I have no idea. But I want to think this way because it inspires me to accomplish and achieve slightly more than deciding the universe is cold and dead and that maybe I should try to fit in.”

“I guess I see your point.”

“So why don’t you commit suicide?” Raymond asked abruptly.

“That’s an extremely personal question…”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to ask something you consider off-limits. But you already mentioned suicide, so I thought it was fair game. I completely understand if it’s too sensitive.”

Nico calmed herself and reconsidered, “No, it’s fine. I don’t think anything should be off-limits in a quality conversation; you just caught me off-guard. I’ve never discussed this subject with another human being, so I feel inexperienced.”

Raymond’s joy reached new heights upon hearing this revelation.

She continued, “Anyway, I don’t commit suicide because I find no pleasure in the idea of nothingness. While I agree life is full of misery, I don’t see it as a ledger with a column for pleasure and a column for suffering weighed against one another to derive net happiness or pain. I think they’re different subjects altogether. Experiencing suffering doesn’t diminish my capacity for pleasure and pleasurable activities have very little effect on that which causes me suffering. So of course I prefer to maximize the happiness in my life, but even if my entire existence only contained one pleasurable moment, I would still desire to experience the whole thing. One moment of pleasure is infinitely greater than the nothingness found in death.”

Raymond openly gawped at her words, “Th-that’s an amazing perspective!” he stammered, “I’ve never thought about suicide on those terms. I’ve always found the nothingness of death preferable to the net unhappiness and suffering we experience in life.”

“So then why are you still alive?” she asked curiously.

“I feel an obligation to humanity to accomplish something before I earn the right to die.”

“Why do you feel obligations in an existence you believe is meaningless? And what do you want to accomplish?”

“To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve just had this burning desire to do ‘something’ my entire life. You know, I’m actually pretty curious about it myself.”

“So what you’re saying is you consider life too horrible to continue, but before you kill yourself to escape you have to accomplish ‘something,’ and you have no idea what it is?”

“In a nutshell, I suppose that’s about right,”

“That must be infuriating! What an absurd way to live!”

“It works for me.”

“Oh, of course it does. I just find it extraordinarily entertaining. You’re ridiculous, but you’re an interesting person to talk to, Mr. Clock.”

“Well, I do my best.” he replied,

“Has our waiter given up on us?” Nico asked, noticing it had been a significant length of time since the perturbed service industry professional had graced their table with his presence. “Though to be perfectly honest, I’m not actually even hungry. I ate just before I came.”

“What? Why?” Raymond immediately panicked.

“Well, I thought this would be a very short meeting. I never assume competence on the part of potential conversation partners, so if I turn out to be wrong, it’s a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately surprises often put me behind schedule.”

“Well I apologize profusely for being worth your time; I assure you it’s taking a great deal of effort.”

“I appreciate your exertions on my behalf. However, if neither of us is going to eat, it’s time for us to leave. Unless you’d rather we stay and you eat while I talk about business?”

Raymond, famished, replied swiftly, “Oh no, let’s walk and discuss. I’m sure it’d be a more efficient use of your time.”

“Shall we leave a tip?” she wondered as she peered at Christian, who was frantically rushing from table to table, “I feel bad for wasting his time.”

“Umm…I don’t know. If it were anyone else, then yes. But Christian’s prideful to the extreme. He might look at it as charity or us trying to purchase his forgiveness for being horrible customers.” Raymond contemplated, his eyes following the stern man darting about the room.

“I guess I’ll have to make it too nice an offer to turn down.” she said confidently, and proceeded to take $200 out of her custom-made $50,000 handbag.

Raymond glanced nervously at Christian as Nico placed the money on the table. “Alright then, let’s go.”

They stood up and slunk towards the heavy doors. Before they could make their escape however, an irate Christian could be heard shouting behind them. They turned around to see him standing with the money held contemptuously in his clenched fist.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, you left your cash at the table.” he said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, no. That wasn’t an accident. That was your tip for being patient with us.” Nico said cheerfully, beaming a radiant smile in his direction.

Her light was absorbed in the singularity of his expression, “Thank you, but I do not accept charity.” He handed the money back to her and returned to attending his tables.

“What an odd person!” Nico goggled as they opened the door to be greeted by the cold evening air.

“I don’t know about that. I think I can understand his point of view.” Raymond said, thoughtfully.

“I’m sure you could.” Nico responded testily.

“Anyway, where are we going?” he asked quickly, attempting to avoid spoiling the genial mood.

“I’m headed to the Georgetown LLS; that’s near your place, right?”

“Very close, definitely.” he continued excitedly, “I’ll show you my favorite route! You’ll have to trust me on its quality though; it isn’t exactly direct.”

“Fine, fine,” she replied with feigned indifference.

The well-coiffed young pair meandered through the dreary January streets of Washington D.C. discussing their respective interests, ideas that inspired them, and worldviews. With every new topic in which they found themselves of one mind, Nico and Raymond felt as if they’d forged another link binding them to one another. Their deeply entrenched natural defenses slowly eroded. This connection didn’t grow by discovering a mutual passion for Russian literature, Swedish art house cinema, and, of course, French existentialist philosophy; it grew because they were talking to someone who didn’t make them feel like their brain was too much to handle for desiring to discuss Russian literature, Swedish art house cinema, and, of course, French existentialist philosophy.

When the Vice President of Howard University’s Young Republicans, Greg “Jasper” Johnson, and his domesticated date, the always pleasant Cheryl Merryface, passed Nico and Raymond at the intersection of Q and 15th and overheard Nico remark, “Well if you look at the use of shadows in The Seventh Seal and take it as an allegory for the oppressive and haunting dehumanization of modern capitalist systems, I think you’ve got a powerful new interpretation of Bergman’s work” and Raymond’s enthusiastic reply of “That reminds me of Upton Sinclair’s use of existential malaise as a central motif in The Jungle!”, the self-assured couple burst into fits of properly stifled, mocking laughter. Nico and Raymond, for their part, took one look at the living Brooks Brothers mannequin and his Stockholm Symptomatic companion and began giggling at the encounter. After recovering, they delved into a serious discussion on issues involving historical racial and gender privilege and its effects on human development.

“We’re just a bunch of aquatic apes in the end anyways.”

“Well you know what they say about aquatic apes!”

“No, what do they say about aquatic apes?”

“I’m not sure actually, probably something about how we should all be pescatarian.”

“That sounds accurate. Though I think if humans all switched to eating only fish meat the oceans would empty almost immediately. Sustainability isn’t our strength.”

“The great human tragedy: our ability to imagine a better world while also knowing that world is impossible entirely because of our inability to overcome our own weaknesses.”

“You’re pretty obsessed with human weaknesses.”

“What can I say, I’ve got a weakness for weaknesses!”

At this precise moment in their journey, a strong sexual desire towards Raymond Clock crept into Nico’s mind. Raymond prattled on about the oppressors and the oppressed, occasionally reading directly from specific passages in his recently purchased book as they neared his home, completely oblivious to this new development.

Their expedition came to a halt in front of the chipped stone steps leading to Raymond’s humble townhouse. Raymond had just finished a fiery diatribe on the small-mindedness of believing in a white race, leaving the two stranded in silence.

“Well thank you for dinner, though I suppose we didn’t actually eat anything.” Raymond said.

“We didn’t get a chance to discuss our business. So, I’ll call you soon to set up a time and place to do so.” Nico said, with a tone of finality she regretted. As she turned to leave, Raymond burst out with a shout.

“Would you mind if I kissed you!?”

“No…I mean, Yes, I might. Or, no, I don’t mind but I don’t think we should. That doesn’t mean I would find it unpleasant, I just think it’s an inappropriate moment and place,”

Raymond felt an extreme ambivalence sweep through him. Though he was embarrassed, he worried she might possibly believe he was only interested in her for physical or sexual pursuits. He steeled himself and said, as lightly as possible, “Oh, I’m sorry, and yeah, I think you’re right. Besides, I think I’m too hungry at this point to be in proper kissing condition anyways. Unless you like the taste of bile or something.” He grimaced at his own words, but soldiered on, “Just, the thought suddenly struck me and I asked before I really analyzed the full consequences.”

“Are you really that hungry? I’m sorry we didn’t eat anything at the restaurant.” she said sympathetically, happy to have something else to talk about.

“Oh, no, no, it’s completely fine. I’ve felt nothing but happiness since we first started talking. Or…to be completely honest I did feel a bit of hunger as well, but I promise it’s like 99% happiness and 1% hunger.”

Nico narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing him closely as she chose her next words with extreme prejudice, “I’d like to sleep with you, Mr. Clock.”

Raymond’s mind stumbled, twisting over itself, entangled in confusion, overwhelming joy, terror, suspicion, disbelief, hunger, and curiosity. The equivalent of years passed in his brain before he could utter a sensible phrase, resorting to an old stock idea he’d previously used whenever he was unsure but wanted to appear aloof and mysterious.

“Well, ma’am, as much as I’d enjoy sleeping with you, I’m pretty strict about that. I think delayed pleasure is the best sort of pleasure possible. I guess you could call me a pleasure-delayer.”

She looked at him strangely and asked, “Did you steal that from that movie Vanilla Sky?”

Raymond was caught off-guard, so he responded instinctually with his natural defense against a perceived existential threat, “Actually it’s originally from Abre los Ojos by Alejandro Amenábar, which I think is the better film and one in an incredibly long line of foreign movies Hollywood unnecessarily remade to cater to low-brow American taste.”

“You’re an idiot, Raymond.” Nico intoned, gazing at him with an ambiguity that made Lisa del Giocondo positively transparent.

“I…well, I know…” He muttered as she seized his waistcoat and pressed her lips to his.

 

[1] For formal events, or whenever he required an extra dose of bravery, Raymond would don a bespoke three-piece suit. The prototypical version was black with a matching tie, though he occasionally experimented with gray accompanied by a robin’s-egg blue tie he believed complimented his sky-blue eyes. The suited version of Raymond Clock helped him feel separate and superior to his surroundings, particularly when worn to the dingy music venues he frequented. This outfit effectively softened his acute insecurities.

His second motif was that of a modish, well-coiffed intellectual. When he initially discovered this incarnation, he limited his wardrobe to dark colors and simple patterns. However, as he gained confidence in this character, his color palette branched out. A typical outfit included dark blue slacks, a gray waistcoat, a thin, bright red tie, and one of his two-dozen white dress-shirts. Though he eschewed the idea of gender roles, Raymond felt extremely masculine every time he bought one his high-quality white dress shirts. They reminded him of the patriarchal 1950s- era businessmen whose politics he despised but style he greatly admired. This was the configuration he preferred whenever he desired a large amount of positive attention, and so it had become his default design. Many of the interesting characters he’d met during his life were encountered through his patented method of standing around and looking different in public. Unfortunately, due to his inability to live up to the sophistication his clothing implied, none of these interactions had ever resulted in the development of a personal relationship. His conversation partners were often left with feelings of disappointment and regret after engaging this nice-looking man who, once approached, seemed too surprised to form a coherent string of thoughts beyond a few obviously well-rehearsed anecdotes.

His final manifestation was the uniform of what he liked to call “the quintessential indie fuck.” These garish, revealing, and often outlandish articles of clothing were worn on the rare occasion Raymond felt defiantly different and wanted to push the boundaries of people around him. They consisted of too-tight, brightly colored deep v-necks, multi-colored keffiyehs, large, obnoxious sunglasses, and overly tight skinny jeans. Raymond’s favored pair of jeans were the centerpiece of his outfit. They were stained in strategic areas with paint from a music venue Raymond had helped his friends run during college. The paint was a conversation starter and gave him a remarkably natural platform from which to launch into stories describing how he’d hosted now-national acts back when they could barely draw a crowd he could count on his fingers. Though these conversations also never resulted in a meaningful relationship, Raymond was content with knowing people thought he was cool.

For his important meeting with Nico, Raymond felt the well-coiffed intellectual look would strike the correct tone. He was looking forward to speaking to her in person while wearing his own clothing, a distinct regret from their first encounter he wanted to rectify.

[2] Coupled with a highly prized natural sense of direction, his penchant for meandering through urban areas meant that whenever he visited or moved to a new city, Raymond had a remarkable talent for quickly integrating the layout of the surrounding terrain into his personal knowledge base. This was something he took great pride in. Nothing made him glow more than moving to a new city, intimately learning the urban blueprint, and impressing the natives with his newfound familiarity. “You’ve only been here for a month!?” was the phrase he aimed for, though, “I can’t believe you know about this place!” and, “Wow, I’ve lived here my whole life and didn’t even know this existed!” were acceptable alternatives. The immensity of the happiness utility he derived from becoming an impressive urban expert meant he could never remain satisfied while living in one place for very long. He would ride out this heady high of praise from local natives for approximately two years, after which the adulations ceased and his special knowledge became less extraordinary. Whenever this happened, he knew it was time to move on.

[3] During these primal moments Raymond would cease all activity and psychologically caress the emulsive supremacy of refracted photons. He fought off labels and struggled to experience the moment with a purely sensually attuned mind. However, his need for validation through intellectual justification meant he always failed.

[4] He’d lent his copy to a past romantic interest who’d failed to return the book when she failed to return his calls.

The Pile – Chapter Two

In the days following his initial encounter with Nico, Raymond found himself crushed under the weight of an unshakable malaise. His thoughts were consumed with memories of those few seconds during which he believed his wait for salvation was over. He compared it to how the Jewish nation must have felt after the Jesus Christ debacle. He had major messiah blue balls.

In his mind, Raymond clearly understood that hard work and luck, along with hundreds of other unique, situation-dependent variables, were essential in creating the life he wanted. He was very practical in this regard. Less clear, however, was the origin of his faith that once he checked off the boxes he’d defined as his path to happiness and success, he would invariably achieve his desired end state.  His ability to focus solely on action, and a conviction that that action would always produce the hoped for outcome, was the prime mover in his headlong rush through life. According to Raymond, as long as he stayed active, he would be successful.

Thus far, his life had attained a moderate level of success. In addition to his job as a mental asylum orderly, Raymond wrote for an online newspaper called Mudsling Nation. The publication’s stated focus was to expose the institutional corruption running rampant throughout the nation’s bureaucratic infrastructure. However, after a weak initial public offering six months prior, the journal’s need for click-generated ad revenue prompted a minor shift in the site’s focus; namely away from governmental corruption and towards celebrity sex tapes. Raymond, who’d previously felt immensely proud to mention to acquaintances that he was well into his fourth year as an unpaid intern, was increasingly embarrassed with this particular association. Unfortunately, with the sorry state of the news industry, an equally prestigious unpaid internship was impossible to find anywhere else.

Whenever he took a break from searching for famous flesh, Raymond built his reputation as a fearless crusader against entrenched political interests, bravely exposing corrupt practices and moral failings wherever he found them. When engaged in this specific pursuit he felt a pseudonym[1] was prudent, as he feared future reprisals from traditional powers he wished to one day join. His ultimate career goal was to achieve a level of conventional power and influence that would allow him to enact the radical changes he fervently believed human systems for power distribution required. To reach this position, however, Raymond knew he had to keep his head down and play the institutional game. Though he feared being viewed as a shill or sell-out, he believed it was the only way to initiate a systemic revolution. In this he considered himself a type of martyr; sacrificing his dearly held personal principles for the greater good of the future of humanity.

The majority of Raymond’s life was spent in motion, probing the imposing battlements of his definition of success for a reasonable avenue of approach. During the brief hours in which he ceased moving, his thoughts would catch up to their source and overwhelm him. During these still moments he’d find himself dragged into the quicksand of his unhappy mind. So he kept moving, lest he bury himself under a mountain of self-doubt.

Usually when Raymond felt depressed he’d admit his depression, identify the root, and then contextualize[2] it out of existence. How dare he, a privileged white male and card-carrying member of the historical oppressor class, pretend he had the right to suffer! This depression, any depression, was nothing but one more insult to every demographic his ancestors had repressed in order to place him on his undeserved pedestal in the global racial hierarchy. The pleasure he felt at being aware he was self-aware on this subject also greatly contributed to his ability to drag his mind out of its mire.

His typical anti-depression strategy, however, was proving less effective when applied to the Nico conundrum. Continuing to taint every possible solution was the nagging sensation of a lost raison d’être[3].

So, Raymond naturally asked, “Should I kill myself?” As with all decisions large and small, he systematically weighed the pros and the cons of the proposal and consulted with experts in the field. Of particular interest was Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which had been a favorite touchstone of his on the subject of death since childhood. Raymond felt thinking about suicide intensely connected his own suffering with the overarching anguish of humanity and projected the image of a deep, eternally suffering and sensitive person. Though it had always served as an essential feature of his constructed character, now the work had to function as more than a mere accessory. He clung to each word as a vital part of his shield against the rampaging desire to terminate his own life. Where he, Raymond, had struggled to logically justify not committing suicide, In Raymond’s interpretation, which he’d read online, Sisyphus, in his eternal labor with his absurd and impossible task, was a hero. Instead of allowing absurdity to defeat him, Raymond felt he must use it as a new reason to keep living. The more he struggled in his ultimately meaningless life, the more absurd his life would become. From a certain perspective, a perfectly absurd existence was a magnificent achievement.

After considering these lessons, Raymond decided to take a large number of prescription sleeping pills and drink a large amount of alcohol.

As far as he was aware, the only effect this had on his life was wasting twenty-two hours, during which he missed a public watch party for the finale of the only television show he watched with regularity[4]. He considered this highly regrettable.

Regardless of regret over missed opportunities, Raymond felt his induced rest had refreshed him enough to start rebuilding a lattice on which to fabricate a new track for his life. As he reflected on his previous mental orientation, he felt like a fool for allowing a fantasy dependent on a mystical other to serve as the locus for his being.

A week after meeting Nico Leftiè, Raymond Clock had undergone a radical transformation.

The centrifuge he used to separate life’s precipitate had been recalibrated. Though he was still unclear as to why he existed, he was reasonably comfortable with the idea that a new raison d’être would emerge in due time. His new motivation to participate in everyday actions now came from his desire to be prepared for whatever his new purpose might require him to be. This dramatically expanded the number of activities open to him. Instead of narrowly defining himself through his prestigious cultural interests, which he’d hoped would attract the mind of his savior, he was now able to pursue potentially useful skills such as computer repair, whittling, and kayaking.

With his new lease on life, it was now only on every third day that Raymond would arrive home from work or whittling or kayaking and sink back into depression. Rather than feel depressed about his depression, Raymond decided to enjoy the legitimate emotions he experienced during these moments spent in oblivion.  He was happy to be experiencing any sort of strong emotion, regardless of their positivity. According to Raymond’s new opinion, it might even be impossible to properly appreciate positive emotions without also knowing the intricacies of their antitheses. He thought of his depression as a valuable learning experience and potential benefit for his future happiness.

Two weeks after meeting Nico Leftiè, Raymond’s life was drastically altered once again when he received a visit from a man named Alistair Squidge.

The morning of Mr. Squidge’s visit, Raymond awoke to waiting arms of a familiar depression. A newly minted grizzled veteran of these emotional chasms, his pathos had been gristled and subsumed into a knotty growth of unwavering resolve. And so, in the course of action he knew as his best possible option, he gritted his teeth, dragged himself out of bed, tossed a Dave Brubeck recording onto his vintage phonograph, and put the kettle on. Making tea to Take Five on a Sunday morning while reading the latest New Yorker profile of a visionary Icelandic Economic Minister allowed Raymond a moment of succor. Moments where he controlled the variables of his existence momentarily enraptured him by feeling exactly like the person he wanted people to think he was. Grabbing his publication of choice and a cup of plum tea, he settled into his gorgeous Ligne Roset recliner, the only piece of furniture occupying his high-arched, burgundy-walled living room[5].

Raymond had barely finished the opening paragraph describing the crags of Dagbjört Baldursdóttir’s weathered features when Raymond noticed a prim tapping noise on his solid-wood front door. Annoyed, he opened the gateway into his life and very nearly slammed it back shut in the face of a powder-coated mystic standing on his stoop[6]. Before he could deliver his prepared excuse claiming he was in the middle of cooking an elaborate anniversary meal for his boyfriend who would be home any second, the grime-encrusted stranger brushed by Raymond, leaving a smear of green powder wherever he went. Confused but curious, Raymond inquired as to the man’s identity.

“You may address me as Alistair Squidge,” came the reply in a posh Oxbridge accent. “I assume you are Raymond Clock?”

Disoriented by the grand gulf suddenly opened between his expectations and reality, but not wishing to appear as if he’d stereotyped the person he’d just stereotyped, Raymond responded politely, “Yes sir, I’m Raymond Clock. May I query past your name, Mr. Squidge?”

“Certainly, Mr. Clock. I am a founding partner in the firm Squidge, Quaker, and Bunt, and lead counsel for Ms. Nico Leftiè.[7]

“Then I must assume Ms. Leftiè sent you to discuss the acquisition of my idea. Is that correct, Mr. Squidge?”

“Very astute, Mr. Clock.”

Under the layers of dirt, matted and tangled hair, Raymond could make out charcoal-black skin, a well-tailored dhoti, and lily-white Oxford shirt. The barrister was coated in a layer of green abir, some of which would escape from Mr. Squidge’s gravity whenever he moved, slowly floating to the ground and settling like a thin powdering of brightly colored snow[8].

“Well, if we are going to discuss business, I suppose it would be best if we sat down first. I apologize for making you stand around while I remember my manners. If you would, please follow me into my dining area. Do you take tea?”

Raymond immediately regretted his last sentence. Was it racist to offer tea to a British man? Or did it seem like he was overcompensating? Or as a British person who…

Before he could reach the bottom of his white-guilt death spiral, Mr. Squidge interrupted.

“Thank you for your kind offer, but that is entirely unnecessary. My instructions are simple. Ms. Leftiè is prepared to pay you $200,000 for the outright purchase of all rights associated with your “Dance Deprivation Location” idea. I have a contract here that I will leave for your review, though I recommend you assess the terms with your personal barristers. If you are sufficiently pleased, please contact my office directly and we shall complete the transaction. I do warn you, however; Ms. Leftiè is not to be trifled with over financial matters and this is a generous offer. I await your response.”

As Mr. Squidge turned to leave, Raymond responded through a cloud of green particles.

“I have your answer now, Mr. Squidge. As I told Ms. Leftiè during our meeting, the idea is free. It is hers if she wants it.”

Shaking with pride and self-satisfaction, he inhaled sharply to assist his self-control.

“I see. You are determined to refuse our offer and insist upon donating your idea?”

“I am and I do.”

“Ms. Leftiè foresaw this possibility and instructed me, in the case of both this specific refusal and this specific insistence, to increase our offer to $2 million. If you sign today, the money shall be yours tomorrow.”

Raymond was baffled by this new viridescent tact. As his mind explored possibilities, an answer presented itself: Nico was testing him. Perhaps he’d made some sort of impression on the indomitable Ms. Leftiè after all. Or, he reconsidered, maybe he was reading too much into this. Perhaps she was too proud to take the idea for free, or she didn’t want to feel like she owed anyone anything.

No matter the reason for the offer, he considered himself a man with firm principles. He’d never compromise himself for something as vulgar as money. The great benefit to never having very much money, in Raymond’s eyes, was the ease with which one could say and truly mean that they were above such petty things. That sense of moral superiority was worth far more to him than any amount of cash. In fact, the larger the sum he rejected, the greater his sense of pride in his own choice and disdain for those who might be tempted. And so he persisted in his refusal.

“I apologize for wasting your time, but either you take the idea for free or not at all. I will continue to refuse any amount offered.”

“Very well then. Good day, Mr. Clock,” sniffed the legal professional in a professional tone as he professionally stuffed six other contracts he’d slid out of his satchel back inside. He was soon gone, leaving an emerald trail lazily drifting in his wake.

Raymond closed the door and set about vigorously scrubbing his carpet.

As the next two weeks unfolded, Raymond alternated between two very distinct states. He found he was either manic, characterized by frequently roaming the streets of Georgetown at all hours in fevered desperation to find anything with a capacity to refurbish his passions; or gripped in lethargic depression, during which he would lie on his living room floor for sizeable segments of time staring at his ceiling while mentally poring over and rejecting every possible pursuit he could begin in the next five minutes.

No matter the particulars of the current condition of his mind, the unifying theme behind every thought was the ever-present spirit of Nico Leftiè. He repeatedly set himself to the task of repairing the philosophical bulwark that had been destroyed by Alistair Squidge’s visit, but his efforts were in vain. After observing how easily his internally-vaunted deep-thinking cerebrum was wrecked by an encounter with a mere proxy of Nico, he was forced to admit the irrationality behind rebuilding any new structure. A character flaw Raymond simply could not imagine letting himself tolerate was lying to himself. So he faced what he reckoned to be the truth with shoulders firmly squared.

This was an issue of emotions, which meant he would have to deal with it on an emotional level rather than mental. To have trouble controlling his emotions was outside his area of expertise, so he had to consult the authorities once again.

Raymond spent hours reviewing a range of modern literature discussing emotional regulation. Through his research, he found that these inappropriate and inconvenient feelings seemed to boil down to varying levels of serotonin and dopamine. If this turned out to be a chemical problem, conceivably a chemical cure might work as the best solution. To this end, Raymond made an appointment with a physician he’d seen previously[9] who also happened to frequently but subtly advertise her heavy investment in GlaxoSmithKline during her patients’ visits. Shockingly, when he spoke to her of his current mental state, he was prescribed Ezkalith CR.[10]

Taking this drug did infuse Raymond with an enhanced capacity for pleasure and a definite feeling of well-being. These initial positive sensations soon gave way to an intense desire for self-analysis. His typical level of happiness sans drug use, on the rare occasion he felt happy, was always thoroughly vetted and defensible. The existence of this artificial, unjustified emotion felt akin to a foreign army invading his psyche. The result of his experimentation with Ezkalith CR was acute paranoia of his own emotions and the psychological rejection of anything he deemed synthetic.

As he came down from the chemical compound in a muddle, the medicine had at least one positive net impact. The familiar buzz of his normal neurotic thoughts and a return to his usual low-level-but-intellectually-certifiable happiness, when stacked up against his recent discomfort, allowed for a favorable comparison. The sub-par happiness he was once again experiencing felt like a return home, which led to an increase in his perception of his overall level of relative happiness. Raymond was pleased with his improved condition and felt better equipped to regulate his periods of mania and depression.

This relative recovery was maintained until the day, precisely two weeks later, he received another knock on his door.

Other than his thick coat of purple abir, Alistair Squidge’s appearance was unchanged. He stepped into Raymond’s home with his distinctive professionalism.

“It is a pleasure to see you again Mr. Clock. Have you been keeping well?”

Raymond, initially surprised by the reappearance of the colorful Mr. Squidge, was annoyed. Though he was certain he’d made his position clear last time, it was not in him to be rude to a guest.

“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Squidge. Life has its ups and downs; one can only do their best to adapt.”

Mr. Squidge smiled and nodded sagely, “Very good, Mr. Clock. Now I do not wish to take up too much of your time, so I will be brief. Ms. Leftiè has sent me here to make you another offer.”

Raymond’s tolerance was tested. “I have already informed you that I will not accept any amount of money for this idea.”

“This offer is not monetary, Mr. Clock,” the lawyer replied.

“…Oh, I see…”

“Ms. Leftiè has secured for you, at great difficulty, a post as the American Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire. If you agree to our terms, you will begin your training at Foggy Bottom immediately.”

Raymond was stunned. A real ambassadorship? The maddeningly opaque hiring process at the United States Department of State had dashed his dreams for years. Every winter he’d take the Foreign Service Officer Test, pass, and submit his Personal Narrative. Every May, he’d receive the same letter thanking him for his efforts but informing him the Qualifications Evaluations Panel did not deem him sufficiently competent to move on to the Foreign Service Officer Oral Assessment. The dizzying hope that perpetually sprouted from his yearly congratulatory letter notifying him that he’d passed the written exam did nothing to alleviate the misery he endured on the subsequent rejection.

He was now presented with not just a station in the long-coveted organization, but a position of real, traditional power. He could finally take his proper place as his generation’s Talleyrand, with peaceful solutions to the world’s woes just a high-level engagement away. He could even do so without having to first slog through years of bureaucratic trenches, compromising every moral in pursuit of the greater good. Never in even his wildest fantasies had he imagined this scenario.

As his mind processed the possibilities, his thoughts continually foundered on one undeniable point: he’d sworn to give Nico this idea for free. He was now being asked to use it to purchase a future. No matter what rationalization he attempted to exploit in his efforts to surmount the wall of his doughty moral fortress, nothing could find a foothold.

“I am afraid my position remains the same, Mr. Squidge, The idea is not for sale or barter. It is a gift given freely, or not at all.”

“Ms. Leftiè is prepared to offer the ambassadorship to France in two years’ time when the current position is vacated.”

It took the concerted force of every brain cell believing in every principle he’d ever constructed to reject this offer. But he did it.

“Very well then. Good day to you, Mr. Clock.”

The lawyer left and Raymond began to rid his life of purple.

Raymond was disappointed he was unable to preserve either his mental or emotional resolve through this latest encounter. The moment he’d opened the door to Nico’s representative, the increase in happiness he’d felt since coming down from the lithium drained out of his body onto the plum-coated floor.

He’d tried and failed to construct both mental and emotional shelters in which to weather the storm created by his affection for Ms. Leftiè. For Raymond, it seemed a physical option was the obvious and only choice remaining to him. A cessation of all those pesky neurons firing all those negative signals through his highly sensitive dendrites would certainly result in a significant and sudden alteration in the way he felt. But that course was perhaps a bit too extreme. Perhaps a focus on exercise and healthy living might serve him better than a lobotomy.

Though Raymond was decidedly non-spiritual and miles removed from any sort of superstition, he did readily acknowledge the physical benefits inherent in certain practices rooted in mysticism, such as yoga. Coupled with the chance to clear his mind, the physical exertion involved in exercise-focused yoga had the effect of releasing chemicals similar to the ill-fated lithium carbonate. The difference, which made yoga preferable to drugs, was the happiness chemicals released during physical exertion were happiness chemicals he felt he deserved; happiness earned through anguished ligaments. The greater the suffering wreaked, the happier Raymond could justify feeling. Therefore he turned to Bikram Yoga in order to inflict the most egregious distress upon his person.

In preparation, he spent a few days researching the best studios in the Georgetown area. For his first lesson, he chose the third-highest rated company[11]. His plan was to start out at a sub-par studio where he could embarrass himself as a novice with fewer concerns than if he were at the top rated institution. As he improved, he would move on to the second-highest rated company[12]. This would increase his quality of instruction, but also continue to allow him to practice with a margin of error. Finally, when he had perfected his techniques, he would move on to the top-rated company[13]. There, he would claim he was a novice and then surprise the yogi with his seemingly natural abilities, causing a sensation. With this method he could receive both the exercise and attention he craved.

After settling on his plan, he purchased, with much deliberation on the color and its implications for his projected character, the necessary equipment from an accredited local yoga supply store, and headed to Phillip Morris Presents: The Seven Heavenly Gardens Yoga Experience.

The sweltering, softly lit Bikram studio was sparsely populated with sweating stereotypes. The scattered, multi-colored yoga mats were claimed by six Aphrodities and a single, pony-tailed Adonis. Two of the women were chatting with the preening man, who would occasionally toss back his hair as it crept over his shoulder while turning from one partner to the other. Distaste for the entire population occupying the room immediately overwhelmed him, but Raymond worked to suppress this feeling, which, incidentally, allowed him to believe he was both open-minded and charitable.

Raymond set up camp in the back of the room to appear aloof and mysterious. While doing so, he made the unfortunate mistake of peering in the direction of the conversationalists, catching the eye of the male participant. Though he felt rude for admitting he believed so, Raymond was sure the man was the definition of a strutting jackass. The jackass smiled and excused himself from his companions, who looked after him with a disappointment transitioning to annoyance as their gaze fell upon the lone figure of Raymond.

“Well hello there, sir! Welcome to ‘Introduction to Basic Bikram’!” The talking V-shaped flesh and muscles said as it extended its hand. “I’m your instructor, Flowing Empathy.”

Raymond caught himself just before bursting into laughter. This hilariously over the top, new-age hippie stuff always annoyed him with its insufferable crystals and “alternative” cures. Of course, his annoyance never stopped him from shopping at health food stores run by such “long-hairs,” or nonchalantly mentioning his affinity for goji berries; but his fellow health food store shoppers and goji berry aficionados, in their infinite pretension, drove him crazy. This was the primary reason he’d long avoided studio-taught yoga sessions; it was a haven for these feel-good types who always turned out to be creeps. But regardless of his personal misgivings and bias, Raymond politely introduced himself.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m a bit nervous – this is my first time doing Bikram.[14]

“Oh don’t be! You’ll be fine! We take it pretty easy in this class. Everyone’s a beginner!” said the pony-tailed idiot in a kind and comforting baritone. “Okay, grab your mat! It’s time for us to get started!”

The students lined up as directed in front of the yogi. Raymond noted, with no small amount of disdain, that the most attractive women among the pretentious buffoon’s ardent admirers were assigned to the closest positions. When the class was settled, a twinkling shimmer of spacey music, played by something that sounded to Raymond like an electronic didgeridoo, wafted over the room. Suppressing his amusement at the ever-increasing absurdity, Raymond bent his torso into the Half-Moon position, holding it for longer than any other student. When the instructor praised his fortitude, he grimaced. Thoughts of David Foster Wallace’s “Good Old Neon” immediately sprang to mind with such intensity that he almost lost his balance transitioning to Eagle. The story had related a remarkably similar situation. The main character had attempted to outdo every other member of the class to craft a specific perception of himself in the minds of those around him.  Raymond prided himself on heeding lessons taught by literary characters and proceeded to intentionally lose his balance and tumble to the ground. He faked embarrassment and muttered ashamed-sounding apologies to the instructor and other yoga practitioners, who were, he was satisfied to note, stifling their amused pity. Now he could not be accused of trying to create a false impression of himself for his own misguided edification[15]. Pleased with himself, he assumed a perfect Triangle position.

As the minutes spent in the unconscionably warm studio dragged by and he switched from Cobra to Locust to Bow, his vision began to swim. It seemed the Bikram yoga Raymond had lied about not having experienced was, in reality, not actually Bikram yoga[16]. Due to his misunderstanding of the basics of Bikram, Raymond had severely underestimated his need to hydrate prior to this lesson. By the time he reached Half-Tortoise, he was delirious. When Flowing Empathy gently pushed for a switch to Camel Position, Raymond vomited on himself, rolled onto his side, and sank into darkness to the drone of what he assumed to be the same electronic didgeridoo.

He emerged from his fog to the drone of a kind and comforting baritone voice.

“You’re classically beautiful, has anyone ever told you that?”

Raymond opened his eyes to a ponytail in an ambulance. The words he’d just heard registered with him as odd. He gasped: was this yogi a homosexual? If he’d possessed the ability to move his arms, he would have slapped his own forehead. This changed everything! Horrible thoughts bulled their way into his brain. Though he’d been outwardly polite to Mr. Empathy, in light of the revelation of the instructor’s sexual preference, his inner monologue was despicable. Raymond was terrified that the lovely Flowing had sensed his subconscious feelings and believed him to be homophobic. The thought was more than Raymond could bear. He’d been an active supporter of marriage equality and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender issues as far back as high school. He’d marched in protests, attended rallies, and even spent time lobbying Congress. His pro-homosexual credentials were impeccable.

There’d been little to no indication that this fine gentleman was a gay person, or at least none that Raymond had picked up on. He’d assumed the kind and generous Mr. Empathy was a typical new-age, douchebag breeder using yoga to pick up physically fit, liberally-minded women. But now that the yogi was making a pass at him, Raymond felt the circumstances had changed entirely. Though he’d rejected the flattering propositions of gay men many times in the past, never had he been placed in a scenario where he had to decline while also defending against accusations of bigotry. Though unsure how to proceed, he knew he needed to say something.

“Oh, thank you. You’re truly beautiful as well. Your body reminds me of a figure painted on a Grecian urn.”

The yogi looked down at Raymond with alarm.

“Oh, you’re awake! Um, how are you feeling?”

“Not horrible.” Raymond responded. “I’m mildly embarrassed, but I’m sure my pride will survive.”

“Oh…yes well that’s good, good.” Flowing said. “It looks like you’ll be right as rain in no time.”

Raymond interpreted Flowing Empathy’s unease as fear he was being rejected. Feeling it would be heartless to lead him on any longer; Raymond told him the truth in the gentlest tone he could manage.

“I am very, very sorry Mr. Empathy, I don’t mean anything by this, I promise. You’re a wonderful and lovely person. Any man you choose to be with should count himself lucky. But unfortunately for me, I’m attracted to the opposite sex.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Wait, aren’t you gay? Weren’t you just hitting on me?”

“No! I’m not gay! Why would I be hitting on you!?”

“Are you kidding me? What year is it?” came a third male voice from the front of the vehicle. “You’re still in the closet? Sorry Tim, I don’t date guys who’re ashamed of who they are.”

“Wait, no, Jeff! I’m not in the closet!” Flowing pleaded, “It’s just a professional thing!”

“What, like you’re not allowed to be gay as a yoga instructor?” Scoffed the voice from the front seat. Raymond, who was still strapped to a stretcher and penetrated by a needle delivering a steady flow of Intravenous Fluid Drip, could not turn his head to get a clear view of the angry party.

“No…well you see the thing is, a lot of my students are women who come to class almost exclusively to see me. And yes, I intentionally flirt with them to keep them interested. I admit it. But it’s all harmless! I swear! Most of them are married! They just come in for a little innocent thrill on the side; just something to get their blood flowing, you know?”

“That’s so gross. You’re manipulating these poor women’s emotions for your own professional benefit! You can go fuck yourself with your Friday plans! Or better yet, why don’t you take one of your harem?”

Flowing Empathy looked down in disgust at Raymond, “Thanks a lot, jackass.”

Out of instinct, Raymond shouted, “I swear I’m not homophobic! I’ve worked with Human Rights Campaign, Stonewall and a ton of other nationwide organizations to help promote gay rights ever since I was in high school!”

The ambulance traveled the remaining distance to the hospital in silence.

Raymond spent the better part of the next two weeks recovering from this traumatic chapter in his life. As a silver lining, however, the intensity of his embarrassment and shame helped drive his Nico-induced depression to the outer rim of his consciousness.

His misery remained stable and Nico-free until he heard a familiar knock on his door. He opened to find a blue Alistair Squidge smiling at him professionally.

“To be frank, I was hoping to never see you again Mr. Squidge.” Raymond intoned glumly as the lawyer made his way inside.

“Well I can see it doesn’t take much for us to forget the basics of cordiality.” chided the blue barrister. “I am here entirely at the behest of my client.”

“Yes, and I apologize for my lack of manners, but I figure by this point we’re old friends. What have you brought for me to reject today?”

“Ms. Leftiè has directed me to offer you a position as the manager of the rock and roll band, Death is the Opiate of the Masses. In return, Ms. Leftiè requests the use of your idea pertaining to her Dance Deprivation Initiative.”

Raymond’s heart buckled. DOM was his favorite band, both in public and in private. Their perfect blending of cinematic post-rock with electronic dark-wave spoke to him on a primal level. If he were to agree to accept this position, it would be his ticket into the heart of a culture he’d spent his entire life trying to infiltrate.

But, of course, he could not accept this position. He told himself it was his morality; he told himself it was his principles; he told himself it was everything he believed in and how he defined himself that prevented the trade of his trivial idea for this life changing opportunity. In reality, however, it was his pride that prevented him from making the transaction. And he knew it; underneath his self-delusion Raymond knew it was pride. But he also knew that pride was the only thing he had left.

“My answer remains unchanged, Mr. Squidge. Please inform Ms. Leftiè there is nothing in this world she can offer me to change my mind.”

“Very well then. Good day to you, Mr. Clock. And good luck.”

When all that remained was cerulean, Raymond wept.

He called in sick for the first time in his life. He called in sick for the entire week, claiming to have come down with a highly infectious strain of Mononucleosis. He’d always looked down on the very notion of calling in sick[17]. Now, however, Raymond was too sick, physically, emotionally, and mentally, to summon the energy he needed to exist in a public environment. He again began to dismiss his daily activities as pointless and unfulfilling. Feeling that he’d exhausted his reparative options, the permanent rest found in death began to consume his mind.

Raymond’s viewpoint on end-of-life matters was highly practical. He felt that though life has no intrinsic value, human beings could, at the very least, pretend their lives held meaning. This pretense would then act as a personal raison d’être. Once that individual had accomplished enough to both satisfy themselves and meet the parameters defined by their raison d’être, they would finally deserve to die. Death was something to be earned after a life filled with suffering and struggle; the ultimate reward for excelling in an existence steeped in absurdity and horror[18].

The only method to mitigate the terror of reality, from Raymond’s perspective, was to live every second in the most self-aware and hyper-sensitive manner possible. In this state, a human being could hold up a goal, or a raison d’être, as an achievement of such significance that it triumphed over the deterministic impulses of nature itself. The accumulation of these achievements could, over time, push humanity onto a better path, creating a society where the natural, vicious impulses embedded into the human mind were fundamentally moderated by a mutually benevolent and self-perpetuating societal infrastructure. The ascendant beings who assisted in this social transformation qualified for the reward of no longer existing in an arduous reality where every moment was spent vigilantly keeping their own base selves at bay.

Though Raymond did not believe in any sort of afterlife, he could not conceive of a worse fate than to die embarrassed by his own insignificance.  A human’s death should be seen as a chance to celebrate a lifetime of accomplishments; a moment to observe the summation of that individual’s contributions to humanity. How horrible it must be for those beings whose consciousness faded with the knowledge that they’d done nothing worth dying for. Yet Raymond now found himself in a position where he was running a cost/benefit analysis of being dead. While the benefits column was robust, it was not enough.

By his estimation, if he could alleviate a moderate portion of the negatives contributing to the costs of offing himself sans major life accomplishments, then perhaps the benefits might be able to squeak over the top during his next assessment. This would leave him free to kill himself with impunity.

He spent the next few days probing the limits of his imagination for a creative solution to his dilemma. The main issue, of course, was the current state of his opinion regarding his own contributions to humanity. An odd moment here and there had made him feel proud of himself: his acceptance into an Ivy League institution for example, which resulted in his decision to attend a public school to ensure he was not contributing to the enlargement of the nation’s class gap, or the time he’d lectured a group of human rights protestors on their lack of efficacy while he was protesting a corrupt developmental aid focused Non-Governmental Organization. These were highlights, bright points in his life. But they had no strong connecting theme that would allow him to build an empire out of his reputation, or serve as a catalyst for change in the lives of millions, or assist in carving out a place for himself in future elementary school students’ official social studies textbooks. As his goal of effectively terminating his life could be categorized as short-term, he needed to find an opportunity to change the world as quickly as possible.

In estimating his own skill set, the only talent he felt he possessed that could directly translate into an immediate, tangible achievement was his skill with the written word. Though he acknowledged he was no Fitzgerald or Nabokov, he felt he did possess both a unique voice and something worthwhile to say. And, he thought as a sudden, brilliant notion struck his brain, if he committed suicide right after he wrote his masterpiece, his work would take on dramatically increased significance. Nothing in the world was better for the promotion of a work of art than the tragic death of its creator, particularly if that tragic death was made even more tragic as a result of the misunderstood individual’s painful suicide. He could even litter his story with ambiguous clues that, in retrospect, literature critics and professors could piece together like some grand conspiracy theory and interpret as indications of his plans. This work could be an inspiration to a generation of besieged individuals who only needed a guiding light to show them the way to their salvation. His work could serve as a lone lantern in the darkness.

With this plot in place, his mood improved significantly. One might even have described Raymond Clock as chipper. And so, happily, he set about the task of writing the story that would allow him to die[19].

The powers themselves were nothing to be sneezed at. At an early age, Boswell was able to lift an extraordinary amount of weight, which grew exponentially with each passing year. In addition to strength, the man possessed speeds that made supersonic jets look like paper airplanes. Oh, and he could fly, and turn invisible, and was immune to bullets. Actually no one, not even Boswell, knew the limits of his powers because Boswell had never really tested the limits of his powers. A thoroughly unambitious man, his greatest dream was one day moving into a neighborhood up the street that was slightly more respectable than the one he and his wife now occupied. But if they never made the move, he knew he could still be satisfied with his life.

In his younger days, Boswell had used his powers to ease the burden of everyday tasks. Rather than ride the bus to school, he would run the distance in almost no time at all. His strength he put to use during his assigned chore of taking out the trash; instead of it making three trips to deposit a week’s worth of trash on the sidewalk for the garbage collector, the number of trips his mother had to make, Boswell could accomplish the feat in one fell swoop. Things like that.

As he entered his teenage years and fell in with a normal group of friends, Boswell began to feel out of place whenever he did something that seemed impossible for his much more average companions. They would never say anything or make fun of his differences, but Boswell could tell they felt uncomfortable around him whenever he did something they couldn’t hope to try. And so, from this perceived slight ostracization, the frequency of Boswell’s use of his power declined over time and eventually nearly ceased altogether. By the time he married Barbara, a girl he met while attending the local state college. Boswell was, for all-intents-and-purposes, normal.

On one clear mid-summer’s afternoon, while sitting in the soup-and-sandwich café he frequented during his lunch break, Boswell was involved in an incident. As he sat in the outdoor patio next to a busy intersection, a driver, distracted while responding “LOL WTF????” via text to a zany link his friend Bruce had sent him regarding a chipmunk wearing a facial expression that appeared hilariously serious in a selfie of an oblivious young couple the chipmunk was totally photo-bombing, ran off the road and careened straight towards Boswell and his fellow diners. Without thinking, Boswell leapt up, ran forward, and lifted the vehicle above his head, allowing the driver to finish his last “?” and look up to realize he was no longer on the road. Surprised by his own decisive response, Boswell placed the vehicle gently back on the ground, after which the terrified driver backed up off the sidewalk, took a selfie with Boswell in the background, typed out the hashtags #almostdied and #suburbansuperman, posted it to twitter, and sped off down the street.

Turning to his fellow diners, Boswell, embarrassed by his untoward behavior disturbing their pleasant meals, apologized profusely. While most accepted his apology and returned to their food, one young woman in her early 20s, with short dark hair who, by Boswell’s estimation, had one of those hard-to-know brownish ethnic make-ups, walked over to the table to which Boswell had returned to continue eating and placed herself assertively in the seat opposite his.

“That was amazing! How did you do that?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Oh…well I can do that sort of stuff. I was born that way and…well it’s not a big deal,” Boswell replied sheepishly.

“That sort of stuff? What else can you do?”

“Well…” Boswell hesitated. The woman was very attractive in a way that was different from anyone he had ever associated with before. Of course he had seen her type in a movie or two, but other than John the black accountant and Tim the Indian accountant, with whom Boswell was always cordial but never overly friendly, his life was awash in white. Maybe it was her exotic nature that made Boswell feel more reckless, but regardless of the stimulus he decided to continue, “I’ve got a lot of superhuman powers, like speed and strength. I can even fly.”

“You can fly?! Seriously? Who are you? How are you not famous?”

“I mean, I don’t like to rub other people’s faces in it, you know? Sometimes I use it if I’m running late for work, or there’s a really stubborn root in the garden that just refuses to come up…”

“But you can do so much more! With all those powers…you could change the world!” the woman looked at him fervently, “See, I’m part of an organization that deals with refugees from war-torn developing nations. Every day I volunteer, I hear stories about villages being destroyed for stuff like diamonds, families being killed with machetes…horrible things! You could really help those people! Or you could even pressure developed nations to intervene. Hell, if you wanted to you could probably be the leader of the world and bring about some sort of new order or something!”

“Oh…well that sounds like a bit much…I’m pretty happy with my…”

She moved closer to him and grabbed his arm. Boswell could feel the pulsing glow of her warm body and smell her rich perfume. Her passion was cute, but her body was intoxicating. She beseeched him, “If you’d just come to the center with me you’ll see what I’m talking about!”

“I suppose I could come…some volunteer work might be a nice change of pace…” Boswell agreed, his head swimming with thoughts centered on how her breasts looked under her revealing tank-top. One of the online pornography websites Boswell frequented had a section catering to men with exotic tastes in women. Whenever he felt like he needed a bit of spice in his life, Boswell would masturbate while watching Asians, Middle-Easterners, and sometimes if he was in the right sort of mood, even black people, have sex with white men. The thought that here, holding his arm, was just such a woman, aroused him greatly, and helped direct his actions. “I get off at 5, so I can meet you back here around then.”

“Perfect! See you at 5!” the woman said as she stood up to leave, regrettably releasing her hold on his arm.

“Oh wait, what’s your name?”

“Fadilah. What’s yours?”

“Fad-eel-ah? Fad-ill-uh? Am I saying that right?

“Fadilah…but yeah, that’s fine. You can just call me Fad.”

“Alright then Fad, I’m Boswell. I’ll see you at 5.”

The rest of his day was filled with a giddy, school-boy excitement Boswell had scarcely ever felt before. The time dragged as he glanced at the office clock every few minutes, begging it to advance at a swifter pace. When 4:45 arrived, he hastily gathered his possessions, bid adieu to his colleagues as they were gathering theirs, and all but sprinted towards the elevator. Once outside, he made his way a block up the street to wait in the previously discussed location next to the café.

5 o’clock came and went, followed by 5:01, 5:02, and eventually even 5:03. At 5:04 Boswell began experiencing doubts as to whether this Fad girl would actually show up and his thoughts turned to his wife and how this would be such a betrayal of the faith she placed in him. At 5:05 he decided this whole thing had been a mistake and it was probably better this brief fling with exoticism had been with an unsurprisingly unreliable and fickle creature as it relieved him of the guilt of having to break it off himself. He could now return home and greet his loving wife as per his usual routine. At that thought, Fadilah rounded the corner of the café. Seeing her, Boswell ceased all notions of greeting his loving wife and became aroused once more.

The tantalizing creature was adorably huffing a bit as she panted, “Sorry I’m a bit late. Shall we go?”

Boswell smiled at this and gladly replied, “Yes, of course. Lead the way.”

As they walked, Fadilah chattered to him about how excited everyone was to meet him and that with his abilities her organization could have a greater impact on the horrible human rights situations in these horrible countries she rattled off like she was name dropping famous friends. She also prattled on about some of her personal details, though Boswell was having trouble understanding some of her slightly accented words. He gathered she had spent her early years with her parents in England, and then came to the United States to live with…someone, like a grandparent or uncle or something, sometime later. He felt a little uneasy when she told him what her name meant in Arabic.

“Oh, are you Muslim then?”

“Well yeah, a pretty liberal Muslim. I believe in Allah of course and follow the teachings of the Koran…but…”

“Do you eat beef?”

“You mean am I strictly Halal in what I eat? I mean I try but…”

“Well we have this Indian guy in the office, Tim, who doesn’t eat beef because of his religion. I’m pretty sure he’s a Muslim.”

“Oh…well if he doesn’t eat beef at all I assume he’s probably Hindu. There are some Indian Muslim’s but…”

“Ahh, well sorry, I don’t really know the difference. It’s all just the Middle East to me, so I’ve never really looked into the little nuances of the region. We have a guy, Bob, who was over there in the war and he said the people are incredibly primitive, no offense. They tried to give them toilet paper, but they preferred to wipe with their hands! Isn’t that crazy? He told us that’s why it’s improper to shake with your left hand in those countries; because they wipe with their left. Was toilet paper hard for you to get used to when you moved to the US?”

“I…I came from England. I was born in England. My parents were born in England…and…well… anyways, here we are.”

As he sped up in order to reach the door before her so that he could display his gallantry, Fadilah also increased her pace, causing the pair to cross the last few meters to the office in an ever-accelerating speed walk. Despite his last minute attempt at chivalry, she ended up opening the door.

“Well that was fun!” She said, laughing, “What were you doing?”

“Trying to open the door for you!”

“Ahh, well you don’t have to as I’m not really into that sort of stuff; it kind of infantilizes women. I appreciate your effort to be polite, however.”

“What do you mean infantilizes? It’s just to be nice! Chivalry isn’t dead!”

“Oh, hey, Jacob! This is the guy I told you about!” Fadilah turned her attention towards the young, attractive man in a T-shirt and jeans approaching them.

“You’re the guy? I heard you lifted a car! That’s insane, man! Can you show us something here?”

A bit embarrassed and annoyed by the entrance of this young, attractive rival for Fad’s attention, Boswell hesitated, “I’m not sure if that would be appropriate.”

“Oh, come on Boswell!” Fadilah urged.

“Fine, fine.”

And with that he crossed the room in an instant, picked up a stapler from a desk on the far side, and returned to them with equal speed, stapler in hand.

“That’s incredible!” Jacob looked stunned, “So you can do a bunch of stuff like that?”

“Sure, a bunch, it’s no big deal,” Boswell said, feeling pleased with the way Jacob was admiring him in front of Fadilah.

“Well let’s introduce you to some of the refugees we’re trying to get asylum for right now. Over here is Sarah from the DRC.”

“DRC?’

“Sorry, Democratic Republic of Congo. She was raped along with the rest of her family. She survived by playing dead under to corpses of her mother and sister for three days and eating the maggots that infested them. She’s obviously traumatized, so please be careful about what you say.” Fadilah added, looking at him with some apprehension.

“Of course. Like I said, manners and chivalry are my bread and butter!”

Over the next the few hours, Boswell met children and adults from countries he never knew existed, each with a story more horrifying than the last. By the end he felt close to tears from all the dreadful new information they had told to him.

“And this is why we need your powers! You can help these people and stop things like this from happening in the world. With a person like you, we can change the face of humanity!” Jacob told him afterwards while the three of them were sitting around a small, round table in a corner of the volunteer center.

“After what I’ve seen, after these stories from these people, I know something has to happen, I just don’t know what! What can I do?” Boswell asked, emotional.

“Let us come up with a plan which we‘ll present to you tomorrow. In the meantime I’m sure you want to get back to your family. Tomorrow same time, same café?”

Disappointed she wasn’t coming with him for the dinner and hotel tryst as he’d imagined, Boswell agreed and took his leave. Back at home he explained his new volunteer work to his wife, of which she enthusiastically approved. Barbara had always told Boswell he should get out more and try new things.  That night, after his wife had gone to bed at her usual hour and he made certain no one would disturb him, Boswell spent a sweaty five minutes on the internet furiously masturbating to a video of an Asian woman being penetrated in multiple orifices by multiple men.

The next day’s meeting saw an exhilarated Fadilah and Jacob lay out a detailed month-by-month action plan in a boring PowerPoint presentation he could barely follow, though he did enjoy watching Fadilah get worked up over these global issues. It seemed appropriate that she, a foreign presence in his life, would present him with all these foreign concepts, very fitting. Jacob, however, was beginning to wear on him. He’d never had much patience for the bleeding hearts; too many moral hysterics and too much hand-wringing. It wasn’t proper for men to worry themselves in such a way, Boswell thought to himself as Jacob explained the impact of chemical attacks in Syria in what he considered a rather shrill and effeminate voice. He was also beginning to suspect Fadilah and Jacob might have a romantic connection, which was bothersome, but not something that overly concerned him. In that case he was confident his powers and traditional masculinity would prove that he, Boswell, was the superior man.

At the end of the presentation, the pair asked if he was on board. Not knowing what else to say after not exactly following their point, he said he was.

“Wonderful! We’ll buy the tickets to Syria tomorrow!” Fadilah exclaimed.

Boswell spluttered, “What? Syria? What about Syria?”

“That’s the first step, Mr. Upman. It was in the presentation…” Jacob said with a slight edge of annoyance in his voice.

“I didn’t hear that! I can’t go to Syria, I have work!”

“But…that’s the only way. It should only take about a week, so you can take some vacation days,” continued Jacob.

“Out of the question. That’s ridiculous. Why in the world would any sane person want to go to Syria?”

Fadilah approached him and placed her hand on his arm. He immediately felt blood flow to his nethers. “Boswell, please. We need you. The world needs you. You’re so special and can accomplish so much!”

Inspired by her urging, Boswell had an idea, “I…very well. I understand. You’re coming with me, right?”

“Yes, both Jacob and I are coming, don’t worry about that.”

“No, I’m sorry Jacob, but I think you’ll just get in the way. I don’t think I can work if I’m always worried about you. Besides, Fad is from there and speaks the language, so we’ll be fine.”

“Fadilah doesn’t speak Arabic, I speak Arabic…this whole thing…” Jacob started to object.

Fadilah gave Jacob a strained look, which silenced him, “We’ll be fine. I have some friends in Beirut who can help us get to Aleppo. We’ll be fine.”

Pleased with his own cleverness, Boswell shook Jacob’s hand and kissed Fadilah’s, telling her he would make all the necessary preparations and be ready to depart within the week.

After telling his wife he was leaving for a mission trip to the Middle-East, which she seemed pleased to hear as she’d always told him he should get out and try new things, and his boss he needed the next week off for some family time, Boswell purchased a plane ticket to Beirut, as Fad had instructed, and looked up the hotel where they would be staying. Surprised at the sophistication of the accommodations in such a backwater, 3rd world country, he found himself immediately aroused at the thought of traveling alone with his exotic companion. That night he masturbated to a naked black woman whose vagina seemed to have a few superhuman powers of its own.

The day of his departure arrived and he bid farewell to his wife, who in the last week had felt like nothing more than a speed bump on the road to his new life.

Fadilah was a joy to be with at the airport, on the plane, and, finally, in the hotel. Her passion for serious issues and certainty that they could change the world was sweet, if a bit naïve. Boswell adopted a strategy of simply agreeing with whatever she said and complimenting her on how articulate she was when she said it. He figured in this way he could get her in the best mood possible before they reached their destination, at which time he assumed they would immediately have sex.

To save money on accommodations, they were sharing a room with two beds, something Boswell had cleverly suggested to sound like he cared about the finances of the organization as well as to get Fadilah in a hotel room with him alone. Ensconced within their chambers for the night, with nothing left to do but wait for their contacts to take them across the border, Boswell, who had been disappointed when Fadilah seemed exhausted by the journey and took a shower to refresh herself, and then went out to get some local food while he ate a sandwich he’d brought from America in the hotel room alone, figured he could finally have sex with the little tease after she’d returned.

“So…Fad…”

“Boswell? Is everything alright?”

“Well…what do you want to do now?”

“I mean…go to sleep I guess? It’s been a hell of a trip and we need rest for tomorrow.”

“Alright, well, do you want to share a bed?”

“Share a…why? There are two…”

“Well…I thought…”

“Boswell! What?”

“Well, I mean you just seemed like the type…”

“You wanted to sleep with me? You wanted to fuck me?”

“Hey, excuse me. Why is that wrong? You’ve basically been throwing yourself at me since we met.”

“Throwing myself at you? How have I been throwing myself at you?”

“The touching, the flirting. YOU came up to ME in the café. Remember?”

“Because of your fucking powers! Are you serious? You thought I was trying to sleep with you?”

“Why not? I have these world changing powers. Once we start, lots of women will want to sleep with me.”

“Well they can go right ahead and sleep with you. Look, Boswell, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but no thank you. Let’s just keep our relationship friendly and professional. You have a wife!”

“Is it because of Jacob? Are you interested in Jacob?”

“No I’m not interested in Jacob. I don’t derive my value from men, Boswell. I can say I don’t want to sleep with you without a reason.”

“If not Jacob, why? Why are we in the same hotel room? Why did you agree?”

“Because it sounded like a good idea to save money? Seriously, dude? This is happening right now? We’re about to change the world and all your concerned with is whether you sleep with me or not?”

“Well I didn’t know you were like this. Maybe I don’t want to go through with your plan anymore.”

“Boswell, come on! This is bigger than just us! Let’s not let something like this get in the way of the greater good for the world!”

“Well I just don’t like being led on is all. I don’t think someone who leads men on like that is a very good person, and I doubt they know what’s good for the world anyways. Now, I mean I understand if you’re just playing hard to get…in which case don’t worry at all, I promise I won’t think less of you”

“Hard to get? Are you delusional?”

“Well then, I guess if this isn’t happening we should just go home tomorrow.”

“Woah…woah…are you blackmailing me? Are you saying if I don’t sleep with you that you will just go home? You’ll just abandon this whole world-changing event because you didn’t get to fuck me?”

“That’s not blackmail! I’m just saying maybe I don’t agree with you as much as I used to. I mean, who am I to change the world anyways? It’s not even my job; everyone should just take care of themselves. I’m an American and believe in people pulling themselves up by their boot-straps, so I’m not here to help out these charity cases. They need to fix their own problems.”

“You have fucking superhuman powers! You can bring about a new age of peace, something humanity has never known, and you’re hung up on me sleeping with you? Like you said, I’m sure when you’re powerful lots of women will want to sleep with you! Fuck them, not me.”

“Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, but in the end I can only take care of myself and my family. They have to come first. If we aren’t leading a happy life, how could I possibly help anyone else? Trying to change the world is a nice idea and all, but come on, don’t be so naïve.”

“You are such an asshole! You have the power to do anything, but you can’t see past your own fucking nose!”

“Well, like I said, I don’t think this is going to work…”

“You stupid motherfucker,” Fadilah called as she grabbed him and pushed him onto the bed. She ripped off his clothing and started to remove her own.

“Wait, slow down, wait, just a second,” Boswell said, surprised but pleased. He sensed his arousal, which had been constant since she’d entered the room, was becoming overly enthusiastic in relation to this sudden change in events. He could smell her foreign aroma surrounding him as she clambered on top of him.

“You said you wanted to fuck me, so here it is, fuck me and then finish our plan, we need you,” Fadilah growled menacingly as she mounted him and moved her pelvis over his.

“Just…wait…wait…no…stop!” he shouted as he accidentally threw her across the room and through the outer wall of the hotel where she plunged 12 stories, breaking her body on the pavement below. Panicking, his pants sticky and damp with his wasted sperm, he leapt out the hole her body had created and spent the next few moments flying back to his home in the United States.

The remaining years of his life were spent in relative happiness. Occasionally while eating dinner, Boswell would turn on the news to see some new massacre or horror perpetrated on a group of primitive foreigners in a country he’d heard the name of once but nearly forgotten. On these occasions he would pause over his food and think to himself maybe he really should do something about all this tragedy in the world. He’d make a mental note to put it on his to-do list, right below exercise and cleaning the gutters.

 

[1] Raymond maintained three separate writing identities. He figured spreading rancor from exposed public officials across a number of entities would make scrutiny on individual writers less severe. Joshua Gibson he used to expose Department of Defense and congressional corruption, Sam Ridgeback was for non-governmental organizations and governmental departments outside Defense, and Bradley Freeman was on the corporate beat. If the story was particularly controversial, he’d create a burner identity to take the heat. It’s important to note that no official Raymond exposed was ever particularly bothered by his accusations. It was a common practice to make whatever specific type of corruption officials used to enrich themselves legal prior to partaking. They were also both aware of and uninterested in the easily unspooled false identities of Raymond Clock.

[2] Shame

[3] The central pillar in his life, the desire to find the person who would save him from the traumatically mundane existence to which he’d been subjected had been blown to pieces. His daily routines were now called into question, with the point of every action in need of re-analysis. Why would he go for a jog? Why would he read a book? Why would he go out to test the quality of that new Thai restaurant that’d moved in next door? The answers to these questions had previously been justified through his clearly defined reason to exist. With that foundation now unstable, his capability to see past the maddening dullness of life’s banality was faltering.

Raymond held that the universe was inanimate and uncaring, with the concepts of good and evil existing entirely as human constructs. If he had to choose a label, he preferred to be called an optimistic existentialist, believing that meaning could be found for those who chose to walk the path. Finding himself in a new set of circumstances, with his self-defined meaning losing shape by the hour, he now felt the optimistic qualifier on his existentialism slipping away. All that was left to him was the absurdity of his petty existence in a meaningless universe.

[4] BBC’s Urban Planet, in which an elderly British anthropologist explains the lavishly shot cultural habits of inner-city humans.

[5] As he refused to settle for subpar furnishings and the chair alone had cost more than an entire IKEA drawing room set, he’d reconciled himself to the necessity of piecing together his perfect living space over an extended timeline.

[6] Members of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness had been haunting his neighborhood recently, and this was a depression day, so even in retrospect he deemed his initial reaction justifiable

[7] At the external mention of Nico’s name, the carefully constructed intellectual structures Raymond had built over the past two weeks collapsed into rubble. The only factor that saved him from a complete physical disintegration was his unwavering commitment to the ancient codes of public decorum and etiquette.

[8] Raymond, initially annoyed with the mess this was making on his white carpeting, quickly corrected his brain by reminding himself he must always respect the traditions of other cultures. He was curious, however, as to the ancestry and history of this obviously wealthy, obviously British lawyer; though he kept this curiosity to himself out of fear these thoughts had subconsciously racist origins. He asked himself if he’d be equally curious as to the ancestry of the man if he were white. Or was he only curious because it was unusual to see a black, upper-class British man with an affinity for eastern mysticism? Was asking that question, or even considering race a factor, racist? His mind held no answers.

[9] Raymond generally avoided going to the doctor, considering it an impractical waste of time for a healthy young man. While he’d read many articles imploring young people to understand that preventative care was necessary even while healthy, he considered himself so exceptionally healthy that this idea did not necessarily apply to him. His paltry health insurance also made frequent visits impossible in the context of his current lifestyle.

[10] A brand name 450mg lithium carbonate controlled release tablet manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline.

[11] According to various aggregate user-generated business ratings websites.

[12] According to various aggregate user-generated business ratings websites.

[13] According to various aggregate user-generated business ratings websites.

[14] This was not true. In college, he’d briefly participated in a series of private Bikram lessons offered by an extremely attractive instructor. Raymond wanted to set the initial bar of expectations as low as possible so wouldn’t have trouble exceeding their expectations.

[15] He admitted that he was still erecting a fabricated version of his character, but he was content in knowing it was not in pursuit of creating the impression that he was better than he actually was.

[16] The attractive female yogi at his university was actually just a knock-off artist only in it to pick-up physically fit, liberally minded men.

[17] He preferred to use sickness as a chance to display his resolve by going into work even on days he was severely ill. His employers would tell him how much they appreciated his commitment, but that it would be best for everyone if he went home. In this way he could get some time off while also increasing his standing at his workplace and in the minds of others.

[18] Consider the grotesque nature of human existence; a creature born into pain and imbued with a psyche at once both shortsightedly self-destructive and selfishly self-preserving told to peacefully socialize with others exactly like itself. The human brain is capable of just enough awareness to understand how hopeless its species truly is, but must first transcend and fight its own nature to even consider the concept. Most members of the human race choose to embrace the happy lies they create for themselves, all while either intentionally or unintentionally inflicting their learned pain on others. The guilt that should be associated with hurting other creatures is so constant and overwhelming that humans, out of necessity, adapt by becoming numb to its effects, justifying their exploitations as the best possible reality in an imperfect world.

[19] An excerpt from Raymond’s novel, Superhuman:

Boswell Upman would be the first person to tell you how normal he was in spite of his superhuman powers.  He held a job with room for slow but steady growth at a mid-sized accounting firm in the city, owned a ranch-style house in a respectable-if-not-overly-impressive neighborhood, and maintained a family full of normal, well-adjusted children managed by his doting housewife.  Boswell himself was a pasty, short, balding man in his early 40s with a slight paunch and jowls just beginning to show whenever his head hung in the wrong position. He often told himself he needed to start exercising, and his wife Barbara worried him with her concern over his expanding physicality, but the daily grind always seemed to offer a ready excuse to avoid the strenuous physical activity he required to avoid further growth. Overall there was nothing particularly interesting about the man other than that he happened to have superhuman powers.

The powers themselves were nothing to be sneezed at. At an early age, Boswell was able to lift an extraordinary amount of weight, which grew exponentially with each passing year. In addition to strength, the man possessed speeds that made supersonic jets look like paper airplanes. Oh, and he could fly, and turn invisible, and was immune to bullets. Actually no one, not even Boswell, knew the limits of his powers because Boswell had never really tested the limits of his powers. A thoroughly unambitious man, his greatest dream was one day moving into a neighborhood up the street that was slightly more respectable than the one he and his wife now occupied. But if they never made the move, he knew he could still be satisfied with his life.

In his younger days, Boswell had used his powers to ease the burden of everyday tasks. Rather than ride the bus to school, he would run the distance in almost no time at all. His strength he put to use during his assigned chore of taking out the trash; instead of it making three trips to deposit a week’s worth of trash on the sidewalk for the garbage collector, the number of trips his mother had to make, Boswell could accomplish the feat in one fell swoop. Things like that.

As he entered his teenage years and fell in with a normal group of friends, Boswell began to feel out of place whenever he did something that seemed impossible for his much more average companions. They would never say anything or make fun of his differences, but Boswell could tell they felt uncomfortable around him whenever he did something they couldn’t hope to try. And so, from this perceived slight ostracization, the frequency of Boswell’s use of his power declined over time and eventually nearly ceased altogether. By the time he married Barbara, a girl he met while attending the local state college. Boswell was, for all-intents-and-purposes, normal.

On one clear mid-summer’s afternoon, while sitting in the soup-and-sandwich café he frequented during his lunch break, Boswell was involved in an incident. As he sat in the outdoor patio next to a busy intersection, a driver, distracted while responding “LOL WTF????” via text to a zany link his friend Bruce had sent him regarding a chipmunk wearing a facial expression that appeared hilariously serious in a selfie of an oblivious young couple the chipmunk was totally photo-bombing, ran off the road and careened straight towards Boswell and his fellow diners. Without thinking, Boswell leapt up, ran forward, and lifted the vehicle above his head, allowing the driver to finish his last “?” and look up to realize he was no longer on the road. Surprised by his own decisive response, Boswell placed the vehicle gently back on the ground, after which the terrified driver backed up off the sidewalk, took a selfie with Boswell in the background, typed out the hashtags #almostdied and #suburbansuperman, posted it to twitter, and sped off down the street.

Turning to his fellow diners, Boswell, embarrassed by his untoward behavior disturbing their pleasant meals, apologized profusely. While most accepted his apology and returned to their food, one young woman in her early 20s, with short dark hair who, by Boswell’s estimation, had one of those hard-to-know brownish ethnic make-ups, walked over to the table to which Boswell had returned to continue eating and placed herself assertively in the seat opposite his.

“That was amazing! How did you do that?” she asked enthusiastically.

“Oh…well I can do that sort of stuff. I was born that way and…well it’s not a big deal,” Boswell replied sheepishly.

“That sort of stuff? What else can you do?”

“Well…” Boswell hesitated. The woman was very attractive in a way that was different from anyone he had ever associated with before. Of course he had seen her type in a movie or two, but other than John the black accountant and Tim the Indian accountant, with whom Boswell was always cordial but never overly friendly, his life was awash in white. Maybe it was her exotic nature that made Boswell feel more reckless, but regardless of the stimulus he decided to continue, “I’ve got a lot of superhuman powers, like speed and strength. I can even fly.”

“You can fly?! Seriously? Who are you? How are you not famous?”

“I mean, I don’t like to rub other people’s faces in it, you know? Sometimes I use it if I’m running late for work, or there’s a really stubborn root in the garden that just refuses to come up…”

“But you can do so much more! With all those powers…you could change the world!” the woman looked at him fervently, “See, I’m part of an organization that deals with refugees from war-torn developing nations. Every day I volunteer, I hear stories about villages being destroyed for stuff like diamonds, families being killed with machetes…horrible things! You could really help those people! Or you could even pressure developed nations to intervene. Hell, if you wanted to you could probably be the leader of the world and bring about some sort of new order or something!”

“Oh…well that sounds like a bit much…I’m pretty happy with my…”

She moved closer to him and grabbed his arm. Boswell could feel the pulsing glow of her warm body and smell her rich perfume. Her passion was cute, but her body was intoxicating. She beseeched him, “If you’d just come to the center with me you’ll see what I’m talking about!”

“I suppose I could come…some volunteer work might be a nice change of pace…” Boswell agreed, his head swimming with thoughts centered on how her breasts looked under her revealing tank-top. One of the online pornography websites Boswell frequented had a section catering to men with exotic tastes in women. Whenever he felt like he needed a bit of spice in his life, Boswell would masturbate while watching Asians, Middle-Easterners, and sometimes if he was in the right sort of mood, even black people, have sex with white men. The thought that here, holding his arm, was just such a woman, aroused him greatly, and helped direct his actions. “I get off at 5, so I can meet you back here around then.”

“Perfect! See you at 5!” the woman said as she stood up to leave, regrettably releasing her hold on his arm.

“Oh wait, what’s your name?”

“Fadilah. What’s yours?”

“Fad-eel-ah? Fad-ill-uh? Am I saying that right?

“Fadilah…but yeah, that’s fine. You can just call me Fad.”

“Alright then Fad, I’m Boswell. I’ll see you at 5.”

The rest of his day was filled with a giddy, school-boy excitement Boswell had scarcely ever felt before. The time dragged as he glanced at the office clock every few minutes, begging it to advance at a swifter pace. When 4:45 arrived, he hastily gathered his possessions, bid adieu to his colleagues as they were gathering theirs, and all but sprinted towards the elevator. Once outside, he made his way a block up the street to wait in the previously discussed location next to the café.

5 o’clock came and went, followed by 5:01, 5:02, and eventually even 5:03. At 5:04 Boswell began experiencing doubts as to whether this Fad girl would actually show up and his thoughts turned to his wife and how this would be such a betrayal of the faith she placed in him. At 5:05 he decided this whole thing had been a mistake and it was probably better this brief fling with exoticism had been with an unsurprisingly unreliable and fickle creature as it relieved him of the guilt of having to break it off himself. He could now return home and greet his loving wife as per his usual routine. At that thought, Fadilah rounded the corner of the café. Seeing her, Boswell ceased all notions of greeting his loving wife and became aroused once more.

The tantalizing creature was adorably huffing a bit as she panted, “Sorry I’m a bit late. Shall we go?”

Boswell smiled at this and gladly replied, “Yes, of course. Lead the way.”

As they walked, Fadilah chattered to him about how excited everyone was to meet him and that with his abilities her organization could have a greater impact on the horrible human rights situations in these horrible countries she rattled off like she was name dropping famous friends. She also prattled on about some of her personal details, though Boswell was having trouble understanding some of her slightly accented words. He gathered she had spent her early years with her parents in England, and then came to the United States to live with…someone, like a grandparent or uncle or something, sometime later. He felt a little uneasy when she told him what her name meant in Arabic.

“Oh, are you Muslim then?”

“Well yeah, a pretty liberal Muslim. I believe in Allah of course and follow the teachings of the Koran…but…”

“Do you eat beef?”

“You mean am I strictly Halal in what I eat? I mean I try but…”

“Well we have this Indian guy in the office, Tim, who doesn’t eat beef because of his religion. I’m pretty sure he’s a Muslim.”

“Oh…well if he doesn’t eat beef at all I assume he’s probably Hindu. There are some Indian Muslim’s but…”

“Ahh, well sorry, I don’t really know the difference. It’s all just the Middle East to me, so I’ve never really looked into the little nuances of the region. We have a guy, Bob, who was over there in the war and he said the people are incredibly primitive, no offense. They tried to give them toilet paper, but they preferred to wipe with their hands! Isn’t that crazy? He told us that’s why it’s improper to shake with your left hand in those countries; because they wipe with their left. Was toilet paper hard for you to get used to when you moved to the US?”

“I…I came from England. I was born in England. My parents were born in England…and…well… anyways, here we are.”

As he sped up in order to reach the door before her so that he could display his gallantry, Fadilah also increased her pace, causing the pair to cross the last few meters to the office in an ever-accelerating speed walk. Despite his last minute attempt at chivalry, she ended up opening the door.

“Well that was fun!” She said, laughing, “What were you doing?”

“Trying to open the door for you!”

“Ahh, well you don’t have to as I’m not really into that sort of stuff; it kind of infantilizes women. I appreciate your effort to be polite, however.”

“What do you mean infantilizes? It’s just to be nice! Chivalry isn’t dead!”

“Oh, hey, Jacob! This is the guy I told you about!” Fadilah turned her attention towards the young, attractive man in a T-shirt and jeans approaching them.

“You’re the guy? I heard you lifted a car! That’s insane, man! Can you show us something here?”

A bit embarrassed and annoyed by the entrance of this young, attractive rival for Fad’s attention, Boswell hesitated, “I’m not sure if that would be appropriate.”

“Oh, come on Boswell!” Fadilah urged.

“Fine, fine.”

And with that he crossed the room in an instant, picked up a stapler from a desk on the far side, and returned to them with equal speed, stapler in hand.

“That’s incredible!” Jacob looked stunned, “So you can do a bunch of stuff like that?”

“Sure, a bunch, it’s no big deal,” Boswell said, feeling pleased with the way Jacob was admiring him in front of Fadilah.

“Well let’s introduce you to some of the refugees we’re trying to get asylum for right now. Over here is Sarah from the DRC.”

“DRC?’

“Sorry, Democratic Republic of Congo. She was raped along with the rest of her family. She survived by playing dead under to corpses of her mother and sister for three days and eating the maggots that infested them. She’s obviously traumatized, so please be careful about what you say.” Fadilah added, looking at him with some apprehension.

“Of course. Like I said, manners and chivalry are my bread and butter!”

Over the next the few hours, Boswell met children and adults from countries he never knew existed, each with a story more horrifying than the last. By the end he felt close to tears from all the dreadful new information they had told to him.

“And this is why we need your powers! You can help these people and stop things like this from happening in the world. With a person like you, we can change the face of humanity!” Jacob told him afterwards while the three of them were sitting around a small, round table in a corner of the volunteer center.

“After what I’ve seen, after these stories from these people, I know something has to happen, I just don’t know what! What can I do?” Boswell asked, emotional.

“Let us come up with a plan which we‘ll present to you tomorrow. In the meantime I’m sure you want to get back to your family. Tomorrow same time, same café?”

Disappointed she wasn’t coming with him for the dinner and hotel tryst as he’d imagined, Boswell agreed and took his leave. Back at home he explained his new volunteer work to his wife, of which she enthusiastically approved. Barbara had always told Boswell he should get out more and try new things.  That night, after his wife had gone to bed at her usual hour and he made certain no one would disturb him, Boswell spent a sweaty five minutes on the internet furiously masturbating to a video of an Asian woman being penetrated in multiple orifices by multiple men.

The next day’s meeting saw an exhilarated Fadilah and Jacob lay out a detailed month-by-month action plan in a boring PowerPoint presentation he could barely follow, though he did enjoy watching Fadilah get worked up over these global issues. It seemed appropriate that she, a foreign presence in his life, would present him with all these foreign concepts, very fitting. Jacob, however, was beginning to wear on him. He’d never had much patience for the bleeding hearts; too many moral hysterics and too much hand-wringing. It wasn’t proper for men to worry themselves in such a way, Boswell thought to himself as Jacob explained the impact of chemical attacks in Syria in what he considered a rather shrill and effeminate voice. He was also beginning to suspect Fadilah and Jacob might have a romantic connection, which was bothersome, but not something that overly concerned him. In that case he was confident his powers and traditional masculinity would prove that he, Boswell, was the superior man.

At the end of the presentation, the pair asked if he was on board. Not knowing what else to say after not exactly following their point, he said he was.

“Wonderful! We’ll buy the tickets to Syria tomorrow!” Fadilah exclaimed.

Boswell spluttered, “What? Syria? What about Syria?”

“That’s the first step, Mr. Upman. It was in the presentation…” Jacob said with a slight edge of annoyance in his voice.

“I didn’t hear that! I can’t go to Syria, I have work!”

“But…that’s the only way. It should only take about a week, so you can take some vacation days,” continued Jacob.

“Out of the question. That’s ridiculous. Why in the world would any sane person want to go to Syria?”

Fadilah approached him and placed her hand on his arm. He immediately felt blood flow to his nethers. “Boswell, please. We need you. The world needs you. You’re so special and can accomplish so much!”

Inspired by her urging, Boswell had an idea, “I…very well. I understand. You’re coming with me, right?”

“Yes, both Jacob and I are coming, don’t worry about that.”

“No, I’m sorry Jacob, but I think you’ll just get in the way. I don’t think I can work if I’m always worried about you. Besides, Fad is from there and speaks the language, so we’ll be fine.”

“Fadilah doesn’t speak Arabic, I speak Arabic…this whole thing…” Jacob started to object.

Fadilah gave Jacob a strained look, which silenced him, “We’ll be fine. I have some friends in Beirut who can help us get to Aleppo. We’ll be fine.”

Pleased with his own cleverness, Boswell shook Jacob’s hand and kissed Fadilah’s, telling her he would make all the necessary preparations and be ready to depart within the week.

After telling his wife he was leaving for a mission trip to the Middle-East, which she seemed pleased to hear as she’d always told him he should get out and try new things, and his boss he needed the next week off for some family time, Boswell purchased a plane ticket to Beirut, as Fad had instructed, and looked up the hotel where they would be staying. Surprised at the sophistication of the accommodations in such a backwater, 3rd world country, he found himself immediately aroused at the thought of traveling alone with his exotic companion. That night he masturbated to a naked black woman whose vagina seemed to have a few superhuman powers of its own.

The day of his departure arrived and he bid farewell to his wife, who in the last week had felt like nothing more than a speed bump on the road to his new life.

Fadilah was a joy to be with at the airport, on the plane, and, finally, in the hotel. Her passion for serious issues and certainty that they could change the world was sweet, if a bit naïve. Boswell adopted a strategy of simply agreeing with whatever she said and complimenting her on how articulate she was when she said it. He figured in this way he could get her in the best mood possible before they reached their destination, at which time he assumed they would immediately have sex.

To save money on accommodations, they were sharing a room with two beds, something Boswell had cleverly suggested to sound like he cared about the finances of the organization as well as to get Fadilah in a hotel room with him alone. Ensconced within their chambers for the night, with nothing left to do but wait for their contacts to take them across the border, Boswell, who had been disappointed when Fadilah seemed exhausted by the journey and took a shower to refresh herself, and then went out to get some local food while he ate a sandwich he’d brought from America in the hotel room alone, figured he could finally have sex with the little tease after she’d returned.

“So…Fad…”

“Boswell? Is everything alright?”

“Well…what do you want to do now?”

“I mean…go to sleep I guess? It’s been a hell of a trip and we need rest for tomorrow.”

“Alright, well, do you want to share a bed?”

“Share a…why? There are two…”

“Well…I thought…”

“Boswell! What?”

“Well, I mean you just seemed like the type…”

“You wanted to sleep with me? You wanted to fuck me?”

“Hey, excuse me. Why is that wrong? You’ve basically been throwing yourself at me since we met.”

“Throwing myself at you? How have I been throwing myself at you?”

“The touching, the flirting. YOU came up to ME in the café. Remember?”

“Because of your fucking powers! Are you serious? You thought I was trying to sleep with you?”

“Why not? I have these world changing powers. Once we start, lots of women will want to sleep with me.”

“Well they can go right ahead and sleep with you. Look, Boswell, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but no thank you. Let’s just keep our relationship friendly and professional. You have a wife!”

“Is it because of Jacob? Are you interested in Jacob?”

“No I’m not interested in Jacob. I don’t derive my value from men, Boswell. I can say I don’t want to sleep with you without a reason.”

“If not Jacob, why? Why are we in the same hotel room? Why did you agree?”

“Because it sounded like a good idea to save money? Seriously, dude? This is happening right now? We’re about to change the world and all your concerned with is whether you sleep with me or not?”

“Well I didn’t know you were like this. Maybe I don’t want to go through with your plan anymore.”

“Boswell, come on! This is bigger than just us! Let’s not let something like this get in the way of the greater good for the world!”

“Well I just don’t like being led on is all. I don’t think someone who leads men on like that is a very good person, and I doubt they know what’s good for the world anyways. Now, I mean I understand if you’re just playing hard to get…in which case don’t worry at all, I promise I won’t think less of you”

“Hard to get? Are you delusional?”

“Well then, I guess if this isn’t happening we should just go home tomorrow.”

“Woah…woah…are you blackmailing me? Are you saying if I don’t sleep with you that you will just go home? You’ll just abandon this whole world-changing event because you didn’t get to fuck me?”

“That’s not blackmail! I’m just saying maybe I don’t agree with you as much as I used to. I mean, who am I to change the world anyways? It’s not even my job; everyone should just take care of themselves. I’m an American and believe in people pulling themselves up by their boot-straps, so I’m not here to help out these charity cases. They need to fix their own problems.”

“You have fucking superhuman powers! You can bring about a new age of peace, something humanity has never known, and you’re hung up on me sleeping with you? Like you said, I’m sure when you’re powerful lots of women will want to sleep with you! Fuck them, not me.”

“Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, but in the end I can only take care of myself and my family. They have to come first. If we aren’t leading a happy life, how could I possibly help anyone else? Trying to change the world is a nice idea and all, but come on, don’t be so naïve.”

“You are such an asshole! You have the power to do anything, but you can’t see past your own fucking nose!”

“Well, like I said, I don’t think this is going to work…”

“You stupid motherfucker,” Fadilah called as she grabbed him and pushed him onto the bed. She ripped off his clothing and started to remove her own.

“Wait, slow down, wait, just a second,” Boswell said, surprised but pleased. He sensed his arousal, which had been constant since she’d entered the room, was becoming overly enthusiastic in relation to this sudden change in events. He could smell her foreign aroma surrounding him as she clambered on top of him.

“You said you wanted to fuck me, so here it is, fuck me and then finish our plan, we need you,” Fadilah growled menacingly as she mounted him and moved her pelvis over his.

“Just…wait…wait…no…stop!” he shouted as he accidentally threw her across the room and through the outer wall of the hotel where she plunged 12 stories, breaking her body on the pavement below. Panicking, his pants sticky and damp with his wasted sperm, he leapt out the hole her body had created and spent the next few moments flying back to his home in the United States.

The remaining years of his life were spent in relative happiness. Occasionally while eating dinner, Boswell would turn on the news to see some new massacre or horror perpetrated on a group of primitive foreigners in a country he’d heard the name of once but nearly forgotten. On these occasions he would pause over his food and think to himself maybe he really should do something about all this tragedy in the world. He’d make a mental note to put it on his to-do list, right below exercise and cleaning the gutters.

The Pile – Chapter One

Despite what they believed, Raymond Clock and Nico Leftiè were neither heroes nor in love. They were villains. Especially Raymond, as you will plainly see.

The young couple met while volunteering at one of Nico’s famous luxury homeless shelters, a more romantic setting than one might imagine[1]. Ms. Leftiè, an outrageously wealthy orphan, had invested a substantial portion of her inheritance in a nationwide chain of gourmet, five-star soup kitchens and top-of-the-line homeless resorts. She firmly believed if the downtrodden masses got a taste of comfort and the fruits of success through her philanthropic enterprise, it would awaken a powerful drive to rectify their lives and modify their desperate circumstances.

The shelters, named “Leftiè’s Luxury Suites for the Temporarily Monetarily Disinclined,” or “the LLS’s” as they were more commonly known, were a smashing success in terms of popularity and usage. Packed to bursting every evening, Nico attributed her venture’s fame and pristine reputation to her commitment to excellence, choosing only the finest fabrics and linens to adorn the opulent rooms. While perhaps not precisely in line with her initial intentions for the project, the regal splendor had the effect of sowing a very particular sort of attitude and mindset within LLS regulars. Non-LLS frequenting street denizens[2] scoffed at the snooty airs adopted by the “LL’essers,” their sneering label for this new caste of privileged destitute. LLS inhabitants, in turn, looked down on their unsophisticated former compatriots who, according to a common joke, couldn’t tell a Frette from a Bellino. Nico glowed with pride whenever she overheard this sort of jocular banter drifting down the immaculate corridors of her facilities.

Her one concern, two years into her project, was the troubling statistic that not a single resident had ever filled out a job application or enrolled in any of the generously funded self-actualization seminars given on a weekly basis at each LLS location. To counter her concern, she soothed her mind with the thought that real and sustainable progress takes time and patience, and that she couldn’t expect to change the world overnight. The fact that the LLS initiative had single-handedly reduced the homeless population of the United States of America by 89% also offered a reasonable measure of consolation to the young heiress. The remainder were concentrated in enclaves existing in the more barren parts of Arizona, as well as pockets of “back-to-our-roots” non-housed radicals who believed the LLS system corrupted their pursuit of the Diogenic ideal[3].

Nico, who maintained a permanent residence on the top floor of every LLS, occasionally enjoyed anonymously volunteering at one of her shelters. She believed this enhanced her understanding of the plight of the homeless on the micro level as it gave her access to the fullness of the LLS experience. She was equally pleased with the chance it gave her to wear the traditional black-and-white maid uniform the lavish flop-houses required their volunteers to don during their shifts. The attention she received from the male volunteers made her feel superior, knowing at any moment she could overwhelm whatever lustful young man was currently harassing her by revealing her true identity. As much as she hated the men who believed her body and attention were their right, she reveled in the shocking potential potency of her own cloaked power suddenly unveiled in the name of divine justice. On more than one occasion she had unleashed the wrath of the legal gods she paid well to destroy lives in need of destroying.

The day they met, Raymond was volunteering as a bellhop at the flagship LLS near his residence in Georgetown.  It was the autumn prior to the moment NFVS began ravaging human society, and on this day the young man noted a sensation of potential energy lazily loitering around him, waiting for a catalyst.

Mr. Clock knew[4] this was a rare moment of Kairos. The drudgery of living in the present was heightened with a tension that invigorated and excited him. Even when considering the pointless aspects of his life: his job, his hobbies, his interests, his volunteer work at the LLS, his passions, his goals; for some reason today seemed less inane. His thoughts paused on the LLS and he wondered why he still dragged himself there three times a week.

Philosophically, Raymond found the concept of the LLS absurd, believing that human beings would never react to the external stimuli of comfort with a desire to work hard. Raymond knew his species to be shortsighted and essentially lazy creatures, requiring the proper brand of motivation to inspire them to greatness. He held that any human could be whatever they decided to be, but that they needed some defined force to steer the initial decision.  In that respect, his work at the LLS was senseless, but he found humor in the irony of volunteering to participate in an act he knew to be futile. He took pride in knowing he knew that his actions contradicted his beliefs. Besides, if he factored in the girls running around in the French-Maid outfits and the fact that the LLS was a five-minute walk from his home, he acknowledged there were certainly worse places to check the box of obligatory volunteerism[5].

As a member of the self-aware middle-middle class, Raymond had a severe allergy to anything tainted with the slightest hint of the Myopic Bourgeoisie (MB). He knew that his hatred of the MBs was driven half by his annoyance with the self-serving, entitled idiots who filled out the demographics’ limitless ranks and half out of the fear that he was, underneath all of his vaunted self-awareness and lofty ideals, just another asshole MB who thought he was special. So he was understandably self-conscious whenever he walked around his neighborhood in his LLS uniform. Most of the other volunteers were avowed MBs: self-righteous yuppies looking for a quick and easy feel-good fix. He was terrified that strangers would stereotype him in the same way he stereotyped stereotypical LLS volunteers as he walked the two blocks from his door to the Georgetown location.

To prevent such aspersions from soiling his image in the minds of complete strangers, he would often dress in the garb of a homeless individual, walk to the LLS, and change into his uniform in a stall inside the lobby’s lavatory. It was in one of these impeccably carved oak stalls, each with their own Toto Neorest SE and roll of artisanal toilette cloth[6], that Raymond Clock could be found on this specific autumn day participating in his usual costumed ritual. He pulled on the expensive thick-velvet maroon bellhop uniform, dictated as the dress code for male LLS volunteers, and exited the stall and bathroom. He crossed the highly polished Pietra Firma Luxtouch tiles, and made his way to a side room that served as the posh bellhop-holding area. In this porter purgatory, Raymond was subjected to the color commentary of his MB colleagues. Their conversations spanned the full spectrum of human pursuits including by not limited to[7]:

Romance

MB #1: Charles! How’s thy pieceth? Still getting it in?

MB #2: Nope. I droppedeth that slut last week after yonder hoe brought up the idea of moving in together. Could you even imagine? Move in with that bitcheth?

MB #1: Damn, bitch had some mad titeths on her though. Thou meteth her at Wicked Willy’s, right?

MB #2: Helleth yeah. Crazy bitch waseth wasted and working that pole. All I did was flashesth some of that sweet, sweet casheth and the slut was sold. I was fuckin’ trashed, so I was pretty stoked wheneth I awoke and she waseth hot.

MB #1: And the whore thought you’d let her move in? Fuckin’ sluts be crazeth. Can I get her number?

Politics

MB #1: Tristan! You make it out of New York alright, cur?

MB #2: What do you mean?

MB #1: Yonder fucking poors outsideth the NYSE.

MB #2: Ha! Bunch of fags and feminazi sluts. We got the proper authorities to beateth the shit out of ‘em when they tried to block the entrance.

MB #1: Jealous bitches. Haterz gonna hate, bro. Don’t let that shit get to you, What Would Ayn Rand do, am-I-right?

MB #2: Hells to the yeah, curseph. Fashion Meets Finance was that night so I fucked a bitcheth extra hard in honor of the leeches. That’s what that bitcheth Rand would do. Heard she was a freaketh.

Art

MB #1: Hambleton! Fuck you! I saw you and your bitch at Tosca the other night!

MB #2: My B, cur. I didn’t even see you. Why were you even at that faggoty shit? Shit was wacketh as fuck.

MB #1: My number one slut dragged me along. I heard Wellington Sneath was going to be there, so I went to get a better seat than yon fucker.

MB #2: Knave’s such a prick. Doesn’t his father own the fuckin’ opera house though? How’d thou scoreth a better spot?

MB #1: His father owes my father for investing in some fracking shit out in West Virginia cousin-fuckin’ county or whatever a few years ago. So I called up my father and told him what I needed and he made shit happen. You shoulda seen that fag’s face when I sat down.

MB #2: Epic shit, yo-eth. Ha! How far did you get before you fell asleep?

MB #1: I didn’t even watch that shit. I just brought a lamp and worked on the KZQ-MBT merger.

MB #2: Nice, cur! Classic! By the way, is that shit going down this spring?

MB #1: Don’t tell anyone, but…

And so on.

His mind always flashed to the fate of the unfortunate Clyde Griffiths whenever he took a seat in the bellhop lounge. Unlike that yutz Griffiths, however, his eyes were wide open to the corruptions and seductions surrounding him. It was more likely he was playing the part of the worldly Eddie Doyle while the other bellhops were his naïve protégés. Whenever he suffered through their failings, he’d always remind himself it was not their fault, and that he was unquestionably responsible for guiding and influencing those with fewer deposits in the intellectual bank. He also felt sufficiently self-aware to recognize how condescending this worldview made him, so he settled on an arrangement where he would grudgingly admit his superiority only as long as he also believed he was a horrible person for considering himself superior. It was a constant mental battle resulting in an ouroboros of self-critique and analysis. Though he struggled, he was confident he was both equal to and horrible for being equal to the challenge.

While an easy assignment for those who didn’t feel responsible for the quality of life of the residents, volunteering as a bellhop at an LLS was physically and emotionally taxing for Raymond. The demand for the charity room service provided for the residents, with meals prepared around the clock by a cadre of volunteer chefs personally screened by Nico, always outstripped the supply of labor available from the corps of volunteers. Delays in service often led to a high level of emotional and physical abuse directed at weak bellhops by the unfortunate masses huddled in their master suites. The intensity of trauma inflicted on the maroon-clad workforce was such that every LLS required a volunteer clinical psychologist during each shift to counsel and support the browbeaten staff. The other volunteer bellhops came back for the volunteer maids, who were plentiful, often from respectable families, and already in a hotel bedroom. Raymond came back for the abuse.

After Williams, an investment banker with the MBiest of MB backgrounds, returned from a call with a face full of caviar, thrown at him by a resident who was perturbed his request for Beluga was filled with substandard Sterlet, it was Raymond’s turn to serve the less-fortunate. As usual, he did not have to wait long before an order for poached quail eggs on brioche toast points with jamon iberico and truffled hollandaise and a bone china demitasse of kopi luwak came less than a minute later. Springing into action, the indomitable Mr. Clock meandered out of the posh room and made his way down the mahogany-paneled back hallways leading to the LLS kitchens.

His entrance was greeted by a familiar volunteer saucier, an interesting-appearing young woman of whom he’d always been too intimidated to strike up a sustained conversation. Such an exchange would inevitably put his external façade of hipness under a microscope, something he feared above all else. He preferred maintaining his illusion of cool through the calculated implementation of aloof and casual world-weary remarks he spent hours perfecting before deploying them into the field.

Today, besides the usual spotless white chef garb provided by LLS, the saucier wore heavy olive combat boots, black stockings, and a billowing midnight-dyed skirt. Her liberally pierced ears indicated to Raymond she was steeped in the type of progressive, independent culture within which he believed he would feel most comfortable. He often thought of himself as an exiled member of this culture, born through unlucky chance into the stifling environment of Midwestern suburbia, forever hoping to meet the right sort of person who could lead him home. Every time he came into contact with someone exuding an aura or wearing paraphernalia associated with this independent tribe, he held his breath in hopes that this was the individual he’d been waiting for; the one who would introduce him to a subculture whose members understood the world in the same way he did. He often daydreamed of meeting this group: people who watched the right films, listened to the right music, read the right books, believed in the right philosophies, and, most importantly, wanted to talk about it[8].

Raymond presented his prepared quip; something about the irony of stereotypes and his recent involvement with an Italian diplomat he’d encountered by chance at a Driving to the Mall to Die concert. This man had invited Raymond to ride on his Vespa which, because he was a diplomat, possessed a diplomatic license plate. So Raymond had spent a surreal night riding to underground clubs on the back of a diplomatic Vespa. Though the saucier smiled appreciatively at the diversity and depth each element of the story implied his life possessed, he sensed her smile was more strained than usual[9].
He gathered the items for his delivery and departed the kitchen in haste before the saucier had time to intimate any further non-verbal indictments of Raymond’s being. Silently cursing himself for his obscene misstep, he made his way towards the elevator. Once safely alone within the ornate machine and climbing towards the twenty-second floor, he began considering the full repercussions to what he had done. This was an unfortunate turn of events. Between mocking his fellow bellhops and potentially meeting the right sort of people in the kitchen, Raymond reflected that he’d enjoyed volunteering at the LLS. But after today’s disaster, he could never again show his face.

Instead of dwelling on his shame and bemoaning his upcoming drought of French Maid costume wearing women, he focused on the next few steps of his plan of action. After dropping off this final delivery, he would change into his civilian clothes, stop by the manager’s office, explain that a sudden increase in his workload prohibited his continuation as an LLS volunteer, turn in his uniform, and walk home.  He might even stop at that new Thai restaurant just down the street. It would certainly be nice if a decent Thai place moved into the neighborhood. While the current selection wasn’t horrible, they weren’t restaurants he could let slip in conversations that he lived within walking distance of and knew the menu of by heart and suggest that everyone try the pla rad prik and ask for Sven.

As Raymond created a list of potential benefits stemming from potentially having the best Thai food in the city right outside his door, the distinctive ding of the LLS elevator[10] disrupted his meditation and announced his arrival at the presidential suite. He stepped out with resolve, unconditionally sure of the course his life would take over the next thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on whether he felt like Thai. He strode to the door, knocked vigorously, and dropped every dish he was carrying as soon as it opened.

Standing in the entrance was not the scrupulously kempt scruff of the typical aged LLS patron; rather Raymond was facing an astounding woman in her mid-twenties[11].

The woman in the open doorframe scrutinized him with her large, expressive eyes, which betrayed a mild shock buried beneath layers of effortless condescension. The impression one immediately derived from her manner was a demand for excellence, an intolerance for anything less than ones’ definitive best. It seemed that whenever an individual breathed the same air as this person, they were seized by a sudden, frantic desire to justify their existence. These sorts of situations offered a clear choice to the unlucky plebian: either attempt to rise to meet her as an equal, or be crushed under the weight of her unfulfilled expectations.

The delicacy of her physical features did nothing to diminish these overwhelming qualities.  Her pale complexion was complimented by vaguely non-Anglo-Saxon features and dark hair, which was cropped short and streaked with a deep blue line running from the crown of her head to her left temple.  Her slight frame was handsomely clad in the LLS-mandated French maid outfit. Even were he not scrambling to gather the shattered glass and smashed quail eggs while sopping up the hollandaise and kopi luwak quickly soaking into the cream-colored carpets of the hallway, Raymond would have been too astonished by the woman before him to formulate something worth saying[12].

Instead, he steeled himself for the trials ahead, forced a laugh, and claimed he was an idiot[13]. He laughed again, apologized profusely, and said something about how he’d always been unforgivably clumsy. Finally finished cleaning what he could and feeling an adequate level of self-assurance, he stood and faced the figure in the doorway with the remnants of her order clutched in his arms.

For her part, Nico was passingly intrigued by the awkwardly formal young man. His movements were stiff and fitful, like a bargain bin android. He was transparent in his desire for her to think well of him, but buried beneath his embarrassment and false modesty was a hint of defiant masculine pride.

In addition to his demeanor, Nico noted a distinct physical appearance. His delicate, shadowed features gave the impression of an abused fragility of spirit, a notion reinforced by his minimal musculature and distressingly poor padding for his thin frame. His unnaturally light skin was topped with an unkempt mop of taupish hair, with mottled azure and sky blue eyes. His eyes struck her more than anything. Despite his air of desperation, his eyes were steady and intense. They burned with an indefatigable sense of purpose that seemed at odds with his insubstantial body, and she felt a nuanced pity for this sickly creature.

And so, imagining herself a fair Esmeralda deigning to help a poor grotesque, Nico allowed him to talk.

“So where would you like this?” Raymond inquired, forcing a smile as he slightly hefted his shard filled arms.

“Oh, please just put it anywhere, though I always take my meals in bed.” Nico joked to help him feel more comfortable in her presence.

Raymond moved into the room and dumped the full contents of the shattered chaos onto the luxurious bed.

“What are you doing!?” Nico snapped with genuine alarm. While her pity disappeared in the face of his patriarchal arrogance, she permitted him to explain.

“I was not going to judge your desires and your habits. Everyone has the right to live in the way they choose as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. I figured you taking your meals on your bed, even meals in less-than-ideal condition, was just one of those personal peccadilloes we all have. It is not for me to judge.” He proclaimed triumphantly, immensely proud that he had accomplished his goals of eliciting a reaction from her that was not cloaked in condescension, found an opportunity to establish that he was substantial, and used the word ‘peccadillo’ in a sentence.

Though Nico could tell this was a rehearsed recitation, and she was still put off by his poor sense of humor, she admitted to herself that she felt a twinge of admiration as she watched him exploit such a petty moment to wax philosophic.

“Well anyway, you ruined my bed with your stupid prank. Who are you?”

Internally quavering from the force of her words, Raymond re-centered himself and replied, just as he’d practiced so many times while standing at home in front of his closet mirror, “Why, I’m Raymond Clock. Who are you?”

He spoke as if reading from a script, which activated the impish part of Nico’s brain with an idea.

“Before we get to who I am, I have another question for you.”

Raymond performed an ungainly bow in his bellhop finery and nearly fell over as he answered, “I’m quite obviously at your service.”

“Indeed. So let’s say a man has pointed a gun at your face…”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“…and pulls the trigger…”

“That’s even more unfortunate. Did I do something in particular to this man?”

“Don’t ask questions, just listen,”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Now then, you have three separate scenarios to choose from: one in which the bullet takes 10 seconds to reach you, one in which the bullet takes 10 minutes to reach you, and one in which the bullet takes 10 hours to reach you. First, what would you spend your time doing during each of those scenarios and second, which one of the three would you prefer?”

Raymond narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as if trying to get a better look at her. “Why did you ask me that?”

Making no effort to hide her disappointment, Nico said, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You can just leave all that there, thank you.”

As he shuffled to the door, Raymond looked pensive before finally saying, “You know, I asked why you asked me that because I’ve actually asked that question to people before and…well it was a bit odd to hear it coming from someone else.”

It was now Nico’s turn to be disarmed. She paused before she spoke, making sure to phrase her thoughts correctly, “You’ve asked this question before? Where and when did you hear it?”

“I made it up.”

“That’s not possible, I created this question.”

“Well, I mean my question is a bit different. I thought of it while on a rather turbulent plane ride and imagined the plane crashing into something; a building, a mountain, whatever.”

“You thought of that while on a plane?”

“Yes, why?”

“Why would you do that to yourself?”

“Do what?”

“Well, that’s a pretty morbid thought.”

“As opposed to being shot in the face with a bullet?”

“Well yes, but that doesn’t involve actively thinking about dying with everyone around me.”

“I suppose, but anyways, what I imagine is seeing the explosion or whatever as it’s rushing up this metal tube towards me. There’s no escape, there’s certain death, so really it’s all just about the length of time it takes for that death to reach you.  In my scenario I even give 75 years as an option.”

“75 years on an airplane? Who in the world would choose that? Give me a quick, fiery death.”

“I think there’s a certain beauty in seeing your own death and embracing it on your terms. For me the image of being consumed by inevitable flames is much nicer than being shot in the head with a bullet.”

“The beauty of death is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. You say you’ve asked people before, to who?”

Raymond reddened, “Well…I mean…mostly…women?”

Nico laughed at his embarrassment, “I bet you’re a real gem on dates.”

Raymond grinned back at her, “Like you wouldn’t believe. Want to hear another question?”

Nico smiled in spite of herself, “Well you didn’t answer my question, but I suppose I do.”

Encouraged, Raymond began reciting, “You’re given the most beautiful thing in the world, okay?”

“What do you mean ‘The most beautiful thing in the world’? How’s that defined?”

“It’s just something defined as the most beautiful thing in the world.”

“How did I come across this magical beautiful thing? Why is someone giving it to me? How long do I get to have it?

“Hold on! Just a moment! Let me ask the question first!”

“Well then get to it, please.”

“Alright, so, you’ve got the most beautiful thing in the world, but as part of the bargain of receiving it you have to choose one of three options. The first option is you have to look at it every day for the rest of your life for a minimum of one hour. The second option is to look at it once and then never again. The final option is to never look at the most beautiful thing in the world ever. Which one would you choose?”

“Well, that’s a slightly better question to ask on a date at least. Do these women you go out with swoon as your deep and gentle soul discusses the nature of temporal beauty?”

Raymond was embarrassed again. He’d revealed something important to him, information that left him more vulnerable than he’d intended.

Seeing his hurt expression, Nico changed her tone, “Oh I’m only teasing you. I‘d choose the second option because the first option would make this beautiful thing mundane and the last option would make me a coward. The second option understands the importance of experiences and how beauty works.”

“Yes…yes! That’s…That’s exactly what I say as my answer!”

“It’s a bit sad though, particularly if you’re talking to a potential romantic partner.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, if you’re saying beauty and your appreciation for that beauty is based on frequency or level of exposure, why would anyone think you’d be someone they could be with long-term? Wouldn’t your exposure to the ‘beauty’ of that person’s wit or intellect or physical features cause their beauty to fade in your eyes so that it becomes mundane?”

“Well, I see how you could get that…that’s something I didn’t entirely consider…I think because the way I look at it, if you’re going to be with someone for quite some time you’d find a new part of their beauty in every action or every shared experience. So if that person is the most beautiful thing in the world to you, you get to experience a new aspect of that beauty every day as situations are constantly changing.”

“Doesn’t the first option imply that though? Couldn’t you do that by seeing the thing for one hour every day?”

“I suppose, so maybe I just talked myself into a different answer. Or maybe both answers are right and it just depends on the relationship, if we’re talking about relationships.”

The conversation had gone on for much longer than Nico had intended. She’d become more interested in this odd man than she’d ever thought possible. The way his brain worked both fascinated and frustrated her. Deciding it was time to end their dialogue before it encroached any further on the sanctum she’d built around her emotions, she finally answered his first question, “Anyways, my name is Nico Leftiè,” she hesitated and quickly added, “I’m a dancer.”

“Oh, what type of dancer are you?[14]

Nico was annoyed with herself. The dancer comment was supposed to be a joke, a triviality juxtaposed with the grandeur and implications of her name[15]. The whole point had been to observe his reaction when he discovered who he’d been chatting with. The dancer addendum was a jest, an absurd descriptor clearly dwarfed by her towering moniker. No one had ever described Nico Leftiè as a dancer. In truth, however, it was how she defined herself, and she didn’t know why she told him. Now this man knew something about her.

Dancing had been Nico’s concentration at the Millard Fillmore Preparatory Academy, an institution famed for churning out the best minds the nation’s privileged, non-working class had to offer. MF Prep’s main focus, after charging $150,000 a year for tuition, was on grooming its attendees for their future charming lives of leisure. Among the courses offered were The Logistical Challenges of Material Accumulation, The Art of Art Patronage, and Personal Imagery in the Public Conscience: Projection, Construction, and Maintenance. Nico had been the Academy’s most gifted pupil, excelling in every accelerated course the Rhode Island based institute offered.

After six years at the school, in a break from their proud traditions[16], 12-year-old Nico was asked by her handlers what she’d like to learn most. Her emphatic answer was dance. This was unprecedented; never in the history of the school had a student expressed a desire to learn something new or try. After increasing her tuition rate to justify the special request, a team of elite professional dance instructors were well compensated to teach Nico how to dance.

Due to the peculiarity of Nico’s nature, the academy felt it would be prudent to keep any news of these events closely guarded. They advised Nico to maintain her appearance as a normal MF Prep student, perfectly impermeable to the woes of the world through a patented aegis of sophisticated ennui.

It was the fear of those closest to the immense wealth of the Leftie Fortune that any deviation from the measured vapidity ingrained in MF Prep pupils would destabilize their comfortable existence. These anxieties reached a fevered pitch when Nico legally changed her name by adding an accent grave to her second “e.” While the official line coming from Nico’s camp stated the change stemmed from her desire to distance herself from a blood-soaked heritage, in reality Nico felt the è looked artistic and gave her name a sense of European urbanity. This reasoning was kept among board members who held that an heiress who cares about anything is a loose cannon and threatens stock prices.

Those of her hangers-on who were in the know also blamed the LLS disaster on Nico’s “abnormal” passion for dance. If she were true to the principles of an MF Prep education, she would be gallivanting around Monaco like her peers instead of wasting her time and fortune on the homeless. However, as a family with a history of slight paranoid schizophrenia, the Lefties had taken every precaution to protect their money, ensuring Nico’s riches were hers and hers alone to squander. When Nico’s father and mother, Felix Leftie and Yoshi Fukui, met their unfortunate end in a tragic ritual suicide accident when Nico was 11, the quality of the legal documents safeguarding transfer of the Leftie Fortune to Nico were unimpeachable. This meant that the criticisms of the sycophants surrounding her served merely as background noise in Nico’s life.

After 16 years of intensive instruction, Ms. Leftiè, with the help of a team of internationally known dance professionals, felt ready to strike out on her own. Though dance was something she was eager to pursue, she was also practical. Nico knew that once her passions, the reinforcing support beams of her psyche, were exposed, she would be left in a position of increased emotional vulnerability. Overtly caring about something would expose her to potential critiques; attacks on her artistic essence. Her challenge was in finding a way to limit her disclosures while still expressing herself through dance as much as possible. She normally approached the idea of going public with extreme caution. But here, in this room, her psychological acrobatics had suffered a disastrous dismount.

“I studied the art of post-performance dance, a fairly new school of thought within the dance world. It aims to affect audiences through what we like to call ‘dance deprivation.’”

“Dance deprivation[17]?”

With a tone of disappointment accompanied by a thrilling mental rush that she may be able to salvage the situation, Nico elaborated, “Dance deprivation is the delta between the audience’s expectation of a dance performance and the reality of no such performance actually ever existing.”

Raymond was firmly committed to possessing the character trait of considering no art too strange or experimental. The philosophy he chose to believe in held that every fringe art movement had value and every aesthetic sensibility should be tolerated and promoted, if for no other reason than to add to the diversity of an otherwise inane human existence. Whenever he witnessed a person experience and reject a challenging piece, he couldn’t help, nor did he wish to deny, feeling a sense of superior sophistication and aesthetic understanding. He held that his personal enjoyment of a work should have very little to do with his designation of a work as good or bad. For Raymond, the lack of universal aesthetic rules meant that labeling any art as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was an absurd exercise in futility.

The implementation of his philosophy was stymied, however, by the terror he felt at being associated with anything the caste of professional critics who served as official arbiters of taste labeled “bad.” Though he told himself he didn’t believe in their pronouncements, he was careful to publicly carry their cumbersome water in order to maintain his own credibility. Using this strategy, he achieved a feeling of even greater superiority. By ensuring he followed the defined guidelines of good taste, his public palate remained immune to any possible official censure, and by not actually believing in those guidelines, he was able to cast himself as a vanguard of the post-aesthetic world.

Now he was confronted with an extraordinary person with an artistic idea he’d never heard before. Raymond thought this concept was exactly the type of idea the person he defined himself as should accept as an example of challenging Post-Avant-Garde art. But he was horrified to discover, through the way she was looking at him right now, that he might be representing himself as more conservative than she. Wasn’t it obvious from his demeanor that he valued the contributions of Cy Twombly? He was seized with a desperation to prove his universal acceptance of artistic concepts.

“That’s an interesting idea,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster. “When will the next non-performance occur?”

Vaguely surprised by his answer but assuming he was merely trying to ingratiate himself through blandly positive remarks, she replied, “We don’t put on non-performances as events, we plant them as potential ideas within the mind of a potential audience. See, look at this.” She grabbed that day’s New York Times from the gilded nightstand. “This’s what we create: impressions of the prospect of dance.”

Nico opened the paper to a full-page advertisement nestled in Culture. The spread featured a picture of a woman who appeared to be dancing on an anonymous stage. The only text on the page read, in bold, blocked capital letters “DANCE: NOVEMBER 13.”

In almost every circumstance, when discussing a work of art with its creator, Raymond intentionally avoided offering critical suggestions, instead focusing on what the piece made him feel or think. His reasoning behind this practice was simple: first, he didn’t want to be rude to the creative who’d infused their work with a piece of themselves. And second, he was terrified the artist would think he was a fraud who didn’t “get” difficult art. He’d never considered himself a creative person – satisfied with the roles of deep thinker and patron of the arts – so he felt completely unqualified to remark with any authority on the work of another. His usual nightmares began with a vision of hip people with cool tattoos talking about cool things while wearing cool clothes and hanging out in cool places[18].

Here, with Nico’s concept of “Dance Deprivation,” however, he felt for the first time he had something substantial to contribute. Hurling caution into the grasping hands of Boreas, Raymond offered his suggestion.

“What if you added a location to this impression? Wouldn’t that increase the deprivation delta?”

The impact of this suggestion on Nico’s world was profound. Her next few seconds were replete with wide-eyed blinking, descending lower mandibles, and a subtle body-wide shiver. Who was this person and what were his qualifications? In perfecting her dance deprivation project, she’d worked with a team comprised of top conceptual artists, choreographers, and marketing engineers. Her commitment to credentialing the project above reproach was absolute. But here was just some person from the streets, volunteering in a business she owned and wearing clothes she’d selected, trying to tell her how to improve her work. And as far as Nico was concerned, it was a marvelous suggestion.

The summation of the entirety of her life experiences informed her that good ideas did not materialize out of the minds of unqualified and unpaid sources.  Her next question was entirely practical, uttered in the tone she employed when dealing with subordinate business associates who tried to play coy with offers.

“How much do you want for that idea?”

The abrupt change from personally approachable to professional adversarial was jarring. Dismayed but not broken, Raymond hoped a pleasant and engaging demeanor would reassure her that he was not some god-awful opportunist.

“It’s a suggestion. I don’t want anything for it; I was talking to you about your work and thought that idea might be nice.”

But any hopes he held that his statement contained restorative elements were shredded as he watched her face cloud with righteous anger.

“Who do you think you’re talking to? Everyone wants something. You don’t just say things expecting to receive nothing in return. Even our biological impulses for altruism are underpinned by our desire to preserve our genetic line. We’re not reinventing the wheel with this conversation. So, I’ll ask again, how much do you want for that idea?”

With a sudden swell of emotions inspiring an honesty he hadn’t used in the presence of another human being since he first became self-aware, Raymond’s words tumbled forth in a muddled torrent. “I think you’re right, I do want something. I want to demonstrate to you that I’m worth talking to; that I’m someone with whom you’d want to hold a conversation. I want to continue talking to you and learn what you think about everything in the world. Finally, I’m trying to validate my own estimation of my self-worth.”

“Please leave my room, Mr. Clock.”

Feeling what he was sure to be a purity of emotion untainted by his usual analytical neurosis, he listened to himself say, “Yes, I understand. I am very sorry.” After which he strode proudly out the door.

In a noticeably softer tone, Nico called after him, “One moment, please.”

Raymond ceased his haughty promenade, stiffly halting just outside the entrance.

This was it. He’d played this instant in his head thousands of times, memorizing every sensory-rich nanosecond. He knew what she would say, he knew how he’d respond, and he knew what it would mean to his future. As he turned, time flowed around him with the inexorable grace of orbiting celestial bodies. He was filled with equal measures breathless anticipation and soul-shrinking fear. Though he had no doubts pertaining to the events about to transpire, he feared that this, his most hallowed of occasions, would not meet his lofty expectations[19].

Now standing, facing Nico and his destiny, Raymond braced his heart for the force with which this whirlwind of transformation would sweep his old life away. In a controlled tone, speaking as if acting within a lucid dream, Raymond quietly addressed his future, “Yes?”

“Before you go, could I please have your contact information? My lawyers will be in touch regarding the acquisition of your idea. It is a good idea and I’d like to use it.”

Raymond remained standing, facing Nico. He was frozen in place as he pored over the words, trying to glean their true meaning. What he’d experienced couldn’t really be what’d happened. What she’d said couldn’t really be what she’d said. He’d known this moment; it couldn’t be anything other than the predetermined event he’d spent his whole life imagining. But he couldn’t understand what she meant. What was she implying? With a humble confidence rooted in absolute faith in his vision, Raymond asked her to elucidate.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean. You want my contact information?”

“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” Nico responded with an exasperated, candid perplexity. “How do I make this clearer? I really like your idea and I want to use it. Is that possible?”

He considered what she was saying, tamping down the molten ball of panic creeping up his chest. For the first time since the conversation began, he felt doubt in meaning and outcome. In order to remain in control of his mind until he found a psychologically safe location to disintegrate, he chose to put off considering the consequences of his mistake. Remaining physically functional was now his primary concern.

“That’s fine, here’s my card.” Raymond intoned as he mechanically reached into his pocket to retrieve an outdated business card from an unpaid internship he’d held at a now-defunct newspaper. He no longer worked at that particular paper, but his current position as an orderly at Serene Green’s House for the Intellectually Unique didn’t afford him the opportunity to create a new, appropriately representative name card.

Nico politely accepted the card and thanked him for his time.

Raymond drifted home in a fog of repressed despair.

[1] If one were a classist bigot towards the homeless.

[2] Few and proud though they were.

[3] Though cardboard boxes serve as poor substitutes for wooden barrels.

[4] According to his official autobiography and subsequent interviews.

[5] A culturally rather than legally obligatory practice. To not volunteer was to signal one’s lack of virtue to elite American society.

[6] Designed by Nico and exclusively manufactured for use in the LLS’s.

[7] Names have obviously been changed to protect the innocent.

[8] Thinking about the extended period for which he’d waited on this fantasy savior depressed him. However, it also infused him with the belief that perhaps this idealized culture might not even exist and that he was inherently special. This was something he never let himself acknowledge, but when calculating the raw data measuring these emotional triggers and the resulting release of serotonin and dopamine within his brain, empirically speaking, Raymond quantitatively enjoyed the idea that he might be unique more than he valued the potential of meeting his mental kinfolk. His refusal to submit to his natural arrogance caused him to violently reject these thoughts whenever they manifested within his consciousness. But they were always there, drifting on the periphery of his psyche.

By constraining his interactions with individuals who had the potential to change his life to pithy statements laboriously constructed to demonstrate that he was a person who possessed the traits he believed the theoretical person he would respect should respect, he was able to protect himself from exposure as a fraud . The barrier also served to enshrine the object of his delusions in a protective and idealistic bubble. He would not reveal himself and could continue to imagine the object of his utopian vision was exactly the person he wanted them to be. Raymond, acknowledging this strategy was cowardly, mitigated the negative impact of that label by also believing it was pragmatic. Ultimately, he felt that as much as he suppressed it, his secret belief that he was special meant he would never find the person or culture he was looking for. Therefore living in this fantasy world of cursory encounters with people he could idealize might be the closest he would ever come to feeling fulfilled or connected to any other human being. In his mind, his naïve belief in an idealized human’s potential was a superior worldview to the realist’s certainty of that same individual’s inescapable failings.

[9] Immediately, he began analyzing each feature of the information he’d just relayed; assessing potential vulnerabilities. He was sure Driving to the Mall to Die was a well-regarded band in almost every circle. The majority of their albums had received a high 7 or mid-8 on Meatstick (A website Raymond abhorred for its taste-making elitism and pretense, but read regularly to make sure he didn’t commit a faux pas in his professed aesthetic preferences in front of anyone who pretentiously cared what Meatstick had to say). Sure, Eat Burgers to Save Lives had received a 6, but it was a high 6! Anyway, she couldn’t possibly believe that album was his favorite DttMtD album. Another possibility flashed through his cerebral cortex: maybe she was concerned that DttMtD’s music had been used in a few commercials and films. He dismissed this idea as well, as he’d considered this potential landmine when originally crafting the story. He’d deemed it a safe reference with the saucier because he was positive he’d referenced enough obscure music and art in her presence to achieve credibility in her mind, safeguarding against any confusion that his taste was tainted with any tawdry commercialism. Perhaps it had something to do with the Italian diplomat? And just then, a thunderbolt rent his brain in twain: what if she thought he was racist for talking about stereotypes, Italians and, Vespas? Startled by this idea, one he had never even considered given that the irony of stereotypes was one of the themes of his tale, Raymond anxiously reflected on the prospect, eventually deciding this must be the reason for her muted reaction. His mind frantically raced to gather itself and send its corporeal extension into crisis response mode.

[10] A ding Nico had selected after passing over fifty other elevator dings presented to her by the leading brand in the elevator ding industry.

[11] Raymond had spent many weeks’ worth of accumulated time throughout his interminable twenty-six years imagining the moment he would meet the woman who would save his life. Everything he rabidly and doggedly drove himself to experience and every nuance in the character he had meticulously crafted for the role he wished to fill was done in preparation for that moment. He’d left a part of himself open at all times in anticipation, veritably hurtling through his life, bouncing from one experience to another as he desperately sought to find her, whoever she was. He was always ready, completely willing, and, as far as he was concerned, totally able for that one long-awaited figure to appear before him. Unfortunately, all of his plans and preparations were for naught as he watched them crash to the ground with those hand-crafted porcelain dishes and a significant portion of his ego.

[12] Perhaps, he thought, his floundering about on the floor with the remnants of her dinner was a happy coincidence, for it gave him time to gather his wits. It was as if he’d encountered an ethereal entity; a figure from a classical mural suddenly sprung to life; the perfect amalgamation of his idealizations wrought through his years of delusions. Every ounce of his personal will was necessary to combat his instinct to bolt down the emergency exit, not return his uniform, ignore the judgmental stares of the creatures he passed on the street who would surely lump him in with the LLS MBs, and sprint by the new Thai restaurant without even considering if the best Thai food in the city had indeed moved in next door.

[13] There was comfort in self-effacement, and it was from there he drew a great measure of his confidence. Openly admitting mistakes and teasing himself in a public setting demonstrated his sense of security and that he was willing to listen to constructive criticism.

[14] While Raymond was fully aware that Nico Leftiè was a world-renowned billionaire philanthropist in whose corporately owned clothing and building he was currently standing, his fierce commitment to treating everyone he encountered as an equal mitigated his mind-numbing terror and disorientation.

[15] Nico’s monetarily enhanced position was derived from her grandfather, Havel Leftie, who had amassed his fortune through his start-up advanced defense and weapons research firm, Leftie’s Left-Handed Bits and Bobs (LBB). The highly advanced defense research corporation specialized in outfitting clients with a southpaw-friendly arsenal while maintaining the death-dealing capabilities of alternately handed munitions. Though initially a massive failure, LBB became an overnight success in 1974 with the election of Gerald Ford as President of the United States. Ford’s emphasis on left-handed integration, the keystone of his defense policy initiatives, allowed LBB to corner the market. Once American forces fielded and became proficient in left-leaning arms, top military strategists discovered it theoretically gave their troops in the field an advantage over adversaries unused to being shot at by leftwardly fired bullets, bombs, and missiles. As American military dominance asserted itself and took advantage of the weakness of their right-handed foes, the fortunes of the Leftie clan soared.

[16] A sad necessity as Ms. Leftiè completed her MF Prep coursework tremendously early, with many years’ worth of tuition still possible.

[17] Raymond had a guess as to what she might mean, but feared being wrong more than he desired to be right, so he gambled on sounding less deeply artistic as preferential to chancing catastrophic wrongness.

[18] The group would suddenly realize they’d been infiltrated by a fake, and turn to Raymond with hatred in their eyes. He was totally uncool, not someone this elite group would ever want to keep around.  He was cast out, back into the wilderness of lonely consciousness. Then he’d wake, knowing he’d never left.

[19] Tailoring his entire being towards the pursuit of one single moment had given him clarity of purpose, but once complete, he was unsure how he’d be affected. He had peripheral goals: a career he could take pride in, making an impact on the world through some presently unknown project, and esoteric, ill-defined personal development objectives. However, these plans were all subordinate to what he knew was the aorta of his existence: finding a kindred mind he was able to love that would lead him away from the trite mediocrity engulfing him.