Originally published in Issue #2 of Orson’s Review
“I wanted to open this intake meeting with a little story about the gulag,” Jerry says.
Because of course he does. Jerry is the kind of guy who’s intellectually curious enough to have read Blood Meridian but too dense to realize he shouldn’t have quoted Judge Holden diatribes at our designer’s interoffice baby shower. He’s full of notions like these—cannibal-themed conflict resolution infographics; bring-your-(his)-pet-to-work day, the perfect opportunity show off his semi-wild ocelot; throwing a going-away kegger for the high school interns. In his mind, subversion and irreverence are telltale signs of genius. It took me a year to reconcile the fact that the execs freely label him as a fearless manager. They’re right—not because he is fearless, but because he has a layer of visceral fat roping around his brain, Homer Simpson-style, shielding him from the far-reaching destruction of his own stupidity.
Alas, this “fearless” manager is our manager.
“Can’t we just talk about projects?” Hannah asks. It feels like a unanimous question, beamed from the collective conscience of the communication team to Hannah’s mouth.
“No, we can’t. This is important. This is what we, as creative professionals, are all about. Metaphors and allegories and all that.”
“I think you mean analogies,” Emile, our copywriter, points out.
To that Jerry plops his fingers down on the edge of the table, hitting like four stern gavels. Meeting room 25A does, in some ways, resemble a court: overpolished furniture, corporate watercolors, rigid feng shui meant not so much to maximize chakra as to strangle it to a blue-faced death throe and then beat it with its own limp limbs. It’s the perfect bubble for Jerry’s brittle sense of gravitas.
“It doesn’t—look, just listen, alright? I want all of you to listen. I don’t care if I have to wait you out for the next ten staff meetings, we’re talking about the gulag.”
We all sigh in tandem. Except Sarah, of course. Digital messaging guru Sarah never sighs, at least not in frustration. She never complains, either. Never a cross word. She just stares all docile-eyed and dreamy and nods pleasantly at the madman’s resolve. I’d love to buy her secret.
“So, gulag.” Jerry cracks his knuckles—not all at once, but finger by finger, an infuriatingly slow Jiffy Pop medley. “I’m reading this historical account by Anne Applebaum. Hell of a book. Pushing a thousand pages, this thing, but I haven’t even noticed. It’s great. I got to this part last night that I think—I mean, if you really step back and take it in, really look at the whole scene, holistic, what-have-you, organic-like—it works. It really works. But you have to absorb this with an open mind, alright?”
My head feels heavy in the way things are heavy on different planets, like gravity has shifted to some lower density.
“Jerry, come on.”
He doesn’t. “Back in the day, prisoners in the gulag would go to extreme lengths to avoid work. I mean the outdoor work—the digging, mining, cutting wood, all that. It was way below zero, even during the day.”
“Yeah. It’s Russia. Cold. We know.”
“Okay, fine. Point is, they’d start hurting themselves. Eating rotten food, sticking themselves with rusty nails, even cutting parts off—” He saws one hand against his forearm, as if we wouldn’t know unless he helpfully illustrated it. “—even whole limbs sometimes. You know why?”
No one indulges him. Sarah stares blankly out the window, watching the streaky birds congregate, flutter, and regroup. The sun christens them in lemon-yellow light. I watch, too, wondering what she’s seeing and if it can release me from this plane just as it’s released her.
“Because a major injury would land them in the infirmary, that’s why. And in the infirmary, it was warm, food was plentiful, all that. It a little notch of heaven surrounded by hell.”
“What’s your point, Jer?”
“The point,” Jerry insists using a fat, erect finger, “is that avoiding the work proved to be just as much work as doing the work.”
“They were trying to survive,” Hannah points out.
“Yeah, I don’t think this one works, Jer. I could be wrong, though.” Emile’s always the diplomat, God bless ‘em. “Can we move on two item two now?”
Jerry slaps the edge of the table. “No no, it totally works! Totally. We’re not moving on until you see how it works, because it works, alright? It works.”
I wish I could say I work, but I don’t. Most days I stare. And not to daydream, either; more cowlike, my eyes seeing not so much things or surroundings but feelings, colors of boredom and monotony and the slow march of task-oriented existence. When Jerry’s done—though is he ever done?—with his gulag free-association, the four of us shuffle back to our desks and I remember the sacred truth I learned by staring at nothing from nine to five for two years straight: that, more than anything else, the long colorless rows of cubicles and partitions of Insulus, Inc.’s offices resemble feeding stalls. Staring has taught me that we’re not employees. We’re not even human. Not here, anyway. Here we’re just livestock. Cattle pushing out cud. A tired metaphor for a tired existence.
“So he’s boning up on Russian history,” Emile says, grabbing and sipping a mug of abandoned coffee as he passes the break station. “Think I can drop a human resources-as-Potemkin village metaphor on him at the next intake?”
“Is your time that invaluable to you?” I ask. “Also, Emile? I don’t think anyone uses the phrase boning up anymore. You’re a writer, dude. Get up on your craft.”
When we reach our desks and slump in to our usual still-life postures I think about that question. The value of time. Working at Insulus, I’d have lost all sense of time completely if not for the corporate white noise marking its passage. Fingertaps lacing together some new e-mail screed. The reedy push-pinch of staplers. People chewing their warmed-over lunches until only a gray, gelatinous casserole is left to swallow. Whoever heats up leftover fish in the communal microwave deserves a special corner of hell.
Time is pretty much an unbearable, jiggling mass of nothing until the last few moments of work on Friday. In these sweet denouements time is time again and the compound whine of the vents and fluorescents and softly-hissing air is like music, gorgeous music, a valediction for the two rapturous days ahead.
“How sick would you make yourself in order to avoid death?” Emile asks, kicking his feet up on his paper-strewn desk. His voice reminds me that Friday is still three long workdays ahead.
“Not this shit again.” Hannah. As usual, she hardly even looks at whoever she’s addressing. Most days you’re lucky to get just a glance or a side-eye. Her own cube is festooned with Pantone samples and paper cameos of Karl Lagerfeld, which I assume to be prerequisites to being a professional designer. “Can we please let the gulag thing die with the meeting?”
“Seriously, though. How much misery can you tolerate? Would you go day to day armless, feverish, vomiting? Stick a rusty nail in your eye? It begs the question.” Emile whips his hands behind his head to ponder it, flashing the sweatstains that run from his elbows to his ribs. Like rorschachs, those things, if you stare too deeply.
“You’re quiet over there, Pat. Whaddya think?”
I’m quiet because I’m watching Sarah. She doesn’t trudge like the rest of us, but glides, pirouetting into the row with a fresh jug of Moroccan mint tea. She bobs down onto her chair like the thread of a dandelion puff. She’s been like this for a while, but it’s taken me a while to notice how constant it is. Mondays, late nights, weekends. Always silent and serene, practically hovering over the puke-gray carpet, as if some impervious bubble is transporting her on command.
“Would you rather saw timber in the freezing cold, or stick a nail in your eye?”
Hannah finally whirls around, outraged. “Emile, enough! I’ve got a ton of work to do and I don’t need you indulging anymore dumbass Jerryisms. Please.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, still watching Sarah. “Jer’s not all wrong. This place is a gulag, most of the time. Can’t blame him for having it on the brain.”
“You ever gonna give me a serious answer?” Emile asks.
I spin around once, twice in my chair, hands folded. “Nope, don’t think so.”
He rolls his eyes. It’s enough to force him and Hannah both back into their little mercantile pods, ignoring me, ignoring anything other than binary whirrs and e-mail pings and their own private daydreams.
Sarah is mine. Her long, golden hair lays over the back of her seat like a wedding train, perfectly oblivious to the gray hell to which we’ve been condemned. She’s absolutely fine. So fine, in fact, that not even the frigid blast of the overzealous AC vent above her head can damper whatever diamond-sheathed stasis she’s achieved in her cube.
I summon the courage to stand up and cross the aisle and stand at the scratched-up edge of her graphite desk. She doesn’t look right away. She’s typing, two pointer fingers searching and pressing to the deliberate gait of a metronome. The screen glows in her orblike eyes as she hunts and pecks. The color of water under a naked moon. She’s accomplished something, some zen or whatnot, and it’s not on account of the half-empty bottle of turmeric milk nestled behind her monitor. And me being me, I can’t help but dig.
“You don’t seem to mind Jerry so much, huh?”
It’s the best I can do. She keeps tapping at the keys.
I wait. Perhaps the quietude is just shyness. “Always cool as a cucumber.”
“Can I help you?” she asks. Her mouth barely moves.
I stare at her a little while longer, at the white nimbuses hanging over the center of her eyes. Distance, then.
“Look, I’m just trying to be friendly. Nothing else.”
“There’s always something else.”
It’s taken this long to notice something’s off about her voice. It hangs strangely, lazy but also something beyond that. Pitched down and warbling, clawing its way through the bottom of a swamp.
“Nothing else,” I say, trying at once to apologize and brush it off. “I guess I just came over to find out your secret.”
“You know what I’m talking about. You hardly blink at these intake meetings. Either you’re high or buzzed or you’ve got the low-down on some kind of transcendental meditation or something, but whether you’re channeling David Lynch or Sting or whatever, I want in. Alright?” I lean in somewhat, trying to block her view. “Your secret. How the hell do I avoid wanting to wring Jerry’s neck every time he opens his stupid mouth? Or bash my head through my screen when I get another dumb proposal request? Let me in on it.”
She smirks and stares through me.
“Pat, chill,” Emile calls over the partition wall. “She’s got Recupera.”
Sarah tilts her head towards her screen, letting one or two tresses of blonde silk fall to beckon my eyes. She’s still smirking.
I look at the monitor. The video is already loading in her browser, the little gizmo-wheel whirring itself anxiously. She clicks full-screen and suddenly the black box has flashed to white. When it recedes a thumping, godless breakbeat plays tinnily through the speakers. The camera pans through the inside of a club, and though I’m hardly a clubgoer even I can see it’s too clinical to be real. The people are drinking and laughing and dancing but no one’s sweating, no one’s drunk or complaining or yelling or rubbing up creepily against another stranger. Just happy. The camera floats through a window, down a rain-slicked city street, and into a kitchen. Large, white, clean. Sun bleaching the formica, breakfast bar stretching beyond the frame. Copper saucepans and skillets hang from a pot rack and standing underneath in a frozen ring-around-the-rosie a perfect nuclear family laughs at their perfect nuclear dog.
Now the good times can last forever, says a narrator. The tone is melted butter—not unlike Sarah’s, actually. It has that same dispossessed hum, like the words aren’t so much being spoken as dripping down the path of least resistance.
I’m no longer looking at the screen, but watching it, fully aware of the vast difference between the two. A clock of computerized putty wisps into place, the minute hand swerving backward, bending as it retracts, pulling away from the center. When it’s finally free it splits again and becomes a gorgeous black scarab beetle, exquisite enough to be picked from a sacred cartouche. Its wings are as black and lustrous as coal. For a moment I forget I’m standing in Dante’s greige Inferno. My lips are breaking into a smile.
A goddamn smile.
There’s just something about it. The voice. The beetle.
Sarah’s smirk spreads to the other side of her mouth and suddenly she’s beaming, too, teeth and all. Off the beetle flies towards a watercolor sky.
Introducing Recupera, the only temporal inhibitor chip approved by the U.S. Department of Biotechnology. Whether you’re on the move or on the couch, Recupera is guaranteed to help you make more time for free time.
“Hate it or love it,” Emile chimes in, “you gotta admire the pitch.”
I’m leaning into the screen as the minute-hand scarab glides across a park, past a library, and through the window of a chrome diner to finally land on the napkin dispenser of a two-top. A happy couple picks at their food and throws their heads back and laugh, teeth glinting like glued-on Chiclets. My eyes feel dry. I haven’t blinked. Sarah cocks an eyebrow when I shoot her a look.
The process is safe and easy. Simply insert the Recupera node into your ear canal. With our handy Recupera app, you can set phases and speed perception. How and when time slows down is entirely up to you. No chemicals, no shots, no implants.
Sarah pulls her hair back a bit and there it is, nestled into her right ear: the little white knob, blinking out a sequence of gentle blue light. She pops her eyebrows in a self-congratulatory brag.
My eyes drift back towards the screen. The couple from the diner are walking through that same, shimmering park from earlier, then through the library. The woman’s hand caresses the man’s arm. Golden hour light phases through the trees and the books like watercolor. The most beautifully fake thing I’ve ever seen. My crusty, fluorescent-blasted eyes cherish every stroke.
Want to make that hot date on Friday night last for days?
Yes, if I ever decided to pretend to have a love life.
Just looking for a little more time on that lazy Saturday morning?
Not that I’m ever up, but sure.
Sunday dinner with the family not nearly long enough to catch up?
Pass for now, but I’ll keep the option open.
Recupera is the answer.
Fade to black.
“The answer?” I mouth.
“The node changes your perception of time,” Sarah intones in that revenant voice. She clicks out of the empty video screen. “I don’t know exactly how it works, but it sort of puts your cerebral cortex under a temporal illusion.”
“Tricks it,” Emile suggests.
She rolls her eyes. “You can designate certain moments to feel like they’re lasting longer than others, like—”
“Like the weekends,” I say.
She folds her hair back down over her ear. There’s a pang in my heart as the node disappears. The infantile notion that it just might stop existing if I can’t actually see it darts through my pouty brain.
“Best part about Recupera is it works on the fly. I’ve started setting my alarm five minutes early on work mornings. The node does the rest, stretching those five minutes so they feel like a few hours. It’s like I get to sleep in every day.”
“It’s not that great, Pat,” Emile tacks on. It’s only now I’m realizing how much his voice sounds like a needling little mosquito. “She talked me into it a few months ago and I’ll never use the thing again.”
“Why not?” I ask, almost challenging him.
“Because it’s fake.” He pops his head back out of his cube to give us his best half-cocked, bullshit-detecting eyebrow. “Nothing slows time. All it’s doing is what Jerry does—making a moment feel like a goddamn eternity. And I sure as hell don’t want that feeling following me around when I leave here at 5.”
“He’s just grumpy,” Sarah says. “Recupera is like playing a piano, Pat. What you put in is what you get out. If you don’t live a life worth slowing down for—”
“Like Emile?” I crack, hoping to get a laugh.
I don’t get one. “—then it’s not going to work. But if you put in the effort…”
But of course. Of course I wanna try it. There’s no greater amount than more, and no greater thing than free time. Emile thinks way too much of me. I’ll gladly get faked. Snookered. Humbugged. I’ll sell every second organ and half of the single ones for the mere illusion of a four-day weekend. For a little chip in my ear that promises so much more? My soul itself is too cheap.
The question is grinding through my teeth and over my lips before I even know what I’m saying.
“So, Sarah—they have a referral program?”
The node has been sitting in my jacket pocket since Wednesday, perfectly obedient as it waits. Letting it ferment is part of the plan. Like a birthday boy watching as a slice of cake is placed before him, I’m savoring the immediacy of the prize. Sarah’s sublime face will soon be my own. Every time she turns to look at me from across the row and flips her hair as a bit of a boast, flashing the hard, white notch blinking blue at the center of her ear, I think of my future. The manipulative bliss that awaits is good enough to hold at arm’s length for now. At this distance, I can appreciate it in a way I soon won’t be—seeing before feeling, as it were.
The rest of the week passes as it usually does, snailish and bratty. Thursdays are always a tease, as are the following mornings. Friday lunches are the threshold; from this point on, things begin to soften. A sudden formlessness sets in. An openness. The horizon unfolds like a carpenter’s ruler. It’s Friday evenings when you realize there’s no glory in suffering a career except when you’re away from the grind and you can speak about it in the abstract, like seeing a mountain you’ve conquered from a mile away and finally marveling at the height of the peak. Arm’s length.
This moment, for instance: sitting at home in my three-footed loveseat, not a decade old but stained black where my neck and arms rest against the fabric. This is the abstract. One knee a coaster for a Keystone Light, the beer purchased with the equivalent of five minutes in real desk-time, give or take. Television sucking in my attention like electric meditation. This is what it’s all about. The view.
This is when you can brag about it like a car, like a new deck, looking at it, at its shape, removed from the very thing you hate about it. The weekends are for pondering the moral good of the five days that preceded them. Friday night, Saturday, Sunday. They come in like the jaws of life to remove your cadaver from the grind and make the grind not a grind, make it just a short pause between the emancipatory bits, the nose-squeeze before the deep dive.
This is the right way to feel. The only way. I don’t need the node. It’s enough. Time is enough.
But then I blink and it’s Monday again. Gray again. Tulpas aligned in cubicles, ants but not even ants. Less than ants. Not even the larvae, either. The larvae are prized, tended to, fed. We’re the drones they kick out of the hive when winter comes, freezing into insect brittle.
I toil for lifetimes and die a thousand deaths and 10:01 becomes 10:02. Jerry has more metaphors. Sarah drifts in her placenta. Hannah swears. Somewhere beyond the windowless walls a siren yowls and squawks and caroms into oblivion. Can you will yourself into a heart attack, I wonder? If I died would I even be allowed to leave? Would they prop me up just to maintain the staffing quota? My cube my tumulus. My phone, my paperweights, my business cards lined in a row like little canopic vessels. Each of us a pharaoh waiting to be ushered into the underworld but never leaving, even as we rot.
Friday returns after an eternity. Television christens the weekend. I click. I feel the hard rubber numbers of the remote beneath my thumb, the lukewarm sweat on the beercan. Sip and click. The Keystone tastes like exhaust-tinged water slurped out of a parking garage puddle. I don’t mind. I hold the remote down until the channels reach into the void. Nothing but electric snow. More still. Thousands of channels with nothing on them but the digital whiteout. The week is slavery and the weekends are servitude, just a notch better. Jerry’s little spiel on the gulag.
One more click towards the end of the line and there it is, waiting for me like the Emerald City. Make more time for free time, the familiar voice says. The beautiful scarab zooms around. Recupera is the answer. The commercial is as beautiful as it was the first twenty-six times.
The node calls. It’s been calling for the last ten days, but until now that call has been like a faint whisper, the creek of a door or a floorboard, the pipes expanding softly in the walls, the mice skittering around in the attic. Now, staring at the glowing altar of television and buzzed on cheap brew and realizing I’ve got two measly days ahead of me before the bondage tightens its knotwork, the call is a banshee’s scream. The thought of another blip of freedom fading back into the nothing is unbearable. My patience is spent. My curiosity is boiling over.
I take it out of the pocket like I’m retrieving a diamond ring from a drain and place it on the absolute center of my palm, lowering it down a quarter-inch at a time. When it finally touches my skin it feels like the world is beginning anew. It’s neither hot nor cool, but perfectly neutral, a smooth nub of popcorn, an albino M&M. I can feel sweat pooling underneath its perfect elliptical mass. My hand shaking on and off. Excruciating seconds limp by. It’s already started its fuckery of time.
I download the app and wait some more as it installs. A digital chime tells me it’s done. The icon that pops up on the homescreen is that beautiful, black, claymade scarab. The launch screen is the same color. A cone of gray light beams up, momentarily surpassing the TV’s neon flood. I press it and scroll clumsily through the menu, hesitating only a moment before I weigh down the Initiate square. Setting the ratio at ten to one, the duration five minutes. What’s the harm in five minutes feeling like fifty? No one’s ever died because of five minutes. At least, not sitting on their loveseat, in their underwear, in a dark apartment lit by electric things, staring at a temporal inhibitor. I’d be the first.
I hold down the power and when the blue light cycles on I jam the thing right into my virgin ear. A swig of beer marks the occasion. Then I wait.
I bake in the white light of the television. The electric snow drives sideways, sputtering every off-moment. My hands are warm. My feet cold. Nothing new. Neon-green moths snap up against the window and splay their fuzzy armor, observing me observe myself.
I switch channels. College game, one red-colored team against an orange one. Strange rituals and curios pepper the sidelines—bells, goats, mascots, in-jokes I don’t recognize, Bible verses, names plucked from fabled cities dotting the Midwest and markered onto cardboard signs. I sip my beer. Nothing.
The app’s open again before I know why or how or if it’s the stupidest thing I’ll ever do. Ratio upped, duration upped. Flick of a finger. Sarah’s face painted in my mind.
It’s a while before I feel disappointment rear its malformed head. Maybe some brains aren’t cut out for a good time manipulation. It’s some comfort to think I might be too smart to truly enjoy bleeding-edge technology.
Or then again, maybe not. It’s been forever since the game started but it’s not even halftime. Do I just hate sports that much? I look out the window again, expecting to see a faint rind of pink over the horizon, the milky forehead of the sun. Pure darkness gazes back and the resident moths fans their wings in sleep.
More channels. Cop procedurals, home renovation shows, cooking demonstrations, weather forecasts. It feels like a whole workday has passed but the clock only says ten minutes. Shouldn’t morning have come and gone already? I don’t feel any different so why hasn’t it?
Another sip of beer. I’m missing work. It’s noon on Monday and they’re looking around for me, as much as blind insects can look around anyway, seeing that one of the drones has skipped out on his wintry death sentence. That a cube is sitting unlit by the cold, white incubator of its monitor. That an e-mail has gone unread, gone unfiled, left to the inbox like a feral animal. Managers will bust through stall doors with fire axes and scour the parking lot with binoculars and call in an APB for a lost work puppy, wasting its life in a park or a café or, God forbid, at home. This is all happening right now. I’m at the siren end of a national manhunt and it’s all because I’m waiting until the next commercial break but the next commercial break never comes.
I take another sip of beer, thinking it’ll be the last. Half the can is still left, still fizzing. I rub my thumb over the tab.
Suddenly a voice is selling me a burger on a bun made of two all-white-meat fried chicken patties. Seems like a good time for a break. I lumber towards the bathroom. The toilet’s cistern lid is pushed to where I’d left it Friday night. I dip my fingers under the float and splash the water on my face. I don’t feel my age. I feel like a ten-year-old in the months between Halloween and Christmas, redolent with corn syrup but dragging his feet through a white desert of numbered day-blocks and photos of puppies, day to day to day in the calendar wasteland. How is it not Monday yet? How is it only a little further past midnight than it was five hours ago?
I lean over the sink to study the calcified masts of dirt, water and toothpaste that line the mirror. My eyes no more tired than normal. My hair no more mussed. A millennium hasn’t passed no matter how much it feels like it should. Time is still time, whatever horrible truth that might mean.
I wake up in the tub with my feet splayed out over the lip. Sleep has broken the spell. Like Rip Van Winkle I haul myself up all creaking and rusty, oblivious to what the turning world has done. I go to the window and cock one brittle eye at the heavens. The sky is purple and the moonlight is strong enough to cast bowed shadows across the treetops. Not even morning yet.
The bed seems an intractable target at this point so I stumble back towards the tub and go to my knees and then my back. The tile is cold but the bathmat is a perfectly serviceable pillow, even if it does smell of wet toes. It goes unnoticed fairly quick. I’m thinking about the node. Its feel, its color, the name Recupera lasered onto the svelte length of its white, bulbous shape. I take it out with a ginger pluck and let it rest in my hand.
Whatever it does, whatever sorcery or veil it pulls down, it’s real.
The thing with Recupera isn’t the main thing. The main thing is great, of course, disorienting as it is. Time-stretching I’ll take any day. But the thing—the real thing—is how it feels after it wears off. Like skidding down some bald cliff face at full throttle, too fast to hurt, too fast to be afraid. Monday slips by, then Tuesday. Successive blinks. Wednesday is a flutter and Thursday is when you open them back up to catch what you’ve been missing. By then it’s Friday again. I don’t remember one moment of the stinking, moribund week that’s just passed and for that I am forever grateful.
No money for it, though. My trial period is up. That’s the real problem. I mean, there are plenty of problems in the abstract—the lack of eating, of sleeping, the sense that time isn’t so much a steady, orderly plod as it is a five-year-old hellion doublefisting energy drinks and Pixie Sticks while bearing down on me in a flaming go-cart—but in the end it’s the means to pay for it that haunt me the most. As the node’s light blinks its last blink and the app suggests I order a subscription, I realize that time might not be the oldest vice, but it’s certainly the most expensive.
Sarah doesn’t budge, of course. One referral trial per customer, she tells me. She’s still safe in the invisible snowglobe Recupera pours around her brain, looking out at me as I look in on her. Standing at her cube and glancing at her serene face is like holding the trinket in my hands and marveling at the snow as it falls over and over, as the tiny house stays aglow, a moment repeating itself at whim for eternity and a day. Whatever’s inside can’t help me.
The following Saturday. The glass that encases the downtown buildings is so clean it resembles pearl, just a pure white shell gleaming in the city night. The streets are still wet from the day’s rainstorm but the skies are clear and the air is cool. The last few hours have felt like weeks, ironically enough, albeit the torturous kind as a I pine for the node’s touch. I’m going through a withdrawal of some sort. A reorientation with regular, doddering time.
I pass a random walker or two, dogs giving a passing sniff, city workers on their phones, couples new and faded out on a post-dinner circuit, clones all, obsessed with this free moment of time where they’re not some directory listing or nametag or record, but formless and organic, cubeless, hourless, erratum rather than datum.
I’m somewhere beyond the fey now. Free time is time. There’s nothing else. No title but what I imagine, no dress code but what I choose. It’s in my power now to hold it. To make sure that the immersive eternity I’ve so chosen does not revert. With enough I’ll never become them, desperately grasping at any moment not in fealty to the paycheck. I won’t go back to the gray cube for a century. A century at least. After a thousand years I’ll give in and grow old and go toothless and be free of my yayas but until then I have to feel it. I must.
The glass is beautiful but one day the glass will dissolve and scatter like the contents of a punctured bag of sugar. The buildings will topple. I want to think I can see it, even though I know I can’t. I want to be convinced I can see beauty and invention and marvel grow and wither and grow again. To witness all the great things die and then witness great things anew.
There’s a park across the way, crabgrass overflowing in the flowerbeds and rashes of rust shaped like continents stretching over the metal playsets. No kids in months. Or maybe no kids since yesterday. Can’t tell anymore. Every sundown feels like the turn of an era. The node’s been useless for a week but the effects linger, delusion or no delusion.
The black towncar is a mainstay. It’s there in the morning, exhaust pumping out the tailpipe like marshmallow contrails. It’s there at night, dashlights glowing softly from the inside. The driver sits and watches the empty playground, shadowed and featureless, a gorgon with a license.
When I’m three feet away from the driverside door I hear a click and the mechanical whine of glass passing through rubber piping. The window goes down halfway. Ashen eyes look out. Pale cheeks. Colorless hair. The conversation’s already halfway finished, judging by his look. He wants to know what it is and that’ll be that.
“Recupera,” I say. In the darkness my voice sounds weak and shrill, a bug flailing around a porchlight.
“I can give you a six-month service subscription.”
“What about a year?”
“Six months is best I can do. Any longer than that, firewalls will pick it up, shut you down. Too risky.”
I nod, pushing a wad of bills out of my palm, an act that feels like exposing the most arcane, wanton secret I’ve ever kept.
“How much will this get me?”
He looks unimpressed but says nothing. The window rolls back to its starting position. I wait.
The car is a black, breathing sarcophagus. Whatever’s under the hood purrs. Weeks pass but the night never fades. It stays dark and perfectly vulpine.
The windows squeaks down again and I get a bag for my troubles. Inside is a Recupera node, sitting in the corner like an unpopped popcorn kernel.
“Reinstall the app,” the man says. “The registration code is written on the inside of the bag.”
He looks at me. “That’s it. Now pay me and then walk the fuck away.”
I do. The towncar backs out as I make my way towards the end of the row and then slithers away into the darkness. I’m alone with my lifeline. I sit in one of the swings, the hard rubber like liquid nitrogen sprayed on the underside of my thighs. I hold the bag like a child. There’s nothing in the dark but the sound of my breathing, my swallowing. I’m sure the night creatures are listening with disgust.
Who is this man, sitting with his little toy, trying to lengthen one more miserable existence? What does he even know of misery?
Even so, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d rather slink around in the cold and the dark, risking my pride and my very life, than feel the true length of the nine to five. What good is a safe, reliable torture when you can sample pure, unfiltered rapture? What good is real time, real life, if it beats you down even as you beg for more?
“We could get rich selling drinkable yogurt,” Liz is saying. Liz has rainbow sherbet hair and Goth eyes and a planter’s row of studs climbing up both ear helixes. Liz is always saying something. I like her—which is fortunate, considering I spend what feels like manifold lifetimes with her every weekend.
As she’s off to the races on drinkable yogurt I mop the waxy linoleum in front of the dairy case, sloshing the soymilk around into paler and paler strokes. Another game of milk carton bowling gone wrong—or right, depending on whether you’re me or the bowlers. High school kids with bilious skin and hair like roadkill fur. They’ll be back again tomorrow. Routine is one of the core precepts of their supermarket terrorism.
“You see this shit?” she asks, tapping her mop-pole on the fogged-up glass. “It’s just water added to regular yogurt. We could buy the 99-cent stuff and stick it under the tap. We’d be millionaires.”
I keep swirling the loose milk with my mop. Somewhere across the far reaches of the store the electronic rooster yelps out its hourly dirge. 11PM. It’ll feel like another week before I’m off my shift.
“Who’d drink watered-down yogurt?” I ask.
“SoCal yoga moms,” she answers self-assuredly. “They expect to overpay for specialty food.”
I’ve been setting it to max for a while now. Can’t remember what the ratio is. Twenty to one? Fifty? Maybe a hundred? I didn’t pay attention. Counting past the number two takes hours of contemplation. The more time stretches the less I can manage it. The node takes care of that for me.
“Turmeric is all the rage right now, and what’s that worth?” Liz squeezes the excess milk into her bucket. “Pennies, right? But those bitches out in LA juiced it and put it in a bottle, and wham! Overnight empire.”
I no longer have any conception of overnight. I don’t tell her that, of course. To her I’m just the slightly-buzzed coworker who stares more than he speaks.
“You have an office job, right?” she asks as she revs up for the next monologue. “During the week?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Then why you working weekends here?”
“I need the money.” And it’s true, even if it’s half. I need the money to afford the Recupera subscription, to make the weekends last forever, to make the week job more tolerable, to nurture my robust aversion to doing things, constructive things, anything.
“You in debt or something?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
On the next break I sneak out past the loading docks and into the shrouded parking lot where the employees park. The moments it takes to reach the tooth-colored bit of light under the halide pole feel like water, loose and shapeless and fleeting, slipping against any consistency as they get pulled out by an unknowable cosmic force. I check the app three more times to make sure it’s set right, then swig half a beer time to get the tide to come in again. I stare at the stars for ten months and wonder when the sun’ll come up again.
My phone buzzes me back. I’ve had to start using the alarms more. It takes a day or more to set them. I can feel the earth revolving as I re-open the app and check it again. One of those pop-up chyrons sneaks up in the corner to tell me the news. They’ve started using Recupera on prisoners, it says. A group of criminal psychologists advocated for it, saying they could cut prison costs by slowing time down for inmates, making one day feel like a forty-year sentence. Even longer, for the particularly heinous ones. Cons could be sitting in jail for what feels like thousands of years. Hell of a thing. Maybe Jerry wasn’t too far off with his gulag talk. Sort of a broken clock scenario with him.
I go back to the alarm, scrolling around to choose the appropriate numbers. Two more minutes. A decade, with Recupera thumbed into your ear. That’s my life now. Realities stretched across illusory distances. Moments between buzzers.
But the decade passes and I’m back to the Great Wall of soymilk. Three days of laying them, these white, thready cartons with pink lettering and blue pour-caps, one by one, row by row, until the dairy-free dairy case glows like a full moon. Maybe it was three minutes? The true perception is in there, somewhere, but contemplating it takes more time. More time gained, more time to waste.
The conundrum of the addict is the stint between the highs. Chasing it like you do, worrying about the next one even before this one ends, is a lot like living in the past. You use brainpower on the would’ve and could’ve, and then flash forward and do the same for the time you spent thinking. What I’ve learned here is that there is no greater drug than free time, leisure time. The high from letting your brain to chase its own ends. I’m addicted to the time I want and allergic to the time I don’t.
“Miss me?” Liz asks, reaching up to obsessively straighten the cartons I never lined up.
“As a matter of fact,” I smile, watching her. Her arm is pale, with a skein of freckles tracing from the wrist to the elbow and then disappearing under the sleeve of her workshirt. An inverse Milky Way.
She looks at me looking at her. Something hitches in her suddenly. I can see the flush bloom and then fade. I want to think it’s good. I know it’s not.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“What are you looking at?”
I smirk, feeling two corner-teeth exposed, like something a fox would do. My skittish smile peels back as I stretch my tongue across the upper rim of my teeth. I’m suddenly very thirsty. “Well, you know. I just thought—”
Her eyes flash. “You just thought what?”
My arms fall like squids shot of all their ink. “I guess I thought you were flirting.”
“Well, yeah.” The frigid aura of the dairy case seems to prick at every hair on my body—arms, neck, ass, toes. Is it shutting off already? It can’t be. I just re-upped ten…days ago. Ten weeks. Minutes.
Pieces. Time is exceptionally relative.
“You honestly thought I was flirting with you?”
“We’ve been getting along, sure,” I say, voice jumping an octave, “and I’ve known you for a while now, so I thought…”
“Yeah, a while.”
“You’ve known me for, like, a week. This is literally the third time I’ve seen you.”
I stare at her.
“Are you listening? This is the longest conversation we’ve ever had.”
A week, she says. A measly week. Really? Has it been only that? Somewhere in the clouded antechambers of my brain I know it has but it’s so baldly ludicrous on the face that I laugh. An honest-to-God belly laugh, head tilted back, hand flat against my chest as it ripples up and my heart shrivels by some microbial amount. With my neck craned back I look up at the shellacked ceiling of the store with crinkled eyes. The beige paint is shimmering. Tears drawl against the sides of my nose.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I can hear her ask.
I don’t answer her. The laugh slips back into my mouth and dies in retreat somewhere in my throat.
When my head sinks down again I can see Liz’s eyes have narrowed with a dozen different emotions. Disappointment, disgust, annoyance. Her face drains of whatever it held before, leaving these dusty, crumbling reactions behind.
“Listen, don’t—don’t talk to me. Ever.”
She hurries off, though not before giving the cartons one last alignment. I stare stupidly at the ghost of her, eyes wet but not crying, nearly blinded by the radiation-like glow of the undairy case. Something familiar is playing on the PA. The Commodores, or maybe Lionel Ritchie. Impossible to know the difference. Something like Sail on…honey? Baby? A refrain that’s starry and strange and sad. Feels like it’s been melting in my ears for at least ten minutes. It might melt there for ten more. It’s all an ellipsis now. Everything. Every song and sense and conversation, fading in from nowhere to confound watches and clocks and hot little tyrants everywhere.
Liz’ll come around. I know she will.
I have all the time in the world to convince her.