Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Black Box Chapter 2

I'm not even halfway finished with editing this book, but chapter two is done. If anyone reads this and spots an error, please let me know in the comments.

Chapter Two
Art and Maria’s apartment had the cold sterility of a science fiction laboratory, with its pristine white walls and gleaming metal furniture. The couch, however, was soft and comfortable, and I enjoyed my descent into ease as I examined their place. There was a thin big screen television hanging on the opposite wall, its volume muted, its display showing some strange Japanese cartoon. A white bookcase was close to it, its shelves burdened with a few ancient-looking volumes of (as Maria described) “quaint and forgotten lore.” A curious shard of a lamp next to the couch, carved from either ivory or bone. The enormous head of some type of rodent was mounted above the archway of the kitchen, staring at me with its marble eyes and protruding teeth. I sipped my scotch on the rocks and tried to focus on the TV as they moved around in the kitchen. In the cartoon, figures with spiky hair and gigantic eyes rushed down a city street, laser rifles in their hands, as a vast amorphous mass of wriggling tentacles loomed before them, towering over the skyline. The creature’s flesh was pink and folded like brain matter, and I felt an acid bubbling in my stomach as the monster’s slimy bulk filled the screen. This program wasn’t a good primer for the rest of the night.
            “When’s the show come on?” I shouted.
            “Fifteen minutes,” said Art, emerging with a platter full of meats and cheeses. “Here, take a slice of Havarti and pair it with some of this baloney and a green olive. Delicious, right? Maria gets the cheese down in Cincinnati at the farmers’ market from a Czechoslovakian guy. That’s where you get the meat too, right?”
            Maria didn’t answer, but the noise in the kitchen grew louder.
            “She had interesting circumstances growing up,” said Art in a whisper, “that resulted in a weird palate. I can’t tell you some of the things she’s brought home to eat.”
            “Sam Pasteur goes down to the farmers’ market with that kid of his,” I said between mouthfuls of meat. “He does really well, although you can’t always be sure with that guy. I know he pockets a bit of change, but I let him have it. All those years of tough competition with Rodrico’s father, only to be bought out eventually for almost nothing. I figure he’s earned it.”
            “Gordy and I went to high school with the Goon. His family, the Watson’s, used to live across from me. He’s a queer kid.”
            “A product of malnutrition and interbreeding?”
            “Yeah, probably.”
            Art sat down next to me and changed the channel. On the TV a group of young people appeared, all sitting eagerly before a television. The camera panned in and focused on the television, which displayed another group of people watching TV. Then it zoomed in further to show a subsequent set of people watching yet another TV. This continued three more times until the title screen appeared. People Watching People Watching People, it said, and a cheery tune emitted from the speakers. Art began to hum and bob his head.
            People watching people, it’s the funniest thing
            Deep inside a person is another person’s dream
            How strange it is to watch someone who knows they’re being seen
            People watching people, it’s the greatest thing
            A skinny bespectacled man appeared, holding a microphone and dressed in a dark suit. He had an unkempt mound of short, curly hair and high cheekbones gave his face the appearance of an emaciated ghoul. The camera zoomed in on his skeletal visage until it filled the screen. Then his huge bloodless lips parted and the studio audience screamed.
            “Hey there, folks! Mitch R. Singer here and it’s that time again! Your daily dose of voyeuristic entertainment is about to be served, piping hot and dripping with juices!”
            “Tell ‘um, Mitch!” yelled the audience.
            “Let me tell you what’s in store for our fine contestants today! But wait! Why don’t we let you choose? Everybody pick up their cell phones and be prepared to text your choice! Should we award our winners a brand-new car? Or what about a lifetime supply of antifreeze? How about a big ol’ bag of cash? Oh, no, it’s my favorite! It’s a bill for ten-thousand dollars with twenty percent annual interest! You can start voting now! Or you could wait until we see who actually deserves what! You choose!”
            “I’m voting for the antifreeze,” said Art, picking up his phone.
            “But we haven’t even met the contestants, nor have we seen what they’re capable of.”
            “They’re on television, Louie. They’re terrible people.”
            “So why the antifreeze instead of the bill?”
            “Because Mitch has done this before. He’ll pull up in front of their house with a van full of goons, and they’ll unload about five-thousand bottles of antifreeze on the poor bastard’s front lawn. They dump it all over the place.”
            “I’m going to wait until I see if they truly deserve it.”
“You know, my brother Gary actual used to know Singer, back when he was an itinerant musician. He said Singer advised him to murder his girlfriend. He said he was some kind of supernatural demon.”
Gary’s the one who moved to Austin, right?”
“No, Gary’s the one with the kid.”
“That would be about right.”
Our first contests are a hip-hop group from Miami, Florida, known as the Components. Let’s meet the guys! That’s Wild Card, the shrimpy dork with that rat of a beard growing on his ugly mug. Next is Kowboy, yes, that’s with a ‘K’ because this is television, folks! Everybody has to have a stupid name! Kowboy’s the idiot with the shaved head and the weak chin. Wave to the camera, moron! That monster in the hoodie and bandana calls himself the Judge. Well I have a verdict for ya, Judge! You’re guilty! Probably of bestiality, although he’s only been convicted of sexual assault, so watch out ladies and gentlemen! This here’s a perv!”
“This show’s like the two minute hate expanded into the half-hour format,” said Maria from behind us in the archway. “Except instead of focusing on one person, Mitch is targeting the entire human race.”
“You know what she’s talking about?” said Art.
I nodded and looked back at Maria. She was leaning against the wall, staring at the television.
“You shouldn’t be watching this,” she said, “even if you’re enjoying it ‘ironically,’ because that’s a bunch of bullshit. Such viewpoints are nothing more than cowardice. People like lying to themselves, and they don’t want to admit to enjoying watching others debase themselves like animals. It’s disgusting.”
“Not this again,” sighed Art. “When I met her, she was fun.”
“When I met you, I was like him,” she said, her voice growing louder. “I was like Mitch. I had fangs and elongated earlobes and a taste for blood. I’ve been hanging around here with you, trying to see how far I can slide into a so called ‘normal’ existence. You’re not cutting it, Art. You just aren’t.”
            As Maria vanished back into the kitchen, Art turned toward me and shrugged.
“She might come out in a minute, I think. I don’t think we’re going to last. We’re wearing each other out. Neither of us knows how to live with another person.”
“I can’t imagine it. I’ve never been good at it either.
             “All right kids, let’s see how far they will go!” said Mitch, his yellowish eyes sparkling. “Go at it, boys. Here you are now, so entertain us!”
The Collective went at each other. Kowboy launched himself at Wild Card, arms flailing and eyes bulging like the crazed orbs of a rabid animal. Wild Card moved a mere second later, leaping into the air with limbs outstretched and clawed like a prehistoric predator, and the two musicians fell to the ground, entangled in each other’s arms. While they struggled, the Judge rose and calmly walked off camera. Kowboy was getting the upper hand, it seemed. He was on top of Wild Card, and he’d grabbed a pillow from the couch and was attempting to suffocate his band mate.
“Well he looks just like a wriggling worm now, don’t he?” said Mitch. “I’ll tell you something, these guys don’t win any points for originality. Is violence truly the answer, folks? Methinks it is!” Mitch lit up a cigarette and showed the camera his nicotine-stained teeth.
“Nobody’s allowed to smoke anymore on television,” said Art. “Mitch somehow breaks all the rules.”
“I don’t know how they do it,” I replied. “Think of the legal issues. What if somebody kills someone? They must’ve made a deal with the devil.”
“I’m sorry I voted prematurely for the antifreeze. These guys deserve the bill.”
Wild Card was thrashing about in the manner of a fish out of water. Kowboy had the pillow pressed firmly against his face, and his arms lashed around, vainly searching for something to grab hold of. Just when it seemed that suffocation would be his fate, the Judge appeared brandishing a baseball bat. He walked right up to the oblivious Kowboy and drew back his weapon.
“Gee golly, I don’t know what to say! Did you all really tune in to watch professional wrestling? I sure didn’t. Before we see who the winner of this living room brawl is, let’s see how you voted! Oh damn, a lifetime supply of antifreeze! Well, we still have two other groups of contestants, and they’ll be viewed while under the second and third levels of voyeurism respectively, supposing someone survives in the initial group. And let’s see who made it!”
Kowboy was lying beside Wild Card unconscious, blood oozing from his skull. The camera zoomed in on Wild Card’s chest to show that he was still breathing, albeit intermittently. The Judge loomed before them, baseball bat still clutched in his right hand.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom, which is down that hall, right?” I asked, rising up from the couch. Art remained staring vacantly at the television, awaiting the appearance of the next group of contestants.
            Down the dark hallway I went, pausing for a second to stare at the rodent head mounted above the kitchen. It looked like some kind of gopher, one abnormally large and black and white striped like a skunk. Where in the hell had Art gotten this thing? Was it from some skuzzy backwoods flea market? Or was it a trophy taken from one of the rodents that contributed to destruction of his childhood home? Possibly it was a family heirloom, passed down from one Howard to another. He was a native, after all.
            I fumbled down the barren hallway, my hands grasping for a light switch. I passed what I assumed was the bedroom and noticed the closed heavy door. What resided inside? Chains and swings and hooks and other implements of masochistic sexual fantasy? Why were these two people failing in their relationship? Was it a case of differing intellects? Or was Art’s uncooperativeness in passionate rites of sexual despondency to blame? Perhaps Maria needed a man capable of handling both her mental and libidinal energies. Would she be interested? How to broach the subject with Art? This was beyond the normal limits of friendship. My hands found the long sought for knob and I entered the bathroom.
            It was simply a case of two mismatched people sticking together for petty reasons, I decided as my bladder emptied itself into the pristine porcelain toilet. What a curiously well-cleaned bathroom. My own toilet looked like something glued to the floor of a portapotti. Many women had refused to sit on it, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t a man who clung to illusions. The toilet seat could be doused with disinfectant; its bowl could be bleached and scrubbed to a shine, yet still it would remain an excrement depository. You’d never feel clean while upon it; you’d never desire to eat from its surface. Nuking its ever-present bacterial coating was futile. Some people want to live in a bubble, isolated from microscopic life, and pretend as though the body isn't an environment home to millions of creatures. I had come to terms with my existence; I recognized that I was filthy and that life itself was inherently so. Better to revel in one’s natural state than to deny the plain and dirty truth.
            “What are you thinking about? asked Maria, from the doorway.
            “Goddamn, did I not shut the door?” I turned away from her to hide my private parts.
            “Well, you kind of half-shut it, but why worry? We have no privacy in this age.”
            My urine flowed forth undeterred like the churning waters of Niagara. “What do you mean?”
            “You should know, Mr. Arlington, chief architect of The Game. I know how you view your users. I hear Art talk about stuff all the time, even in his sleep.”
            “He does what?” I said, my stream suddenly cut short. “Disclosing information to foreign parties about hypothetical government projects we may or may not be involved with is grounds for immediate termination and subsequent internment…”
            “Oh cut it short, Louie, I’m not running to the presses. This is Hillsdale, Indiana, after all. I’d have to run a long way.” She was smiling, all pearly white teeth, leaning causally against the doorway with arms crossed. I felt a tremor running through my member and nearly mangled it as I hurriedly zipped up.
             “There are phones and the Internet. Although I believe there are agents in place…”
            “I’m not impressed. And there are those who are even less so.”
            I washed my hands, rubbing diligently with soap, albeit only because she was watching.
            “Are you happy, Maria? I’ve noticed tension between you and my loyal employee.”
            “We are not placed upon this earth to pursue hedonistic pleasures.”
            “We’re not? If you only believe in this life, which I assume you do, why else continue, if not for the pursuit of happiness?”
             “One should endeavor to transcend one’s dirty, primitive state,” she said, as she lit a clove cigarette. “What does an animal do when the stresses of survival have been removed? It becomes inert and flaccid. It starts pacing or gains weight. It becomes a melancholy being, because it was not made to do nothing. It was not made to sit and wait for entropy to come calling. It was meant to meet it head on, and fight it until its dying breath. We’re not animals, Louie. We have to do more than enjoy ourselves. We have to validate our existence.”
            “Validate it to whom?”
            “To each other, for starters. We’re the ones who’ve made such a big deal about intelligence, and we’re not even that intelligent. Just forget it. Go out there and watch that satanic drivel with your ‘loyal employee.’”
           “I love you,” I whispered, as I passed her. Walking backwards in the hall, I made the outline of a heart. She stood there impassively smoking her pungent cigarette, letting the plumes unfurl around her in the cold and cleaned darkness. This was a woman who had recently undergone a complex transformation in her personality and lifestyle; Art had dropped many hints regarding her violent and chaotic past, and it was clear that she was just now crystallizing into her final metamorphosis. I usually shunned difficult women for all the obvious reasons, but mostly because my relationship needs were simple and animalistic. Maria was also my best friend’s girl, which should have severed any sort of romantic interest I had in her. But the tongue on her, the way she knew things…I couldn’t let it lie, so I feebly hit on her like some clueless frat boy after watching a Friends marathon.
            “You have to break up with Maria,” I said as I sat down next to Art. “She knows too much about The Game. You’ve fouled things up royally; she’s picked up the info you’ve blabbered semiconsciously and pieced the puzzle together. You know the procedure; I’ve showed you the documents that give us power over our employees. This isn’t a breach of civil rights, this is national security. More than our jobs are at stake. The respective futures of all three of us are in danger. But I can use my position to protect us. You just have to end it, Art. You have to let her go to save her.”
            “You have to see what Mitch is going to do next,” he said, pointing at the television. “He is insane.”       
            "Contestant Group Number Two disgusted us with their exploratory willingness to sexually degrade themselves irreparably. That’s correct, folks; they’ve degenerated to a lower state. They are now, in fact, subhuman. In the course of fifteen minutes, they have violated each other’s every orifice; they have implemented kitchen utensils, knives, sporks, and spatulas. They’ve inserted various electronic household appliances within the body cavity. They’ve exchanged all types of fluids; they’ve punched and slapped and cut and bled each other nearly to the bone. You, the television audience, have only consumed the merest slice of their depravity, for even this program must adhere to certain objective standards of taste and decency. I have protected you from the dark and terrible depths of unadulterated lust and decadency. These ‘people,’ nay, these ‘creatures’ have plunged further into the abyss than any contestant group before them. Sort of murder, I have seen every foul and conceited act on this program. They’re so bad we’re just going to pretend there isn’t a Group Number Three. Group Number Two is the absolute worst in the history of People Watching People Watching People, and you have voted them today’s winner. But what have they won? The Judge’s lifetime supply of antifreeze? A debt of ten-thousand dollars? Or will they go home with as much cash as we can cram into this brand-new SUV?”
            The camera focused on Mitch, and the tall dark suited man reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of plastic vampire teeth. He swiftly placed them within his mouth and let the twin incisors poke out onto his bottom lip.
            “Well I’m a demon for your love, girl. And I’m gonna suck ya! You all voted for the cash. The enormous gas-guzzler. But I tell you what; this ain’t gonna be the kind of program where we let pure chance run amuck. This ain’t no democracy. In the land of the blind, Mr. Mitch One-Eye is king.”
            On the brightly-lit stage the cash-loaded black SUV rotated, spinning slowly on its podium. Mitch ran toward it and opened one of the rear doors and beckoned to someone off screen. A jug of antifreeze was flung through the air, and Mitch caught it deftly. He unscrewed the cap and started pouring the blue liquid into the car.
            “What a waste,” I said sadly. “How is this show on the air?”
            “Boys! Somebody throw me a Molotov!”
            The flaming cocktail flew through the air, and Mitch leapt away at the last second as the bottle landed inside the SUV. The cash ignited immediately, and the inside of the vehicle started to burn.
            “Well listen up, Group Number Two! This studio is right in the heart of New York City. We’re down in the underworld, about two blocks from somewhere and about three-hundred feet from nowhere. Everybody knows where that is! You all are located in that ever-brilliant bastion of humanity, the Jersey Shore. Come on down and collect your prize! If you hurry, there might be something left for you to collect!”
            “I haven’t seen him torch the grand prize in a while,” said Art. “He must’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed, although I get the feeling that he doesn’t sleep much.”
            “You can’t ignore the Maria problem.” I looked behind me, but she had vanished. “You have to end it.”
            “I don’t know.” He looked down into his beer, his greased bangs sliding forward. “I have trouble giving up things. Places. People. I’m going to wait and see how it pans out.”
            “This isn’t just a personal matter. You know…”
            “She doesn’t know anything. She just knows how to get under your skin and make you believe she knows what’s going on.”
            I eased back and sighed. I couldn’t make Art break up with Maria, and I couldn’t erase her from the world. The night had devolved as it always did, just like the contestants on Mitch’s show. The world was heading that way, I thought suddenly. It was going the way of lizards and crawling fish, and I feared that I would soon be among them, down on my belly, deep in the muck.

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