Monday, February 11, 2013

Black Box Chapter 3

Chapter Three
My five-thirty a.m. drive Monday morning was like something out of a horror film. I started off moving past derelict streets and buildings of crumbling brick, Hillsdale looking like a ghost town, like a dilapidated relic of a nuclear war, because the cars were rusted and I was hung-over and seeing things as they would inevitably become, for at that time the future in my mind was bleak and ridden with the tattered remnants of apocalyptic designs. My drunken dreams had grown terrible with vague shadows, with scenes from science fiction literature running crazily like a broken projector in a drive-in theatre. With these images in my head, I drove past the shanties, and I thought of Gordy alone in his bar, wiping down counters for customers that would never come. After exiting the town, thick forests filled with tall skeletal trees shot out of the fog, the undergrowth beneath their canopy thick and impervious, all briars and brambles and rotting vegetation. This was only glimpsed in the early morning, for the fog always obscured it, and it was always rising from the river and enveloping the area like a sinister presence summoned by a necromancer with glowing eyes and fingers of bone. So I continued through the murk, and eventually the pale lights of the parking lot were seen, and as I crawled through the vacant lot the vast crooked edifice of Huerto rose out of the gloom, an obsidian tower as out of place in the Midwestern wilderness as any enchanted castle in a fairy tale.
            I got out of my car and walked in the strange silence toward the black building and passed through the gaping archway and into the lobby. It was clean and spacious here, a wide marble circle with a single desk and receptionist, the silver doors of the elevator behind her. Her name was Lolita, and she was Russian and looked like a supermodel, with her tall, toothpick physique and her beautifully angry face. She was Rodrico’s wife, and he had admitted to me that he found her on a mailorder bride web site and had negotiated for her to be his mate. “Everything can be made to order,” he'd said. “So why not a wife? I have needs and requirements that no one in this rural area can fulfill.” I made jokes that were in poor taste at his expense, but I was glad he had someone, since he was a difficult and bizarre man.
            I waved at Lolita and flashed my ID card at her, and she responded with an icy stare. I found her chocolate wrappers everywhere, stuffed in corners and in random desk drawers. She must’ve fed exclusively on candy bars and for some reason refused to properly dispose of her litter. It was such a problem that I approached Rodrico about it. “She hasn’t adjusted to the American way of life,” he'd explained. “She hordes things. Books, movies, canned soup. The other day I found one-hundred bottles of antifreeze in a closet. She’s stocking up for something.”
Art was the same way, although he didn’t have a predilection for substances made from coco beans. Soon after we had cemented our friendship, he showed me a janitorial closet he had claimed.
“Fifty cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup. Thirty-eight cans of various Chef Boyardee pastas. Twenty-nine cans of mixed vegetables and fruit,” he'd said, beckoning to the filled shelves. “Ten cases of bottled water. This is just an emergency cache. My car trunk is more complete, and at my apartment I have my master horde.”
            “What is this all for?” I asked.
            “In case the zombie apocalypse comes, of course,” he said sincerely. “It will come, and I’ll be ready.” He put down the little backpack he often carried and unzipped it and removed two nine-millimeter Glocks. “I might let you have one of these guys,” he said, extending the pistols, “If push comes to shove. There’s a sawed-off shotgun in my car.”
            “Good God, put those away,” I told him. “Security will destroy you.”
            “They’d get picked off by zombies in about an hour,” he replied. “I’ve observed their techniques. They require more training. I used to do their job, back when I worked for the bank. Stick with me if the shit hits the fan.”
            As I rode up the elevator I considered what I'd do if an apocalypse were to occur while at work. Would I hide beneath my desk, hands clutching my head? Would I join Art and retreat to whatever fallout shelter he had prepared? People didn’t fear nuclear annihilation like they once had. In science fiction from the fifties by authors like Philip K. Dick, one encounters bleak, hopeless stories of mutation and extinction amongst irradiated barren wastelands. It is fascinating, the sorts of environments created by minds terrified of nuclear warfare. Giant ants and sentient machinery, people more monster than man. Hairless gaunt survivors, crawling through the pits and charred rubble. Nowadays, we fear unemployment and economic collapse. We fear obesity and boredom. We fear that the nut running for office will be crazier than the last. We fear the ramifications of a runaway consumerist society. Somehow, it's worse.
            There were nine floors listed on the elevator control panel, but I knew there was an unlisted basement level. Rodrico had the special key, and I was dying to discover what was down there. Over the years I’d come to know almost everything there was to know about the man, and yet this last little secret remained obscure.
Rodrico’s story thus far was both inspirational and melancholy. He had been groomed by his father Juan Carlito Rodriguez, a third generation apple orchardist, to take over the family business. As a young man he’d enrolled at Purdue University, majoring in pomology and Spanish, but he didn’t last long at school, dropping out after only a semester. Rodrico had only feigned interest in the family profession; from an early age he had performed the chores, the apple picking and washing, the pruning and wood chipping, and had learned how to manage disease and insects with pesticide and herbicide. But all the while he’d harbored a passion for video games and kept this passion secret from his father. Night after night he’d labored at his computer, grinding through role-playing classics like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Planetscape: Torment, as well as innovative first person action games like Deus Ex and Thief. Eventually his interest extended to game design, and he began teaching himself to program. His first game, a dungeon crawler called Devil, garnered him some attention and a small following. His next, Lycanthropy, brought him into the big leagues. Although it was an independent project funded and designed by Rodrico himself, Lycanthropy showed gamers that he wanted to be more than your average developer. Lycanthropy featured a huge open world that the player could easily customize into a distinct experience. Gameplay centered on the player’s complete control of the environment using a simple and intuitive toolkit. With a few clicks of the mouse, you could turn a shallow plain into vast crevice that could be populated with any number of predesigned non-player characters: monsters like goblins and dragons, animals such as deer and wolves, and various people clad in medieval attire. You could delve into their lives and create a daily routine for them, you could give these virtual people occupations, families, and hobbies. You could build a village out of pixilated stone or brick; you could engineer a fantastic city in the sky or a labyrinth beneath the sea that would challenge any one of Lovecraft’s whispered creations. Few video games had ever given the user as much control as Lycanthropy, but none had let the player share his world online. Multiple individual worlds could be combined to form even more expansive environments. Lycanthropy made Rodrico an internet celebrity only a few months after its release.
            Of course, a project like Lycanthropy was destined to be riddled with bugs and glitches, given its general enormity, and the fact that Rodrico had handled the entirety of its development himself resulted in an unpredictable and crash-prone experience. Rodrico knew that this would happen, and while he still had the goodwill of the Internet, he mustered enough cash to form Huerto. Like much of the video gaming populace, I’d been impressed with Lycanthropy, and when I learned that Rodrico was hiring, I put forth my meager credentials. I had a BA in computer science from Rose Hulman University and absolutely no experience in game design, but I was willing to work for a tiny sum, the job market being at that time almost as bad as it is today. Initially the company had no offices, so employees worked at home. After several months we hammered out most of the bugs in Lycanthropy, and the money started flowing in. The company grew and grew, and the towering Huerto building was built on Rodrico’s familial property, after he had paid his father an exorbitant sum. The old man never understood his son, and Rodrico’s refusal to follow him into the family business resulted in his being virtually disowned by his father. Juan Carlito died before the Huerto building was complete. “Don’t bulldoze the fucking apple orchard,” was the last thing he said to his prodigal son.
            I arrived at level eight and got off the elevator and headed toward my office. Level eight was the veteran floor where the company elite worked on The Game and whatever was next for Huerto. Level one was the lobby, level two was customer service, level three worked on supporting old titles, level four was the cafeteria, level five was the gym, level six operated Huerto’s various web forums and internet servers, level seven housed our marketing department, and level nine was Rodrico’s office. He preferred to keep himself above and separate from everyone else, which many took as evidence of the man’s arrogance and conceitedness. Although he was undoubtedly an intelligent and talented person, Rodrico was considered by most of his experienced employees, that is, the eighth floor, as somewhat of a bumbling, inept fool.
            Lycanthropy was impressive, but as I’ve said, it was a goddamn mess. We cleaned it up; we patched it and refined its rough edges until it became a playable game. For The Game, the eighth floor handled the bulk of its creation. Rodrico told us he wanted to expand the ideas of Lycanthropy while implementing a better graphics engine, as well as making the entire game a subscription based multiplayer experience. YETI was the next stage of The Game, and I would be discussing the results of its beta test with Rodrico today after consulting with my team.
            Huerto was a pretty plush office building, and every floor and department had its particular amenities, but all the real luxuries were implemented on level eight. Unlike the other departments, we could wear whatever we wanted to work. Gourmet coffee was served free of charge; vending machines distributed food and drink with just a push of a button. The cubicles were spacious and the leather chairs were comfortable. Anyone working an eight hour shift received two half-hour breaks, which you could spend in the cafeteria recreation room or at the gym. You could listen to music while you worked. A casual atmosphere was encouraged, and Rodrico made it known that he wanted his employees to love their jobs “more than their home lives.”
            I walked down the wide aisles, nodding amiably at my employees. I passed Manga Mithapuria, one of our best programmers, and Kumiko Wataya, our senior graphic artist, and gave them a thumbs-up. Let them believe that their professional life was a breeze; we were still getting paid to make games, and yes, company priorities were changing and the work was strange sometimes, but we weren’t under the kind of perverse pressure teams owned by a big publishing company like Activision or Electronic Arts were. We were comfortable; we were needed. We had oodles of money. We refused to see the shadow looming on the horizon.
Clustered in front of my office was my team. Art was there, clutching an energy drink while looking half asleep. Larry Stevens, the office pariah, stood next to him, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anyone. There was Rhonda with her unnatural red hair; Eugene the programmer adjacent to her, with Rita my secretary clustered between them. I unlocked the office and yelled behind me to summon Manga and Kumiko.
My office was narrow but very long, and there were huge gaping windows that provided a nice view of the parking lot and apple orchard. Everyone took a seat around the elongated mahogany table and the meeting commenced.
“Good morning. Everyone had a good weekend, I hope?”
I looked around the room and they all nodded their heads except Larry, who stared down at the table.
“Let’s get started. I guess I’ll bring the subject out into the open because I know it’s been on everybody’s mind. Now I know the implementation of YETI has been hard for some of us; I myself have questioned the morality of secretly inserting specific references to government-supported behaviors, behaviors that many may not, in their own opinion, find beneficial to the American people. Some may question why we have even gotten into such a nebulous arena. I joined Huerto because I wanted to make games that people wanted to play, and I expect that’s why most of you are in this volatile industry. At Huerto we’ve found a refugee from the storm, an eye in the middle of a churning hurricane. You know how the economy is. And yet we’ve reaped the benefits of our vision and been rewarded many times over. We’ve trusted the wisdom of our CEO, Mr. Rodrico Rodriguez. Now I know he has his quirks, and that many of us like to have a little pleasure at his expense. Some of you may even think of him as a bumbling, absent-minded goof, and a person whose success and wealth was as much a product of your own efforts as any of his labors. But honestly, I think we all know in our hearts that Rodrico is a genius and a man of incomparable talent and ability. I ask you now to trust in his judgment regarding YETI. Rodrico knows what’s best for this company.”
“I like how you’ve skipped over the particulars while giving us empty reassurances,” said Eugene with a smirk. He was older than me, a big man with a growing gut and gray on his temples. “The simple fact is that Rodrico sold us out. G-men approached him with tons of cash and tax breaks, and he paid them with both our integrity and his own. The Game had been already heading in an unhealthy direction; gameplay was more about keeping the addict in his chair than really challenging the player. Development of specific areas was outsourced to a studio in China, which was completely unnecessary. Then those psychologists showed up for a while to work with Rodrico to produce nonsensical blocks of code that we then had to insert into The Game. None of it made any sense; it was all bits of rhyme and incantations, pure gibberish. And now our baby is being used as a tool for subliminal messaging, and God knows what else is in store. I suppose you’re going to tell us sequentially, feed us bits and pieces until we’ve constructed something terrible and illegal without comprehending our actions. Well, I’ve had enough of Mr. Rodrico’s vision. I’ve looked deep in my heart and found that I believe ol’ Hot Rod to be crazier than a shit-house rat. You can take that as my resignation.” He pushed back his chair with a snort.
“I’m afraid you can’t do that, Eugene,” I sighed. This was the moment I’d been dreading. My little speech would ring hollow.
“I can do whatever the hell I want,” roared Eugene as he marched toward the door.
“We’re all contracted employees. You remember the updated paperwork everyone had to sign two years ago. I’m guessing you didn’t read section B34T.”
“What the hell is ‘B34T’?”
“Section B34T of your employee contract gives Huerto the authority to arrest and detain employees suspected of dishonest and treasonous conduct indefinitely without the right of trial or legal representation as part of its special relationship with obscure governing bodies.”
“That’s unconstitutional bull. Who’s going to arrest me? Lolita? I’m quitting. I haven’t done anything treasonous to the company.”
“Violating your employee contract is certainly considered dishonest conduct. And you know we have security staff. But really, Eugene, why let it come to that? I think you’re blowing this out of proportion. You have a family to support. You have a great job. You get free drinks at work, Eugene. Free drinks and food.”
“Are you saying we’re prisoners here?” said Rhonda.
“No, of course not, you’re getting paid for your work. You get to go home at night. Nothing’s changed, all right? Let’s get on with this meeting.” I was starting to sweat despite the air-conditioning.
“Come on, people, we don’t have to take this Orwellian crap,” said Eugene waving his arms. “I’m going to see how many I can round up out on the floor. We’re striking. Who’s with me?”
“We can’t, Eugene,” said Kumiko quietly. Her dark bangs covered her eyes. “We have bills to pay and there aren’t any other game companies around here.”
“Can we start happy hour early?” suggested Art. “I think a little liquor might help the discourse.” He eyed my office fridge and I shook my head. I didn’t want them to know about my liquor cabinet.
“Jesus Christ you’re an alcoholic,” Eugene responded. “It’s eight in the morning. And what the hell, you have liquor in here?”
“Actually, I do. One of the perks of the job,” I lied, forming a strategy. “What do you guys want? Eugene, you like beer, right? You’re a beer man? I have some Sam Adams lager in my office fridge. There’s Scotch in the freezer too! Rita, go down and get some donuts from the cafeteria. We can’t have a meeting without donuts.”
“We’re not children you can pacify…” he began.
“I’ll tell you what. There’s some news I’ve been keeping secret from you all. You’re all getting ten-percent raise. New money, fresh from the taxpayers. You’re getting it next month.” I knew they were due for a raise, but the figure was completely fabricated.
“Really?” said Kumiko, eyes now visible and shining.
“Ten-percent?” stammered Eugene.
“That’s an extra eight grand for you, my friend,” I said with a smile. “Now do you want to sit down? Do you want to have a beer?”
“I want a Sam Adams,” said Art. “And a chocolate donut.”
“Is Rita bringing back any chocolate donuts?” asked Eugene in a whisper.
“I guarantee she is. She knows I love chocolate donuts as much as any man.” I glanced around the table to see if there was any lingering dissent. Rhonda’s cheeks were flushed; Kumiko wasn’t looking at me, and Eugene appeared a little shell-shocked. I hadn’t wanted to mention section B34T. Like my employees, I hadn’t been aware of its existence until fairly recently, when Rodrico had suggested citing it to quell an earlier rebellion regarding YETI. I wanted to sympathize with them and admit that I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the project either. But Rodrico had the reins; I might be directly beneath him in rank, but I was still just an enforcer, not a real decision maker. The big stuff, the future of the company, as I had just told them, was still determined by Rodriguez.
After Rita returned with the donuts, and Eugene had downed a couple of Sam Adams, the mood of the meeting improved. We crunched the numbers and churned the data together, operating like impartial machines. The preliminary results were inconclusive; our subscribers hadn’t sufficiently purchased a particular brand of energy drink that had been advertised in The Game. “Rat” it was called, and we had produced a mana-restoring item with the very same name and a similar logo in the gameworld. Most of the subscribers to The Game shared their bank statements with us in exchange for virtual rewards like unique weapons and experience points. Such information enabled us to figure out what companies and products would benefit from advertisement. Targeted advertising wasn’t anything new for us; the practice predated YETI and was disliked by the staff, who considered it dishonest and exploitative. It was grouped with the newer initiative because it shared some of the same methodology and techniques.
            As far as I understood it, YETI was to be a complex program centered on coercive persuasion. Old strategies that had been unsuccessful might work better in the addictive environment of The Game, or at least that’s what they figured. I had read up on the subject of brain-washing after Rodrico had explained YETI’s aims, and I’d found little evidence supporting that it was even possible, yet he assured me that new processes were being researched for implementation in The Game. Rodrico had handed me blocks of code written by himself and so-called “psychologists,” code that he claimed could “do the impossible.” However, just as Eugene stated, it wasn’t code at all, it was just odd bits of some macabre poem, and I didn’t understand how any of it compiled, but somehow it did. Anyway, YETI was to be an ongoing project, an adaptive program able to change in order to meet its bifurcated goal: to further the consumerist lifestyle so that the American way of life was preserved, while keeping key political personnel in office. Why pick a video game to use as the means of dispersing this philosophy? “The Game reaches more people than any other singular entertainment program,” he’d said, proudly. I was amazed; I knew we were doing well, but I didn’t know our subscriber numbers were the best in the entertainment business.
            I suppose I didn’t freak out like Eugene when I learned about YETI because I didn’t think it would be successful. Our advertising program was a big business, but it barely increased revenues for sponsored companies. I figured YETI would be the same, and hell, none of us were exactly sure what YETI was or how we were implementing it. It was just another scheme cooked up by Rodrico, and he even admitted as much to me. “What can they do if it fails?” he’d said. “They can’t let the public know. All these documents and contracts they’ve made us sign, they are worthless. They can’t make the world’s most successful video game company disappear.”
            When the meeting was over, I was pretty drunk. Art hung around my office for a while, making banal talk and sipping drinks. I kept giving him hints that he should get the hell out and do some work, but he sat there chatting on about a video game he’d played that weekend. I didn’t get it; I couldn’t play games when I went home, not after spending all day working on them, and not after studying classical conditioning. You can only press a lever so many times before the reward becomes unimportant. Randomizing the schedule didn’t do the trick, not once you realized you were a rat.
            Finally I told Art that I wasn’t paying him to tell me stories. He looked a little hurt as he got up, but his pained expression didn’t stop him from finishing off his beer in one huge gulp.
Rodrico was waiting, but I didn’t want to see him, not after arguing with my team and citing his infallible wisdom. I swallowed a couple of mints and took a big drink of ice water and then threw on another shirt I had lying about. It was time to go to the ninth floor.
Rodrico’s office was modeled after the neoclassical antechamber seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The floor consisted of beautiful white tiles that shone like a marble sun, and there were period correct pieces along the walls, including a priceless antique writing desk that I envied. The only dissonant object was a harpsichord, which I understood to have been replaced by the piano by the eighteenth century. I had seen Rodrico tapping forlornly at its keys many a time, usually playing some simple one-handed melody, his other hand supporting his drooping head.
He was on the phone when I entered, so I waited patiently in one of the exquisite chairs while he cupped his hand to the mouthpiece and whispered conspiratorially.
             “Yes, Congressman Stevens, the meeting is on for this week. Why don’t you come by a day early and check out our progress? See how your nephew Larry is doing.” His eyes were roving back and forth like the hands of a clock.  “All right. I’ll see you then. Radicals for capitalism unite!” he suddenly concluded with a hoarse scream, slamming down the phone.
“Louie! My oldest friend and closest confidant, what can I do for you?” he said, arms outstretched from behind his heavy desk. There were dinosaur action-figures spread out atop of piles of paperwork. I recognized a Tyrannosaurus and an Apatosaurus. The former was eating the latter.
“We have a meeting, remember?
“Ah yes, the weekly formality. The CEO talks with his Vice President of Operations and discovers how the latest project is progressing.” He waved his hand, a dismissive gesture. “You know, Louie, my finger is on the pulse of this company. You may think me isolated up here, apart from my employees and the daily grind, but I am well-aware of where everything is heading.” He smiled a disarming grin. “So tell me: where’s it heading?”
Rodrico was of average height and had a skinny build. His hair was curly and jet black, and he wore it long and combed back. His eyebrows were bushy and his nose was aquiline. The pencil-thin mustache beneath that nose was always neat and well-groomed. I thought he looked a lot like Salvador Dali.
 “Possibly to hell. I had to defuse a volatile situation today. Eugene was about to walk out so I had to cite clause B34T, which caused a small panic that I handled with alcohol and chocolate donuts.” Rodrico’s thick brows rose with the mentioning of alcohol.
“But they’re pacified now?”
“I told them they were getting a ten-percent raise.”
His eyes bulged. “You did what?
I shrugged. “What else could I do, Rod? This is some pretty odd stuff you’ve gotten us into. You keep the eighth floor occupied with advertising energy drinks and frozen food, and you have us emphasize words like “consume” in dialogue scripts, like that sort of goofy thing is actually going to work. And this sing-songy deranged ‘code’ you keep giving me, it puzzles the hell out of the team and myself.” I gave him an honest look. “We want to make games, Rod. You know I’m a cynical man, and I understand the business side of things, but this is an awfully weird direction you’re steering us. I think the team believes you to be insane.”
            “The Randians have a meeting coming up,” he said, changing the subject. “You sure you don’t want to join? I mean, of course you’d have to apply for membership, but I know the society would accept you.”
            The Randians were a club devoted to Objectivism, the psuedophilosophy of Ayn Rand. As a teenager, I’d fumbled through the pages of The Fountainhead, and at the time I’d been impressed with its bold justifications for absolute self-interest and greed, which appealed to my cynical, post-adolescent heart. Over the years, however, I’d come to consider it a shallow work devoid of much intellectual substance, and Atlas Shrugged even more so. Rand’s heroes were cartoons; they were unrealistically focused on their businesses to a faultless degree. They didn’t engage in corporate raiding or splurge on G5 jets. They had no faults; the peons needed to let them run things their way if the modern world was to thrive. The paradigm of the CEO as both a genius and a capable executive wasn’t supported by reality. Steve Jobs may have been responsible for the success of Apple, but he didn’t invent the iPad or the iPhone. He didn’t assemble it; that was done by slave-workers in China living in dormitories and laboring for thirty-eight cents an hour. And we, the consumers, we had to buy these products in sufficient numbers, we had to give our hard-earned cash to Apple in order for them to make money. So if Jobs and other CEO figures simply vanished like John Galt and his cronies in Atlas Shrugged, the world wouldn’t stop turning. Apple has been doing pretty well since Jobs’ death.
            Rodrico fit Rand’s mold better than anyone I’d ever met, and yet, as I’ve stated, he depended a great deal on his personnel. I’d heard rumors that the other Randians were influential people in politics and business, but I wanted no part in their little secret society. I wanted to stay out of things; I wanted to remain impartial. I didn’t strive to increase my personal power or my paycheck. Sure, I voted in most elections, and obviously I had some strong opinions regarding certain popular authors, but my ambitions did not exceed their rather modest bounds. Vice President of the world’s premier video game company was a good place for me. It was more than enough.
            “No, I’m going to have to decline your offer,” I said. Dealing with Rodrico was like a chess match. You had to properly maneuver and get yourself in the right position to get what you wanted out of him. Being blunt was good, but he usually countered with some unrelated subject, and you just had to humor him for a while until he was sufficiently amused. Like all hermits, Rodrico was really lonely as hell.
            “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Arlington; I’m not insane,” he replied, giving me his best deranged smile. “I promise that everything regarding YETI will eventually be made crystal clear to you. We are an entertainment company, and yes, we’ll continue to make entertainment. YETI is a project we couldn’t refuse. It was either us or a rival company, and I wasn’t about to see that happen. Huerto has always been about innovation. Do you know what the future is going to be like?” He got up from his chair and gestured at the room. “In the future we won’t have to spend money on remodeling our homes. We won’t have to worry about owning nice things, or keeping up with the Joneses. We won’t have to care about who’s running the country and whether they’re turning it into a dystopia. Entertainment has already become our life. We’ll be able to walk through virtual worlds that are imperceptibly different from reality. We’ll be able to have anything and everything that we want. Isn’t that the focus of the American Dream? To be free from want and worry? To live life dedicated to the pursuit of happiness?”
            I recalled Maria’s words about transcending one’s primitive state, but I only shrugged at my boss. He came over and placed a hand on my shoulder. His skin was becoming the unhealthy shade of something that never sees natural light.
            “Louie, I love ya like my own brother,” he said. “But relax, things will take care of themselves. Now about that raise. Ten-percent is ridiculous. Four-percent is what they’re going to get. I’ll make up some bullshit about funds needing to be reallocated. Meeting adjourned.”
 I got up and shook hands with him and then made my way toward the elevator. As the doors were sliding shut, I saw him sit down at his harpsichord and begin to run his hands across the keyboard, making a chaotic, dissonant song. Close intervals were played together, a sound like the mingling of two parrots’ screams. The jarring chords resounded in my head for the rest of work, giving me a hangover-worthy headache, and as I drove home I heard them still, a pair of rusty knives carving up my conscience and my brain. 

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