A WHITE WALL.
Wait – not quite white. Yellowing. A yellow white wall.
There are blossoming brown stains and a peek of cinder block.
Then a blurry, brown shape sits in front of you. You can’t quite make her out.
She scoots back
Until you can see her face:
WILLOW EAMES, 21. Long flyaway hair encircles her round face. Except for that pale, pink disc, Willow is brown. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown lips. Her sweater is brown. Her neck is choked by a bulky brown scarf, like a burl on a tree.
Her expression is also brown. Don’t call her angry or depressed or lonely. She wouldn’t agree with any of that.
Willow sets something shiny in her lap and speaks:
Willow now lifts the shiny object into the frame – a stainless steel REVOLVER. It’s a Smith & Wesson model 640, with a two-inch barrel. As if that matters.
She raises the revolver and presses the muzzle to her chin.
“Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
Gordon Spiro awoke to darkness. The sun hadn’t come up, not that he could tell in his windowless garage. For a moment, he thought maybe he was in Hell, which according to the dictates of his faith would be darkness – utter, complete darkness. Complete detachment from life, love, and God. But no – there were the fluttering LEDs of his workstation and the dim, orange glow of his surge protectors. Gordon was still attached to life.
And life was cold. The garage had no heat, and while his top side was smothered under blankets, his bottom side had only the nylon mesh of the camp cot. Freezing air surged up from the concrete floor like some reverse-oven, baking his back in frosty cold. His back! How many more nights could his middle-aged spine take on the cot? Gordon remembered his bed – spacious, soft, and warm. It was right there – mere steps inside the house. He could just get up, walk inside, pull back the jersey sheets and the down comforter, and settle in. He could go back to sleep, maybe not wake up. But Gordon would not do that. Besides, he had turned the heat off inside the house to save money. So it would be cold in there, too.
He knew he shouldn’t look at his phone first. He should rise, fold his blankets neat and square, make a pot of coffee, take a shower, read the newspaper, breakfast on warm slices of fresh baguette with strawberry jam…
He looked at his phone.
Eight text messages.
Last chance. The coffee was freshly ground, the newspaper waiting in the driveway. The baguette was a short drive to the bakery. The strawberry jam was probably bad. Maybe a neighbor had some he could borrow (although that would involve social contact and Gordon wasn’t ready for that yet). Gordon also remembered he turned the water heater off to save money, so the shower would be an icy torture.
First text message: SAW VIDEO, NEED CHANGES IMMEDIATELY!
Second text message: HATE THE MUSIC! WEIRD VOICE ON IT!
Third: THERE’S A BAD CUT AT 3:03. NEED TO FIX IT NOW!
All were from his client, Mrs. Cabot. Sent at 2:47 in the morning.
Gordon woke up his workstation. The drives and fans whirred to life, more alive than he was. The human winced as the monitor shone its blazing light in Gordon’s face. He opened the Cabot project in Adobe Premiere and moved the playhead to 3:03. He jogged it back and forth, squinting to see the problem. There was no cut, no edit, no transition of any sort. Just a pan of the wedding reception. At 3:03, there was no subject at all. It was a blur.
It was 6:30. Mrs. Cabot should be asleep now. Gordon texted back:
Don’t know what you mean by bad cut. There’s no cut at 3:03.
He put his phone down and hopped up to brew coffee. Mentally, he settled on a French roast, when his phone strummed a chord.
WRONG! BAD CUT AT 3:03. LOOK AGAIN.
Gordon responded, even though his frozen fingers fumbled all over the microscopic keyboard on his phone.
Are you sure of timecode? There is no cut at 3:03.
The reply came almost instantly, as if straight from Mrs. Cabot’s brain:
CAN’T YOU SEE? EDDIE’S IN THE SHOT!!!!!!
Gordon’s head lolled forward, as if struck by an executioner’s axe. His client’s misuse of the word cut suddenly diminished next to this insanity.
WE HATE EDDIE. I DIDN’T EVEN WANT HIM AT THE WEDDING BUT MY LOSER EX-HUSBAND INVITED HIM.
So the dark shape with the big square glasses had a name, perhaps the only bespectacled blur in this video with one. Gordon typed back soothingly:
I understand but he only appears briefly. You barely notice him.
I NOTICED HIM! I WANT YOU TO EDIT HIM OUT.
Mrs. Cabot, this is the first dance. I don’t have another angle. It would be a jump cut.
NOT A CUT! EDIT HIM OUT!
What Gordon should have done at this point was lay his phone down, plug in his coffee maker and start that rich, syrupy pot of French roast. Then:
- Take a cold shower
- Stretch out his back with yoga or tai chi
- Run down to the bakery and buy a dozen baguettes
- Feed ten of them to the pigeons in the park
- Then wave the remaining two around like kali sticks in an awkward martial arts routine which some kid would surreptitiously shoot with his phone, in turn becoming a viral sensation, netting Gordon millions of views, space at YouTube’s LA studio, enough dough to send Jamie and Colson to Bennington four times over, and a three-picture deal with Paramount.
That’s what he should have done. But he didn’t. Gordon labored under the fiction that people were all as reasonable as he was.
Mrs. Cabot, editing is the same as cutting. If i put an edit there, picture will jump and look bad.
NOT CUTTING. USE YOUR COMPUTER TO CUT EDDIE LIKE THEY DO IN THE MOVIES!!!!!
Gordon held his head in his hands. He imagined it as a ripe cantaloupe, with Mrs. Cabot beating on it with a week-old baguette. He briefly wondered if cantaloupe jam was any good.
If you want me to use special effects to erase eddie, i do not have that capability.
YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!! MY SON CAN DO IT AND HE’S A POTHEAD AND A SCREW-UP! CUT OUT EDDIE NOW!!!
Gordon always said technology had the power to connect people. Technology meant he could share projects with his clients, allowing them to review and suggest changes any time of day. He did not have to schedule a viewing. He did not have to maintain a professional-looking office – his dusty garage would do. He could also take editing gigs from Idaho, Norway, and Malaysia, downloading clips from the cloud.
Without Skype, he would almost never see the faces of his children.
But those “benefits,” he now realized, were all debits, not credits. He didn’t want those $50 jobs from Estonia – he only took them because he needed the money (at least until they sold the house.) He didn’t want his clients to review drafts from home. It gave them the space to scrutinize every detail, every frame. It gave them time to overthink the details. It gave them the freedom to spot blurry Eddie at 2:47 in the morning.
And how was working in pajama pants and a coffee-stained T-shirt connecting? It would have been better to sit with Mrs. Cabot. She may be a difficult client, but she wouldn’t scream in Gordon’s physical face. He could talk sense into her, let her think on his words while her eyes found the diploma from Pratt Institute, the one that alerted her to the presence of a master of the fine arts, of Someone Who Knew What He Was Doing. She wouldn’t treat him this way because even though Gordon was an unimposing forty-five-year old man who was fat and slow in the way most American men were, there was still an unspoken threat of violence returned for violence. Face-to-face interactions were governed by that, weren’t they? Smile for smile, compliment for compliment, blow for blow. That was the social contract. You behaved like a human being in the presence of other human beings. Unless you were separated by technology. No one could throw a punch through the cloud.
Gordon felt helpless. Maybe emasculated was the word he sought. If he had a camera mounted next to his garage door opener, a “God’s eye view,” what would it see? A doughy, pasty, sad man in his boxers and undershirt, blinking in confusion while a suburban social climber horsey-set mother-of-the-bride yelled at him about Uncle Eddie. Taking it and asking for more because he needed the money – money to send to the woman he loved but didn’t love him back. The mother of his children, who had moved in with a triathlete who sold workout equipment. She lived in a rambling six-bedroom Dutch colonial while he lived in a garage and slept on a 32-inch wide camp cot. Wendy woke up every morning next to someone who was fit, capable, and not her husband. Why was that even allowed? Gordon wondered. What kind of sick society permits that and demands he, the actual, legal husband, pay his wife recompense for her behavior? The same kind of society that enables all-caps screaming over blurry Eddie in the wedding video.
Gordon considered weeping. He considered a hangdog slump no one would see (because he hadn’t installed the God’s eye camera, you know), a resignation followed by a shrug followed by a nine AM scotch. He even considered blowing his brains out. He didn’t own a gun, but a creative man could devise something from power tools and a propane tank. Gordon was finally defeated. After everything that had happened this year – his blow-up, his separation, losing his children, and his final garage-purgatory – his undoing would come at the hands of Mrs. Cabot and Uncle Eddie who her loser ex-husband invited.
“No. I refuse.”
Gordon started. He heard the voice but didn’t recognize it. It must have been him speaking, but he did not consciously open his mouth or force breath over his larynx. It wasn’t God – Gordon had long stopped believing in a God who cared a whit about an unspecial soon-to-be-divorced fail-man living in his garage. It must have been him.
If he could say it, he could do it. He could will his body to make the thing happen, whatever it was.
First thing: he turned off his phone.
Second thing: he closed Premiere and dragged the folder marked CABOT to the trash.
ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DELETE THE FOLDER CABOT? YES, NO?
The progress bar marched from left to right. Gordon imagined his energy being replenished, his sense of agency rising. Maybe it was a pathetic thought, that his value as a person should be reflected in this green rectangle growing longer. But Gordon had to start somewhere.
The cold water would have stung more if the shower head were not clogged. As it was, it dribbled over Gordon’s pudgy shoulders like anointing oil. Now Gordon was more awake than he had been the last few years. After a minute or two wearing his ice-cold hairshirt, Gordon would towel himself dry, shave, comb his thinning hair, put on the one designer shirt he owned, and walk to Le Pain Agile. While he enjoyed his coffee and brioche, he would do nothing. He would stare out the window. He would empty his mind, just as his workstation was now emptying the contents of its hard drive – every single project. If a man was his work, then Gordon was now dying. And he had never been happier.
While Gordon was discovering himself, Adam Gravitz had long been awake. At 4:00 A.M., Adam slid out of bed, careful not to awake his wife Marilee (certain that he wouldn’t – Klonopin would see to that) and booted up his home workstation.
Adam was older than Gordon by two years and sleeker by sixty pounds, a forward-thinking visionary who commanded a $20 billion pharmaceutical empire. Although he packed a featherweight laptop for work on the road, when he was in his home office, he liked the brawn of his overpowered workstation and its bank of screens. As the four massive ultra high-definition monitors winked to life, Adam could imagine he was at the controls of an interstellar spaceship or a submersible skimming the floor of the Marianas Trench. But of course he wouldn’t do that. He was an adult, for Pete’s sake.
Screen 2 was his workspace, where he read his messages and massaged his forecast models. On Screen 3 was his data laboratory, a real-time readout of how Steering Pharma’s products trended on industry news sites and social media. He could watch the progress of R&D and see updates on FDA approvals. But it was on Screens 1 and 4 where Adam lived. These two monitors, mounted above and to the sides like gigantic angel’s wings, showed Steering Pharma itself.
Inside Steering’s corporate office, cameras peered down from the drop ceiling. Adam had them installed every eight feet, from north to south and east to west. They were “for security,” which every Steering employee knew meant the security of the company’s trade secrets. No document could be printed and no files could be transferred without Tom Six, Adam’s Chief of Security, seeing it and recording it for future litigation. The “50,000 Eyes” hovered over every accountant, scientist, and nurse like an LED-pocked Argus, spurring them to achieve maximum productivity and protecting them from corporate espionage and Solitaire.
For Adam, watching the gallery of surveillance feeds was a spiritual epiphany. He found if you reduced the size of each individual camera view to the size of a microscope slide, the two 80-inch monitors transformed into moving mosaics of color and tone. Squint and you could make out patterns of movement, almost as if every eight-foot square of Steering danced with its immediate neighbors. Waves of lightness and hues rippled from one edge to the other – for no discernible reason, since the placement of feeds on his screen was random. Feed from the lab might live next to the feed from marketing, which in turn buzzed below the company cafeteria. But when the pixels aligned, the unity of vision mesmerized Adam. It was his way of knowing Steering was healthy. It was seeing the very life of his company.
There were three feeds that were not trained on locations inside Steering Pharma. At this time of day, activity at the corporate offices was low. The bioinformatics machines would be running simulations, a stray janitor would roam the building. Maybe an overzealous corporate climber would be just sitting down at his desk, happy to have beaten the traffic. But otherwise, Adam’s oracle didn’t have much to say.
Instead, Adam enlarged the three camera feeds trained on nearby rooms – those of his two daughters and Marilee. They were all three sleeping. That was good, since an early morning suicide attempt is what prompted Adam to install a camera in the master bedroom. Pills, of all things – and a competitor’s pills, at that! Marilee was a very intelligent woman, but she didn’t know chemistry or pharmacology. Thankfully, she underdosed by several hundred milligrams. Adam berated Rosaria, their live-in nanny, for no other reason than he felt guilty. If he hadn’t left their bed to work, she might have still been asleep. She wouldn’t have been left alone to ruminate.
Ursula and Sylvia were now thirteen and eleven. Much to Adam’s pride, they were independent, self-starters, and academic standouts at the day school they attended. Ursula had embraced her pre-teen growth spurt enthusiastically, excited she was inheriting her father’s towering height. She had joined the upper school’s girls’ basketball team and made fast friends with the other willowy young women. Sylvia had also started blossoming out of her little girl body and mind. Perhaps to compete with Ursula (in a friendly, sisterly way, of course), she started wearing heels and dresses trending toward the teens. There was no mistaking the younger Gravitz as a schoolgirl. But her aspirations were in the future.
That is what Marilee ruminated on. Marilee did a lot of ruminating, and somewhere in her essence, the mother was dying. The girls needed her now, but in three years or sooner, she would be a nettle in their lives (so her friends with older daughters said). No more snuggles on the couch or baking batards together from her grandmother’s recipe. Soon everything would be “I hate you” and “you never let me”. So her friends with older daughters said.
There were other things to ruminate on. What that sideways look from Irene Noori meant. What a cancer diagnosis might feel like. Whether her Lexus SUV should have been recalled, even though its manufacture date fell well after those deadly seat belt failures. Whether that tick she brushed off her could have given her Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease, even though it hadn’t yet bitten her. Could you die from Lyme? Death. Nothing could save you from Death. Marilee ruminated many hours on what Death was, what it represented. A true end, a negation to all the accomplishments in your life. And then, when she had ruminated on Death, Marilee worried that her rumination was too cliched. Everyone worried about death. Couldn’t she pick something more original?
So that morning two months ago, she had gone into the bathroom and swallowed every Amitriptyline tablet in the bottle. She didn’t know why. She didn’t have much of a reason, except that it was something she should do. Rosaria found her later that morning, listless but alive. There were only 450 milligrams in the bottle – not enough to do her in. Adam had her quietly rushed to the hospital and ordered Rosaria to say nothing of it to the girls. They would not know their mother was sad, depressed, anxious, or anything other than a perfect mother They needed that assurance. Adam needed that assurance.
Adam started. Had he been reminiscing? Daydreaming? He looked over to Screen 4. There was Marilee, still asleep. He had only let his mind wander a few seconds. But it was a new experience for him, getting lost in memory. Was he worrying? Of course! His wife of twenty years was broken, and he couldn’t fix her. Here was something outside his control, and it rattled him. Human beings were frail and silly, even when bolstered by Steering’s miracle offerings. And now, this concern and helplessness was causing his focus to dim. He could not afford this! Not when Steering was on the cusp of a major launch – one that would change everything, even death.
Adam cursed his wife, even as his mind flickered to their first meeting at Kellogg, when Marilee bet she would get to the C-suite before he would. Adam joked he would win by marrying and impregnating the fetching young MBA candidate from Hastings-on-Hudson. That would slow her down. It did, and while Adam adored his children and loved Marilee’s motherly dedication, he was somewhat disappointed that this dedication ended her ambition. Other women achieved motherhood and corporate excellence. Maybe Marilee wasn’t everything Adam thought she was – everything Adam wanted. No, Adam knew her maternal drive would serve the Gravitz family well. It would safeguard the robust health and intellect of their two daughters. It would curate the admission process to top schools. It would usher them to success as engineers, athletes, or concert-grade musicians. How frustrating that all of this hinged on her not dying – or being buried under the fog of antidepressants.
Now that fog was reaching out for him. Adam re-focused his eyes and mind on the screens in front of him, on the pulsing life of Steering Pharma. Soon Governor Purcell would sign the DIGNITY Act, and they could fast-track Prexalaurel’s approval. Thousands of people could claim the storybook finale everyone craved, but few achieved.
Maybe somehow this success would lift Marilee out of her slump. It would salve Adam’s worries. It would restore his focus. It had to. Daydreams were the luxury of the idle middle, people like Gordon Spiro. Adam Gravitz, CEO of Steering Pharma, was not that. He would rather overdose on antidepressants. And unlike Marilee, he would take enough. And they would be Steering antidepressants. If he couldn’t show brand loyalty in death, what kind of CEO was he?