Illustration by Idiots’Books
Lester’s workshop had a sofa where he entertained visitors and took his afternoon nap. Normally, he’d use his cane to cross from his workbench to the sofa, but seeing Perry threw him for such a loop that he completely forgot until he was a pace or two away from it and then he found himself flailing for support as his hips started to give way. Perry caught him under the shoulders and propped him up. Lester felt a rush of shame color his cheeks.
“Steady there, cowboy,” Perry said.
“Sorry, sorry,” Lester muttered.
Perry lowered him to the sofa, then looked around. “You got anything to drink? Water? I didn’t really expect the bus would take as long as it did.”
“You’re taking the bus around Burbank?” Lester said. “Christ, Perry, this is Los Angeles. Even homeless people drive cars.”
Perry looked away and shook his head. “The bus is cheaper.” Lester pursed his lips. “You got anything to drink?”
“In the fridge,” Lester said, pointing to a set of nested clay pot evaporative coolers. Perry grinned at the jury-rigged cooler and rummaged around in its mouth for a while. “Anything, you know, buzzy? Guarana? Caffeine, even?”
Lester gave an apologetic shrug. “Not me, not anymore. Nothing goes into my body without oversight by a team of very expensive nutritionists.”
“You don’t look so bad,” Perry said. “Maybe a little skinny—”
Lester cut him off. “Not bad like the people you see on TV, huh? Not bad like the dying ones.” The fatkins had overwhelmed the nation’s hospitals in successive waves of sickened disintegrating skeletons whose brittle bones and ruined joints had outstripped anyone’s ability to cope with them. The only thing that kept the crisis from boiling over entirely was the fast mortality that followed on the first symptoms—difficulty digesting, persistent stiffness. Once you couldn’t keep down high-calorie slurry, you just starved to death.
“Not like them,” Perry agreed. He had a bit of limp, Lester saw, and his old broken arm hung slightly stiff at his side.
“I’m doing OK,” Lester said. “You wouldn’t believe the medical bills, of course.”
“Don’t let Freddy know you’ve got the sickness,” Perry said. “He’d love that story—‘fatkins pioneer pays the price—”
“Freddy! Man, I haven’t thought of that shitheel in—Christ, a decade, at least. Is he still alive?”
Perry shrugged. “Might be. I’d think that if he’d keeled over someone would have asked me to pitch in to charter a bus to go piss on his grave.”
Lester laughed hard, so hard he hurt his chest and had to sag back into the sofa, doing deep yoga breathing until his ribs felt better.
Perry sat down opposite him on the sofa with a bottle of Lester’s special thrice-distilled flat water in a torpedo-shaped bottle. “Suzanne?” he asked.
“Good,” Lester said. “Spends about half her time here and half on the road. Writing, still.”
“What’s she on to now?”
“Cooking, if you can believe it. Molecular gastronomy—food hackers who use centrifuges to clarify their consomme. She says she’s never eaten better. Last week it was some kid who’d written a genetic algorithm to evolve custom printable molecules that can bridge two unharmonius flavors to make them taste good together—like, what do you need to add to chocolate and sardines to make them freakin’ delicious?”
“Is there such a molecule?”
“Suzanne says there is. She said that they misted it into her face with a vaporizer while she ate a sardine on a slab of dark chocolate and it tasted better than anything she’d ever had before.”
“OK, that’s just wrong,” Perry said. The two of them were grinning at each other like fools.
Lester couldn’t believe how good it felt to be in the same room as Perry again after all these years. His old friend was much older than the last time they’d seen each other. There was a lot of grey in his short hair, and his hairline was a lot higher up his forehead. His knuckles were swollen and wrinkled, and his face had deep lines, making him look carved. He had the leathery skin of a roadside homeless person, and there were little scars all over his arms and a few on his throat.
“How’s Hilda?” Lester asked.
Perry looked away. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while,” he said.
“No, that’s OK. I get email blasts from her every now and again. She’s chipper and scrappy as always. Fighting the good fight. Fatkins stuff again—same as when I met her. Funny how that fight never gets old.”
“Hardy har har,” Lester said.
“OK, we’re even,” Perry said. “One-one on the faux-pas master’s tournament.”
They chatted about inconsequentialities for a while, stories about Lester’s life as the closeted genius at Disney Labs, Perry’s life on the road, getting itinerant and seasonal work at little micro-factories.
“Don’t they recognize you?”
“Me? Naw, it’s been a long time since I got recognized. I’m just the guy, you know, he’s handy, keeps to himself. Probably going to be moving on soon. Good with money, always has a quiet suggestion for tweaking an idea to make it return a little higher on the investment.”
“That’s you, all right. All except the ‘keeps to himself’ part.”
“A little older, a little wiser. Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
“Thank you, Mister Twain. You and Huck been on the river a while then?”
“No Huck,” he said. His smile got sad, heartbreakingly sad. This wasn’t the Perry Lester knew. Lester wasn’t the same person, either. They were both broken. Perry was alone, though—gregarious Perry, always making friends. Alone.
“So, how long are you staying?”
“I’m just passing through, buddy. I woke up in Burbank this morning and I thought, ‘Shit, Lester’s in Burbank, I should say hello.’ But I got places to go.”
“Come on, man, stay a while. We’ve got a guest-cottage out back, a little mother-in-law apartment. There are fruit trees, too.”
“Living the dream, huh?” He sounded unexpectedly bitter.
Lester was embarrassed for his wealth. Disney had thrown so much stock at him in the beginning and Suzanne had sold most of it and wisely invested it in a bunch of micro-funds; add to that the money she was raking in from the affiliate sites her Junior Woodchucks—kid-reporters she’d trained and set up in business—ran, and they never had to worry about a thing.
“Well, apart from dying. And working here.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wished he could take them back. He never let on that he wasn’t happy at the Mouse, and the dying thing—well, Suzanne and he liked to pretend that medical science would cure what it had brought.
Perry, though, he just nodded as if his suspicions were confirmed. “Must be hard on Suzanne.”
Now that was hitting the nail on the head. “You always were a perceptive son of a bitch.”
“She never said fatkins was good for you. She just reported the story. The people who blame her—”
This was the elephant in the room whenever Lester and Suzanne talked about his health. Between the two of them, they’d popularized fatkins, sent millions winging to Russia for the clinics, fuelled the creation of the clinics in the US and Mexico.
But they never spoke of it. Never. Now Perry was talking about it, still talking:
“—the FDA, the doctors. That’s what we pay them for. The way I see it, you’re a victim, their victim.”
Lester couldn’t say anything. Words stoppered themselves up in his mouth like a cork. Finally, he managed to choke out, “Change the subject, OK?”
Perry looked down. “Sorry. I’m out of practice with people.”
“I hope you’ll stay with us,” he said, thinking I hope you leave soon and never come back.
“You miss it, huh?”
“You said working here—”
“Working here. They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”
“I hate working with assholes.”
“They’re not assholes, that’s the thing, Perry. They’re some really smart people. They’re nice. We have them over for dinner. They’re fun to eat lunch with. The thing is, every single one of them feels the same way I do. They all have cool shit they want to do, but they can’t do it.”
“It’s like an emergent property. Once you get a lot of people under one roof, the emergent property seems to be crap. No matter how great the people are, no matter how wonderful their individual ideas are, the net effect is shit.”
“Reminds me of reliability calculation. Like if you take two components that are 90 percent reliable and use them in a design, the outcome is 90 percent of 90 percent—81 percent. Keep adding 90 percent reliable components and you’ll have something that explodes before you get it out of the factory.
“Maybe people are like that. If you’re 90 percent non-bogus and ten percent bogus, and you work with someone else who’s 90 percent non-bogus, you end up with a team that’s 81 percent non-bogus.”
“I like that model. It makes intuitive sense. But fuck me, it’s depressing. It says that all we do is magnify each others’ flaws.”
“Well, maybe that’s the case. Maybe flaws are multiplicative.”
“So what are virtues?”
“Additive, maybe. A shallower curve.”
“That’d be an interesting research project, if you could come up with some quantitative measurements.”
“So what do you do around here all day?”
“I’m building bigger mechanical computers, mostly. I print them out using the new volumetrics and have research assistants assemble them. There’s something soothing about them. I have an Apple ][+ clone running entirely on physical gates made out of extruded plastic skulls. It takes up an entire building out on one of the lots and when you play Pong on it, the sound of the jaws clacking is like listening to corpse beetles skeletonizing an elephant.”
“I think I’d like to see that,” Perry said, laughing a little.
“That can be arranged,” Lester said.
They were like gears that had once emerged from a mill with perfectly precise teeth, gears that could mesh and spin against each other, transferring energy.
They were like gears that had been ill-used in machines, apart from each other, until their precise teeth had been chipped and bent, so that they no longer meshed.
They were like gears, connected to one another and mismatched, clunking and skipping, but running still, running still.
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