Illustration by Idiots’Books
Perry touched down in Miami in a near-coma, his eyes gummed shut by several days’ worth of hangovers chased by drink. Sleep deprivation made him uncoordinated, so he tripped twice deplaning, and his voice was a barely audible rasp, his throat sore with a cold he’d picked up in Texas or maybe it was Oklahoma.
Lester was waiting beyond the luggage carousels, grinning like a holy fool, tall and broad-shouldered and tanned, dressed in fatkins pimped-out finery, all tight stretch-fabrics and glitter.
“Oh man, you look like shit,” he said, breaking off from the fatkins girl he’d been chatting up. Perry noticed that he was holding his phone, a sure sign that he’d gotten her number.
“Ten,” Perry said, grinning through the snotty rheum of his cold. “Ten rides.”
“Ten rides?” Lester said.
“Ten. San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Madison, Bellingham, Chapel Hill and—” He faltered. “And—Shit. I forget. It’s all written down.”
Lester took his bag from him and set it down, then crushed him in an enormous, muscular hug that whiffed slightly of the ketosis fumes that all the fatkins exuded.
“You did good, cowboy,” he said. “Let’s mosey back to the ranch, feed you and put you to bed, s’awright?”
“Can I sleep in?”
Lester laughed and slipped one of Perry’s arms over his shoulders and picked up his suitcase and walked them back through the parking lot to his latest hotrod.
Perry breathed in the hot, wet air as they went, feeling it open his chest and nasal passages. His eyes were at half mast, but the sight of the sickly roadside palms, the wandering vendors on the traffic islands with their net bags full of ipods and vpods—he was home, and his body knew it.
Lester cooked him a huge plate of scrambled eggs with corned beef, pastrami, salami and cheese, with a mountain of sauerkraut on top. “There you go, fatten you up. You’re all skinny and haggard, buddy.” Lester was an expert at throwing together high-calorie meals on short order.
Perry stuffed away as much as he could, then collapsed on his old bed with his old sheets and his old pillows, and in seconds he was sleeping the best sleep he’d had in months.
When he woke the next day, his cold had turned into a horrible, wet, crusty thing that practically had his face glued to his pillow. Lester came in, took a good look at him, and came back with a quart of fresh orange juice, a pot of tea, and a stack of dry toast, along with a pack of cold pills.
“Take all of this and then come down to the ride when you’re ready. I’ll hold down the fort for another couple days if that’s what it takes.”
Perry spent the day in his bathrobe, shuttling between the living room and the sun-chairs on the patio, letting the heat bake some of the snot out of his head. Lester’s kindness and his cold made him nostalgic for his youth, when his father doted on his illnesses.
Perry’s father was a little man. Perry—no giant himself—was taller than the old man by the time he turned 13. His father had always reminded him of some clever furry animal, a raccoon or badger. He had tiny hands and his movements were small and precise and careful.
They were mostly cordial and friendly, but distant. His father worked as a CAD/CAM manager in a machine shop, though he’d started out his career as a plain old machinist. Of all the machinists he’d started with at the shop, only he had weathered the transition to the new computerized devices. The others had all lost their jobs or taken early retirement or just quit, but his father had taken to CAD/CAM with total abandon, losing himself in the screens and staggering home bleary after ten or fifteen hours in front of the screen.
But that all changed when Perry took ill. Perry’s father loved to play nurse. He’d book off from work and stay home, ferrying up gallons of tea and beef broth, flat ginger-ale and dry toast, cold tablets and cough syrup. He’d open the windows when it was warm and then run around the house shutting them at the first sign of a cool breeze.
Best of all was what his father would do when Perry got restless: he and Perry would go down to the living-room, where the upright piano stood. It had been Perry’s grandfather’s, and the old man—who’d died before Perry was born—had been a jazz pianist who’d played sessions with everyone from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington.
“You ready, P?” his father would ask.
Perry always nodded, watching his father sit down at the bench and try a few notes.
Then his father would play, tinkling and then pounding, running up and down the keyboard in an improvised jazz recital that could go for hours, sometimes only ending once Perry’s mom came home from work at the framing shop.
Nothing in Perry’s life since had the power to capture him the way his father’s music did. His fingers danced, literally danced on the keys, walking up and down them like a pair of high-kicking legs, making little comedy movements. The little stubby fingers with their tufts of hair on the knuckles, like goat’s legs, nimbly prancing and turning.
And then there was the music. Perry sometimes played with the piano and he’d figured out that if you hit every other key with three fingers, you got a chord. But Perry’s dad almost never made chords: he made anti-chords, sounds that involved those mysterious black keys and clashed in a way that was precisely not a chord, that jangled and jarred.
The anti-chords made up anti-tunes. Somewhere in the music there’d be one or more melodies, often the stuff that Perry listened to in his room, but sometimes old jazz and blues standards.
The music would settle into long runs of improvisational noise that wasn’t quite noise. That was the best stuff, because Perry could never tell if there was a melody in there. Sometimes he’d be sure that he had the know of it, could tell what was coming next, a segue into “Here Comes the Sun” or “Let the Good Times Roll” or “Merrily We Roll Along,” but then his father would get to that spot and he’d move into something else, some other latent pattern that was unmistakable in hindsight.
There was a joke his dad liked, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” This was funny in just that way: you expected one thing, you got something else, and when your expectations fell apart like that, it was pure hilarity. You wanted to clutch your sides and roll on the floor sometimes, it was so funny.
His dad usually closed his eyes while he played, squeezing them shut, letting his mouth hang open slightly. Sometimes he grunted or scatted along with his playing but more often he grunted out something that was kind of the opposite of what he was playing, just like sometimes the melody and rhythms he played on the piano were sometimes the opposite of the song he was playing, something that was exactly and perfectly opposite, so you couldn’t hear it without hearing the thing it was the opposite of.
The game would end when his dad began to improvise on parts of the piano besides the keys, knocking on it, reaching in to pluck its strings like a harp, rattling Perry’s teacup on its saucer just so.
Nothing made him feel better faster. It was a tonic, a fine one, better than pills and tea and toast, daytime TV and flat ginger-ale.
As Perry got older, he and the old man had their share of fights over the normal things: girls, partying, school... But every time Perry took ill, he was transported back to his boyhood and those amazing piano recitals, his father’s stubby fingers doing their comic high-kicks and pratfalls on the keys, the grunting anti-song in the back of his throat, those crazy finales with teacups and piano strings.
Now he stared morosely at the empty swimming pool six stories below his balcony, filled with blowing garbage, leaves, and a huge wasps’ nest. His father’s music was in his ears, distantly now and fading with his cold. He should call the old man, back home in Westchester County, retired now. They talked only rarely these days, three or four times a year on birthdays and anniversaries. No fight had started their silence, only busy lives grown apart.
He should call the old man, but instead he got dressed and went for a jog around the block, trying to get the wet sick wheeze out of his whistling breath, stopping a couple times to blow his nose. The sun was like a blowtorch on his hair, which had grown out of his normal duckling fuzz into something much shaggier. His head baked, the cold baked with it, and by the time he got home and chugged a quart of orange juice, he was feeling fully human again and ready for a shower, street clothes and a turn at the old ticket-window at work.
The queue snaked all the way through the market and out to the street, where the line had a casual, party kind of atmosphere. The market kids were doing a brisk business in popsicles, homemade colas, and clever origami stools and sun-beds made from recycled cardboard. Some of the kids recognized him and waved, then returned to their hustle.
He followed the queue through the stalls. The vendors were happier than the kids, if that was possible, selling stuff as fast as they could set it out. The queue had every conceivable kind of person in it: old and young, hipsters and conservative rawboned southerners, Latina moms with their babies, stone-faced urban homeboys, crackers, and Miami Beach queers in pastel shorts. There were old Jewish couples and smartly turned out European tourists with their funny two-tone shag cuts and the filter masks that they smoked around. There was a no-fooling Korean tour group, of the sort he’d seen now and again in Disney World, led by a smart lady in a sweltering little suit, holding an umbrella over her head.
“Lester, what the fuck?” he said, grinning and laughing as he clapped Lester on the shoulder, taking a young mall-goth’s five bucks out of a hand whose fingernails were painted with chipped black polish. “What the hell is going on here?”
Lester laughed. “I was saving this for a surprise, buddy. Record crowds—growing every day. There’s a line up in the morning no matter how early I open and no matter what time I close, I turn people away.”
“How’d they all find out about it?”
Lester shrugged. “Word of mouth,” he said. “Best advertising you can have. Shit, Perry, you just got back from ten cities where they want to clone this thing—how did they find out about it?”
Perry shook his head and marveled at the queue some more. The Korean tour group was coming up on them, and Perry nudged Lester aside and got out his ticket-roll, the familiar movements lovely after all that time on the road.
The tour guide put a stack of twenties down on the counter. “I got fifty of ’em,” she said. “That’s five hundred bucks.” She had an American accent, somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Perry had been expecting a Korean accent, broken English.
Perry riffled the bills. “I’ll take your word for it.”
She winked at him. “They got off the plane and they were all like, ‘Screw Disney, we have one of those in Seoul, what’s new, what’s American?’ So I took them here. You guys totally rock.”
He could have kissed her. His heart took wing. “In you go,” he said. “Lester will get you the extra ride vehicles.”
“They’re all in there already,” he said. “I’ve been running the whole fleet for two weeks and I’ve got ten more on order.”
Perry whistled. “You shoulda said,” he said, then turned back to the tour guide. “It might be a little bit of a wait.”
“Ten, fifteen minutes,” Lester said.
“No problem,” she said. “They’ll wait till kingdom come, provided there’s good shopping to be had.” Indeed the tour group was at the center of a pack of vendor-kids, hawking busts and tattoos, contacts and action-figures, kitchenware and cigarette lighters.
Once she was gone, Lester gave his shoulder another squeeze. “I hired two more kids to bring the ride cars back around to the entrance.” When Perry had left, that had been a once-daily chore, something you did before shutting down for the night.
“Holy crap,” Perry said, watching the tour group edge toward the entrance, slip inside in ones and twos.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Lester said. “And wait till you see the ride!”
Perry didn’t get a chance to ride until much later that day, once the sun had set and the last market-stall had been shut and the last rider had been chased home, when he and Lester slugged back bottles of flat distilled water from their humidity-still and sat on the ticket counter to get the weight off their tired feet.
“Now we ride,” Lester said. “You’re going to love this.”
The first thing he noticed was that the ride had become a lot less open. When he’d left, there’d been the sense that you were in a giant room—all that dead Wal-Mart—with little exhibits spread around it, like the trade-floor at a monster-car show. But now the exhibits had been arranged out of one another’s sight-lines, and some of the taller pieces had been upended to form baffles. It was much more like a carny haunted house trade-show floor now.
The car circled slowly in the first “room,” which had accumulated a lot of junk that wasn’t mad inventions from the heyday of New Work. There was a chipped doll-cradle, and a small collection of girls’ dolls, a purse spilled on the floor with photos of young girls clowning at a birthday party. He reached for the joystick with irritation and slammed it toward minus one—what the hell was this crap?
Next was a room full of boys’ tanks and cars and trading cards, some in careful packages and frames, some lovingly scuffed and beaten up. They were from all eras, and he recognized some of his beloved toys from his own boyhood among the mix. The items were arranged in concentric rings—one of the robots’ default patterns for displaying materials—around a writhing tower of juddering, shuddering domestic robots that had piled one atop the other. The vogue for these had been mercifully brief, but it had been intense, and for Perry, the juxtaposition of the cars and the cards, the tanks and the robots made something catch in his throat. There was a statement here about the drive to automate household chores and the simple pleasure of rolling an imaginary tank over the imaginary armies of your imaginary enemies. So, too, something about the collecting urge, the need to get every card in a set, and then to get each in perfect condition, and then to arrange them in perfect order, and then to forget them altogether.
His hand had been jerking the joystick to plus one all this time and now he became consciously aware of this.
The next room had many of the old inventions he remembered, but they were arranged not on gleaming silver tables, but were mixed in with heaps of clothing, mountains of the brightly colored ubiquitous t-shirts that had gone hand in hand with every New Work invention and crew. Mixed in among them were some vintage tees from the dotcom era, and perched on top of the mountain, staring glassily at him, was a little girl-doll that looked familiar; he was almost certain that he’d seen her in the first doll room.
The next room was built out of pieces of the old “kitchen” display, but there was disarray now, dishes in the sink and a plate on the counter with a cigarette butted out in the middle of it. Another plate lay in three pieces on the linoleum before it.
The next room was carpeted with flattened soda tins that crunched under the chair’s wheels. In the center of them, a neat workbench with ranked tools.
The ride went on and on, each room utterly different from how he’d left it, but somehow familiar too. The ride he’d left had celebrated the New Work and the people who’d made it happen, and so did this ride, but this ride was less linear, less about display more—
“It’s a story,” he said when he got off.
“I think so too,” Lester said. “It’s been getting more and more story-like. The way that doll keeps reappearing. I think that someone had like ten of them and just tossed them out at regular intervals and then the plus-oneing snuck one into every scene.”
“It’s got scenes! That’s what they are, scenes. It’s like a Disney ride, one of those dark rides in Fantasyland.”
“Except those suck and our ride rocks. It’s more like Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“Have it your way. Whatever, how freaking weird is that?”
“Not so weird. People see stories like they see faces in clouds. Once we gave them the ability to subtract the stuff that felt wrong and reinforce the stuff that felt right, it was only natural that they’d anthropomorphize the world into a story.”
Perry shook his head. “You think?”
“We have this guy, a cultural studies prof, who comes practically every day. He’s been telling me all about it. Stories are how we understand the world, and technology is how we choose our stories.
“Check out the Greeks. All those Greek plays, they end with the deus ex machina—the playwright gets tired of writing, so he trots a god out on stage to simply point a finger at the players and make it all better. You can’t do that in a story today, but back then, they didn’t have the tools to help them observe and record the world, so as far as they could tell, that’s how stuff worked!
“Today we understand a little more about the world, so our stories are about people figuring out what’s causing their troubles and changing stuff so that those causes go away. Causal stories for a causal universe. Thinking about the world in terms of causes and effects makes you seek out causes and effects—even where there are none. Watch how gamblers play, that weird cargo-cult feeling that the roulette wheel came up black a third time in a row so the next spin will make it red. It’s not superstition, it’s kind of the opposite—it’s causality run amok.”
“So this is the story that has emerged from our collective unconscious?”
Lester laughed. “That’s a little pretentious, I think. It’s more like those Japanese crabs.”
“Which Japanese crabs?”
“Weren’t you there when Tjan was talking about this? Or was that in Russia? Anyway. There are these crabs in Japan, and if they have anything that looks like a face on the backs of their shells, the fishermen throw them back because it’s bad luck to eat a crab with a face on its shell. So the crabs with face-like shells have more babies. Which means that gradually, the crabs’ shells get more face-like, since all non-face-like shells are eliminated from the gene-pool. This leads the fishermen to raise the bar on their selection criteria, so they will eat crabs with shells that are a little face-like, but not very face-like. So all the slightly face-like crab-shells are eliminated, leaving behind moderately face-like shells. This gets repeated over several generations, and now you’ve got these crabs that have vivid faces on their shells.
“We let our riders eliminate all the non-story-like elements from the ride, and so what’s left behind is more and more story-like.”
“But the plus-one/minus-one lever is too crude for this, right? We should give them a pointer or something so they can specify individual elements they don’t like.”
“You want to encourage this?”
Lester nodded vigorously. “Of course I do. I just thought that you’d be a little less enthusiastic about it, you know, because so much of the New Work stuff is being de-emphasized.”
“You kidding? This is what the New Work was all about: group creation! I couldn’t be happier about it. Seriously—this is so much cooler than anything that I could have built. And now with the network coming online soon—wow. Imagine it. It’s going to be so fucking weird, bro.”
“Amen,” Lester said. He looked at his watch and yelped. “Shit, late for a date! Can you get yourself home?”
“Sure,” Perry said. “Brought my wheels. See you later—have a good one.”
“She’s amazing,” Lester said. “Used to weigh 900 pounds and was shut in for ten years. Man has she got an imagination on her. She can do this thing—”
Perry put his hands over his ears. “La la la I’m not listening to you. TMI, Lester. Seriously. Way way TMI.”
Lester shook his head. “You are such a prude, dude.”
Perry thought about Hilda for a fleeting moment, and then grinned. “That’s me, a total puritan. Go. Be safe.”
“Safe, sound, and slippery,” Lester said, and got in his car.
Perry looked around at the shuttered market, rooftops glinting in the rosy tropical sunset. Man he’d missed those sunsets. He snorted up damp lungsful of the tropical air and smelled dinners cooking at the shantytown across the street. It was different and bigger and more elaborate every time he visited it, which was always less often than he wished.
There was a good barbecue place there, Dirty Max’s, just a hole in the wall with a pit out back and the friendliest people. There was always a mob scene around there, locals greasy from the ribs in their hands, a big bucket overflowing with discarded bones.
Wandering towards it, he was amazed by how much bigger it had grown since his last visit. Most buildings had had two stories, though a few had three. Now almost all had four, leaning drunkenly toward each other across the streets. Power cables, network cables and clotheslines gave the overhead spaces the look of a carelessly spun spider’s web. The new stories were most remarkable because of what Francis had explained to him about the way that additional stories got added: most people rented out or sold the right to build on top of their buildings, and then the new upstairs neighbors in turn sold their rights on. Sometimes you’d get a third-storey dweller who’d want to build atop two adjacent buildings to make an extra-wide apartment for a big family, and that required negotiating with all of the “owners” of each floor of both buildings.
Just looking at it made his head hurt with all the tangled property and ownership relationships embodied in the high spaces. He heard the easy chatter out the open windows and music and crying babies. Kids ran through the streets, laughing and chasing each other or bouncing balls or playing some kind of networked RPG with their phones that had them peeking around corners, seeing another player and shrieking and running off.
The grill-woman at the barbecue joint greeted him by name and the men and women around it made space for him. It was friendly and companionable, and after a moment Francis wandered up with a couple of his proteges. They carried boxes of beer.
“Hey hey,” Francis said. “Home again, huh?”
“Home again,” Perry said. He wiped rib-sauce off his fingers and shook Francis’s hand warmly. “God, I’ve missed this place.”
“We missed having you,” Francis said. “Big crowds across the way, too. Seems like you hit on something.”
Perry shook his head and smiled and ate his ribs. “What’s the story around here?”
“Lots and lots,” Francis said. “There’s a whole net-community thing happening. Lots of traffic on the AARP message-boards from other people setting these up around the country.”
“So you’ve hit on something, too.”
“Naw. When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. When it’s squatter time, you get squats. You know they want to open a 7-Eleven here?”
“No!” Perry laughed and choked on ribs and then guzzled some beer to wash it all down.
Francis put a wrinkled hand over his heart. He still wore his wedding band, Perry saw, despite his wife’s being gone for decades. “I swear it. Just there.” He pointed to one of the busier corners.
“We told them to fuck off,” Francis said. “We’ve got lots of community-owned businesses around here that do everything a 7-Eleven could do for us, without taking the wealth out of our community and sending it to some corporate jack-off. Some soreheads wanted to see how much money we could get out of them, but I just kept telling them—whatever 7-Eleven gives us, it’ll only be because they think they can get more out of us.’ They saw reason. Besides, I’m in charge—I always win my arguments.”
“You are the most benevolent of dictators,” Perry said. He began to work on another beer. Beer tasted better outside in the heat and the barbecue smoke.
“I’m glad someone thinks so,” Francis said.
“The 7-Eleven thing left a lot of people pissed at me. There’s plenty around here that don’t remember the way it started off. To them, I’m just some alter kocker who’s keeping them down.”
“Is it serious?” Perry knew that there was the potential for serious, major lawlessness from his little settlement. It wasn’t a failing condo complex rented out to Filipina domestics and weird entrepreneurs like him. It was a place where the cops would love an excuse to come in with riot batons (his funny eyebrow twitched) and gas, the kind of place where there almost certainly were a few very bad people living their lives. Miami had bad people, too, but the bad people in Miami weren’t his problem.
And the bad people and the potential chaos were what he loved about the place, too. He’d grown up in the kind of place where everything was predictable and safe and he’d hated every minute of it. The glorious chaos around him was just as he liked it. The wood-smoke curled up his nose, fragrant and all-consuming.
“I don’t know anymore. I thought I’d retire and settle down and take up painting. Now I’m basically a mob boss. Not the bad kind, but still. It’s a lot of work.”
“Pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Perry saw the shocked look on Francis’s face and added hastily, “Sorry—not calling you a pimp. It’s a song lyric is all.”
“We got pimps here now. Whores, too. You name it, we got it. It’s still a good place to live—better than Miami, if you ask me—but it could go real animal. Bad, bad animal.”
Hard to believe, standing there in the wood-smoke, licking his fingers, drinking his beer. His cold seemed to have been baked out by the steamy swampy heat.
“Well, Francis, if anyone knows how to keep peace, it’s you.”
“Social workers come around, say the same thing. But there’s people around here with little kids, they worry that the social workers could force them out, take away their children.”
It wasn’t like Francis to complain like this, it wasn’t in his nature, but here it was. The strain of running things was showing on him. Perry wondered if his own strain was showing that way. Did he complain more these days? Maybe he did.
An uncomfortable silence descended upon them. Perry drank his beer, morosely. He thought of how ridiculous it was to be morose about the possibility that he was being morose, but there you had it.
Finally his phone rang and saved him from further conversation. He looked at the display and shook his head. It was Kettlewell again. That first voicemail had made him laugh aloud, but when they hadn’t called back for a couple days, he’d figured that they had just had a little too much wine and placed the call.
Now they were calling back, and it was still pretty early on the West Coast. Too early for them to have had too much wine, unless they’d really changed.
“Perry Perry Perry!” It was Kettlebelly. He sounded like he might be drunk, or merely punch-drunk with excitement. Perry remembered that he got that way sometimes.
“Kettlewell, how are you doing?”
“I’m here too, Perry. I cashed in my return ticket.”
“Yeah,” she said. She too sounded punchy, like they’d been having a fit of the giggles just before calling. “Kettlewell’s family have taken me in, wayward wanderer that I am.”
“You two sound pretty, um, happy.”
“We’ve been having an amazing time,” Kettlewell said. His speakerphone made him sound like he was at the bottom of a well. “Mostly reminiscing about you guys. What the hell are you up to? We tried to follow it on the net, but it’s all jumbled. What’s this about a story?”
“I keep reading about this ride of yours and its story. I couldn’t make any sense of it.”
“I haven’t read any of this, but Lester and I were talking about some stuff to do with stories tonight. I didn’t know anyone else was talking about this, though. Where’d you see it?”
“I’ll email it to you,” Suzanne said. “I was going to blog it tonight anyway.”
“So you two are just hanging around San Francisco giggling and walking down memory lane?”
“Well, yeah! It’s about time, too. We’ve all been separated for too long. We want a reunion, Perry.”
“We want to come down for a visit and see what you’re doing and hang out. You wouldn’t believe how much fun we’ve been having, Perry, seriously.” Kettlewell sounded like he’d been huffing nitrous or something. “Have you been having fun?”
He thought about the question. “Um, kind of?” He told them about his travels, a quick thumbnail sketch, struggling to remember which city he’d been to when, leaving out the crazy sex—which came back to him in a rush, that night with Hilda in the coffin, like a warm hallucination. “On balance, yes. It’s been fun.”
“Right, so we want to come down and have fun with you and Lester. He’s still hanging around, right?”
Lester had told him about the history he had with Suzanne, and there was something in the way she asked after Lester that suggested to Perry that there was still something there.
“You kidding? You’d have to pry us apart with a crowbar.”
“See, I told you so,” Suzanne said. “This guy thought that Lester might have gotten bored and wandered off.”
“Never! Plus anyone who follows his message board traffic and blogs would know that he was right here, minding the shop.” And you’re reading his blog, aren’t you, Suzanne? He didn’t need to say it. He could almost hear her blush over the line.
“So how about tomorrow?”
“For us coming to town. I’ll bring the wife and kids. We’ll rent out a couple hotel rooms and spend a week there. It’ll be a blast.”
“We could get the morning flight and be there for breakfast. You got a good hotel? Not a coffin hotel, not with the kids.”
Perry’s heart beat faster. He did miss these two, and they were so punchy, so gleeful. He’d love to see them. He muted his phone.
“Hey, Francis? That guesthouse down the road, is it still running?”
“Lulu’s? Sure. They just built another storey and took over the top floor of the place next door.”
“Perfect.” He unmuted. “How’d you like to stay in a squatter guesthouse in the shantytown?”
“Um,” Kettlewell said, but Suzanne laughed.
“Oh hell yes,” she said. “Get that look off your face, Kettlewell, this is an adventure.”
“We’d love it,” Kettlewell said.
“Great, I’ll go make you a reservation. How long are you staying?”
“Until we leave,” Suzanne said.
“Right,” Perry said and laughed himself. They were different people, these two, from the people he remembered, but they were also old friends. And they were coming to see him tomorrow. “OK, lemme go make your reservations.”
Francis walked him over and the landlord fussed over the two of them like they were visiting dignitaries. Perry looked the place over and it was completely charming. He spotted what he thought was probably a hooker and a trick taking a room for the night, but you got that at the Hilton, too.
By the time he got home he was sure that he’d sleep like a log. He could barely keep his eyes open on the drive. But after he climbed into bed and closed his eyes, he found that he couldn’t sleep at all. Something about being back in his own room in his own bed felt alien and exciting. He got up and paced the apartment and then Lester came home from his date with the fatkins nympho, full of improbable stories and covered in little hickeys.
“You won’t believe who’s coming for a visit,” Perry said.
“Steve Jobs. He’s come down from the lamasery and renounced Buddhism. He wants to give a free computer to every visitor.”
“Close,” Perry said. “Kettlebelly and Suzanne Church. Coming tomorrow for a stay of unspecified duration. It’s a reunion. It’s a reunion you big sonofabitch! Woot! Woot!” Perry did a little two-step. “A reunion!”
Lester looked confused for a second, and then for another second he looked, what, upset? and then he was grinning and jumping up and down with Perry. “Reunion!”
He felt like he’d barely gotten to sleep when his phone rang. The clock showed six AM, and it was Kettlebelly and Suzanne, bleary, jet-lagged and grouchy from their one-hour post-flight security processing.
“We want breakfast,” Suzanne said.
“We’ve gotta open the ride, Suzanne.”
“At six in the morning? Come on, you’ve got hours yet before you have to be at work. How about you and Lester meet us at the IHOP?”
“Jesus,” he said.
“Come on! Kettlebelly’s kids are dying for something to eat and his wife looks like she’s ready to eat him. It’s been years, dude! Get your ass in the shower and down to the International House of Pancakes!”
Lester didn’t rouse easy, but Perry knew all the tricks for getting his old pal out of bed, they were practically married after all.
They arrived just in time for the morning rush but Tony greeted them with a smile and sent them straight to the front of the line. Lester ordered his usual (“Bring me three pounds of candy with a side of ground animal parts and potatoes”) and they waited nervously for Suzanne and the clan Kettlewell to turn up.
They arrived in a huge bustle of taxis and luggage and two wide-eyed, jet-lagged children hanging off of Kettlewell and Mrs Kettlewell, whom neither of them had ever met. She was a small, youthful woman in her mid-forties with artfully styled hair and big, abstract chunky silver jewelry. Suzanne had gone all Eurochic, rail-thin and smoking, with quiet, understated dark clothes. Kettlewell had a real daddy belly on him now, a little pot that his daughter thumped rhythmically from her perch on his hip.
“Sit, sit,” Perry said to them, getting up to help them stack their luggage at either end of the long table down the middle of the IHOP. Big family groups with tons of luggage were par for the course in Florida, so they didn’t really draw much attention beyond mild irritation from the patrons they jostled as they got everyone seated.
Perry was mildly amused to see that Lester and Suzanne ended up sitting next to one another and were already chatting avidly and close up, in soft voices that they had to lean in very tight to hear.
He was next to Mrs Kettlewell, whose name, it transpired, was Eva—“As in Extra-Vehicular Activity,” she said, geeking out with him. Kettlewell was in the bathroom with his daughter and son, and Mrs Kettlewell—Eva—seemed relieved at the chance for a little adult conversation.
“You must be a very patient woman,” Perry said, laughing at all the ticklish noise and motion of their group.
“Oh, that’s me all right,” Eva said. “Patience is my virtue. And you?”
“Oh, patience is something I value very much in other people.” Perry said. It made Eva laugh, which showed off her pretty laugh-lines and dimples. He could see how this woman and Kettlewell must complement each other.
She rocked her head from side to side and took a long swig of the coffee that their waiter had distributed around the table, topping up from the carafe he’d left behind. “Thank God for legal stimulants.”
“Traveling with larvae is always a challenge,” she said. “But they dug it hard. You should have seen them at the windows.”
“They’d never been on a plane before?”
“I like to go camping,” she said with a shrug. “Landon’s always on me to take the kids to Hawaii or whatever, but I’m always like, ‘Man, you spend half your fucking life in a tin can—why do you want to start your holidays in one? Let’s go to Yosemite and get muddy.’ I haven’t even taken them to Disneyland!”
Perry put the back of his hand to his forehead. “That’s heresy around here,” he said. “You going to take them to Disney World while you’re in Florida? It’s a lot bigger, you know—and it’s a different division. Really different feel, or so I’m told.”
“You kidding? Perry, we came here for your ride. It’s famous, you know.”
“Net.famous, maybe. A little.” He felt his cheeks burning. “Well, there will be one in your neck of the woods soon enough.” He told her about the Burning Man collective and the plan to build one down the 101, south of San Francisco International.
Kettlebelly returned then with the kids, and he managed to get them into their seats while sucking back a coffee and eating a biscuit from the basket in the center of the table, breaking off bits to shove in the kids’ mouths whenever they protested.
“These are some way tired kids,” he said, leaning over to give his wife a kiss. Perry thought he saw Suzanne flick a look at them then, but it might have been his imagination. Suzanne and Lester were off in their own world, after all.
“The plane almost crashed,” said the little girl next to Perry. She had a halo of curly hair like a dandelion clock and big solemn dark eyes and a big wet mouth set between apple-round cheeks.
“Did it really?” Perry said. She was seven or eight he thought, the bossy big sister who’d been giving orders to her little brother from the moment they came through the door.
She nodded solemnly. He looked at Eva, who shrugged.
“Really?” he said.
“Really,” she said, nodding vigorously now. “There were terrists on the plane who wanted to blow it up, but the sky marshas stopped them.”
“How could you tell they were ‘terrists’?”
She clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “They were whispering,” she said. “Just like on Captain President and the Freedom Fighters.” He knew something of this cartoon, mostly because of all the knock-off merch for sale in the market stalls in front of the ride.
“I see,” he said. “Well, I’m glad the Sky Marshas stopped them. Do you want pancakes?”
“I want caramel apple chocolate pancakes with blueberry banana sauce,” she said, rolling one pudgy finger along the description in the glossy menu, beneath an oozing food-porn photo. “And my brother wants a chocolate milkshake and a short stack of happy face clown waffles with strawberry sauce, but not too many because he’s still a baby and can’t eat much.”
“You’ll become as fat as your daddy if you eat like that,” Perry said. Eva snorted beside him.
“No,” she said. “I’m gonna be a fatkins.”
“I see,” he said. Eva shook her head.
“It’s the goddamned fatkins agitprop games,” Eva said. “They come free with everything now—digital cameras, phones, even in cereal boxes. You have to eat a minimum number of calories per level or you starve to death. This one is a champeen.”
“I’m nationally ranked,” the little girl said, not looking up from the menu.
Perry looked across the table and discovered that Suzanne had covered Lester’s hand with hers and that Lester was laughing along with her at something funny. Something about that made him a little freaked out, like Lester was making time with his sister or their mom.
“Suzanne,” he said. “What’s happening with you these days, anyway?”
“Petersburg is what’s happening with me,” she said, with a hoarse little chuckle. “Petersburg is like Detroit crossed with Paris. Completely decrepit and decadent. There’s a serial killer who’s been working the streets for five years there and the biggest obstacle to catching him is that the first cops on the scene let rubberneckers bribe them to take home evidence as souvenirs.”
“No way!” Lester said.
“Oh, da, big vay,” she said, dropping into a comical Boris and Natasha accent. “Bolshoi vay.”
“So why are you there?”
“It’s like home for me. It’s got enough of Detroit’s old brutal, earthy feel, plus enough of Silicon Valley’s manic hustle, it just feels right.”
“You going to settle in there?”
“Well, put that way, no. I couldn’t hack it for the long term. But at this time in my life, it’s been just right. But it’s good to get back to the States, too. I’m thinking of hanging out here for a couple months. Russia’s so cheap, I’ve got a ton saved up. Might as well blow it before inflation kills it.”
“You keep your money in rubles?”
“Hell no—no one uses rubles except tourists. I’m worried about another run of US inflation. I mean, have you looked around lately? You’re living in a third world country, buddy.”
A waiter came between them, handing out heaping, steaming plates of food. Lester, who’d finished his first breakfast while they waited, had ordered a second breakfast, which arrived along with the rest of them. Mountains of food stacked up on the table, side-plates crowding jugs of apple juice and carafes of coffee.
Incredibly, the food kept coming—multiple syrup-jugs, plates of hash-browns, baskets of biscuits and bowls of white sausage gravy. Perry hadn’t paid much attention when orders were being taken, but from the looks of things, he was eating with a bunch of IHOP virgins, unaccustomed to the astonishing portions to be had there.
He cocked his funny eyebrow at Suzanne, who laughed. “OK, not quite a third-world country. But not a real industrial nation anymore, either. Maybe more like the end-days of Rome or something. Drowning in wealth and wallowing in poverty.” She forked up a mouthful of hash browns and chased them with coffee. Perry attacked his own plate.
Kettlewell fed the kids, sneaking bites in-between, while Eva looked on approvingly. “You’re a good man, Landon Kettlewell,” she said, slicing up her steak and eggs into small, precise cubes, wielding the knife like an artist.
“You just enjoy your breakfast, my queen,” he said, spooning oatmeal with raisins, bananas, granola and boysenberry jam into the little boy’s mouth.
“We got you presents,” the little girl said, taking a break from shoveling banana-chocolate caramel apples into her mouth.
“Really?” Perry raised his funny eyebrow and she giggled. He did it again, making it writhe like a snake. She snarfed choco-banana across the table, then scooped it up and put it back in her mouth.
She nodded vigorously. “Dad, give them their presents!”
Kettlewell said, “Someone has to feed your brother, you know.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. She forked up some of his oatmeal and attempted to get it into the little boy’s face. “Presents!”
Kettlewell dug through the luggage-cluster under the table and came up with an overstuffed diaper bag, then pawed through it for a long time, urged on by his daughter who kept chanting “Presents! Presents! Presents!” while attempting to feed her little brother. Eva and Lester and Suzanne took up the chant. They were drawing stares from nearby tables, but Perry didn’t mind. He was laughing so hard his sides hurt.
Finally Kettlewell held a paper bag aloft triumphantly, then clapped a hand over his daughter’s mouth and shushed the rest.
“You guys are really hard to shop for,” he said. “What the hell do you get for two guys who not only have everything, but make everything?”
Suzanne nodded. “Damned right. We spent a whole day looking for something.”
“What is it?”
“Well,” Kettlewell said. “We figured that it should be something useful, not decorative. You guys have decorative coming out of your asses. So that left us with tools. We wanted to find you a tool that you didn’t have, and that you would appreciate.”
Suzanne picked up the story. “I thought we should get you an antique tool, something so well-made that it was still usable. But to be useful, it had to be something no one had improved on, and that had in fact been degraded by modern manufacturing techniques.
“At first we looked at old tape-measures, but I remembered that you guys were mostly using keychain laser range-finders these days. Screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers were all out—I couldn’t find a damned thing that looked any better than what you had around here. The state of the art is genuinely progressing.
“There were a lot of nice old brass spirit-levels and hand-lathed plumb-bobs but they were more decorative than useful by a damned sight. Great old steel work-helmets looked cool, but they weighed about a hundred times what the safety helmets around here weigh.
“We were going to give in and try to bring you guys a big goddamned tube-amp, or maybe some Inuit glass knives, but I didn’t see you having much of a use for either.
“Which is how we came to give up on tools per se and switched over to leisure—sports tools. There was a much richer vein. Wooden bats, oh yes, and real pigskin footballs that had nice idiosyncratic spin that you’d have to learn to compensate for. But when we found these, we knew we’d hit pay-dirt.”
She picked up Kettlewell’s paper sack with a flourish and unzipped it. A moment later she presented them with two identical packages wrapped in coarse linen paper hand-stamped with Victorian woodcuts of sporting men swinging bats and charging the line with pigskins under their arms.
The kids echoed it. “These are the best presents,” the little girl confided in Perry as he picked delicately at the exquisite paper.
The paper gave way in folds and curls, and then he and Lester both held their treasures aloft.
“Baseball gloves!” Perry said.
“A catcher’s mitt and a fielder’s glove,” Kettlewell said. “You look at that catcher’s mitt. 1910!” It was black and bulbous, the leather soft and yielding, with a patina of fine cracks like an old painting. It smelled like oil and leather, an old rich smell like a gentleman’s club or an expensive briefcase. Perry tried it on and it molded itself to his hand, snug and comfortable. It practically cried out to have a ball thrown at it.
“And this fielder’s glove,” Kettlewell went on, pointing at the glove Lester held. It was the more traditional tan color, comically large like the glove of a cartoon character. It too had the look of ancient, well-loved leather, the same mysterious smell of hide and oil. Perry touched it with a finger and it felt like a woman’s cheek, smooth and soft. “Rawlings XPG6. The Mickey Mantle. Early 1960s—the ultimate glove.”
“You got the whole sales pitch, huh, darling?” Eva said, not unkindly, but Kettlewell flushed and glared at her for a moment.
Perry broke in. “Guys, these are—wow. Incredible.”
“They’re better than the modern product,” Suzanne said. “That’s the point. You can’t print these or fab these. They’re wonderful because they’re so well made and so well-used! The only way to make a glove this good would be to fab it and then give it to several generations of baseball players to love and use for fifty to a hundred years.”
Perry turned over the catcher’s mitt. Over a hundred years old. This wasn’t something to go in a glass case. Suzanne was right: this was a great glove because people had played with it, all the time. It needed to be played with or it would get out of practice.
“I guess we’re going to have to buy a baseball,” Perry said.
The little girl beside him started bouncing up and down.
“Show him,” Suzanne said, and the girl dove under the table and came up with two white, fresh hard balls. Once he fitted one to the pocket of his glove, it felt so perfectly right—like a key in a lock. This pocket had held a lot of balls over the years.
Lester had put a ball in the pocket of his glove, too. He tossed it lightly in the air and caught it, then repeated the trick. The look of visceral satisfaction on his face was unmistakable.
“These are great presents, guys,” Perry said. “Seriously. Well done.”
They all beamed and murmured and then the ball Lester was tossing crashed to the table and broke a pitcher of blueberry syrup, upset a carafe of orange juice, and rolled to a stop in the chocolate mess in front of the little girl, who laughed and laughed and laughed.
“And that is why we don’t play with balls indoors,” Suzanne said, looking as stern as she could while obviously trying very hard not to bust out laughing.
The waiters were accustomed to wiping up spills and Lester was awkwardly helpful. While they were getting everything set to rights again, Perry looked at Eva and saw her lips tightly pursed as she considered her husband. He followed Kettlebelly’s gaze and saw that he was watching Suzanne (who was laughingly restraining Lester from doing any more “cleaning”) intently. In a flash, Perry thought he had come to understanding. Oh dear, he thought.
The kids loved the shanty-town. The little girl—Ada, “like the programming language,” Eva said—insisted on being set down so she could tread the cracked cement walkways herself, head whipping back and forth to take the crazy-leaning buildings in, eyes following the zipping motor-bikes and bicycles as they wove in and out of the busy streets. The shantytowners were used to tourists in their midst. A few yardies gave them the hairy eyeball, but then they saw Perry was along and they found something else to pay attention to. That made Perry feel obscurely proud. He’d been absent for months, but even the corner boys knew who he was and didn’t want to screw with him.
The guesthouse’s landlady greeted them at the door, alerted to their coming by the jungle telegraph. She shook Perry’s hand warmly, gave Ada a lollipop, and chucked the little boy (Pascal, “like the programming language,” said Eva, with an eye-roll) under the chin. Check-in was a lot simpler than at a coffin-hotel or a Hilton: just a brief discussion of the available rooms and a quick tour. The Kettlewells opted for the lofty attic, which could fit two three-quarter width beds and a crib, and overlooked the curving streets from a high vantage; Suzanne took a more quotidian room just below, with lovely tile mosaics made from snipped-out sections of plastic fruit and smashed novelty soda bottles. (The landlady privately assured Perry that her euphemistic “hourly trade” was in a different part of the guesthouse altogether, with its own staircase).
A few hours later, Perry was alone again, working his ticket counter. The Kettlewells were having naps, Lester and Suzanne had gone off to see some sights, and the crowd for the ride was already large, snaking through the market, thick with vendors and hustling kids trying to pry the visitors loose of their bankrolls.
He felt like doing a carny barker spiel, Step right up, step right up, this way to the great egress! But the morning’s visitors didn’t seem all that frivolous—they were serious-faced and sober.
“Everything OK?” he asked a girl who was riding for at least the second time. She was a midwestern-looking giantess in her early twenties with big white front teeth and broad shoulders, wearing a faded Hoosiers ball-cap and a lot of coral jewelry. “I mean, you don’t look like you’re having a fun time.”
“It’s the story,” she said. “I read about it online and I didn’t really believe it, but now I totally see it. But you made it, right? It didn’t just... happen, did it?”
“No, it just happened,” Perry said. This girl was a little spooky-looking. He put his hand over his heart. “On my honor.”
“It can’t be,” she said. “I mean, the story is like right there. Someone must have made it.”
“Maybe they did,” Perry said. “Maybe a bunch of people thought it would be fun to make a story out of the ride and came by to do it.”
“That’s probably it,” the girl said. “The other thing, that’s just ridiculous.”
She was gone and on the ride before he could ask her what this meant, and the three bangbangers behind her just wanted tickets, not conversation.
An hour later, she was back.
“I mean the message boards,” she said. “Don’t you follow your referers? There’s a guy in Osceola who says that this is, I don’t know, like the story that’s inside our collective unconsciousness.” Perry restrained a smile at the malapropism. “Anyway a lot of people agree. I don’t think so, though. No offense, mister, but I think that this is just a prank or something.”
“Something,” Perry said. But she rode twice more that day, and she wasn’t the only one. It was a day of many repeat riders, and the market-stall people came by to complain that the visitors weren’t buying much besides the occasional ice-cream or pork cracklin.
Perry shrugged and told them to find something that these people wanted to buy, then. One or two of the miniatures guys got gleams in their eyes and bought tickets for the ride (Perry charged them half price) and Perry knew that by the time the day was out, there’d be souvenir ride-replicas to be had.
Lester and Suzanne came by after lunchtime and Lester relieved him, leaving him to escort Suzanne back to the shantytown and the Kettlewells.
“You two seem to be getting on well,” Perry said, jerking his head back at Lester as they walked through the market.
Suzanne looked away. “This is amazing, Perry,” she said, waving her hand at the market stalls, a gesture that took in the spires of the shantytown and the ride, too. “You have done something...stupendous, you know it? I mean, if you had a slightly different temperament, I’d call this a cult. But it seems like you’re not in charge of anything—”
“That’s for sure!”
“—even though you’re still definitely leading things.”
“No way—I just go where I’m told. Tjan’s leading.”
“I spoke to Tjan before we came out, and he points the finger at you. ‘I’m just keeping the books and closing the contracts.’ That’s a direct quote.”
“Well maybe no one’s leading. Not everything needs a leader, right?”
Suzanne shook her head at him. “There’s a leader, sweetie, and it’s you. Have a look around. Last I checked, there were three more rides going operational this week, and five more in the next month. Just looking at your speaking calendar gave me a headache—”
“I have a speaking calendar?”
“You do indeed, and it’s a busy one. You knew that though, right?”
Tjan sent him email all the time telling him about this group or that, where he was supposed to go and give a talk, but he’d never seen a calendar. But who had time to look at the website anymore?
“I suppose. I knew I was supposed to get on a plane again in a couple weeks.”
“So that’s what a leader is—someone who gets people mobilized and moving.”
“I met a girl in Madison, Wisconsin, you’d probably get along with.” Thinking of Hilda made him smile and feel a little horny, a little wistful. He hadn’t gotten fucked in mind and body like that since his twenties.
“Maybe I’ll meet her. Is she working on a local ride?”
“You’re going to go to the other rides?”
“I got to write about something, Perry. Otherwise my pageviews fall off and I can’t pay my rent. This is a story—a big one, and no one else has noticed it yet. That kind of story can turn into the kind of money you buy a house with. I’m speaking from experience here.”
She put her hand over her heart. “I’m good at spotting these. Man, you’ve got a cult on your hands here.”
“The story people. I’ve been reading the message boards and blogs. It’s where I get all my best tips.”
Perry shook his head. Everyone else was more on top of this stuff than him. He was going to have to spend less time hacking the ride and more time reading the interweb, clearly.
“It was all Lester’s idea, anyway,” he said.
She looked down with an unreadable expression. He hazarded a guess as to what that was about.
“Things are getting tight between you two, huh?”
“Christ it doesn’t show that much does it?”
“No,” he lied. “I just know Lester is all.”
“He’s something else,” she said.
Suzanne needed some sundries, so he directed her to a little bodega in the back room of one of the houses. He told her he’d meet her at the guesthouse and took a seat in the lobby. He was still beat from the cold and the jet-lag, the work and the sheer exhaustion.
On the road he’d had momentum dragging him from one thing to the next, flights to catch, speeches to make. Back at home, confronted with routine, it was like his inertia was disappearing.
Eva Kettlewell thundered down the stairs three at a time with a sound like a barely controlled fall, burst into the lobby and headed for the door, her back rigid, her arms swinging, her face a picture of rage.
She went out the door like a flash and then stood in the street for a moment before striking out, seemingly at random.
Uh-oh, Perry thought.
<<< Back to Part 19
Continue to Part 21 >>>
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As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.