Michael and Wendy Mixner are a Brooklyn-based couple whose marriage is failing in the wake of a personal tragedy. Michael, a Wall Street trader, is meanwhile keeping a secret: he lost the couple’s life savings when a tanking economy caused a major market crash. And Wendy, a digital marketing strategist, has been hired onto a data-mining project of epic scale, whose mysterious creator has ambitions to solve a national crisis of mass unemployment and reshape America’s social and political landscapes.
When Michael’s best friend is murdered, the evidence leads back to Wendy’s client, setting off a dangerous chain of events that will profoundly change the couple—and the country.
Set in an economic dystopia that’s just around the corner, Adam Wilson’s Sensation Machines grapples with greed, automation, universal basic income, wearable tech, revolutionary desires, and a broken justice system. Available July 7th from Soho Press.
On Monday, the third of December, roughly twenty-four hours before my oldest and closest friend would be murdered, I woke with sinus pain, an itchy scalp, and the accumulated clog of postnasal drip. At 2 a.m. I’d taken a Trazodone—a mild antidepressant prescribed as a sleep aid—and in the cocoon of the drug’s afterglow, as dawn shot itself through our casement windows and a bacon scent blew in from downstairs, I watched my wife sleep: pillowless, chin tilted to ceiling like a dental patient’s.
Wendy’s nostrils flared on each exhale and she issued grunts in a lower register than she used in waking life. Her speaking voice is affectedly high-pitched, the product of being five foot ten and embarrassed about it, but these grunts came from her gut, from the bile-scorched basement of her intestines. Most of the bedbug bites had scabbed off her forehead and cheeks, but some leaked pus and blood from where she’d scratched. Still, she was stunning, like an actress made up for a zombie flick, who, despite the artist’s best efforts with latex and greasepaint, remains implausibly lovely. No scabs could distract from the neat plane of her nose, or the buoyant, red curls spread across our new SureGuard anti-allergen sheets.
We’d discovered the bedbugs the previous week, and our apartment had since been emptied of clothing and other possibly contaminated items. In the absence of curtains, the sun now striped the wall where our dresser once sat, a Civil War–era showpiece bought above market value in a heated eBay auction. The image brought to mind the afternoon, three years before, when Wendy and I stood in the empty loft and surveyed the space, bright with promise, soon to be filled with everything we owned.
Most of that stuff was still here—Wendy’s Miró and Kandinsky prints, my books on hip-hop, Apple products and other electronics, cookware and baby gear, plus our collections: nineties cassingles, ceramic hands, antique hat mannequins, deadstock Air Jordans, inherited Judaica—but the room felt bare, more warehouse than home, though here we were, inhabiting, and here was the cat, leaping onto the air bed where she perched atop Wendy’s head. It looked like Wendy was wearing one of those sable hats that protect the bald domes of oligarchs from frosty Moscow winters. She threw the crying cat across the loft.
The cat landed on four feet and scurried toward the bathroom. A gaunt, acrobatic animal with silver fur and green eyes the color of a faded military rucksack, she was a stray I’d found picking at garbage outside our building a few weeks prior. The cat’s aggression toward Wendy spoke to an interspecies female territoriality, and my wife, defensive, had later accused the cat of being bedbug patient zero. Wendy still appeared to be asleep.
I leaned in and kissed her. Our accounts were overdrawn, creditors called me by the hour, my job was in limbo, and Wendy knew none of this, but at least we appeared to be bedbug free.
It was early winter, and would reach eighty by noon, but at 6:30 a.m. bodega owners braced themselves in jackets and hats as they rolled up their chains to signal the commencement of commerce, diurnal music as yet undisturbed by the market crash that had put the dollar in freefall and Clayton & Sons, the bank where I worked, on the verge of insolvency. There would be no bailout this time, and in this panicked climate, a proposal for Universal Basic Income had passed through Congress and was headed to the Senate for final approval.
TV news flashed shuttered windows and boarded doorways, but here, in my corner of upmarket Brooklyn, things appeared status quo. The day’s first delivery drones descended from tree height to eye level before lowering landing gear and making soft contact outside the remaining brownstones and the high-rise condos that had mostly replaced them. Pigeons scattered, wary of the claws that carried shrink-wrapped Gap sweaters, flatbread sandwiches, and other objects impossible to print at home. Earlier drones were sci-fi chic—floating orbs and baby Death Stars—but people found them sinister. The solution was to design the objects after actual birds, and now it was Hitchcock twenty-four seven. I turned up Court Street toward the Brooklyn Bridge.
I should mention that I’m not from around here. I was raised off an exit ramp in East Coast exurbia, where every gas station sells Red Sox crapaphernalia and the strip malls aren’t yet full franchise; they’re still half occupied by local bars and burger joints, blue-lit, filled with Carhartted Brosephs and their female companions—Tara, Britney, Aurora, etc.—sassed in green eyeshadow, in beerlight shadow, in Bud Light soft-stupor, whittling away their middle twenties with wet eyes and dry skin, wet bars and dry heaves, and Japanese trucks that somehow still run after all those miles spewing dust and American fumes.
Of course, that’s a romantic half-truth because (1) I’m from the Berkshires, twenty minutes from the quaint town of Lenox, which is home to both Tanglewood and a community of retired Bostonians who antique on Saturdays, then head to Williamstown Sundays for a taste of the theatre. Their cottages are dotted with Rockwellian Americana (purchased from the nearby Rockwell museum), scented by potpourri and sawdust, cinders in fireplace, local kale simmering on stovetop, steeping itself in red wine reduction as grandma dusts off the viola, prepped to serenade grandkids with riffage from the Charles Ives songbook; and (2) my family was different, not your typical townies, what with gamer dad, immigrant mom, face-tattooed sister, and my Long Island cousins calling me toward femininity with their floriated perfumes and ethnic rainbow of American Girl dolls.
Not that we were special. In most ways, I resembled my classmates, who lived in Colonial-style homes that spiraled out from the abandoned factory. And though the local recession stayed in remission through the early aughts, the current crisis had brought unemployment back to where it was when GE pulled out in ’91 leaving ten thousand jobless, including my dad. Terms like highbrow and lowbrow had ceased to have meaning in a place where, no matter one’s tastes, you were stalled in what was outmodedly called the working class. Pittsfield was a microcosm for what I’d come to think of as the Great American Unibrow, an unruly line that connected East and West across the painted plains dotted with the same mediocre takes on what had once been regional cuisines. You could get a Southwest-style quesadilla from Seattle to the southern tip of Florida, and find no difference in the chipotle rub or soggy Jack cheese. So, I left for New York, forgoing Audubon trails for the feeling I get on the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, the feeling I got as I walked and scratched and called across that dirty river for someone to save me.
When I hit Manhattan, I was soaked in sweat. Duane Reade was alive with the faint smell of carpet shampoo and the insectoid traffic of the day walkers, middle-aged men in Canal Street bling and velour tracksuits, which were mostly maroon for some reason. These guys were everywhere. They loitered on subway platforms and outside bodegas, even in rain, sipping cigars, tapping canes, and scaring tourists with their scars and shiny watches. But they weren’t criminals, just unemployed men, vaguely lame, with a healthy share of love and other problems, or so it could be gleaned from the baskets filled with lipstick, prophylactics, and reams of wrapping paper. Consumer spending had bottomed hard, but people still paid for cosmetics. Vanity, it turns out, is the last sturdy pillar of society.
By the time I reached the counter, my basket was filled with what I’d need to make it through the day. Ten ChapSticks, two bags of cough drops—one mint, one cherry—Tylenol, Advil, calamine, aloe, moisturizer, deodorant, Sudafed, NyQuil, DayQuil, Benadryl, Gas-X, condoms, D vitamins, a men’s multivitamin for prostate health, an issue of Men’s Health, the New York Times, AA batteries, eight packs of Emergen-C (two orange, two lemon/lime, four cranberry), one photo frame, Rogaine, reading glasses (+3), Band-Aids, bacitracin, nicotine patches, nicotine gum, and two packs of cigarettes.
The checkout clerk was a college-age woman with bright white teeth and an assortment of neck and arm tattoos. Her face bore the cratered remains of teenage acne, a piercing sat bindi-like between her eyes, and a dyed pink stripe ran at a slant from her forehead’s peak to the tip of her bangs. I had chosen her line, despite its length, over the six self-checkout machines. A recent federal law mandated that retailers keep at least one human employee on premises. This was a meaningless gesture, the vestige of an immuno-compromised jobs bill. One employee per store would not put a dent in unemployment. Still, I’m a people person.
Andrea K. took me in like I was a specimen from some alien world, the last remains of an earlier evolutionary stage. I was wearing the one wrinkled suit I’d saved from quarantine, and with my three-day beard and bedbug scabs, I must have given the impression of someone in mourning, or someone in global transit, or a killer on the lam in an old film. Suffice to say, there were problems at home: with Wendy, with myself, with modern-day America that sliced our lives into curated blocks hubbed around an eighty-hour workweek—at least for those, like us, still gainfully employed. Whisk in trips to Pure Barre and therapy, plus allotted minutes for shopping, streaming, and sleep, and the sum was a doomed approximation of marriage, unprecedented by parents.
My own parents were governed by the social laws of an earlier era in which Adderall and a competitive job market hadn’t inflamed the work ethos, and the task of procreation had imbued all else with a whisper of profanity. Now procreation was its own profanity between Wendy and me. It was a word we ignored, or spoke only in bedtime darkness, in the loose mumblings of pre-dream.
I’d wanted a child from an early age, sophomore year, when I first met Wendy. I bought into the laugh-tracked fantasy of fatherhood, saw it as the end at which my future means would gain nonmonetary meaning. Or maybe I just wanted to please my parents.
Wendy wasn’t as eager, and wouldn’t be until our mid-thirties, when her feeds filled with friends holding newborns like mucus-slicked trophies. What followed was scheduled, utilitarian sex, which, like pizza, was finished in seconds and left stains on the couch. After, we would cuddle and binge-watch Project Runway, or read aloud from a book of baby names. These were happy, hopeful times, and when they culminated, soon after, in the desired result—nausea, swollen nipples, and a faint blue cross on a pregnancy test—we felt elated and deserving, like Olympic medalists whose discipline and training had paid off. A few days later the pregnancy was lost.
It was the first in a string of early miscarriages, until we found ourselves passing forty—frustrated, exhausted, losing hope. For years, doctors had suggested IVF, but Wendy was hesitant. The treatment was expensive and invasive and how shitty would it feel if even this potential remedy resulted in failure? I pushed and she yielded, and though she’ll never forgive me, the treatment did work. After seven years of trying, Wendy carried past the three-month mark.
Like many parents-to-be, we left Manhattan for Brooklyn, staking out a gentrifier’s guilty claim on a Boerum Hill penthouse. There, we prepared for our retro-nuclear unit, bought the necessary accessories, rubbed her belly and sang to it, my out-of-tune baritone penetrating her epidermal walls, piping Boyz II Men covers into the almost-baby’s watery bedroom. We took birthing classes and researched strollers, bought tiny Air Jordans and spent evenings babyproofing the loft. When Amazon sent someone to assemble the crib, I watched like a hawkeyed foreman. We could not have been more prepared.
Our daughter wasn’t technically stillborn—the monitor showed a heartbeat when she emerged—and the term is a misnomer anyway. So much is moving, like the slithering liquid surrounding the body, or the doctors’ and nurses’ scurrying hands, creating a charade of motion, a defiant charade against the situation’s fixity. And I don’t know if Wendy knew something was wrong when the room fell silent in the absence of our daughter’s cry, but either way I saw her first, this beautiful human, crowning into air she couldn’t find a way to breathe.
Andrea K. continued to scan my selections. She moved with metric precision, never pausing to price-check an item or rotate a package to locate the barcode. In a theater at Vassar, this might have played as modern dance, a misguided commentary on the Tao of retail. Here, in Manhattan, it was no more or less than that endangered species, the low-wage job.
“Morning,” she said in cheery voice. She had a sympathetic countenance, Andrea K., and I liked her tattoos—a kinematic schema of a dragonfly’s wings, slot-machine cherries, the injunction Look Alive—which, with their stylistic mishmash, spoke to the fickle whims of the human heart.
“Taking a trip?” she asked, as I bagged my stash.
It had occurred to me that Wendy and I could use a weekend away. To get out on the road, bunk down at a boutique hotel upstate. We’d drink champagne and order room service sundaes, a last blast on my company card before the company burned or I got canned and they killed my expense account.
“Thinking about it,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to take my wife somewhere nice. Where would you go this time of year?”
The cashier eyed my crumpled outfit, my year’s supply of Rogaine, my bottle of two hundred prostate-health pills.
“Preventative,” I said, in reference to the pills, or perhaps to the lot. But she was admiring my suit, a Crayola-blue, shawl lapel Fashion Week sample. Kanye had worn the same one during the pro-union rant at the Grammys that announced his return to the political left.
“That a Yeezy?” she said.
I tugged my lapel like it might make the jacket magically unwrinkle. I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or embarrassed by the item’s exorbitant price. She handed back my Visa, which her machine had declined.
“It’s telling me to cut this card in half.”
I gave her my Amex instead.
“So where might a frugal guy like me take his wife?”
The answer was obvious to Andrea K.
“Storm King, dude. It’s only, like, twenty bucks to get in, and chicks Instagram the shit out of that place.”
She was referring to an outdoor museum, a couple hours upstate, that was a popular setting for romantic montages in films about the love lives of the Brooklyn precariat. I hadn’t taken Andrea K. for the type. In my own youth, her look would have been labeled alternative, and carried with it a particular set of assumptions, one being that its owner held a healthy disdain for the status markers of bourgeois life. But young people these days didn’t buy into such rigid segmentation; they just wanted to Instagram the shit out of stuff. So did Wendy. Many times she’d suggested that we drive up to Storm King. I’d always deferred, wary of cliché, or maybe only traffic on the Palisades Parkway.
Today would not be an exception. But later, after everything went down, I wondered what might have turned out differently if I’d heeded the cashier’s advice. In this alternate history, I convince Wendy to play hooky from work, and I whisk her upstate. In this alternate history, humbled before nature and modernist sculpture, I find the courage to come clean about the millions of dollars that I lost on the market. In this alternate history, Wendy is angry, but after hours of open and honest discussion, she arrives at forgiveness. And in this alternate history, we hit traffic on our way back to Brooklyn, and Wendy never meets Lucas or lands the Project Pinky account, and my best friend, Ricky, skips the Great Gatsby party because I’m not there to be his wingman, and he avoids the riot, and he doesn’t get murdered.
But I was not ready, just yet, to come clean. There was still time to fix things before Wendy found out. I had a plan, and I was heading to Ricky’s to ask for his help.
Andrea K. ran my Amex, handed back a receipt. Her forearm, I noticed, featured a list of men’s names: Albert, Sadeeq, Tino, Bartholomew. Each tattooed name was struck through with a line.
“Those guys take you to Storm King?”
“It was nice.”
“So what happened?”
She rolled her eyes. “One good deed,” she explained, “does not a winner make.” She studied my card before handing it back. “Are you a loser, Michael Mixner?”
I told her it remained to be seen.
I was already thinking of leaving Michael by the time we found blood on the bedsheets. The amount was minuscule, a few dark dots. I assumed I was spotting.
There was more blood, the next day, on Michael’s side of the bed. Michael said he’d cut himself shaving. We didn’t connect the marks on our skin to these stains. The marks itched, and I’d falsely sourced them to dander allergies. Michael had recently brought home an itinerant tabby. As a child I was afraid of cats, their abject nihilism. I still am. At night, the unnamed cat gnawed my heels and toes. Sometimes she broke skin, another explanation for the blood.
When I uploaded photos of Michael’s bites to MeMD.com, the range of responses was broad. There were fifty-four comments. One user suggested that Michael had a rare form of leprosy, previously contained to the sub-Saharan desert. Another suggested that Michael was a self-denying victim of spousal abuse. Six were spam posts offering sets of Don’t Tread On Me windshield decals at a competitive price. Eleven members of the forum suspected bedbugs.
I blamed the cat and demanded her eviction. Michael defended the cat. The cat cowered. She looked guilty, but that’s how cats look. We agreed to disagree. The cat was granted probation. An exterminator laid pesticide throughout our apartment. We took our vacuum-packed clothing to my father’s storage space where it would sit for the recommended eighteen months. Our spoiled furniture littered the sidewalk. I left a note warning rummagers to steer clear. It was not an ideal moment for this drama.
We were courting an enigmatic client at work, referred to on the books as Project Pinky. In lieu of an RFP, the client had provided a study syllabus of theoretically comparable marketing campaigns. The syllabus included familiar campaigns like Joe Camel and Just Do It, but also campaigns selling abstract commodities: Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”; the public relations circus surrounding the O. J. Simpson trial. The final item was Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, the Greek comedy about women who withhold sex from their husbands in an effort to end the Peloponnesian War.
The plan was to pitch our ingenuity by presenting updates on these historical campaigns. The client had offered an unprecedented $10,000 materials fee to cover preparation costs. It was unclear what materials we were meant to acquire—O. J.’s glove?—but the message came across: despite the absurdity of our assignment, Project Pinky was serious business. We had a week to prepare. The client would not be approaching other agencies. The account was ours to lose.
Communitiv.ly, where I worked, is a Think Tank for Creative Synergy and Digital Solutions. More simply, the company helps heritage brands engage with consumers on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Ru.ffy, Pim-Pam, Twitch, and Instagram, and provides access to in-house strategists, as well as to a network of freelance designers, community managers, editors, journalists, programmers, videographers, and copywriters.
It is the network of freelancers that sets Communitiv.ly apart. Say, for instance, that your cosmetics company wants to set up an aspirational webzine that promotes a branded lifestyle and provides entry points for single-click purchase. Communitiv.ly will find a freelancer in its network to curate editorial content. Communitiv.ly will provide that editor with a database of underemployed fashion writers. Then Communitiv.ly will design, build, and optimize your site, create promotional communities on social media, launch traditional print, TV, and radio campaigns, and provide event planners and viral marketing experts to make sure the site’s launch gets enough old-media coverage to incite traffic-fueling buzz. It’s a one-stop shop, and it works because brands like Marc Jacobs and Revlon have more to spend on editorial projects, and can milk more revenue from them, than struggling old-media entities like Condé Hearst.
I’d heard people say that this was the future of journalism. What they meant was the end of journalism. Despite my active role in the razing, I was among its mourners. In ninth grade, while classmates tested their developing wiles in Spice Girls costumes and witchy lingerie, I went as Bob Woodward for Halloween. I must have been a sight: five-nine with a tangerine Jew-fro and pimples, wearing my dad’s corduroy suit. I dressed my Welsh Springer Spaniel as Carl Bernstein.
In college, I covered student activism for the Columbia Spectator. I was both too cowardly and too skeptical to participate in the demonstrations that were a fixture of campus life. The protested causes weren’t always commensurate with the protesters’ zeal, and I sometimes wondered if the real cause wasn’t the self-validation of those involved. I’m thinking, particularly, of a weeklong hunger strike devoted to curtailing fraternities from referring to beer pong by its insensitive alias, Beirut. I found the reporter’s role empowering, a way to participate while maintaining a balance between distrust and support. I harbored hopes of putting truth to paper.
Project Pinky was something else. Lillian arrived in the mornings on three hours’ sleep. Greg fine-tuned our General Deck, a PowerPoint presentation explaining our business model through buzzwords and animation. I mocked up a “Free O. J.” fan page, complete with links to articles on police corruption and racial profiling, as well as a message board where people who’d been harassed by the LAPD could share their stories. Greg’s shirts grew progressively more unbuttoned until, by week’s end, a briar patch of black hair threatened to garrote anyone who stood too close. I combed interviews with Springsteen for quotes that might reiterate right-wing talking points if taken out of context. Lillian lost her voice screaming supposedly inspirational marketing clichés about team building that she’d found on a Tumblr dedicated to cherry-picking from a handful of marketing blogs that, in their turn, had cherry-picked from books by blog-anointed marketing gurus. The gurus were paraphrasing the founding fathers.
The night before the pitch—this would be Sunday, the second of December, two days before Ricky’s murder—Lillian invited me to her West Village townhouse for a once-more-unto-the-breach sort of sendoff. We sat on her balcony and watched the darkening sky. There was a bottle of Riesling uncorked on the table, half-eaten canapés, the roach of a joint from which I’d abstained. I’d spent ten minutes explaining Lysistrata to my stoned boss. Lillian lit a cigarette. Like many New Yorkers, she’d started smoking again when the embargo on Cuba’s lung cancer vaccine was lifted. After reading the fine print regarding emphysema, throat cancer, and low rates of preventative efficacy, she was now, unsuccessfully, attempting to quit.
“So, they stop fucking their husbands,” said Lillian. “And then expect them to end the war? These women clearly knew zilch about men.”
Lillian had been married twice and this made her an expert. She had one child to show for it, Damien Earl, a living embodiment of every cliché about privileged urban youth. At eighteen, he’d participated in a reality TV program about privileged urban youth. He was currently finishing a semester in Milan.
After Damien’s father ran off with the younger wife of a deceased Kuwaiti oil baron, Lillian swore off men, only to return amid this golden era of online dating. My boss was a fit and elegant fifty, subtly Botoxed, with sharp brown eyes and long natural lashes. She wore her hair in a chic, angular bob that flattered her narrow face and gave off a shimmering aura of money. In the current dating climate, these attributes weren’t enough. We often spent lunch breaks swiping profiles on Kügr, but she rarely matched with anyone of interest. I used to wonder how I’d do, what currency my looks still carried. Since the death of our daughter, Nina, I’d noted a down-tilt in male attention. Men used to stare while I swam laps at the Red Hook pool. Now stretch marks scored my stomach. Wrinkles spidered from my eyes. Michael told me I looked beautiful. He was not an objective audience.
“It does seem shortsighted,” I agreed.
“I mean, for one,” Lillian continued, “they’re acting without regard for their own interests. Everyone knows a soldier in the heat of battle is a maniac in the sack. And, for two, they’re absolutely fucking deluded. Denying a man sex is the most surefire way to incite mass violence. History has proven it: the Christian Crusades, 9/11. Both could have been prevented by blowjobs. Why do you think Clinton was the only president in recent history who didn’t nuke the shit out of some sleepy Islamic hamlet?”
I started to say something, but it wasn’t worth it. Provocation was her mode, and I’d learned, over the years, to avoid being baited. In my loftier moments, I projected onto Lillian a feminist objective: to co-opt locker-room talk, reclaim vulgarity from its province on the right.
It may have simply been her style. My boss’s disposition toward crass innuendo surely had Darwinian value in her deft infiltration of our industry’s boys’ club. I was the closest thing she had to a protégé, and I sensed her desire to instill in me something of this bro-ish bearing. I knew that my refusal—was it refusal or failure?—had affected my career. Male clients tended to request Greg as their account liaison.
“The way to manipulate men is not by denying them sex,” Lillian explained, “but by forcing them to make promises while their dicks are in your mouth. You ever been with a soldier?”
One thing she respects is a lengthy sexual CV. My own was not. Lillian knew this but pretended to forget. I shook my head.
“You really should try it sometime. Their penises are tiny and they compensate by going down on you for hours. They love to take directions.”
She knew I was married too.
“I used to keep a stash of plastic medals I’d hand out after mission complete.”
A compulsive liar.
“After sex they cry. It’s better than most standup routines. Anyway, tell me something about you for a change. How’s Michael?”
She refilled my wine without my asking. She wanted me to spill marital secrets. A few months prior, I’d mistakenly confessed to a sexual experiment Michael and I had undertaken, a threesome. I thought telling Lillian would get her off my back. It only provoked.
“Michael’s fine,” I said.
“Even with this Wall Street bullshit?”
The truth was I didn’t know. I watched TV and scanned my news feeds. I read the The New York Times. The intricacies of the crisis were buried beneath stories of other catastrophes, the cataclysmic wreckage of the last administration. Headlines warned of coming hurricanes and tsunamis. Warned of rising sea levels and methane emissions. Chronicled the continuing barrage of Weinstein-esque behavior in politics and entertainment. Addressed the uptick in anti-immigration violence in the wake of mass layoffs at fast food chains in Texas and Arizona, the right-wing backlash against the soda ban in public schools. It all just kept coming. That morning’s front page featured a Florida militia with stockpiled Uzis who wore swastika armbands but touted their support for the Jewish State.
I did know that the hacking group mAchete had leaked internal memos from the C&S brass, suggesting bank employees unload their company shares. I knew the board was trying to push a last-minute sale of the bank and its holdings to a Japanese megabank.
The Universal Basic Income, or UBI as it was called, was a threat to the entire financial apparatus. If the proposal passed, the government would award every American with $23,000 per year. This $10 trillion dividend would be funded largely by tax hikes for the wealthy, and by increasing taxes on carbon emissions. But it would also be funded, in part, by charging fees to financial institutions on all individual trades and transactions. As far as I understood it, this meant that large investment banks like C&S, which processed nearly three million transactions daily, would be forced to drastically scale down their operations. Right-wing pundits warned of the negative effect this would have on lending. They warned that it would cause steep inflation and disrupt the economy’s flow. They warned that this restriction on capital movement would have widespread repercussions for job creation and trickle-down wealth. They’d used these arguments for decades against other forms of socialization.
There is no way I could have known then, as I leaned back in my chair and watched the day’s last light impart a Coppertone glow on the old brick church across Lillian’s street, that Project Pinky would be linked to the UBI. That, in fact, the person in charge of Project Pinky hoped to tank the bill and replace it with a system of his own design. I’m not sure what, if anything, this knowledge would have changed.
Michael and I didn’t talk about the crisis or its possible ramifications for us. We worked late. We left early. At home, we lay in bed staring at separate laptops. We argued about whose turn it was to take out the trash. Michael let the cat sprawl across his ribcage. He stroked her fur and fed her salmon treats that left crumbs on the duvet. I dust-busted around their bodies. We didn’t have sex.
“So no more threesomes?” said Lillian. “You onto other stuff now? Bondage? Strap-ons? Cosplay?”
I swirled my wine. One night the previous week, I’d come home to a bleach-clean apartment and Michael in an apron standing over the stove. He’d set the table with our good wedding flatware. Candles were lit. A spray of wildflowers filled a vase.
I should not have been surprised. Michael gave me gifts all the time and planned date nights: reservations at trendy new restaurants, third-row seats to see Alvin Ailey at BAM. He meant well, I knew, but I often found myself inflamed at his presumptions. For example: that I would ever wear a floral-print, off-the-shoulder romper; that, after a long day at work, I’d be in the mood to leave the house.
Cooking and cleaning, however, were welcome. He made pan-fried sole in a brown butter sauce. The fish was flaky and moist. We moved to the couch where we drank Côtes du Rhône and listened to records. Michael rubbed my feet. After my second glass of wine, I was convinced to take his arm and practice the waltz we’d learned years ago for our wedding. The waltz seemed like a metaphor. To move as a unit. To create a momentum that would carry us through each other’s mistakes.
The next day we had bedbugs.
I hadn’t told Lillian about that either. Displaying uncharacteristic tact, she hadn’t asked about my face. I think she considered the body a safe space. She refused to acknowledge its betrayals.
“I love making you uncomfortable,” said Lillian. “It’s too easy. I’m sorry. It’s funny to me to watch you squirm. Is that wrong? I should be nicer, right? I’m your boss. I could fire you. Maybe I’ll fire you right now. Ha-ha. Have you noticed that people say ha-ha these days instead of laughing? What’s that about?”
I changed the subject.
“Tell me about Project Pinky,” I said. “Fill me in. There must be more to the story.”
“You ever watch that cartoon show, Pinky and the Brain?”
I told her I’d seen it. I had a proper childhood, cereal and Saturday morning TV. My mother sat beside me and sketched in a notebook. It’s one of my strongest memories. Not anything we said, but the ease of her pose, the piney bouquet of her men’s deodorant. She found the cartoons amusing. Even as a kid, I was more interested in commercials.
“What aw we going to do today, Bwain?” said Lillian, imitating the cartoon rat.
“Today, Pinky,” she continued, now doing Brain’s voice, an operatic tenor, “we are going to take over the world.”
“Sure,” I said.
“That’s the plan, anyway, world domination. I’m not sure how, or why, or what it means, but the money’s real, and for some reason we’ve been tapped for this project. I’m guessing that reason is discretion. They could have any of the big agencies with the kind of contract they’re promising: Ogilvy, Precocious Baby, whoever.”
The client had floated a figure, enough to put us in the black for the coming year. We were a boutique service with a solid reputation, but even during our strongest quarters we spent nearly as much as we made. Precocious Baby had copied our business model and amassed a larger network of freelancers.
“They want to go small. They want someone who knows how to keep their mouth shut. The meeting I had was in a motel on Brighton Beach. At first I thought it was a joke. Then I saw the shoes. I met with a young guy. His shoes, dude. The leather could have been the scrotum on a newborn foal.”
I did my best not to visibly recoil.
“The ten grand came in cash in a fucking briefcase. Could be mafia or Russian mafia, but I don’t think so. The guy was too white. Something sketchy is going on and I want us to be part of it. We get this account and we’ll make a killing. They sent me home in a limo. A motel in Brighton Beach and I’m sent home in a limo.”
Lillian relit the roach.
“There’s another thing. They asked about you.”
The sun was all but gone now, and the air was cooler. I wished I’d thought to bring a sweater.
“You specifically. They said the contract depended on your full availability. I told them no problemo, of course. I guess your reputation precedes you.”
“I have a reputation?”
“You were bang-up on Samsung. Brought them back from the brink. I know you’re being headhunted left and right.”
There had been offers, none I’d considered. I did think about leaving, but not for another agency. Instead, I imagined launching a startup in the Social Impact space, using my skills to do good. But I was comfortable at Communitiv.ly. For years I’d refused direct deposit because I loved receiving an envelope on my desk every other Friday morning. I loved waiting in line at the bank and holding the envelope. I loved handing the check to the teller.
Like most beneficiaries of a bat mitzvah savings account, I had a complex relationship with wealth. On one side was guilt, a dumbbell in the pit of my stomach. My paternal grandfather came through Ellis Island with only a toolbox. He quite literally built his modest empire from brick and mortar, erecting low-income housing on the Lower East Side. I built a wall as well, around the dumbbell. If there’s one thing Manhattan private schools are good for, it’s reminding the children of New Money Jews that, in the grand scheme of savings and loans, they’re relatively deprived. I had classmates who owned helicopters, houses on Mustique.
Then my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Treatment gave her two years. I wouldn’t trade that time, difficult as it was. I spent long hours in her hospital rooms, doing schoolwork and watching trashy TV. My father was there too: pacing, opening and closing the window, staring at his coffee. He took an open-ended leave from work to be at her bedside. Insurance covered certain costs, but treatment was expensive, as was hospice later on. We had no income during that period. When she died, my father was essentially broke.
The personification of money has always made sense to me: money does this, money does that. It’s as if it has legs. It might, at any moment, leave. This is one reason I didn’t pursue writing. In my Advanced Nonfiction workshop, our professor warned against nurturing a fallback plan. He said the problem with a fallback plan is that you’ll fall back. My classmates nodded and wrote this down. Personally, I liked the idea of falling back. I pictured myself in one of those summer camp trust exercises, plummet disrupted by a bed of hands.
“I get it,” said Lillian. “Puma was boring, and you’re sick of explaining Pim-Pam to geriatric CEOs. I am too, Wen. But this client is different. They’re interesting. I don’t know what they are. But as I said, the money’s real. This works out and from now on everything’s pickles and cream if you catch my meaning.”
“It’s a saying.”
“It must be.”
Lillian kicked back her chair. She laid a leg upon my leg. I brushed the dirt from her shoe from my pants. She hit the roach and coughed hard. Her cheeks looked purple in the porch light.
“The account is ours,” she said. “God help me, I have a feeling. A rumble in my gut like the dam’s about to burst.”
“That may have been the shrimp. It felt a little slimy.”
“I didn’t eat the shrimp. I’m off shellfish. The smell makes me want to vom.”
I looked down at my plate. There were twelve shrimp tails on it. There were none on Lillian’s.
“Why’d you serve it?”
“It’s what you serve.”
She flicked a shrimp tail off the balcony.
Excerpted from Sensation Machines, copyright © 2020 by Adam Wilson.