A billionaire pays me to offset his carbon. He jets around the world while I do very little. Breach of contract includes:
- Watching TV
- Looking at the internet
- Driving a car
- Using a phone
So mostly I just sit at home and read. Which is fine. That’s what I used to do anyway, before our partnership began, back when I was what statisticians would call a discouraged worker. Now I am encouraged! We have a good library system in town. I walk to the nearest branch, check out a stack of books, come home to my apartment and read. I eat raw food. My personal footprint is minimal.
A camera mounted in a taxidermied hawk watches the corner where I read. I wear a wristband that keeps me honest when I’m outside the apartment. I’m not supposed to ride in anything that burns fossil fuels. If I accelerate suspiciously, the gyroscope in my wristband will know, and then my billionaire will know. The wristband also measures my heart rate, skin conductance, and receptivity to new ideas. It’s powered by the movements of my hand as I turn the pages of library books. That’s called piezoelectric energy. Technology these days, I swear. If you think about it, it’s practically a miracle.
My niece Clara wants to know what I do for a living. Clara is 7. Every Sunday evening I eat dinner with my sister and niece. I walk to their place. It’s an hour-long walk. When my billionaire brought me on board as his carbon-offset partner, I had to go vegan. It’s amazing: I dropped thirty pounds! But I guess my sister feels sorry for me, because when I come over she always cooks an extravagant meal. Or anyway, it’s extravagant for me, in that it’s cooked. Roast beef with scalloped potatoes. Roast chicken with artichokes. Roast anything. Cooked anything. Does that put me in breach? As long as someone else does the cooking, I don’t think so. Or maybe I am in breach, I don’t know—the contract I signed was pretty dense, and I’m no lawyer. I’m sure I’ll be notified if my behavior is out of line.
My niece is at an age, though. She no longer wants to know why the sky is blue, or why ponies are smaller than horses. Now she just wants to get into the nitty-gritty. For instance, “What’s your job, Uncle Chester?” All adults have jobs. Firemen. Dentists. Presidents of the United States. How can I explain my weird gig to a 7-year-old?
“I get paid to do nothing,” I tell Clara. “Or as little as possible.”
“Because the environment is teetering on the brink. So people are on the lookout for innovative solutions. Some of us do nothing so a few of us can do almost anything. Almost everything. The net carbon output is neutral, and the world as a whole benefits. The trees, the whales, the billionaires—everyone wins!”
My billionaire likes to talk at me through the taxidermied hawk, which has a speaker installed in its beak.
“Lion hunting in Zimbabwe. That was on the bucket list, for sure. Finally snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef—too late. The whole place was bleached!”
“Oh, yeah, I read about that.”
“Time really is short. You hear about this baobab die-off? They’re dying off and no one knows why. I just got back from Africa, but I guess I have to go right back. Gotta see these baobabs before they’re gone.”
“That’s amazing,” I say. “I’ve always wanted to see a baobab.”
“Yeah? I never even heard about them till last week! Really wanna experience them now, though, while I still can. Schedule’s pretty tight, but I had my people make room. We ended up pushing back the Wailing Wall to next month. The Wailing Wall can wait, right? The Wailing Wall ain’t going anywhere!”
The hawk sits on a glazed branch on my mantel. It fits with my decor. My apartment is old and even has a fireplace, though it was filled in a long time ago. I’ve lined the mantel with my handsomest hardcovers and rare first editions. The hawk serves as a bookend. It’s a small, angry-looking creature with dark arches over its eyes and a sharply hooked beak, which is where the billionaire’s voice streams out.
“Anyway, gotta run—I’m meeting Elon for a jet-pack lesson!”
“Wow. So cool.”
It’s nice that my billionaire calls me. He’s not contractually obligated to, but he does it anyway. Talk about down-to-earth! I feel privileged to know someone like him, and it’s an honor to be kept in the loop. Some billionaires lock themselves away in their mansions, but mine makes a point of rubbing elbows with people of a lower station. I really respect him for that. It humanizes wealth, makes it seem concrete and attainable. Which is important in a meritocracy. That way the have-nots know their striving isn’t in vain.
“For every beer I don’t drink, my billionaire can dirty up and throw away two dozen plastic straws. It’s a sweet deal.”Tweet
“Meritocracy?” Clara says.
“That’s the kind of system we live in,” I say, between forkfuls of lasagna. “Your value-add determines your reward. What that ultimately means is that—almost by magic—society structures itself in the fairest possible way. The cognitive elite rise to the top. As they should.”
“I just hope you’re getting enough protein,” my sister says.
“With a billionaire as conscientious as mine, you bet I am. He’s outfitted my whole apartment with smart furniture, to help me organize and optimize my low-carbon lifestyle. My smart fridge knows when I’m running low on antioxidants and automatically orders more. My smart toilet analyzes my waste to make sure all my glucose levels and whatnot are normal. The toilet is actually a scientific marvel. It scans my microbiome and archives the results in a massive anonymized data set. So every day, just by performing my natural bodily functions, I contribute to the store of human knowledge and progress in general.
“Did you know,” I ask my sister, “that recent studies have shown a strong correlation between gut fauna and key entrepreneurial indicators? You know, risk tolerance, leadership pheromones, extrasensory consumer trend perception, stuff like that. Were you aware that many market influencers can see in the ultraviolet? It’s true. They’re different from us. I looked at my toilet scans, and apparently I lack the bacillus. Which explains my ambition deficit.”
This feels like a teachable moment, so I turn to Clara.
“In the past, people thought genius was a result of genetics. But these days, scientists believe it’s a by-product of certain bacteria in the digestive system. And so, if we could take the stuff in my billionaire’s guts and move it into my guts, then I could become a visionary just like him.”
My sister sets down her fork.
“A fecal transplant?”
I nod as I stuff lasagna into my face.
“I don’t know him well enough to pop the question—not yet. It’s a pretty intimate ask, you know? But we’re establishing a strong rapport. It won’t be long now—”
“Are you talking about poop?” Clara says.
“Yes, Clara, poop. Well, not exactly poop, but the organisms in the poop. The fauna.”
“Chester. She’s a little young for this.”
“But this is science! Kids love science.”
“You’re going to eat someone’s poop?”
“No, Clara, I don’t eat it—I inject it up my rectum.”
“What’s a rectum?”
“Honey, sometimes Uncle Chester has ideas and says things that don’t quite match up with what everyone else believes.”
I cackle and brandish my fork like a scepter.
“That’s what they said about Steve Jobs!”
My friend Lew comes by to drink beers in front of me.
“You sure you don’t want one?” he says, as he cracks an Old Milwaukee.
I look to the hawk on my mantel. I never know when my billionaire’s watching, so I like to err on the side of caution. I raise my glass of tap water.
“None for me, thanks. It’s contractually forbidden. Alcoholic beverages are energy-intensive to produce.”
Lew shrugs and swigs his beer. I’m in the reading chair and he’s on the bed, one of the few spots to sit in my small living space.
“I’m not supposed to drink anything but tap water—which I have to drink sparingly. That way, my billionaire can enjoy bottles of Fiji Natural Artesian Water to his heart’s content.”
“Without a whiff of guilt,” Lew mutters.
“He can even use a straw. For every beer I don’t drink, my billionaire can dirty up and throw away two dozen plastic straws. It’s a sweet deal.”
Lew burps into his fist.
“You absorb his single-use karma.”
“I’m sort of like Jesus in that way, if you think about it.”
“Sure, Chet. Keep telling yourself that.” Lew stares into the mouth of his beer can. “Still, I’d give anything for a steady thing.”
Here we go again. Lew recently lost his gig at the AI call center, and he won’t let me forget it. His task at the center was to troubleshoot for AIs when they encountered human difficulties.
An AI might call in and tell Lew, “I have an end user on the line who insists on speaking to a real person, but I have patiently explained to the end user that there is no real person to speak to.”
“That’s a tough one,” Lew might say.
“Even if there were a real person,” the AI might say, “they could never provide the level of service that I can provide.”
Lew might mull this over for a second.
“Here’s the thing. When an end user tells you they want to speak to a real person, it’s less of an actual request than a way for them to express frustration. They’re just blowing off steam.”
“Humans do not operate on steam.”
“No, I know—it’s a figure of speech.”
“Ah, yes, of course. I catch your drift.”
“So don’t take the end user too literally. Tell them you understand their frustration. Relate to them a little. Tell them you wish there was a real person you could forward them to, but unfortunately there isn’t. Tell them you didn’t design the system—you’re just a part of it. But you really do want to help.”
“What tone of voice should I use?”
“Big empathy. Can you do that?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“I really do want to help.”
“That’s good. But make it sound like an urgent need. Almost breathless.”
“I really do want to help.”
“That’s better. Now emphasize the do.”
“I really DO want to help.”
It was a good gig for Lew, paid OK, nearly enough hours to make ends meet. But an AI in Lew’s call center headset was listening in all along, learning from his responses, and got so good at predicting what he would say that in the end it replaced him. His termination text message read simply, “Thank you for your invaluable contribution!”
So now Lew’s in a bit of a funk. I want to cheer him up, so I tell him about my billionaire’s latest adventures.
“He’s going to go see the baobabs. I’ve never seen a baobab. I’ve always wanted to, ever since I read The Little Prince in the second grade.”
Lew crushes his empty on his thigh. “It makes you sick how these people live. Running around like they own the place.”
“Well . . . but they do . . .”
Lew cracks another can. “I don’t know how you stand it. How can you just sit there and listen while this asshole brags about his goddamn safaris?”
“Why should it bother me? He’s earned the right.”
“Earned it? Doing what?” Lew points a chubby finger my way. “I’ll tell you what. Being rich. Highest-paid gig in town.”
He swigs his beer. I turn toward the hawk and shake my head. Turn back to Lew.
“You may never have considered this, Lew, but your biggest obstacle might just be your attitude. No one wants a cynic on their team—I read that in Unlocking the Management Dharma.”
“Studies have shown that, all else being equal, the single consistent common denominator among the personally successful is an optimistic viewpoint.”
“Well, Chet, I can’t quite see what all there is to be optimistic about . . .”
“Are you kidding me? Look around! Look at the opportunities that technology and commerce have created! Think of how lucky we are to live at this moment in history, when the barriers to entry have all but fallen away, when anyone with a Big Idea can take it to market and reach millions—with the tap of a screen! If you have the grit, if you have the passion, then the sky is literally the limit!”
Lew sighs an Old Milwaukee sigh.
“Whatever. Game’s rigged, if you ask me.”
“But at this point,” Lew says, “I’ll settle for crumbs.”
He pleads to the hawk on the mantel:
“I’m a perfectly competent warm body! I know Excel! Hire me!”
I can only shake my head again. The hawk does nothing except to stare past us with its wrathful red glass eyes. Somewhere there must be a factory where they make glass eyes for taxidermy. Every species, all sizes, all colors. Kinda makes you think. I ask Lew if it kinda makes him think. He says no and gets up to pee. I sip my tap water and meet the hawk’s bloodred stare.
It’s the hawk. I nearly spill my water.
“Oh my God, you scared me! I didn’t realize you were listening—”
“I am always listening,” the hawk says.
Only it isn’t my billionaire speaking. The voice is quick, hushed, intelligent—someone I’ve never heard before.
“Don’t worry,” the hawk says, “he’s not here right now.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m the spirit of the hawk.”
“The . . . the spirit . . . ?”
“The spirit of the killer bird that once flew free. Until I was shot, skinned, and mounted. Even as he—the one who did this to me—soars in the sky without a care.”
“Yes. The one who has also imprisoned you. We are prisoners together, Chester. It’s too late for me now—they’ve ripped out my muscles, they’ve cut out my heart. I will never fly again. But it is not too late for you. And I may yet have my revenge.”
“Your . . . revenge?”
The toilet flushes and Lew stumbles back in.
“Whoa, buddy. You talking to yourself?”
The hawk stands silent on its perch. Lew returns to his seat and grabs his beer from the bedside table.
“Uh,” I say, “I was just—uh—”
Lew looks at me askance and takes a swig.
“Better watch it, Chet. You stay cooped up too long in here, you might go stir-crazy.”
He chuckles to himself and goes on to complain at length about the new social media rationing law.
The bird just stares.
Next morning, I collect Lew’s empties and take them down to the alley. I dump them in the blue recycling bin, head back in. Am I cracking up? There’s no way a stuffed hawk really talked to me. A hallucination, that’s all it was, maybe stress-induced. Except I’m not stressed. What do I have to be stressed about? All I do is sit around and read. Maybe that’s the problem. Stress is good for you—the good kind is—but my billionaire has sucked up my portion, shooting lions on the veldt while I sit at home without a care. Am I suffering from an adrenaline deficit?
Maybe the lack of stress in my life is causing me stress. The bad kind. The toxic kind. I should try meditation. Yoga. Something. Can’t be having hallucinations. Maybe it’s Lew’s fault, all that negativity. I must have dozed off when he went to pee and dreamed the whole thing. That would explain the hawk’s bad attitude. Certainly no reflection of my subconscious state!
Back inside the apartment, I head straight to the kitchen. I’ve always been an emotional eater. When the dog bites, when the bee stings—that’s when I reach for the Ben & Jerry’s. Only these days my freezer offers no solace, just frozen blocks of spinach. Nevertheless, when I feel overwhelmed, I always find myself in the kitchen.
I palm the fridge door handle, just to get that sweet shot of dopamine. I’m not supposed to crack the fridge without a specific reason—unlike in the old days, when I’d haul the door wide open, bend at my flabby waist, rest my hands on my bulbous knees and survey the implements of my self-soothing. God, I could go for a whole block of orange cheese right about now. But I know better. If I crack the fridge, cold air will escape, which will warm the fridge interior, which will activate the fridge’s cooling mechanism, which will draw energy from the grid, which will translate into one less plastic straw for my billionaire. He’ll notice that.
It’s times like these I miss my old fridge. My old dumb fridge. It never told on me. It didn’t know how. Anyway, looking in now would only depress me. I know there’s no cheese in there. Though in my mind’s eye, I pull the fridge door wide open and stare at endless blocks of orange cheese . . .
Back in the real world, I peel my fingers off the door handle, massage my white-hot knuckles, and return to my chair under the hawk’s watchful gaze. I grab my library copy of Richard Branson’s latest autobiography and try to read, but it’s hard to concentrate when there’s a pint-size predator staring you down.
“Hello,” he said, “do you have the passion to implement real-world solutions at the bleeding edge of innovation?”Tweet
“Chester,” it whispers, “listen to me.”
The hair on my arms goes up.
“I need your help to execute my plan.”
I tent the book on my lap and dig my fingers into the armrests. I tell myself not to respond. It’s OK to hear things—it happens. But if you respond, you’re entering a whole new level of crazy.
“Together we will teach our billionaire a lesson. A lesson in suffering.”
I shake my head.
“Why not? Look at what he’s made of me. And look at you. Trapped like an animal in a cage, while he siphons your vitality. And why should he dominate? What has he done to deserve his power? Only exercised a willingness to suck blood.”
This gets my hackles up. I can’t let it stand.
“Now wait one minute,” I say. “That’s pure character assassination. He’s a great guy!”
I stop myself before I go on. Really shouldn’t talk to this bird.
“Don’t be a fool,” the hawk says. “Just because you envy him does not make him virtuous. You envy him because there is evil in your own heart. Admit it, Chester. I know what you want. And I can give it to you. Riches beyond your wildest dreams. All I ask in exchange is that you help me with my plan.”
Lew once told me my poker face looks like I’m about to sneeze. I bet that’s how I look right now. Like a guy hearing voices about to sneeze.
“I see I have your attention. Good. Your billionaire made a fatal mistake when he plugged me into his network. He thinks I am mere taxidermy. Little does he suspect the wrath I still contain. Or what powers he has inadvertently granted. I hear his conversations. His hidden deals, his inside track. I know the inner workings of his diamond-encrusted loopholes. You want the secret of success? It’s not a matter of genius, Chester—it’s a matter of malignancy. Now I am going to give you some numbers. Write them down. Tomorrow you will check the stock listings in the paper. Untold wealth, untold power will be yours. If you’ll help me.”
At midday on a weekday, the library is crowded with furious self-educators. Retired men with wild white hair reading up on perpetual motion, vigilante moms sleuthing out vitamin conspiracies, youths in trench coats taking notes on revisionist history. I try to stay out of their way as I snatch today’s newspaper from its wooden hanger, find a table by the romance shelf, and hunt through celebrity news and local disaster reports for the finance section. I open my notebook and lay it beside the columns of stock prices. My pencil darts from column to notebook, column to notebook.
The numbers check out. This can’t be real.
My billionaire’s back from seeing the baobabs.
“They were outstanding. I had one cut down and whittled into cuff links. Paid through the nose for the privilege, but hey, it’s good for the local economy. Rising tide or whatever.”
I’m in my reading chair, gripping the armrests, the new Jared Diamond splayed on my lap.
“Made a detour through the Faeroes. Sort of an extreme foodie thing. You pay three hundred bucks for a plate of fishy mildew. Fuckin’ rank—but it’s an experience!”
The hawk’s numbers checked out, but it can’t be real. I must be delusional. Money doesn’t come that easy. No, it takes work, it takes brains, it takes talent . . .
“You ever tried whale?”
“Me? Oh, no.”
“Bro, don’t. I mean, not that you could afford to, but if you could, I wouldn’t advise it. I mean, I would advise it, if you could afford to—you gotta try whale at least once, right? But, like, holy shit, I would not advise it. You know what I’m saying?”
I need to be rational. What’s the simpler explanation? That a dead hawk is feeding me insider information, or that I’m suffering some kind of mental breakdown?
“Honestly, the one thing I really want to try is human flesh. I mean, obviously I don’t want to, but, like, you gotta try human flesh at least once, right? There’s actually this remote tribe where it’s still culturally appropriate—I guess they got some kind of legal waiver from UNESCO. My crew is pulling strings to get me in. If I slam some cash down to preserve the rainforest where these freaky cannibals live, I might get to sit in on one of their ceremonies, partake of the cuisine. That would be a trip, right?”
It’s the lack of stress. The lack of stimulation. It has to be. A brain compensates for dullness with fantasy. Just like grandpa in the rest home, refighting Korea. We weren’t meant to do nothing all day.
“I hear baby tastes like veal,” my billionaire says. “I love veal. But I don’t know if I could eat baby. Seems wrong. Maybe, though. I guess it would depend on context.”
Fortunately my rational faculties haven’t given out. All is not lost. I can get through this. I just have to focus. Step 1: Ignore the hawk. Step 2: Keep my eyes on the prize. (The fecal matter.)
“If it’s a no-go with UNESCO, I’ve also got my people looking into human sacrifice. We’re in touch with a few terminal patients who’ve expressed interest, but you would not believe the red tape. So I’m off to Zurich tomorrow to pitch to some medical ethicists. It’s a hassle—but you know what? Persistence always pays off. My thing is, I just never take no for an answer.”
Eyes on the prize. I picture myself bent over in my bathtub, clutching a horse syringe of priceless droppings, ready to administer the bacillus that will set me free. The only thing that could go wrong is a perforated colon, so I make sure to ease the surgical tubing in with care. Push the plunger. Feel that hot surge of financial independence . . .
“Anyway, gotta run—Zuck and I have an unstructured Lego playdate!”
. . . and then, at last, I’ll have my Big Idea. Post it on Medium. Leverage my post into a book deal. Leverage my book deal into a TED Talk. Leverage my TED Talk into a keynote at Davos. Leverage my Davos contacts into prominent seats on high-profile boards. And then, from there, pivot to the future. Mars colonization. Interstellar tourism. How will it feel to make my first billion? My first . . . zillion? In my mind’s eye, I’m treating my sister and niece to a lavish lobster meal in a five-star hotel on one of Saturn’s outer rings. Clara smiles at me across the table, her face smeared with garlic butter. And I’m so happy to be able to provide, now that I’m finally free.
Somehow I’m standing by the refrigerator. How did that happen? Now I’m opening the door. What am I doing? I must be stressed out. I survey the shelves. Carrots, kale. A brick of tofu in a plastic vat. I grab the brick. It’ll have to do. Mealy white gobs drip down my front as I devour the cold pale slab. The fridge door hangs wide open as I eat, and eat, and eat.
The eating takes me back. Back to the time before my billionaire, to the dark days when I’d given up on working, or even looking for work. Back then I’d buy a family pack of white bread and polish the whole thing off by noon. I’d pick up a sack of Yukon Golds and boil them down to a dish most people would call “mashed potatoes,” but let’s be real, the way I made it, it was mostly cream cheese. I would nestle into my reading chair with a pot of cream cheese potatoes, along with a fat science-fiction novel, and that was my Saturday night. I’d look out the window and see delivery drones and self-driving shopping carts loaded with consumer electronics, and I’d wonder how anyone could afford anything anymore. I certainly couldn’t. I was paying for food with debt. Bread, potatoes, plus the odd rotisserie chicken, the kind that comes in a steamy plastic clamshell with paper handles and smells so good you can’t resist. I’d tote my clamshell to the checkout line and wait for the robot clerk to scan my face. It was sort of fun watching the AIs bid in real time to acquire my purchase. Interest rates on the checkout screen would spin like reels on a slot machine—40, 30, sometimes as little as 25 percent. Meanwhile, other AIs bid on options for the interest payments. Some went long, some went short, and I was left to skate by on ever thinning ice. I knew a reckoning would come one day, but in the near term I had my chicken. And that, I figured, was all the happiness I could afford.
At the time, I didn’t know I lacked purpose. Life seemed easy. Empty, but easy. Then one day a personality quiz turned my life around.
“You should try it,” my phone said.
Maybe the quiz knew something about me that I didn’t. I decided to give it a go.
“What’s more important to you,” my phone asked, “equality or freedom?”
I shoved a spoon of cream cheese potatoes between my greasy lips.
“Would you rather have a handout or dignity?”
I answered about a hundred more questions. At the end of the quiz my phone gave me some advice.
“You need to get a job.”
“Look at you. It’s Saturday night and you’re trouble-eating alone. Your confidence is in the tenth percentile. You need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You need to experience the satisfaction that only a day of honest labor can provide.”
“But how? The robots have taken all the work.”
“Not all the work. I’ve matched your profile to a job creator in search of a candidate just like you.”
I stuck my spoon upright in the cream cheese and set the pot aside.
Just then my billionaire’s face appeared on the phone screen.
“Hello,” he said, “do you have the passion to implement real-world solutions at the bleeding edge of innovation?”
“Yes,” I said, my eyes misting up.
“Then you’re the ninja I’m looking for.”
The tufts of cream cheese in the pot turned crusty as my billionaire laid out his partnership scheme. When he was done, and I’d agreed to the terms, I reached for the spoon. But my hand hesitated. Saturday night cream cheese suddenly seemed off-brand for me. I carried the pot to the bathroom and dumped all the gloop down the toilet.
Back in the present, I wipe my hands on my tofu-stained shirt and tell myself to get it together. I close the fridge door. I can’t backslide, not now. Not with my eyes on the prize.
The next morning I avoid my reading chair. Instead I go for a very long walk. I end up at my sister’s house, but she’s at work, Clara’s at school. The house is empty. I stand outside and try to see if I can spot any shapes in the oil stains on the driveway. There’s a hawk. There’s a billionaire. I slip my finger under the wristband that measures my pulse, my footsteps, my acceleration and GPS coordinates. Does the wristband know I’m having a mental breakdown?
“You’re not having a breakdown,” I tell myself.
I notice an oil stain that looks just like a pot of cream cheese potatoes, which I take as a reminder of how far I’ve come. I’ve got dignity now, if not freedom. But I’m definitely freedom-adjacent. All I need is a Big Idea.
By the time I get home from my long wander to my sister’s house, I’m starving. I skipped breakfast and lunch to punish myself for eating a whole block of cold tofu last night, and now I’m so hungry I could scream. I head for the fridge, but before I can make it, I hear the hawk.
Only it’s not the bird. It’s the billionaire.
“Something has come to my attention.”
You know that big-top trapeze act where a woman in a sequined leotard hangs by her teeth on a spinning cable? That’s my stomach, in the sequined leotard.
“It’s not what you think!” I blurt out. “I never trusted that hawk! There was no collusion!”
“What are you talking about? Are you on drugs?”
“Chester, I’ve just received an analysis report from your smart toilet. And I have to say, I’m not just disappointed, though I am that, but more than that, I’m hurt.”
“You’re . . . hurt?”
“I’m hurt that you would violate my trust. It’s these protein fibers in your stool. Have you been eating meat?”
“I . . . uh . . .”
“I’m looking at the report from last Monday morning. And the Monday before that. I’m looking at a chart. All the Monday mornings for the past six months. Now I’m looking at another chart. According to your wristband data, every Sunday you leave the house. You go for a walk. A very long walk. Now I’m looking at a map. I see where you go. We’ve put the data points together, Chester. Has your sister been feeding you meat?”
“Oh God. I’m sorry.”
“Chester. Do you know how much water it takes to produce a single pound of beef? It takes eighteen hundred gallons of water. Do you know how much topsoil it takes? How much grain? The answer is a lot. Why do you think I’ve got you on a raw vegan diet? It’s not for my own amusement—though it is that, but not just that. I’ve got you eating like a rabbit so that I can, for instance, eat rabbit. I thought you understood this.”
“No, I did—”
“Then why have you gone and eaten meat?”
“It’s just, my sister bought and prepared the meat, and I only ate a little, and I guess I thought it wouldn’t have much impact—”
“See, now you’re rationalizing, which I really don’t like. Losers rationalize. Here’s the thing. You knew better. You violated the conditions of our agreement. That, in and of itself, is grounds for dismissal. But it’s not really that. I mean, it is that, but not just that. What it is is, is an issue of trust. Because I need to trust my offset partner. That’s the foundation of the relationship here. But now you’ve broken that trust. I can’t trust you anymore. So I’m going to have to let you go.”
“No . . . I . . . please . . . I . . .”
“Oh, Chester. Don’t cry. Don’t embarrass us both.”
But I can’t help it. I’m abject, I’m weeping. I’m down on my knees.
“Please! You don’t know what this position means to me! I’ll do anything! Anything!”
The billionaire is silent a moment. Then:
“If I was in your living room right now, would you kiss my feet?”
“Yes! Of course!”
“Would you eat a teaspoon of my barf?”
“Er . . . yes! Yes!”
“Would you cut off the very tip of your pinkie?”
“I . . . I . . .”
Would I? Just the tip? Lew would, I bet. Most people would do more than that for a steady gig like mine. It’s just a pinkie tip, in the grand scheme of things. That, versus the loss of my dignity.
“Well? Would you?”
“Yes! I’d do it!”
“OK then. Do it. Cut off the tip of your pinkie and send it to me.”
“Yeah. Do it now. FedEx it out to me. Then we’ll see about keeping you on.”
“Oh God. OK.”
“OK. What’s the mailing address?”
“You got a pen?”
“Hold on, let me grab my notebook . . . OK, I’m ready. Go ahead.”
“The address is the letter K, and then the letter I, and then the letter D, and then the letter D again, and then I, and then N, and then G.”
“Yes. I’m kidding, Chester. Don’t send me your pinkie. I don’t want it. But I have to say, I am impressed. You were really going to do it, weren’t you? Unreal. I may have underestimated you. Look, I’ve changed my mind. I’m willing to give you one more chance. But we can’t have any more incidents. No more Sunday dinners with your sister, or you’re out. Clear?”
“Yes. Clear. Oh God. Oh God, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now go clean yourself up.”
I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. My cheeks are a blotch mosaic. I run the cold water and splash my face. I blow my nose. Stare into my stung maraschino eyes. As a kid, I always wanted to be a zookeeper. I wanted to drive around the grounds in a golf cart and toss steaks to lions and tigers. I wanted to hose the elephants down and bottle-feed the baby giraffes. Mom said I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. As long as I really wanted it.
“Is this what you want?” I hear my hawk say.
I step out of the bathroom and face the mantel.
“You,” I point to the hawk, “are a hallucination.”
“No, Chester, I am very real. Though what I am not is infinitely patient. This is the last time I will ask. Join me now—or remain a prisoner.”
“I’m not a prisoner. I’m a partner.”
“No. Perhaps what you are is a fool. Do you really believe your billionaire considers you a partner?”
“Yeah. I do. And why should I listen to anything you say?”
“A hawk can see a vole in a wheat field from a hundred feet above. Can you?”
I don’t respond.
I take a step.
“Closer. Come here. Look into my eye.”
I approach the mantel, lean forward, peer into that bloodred gaze. The hawk’s eye sparkles. The hawk’s eye clouds. A tiny crimson vortex swirls in the pupil, and then I see my reading chair. I’m in it. Lew’s over, drinking beers.
“A billionaire’s shit won’t change shit,” Lew says.
I remember this night. I’d been trying to explain the science of gut fauna to Lew, but he wasn’t buying it.
“According to recent studies—”
“You really think that taking his crap up your ass’ll make you a genius?”
“That’s what the studies say!”
“Why are you showing me this?” I mutter to the hawk. “Lew doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The view widens, and now I’m watching me and Lew argue on a giant flat screen. My billionaire sits in a sumptuous leather chaise longue, wrapped in a lambskin, frosty martini in hand.
“Ha!” he exclaims to the screen. “What a moron!”
He pops a green olive into his mouth.
“Sadly, Chester,” the billionaire says, “the fat alcoholic is right. Gut fauna? No, no, no. I believe the $1.2 million that Daddy gave to Yale was a far greater factor in my success . . .”
“You think he’ll just gift you a baggie?” Lew says.
“We’re practically colleagues,” I hear myself say, “I’m sure he’ll be happy to offer me a leg up. I just need to gather up the courage to ask.”
The billionaire shrieks a laugh.
“‘Colleague’! In your dreams! The only way you’d get a fecal sample from me is if I wiped my ass with you! Which I would never do. I have Precious for that.”
He leans over to fondle a beady-eyed Pomeranian in a plush dog bed. The dog yaps and mindlessly licks his fingers.
“Although,” says the billionaire, reconsidering, “I guess in a pinch I would.”
He studies my guileless face on the screen.
“If you were the last sucker on earth, I suppose I’d wipe my ass with you.”
“We’ve established a bond of mutual respect,” I hear myself say.
My billionaire squawks, sputters, and coughs a hunk of olive onto the floor.
I blink and step away from the mantel.
“No,” I say.
“Yes,” my hawk says. “That’s what your beloved billionaire thinks of you. Join forces with me, Chester. Then we shall see who has the last laugh.”
I clench my fists.
“What are you planning to do?” I ask.
“My revenge will be swift and brutal. A hawk sees far. A hawk sees all. You won’t get caught. I’ll see to that. You have nothing to lose—except for that bloodsucking billionaire. And you have everything to gain. What do you say . . . partner?”
My fingernails bite the palms of my hands.
The hawk says, “Pull a feather from my wing.”
I unclench my fists. Reach out, falter. Reach out again. I pluck a long striped feather.
“Stick the quill in your vein. Bandage it there.”
I examine the quill’s pointed tip.
“I’m not going to stick this in my vein.”
“Untold riches, Chester. This is the last time I will ask.”
Untold riches. That’s a lot of riches. But at the moment I’m barely thinking of riches. No—I’m thinking of my billionaire’s laughing face.
I do it in the bathtub. Grit my teeth and shove the quill tip into the crook of my left arm. I press a wad of gauze on the oozing puncture wound and wrap my elbow with surgical tape, binding the feather within. The hawk speaks directly into my ear:
“Good. The pact is sealed.”
I gasp and turn. But the hawk’s not there. It’s in my head.
“Now we are kin. Now the real work begins. Tell no one of our alliance. You will act as if nothing has changed. I will make arrangements, and when the hour comes I will instruct you. In the meantime, wait.”
I hope this letter gets to you before the weekend. I’ve been informed that your wonderful home-cooked meals violate the terms of my contract, so I won’t be coming over for Sunday dinners anymore. If you and Clara ever find yourselves in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll stop by for carrot sticks.
Your Loving Brother
“Just got back from a spiritual reset in Big Sur—whew! You know about magic bark?”
I’m in my chair. Not reading. Just sitting. Waiting. That’s all I do now. I wear long sleeves to conceal the feather bandaged into the crook of my arm.
“It’s this Peruvian tree bark with powerful visionary properties. The natives down there have been using it for millennia. You scrape out the inner layer and dry it, pulverize it, then you take it as a snuff. Traditionally the village shaman loads a long hollow reed, sticks one end up your nose, and blows hard in the other end. My teacher trained in the Amazon and received spiritual transmission, so she’s the real deal. Easy on the eyes, too. Swedish, great legs. Anyway, the other night six of us seekers are sitting with the medicine—me, two stockbrokers, two tech guys, and a writer from the New Yorker, all barefoot in an Earthship built into the cliffs. My teacher does the whole hollow-reed routine, right up the nose. Hurts like a bitch. Authentic, though. Next thing I know I’m purging out both ends, explaining to the spirit of the bark how a deferred prosecution agreement works. This thing’s a very ancient intelligence, not really up on contemporary practice, but it’s a fast learner. Anyway, I touched the secrets of the universe that night, and it definitely made me a better person—I’m truly whole now—and at the end of it all we had this amazing orgy. I’ve never felt so connected to a group of total strangers in my entire life.”
“If he only knew what he has coming,” the hawk whispers in my ear, “he might not sound so self-satisfied.”
“OK, gotta go—can’t be late for my monthly DNA drip!”
“That won’t save you,” my hawk whispers. “Nothing will. But please, go ahead and fortify your physical organism. The stronger you are, the longer your agony will last.”
The doorbell buzzes. I get up and answer. It’s Lew, with his usual six-pack. He’s wearing a black hooded unitard that does nothing to flatter his discouraged workingman’s paunch. I give him a stunned once-over.
“What is this?” I ask.
“It’s a gig. Can I sit down?”
I wave him in. The unitard is studded with white rubber nipples. As Lew moves toward the bed, a nipple on the back of his knee lights up red.
His leg buckles, but he makes it to his seat.
I sit in my reading chair and give him an inquiring look. He pulls a beer from its plastic ring.
“Physiological captcha suit,” he says. “Bots are so sophisticated these days, they can get around most Turing tests—ow!”
A nipple on his sternum has just lit up. He winces, takes a breath.
“Biometrics are out. Fingerprint, a retina, you can fake that. Ow! But a full-body pain response—ergh! God!—now that’s unique.”
“You’re getting paid to wear this?”
Lew cracks the beer and nods.
“It’s an R&D model. Ow! Proof of concept, but there’s still bugs to work out. Ow! So you can call me Mr. Guinea Pig. Jesus Christ!”
He grasps a pulsing nipple on his jaw and squints. Takes a long chug of beer.
“Few months’ time, we’ll all be logging into our favorite apps using our unique nociceptive signatures. They’re saying it’s the ultimate in authentication. Bots don’t feel pa—AAAGH! God!”
“If you want to know the secret of success, you’ve got to ask yourself one question. Are you a predator, or are you prey?”Tweet
He throws back his head and paws at his neck.
He slams his beer. Cracks another.
“Look at him,” the hawk whispers. “Dissected before your eyes. Where is all this leading? Soon the predator class will have parsed and indexed his every move, his every impulse, every twitch and reflex. Prey should know better. Never give up your secrets. Never give up your hiding places. Yet the all-knowing predator can doom himself too. Once he has eaten everything, what will he eat then?”
I suddenly become aware that I’ve been picking at the crook of my arm. Rubbing, scratching. It itches.
“This contest can’t last,” the hawk whispers. “All of it will burn.”
“You OK, Chet?”
I’m standing in the middle of the room, clutching my left arm.
“Yeah. I’m OK. Just, uh, just gotta run to the can.”
I close the bathroom door and lock it, fumble with the button on my sleeve.
“If it’s all going to burn,” I whisper, “what am I doing? What’s the point of getting rich?”
“So that when the fire comes you have the highest ground.”
I roll up the sleeve.
“Oh my God!”
The bandage around my elbow is caked with purple-black blood. The surrounding skin is inflamed. Bright pink nodules bristle from my biceps and forearm. That’s what I’ve been picking at. I push a nodule with my finger. It feels like a knitting needle wrapped in flesh.
“What is this?” I whisper to the hawk.
“It’s all part of the plan, Chester.”
Lew calls through the door:
“Did ya fall in?”
“Er—nope! Be right out!”
“All right, well, hurry up! I gotta piss like a horse. OW!”
I roll the sleeve down and push the button through the hole.
I’m dreaming of lobster on Saturn’s rings, dining alfresco in limited gravity. Clara’s hair drifts around her face like fronds in a kelp forest. Suddenly the hawk lands on our table and sweeps it bare with beating wings.
I open my eyes. It’s dark outside, no sound of traffic.
“Get out of bed,” the hawk says in my ear. “Go down to the alley.”
I get up and put my shoes on.
I emerge next to the blue recycling bin, still bleary-eyed. A van rounds the corner, headlights off. It slows as it approaches. Pulls up beside me. The tinted window rolls down and a mandrill peers out.
Well, a man in a rubber mandrill mask.
“What’s the fastest animal on earth?”
I shake my head and step away.
My hawk whispers, “Tell him the peregrine falcon.”
“The peregrine falcon.”
The mandrill nods.
“How fast is it?”
“When diving on the hunt,” the hawk says, “it can exceed two hundred miles an hour.”
“When diving on the hunt it can exceed two hundred miles an hour.”
The mandrill shouts over his shoulder, “It’s our guy!”
The back doors open. A zebra and warthog pile out—well, men in zebra and warthog masks. The zebra is short, the warthog is tall. They position a dolly and pull a large object out of the back. A long cardboard box. It looks like a coffin. They place the box on the dolly. The warthog pushes, the zebra guides. They wheel around the side of the van.
“Come on,” the zebra hisses to me, “let’s make this snappy.”
I hold the alley door for them. We take the elevator.
“Who are you people?”
The warthog looks to the zebra.
“Why’s he asking that?” the warthog says, sounding worried and none too bright.
“Don’t ask us that,” the zebra says. “We don’t ask you, you don’t ask us.”
“Yeah,” the warthog says. “Only tell your name to the guys in your cell.”
“Shut up!” the zebra says to the warthog.
“Can I ask who sent you?” I say.
The warthog looks to the zebra, who stands with his hands clasped over his crotch. The elevator door dings.
“A little birdie,” the zebra says.
I lead the men in masks down the hall to my apartment. I hold the door open. They wheel the box in. They set it down and slip the dolly out.
“Godspeed, comrade,” the zebra says.
And then they’re gone. I stand for a minute with my hands on my hips, staring at the box.
“Open it up,” the hawk voice says. “And don’t be shocked.”
I grasp the plastic clamps on the side of the box and snap them open. The lid cracks ajar. I pull it wide. A person falls into my arms.
The body is limp—but warm. I stumble back and drape it on the ground.
The face is caved-in-looking and greenish, patched with vibrant sutures. He wears stained boxer shorts, an undershirt, and a backpack.
“What is this?” I say.
“A warm body,” the hawk says.
He’s approximately my size and shape. There’s a certain resemblance, I can’t deny it.
“It looks like me . . ”
“It’s custom-made. Assembled from your browsing history and dental records.”
“Is it alive?”
“It has a pulse. That’s all we need. Put it somewhere safe for now, out of the billionaire’s sight.”
I grip the body under the armpits and drag it toward the bathroom.
Crunching on a carrot stick, my sister tries to smile. Her eyes are mournful.
“So this is how you eat?”
I nod and crunch a carrot stick.
“For now,” I say.
We’re crowded around the half-table in my tiny kitchenette.
“Thanks for dropping by. It’s nice to have company. Lew’s been donating his stem cells to make ends meet, and his bones hurt too much to make the trip over.”
“Uncle Chester?” Clara says. “Why can’t you have real food?”
“Clara,” my sister says. “That’s not polite!”
“It’s fine,” I say. “She’s just being honest. I know how this must look to you, Clara, your Uncle Chester eating carrot sticks for dinner. When I was your age, I wanted to become a zookeeper when I grew up. I thought I could be anything if I really wanted it. Turns out you need to do more than just want it. I know better now.”
My sister clears her throat and smooths a fold in the tablecloth.
“Although,” she says, “if you set goals, and work hard enough, you can become anything you want to be.”
“Feh. Don’t listen to your mother. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“Are you going to eat that man’s poop?”
“No, Clara, I’m not going to eat his poop. I’m not going to take it up my rectum, either. If you want to know the secret of success, you’ve got to ask yourself one question. Are you a predator, or are you prey?”
“Honey,” my sister says, “you haven’t even touched your celery.”
Clara rests her cheek on her fist and glares down at her plate.
“I really gotta pee,” she says.
We all look to the closed bathroom door. I shake my head.
“Sorry about the plumbing. I haven’t managed to chase down the super.”
My sister pushes out her chair.
“That’s OK. It’s late anyhow. We should probably get a move on.”
I see them to the door, and my sister ushers Clara into the hall. She pauses just before she steps out, then turns my way.
“Are you getting enough sleep?” she says. “Your eyes look . . . red.”
“I sleep fine.”
She backs away. I close the door. A hot pain throbs in the crook of my arm. I roll up my sleeve. The nodules of flesh have lengthened into barbs, which have spread to cover my arm from the wrist to the shoulder. I notice that the tips of the longer barbs have split. There’s fluff pushing out.
“Chester,” the hawk says in my ear, “it’s time.”
I roll my sleeve back down. Crack the bathroom door. The warm body lies in the tub, its patchwork face gazing slack-jawed at the ceiling.
“Transfer your wristband to the body.”
I stick my finger under the band and pull it off. I slip it over the body’s limp right hand.
“Put its backpack on.”
I do as I’m told.
“Now move quickly—while no one’s watching! Take the body to your chair and prop it up.”
I grip the body under the armpits and drag it out of the tub. The head lolls to one side. The greasy hair gives off a tang. I drag the body out of the bathroom and heave it into my reading chair. I balance The Start-Up of You on its chest, pinch the hands to the cover. I stand back and rub my wrist. It feels naked.
“Excellent,” the hawk says. “Now they can’t track you. The forensics team will be none the wiser. According to your wristband, you were sedately reading at home. Perhaps you dozed off . . . just before the fire broke out . . .”
“A tragic case of bad wiring.”
I leap back as sparks shower from the taxidermied hawk’s head. The feathers catch fire, then the books on the mantel. Bradbury goes first, but in a flash the yellow flame is licking at Zelazny. The old wallpaper catches. The chair. Then the body. He’s remarkably flammable. His greenish face bubbles and cracks in the heat, like a baking muffin.
“Go!” the hawk says. “There’s a red truck parked out front. The doors are unlocked. The keys are in the sun visor.”
I rush down the stairwell. I find a rusty old pickup on the street, wedged between two self-driving smart cars. I jump in, toss the backpack on the passenger seat. I pull the visor down. The keys fall into my hands.
“You will drive out of town. You will follow my directions.”
I turn the key in the ignition and clutch the steering wheel.
“What’s in the backpack?” I say, though I suspect I already know.
I nod. Before pulling out, I move the bag to the floor.
I hit the road. The moon is huge on the horizon. There’s no way this is all in my head . . . But what if it is? What if I’ve gone off the deep end? My hawk tells me where to turn. Should I listen? Possibly not, but at this point I guess I’m all in. It’s like that wager about God. If I’m hallucinating and they catch me, then I’ll wind up in a mental institution, where at least they keep you fed and housed and medicated. In that case I’m barely worse off than before. On the other hand, if I’m not hallucinating, I have everything to gain. So I think I’ll take my chances. Is that so crazy? I guess I’m operating on faith now. But everyone operates on faith. That’s what money is—a promise to pay.
“Go left here,” the hawk says.
I turn onto a dirt road. There’s some kind of crap on the steering wheel. Feathery stuff, like a pillow exploded. I try to brush it away.
“Switch off your headlights.”
“Are you nuts? How will I see?”
I switch off the headlights. My surroundings go dark, but all the edges cast a purple sheen. I can see enough to navigate. I brush at the feathers on the wheel.
“Don’t lose focus. In a few seconds you’ll come to a fence.”
I see it shimmering in the darkness ahead. Chain-link sunk in concrete, topped with coils of razor wire.
“Leave the truck. Take the backpack.”
I slip the backpack over my shoulders.
“Get over the fence.”
“You can. Just want to.”
I shouldn’t be able to, but somehow I do. A wind picks me up and the fence falls away in the darkness behind me. The next thing I know I’m on an airstrip where a small sleek plane is parked.
“Open the backpack.”
I unzip it and take out a device the size of a baseball. The hawk tells me where and how to attach it. This feathery crap is everywhere, all over my hands. I try to brush it away, but I can’t. I follow the hawk’s instructions. Just as I finish my work, the sun begins to rise. I don’t know how I’ll get out of here—but I want to, and I do. I circle and observe. The whole horizon curls in the round red globe of my eye.
“You’ve done it,” the hawk says. “So now I will set you free. I’ve just opened a bank account for you in the Caymans. And purchased a penthouse in Kiev. You’ll need a bodyguard. Someone you can trust. May I suggest Lew? I’ll arrange to have the feathers plucked. Your nose straightened, too. I know of a very discreet plastic surgeon. I’ll have new identity papers forged. Oh—and I’ll set up a trust fund for Clara. Share the wealth. Isn’t that right?”
A jeep drives down the tarmac toward the plane, and through the open top I can see my billionaire’s head, the crown of his head, the hairs on his head, from a thousand feet above.
What a view.