[The first installment of Adam Engel's novel, Topiary]
For all who have worked in cubicles, behind counters, or on rooftops for THE MAN and believed there was a better world, and still believe. Even if the only way out is in.
Call me Plantman.
Summer the War suddenly, not unexpected. For weeks the Nation’s Uniformed Young amassed the Enemy's border. Pump of Young into the vicious Rogue Regime. Carnage ignited a galaxy of screens. Monitors. 24/7. You know.
Persona: Plantman, Keeper and Protector of the City's office green. Grim fluorescent light can be, will be, serene. I watered, trimmed and dusted corporate flora. Green Man at large. Horticultural Technician, Indoor Landscaper, not lover, of potted plants. Verdure the City. Complex unruly. Sprout, contort, evolve. Snake-like struggle to? The Light. Anchored in cylinders of soil. Dirt. Same thing (for instance: "He soiled his pants. She dirtied her diapers" etc.) Plants too are machines. Input/output. Me, my Self displaced. Fiction a New Self. Watering can, scissors. Agon. Deep daydreams the war.
Rise with dawn, Green Man, Plantman, rigorous magician!
They waited for me. Potted oases of the City. Florescent days accrued -- a past! To study and transform. The City was work to be done as if into a girl. The Future is coming to a cubicle near you. Watering can, feather duster, scissors. Adjustable Topiary Techniques apron.
In Search Of: Ivy in window sills and creeping up walls.
Ficus, Fiddle-leaf Fig, Song of India: Executive Suites.
Pothos, Dieffenbachia, Kentia Palm: workers' cubicles.
Dead leaves guidelines for care. Pluck ‘em and chuck ‘em. "All plants are created," veteran technicians claimed. How true. Fundamental problem keeping life alive in the steel-and-concrete City.
Too late to exchange all this? For military green? Experience, not imagine, enemy fire? Lose Self permanently always? Gone? New Time passes, options. Imagine a camouflaged Self. Exhaustive wrenching of the will. Muscles of Being weary, relaxed, a fist unclenched. Release the Me I bore through quarter century.
Dawn I beat my roommates to the shower. In life, little things. Scent of brands whizzed in and out of years. Couldn't recall the shampoo. Unmarked bottle – left over from roommates' rare shopping spree?
"As hero of our story (not a story, not a hero?) I am pleased to be the first man in the shower, for three men in a stark apartment must rise to shower. Twenty-six is no longer young. Not old, two-thirds life ahead. But irrevocably beyond the market age bracket of the eighteen-to-twenty-fours. Let them pass. We are huge, despite advanced degrees, dollars blown on our ‘afraid to work with our hands.’"
Look at me. There. In the mirror. Cleansed and dapper. Green-and-yellow Topiary Techniques t-shirt; blue jeans; green-and-black sneakers. Ready to go. Ready to go. Ready to go, go, go.
Nelson already in the kitchen, sipping coffee he'd picked up at the corner bakery. Sticky buns, muffins and the City News. Nelson was a big man, not a fat one. A soft man. Big soft man-boy Nelson. I offered coffee I was brewing but he had his cup, preferring the bakery blend, extra sweet. He craved sweet morning foods and Heather, the bakery cashier.
Comics. Headlines. The War and its progress. Murder trials, and this person does this gets into trouble that person does that gets into trouble.
"So what about this guy killed his parents?" I said
"I've thought about it. Often."
"But this guy was a regular successful Joe Citizen. Executive Vice President of Something-And-Such Associates. Had a wife and kids."
"So what happened?"
"What it says. Went out and whacked his folks. With a tuna fish."
"He killed them with a sandwich?"
"Poisoned. He poisoned them. Doesn't say anything about a sandwich, actually. Or tuna. Could have been sushi. Bad sushi. An accident maybe."
"People are fucked," said Nelson.
He read comics, I the clock.
"I have a gig," he said.
"Next week. Here in the neighborhood."
Freelance factotum for Starlight, "Caterer and Facilitators to the Stars." They called him in occasionally as extra staff: food services, production. Film, television. Nelson prepared and served. Nelson would work every day if he could, among The Stars, but there was not always work among Stars to be had. His was a pair of Starlight’s extra hands. He hoped to break into the business, full.
"Television show," said Nelson. "Taping should last weeks."
Meanwhile the phone. Loud cough, flick of JayDee’s Zippo.
"Yello," then silence, then JayDee screamed "Don't you talk to me like that, fucker! I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I've got guts. I've got guts!" and slammed the receiver.
Five-foot eight 250 pounds of JayDee built for roof work, construction, not to lead his band to fame. "Puppets of Weltschmerz." Hard, loud music for the angry Young. JayDee huge in boxer shorts and t-shirt, poured coffee, tossed his butt into the swampy sink.
"It's gonna be one hot fucker, one hot fucker on that roof,” said JayDee facing a day of smearing hot tar on asphalt for his blazing father under blazing Sun.
"Been down to the bakery, Nelson? Ask that girl out?"
"I don't know, JayDee…"
JayDee patted Nelson's shoulder.
"We gotta get you laid. What we gotta do. We gotta get Nelson laid. Too long, if ever. Ever been laid, Nelson?"
"Damn, JayDee! " with conviction.
"How old, Nelson? Twenty-seven?" asked JayDee.
"October. I’ll be twenty-six all Summer."
"We gotta dip that stick, Nelson. Gotta dip that stick."
"Piss off, JayDee."
Back to my room. Collect my gear. Breathe.
Apprenticeship. Sue. Artist.
Job job, client client, breathe. Job, job, client client. Breathe, lunch, coffee. Hours the Summer lonely. Apprenticeship under Sue taught me the trade. Sue, the artist. Many artists-writers-musicians tended plants for Topiary Techniques, then hurried home to their "real." Sue was meticulous in her after all, which she viewed as itself.
She poked soil with critical fingers. Testing for moisture.
“You can’t just water a plant unless it's thirsty. Drown the damn thing. That what you want?”
Small and wiry Sue wore funky clothes. Never lonely when the day was done.
Worker bees in comb-like cubicles, executives in suites. Potted oases bring life to dull fluorescent days.
Me? One of hundreds of technicians for Topiary Techniques, largest indoor landscaping outfit in the City.
Me? Unmarketable Masters degree. Pocket full of pills. Manual Labor tonic for the soul: nurse green growing rather than ponder it from a desk dying.
Talk about peculiarity. Talk about iced-coffee in the park and talk. Sue was an attractive woman. Mingle not work with love. Court not Future at a cubicle near you.
Friday the end of my apprenticeship I said, "Nothing.”
We went separate ways.
Returned from The Day to packages of packaged cakes and Nelson stoned before the enormous television. Air-conditioner roared.
Shed my "work" clothes, donned tank top, baggy shorts, sneakers. Music in the player. Three flights down to the street, off to the Big Park.
A mile-and-a-half dodging The People. Thought-spasms amplified, energies colliding, faces sweating, bags swinging. No freedom like running. Away, away.
Up the volume on Flamenco castanets, guitars. Women trilling, hands clapping – for ME, the center of the world.
Seven mile path. Green manifest. Fields shrubs trees. Not potted. Free.
Flamenco faster, louder, harder, I ran faster. Harder. Concentrated push and charge flowed energy of life into the magic circle center of the world.
On the Roof
Returned triumphant, soaked. Salty melt of me. I showered, guzzled a tall beer, took the roof.
Damp sponge in a sealed Tupperware container, make-shift humidor, my dark cigars.
Beer, cigar, matches, clipper. Six flights to the roof.
Sunset smeared color across the dense horizon. Red. Orange. Purple.
Lit a match watched Sol's slow-mo plunge. Sticky-sweet Maduro rhythm concentrated puff-exhale. Still Life With Plantman Under Cobalt Sky. Dark when I reached the cream of cigar, the final third, blend of saliva with juices latent in the leaf. Each puff damp with gray-blue ether of myself.
Studied the bright buildings imagined lives inside. I entered thoughts and situations, captured visions. Ten million minds became one mind, my cigar their locus. Ten million thoughts became no thought – steady puff-exhale – and peace.
Cigar of the Cosmic One-Mind burned to stub. I let it die naturally on asphalt.
Smolder and out.
The War unfolded on the big TV. Nelson and JayDee deep in the couch. JayDee puffed cigarettes between bong hits. Stared hard into the grim eye of The War.
I preferred not to see.
Cheesy crunchy chips, beef jerky, beer. Enemy vehicles blown to bits. Our planes over the Enemy city. Loud significant explosions.
Television MUTED in favor of music. Stereo. Loud, hard, electric War set to the soundtrack of your choice, but really only the fast, thumping, screechy music of our youth would do. Weed scent like burning bugs. We were not unaware, all in our twenties, that we could have been participants in The War, not spectators.
The Nation missiled shrill guitar upon its foe.
"We're kicking ass. We're devastating."
Hard to imagine too long summoning such will to wreck.
"That city's been around since Time began."
The Enemy's capital had stood three thousand years. Same land, city, generations of unrecorded lives. History pounded to fine, charred powder in a matter of days.
Television Time we gathered as a clan, lost to the box, usually old cartoons and syndicated sit-coms we'd enjoyed long, long ago (hard to believe already we had “long ago.” “Why, only yesterday…blah blah blah blah blah” – follow the bouncing ball of sentiment, nostalgia, fill in blanks). Watching anything, however foolish. Everything insipid and inane. Content more or less irrelevant ideas might zap the groupthink energy, the manna. Meditation to be watching, to be Nation, for whatever we watched was watched simultaneously by millions. One could never be alone while watching.
I’d known of celebrities I'd seen as a child, out-dated now, dead, forgotten. One must learn the lives of current celebrities to know The Nation.
"Death Squad!" screamed Nelson, excited.
Dual remote action. Nelson shut the stereo, raised the television volume, tuned into The Death Squad, abandoning The War for his favorite live-action series.
The Death Squad. Television Network’s short-cut to immense profit. This particular service provided by the City excited morbid curiosity. Weekly documentary for the war-juiced public. Throwaway footage resurrected for prime time thrills. Adrenalin hormone of choice for today’s discerning viewer.
The Death Squad ventured into neglected quarters of City retrieving corpses (many a corpse corpsed under suspicious circumstances). They questioned nosey neighbors, investigated scenes, chauffeured corpses to the morgue. Live autopsies exposed dead (metaphorically speaking) audiences to the gruesome, gruesome.
"The dead, the indigent dead, accumulate with a rapidity that taxes the City's ability to dispatch them," the Celebrity Commentator explained.
The Death Squad consisted of two cops in a car and the ambulance van –
a hearse, really, called an ambulance out of respect for the paramedics, known in the trade and show vernacular as "Reapers." The commentator and cameraman rode back of the van with Night's retrievals.
The Commentator spoke of faces. Past night’s faces under burlap blankets reemerged in dreams. The men of the Death Squad were scavengers, plucking dead cells from Metropolis. Decrepit sections of the City smegma spread like virus. Crimes to be solved, reports filed. Black or blue ink ballpoint. Triplicate.
Nelson and JayDee dug into snacks, sipped beer, nodded in agreement with the Commentator.
We followed the van and squad car into a sub-city of bleak towers and asphalt sky. Cops emerged, guns drawn. Reapers in the van. Union rules. No rough stuff, only peace and rictus of the dead. The Commentator and Cameraman hustled to action.
Cop radio, cop lights. Kids out late sneering. Security guards sneered. Everyone sneered. It was a sneering place, a vague place. Horrible place to live and worse to die… but work to be done, guns drawn.
The Cops pretended the Commentator and Cameraman were stalking, shadowing. Grown used to them, like sharks to remora.
The body hung slit down the middle like a goose. Bucket beneath it caught the blood.
"How long has he been up like that, ma'am?" asked the tall, photogenic cop.
"Since I killed him," the woman responded to both cop and camera.
"Smells ripe. Neighbors complained."
"Two days. Three," she yawned. "Quiet. Peace. happy."
"Come with us, Ma'am."
“Filled that bucket I don’t know how many times.”
“Where’d you dump it?”
“Bathtub. So much blood in a man, you have no idea. Let me freshen up."
The corpse, gray as putty, strapped to a stretcher and rolled to the van.
Death Squad spooked through spooky canyons of the City. Next pick-up a codger stretched under rough blankets, eyes mouth wide and skin like paste.
The old woman beside him sobbed, "Oh, the bed! The bed!"
The bed they'd shared over half a century.
"Like some primordial -- Eskimos on an ice floe, only she's not dead yet," mused the excited Commentator.
The Show ended, as it did every week, at the morgue. The Celebrity Commentator delivered his weekly homily. The Morgue Men dismantled bodies. Hearts, kidneys, colons, yellow livers, sooty lungs.
Spongy gray cerebra had known Life in Time. Impressions intact, like etchings on a disk? Could memories be reanimated and re-called, beyond admission of heat through meat circuits before wet ware desiccated to dust?
The Commentator said, "Stories of the dead in artifacts they left behind. Knick-knacks, papers, baubles. Take pleasure in life."
JayDee Singer of Angry Songs
Hard steely club music, hate chords. Music of the Angry Young.
Construction work for Father. Roofing. JayDee and his burly brother, Carl. Rough. Shaved heads. JayDee, goateed, smoked cigarette, cigarette, cigarette.
End-of-day paint-splatter, roof dreck, tar.
The Puppets of Weltschmerz were drummer Jake, two guitarists, Carl and lead singer JayDee, and Dalia (lovelier not rough; muscular with yearning; soft voice transforming -- I wished Dalia to my bed, her feather ear-rings and tattoos. Light a cigarette. Radio, radio. Popular songs evoked girls we’d known and loved when everyone was young) on bass. Alcoholic Carl hated the father worse and loved the mother deeper than JayDee. Shows at dark clubs Carl drunk naked spoke in tongues.
Puppets pumped music for JayDee – the singer at the center. Carl off-center, disturbed. Drunk enough they came to blows. Played till morning. Hung-over, sick, exhausted. Cigarette. Cigarette. Worked for the father from hot red dawn to humid brown dusk.
Triumphant screeching wailing guitars; stentorian drums; shriek life-complaint. Dissonance stretched pained expressions. Hip gyrations of The Young.
JayDee's energy. Hard master. Father-driven Carl a crazy loon. JayDee’s drive to escape Father and hard labor, see his band succeed. Despite more clothes off, booze-inflamed belligerence. Fights in the audience. Blood on Carl, sweat-soaked JayDee.
Focus. Anger. Desire. Guitar. Jaydee drank to frenzy, stopped short of madness. Ability intact. Kept it together. Disciplined. Saved money for studio time. Record. Record.
Fat JayDee, five nine, 250, no heartthrob. Different music anyway. No melodies for throbbing hearts, but thunder for the foot stomping, fist pumping, angry young. Was JayDee still young? Twenty-seven. Older side of young. Clubs, auditions, practice, tapes; burdened with work, Father, daylight, Carl’s naked, murderous inebriation. . Thread of fire stitched his life through sound, night, time.
Tick tock Time. One day stop playing? His Angry Restless Young songs not forever? What would become of his guitar? Years listening playing dreaming to converge in bitter silence? Roof work in heartbreak silence of on-stage memories? Carl dead, father dead, guitar a souvenir? Nothing to wake to? Nothing?
Perhaps he'd never leave The Young, despite onset of Old. Ridiculous gray fat man; tired styles, out-dated tunes. Memories of angry, restless Young (now sad, mute, weary Middle-Aged). And Carl at 40? Madness besot him before naked beats him down…?
Playing anger amplified lightened JayDee's burdens – what would become of him without life’s music? Alone in his room. Headphones. Stomp, grimace. That’s not Future snarling in the mirror, only Past.
Observed what the Young today…not music of my day. Where was the music of my day? Songs surrounded me when I was young. Songs of my day, days of my day. No longer my day, so I’m not young? Your day is your striving. What you think is your day, you realize much later, is not. Striving was your day. Everything next, the "Else,” just Time eating tomorrow, spitting Old at yesterday. Not the music of my day, when I… striving … illusion of importance. Not in front of me, as it had been. Behind. Memories, real and imagined. Lyrics of youth love striving. Yearning for music-of-my-day days. Joy of my striving. Drink, drink, drunk not to recall. Such sadness in these second comings! Memory the sly, cruel doppelganger of Desire.)
Cakes don't change. Plastic wrappers. "Real" cream filling. Nelson, television, milk and pastries. Adolescent twenty-six. Soda, smoke, snacks. Like ten years gone had never been.
Passive, floating, shuffled by Time. Sixteen. New body shapes new clothing. Tunes in his room. Door locked. Illicit herb burning.
At the Mall loitering, buying, driving. Movies, pizza, boon companions.
"Won't last forever," Guidance Counselor informed him.
Aptitude test discovered aptitude. College. "Media studies." Extended childhood of campus life. New friends, scenery, same old television box of noise and diatribe, sports and speeches. Cream-filled cakes. Time away from Mother. Grade point "C" for confusion.
Postgraduate hook-up with Karlov and Stark. Their own Apartment in The City. Young men asserting themselves to the world.
Vague conception of "the day."
Work paid well. But not constant. Building a career watching television, eating cream-filled cakes. Smoke and video construct. Locked cabinet in Time he called "Myself."
Things change, Nelson stays the same. Cream-filled cakes, the Stars.
(Young men, not kids, we are in The Apartment. The Time is Now.
Look differently on Nelson. Remember, I was ambitious, working toward an end. I understand inertia like a knuckle-twist into your spine, Nelson, I understand.)
Voices arrived from Home. Father, past seventy, fought the war of his generation, made himself a millionaire. Work, cunning, smart investments. Called to ask what work.
"Television? What kind? writer, actor...?"
"Production assistant. Celebrities. Work is slow. I have to build. Whenever there's shooting in town, they recommend me," Nelson said. "My name comes up."
Father sent money. His only son. No choice but faith in Nelson. Still young, a kid. Plenty of time to make of himself. Something.
Mother fretted about her son's ability to yield.
"Your sister goes to the graduate school. Why not you? Young. Become a lawyer."
"I want entertainment. To be in entertainment."
"As what, a waiter, serving these people drinks?"
"I'm a production assistant. Lots of things. Catering. I build sets, help with equipment."
"Leave me alone I'm doing fine."
Dirty old bong. Crinkle of wrapper. Comforting cream-filled cakes.
The Missing Girl
Up night browsing Network sites, searching for The Missing Girl. Thousands of references, citations, sites. One site displayed a three-dimensional replica of her bedroom as she left it – or was taken from it – 20 years ago. 3D model based on photographs and original magazine stories of the Missing Girl. Dreams courtesy the Missing Girl’s diary. Intimate details. Half-eaten roll of mints in her dresser drawer.
Chosen by Losing Our Sons and Daughters (LOSD), and with family's consent, turned into poster-child for Nation's lost children. Her photograph graced covers of the Nation's magazines. She could have passed for fourteen or twenty, depending on the observing mind. Actual age in photograph: sixteen. One of The Missing Young.
Narratives evolved. Heads gushed theories of the Missing Girl's whereabouts. Weekly ‘sightings.' Anonymous millions imagined adventures with the Missing Girl. Believed themselves, probably. The uncorroborated, implausible stories and eyewitness accounts. Strange nobody ever thinks to bring a camera. Then again, she comes upon you like a ghost, a brief
The Missing Girl would be no longer Missing, nor Young (in all the ‘sightings' she's a teenager, or early twenties) In real time she’d be forty-two. Nevertheless, speculators on the Network continued to probe digital shadows for what might have been.
I lurked the Network, skulked the Network. Examined "Missing Girl" sites several nights in succession. Servers choked with data. Stories, legends, tales. My summary, my digest, gleaned from gigabytes of talk:
"Before she was missed she was a girl. Just a girl, before she was missed. Room full of scent, dolls, sock-puppets, mirrors, clothes, telephone. She left it all behind.
"She was sixteen when she hit the road. Gone. Vanished. Split. Later, when she appeared on covers of the Nation's magazines, she would wish they'd used a different photograph, according to many thousands who had never met her.
"Her parents were interviewed on TV. She remembered them, dimly, as television characters, portraying themselves, or… others?
"She hitch-hiked to the City and wasn't raped or killed, though there were close calls. She was a fighter. How she got away unharmed is no mystery after all she was a fighter. A survivor.
"Prospects were grim for a nubile girl alone in the City, but she befriended a group of young runaways, known to the Authorities as “litters,” “gangs” or “packs.” There were many in those days, as there are today. The Missing Young. Despite police crackdowns, despite hunger and danger, they stuck together, this group of runaways. She lived among them for a Summer. They were kind. She had her first sex with one, then several, of the Missing Young. Male and female, she was open to all pleasures.
"They slept the days away in parks; stayed up nights drinking, talking, smoking, begging for change.
"There was a man who sold used books on the street. He'd lend them old paperbacks. Gave them books to sell for food, knowing they’d instead buy cigarettes and beer.
"September divided the Temporary from the Truly Missing, the ones who weren't going home, the ones who weren't going back to school to boast of their experiences then forget them, as circumstance demanded, and continue The Life. The Truly Missing turned their backs to The Life forever, or as long as they were able. The Temporaries went home September when the school bells tolled and cool nights warned of painful chills to come. Some Temporaries simply left, while others refused to up and run when the cops came in the early morning hours and the cry went out to ‘up and run.’ A ticket home with alibi, ‘Busted. Wasn't my fault. I wanted to stay. Really.'
"'Go see Uncle Joe,' the Missing Girl was told. 'He has a network. He'll look at you, talk to you, tell you where to go. He knows people who will take you in. All across the Nation. Who are you? He’ll tell you. Where do you want to be? He'll send you there. “
The various descriptions of this “Uncle Joe” character, which I present here as a composite, though the descriptions are all remarkably similar and reminded me of my own Uncle Joe, who currently resided at the City Home for Adults. Idly, I wondered. “What if…” He be the right age, after all. And my Uncle Joe had always been an off-beat character, a jack-of-all trades, including writer and private detective. Perhaps…perhaps what? The many who knew him wrote his personality into their fantasies? He wrote himself into their fantasies? Or perhaps…perhaps WHAT? My Uncle Joe and the Missing Girl’s Uncle Joe were the same man.
"'He'll send you to teachers, gurus, masters, secret educators of the Missing Young,’” they told her. “No psychopaths. No freaks. Artists, writers, scholars, engineers, musicians. Real people, who know things. Uncle Joe will set you up.'
"The Missing Girl was sent to the apartment of a woman. Uncle Joe was the woman's guest. He was a traveling man. He went everywhere, and he was welcome.
"Uncle Joe was close to old, but not quite there. He was clean. Clean shaven. Smartly dressed. Not what the Missing Girl expected: scraggly beard and dirty denim; Old Man of the Mountain prototype with the speech and manner of one who’d spent his life at sea. But he was not these things.
"The woman, darkly dressed like a duenna, fed her fruit, greens, wild rice and black beans.
"Uncle Joe asked questions no one had asked The Missing Girl, ever. Not obscene, but deep and to the heart of the matter, the heart of her matter, her heart, her stuff.
"She answered truthfully, more truthfully than she'd intended. She'd been drugged. Not maliciously. She wasn't frightened. She didn't fear they would molest her. They were trying to get to the heart of her. She told them things.
She saw pictures in her mind and did her best with the words she had, the vocabulary of one still very young, to describe them.
"The woman brought her to a couch and covered her.
"In the morning, over pancakes and coffee, Uncle Joe told her where she must go.
"'Out West,’ he said. ‘To Greenman, keeper and protector of the Tree of Life.'
"This was the beginning of her journey.
"She stayed with the woman while Uncle Joe made arrangements. They gave her a bus ticket and money and sent her to Greenman, who tended The Tree of Life on the other side of The Nation.
"This was the beginning of something and the end of something else. A genuine education."
Market Research firm. Talked data with a certified Searcher. Searchers searched the Pyramid Database. Bees collecting pollen for Executive hard drives.
"Time brings data," said the Searcher, a woman of early, fierce middle age. "Trajectory of information. Got to keep track of what the citizens are consuming. So huge! I preside over a mere twig on the tree of knowledge. Or rather, Tree of Information."
No true knowledge to give. Information, samplings of the what, but not the why or wherefore. Whence, but none substantial. Pruning the tree.
"Oh, well, you know, it works like it works," said the Searcher. "Just information. Ineluctable."
Happened happenings. Ghosts of the real.
"Remember when you were young? So does the Database. The Pyramid Database remembers everything about you but knows nothing."
No Searcher knows beyond a small swatch of tree. Immensity even in that. The Big Picture beyond scope of duty. No clearance, no closure. To ask a Searcher about the Database would be to ask a Citizen about the Nation. Their own little spot, generalizations about the whole, guesswork, but really, what did anyone know? Not knowledge, information. This Searcher, what did she know?
"Only my duties relative to certain demographics handled by the Firm," said the Searcher. "Nothing, really. I process. Fetch and enter. Process. Sales Executive wants to know about a particular habit of a particular class of individual related to a particular lifestyle related to a particular product, etc., they call me, I call up the info."
Not knowledge, information. Data. Trajectory of happenings. Variables secreting history.
"Data is never lost or erased. Perhaps by accident from a particular terminal, but the entire Pyramid Database is paralleled and mirrored. Every bit and every byte is copied, multiplied and stored in various locations. Numerous interpretations. No data is the same data. Depends on its function, its relevance to a particular situation. Situations determine meaning. Otherwise, what? Just characters and symbols. Not even. Shapes, designs. Nothing."
"Nothing," I repeated. She took offense.
"What do you want from me? I'm a Searcher. I worked and studied to attain this status. I know my section of the tree. I'm important. Very important to advertisers, product marketers, the sales process itself. Nevertheless, I'm just a Searcher. A worker bee. I know what I know, but I don't really know it, for I am never apprised of the context in which the data I invoke is being used. The great empirical empty. Forgotten as soon as it's retrieved. On to the next search. That's what they taught me when I began my studies. About the search. Science of the search. What we find is irrelevant. To us. Concerned with the pure technique of scrutiny, the symbolic language with its arcane grammar and expressions that enable us to conduct successful data hunts, make rapid connections so information can be summoned and released to the Marketers and Sales Executives who infuse it with meaning. I exist to find. They tell me what to find, I find it. It means nothing to me. I don't even read the data as natural language. The symbolic language of the search precludes the curiosity associated with natural language. Human language. Speech and writing. We translate Executive requests in natural language to the symbolic code of the search, and when we find what we find, though it will have many subtle shades of meaning for the Firm and its clients, our quarry consists of cold code, meaningless outside the hunt. So if you asked me to find an apple, I would translate "apple" into the code of the search ("the quest," as we call it among ourselves), and though what I find might relate to fruit and commerce and health and whatever meanings you were looking for, to me it would merely call up notational bits regarding your directive. I would have everything you could possibly need to know, yet at the same time know nothing myself, know only that I successfully processed your summons for "apple" using the protocols at my command. There is no translation at my end. I see the data as the machine sees it. The human meaning and consequence are not my task. Do you understand? You will find nothing from me because I know nothing but the protocols of the Database. The Database generates the search product which I hand off to a translator whose function is to convert it back to natural language for the Marketing and Sales Executives. If I were to transpose it myself, which I could easily do, it would be a breach of security, outside my responsibilities. I could get fired. I must pay no attention. Zero. Nil.
That is what translators are for, to make the data meaningful in human terms. One must know translation protocols to elicit meaning. Also there is this: each branch of the tree uses a distinct language and notation. I trained for the language of Household Goods and Services, and I have levels of permission to make system calls to other branches that will be interpreted as protocols I understand and returned to me for processing. But I could never go to another branch, say, Feminine Hygiene Products, and interpret data on my own."
I had no idea the mechanics of Pyramid were so abstruse. So many protocols, so many branches on the Tree Of Data. The Marketers made visible what one could never hear. Protocols, codes, synthetic language. Database dialects and script.
I’d hoped to learn some small thing about the way information is recorded, duplicated, refined in the labyrinthine Database. Knowledge beyond ken of knowing, knower, known.
The Searcher returned to the secrets of the Nation's Household Goods and Services. I tended the few bamboo in the sparse area, and left, none the wiser for my troubles, just a bit more informed.
The Missing Young
Thousands, thousands. But what is it to be "Missing," or for that matter, "Young?" Arrogant street corner beg-beers. Clumsy bacchanals at dusk. They'd flood the City May and June. Rings in their navels, nether parts; and cheap tattoos; faded-to-rags funereal coats and black costumes of lived lives bought or stolen from thrift shops by the Missing Young. They disappeared, most of them, at the first scholarly summons of September. Returned to clean hallways and airy classrooms baring trinkets, pierced skin, scars, tattoos and other testimonies of orphan nights spent sleepless on benches in the DARK TERRIBLE CITY.
Many just vanished –poof! -- into the vast yawn of The Nation.
The University of Vigor, Ambition, Advertising
I worked at the Ad Agency. Copywriter. But first The University. Graduation postponed dependant upon submission of Final Thesis. Prisoner of Final Thesis. Writer’s block. Needed to be cloistered refreshed, among people of wit and vision. Not Zombies. Not tired old professors at the University. Rothbart said…but Rothbart was not my Official Advisor. Bliffman was. Bliffman did not take kindly to wit and vision. Demanded footnotes, sources, academic rigor. Demanded critique of criticism of Famous Critics. Literature twice removed.
I expected to continue at The University indefinitely. Expected University Health Insurance. Without Health Insurance no chats with Dr. Richards at the University Mental Health Clinic. Procedure. Protocol. University Health Insurance called for such chats or NO PRESCRIPTIONS.
Pink pills and blue ones. Present a persona to the world. Let go of destroying my life.
Began at The University with vigor, ambition. I believed words inside me would…arrange themselves into great themes. Read Great Writers to energize my prose. Convert their paper life-stuff to muscle of raw being. Fuel of literary Other-hood.
Could not complete. Concepts fizzled on the page, fragments of patterns. No Great themes. Flickering insights into Human condition lost to Time. Scoured Life for material. Nothing original or interesting. What had I experienced but Time?
Bad atmosphere. I heard the piece was dead. Competing critics. No eyes for anyone's “vision” but their own.
Students wrote reams. Professors’ tedious sorting. By chance discover value? Professors’ meager incomes earned by reading writing talking books. Students wrote frantically for prizes. Teaching, possibly, to follow.
Did not complete. Fragments, shards. Prose like broken glass on processed paper. Word processed. I processed words on screens. Pretty light patterns and icons, but books would not be born.
Time passed, didn't sleep. Paced. My notebook. Chain-smoking my harried brain.
All bummed out. Despair. Stressed. Starved for Health. University Mental Hygiene Clinic. Peacefully soft-colored prints and watercolors. Comforting plants. Celebrity fitness magazines.
Difficult rising from the soft waiting-room chair: drunk, sleepy.
Dr. Richards disarmingly plump, welcoming.
Talk released words to the air.
"And what makes me ME in my head?" I blurted to Dr. Richards. "I’ve seen things that, you know, I want them to be mine… "
"And if they’ll be yours?" asked Dr. Richards.
"My interpretations won’t integrate. They won’t become 'myself.' Nothing but pain. Satisfaction? High School. First Semester or two of College. Ideals of others. Tepid expectations easily achieved. Perhaps the shallow true inside of me."
Dr. Richards prescribed pink pills and blue ones. Suggested I reconsider the ME inside me.
Fast forward two years:
Summer before metamorphosis; Summer before Plantman.
Writing copy for The Ad Agency. Grown-up with a full-time job and three gray suits. Ad Agency Health Insurance. New doctor, same pills. Pink ones and blue ones.
Up all night despite the pills. The Sun rose, as it tends to do. Nelson watched cartoons of our youth. Lines and situations we recalled.
What’s up, doc? Hey Bub, you need a house to go with that doorknob. Yabadabadoo.
The culture of The Nation daily infused into… perhaps my obsession and the whole system of ruthless… would be out of whack…
Culture as cult. Not reading Great Books, owning them. Tiny plastic souls. Vacuum packed. Every man in paperback.
Dive head-first into piles of autumn gold? Skip barefoot through cash cow pastures? Overdrawn. Owe fifty thousand dreams, plus interest, to The Student Lenders. Personal currency unstable. Useless.
Asked myself, "How important is LIFE to The Nation?"
Told myself, "Not about their own little cultures television created marketed. Just pitchmen for commodity dream celebrity. But no product."
"Is it dead? Society. Is it dead?" asked myself.
Never dead. Morphed into hierarchies, the pyramid. Big Boys and Judges move the millions between us with invisible levers. Fictions: Heroic Narratives composed by PR poets; earnest Celebrities; The Law.
Mental Note: "Staggering. The System. It's a racket."
Illusion of words inside.
Told myself, "No stopping you. Just don't confuse weird shit you get yourself involved with like ‘they gave you a diploma with the University Seal' with what Life is. Network stinks of creatures recognized by The Judges, The Authorities, and the ones who designate, divide and sell. All fragments project greater meaning when your fictions don't exist as yours. The Missing Girl written by thousands. Network of collaboration. A housefly sees with many thousand eyes.
“Just my opinion," I concluded.
Really, I was I to do what I would with Life.
Manager of the CityPlex
The CityPlex dense with moviegoers. Nelson queued for soda, snacks. In the immense lobby, alone with the crowd, I watched the mass part for a man. . Solitary, not with the crowd, nor of it, but beyond: The Manager of The CityPlex, unfazed, perhaps energized, by his surroundings, commanded Ushers to their tasks. He nodded: the popcorn-girls popped candy, peddled soda, ice cream, treats.
Maroon uniform and golden epaulets. Grim determination. Consummate professional of. Man in charge of. Master of. Environment.
Dedication laser focus; indifferent to the hordes. Manager of burdens, hard experience. Not much older than myself.
What would drive a man his age to such preternatural mastery and control? "This group shall pass that group shall pass another. Stop. Don’t pass another. Stop. Don’t pass another…"
His decision and his alone as to which group would be guided through which entrance and when. Ushers snapped to. Guided groups, confirmed tickets. Like sailors commanded by their hoary captain's ghost.
So many entrances to so many screens; so many people to guide. The Manager was Master. Anti-thesis of the bureaucratic every-move-by-fear-of-those-above. Owners of theaters, distributors of films, the entertainment industry itself were all above the Manager, yet he answered to no one. The CityPlex was his, his life alone.
The Manager unbuttoned his collar and unleashed a mad diatribe against all who enter his theater. Pure machinery of CityPlex. People, at best, a necessary burden. He was a burdened man. He dreamed of The CityPlex running like clockwork in emptiness, films projected in vacant mini-theaters. His CitiPlex.
Audiences irked him. He detested their enjoyment of the films.
"The films are ugly, tasteless," he said. "The symmetry, beauty, order of the CityPlex is all that is worth seeing. My CitiPlex. Rescued from abomination."
"Nothing? Nothing?" I asked.
"Perhaps, if one movie were made, one special film," said The Manager. "And the seats and floors were not sticky, as in other theaters, and the employees worked hard, their uniforms pressed, hair freshly shampooed, the CityPlex would experience its finest hour, and all who saw this film would come away enlightened, rather than dull-eyed and bloated with soda, sweets, popcorn. Perhaps, if this film were projected on all the screens always, the CityPlex would achieve its true purpose, its ultimate being. The CityPlex sublime. As is, the moviegoers are sheep, grazing candied grass. The CityPlex a slaughterhouse of entertainment."
"What film?" I asked. "What film might this be?"
The Manager slipped from reverie, became abrupt.
"I do not know. Such a film, to my knowledge, has not yet been produced."
He briskly excused himself – must return to duty – and nodded. An usher appeared to lead us to our seats.
The advertisement for horticultural technician read: "Topiary Techniques seeks Indoor Landscaper. Work with plants. College degree required. College degree a must. Will train."
Clean office, spacious. I'd expected vegetation, jungle soil, and hedge-cutters. The secretary took my resume, told me to sit. I sat. Photographs of office plant arrangements prettied the walls. Shelves of pristine plant pots -- metal, plastic, terra cotta.
Victor tall, solid; stylish shirt and tie. Company man. Gung ho. Started in on the history of the Topiary Techniques, the largest indoor landscaping firm the City. Offices across the Nation.
Victor had begun as a horticultural technician, experienced every facet of the business: worked the greenhouse, drove delivery, hustled sales, directed sales force, now manager of the City office.
"So, you interested?"
Brusque, to-the-point, go-getter, proud head man, the City Center of Topiary Techniques.
I asked what the job entailed.
"Can you lift things?" asked Victor.
"I'm pretty strong."
"You'll have to carry plants to clients, occasionally, and you'll be handling a bucket full of water. A watering can. We call them buckets."
"I can do."
Maintain plants Topiary Techniques provided to its clients.
"You have to be on the ball," said Victor. "That's why we require a college degree. You have to be able to follow instructions, sometimes read them. Also, you sometimes have to figure stuff out on your own."
Topiary Techniques achieved profit designing and facilitating clients’ “indoor landscaping décor” and maintaining plants installed as part of this decor. Each client signed a maintenance contract requiring a Topiary Techniques Certified Horticultural Technician come once a week to service all plants on premises. Dead or dying plants replaced, no charge.
Technicians expert professionals or Topiary Techniques inundated with orders for unnecessary and avoidable replacements.
"Ever done this type of work before?" asked Victor.
"Are you willing to learn?"
"New technicians undergo what we call 'basic.' Three-week paid training with experienced members of our staff."
Victor rose to his full six feet.
"Do you want to work hard?" he asked.
"Do you want a job?"
Bright April afternoon about seventy-five degrees. So drunk I could barely stand, but I made it through the interview I was on my way to a new green-thumb Self it took me an hour to find my way home though it was only five subway stops away straight line, no switching trains.
The Solitary Novelist
Dusty manual typewriter on a messy desk. The Novelist reclined greasy on his musty couch
"Who buys me? What matters if I give my work away?"
"I heard it was, after all, just talk. Pursuit of pure talk."
"My life missed in this room. Women, sunlit moments of the park..."
The Novelist was patient.
"Occasionally someone is right about something, but everyone is always wrong about everything."
Cigarettes, bourbon, tropes, clichés.
"This someone will listen, though that someone does not regard. Like my books, talk on deaf ears. But the words must what? I'm something lost. When I cannot attain moments, I invent them. Moments invented in this very room."
He looked lovingly upon me.
"That's why I invented you. You will attain my lost moments."
"No longer young. I've strip-mined my true. Cannot invent. Imagine! You will pursue pure talk outside this room. Go. Live. Find what has been lost. Go where life is."
"I’m always where life is. I'm the Plantman."
The Solitary Novelist returned to the typing he'd stopped abruptly at the beginning of my enter.
Down in the subway, waiting for the train to take me to my next performance, I tried to remember where the Solitary Novelist lived. Really, I could not recall.
"Digital City" convention at the City Center. Hardware, software, networking companies displayed their wares in cubicles and booths. Largest exhibit: Tree of Knowledge Incorporated (TKI). Their software powered nearly every machine in the Nation.
TKI’s "booth" was a Leviathan 2.0 Pyramid database, the most powerful in existence, according to the TKI representative at the scene, who wowed us with demo searches, explained how Pyramid functioned, the many levels of permission. A regular user on the Network was privy to all data one could possibly confuse himself with, but government, law enforcement, privileged entities enjoyed deep access to sensitive info, even trade and security secrets of the Nation.
Three Dimensional networking on high-powered machines. Virtual Gardens. Users grew virtual plants, tended them, watched them grow or die. I raised a rose from seed to bloom to death of natural causes – flat-screen monitor fade to gloom.
3D model of the City's Data Center, servers, back-up systems, various machines and a virtual replica of the City itself.
Faced-off with a fat man. Straggly beard, dirty t-shirt, faded jeans and ratty sneakers. "Root," a hacker come to infiltrate the machines of the Infocracy. Ran a site called "CrackByte," dedicated to destruction of said Infocracy – giant companies like TKI in league with government to take away our all.
Root said, "What can you touch? What gives you pleasure?"
Root said, "My wife's 3D rendering of our apartment is a cleaner, nicer place to live than our actual apartment. We wish to enter it. To leave our laundry, cats and debts behind."
“Cats?” I asked.
“We have four of them,” Root said. “They’re cold, cruel, aristocratic animals. They stink.”
Root said, "When you die, you will no longer be able to log onto the Network. When you die, you may receive email, but you may not answer it."
Root said, "The Infocracy is not about machines, it is about language. Words are the capital of the Infoconomy."
Root said, "The Infocracy, like all systems, is hierarchical. The infocracy is a hierarchy of those who know, those who sell, and those who both know and sell."
Root said, "The Infocracy will feed off the entropy of the masses and other less potent (that is, organized) systems."
Root said, "The Network exists for the political, social, economic and intellectual enrichment of the Infocracy."
Root said, "The masses support the Infocracy with credit cards and an inability to detect patterns."
Root said, "As history loses relevance, so too do the fictions and mythologies that evolved from death's pathos. New fictions will mirror realities of the Infocracy."
Root said, "It was a pleasure speaking to you. Excuse me, gotta go harass the guy from TKI."
And that was all Root said.
Night after Digital City Exhibit I visited the Network Castle where important and unimportant personages gathered to shoot the breeze. Visitors paid a fee to Keepers of the Castle, received access. Other requirement was a generic image provided by Keepers (akin to rubber nose and goggles) or send Keepers an image of your choice.
Submitted the Solitary Novelist. Most icons were movie stars, old and recent; television stars, old and recent; sports stars, old and recent; all species of celebrity, old and recent.
Endless, endless Castle. One could navigate its three-dimensional halls and parlors weeks without visiting the same room twice. Cliquishness within. I was not accepted. Perhaps the obscurity of my icon, the awkwardness with which my icon wandered. I did not find scintillating conversation, intrigue – alleged peak of the Castle climb.
Found myself (my icon) alone at the fireplace of a vast library. Stacks of "antique" books, visible but "virtual,” not to be touched or read.
Suddenly shocked from the Castle's pixilated gossip-dungeons to my bedroom closet. Reality like a battering ram to the Castle's virtual walls: blue jeans, jackets, Topiary Techniques t-shirts hung dead without me. Veteran vestments of life’s tasks now separate, remote, indifferent. Spooked me.
Adam Engel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the first installment of his novel Topiary. (c) 2004 Adam Engel
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