At An Angle

by

Jeremy Benjamin




There was really no reason to be upset, the more he thought about it. But he chose not to think about it. There really was nothing to think about, the more he thought about it, and the thought of thinking about it was what impelled him to stop and reflect. But he chose not to reflect. There really was nothing to reflect on, and since there was nothing of significance to attribute it to, there was no cause to be angry or hurt or betrayed or humiliated or disillusioned or disenfranchised or devastated or affected in any way; it was inevitable, his discovery of it was purely coincidental, and his acceptance of it was a moot point.

"Fuck." He sighed.

Ennui evaporated from the pavement and condensed in the sky which seemed to hover only inches above the tallest streetlight, waiting to be punctured. He wondered what color the sky would bleed, if it would shatter from horizon to horizon in a fine spray like a battered windshield, if it would moan.

Fuck the sky.

The sky was cloudless but damp, gray like the frost on a rusting exhaust pipe lying dormant in a junkyard, inscrutable like the tattooed flesh of a prostitute named after a Disney character.

A soprano bird offered its vomit-stream of verbiage that wanted to be sympathy but came out sounding more like a toddlerís scrambling over the piano keys in search of a minor key. The bird expired its breath, and the ambient song was picked up by a perkier voice from what must have been the other side of the street. He presumed. The chirps quickly dissolved into a collective of sinister laughter.

####

Herb Sadatore never looked down while driving in his car, never noticed the chalk graffiti covering the road, and as he ambled through the intersection of Blanche Avenue and Salmon Street -- noon, November fifth -- something within him choked and died.

Point of origin: Indeterminate.

A single molecule somewhere in his stomach expired, went up in flames, rippling through his bowels in a gastrointestinal gale that exceeded the speed of sound, the speed of cognition perhaps.

Perhaps.

Herb used to know the speed of cognition to three decimal places, in units of electron firing of synapses per microsecond. In college he had memorized such things.

Snow trickled from the sky like a disinterested swarm of insects. The sidewalks were bare. On half naked tree branches a scattering of amber leaves fluttered in defiance of the Earthís progress about the sun. The branches themselves shot out of cement grids in gesticulations of some long lost buried emotion fossilized in the thick resin of malaise that comprised the landscape. The snow, for all its aesthetic austerity, gave no appearance of it being cold outside. The flakes were too scattered to be inviting and too impersonal to be threatening. It did not look like snow at all, but more of a glittery haze that just floated about the homogenized stucco houses and red striped telephone poles, never seeming to reach the ground, never seeming to originate from any place or cause. A light flurry, the forecast called it. Forecasts were boring.

The sky was made of concrete.

Herbís premonition expressed itself as a weak fart -- or, the formation of a new microbial galaxy of antimatter vying to negate his greasy flesh -- rattling the leather seat beneath him in a kinetic baritone trill that wanted to be a quiver. Later in the absence of vexation, he would entertain a vomit-stream of erotic words to describe it, words like foreboding. In truth there was no premonition, no foreboding, no significance, as much as he like to pretend. In truth there was only the light flurry and the artwork on the pavement that he did not notice.

For an instant he lost all bodily sensation from the navel down, but his foot went on lightly tapping the gas pedal instinctively. He thought nothing of it.

It was not until he saw the faded blue two-door Pontiac sitting in the driveway of Twenty-Four Salmon Street -- the back wheel cocked at an angle -- that it struck him that he had made a wrong turn. Although the automobile was as familiar to him as the pimple on his jaw-line that had just this morning borne that first hint of golden crisp like snow capping the tip of a mountain, it was not until he read the license plate that his eyes confirmed it as belonging to his wife. It was the angle of the back wheels that threw him off perhaps.

Perhaps.

His first reaction was to shrug and keep on driving, find some driveway to turn around inÖbut why? Why would Lois be at this strange house at this time of day, and why would she unconsciously turn the wheel an extra half a rotation after parking in this strange driveway? Was that a sign of nervousness? Or was it a sign of comfort and familiarity? Was it a detail worthy of analysis? Herb wanted to think nothing of it. He was not a weak, suspicious jealous husband; the thought of him peering in a window and spying Lois spilled onto some drab wooden couch, her face buried in that of a dark-haired skinny young man, her hair unspoiled about their necks like so much scattered debris, their bodies a tangled mesh of limbs gliding over each otherís grease and sweat, barely discernible through the glare of the windowpane as two distinct creatures, the scrawny dweeb clasping his hand over her naked doughy butt cheek like he owns it, her feet sticking out from the couch, toes perched in the air at an angle mimicking the position of her car tires, the two deviants oblivious in their rapture -- the very thought of it was too preposterous to warrant a wince. This was silly. Juvenile. Inane, he thought as he parked his car on the side of the road and got out.

Drifting snowflakes tickled his ears, melting on contact.

It was a one-story brick building tucked away in a grove of manicured trees and fronted by an array of wilting flowers indigenous to nowhere. Nobody lived in brick houses. Brick buildings were offices, health plans, businesses, private practices. Herb worked in a brick building. Nobody lived in a brick building. Nobody visited a brick building unless they wereÖ

In need of something?

He walked up to the front door and then paused outside. Perhaps Lois had mentioned something about this appointment and heíd merely forgotten. He backtracked through their interactions this morning, the previous night, over dinner, before dinnerÖ

Herb laughed -- it was a bemused laugh, a single syllable of laughter that expressed no humor, asserted as a hmmph surfacing through a film of phlegm, an Iím-in-control-of-the-situation laugh; the sheer masculinity of it felt forced in his throat, like a parody, and that made him want to laugh for real -- and sauntered back to his car, shifting his jaw back and forth (a gesture that was the silent version of shaking his head).

His feet stopped when he heard the door open behind him. For the second time that day he experienced the sensation that his lower body was a foreign object. His legs involuntarily turned his body around to face the door of this modest brick building.

He was greeted by a clean-cut Asian man in a navy blue work shirt with a nametag.

Herb gulped.

For an instant he felt he was facing a mirror. The name on the laminated silver tag above his front pocket was some incongruous combination of consonants and vowels the very thought of trying to pronounce gave Herb the sensation of a mouth full of Chinese vegetables too unwieldy to swallow and impossible to chew. The name was not what caught his attention. It was the dark purple logo above the name; Herb had the exact same logo printed on his chest, except his nametag read Herbert Sadatore. The Asian man followed Herbís eyes down to his own shirt and extended a curt, clipped smile, acknowledging that he was a fellow Codarfusla agent.

"You look confused. Are you at the right place?" The Asian man spoke in a confident voice -- with no discernible accent -- that was the trademark of the profession.

Coderfusla, commonly referred to as "Fusla" for short, was an acronym that stood for Cognition Doping for the Automation of Routine Functioning Under Suppression of Libidinal Aberrations. Herb stood speechless.

"Can I help you find somebody?"

"Is thisÖ" His voice caught in his throat.

Glancing inside the door, he saw a group of teenagers sitting in a waiting room, cracking jokes, the guys making playfully sensual passes at the girls. They looked excited (not like the clients Herb dealt with). Their faces all read just turned eighteen. They might as well have been toting balloons.

"Sir?" The Asian proprietor with the unpronounceable name subtly tried to block Herbís view inside.

Herb did not need to stand there for the next four minutes gawking at him in disbelief before he understood what this meant, but he did. The four minutes of measured time was a poor estimation of the actual time that elapsed while he stared at the interior of this inconspicuous brick building that stood before him in negation of the past two years of his life, perhaps longer.

Perhaps.

Point of origin: His mind raced through impressions of Lois, Lois typing at her desk with her old fashioned phone cradled between her bare shoulder and her jaw, Lois bent over the bathroom sink with her various hair products that Herb never kept track of but scoffed at her vanity whenever a stack of dainty plastic bottles fell off of a shelf like dominoes in the morning commotion, Lois indignantly opening her eyes in bed and reaching across his chest to hammer her fist on the snooze button with such sass and irritation and then snoring in the next instant, her arm plopping on top of him like a dead fish, yet still instinctively managing to avoid the hot spots where the sunlight streaming in the window painted strips of fire on the bed linens, Lois muttering strings of breathy profanity as she valiantly rescued burnt TV-dinners from the old-fashioned oven -- Lois had always been an avid Retroer (that was the hip word for people who collected and used antique appliances; obsolescence was the new vogue). The dull pain of remembering struck at his skull repeatedly like a hammer that would dismember him given infinite time, and infinite time existed within four minutes, but still he could not pinpoint a specific point of origin. He would have to inquire. But the more he thought about it, there really was no reason to get upset.

Although he stood there for an eternity, something inside him knew as soon as he saw the nametag -- a lone molecule deep in his stomach bore the knowledge -- that he would have to file for a divorce.

####

Orsonís first words to him -- late morning, November seventh -- were, "You the bastard they sent over here to tranquilize me?"

Herb tried on a laugh. It didnít fit. He fumbled with his pen.

"Your full name is Orson Derran?"

Orson regarded him with a snide, cockeyed grin, one end of his pursed lips curled up slightly as though sucking the last burst of flavor out of a dying wad of gum.

"Do you have a -- like a nickname, something for short?"

"You just said my name, dipshit."

"You go by Orson," Herb said to himself in a businesslike mutter as he scribbled in his notepad. He found himself wondering if he came off looking like he had something on his mind. Wondering only out of bored curiosity, that was; looking at Orson, he wished that his mannerisms would betray more than the common etiquette of subtlety permitted. Something about the strange mousy young man this house-call was concerning made professionalism seem like a joke without a punch-line. He wanted to write on the notepad in deliriously big handwriting that nobody in a twenty-foot radius could miss, my wife has been a robot for the past two years and I just found out yesterday.

The pages of his notepad were specialty graph paper interspersed with 3" by 5" blue-lined text-boxes each with a printed heading that read: Point of origin:

Herb looked down at his notepad, then at Orson, and then back down at his notepad.

-Orson chugging a carton of milk with his legs crossed, leaning against the window, in a way that was almost -- Herb fumbled for the word -- erotic.

-Orson with his backwards mesh baseball cap containing a greasy spillage of hair the color of sandpaper,

-Orson with his sharp, pronounced features tapering to an angular jaw padded with stubble that looked like mold from a distance,

-Orson the maladjusted,

-Orson the criminally rude,

-Orson the soon to be pumped full of neural inhibitors ...

Point of origin: Ö?

The twenty-five year old kid looked at Herb sadly, as though he understood more about the job than Herb did. Pity nested in the crevices of Orsonís lean, bony face like rats in a sewer system. It was the most comforting thing Herb had seen since standing on that doorstep confronting the well-dressed Asian Codarfusla agent, since discovering --

Point of origin. Point of origin. Point of origin. Point of originÖ Indeterminate.

-Orson with the subtle nervous twitch of his neck tendon,

-Orson with those fidgety set-back eyes that looked like they had not aged since toddlerhood, eyes that were still discovering the wonders of the world with an agility that bumped up against the limitations of his intellect, set back in a face that had long since grown tired of that world.

"Hey man, are you okay?"

Herb dropped his pen and looked up, startled. "What?"

"You look likeÖI donít know, man. Are you sure youíre up to this?"

Herb shot him a silent chuckle that said nice try. Orson continued chugging his milk, unconcerned. Although his facial expressions were erratic, hinting at his purported volatile nature, the young manís bodily posture was its own poker face. Herb couldnít help but admire it.

Boldly taking a seat at the shabby kitchen table, opening his briefcase and spreading out his paperwork, Herb began to recite his automated speech without making eye contact (like a policeman reading a suspect his rights, he used to fantasize). "Iím going to ask you a series of questions, and following the interrogation, I will be --"

"Following me around like a voyeur, yeah, I know how it works."

"Mr. Derran, if I may presume this is your first time going through this procedure --"

Orson shook the last drop of milk into his mouth and chucked the container, missing the trash container. "Youíve got my records, what are you asking me for?"

"Mr. Derran, understand that I have as little interest in being here as you have in participating. The easier you make this on yourself, the more efficiently I can do my job. These circumstances are not my choosing."

Orson crossed his arms and swaggered toward Herb with a smirk. "MrÖ" Orson leaned in a little more invasively than necessary to get a look at his nametag. His breath smelled like a concentrated citrus paste, condensing on Herbís neck like the physical sensation of classical music lingering in the room for that brief instant after the power goes out. "Sadatore." He overemphasized the last syllable, making it sound like --orray. "Whatís that, Italian or something?"

"Mr. Derran -- may I call you Orson?"

Orson said nothing.

"Iím a littleÖout of sorts right now, as you seem to have observed, but I wasnít sent here to burden you with my personal life; I was sent to process yours."

Orson looked at him indifferently, squaring off, and then let out a boisterously crude but soft guttural laugh -- that was the most inviting sound heíd heard come out of a humanís mouth in years, perhaps -- and stamped a calloused, sinewy hand on Herbís shoulder. "Well fuck, now that sounds like a party, doní it?" He pulled up a chair and sat down backwards in it, tapping a rock-and-roll rhythm on the wooden chair-back with his elbows.

"Subjectís behavior displays blatant symptoms of adult ADHD," Herb jotted in one of his auxiliary notebooks.

"OkayÖ" Herb cleared his throat and clambered with his materials on the table, feeling more like a teenager on his first date than an agent interviewing an uncooperative patient. "Letís start with your place of birth, and all concomitant logistics."

Orson halted his drumming on the chair and shrewdly contracted his eyes together. "Letís start with you telling me everything you already know, whatever you got written in those typed pages, and Iíll tell you which parts they got wrong."

"Very well, you have every right to view your own file."

Orson looked astonished for an instant, and then resumed his dubious demeanor.

Herb handed him the stack of legal documents as though offering food to a skittish animal in the woods. "Go ahead. Save us the formalities." He handed Orson a red pen along with it. "Cross out anything thatís not accurate. Edit at your discretion. Sketch female genitalia over it if youíd like. This is so we can get to know you."

"So you can get to know me?"

"You want me to be honest? So the minicomputer the government has designated be implanted in your eardrum can get to know you. That computer will be programmed based on the painstaking notes I take, and in order to best simulate your responses --"

Orson put up his hand in a placating stop-gesture. "Itís okay, you donít have to explain to me what Fusla is. My eighth-grade teacher showed us a documentary."

Herb offered a smile and pointed to the file. "I know."

"Fucking right you do."

"You were siphoned into a group of at-risk children who were pulled out of gym class to receive a special screening at the principalís --"

"Yeah, we both know about that, I guess that means you can shut the hell up." Orson straightened up in his chair belligerently.

Herbís eyes darted around the room. Orson clapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Iím just kidding. What, did you think I was gonna punch you? You think Iím crazy?" The humor half peeled itself from his face like a veil. "Shit, they sent you to my apartment, I guess that means I am crazy."

"Iím not here to make any personal judgments."

"Do you like your job?"

In Herbís fourteen years of being in the profession, he had been asked that question by at least thirty clients on at least forty different occasions, and heíd been specially trained to not be caught off guard by it. The protocol was to ignore the question under any circumstances. "No, and I aim to do it effectively," he replied without looking up.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Do you like the fact that Iím here?"

"Hell, yeah, youíre cool shit. Itís like guys say to each other in war camps, if weíd met someplace else, weíd be fucking bosom buddies, right?"

"Neither do I."

Orson hastily flipped through the files, scribbled in them and handed them back to Herb. "Thatís what I think of your bio on me."

Herb rifled through Orsonís annotations in red ink. He had made a few cross-outs and word substitutions in surprisingly neat handwriting, but mostly he had supplied little arrows next to names of people and institutions with inserts such as "Bitch" applied to his fifth-grade teacher who had given him his first detention, "Cunt" next to his high school guidance counselor, "Purgatory" scrawled over the name of his volunteer center, and "Bullshit" in critique of a few of the more subjective passages describing his character.

"That helpful?"

"I was hoping for some naked women, but I suppose I can work with this."

Orson looked at him scornfully as if to say donít patronize me. Fraternizing with patients was an integral part of Codarfusla officer training, but Herb was often criticized of only knowing how to fraternize via stereotyping. In his career he had encountered at most five patients who were smart enough to see through that technique of rapport.

"Good, Iím pumped; letís get to work!"

Point of origin: Suppression of musical creativity by [big bad world].

####

Herb stopped conveying his notes on Orson to the DMSC around the time that Orson waxed philosophical (DMSC stood for Department of Mental Stability Control).

-Orson with his repressed homosexuality-

-Orson with his political conspiracy theories-

-Orson with his auguries of doom, including but not limited to environmental catastrophe, complete economic collapse, chaos, planetary inertia, entropy-

Orson did not know what entropy was. He wondered if Lois grasped the concept of entropy. He asked her one night while sitting on the antique vinyl couch watching a rerun of a nostalgic sitcom -- he posed the question while the action on the screen paused for a laugh-track. She looked at him blankly and then returned her attention to the show, catching the next line after the laugh-track subsided. For a split second he saw something unmistakable, and that was all the confirmation he needed; a fleeting spark of intellectual activity behind her glazed pupils, like a comet in outer space lighting up the sky for an instantís flash of communication, an apology that tried to convey all the sadness of the world in a single glimmer, and then back to the eternal numbness of the cosmos, the infinite black expanse between laugh-tracks, between lonely nights, between-

-Orson with his obsession with right triangles-

All of a sudden, Herb wanted desperately to cry.

And then, for some strange reason, he thought of the chalk graffiti at the intersection of Blanche Avenue and Salmon Street, on the road itself, covering two lanes -- a symbol of some sort, like --like an ancient Aztec symbol. Or more like -- like a mathematical relic. The last thing he saw before making the accidental wrong turn that had led him to-

-Orson with his simplicity-

Lois had always been a drug addict. Nobody did Cocaine or LSD or even smoked marijuana anymore, not since Fusla was invented; nobody, except for teenaged Lois and her counterculture band of Retroers, the last of a dying breed who still knew how to acquire such archaic items. The bankruptcy of the underground physical-chemical-drug industry was not due to the law cracking down on it, for the law didnít need to. Dwindling interest had solved the problem; damaging oneís body and sabotaging oneís professional life was an inconvenient price to pay for getting high, and besides, self destruction had lost its romanticism. The frontier had been exhausted. A generation needed something to call its own; hallucinogens belonged to a forgotten era. Altered states of consciousness were now commercially available to the consumer public in a PG-rated form.

Narcotics were being phased out of popular culture at the exact time period that Lois Tornov came of age, and to her nineteen-year-old mind there was nothing more romantic than getting high the old-fashioned way. The uncontrolled way.

Codarfusla first emerged in the New Revolution in Mental Health Technology of the 2140ís as the death of mental hospitals -- not to mention the abolishment of the prison system -- and of the entire field of psychiatry. Once society had the ability to insert a microprocessor in the miscreantís ear that would assimilate the personís functional personality and allow them to go through their day on autopilot while their actual self was deeply sedated, any other form of containment was quickly branded as barbaric. Codarfusla allowed for a person to be productive, drive a car, perform complex tasks, laugh at appropriate moments, give lectures, and to all extents and purposes look and act like a normal person. It was impossible to point out a stranger who was on Fusla. It was designed to fool oneís boss, oneís spouseÖ

Anybody you passed on the street could be Ďtripping.í You could carry on an entire conversation with someone and never even suspect that you were conversing with a computer-driven automaton, and that the real person inside was in a coma, a synthetic drug high that was not only certified as 100% safe -- excepting the one Surgeon Generalís warning that Ďtrippingí for more than three hundred and sixty five consecutive days could incur permanent brain damage -- but was far more potent than any psychedelic experience to come out of the 1960ís mythos. After rendering the field of mental health and incarceration obsolete (a tax-supported jail cell was altogether impractical when technology allowed for one to be incarcerated within oneís own brain while oneís body went on working nine to five), the drug culture was next to go.

Fusla was legal and for sale to anybody over the age of eighteen.

Herb did not need to snoop around and look at Loisís credit card bills to know that she was a Fusla junkie, but he did. He tried to think back to all the times they had made love in the past two years, all the conversations they had had, all the meals they had eaten, but it was all too blurry to focus on any specific occasion. He could not recall a single moment with her. Except it wasnít with her; he could not remember the last time he had been with her, with Lois, before he started unwittingly making love to Loisís comatose body while she drifted through the dreamscape of her nonexistence. Docile. Lacking access to aggression, as the textbook put it. Lacking access to self.

Herb had begun dating her -- fourteen years ago -- as a means of forcing her to quit mushrooms and pot -- and whatever else -- things which he despised and taught her to despise equally. She had formally thanked him for rescuing her from her "downward spiral." He had been secretly disgusted by her cliché choice of words, but proudly accepted the trophy on which they were engraved; her yielding flesh was the trophy, and her teary-eyed declaration of promise was the consummation.

Herb had never approved of recreational Fusla. She nodded in tacit agreement.

All of a sudden, herb wanted desperately to vomit.

And thatís when it hit him; he had seen that same design -- the symbol at Blanche Avenue and Salmon Street -- at other locations. It was cropping up all over town, on sidewalks, on old storefronts, and nobody thought anything of it.

####

Orson was sane. He was almost certain of it. Mental illness fraud was not uncommon -- Fusla was not cheap, and the prospect of getting it for free was very appealing to those who wished to transcend their limited realities (one dose of Fusla lasted two weeks, and the customerís auto-pilot computer would be programmed to surreptitiously return to their local neighborhood nondescript brick building for refills on the proper date, so that, theoretically, budget permitting, one could go through life indefinitely without ever being burdened with a moment of consciousness) -- but Herb had never before suspected a client of faking, and did not entertain the suspicion now. He simply did not think of it.

-Lois, with her meticulous array of hair products on the bathroom counter, Lois with her detached look of mental anguish when she rolled over in bed and grasped his manhood in both hands, Lois with her smile of complete indifference that he had hitherto assumed to be spiritual epiphany when he came inside her-

Orson had been a geometry whiz in high school. He boasted having been flagged with the moniker: The Trigonomist.

"Itís like, your life is a vectorÖ"

Herb could not keep a straight face, and when Herb laughed, Orson laughed harder, unable to finish his thought.

"No, seriously, Iím making a point. Itís all about right angles, I mean our livesÖthey intersect at all sorts of angles, but the shit that matters, the real important relationships? Those are the perpendicular bisectors." His rant was buried in another eruption of laughter. "No, no, listen, itís important, man; right angles are musicÖ"

Outside, the snow had begun to stick to the ground -- late afternoon, November tenth -- and was purging the graffiti from the streets.

Herb jotted in his notebook. "Letís talk about your musical background."

Orson made a dismissive gesture with the subtle twitch of his gaunt cheek muscle.

"You have expressed hints of an appreciation for --"

"Shit. Whatís that got to do with anything?"

"Itís my professional opinion that your neuroses are pertaining to a lack of expression for your more, um, artisticÖ"

Orson laughed. "You sound like a fucking psychologist." The word psychologist had the equivalent connotations of words like sorcerer or alchemist.

"Iím here to observe."

"What, you think you can cure me without theÖ Good old-fashioned counseling or some shit? Are you one of these radical new-age Retroist freaks?"

"Iím merely thinking out loud."

"I knew it. You despise your job."

Orson was sane. For a moment Herb began to wonder if he himself was.

####

On the sixth interview, Orson showed Herb his homemade synthesizer contraption. It was in a tiny square of rented garage space in the basement of the tenement building where Orson lived. After locking the door behind him -- shutting the audio intrusions of the outside world out of his lair -- Orson shucked a dusty green tarp off of the lumbering shape in the corner like an auto mechanic unveiling his latest work in progress. The machine looked obscene in the way that cadavers looked obscene lying around a lab with limbs missing and incisions left gaping. It consisted of salvaged parts from four electronic keyboards, a Thereminvox, circuit boards eviscerated from the smoldering carcasses of portable radio devices -- some with yard-sale price labels still visible on their plastic exteriors -- and a bevy of different types of amplifiers all wired together like a big dysfunctional family. A couple oscilloscopes, a soldering iron and spools of copper wire lay on the workbench amidst trays full of electrical tools. Orson cleared them away apologetically and invited Herb to sit down.

"You, uhÖbuilt all that?"

"No," he said sarcastically as he plugged in the speakers and fired up the machine. The synthesizer kicked to life with a piercing frequency that made Herb nearly fall backwards.

"Where did you get all this stuff?"

"I was a technician at a radio station for a few years."

The main keyboard in the center of the contraption had a built-in computer monitor. Orson cued up a series of pre-programmed musical tracks and cued them with no formal introduction. He stood with his arms crossed and his eyes closed, transported.

The music began with a rich base note sustained over a drumbeat that sounded more like a construction site than any musical instrument Herb had ever heard. Different tones emerged from the chaos haphazardly it seemed at first, but as the polyrhythmic layers unfolded and the piece became more complex, Herb began to sense a cohesive tonal logic to it. The frequencies -- whose timbre resembled no recognizable sounds in nature or familiar in music -- assaulted his ears with a discordance that seemed to negate the very notion of sound, but as they blended together, a certain ineffable beauty condensed above them like a perfect halo of vibration just out of reach of his comprehension.

"Do you hear it?" Orson was in a trance of delight, practically swaying back and forth. "The ripples go on to infinity. Music isnít just what you hear, itís the wind, itís the air going through you. The molecules in the air, the molecules in your body, theyíre all forming right triangles. If you focus real hard you can feel it." Orsonís hand was on his chest like a flotation device hugging imaginary waves.

Herb knew right then that he could not, in good conscience, could not, by the will of his own hand and his own authority, simply could not carry out Orsonís sentence.

And then it hit him -- evening, November eleventh -- the perfect solution. He explained his idea to Orson and --

"Are you a fucking idiot?" was Orsonís response.

"Donít make me change my mind."

Orsonís laughter was like a car rolling down a hill with no driver. The dayís last natural light formed webbed patterns on Orsonís dirty white t-shirt, filtered through the orange-tinted window like the frail claws of demons caressing his shoulders.

Herb wanted to slap him.

"I donít get it." Orson took a swig of milk from a brand new carton. "You think Iím special or something?"

"Iíve implanted a thousand microprocessors into a thousand skulls and Iíve never thought twice about it. When I look at you, I canítÖI canít do it."

"You gonna pussy out and have the DMSC send some other twerp to fix me?"

Herb shook his head. Orson put down his milk, which was, at that particular moment, a heartfelt gesture of sincerity.

"What would you say if I turned you loose?" Herb spoke in a hushed tone and grinned a grin that was divorced from all superficial techniques of fraternizing, a grin that overflowed with the repressed machinations of a rebel without a context; Orson drew back from it. "Our little secret."

"Shut the fuck up."

"Iíve thought this over. Tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM I submit my complete report on you, and at One PM they will issue me the module that I am to personally implant in your head and operate the settings. Tomorrow at 1:30 PM I will flush that piece of technology down the toilet and weíll go our separate ways, but youíll have to promise me youíll behave yourself in the public eye, lay low, donít make any dramatic life changes. If posed with any important decisions, act confused and impotent. If this gets exposed, I could go to jail. Thatís the risk Iíve decided to take."

"You canít do that."

"No, I canít. And I will."

"Offering me freedom in return forÖ"

"Excuse me?"

"Cut the shit. I know thereís two sides to this deal."

Herb smiled. "Wise man."

"What do you want from me?"

"Iíve thought about that too. In fact, there is something Iíd like you to do. Consider it more of a personal favor. Blackmail is such an ugly business."

-LoisÖ

Orson spat milk clear across the room. Herb soberly nodded his head.

"This milk must be older than I thought, Iím having hallucinations here; it sounded like you just told me you want me to seduce your wife, and -- and --"

"And have sex with her, yes. The sex is crucial."

"I knew it. I could tell when you first walked in here, you were haviní troubles with yer old lady. Like there was no dignity about you. Hell, I just figured youíd caught the olí ball Ďn chain tittie-fucking the neighborís kid or something, I didnít think you were this sick and twisted. Now thatís some funny shit, asking me to bangÖ" The next obvious question to sublimate from his words was one too awkward to be spoken, but Herb understood perfectly; in answer, he pulled out a photograph of Lois from his pocket and handed it to Orson. Orson stared at it for a long time and then said, "You got to be fucking kidding me."

"Iím afraid this is no joke." He explained the situation.

Orson gave a slow-motion nod, a sweeping gesture of understanding and sympathy. "Fuck, man, thatís like, the worst insult ever. And she did it behind your back? Thatís cold. Itís like faking an orgasm, except youíre not just faking orgasms, youíre faking life. Iím sorry, man."

Faking.

"I know you are."

"ButÖnot to be disrespectful or nothing, but, I meanÖtwo years -- howís that even possible?"

"People have gone for more than thirty --"

"I know that, dipshit. I meant, howíd she put it by you?"

"Thanks."

"Shit, that was insensitive. Iím an idiot. Thatís gotta be like, the most embarrassing thing a man can admit -- that takes guts, I admire you, man. How do you even look at her, knowing that, I mean, doní it give you the willies? Itís like confronting a corpse --"

"Will you fuck her for me?"

Herb glared at Orson pleadingly, attempting to back the kidís eyes up against a wall in the back of his skull.

"All right," Orson said softly.

Outside the snow had stopped falling, and the bare sidewalks were cold as ice.

After an hour of mulling it over in silence, Orson became intrigued.

"What are you smiling about?"

Orson clapped him on the shoulder. "The look on your wifeís face when she snaps to and Iím there, some stranger humping the shit out of her. Classic."

Herb had it calculated down to the exact hour, minute and second of the day when her weekly Fusla dose would wear off; to her it would be the exact equivalent to waking up from a dream.

If this didnít traumatize her, nothing would arouse a human emotion in her. If tricking her into being date-raped by Orson Derran wouldnít save their marriage, nothing would.

All of a sudden Herb thought of the angle of her carís rear tires parked outside that brick building.

####

"Thereís one thing I havenít told you about," Orson confessed -- early morning, November twelfth -- during their final interview.

"The reason you got caught and I got sent to you." Herb smiled.

"I guess you already know."

Herb shook his head. "As a rule, I always let the cause of arrest wait until the last day of the interview process, and I always avoid reading the police report, so as to keep myself impartial and objective."

Orson was incredulous; his mouth hung wide open like a refrigerator door. "All this time, you didnít even know what I got caught for?"

"Nope."

Orson stood up. "Come with me."

Outside in the shaded courtyard, Herb watched curiously as Orson drew intricate lines in the dirt with a sharp rock. Herb soon began to recognize the drawing.

"I wish I had some critters to demonstrate this phenomenon of nature, but I donít, so youíll just have to bear with me." He picked up a twig and pointed to a spot on the outside of the circular maze-like symbol he had rendered. "If a line of ants were to enter here, they would walk along, walk along ..." He bounced the tip of the twig gaily in a straight line and paused in the center of the figure. "And then?" He paused and looked up at Herb for dramatic emphasis while he slowly moved the twig at a ninety degree angle and continued to dance along to the edge of the drawing. "Itís an optical illusion. The ant thinks itís walking in a straight line, but it ainít."

Herb shivered.

"It sounds cuckoo, but I swear, it works on people too. Want to try it?"

"No, thanks."

"Chicken shit."

"No, I believe you."

"I can draw one ten feet in diameter right here, wonít take me moreín three minutes."

"Youíre the one who drew those on the roads, arenít you?"

"I swear, try walking through it even with your eyes closed, itís like a supernatural thing, you walk in a right angle no matter how hard you try not to, and if you intentionally walk at ninety degrees, you go in a straight line!"

"They arrested you for graffiti-"

"Nobodyís got a sense of humor, thatís just it! I spent a whole day once sitting at that intersection, I swear, every car that drove through it, the driver went on for a block or two and then turned around, all confused."

There was really no reason to be upset, now that he thought about it. But he chose not to think about it. There really was nothing to think about, the more he thought about it, and the thought of thinking about it impelled him to stop and reflect. But he chose not to reflect. It was a coincidence. Pure coincidence. It was all one big fat twisted convoluted perverted beautiful profound fucking coincidence.

####

"Well shit, Iíd have to say thereís significance in that. No, listen, you saw it. Your mind doesnít know that you saw it, but you saw it, and you made that wrong turn."

Herb was walking away from him; he had heard enough.

####

"I pulled you out of your downward spiral," Herb whispered to the closed door to his bedroom, watching the individual fibers of wood in the door tense up and gyrate with the motion of bodies inside the room -- or was that his imagination?

Herb closed his eyes and tried to breathe slowly. He could hear Loisís soft moans -- air leaking from the captivity of her overwhelmed insides -- but heard no trace of Orson.

His arms felt like steel cables anchoring his clasped hands to his lap where they pressed pink indentations into the meat of his thighs. He sat in a chair in the hallway, his feet firmly planted on the floor, at a slight angle.

Herb wondered what it would be like to get high. He could not imagine anything more boring. And then the door opened and Orson stepped out wearing boxer shorts and a Raiders t-shirt and his backwards cap, wiping sweat from his brow with a sigh.

"Well?"

Orson laid a hand on his shoulder. "Iím sorry."

"What happened?"

"Sheís asleep."

"Did youÖ"

"Thereís something I need to tell you."

Herbís entire face widened.

"No, no-- relax. I, um, I never really believed all that shit about destiny and right angles, I was just saying those things so youíd think I wasÖ"

"What are you talking about?"

"I got caught by the police on purpose -- my buddy staged it for me. Iím more clever than you think. I was just pretending to be a whacko because I, uh --"

"Shut up."

"Look, itís like this; Iím just a faker trying to get some free Fusla, Ďcause I ainít never had it before and I thought it would be fun, but I didnít think it would be all this trouble, and then you refused to give it to me, and then you wanted me to fuck your wife, and IÖI donít know, donít listen to me."

Herb sat still in his chair for a long time. Inside his body he was moving rapidly, hurling through space at thousands of miles per second.

"Get out."

Outside his bedroom window snow was falling in a heavy powder. Herb pressed his cold hand to Loisís face and all of a sudden he wanted to quit his job. She rolled over, her slender, languorously restless pale arm already anticipating the morningís routine of retreating from the strip of sunlight the sky would paint on the blanket, and Herb tried desperately to think nothing of it.

THE END



© 2005 by Jeremy Benjamin

Bio: Jeremy says: "I hail from mid-coast Maine (and the Boston area, interchangeably), got my English degree from the University of Southern California, and I currently reside in Ithaca, New York where I work as a drafter for an engineering firm and write stories in my spare time. Hobbies include weightlifting, hiking and impersonating Christopher Walken for my friends' amusement..."

E-mail: Jeremy Benjamin

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