Authors: Colson Whitehead
His foot throbbed. He heard the shouting of the men. They cried, “I am an original hunter! I am an original hunter!” Probably they were wearing loincloths. It was a wonder any work got done at all, given the extent of their issues. Certainly this retreat was no escape. Not for them, not for him. This swamp was no more pure than the city they had left behind. He dealt in lies and promises, distilled them into syllables. They were easier to digest that way. But these woods had their own hierarchies and lies to maintain. This place lived on promises, too. City, country: everywhere emptiness sat waiting in boxes, waiting to be opened. Every single thing in his vision was biodegradable. Which was cool. Because 100 percent recyclable material, people really dug that these days.
He stepped away from the cloudy water and his footing gave way. As he struggled for balance, he skipped awkwardly into the mud. He felt clammy hands caress his feet as they reached through his sneakers. He looked down and at the same time took a deep whiff. He remembered that the next farm over handled pigs. Look at him, he thought. Top of his field, cock of the walk: up to his ankles in pig shit.
. . . . . . . .
Truth be told, most of the time he didn’t know what white people were talking about, but from the references to insourcing and gainsharing, he hypothesized that the two guys sitting across from him on the shuttle bus had just returned from a confab on corporate values. The words they used were strange, odd souvenirs, tiny fragments that had been chipped off an alien business meteorite. This was language from outer space. They wore leis. Some wore more than others, and he gathered that the flower necklaces were the unit of measure for reward. When Jack dropped into the seat next to him, it was impossible not to notice his comparatively paltry garlands. “I only speak when I have something to say,” Jack blurted sheepishly. His face reddened.
The final Help Tourist tromped inside and the shuttle bus detached itself from the curb. None too soon. Everybody was hungry and smelled charcoal on every breeze. The sky was sweet and clear. It was a good day for grilling, he decided, an assessment that possessed the sure weight of universal truth.
Jack pointed at the newspaper and told him that he liked the article. They’d all seen it before he did. He had wondered, as he waited in the lobby for the shuttle bus, why people seemed to stare at him, pinioning him in place, before nodding knowingly. A bit too simpatico for his tastes. He chalked it up to routine paranoia and dismissed it from his mind until he passed the stack of
s sitting by the front desk.
The picture was harmless, somehow capturing his face betwixt outer expressions of inner turbulence—his sundry boilerplate frowns, twitches, and sneers. He looked halfway human. The text was a nightmare, however, headline to kicker.
MAKING THE CASE FOR NEW PROSPERA: CONSULTANT VOWS TO “KEEP IT REAL”
the teaser crowed, before embarrassing all involved for eleven paragraphs, finally limping away with a merciful, “‘I think New Prospera is a great name,’ he said, flashing a toothy smile.”
That Jurgen had made up everything in the article was no surprise. Unanticipated, however, was the cumulative effect of degradation, achieved sentence by sentence, detail by horrible detail. Did he really “wink knowingly”? Had he truly “patiently explained the somewhat wacky world of nomenclature consulting”? He hadn’t been patient in years, and from an early age had understood that winking testified to fundamental character flaws, bone-deep and incurable weakness. The
. He had not been aware it was possible to subscribe to the very abyss.
Two-thirds of his current client list would be mightily disappointed. He pictured Albie and Regina trading sighs and grimaces with each other, grateful for an excuse to be even more aggrieved than usual. He did not look forward to explaining that no, he was not in Lucky’s pocket, as they had suspected from the beginning. First thing after the barbecue, he’d give them a ring. Next afternoon at the latest. Depending.
Jack turned to gossip with another Help Tourist about the tits of the team leader in that morning’s Actualization Exercise. Relieved for a few minutes’ respite from making noises with his mouth in response to noises made from other people’s mouths, he took a gander out the window, leaning his head against the glass. They passed Portasans, bulldozers, and brick piles, symbols to him of condos on the rise. Had that been undeveloped land before, or a place where people used to live? Replacement housing for those who replace. The intrepid pioneers in the seats around him might live in those houses, climb the stairs that were now just empty space, cut the grass that wasn’t even seeds yet. This is New Prospera. Move it or lose it.
He felt an elbow in his ribs. Jack confided that he and his wife had decided to take the plunge. Lucky had won them over. Last night after the square dance—an unlikely success, per the scuttlebutt in the hotel bar—the Camerons walked back to the shuttle bus, fingers entwined, until both screamed at once, “I think we should move here!” This place was magic, they decided. Who cared if it didn’t have a name? “Pass up on an opportunity like this?” Jack assured him. “Not again, no siree.” Heck, they had even seen a house they liked, a nice ranch house on Regina Street. “It’s a little cheaper on that side of town,” he explained. “A steal.”
Others had been converted as well, Jack confided. Dolly and some of the wives had partaken of the free spa treatment that morning, and in the mud baths someone let slip that they had talked to a realtor. Turned out they’d all talked to a realtor, or rather
realtor, as Lucky had chosen one go-to guy for his visitors this weekend. Who cared if he used the exact words and phrasings, couple to couple? The wives were more open than the men about this momentous event, differences among genders and whatnot, but Jack knew for a fact that one or two other guys on their shuttle bus were also taking the plunge. Like they were in a secret club or something.
He had been feeling better, but suddenly relapsed in his hangover and his fingers clambered over the glass after a way to open the window.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
, reprimanded red lettering. He resorted to mentally picturing himself in fresh air, then in fresh air over the town of Winthrop, looking down on all the shuttle buses gathering from all points, from country routes and isolated lanes, for a common purpose. Eventually all the shuttle buses would converge on a particular spot and initiate a reaction.
He closed his eyes. If he had one complaint about shuttle buses, it would concern seat arrangement. On this model, the seats lined the walls. So everyone faced one another. Like a goddamned Jacuzzi. The Help Tourists prattled and buzzed around him. “Lot of single ladies at this thing.” “I hear they’re splitting the stock next week and that’s the real reason for the BBQ today.” “It’s the cutest little wood-frame house.” “That’s the guy who was in the paper today.” The eager vulgarity of cheer. He kicked his feet out into the aisle. Was it really that bad? No, he had to admit. It wasn’t that bad at all. New Prospera–ness stirred and agitated them in a fundamental way. In that deep-down place where true names reside. He was relieved that his client interviews would be over in a few hours. Time to wrap this up.
They arrived, the shuttle buses giant white beetles nudging each other in the parking lot. The former barbed-wire factory was a modest three-story building, covered in flaking paint that had either been stripped and peeled naturally over time, or had been recently applied at great cost. Fashionable design elements hung out in the strangest places these days. The gigantic letters spelling out the name of the previous owner had fallen off or been removed, but rusted ghost outlines remained. Shadows that persisted.
Warning: The Name Remains the Same, But Contents May Have Changed Over Time. A warning sticker equally at home on people as much as things, he thought. There were plenty of people walking around wearing their old names, even though their old natures had been gutted. Happened all the time. Smiled less easily or too much. Tended to dwell on the darker side of life, whereas before. Kinda dead behind the eyes. Presently walked with a limp.
Not seconds off the shuttle bus, he was stopped by Jurgen, who popped up and tapped him on the shoulder. Lucky was waiting for him upstairs.
. . . . . . . .
He felt ill and not up to tasks. Not so bad that he felt compelled to visit the doctor, but sick enough that each new activity—getting out of bed, going to work, grunting hello to an acquaintance—had to be prefaced by a few seconds of deliberation as to whether or not he was equipped. His limp was quite pronounced. By now he was certain of his foot’s not-so-secret agenda, as it darted toward immovable objects, lunging after collision. He was sweating a lot.
At dinner with Bridget the night before the Identity Awards, he was not himself. His cupboard of conversation set pieces was bare. Few jokes about world events occurred to him, and the ones that did occur to him were not up to his usual sterling quality. He couldn’t bring himself to mention that he felt fundamentally—
. In bed that night, Bridget wanted to try a new sexual position, one she had read three articles about that very week. It was this last article that sent her over the edge; everyone was talking about it, it seemed. So they tried. And he was not delicate as he moved to re-create what she described from the diagrams, and he ground his injured toe into the mattress. No, he had to agree, as they settled to neutral sides of the bed, it did not sound like such a thing would hurt so horribly, but it did.
He had a lot of weird dreams that night. When Bridget roused him the next morning, he told her that he wasn’t going into work, fuck it. She wanted to know if they were still going to the awards ceremony. She’d been looking forward to it all week, plus her new dress. He told her that he just needed a little rest; he was sure he’d feel better by that evening. “Do I have a fever?” he asked hopefully. She tested his forehead with her palm and tendered her regrets. She left him in her apartment, and he did not permit himself to wish that he’d asked her to take the day off to take care of him. After all, he was not a child.
He took the subway home around noon, steadying himself with the handrail and resting every few steps as he descended into the underground. It had been difficult to leave Bridget’s bed. Bridget had incredible sheets. What name would he give to this particular brand of sheets, he wondered—and was at a loss. It was then that he knew he was really sick. He couldn’t think of a single name, not even a misfire, nothing. So he fled Bridget’s apartment as fast as he could. Which was not very fast at all.
He dozed for a bit when he got home, or at least he lay on the couch and rose after a while, and the time that had elapsed did not correspond to the number of thoughts he remembered having, which meant he must have slept even if he could not remember doing so. His clothes were damp. He wondered what would happen if he did not show up that night. Nothing terrible. Tipple would make an excellent speech—self-serving, generous, and humble all at once. A three-flavor-super-chocolate-vanilla-strawberry-cone of a speech. “Excellence is simply what we do.” Tipple sold his success much more efficiently than he ever did. How to get excited about, take pride in something that came so naturally? It was like being honored for breathing. He called into work to assure Tipple that he would make it to the ceremony and limped into the bathroom. Something was definitely wrong with his foot.
Underneath the Apex, the grim narrative continued apace. He peeled off the bandage to moist sounds and released a putrid stench. Twin to the awfulness of the smell was what his eyes told him. The toe was grossly swollen, the skin tight as sausage casing. Every familiar furrow and line in the poor little guy had been filled in by the festering goings-on beneath. A germ convention was under way, or other celebration held by the microscopic and teeming. It was funny, he observed morbidly—the Apex no longer matched his skin. The toe had turned a strange, rotten-apple pulp of red and gray, and there was no community on Earth that might be served by the Apex that corresponded to that color. First thing next morning he was going to the doctor, he decided, and covered up the whole mess with an adhesive bandage. Apex, natch.
. . . . . . . .
He followed the blue lines on the wall as instructed. From the lobby they snaked along the corridors, a rerouted rainbow. The red line directed you to IT, the green to HR, and blue to BT. Big Trouble? Tsk-tsking, Jurgen explained that it stood for Brain Trust, Lucky’s affectionate term for the exuberant creatives who made Aberdeen Aberdeen. “See you at the barbecue,” Jurgen warned him in farewell. Jurgen didn’t ask his opinion of the article, and he did not express his opinion of the article. It was understood that they were just doing their jobs. Complaining would have been like one pawn begrudging another pawn for only moving one square at a time.
The hallways were gloomy, stingily half lit in the standard manner of businesses on the weekends. According to the theory that if you were working on Saturday, you knew your way around. The blue lines bled around corners, crossed other colored lines, then broke out on their own after bridging a conference space or lounge. Farewell, great burning machines, with your vats of molten ore. So long, monstrous cauldrons and percussive steam. The transplant was a success, he thought. The old guts had been scraped out without damaging the remaining shell. He limped past the standard molded plastic of young companies starting out in the world, power strips and cubicle walls, free soda machines and foosball tables. All the Brio you can drink. Aberdeen was merely the latest alien organism to latch on with tiny teeth and grit down hard. He saw the black settlers, he saw pale generations of Winthrops, and now the mouse jockeys as a succession of parasites burrowing under the skin of this land. Transforming it. He followed the blue lines. Furtive and solemn. Downright monkish.
Lucky welcomed him into his office. His eyes adjusted to the daylight. This was the best sanctum yet, nicer than Albie’s Gothic fun house, certainly roomier than Regina’s car, nosing down nostalgic avenues. Each member of the city council had taken him where they felt at ease, but the sheer abundance of ergonomic furniture in Lucky’s office made it difficult to make the case for a more comfortable confrontation. A glimpse of the miraculous chairs and couches made his lumbar region vibrate with pleasure, as they appeared capable of cupping any cuppable part of his body. Three walls were mostly glass, introducing him to treetops. On the fourth wall, Lucky displayed an exhibit of factory novelties: rusted tools of inscrutable purpose, wedges of riveted metal. And of course examples of Winthrop wire, short strings of the stuff artfully arranged beneath a longer string of the stuff that spelled out
. Prickly to the touch, the man’s name, what with the barbs and all.