You in User: An Excerpt

2

From: neil6@youtube.com

To:

Draft saved: Sat Aug 6th, 2010 at 3:03 AM

Subject: re: Impending Account Termination, Fly Back to Your Huddle, Squee Real Loud, Don’t Be Afraid to Just Ask, Phase Right In and Out, Do How You’re Moved

 

User, you weren’t my only user. My top right corner reads 3:03 AM and my bank account bleeds about the same, so forgive me some nostalgia. Last week, when YouTube cancelled their personalized account termination engagement program, them bitches were so abrupt they didn’t even lock me out of my email. And there you were, next in line, awaiting treatment. Such luck! For you, I mean. Because in my heyday, you wouldn’t have gotten all this special yam. I would’ve attended to you like all the rest. Fast, earnest, forgotten. O dat queue flew. The week I got fired, for example, I’d already expressed YouTube’s paternal disgruntlement to six others. Third of a way to monthly quota, rent. One user focused their searches on child beheadings. Another had a lot of creative names for necrophilia. A third simply found too many full-length films, and we all know there’s no difference between corporal and economic perversity. Didn’t matter whether it was Marlena or MGM you were trying to deflower. We’d find your face and shake our heads.

My emails to these other flunked souls came fluidly, dishing the feel-for-ya-but-rules-is-rules in a couple hundred words. Twenty minutes of work, tops. A monk is how I cast myself. Zen baldy with a birch switch and a for-your-own-good stance. Usually I linked to appropriate help. FAQs and hotlines, quizzes that unfurled diagnosis like three-step card tricks. Very credible. We’d follow up, I lied. Let’s not pretend I was no good at this shit, User. Because I was so good. The week before I got fired, my supervisor Carlin—never met him—sent me a note to say I was doing a “bombtastic” job. Below his signature was “Sent from my BlackBerry.” Thanks, Carlin, wherever you are. Maybe straddling a dolphin in a private subterranean ocean near San Bruno, telling everybody to erase the version of his trick they just recorded and get this new one because he’s gonna totally fucking stick it this time.

Meanwhile, I chugged along with his retarded policy, emailing just the right shade of heartfelt, until one morning Carlin looked at his to-do list, hungover and pawing for Vicodin, and texted his own supervisor: “who the eff is neil-whatz-his-shit?? :-/” His supervisor: velvet boxers, w/ pockets, BlackBerry set to vibrate, let the Berry buzz his area a little, checked the text, tapped back “oh, he was on that stupid personal email thing we cut last month.. is he still geting paid?? lol” And Carlin was like “not anymore amigo!! >:-)” Until that morning, User, you were all stuck with me.

But don’t let me sugarcoat: Tube Central did try to tweak my style. They told me be more Powerball. After all, that’s where they stole the idea. Powerball, as you know from impulses in the gas station, is all about number idolatry. Which number did you wear on your championship pee-wee Iditarod team? How many licks do you take to the center of a woman’s duress? Teaspoons of cinnamon in your signature mole negro? Jell-O shots before you pass out? Donald Duck’s license plate number? Worship that shit. Play the bounce. And direct all questions to the number providers. Powerball figured out how to deal with superstitious nags, which was to assign their letters to a quip team and post the replies online. Now Powerball’s dot com has a “real letters” section where you can laugh at what people have asked and how Powerball has answered. One reply makes fun of someone wondering if 19 is a good number, saying how 19 looks like a wizard next to a teenager. One reply is a limerick. Several replies start with “Imagine” and go on to patronize. One reply says “Please write back when the satellite returns” because the letter writer claimed to have figured out a secret formula relevant to all lottos, which they sent to the NSA and uploaded on a satellite “due to return in 50,000 years and maybe the space people will send us messages now through this game now that would be cool.” User, you tell me who came out on top there. I say Powerball needs to up its output. For one, they pretend there’s just one guy writing, but there’s a team. Straight dope. YouTube did some research. They became enamored. Humiliation via uncle-level humor! Tube’s original counsel-the-damned plan was to post our best cancellation notices online, Hall of Shame, but three problems: 1) Tube’s lawyers, who are smarter than Powerball’s lawyers, 2) That old saying about how no one reads YouTube for the articles, and 3) The damned never wrote back. Pot shots at silent targets: bummer city. Which is not to say the brass ever stopped getting all ga ga when Powerball posted a new back and forth. Now there we go! Carlin told me. Professional and funny at the same time! And on time, seems like. Be careful about turnover. Lets GO EASY on the lag! Sure, whatever Mr. Last Name for a First Name. Forgive me if I take the whole “work smarter and not harder” thing to my heart, which is a volcano-sized heart with a spew’s concern for articulation. Have I mentioned six-in-a-week? Zen baldy? Bombtastic? Did Carlin even know which Neil I was? We report, you decide.

One time a YouTube employee accidentally emailed the whole company (a flurry of Reply All follow-up gaffes, take-me-off-this-list! rippling the list, accidentally public unsubscription anxiety the new schoolbus-in-your-underwear-dream for the carpal tunnel set, except more boring, not a dream, and your supervisor’s supervisor is in his underwear because legs are invisible under touchpads, and now that “takeaway” is life’s only important word I would like to say that the takeaway of this parenthetical Reply All is that “touchpad” is a pretty gross word, guys) about a t-shirt idea. He was joking with his friend about free markets. A black shirt, white text. On the front: OPT IN OR DIE. On the back: I MADE A SHIRT THAT SAYS OPT IN OR DIE AND THIS GUY BOUGHT IT. They went back and forth a few quips before the mailing list ahems kicked in. Now, I’m no free market expert, but I think the idea of friendship as a feedback loop of snarky t-shirt ideas is a pretty representative product sample. That plus whatever the carbon monoxide tastes like these days. Nacho dust, I think.

Yet, well, all good things and all that. Eventually YouTube realized the whole shebang was pretty stupid, is how I would be forced to honestly characterize the situation if I were interested in honesty. Their emails to let me go were pretty curt. Did offer consolation opportunities. Said I could compete to join their content moderation team, staffed by peeps in China and India who get paid half a peanut an hour to ferret out the videos that raise red flags in the first place. An opportunity I declined because, um, I already do that. For fun. For hours.

Will I miss my Userlings? What I’ll miss are the numbers. Some more than others. Specifically, I won’t miss the numbers I lost to FICA and Albany, but I will miss the direct deposit itself. I won’t miss Neils 1 through 5, never met, roles unknown, who for redonkulous seniority reasons left me with an email address that made me feel as if even in my very me-ness I was sixth in line. But your IPs: I’ll miss those. Your demographics, referrals, average visit durations. Where you click when. Poker-faced narratives of numerical implication. Like how long videos retain you, down to the second, patterns of tune in or turn away. (Hard not to get voodoo with this if you’re an uploader, to judge an effort based on when eyes drop off steepest. Like say you deftly stitch together some 90s Nickelodeon cartoon scenes for your relationship partner’s birthday, and they swear they watched the whole thing, but the stats say 0% Absolute Audience Retention after 1:07. Who to trust? Pronouns or numbers?)

Not that you care. Without us to blink, you still think you’re alone. While I’ve been out witnessing capybara hostage situations, you’ve been fiddly-farting around like usual. Clicking Sort by Date for the freshest videos. Graduation season’s in full swing, so new material goes up almost hourly. You don’t even know you’re flagged. You don’t know the attention I’m paying, even off the payroll. There you go again, clicking Refresh on Rosalina and ordering a rotisserie chicken from Peapod. Sometimes, say the stats, you pause certain frames. You relish. There are people in this world who move that way innately, always stuttered between << and >>.  Are you one of those? Do you catch yourself unable to make insignificant choices because you’re always wondering what it would be like to keep occupying the moment you just eclipsed? Forever in taking in? To observers this resembles hypnosis: User J. User in line, stuck, trying to imagine his sandwich with banana peppers, sprouts, cucumber slices, but where did the cucumbers come from, immigrant labor conditions, carbon footprints of semi-trucks, sweat equity, crunchy do-gooders in corduroy and handsewn mittens at the Saturday Market, everyone behind you in line, everyone before and after you, ever, everyone ever one over, every sandwich you’re discarding to realize this one, which will probably taste the same as always. Do U Sir, as a rule, catch yourself?

YouTube doesn’t forget to use you back, you know. For example, interfaces. Those also have retention stats. And you might never see the same one twice because YouTube uses a magic trick called A/B testing. They randomly sprinkle mini-tweaks among visitors, tracking which versions get the most click-throughs, the most opt ins. Consider the theory of usability behind this as a return to regality. Droves of tiny choices supplicating before you. Doth His Userness prefer the advertisement 18 pixels or 19 pixels above the play button? Now consider the way it really works: millions of royal users, shoehorned into one incremental design experiment after another, data guineas, click crumbs, awareness not even a factor (why A? why B? why care? one wins), kings of all they survey if by kings you mean crowned solely as a cluster of survey choices.

But maybe this is right. Maybe all we are is a scattergraph of choosiness. Mosaic that shit. Hang above the shitter. What if the feeling of personhood is nothing but the feeling of being flattered for the ability to make choices? Oh, I saw you clicked cucumbers last week—here is an advertisement for cucumber gelato. Now you realize. User, this is the kind of shit you need cut-off jean shorts to worry about. Like the first person to figure out how to stay undecided between every feeling at once is a person for whom I’d invent a whole new style of suspension bridge.

Maybe the ultimate opting in would opt you out. Like a Sim, from The Sims. If you don’t know, The Sims was an early aughts computer game where you controlled virtual homebodies. More supervised, I guess, than controlled. Your Sims would dunderishly scoot from task to task, sometimes baking a turkey at midnight or shitting in a laundry hamper, but at least they were programmed to escalate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Shitting }> Phew-ing }> Porking }> Bragging }> Self-Actualization. At least your Sims were governed, deep down, by an algorithm. O to live color-coded, User!

In college, Sims were the only thing Keven and I really bonded over. We lugged our laptops into the living room and played. Not together, but sharing the space. Same beeps, mutual screen glow. We didn’t compare lives, but we did compare Sims. His were upwardly mobile; mine had a BBQ grill in every room. Both of us downloaded the patch to unblur shower nudity. They talked, our Sims, in a near-English gibber. One thing they loved to say was “Ah-coot-ta-na bird watching!” Something like that. Entire websites dedicate themselves to Simlish deciphering, and it makes me shiver in lamebrain wonder: is that how you and I sound to God? Way up there where He’s still a little bummed about the whole Babel snafu? Because He didn’t really want to confound us, just urge us not to get too cozy. Now people own tiny computers named after fruits. Peapod trucks deliver cucumbers grown an ocean or two away. Rosalina gets paused, someone drops a sharp edge against a kid’s neck, and someone later watches in their boxers as the head caroms. There are people who prefer their Sims over themselves, who skip making Facebook profiles for their own face to make one for a face they designed.

But you don’t seem to have a Facebook, User. Not even a ghetto-ass MySpace. I’ve searched and searched. Most likely you phish into social media with a different email than you use to indulge your fetish, but I like to pretend otherwise. What I like to pretend is you’re the white silhouette Facebook gives to blank profiles. Even ghosts deserve a haircut, declares Facebook. Such imaginative work is making me like you more and more. Who are your top bros? Which of your friends posts glittery surveys on your wall, which invites you to play Farmville, which asks Does anyone know the dumpster diving laws in Illinois? Can’t seem to find anything conclusive, which prefers to make a photo of a roided out baseballer their profile picture, which prefers a Sim of same roider, which links to American Idol results, which asks what’s the name of that cheap eyeglasses website?? i forgot =(. How will God even tag you to announce your cancellation? Either by stubbornness or solid identity management, you’ve evaded social glare. Shirked archival.

Except not really. Not at all.

Hell, you never even clear your history!

Let me tell you about the Hungry Duck. Close your eyes. Wait: turn on a speech app, paste this email, then close your eyes. Good? Picture Russia. Pre-fires. Salad days of Perestroika’s gangbang capitalism. Statues of Lenin with mossy ears, Pepsi stickers on his mustache. Red Square re-reddened so the red’s a little more Mickey Ds, more the red that makes your brain think you’re hungry and less the red that makes your neck feel surveilled. In December 1995, a Canadian named Doug Steele—backed by a gang of Chechen and Kalmyk thug barons—opened a Moscow bar and restaurant called the Hungry Duck. One metro stop from the Kremlin and down the street from the Lubyanka, yellow-bricked ex-torture-chamber. At first, the Hungry Duck served thirteen different beers and a full menu: borscht, pickled borscht, extra borscht, etc. Class act sleaze, stable corruption. By the time of its forced shutdown in ‘99, the Duck was getting thundered against in the State Duma and targeted by elderly ballerinas. At the end, the Duck featured one beer (pivo), no food, two bomb threats, one (documented) kidnapping attempt, two full-time carpenters, a Nigerian male stripper, five bullet holes in the ceiling (three in the floor), a full-time bribe coordinator, and a Ladies Night of such notorious public lechery that you could swing the whole thing into a cheap analogy where duvishki cleavage sweat in the shadow of frostbitten Moscow granite stands in for thawing post-Soviet I’m-bored-already-talk-about-the-boobs.

Okay: pre-Duck, Steele ran a different club. Moosehead Bar and Grill, raved for its buffalo wings. The wings got so popular Steele needed a krysha—“roof,” the Russian nickname for a protection racket—who convinced him to expand his empire. Hence the Duck, housed in the former Soviet Home of Working Artists. It was a Pepsi corporate party that gave Steele the idea to let girls dance on tables. They just looked so free up there. And below, men would pay so much to grease this freedom. Supply and demand! In Mama Russia! Opt in or умереть! Really, it was nothing less than the Duck’s duty to the tides of democracy that led to Ladies Wednesday.

Steele had a full system. On Wednesdays, at seven o’clock, he would jettison any slug with a Y chromosome. Then ladies, aged twenty-five to twelve, drank free. Meanwhile, male models in aviators and G-strings entered from a back room, got up on the bar, and did things with police batons that made the girls spill their vodka. A pageant of costumed hunks: pharaohs in G-strings, crocodile hunters in G-strings, a Santa Claus who could do that gross pec spasm hunks love to do. They swayed while the girls screeched. Bass insane, subwoofers big as Stalin’s tanks. With seasoned timing, the hunks would pluck girls from the throng and get them in the act. They let the girls improvise, hands and what have you. The hunks read signals. In the videos, you can see the girls caught between instincts, remembering or forgetting themselves. Straining eyes vs. skittish eyes. Heads thrown back vs. waggled nyets. At the right cues, the hunks would start peeling leggings. Unsnapping bras. Girls in proletariat undergear, commie-issue cotton. No Hot Topic S&M, yo. Hunks teamed up; girls took pokes. Hunks played themselves; girls gave in. If the hunks got too hungry, some girls blocked parts off. But most didn’t. Pretty soon, you had outright 69ing up there. Thighs at angles. Orgasmic contortion, audience cheering and eager for turns. Bartenders spritzed Heineken, tongues for landing strips. Eventually the frenzy would skip right past the hunks, leaving them to slink off and strike Calvin Klein poses as girls roped together. The videos aren’t crisp enough to see any wet spots, but they’re easy to imagine. So free, so free. Girls in town from the territories, long train rides, fleeing the broom thwacks of mole-cheeked babushkas. And the hunks, normal bros when you got down to it, paying their way through law school with lucky genetics and gym rigor. Everybody gets hungry. Why duck away? Move how it do, boys and girls. Do how you’re moved.

Only the stripping’s made it to moving pictures, but I’ve read about how the rest of the night worked. While the girls reveled, the slugs lined up. Outside the Duck, Russian men waited in goose fleece to pay free market prices for a shot at the flesh parade. Stamping the cold out, knuckling ice boogers. Fists of bills, heads of fantasy. Barred by snub nosed bouncers with snub-nose pistols, but the slugs didn’t care. Not to harp on this, but they were Russian. They knew how to wait. The line grew. Cast iron street-lanterns coughed up their gothic light. More ice boogers. Faces pale as cabbage. Finally, around ten, the bouncers uncrossed their arms.

One popular nickname for what happened next is Rape Camp.

Rape Camp happened on top of the steel bar and beneath the redwood tables. It happened because the girls were hosed, the guys had dumped half-a-month’s salary, everybody hated themselves and hated each other and hated their grandmothers and hated law school and hated Russia’s ten months of sub-zero slush and bluster and mafia scowls. They felt powerless and greedy, beaten down and self-objectifying, nobody’s tender brother or sister and everybody’s street vendor fuck meat, disdainful and famished, and let’s not forget that even God can’t scare you when you’ve abandoned yourself to holy sweat. Give Him a raspberry, User. Use your body. Basically bodies are a lot of fun. Bodies happened under tables and caused the bottles on top to wobble and break and splatter everybody. Nobody noticed and kept licking. Somebody slapped somebody else in the face and sucked them off a few minutes later. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, went the bodies. Wait, wait, here, here. Just how hardcore and messed up was this shit? Did they call it Rape Camp for marketing or warning? Fuck if I know. I mean, on life’s deathward hike, do we ever really “camp?” Let’s get sacred, User. Let’s disparage of tent-pitching jokes. Let’s not assume power dynamics when they’re isn’t even footage. One story goes that an off-duty narcotics detective tried to flirt with a pair of drunk sprites by dropping a Ziploc of white china down one’s blouse, slurring extortion suggestions. But they grabbed him, stripped his chinos, dry-hump sandwich, then beat him so bad his eyeball popped loose. Bouncers came over. He tried to explain that before he was police, he was hockey goalie. “So big,” he said, cornea dangling. “Other team bend pipes to wide net.” The bouncers nodded, impressed. Then they tossed him out face-first.

That’s the new reason why I’m worried about you, User. You keep too much distance. You’re not sick enough. Where is your body, really, in relation? What’s freedom worth if you’re hiding in your house with it? What you need to do is enter the world and advocate for your craggy bits. Know thyself. You might ask: what the hell are you going on about, Neil? What is your exact position? You might even ask, like Harper did when she caught me looking at these videos: “Oh my God, what the fuck are you watching?”

They’re called Club Stripped White Top, Club Stripped Blue Top. Really boils it down. You can gawk at these videos and get sucked in so far you forget somebody had to take them. Someone had to stand there with a camera, making themselves scarce. No talking to the talent. No wobbling the capture. And if the track records of all recorded mediums teach us anything, they teach us that an ability to turn presence into unobtrusive exploitation gets your ass paid. You can bet these videos made bank, User. In their day. With the Duck disbanded, the videos have leaked, and now they’re all free on DailyMotion. Which is why the info dump: I’m helping you. You’ll have to input your age, and that page will ask if you’re lost. Don’t overthink. Maybe these videos brush too close to actual sex for your interests, but still. The girls look pretty submitted to humility. Do they enjoy themselves? Well, yeah, but the role still rolls. And at least you’d be off the Tube. So my prescription is redirection: 1) Dailymotion 2) Do the search 3) Go to Russia 4) Don’t forget that Russia’s on fire 5) Bring a gas mask.

But if you’re still here, guess what? The original website still exists. Hungry Duck dot com. If you want, you can still join. Full video package. Buy a membership with a credit card: sixteen digits, four digit expiration date, three digit security code, and hallelujah the opt is in. How many are duped? Let’s guess one sucker a day, bare minimum. They read the numbers off their card and type them into a little white box, which makes twenty-three numbers every twenty-four hours. One-hundred-sixty-one numbers a week. Six-hundred-forty-four numbers a month—bare minimum—makes for eight-thousand-three-hundred-ninety-five numbers a year. For any silicon, not so much. Even your microwave would laugh if you said eight thousand numbers, go. But where is go? Who keeps these numbers? Do they end up recycled for Powerball? Who mines them? Who sits there scrolling, string after string? Who ends up in the dark with a screen full of numbers?

Outside, downtown Brooklyn smells its grungy summer self: diesel and tar-melt, old squeegees and piss-on-metal. But inside, it’s all numbers and bodies. Tricks of pixel and my unique IP. Which sounds, yeah, a caliber of philosophy that doesn’t even give Double Rainbow Guy a run for his money. Except I can’t help it, User. I can’t help but notice the View Count, even when I just wanna get off. Unique IPs, identities we cast and can’t see. Like that icebreaker where people treat you like whatever famous person is written on your forehead. Only fun because of everybody else, but you can only play if you submit yourself. Everybody’s got their way of being a User. All I want is to have a favorite User who can’t be pinged back to my lonesome. You don’t know how good you’ve got it, bro. At least I’m watching you. Watching along with you. Out in Arkansas, you’re afraid of grocery tellers. Enough of us are, in fact, that we conjure whole economies out of minimizing routine face-to-face. But these Hungry Duckies: they just closed their eyes and swapped tongues. Or they used to. When they really happened. Not just in the video.

The Duck fell victim to a retired ballet dancer. One of Stalin’s favorites, an old prima donna named Olga Lepeshinskaya. When Olga became director of the committee that owned the building, she fluffed her foxtail boa and gave the Duck a mighty sniffle. A direct quote: “So you see that it is really quite impossible to have a Negro dancing with our Russian girls in a club here.” Once the Dying Swan turned up her nose, the Hungry Duck was doomed. In Russia, my dear freedom-farting User, eminent domain is more like imminent domination. I don’t know what happened to the G-stringed pharaohs. I don’t know what happened to the cotton-pantied duvishkis. No clue about the snub-nosed bouncers or the one-eyed hockey-glory narc. My Sims are lost to everything but the act of recall, but maybe Keven’s still roam somewhere on his hard drive. But what’s so hard about a drive? How did we get this goulash of terms? Google says the word save comes from an Old English word meaning “to keep whole,” which makes sense under the File menu, but that’s not what we mean when we save the princess. So who are you saving your data from? Delete means “to smudge away,” but here’s some computer trivia, User: when you delete a file, you’re not actually erasing or even writing over. You’re just telling the operating system to lose the link to that information and throw it into a space where it might later be overwritten. If at any point you want your info back, you need the operating system equivalent of white china sniffing greyhounds. Not knowing where to find the info becomes the same as not having it. When you throw something new on top of what you’ve already given up for gone, what does that mean? Double loss? Opposite of double rainbow? Oh your God so blight and voided?

Google says Doug Steele is still making money, but I don’t need heroin dogs to know that. One problem is you can use all the money numbers you haven’t lost for anything you want. This achieves relevance mostly when you make too much. A shit ton of the shit, if you will. That’s when you realize that money never crosses its arms and says “A girl’s got standards, asshole.” Capybaras fall over a lot, but money always lands on its feet. Carlin From His Blackberry will always find a way to straddle dolphins. Farmville, for Rape Camp’s sake, has a profit margin. Twenty-three numbers on a credit card. Unique IPs. Services and records. Options and opt ins. Needs and uses and Users.

“Seriously, you should do that in your room.”

Harper didn’t have her glasses on. Her eyes were red and swollen. She was still wearing the sweatshirt she showed up in, peppered with pins and buttons and handsewn patches. Her hair was matted, greasy. I was on a stool in the kitchen, and I didn’t hear her come up behind me. The apartment was dark and quiet—except for the window farm, the refrigerator, my laptop, and outside the wall-sized window all the feverish luminescence of signage and traffic. A flopsweat of light. Inside was the high-ceilinged, hardwood-decked common space where Horace and Harper are/were trying to sleep. Above us, insulation and exposed pipes. Central air’s pretty iffy, even on good days, which tonight is not. We’ve got cubbyhole bookshelves, a salvaged couch (bedbugs), and a snare drum of murky ownership. The kitchen, really, is a corner of the common space with appliances and counters. On top of the fridge, kombucha brews in a mason jar. A post-it on the jar says ABSOLUTELY NO TOUCHING! XOXO. Inside the fridge, @ coffee is overnight cold-brewing in a French press. Brewing is a go-to hobby in this house. Our electricity is 100% wind powered. How? Ask my housemates. They’re either crashed out upstairs or finger fucking every myth of boroughed youth. When I turned to Harper, I saw my screen reflected in the window like an overhead projector in front of class. Sprawled on the hardwood, Horace snored out his lips. I hit Apple-T to change tabs, but that didn’t work fast enough, so I shut the screen. My apple dimmed.

“My room gets shitty wireless,” I said.

Harper looked at the floor. “Are you like, a perv?”

I rubbed my eyes and leaned back, which I knew didn’t help my case. “Major perv. I’m trying to invent a new stratosphere of pervitude. So close, dude.” To call her “dude” was meant to bake some soft bond between us, but the fluky rhyme made me cringe. Harper knotted her eyebrows. She stared at the floor.

“Sorry,” I said. “Just kidding.”

“Yeah,” she mumbled.

“It’s for my job.”

Harper looked up. Hell hath no withering like a teenaged bullshit detector.

“Seriously,” I said. “I work for a video thing. I have to find these and delete them.” Lie toward simplicity, User. Bend pipes to wide net.

Harper wiped her nose on her sweatshirt. “Is there an all-night place?”

“Are you hungry?” I looked at the kombucha, the @. “I can make you something.”

“It’s okay. It’s—” she shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“No starving allowed.”

She shook her head again.

“Lemme grab you something. There’s a deli across the street. You shouldn’t go out by yourself.”

She bit her thumbnail. “Maybe a banana? I can give you money.”

I waved her off. “No worries. I can’t sleep.”

She watched me zip up my hoodie. When I got to the door, she said “Wait.” One of the patches on her sweatshirt was a skeleton with a deck of aces; one was a tiger under a rainbow. She nudged at the bridge of her nose, a phantom glasses tic. “Can I check my email?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

She sat on a stool at the kitchen counter and opened the laptop. A woman in only black stockings hunched over a bald pencil-neck in red boxers, her nails in his waistband. She was looking off to the side, tongue in cheek, eyebrows cocked. Sinister might be the assessment of a professional face reader. Or maybe not, more like mischievous. A professional, of course, could tell you if she’s faking. The man’s slacks were at his ankles. He had business shoes. You couldn’t see his face, only his dome. I was wrong, I guess, about no footage of slugs. Options interrupted one corner of the video: Export, Share, Full Screen. At the top of the browser was the title bar: “видео Sexy (Not Responding).” Harper tried to click a few different Xs, but nothing happened. “You want me to clear your history?” she said.

Neon that never goes off soaked through the window, flickered across the exposed pipes, glinted on the snare drum. Nobody owns it, but somebody keeps it clean. “Have you ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?” I asked.

“Mas-who?”

I went over to the computer and clicked on Apple, Force Quit. Harper tucked her hands under her legs. Horace snored. Kombucha brewed. Acres of numbers in the not-so-dark. Some dumb joke that goes I’ve only ever loved 1 and 0 people but in binary that’s all of them.

Once the Hungry Duck was gone—browser shipshaped to the Google home screen, cursor beckoning—Harper wiped off the touchpad with her sleeve. “I could’ve done that,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by ukberri.net at Flickr

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About Author

Mike Young is the author of the poetry collection We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (Publishing Genius, 2010), and the story collection Look! Look! Feathers (Word Riot Press, 2010). He co-edits NOÖ Journal and runs Magic Helicopter Press. He lives in Northampton, MA. Find him online at Dragonfly On a Dog Chain.

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