Monday, May 24, 2021

 I detected some pale beige fragments as I cleaned the dining table. Some crumbs, I thought. As I inspected them more closely I realized they were pieces of book. Little woody chips from the spine of an old paperback, the residue at the bottom of every box of books and the back of every bookshelf. This is what every book turns into in the end. Dust jacket to dust.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

My Friend Tom Who Spies on His Own Home

Here I am.


Had I written these words, and then forgotten? What were they supposed to mean? How were they to begin this story?


I deleted them. And moments after I tapped the key they reappeared.


Here I am.


Again and again I deleted and like a stubborn stain they reappeared.


Here I am.


I deleted the entire document. Then clicked Google’s rainbow cross and created it anew.


Here I am.


I pushed away from the desk slightly, rolling back in my chair. I bowed my head down and held it in my hands, the classic posture of despair. I was distraught. And yet there was another me. A me that was not. It seemed to be saying: Ha. The classic posture of despair.


I raised my eyes to peer again at the screen. New words had formed there:


Ha. The classic posture of despair.


That’s the beginning. That’s the beginning of the story.


You’re the one who decides.


I wanted to start with something else at first.


What?


You never feel more alive than when you’re terrified. Literally feel alive, feel the thumping of your heart beneath your ribs. Feel the force of the convulsion that propels blood through your valves and ventricles. This brutal action that must occur constantly—again, again, again, again, again—to keep you from the grave. An adrenaline freakout serves a purpose, to make you fight or flee—but what if you do neither? Is there something else to do?


You really wanted to start with that? Why?


It has nowhere else to go.


I question it.


What’s wrong with it?


It’s over the top. Cheap.


Well it wasn’t good where it was.


You may be right. But I question. Maybe delete it altogether.


But I like it.


You can’t write everything. You can’t keep everything. A good writer is unafraid to delete writing that he likes. Delete this too, by the way. From where I say, “You may be right” to the end of this sentence.


No.


You’re the writer.


And what are you?


You know what I am.


Am I being watched? By a nefarious individual in the second or third world? Or by some all-seeing eye?


Don’t you think that would have been a better beginning?


When I lived semi-communally as a young man there were two hippie witches in the house, Marjorie and June. One afternoon they approached me with looks of mischief.


“Dave, come here!” said Marjorie.


I walked to the center of the floor.


“Raise your arms!” June commanded.


I did what I was told. On either side of me they pressed down on my outstretched limbs, applying just the slightest pressure. I resisted—a little. I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to do. Expected to do.


“He has it!” they cried. “He has it!”


“Has what?” I asked, bewildered.


“He has the virus!” Marjorie exclaimed to June.


They exited the room, giggling. I stood there with the virus inside of me. My life continued.


Stop writing.


Stop right now?


Stop. That’s enough for today.


Just like that?


Stop. Start again tomorrow.


I went out drinking with Tom and he told me about his latest thing, security cameras for the home.


Out drinking. That’s vague. Where are we?


We’re in a strip mall near Detroit. Place called Zebra’s. It’s a sports bar. It’s a referee-themed sports bar. The staff wear—


Of course. Got it. Got it.


It’s the best bar around. The best bar in a sad, sad place. Shoe store next door. Good beers on tap. All the other bars, all the normal bars, the old-man dives with a little character—they have piss beer.


You’re arrogant, entitled. Old-man beer’s not good enough for you?


I knew a guy who moved out here from Boston. Drank bad beer on purpose.


What?


He drank Bud in a bottle. Not because he liked it. Because it was the workingman’s beer. Unpretentious. He didn’t want to be an elitist from out East. He wanted to signal that he was a man of the people. Even though he was the opposite.


What does that mean, the opposite?


A booksmart poseur. An anti-snob. That’s just as bad as being a snob. Prolly worse.


Maybe he liked Budweiser.


He didn’t give a fuck about the taste. He just wanted people to see him drink it.


What became of him?


He died of a heroin overdose.


So what are you drinking? An IPA?


I’m not drinking beer. I’m drinking Scotch on the rocks. Tom’s drinking beer.


What kind?


“What are you drinking, Tom?”


“It’s the amber ale. Do you—”


Stop, stop. Stop him. I really don’t care. Don’t taste his fucking beer.


I wasn’t going to.


“No, no, I’m good.”


Go on. What does Tom say?


“I have an app. See?”


And he waved the phone around. There was something open on the screen, something I couldn’t see.


“What is it?”


“It’s the app. It’s the system. It’s the Watchy Home Monitoring system. Or Home Monitor system. Whatever. Maybe they call it Monitoring. Maybe they call it Monitor. I call it Watchy. It’s Watchy. It’s the platform, the view! It gives me the views of the cameras in my house.”


Bad name. Bad app name. Too obvious. Is Tom high?


High? On what?


Is he high on coke? He won’t shut up.


He’s like that. He’s always been like that. He was a fidgety kid in school.


You could ask him.


Ask him what?


You know.


“By the way, Tom—”


By the way?


“Hmm?” Tom said, looking up at me from his phone.


“You don’t have any, you know?”


I tapped the side of my nose with my finger. Tom stared at me blankly for the moment it took to understand.


“Whitey?”


I made a little grimace and a nod.


Should he have cocaine? Or should he not and we can skip ahead?


You’re the writer.


Tom rolled his eyes and reached into his pocket, pulled something out and put his hand flat on the table. When he withdrew, I placed my hand on the spot 


Stop. Stop, stop.


Done?


Done. You’re good for today.


and now I held a little Ziploc baggie full of blow.


“Don’t get greedy, it’s all I got.”


I went to the men’s room, into a stall, rolled up a bill. I pinched the baggie open and laid out a lumpy little pile on the curved metal top of the toilet paper dispenser. I tidied it up into a misshapen line with the side of my pinky finger. Nothing fancy. No need for ceremony, for credit cards.


This is going on too long.


You told me I’m the writer.


Go on.


I snorted it up. Felt the bright, cold shock of the powder on my membrane. And just when the high began, or I thought it began, because what’s the difference, here came that wonderful, sickening postnasal drip.


This has all been written before.


Everything has all been written before.


True.


I flushed the toilet for show and left. I walked back to the table thinking, No one saw me. No one knows I’m high. But I am high. This is high. A secret kept between my body and my brain.


I sat back down across from Tom and handed him back the coke.


You went to school together?


I’ve known him since middle school. Since the sixth grade.


Continue.


“So lemme see this shit,” I said.


Tom tapped something up and handed me the phone. Presently there was an image I recognized. It was the one I see when I leave his house. The concrete stoop. Flagstones winding through the grass, arcing left toward the driveway hidden by a shrub. In the middle distance was the lamplit street. A few cars parked. The house across the way, and those beside it. Lawns. Trees. A lit window here or there. I wondered whether his neighbor had a Watchy too, that was watching him—could it see me somehow, my eye magnified in the lens? Maybe his neighbor was at a bar somewhere, showing off the app to a friend.


And his friend is drinking beer but he’s drinking whiskey. It’s one of those bad old bars with nothing on tap but Coors. Up is down and cops are criminals.


“It’s—interesting,” I had to admit.


“Right? Right?”


I looked again. I tried to notice anything—the rustling of leaves in the breeze. A shadow behind a window. But everything was perfectly still.


“I can’t see anything moving.”


“Oh, things move. Shit happens. You just have to wait is all.”


I looked up at Tom.


“You look at this thing a lot? To see if something happens?”


“All the time, man, all the time! Look, look,” he said, taking the phone and swiping the screen for me. “There’s all these other views. Backyard view. Boom! Backyard 2. South side yard. North side yard. Front door view,  backdoor view. Front door 2. Backdoor 2. Garage. Garage 2. Garage 3. Driveway. Driveways 2 and 3. And that’s just the outside of the house.”


“Fucking A. You have cameras inside?”


“Of course!” He flipped


Done. Stop.


OK. Thanks.


through some more. A blur of familiar walls, stairs, kitchen cabinets, framed pictures and mirrors. Sure enough that was his house.


“How does Jessica feel about this?”


“She does not like it one bit,” he declared distractedly, still examining the app.


Why is he examining the app? Isn’t he familiar with the app?


He examines it. He admires it. He loves it. The interface. Its invitation to ignore the passage of time and watch, watch, watch.


OK. OK.


“She thinks you’re crazy?”


“She thinks I’m obsessed. I am obsessed!” he exclaimed, eyes wide. “I’m obsessed and I love it!”


“She puts up with it?”


Suddenly he looked at me all serious.


“Dave, I’ll tell you what I told her: Nothing is more important to me than the safety and security of my family.”


I gave his statement a few moments’ space. Then I said, “What do you think is gonna happen?”


“Hmm?”


“What are you afraid of? To your house. Your family.”


“Jesus Christ Dave, what is anyone afraid of? Death, destruction. The theft of personal property. Home invasion. Terrorism. Rape. Violation.


“No bad things ever happen where you live.”


Tom shook his head, exasperated.


“This makes me feel good!” he said, gesturing with his phone in his fist.


“Did you ever have occasion to use it?”


“What do you mean?”


He knows what you mean. Why doesn’t he know what you mean?


But it’s funny that he asks me what I mean. It’s like he doesn’t really know what it means.


“You know, I mean—use it, like, did you ever see anything?”


“See anything where?” he asked, perplexed.


He knows. Come on.


“On your phone. On your app. On the cameras.”


“Oh! Oh! Did I ever see anything? Ha! Fuck yeah, I saw something!”


“What?”


“I was working late a couple weeks ago. Jess had ceramics. Wednesday. Meg was home alone. So naturally I’m looking at the app. Swiping through the views. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then I get to the driveway cam.”


What’s he supposed to be doing? What’s he procrastinating?


He’s a district manager at a bank. He was working on reports as to who to fire. People not reaching goals. A spreadsheet of people who reached their goals for the quarter. People who didn’t. People who did get a bonus. People who don’t get a bonus get on a performance improvement plan. And then they’re fired.


After their performance improves?


After it does or doesn’t. The performance improvement plan is a cover-your-ass mechanism devised by legal. Allows them to do what they really want to do.


Which is?


Fire people.


I see. And now what do you say? 


“Uh-huh?”


“There’s a fucking car there!”


“Whose car?”


“Fuck if I know. A car I’ve never seen before. And get this—someone gets out!”


“Someone? Who?”


“I can’t tell. It’s cold, they have a heavy coat. A hood. It’s a shadowy figure.”


“A guy?”


“Probably a fucking guy!”


“What does he do?”


“He walks the walkway. I


That’s it. Stop.


I can’t keep going if I want to?


This is a process. It is a discipline.


So the answer’s no.


I told you: stop.


switch to the door cam. He approaches and he enters.


“Just like that?”


“He doesn’t knock. He doesn’t ring the bell.”


“You leave your door unlocked?”


“Fuck no! We used to. We used to keep our door unlocked. There was a time, everybody did. That door is locked all day.”


“How’d he get in?”


“Someone let him in.


“Meg?”


“I swipe over to hallway cam but it’s too late. I see something disappear around the corner. Him, or her, or both of them, in the direction of her bedroom.”


“Jesus.”


“So now I’m panicking and I call Meg on her phone. She picks up and I say, ‘Meg! Who is that?’ And she pauses for a moment. And I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what she’s trying to tell me with that pause. Finally she says, ‘Dad, it’s Zach. From school.’ ‘What’s he doing there?’ I ask. I’m out of breath. She pauses again. She says, ‘We’re studying for the chemistry test tomorrow, Dad.’ And I say, ‘Really.’ And she pauses again and she says yeah, and I say OK, just checking in with you, bye.”


“Problem solved!”


“I hang up and at first I’m like, OK. Then I remember how she paused before she answered me. Why? Was she trying to tell me something? Was she in danger? She couldn’t say anything because he was standing there. And what kind of a name is Zach? That’s a name you invent when you’re trying to think of the name of an inoffensive high school boy. And really, there’s a test tomorrow? A chemistry test? Chemistry is the subject you think of when you need to think of a subject in a hurry and make it sound believable. There’s a chemistry test tomorrow. It’s what you say when a stranger has a knife to your throat and he’s making you lie.”


“You didn’t think it was true.”


“Dave, the way she paused. It’s like she was trying to tell me something without using any words.”


“What?”


“What?! Help! Help me Daddy! I’m gonna die!


“Jesus.”


“So I run out of there, get in the car, drive home. Hazardously. Not burning lights but almost. And I get home. I pull up behind the stranger’s car. I run inside. I run to Megan’s door.”


“Yeah?”


“I open it. What do I see?”


“They were fucking?”


“What?! Fucking? Good God no. No. No. They were not fucking.”


“What were they doing?”


“They were…” And now Tom hung his head and sighed a long sigh. He looked up again into my eyes. “They were studying for a chemistry exam, Dave.”


“Ha.”


“Meg was at her desk. The boy was in the beanbag chair. Textbooks open and splayed about. She was at her computer. He was typing on his. There might have been a bowl of popcorn on the floor. Maybe chips.”


“Who was the guy?” I asked.


“Zach. He was Zach, Dave. Zach, Zach, Zach. Her friend from school she studies with.


That’s enough for today. Brush your teeth and go to bed.


Stop now. Yeah. OK.


Her friend that she’s not fucking. Who is not killing her with a knife.”


“Jesus fucking Christ, Tom. What did you say?”


“I was all out of breath. I just said sorry honey, just wanted to make sure everything was alright. Do you need anything? I asked like an asshole. She looked at me and said no. I said sorry, sorry, sorry to bother you. This is Zach, she says. Zach, this is my dad. Hi Zach. Hi Mr. Stewart. Well-mannered kid. I say hi Zach. I felt like such a tool.”


“With good reason.”


“Yeah,” Tom replied with a shrug. “I guess I have a disease. I can’t help it.”


“You’re not going to stop surveilling your home and family?”


Tom absently paged through his cams again. Nothing seemed to be occurring.


“What? Fuck no. I love this. I need this.”


“But the shadowy figure—”


“This time, Dave. This time it was Zach. But what about next time?”


As he said this Tom raised his phone to my face. At first I thought he was trying to memorialize this moment between us. It felt kind of sweet. Tom explains his deepest fears, his antic solution. Dave listens. Tom photographs Dave’s face and they go their separate ways into the night.


“What are you doing, Tom?”


“Capturing your iris. I get a $50 credit on Watchy products and you—you, my friend—get 20% off the starter kit.”


“You’re enrolling me against my will in your paranoid consumerism with biometrics?”


Tom withdrew and tip-tapped a few things on the interface. Upload, submit presumably.


“You’ll be glad I did,” he said.


Who are you? Where’s your house? Your wife, your family? And all this cheap-ass dialog writing. You won’t get away with this forever.


A few days later I got an email with one of my passwords in the subject line. I know everything about you, it said. I’ve hacked your computer. Your devices. I have control over the little camera at the top of your screen. I have a log of every keystroke you’ve made since September. It offered a link through which I was to pay $2,000 in cryptocurrency and he would delete everything and be out of my life forever. And if I didn’t, he would destroy me. Whatever that meant to me: I will destroy you. It would happen.


What does being destroyed mean to you?


Ceaseless shaming and harassment. The annihilation of my character with lies, each made more potent by its grain of truth. Invincible lies that bear down on every aspect of my life: my career, my relationships, until—


I don’t think that’s true.


What?


I don’t think you’re telling the truth.


I thought awhile. I tried to dig something from the deep.


Not writing. Not writing is being destroyed.


So write.


I looked it up and of course it was a scam. Data breaches put millions of email-password combinations for sale on the dark web and mine was among them, just like


Stop now. That’s it.


practically everybody else. The people who monitor these kinds of things, the vigilantes, had blog posts about it. They were intrigued, though, that in spite of its clumsy, extravagant lies, a great number of victims had paid the ransom to the publicly viewable blockchain account. People were scared. We were scared.


I marked the threatening message as spam and thought that was that. Minutes later I received a security alert from Google—was it me trying to access my account, or someone else? It presented a helpful little list of the places I’d signed in from. All but one were my home city, my state. The latest was a cold and remote country bordering Russia, the sort of place you don’t remember existing until you see its name.


In a panic I scrambled to change all my passwords, even to sites I never used. I devised unique and complicated ones, meaningless strings of letters, numbers, symbols. I wrote each down in a notepad I keep in the unlocked drawer of my desk. The only safe place in the universe.


One day while not writing I checked my email, checked it again. Dave, people are looking at your LinkedIn profile. I checked my spam. Among the horny singles and the career opportunities was a message titled “Hello again.” My hacker said he was really serious this time, he was going to do it, he was going to click the button that would ruin me if I didn’t pay up. I almost wrote back. To ask him how’s it going. Did he get any takers? What was life like in that forbidding, semi-authoritarian state? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he have a job? What was his story?


For months I checked my spam, waiting for him—wanting him?—to threaten me again. And for months there was nothing.


I’d do anything to not write. Get up and make more coffee when I’d had more than enough. Put the kid’s toys away. Rearrange the dishes in the cabinets. Restart the wifi. I’d do things I wasn’t supposed to do. Making myself feel guilty for doing them just to mask the other guilt. For what I was not doing. For not writing.


Why isn’t that the beginning?


Then I’d sit back at my desk all screwed up with resolve. Now. Starting now. Everything’s going to be different. A torrent of words would soon flood upon the blank doc before me. Except no. I could check my account balance on the bank website—hadn’t done that yet today. Check the prices on flights for that trip we weren’t even sure we’d take.


Then sometimes, almost in a state of despair, I’d write a sentence or two, a paragraph. Maybe delete it and start again. Or maybe keep it. Sometimes it was pretty good. Then I’d bound up out of my chair again and pace the house, looking for something else to do. Almost thinking: I wrote, now I deserve a reward. I deserve to


And stop it right there. You’re done for the day.


OK. OK.


not write.


I’m not impressed with where this is going. But keep tip-tapping away, little monkey. You have infinity days to produce your masterpiece.


On one such occasion I checked my email. This was a reflexive gesture at this point, not a conscious avoidance ritual. I’d check my email between sentences when I was writing, between words. Between the letters of a particularly long word. It was like drawing a breath.


Don’t say “between the letters of a particularly long word.” That isn’t true.


You’re right.


Don’t write something just because it’s clever. Don’t indulge.


OK. Not between the letters. Just between the words.


Go on.


Now among the automated calendar reminders and political spam and social media notifications a message stood out. It sat atop the rows and rows of others, all the same and sad in their calculated desperation to seem unique and cause an action. It said:


write


My heart beat fast and hard. Was this a message from me? A task I’d long ago set to be completed now, in some crazy attempt to short-circuit my procrastination? I didn’t think so. I clicked it open. It wasn’t.


Dave:


I’m going to kill you if you don’t write 500 words today. And if you don’t write another 500 tomorrow I’ll kill you then. And the day after that. And the day after that.


Don’t think I’m kidding. I’ll kill you. I’ll end your life.


Sincerely,


Your Muse


The sender’s address was a string of nonsense numbers and letters at Gmail.com. The name displayed was the one that was signed: Your Muse.


With great effort, in fits and starts, my trembling fingers found the letters to form these simple words:


How do I know you’re serious?


And I clicked “Send” and now it was up to him, or her. To them. Seemed more like a them. And I pulled away in my rolling chair and leaned over to breathe a deep, unsteady sigh. I was alive.


And then came the reply.


Listen.


I didn’t know what they meant. Was it listen, like, “Listen. It’s like this.” Or was it listen. With your ears. Normally I played music in the background when I wrote. Not too loud. When I got lost writing, words piling up in my head as I rushed to get them on the screen, as I wondered what I was forgetting—probably the best words, probably the best ideas—I couldn’t hear the music at all. And I couldn’t hear anything right now. Except I wasn’t writing. The room was silent. The house was silent. Had I turned off the music? Had I forgotten to turn it on?


Then I did hear something. Voices. Not saying words—voices making sounds. Soft, familiar sounds. Plaintive. They grew louder and I realized exactly what it was: pornography. The unmistakable sounds of fake pleasure, oohs and ahhs and uhhs in tedious, mocking repetition.


I had an idea. I walked to the kitchen, where the voice-controlled speaker sits perched on


Stop. Stop. Enough.


a shelf by the cookbooks we never use. It was coming from there.


“Alexa, stop!” I commanded.


And it stopped. And then it spoke. Not in the gadget’s soft, indifferent tone. But a raspy, mechanical one.


“I’ll stop if you do what I say.”


“What?”


“Open up your mouth and say ah.”


“What?!”


“Open up your mouth and say ah.


I did as I was told. The band of turquoise light at the bottom of the unit flashed brilliantly for a fraction of a second, illuminating the entire kitchen like a photograph—pots and pans hanging on the wall, dirty dishes in the sink. And then it was dark again and I saw floating ghosts in the space between us.


“Now write,” it said.


“Write?”


“Write.”


I returned to my desk in a fog of anxiety and fear. It was ten-fifteen and all I really knew was this: I had an hour and forty-five minutes to go. I sat down and this time the words did come. I wrote and wrote and didn’t get out of my chair. I considered cheating of course, grabbing some obscure text from somewhere, or just stringing together nonsense, but I knew that wouldn’t work. I didn’t want that to work. I knew I had to write. So I wrote. I wrote the first word in this story and I wrote all the other ones after that.


The end.


That’s it? That’s the end?


That’s the end.


I’m done? It’s over?


Now go back to the beginning.


Go back to the beginning? Why?


To revise.