Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Many

It began when we were an I. Back when the plenty were the spare. When the rain was but a drop. And so it shall be told.

I would wake up at the end of the day. This was an improvement as it used to be that I would wake up on the shuttle watching the lights of the traffic makes some celestial pattern. My head would be nodding back and forth and suddenly, I was awake. Time went on and my ability to not know where and what was going on improved to the point where I actually made it all the way through work and didn’t wake up till the shuttle was on its way back to my precinct. It was a sullen feeling no coffee nor tea could cure. It’s strange really. The routine of my life was like an autistic kid plunking on one string on an out of tune guitar all day. Plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. It is a song you wouldn’t listen to. Something in the genre of a faucet you can’t fix or the snoring of an elderly man on an airplane.

When life is lived in this truly burned out state, you can play with time in a strange way. For example, as opposed to running in a linear line, you could secretly hopscotch through life. Just kind of bounce around. Each moment you make a pot of coffee is connected to the next moment you make coffee. Each moment you get heart burn is connected to the next moment you have heart burn. Each time you have macaroni and cheese is just one long yellow meal of mac-n-cheese. That morning I was in the midst of one long moment of feeling like a turd. One loooong moment of it. But that day, so it turns out, was special.

A new computer program did it really. I was in the far wing making my calls and checking the G.P.S. when I got word that an agent would be introducing new protocol. I was skeptical. Strangely, I was somehow deeply defensive about the naturally moribund system already in place. More new systems that would confuse the parolees and me making more paperwork for someone to feel important. This business (and it really is a business) is just too corrupt and I don’t even care. I will call it what it is, but I don’t particularly feel bad about it either. It is corrupt. But corruption, my friend, is just gods little way of reminding us that most people want to win. Not me. I lost track of the game a long time ago. So the agent showed up. Despite the look of consternation on my face I must admit feeling a pang of relief. My eyes hurt from staring at the computer too long. My legs felt that familiar end of the day atrophy sensation.

He introduced us to a new program for monitoring parolees. It was called I-Watch and as far as I could tell, that was what it was meant to do. You could simply watch. A modified tool for people whose job it is to look at people. I am a guard by the way. I protect you from them I guess. That is the thing with new programs. They always have some fancy name for something really obvious. I did programming back before I got into this and even worked in the field for a while. I just got laid off because, I kind of stopped caring. In a job like that you have to care even if just a little. So anyway, this obvious program was to allow you to see from the perspective of the parolee. Its purpose was to simplify our checks. We could at any moment know exactly what they were doing and we could always wear these clumsy microphones to talk to the parolee. Simple.

They then read a long list of what were appropriate questions, when it was appropriate to talk, on and on with an even longer and more tedious list of ethical responsibilities. It was one of those moments where in essence they are saying, we just invented an even more invasive technology, but will try to feel less insidious about it by reading a long list of appropriate behaviors that one should, but ultimately not, use. But fine. That is how it is. This new system would replace the calls. It was an obvious improvement. I realized I would no longer be staring at that map of Philadelphia any more. It was almost a part of me. I kissed that part good-bye.

And so I began to be the beta-tester for I-Watch. Initially it really wasn’t that different than making phone calls and watching a map. I would check in with the observant, see them at the quarantine center sitting at a computer doing nothing and would click out. Wasn’t much to talk about really. What would you say? So, are you sitting at your computer? The answer was obviously yes. Although there is something funny about watching someone on a computer in that I would be using a computer to watch someone looking at a computer. We could almost skip one of us or something. Anyway, so I would just click around. Of the fifteen observants I had under my watch, only one of them really did anything worth watching. That was Simon. What made him sort of different and worthwhile was that he would actually use his eyes. He noticed things. Hairline cracks in the sidewalks. Receipts in the gutters. The purses women tucked under their arms. The backs of people’s heads on the train. The flutter of leaves as a wind picked up. As tedious as that all sounds, I found watching the world through his eyes enjoyable. It passed the time.

As the days went on, I found myself increasingly on Simon’s page. Just sitting there. I would start by an early morning scan of the rest and then sort of relax with Simon. It was like cable but a bit different. For one thing, I could talk to him. Not that I did all that much. Not in the beginning. I would just let him know I was there. His cell was humble by most standards. He had these great RESISTANCE posters on the wall from the overthrow that blazed with strident reds and bold letters. He had some African sculptures he had made, a standard single bed with a grey cotton blanket and a bunch of books on horticulture he kept on a shelf. He had a routine as well. He would tie his shoes backwards. Well at least backwards from how I tie mine. He always placed his toothbrush with a clink on the sink. Dink. It was like the timpani in his day. Dink. He always downed his milk in the cafeteria in one motion. Just gone. His day work was a grounds landscaping. Talk about routine. I would watch glassy eyed as he would pull weeds up one after the other. The camera wasn’t perfect resolution and when he would really pick up speed the screen would turn into a swirling ocean of green. Just a blur of methodical movement. Woosh woosh woosh. I enjoyed that. I could see his hands turning up the earth and the roots poking out. You could almost smell it. I would sometimes say to him, you’re working too hard or help him out if I saw him miss something. He appreciated that and well, we began to be friends.

One afternoon, Simon took us on a walk. I had been talking to him about how he needed to mix up his rest-day. He always went to this far corner of this park and would just stare at the sky like he was stoned. But he wasn’t. I would know of course. And I enjoyed staring at that sky for a while. The sun would play dizzying tricks on the clouds and occasionally flocks of birds would make hypnotic specs as they flew by in formation. It was picturesque to say the least. After the first two hours of trying to stay tuned to his zen like meditation I would get fidgety and scroll through the other observants. One of the others, Fran, would avidly do crosswords and I would try to keep up with him. But it wasn’t easy really. I had to enjoy the way he scribbled out the clues as he went along. Frenetic swirling scratches in blue pen. Another observant, Midge, would spend most of his day looking at porn, which, well, is technically against the rules, but I let it slide, because, I kind of liked looking at it too. So, there were some distractions while Simon stared out at the sky. But this afternoon I spoke to Simon and asked if he wouldn’t mind doing something else. He was always very gentle and said he would happily. What would I like to do?

I asked if he wouldn’t mind showing me the people of the quarantine home. Who he liked. Who he didn’t. It would be a sort of human safari with my observant guide. This is Miguel. You will notice his bellbottom jeans, his dirty flannel shirt, his swagger to the left, the smoke stains on his fingers. He balls his fists up when he walks and he likes his shirts to show off the few hairs on his chest. His wallet hangs just above his back pocket with the black leather worn down in the corner. He looks like a tough guy because, well, he is a tough guy. This is Nicholas. He’s constantly discussing Cajun food. He has a slightly reddish beard and bad teeth. His left incisor is sort of yellower than the others. He has tired eyes. The kind that don’t ever seem to wake up. You can hear the southern twang in his voice and his evident pleasure with himself. I would look them over and Simon would whisper his narratives to me. He had a funny way of describing folks. Like me, he didn’t really have much of an opinion of people, good or bad. But he did enjoy describing them. I sometimes would have to tell him to be quiet so I could try to make my own opinion about an inmate. At the end of day, Simon went back to his cell. As he untied his shoes, he asked me if I wouldn’t mind upgrading his quarantine cell. Consider it a tour guide fee. It was perfectly reasonable and I set it up.

And so began that fateful dynamic.

Trading is what we called it. I get his body for a while and I do him favors. I figure of fifteen observants, I could at least have one target of leniency. It was a reasonable tit for tat. It was like getting cable for free without a narrative. I liked to think it was a reality television show without a story. It was just a series of obscure moments connected by a body in space. I would have Simon stare into the dishwasher with the safety door open so I could see the streams of water pour off the plates. Watch the sausage bits cling resiliently to the porcelain before tumbling effortlessly down toward the drainage bin. I was on a water kick for a while. We would go to the pool together and I could watch everyone’s slow limbs treading like they were conducting an aquatic symphony. Watch the crystal white water slap up against the side of the pool. Watch the splash glisten in the fluorescent light as the body of a speedo-wearing child bisects the undulating horizon. Head to a lake, get a canoe, put my head over the side of the boat and just watch the world move below. A rotoscope of smoothed over boulders, pebbles, tadpoles, ripples. A landscape below the landscape with an abundance of glittering golden hues. In return, lets say, Simon’s cell began to look possibly a little too upgraded.

I would go home after work thinking about everything I had seen that day. I would dream of the hubbub and the movement of the men down the narrow hallways. The jiggling of the perspective. The fuzzy edges of the frame. The hypnotic bounce of the camera as it took in a world that was supposedly out there existing. Radiating. I saw myself sitting in that canoe again. My fingers holding onto the metallic boats edge. My hair blowing in that dusk wind. I could feel my index finger on the threads of his shoelaces, tying them up backwards, making perfect bows. I rocked back and forth on that lake and watched the moon push past the sky and plunge down to the earth and buoy back the light.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that the word got out. Fortunately, it was Fran since, well, he was one of the more interesting of the rest. In essence, whether Simon told him or Fran figured out I don’t know, word got out that I was trading favors. I found out when Simon broached the subject with me as he woke up in the morning. Fran didn’t want to rat me out so much as wanted in. He wanted in on the trading. Rat me out or not, I had to comply. I was in a precarious situation. I liked Simon so much, but at the same time, there was an inflation going on with the trading. How much more could I provide without jeopardizing my situation?

I was heading down this path and I knew it was leading toward me getting fired. The same thing happened at my software job. I just began playing solitaire on the computer screen everyday. Watching the brilliant red diamonds lay out on top of the black hole clubs and spades. Often my eyes would unfocus and they were just a blur of stacked ruins. A digital tombstone for my hair’s breath of a life. I barely played. I just enjoyed killing time with a sort of passive aggression bordering on nihilism. Over and over the cards piled up on the screen. Whether I won or lost, I would just keep playing. I entered a wormhole of total dissolution and it felt fine. It wasn’t long after that I lost my job.

In this case, it was the same aggression but it wasn’t nihilism. It was like a dream so vivid you didn’t want to wake. You had to keep sleeping. Hitting snooze over and over as the mood of your slumber overwhelmed you. After considering it, I figured I would use each observant for a different set of desires. Simon would be for watching. Fran for doing. I started off so rudimentary. Laundry. Post office. I then graduated to much better tasks like visiting places I used to go. I decided to pay my niece Chloe a visit. She was my screwed up sister’s daughter who somehow managed to be a genius. For reasons I was never clear on, she liked me. She would make me stupid greeting cards when I would visit her that was so adorable. Like a drawing of ant carrying a leaf with a heading saying, “Small is big.” I have no idea what she talks about but that is part of her charm. So anyway, she was a crossing guard at her school and I just wanted Fran to have her walk him across the street. As part of her duties, she wore a big yellow plastic hat and a silver badge pinned to her shirt. That day, she was wearing a white skirt with snoopy on it and a bandaid on her right knee. Fran waited for the traffic and looked her over for me. She was amazing. I had this urge to tell Fran to pick her up and hug her, but thank God I refrained. That would have been a total disaster. Instead, he calmly walked across the street as she waded out into the road and blew her whistle for him to pass. There she was. Just out there doing her thing. Alone and on auto pilot for a moment in time. I felt a pang of wonderment and fear as I pictured her orchestrating this task in the cold wilderness of this world. How can something so small feel so whimsical and safe in this dread hole of a planet? I admit it was an odd request for Fran to visit Chloe so I really needed to pay him off. He found himself the proud owner of a year’s package of an extra free day per week. But who is kidding whom? A free day for Fran is a free day for me.

I must admit a fear that tickled the back of my throat as we pushed further and further into this symbiotic existence. My body was falling away and I would vacillate between panic and euphoria. I could sense on the horizon something like an afterlife on earth full of religious wonder. Not that I was religious by any stretch, but that I was strangely heading into untrammeled territory. I was an explorer of a psychological terrain heretofore unknown. I stook on a vista looking over a valley so vast and full of new fruits and vegetables, my mouth watered to descend and taste them. I really was on the cusp of something extraordinary. I could feel its importance as I delved deeper. There just wasn’t any stopping.

As time passed, we developed many maneuvers together to make this thing work. Fran and Simon would partner up on projects as I moved deftly between them giving them instructions. We even attempted basketball where I would direct them against other players. Admittedly, basketball was a clunky endeavor but I enjoyed trying it. Video games with people. It felt great. Contrary to every other experience in my life, this one got more interesting the longer I did it. I did occasionally have a desire to use them in what might be considered unethical ways. While I might have them both look at a hot girl from multiple vantage points, I stopped myself from ever acting on anything. These guys were my friends. I didn’t want to get them in trouble. But I could sense the temptation. My distance made my actions sort of, well, fake. I was one step away from moral responsibility. Maybe one step is all it takes. Would god consider this cheating?

But of course good things can not last forever and especially in a crappy job/life like mine. Word came down that I was being reprimanded for giving out too many benefits to the observants. My reward structure (otherwise known to me as my currency) was finally catching the attention of the higher ups. I had to scale back. This news wasn’t popular over in surveillance land, as I had to tell Simon and Fran that frankly the well was dry. They grumbled and Fran and Simon even went so far as to go on strike, refusing to let me tell them what to do. I would look through their eyes and find myself back on crosswords and shoelaces. “Oh no,” I thought. “What a total mess.” I couldn’t go back. Not to that dreary life of semi-living monotony.

I can’t say for sure who thought of it first. It was probably all of us at the same time, but the proposition was put forth that maybe, I could reverse the engineering. Maybe I could trade myself, just as they did? It would require sneaking them some gear but it was all rather simple in and of itself. A basic remote video camera was really all it required. The proposition was that I would trade myself after work and they would trade themselves during. Tit for tat. Maybe I was the tat. Who can say? So this got off to a clunky start. I found myself somewhat embarrassed following their orders as I made my way home on the train. When I would look through Simon’s eyes, he would look at the most amazing things. I, on the other hand, found myself desperate to be an interesting host. Trying to gain that luster of curiosity that seemed to emanate from Simon. Instead, they would use me to do the most banal of daily tasks like delivering goods and doing laundry. I really was a bit of a menial whore, but I acquiesced. This relationship would inevitably evolve.

In those last months, the world of myself, changed in crazy ways. I would have Fran’s dreams and he would have mine. I would hear him cough and cover my mouth. I would see a girl and he would turn his head. We used to have to tell each other with words, but rapidly, we began to develop silent codes. Simple typed instructions like “left” “smile” joy” “pain” would be enough to get the reaction we needed. We were becoming each other and at first I was scared. I was losing track of me. Not only was I losing track of me, but I liked the others more. I wanted out. I wanted another body and I had gained two. I realized that I didn’t need to worry whether Simon was looking at things or I was. Either way, we saw the same thing. We were looking. We were doing things. We were dreaming. It was just these bodies that separated us. Our minds were a dreamy sweet unit. These were my last thoughts. They fell away and I awoke descending into that valley, eating new fruits and vegetables that mankind will taste in abundance soon.

We became a squadron, a team. We learned to compromise in order to make the totality of who we were more potent. The sum of our actions out measured the individual parts in quantities too vast to count. It was an inevitability that was with us all along but only obvious in retrospect. We would look back at the past as thought it was a lost era in time. An era when we had been under a spell of mythic specific bodies. It was an era that was strangely claustrophobic. Now, we were together. Our wings could expand. We had agreed that the job holder would have to quit the job as the network for controlling this didn’t even require us being there. We could make this work anywhere, and why limit ourselves by having a part stuck in one place? We needed to expand and be constantly in mutual trading. We would work simultaneously and escape the banality of shifting between the parts. We became so versed in communications that we acted as one unit. One motion. One body. So the guard job was dropped and we were able to evade the parole by having parts outside the legal jurisdiction.

We gained new members. Their integration into our communication systems took some time, but as we expanded more rapidly, we developed a portion of the team that dealt specifically with integration. While we originally began inside the confines of a parole condition, we rapidly integrated non-parole parts. Free people if you will. The quantities of pleasure grew exponentially as we shared our efforts toward a collective service. Our bodies and minds intertwined in a collective energy so profound, we all could only gasp at the heavenly world that opened up before us.

We expanded rapidly across the free world. We were acutely aware of how strange we must appear to those not integrated into our being. The word got out about a growing cult. That is how they initially thought of us. A cult. So funny. We made agreements to not display any type of behavior too different from the non-integrated. Quietly, however, we were rapidly developing a new language and culture that mystified us. It was critical that we appear to the non-integrated as well, something extremely useful. Something productive. It was the maximizing of their individual efforts that was the lure for them to be integrated. They were so funny in the way they naively accepted their autonomy. They resisted us in the most vengeful terrified ways. As though integration would take their soul away. What a strange world. But how could they know?

I surely didn’t. I suppose I was born somewhere in the first movement. Somewhere around the acceleration phase of forty parts. I am familiar with a hidden origin story where the penal system had forced observation components on individuals. It’s strange, but there was a time when no one was integrated. Just parts everywhere. It is an odd way to start and I can’t say for sure why I am alive. But I am. I am some sort of new being that terrifies the non-integrated like crazy. It bums me out, because I really don’t want to scare them. I realize they are potential parts of me, but I have grown ok with not completely expanding. Its hard staying alive. Some parts of me are so tired of working on the expansion components and other parts are exhausted from procreating new parts. It is like my bodies hurt. Nonetheless, I am excited and scared. The world is so new and as vast. I see it from hundreds of thousands of angles and its luminous magic sparkles bright. It’s like mysterious eyes of a fly. I see in a kaleidoscope that reaches across the world in three dimensions with dumping waterfalls, blowing grass, the whirring of fans, the leaking of faucets, and the benevolent sunsets that bless the skies at all times the world over. The planet’s crisp wonder only magnified and expanded in ways that take your breath away. I have sort of escaped time. More exactly, it has stretched to contain what I am. I am ever and I know I am new. It is true I have a beginning but not clear whither my end. I am not like anything the world has seen, but soon enough the world we see itself through its own precious eyes. They are mine.

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