I ate too much ice cream at the Mexican
restaurant. The baby fussed. My wife made a snide remark about the mariachi band.
We were punished.
When we returned home from A Través de la Manada,
we discovered that our two oldest kids--one boy and one girl--were
The Metsys knows best.
I got a new vehicle; a Big Black
Truck. It’s shiny as polished obsidian, with a beastly engine under the hood.
But the two oldest children are gone.
The Metsys gives and The Metsys takes away. A harsh lesson, but to whom would I
We must remain amiable, moderate and
polite. Go along to get along. Those qualities are rewarded.
I can’t remember the names of the
My wife is hosting a party.
The women in her theater troupe have
assembled at our home for their Recognitions. My wife is all aflutter. I
suppose that is to be expected. The women have congregated in a room separated
from the rest of the house by a vault-like door.
There is sad news, but my wife seems
to be enjoying her moment so I bear the news alone.
The baby has done something wrong. Perhaps
a sin of pride or anger but I don’t know for certain. I came in to the room
after it happened. The punishment had already been carried out.
The Metsys has put the baby down one
of the many white plastic Punishment Tubes that protrude from the living room
floor. Most of their length runs beneath the house. The tubes are only about
six inches wide but I know she’s down there.
I kneel and listen.
Her voice is urgent, but not yet
fearful. That will come. As for what comes after that, I do not know.
Sometimes if The Metsys doesn’t think
the offender has learned the appropriate lesson, he or she simply stays in the
tubes. The Punished One remains alone below, until they go mad, starve and
depart. Only then will a member of the Departure Department arrive. I have
heard the empty shell is sucked back out through the tube. It must be quite a
job when disposing of a full-grown.
For their part, the family is
expected to go about their daily routine while all of this is happening. The
guilty is always within earshot, never in sight.
The baby calls me again. More
plaintive this time and coming from a different tube, judging from the sound of
I lick my lips and crouch. I reach my
hand into one of the tube and pull out a fist full of leaves, small sticks and
a variety of dried flower petals.
Each of the tubes contains something
different. One has gum balls. Another holds smooth stones. This one is filled
with shiny copper coins. That one is packed with hourglass sand. But they all
serve the same purpose: separation between those on the inside of the house and
those banished to the tubes.
The detritus falls from my hands and
scatters on the floor. I grab two more fists full before I realize what I’m
doing. I can’t fight The Metsys’ decision on this matter, nor can I pull a baby
from a six-inch-wide opening. I hurriedly sweep up the twigs and petals and put
them back in the tube’s mouth. My heart pounds.
For a moment there I defied.
Eyes and Spies everywhere and I forgot my role, my duty in this society. I hold
my pose and my breath. Will The Metsys come for me?
I admit the sound of my baby’s cries
makes me sad, but the thought of The Metsys exacting punishment on me for
defying a Decision Made chills the marrow in my bones.
We must all remain industrious,
humble and truthful. Aspire to acquire, shirk sin, and never break the rules. Rules
subject to change without notice.
The Metsys knows best.
I find something else to do. I
remember my wife’s party, the women in her theater troupe.
My wife put their head shots on
display in our living room, though the party is behind locked doors. I get my
camera. I take pictures of their pictures. (Perhaps I photograph their
photographs?) Yes, that sounds more ‘upscale’. They’ll want copies. I’ll need
their contact information.
I go to the door where the party is.
I try the knob but it’s cold and unyielding. This mirrors the mood of the women
within. I had hoped to be allowed access. To be passed around, even; to use and
be used. Not all of the women are beautiful, but some of them are. I would go
willingly. I would do or say whatever they asked of me, if only The Metsys
would lend me some guidance.
I am submissive, attentive, and self-sacrificial.
I keep expecting to be rewarded, but no. I wonder if I am going about it all
wrong. The lapses in judgment—like reaching
into the tube earlier—do not help my
station. This humble man must rise to a new low.
I hear laughter and music from
within; a muted trumpet and sliding double bass.
My wife bursts from the locked room,
sees me waiting and puts her smile away for a more suitable occasion.
She staggers past me and in her hurry
to leave me behind knocks over some acquired items from an end table. I set
things right and she returns with her arms full.
A bottle of wine. Another of
champagne. Flavored lubricant.
A gleaming meat cleaver.
Her left pupil has fully dilated. I
feel curiously off balance when she looks at me.
Which side of her brain is she
?with thinking I am brain my of side
My wife tips her head at our various
antique sound systems interspersed throughout the living room. She fixes her
gaze on a palm-sized device lying on the corner of an end table. I press the
‘Play’ button. Her curt voice issues from its tiny speaker.
“I’m taping a tape and recording a
record. Keep them going until I get back.”
I start to reply but she is already returned
to the party. I remember then that I wanted to tell her something important. The
big news! Good grief! How had I forgotten? I meant to let her know what had
I hurry after her but she closes the
door in my face.
I wanted to tell her that I took
photographs of the photographs.
She’d want to know that.
After working the expected allotment
of time I power down the terminals, turn off the lighting and use a hand signal
to release the spooky little sparrow of a coworker. She steps out the door. I mentally
set the alarm code to the building and enter the parking garage. I see the girl’s
black trench coat billowing in the night air. She doesn’t look back but I know
that she knows.
She relishes this part of the job
more than I do, though I will never admit as much.
I count to twenty to give the girl a
head start. Then I start my Big Black Truck.
The pipes roar as I press down on the
accelerator. The houses line up along the street for inspection. I angle onto
the sidewalk and race down the block in the direction she has gone. My tires
roll over a kid’s bicycle, a doll (I think) and two plastic fruit bushes, but
not the girl. She’s hidden herself well and is as easy to find as a shadow at
moonless midnight. I circle one block, then another.
The girl loses herself in the
darkness and so gains another day of WorkLife. We’ll see each other again in
the morning. This system was put in place to by the Council of Bosses. I can’t
complain. If I didn’t have tenure, it would be me running each night at closing
I roar down the highway in my Big
Black Truck. I turn up the sound system. The music is a bombastic cacophony of
computer generated sounds. I turn it up and try to keep a beat by pounding my
fists on the steering wheel, the dash, and my temples.
I try not to think about the
information processed today. I collect reports of incidents of obsolescence.
The girl and I tabulate, compare, graph, chart, compile. Today four incidents
of obsolescence came in regarding the tabulation, comparison, graphing,
charting and compiling of incidents of obsolescence. That’s up three from yesterday.
This trend distresses me.
How long will I be able to justify my
I force myself to consider other
The sky looks gorgeous at this time
of night. Through my windshield I see bright blues and vibrant reds, colors so
vivid I struggle with their reality. I think the reds are bad and the blues are
good, but I’m not sure. The Metsys is ever changing, though paradoxically
always remaining the same.
I feel lost. Not quite one with The Metsys.
My tires slice through the puddles of
recent rain that pockmark this stretch of road. My Big Black Truck fishtails
for a few moments, then finds the asphalt and shoots forward. I press down on
the accelerator. The engine roars, bellows, shrieks in response.
I still want to go faster.
I outrun all the other transports on
the freeway. Could I use my Big Black Truck to outrun my life? There’s a part
of me that wishes...
Being industrious, loyal and
conscientious should be enough to achieve happiness. Recycle. Tell the truth.
Keep the balance. Bounce back from setbacks.
Be a cork. Corks don’t sink, no
matter how deep, how polluted the ocean.
The Metsys knows best.
An old-fashioned police cruiser
passes me going the opposite direction. For a brief moment I’m fearful of a
ticket or further punishment. Then I realize a policeman would never stop me.
Everyone knows Big Black Trucks are gifts from The Metsys. The police, largely
figureheads to begin with, can only assist motorists. They cannot punish.
That’s the role of The Metsys.
I turn my thoughts from the police
back to my life. I tremble as I pass the next mile marker.
I bellow my impotent rage at the
radiant skies. My truck echoes my sentiments.
My Big. Black. Truck.
Lying in the dark beside my wife, I
stare at the ceiling and try to think. It's hard to stay focused. The baby
screams all night from somewhere in the pipes.
Today is the proper day for me to pay
my respects to The Metsys. My wife has
yet to emerge from the party room. I hope she remembers today’s significance.
A Beautiful Greeter with a serene
smile waits at the gates surrounding the great marble structure. By way of an
elegant gesture she indicates that I may pass.
Alongside the narrow street I spot
the girl. Today the spooky little sparrow floats within a crimson cape and
hood. I admire her dedication. I know why she’s here. We all want to impress
The Metsys today.
I realize she’s hoping I will help
elevate her standing. I press down on the brake pedal and swerve my Big Black
Truck. She dodges at the last second, but staggers and leans against the marble
wall, playing it up. I flip her off and stomp on the accelerator. She disappears
in a black exhaust cloud.
It never hurts to put on a show when one
knows the Eyes and Spies of The Metsys are watching. Surely The Metsys will be
pleased with both of us.
Inside the great marble structure, I
kneel and face the floor until an Emissary approaches.
“Your son is already here,” he tells
me. His voice is condescendingly jovial.
I know right away he’s not talking about
the oldest boy. This is my five-year-old he’s referencing.
Damn it. That kid is always in my
hair, demanding my attention. We spent Quality Time together only two weeks ago
and now he repays me by making me look bad in the eyes of The Metsys.
I should get a second Big Black Truck
for putting up with this. Or a go-round in my wife’s party room with her
theater troupe. I have the patience of a saint.
“We would hope that you’re wondering
why we had to bring him here,” the Emissary presses. I don’t have to see his
face to know he’s sneering at my bald spot.
“The Metsys knows best,” I reply. Know
your place. Perpetuate stereotypes.
The Emissary thrusts a hand beneath
my down turned face. Enormous, jewel-encrusted rings grace his fingers. Warts
protrude wherever there are no rings.
I kiss each of the rings and murmur
phrases of allegiance.
The Emissary twists his wrist so that
I end up kissing as many warts as rings.
My knees pop as I stand. The Emissary
beckons me to follow him up a narrow, steep flight of stairs. I get to two
hundred sixty-six and give up on counting.
At last we enter the Emissary’s
chambers. He ascends and seats himself upon a seven-foot-tall throne. Facing
him, and seated atop an antique holy relic only the oldest among us would have
recognized as a wooden ladder, is my younger son. His eyes plead with mine as I
climb the steps on the ladder.
His cheeks have been rouged to make
him look more cherubic. The makeup applied to his eyes and lips borders on
garish. His hair is plastered to one side. He wears a white pressed shirt,
black slacks and a miniature necktie. There’s terror in his eyes, but my
arrival has instilled a glimmer of hope as well.
“Tell the man I’m a good kid, Daddy!
He doesn’t believe me.”
Has he altered his appearance to sway
my opinion of him? Or did the Emissary do it as a formality for the hearing?
“This is not a hearing,” the Emissary
says as if reading my thoughts.
A multitude of Eyes and Spies watch
me now. I could turn my head to look for them, but I know I won’t see them.
“This is simply a clearing of the
air, if you will.” The Emissary waves a glittering hand expansively. “An
opportunity for your son to admit his wrongdoing and atone for it.”
“Daddy, I didn’t--”
“What has my son done?” I ask. I know
the blood has drained from my face. I do everything I’m supposed to do. I spend
more than I can afford. I tell the truth to others and lie to myself. I am
proud of my level of humility. I try to be a floating cork in the face of
adversity. I don’t need my own family creating stumbling blocks along my life’s
The Emissary leans forward in his
throne and for the first time I see him up close. A shaved, bullet-shaped head.
Bristling spider-leg eyebrows. Tree-trunk neck. The burst blood vessels
crisscrossing his bulbous nose seem to form the shape of a small key.
The symbolism is not lost on me. The
Emissary, with his bejeweled fingers and fine robes, could gain entry into my
wife’s party room, where I could not. He would make the rounds once, twice, a
third time, practicing the art of dentistry, in a twisted manner of speaking.
I’ve let myself become distracted.
I’m shaking now, clinging to the ladder, but not to my son.
“What has he done?” My voice sounds
strange. My mouth is dry as dust and it feels as if my tongue is a mummified
corpse curled in the corner of my mouth.
“He found the purse-book of Miss
Cherry Jewel. She’s quite famous, as you know.”
I don’t know, but nod anyway. If the
Emissary knows her I should too.
“Miss Jewel, of course, carries
photos of herself in her purse-book. Name a self-respecting woman who doesn’t,”
My son is weeping. Tears stream down his
cheeks. Seeing me watching him, he tries to put on a brave face and wipes at
the wet streaks with the back of his hand. He only succeeds in smearing his
His lips part as if subconsciously
urging me to speak some words of encouragement.
Instead I give him a sermon of
“Certain Eyes observed your son
looking at Miss Jewel’s photo of her toenails,” the Emissary reveals with
obvious glee. “And he tried to steal Miss Jewel’s photo of her nostrils.”
The words tumble from my son’s mouth.
There it is, then. The damning word
that proves his guilt.
I know Eyes wait, and the Spies
listen, for my response. The Emissary’s mocking smile is directed at me, when
it should be on my—
My son. Such a burden. Always making
my life more difficult.
But a tiny part of me still cares. A
small voice (a nearly forgotten ghost from Before) implores me to worry about
pleasing my son the way I worry about pleasing The Metsys.
I hear an unexpected, high-pitched
titter. I look at the Emissary then at my son. I look around at the cold marble
Must be me who’s giggling.
Giggling and grappling.
I steady myself and open my arms to
embrace my son. He throws himself against me and begins weeping. His relaxed
limbs tell me that for him, a tremendous burden has been lifted.
A tremendous burden.
I let him go.
The Emissary gazes down at my
five-year-old writhing in pain on the floor seven feet below us. He looks back
at me and favors me with a brief nod. “Well done.”
I stare back at him and say nothing.
“You might make a good citizen out of
him yet. We look forward to following his development. Of course you’ll need to
trade in your Big Black Truck for a Hospital Voucher. ”
My heart sinks.
The Emissary leers, looking over my
shoulder. I turn to see a black rectangle widening in the marble, a missing
tooth in a wall of enamel. My wife emerges from the darkness, looking dazed but
calm. My oldest son comes next, wearing a militaristic uniform. He’s shadowed
by my oldest daughter, looking composed but somber. Deflowered.
They were gone. Now The Metsys has
returned them to me. But for how long, I do not know.
The two older children help our
five-year-old to stand. Even from the top of the ceremonial ladder I can see
the break in his tibia. His face is chalky, but he’ll live. I hope someday
he’ll understand that I did what I had to do.
Then I realize someone is missing: the
I look quickly at the Emissary and
immediately regret giving him the satisfaction.
His sad smile is theatrical and
false. He shakes his head.
I am so tired of all of this. So
tired of playing this game. For the first time, a question and its doppelganger
occur to me: do I fail the Metsys, or does the Metsys fail me?
I know I should begin my descent, but
something—emotion?—makes me pause. The Emissary looks down his nose at me.
How cruel that I only miss her now
that she’s gone.
“Emily.” I say, to no one in
particular. “Her name was Emily.”