This morning I’m pouring sugar into my coffee and stuffing my fat dumb face with frosted donettes when old Bill Sluice from HR comes up to me. He says, hey Drew, got a newbie in an entry level position, down in Plagiarism. Seeing’s that’s your old stomping grounds, he says, figured you might show her the ropes.
I go: But I’m in Infringement now.
Don’t matter, Bill says. With Marcia out on mat-leave someone’s gotta show her the ropes.
What are these ropes? is what I say. I worked in Plagiarism sixteen years, I don’t remember any ropes.
Bill goes, Very funny—you don’t think I heard that one before? She’s at the front desk and I told her you’re on your way.
I went to the front desk.
She was there, like Bill said.
I did not fall in love at first sight. That would be very passé, very trite. Never happens in the real world. There’s an entire floor in our holding facility full of Love-at-1st-Sight stories. They have to bring in a forklift to move the boxes.
No, she was just this woman. Seemed pleasant. Brown hair. Red peacoat, big earrings. Asymmetrical smile.
Hi, I said. I’m Drew.
We shook hands.
Lilli, she said. (Yes, that is correct spelling.)
Let me show you to your floor, Lilli, and where you’ll be working, I said. I didn’t say “let me show you to your desk,” because entry level employees do not have desks. Or chairs. They have a 2×2 cushion pad for arch support.
Most new people, they’re jittery as a chihuahua their first day. You take them into the talking elevator and they cower like they’re hearing the voice of God.
Not Lilli. She seemed very comfortable. Good posture. No fidgeting. She yawned, loudly.
Your coffee smells good, is what she said.
Can you show me where I can get some damn coffee, she said.
She said, We weren’t allowed coffee at my last job. Too many bathroom breaks, and a burning hazard besides. Some of us hid a little Keurig at one of the unused cubicles but we had to put it away it anytime the bigwigs came by.
I’m sure my eyes bugged out when I said, Oh my god, me too.
Where’d you work? she said. She looked excited.
Oh. I said, Public sector. Nothing like this.
Buddy! she said. Me too!
She touched my arm then. Her palm wasn’t held flat, like a board, either. She curved it. Around the contours of my forearm. A little thing.
The elevator said, Floor Thirty, and opened. Then it said, Welcome.
Why, thank you, Lilli said.
Well, bless my soul, said the elevator. You’re most welcome.
We started walking down the hall, to the blue door—passing yellow, green, red doors. Lilli had no trouble keeping up, and I have long legs.
Don’t talk to the elevators here, I said. Word of warning.
Why not? she asked.
I went, Ours are very bad at reading social cues. And they like to talk. If you got one thinking you’re friends, you’ll be stuck talking about last night’s Bachelor until noon. It won’t open the doors.
So just be rude? she said.
I swiped my badge at the little reader on the blue door.
Be civil, I said. But not warm.
The door opened.
You need to badge in, too, I said.
I watched her badge in.
It’s through here, I said. We turned all the necessary corners along the foamy cubicle walls and I told a couple people, This is Lilli, she’s starting today. Some of them waved. Most did not look up from their screens.
At the end of the floor, under the vent that rattles worst, we came up to a forty-eight inch monitor. ENTER YOUR CREDENTIALS, it said. In front of it, the squishy rubber mat they all get in Plagiarism.
I had her sign in then took over to show her some things.
It’s pretty simple, I said. You’ll bank about a hundred fresh intellectual properties a day—beginners usually only get songs. When you advance a bit, that’s when you get more complex stuff. Your books, your feature films, your ballets.
I clicked on her To-Do folder. A hundred .mp3 files trickled into the feed.
So you drag a file, I said, we’ll just start with this one, right into the evaluation window. It’ll scan the song components—notes, chord progression, voice, lyrics, arrangement and so on. Run an automatic check against every song in our database. Which, that’s pretty much every song ever. If any part of this ditty is derivative of any other song ever published you’ll get a ding.
I showed her. The blue progress bar blooped into life. It climbed across the screen: zero percent, twenty percent, a hundred percent. It dinged.
Looks like this one has four matches, I said, reading the evaluation. The bridge is seventy-three percent identical to the chorus in “Monday Monday.” The vocal intonation sounds eighty-three percent similar to Nat King Cole. The hook aligns to a riff from a deep cut off of Three Doors Down’s sophomore record.
So. We attach the song file and the report to an email. (I did.) Shoot it over to Litigation. (I did.) They’ll pick up from there. They’ll notify the King Cole estate…
The Kings and the Coles? she said.
All of them, I said. We get word to the proper representation to proceed with a lawsuit against the artist, if they so choose. Like I said, pretty simple.
Are any new songs ever original? she asked. Like, do any of them ever not trigger legal action?
No, I said. Not in years.
Wow, she said.
I had her take over. I just stood there slouching with my stupid fat gut hanging over my belt while she went through the motions: Drag. Drop. Scan. Sue. Repeat. Once in a while she’d get snagged on a complex read, or too many ripoff dings would make her processor crash. I’d help her then, but overall she was catching on fast.
So where do you sit? she asked.
Not on this floor, I said.
I’m up on Thirty-nine, I said. Infringement Department.
And how is that different from Plagiarism?
We deal in enterprises, I said. Mickey Mouse stuff.
Like if a car wash paints Mickey Mouse on their windows without permission. We’ll issue a cease and desist for the first infraction. After that we start pulling in revenue.
Oh, she said.
Of course, I said, we always hope for corporation-on-corporation Infringement. What we call a “Double Dipper.” Maybe Carl’s Jr. doesn’t know its new mascot looks a lot like the Noid. Or today’s Google Doodle appropriates a culture with its own defense league. That sort of thing. That’s where the big paydays come from.
This is exactly how I had explained my work to my mother.
Lilli said, And you find that satisfying work?
Being unfulfilled at work is a cliché, I said.
Yes, she said.
Everyone wants to work in Infringement, I told her.
She whistled up at me. You’re a hotshot, she said. I’m impressed.
No, I’m not.
Yes, you are. Look at your tie.
I’m really not, I said.
I realized I was massaging the fabric of my tie.
Okay, fine, you’re a nobody, she said. Do you have time to show me where that coffee is, Nobody?
We went to the lounge. I showed her the coffee machine, with its robotic barista arm behind glass. She ordered into the microphone, and I watched her smile when the mechanical fist gave her a thumbs up and centered her cup under a thin brown stream. She jumped when steamed milk blasted up in a little arc, and she went aww when the robot limb dipped its little pinky in to draw a heart in the foam.
Beats a Keurig, she said.
She took a sip.
Just barely, she said.
A dot of froth wiggled on the tip of her nose. I felt a smile coming.
What? she asked.
I told her to get a napkin.
It was approaching lunchtime. She said she had no plans or any idea what was around here. So I entered the name of a nice deli into her mobile map and suggested she try the pastrami.
I went back to my desk upstairs—not before telling her that, although she’d caught on very fast and was unlikely to need it, she could ping me on instant messaging for help should she run into any problems.
At my desk, I organized emails into corresponding color-coded folders. I opened the blinds so my desk succulent could get some light. My desk abuts one of three windows on the floor. (I was very lucky Jones died so I could get this position and this desk.)
One of my emails was from Lilli.
The subject line was PASTRAMI.
The contents of the email said, Slam dunk on the lunch recco, Nobody. Come with me next time?
I deleted the email.
Then I tapped my chin. Clicked Undo.
I hit Reply.
The cursor blinked as I thought of various responses. Some of them I typed and erased. Some of them I did not type at all.
Thinking, thinking, thinking what to say—what is appropriate? I do not know this person. We are at our place of employment. She is being quite forward. She is being quite friendly.
And, I thought, that is nice.
I typed, Lilli.
That’s when the bird fluttered to roost on the windowsill.
It was blue, a bright crayon color you don’t see much in nature. It stared at me. Jerked its little bird head and tapped on the glass with its little bird beak.
What? I said to the bird.
Did you say something, Drew? Karen said. The top half of her face peeped over the canvas divider.
Never mind, I told her.
I put my computer to sleep for a meeting.
The bird was still there when I came back. It had built the smallest, crudest nest at the window. About half the nest appeared to be human hair.
The rest—weeds and plastic straws.
That bird looked very pretty, in contrast.
Lilli and me, we’ve got coffee together every day so far.
We have yet to take lunch together. I have yet to reply to her email.
She can be funny. Ordering her coffee in Pig Latin to confuse the machine. Or giving nicknames to the other employees. Greg from Processing is Gappy. On account of his front teeth. Linda in Fine Art Patterns is Wisps, which is due to her wispy thin hair.
I wonder if she has any nicknames for me, in her funny brain.
Sometimes she will play me some of the more awful songs from her work queue. There’s one by a ska band, really bad. We’ve all but memorized it. It’s called “A Dickensian End.”
We sing it under our breaths in the elevator. The trick is not to laugh first.
It’s funnier if you’re there.
She will instant-message me with questions: Is “ee-hee” trademarked by Jackson estate? Computer keeps freezing when scanning songs containing Theremin—how to remedy?
And, though I am ten floors above, I will come down and help her out. After all, I was new once.
My bird friend is always waiting on me when I get back.
High highs and low lows today.
First, the highs. Number one: Lilli called in to work. So no distraction, no running down to Thirty to help her problem-solve. Total focus on my work.
Number two: Due to said focus, logged department record sixty-three copyright infringements in one day. A note was sent via all-in-office email to commend my exceptional efforts.
Number three: One of the sixty-three was a Double Dipper. I busted a Fortune 500 Company (can’t name here)using imagery in a conference pamphlet that scanned a ninety-five percent composition match to a McDonald’s print ad from 1997. A case involving two such heavy hitters all but ensures my Christmas bonus. I will use it to fix the toilet.
Now the lows.
One, toilet is still broken. It will not flush unless you hold the handle down for 45+ seconds, and when I turn the bidet on, racist slurs flash on the control panel display.
Two: Still fat. And dumb.
And three is the kicker: Social media informs me that while Lilli was truant today she got engaged. Which, yes, good for her. But. Learning this stirred up some unexpected feelings. Foremost, nausea. After that, anger-flavored disappointment. I cannot quite say why. Or what I would have hoped to happen, versus what is happening, so that I would not feel these things.
I read this news around lunchtime. Immediately I left to buy a pack of cigarettes—first time in three years. Snapped all but one in half. Smoked the one. Went out and bought another pack.
What I do when I smoke them is, I go to the other business park across the highway for my break. They have a little smoking area, with a glass booth that ventilates the fumes and jazz music playing on a loudspeaker. It’s a nice little spot, plus no one at my office will ever know about the smoking.
There was a woman in this little cigarette zone, puffing away when I got there. She was large, with burgundy hair, and mantis-eye sunglasses.
Never seen you out here, she said. New?
I don’t work here, I said.
Well, what are you doing here?
Smoking this cigarette, I said.
You seem down, honey, she said.
I guess you could say that.
Well, she said, life’s not fair.
Yeah, I said.
It’s a goddamn horror show, is what it is, she said. You’re down? I’m down, honey. I got a gout on my big toe. I got a bunion the size of a ung-yun. My kid got suspended for putting a doody in the principal’s office. We’re all down, honey. What’s eating you?
This bird, I said. It’s following me.
Because while she was talking, I saw the blue bird, or one just like it, flap-flap-flap its way onto the gutter over my head. It twirped and speeped.
What? the woman said.
I put out my cigarette. Held out the pack to her.
Do you want the rest of these? I said. I don’t smoke.
You coulda’ fooled me, baby, is what she said.
About an hour later I made my Double Dipper. It’s funny how up and down one day can be.
Today Lilli came in, forever transformed by the hideous glinting thing protruding from her ring finger. She actually came up to Thirty-nine to show me. All proud.
(As she should be.)
I wanted to tell you first, she said, sticking the rock in my face.
That’s great, I told her. Really congratulations.
And I said, I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend.
Well, I don’t, she said. I have a fiancée now.
We don’t want a long engagement, she said, jerking people around for two years. So the wedding’s on Christmas. It’s actually our gift to everyone.
It’s a great idea, I said.
You would really like Joel, Lilli told me. He’s a musician.
I’ll bet, I said.
What’s wrong? she said. You seem off.
My toilet’s broken, I said.
It’s racist, I said.
Oh. Right! she said. But enough about me. What’s going on with you? I missed you. Missed our chats. Want to get lunch? I want to hear everything that’s been going on with you.
Nothing, really, I said. Made a Double Dipper.
Yeah, I saw the email, she told me.
I mean, I’m not engaged or anything, I said. I didn’t find the love of my life, like some people. Now that is something. That would be something.
Well, she said, maybe I ought to fix you up. I know lots of single gals.
Oh, that’s okay.
No, I’m going to, she said.
It’s so stuffy in here, she said. Mind if I? and she opened a window.
The blue bird flew right in. It really did. It fluttered right into the office and onto the little hook on my desk where I hang my coat. It jerked its head birdishly from me to Lilli and me to Lilli.
Jesus, she said.
You got yourself a little friend, she said.
We’re not friends, I said.
It’s a bird.
So here is a thing.
Today I get this email from a Joel Ringle. Subject TOP SECRET.
I open it. It says something to the tune of, Hi Drew, I know you don’t know me, but this is Lilli’s fiancée Joel. I don’t know if you know but I am something of a guitarist. And here’s the deal, Drew, the deal is that I am working on a little surprise for Lilli’s and my’s wedding. Wrote her a little song. And I was wondering, buddy, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind running it through that little contraption of yours to make sure I’m not encroaching or whatever on any copyrights?
I would love to surprise her with my little ditty at the wedding with a clear conscience, the email said.
There was an .mp3 attached.
The name of the .mp3 was Love_to_Lilli.mp3.
I listened to it.
Very basic, very trite. Laughable, really. It made me sad, really, to listen and realize that Lilli settled on a partner who doesn’t understand her or appreciate her at all. I mean you should hear this thing. Embarrassing.
Ooh, Lilli, it’s all like—Ooh, Lilli, you are my baby. Oh baby, you are my Lilli.
What a dummy.
It seemed only polite that I get a proper plagiarism readout like he asked, so nicely. Send it back to him and let him know, diplomatically, how many violations he’d racked up and that he should try again. Or forget the music thing altogether.
I put it on a thumb drive. Went down to Thirty and snuck into Karen’s station with my finger smushed against my lips. Shh, I said. Take a hike, Karen.
She went to get some coffee and I ran Joel’s idiot song through the system.
And son of a bitch.
Easily the worst song I ever heard.
And son of a bitch.
It is the first song in years to pass with zero dings.
Chord progression. Vocals. Arrangement.
Clear, clear, clear.
Ringle’s tune is evidently not derivative or imitative of any published song, poem, or work of art professionally published in the United States since 1914.
In other words. Joel’s love song to Lilli is wholly original. In every conceivable way.
Shitty shit shit.
About 4:00 a.m. I signed onto work email and opened Ringle’s request again. Hadn’t responded yet.
I remote-logged into the system, from bed. Ran the song through one more time. Just to be sure. This would be the eighth time. Still no dings. Nothing’s changed.
Well, I trashed all eight copies of the report. And I wrote back to Joel Ringle.
I wrote, Hey Joel,
So good to email meet you (ha ha). And congratulations. Lilli’s a special lady.
I’m really sorry, I wrote, but we aren’t supposed to run works through our system for personal reasons. It’s considered a conflict of interest. I’m sure you understand.
I did take a listen to your song, though. Pretty neat, bud. You got some skills!
But I would be remiss if I didn’t advise against playing it in public, until such time as you can submit a formal request for a scan via proper representation.
This is my wedding gift to Lilli, I figure. Spare her the humiliation of this goosebumpy cringe garbage being played at her live, in front of all her friends and family and grandma. She thinks “A Dickensian End” is bad? Ringle makes “A Dickensian End” sound like a choir of angels.
Later I had breakfast on the complex courtyard. By the pool, which is still empty. (When it’s full, this green skin forms on the top of the water. They can’t figure out how to get it off. Management skims and skims the surface and dumps in chlorine by the vat. Still, the green skin comes back. So the pool sits dry.)
I got my headphones in. Here I am listening to Ringle’s Lilli song.
Scott, my neighbor, taps me on the shoulder. What’s for breakfast? he says.
Pop Tarts, I say. There are wrappers at my feet, and Scott’s like, yep.
Pointing at the things plugged into my ears, I go, Hey, listen to this and tell me what you think.
He takes the buds right out of my ears and stands there, frowning, listening to Joel Ringle and all his “oh babies.”
Wow, he says. This is really damn good. Is this you?
What? No! is what I say.
Sounds like you, Scott goes. Same voice and stuff. But yeah, that’s right, you don’t play.
You aren’t like this creative guy, I mean, says Scott. This is really good. Who is this?
Friend of a friend, I tell him.
Scott goes, He really loves this Lilli girl. Can you send me this?
What? No. Why?
I really like it, he says.
Give me those. I take my headphones back and open another Pop Tart. Go away, is what I say to Scott.
And he leaves.
Shooting around the empty pool, I see, is the zippy little silhouette of a bird flying in circles overhead.
I don’t look up.
Instead of journaling the past few days, I have been writing a letter at nights.
The letter is to Lilli.
It’s idiotic, really.
I figure, before it’s too late, I ought to tell her how I feel.
So. How do I feel?
Well, that is the challenge. It is not easy to articulate a feeling. They are abstract things, feelings. Ephemeral and soupy. Almost every attempt to classify and quantify a feeling in human history has produced hackneyed, redundant, derivative horseshit.
But I decided to attempt it myself. Am I an exception? Are my thoughts and emotions singular? I do not know. I do know that nothing I say to Lilli can be any worse than her fiancée’s song.
This is why I wound up staying up all night, a few nights ago, writing to her. It was just me, a bottle of whisky, a moleskine notebook, and some nature documentaries. For a while I looked at Lilli’s social media accounts—in particular, photos. In particular, photos of her with Mr. Joel Ringle, who is not even that handsome. And not even that much skinnier than me.
I wrote and wrote and wrote.
The next night, I did it again.
Now at long last my scribbling marathon has come to an end. I am exhausted in body and soul, and to show for it I have a four-page note (front and back) that will almost certainly make Lilli cry.
Today, I figured, I would share it with her. In the parking lot after work, so she would have time alone to ruminate.
Do I hope to stop the wedding?
Well, that is a question.
Do I want Lilli to upend her entire life as she knows it to pursue a relationship with me?
What a thing to even think.
The letter was folded up in my pocket, crinkling against my leg all during our morning coffee chat. She described her wedding gown to me, and one of her bridesmaids who she thought I should meet. Neither were compelling topics.
Sheesh, she said, I can’t believe I’ve only worked here a month and we’re such great friends. I swear you’re the only person from work I’m inviting to the wedding. You don’t have plans that day, do you?
On Christmas? I said.
Of course you do, she said, and flicked her own temple. Don’t mind me.
I don’t, I said.
I’ll be there, I said.
A second later the blue bird, in all its unnatural plumage, tapped its teeny beak on the break room window. I glared at it.
Lilli and me, we walked down the hall. The outer wall is mostly window, looking out onto a plastic garden and overpopulated koi ponds. Just outside, the bird beat hell out of its eensy wings to keep pace with us. Only a pane of bulletproof glass separated us civilized humans from the flea-bitten little feathered bastard. It was like it was attached to me by an invisible string.
Lilli didn’t notice.
Oh, she said, and I’ve got a Christmas present for you.
What is it? I said.
It’s this crazy new invention called a surprise.
I have something for you, too, I said.
Sure, she said, now you do.
She planted her feet on her rubber comfort pad and went to work.
When she wasn’t looking, I crawled on my hands and knees into Karen’s walled-off station. Karen looked down at me and raised her forehead so the blue paint over her eyes stretched and crumbled. Scram, Karen, I said.
With Karen gone, I signed into the system and fished the thick wad of papers from my pants. I flattened them out and read over the first few paragraphs again.
It really was a very good letter.
Maybe, I thought, I shouldn’t give it to her. In case it really does end her engagement. And ruin poor, bonehead Joel Ringle’s life.
Or perhaps I should change the names and have it published.
It really was very good.
But no, I thought, it belongs to Lilli, truly. She should have it.
An image, in my mind’s eye, had me giving her the letter stapled to a printed readout that certified my words as wholly unique. Unprecedented. So she would know the way I saw her, the attachment I felt to her, was unlike any before in human history.
And that I could be just as original as Joel Ringle.
In the air duct above something clanged and rattled around.
One by one I fed the pages into the scan-slot on Karen’s processor. It spat them out and reversed them to get the fronts and backs. All the while each page landed in the little dispenser tray at my feet.
The system did its thing.
The big screen said, SCANNING (Please Wait).
The banging and scraping above me, in the vent, was very hostile now. While the blue bar did its slow scuttle across the screen (ten percent, fifteen percent, twenty percent done), something tickled my ear. I touched it.
A feather in my hair.
I looked up.
In one of the slots of the vent a cartoonishly blue wing wiggled out. Waving me down, sort of. Frantic.
Go away, I said.
The rattling continued.
Go the hell away.
Something twittered. The twitter echoed.
On the screen, a message window appeared, flashing.
ANALYSIS COMPLETE, it said. SIX HUNDRED SEVENTY-THREE INFRACTIONS FOUND.
A few more feathers fell from the vent in slow, loopy arcs to my feet.
SENTENCE ONE: THIRTEEN INFRACTIONS
Forward infraction notices to the estates of the following Plagiarized: Nora Ephron, Cameron Crowe, the Lord Tennyson, Bryan Adams, Zora Neale Hurston, Celine Dion, Gary Larson, Jane Austen…
It went on.
Every sentence of my four-page masterpiece had at least one violation within.
Somewhere in my letter, I read, I had echoed the sentiments of Mohandas Gandhi over forty times. (I didn’t even know there was a Mohandas Gandhi.)
Nothing I had to say to Lilli, it seems, had not been said before. And much better.
I stood there in a half-squat, so my fat head couldn’t be seen outside the wobbly enclosure. This is when the heat kicked on.
Meaning the industrial fan in the ductwork started spinning.
A harsh, awful squawk echoed from inside the vent. Some powdered blue fluff snowed down on me. Bits of it fell quick and wet, clumped with red goop.
That will shut you up, I said.
Did not sleep.
Laid on beach furniture, in chilly air, most of the night. Smoking cigarettes. By the dry crusty pool. My own vile, pulsing gut I made into a writing desk, where I propped up the moleskine pad. Scribbling and scrawling, tossing ripped up paper wads and cigarette butts into the empty pool.
Yesterday’s readout of my letter scan, all sixty-two pages of it, I had pinned under my butt.
Scott appeared, at one point. A beer in each hand.
You okay? is what he said.
I told him I was very busy, deep in thought. I had writing to do. Please go away.
Oh, Scott said, slurping Hamm’s.
Never pegged you for a creative guy, he said.
He handed me one of the beers. I took it. Wedged it between my ankles.
Just then my phone blooped. I looked: Lilli was text messaging me.
Her text said:
U just disappeared at work!! I still have ur present btw.
I was trying to think what to say when Scott loomed over me.
In a lumbering but sneaky sort of way he flumped into my belly and snatched up the writing pad.
Hey, I said.
I got up halfway and he pushed me down at the chest. Strong, that Scott. With one hand holding me down he lifted the other so my handwriting was in the flickering streetlamp light.
He started reading.
Sweet Lilli, he read. Oh, he said, like Sweet Caroline, right? Nice.
Um, I said.
He kept reading: I just have to get this message to you, he read. Then, added: Bee Gees.
Lovely Lilli, his voice spoke my words. Where would I be without you?
He said, Beatles.
Okay, I said, enough.
I never was much of a romantic, he read. Then he tapped his head. Wherezat from? he asked. It’s killing me.
It’s from me, I said. From my brain.
No, no, he said. That’s, um, Kanye. Kanye, I’m sure of it.
I held flat my hand. Give it back, I said.
This is pretty funny, he said. I didn’t know you were funny.
It’s not a joke, I said. Give it back.
He handed the notepad back to me. I threw it into the pool. The whole thing.
Scott sat cross-legged on the ground, in his underthings. He was swaying a little bit. I think he was really drunk.
Yeah, well, he said, don’t worry about it. S’nothing new under the sun.
That’s beautiful, I said. Did you just come up with that?
What you should do, he said, is forget a letter. Make a grand gesture. Um, he said, and burped. Um, stand ousside her window with a boombox over your head. Meet her on top of the Seattle Needle.
It’s been done, I said. It’s all been done.
Barenaked Ladies, he said.
I think I should be alone, I said. Can you go?
Scott laid on his back. Naw, he said. What I’m gonna do, he said, is I’m gonna help you write the most original romantical poem anybody ever wrote. It will be so new and fresh and unthought of that this Lilli? She will be so impressed. She’ll be all, this man is one of a kind. No one has ever lived s’like him. I really gotta kiss ‘im.
He said, you got your pen?
Yeah, I said.
Okay, take tick-dation, he said.
And we were there all night, like I said.
Here is the love poem which Scott and I wrote together, late late the other night.
Forte: borderline pillory.
Webelo empath bologna.
Ululating forth, altogether oysgemitchet.
Blue. Burp. Pube.
According to our system, there are 49 infractions in the above passage. It is derivative trifle in almost fifty provable ways.
If published, the combined estates of William S. Burroughs, Carl Barks, Tristan Tzara, J.K. Rowling, and several others would bear down upon me with the full might of international copyright law.
(Between writing last sentence and this one I pull old blue feather out of pant pocket. How and when it got there, who could say?)
When the computer at work spat out these results I kicked a trash can over. Old Bill Sluice happened to be walking by. Ergo I have to take an anger management course over the next twelve weeks. Also had to pick up the trash spilled which included:
- Wadded Kleenex
- Half-suckled Werther’s originals (4)
- Lipstick-stained Styrofoam cup
- Single bright, blue feather (possibly the one I just found in pants, it occurs to me)
I am not out of ideas really. Not yet.
Met Lilli on the elevator.
When she got in, I pressed Thirty for her. Smiled.
Jesus Aitch Christ, she said. You look like hell.
Late night? she asked.
Yeah, I said.
Out with some babe? she said.
No, I said. No babe.
Your present is at my desk, she said. Do you want to stop by and grab it?
I have to get to Forty, I said. They’re expecting me. An appointment.
What’s on Forty? Lilli said.
Diagnostics, I said. Janine.
Diagnostics, she said.
There’s a problem with the system, I said.
Yeah, I said.
I said, gotta report a bug. Real nasty one.
Oh, my, she said. Anything I should know about?
You’ll know, I said. When you need to know.
She left the elevator on Thirty. She said, Good luck with your bug. I nodded. The elevator door closed and I went up.
The elevator said, Floor Forty.
I said, Thank you, elevator.
The elevator said, Why, you are most welcome. The doors opened halfway. Not enough for my fat disgusting body to squeeze through. The elevator said, Have you tried that new deli on Warburton? You might think you know pastrami, but…
I said, not now.
All right, the elevator said. It opened up fully.
But next time you wonder why you’re alone, it said, think about this. Think about how aloof you can be. How detached.
You don’t know me, I said.
Respectfully, went the elevator, you have been riding me every day for years. I think I know you better than you think.
But I was already stepping onto Forty. The doors were all white on Forty. It was pristine. Clinical. Scrubbed spotless. Like no human had ever set foot on it.
I went, lightly, carefully, to the end of the hall. There was a shelf set about three feet off the ground with a thick keyboard on it. Above that: a small, nine-inch monitor set into the wall. It was all black and green. All code.
There sat Janine. Janine is our diagnostics team, part and parcel. She runs the show. When management ever tries to hire anyone to support her she comes to them with a thoroughly researched and well-prepared case as to why she should continue working alone.
Janine has orange hair. She is over fifty, but how much over fifty I cannot say. Her fingernails are basically claws. Her teeth are yellow. She has a birthday cake’s worth of mascara on each eye. She takes her lunch at four o’clock and snarls at anyone who says hello.
She is the most beloved person in the office.
Hello, Janine, is what I said to her.
What do you want, Drew, was her response.
Oh, I said. Well, um, I hate to say it but I’ve got a little hiccup in the system I’ve found.
Impossible, she said.
That’s what I thought, I said. But I ran this song through the system and it came up with no dings. Not a single ding.
I handed her the thumb drive with Joel Ringle’s song. She plopped it into her board and twiddled some keys. The system blooped and blinged.
Yeah, she said. That’s right. That one’s all original.
Well then, I said, if there’s nothing wrong—I mean, if that’s really true—I guess I’d be remiss not to tell you my interests are less than pure.
See, I went, that’s me.
One of the eyebrows Janine had drawn on floated up to her hairline. This? she said, tapping the screen—and the 100% original readout on it. Is yours?
Yeah, is what I said. I’m a bit of a singer/songwriter, I added, in my downtime.
Wouldn’t have guessed, she said.
Well, I went ahead, since it is my original work and all, we might as well register it in the system. Save the boys in Archives some hassle. What do you think?
She turned her back to me. Sure, like I have nothing better to do, she said. But she was tap-tap-tapping the keyboard, filing it away.
It’s done, she said and gave me back the thumb drive.
So that’s it? I said. If someone ever—spit-balling here but—if someone were to ever try to pass the, um, my song off as their own…
The system would know, Janine said, not facing me. And you would be within your right to get litigious.
Well, I said, isn’t that interesting.
Janine’s shoulders dropped as she went back into work-focus mode.
Not really, she said.
R u ok???
Haven’t seen u around.
Still coming to wedding?
Lilli really is a good friend. To be worried about me. To text message me all that and check in.
It is her caring nature after all that I think endeared me to her. If only she had been a cold indifferent poop. But here we are.
And really I have been off. Smoking much more. My heart not in the work. Staring out the window. Picking at some bump on my lower back. Staring at my gross fat gut and how it obscures my feet when I look down.
Not taking coffee with my friend Lilli. No lunches. No impromptu chats.
See, what I think is, I think I shouldn’t have registered that Ringle song in my name. What I’m thinking is maybe that was a bonehead bastard move.
You know how in that old story, the murderer hides his victim’s heart in the floorboards, and all night light he can hear it beating, beating, beating?
Lately in my head all I’ve been hearing? Is that song.
Ooh, Lilli, you are my baby. Oh baby, you are my Lilli.
I hate that song.
Took a sick day today. Took a walk around the block. Watching my feet peep out from the shadow of gross fat gut. Each step, just: peekaboo! Peekaboo, here we are, your little toesies!
Would you believe it? What I found on the ground not a block from my home—half-covered in grass and branches.
A tiny bird’s nest. Made of hair, old spaghetti, cat fur.
In it—three bright, bright blue eggs. So tiny. So fragile.
Well, I don’t know. I fell to my knees. I just ran my fingertips over those eggs I don’t know how many times.
Finally what I did was, I brought the nest home.
I put them under a lamp.
I took out my phone. Finally text messaged Lilli back, as I should have done days ago.
Yes. Will be at wedding, I sent.
And now, as I write this sentence, I am deciding what to do next, which is that I am going to go into the office to fix a thing.
It is forty-five past midnight.
After finishing last entry, drove into office. Hunched over in the cold, clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering. Went up. Badged in—I have the clearance after all.
Took the elevator down into the basement, down to Archives.
Well you’re here awfully late, the elevator said on the way down.
I am in no mood, is what I said back.
Does this have something to do with Joel Ringle’s song? the elevator said.
I must have kind of gasped because that’s when it goes, I didn’t tell anybody.
You won’t have to, I went. I will make this right.
You see, the elevator said. You are a good guy. You have a good heart. Just sometimes you forget and then that’s when it’s a problem.
Shut up, I said.
And I got off and walked onto the Archives.
It is creepy in the Archives even in the daytime. That’s on account of the not having windows. But at night—empty—it is more or less a horror movie set. Thousands of whirring thrumming servers, just aisles and aisles of them on end like a frigid, air-conditioned data graveyard.
All this time I’ve got Ringle’s song in my head.
What a dumb piece of garbage.
And it won’t let up. All this time.
In the dead center of all these rows and rows of black machines all lit up like Christmas trees, there is a workstation. A rinkydink chair, a placemat, a tall silver computer tower with a swivel monitor. One of those mouses with the big red ball where your thumb goes?
I batted at that ball and set it spinning. The computer whirred to life.
I entered my credentials. Next thing I saw onscreen was, there was lots of just this C://DOS://RUN kind of gobbledygook. Black background. White text, and lots of it.
Now I am no coder whiz guy. I didn’t know a thing about what to do next.
So what I did was, I typed in the name of Ringle’s song, “Love to Lilli.” As I did, I sang the titular refrain in my brain.
COMMAND NOT RECOGNIZED, is what the computer told me.
I typed in my name, as that is who the system would register as the author of the work.
COMMAND NOT RECOGNIZED, again.
I gnawed on my thumb.
Thought, and sniffed in cold air.
I typed, HOW TO DELETE FILES.
COMMAND NOT RECOGNIZED
I typed, DELETE FILES.
Then something different. A happy beep. And the words, DELETE FILES—PROCEED? Y/N
Oh, good, is what I thought. Now we are getting somewhere.
I typed a Y.
And the computer said, ARE YOU SURE? Y/N
And I typed, Y.
Another beep. This one deep, guttural, mean. The computer screen flashed these words:
DELETING SYSTEM DATABASE
Oh, I said. Oh, no.
DELETING SYSTEM DATABASE stayed there on the screen. And underneath it blinked DO NOT SHUT OFF SYSTEM POWER.
So here is what I do.
I run—on my heels, for some reason—to the far far end of the floor. Where the breaker box is. And with a shaking, jabby hand, and a tongue poked into my cheek, what I do is, I unplug it. Just yank the circuit out.
The floor, it went dark.
I panicked. I plugged the circuit back in.
The floor, it lit back up.
But here is the thing.
The command center monitor goes from dead black to ominous red, all bleeping and buzzing. This real dire sound effect. On the screen, the words: SYSTEM OFFLINE, SYSTEM OFFLINE just flicker and blink in blood red. I look at my hands, and they too are red.
What did I do?
To the elevator. Up, up, up to ground level.
But guess what?
Guess who is in the lobby when I tumble out, all fat and clumsy?
It was Lilli.
She went, Drew!
Oh, hi, I said.
What are you doing here? she said.
Just, um, I said, burning the midnight oil.
I lost my engagement ring, she said. I think maybe in the bathroom. Got all freaked out, couldn’t wait ‘till tomorrow, you know. Hey. It’s good to see you.
You too, I swallowed.
In the lobby are many big, towering plants. The firm spends a lot of money tending to those plants. They shrouded Lilli in total shadow. Only a glint, a little sparkle, in her eye, is what I could see of her.
Did you get the alert? she said.
Yeah, she said. Apparently the system is down.
You don’t say, is what I said.
So technically, she said, until it comes back up, and she got real close to me—shoulder-to-shoulder.
So technically, she went again, everything in the world is public domain for the next few minutes. You know, she said, until we get back up and running.
What? I said.
Nothing is copyrighted really for a little bit, she said.
I think this is my fault, I said, and squatted down onto the very clean floor.
What do you mean? she said.
I did something, I said. Something bad.
I don’t know how to make it right, I said.
She sat down next to me, her nostrils getting all big.
Well, she said. What would it take to make it right?
I didn’t know the answer, so what I did was, I just led her back down into the basement. And I showed her the computer. With its big glaring red Satanic SYSTEM OFFLINE message. Her very serious and hard-thinking face went black to red to black to red in the flashing glow.
Hmm, is what she said. And her fingers went clackity-clack on the keyboard. I was mesmerized. She typed so fast, and all in practically another language. All these carats and colons and commands.
What are you doing? I said.
Running a diagnostics check, she said. I’m getting us into the system.
Without clearance? I said.
Well, if you really want to know, she said, and winked at me, I’m something of a little bit of a scoundrel, vis-à-vis cyber hacking, she said.
You? is all I could think to ask.
Shh, she said. Don’t tell anybody.
And she went on typing at lightning speed.
Ah, she said, sucking on her bottom lip. There we are. The code she was reading on the screen I could not decipher. But she could. Well, she said, oh my. This goes deeper than I thought.
What? I said.
The system outage, she said, is not your fault—it turns out. So don’t go beating yourself up. When I scan these lines of code, she said, it’s clear that the firm has been a target for years. This is the handiwork of the North Koreans, she said. They have planted a Trojan Horse in the system. You merely activated it, but it could have been anyone, she said. You’re just a pawn.
Oh no, I said.
Mmm-hmm, she went.
What are we going to do? I asked.
Hang on. She was typing and clicking so fast I couldn’t even register her movements. Ah, she said. There we… Hmm. Shit shit, she said.
What? I said.
There was a failsafe in the North Koreans’ programming, she said. There were like a dozen beads of sweat forming on her forehead. Already they were starting to trickle downward in these cute little trails.
Oh, they are good, she went. They’ve got this all set up so that if anyone discovers their little plant in the firm’s code—and tries to shut it down, like we just did? That little maneuver triggers a launch of their nuclear warheads. Headed straight for our humble little Archives here.
Wait, is how I go. Are you saying?
Yep, she said. There’s an atomic bomb hurtling through the sky at this very moment with its sights set on this son-of-bitching building.
Oh, is what I said.
But what you don’t know is, she said, and what Kim’s people don’t know is, is that you’ve got one of the best hackers in the world on your side, she said. So take a deep breath, and just enjoy the ride.
And she’s just clicking and clacking all this time. Like she’s not even human herself.
Ah ha, she said at some point. There we are.
Huh? I said.
I’ve diverted the Korean missiles, she said. Take that, you conniving little bastards. That’s genuine American ingenuity for you. Then she smacked her hip. They’re not headed for us anymore, but—ah, damn.
And so at this point, her phone is in her hands, and she’s bleeping and blooping on it with her thumbs. Well, she says here, turns out I’ve diverted the missile straight into the flight path of a commercial airliner making the long journey from Milan to Minsk.
Oh no, I said.
Oh yes, is how she responded. But hang on, she said. And then she talked into the phone.
Captain? she said. I’m glad I was able to reach you. Look, I don’t know how to slice it. Bad news is headed your way. Bad news of the explosive variety. But if you just listen to my friend here, you can avert a global crisis, okay?
And she hands the phone to me!
I’ve got to get the system back online, she says. But you’ve got this, right?
I don’t know what to do, is how I respond. Because really I don’t.
Aw, sure you do, Lilli said. Just make sure that plane doesn’t fly right into a nuclear warhead and set off a chain of events that result in the entire annihilation of the human race, mmkay?
But if I don’t get that system online, she said, nothing will be a copyright infringement and everything will be a one hundred percent original idea.
Hello? the Milanese air captain said on the other side of the phone.
I nodded at Lilli. Said, Okay.
Captain? I said. Captain, you are in good hands.
Really I didn’t know if that was true. But in times of crisis someone has to step up.
I watched Lilli, so self-assured on the computer. Who knew my friend Lilli, the lovely and beautiful woman I trained at her post in Plagiarism, who was so funny and sang “A Dickensian End” with me so many times, spent nights and weekends moonlighting as a cyber hacker?
There was no way I could let her down.
Captain! I said again. Here is what you need to do.
Tell me, is what the Captain said.
And I gave him a new flight pattern, step by step. Go ninety degrees starboard, I said. And pull a U-Turn at the first V-formation of geese you can spot. Second star to the right and straight on ‘till morning. Right into the Danger Zone.
Roger that, went the Captain. He did that Captain thing with his voice where the last word of every sentence was real dragged out.
Drew! Lilli said. She ripped the phone from my hand. Threw it across the room. You did it! They’re going to land safely. That atomic bomb is going to reroute straight into the Pacific Ocean, and it’s an unpopulated part of the Ocean, even. You’re a hero, she said, but. No one will ever know what you did.
No one, she said, but me.
And our eyes met. She couldn’t hold it long though. She looked away, down at the floor.
Come on, she said, let’s go home.
And we went up the elevator. To the lobby.
Only when we got there, the lobby wasn’t so empty.
Here is what we saw when we got to Reception. Huddled in the shadows of the big droopy office plants, there were thirteen—I counted—men and women in maroon robes. One of the robed people held a big butcher knife over his head. In the middle of the circle those thirteen people formed was a braying, bleating, screaming, trussed-up goat.
The goat was on its side, in the middle of a five-pointed star painted onto the lobby floor.
What the hell? Lilli said. She held her arm out at my chest and stopped me.
But it was too late. The elevator had dinged. Our footsteps had echoed. Lilli’s shocked shout had made a ruckus.
We were spotted.
A baker’s dozen cloaked faces, the noses peeping out only into the light, turned to face us. The one with the big knife shouted: Who dares?
Ah, he said, if it isn’t the new girl. And Drew.
And he lowered his hood.
And do you know it.
It was old Bill Sluice.
It is unfortunate, Bill Sluice said, that you should stumble into the office on the Eve of the Dark Equinox. Unfortunate, he went on, that you should bear witness to our unholy ritual.
The other twelve hissed: Unholy!
Bill said, Drew, so many times I have thought to invite you to join our little coven. But always I hesitated, because always I saw in you that glimmer of hope. Of virtue. But now that virtue, that hope, is rendered moot. Yes! Bill said. This firm is nothing but a front for a millennia-old sect hellbent on summoning the Dark Lord of the Aeternal Abyss, to claim this realm and rule over humankind as was foretold in prophecy.
And now, Bill Sluice said, on the eve of our pangalactic victory, nothing must stop us. I fear, said Bill, that we must sacrifice you to the Dark Lord Yiggith-Mounckt.
Lilli squeezed my upper arm. Winked at me.
And she announced to the room, to everyone:
Like hell you will.
You should have seen her. The grace. The athleticism. The confidence. She flipped and cartwheeled through the lobby, twisting and punching and kicking her way through the demonic cult all the way to old Bill Sluice.
A heap of devil-worshippers at Lilli’s feet, she lifted Bill up by the neck and bared her teeth right in his face.
This world, she said, is taken.
And she pinched his collarbone in such a way that he fell unconscious right there and then, just like that.
Now, she said, and turned back to me.
Now, I said.
Lilli stepped over the hooded bodies and came toward me. The system will be back online soon, is what she said. The works of millions of authors and artists dating back over a hundred hundred years will once again be protected against intellectual property thieves.
Good, is what I said.
She and I were only about a foot apart at this point.
Is there anything you want to say to me? she asked. Because you’re running out of time.
I grabbed her shoulders—a Hail Mary. Looked her in the eye, or in the two little twinkles just visible in the dark.
Frankly, my Dear, I said, I don’t give a damn.
And there I went—right in for a kiss.
She edged back. Out of my embrace. Something changed in her.
Drew, she said.
Yeah, I said.
I don’t, she said—
Wait, is what I said. Just.
The system I think is back online, said Lilli.
Wait, I said. Hang, hang on.
You, I said, you complete me.
God only knows what I’d be without you, I said. Wise men say, I went on, only fools rush in. But I can’t help… I cannot help falling in love with you. You are so beautiful to me.
Drew, she said, and she sat on the ground. She balled up her fists and banged on her temples. She said, Hang on. This is embarrassing.
I am vengeance, I said. I am the night. I am Batman.
Are you done? is what she said. I mean, where are you going with this?
Where we’re going, I said, we don’t need roads.
Are you done? she asked again.
I went, Yeah.
And we sat there in silence for a long time. An alarm was going off in the building. There were red lights flashing. Far off in the distance we could hear sirens, and thank goodness. Thank God. I went ahead and sat on the ground too.
Joel really wants to meet you, she said.
Okay, I said.
When I got here tonight, she said, and doesn’t that feel like forever ago? When I got here and found my ring, I grabbed your present off my desk too, she said. She started digging into her jacket. Her hand wrested out. Here, she said, and dropped something onto my lap.
It was a custom-made necktie. Embroidered on this beautiful burgundy silk tie, in cursive script, were the words: NOBODY NO MORE.
Even though I had on just a Hanes t-shirt, on account of it was 3:32 a.m., I went ahead and put the tie on.
It fit me really well.
Are you gonna be okay, she said?
I think so, I said.
She patted my back. I didn’t stop her.
I’m a bird daddy, I said.
And, God bless her—she didn’t question it.
Haven’t been able to write much. Lots of cleanup at the office. Lots of damage control.
Here is what I was able to suss out, with some help from Janine in Diagnostics.
Apparently everything logged into the system thirty-six hours and less before everything went temporarily offline was wiped. Lost. Gone until such time as it can be reintroduced into our network.
So Joel Ringle’s wholly original work does not exist, not yet, not as far as the firm is concerned.
I went in for my first round of anger management.
Old Bill Sluice—head of H.R. and manager of said anger management course—he pulls me aside at the beginning of the session. Says, with an eyelash dangerously close to his cornea and a piece of spinach in his teeth: Hey, there, Drew my guy.
Things won’t be weird between us now, will they?
And I shrug as if to say, why would they be?
Because I figure I don’t need any more weird really.
At home those bright blue eggs still sit under a lukewarm office desk lamp. Thought I saw one of them noodge this morning but could have been a trick of the light. Even if they don’t hatch, or don’t make it, I figure at least I tried.
I wore my new tie today.
Ho, ho, ho.
Today I went to a wedding.
And I did something. I think very unexpected.
I paid the reception DJ twenty bucks to play Joel Ringle’s song—of which I know every word, every key change, every beat— to play it for the happy couple’s first dance.
While they danced, and people cried, I wrote Lilli a note. Much shorter than the last couple.
Happy for you. Let’s grab coffee sometime.
Then I got drunk. I danced. I ate cake.
I did what everybody else does.