SHANE JONES / excerpt from VINCENT AND ALICE AND ALICE
My office building is all water. It shimmers like an ocean. Ascends with each cloud dolloped into the sky. I ride the elevator in a single whoosh.
The office floor is a desert road bordered with burning cactus and cubicles. Dorian stands on a Xerox, holding a firehose, extinguishing the flames. My coworkers aren’t here, just me walking, sand-waves blowing over my feet and under their cubicle walls. Strips of clothing cling to my skin in the dream, and it ends with me in the Zone, only my head and computer visible in the surrounding wreaths of smoke and blue static dots.
Settled in the Zone, I complete three hours of data entry while my coworkers debate if Muslims should be executed. I don’t know where Sarah is. She has an instinctive knack for knowing when these conversations take place and leaves to move her car or walk around the plaza or sit in the cafeteria, I’m not sure. On her computer this morning she was staring at a full-sized add with yellow text: 99 CENTS OFF. When I asked her if everything was okay, she just nodded and mumbled, “99 cents off.”
Since Alice came back, I haven’t paid attention to the looting and violence, the increased fires set to convenience stores, mosques, anything appearing ethnic. I’m listening to my coworkers because I can’t lock in. The general consensus is that every Muslim could be sent home today, and when I say from my cubicle that their home is where they escaped from Steve exclaims, “Not my problem.” He adds that he believes in solitary confinement, and Michelle contributes, “Do the crime, pay the time.”
I don’t say anything more, numbers crowding my screen, gold watch blinking. They all agree that Sarah is an exception. In my silence they hatch an idea that one commercial flight or even a very large boat could “fit them all.” Emily attempts to start a new conversation by confessing she hates everything pumpkin. But seconds later they’re deciding where Muslims should live.
I’m having a problem blocking them out. I’m having a problem locking into the Zone and not speaking a word.
“Alice is back,” I say in my professional voice, walking into the center of the room, plucking blue M&M’s from the snack table.
“The band?” asks Emily.
On Steve’s computer—a man with a purple hockey jersey pulled over his head absorbing a flurry of uppercuts.
“We’ve decided to get back together,” I add.
“Whoa,” says Steve clicking on another video, this one a zoomed-in slow motion shot of a fist landing squarely into a face, the nose puddling into itself.
“Good for you,” announces Sarah walking into the room.
Telling them about Alice is the only way to change the subject, and I’m sick because it doesn’t feel real, or because I have to keep eating M&M’s if I want to keep talking like this.
“Well, would you look at that,” says Emily from her cubicle.
Emily just a voice expecting a response without looking at a set of eyes. Emily, who loves purple and tall horses. Emily, who is marrying Otto on a day in Vermont that will be absolutely freezing because they booked the ceremony for early October which everyone thinks is autumnal but it never is, it is too late, come on Emily. Come the fuck on. Emily, who anticipates Friday and tells you about it. Emily, who sits a foot from her monitor telling us that Sears is closing two hundred stores, can you believe it.
I need some answers about my reality so I decide to take the elevator to floor twenty.
On the way, the elevator stops on floor sixteen. A square shaped woman in a leopard print blouse walks on. She doesn’t notice me, so when I move past her to get off on floor twenty she screams.
Using the phone outside the locked door, I tell Fang Lu I’m here to talk to Dorian and he hangs up. The feeling I have is that I did something wrong. I call again, letting it ring and ring before the State operator picks up, who I hang up on.
I call again. This time, as the phone rings, Fang Lu is coming toward the door in a speed walk, appearing more nervous than I am. It looks like he has a phone in each pocket, or maybe just weird muscular thighs. How does anyone have enough time to lift weights? He apologies. They are extremely busy.
“Is Dorian around?” I ask.
“No. What’s up?”
“I have a question about my gate.”
Behind him, Billy Krol is sitting in his cubicle on a modern leather chair, cardboard boxes scattered around him, most turned on their sides and empty. The office has never looked complete. Billy Krol swivels back and forth in his chair, one hand resting on the keyboard as he stares at the monitor. Some ceiling lights have recently burned out, allowing narrow cones of darkness to appear on the carpet. I’m surprised Fang Lu doesn’t let me in, he just stands with the door open behind his back.
“He’ll be back tomorrow, but keep going with everything you’re doing,” he says. “Your work output is high and happiness levels are solid.”
“I am,” I say, grinning.
“Then why are you here? Didn’t you watch the video?”
His tone is condescending, and I’m not sure if it’s because he doesn’t want to be bothered, they really are that busy, or he just wants me to leave because something greater is wrong.
“I wanted to know how real this is,” I say in a half professional voice. “I know she’s not the actual Alice, but it feels like it, and I just wanted to talk about it some more, like, how long will it last? It can’t last forever. When is he back?”
Fang Lu exhales in one long breath, and it makes me slightly relaxed as well, like two people making each other yawn. I get the feeling this is a move he does often, he knows what he’s doing. He closes his eyes, does a few more long breaths, and says with no sense of irony that he’s centering himself.
“If you’re happy, why does it matter?” he says, exasperated.
“But for how long?”
Billy Krol is listening now, turned in his chair and facing the door with his khaki legs spread wide.
“As long as PER is functioning in the office, then, it’s up to you to continue with the repetition schedule and mindset. We don’t do follow-up screenings because they’re intrusive. Data entry and screens will never change. After we leave, a maintenance plan will become available.”
I don’t know what to think. It’s not hot in here, but I’m sweating.
Billy Krol shouts, “It’s all good!”
“But the testimonials, like, what are they doing now? You don’t care if they’re still inside their gate?” I ask, stammering.
Fang Lu does his breathing exercises again. I’m breathing with him. On the last set he says “Flower” before the inhale and after the exhale “Fire.” Then he opens his eyes and rolls his shoulders back. “Our goal is to open the gate, increase productivity, make the client happy, that’s it. Then to the next city, the next town, the next group of workers. No negative feedback has ever been gathered so you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“I’m just worried it won’t be—”
“Fine, I’ll tune up your watch,” interrupts Fang Lu. He opens the door behind him a little more, gesturing with his hand to come in.
Dorian’s door is closed so it’s just me, Fang Lu, and Billy Krol beneath the artificial lights in the center cubicles with too much empty office space surrounding us. On his laptop, Billy Krol shows me my work output during the fifteen day training and it’s unbelievable. A chart shows how my efficiency compares to other workers (one is Steve, as the poorest example) who weren’t suitable for PER. There’s a drop-off since the opening of my gate on June 23, but not much. I’m a productive worker saving the taxpayers money while living a cheerful life.
Fang Lu plugs in my watch to his laptop and shows me more charts with increased serotonin levels as thin blue lines rising and a long string of light-gray numbers associated with chemical compounds I’ve never heard of. The waterfall logo turns off and on in the bottom right corner. They both agree by way of non-stop head nodding and tech-speak that everything in the program is functioning normally. Alice as Alice is strong and vibrant.
It’s hard to argue with numbers and charts if you don’t know anything about them, so I agree. Fang Lu kindly suggests I go back to work. He begins his breathing exercises again. Billy Krol rolls his eyes.
Returning home, Alice is sitting on the lawn next to the concrete steps. I worked late, deep in a data entry trance for six hours hoping to strengthen her life. I need to keep the gate open for as long as possible. I can’t be alone again.
Drops of rain begin to fall as I walk, and one fat drop smacks the glass face of the watch and it blinks with the waterfall logo. This is my life and I need to embrace it. Become it. I wave to Alice as I approach.
But maybe my reality is too strong. This Billy Krol thought and he made some adjustments by typing away on his laptop with a sticky cord attached to my temple, but my gut reaction is that it didn’t do a thing. My gut reaction is Fang Lu and Billy Krol don’t do much, if anything, this ride is all Dorian, the one who knows where the program and the ride ends.
The rain marks the sidewalk in dark oblong dots. This summer has been nothing but storms with inter-exchanging pockets of humidity and cold breezes. Can’t complain, I’ll take it. The evening sun cuts across Alice. It brightens her head and shadows her body.
“I’m home,” I say, running up the hill. “I’m here,” I say, groveling at her feet, slipping on the grass.
I put my arm around her and she leans away.
“Easy,” she says.
“It’s sunny, but raining,” I say, holding my palm out. “Weird.”
She tilts her head. “What?”
“Wait,” I say. “What are you doing out here? How did you know I’d be home now, if I worked late?”
“I’m not allowed to sit outside?”
“But why are you out here?”
She shakes a little. It is kind of cold outside, a sharp change in temperature between heat and storm, but not really. She doesn’t say anything else and neither do I. The atmosphere doesn’t feel so electric anymore. I can’t feel the rain.
“I’m here,” Alice whispers. “And I love you.”
New clouds are covering the present clouds. I look forward at the rain but now I can’t see anything. Another déjà vu moment. We’re at the castle, on the beach where the lake is, and it’s either the memory of actual Alice or the recent trip with PER Alice, I can’t tell, but my head is facing the sand and she’s kissing the back of my head with her lips pressed into my hair. “I’m here.” “Where are you?” “All this is fakery.” “Please stay.” “I can’t do this anymore.” Everything flips. My head hits the grass. The world goes dark.
I’m inside my apartment, looking down at Alice in the bathtub with her clothes on and legs hugged to her chest. The window is open and rain is splattering the tiles. I ask if she’d like to get out, extending my hand, and she says there’s room for two so I step in fully clothed and we hold each other in the water.
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
She answers, “Of course, why wouldn’t it be?”
Shane Jones lives in upstate New York. His newest novel Vincent and Alice and Alice is available from Tyrant Books.