main

The Memory Monkey - Extract

This is an extract of the first three chapters of the novel The Memory Monkey.

René Ghosh, published 02/2017. Read the full text:

Print version (North America) Print (Europe)

1.

Tascha is silent at breakfast and has been for some time now. The radio is on. She’s staring off into space when Max walks into the kitchen and looks up at him sharply when he comes into view. She begins to talk as Max bends to kiss her cheek.

“I don’t love you anymore.”

Her tone indicates she’s saying something important, but while she’s speaking, Max has no hint as to what it’s about, so he just slows his gesture down, his lips reaching her cheek just as she ends her sentence. He stays there, face hovering like a toy run out of batteries, bent over at the waist, his face a breath away from hers. He can smell her shampoo.

“What?”

“I don’t love you anymore.”

Max sits down, smiles, and waits for her face to smile in return, but it doesn’t.

“You know that’s not possible,” says Max.

“Do I? Do we? We’ve always been so sure.” She shrugs.

He changes the subject, supposes she’s pissed off at him for some reason.

“Is there any bread left?” Switching to the cold and factual, he figures, will precipitate whatever reproach she’s nurturing toward him. She doesn’t get angry.

“There’s plenty of bread left,” she says. She gets up to make him toast, serves him coffee, adds milk.

“They had a new blend at the market,” she mentions. Her voice is perfect domesticity.

Max bites into his toast. “It’s just not possible,” he says through a full mouth. “I’ve seen equations and shit.”

She shrugs, looks away. “I don’t think I even like you anymore. I don’t recognize myself in anything you do.”

He takes another bite of toast. The crunch is loud and seems to irritate her, though as he scans the face of the woman he loves, he can find no salient, identifiable proof of irritation.

‘You know what,’ says Max to himself, ‘I’m not going to open the shop.’ He prints a sign and chooses the words carefully:

‘Due to family issues, the shop will remain closed for the next few days. We deeply regret any inconvenience.’

Tascha finds the sign on the front window and frowns. “What the fuck, man,” she says, yanking it off.

She calls out to him, “Why don’t you take a few days and deal with your family issues?” She pulls out the postcard racks, one rack per hand, arm muscles taut and confident as she drags them backwards toward the front of the shop.

“What did I do?” asks Max. “Tell me what I did.”

Tascha wipes her hands on the back of her jeans.

On Sunday, to Max’s surprise, she gets ready for church. Because she’s been drifting out of the relationship, he supposes that she must be chafing at more or less all of her constraints. But no, she actually seems eager to go. For the first time that week, she even speaks to him kindly.

“Are you coming to church?”

“I don’t need a bullshit sermon right now.”

“It’s not bullshit. We just never gave it a chance. Lately, I don’t know… I’ve been listening more closely. There’s a lot there that I can connect to. That we can connect to.”

She nods in agreement with herself.

After the sermon, Max stands outside the church gripping a polystyrene cup of tea, rocking back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet and squinting up at the sun. Frin comes out to join him, carrying his own tea in a polystyrene cup. A polystyrene cup of slightly larger format.

Frin stands next to him.

“So,” says Frin, “I hear Tascha is free?” Like so many other Extrapolists, Frin worries that his sexual experiences will be insufficient to last over in the afterlife until the time of his next rebirth.

Max avoids looking at him. “Tascha’s mine. Don’t you touch her.”

Frin makes a deprecating sound in his throat, as though having trouble swallowing. “That’s not how she puts it.”

Max scowls at the sun. He doesn’t reply. He’d like to chuck his tea into Frin’s face, but the tea is already cool and wouldn’t inflict any damage.

“That was a good sermon today,” remarks Frin.

“I hardly listened to it. I’ve been preoccupied. I guess you noticed.”

“Get over yourself, man.”

Frin heads back inside the church. Max watches him go, trying to picture the other man’s form the way Tascha might, now that she’s free. Frin is a tall, lanky man, with strong shoulders built up through physical conditioning. He has an arrogant face. Max can’t imagine what it feels like to be attracted to a man and decides that it’s useless to even try. He crumples his polystyrene cup and takes it inside to throw away.

He approaches Tascha in the reception hall where all the churchgoers are massed following the sermon. Tascha is speaking with a friend of hers, a thirtysomething woman.

“Are you ready to go?” asks Max.

“I’m going to stay,” replies Tascha with an apologetic smile. Max guesses that the smile is only apologetic for her friend’s benefit.

Max would like to add something, but she turns back to her friend to resume the conversation.

Max goes over inventory in the storage room of the shop. For every item type, he checks the amount on a set of printed-out pages, then counts them with his right hand. He touches every item to make sure it exists when you touch it as well as when you look at it. He murmurs each item type aloud, like he’s doing a roll call.

“Hiking boot chains, speckled steel. Water flask, bacteria-free spout.”

He doesn’t notice Baran entering the storage room. Baran stands right behind him, waiting for him to finish the row he’s on.

“Well, at least you’re working,” says Baran when Max reaches the end of the row.

Max turns around. “Hey Baran. What do you mean?”

“You know. What with Tascha leaving you.”

Max shakes his head. He turns back to the inventory, starting a new row. “Tascha hasn’t left me. It’s just time for us to discover new people.”

Baran looks down a moment. Takes a deep breath.

“That sounds like Extrapolist bullshit. Yeah, she wants to discover other people. That’s just typical after being married for so long. You know, it’s not that I don’t feel any sympathy for you, but this goes beyond Tascha wanting to get it on with other men. I mean, good for her, right? But come, let’s sit down and talk.”

Max sighs. Baran is married to Sinvia. Another Institute couple.

Pretending to be making progress in his inventory, Max asks “Tell me, has Sinvia been with other men?”

“I don’t know. I don’t ask her. I don’t care. This isn’t what this is about, you know that.”

“Well I still love Tascha, so I don’t have any insight for you.”

“Come on, let’s get some coffee, talk about this? I’ll work the machine. I know how, you know. I sometimes sneak into the shop when it’s closed and make myself a cup.”

“Please give me back the store keys.”

They head to the front of the shop. There are three long tables there, set in front of a bar behind which sits a coffee machine, too gleamingly luxurious for an outdoor equipment shop. It’s an admission that most of the clients of the outdoors shop are used to a certain level of comfort that follows them around where they go, even when they’re traveling to get close to nature.

Max plops into a chair. Baran goes behind the bar and busies himself with the coffee machine.

“What am I going to do?” says Max. “How am I supposed to live without Tascha? She’s a hard woman, but you can lean on her, you know? I can’t picture myself with anyone else. I’m going to be lonely.”

“Bullshit.” Baran’s voice sails over to him from across the bar like a projectile. “Other people do it all the time. We’ve seen them do it right under our noses. They meet someone, have sex a few times, and then these chemicals get going in their heads and suddenly, their loyalties realign themselves. It’s organic. Tascha is out there right now doing it even as we speak. We’re human, just like everyone else.”

“OK, that’s painful, the image of Tascha with some other guy. Let’s just avoid —”

“The other guy is almost certainly Frin, by the way. I was watching them this morning at church after you left. I didn’t need to hear what they were saying, their body language was so obvious.”

“I don’t want to imagine that. It’s a stab.”

Baran chuckles. “You know, I don’t think Frin’s the kind of guy to let her be on top. How do I know that? I don’t even know how I know that.”

Max crosses his arms on the table and lays his head over them. Baran has prepared the two coffees and carries them around the bar. He sits facing Max.

“There’s a coffee next to your left elbow,” he says, putting the cup down. “If you move too brusquely, you’ll spill it all over the floor.”

Baran slurps some coffee. “If it happened to Tascha, it could happen to any of the other Institute couples. It could happen to Sinvia and me, to the others.”

Max mumbles through his arms, “I don’t care about the others. I don’t care about you.”

“No, you just care that Tascha is getting smothered under Frin’s sweaty skin right now.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“She’s squealing in a high-pitched tone that she never once used with you and that you wouldn’t even recognize.”

“Shut. Up”

“She’s trembling in his arms, feeling an electrical surge soar through her muscles, shocked by what Frin has revealed to her about her own body.”

“Would you just stop?”

Baran chuckles again, then becomes pensive. “Max, my friend, the reason I’ve come to you today is not to assuage your troubles, which are, of course, your own. It’s just that, in my opinion, Tascha freeing herself from the couples conditioning is an opportunity. I understand that you don’t see it that way right now, in your advanced state of self-pity.”

“You want to sleep with Tascha too.”

“No. Well, no. Whatever. If Tascha has broken conditioning, that means she may be able to access her pre-conditioning memories.”

Max meets Baran’s stare straight on, expecting his friend to be cowed by it, but Baran leisurely slurps more coffee and pursues, “You know, Sinvia has really let herself go these past years. She does no sports, neglects her grooming, takes no interest in conversation. Most other men in my situation would be looking to switch partners, but the thought doesn’t occur to me, at least not on any emotional level. I’m still deeply attached to her. I can’t even imagine my world without her, the same way you can’t imagine yours without Tascha.”

“Because we will never replace these women,” says Max.

Baran shrugs. “She can sure as fuck imagine her world without you, though. But don’t worry, Max. I have this intuition that maybe your world won’t fall apart at all. How do I know that? I don’t know how I know that. But, what’s going to happen is, you’ll suffer a little and then just move on, maybe even reinvent a new life for yourself. And if that happens, well, maybe we don’t need to be protected from the pre-conditioning memories anymore. We could go back to the institute and tell Doctor Tescar that we’re healed and ask him to give us back all our old memories. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Max grimaces. “Those memories were horrible enough that no one would ever want them back. And even if we did, there’s no technology that can give you back your memories. It’s not like a digital recording that you can just pop into and out of your head.”

Baran stands. “I think the memories are all still in our heads. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living with this large segment of my life missing. Other people talk about their childhood memories with so much pleasure. That could be us, Max. Not all our old memories are bad. There has to be some salvageable ones in the bunch that’ll enrich our sense of ourselves. We should unlock those.”

Baran carries his empty coffee cup back to the bar and leaves it there to stain the counter. He says, “I’m going back to my shabby wife, the one I’ve been conditioned to love forever,” heading for the exit. “Thank you for coffee.”

Max calls out, “I’m not conditioned to love you and I don’t think that I —”

Tascha comes home at four in the morning. Max is sitting in the kitchen with a cold cup of tea. She walks past him in the dark and cries out when he brushes her sleeve.

“Oh! What are you doing up?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“Great. Now we’re both going to be tired tomorrow at the shop.”

She’s moving out of the kitchen as she says it, moving toward the hallway and the stairs that lead to the bedroom.

As she reaches the kitchen door, Max says, “You smell like another man.”

Tascha shoots back “You can’t smell me from over there,” but she hesitates at the door anyway.

“Well, I imagine that you smell like another man.”

“Let’s not make a big deal out of this, OK? We’re all just large groups of molecules hurtling through space and the universe, yielding to forces that are beyond our comprehension. We exist for a short time and then we don’t. We should let those forces allow us to express our beauty and our meaning.”

Max nods. He gazes over at his wife, appreciating that, even though she doesn’t love him anymore, she still retains enough respect to stay there listening. Taking his thoughts into consideration.

“Baran came by today. Said he saw you with Frin.”

Tascha laughs and shakes her head. “Small towns. It’s great until suddenly it’s not. So, is everyone talking?”

“Well Baran is talking because he and Sinvia are an Institute couple, obviously. Are your memories coming back, Tascha? Is that it?”

Tascha looks away. She taps the door frame twice with her palm, as though suddenly worried that the house is not solid. “Nothing is coming back. But I wish it would. I’d really love to know who I was before I became just half of whatever you and I are.”

“Whatever you and I are, Tascha, I refuse to believe that it’s nothing. Or that it’s made up. Or that it’s fake.”

Tascha shrugs. “It’s late, we have to open the shop in the morning. Are you coming to bed?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No, but half of that bed belongs to you. I don’t want to be mean about it.”

“I’ll sleep on the couch.”

Tascha nods and pushes off the door frame, moving resolutely toward the stairs. Her footsteps are heavier than usual. She’s drunk. Max sips his cold tea, feeling the bitterness roll over his tongue. Mentally, he replays her sentence about molecules hurtling through space and wonders where that came from. It could have been a book, but Tascha never reads anything and isn’t drawn to science. He supposes that she’s quoting someone else’s affirmation to her. The kind of affirmation you offer to make someone else feel good about feeling free. The kind of affirmation you offer someone to draw them out of their shell.

Upstairs in the bedroom he hears Tascha bumping into a piece of furniture. He hears her cry out, “Fuck! Fucking shit!”

2.

A few weeks later, Tascha walks into the shop. She’s acting like a client, scrunching her nose at a few products, taking a box down from the top shelf to peer at it closely before putting it back. She sighs and comes up to the counter behind which Max stands stone-faced.

“Hey,” she says. Her face is blank.

“Is there something I can help you with?” replies Max in a drone-like voice.

“You haven’t been coming to church.”

“You came to the shop to ask me that? You could just come downstairs anytime and just ask me.”

“I thought it’d be best if we each had our space.”

“We live in the same house! This is ridiculous. So, is our staircase the no-man’s land?”

Tascha clears her throat and taps with both hands on the counter, as though they’ve just reached the drum solo portion of the conversation. She taps, then stops. Then she taps some more.

“How’ve you been, Max?”

Max shrugs. “I’m OK. Though, I really wish you’d have told me that you intended to stop working in the shop because it gets a little hectic sometimes.”

Tascha snorts. “No it doesn’t. Hardly anyone ever comes in. If there were any competition in this town we’d be out of business.”

“‘We’. Well, if ever it does get hectic, I’ll be quickly submerged. Sometimes I’m ringing up a purchase and someone is waiting over there for a coffee, and they give me this dirty look even though they can tell I’m busy.”

Tascha chuckles.

“Seriously, they look at me like I should just drop the ongoing purchase and go make their coffee.”

“Well, you sound OK.”

“I’m OK. Well… You know me, I’m good at giving things up. I never thought I’d have to give you up, though. This is like the ultimate test. I’m passing, I guess.”

“Oh.” Tascha, oddly touched, pulls her head back and looks at him in surprise. “I’m glad then.”

“Do you care?”

“What?”

“Do you care how I am?”

“Of course I care.” She looks back down at the counter and taps it some more. “You haven’t been coming to church though.”

Max sighs. “Why would I bother going there anymore? The only reason we went there in the first place was to register our presence in the community. But there’s no ‘us’ anymore so we don’t need the community. Also, I’ve been told you’re using the church as a dating field.”

Tascha shrugs. “Maybe a little. I’m just testing my new freedom. The men don’t mean anything to me.”

“Why do you want me to come to church anyway? To admire how you navigate between these meaningless men?”

“No. It doesn’t feel right that you’re not there with me. You’re my soul mate. That doesn’t change just because our physical bodies are separating.”

“Oh, fuck off with the soul mate shit.”

“It’s true, Max! We’ve been together for so many years, now. That’s not coincidence. We’re intertwined, you and I. Living together, being together, it had meaning. It doesn’t just disappear.”

“Doesn’t it, though? You know I’m good at giving things up. So now, watch me give up intertwinedness. Watch me throw it out like the garbage that it is.”

Tascha sighs. She says, “OK.” She taps the counter a few more times, as though the conversation song has just ended with a drum aftershock. Then, she turns and walks toward the shop entrance.

Max watches her retreating form and notes what a beautiful sight it is, a woman walking away from you. It states that, wherever you happen to be, there’s some other point in space that’s probably even better. He watches her go and mentally gives her a thirty percent chance of turning around before disappearing from view, if only because she came to see him. But she doesn’t, so maybe she didn’t, really.

Grudgingly, not fully recognizing his own reasons for doing so, he goes to church that Sunday, stepping through the narrow door of the Extrapolist church building, last of all the churchgoers. The door opening is purposefully narrow so that people can only enter the building one at a time. People with larger frames sometimes have trouble squeezing through. In certain cases allowances are made for the very large ones to enter through the side door, provided people never enter two at once. The symbolism holds that the physical church is a metaphor for the physical universe and that souls are perfectly alone until they enter into it. Within the church there are both individual and group seats. Custom holds that no one should get accustomed to any seat but rather change seating every week.

On the far wall, behind the preaching stage, a different Community Thought is printed every week in large letters. Max gazes at this week’s Community Thought as he sits down.

The sentence looms, ‘We are all groupings of molecules. We hurtle through space and the universe. We are subject to forces beyond our comprehension.’

Max strikes his forehead, exclaiming “So that’s where she got it!”. He turns to his right to explain himself and finds he’s sitting beside Frin.

Frin nods to him with a pinched smile.

“Tascha said that to me this week,” explains Max, pointing to the Community Thought. “I thought it sounded stupid, to tell you the truth. It seems so much deeper when it’s written in big letters like that.”

Frin nods. “Well, it’s not wrong, anyhow.”

“You’re a real smug bastard, you know that?” says Max. “You always have to say something to look smart.”

Frin puts a hand on his shoulder. “We’re inside the church here. Let’s be together, Max.”

Max, without looking at the hand resting on his shoulder yet acutely aware of it, says “I’ll be together with you just as soon as you admit that you’re a smug bastard.”

Frin lets his hand slip off of Max’s shoulder. “I am together with you, Max, even if you aren’t together with me.”

“You’re together with me through fucking my wife, you smug bastard. Did you come here with Tascha today?”

“No, I didn’t come here with Tascha today.” Frin sighs. “I thought you did.”

Max swivels in his seat and looks around for Tascha. He spots her to the far right, sitting in a single seat. She meets his gaze and briefly waves at him.

The Guide reads a passage from the Book of Past Lives, about standing waves on a lake and the way they rebound and traverse one another. Max thinks it would have been a prettier passage if it had just remained as an evocative description of waves and let the audience extrapolate the spiritual ramifications, but it veers into a tedious explanation, cutting away all mystery, so he sighs loudly. Frin chuckles. Max tries to hate him but can’t refrain a wave of pleasure at making someone chuckle.

After the service there’s a reception in the church basement. Sandwiches are served at one table, pies at another, and the last table holds the drinks. Tascha stands in the sandwiches line and waves Max over when he enters the basement.

“Go stand in the pie line,” she orders. “Get me a slice of pie. I’ll stand in the sandwich line and get you a sandwich.”

Max gives her a weary look. “Do you really need a sandwich and a slice of pie?”

“I won’t know until I’ve tried both. Hurry! People are still coming in, the lines are filling quickly.”

Max stands in the pie line and shuffles forward. Tascha stands in the sandwich line, shifting nervously from foot to foot, tilting her head sideways and gauging the amount of sandwiches of each kind that are left on the table. There’s never enough food for everyone at these receptions.

Max gets a slice of pie and waits in a corner for her to join him. She walks up to him bearing two sandwiches and fiercely whispers, “Why didn’t you get two slices of pie? Didn’t you tell them it was for both of us?”

“It wasn’t really for both of us. We were both in a line, so each getting the equivalent of a single portion of food. By combining our single portions we get a couple’s portion. Though… I see you weren’t thinking like that.”

Tascha pushes a sandwich toward his face. “Here.”

“I don’t want it. I’m not hungry.”

“Just take it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“I need to free a hand up to take the slice of pie.”

“I’ll hold it for you.”

“Just take the sandwich.”

“I don’t want the sandwich.”

“Trade the sandwich for the pie. Come on! I want to get a drink before there’s nothing left.”

“No.”

Tasha squeezes the sandwich in her right hand, compressing it beyond recognition into a tight roll of concentrated calories, then reaches out with the same hand and grabs the slice of pie from him, her crooked fingers stabbing at his hand. Max stands there motionless, afraid that any action on his part will result in food falling to the floor. She expects him to struggle though, and when he doesn’t her stabbing becomes more erratic.

Max says, “Don’t pry! I’ll give it to you. Stop stabbing at me, just calm down.”

Tascha stuffs the whole compressed sandwich from her right hand into her mouth, then reaches out and grabs the slice of pie from him. She mumbles, “Thank you!”, fiercely sarcastic through a full mouth, and storms off toward the drinks table.

He watches her in the drinks lineup, shifting nervously, swaying to the side to check up on the progress ahead.

Frin comes to stand with him. “Can I speak with you?”

“Fuck off, Frin. I know you slept with Tascha even though I specifically told you not to.”

Frin shrugs. “Well, that’s what I came to talk to you about. I’d like to apologize.”

“Fuck you and fuck your apologies too.” He keeps his eye on Tascha in the drinks lineup. She’s almost at the table and has only two more people in front of her. He hears Frin’s voice, watches Tascha, and can’t help but imagine them together having sex.

Frin says, “I’ll be leaving town soon. I’ll also be leaving the Extrapolist church for a while. I realized, after sleeping with Tascha, that I hadn’t really wanted to, that I’d just been swept along by the group-think. Groups are a wonderful thing, but then you let them think for you and only the loudest, most provocative ideas really circulate. It makes you lazy. It makes you forget what you really want.”

“Will you fuck off?”

“I hear your anger.”

“I don’t care what you hear. I’m glad you’re leaving town. You can go to hell.”

Erek, the Extrapolist Guide, has been approaching. He overhears Max’s last remark.

“Whoa guys, what’s going on here? This is the Extrapolist church, there’s no such thing as hell in Extrapolism.”

“Well,” says Max, “there should be. It’d keep us all walking a morally narrower road. This fucker here,” he gestures toward Frin as though throwing a ball, “slept with Tascha. There should be some kind of hell for fuckers like him.”

“Our destinies are linked to people in ways that can only be understood by exploring those bonds,” says Guide Erek.

“You see?” Says Frin. “That’s exactly the kind of group-think shit that landed me in this situation. What I did wasn’t cool, man! I ended this guy’s relationship!”

“Well,” says Guide Erek, “I don’t know enough about the situation, but I can tell you this: things are not defined by the ways in which they end. They continue through the way each intended.”

Max scoffs. “That’s really appreciated, Guide. Really puts a bandage on things. Like, one of those bandages that are too small for the wound and end up sticking adhesive in the wound part and prevent it healing properly because it rips the scab when you need to pull it off.”

Frin guffaws. “Like, seriously!”

“Laughter is good, and soothing,” says Guide Erek. “Just: remember what I said anyways, OK?”

“I’m done with Extrapolism,” says Frin.

“I will miss you,” says Erek with a note of finality.

“I won’t,” says Max. “As far as I’m concerned, he can drive off a cliff.”

“We are all connected to one another,” says Guide Erek. “A part of you would drive off that cliff with him.”

“We are so much more interconnected than I’d like,” says Max.

Frin says nothing but nods, hands in his pockets. He’s a difficult man to hate, standing as he is, looking detached. His face remains arrogant, but it looks regretfully so, like he never chose to look arrogant and can do nothing about it.

Tascha has gotten her drink and is trying to keep the cup upright as she bites from her sandwich. She finished the slice of pie while waiting in line.

Frin packs a few suitcases toward the end of the week. He tells his friends and fellow churchgoers that he’s leaving the city and doesn’t yet know where he’ll go, planning to live on his savings until he finds a place where he wants to stay. His friends are puzzled at the sudden need to leave. “Why?” they ask him. “Why now? What’s changed?”

He hasn’t been the same since spending the night with Tascha.

Guide Erek comes to see him at home one evening, unannounced.

“May I come in?” asks Erek.

Frin hesitates. “Come in,” he says finally, “but you won’t change my mind about leaving.”

“I don’t intend to,” replies Guide Erek, with maybe a little too much enthusiasm.

Frin’s eyes are circled in grey. He hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s been awaking exhausted to find his sheets crumpled and drenched with sweat, his mind racing with the aftershock of images that he can’t recall, but nevertheless he still feels their violence. He’s sure that, every night as he tries to sleep, something takes hold of his mind and snatches it right from his consciousness like taking a rug out from under someone’s feet. He suspects it came from Tascha but he can’t explain how he knows this, beyond the obvious reason that it started the day after they spent their first night together.

Guide Erek sits across from him in his living room, leaning forward at the waist, hands pressed together and resting on his knees. The image of selfless, serene listening.

“Can I offer you a beer?” asks Frin.

“Sure,” says Erek.

“All I have is citrus-flavored, light beer, though. Is that alright?”

Erek shrugs, his earnest gaze never wavering away from Frin. “Whatever you have will be nice, Frin.”

“A lot of people don’t like beer with added flavor. They feel as though the traditional purity of the drink is being soiled.”

“Frin, I know you’re leaving and it’s not my place at all to convince you to stay. We all have our different paths to follow and that’s totally alright. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t attempt to listen to your reasons for leaving though, and if I can, try to help you find clarity within them.”

Frin nods. “Tascha is possessed by something,” he says. “I think she gave it to me. It’s some kind of mental parasite. I just want to get away from here. I feel as though I were being punished. I feel really bad toward Max.”

Erek nods.

“None of this is compatible with the Extrapolist views, I know,” adds Frin. “I know the church views all interactions as enriching and some more than others. I’m just convinced that I’ve added some kind of destructive weave to the one I picked up from Tascha.”

Erek frowns slightly, makes as if to speak.

“Her soul is diseased,” adds Frin. “I don’t know how Max has survived all these years with her. Maybe he’s immune. I don’t know.”

Erek breathes deeply. “I’ll take that beer if the offer still holds.”

3.

The smokers at Empiricole take their breaks in the parking lot. The building is a large rectangular structure, padded in a reflective aluminum that makes their breaks sweaty in the summer months.

Rialdy walks out of the building, one hand in his pocket, the other one carrying a folder with notes for his upcoming meeting. Sheila is standing outside, smoking. Her hair is up in a bun. She has excellent posture and a graceful arch in her lower back where her blouse tucks into her work skirt.

“Hey Sheila.”

She arches her eyebrows and flicks out her chin. “Hey.”

Rialdy scans the parking lot. “Have you seen a limo pull up? The Aranacian group is coming. These guys only travel by limo. It’s all about prestige. But, they rent the limos, so it’s like they’re a bunch of kids going to their prom, rather than gangsters.”

Sheila doesn’t laugh. She shakes her head. “No limos on the horizon. I’ll keep you updated.” She glances up at him, studying his face, blowing out smoke.

Rialdy hones in on her cigarette. She’s holding it in one hand, the other hand holding her wrist.

“Can I get one of those off you?” he asks, pointing to it.

She nods and pulls out her pack. She waits for him to light up.

“You know,” she says, “I was mad at you for a while. I was so mad I could have slapped you, hard.”

Rialdy nods, handing her back her lighter. “I guess I didn’t behave toward you the way I should have.”

“You just disappeared. You know, I hadn’t asked for anything from you.” She waves it off. “But, whatever. How’re things? How’re you?” She drags on her cigarette, looking away, as though she’s forgotten he’s even there.

“I’m good. Anna and I are trying to conceive a baby together.”

Sheila chuckles. “Really? You? You’re going to be a father?”

“Yeah. How is that funny?”

“You’ll make a terrible father. You’ll be one of those jackasses at the playground who wear sunglasses and stare at their phone all the time, organizing their evening for when the kids’ll be in bed and they can head out for some real fun.”

“Well. I won’t be that guy.”

“Good luck, in any event.” Sheila’s voice is placating. She seems to regret the barb.

From the street just beyond the parking lot, a limo slows, then veers into it. Rialdy hastily puts out his cigarette on the dirty ashtray/garbage tin that sits on top of a black metal post next to the door. It has a little incline that allows for the cigarette to be extinguished, then let go of, to roll down through a slot into the underlying container. Rialdy’s cigarette somehow misses it and spills onto the ground in a cascade of ash and red cinders.

“We’re in business. These guys have money to spend on our shit. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Rialdy. I’m sure they’ll be impressed.”

Rialdy hesitates, thinking of something nice to say. “Thanks for the cigarette.” He nods at her, then heads back into the building.

The Aranacian group is composed of three men, all portly, all in suits that look expensive but also look like the imitation of even more expensive suits. Their handshakes are bone-crushing but curt, as though they’ve been working out for something exciting and strenuous and are eager to get back to it after this meeting ends.

Miles, the head of sales at Empiricole, is conducting the meeting. He has a thinning canopy of hair that flutters upward and buttresses his expression of being saddled with worry. His laptop screen reflects off his steel-rimmed glasses as he moves through slides listing Empiricole’s prestigious clients and showing figures of growth in in-app code encryption.

Miles drinks tea. Whatever recipient he uses to drink it in, he holds it cupped in both hands as though to warm them from the beverage. He believes that his particular tea of choice holds deep health benefits and this is how he signifies, even when no one is around, that he’s receiving wholesome goodness from it. He doesn’t add sugar because it doesn’t require any. Also, he’s persuaded himself that he doesn’t like sugar even though he does. Miles has sat in at numerous Japanese tea ceremonies. He’s proud to say that he can sit at these ceremonies for hours and never budge a muscle.

Rialdy stands for a good portion of the presentation, close to the screen where the slides are being projected, gazing up at it frequently. After Miles’ introduction, it’s his turn to talk.

“In-app encryption is the only way to properly ensure that your code will never be violated,” he says.

He pauses deliberately. “I like to ask a question at the beginning of these presentations, which is: why have we never been decimated by giant insects? Does anyone know the answer to that?”

He looks in turn at each of the three Aranacians seated there. He realizes he can’t remember any of their names. He generally makes a point of listening intently when someone speaks their name, focusing on the face and creating a mental snapshot with the name included as a caption, but today he forgot to and can’t address them individually.

He answers his own question.

“It’s because insects don’t have endoskeletons, they have exoskeletons, basically shells on the outside of their bodies. It serves its purpose for small bodies, but any insect that was human sized would be incapable of supporting its own weight, whereas we can because we carry our skeleton on the inside.” He pauses, letting it sink in. Two of the Aranacians stare at him blankly, the third one is texting on his phone.

“Code security is the same way,” he pursues. “If you want to ensure your code isn’t violable, you have to protect it at the code level, from the inside. Empiricole Crypter is the premier solution for achieving this, with a completely integrated solution, from login to storage.”

The texting Aranacian looks up. “What does this mean, ‘integrated’?”

Rialdy repeats the word in Aranacian. Three sets of eyebrows shoot up.

“You speak Aranacian!” one of them exclaims. He laughs and looks at the other two. One of them laughs too, then throws his empty polystyrene coffee cup at him.

Miles and Rialdy exchange a look. Miles’ look is saying, ‘These men are large children. Adapt your presentation to just such an audience.’

“We like to maintain a body of experts who are keenly sensitive to the international market,” says Miles to the Aranacians. They ignore him. The one who just spoke says to Rialdy, “Your boss likes to spend his weekends cleaning between his toes.” The Aranacians guffaw. Rialdy laughs nervously, looking furtively at Miles, then away.

He finishes the presentation. The Aranacians ask no questions.

“Moving forward,” says Miles, “we should schedule a demo with your own code.”

The Aranacians stand up.

“We are in Montreal for the evening,” they say to Miles. “Can your boy Rialdy show us some fun?”

“Oh, I believe he can,” offers Miles generously. “Rialdy, I’m sure you know some good places to take these gentlemen for a good meal and a cocktail?”

Rialdy spends a moment with his mouth open. Then, “Of course. I know some places.”

“Don’t bring the boss,” says the Aranacian who’s apparently the funny one, again in Aranacian. “The boss is not a fun guy.”

Rialdy phones his girlfriend.

“Tace? I’ll be home late. I have to show some clients a good time. I know tonight is conception night, but we can still do it when I get home. If you’re sleeping I’ll just wake you up. I won’t conceive with you in your sleep, don’t worry.”

“No,” says Tace, “don’t wake me up. And don’t call it conception. We’re making a baby.” Rialdy winces at the word ‘baby’. He’s grateful she can’t see his face.

“I’ll wake you up. We can maintain the schedule.”

“No, If I’m sleeping it’s because I need to sleep. So, don’t wake me up.”

“OK. But just, I was totally prepared to wake you up.”

He returns to his office he shares with four other coworkers. The Aranacians are waiting for him there. One of them is sitting at his desk, going through his personal belongings in the drawers of the small wheeled cabinet that sits beside his workstation. The other two are leaning against his desk.

“I’ll meet you downtown in a few hours, if you like,” said Rialdy. He stares at the Aranacian going through his belongings, thinking it’ll shame him, but the Aranacian continues to rummage.

“Can I help you with something?” asks Rialdy.

“You people are supposed to be security experts, but you don’t even lock your personal cabinets.”

“There’s nothing of professional interest in there.”

The Aranacian slams the drawer shut. “Let’s go now.”

Rialdy said, “How about I join you downtown? I still have some work to finish up here.”

“This is your work. Let’s go. Fun time starts now.” The seated Aranacian licks his lips and rubs his hands together.

Rialdy thinks, ’What does he think is going to happen? How much fun does he think we’re going to have, a bunch of men who don’t know each other, having dinner?"

“I just have to talk to Miles for a second,” he says, and leaves his office space headed toward Miles’.

Miles is sitting at his desk playing with a multi-jointed plasticized cardboard toy that has the company name and Empiricole logo printed on it. The logo becomes entirely visible only when the puzzle is reconstituted. He hands it to Rialdy when he walks in. “I forgot to give this to the Aranacians.”

“Miles, this is embarrassing. They want to go out like, right now.”

“So? It beats doing actual work.”

“I can’t remember their names.”

“Ah. Names are important. You should always make the effort to remember people’s names.”

“Remind me what they are?”

Miles gazes up at the ceiling a moment, silently mouthing words that Rialdy suspects aren’t real words but rather a pantomime to highlight his name-recalling abilities.

“The one with the hair brushed back that looks like it shouldn’t hold in that flat a position, like a wheat field that’s been blown by wind and should have ripped but remains strangely intact save a permanent bend, of a kind of monotonous brown color, with jowly cheeks, is Azgeviu. He’s a project manager, the more operational of the three.”

“Azgeviu, got it.” Azgeviu was the funny one, the one who’d been rummaging through his personal belongings.

“Then, there’s the largest one, with a belly that juts out at sternum level, a sure sign that he uses human growth hormone, probably trains in some violent martial art. His face is large and squarish, with a buzz cut indicating contained fury. That’s Teoko. He’s the proxy client from the business side of their company.”

“I don’t think I agree with you about the contained fury. Some people just get buzz cuts from early childhood on and never feel the need to change. He’s probably just conservative.”

“The third one —”

“— no need for that, I’ll identify him by elimination —”

“— Is the short one, the one who wears a serious face but you can tell he’s rather detached and possibly inwardly aching to start a new life in some artistic field. His hair is longer. I get the impression he recently cut off a ponytail. Anyway, that’s Frimiu, and he’s in charge of purchases, which worries me because, well, he’s detached. I could see him denying the purchase because he can’t feel the need for our product. He’s the guy you need to convince tonight.”

“OK Miles.”

“Have a good evening.”

“Oh hey, Miles? How would you describe me if someone didn’t remember my name and you needed to describe me to him or her?”

Miles takes a moment to consider, appreciating the question. He picks up a cup with some tea left in the bottom and gives it a swirl. “Hmm”, he says. Then, he looks up. “Skinny nervous-looking guy. Tries to look cool but looks needy.”

“Fuck you, Miles.”

“Have a good evening with those crazies. Make them want code-level encryption.”

The Aranacians are blasting a form of rap/heavy metal in the limo on the way downtown. From the way they bob their heads forward and tap their burly fingers against car seats and the window bases, they look more youthful than they did earlier at the meeting. Rialdy gives them an address which they read to the chauffeur, who replies in Aranacian. Apparently, they rented the limo from an Aranacian business.

“How is it that you have an Aranacian name and speak Aranacian, Rialdy?” asks Teoko. He asks the question with provocation, as though an Aranacian name were something that should be earned.

“My mother was from Aranacia,” replies Rialdy. His pronunciation of Aranacian is second-generation immigrant and they pick up on it.

“Why did your mother come to live in Canada?”

“She came here as an exchange student. Met my father, stayed.”

Teoko nods and goes back to tapping his fingers and bobbing his head. A guitar solo comes on and all three Aranacians air-guitar with painful grimaces and eyes clenched shut.

They get off downtown. Teoko tells the chauffeur they won’t be needing his services for the evening and sends him off.

“Let’s eat!”

Rialdy looks at his watch. “It’s only 6 o’clock.”

“Take us where they have the biggest hamburgers imaginable!”

They eat at Moto Central. The hamburgers are so high that they are served pierced through with long, dangerous-looking toothpicks from top bun to bottom bun, through multiple meat patties and tomato slices. The Aranacians eat with their hands and wipe their greasy fingers on napkins that they seem to be sharing from a large pile on the table, picking them up at random, crumpling them and throwing them back before diving back into their burgers and fries.

Rialdy tries to steer the conversation toward code security. He asks about their business and receives only vague answers. Teoko answers any business-oriented question.

“It’s not because our code is especially precious, but we’d like to have it developed in cheaper places, so we have to provide our core components to them without letting them in on any industrial secrets. Much of our code base was built by the military before being provided to private companies.”

Rialdy tries to find a followup question and can’t think of one. He feels useless here, trying to drum up business for Empiricole and having no idea how to go about it. Speaking Aranacian doesn’t come easily to him. He struggles to find words, even common ones, and feels constrained by syntax and word construction. He imagines his dead mother listening to him speak, feels guilty and awkward, wishes he’d learned to speak her language better.

After dinner, the Aranacians want to go to a club. Rialdy takes them to the Café d’Eté, where twentysomethings gyrate to distortion-heavy post-something music with heavily saturated voice tracks. It’s the closest thing he can find to heavy metal. The clubs that played heavy metal all disappeared a decade ago.

The four men stand by the rail overlooking the dance floor, on the first floor, sipping drinks. After some time watching, Frimiu descends onto the dance floor and begins to dance. He holds his fists up near his ears, turning around slowly, sensuously, eyes shut. Rialdy, Azgeviu and Teoko watch him from the rail. Azgeviu and Teoko laugh as Frimiu gets too close to a girl, opens his eyes, tries to throw his arms around her and gets shoved by the girl’s boyfriend.

“The little man is going to fight!” exclaims Azgeviu. “You will see how Aranacians are good wrestlers.” Apparently, Rialdy is no longer a bona fide Aranacian to them.

“I should go home now,” says Rialdy, peering at his watch.

“Wait,” says Teoko. He points to Frimiu on the dance floor who’s shoved back against the girl’s boyfriend and has started to take off his jacket. He has it halfway down his arms when the other man swings and catches him on the nose with a punch.

Teoko and Azgeviu erupt in laughter. Downstairs, two large and muscular bouncers converge on the belligerents from opposite ends of the dance floor. Frimiu, bleeding from his nose, has time to rush his opponent, pick him up over his shoulder, stand, make half a turn, and slam the man to the floor before the bouncers reach them, yanking Frimiu up and off the prone man, who doesn’t move as Frimiu is dragged toward the club exit.

“Well!” Says Azgeviu. “It looks like you’re going to have to find us another club now.”

Rialdy said, “I have to go home. My girlfriend is expecting me. We’re trying to conceive.”

Azgeviu starts to protest, but Teoko puts a hand on his shoulder. “Let him go, he has a wife! We have to go get Frimiu in any case. They must have dumped him on the sidewalk.”

The two Aranacians descend to the ground floor and head out the back exit to look for their friend.

Rialdy stays for one last drink.