Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Feed: Satirical Speculative Story



 THE FEED



 Oh, a little intro

Spending any time in the literary world is like spending time in the novel The Castle by Franz Kafka. I recently had a ridiculous encounter with a literary magazine that sent me back to 2010 when I wrote the story below. It was at the tail end of trying to get my first novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind, published in the United States.

Fish had been taken by editors at three major NY publishers in the mid-noughties. But every time the marketing departments said no. They didn't know how to market the book.  

Let me explain: most major publishers are now owned by three or four entertainment companies and so publishing is run on a corporate entertainment model – if it doesn’t sell or can’t be marketed like a blockbuster movie, then it’s not worth the corporation’s time. Thus, marketing departments have the final say. Editors have been dropped to a much lower rung. They are in the position of agents inside their own publishing houses, trying to convince marketing departments that the books they’ve picked are viable. 

(Which leads to the question: what do these marketing people actually do? Aren’t they supposed to be creative, find ways to market books? Yet they only take on books that they already know how to market…this is sci-fi, we’ll do this formula…this is literary fiction, we’ll plug in this formula…it’s a bit like doctors only taking on patients that only have certain symptoms that they already know how to treat…but I digress…)

In grad school, they tell you that no one will publish a book of short stories. Only novels are marketable, Bucko. This is true enough. And yet, as soon as Fish was taken by a publisher, the first thing the marketing department asked was if I had a solid background of publishing short stories…had I won any prizes? Wait…I thought you didn’t care.


In Kafka’s The Castle the protagonist is sent a note through the mail about receiving a job in a castle in a nearby town. He goes there, but is told that the summons was a mistake, and is referred to someone else. He pursues an official and is offered advice by a series of crazy characters on how to gain entrance to the castle. The poor bastard ends up in the town for months, doing this, trying that. Throughout, the villagers hold the men in the castle in high esteem and yet do not know exactly what they do (Marketing departments anyone?). By the end of the novel, it’s clear he’s never going to get inside. The book ends mid-sentence. Kafka never finished it. Fade to black.

And so, back in 2010, when it was clear that Fish wasn’t going to be published in the US (it was published a year later by Parthian Books in the UK), I sat down and wrote a satirical speculative story about my adventure in the literary Castle-World. It was called The Feed.

When I wrote the piece I had been living in Swansea, Wales for about six months and was a bit creeped out by the overt presence of so many CCTV cameras everywhere. Who’s watching this stuff? I imagined a time when cameras would be in every room of every home and they would pipe live footage of this or that home to everyone else. Surveillance state meets reality TV. Then I thought, what if the cameras were just going on remotely, no one at the helm, all the ones who could run the technology dead long ago? 


Then I pictured two down-and-outers, a bit like Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, who were desperately trying to gain entrance to the CCTV network, believing there’s someone picking and choosing who gets to be on the network. They want to be published!

And so, here’s the story. Special thanks to Gwen Davies of The New Welsh Review who originally published the story, despite the fact that it wanders around for a bit and has no definitive ending (which is the point). For those of you struggling to get published in The Castle atmosphere of the US, you might want to expand your horizons, get out of the American Bubble. There’s a huge English speaking world beyond the US borders…
 

It's a bit creepy and disgusting. Like Reality TV. But funny (to me, at least).  Good luck.


  The Feed


EDIT FROM SERIES 4,586, 344; ZONE 638-A

Renaldo opened the curtains, stared at the slant of grey light across the cement shaft outside the window. Behind Renaldo, Keets mumbled something in his sleep, slid into the shallow trench in the mattress where Renaldo had been. Renaldo walked over to the CCTV screen set into the wall above the sink, watched the feed while he brushed his teeth. 
            The same thing had been running on the screen for the past three days: a mother and teenage daughter who’d recently moved in with the mother’s brother, wife, and two young kids. From the beginning the brother had had his eye on the niece. And the girl was definitely giving him looks back. The wife didn’t seem to have a clue, distracted by the constantly fighting kids. The mother of the teen was usually gone, out looking for work. You could tell she was worried about her brother making a move on the girl by the way she looked at him before she left the room each morning.
            The family moved slowly about their room, stepping over each other, silent, going through the motions of getting up. Renaldo spit into the sink, then looked over his shoulder at Keets.        
           “Remember when the only thing they showed on the feed was fucking?”
            Keets remained motionless on the bed. 
            “Before that, it was all about fighting. Blood.” Renaldo dipped a cupped hand into the running water, lifted it to his mouth, gargled, spit. “I can’t even remember what it was before the fighting.” He turned back to Keets. “What was it before all the fighting?”
            Keets lifted his head from the pillow. “Death.”
            “We’ve been going about this the wrong way,” Renaldo said. 
            Keets threw off the sheet, swung his legs over the edge of the bed, rubbed his thin grey hair with both hands. “What way is that?”
            Renaldo pointed at the family onscreen. “We need more people in here. It’s the only way we’re going to get noticed. There’s feed coming in from everywhere in this district, from the scrappie huts down near the old marina, up to the towers on Pleasant Hill – every street, lot, alley, hall, room – capturing every fucking moment of every day. You see what we’re up against, don’t you? The chances of getting picked are astronomical. We need a gimmick.”
            Keets stared at the cement wall beyond the window. 
            Renaldo turned back to the screen. The teen took off her pajama top while the uncle looked on. “It’s about story now,” he said. “Drama.” He turned back to Keets, watched him cross the room to the toilet. “And you know what makes good drama?” 
            Keets dropped his shorts, sat on the toilet.    
            “It comes down to how many people you can cram into one room,” Renaldo answered himself. “If there’s enough people stuck in a room, there’s tension. Drama just comes squeezing out.”
            “I liked the fucking,” Keets said. There was the sound of a turd slapping toilet water.
            “There’s no tension in this room,” Renaldo said, squinting back at the screen. “We need tension.”
            “Everyone liked the fucking.”
            “Fucking is yesterday’s method,” Renaldo said. “We have to keep up with the times.” 
            Keets picked up a box of crackers that had fallen off the counter next to the toilet, fished around inside, found half a cracker, took a bite. Onscreen, the teen dropped her shorts, sat naked on the toilet while the aunt made oatmeal on the hotplate next to the sink. The mother wasn’t in the room, had already gone off to job hunt. 
            Renaldo shook the clothes inside his pillow case onto the bed, picked a wrinkled grey T-shirt and a pair of black cotton shorts out of the pile and put them on. There was the sound of a turd hitting water on the CC feed. 
            “What I said before, about getting more people in here,” Renaldo said. “This time I’m serious. I’m tired of being passed by.” He glanced at the CC eye above the screen. “It’s my turn.”
             The girl finished wiping herself, stood up, gingerly stretched, then flushed the toilet.  The girl’s aunt stirred the oatmeal, said something to one of the kids. The uncle, sitting on an upturned green plastic bucket in the corner of the room, couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. 
            Renaldo tapped the screen with his index finger. “Something’s going to happen soon.” 
            Keets wiped himself, flushed, and walked over to the window. 
            “The more people you squeeze in,” Renaldo repeated, finger still tapping the screen, “raises the chances of an unknown factor slipping in. You got to factor in the unknown.”
            “Where are you going to get all these people?”
            “There’s that guy that lives on the yellow couch in the empty lot next to the arcade.”
            “Jello?”
            Renaldo turned to Keets. “His name’s Jello? He’s so skinny.”
            Keets shrugged. “Everyone still calls him Jello.”
            “You think you could find someone to bring in? A girl maybe?”
            “I can get Addy,” Keets said. “She’s got no place right now.”
            Renaldo shook his head, looked back at the screen. “She’s too old. Spent. We need someone younger, like this girl here.”
            The naked teen walked past the uncle, bent over a suitcase right next to him, rummaged through the clothes inside, her ass practically in his face. The uncle’s wife turned from the stove, caught the uncle staring right between the girl’s legs. 
            “See that? See that? If I wiggled my ass in your face it would come to nothing. You know why?”
            “Your ass looks like a cabbage.”
            “If there’s nobody else in the room to catch you looking, then it means nothing. You see? That’s the common element in these recent feeds. We need more people.”

EDIT FROM SERIES 4,586,789; ZONE 638-A (loop strand includes ZONE 638-B)

Renaldo pulled Keets out into the hall. “Jello just sits there on the end of the bed watching the feed,” he said, shooting a glance at the CC eye at the end of the hall. “And that scrap-girl you found down at the marina never does anything but eat crackers. She hasn’t even taken her parka off. Not once. What’s the point?” 
            “I think Jello’s the kind you got to make do something,” Keets offered. 
            “Tension should arise on its own,” Renaldo said, “in the natural course of things.”
            “You could start a fight.”
            Renaldo rolled his eyes. “Blood is yesterday’s method. We’re going to need more people.”
            They found another scrap-girl who called herself Mez, a bit younger than the one they already had – fourteen, fifteen? – working through the refuse bins behind the shell of the Trafalgar Hotel on the east side of the bay. When they spotted her Renaldo quickly pulled Keets aside, breathlessly told him they needed her, that she could easily pass for a sister of the girl on the feed, “so keep your mouth shut and let me do all the talking.”  
            When Renaldo told the girl what they were playing at, she laughed, told them there’d already been a few others hunting the grounds around the bins the day before, scavenging for scrappies that looked like the girl on the feed.
            Renaldo’s eyes narrowed, suspicious. “Why didn’t you go with them?”
            “They didn’t offer anything I haven’t had before,” she said. “What have you got?”
            Renaldo pulled a stash of Beef-o packets out of his coat pocket, dangled them in front of her face. “There’s more where this came from.”
            She lunged for the packets and he jumped back, laughing, knowing he had her. He tossed a packet at her feet. She quickly tore the package open, stuck an index finger into the grey powder, then licked her finger clean. Keets winced. 
            “No tricks,” Renaldo said to the girl. “Just a couple days of your time.” 
            He sent her back to the room with Keets and continued on down to the dunes in front of the old civic center, where he found two boys huddled over a twig fire willing to come home with him. The tall skinny one called himself Niz; the shorter one, Bust. 
            Keets was boiling a pot of Beef-o for everyone when Renaldo got home with the two boys. Everyone was watching some feed of the wife and kids standing in line to buy Beef-o at the Double M. Eventually it switched back to the uncle and the niece, alone in the room. She was spread-eagle on the bed in her underwear, watching the screen. Niz and Bust sat down on the floor on either side of Jello, and started watching with the others. 
            Keets looked away from the screen, disgusted. “She’s just watching herself,” he said, pouring the gray-brown liquid from the pot into three separate mugs. “It’s boring.” 
            “They give the ones on the feed something different to watch,” Bust said, pulling a box of crackers out of Jello’s hands, digging into it. 
            “Then how do they know they’re on?” Renaldo asked the boy. “How do they know they’ve been picked?”         
            The boy pulled a handful of cracker bits from the box. “I don’t fucking know,” he said, stuffing the crumble into his mouth. “Maybe they don’t.”
            Renaldo grabbed the box of crackers out of the boy’s hands, tossed it across the room to Keets, then sat down on the bed next to Mez. 
            On the feed, the uncle slipped into the room, crawled onto the bed beside his niece. The niece pretended not to notice. He began talking about his needs. What he really needed in life had so far eluded him. Apparently, this girl was the cure.
            “It’s all just talk,” Keets said, lifting two steaming mugs. He looked around the room.  “We only have three mugs, so we’ve got to eat in shifts.” 
            Mez and Niz stood up at the same time, reached for the mugs.
            The uncle started to fondle the girl and suddenly she looked scared. Renaldo raised his eyebrows. 
            “Now that’s an interesting twist.”

EDIT FROM SERIES 4,587,112; ZONE 638-A

“Just when you think the niece has blown the uncle off for good,” Renaldo said to everyone in the room, pointing at the screen, “she starts flirting with him again. You see? They’ve got a game of cat and mouse going. We need that kind of tension.”
            The uncle was back on the bed with the girl, about to make another play, when the mother suddenly walked through the door, home early from work. There was a lot of yelling.  The uncle threatened to kick the girl’s mother out if she didn’t start minding her own business and the mother threatened to chop his balls off some night when he was asleep if he didn’t leave her daughter alone. The girl screamed shut up, shut up, everyone just shut up. It was all very effective, engrossing.  
            There was nothing engrossing happening in Renaldo’s room. The day before, desperate for something to happen, he had beat a rhythm out on the window ledge, shouting the lyrics to Snuff Bang’s latest tune, “Murder Riot,” trying to get everyone to dance. The only one who ended up on his feet was Jello. The old man shuffled around the room for a minute or two, then collapsed on top of the scrap-girl from the marina. She stormed out of the room. 

EDIT FROM SERIES 4,587,526; ZONE 638-A

Keets pulled Renaldo out into the hall, gave him an ultimatum: something had to happen in the next twenty four hours or he was kicking everyone out. 
            “You can’t do that,” Renaldo shouted at him. “The room’s in my name! I make the decisions here!”
            Keets folded his arms across his chest, looked down at his shoes. “We’re almost out of crackers.” 
            “We’re getting close, I can feel it,” Renaldo pleaded. “It takes time to build tension.”
            “We’re running out of Beef-o,” Keets said. “And it smells like something died in there.”
            “So we switch to Plan B.”
            Keets continued to stare at his shoes.
            “If nothing’s going to happen on its own, we’re going to have to make it happen,” Renaldo said. “I’ll have to make something up, get everyone to act it out.” 
            Keets frowned, shot a glance at the CC eye at the end of the hall. “Are we allowed to do that?”
            “Are you kidding? It’s probably how everyone else gets on the feed. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. Letting things take their natural course is yesterday’s method.”
           
EDIT FROM SERIES 4,587,532; ZONE 638-A

Renaldo coached them one by one out in the hallway, gave them their roles.
            To Niz: “You really want to fuck Mez.” Niz shook his head: “But I want to screw the girl on the feed.”  “It’s not about what you really want,” Renaldo shot back, “it’s about how you’re going to act when you go back into that room.”
            To Bust: “You want Niz, but he wants Mez.” Bust stormed off down the hall: “Why can’t I be the one who wants Mez?” Renaldo had to coax him back to the room with the promise of extra Beef-o.
            To Jello: “You are constantly trying to find a way to steal more Beef-o packets.” Jello didn’t understand. “I’m not stealing Beef-o,” the old man insisted. “No, I know,” Renaldo said, “but when you go back into the room I want you to steal some.” Jello looked confused, but nodded.
            To Mez: “I want you to walk around in your underwear, give Keets the eye.” “What kind of eye?” she asked. “You know, like the girl on the feed does to her uncle.” “I don’t like Keets like that.” Renaldo sighed. “No, I know. I don’t think the girl on the feed likes her uncle that way, either. Look, she’s playing him. You see? I want you to play Keets.” “Why would I do that?” the girl asked. Renaldo shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe because you think that’s the only way you’ll get more Beef-o packets.” “Is that true?” she said. Renaldo didn’t answer.
            To Keets: “I want you to deny Mez all food.” Keets stared down at his shoes, nodded. Then Renaldo told Keets he was going to make a play for the girl, like the uncle on the feed. Keets stared down at his shoes.
            When Renaldo walked back into the room everyone was busy watching the feed.  Mez sat on the edge of the bed in her underwear, arms crossed over her skinny chest, looking cold. Renaldo sat down next to Mez, put a hand on her bare thigh. She announced that she loved Keets and slugged him, sending him sprawling onto the floor beneath the sink. Then Niz was grabbing Mez, professing his love. She pushed him off, repeated that she loved Keets. Meanwhile, Keets was immobile, rigid with stage fright, staring directly at the CC eye above the screen.
            Bust pulled Niz off Mez, disgustedly confessed his love for Niz right into Niz’ face, which made Niz slap Bust upside the head. Bust slapped Niz back. Jello pushed Keets to the floor, began ransacking the cabinet for the last packets of Beef-o. Keets, shocked into action, lunged at the old man and the spindly old man jumped across the bed, packets of Beef-o in his hands, screaming he was just doing what he was told, he was just doing what he was told.         
          Renaldo helped Bust pull Niz off Mez, then cupped his palms on her breasts and repeated very loudly how he had needs, needs that had eluded him his whole life, needs that only she could fulfill. She screamed. Keets followed Jello across the bed, pushed him up against the window, grabbed the Beef-o packets out of his hands while Jello continued to cry that he was just doing what he was told. Niz pulled Renaldo off Mez screaming ‘Get the Fuck Off Her You Stupid Fuck’ and Renaldo rolled under the bed, hands over his ears, eyes closed, moaning “No, no, no…blood is yesterday’s method…”
             
EDIT FROM SERIES 4,621,003; ZONE 638-A

“Potts and Gluck,” Renaldo said to Keets as he walked into the room. Keets kept his eyes on the feed: four men playing Russian roulette around a small table in a dimly lit room. 
            Renaldo sat on the end of the bed next to Keets. “Potts and Gluck,” he repeated. “Do those names mean anything to you?”
            Keets lifted a mug of Beef-o to his lips, took a sip, and continued to stare at the screen. 
            “I ran into Mez down by the water today,” Renaldo said. “You know what she told me?”
            Keets’ shook his head, eyes still on the screen.         
            “She says she met a scrap-girl who said she used to bunk with a couple of guys who make the arrangements in our district to get on the feed. Their names are Potts and Gluck.”
            “Potts and Gluck,” Keets repeated. 
            Renaldo stood up, walked over to the pot sitting on the hotplate, ran an index finger around the inside of it, and licked the Beef-o off his finger. “You see? It wouldn’t have mattered what we did. It’s all rigged. By these Potts and Gluck characters.” He sat back down on the bed, gave Keets a big grin. “But she told me where we can find them.”
            Keets looked over at Renaldo, confused. “Who?”
            “Potts and Gluck. They know the people who determine who’s on the feed and who’s off the feed. If we do a good trade, I bet they’ll put a word in for us. That’s how it works.”
            Keets frowned. “What are you talking about?”
            “I know we don’t have much left to negotiate with, but I’ve got to try. It’s my turn.”

EDIT FROM SERIES 4,621,007; ZONE 638-C

Renaldo and Keets stood at the edge of an old playground in the hill park above the Double M, watched a couple of kids play on the jungle gym for a few minutes before Renaldo got Keets to scare them off. “I don’t want anyone getting in my way,” he explained to Keets. “Not this time. We’re too close.” 
            When the kids were gone they sat down in the dirt next to the jungle gym, stared at the chains dangling from the swing set bar. Someone had hung a shoe at the end of one of the chains. It moved slightly in the wind.
            “How long you think we’ll have to wait?” Keets whispered.
            “Until they show.”
            Keets stretched out, fell asleep.  
            An hour later, a couple of figures moved around at the edge of the playground. “Potts and Gluck?” Renaldo called out, waking Keets, who shot up into a sitting position, blinking into the darkness. 
            “That’s who we came for,” one of the figures said. They sat down on the opposite side of the jungle gym, talked between themselves for a few minutes, then lapsed into silence.
            “Things weren’t this complex when there was just fucking on the feed,” Keets whispered. “I don’t know why they got rid of the fucking.”
            “Shhh.”
            A few hours later, the two figures on the other side of the gym got up, stretched, and shuffled off. Near dawn, just as Renaldo was nodding off, two more figures appeared at the edge of the playground. Renaldo called out again, waking Keets a second time. But it was only two more looking for Potts and Gluck. Renaldo fondled the packets of Beef-o in his coat pocket. The chain holding the shoe creaked. 
            “I liked the fucking,” Keets whispered a few minutes later. “Everyone liked the fucking.”
            “Fucking is yesterday’s method,” Renaldo whispered back. “This is how things are done now.”
 


***********************************************

Meanwhile,
 there's a new story of mine
 in the current issue of
called
The Noise & The Silence.



Along with stories by

Julie C. Day, Val Nolan, T.R. Napper, Mel Kassel & Michael Reid

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