BENEATH THE INOCULATOR, UP MAIN STREET
May 27, 2019
Half-way into the forest is the centre for disheartened educators, full of supply teachers, and superintendents, and janitors who cleaned up too much heave. Once, our CEO got them passes to our park, and they wandered cautiously around the exhibits, being very careful to obey all the rules. The interaction from them hardly dazzled the staff, but mostly they tipped pretty well and didn’t touch anything behind a polyethylene rope. A principal from Acadia sprang for a season pass, and spent most of a winter sitting in our canteen, eating semi-authentic pre-famine slop.
One afternoon she’s waiting outside the boss’s office, watching Sera and George recite their grocery-run bit. They’re running vocab: ‘Corn flakes’, ‘Convenience’, ‘Store Card’, so I turn to the principal to ask if she remembers Walmart, and then I think, oh shit, this’ll be three customer deaths in a month.
She’s got a grocery bag over her head, and she’s tying the handles around her throat, pulling it taut over her open mouth like a lurid orange death mask. I can see her features through the polythene, eyeballs leering out of their sockets like baseballs in a catcher’s glove. It looks like she’s wearing a second skin.
George, who was a Navy SEAL before he became an actor, is gawping at her like a goldfish, so I reach her first, shove both thumbs through the plastic across her mouth, and tear it in half. She chomps my right digit like it’s a chicken bone. When the bag comes off, her eyes have taken all the colour from her cheeks. She has the skin from my thumb on her lower lip, and spits into my face when she wails at me that she just wants to die.
I tell her that we all want to die; but if she dies here, it’ll cost me my bonus.
I wrench her arms behind her back, and yank her past the strike zone to the break room, where they tie her down on the old pinball machine. Sera calls her an ambulance and then sews up my thumb. A day later, the paramedics release the principal into the wild where I suppose she gets her wish.
Whenever Mr. Pike visits the park, the first thing I do is take him down Main Street. We pass the grocery store, where actors toss prop-food into shopping carts. Across the street is the Weight Watchers exhibit, where actors in fat-suits compete to get skinnier, boasting proudly of all the carbs they haven’t been eating. Kids distribute take-out menus, advertising extinct cuisines. We stop to watch a young woman in yoga pants ask a clerk if their bread is organic, and Pike snort-laughs, which I think is maybe encouraging, which I think maybe might mean that I don’t have to fire anybody.
Sometimes it feels like Pike learned English from reading text-to-speech software. Today he’s wearing wingtip loafers, and chomping on a Thanksgiving flavoured cigar, and I tell him I’m in awe of his good taste.
‘George’s bacon is cooked,’ he says, which is an expression only a bastard would think of in a time of famine. ‘That man is alcoholic dead weight! That man is burnt rubber! That man is a useless fucking shit.’
I fidget with my empty clipboard. My bitten thumb burns beneath a rough band-aid, the kind made of other, recycled band-aids. Last month, a farmer tried to take down one of the actors in the Denial exhibit, and George shot him in the back with his personal revolver. We tossed the farmer over the fence, a task George undertook without complaining. I tell Mr. Pike the story, and finish, lamely, with ‘so he’s good for security.’
‘That’s funny you should say that, that he’s good for security,’ Mr. Pike says,’ funny, ha-ha, see my sides shaking.’
We sidle past the crowd at the Juice-Cleanse exhibit, where bowl-eyed children with empty guts watch grown-ups reject solid food for the comforts of water. Sera drops ingredients into our last working blender, artfully swapping the jug at the last minute for one we prepared earlier, and stashing the fake ingredients below the counter. She’s the best at making a ‘whirr’ noise which signifies the blender in action, and I value her for it. Authenticity is everything.
‘What’s in that?’ Mr. Pike asks.
‘Well-water,’ I say.
‘Do they really drink it?’ he says.
‘God no. Definitely not.’
Behind the exhibit is the iron-bar fence that separates us from the wilderness. Ten yards of landmines and caltrops, then sparse trees and wasteland for a hundred miles. Building the park on the border with that expanse of prisoners, degenerates and general no-hopers had been Pike’s idea from the start.
Once, in ten years, I summoned the courage to stare through the bars, and saw myself looking back from the treeline. I had the flat, mean face of a death-camp warden. I was carrying a revolver. Mr. Pike reaches over to me now and presses the first two fingers of his hand against my cheek, like a schoolboy’s finger gun.
‘The perils of unemployment,’ he says.
We’re in our worst year since opening a decade ago. I pull my face back uncomfortably.
At the end of the street is the dinner scene, where a family of five eats a meal together, six times a weekday, and nine on weekends. There’s only a dozen customers watching; four less than yesterday; nine less than last week, and none of them look like they give a shit.
I want to scream ‘Give a shit! Please give a shit! Don’t you see how your general apathy and disinterest is highly ironic given the subject matter of this theme park which you presumably have chosen to visit, perhaps to illustrate how badly we fucked up as a species?’ but I don’t. I do stop and watch, and loudly clear my throat.
George is there, examining a plate of leftovers inside the SMEG fridge, which is actually a coffin we’ve painted a porcine rouge. I smell the rich gravy of Dinner Odour Number 2, which is a little like chicken. If there’s a time to learn how to act George, that time is now. Now would be the opportune moment to not fuck up.
‘Dear,’ George says, ‘we appear to have let this food go bad!’
Linda came to us on the recommendation of her supervisor at Disneyland’s World of Glorious Yesterday park, and whenever I see her perform I think to myself, That guy was a real lousy piece of lying shit, ‘cause this girl can’t act. She stilts her dialogue, and throws exclamation points into all the wrong places. Her sentences are tilted, like half of them are shit-faced on a see-saw and the other half have generously offed themselves, but what’s hired is hired. I hate firing any of these people. I don’t need that on my conscience.
‘NEVER. Mind about that! Honey,’ she says. ‘Throw those leftovers away!’
‘I can do that,’ George says, ‘because we have SO MUCH food to spare!’
George went through a bottle and a half of wishky (‘You’ll wish for whiskey!’) before work this morning and misses the trashcan by a solid yard, exposing the leftover food for what it is: balsa wood painted like steakums. One or two in the audience grimace, and a couple drift away, seeking more authentic thrills. It’s barely noon. Mr. Pike’s gaze switches from George, to me, to George again. George can barely stand. His face is a buttercup, an oval of jaundiced regret.
‘Shall we have another child, husband?’ Linda says. ‘UNPROTECTED SEX Is wonderful, and we could feed a thousand babies with our abundant protein.’
George yanks himself up by the curtains. His straggling bangs leave an uneasy pattern on the cotton, like the carcass of a piglet on the highway. Years of alcohol and worry have combined to give him the look of a pensionable drifter. His legs totter like a deer’s. His look says ‘Don’t can me, for fuck’s sake, please, don’t can me’ and I stare down at my shoes, focus on the patch over my big toe where the leather’s worn through.
‘Of course!’ he says. ‘In this age of abundant medicine, STDs and unwanted pregnancies are no big deal!’
And then he vomits in the sink. Its plumbing goes nowhere, so the puke pools at his feet.
My office is in food storage. We get the same protein-slop as everyone else, but a government discount means we can afford pre-famine flavour packets. Our enriched goo tastes like oranges, or chilli, or chocolate pudding. The park’s slogan, Our Hopeless Past, Your Hopeful Future, is writ across every package, pencil, and coffee cup. My chair is a stack of crates. I adjust its height by adding or removing new ones at will, substituting food boxes for totes of pamphlets in storage. I sit there alone for a few moments. When I think about firing George, I think about the last guy I had to can, and then I think that the last thing I need is more death in my life. For a few scary moments I think about quitting, then I think about the fate of those unemployed for more than a month, and reel that back in. The time I saw my face beyond the fence, it was a hardened, bloodied thing. My face is craggy, pock-scarred and moustached.
Mr. Pike pulls up a crate of signage we scavenged from supermarket ruins, and steeples his fingers on my desk. He agrees that George’s performance was below par. He doesn’t agree that second chances are important.
‘He’s a security risk to the park,’ he says. ‘Stealing food. Office supplies.’
My head swims at that. ‘But he gets paid in food,’ I say. ‘All he can eat.’
‘Well, my feeling is, here, that some men are just bad eggs? Give him dinner and he’ll demand supper, or steal it otherwise.’
I look around my office, piled high with our discounted, pre-provided protein and digest the point. We’re one of the only unrationed facilities in the country, hence the actors vacant pay packets. ‘And the office supplies?’
‘What of them?’
Pike’s look of impatience reminds me of when commuters used to wait for subway doors to open. My old train line in Manhattan is one big government-sanctioned fight club now, a gauntlet of fists from Nereid Ave to Christopher Street. Winners eat.
‘What does it matter what for?’ he says. ‘He’s stealing them. And besides all these things,’ he leans back, ‘I don’t like the way he looks at the female staff. Like at, for example, Sera. I want him gone.’
‘What about the dinner scene?’ I say. ‘He’s the only actor who knows the lines.’
‘Close it, temporarily. Train someone new. Think of the children.’
That, for Pike, is a rough subject. He has a wife, the elusive Mrs. Pike, who we’ve never seen. But we share a company doctor, and he tells us about Mrs. Pike’s infertility, a common enough occurrence since famine became what most children had for breakfast. Mrs. Pike’s womb gave up through malnutrition, long before she and he met.
‘Your job here is what?’ he says.
I could have a myriad of answers to that question. I prevent suicides. I write lines for very poor actors. I resolutely do not give up.
‘I train people?’ I offer.
He shakes his head ‘When you were younger, did you have worries?’
‘Bullies,’ I say. ‘Bills to pay.’
‘Trifles,’ he says. ‘No, we had no worries. My parents had no worries. Our neighbours had no worries. Maybe there were bills, and bullies, and assholes, whatever, but those were interruptions to our calm, not the status quo. Now the status quo is what?’
‘Hunger?’ I say.
‘Fear,’ he says. ‘You give the visitor the freedom of living in a pre-famine world. You take their fear away for an afternoon. You remind them of the time they went to a grocery store and it had actual food in it. That impact is lost if customers are sickened at George. Can him.’
When customers step into the park there’s this goofy mini-play, where three actors play Avarice, Intelligence, and Conscience. They do this whole ascent-of-man bit, where Intelligence and Conscience rise up through the ages, revealing new costumes every minute or so, each one representing early Homo Sapiens, the Ancient Mesopotamians, or the Renaissance, or whatever. When they hit the Industrial Revolution, Avarice sneaks up on the other two and bonks Conscience over the head with a nerf cricket bat. Conscience collapses with massive head trauma, and bleeds to death as we proceed to modern times. Intelligence becomes distracted by a bunch of shiny cardboard pennies we hang from the park’s main gate, and a kid wearing a shirt that says ‘mankind’ crowns Avarice with a wreath.
It was George’s idea. Visitors go ape for it. It’s plain enough for anyone to understand, but figuring it out makes the customer feel savvy, couched like a cartoon in the old New Yorker. The feeling reminds them of the elation of victory, like maybe only they got the message. Saucer-eyed dads pointlessly illustrate the message to their emaciated offspring as they hit Main Street. For a glorious fleeting moment they feel like pre-famine papas, like competent providers, and they keep hold of that feeling with all their might, until they hit the gift shop, and spend-spend-spend.
They leave Main Street carrying totes stuffed with bookmarks, key rings, and those little furry balls we stick adhesive eyes onto and call something like a ‘woobler’. Good feelings die on the way home, but wooblers make the whole trip. When the last person starves to death, the wooblers, and the bookmarks, and the key rings and tote bags will mutely rule the Earth.
When someone comes into my office, I expect it to be George, but it’s Sera. I ask her why she isn’t on blender duty, and she says Linda’s covering, since the dinner scene is on clean-up.
‘Fair enough,’ I say. ‘What do you want?’
She’s wearing our juice-cleanse-exhibit uniform, which means yoga pants, and a purple top that shows off her midriff. I notice for the first time that she’s a little rounder at the belly, and wonder if someone really is stealing food.
‘Did you speak to Mr. Pike today?’ she says.
‘You know I did.’
‘What about?’ she says.
‘You know what about,’ I say.
I think about what Pike said, about the way George looks at her, and wonder if she’ll be miserable I’m canning him, or relieved.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘He puked all over the sink.’
She lifts a sheaf of papers from my desk, shuffles them neatly, and puts them back down. I wait for her to say something, or leave.
‘Is he getting fired?’ she says.
‘Yeah,’ I say.
She breaks into tears. My office is not a place for crying. I made it that way to stop myself from doing so. Her eye makeup spills into the hollow between her eye socket and her cheek, and salty reservoirs cut blue-black rivulets all the way to her chin. I hand her a tissue, and then stay well back.
‘Please don’t fire him!’ she says.
I wad more Kleenex into balls and toss them over the desk like World War Two grenades. She mops her face with gusto, but it’s like damming Niagara Falls with slices of bread.
‘What’s this about?’ I say.
‘He’s good!’ she says.
‘Good?’ I say.
‘Real good!’ she says.
‘Look now. Listen—he’ll be all right. George is a tough guy.’
‘No he isn’t! We all think he is because he carries that gun, but he’s a softie. He has a heart of gold! Real gold!’
I think that he’d be better off with a heart of something rare, or useful, like toast, or marshmallows, or something protein-rich like crickets. Sera’s still wailing, and I’m conscious of the visitors outside.
‘It’ll all be ruined,’ Sera says. ‘All of it.’
‘You’ll have to stop crying, Sera,’ I say. ‘You know I value you here? You’ll never be fired. We’ll keep you on forever, I swear it.’
She gulps down a big troublesome sob, and says, ‘If he goes, I have to go too.’
‘Why?’ I say, and then I realise. So much for the way he looks at her; he’s not the only one looking. I’m surprised Pike got that so wrong. No one gets a belly from Protein-slop.
‘How many weeks are you?’ I say.
She looks up at me and her sobs become more like quivers, her cheekbones, her lip, her eyelids. Her face looks like it’s having its own tiny fit of moist panic. ‘How do you know?’ she says.
‘I just do,’ I say. ‘How many weeks are you?’
‘I think fifteen.’
‘Jesus,’ I say. ‘You’ll be showing soon.’
Pregnancy plays well in the park. Nothing says hopeful tomorrow like a baby today, so the birth will be a special exhibition. Ultrasound pictures sell great on shirts. Visitors can guess the day her water will break, and get half-price entry when she’s going into labour. We’ll double revenue.
‘And it’s George’s?’ I say.
‘He’s my man,’ she says cautiously, and I let that be enough.
‘You know we’ll take care of you,’ I say. ‘Get a real obstetrician, from a pre-famine ward.’
‘It’ll be on show? To guests?’
‘Is that all right?’
She nods. ‘I guess. But I want George.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ I say. She looks at me like she believes that, like all the customers look at me, all the staff at weekly meetings; like because I have a clipboard I have all the answers. There’s nothing on my clipboard but doodles, and the time I tried to write down what steak smelled like.
The only ride we have in the park is the Inoculator, perched beside our Alternative Medicine store. Customers can shake their heads at Californians chewing herbs instead of getting vaccinated, and then ride a roller coaster which shoots you out like a syringe. On the way around, an actor shouts all of the diseases first eradicated by vaccination, then re-introduced by people who had the luxury of forgetting how bad polio hurt. Then you do a loop-de-loop.
Outside my office, the park is oddly muted. I peer down Main Street and see why: George is holding court in the shadow of the Inoculator. The sun’s setting, and operations should be winding down; but every cleaner, every gift store employee, every dawdling customer, and actor has drifted towards George, like he’s Marc Anthony in the forum. I glance at Sera, who’s followed me out, and she shakes her head.
‘Oh, Jesus,’ I say.
When we reach the throng, I pick up on the gist of George’s speech. We get one or two people inciting revolution per season, but never before has it been a member of staff. George has this look in his eye, a kind of acute focus that I haven’t seen before. The characterization of the wild-eyed loon is not real. Loons’ eyes narrow, they glint, they become like little knives set back in their faces, and then the cuts come.
When people see me walk up, they relax. Here comes the boss, with the answers to our problems. To try and emphasize that I don’t know how to fix anything, I drop my clipboard. I am not the answer to your fear, I think. Sera saves me from having to intervene by charging through the crowd, ducking an outstretched arm, and pounding on George’s chest with both fists.
‘Stop,’ he says. He holds her tight in both hands. They stare at each other.
‘What are you doing?’ she says.
‘The truth,’ he says.
The staff have noticed me among them, and parted, like I’m a plague carrier and they don’t want to get sick. The effect ripples out to customers, and bystanders, until I’m in my own little ring, still unnoticed by George. Nobody has thought to stop the Inoculator, and it streaks by, the voice from its lead cart screaming ‘Smallpox!’
‘George,’ I say. ‘What’s this about?’
He glances up at me. For the first time I notice the revolver on his belt, the one he uses for park security. I grimace.
‘You’re going to fire me,’ he says. He takes two big steps towards me, then stops. We’re five yards apart. The crowd has silently agreed on a rasping hush, emphasising the noise of boots in the dirt, and the whistling progress of the roller coaster, punctuated by on-board cries of ‘Measles!’
‘Let’s talk,’ I say.
His eyes have narrowed almost to a point. I’m surprised he can see me.
‘Fuck you,’ he says. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I came to talk to you, that’s all.’
‘About firing me?’
Someone in the crowd gasps, like they can’t imagine anything worse, and for a second I wish I could fire them.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘let’s go to my office.’
‘You’re going to fire me,’ he says. ‘Because of Pike. Aren’t you? He’s got it in for me. Come on, stop bullshitting me. Stop it!’
I hold my hands palms-out at head height like I’m in a stick-up. My stomach is climbing into my throat, but leaving its contents behind; they push out in a different direction.
‘Jesus, George, look. It’s not up to me. We should just talk, all right?’
Sera’s staring at me like she wants me to fix it. They all look at me like that. Sera, George, the customers. All of them give me the same stare. Make us feel how the world used to feel. Fix it. The principal who tried to kill herself, even through the orange shopping bag she was killing herself with, was looking at me the same way. Those leering eyeballs leaning on their sockets like drunks on the lip of a bar, were begging me to give them the answers. I don’t have answers. I don’t have the cure for your worries. I don’t have a clue.
‘You remember what happened to the last guy you fired?’
‘You know I do,’ I say. ‘We cleaned it up together.’
‘His brains flew out all over the fucking place,’ he says, ‘but I’m not doing that. I’m not going into the wild, and I’m not doing that. Fuck this!’
He pulls his gun from his belt. Its dim grey reflection in the receding light seems huge. I look at Sera, whose tears have become silent, and don’t know what to do.
‘What do you want?’ I say. ‘What’s the point of this?’
‘Things need to change,’ George says. ‘This system can’t work. The wild? The park? The fucking protein-slop? You think Pike eats slop? Do any of you?’
Nobody is silent, and nobody says a word. They just murmur.
‘We’re trying to remind people what the past was like, but this isn’t it. The gnawing hunger, the sense of dread, it never goes away like it did back then. We sell t-shirts, and teach lessons about a past that we’ll never get back. It’s like advertising the fucking womb! We’re out! We’re born! This shit is it. Cut the fucking umbilical cord. And we stumble around starving and lecturing customers about climate change while Pike flies around in a private jet. We will never show them what the past was like. That feeling has gone.’
I shake my head. The speech is verbatim what every other speech we get is: inequality, dishonesty, revolution. If human beings were capable of change, our theme park wouldn’t exist. I try and think of something to say.
Instead, Pike speaks first. His sentence structure is somehow dishonest in its composition. I’d like to find out who his English teacher was to get to the bottom of it.
‘What, fucking hell, do you think you’re playing at here?’
Pike’s changed his clothes. It’s only been an hour or two, and now he’s wearing white cowboy boots with his navy blue suit. It occurs to me that he’s a loon.
‘Mr. Pike,’ I say, ‘I’m dealing with this.’
‘Are you, ha-ha, dealing with this? Because it does not look so dealt with!’
He moves up next to Sera, glares accusingly at George. He’s alone. Pike trusts his safety to the unshakeable security of being richer and better fed than everyone else, and has no goons to speak of. He radiates being correct by warrant of believing it so wholeheartedly. ‘You’re fired,’ he says to George. ‘You’re fired, and will get no reference, no severance slop, and no peace from me. You’re canned.’
Poor George. George who came to us from the military, who drinks to forget what he did in that uniform, who’s maybe smarter than all of us, when he’s sober. Poor George realises, like all revolutionaries, that he’s out of options.
‘See that fence?’ Pike continues. ‘See that fence, climb that fence, step on a mine or go into the woods, or just sit there and gaze back in at all of us, because you are fired, and you will not work again.’
Sera moves away from Pike, takes a desperate-looking George by the elbow. I notice she keeps one hand on her belly, and wonder when that instinct to protect kicks in. ‘I’ll go with you,’ she says to George. ‘We’ll be okay.’
Pike takes Sera’s other arm. His jolting shakes her hand from her stomach.
‘You will not,’ Pike says. ‘You will stay here.’
Behind them, the Inoculator has finally come to a stop. It pulls onto its siding, the rollercoaster done for the day, and the actor on board stumbles off, his brain still moving at fifty miles per hour. Everyone looks to him as if he has a part to play in what happens next, and he, blessedly unaware of the situation, waves dizzily and stumbles toward the staff room. I gaze after his coaster-addled totter for as long as I can.
I’m torn back to reality by George’s low baritone. ‘What are you doing?’ he says.
‘What I’m mostly doing,’ Pike says, ‘is taking care of what’s mine.’
Dully, George says, ‘What’s yours?’
Pike touches Sera’s stomach. I want to groan, but George’s gun hand is shaking a little and I don’t want it to shake at me. There’s a TV show I watch called ‘Vicarious Chow’, where one man, with unlimited rations, eats whatever he wants, all day. People watch him, they eat through him, and the theory is that they feel less hungry.
Pre-famine, they had no Vicarious Chow, but they had soap operas, and the idea was similar. People saw the drama and it scared them away from drama of their own. Pike has never seen a soap opera. His dramatic flourish is undimmed.
‘This baby,’ he says, ‘is mine!’
The crowd gasps. This is the best exhibit we’ve ever had, I think. I could put this scene on a t-shirt, and we’d be open for years to come. Maybe we’re finally achieving authenticity.
‘You’re pregnant?’ George says.
‘Yes,’ Sera says.
‘It’s his?’ George says.
‘Yes,’ Sera says. ‘He made me!’ Someone in the crowd shouts ‘No!’, and there are gasps, and cries, and outraged denunciations. Sera sobs, and Pike yanks her away by the arm. George aims his gun at Pike. Nobody in the crowd moves. Everyone has forgotten for a moment what’s going on.
‘Remember what I said,’ Pike says to me, ‘about some men just being bad eggs? Behold! That one is rotten!’
George cocks his revolver, and shoots. Pike pulls Sera in front of him, and the bullet hits her chest like a seabird hitting the water. Parts of her fly out around the impact, leaving a crater in her abdomen. George drops his weapon. Pike gapes like a fish. Sera, on unsteady legs, turns to look at me.
‘I can’t fix it!’ I say.
But she doesn’t need me to. For the first time in her life, Sera’s eyes shine with the knowledge that she finally has no worries left. Death has nullified all her fears. She is free, and only in that moment do I truly see what it must have been like to live in the world of yesterday, and know what I must do.
The watching crowd doesn’t realise until two are already dead, and I want to shout at the rest, do not run, do not flee, I’m giving you what you paid for.
from Issue 30.2
SAM ASHER is a 30-year-old writer living in New York City, where he tolerates the winters waiting for the slightly more tolerable summers. Look for his work in the Potomac Review, and Daily Science Fiction.