“… wasn’t that the guy who was in those ARTifact commercials?”
“Yah, well, until he got into that whole thing with that trick. They stopped casting that guy after that whole situation.”
“What situation? What was the trick?”
“The trick? A trick.”
“Well then what’s a trick?”
“A trick is a girl who leads a man on but doesn’t even like him and will probably never end up doing anything with him.”
“I guess my white upbringing never taught me that one. Damn you Ms. Withers! Why couldn’t you have defined that word in your sixth grade English class.”
Clayton laughed. He looked over at Robert who had a big smile on his face. He looked like a man who was pleased with himself. Well, maybe that makes him sound too self-absorbed in his own comment; he looked more as though he was pleased with how things are going. Or who’s in his company. Whatever it was, he looked much happier now compared to when he first walked up to Clayton and Earl’s chess game.
“But really, what was the whole situation with the trick?”
“It’s crazy man. Terry the ARTifact dude was out clubbing in LA one night when he punched a girl in the face. It was a big publicity thing and after the whole scandal you would never see the likes of the guy. Ironically, the whole incident made the girl famous. She made bank with the assault lawsuit, then she got her own reality TV show. The whole situation was wild.” Clayton blinked. “Sometimes I think back to myself, thinking that the world went crazy after the Restructuring, but come to think of it, the world already was crazy.”
“True, true. Why did he punch the lady though? What gave him the idea?”
“It’s dumb that I remember this, but it had to do with him buying her drinks and her not giving him the time of day. I guess I don’t know it too too well. But still, he was probably tipsy so he wasn’t actin’ himself, and when he figured that this girl he spent some cash flow on was just a trick, he probably got buck.”
“That’s crazy. I don’t know why he would do something like that. He was a celebrity after all. He could have just bought drinks for another girl. No big loss. And wouldn’t he realize that doing something as terrible as punching a woman in the face would be all over the tabloids and all that?”
“He was loaded man. And I don’t mean that he had a lot of money. He probably wasn’t thinkin’ of the tabloids and the repercussions.”
“Yah well, as a one-time celebrity,” said Clayton half-jokingly, “I can honestly say that I would never punch a woman for simply being a trick.”
Clayton looks over again at Robert to gauge his reaction. Robert’s left side of his face is all wrinkled up, indicating that he’s trying to fight back a smirk. It’s one of those ‘you gotta be kiddin’ me’ faces, so Clayton knows he has got some explaining to do.
Behind Robert’s smirking face, past a bunch of roadside trees, then down a slope, lay a giant building that has a yellowish-white hue. The building was giant because it sprawled out for several blocks. It wasn’t very tall, perhaps three stories or so, but it seemed to keep on going and going when they traveled alongside of it. Clayton recognized this building as the old bowling alley. The bowling alley is usually where Clayton tells his passenger that they are going to spend the night at the Spotsylvania County Homestead #15, but today is different. He figures that Robert will not care if they don’t spend the night at a Homestead. Instead, they could camp out which would mean that they wouldn’t have to deal with any drones or managers.
Besides, he likes where the conversation is going right now, so Clayton might as well just let it flow. No need to halt it in order to break the bad news to Robert.
“Ohh yah. Clay the buggy driver, I’ve heard all about you. Actually, everyone in the Republic knows who you are. Could I have your autograph?”
“Oh yeh, who do you want me to make it out to? Chief Cynic? That is what you go by, right?”
“But really, is there a story behind the whole ‘one time celebrity’ thing, or are you just leading me on? Kinda like what a trick does.”
“Haha, clever bastard aren’t yah. But for reals, I had my fifteen minutes of fame back in the day.”
“What did you do?”
“Maybe celebrity ain’t the right word, but I was in an internet funny way back. What do you call those videos?” Clayton thought for a second. “I keep wanting to call them fungal videos, but I know that ain’t right.”
“Hmm,” thought Robert. He was really thrown off by ‘fungal videos.’ That sounded like something that nobody would want to watch. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was probably a group of freaks out there that would be really into them, so saying that ‘nobody would want to watch’ them was a generalization. You can always count on a strange minority interest group to prove generalizations wrong.
“Viral videos, that’s what it is.” Clayton said after a couple moments of thinking. After saying it, he had a completely satisfied look on his face. All the brain searching paid off and now he was enjoying his very own eureka moment.
“Yah that’s what it is. Viral videos. I guess you were on the right track with ‘fungal videos.’ It’s just a different type of infection.”
“Uh huh. I guess so.”
“So what was the viral video that brought you fame?”
“You’re gonna think I’m stupid, but it was just a teenager at the time. So don’t scrutinize.”
“I won’t. I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“Okay. Do you remember ‘Thugged out Pinocchio’?”
“Not that I can recall. I’ve seen a lot of viral videos, a lot of which I forgot within seconds of watching them.”
“It started a whole dance craze. I was dressed up as a thugged out Pinocchio,”
“I could figure that bit,” interrupted Robert.
“And I danced around like I was a puppet to a hard hitting song that one of my cousin’s affiliates made as a joke. It had over 6 million views in the first month. People loved it.”
“Oh yah, I can kind of remember that. White kids in malls across America would pretend to mug their friends in puppet like motions, while their other friends would pretend to roll puppet blunts. You started that?”
“Yep. I can’t take all the credit, but I starred in it.”
“That’s something. That fad didn’t last too long did it?”
“Nope, not at all. From what I can remember, a week after it was popular everyone started imitating that chick on America’s Next Superstar who balled her eyes out after her high heels broke while she was doing her act.”
“I don’t remember that one, but probably no one besides you does, seeing as you have a grudge against her and all.”
“You could say I’m not her biggest fan.”
“But at least you did something that not that many other people did. You got to be a viral video celebrity, and heaven knows that is what everyone of your generation wanted to be.”
“Yah you could say that, but your generation was the same way. Shit, we probably are in the same generation. What are you, ten years older than me?”
“Fifteen. Or maybe fourteen, depends what month you were born.”
“Later month or earlier month?”
“Later. Had my fortieth birthday six days ago.”
“No way. Congratulations. The big four-oh.”
“Uh huh. I’ve made it this many years on the always entertaining planet called Earth,” said Clayton.
“So then I’m fourteen full years older than you.”
“Meaning that you only have five full years left of employment with Alpha Corp. Then it’s retirement time.”
“Yep. Only five more years of bossing people around who feel that they can live independently.”
“I sense a little pessimism.”
“Meh, let’s not get into it. I’m just excited about not having to do my job anymore, that’s all.”
“Do you have any retirement plans?”
“I want to do some traveling. You know, see the cities and the landscapes that America has to offer. That might sound cliche, but I think that it’s better than just sitting in my Washington condo and reading my days away. You might as well experience some of the places that you’re reading about, you know?”
“I catch your drift, but there’s one issue with that.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’re reading books that were written before the Restructuring. Right?”
“Well yah. I can’t think of any books that came out after the Restructuring, other than advertisement pamphlets for ARTifacts or educational books, and those are only worth reading if you want to laugh at their obviously skewed perspectives. They’re basically just Alpha Corp. propaganda tools.”
“So what you’re tryna say is that you’re reading old books. The places in these books - if you’re reading ones that are set in America – have been changed. I mean really changed. Most of the places probably don’t even exist anymore. Well, they do exist in space, but nobody lives there, so there’s not much to do or see.”
“But I’m interested in architecture. Surely if I go to New York I’ll will see some cool Brownstones or tenement houses, or if I go to San Francisco I’ll see some fancy Victorian houses. They might be in decay, but they’re still something to look at. That gives me reason to travel to those places.”
“Yah, I get you, but there’s another thing to it. If those places that you want to see aren’t near a train station or whatever, they will be deserted. And there’s a difference between ‘in decay’ and deserted.”
“What do you mean? I’m not sure if I understand you.”
Clayton let out an unintelligible yell at the horses, cracked the reins, then said, “It’s sort of hard to explain, but I’ll try by giving an example. It deals with architecture, so you might be into it, but remember that I’m not the most learned man so some things I just won’t be able to communicate to well.”
“No worries. You’ve been articulate this whole time, so tell me what you’ve got on your mind.”
“Alright. So a few years back I was workin’ in a Homestead that wasn’t too far away from LA. During this one week where there was nothing to do the managers let us roam around and do whatever we wanted as long as we returned the next week. So I decided to check out the Watts tower. You know the Watts tower?”
“Hmm. I’m drawing a blank.”
“It’s these structures in a ‘hood of LA that were made by a guy on his spare time. Two of them are like one hundred feet tall. They are pretty impressive things.”
“Okay, I think I know what you’re talking about. They look kind of like a power station, or something. Made out of wire and all that.”
“Well parts of it. I think most of its made of rebar. But anyways, I would see it in rap videos and album covers, so I wanted to see it with my own eyes. It was sort of symbolic of west coast hip hop, and seeing how I wasn’t too far away from it, I wanted to experience something that was part of the music that I listened to while growing up.”
“Yah, yah, so how did you get there?”
“That’s one of the points of my story. I hopped a freight on the first day of the break and got into LA around 5 pm. I asked some people if they knew where it was at, most said they didn’t know, but one guy said that I should try the Blue Line. ‘That goes into south-central’ he told me, so seeing as I had all week, I decided to take him up on it. Not knowing where to go, I walked west from the rail yard, towards Downtown where I was bound to find a Blue Line station. So I walked and I walked, and eventually, after like an hour and a half, I ran into a station. And just my luck, it was a Blue Line station.”
“Lucky guy. You know, LA isn’t known for its metro, or public transportation for that matter. It could have taken you years to find a station.”
“That’s what I thought. I think it was Washington station, but anyways, I waited around for a while and finally a train came around. I wasn’t on the train for that long when all of a sudden I could see the towers. It was getting late by now and the sun was about ready to go down, so on one side you had that typical LA orange sunset, and on the other you had the Watts tower. But that ain’t the point. The thing is, right before you could see the towers the train passed a station. You could see the platform and everything, but the train just went past it. It must’ve been like a five minute walk from the towers. At the time I thought, maybe because there’s nothing around this platform, that’s why it didn’t stop. I haven’t been on a train that’s missed a stop though, so it was kind of strange.”
“So then what did you do?”
“I saw the towers after that station, so I got off at the next one which was a transit hub. So the train actually stopped this time. Seeing as it was getting late and all that, I thought that I might as well continue the journey the next day. Yah know. I went all this way; I don’t want to see the towers in the dark. Plus, things always seem to take longer when you’re trying to find something. It could have seemed like hours before I actually found the goddam thing, so I squatted in a nearby house and waited for the morning to come.”
“What did you do for food?” asked Robert.
“As you’ll soon find out, I always got some extra grub packed,” said Clayton with a cocky look on his face. “But anyways, I walked to the towers the next day, which wasn’t too long of a walk, probably like 20 minutes or somethin’. Not a walk that people would want to do if it was out of their way though.”
“How did you find them?”
“I just walked the train line until I saw them. Let me finish though.”
“So I walked up to them, and it was kind of creepy. Nobody was around them. I thought there would be tons of people around, you know, gawking at it and celebrating the thing for what it was. Cuz it’s cool as hell. There should be a bunch of people around it. It’s a landmark and all.”
“There probably wasn’t anyone around because it’s kind of far from a working train station.”
“Exactly! That’s the point. I got to thinkin’ about it, and realized that Alpha Corp. didn’t want people to go to the Watts tower, so they made the closer train station out of service.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them, but why would they do that?”
“Cuz the Watts tower has an identity. The community around it has pride in it. Or they did have pride in it. It’s something unique. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Okay, I get that, but why hide it?”
“Don’t you get it?” Clayton stalled for a second. “Okay, it makes more sense if you think about the bigger picture. The America that Alpha Corp. has set up is like one big franchise restaurant. Remember those from back in the day?”
“Yah. You could go to one in South Dakota and it would look the same and serve the same food as one in Nevada.”
“Bingo. That’s what all of America is like now. One big never ending franchise that looks the same and serves the same food. The Homesteads are practically all the same, that one was easy for Alpha Corp, but the cities are different. And I think Alpha Corp. don’t like these differences. They want to get rid of them. They feel threatened by them. They want you to feel at home anywhere you go, so they don’t want anything with identity lying around.”
“So why don’t they just demolish these things. Topple the Watts tower. Blow up the Statue of Liberty. Flick the Gateway Arch with one giant pointy finger.”
“Cuz that takes too much effort. Too much resources, too many man hours. You know? It’s easier just to hide them. Make them seem unimportant, then nobody will care. Eventually, Alpha Corp. will succeed; they’ll make America one continuous franchise. It’s easier to control that way.”
Clayton took a humorous bow. He had just successfully delivered his conspiracy. He has practiced it for many months, told a couple of the drivers, but never has he had enough courage to tell it to a PR man. That gave him a sense of accomplishment, so the bow was well worth it.
The conversation halted for a minute as Robert pondered the conspiracy. It was outlandish at its surface, like many of them are, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. For all the time that he lived in Washington, he hadn’t visited a number of sights that gave it its identity. Sure, he has ‘seen’ the National Mall, but that’s only because it was close to train stations and it was hard to miss. Not that it was very sentimental; the Mall held a series of buildings that were no longer in use, seeing as the Government was basically just a vestigial instrument. The Mall did offer a number of outhouses though, and that’s why people would visit it. They wouldn’t actually visit it for what it represented. Not like days past when people would travel across the country to visit the Memorials, Museums, and Galleries. You can access that stuff quicker on your ARTifact anyways, so it’s no longer important to venture to it. That goes with what Clayton was saying, thought Robert. Nobody really talked about these places, except for their functional aspects (ie: the numerous outhouses), so after enough time they will lose their identity. They will no longer hold any symbolic purpose. They’ll just be like the several other buildings that make up a vast landscape of desertion.
Whereas the only places that get used are the ones that look most like each other. The office buildings and the condo complexes. This is where the people work and live. It’s where people spend most of their time. Office towers and condo buildings don’t look that alike, seeing as condos tend to have balconies while office towers are continuous glass surfaces or concrete and glass structures, but office buildings tend to look like all other office buildings, while condos tend to look like all condos. Well, office buildings sometimes look different, depending on which era they were built, but within eras they look the same. So, given enough time, all the cities in the Republic will be similar office towers and condos with piles of rubble laying between them that used to be unique structures of the past.
But was this a grand scheme of Alpha Corp. or was this just a coincidence? Were these just the efficient buildings, thus the ones that were used, while the unique ones went to waste because they were inefficient? Or didn’t get enough sunlight?
This was a lot to think about right now. Robert noticed that he had left the conversation hanging for an uncanny amount of time, so reentered the dialogue with Clayton. “You have a good point, but I think I still want to travel across America. I still remember the symbolic meanings of those places, so at least I will enjoy them. I can’t say that for younger people though. At least there’s always the natural landmarks.”
“True. I guess I shouldn’t have been hatin’ on your retirement plans. But you stuck with them. Kudos to yah. I guess you got a lot of heart.”
“Yah, well, you’re the only one who’s ever gonna say that about me.”
“Amen.” Clayton paused for a moment to think of what he was going to tell Robert before they got into the whole celebrity chat. Then he remembered: it had to do with their accommodations for the night. “I gotta tell you, we should probably get off the road for the day. Slush and Mudd are probably hungry and thirsty by now. I can say the same about myself too. You game?”
“I’m game. Where are we gonna go? I don’t know of a Homestead around here.”
“I’ll show you,” said Clayton as he steered the horses off the I-95 and onto a steep hill that ran beside an overpass. “It’s not a Homestead, but it’ll do.”