Marty Whitcomb found himself in the shower without a bar of soap.
She got me again, god dammit.
He examined the two upside-down plastic bottles in the recessed tile niche: Suave Essentials and NIVEA Sparkle.
Sparkle? Hmm. Body wash that “moisturizes and illuminates.” Now, here’s a day I thought I’d never see, the one where my sphincter is wet and well-lit. The spot writes itself.
ANNOUNCER: Here’s international porn star Lance Burrows for NIVEA Sparkle.
LANCE (Naked, one foot on a café chair, eyes lowered, gently stroking his enormous erection. Camera dollies in. He looks into the camera.): You know, things get hot and heavy on the set when the director cries “Action!” and I have to fuck the shit out of some chick for eleven to fifteen minutes. To look and perform at my best in those critical close-ups, I rely on NIVEA Sparkle—it moisturizes and illuminates.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks, Lance. Wash like a man—with NIVEA Sparkle.
Like a man. C’mon, Marty, get in the game here, gotta make some dough, pay some bills, get something going long-term. Create—that’s what real men do these days, not fuck the shit out of some chick for eleven to fifteen minutes (Where did that come from?) or drive ridiculous pickups or pound phony rivets. Create opportunity. Expand possibility. That’s what a man does now. Dude, that’s my job.
He dried, assembled his look: untucked olive mock-turtleneck, long-sleeve light polyester tee over Brooks Brothers Madison Fit pleat-front charcoal slacks, blazer, tan socks, very relaxed white-soled blue step-ins, and went downstairs.
“Hon. What happened to my soap, like, again?”
“Well, good morning to you, too. First, soap is disgusting. You ever actually see what’s on there? Ew. But, second, this is not a good time to ‘hon’ me. My inbox is crawling with copy, I need you—very important—to text our opportunity agent, and, and—full red alert—make a Freedom Account deposit, ASAP, like today. It’s really getting down there. What’s going on?” Mary Whitcomb slid her husband’s coffee across the raised faux stone countertop between the kitchen and the den.
Marty pulled it close without looking up from his iPhone XIX’s morning tweets. Behind him was the carpeted den, tile-floored vestibule, front door, eight steps down to a flagstone walk between flowerbeds to the condo parking lot and his car: freedom for the day. “Mmm?”
For Mary and Marty, a summer sexual epiphany led straight to a nine-month academic rent in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. The Brown MBA candidate’s momentary Misquamicut Beach contemplation of a URI J-school student’s firm, athletic breast tight to a thin film of summer cloth, and her cute over-the-shoulder glance at a fellow grad student confident enough to reply with a self-depreciating shrug led within hours to intense primal frolic. After wrestling like lion cubs over some poor eland’s entrails—still close—she pulled her straight brown hair from his face, dispatched a salty spot of—semen? blood? sweat?—at the corner of her mouth with the tip of her tongue, gave him a close-up wide-eyed grin and whispered, “Ho-ly shit!”
They moved to Knoxville right after commencement.
In Mary, Marty found his personal invisible hand, making his presumptive life real: Things just always worked out. “Marty/Mary—almost the same,” they chirped in those warm days, clinking Sol longnecks under faux tropical thatch. But six years on, Marty’s detached amiability ground a distant, resentful dust. Mary had to initiate and orchestrate everything, while things seemed to just fall his way. And he was still fixed on that damned phone.
“Mhh. Wait. I’m working on something here,” he lied. “Office stuff.” He looked up. “’Kay.”
Sigh. “The Keep America Great rally tonight is fifty each, prepaid, and you have to make sure the Excellence in Infrastructure account is current or you can’t use the bridge...another hundred dollars. Are you... ?”
“A hundred bucks? Glory, glory hallelujah, we actually voted for the guy.”
“I know, but that only gave us five hundred each and access to one opportunity agent.”
“Service Units.” Mary pulled a statement from under her tablet. “I printed this yesterday. Renewable energy surcharge seven, school choice seventy-five...”
“We don’t even have kids.”
“...trash seventy-five, health access fifty . . .”
“Access? What about actual health?”
“Separate account. Private. Okay, um...street maintenance twenty-three, curb access seventeen...”
“Don’t we own the street?”
“Our streets belong to, let’s see, the...Tennessee/Saud Infrastructure Group, Inc.”
“Still better than goddamn property taxes.”
“Can you put that thing down for a second and stop the deflections? I’m trying to make contact here. I’ve been up since five-thirty editing late filers and you’re talking in tweets. It’s tough enough when we work together, don’t put this all on me, okay?”
Marty looked up. “Look, I’m just a Citizen, alright? I’m doing what I can. When did you make Patriot?”
“Let’s not play the log cabin card, Mr. Lincoln. We’re all just Citizens here.”
“Alright, I’ll text, I’ll text, already. I’ll do it. Just stop with ‘the tone,’ okay? How much for tonight?”
Mary flicked her screen. “Well, I prepaid a hundred—dollars—for both of us, but we get a ten-SU credit each for hats, ten more for a good sign when they scan us in.”
“So, seventy bucks,” Marty said from behind his phone.
“See? That’s what I mean, you know SUs aren’t the same as dollars.”
“Okay, alright, I get it. Present and listening, sir. What do you think we do?”
“Oh, no, you don’t. We do this together. Later. That’s why I need you to text the opportunity agent, silly. I’ll get some ideas, but we have go up to that office you never use and sit down—you and me—and figure out where we’re going. Then we FaceTime the agent with a plan.”
“What about that bus that’s been sitting at the corner? It’s like three days.”
Mary’s shoulders dropped. “Whole ’nother thing. I texted the service agent. It just stopped there. Nobody knows why. Of course, right? Anyway, no details. Maybe today.”
Marty looked up from his phone again. “Typical clueless, but that’s like four parking spots. If they don’t get it out of there, Tennessee/Saud can kiss my ass for the Curb Access Fee.”
“Don’t worry, cupcake. I’m on it.” She looked down at her tablet. “But this is important. It’s something you, and only you, have to actually do. Listening?” She tapped her middle finger on an imaginary mic. “Pop, pop—check, one, two. Can you hear me? One, two? When you get to work: Freedom Account deposit. That’s big. Then, credit Excellence in Infrastructure a hundred dollars—Citizen Level, you’ll see it—for your E-I Pass, but it won’t go in unless you pay the Keep America Green coal subsidy first. Why an electric car in the first place? Could use gas like everybody else.”
“No maintenance, state taxes on gas are murder, electric’s still way cheaper.” He shook his head. “Government. Anyway, pay twenty-dollar coal, two hundred freedom, then E-I, right?”
“Can do. Gotta go. Gimme a kiss.”
“See you tonight.”
Marty kicked his way to the car, got in, and slammed the door. He docked his phone in the control console of the Bolt EV-X, touched the recognition sensor, and said, “Work.” The car rolled silently onto Wheeler Road around the empty bus, leaving the Windy Lakes Manor parking lot toward Alcoa Highway and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation. He reclined his seat slightly and pulled a new proposal from his soft black leather folio and grunted, “News.” He flipped the pages but it seemed watery broth. Reading was impossible. Each new sentence wiped away the previous one, a succession of meaningless beads in a cheap-ass chain.
* * *
“...upside in the markets today. The U.S. Department of Justice has declined to intervene in the landmark Verizon/AT&T merger. The new company, VERI-T, will become the world’s fourth-largest mobile network and the sole U.S. operator. In a statement, Attorney General Bretton said:
“‘The Administration believes digital networking today should more closely resemble open market utilities under a nationally unified transmission system than an inefficient hash of wasteful regulation and mortal corporate combat. The efficiency of universal access through a single gatekeeper will bring down prices and provide seamless user service. We anticipate all actors will recognize legally what is today a practical reality: wireless digitized information has become the universal platform of modern life.’
His car was climbing onto the highway. His mood lifted. “I guess today’s the day.” He put the unread paperwork back in the folio on the passenger seat and said, “Cat B.” He undocked the phone, exhaled softly onto the lower left hand corner, paused, and began scrolling. He selected a file. After about five minutes, he said, “Send to Big Momma and exit,” and re-docked the phone.
Traffic was heavy, but the regen paddle was programmed to save battery and brakes. No rush, no sweat. He said, “Tea Leaf Green,” and sang some old ones. Close to Knoxville, the highway expanded to four lanes, but the bridge ramp merged there, so crossing the Tennessee River to UT always sucked. The car pulled right, into a Citizen Lane, and stopped. Over in the Patriot Lane, drivers were rolling comfortably toward the city. The Vanguard Lane was empty. It was possible to manually steer into the Patriot Lane, but that would trigger a fifty-dollar fee and restrict opportunity agent access. Nah. Plenty of time.
Like probably eleven to fifteen minutes.
He crawled over the bridge to the Cumberland Street exit, rolled past the University of Tennessee sprawl and Manning-Neyland Stadium to Henry Street. A left turn placed him in the UT Conference Center garage. He parked at the top of the helix, walked the footbridge to the conference center’s top floor, where a left turn would take him to The Research Center. Straight ahead through the elevated glass walkway was Sunsphere: the corny, beloved relic of Knoxville’s world’s fair. One of these mornings he’d go get a buttermilk chicken biscuit. Not today.
The University of Tennessee Research Foundation was twenty-something cubes behind ten floor-to-ceiling glass panels, each etched with a giant letter to spell INGENUITY. Marty pushed the brushed-brass bar on the middle N and entered.
As he hit his cube, Stu leaned in and said, “Sharon wants to see you. Important.”
Oh, man, I think I’m rollin’ here.
Stocky, crisply dressed, controlled, Sharon Hughes was a woman of practical vision with a desk in a glass-enclosed office. She’d turned a sleepy academic patent clearinghouse into a digital den for rainmakers, marshaling her life for admiration rather than desirability. Her achievements resulted from determination and calculation, not inspiration or luck.
She saw Marty as a fashionable sloven, no friend to the barber, a young man remarkably without preconception. Good, she thought, creatively naïve. And truly, he hadn’t even applied to Brown, or thought about an MBA, or planned to go to the beach the day he met Mary. A friend tipped him to his job. When things found him, he just said okay.
“I see you like TECH Data Management.”
“Yeah, policy is way ahead of delivery. TECH is how we catch up.”
“Name is something?”
“Yeah, Tennessee Empowers CHoice, I think. You know, capital H?”
“A little too cute?”
“I suppose, but this is maybe big.”
“It’s an app. If a user’s accounts are okay, it creates an individual persona that identifies and manages local, county, state, and federal assets.”
“Yeah. Stuff we pay for. It belongs to us. TECH gets that.”
“A few, actually. Public treasury. Coders. End-users. Micromarketers.”
Jotting, Sharon said, “’Splain, Marty.”
“Okay, one, taxpayers. Service agents? Opportunity agents? See ya. No begging for an audience. It’s an app. If your accounts are solid, you’re in control: reality-based public service in your phone. Everywhere, all the time. The user is not a chore. The user is the actor. And today with VERI-T, the user has a seamless platform.”
“That’s a lot of jobs.”
“A lot of government jobs. Municipal, county, state, federal. Long-term, just Tennessee? No salary, healthcare, retirement, holiday pay—billions. Remember long-haul truck drivers? Bus drivers? These bureaucrats are just like ’em, only they’re duplicated at every level of government. They show up, sit in their little offices, make the same exact decision like a hundred times, push a button, go home. Nothing this app doesn’t do except for the commute.”
“And eat, shit, and look at porn.” She held up a large chocolate cookie and gave him a “you want?” look, as if to break it in half.
Marty shook his head. “Bureaucrats. Their world’s incentive-free. Anyway, that gets to number two.”
Sharon looked at her list, “Coders?”
“Yeah. The backbone of a new economy. Need beaucoup geeks to set this up, keep current, and grow. Ultimately at each service level. Skilled work, good pay, AI helps—the algos for this will be like infinite—but we need skilled techies, too.”
“Okay. The actual thing that happens—the service delivered—is a caused by the user. This is the meat. You access a world of possibility, then it tailors itself to you. Airlines did this on a small scale, back in like 2015. They figured out a universal app on their own hardware for crews, passengers, maintenance teams, airport admins, and local authorities to share schedule changes, alerts, weather, security info in real time. Everybody knows everything. Shit happens, but you know about it before you waste a day at the airport and end up screaming at some poor schmuck at the gate over a no-show plane. It worked.”
“This is a really big deal for marketing companies. They buy access to what people actually do, what they want, where they’re going, what their priorities are—now and down the road. In the end, I’d guess marketing fees pay for most of the geeks.”
“For what—use of public service? Nothing that isn’t already known—but absolutely everything that is known—just assembled coherently. It ain’t magic. This won’t improve service much, but taxpayers will know what can happen and when it will happen. How do I qualify my kid for in-state tuition at Southern Cal? When can I get a bulk trash pickup in Altoona? Can I get home care for my mother in Mississippi? TECH knows. Instantly. You might not be happy, but you move on to what’s possible. No more runaround.”
“The algos. The system self-programs as users enter data. It’s infinitely customizable and integrates seamlessly. An individual user personalizes everything from downtown to D.C. on one platform. And with VERI-T—I mean, it’s doable. Incredible.”
“And the patent owner?”
“Users program their own app, so it’s government data, but TECH owns the app. Royalties go to the app. Makes for some very rich geeks. Users are anonymous, but their locations and choices aren’t. They deliver their own service, bureaucratic cost is offset, like I said, and TECH data delivers what marketers want: hundreds of millions of choices for actual outcomes, provable predictable trends.”
“Part-time profs right here. Young. You know—couple of Z’s.”
“Give me your card.”
Marty handed her his gray plastic Citizen Card. She turned it over in her hand like an unremarkable pebble. She put the cookie on a paper napkin and pulled a tan envelope from her pencil drawer.
“I feel like a smoke. Want to take a walk?”
On the Convention Center rooftop, UT Research maintained a mahogany and stone meditation garden overlooking the university and the old Expo. She brought out an electronic cigarette. The morning sun warmed their backs. They sat at a small round table set off by a row of tightly leaved spherical boxwood bushes.
“What gives? You’re not even smoking.”
“I’m vaping. Can’t do that inside...” She reached into the envelope and pulled out a red Patriot card. “Can’t do this inside, either.” She handed it to Marty. “You brought in a beauty. Get it licensed today. Talk to those TECH boys and hook ’em up with a venture cap guy. Your bonus is a hundred. I’ll make the transaction today. You put it in this deal, it’ll be worth probably a couple million next month. But you have to do it now. So—here’s another thing I can’t do inside.” She handed him a business card. “She gets my bonuses. She’ll handle yours, too. Most of these don’t amount to shit, but you’ll become a rich man with this.”
“Of course legit. You’re a member of the investor class. A Patriot. It’s how the Right to Invest Act works: incentivizing people like us to find a diamond that benefits us all. University regs say we can’t transact our own deals in the office, so—”
She tilted her head toward the boxwoods. “And—it’s the old-timers in there, their culture—academic types all about public self-sacrifice and philosophical purity.” She shook her head and looked back to Marty. “You wouldn’t get it. They’ll always be Citizens, but they’re on my team. I don’t want to rub it in. The new incentive—the proper incentive, like the President says—is to serve others by serving ourselves. This is a good, lawful project. Make it work, okay?”
“Gotcha.” He flipped the card in his hand. “This thing good?”
“Wait’ll you see.”
On the entry ramp to the Tennessee River bridge that evening, Marty flinched when his car swung left past the Citizen Lane conga line and ushered him onto Alcoa Highway as a Patriot. Not having to slow down felt good: new, but comfortable. He said, “Japanese techno-pop. Loud.” He’d have bought Mary flowers, or something, but he had no idea where. As he approached the final bend toward home on Wheeler Road, he saw the bus was gone.
* * *
Marty mounted his stool at the countertop.
“Mar, what a crazy day.”
“I’ll say. Did something happen at work?”
He tossed his folio on the stone surface. “Oh, shit! I forgot the Freedom Account.”
“Not that. Something good...I think.”
“It did, though. Not work actually, but because of work? Anyway, we’re Patriots now. I think we’re gonna make a lot of money. How’d you know?”
“I don’t, but wait.” Mary picked up a stack of paper. Gingerly, as if it were a deposition questionnaire thick with blind alleys of self-incrimination. “The opportunity agent called me. I printed this while we talked and took notes the best I could. Frankly, I’m speechless. You have to update this.” She placed it in front of him.
“For me? How thoughtful.” He gazed down at it with his chin in his hands.
“Hey, this is about you. And it’s real important. It can’t be I’m always in the kitchen or the office and you’re on that stool or the couch.” She turned from the fridge with a can of Miller Lite and set it beside the stack. “You need to spend some time upstairs with this. It has to be perfect on paper before we call her and scan it back.”
Marty grabbed the beer, left the pile of blank forms, said “ESPN,” turned and fell onto the sofa in a defeated swoon. “I will, I will, I swear. But first, tell me what happened.”
“Okay, let’s see...right after lunch, the service agent texts me back, like, this note from God: ‘The bus will be removed today.’ And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon us—it was a big towtruck, actually—and it was removed.”
She poured a glass of budget chardonnay and came around to his side of the counter, sat on his stool, leaning back against the edge of the faux granite, elbows atop it. Marty saw Mary fully there, in a Titans tee, clingy warm-ups, her face framed by stray ponytail wisps, and wondered at his good fortune. “Aren’t you somethin’.”
“Anyway, then the opportunity agent called—couple of hours ago—and she’s like, all helpful, like we’re friends or something. She goes, ‘Do you have a few minutes?’ so I say, ‘Sure.’ We talked for a little, and it sounds like we qualify for maybe a different whole—like, life.”
“I guess. Anyway, while we’re talking, she tweets me this form—like, huge mortgage application or something. We have to review, edit, call back, and log it in, she said.”
“Edit? Looks like lots of work, but, Praise the Lord! You’re an editor, right?”
“Ha, ha. Not funny, Marty. Most of it’s about you—like a core thing. The rest are parts for county, state, federal.”
“Well, no. Then there were some really personal questions.”
“It started out general—like an insurance questionnaire, you know? Like for me. Work at home? I do. Copyeditor, Knoxville News Sentinel? Yep. Nonsmoker? Right. It was like she had all the answers and I was just verifying.”
“Probably did. So?”
“So, then she asks me when do I plan on having a baby. So I say, ‘Who are you, my grandmother?’”
“No shit. Then what?”
“Well, after I say, like, ‘None of your business,’ she says, ‘Maybe it is.’ So I say, ‘How’s that?’ and she goes, ‘Well, ever hear about the Advantage Child Incentive?’ I said, ‘No, of course not.’ You ever?”
“Well—and this is why I thought something must have happened at work. She goes, ‘Your new status, combined with current national population trends, could make children a strategy you want to seriously consider.’”
“Not even a little.”
“So, what do you think?”
“Well, that wasn’t all.” Her lower lip began to quiver. “She asks could I answer a few questions about you. I say I’ll do my best, but we’ll go over it when you get home. She says okay, just do the best you can for now. So I do.” Deep breath. “Birth state Rhode Island? Yes. Highest completed academic year Eighteen? Um, yeah.” A tear trickled onto the side of her nose. “Work at UT Research? Yes. Nonsmoker? Yes. And then...” She looked up at Marty. “And then,” Mary said quietly, “I don’t know why, but she says, ‘Is your husband, either of his parents or any of his grandparents, Jewish?’”