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Chapter 21


Knowing Zara, knowing she was on her way home, seeing her turn the corner and head toward her house, seeing her approach the path, approach the steps, mince up the steps—all this made me nervous.  The Professor was not yet done explaining to Jennifer and Marshall—or more accurately, they were not yet done understanding him—and it seemed potentially calamitous to let Zara see him there.  She’d known him as a child, sure, but she wouldn’t remember him at this point.  And anyway that wasn’t the concern.  It was the oddity of it.  The locked door.  The stranger.  The lack of explanation.  Coupled with Zara’s inquisitive and ever-suspicious mind, I wasn’t convinced her parents would be up to the task of preventing their daughter from uncovering at least some part of the truth.  I scrambled to encourage a less conspicuous mode of egress—had all exits marked—but the Professor wouldn’t budge from his own plan which, well, who knows exactly, but which certainly did not involve giving one damn about being seen by Zara.  It seemed a tad unprofessional, for the record, but I’ve come to understand that the Professor often has a separate and not altogether transparent agenda.  In my experience questioning his does not always advance one’s own.  Besides, as you’ve seen, here as would often be the case, Asseem, or perhaps Zara’s relationship with him, provided a foil for the near misses of our team, for our learning curve, distracting her exactly from what by rights should have exposed us, or at the very least been the source of extreme suspicion.  So, in retrospect, it could very well have been that the Professor expected her mind to be elsewhere, and capitalized on the occasion as he saw fit.

If only we were able to ask him.

Interestingly, the Professor was a proponent of forgetfulness too.  It is the third of the three immutable rules of engagement for Citizen Surveillants—thought it’s termed Omission—the first of course being Dispassion.  Then Perspicacity.  But Omission we were taught first, perhaps because it’s the most difficult to learn, and had always maintained a privileged position among our rules.  I remember, for instance, that on the second day of CS training the Professor didn’t show up for class.  We sat for a long time in a cool metal clockless room, without speaking, without so much as one glance at one another, instead reading and re-reading the assigned reading material until we knew it front to back.  We simply sat.  And sat.  We sat longer before warming up and looking over and engaging with one another, breaking stranger silence.  And once conversation died down we began to test each other on the reading, and went on to form elaborate and convincing arguments for and against the basic premises of the reading material until, some time later, the door opened and a small, plainly dressed woman came in and handed us each a piece of paper with instructions to forget the text entirely.  It was irrelevant to our training, we were told, but would nonetheless skew our understanding of certain essential points to be discussed later and would therefore have to be placed under Omission.  So we did.  I can’t provide a good tutorial for this procedure.  It is a non-standards-based practice.  One simply (though not easily) finds one’s own unique “switch.”  And we were tested of course, tests based on interpretations of such material as would make clear whether or not we’d successfully forgotten the information we were supposed to Omit.  And if we failed we were tested again.  And if we failed that we were tested once more.  I know that failure to pass this test eventually led to dismissal from the training—a few didn’t make it—but it had yet to be determined what could reasonably be expected, so my class was probably given more leniency than was given to those that followed.  Though I say this not to discredit myself, nor to discredit others from my class—we all worked extremely hard, and helped develop the program into what you see today.  In fact, as Lead Surveillant for WatchGroup 01-Z, I feel it’s both my place and my duty to state that what we may have therefore lacked in certain areas, we have more than made up for in others.

And gentlemen, I will argue that point to the very end.

Still, watching one half of a close knit yet erratic couple like Zara and Asseem is almost twice the effort.  Granted, this was the birth of the program and hence before I had the resources Citizen Surveillants enjoy today, but over the next couple years of Zara’s accelerated drift toward adulthood, I was stretched to the limits of my ability to fulfill the basic responsibility with which I was charged.  I’m not saying I missed anything.  Under the increasingly bright lights fueled by our first foray into the power of ETMs the pair stood out unmistakably: Zara and her inability to produce Buzz and Asseem’s rapid ascent into a Buzz-production powerhouse.  But despite my training, keeping track of their progress was a challenge.  One could barely interpret their behavior, nor easily predict the outcome of their interactions.  A fight could deepen their commitment, and a stable period—something any family man would credit with keeping a relationship together—for this couple might mean a distance only to be bridged by spontaneous eruptions of vaguely defended antipathy.  Without the knowledge that they had in fact fallen in love, who would have predicted it based on their interaction at the theatre, or based on their physical violence?  I kept loosening my grip on Asseem after mistakenly thinking he’d obviated his role in Zara’s life by his own behavior.  Meaning he was often an asshole.  But he’d suddenly reappear, changing Zara’s direction in ways which, though unexpected to us at the time, could surely have been predicted should we have kept better track of him while outside Zara’s immediate vicinity, or more accurately, kept track of them both as a plural yet irreducible subject.

Of course, for the first couple weeks it couldn’t have been easier.  Nor less interesting.  One can only stand for so long the days of cooing and clucking and holding hands and, finally, in an abandoned building three blocks away from Zara’s house, the awkward thrustings of intercourse.  I can’t tell you how unbelievably dull it was to watch, day after day, as they sat in Handpepper’s class, staring straight forward while every cell of their bodies strained toward the center of the aisle as they felt each photon bouncing between their shiny, sweating skins.  And while the lazy perambulations after class, the pointing out of their favorite houses and alleys and overgrown yards, or the extreme sensitivity to small touches and rubs between adolescent limbs might delight both parties involved, and even those who, just passing, can take a moment to re-imagine their own first love before continuing on with their head full of errands, I promise you, it is a grating thing to endure for days on end.  And while it bears no comparison to the superlatively dull period after Zara became Helen and Helen became housewife, it was my first taste of surveillance, and I must admit that I was in the process of rethinking my choice of vocation by the time, about two weeks after their first encounter, Zara and Asseem dropped out of school.

There was little fanfare.  The couple had talked about it, weighed their options.  Zara’s parents were encouraging, Asseem’s weren’t told.  Asseem had been offered a new job working exclusively for Mr. Styles—the Hollywood fat-man whose authoritative whine made Zara sick to her stomach—and could only take on the role of translator (and later writer and consultant) of minority culture in the films Styles watched (and went on to produce).  For her part, Zara hadn’t found employment yet, but had decided she wouldn’t just jump into the first thing that came along, would wait for something compelling, something that would be worth her while, something big.  Or perhaps it was something to impress Asseem, who had quickly gained the confidence of Mr. Styles, being the charming, rather hypocritical kid that he was, and who continued to pressure Zara into getting a job working with him, insisting that Mr. Styles would probably accept her as a personal assistant.  For her part, Zara failed to see the opportunity inherent in servitude.  “And besides,” she said, “we should have separate careers.”

Isn’t she just great?

Well, except the “career” that Zara finally settled on managed to alienate just about everyone save her parents, who predictably encouraged it as they had her decision to leave school, citing its subversion of restrictive social mores as a symbolic step toward their daughter’s complete appropriation of agency.  I mean for Heaven’s sake.  Call me simpleminded, but I’d always considered stripping exploitative.  And though I hardly pride myself on alignment with those whom I happily tag as “degenerate,” it seems significant here to note that even Knuckle himself was reluctant, at first, to let Zara ascend the small stage in the room he’d built behind his Dirty Dog stand.

“Whoa whoa hold up a minute.  You wanna what?” he said, eyes pulled back into his head.

It hadn’t taken Knuckle long to learn he had the knack when it came to emotional transfer.  It helped, certainly, that one of the first ETM machines in Seattle nested on the corner adjacent to his business, but his entrepreneurial spirit would have driven him anywhere to use one.  He’d have made his little discovery anyway.  He’d have begun to capitalize on it in whatever way he could.  That it happened so quickly was at best a result of factors beyond anyone’s control.  But of course there’s probably nothing I can add at this point to the thought that’s been put into the “Knuckle Problem,” and besides, back then he was still small time, building from the gutter up, not greasing down an entire generation of highway drivers.  He’d simply acted on an impulse, charged up enough juice to run some old spot lights he’d had packed away, and hired his son Junior to build him a rickety runway stage in a big tent he popped on the unused corner of his property.  Presto: a strip club, unimaginatively named Knuckle’s Dirty Doghouse.

Zara had of course seen the tent go up, seen girls go in and out, and seen the crowds.  Being a drop-out had afforded her an opportunity to take a look around the neighborhood and assess what options she had for employment, and between picking up trash for the city, working in the open air food courts above 5th Avenue, and babysitting little brats for her parent’s rich friends, she didn’t feel like showing people her body—this absurd bag of blood people were so incomprehensibly fascinated by—was such a bad deal.  She already had a closet full of S&M gear, and though perhaps too small for her now, it wouldn’t need too much work to be serviceable.  And dancing, well, that’s just moving your tits around and spreading your legs.  It had been over two weeks since she’d quit school, and it made her sick to think that she had less to do than Asseem.  Every time he ran off to work and left her alone she felt increasingly useless, and she was becoming concerned that Asseem felt something similar.  She wanted to be useful.  She wanted to do, not to just be.  Plus a little income couldn’t hurt.

“I said I want to dance.”  Zara leaned into the counter like she was asking for a Dirty Dog—taking their unstated exchange to its next logical level.

“I heard you,” he said.

It was midmorning, a nice but slightly chilly fall day, and Knuckle stared at her face before letting his eyes slide down to the v-neck of her t-shirt to trace freckles across the expanse of 18 year-old flesh strapped tight over angular collar bones.  A robin’s egg would fit perfectly in between them, he thought.  He could see that her nipples were hard from the chill, but being a gentleman he looked back at her face.  He’d practically seen this delicious thing develop all the way from something you just don’t think about to something you think about guiltily to something you feel no compunction whatsoever imagining bent over your grill with its skirt hiked up.  But she was still out of bounds.  He knew that.  Her folks, despite being weird, practically indecipherable people, were paying customers.  And more importantly, they were connected.  He didn’t know what they did, exactly, but he’d seen the strange cars and he’d heard the rumors and they obviously, though neither rich nor powerful themselves, were host to all manner of rich, powerful people to the point where you’d have to be blind.  So.  He was not going to get in the middle of anything that might jeopardize his new and, legally speaking, questionable business.

But then, she’d be a draw.  Hell, who wouldn’t want to see that little body on stage?  It was a tough call, but that, my friend, is what business is all about.  He frowned.

“Ask your parents,” he finally said.

Zara huffed, pushing off from the counter and flopping down at a table in front of Knuckle’s stand.

“What is this, story hour?  I’m not looking for high moral fucking ground here, Knuckle.  But thanks for the concern.”  What was she going to have to do, give him a rim job?

“Listen kid,” he said.  He was used to her mouth.  “I got plenty a girls.  Why I need a put up with the headache?”

“The headache?  Is that some new slang for money I haven’t heard yet?”  Zara knew what her naked body would be worth in this neighborhood.  “Cause if it is it’s pretty stupid—money, duh, makes headaches go away.”

What a peach.

The standoff remained silent for a few minutes, Zara picking at her jeans and staring at the dirt and Knuckle leaning on the counter in his greasy bib and looking out across the street at the dimly pulsing ETM, scheming.  Despite the fact that he didn’t think he’d ever actually see Zara naked, the potential had inspired him.  Perhaps he was selling himself short with these cheap bitches he’d picked up downtown.  Could he power a bigger place with that crazy machine?  Two?  And what about another stand?  Meanwhile Zara was running through the different ways she could negotiate with Knuckle, and how comfortable she’d feel lying entirely, if it came to that.  As a general rule, she found that lying put her at a disadvantage, creating an Achilles heel that had constantly to be guarded, watched, and stressed-out about.  Worse, the more desirable the object to which the lie might grant access, the more intense these undesirable “symptoms” of lying became, until nearly all enjoyment of the object was sapped by a morbid preoccupation with being discovered, called out, or otherwise in trouble.  Of course, this was not a question of getting her parents’ permission.  Zara knew this would be enthusiastically granted—and it was exactly a matter of wanting to avoid the spectacle she imagined would be a result of that enthusiasm.  Namely, she knew they’d come “show their support.”

Zara followed Knuckle’s gaze across the street to the line that was beginning to form at the ETM machine.  People stood around, eyeing one another suspiciously, pockets full of old dead batteries.  It had only been a few weeks, and it was still a strange and unnatural sight: the glowing, sweating machine producing its low, ominous hum.  The smaller sidekick that transferred power into the containment device (in most cases batteries).  The conduction spot, fenced-off and set back from the road.  One after another, people moved inside the fence and waited for a minute, getting their bearings, then went to work.  They squinted, concentrated, distorted their faces and bodies in all attempts to conjure up any and all shameful memories, dark and unpleasant secrets, and who knew what all else.  The parameters of emotional transfer hadn’t been thoroughly outlined for the public, nor were they thoroughly known, so the undertaking was a tad blind in the beginning, and to watch people trying to transfer was easy proof.  And as if this embarrassment were insufficient, the process had too the unique result of embarrassing both those for whom it worked only a little, and those whose electric return was unexpectedly large, so that many of the people once sheepish standing in line then put on their awkward show only to sulk away with their shoulders sagging under the weight of having so publicly intimated what lurked—or didn’t—in their hearts and minds.  For this reason, among many others, ETMs were soon made a far more private affair.  But those early days the spectacle was engrossing.  Zara and Knuckle sat in silence as the sun shifted a few degrees westward and the shadows shrunk.

“Fine,” Zara said, suddenly, and set off down the street.  Knuckle wasn’t sure if this fine meant the deal was off, or if it meant she’d attain permission from her parents, but he watched her walk away in a quick, determined slice, shrugged, and quickly pictured her bent over the oily surface of his crooked countertop, moaning softly as he drilled the little bitch in backwards.

Chapter 23

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