She said this tiny being in her arms was the most amazing, beautiful thing she’d ever witnessed.
A week later he watched her leave on a plane to Japan. They agreed not to stay in contact. She never existed. She was a figment of his imagination.
Their last night was spent in a mortuary basement where they burned photos, gifts and anything that reminded them of themselves. She unfriended and unfollowed him, changed her status to single and marked his emails as spam. She even paid a service to erase all traces of him from her digital life.
Because Maximo believed his daughter required regular sunlight, he took her for daily walks in parks and trails where strangers would compliment his daughter’s beauty and cuteness. He now understood why beauty pageants for seven-year-olds existed.
One downside was when strangers inevitably ran out of compliments and would ask – what’s her name? The english language provides only so many ways to describe the beauty of babies.
Maximo spent nights analyzing data recorded from each walk. He kept track of the types of people who stopped to talk and those who walked by. He estimated their race, age and gender. He noted other traits, such as whether they jogged or walked a dog or both. And if they had a dog, what kind of dog? Big or small? Leashed? Unleashed?
He also recorded conversations to mine out tendencies and patterns. When did the subject start sounding bored? What questions extended the conversation in a beneficial way? The maximization of compliments was a hard problem, but it kept him busy as he waited for his daughter’s first words.
His parents walked into the restaurant and smiled when they saw him. His father waved. Maximo stood up and waved back. He held his arms out, half-heartedly gesturing for hugs. Physical affection was not expressed much in his family. He’d hugged his mother maybe twice in his life. The last time was when he left the family nest five years ago. It felt like he was running away. He’d turned thirty just last month. Why did he feel like a child around them?
This Thai restaurant was family owned according to the owner. He once proclaimed that his ingredients were imported from the motherland itself – galangal, fish sauce, coconuts, curry paste, kaffir leaves, basil and various chili peppers. This was authentic Thai cuisine, he bragged. If you ordered Thai spicy, that was what you’d get. He was very proud of this fact and could not resist bashing a certain popular Thai restaurant in regards to their so-called catering to American tastebuds and style. He compared it to crunchy tacos with ground beef, lettuce and cheese. That was not Mexican cuisine. Not even close. To be authentic, he said, you need to seek out the late-night taco vendors.
Maximo’s father asked his son if he was married and had procured children yet. How much did he earn at his job? Did he own a mortgage on a two-story house and lease a luxury vehicle?
Maximo’s mother shushed her husband and turned to her son. “Order anything you want,” she said. “This is your day.”
Maximo scanned the menu and found a typo. Beef Salad was spelled Beet Salad. White-out was used to change the price of the green curry to $12.99.
“What about the drunken noodles?” his mother asked. “They’re your favorite still, right?”
His father said that he’d help Maximo find a good job, one where he could work his way up the corporate ladder and maybe become a low-level manager.
Maximo left for Idaho five years ago to join the government’s new pilot program that promised to bring jobs home. Specifically they were testing out a technology that allowed computers to harness and control a network of human brains. The government paid Maximo $12.50 an hour to rent his brain for up to 36 hours a week. They hooked electrodes to his skull and he’d black out for six or whatever hours. Sometimes he’d wake up for a second or two in the middle of his shift and he’d feel this sense of alertness and lightness of mind. He liked that feeling very much.
The program was currently used to run virtual call centers. They rented brain slices to corporations and promised zero-training, 98% customer satisfaction and 99.9% accuracy.
There was no training or special qualifications required to rent your brain. The only requirement was that the prospective employee was healthy, clean of drugs and free of mental disabilities, such as schizophrenia or mental retardation.
“Maybe the green curry,” Maximo said. “With chicken, please.”
“Your sister is doing well,” his father said. “She just gave birth to her fourth child.”
“She’s a surrogate,” his mother said. “Don’t you consider that prostitution?”
“Laura says there’s no sex involved.”
“I think it’s called artificial insemination.”
“Makes no difference. It’s disturbing no matter how you think about it. She’s selling her body. Nothing outrages people these days.”
“We should order. I need to get back to work soon.” Maximo’s father waved to the waiter and ordered the green chicken curry, drunken noodles and eggplant special.
Maximo spent more time at work. He was getting better at waking up during shifts. Once he stayed conscious for thirty whole seconds. He took in the abyss of networked consciousness as if he were a tourist. All he could see was a black that felt infinite in depth. He was not afraid of falling or being lost forever. He kind of loved it there.
On the days Maximo worked, he left his daughter with his neighbor Jane. She sold him breast milk for twenty bucks a bottle, but he wasn’t about to argue with a woman who offered to babysit for free. That was until she decided to name his daughter Mercedes.
“Jane, I appreciate all you’ve done for my daughter, but this naming thing crossed the line. I’m not saying this is child abuse, but I certainly feel violated and I’m sure my daughter feels the same. Don’t you, Chickpea?” Maximo turned to his daughter. She was sitting in the crook of his left arm. She stared at him blankly. Drool dribbled down her lip.
“I just thought the name sounded luxurious. I think they call it positive thinking. You want your girl to grow up and become rich and famous, right?”
There was a time when Maximo considered his daughter beauty pageant material, but now he would be happy just to hear her say dada or dad or something that showed she understood. He wondered if she was an alien. Maybe his girlfriend knew the whole time, for those nine long months, could feel the alien aura emanating from her womb.
“Pageantry is superficial,” Maximo said. “It’s disturbing. Seven-year-olds strutting around in string bikinis.”
“What are you going on about now? I think you’re the one with issues,” Jane said. “Anyways, I just meant successful. Someone who will change the world and make it a better place for all. Maybe she can be the first female president?”
“Just don’t call her Mercedes, alright?” Maximo said. “Don’t you wish you could choose your own name? Doesn’t that sound empowering? I mean, if you had the choice, you wouldn’t have picked Jane, would you?”
After that Jane refused to babysit his daughter. She also doubled the price of breast milk and forced him to order breast milk online. He was weary of the fecal contamination rumors, but in the end he wasn’t about to feed his daughter milk from cows or goats or other farm animals. Was he the only one that actually thought about how unnatural it all was?
The harder dilemma was finding someone to take care of his daughter when he worked. The building he worked in had a daycare center, but it cost $1500 a month.
When Maximo’s father said goodbye and left for work, his mother leaned in and said, “Do you know what happened to me last week?”
Maximo was in a good mood so he played along. “What happened?”
“You remember Margot, my friend from Texas, right? Well she finally found time to visit me in California. It’s been over twenty years since we last spoke in person. But she figured now that her kids are off in college, this was her chance. Anyway, on the phone she’s always talking about how great the Pad Thai is at Thai Express, so I thought what better way to introduce her to the temptations of California than to show her what real Thai food is like. Thai Express, if you don’t know, is a fast food chain found a lot in malls. I can’t believe she offered to take me to that dump if I ever came to visit! It’s the kind of place where you eat from styrofoam boxes with plastic sporks and splintery wooden chopsticks, and all the food has been sitting for hours under heat lamps and is cooked by cheap unskilled labor. So you may be thinking that I took my friend here to this pleasant hole in the wall. I should have. But I didn’t. Instead I took her to the one in downtown. You know, the one that’s packed on the weekends and has won best Thai cuisine ten years running. The wait staff are all young and good looking. They even have an outside dining area with bamboo chopsticks and fancy candles. You know the place. We used to eat there a lot. I remember you always complained about the Tom Kha Gai not being spicy enough. In fact nothing is ever truly spicy there, not even if you ask for their so-called Thai Spicy.”
“Right, I remember. We used to eat there once a month. You, me, dad and Laura. Good times.”
“I admit the food tastes phenomenal. My problem is that the food isn’t the real deal. It’s not how real Thai people in Thailand eat. And I pity the people who reserve the tables where you sit on pillows. Isn’t that a Japanese thing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where was I? Oh right. I took my friend out to dinner the Sunday she flew in, and as usual more than half the tables ordered Pad Thai, pineapple fried rice, or both. Of course my friend orders both, because she wants to compare. I tell her that she should be more adventurous and try a fish curry or a dish with peanut sauce and spinach. She goes with the red chicken curry instead. Apparently that’s another of her favorite dishes at Thai Express. When we order, our perky little waitress looks annoyed since we don’t order drinks or appetizers and say we’d be okay just sipping their iced tap waters. Dinner’s a one hundred percent success otherwise. Margot’s completely blown away by the Pad Thai, so much so that she jokingly considered moving here. Of course that’s not possible. Her husband has a good job and they’ve paid off their house just last year. Plus their kids are still close enough for the occasional family dinner.”
“So what’s the point of this story?” Maximo said as he finished the remaining curry.
“Well, you know how I am with Margot. We talk on the phone every other Sunday for two straight hours. We can’t shut ourselves up. But so, that’s what we did that night. We just kept talking and possibly we lost track of time. Margot was going on about how cute and nifty it was that they used a real pineapple to hold the rice. We were just in our little nook minding our own business when the manager comes up to us. He’s a short guy with a yellow dress shirt and brown slacks and a fancy pen in his left pocket.
‘Folks,’ the manager says, ‘I am afraid I must ask you to leave. We have guests waiting for tables. You have finished and paid for your meal over ten minutes ago and are now in violation of loitering. This is the law.’
‘But we’re a table of two!’ I say.
‘Again, I repeat. This is the law. Loitering is a violation. I am not afraid to notify authorities. The exit is over there.’
I was so embarrassed to have that happen in front of my friend. He can’t treat us like that.”
“Did you tell dad?”
“Of course I told him.”
“Did he do anything?”
“Of course not. What’s there to do?”
He decided to give the daycare a try. Maybe he was eligible for an employee discount. Either way this would be temporary. He was thinking about moving home.
A customer service rep sat at the front desk of the daycare center. She was texting someone. She had shoulder length blonde hair that was naturally curly and wore a polo shirt with a logo for Sunny Farms Daycare. When Maximo walked up to the desk, she hid her phone before looking up. She looked relieved and asked how she could help him today.
“I need to drop my daughter off. How much for a day?”
“We charge $100 for a full day. But if you enroll now, you’d pay $1,500 a month. That’d be a savings of 50%. Think of what you could buy or do with an extra $1,500. Tell me. What would you do, sir?”
More and more people had been calling Maximo “sir” lately. He was not happy about it. He was only 29. Thirty was coming next month, but he still felt young. His hair was balding slightly at the temples and the wrinkles on his forehead were deeper and more ingrained. But that was it. He didn’t notice much else. But maybe he was aging so gradually he just didn’t realize it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never thought about it. What about you?”
“Oh, I’d go backpacking in Europe and see all the history. Lots of historical buildings to explore. And the culture. I hear it’s really different over there.”
“You’d need more than $1,500 for that. Come to think of it, there’s not much you can do. Maybe buy a big TV and home theater system.”
“That’s very materialistic, but whatever floats your fancy.”
“Would you go on a date with me for $1,500?”
“I have a boyfriend. So no.”
“But what if you didn’t? Hypothetically.”
“Probably. It’s just a date.” She shrugged, then looked at his daughter. “Single parent, huh?”
“Well, anyways we’ll need to register your little girl in our system.”
“Can you leave the name blank? It’s just going to be for today. That’s it.”
“Sorry. Can’t do. The system doesn’t like it.”
“Can you just put Anonymous or something?”
“Look, I’ll just put in Jane Doe. That’s the best I can do. But next time you have to give a real name.”
“Ok fine. Jane Doe it is then.”
Maximo worked eight hours that day. He’d only planned to work six since the daycare center closed early on Fridays. On his fourth attempt at gaining consciousness, he saw a wooden table floating in the abyss. He swam over and touched the wood. It felt solid and smooth. The surface was shiny, but Maximo couldn’t see his reflection.
“Get away from my table,” a woman said.
He turned and saw a woman swimming toward him.
“How’d you get this table here?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. But I found it. So it’s mine.”
“What are you going to do with it though? Not like there’s a way to take it with you. Is there?”
“Of course not. I’m starting a new world. And this table is the start.”
“So we’re like Adam and Eve?”
“How lame are you? I said this is a new world. The story is unwritten.”
“So we just float around here and wait?”
She sat on the table and crossed her legs. “Depends on your ambitions. Me, I’m gonna explore. Who knows how many other tables are out there.”
When Maximo’s shift ended, he opened his eyes, hoping to see the table in the middle of nowhere. Instead he was in his coffin. At least that was what the workers called it. The official term was cube. He looked at his watch and realized that he was late.
He unstrapped the electrodes from his head, swung open the door of his cube, and sprinted to the daycare center. He was out of breath and leaned against the darkened glass walls. He pressed his face against the glass and saw toys, plastic kitchens, slides and rocking horses.
There was nothing he could do, he reassured himself more than once. Chances were the daycare had emergency procedures for negligent parents. They couldn’t lock the kids inside or abandon them in the street. He’d look for her in the morning. Bright and early. No hot shower. No eggs and bacon with shitty instant coffee. He’d take the first bus to the daycare at 5AM. But now was time for rest, for sleep.
Maximo arrived at Sunny Farms Daycare at 10AM. He’d overslept and decided a shower would wake him up and a nice breakfast would give him much needed energy.
The playroom was full of children. There was one adult for every ten of them. And the gate was open for precocious toddlers to crawl into the lobby and be snatched up. There weren’t even security cameras to catch potential abductions. Just then a man in a black hoodie and baseball cap walked out with a little boy. The receptionist just stared at her phone.
Maximo walked up to the her. She was the same one from yesterday. “That guy just walked out with that kid.”
“Oh, that’s Larry picking up his son for lunch.” She looked at her phone again. “Yup, 10:15 as always.”
“That’s what I came here to talk to you about. I left work late and by the time I got here, the place was closed.”
“Your wife picked her up last night,” she said.
“She’s my ex. I completely forgot that weekends are her nights. How’d she know to look here?”
“I don’t know. She just came in here showing a picture of your daughter in this cute tiger outfit and saying you probably registered her with no name.”
Maximo thanked her and headed for his coffin. He attached the trodes and flipped the switch.
“Welcome back,” the woman said when Maximo gained consciousness.
There were two tables floating in the air. One was upside down. The woman was in the midst of kicking at one of the table’s legs.
“Come help me make some weapons,” she said.
“Which coffin are you in? Maybe we can talk about this over lunch?”
“I’m never going back.”
“I see potential here. Can’t you see the new world?”
“I see two tables.”
“Yes, two tables. That’s one more than the day before. The world is expanding. Can’t you feel it?”
“No. Not really. Tell, me how are you able to stay conscious for so long? What’s your secret?”
“It’s as simple as taking a stand and saying I’m staying here. I’m not leaving. This is where I belong. It’s a choice.”
After Maximo’s shift, he searched the coffins. A security guard stopped him and asked him what he was doing.
“I’m looking for a friend, I haven’t seen her leave the coffin today.”
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“I don’t know, I just met her yesterday. We have a date. Maybe she stood me up, but maybe something’s wrong. Like what if she’s trapped.”
“I don’t recall that ever happening. People are in and out. We keep a list of who comes in and who comes out. And we make sure they don’t overwork.”
“Look can you just check this for me.”
The security officer checked the occupied coffins and found ten that were still occupied. “Probably just people who work the graveyard shift,” he said.
They searched all ten coffins and found nothing. “Maybe she got lost in the system? Have you had any complaints about occupied coffins?”
“There’s 1,000 coffins here, so it’s possible we have issues, but I don’t see any complaints.”
When Maximo got home he knocked on Jane’s door. She wasn’t home. Her car was gone and the lights were out. It turned out that she had sent an email to the landlord that she was moving. She paid the rest of her rent and the contract termination fee. She said he could sell any furniture that she left in the apartment.
“Where did she go?” Maximo asked.
The landlord said that he didn’t know and that even if he did he would not be privy to that information.
“Did she seem panicked or worried or anything? Don’t you find it strange that she left so abruptly.”
“I don’t judge people. If they want to live here, they want to live here, and if they want to leave, they can leave. That’s how it is.”
Maximo considered dialing 9-1-1 or stopping at the police station in person, but he could not bring himself to do it. He kept saying tomorrow.
A week passed. Then a month.
He remembered when he’d first dropped his luggage down. The room was dark and smelled clean. It was empty except for his old twin mattress. If he’d stayed longer, he was sure it would become comfortable. It would feel like home again. He’d get a TV and fill his drawers and closet with his clothes. The smell of the bed would no longer be of fresh linens, but of his own. And when dinner was ready, his mother would knock on his door twice and he’d drop what he was doing and sit at his place in the dining room between his mother and father.
Laura had texted him earlier. She wanted to catch up over lunch some time this week or the next. After that she had another surrogate gig and she needed to train and work her body into shape again. Her next assignment was with an African American couple, which she admitted felt kind of strange, yet exciting. She was concerned that she had those feelings. She wanted to feel that it was perfectly normal. Just another nine month job. After that she planned to retire and get married to her boyfriend who’d proposed after her most recent childbirth. She hadn’t told their mother yet, and as a consequence, their father was also in the dark because he’d surely break the news. Laura wrote this in a series of text messages.
On the way to the airport, he considered buying a ticket to Japan, and once he arrived in Tokyo, he’d find a warm place to eat udon and serendipitously meet his old girlfriend and they’d talk about their five years apart pretending they didn’t exist and how stupid it was to think the world was big enough.
He stopped at that thought and changed his destination to Alaska. He imagined the state as a world of snow, a place unbearably cold and dark. It was the edge of the world. He would need to learn how to survive like the generations before him. This was a world where cell phones stopped working and technology was a CRT television that displayed only static, he thought. This was a world where opportunity awaited, but it would require patience.
The flight to Anchorage was about three quarters full. He managed to secure an aisle seat near the back of the plane. He preferred the aisle because he could walk to the restroom without needing to contort around bodies and cramped seats.
Also on the flight was a child traveler named Alexis who sat at the window seat. She wore a pink shirt with a sparkling unicorn and purple pants.
The woman in the center seat introduced herself as Emily. She talked to the girl in that extra-friendly tone that many adults use when speaking to children. She looked to be about the age of his girlfriend. She wore jeans and a gray shirt with the sleeves rolled just above her elbows. A cream-colored infinity scarf hung around her neck.
Emily showed Alexis how to draw flowers in her moleskin notebook.
“You draw pretty flowers.” Alexis mimicked the movements of Emily’s fingers. “My flowers don’t look as pretty as yours though. Mine are too pointy and spiny like a sea urchin.”
“My brother is really good at drawing,” Emily said. “He has some artwork published in galleries. Do you know how he got good?”
“I don’t know. Does he have special fingers?”
“He has special fingers all right. But they got special through practice. Just keep practicing and your urchins will slowly transform into flowers.”
“How long will that take? I want to show Wendy Bryant so she’ll want to be my best friend.”
“You shouldn’t think about this in terms of time or this other girl. Just keep practicing for yourself. That’s the only person that matters,” Emily said.
Alexis drew a slightly less urchin-looking flower. Unsatisfied with her progress she crumpled the paper snd stuffed the wad in the seat pocket. She sighed. “I wish I was talented and smart and pretty like you.”
Maximo’s seat-mates continued their conversation until the plane arrived at Ted Stevens International airport. Emily had helped Alexis with her math homework. They also watched a kid’s show that Alexis knew all the words to.
Emily did not watch television. She spent time with her friends instead. Her friends were artists and musicians. Creative types. She lived in Portland but spent time couch-surfing in different cities where she had friends or had made new ones.
Emily motioned to Maximo that she needed to get her bags from the overhead compartments. He stood up and leaned against a lavatory door.
There was a long line of passengers in front of them. People were checking phones and grabbing their carry-ons. Some sat and talked to their neighbors as the plane slowly emptied.
“Thanks,” she said. “I hope we didn’t disturb you too much. You seem deep in thought.” She strapped on her backpack and hung the strap of her duffel bag on her left shoulder.
“Not at all,” Maximo said. “I was impressed at how you easily connected with her. You must be a teacher.”
“I could never be a teacher. I like meeting new people and seeing new places. It’s not as hard as you think so long as you don’t expect luxury hotels and aren’t afraid. You can always find someone who will accept you.”
“What do you mean by afraid?”
“It’s hard to explain. But take for example the reason I’m flying to Alaska this summer,” Emily said. “My friend and I are going to spend the next three months on a salmon fishing boat.”
Maximo said nothing. He was still trying make sense of what she meant by afraid.
“Don’t get the impression that I’m reckless. I did a thorough background check on the guy and his references checked out. There are a lot of unknowns, but if things go right I’ll have $20,000 in the bank.”
When Maximo stepped out of the airport, he saw no snow. He saw paved roads and the bustling of taxis and people pushing luggage. He saw the clear night sky and the city lights in the distance. The temperature was a breezy 65 degrees.
Richard To lives in the Bay Area. This is his first published story. You can read a selection of his older stories on his blog, Letters from a Maladroit.
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