“So you understand what you’re signing up for?”
Aaron Zeitlin leaned back in his chair and tented his index fingers on his stomach, a posture he believed made him look relaxed. In truth, nothing made him look relaxed. His tendency to slouch when standing and slump when sitting only accentuated a perpetual tenseness in his body, as if even at twenty seven, he still hadn’t burned off all the energy he’d possessed as teenage boy. He watched the Potential Client drum on the knuckles of his left hand and sweat. Chicago’s July heat and the broken AC in the third-floor office of Death Information Services were partly to blame, along with his weight, which, like most of Aaron’s Potentials, was above average.
“Yes. I mean, yeah,” the Potential said, “I came all the way out here, right? And you were pretty clear on the phone and all.” His voice sputtered out of him as if from a punctured tire. Middling height, slightly balding, quiet and unassuming. More and more, these were the people Aaron dealt with: reductions of actual men. He wondered if this was the function of the Internet as Old Testament god, reiterating the Genesis narrative. Through a series of Biblical miscommunications, lifespans were cut from the Methuselan to a paltry hundred year upper limit. Through a series of technological overestimations, the human race was being scaled back to quiverers, blubberers like this Potential sitting in front of him.
“What was your name again?” Aaron asked.
“Harry. Harry Lime.”
Aaron chuckled a little and the Potential stared at him. “That’s funny,” Aaron said.
The Potential stared at him blankly.
“Harry Lime was a character in The Third Man,” Aaron explained. He was met with the same stare. “It’s a movie Orson Welles was in before he got — ” He paused, assessing the Potential’s weight. “ — older,” Aaron said.
Aaron glanced around the office, its bare walls and secondhand file cabinets. Four years ago he’d been meeting with architects who talked about floorplans, workflow and other compound words, imagining a building that could contain the sprawl of his ideas. Last week he’d managed to bounce a superball off all four of the office walls in one toss, marking his major achievement for the day. There was something Biblical about this reduction as well; like Babel, Aaron’s fall had been tied to differences in language and left him unable to speak to those who’d once been his closest collaborators. But that tower had been built without him now, and these were some other ruins. Aaron snipped a hangnail off his ring finger with his teeth, then forced his hands down onto the desk. He took a deep breath and fixed the Potential with a look he hoped was full of meaning.
“She must be pretty special,” he said, dipping back into the Script. This is what the Script was for, why he had set it to memory: a limited branching program that funneled towards a sale. On paper, it was glorious. It was immaculate. It even occasionally worked in practice, if his brain could run the fucking software.
The knuckle drumming stopped. The sweat reabsorbed into his brow and the Potential lit up like Aaron was playing his favorite song. The Script is holy, he reminded himself, the Script is scripture.
“Helen’s all the world to me,” said the Potential. For a moment, Aaron could see a better version of the Potential peering out from under the weight of his real life. The internet promised people like this the chance to strip off their failed lives and become something greater, and it delivered, for a while, but ultimately it returned them to the soft cages of their bodies.
“So tell me about your concerns,” Aaron said. This prompt redirected towards the core of the Script: the open space of confession into which the Potential was to step. Once there, the Potential would relate a highly personal, highly unique story identical to every other Potential’s story, within a small minimal deviation which the Script took into account. Aaron looked out the window, ready for the Potential to step into the space and tell his drab little love story. On the street below, Vietnamese kids held down stoops with their collective weight and glared defiantly into the heat haze. They did not sweat. They pointed cell phones at one another menacingly, texting to those three stoops away that nothing was happening here and nothing was likely to happen.
“The concern is you’re not a bad person,” said the potential, and Aaron clicked onto a particular track of the script, one in which the potential begins speaking in you statements or one statements. Potentials who began this way had to be led back to themselves, to come to an acceptance point that immediately preceded confession. The line to this was to bring them through darkness to see themselves in the light. “Not even, you don’t think, you don’t think of yourself as a bad husband. But then you have these needs. They don’t even seem like part of you. They’re not normal.”
Aaron turned away from the window and leaned on one of the file cabinets. “Mr. Lime, there’s no judgment here,” he said. “You and I both understand normal is a relative term.” The script called for easing the potential from you to I statements by repeatedly, almost hypnotically pairing the words. “You and I have done things that a hundred years ago? We’d be locked up for. Nowadays, considered completely normal. All relative. I could pull things out of some of these files.” He shook his head with an expression the Script labeled as “whoo boy”, then looked at the file cabinet as if considering something. After two beats, he turned to the Potential.
“Can I tell you a story?”
The impulse to have stories told to us, Aaron knew, was built into our hardware. Every panhandler in Chicago knew this. The potential nodded eagerly and Aaron entered into one of the script’s longer monologues. “Ninety nine percent of my clients are like you and I. Good people. They’ve got some things they’d leave behind they’d rather were cleaned up, and I do this for them. But I had this one client, when I was starting out. You sat across from him on the el, wouldn’t look at him twice. Thing was, and this is what I respect about you, Mr. Lime. You have these needs and you own up to them. You say to me, This isn’t how I want to be remembered, but it’s part of who I am. This guy? He’s cagey. Something’s up, but he’s not telling me. He says, If I go, clean up after me.
“Now a year goes by and he dies. Brain embolism. And now, in hindsight, I think to myself, this is the hand of God. But at the time, I say Baruch and I set to work. I open this guy, this seemingly normal guy’s computer and I start cleaning.”
The strange cadence Aaron adopted at this point in the Script, with its rising inflection, was stolen whole cloth from Abraham Katzir, a Boston rabbi who’d presided over Aaron’s bar mitzvah, probably Aaron’s last contact with the ceremonial side of his heritage. People recognized it as identifiably Jewish and somehow comforting, although Aaron remembered Rabbi Katzir inducing a vague dread in him as a kid, something left over from an older world pretending it belonged in this one, a Talmudic scholar crossed with a Catskills comic.
“Understand, I am not, on a regular basis, dealing with the best side of humanity. Understand, on any given day I am coming across and cleaning up porn of things I would never imagine there was porn of. This guy, this guy, I’m going to say, was sick. This guy, I’m going to say, was disturbed.”
Deftly here the script distanced terms like sick and disturbed from the Potential, through the repetition of this guy, as in this guy who is not us, who is not you. Most of the necessary psychological effect had already been achieved at this point, without a story even being properly told.
“Short and long of it,” Aaron continued, “this guy was a cannibal. Maybe in the ordinary course of things he’d be a guy with cannibalistic impulses. Urges. Or he’d have these urges he couldn’t possibly even label.” It is important whatever words used for the proclivities being discussed differs from the one used by the potential to describe his own. “But here we are in the brave new world and there were channels for these impulses of his to go through.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” Aaron said, stopping short. The potential leaned forward, spreading his legs to accommodate his gut. “Are you squeamish?”
“No!” the Potential shrieked.
“I really shouldn’t,” Aaron said.
“Please?” the Potential implored.
Aaron smiled a little, he couldn’t help himself. He sat down at the desk, but leaned forward as far as he could and spoke in a whisper. “There was an extended correspondence,” he said. “Through a site. With someone who, it turned out, wanted to be eaten. Had this longstanding desire to be eaten. Not even picky about by what. Bear. Shark. But these two found each other in a site dedicated to people who had, maybe had these urges. But maybe they wanted to talk about them. Or act them out, in a safe way.” Aaron shrugged at this, then indicated the potential with an open hand, palm up. “You and your — ”
“Helen,” said the Potential.
“You and Helen, what are you into?”
“Bondage, mostly,” said the Potential, now without hesitation. “I like to tie her up. She likes, not a lot of pain, but we use a cat-o-nine. It’s not like a real whip. It’s not mean-spirited. There’s a trust to it. In a way, it’s romantic.”
“Of course it is,” said Aaron. Two people sitting in separate rooms, watching digital approximations of themselves engaged in sexual acts they desired but didn’t dare to try. Aaron could imagine the romance of it. The Potential’s knuckles shuffling under the desk while his wife snored away upstairs. “And it’s all part of a fantasy. It’s words and pictures. And no one gets hurt.” Calm now, the Potential nodded. They understood each other as men of the world now. “But these two, they find each other. And they, after months, they each determine the other one is serious. And they get together. They get together for dinner.”
Aaron often wondered if this last line was too much, due in part to his tendency to deliver it in a voice not unlike Vincent Price. But when the Potential gasped like a boy scout at a campfire ghost story, Aaron knew he was hitting his marks.
“There’s videos. It’s like My Dinner With Andre if Wallace Shawn was by the way eating Gregory’s, well, his genitals. There’s no video of any actual cutting, but he does a whole Julia Child bit before they sit down. He talks about spices and seasonings, about broiling versus braising. And all the while, the victim I guess you’d say? I don’t know what else you’d say. The victim is sitting there rapt. Watching the master chef at work. Then my client lights the candles and they share a bottle of wine. There’s a couple of these. He covers a lot of ground, cooking-wise. I hate to say it, but I learned how to make a beurre blanc sauce watching him. The key is, you cube the butter, then add it one cube at a time.” Aaron makes a motion like plopping a pebble into a pond. “Then finally, it’s my client, alone in his dining room.”
Aaron leaned back, which drew the Potential forward. The Potential was dripping sweat onto the contract, which, unfortunately, did not make it legally binding.
“I’m telling you this for a couple of reasons,” Aaron said. This was the part of the script that explained the last part of the script. There were only a few bits of metascript and using one indicated to Aaron he was exerting more effort than he should have needed to reel in a fish like this.
“One,” Aaron began, “I want you to know whatever you’ve done, that you think is so horrible, is not, in fact, even within the realm of horror.
“Two, I want you to know even for this schmuck, this piece of human detritus? I carried out his contract. To the letter. Because that’s my business. That is the kind of service I’m offering you. And there’s a third reason, Mr. Lime.” Aaron paused. “If I were not fully confident in the quality, in the thoroughness of my work? I would not dare tell you that story. I guarantee you there is no trace any of what I’ve told you ever happened. And that is due to the quality, the thoroughness of my work.”
He smiled at the Potential, pleased with his delivery. Usually, this was the moment the Potential relaxed and entered into the familiar ritual of signing a document. But a new routine of fidgeting, a convulsive and repetitive gripping of one hand in the other, began.
“So,” the Potential said, drawing the word out a full second, “I mean, how does it work?”
Aaron wanted a drink. He wanted to scream at this little blob of a man that he was already fucking here, so why not sign the fucking contract already? All the minor annoyances about the man in front of him became part of four years in the tiny office dealing with men just like this, half as smart as Aaron but still at least with people in their lives who would want to know whether they were alive or dead. That this little man had the nerve not just to ask Aaron for a magic trick, but to insist Aaron show him how it was done was another in a string of indignities that promised to spool out over the coming decades. Aaron rose from his chair, keeping one hand on the desk for balance. With his free hand he gripped the scrub pad of dark hair and straightened himself out to his full six feet of height. This adjustment of posture left him towering above the Potential. The little fat man cowered in exactly the way Aaron hoped he would.
“We use a piece of proprietary software, Mavet, engineered by myself, which, once you sign that paper, will run a constant search for your name and any known aliases — ”
“I don’t have any — ”
“ — in death certificates and obituaries from every hamlet, township and city in the world. If you die on a riverboat in Kuala Lumpur, we’ll know about it by the time your body washes to shore.”
“Do they have rivers in Kuala Lumpur?”
“No idea. But if they do, and you drown in one, Mavet will find you.”
“That’s — that’s unsettling,” the potential stammered.
“The likelihood of drowning during a boat trip is surprisingly low,” Aaron said.
“Not that. The idea there’s a program out there running all the time, hoping to find me dead.”
Aaron sat on the edge of the desk, looking down on the potential like a teacher reprimanding a pupil. “It’s a program. It doesn’t hope for anything. It does. If you die, Mavet tells us.”
Aaron put his thumb and middle finger to the farthest points of his eyebrows and squeezed. “In certain traditions, when a child is named, the name goes on a list held by an angel named Malach-ha-Mavet. The angel of death.”
“That’s…that’s even worse,” said the potential, looking at Aaron beseechingly. Aaron replied with a strained smile.
“We here at Death Information Services like our little jokes.”
“Was that one of them?” The Potential wiped sweat from his upper lip.
It was, of course. When he’d started the company three years ago, Aaron had jotted a dozen ominous sounding acronyms on a legal pad. END. CRYPT. GHOST. Electronic Notification of Death. Cover or Remove Your Private Things. Getting Hacked Offers Spiritual Terminus. But he chose DIS. Not because it was the name of the capital city of hell, but because it was the counter to all the language of social networking sites, a language he’d helped create. DIS undid connect. It was the anti-Like.
“I can understand if you’re uncomfortable with the workings of the Mavet program,” Aaron said, attempting a change of tack that might take him back into the script. “If it seems, to you, like the Welsh hand of death.” No response from the Potential. “On the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s,” Aaron said. “The Beatles album? There’s a hand over Paul McCartney’s head. Some people said it was a sign he was about to die. Or was already dead.” He checked again for recognition and saw none. “No shoes on Abbey Road? ‘I buried Paul?’” Aaron’s brain was switching into random access mode, pulling facts from deep in the memory banks. He wanted to stick to the fucking script, but the script had become a hyperlinked mess, every word tying itself to another concept, pushing off into useless digressions. Connections only had meaning if they were discerning; if everything was connected to everything else, even the idea of connection degenerated into an incoherent mass. “It’s a whole thing,” Aaron said, waving his hand and returning to his seat. He thought of a fifties movie robot droning does not compute, smoke beginning to pour from the ventilator shafts of its ears as every circuit met every other circuit and shorted out.
“The point here, we’re all going sooner or later. Mavet isn’t going to bring that about any faster, nor is keeping your name off the list going to prolong your life. But if you sign this paper — ” Aaron shoved the contract towards the potential, “ — and, god forbid, something does happen, we’ll know about it. And we will wipe your soul clean as the driven snow. The way you want it. The way you and I have discussed.”
The potential looked at the contract. Then he looked up at Aaron.
“But first, you need to sign.”