The following is the first chapter of a novel I am working on as it exists in the current draft. This is the sixth revision.
In the mirror Anastas saw his jaw’s shadow of bristles. Some good the new JJ razor did. JJ—they claimed on the packaging: “We’re gonna get you.” Anastas was a big guy, grew up in the part of town called Tenth and Leśna, named for the streets that intersected there. Weary of the twentieth century, at their margins beds of color grew. Only three blocks of flats, bars, shops. But Anastas’s memories warmed the place.
“‘You make the move,’” said Anastas to reflection-Anastas. Did his best impression. “‘Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? There ain’t no one else here, so—’”
OJ hit the door, asked who he was talking to. Well, this was silly.
Orange Juice, OJ for short, scraped in past Anastas. She saw, in the mirror, her orange nails moving the razor to her armpit. OJ’s head sort of resembled an orange, the fruit. That orange dye and makeup, along with movie tickets, were the only luxury expenses they ventured. Alcohol wasn’t a luxury expense. OJ had no home in particular. Cut off all contact with her folks. The contempt was mutual. But she loved Anastas, best him and her could tell.
“You look like a Clementine,” said Anastas. Always sounded hoarse.
“I hate them things,” said OJ.
“But they smell good, right?”
Little flat wasn’t much, brown linoleum and white brick, but it was enough for sleeping. You’d see strange things in dreams. Life warped.
Pouring coffee, Anastas remembered how he hadn’t smelled a clementine in years. Last time must have been with his ex Bolesława. People called her Coiler. Looked like an actress, Bareja would say, whatever that meant. Anastas called her Basia. Last saw her nine years ago, mascara running, teeth gnashing, at that yellow door. Basia had some mild psychic power. Counter-psi, apparently. But Anastas had never understood psionics.
The people who lived on the floor above Anastas and OJ awoke early each morning. You could hear them walking around up there. They had seen a few of the folks from that flat board one of those yellow factory buses.
“See, OJ,” said Anastas, “it’s us who’s lucky. Restaurants, maintenance, handin’ out pamphlets, that shit’s easy, really, really easy, compared to the factories.”
“Gotta count your blessings. I guess.”
They worked to keep from slipping off a precipice. Beneath that ledge waited a nightmare. The factories. You had any choice, you’d never go to the JJ factories outside of town. In those mills grinding, screaming, coiled in purple smoke, there was no escape. Once the city finished you off, if your red heart still beat, they’d drag your ass there one way or another.
Anastas and OJ were together every day, but not always for more than sleeping. When they could, Anastas and OJ would meet in their flat, well the landlord’s flat, at midnight, or noon, or whatever odd hour a gap in their schedules permitted more than sleep. Two or three times a week Anastas and OJ would have sex. Used to be more. They were complements, two halves of the same fruit, like light and shadow, maybe. OJ liked Anastas’s athletic build, though he had grown flabbier, and OJ had the best figure Anastas had seen on a woman, though flat more than curvy. Anastas and OJ got along okay, but the heat of that contact was a single match burning against an ocean gray as work. When would life finally start?
Those upstairs people left Anastas wondering. They were his neighbors. Got up before dawn like him. But they’d take the bus to the factories, slave away their daylight hours, and return under starless night to sleep until they had to catch the bus next morning, still under darkness. At least, most days, Anastas could see the sun setting behind the banks’ high rises.
One morning the alarm went off early. So Anastas had more time than usual. Hadn’t been awake when OJ collapsed next to him. Was still so zonked she snored through the alarm. Sleep was important, and the boss stole enough of that already. But Anastas wouldn’t get back to sleep.
The coffee burned his tongue. He heard the ceiling creak. It’d be silly, but what the hell?
Anastas climbed the stairs. Another storey further from the earth. Door was blue plastic, same as the others. Room 1917. Anastas knocked.
A woman cracked the door so you could see half her face.
“Hello?” she said, nervous. Then she brightened. “The downstairs man.”
“You fix sinks.”
“Yeah. Need me to?”
“Fix a sink.”
“Uh, got a minute? I wanna talk.”
“Life. I’m a janitor.”
A few questions got the woman talking. She stretched the door wider, outpoured speech and cigarette breath while figures shuffled behind her. Probably the upstairs woman never spoke much about herself, was going crazy with so many of her fellow damned around but none who’d listen. If she didn’t get her thoughts out, by and by they’d pop her skull like a balloon.
The upstairs woman had to split the rent with her roommates. “I ain’t gonna live in the factory housing, nuh-uh. Not my kids neither. This whole street’s counter-psied, and here they’re on the quickest, safest bus route. I ain’t about to forfeit that. See, downstairs man, it’s all about education. My kids won’t work like I do, ruining their brains.” She wouldn’t leave them her debt to the factories. Didn’t matter if she had to forge papers or what. “I ain’t gonna leave them debt.” Too rarely did the upstairs woman’s children speak with her. Wasn’t much of a mom at all. Was at the factory most of most days and exhausted when she wasn’t. “Life starts when labor stops,” she said. “Shit, the time! You’re late, you’re fired!” The door shut.
Yeah, whatever factory where the upstairs woman screwed bolts and pissed in bottles would find a replacement. The city always left plenty of folks desperate enough to fill the role. Humans turned machine parts. But if they laid her off, or she quit, the debt wouldn’t vanish. The creditors would hound the upstairs woman the rest of her life, Anastas figured, maybe put her to work for them elsewhere. Lot of ways to juice a person. Their buses, their cafeterias, their shit housing, their toilets—to use these, there were fees. JJ set salaries and interest to prevent you from ever paying off the accumulating debt. Sure, they kept the workers from living in the streets. Anastas would choose the streets.
He found OJ drinking coffee. Already in uniform, short-skirted, orange as she could managed. Anastas told OJ about the upstairs woman.
“Went on and on,” said Anastas. “She was so gray I can’t remember what she looked like. A lump of mud, maybe.”
“Their flat must be bigger than ours,” said OJ.
That upstairs woman had slipped off the precipice.
“Fuck, what makes us deserve our jobs more than some lady trying to raise her kids?” said OJ. “You and me worked our asses off with them sprats, but it wasn’t anything special that got you and me out of there.”
“Probably not,” said Anastas. “No justice. But this is a dog eat dog world. People who’re lucky enough to catch a break, people like us, should take what they get. Chance and strength, they’re what runs this country now. That upstairs woman still has life in her. I wish things could be different.”
“Well, could they?”
At least once a week Anastas and OJ went drinking, whether or not they really had the cash. They put aside a few other banknotes in addition. For when they’d need it, OJ said. She had kept this up for years, and after she moved in with Anastas, he contributed too. They never bought new furniture or fancy food, and thank God neither of them had a smoking habit. Anastas never touched cigarettes. OJ quit years ago. Drinking and drunkenness was the fun the city let them enjoy. The rest was reserved for others.
Their preferred bar was Righty’s. Across the street from Righty’s a billboard beamed red and yellow against smoke-brown brickwork. Advertisements would appear, swapped out at random intervals best you could tell, for cars, or flood insurance, or “healthy” protein bars, diet soft drinks, toothpaste, and the JJ chain stores that sold them.
For Anastas and OJ, complaining about this billboard was a tradition, even when the marketers, by accident, put out something that passed for human communication. That evening the billboard showed a gorgeous woman with an empty chip container on the table. Pretty upset over this piece of cardboard. A caption read, “Oh no!” On the pristine container, free of the grease stains that blackened it in reality, shone the gold McDonald’s seal, and in the corner shone JJ’s. In that city, even McDonald’s was licensed through JJ. More shocking was that they weren’t the same company by now.
“Ain’t like they need to tell you anything but ‘Oh no.’ Anybody would get the message,” said Anastas.
“Anybody would recognize them silver Js, you mean,” said OJ.
The bell above Righty’s door tinkled. Anastas and OJ were already the loudest things in the gray light.
“They think we’re animals,” said Anastas. “Like all we give a fuck about is chips—or sex, so they throw in a hot girl.”
“Gotta default to using some bitch’s body. Like if you’ll buy this cologne you’ll get into a supermodel’s panties. Like people eat that shit up.”
“JJ Analytics says people do.”
“Same way they decide what to stock their stores with.”
“But that billboard is insulting. We’re human, for Christ’s sake. There’s more to us than hunger.”
“Franky J thinks we’re human?”
“Sure. Just thinks he’s God.”
Maybe this hatred began when the media raked JJ over the coals for worker abuse, until the media didn’t. Maybe began because, each day, Anastas and OJ ritualistically demeaned themselves for JJ. Anastas had to be a robot, just following the customers’ orders, putting up with absolutely any shit, up to and including the actual shit that somehow appeared in the aisles. OJ better smile more, approach your quota of potential customers like a serial killer to ask about their mobile plan or insurance provider, maybe you could cut your collar lower and flutter your eyelashes more. But they hated JJ, all right. Mocked them whenever they could, mainly to each other. Didn’t want management catching wind. JJ owned the city, from the factories to the convenience store down the block. Anyhow, not like management would be at Righty’s.
Anastas and OJ sat by the pickled herring. That night the barkeep was Righty’s nephew Birkut. In a corner some broad playing solitaire was rolling a cigarette. At the end of the bar, a few stools from OJ, sat a man and woman with ponderous faces.
“Franky J has balls to keep insulting us,” said OJ.
“They put slogans or jingles in your head,” said Anastas, slapping his knees, “that’ll trigger when you see a logo or the color pink or whatever. Manchurian Candidate shit.”
“Like we’re trained fucking animals.”
Anastas repeated the classic theme: “Franky J owns this city. Whoever you vote for, they work for him. Wherever you work, you work for him! This town runs for that motherfucker, not for folks like us.”
Franky J, third-generation CEO of JJ. Born in the city, but the son of a foreigner. Nobody could mistake his face, his spikes of golden hair, or the black-hole-black sunglasses.
Birkut nodded along. “Consider,” he said, “we are animals. Isn’t that so? We’ve all got a penis and asshole in our pants.” He looked like Bogumił Kobiela.
“I don’t,” said OJ.
“And another thing!” said Anastas. “That billboard. Worst fuckin’ part is I could go for chips now.”
“I read,” said Birkut, “that somebody left McDonald’s chips out, like as an experiment, and days went by, then weeks, and after months the chips never molded. But, you must admit, they’re delicious.”
Birkut was pouring Anastas his regular. Anastas never needed to ask. It’d been so long he forgot the vodka’s name. But OJ wasn’t so predictable. She scrutinized Righty’s menu with thirsty eyes.
“Make up your mind, babe,” said Anastas.
“The Sexy Sunset,” said OJ.
“Name’s so silly.”
“That’s not the point.”
What appealed to OJ was the blood orange used in it. This cocktail was slightly too pricy for them. Best not to waste extra cash on crap like that, especially when you already went for the orange hair dye. Anastas chewed his lip. Asked Birkut if he could give them a discount, but no could do. “Price my uncle leaves is the price I have to charge. I have no choice. That’s our fate.”
A blue-veined hand set cash before them. It belonged to the man who had been at the other end of the bar. “A Sexy Sunset,” he said.
“Hold on,” said OJ. “No need for that.”
“But there is,” said the stranger. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have your drink.”
Birkut mixed the cocktail. Neither OJ nor Anastas had seen their benefactor before. Guy was pale, with intense eyes and black whiskers. His dapper crimson getup, complete with shimmery necktie, wasn’t what you would have normally seen in that part of town. Neither was the blonde beside him, also trim, with full makeup and an emerald dress.
The man introduced himself as Ophan.
“Where’s a name like Ophan come from?” said OJ.
“My grandfather,” said Ophan, “was Greek.” He downed the golden contents of his shot glass. “Another round, barkeep. Once you’ve finished the lady’s drink.”
“What do you want?” said Anastas.
“I don’t follow,” said Ophan.
“For the drink. Ain’t gonna repeat its silly-ass name. Everything has a price.”
“You’ve got a good head,” said the woman next to Ophan.
“Keep talking about Franky J,” said Ophan. “That’s enough repayment.”
“You get off on hearing people bitch or something?”
“I respect integrity. You’re absolutely right: Franky J thinks he’s God. And rightly so. The prelates got abortion banned in the name of God, but that is smoke and mirrors. The feudal age collapsed, and the vestiges clung to the power that replaced their God: capital. The church’s true benefactor has long since become Franky J.”
“Not much different from the old days, really,” said the woman.
“Guess capital,” said Anastas, “is tougher than God.”
“How do you mean?” said OJ.
“I seen banknotes, but I never seen God.”
Birkut gave OJ her cocktail. The slice of blood orange gave a touch of the tropics.
Anastas and OJ felt uncertain about Ophan and the blonde. Alcohol white as air, though, got their tongues lubricated. Their voices and guffaws filled the bar. Franky J, all agreed, was monstrous. Raised in luxury from birth, Franky J had bought out the city: the factories, the Regional Assembly, the media, the cops that held the mess together. Voivode Burzyński left Franky J liberty to do anything—Franky J built his house on so much money, how could Burzyński types refuse some? For all his control, Franky J hated the city anyway. In the old days, he spent most of his time abroad. His guy Wawrzaszek’s lips were red, like he’d been sucking blood. Legend told of Franky J throwing a tantrum when his mom wouldn’t buy him a watch inlaid with diamonds. She caved.
“Sure, we’re poor,” said Anastas, red from drink and passion, “but we’re the best people in the world! Franky J? Motherfucker is a plastic doll, empty, an overgrown baby.”
Franky J’s greatest sin, of course, was the JJ Hotel. That monstrosity entered the conversation, and you couldn’t keep laughing. The JJ Hotel, ritziest place in the country, stuffed with luxury suites, fine dining, shopping malls, a private airport, a legion of porters, doormen, maids. Above the homogenization culture, above alienation from body and labor, this hotel’s walls above you were the ultimate insult. An eyesore where poor sycophants went to suckle some of that JJ glory. A palace of luxury to protect Franky J and his mates from their own people. That leviathan of profligacy, justified by the promise that even you could come in for a stay, loomed over a skyline where the locals were too poor to enjoy it.
The JJ Hotel was everywhere. Some pretended not to notice the violet walls. Was huge already. An ungainly sprawl, renovations grafted onto renovations. But construction crews always labored. Hotel grew and grew. Like kudzu. Guzzled half the city down already. And it wasn’t done growing.
“Franky J will never be satisfied,” said OJ.
“He’ll take and take,” said the woman with Ophan, “until he finally croaks.”
Anastas and OJ were leaving Righty’s to stagger into bed for another day of labor to keep the money flowing to Franky J. Never got a chance to really rest. Only to crash till the next shift.
But Ophan and K stopped them. Asked their names.
“You never said yours,” said Anastas.
“But I did. I’m Ophan.”
“How about your lady friend?”
“I go by K,” she said.
Ophan laughed. “I like you,” he said. “You’ve got strong minds. If not your names, what would you prefer I call you? I’d like to chat again, so I must call you something.”
While Anastas was considering, OJ blurted out, “I’m Orange.” Anastas said, “I’m Basil.” Ophan and K shook their hands. The strangers gripped your hand firm, self-assured. Then Anastas and OJ left. Looking back toward Righty’s, Anastas noticed the billboard lit far more brightly than the lived-in windows surrounding it.
Anastas and OJ never left the city. Forests of anything but concrete were vague memories. Tenth and Leśna was only a kilometer away, but Anastas realized he hadn’t visited his old home in at least a year. Last time he’d been there, he could see the JJ Hotel a few blocks away, the palimpsests of yellow wiring, plumbing, rooms. Heard the jackhammering, dump trucks beeping, concrete mixers pouring. Hotel had swallowed the south side, including several buildings whose bricks had stood there since Stanislaus II abdicated. High on the hotel, Anastas had made out a lofty window bent around the corner and vents through which the hotel exhaled its waste fumes.
Today Anastas was a cashier, and Wednesday through Saturday a school custodian. OJ sold subscriptions and plans and foul purple energy drinks for a JJ chain when she wasn’t a waitress. Both cases, they hired her for her cute face.
That Wednesday they kept OJ an hour longer than she was scheduled for. Drove her crazy, but shit like that happened all the time. Coworkers would be out, hospital visits and that kind of thing, leaving OJ to fill in for them too.
“Why do you put up with that?” said Anastas. “Like you’re the only one working.”
“They say women suffer most,” said OJ. “Well, I do what I got to.”
When Anastas had doubts, he’d articulate them to OJ best he could, and she would reaffirm how Anastas felt when he doubted not. When OJ had doubts, when she noticed life was pointless, Anastas would do the same for her. They weren’t bad people, they were like angels, but something had obscured the Truth, and their wings had been dragged through the ash of that city till the feathers were the color of shit.
Luckily they’d always got at least one paycheck between them. So far. Anastas and OJ would supplement their salaries too. Plenty of places could use extra help, sorting or something, or they had leftover merchandise ready to be thrown out and you gave the manager something to slip out stuff you could sell instead. More reliably, Anastas would do small practical work. He’d been an apprentice plumber when he was a teenager. Licensed or not, a lot of folks trusted Anastas to bend his back and unclog a sink or hammer some nails.
Next few months, every few bar nights became talk to Ophan or K night, at Righty’s and sometimes other joints, like that pink-tiled cinema where Anastas saw an old Japanese movie about a kidnapper. Main character dropped out halfway through for some reason.
“Has Franky J forgotten what happened to the last tsars?” said Ophan one evening. “It’s as the poet Langston Hughes once wrote. The oppressed world will put their hands together
To shake the pillars of those temples
Wherein the false gods dwell
And worn-out alters stand
Too well defended,
And the rule of greed’s upheld—
That must be ended.”
Anastas and OJ, when they had time to talk, used to try and iron out their doubts, reaffirm whatever the other one happened not to be a given day. But with Ophan, that started changing. Maybe they needed some doubt.
You would find Ophan and K together only rarely. But Ophan or K, there appeared other faces they recognized. Ophan had a following, men and women, maybe certain other categorizations not welcome in the city, a state-declared LGBT ideology free zone. Yeah, that didn’t affect Anastas, so far ash knew, but plenty of folks had plenty of reasons to hate Franky J. You started looking forward to their faces. Speaking, agreeing with this and that, Anastas and OJ felt they used their off hours for something better than just crashing. Felt closer to the Truth than anytime else.
“It’s like talking to Ophan dusted off my brain,” said Anastas.
“Or the alcohol did,” said one of Ophan’s guys, a man about Anastas’s age.
“Doesn’t hurt,” said OJ.
“I kid. I’m psi. I can sense you’re bright, my man. We all are.”
“Expressing yourself,” said Anastas, “is healthy.” He recalled the upstairs woman.
“It’s ’cause they want you to be a goddamn machine,” said OJ.
A couple years back, Anastas worked at a warehouse, loading boxes of tinned sprats into a truck. Hours upon hours, day after day, month after month, Anastas moved those fish. You played in an orchestra, they paid you more, and that job you’d probably like. But Anastas they paid a pittance. OJ hadn’t been faring much better, living in some closet with three other women. Anastas didn’t know at the time that OJ’s job was packing the tinned sprats into their boxes. End of the shift, their arms would be sore from the mechanical motion. Their necks would ache from stooping.
“Worse was the boredom,” said Anastas. “Boredom kills people.”
“Most suicide is out of boredom,” said OJ. “Being really sad, that’s usually ’cause it’s all so fucking boring.”
“Suicide rates would be spiking even higher,” said K, “if the Church weren’t telling everyone they’ll go to Hell for it. Need to keep the bodies warm to keep them working.”
By and by Anastas and OJ had got together. Felt natural enough. With combined paychecks and only one rent to pay, plus some speed, luck, and ruthlessness, they landed the easier jobs they had today. Well, they never worried about running out of food money anymore. But wasn’t hard work that got them away from the very cusp of that precipice. Only combining paychecks. Multiple people working multiple jobs might earn enough for one person to live on.
“Most weeks,” said K, “I eat a tin of sprats. Every good is made of labor, like it’s made of atoms.”
“That’s what gives the good value,” said the psi.
“You did the work, and the boss grabbed the profits and left you the smallest pittance he could. You two, loader and packer, might have poured labor into some of those fish I ate.”
“Maybe,” said OJ.
“Anyway,” said Anastas, “these days robots are replacing packers and loaders both.”
“Phasing out humans,” said a man in a huge coat, “for bots.” He rubbed out his cigarette. Hatred drained the color of his face, leaving sickly green.
They’d talk the evil of JJ generally, but the evil of its owner in particular. Ophan expressed these subjects with a sophistication to match his neckties that glinted red and pink like topaz. A sophistication unmatched, at least in that town. Only K came close. Words like “desiring-production,” “commodity fetishism,” “modernity.” More faces joined Ophan’s grew. It grew and grew. Franky J didn’t scare Ophan, that was for sure. Must work out of town. “Why would Franky J feed those of us whose work made him rich,” said Ophan, “when he could send the money he stole to a tax haven? There are men and women sleeping rough, dying of exposure, of hunger. Meanwhile Franky J owns four hundred houses in this voivodeship alone. Franky J prefers to leave these houses empty than put a roof over the heads of the unfortunate, and all the economists’ mystification can never hide this crime.”
“Know what I say?” said one face. “People before profits!”
“Hell yeah,” said OJ. “One of these days—”
“Something’s going to give. That hotel can’t last.”
Ophan and K’s ideas had suckers that stuck. They suited your own ideas. Felt more like an exchange than a lecture, Ophan listened too, just that he had words you didn’t. Anastas understood some, OJ others, but could be nobody understood everything.