At the Gate of the Center [Short Story]
Tara Marsden tells the story of a corporation exploiting the newest renewable energy source: pain.
When the first GREATR GUD™ Center opened in our town, no one seemed to mind. Really, we hardly even noticed. The place itself was wholly unremarkable, hiding there in our blind-spot, a small, pretty weed whose poisoned roots, it turns out, were already firmly anchored in our soil. We couldn’t remember the time before, when the place was a favorite hole-in-the-wall, a diner owned by an old man of mythical kindness, the type that only exists in library books or our grandparents’ memories. In our earliest memories, it was already a decrepit fast food joint, the kind you smell from a mile off, its tangible grease in our atmosphere, a thick layer of film like the custard center in a Boston cream pie. And then, more recently, it was nothing, nothing at all. The franchise owners had wanted to expand into a newly available two-story further downtown, and the sad, square little building slept quietly on its abandoned gray corner while we marked the passage of time in our way, marring the stucco walls with varicolored graffiti until it took on the look of a young monster or an ancient fish, grotesque but easily ignored.
Then one yellow fog morning, without warning, there was a chain link fence around the perimeter, and our tags were buried beneath an off-white façade trimmed with sea-green, the monster tamed into something perfectly, impressively bland. There must have been some reports on the news, but of course we didn’t watch the news. No, it wasn’t until the protests began that some of us started paying attention. Almost as suddenly as the fence had appeared, an eclectic crowd began to gather and convulse each day against the new boundary, made up mostly of ragged, thin hippies and liberal housewives fueled by righteous fury. They carried loudly painted signs: PEOPLE AREN’T BATTERIES. PAIN IS NOT POWER. GREATR GUD™ = WORST EVIL.
We approached them quietly like cautious rabbits: What the fuck is it anyway? we said.
Nearby stood an angry, bedraggled young woman: They’ve found another way to bleed us dry, she said.
It didn’t take all that long for us to divine the new purpose of the old building. One afternoon as we spread ourselves across a peeling stoop, hanging back to observe the protesters whose passion only increased as their numbers slowly decreased, we saw Jake walk out of the Center and past the picket line, hands in his pockets, loping toward us like a tired fly.
Well, what was it like? we said.
He shrugged. Then he pulled from his pocket a thick stack of bills, real and green and pretty.
Did it hurt?
His eyes squinted hard, he breathed in sharp through his nose. Not really, was all he said.
For a while, he was the only one of us to go inside, and each time he came back with his hands in his pockets, palms sweating as he tightly gripped his hard-won prize. Sometimes the stack of bills was thicker than others. He didn’t say another word about it, but we guessed that the difference in pay depended on how much hurt he carried that day. Some days were harder than others, and those were the days that paid the best.
We weren’t really surprised that he was the first of us to use the Center. A few weeks after it opened, his sister died on the tracks of the subway station; it was never clear if she had jumped or fallen, we didn’t ask, we learned early in life to stop wondering the why-of-it-all. It didn’t make much difference either way. We watched the fat, ripe fruits of his pain grow and gather about his shoulders, practically dripping red. And there was the Center, conveniently waiting for him, ready for the harvest.
Then one day, he didn’t come by the stoop. We saw him leaving the Center like so many times before, only when he reached the sidewalk, he turned the other way and kept walking. Perhaps he decided to start using a different Center. Perhaps he got sick of the unfailing catch in our breath each time he joined us, the unacknowledged pause in conversation. It would have been easy for him to donate somewhere else. Centers had started popping up like toxic daffodils in all the other neighborhoods, their popularity unsurprisingly increased by all the publicity from the protests. Soon our whole town and many others were powered by the energy gathered at the Centers. Politicians heralded the imminent end of the country’s energy crisis. Here, finally, was an unlimited source of fuel. We never saw Jake again.
But one by one, others of us started to cross that line. Johnny, when his mother got sick; Miguel, when he lost his job and then his apartment; Sarah, after she miscarried. Everyone that crossed came back at first, like Jake. We tried harder to hide our confusion, our curiosity, our judgment, but still we watched as our numbers steadily dwindled.
And then, it was just me on the stoop, stupid and perfectly lost, like the last bird on the wire in October who finds itself surprised to be alone in the rain. But I didn’t wallow in solitude long; with no anchor in that place, I soon abandoned it as well. As I wandered down the block on pavement polka-dotted with grime, I couldn’t imagine where I could possibly go. I was untethered, my skin felt like paper, I was flimsy with a useless freedom.
With no real desires to guide me, I can’t say it was a great shock when I found myself at the gate of the Center. An old woman, protest sign dragging on the sidewalk beside her, looked at me quietly behind wrinkled lids which sagged with the weight of her now-solo mission. She too was the last of her kind and when she recognized the same in me, she seemed to deflate altogether, like a whale on a forgotten beach. I looked right through her and took my first step within the perimeter, walking with false determination toward the green door. I paused briefly there before opening it.
Inside it was frigid, made more so by the stark white of the walls and the fluorescence above. Of course. This was not a place to get too comfortable. Slowly, I surveyed the others in the waiting room. I should not have been surprised to find it so crowded, but somehow I still was. I could guess no average age for those faces. There were unkempt men with slick scalps shining in the white light, there was a young woman softly crying into her paisley scarf; some of them looked homeless, many of them looked awkwardly normal, blank, and undisturbed. It could’ve been the waiting room of a dentist’s office or the DMV. I recognized the floor; it was the same speckled charcoal linoleum from the old days of the fast-food place. An older woman in a low-cut dress sat at the check-in desk.
Um, I said.
First time? she said.
She smiled a little too kindly and handed me a clipboard.
We just needja to fill out these forms. Take ya time and bring ‘em back here when ya ready.
I blinked and took the clipboard from her neon-lacquered fingertips. I looked around for a pen and saw a mason jar filled with them, each one individually taped in forest green to the stem of a silk flower, forming a winking, macabre bouquet. I took a seat and started reading through the forms.
Beneath a few predictable lines for Name, Date of Birth, Occupation, and so on, there was a short survey.
ON A SCALE OF 1-10, HOW MUCH PAIN WOULD YOU SAY YOU’RE IN?
There was a column of round, numbered bubbles beneath, each accompanied by a matching emoticon, answers varying from: ONE – NO PAIN (big, toothy smile) to TEN – EXCRUCIATING (weepy frown with minute X’s for eyes). I thought for a moment, then carefully filled in the bubble next to SEVEN – ABOVE AVERAGE (little face with crooked grimace). I was suddenly reminded of exams in school, of those ready-made forms that were meant to be scanned and corrected by a special machine. Our teachers had always repeated with the same severity that it was absolutely essential that we fill the bubble in its entirety with Number Two pencils in order for the machine to render an accurate grade.
Next question: WHY ARE YOU IN PAIN?
More bubbles, now followed by brief, simple explanations: DEATH OF A LOVED ONE. DIVORCE. LOSS OF EMPLOYMENT. FAILURE TO REACH GOAL. There was also a bubble beside a short line, presumably a fill-in-the-blank for those circumstances less common. I marked the bubble next to GENERAL LONELINESS.
There were a few other questions, somewhat repetitive in style and content. And then another page, regarding health and family history, before finally a line for your signature. Signing unequivocally absolved GREATR GUD™ of legal responsibility in case of unusual response to the procedure, while also binding you to absolute confidentiality. I remembered the way the others had looked at me in silence after leaving the Center, and I understood. Hardly glancing at this final line, I signed it in childish cursive.
I returned the clipboard and the hideous flower pen to the receptionist.
Someone will be with ya shortly.
I sat again, unabashedly staring at the others waiting, watching as some of them were called by first names into the other room. Finally, I heard my own name.
The other room only increased the impression of a dentist’s office. There were cabinets of stainless steel along the walls, a large, unrecognizable machine buzzing with a quiet whirr, like wasps before a flood, and a single reclining chair in the center. I was led by a tall, clean middle-aged woman in a lab coat, who absently pointed at the chair.
When I sat down, she pulled up a small stool beside me. I saw my clipboard in her hands.
So I understand this is your first time.
I said nothing.
And I expect you know what we do here?
No, actually. They never said much about it.
Good. Then let me explain a little. It isn’t quite true, but think of this place as a power plant. Imagine. You’re home. You switch the lights on. You plug your phone in to charge overnight. That energy must come from somewhere. It came from fossil fuels, once, but that was not sustainable. You know what is sustainable? You. Me. Our critics like to say that we take advantage of human suffering. But what they call suffering, we know to be a natural part of life. And isn’t it better for us to use this natural energy for the greater good?
I said nothing.
She took my silence for assent, and began taping wires to my temple and wrists.
Do I, y’know, need to think about it?
No, she said. All that you feel is already there, inside you. It doesn’t matter if you know it.
Once I was fully plugged in, tangled in wires like a moth in a cobweb, blue lights began to gleam from the machine. A cerulean glow fell over the room, reflected in the steel walls. She’d said I didn’t need to think about anything, but I found Jake’s face drifting into my mind. Then Johnny’s and Miguel’s. Then Sarah’s. I lingered for an eternal moment, there, on Sarah’s face.
And then, the blue glow faded, the whirr died down. A receipt printed from the side of the machine.
Not bad, she said. She stepped out for a moment, through yet another door. When she came back, she had a stack of green bills in her hand, like Jake’s that first day, though maybe there were fewer. That didn’t matter though.
She handed them over to me with a polite nod.
I said nothing.
You can find Tara on Twitter @GoryRilmore.
This story was written for Give Me Fiction, a prose reading series hosted by Ivan Hernandez. You can follow GMF on Twitter, check out the podcast on iTunes, RSS, Soundcloud, and Stitcher, and buy tickets for the live show which takes place the first Sunday of every month at San Francisco's Lost Weekend Video. The next show is GMF XV: Masculinity on January 4th.f
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