The child says, "Give me what I want because I desire it." The teenager, "Because it is ethical." And the adult, "Because I am holding a gun."

-Conversations with Lauren
by Dina Gallagher

iv. heart of dorkness

I have a Secret Place.

Buffalo Creek Memorial Library, third floor, behind the stacks. I think I can justifiably call it a "nook." There’s a beautiful little stained glass window which looks out into a sumptuous, rakishly overgrown Victorian courtyard. The desk is solid oak, which imparts a delicious sensation of grandeur as one defaces it with one’s initials. (The Lucite monstrosities downstairs are barely worth the time it takes to scrape obscenities into them, though I’m proud to report that the arduous pointlessness of the task fails to deter the industrious locals.)

My Nook is comfily sequestered away from the riff-raff, owing to its placement in one of the less glamorous and racy portions of the Dewey Decimal system. To be fair, most citizens of Buff Creek haven’t yet conquered the decimal system, let alone more exotic variations. Fractions are still viewed with some disdain and suspicion by our local intelligentsia. Word of honor, I once saw Beth’s business-predator father divide an apple pie into "half," then "half of half," and finally, after unsuccessfully groping for the word "eighths," into "itty-bitty pieces." I almost pressed him to grapple with the concept of sixteenths just to watch his forehead vein bulge. But I digress.

The town library is a rare oasis of restraint in the rococo, aqua-and-puce regurgitant that is Buffalo Creek architecture. It reeks of the ancient and mysterious perhaps even more than the Shadow Over Innsmouth-esque librarians who ebb and flow through its corridors on nebulous duties. Solid stone walls, cathedral ceilings, and ambient light tuned to just the precise nuance of austerity hearken back to a day when the library was once a monastery on the grounds of the Bancroft estate. The Ghost of Kelly McDonald goes on at some length about Luc Boncautèle transporting it from the Old Country stone by stone, reminding the geographically impaired among us that the Old Country referred to by our elders was nowhere specific, but probably somewhere in Europe.

The Nook serves as a make-shift headquarters for the notorious Make Dina Gallagher the Most Amazing Novelist of All Time Campaign, of which I am the sole dues-paying member. But I don’t go there to write – most Saturdays I head for the nook to search in vain for a flaw in The Horrible Truth Lauren Told Me When I Was Twelve.

Lauren, Kelly and I had been idling our way home from "career day" when Lauren asked how I planned to execute my "become a successful novelist" gameplan. She allowed me to drivel about poetry and mythic structure long enough to satisfy the tenants of pretend-courtesy before cutting me off with, "I didn’t ask how you planned to write well. I asked how you planned to become a successful novelist."

I submitted the copy of The Great Gatsby we were all reading for Humanities as evidence that genius begets success, to which Lauren directed me to the introduction. There in horrible black-and-white was the bucket of cold water that Gatsby was a notorious commercial flop, and only became a "classic" when Scribner’s marketing machine anointed it as such, long after Fitzgerald’s death.

"Media is the voice of the wealthy," Lauren announced with her signature, preternatural certainty, "And they’re willing to lease their soapbox for only three reasons: a good chance for more wealth, propaganda dissemination, or self-aggrandizement. I’ve yet to see evidence that writing quality enters into it."

Kelly stepped between us. "Lauren, I know the world looks terribly unfair sometimes. And in many ways it is. But you can’t give in. You just can’t. Because there’s such a thing as human kindness."

Lauren looked about as weary as a covergirlescent twelve-year-old can look, took Kelly by the shoulders in an oddly adult way. "I know there is, Kelly. But it isn’t strong enough to protect you – just strong enough to seduce you into letting your guard down."

"That’s not..."

Lauren pointed. "Look, we’re at a crosswalk. It’s a cloudless, perfect day. And I have it from impeccable sources that the three of us are almost oppressively adorable. All we need is a single commuter to sacrifice a moment from their busy life and we can cross the street, return to our homes, and enjoy the well-deserved mugs of chai tea, imported rosewater and Yoohoo Chocolate Drink that await us, respectively, upon our return.

I’ll make you a bet – You cross here, I’ll walk another four blocks and cross at the light. Let’s see who gets to the other side of the street first.

"Let’s find out once and for all which is stronger, goodwill or fear of repercussions."

Ever since then I’ve spent most Saturdays combing through micro-fiche interviews and biographies of my favorite authors, trying to find the chink in Lauren’s terrible assertion. I keep three lists with me: "Make the Rich Richer," "Disseminate Propaganda", and "Aggrandize the Rich." If there’s been a book published for other reasons, I haven’t found it.

Anyway, it was the Thursday following Beth’s revelation, after a particularly fruitless afternoon of combing for a loophole in Lauren’s horrible but apparently accurate assessment of publishing politics, that I happened to glance out the window of my little sanctum sanitarium and spot a mysterious little arrangement of paper tacked to an oak tree in the courtyard.

To answer any lingering "Is she a tomboy, or what?"-type questions in the mind of the reader, it was the work of a moment for me to clamber out through the little window, shimmy down the trellis and retrieve the note, which was folded origami-style into a flower.

Unfurling the thing revealed a ludicrously elaborate rebus, which I’d have little hope of decoding even if the cost/benefit ratio of such an activity didn’t promise such a meager return. Satanic goat heads with honey-blond hair, coffee beans and what appeared to be a slab of meat meandered through even less decipherable bric-a-brac.

Fortunately I had noticed a copy of My First Rebus Treasury recently while pilfering Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead from Corey’s room. The slab of meat presumably indicated the desire for a tête à tête (or "meeting"), the coffee bean floating in a toilet unmistakably pointed toward a signature house blend, and although the temporal sigils where particularly obscure, I happened to know that Star Trek reruns aired at 5:30 PM, and it took about half an hour to bicycle from Corey’s house to the only place worth biking to.

"Seven PM," I announced calmly, suddenly popping up beside Corey’s booth at Diner 51. I don’t even want to think about the fact that I had to crawl into position to make this allegedly dramatic entrance, nevermind what that implies about the lengths I’m willing to go to in hopes of impressing people I in theory don’t even like.

It worked, though. Corey and his entourage of black-wearing, self-obsessed Goth wannabes were suitably startled. I forget the exact names of Corey’s friends, although most of them had clumsily asked me out at one point or another during our tempestuous adolescence: The fat guy who quotes Spock; The vaguely Leonardo DiCaprio-looking Smiths fan who has so many female friends, leaves the toilet seat down so conscientiously and dresses with such flair it boggles the mind he hasn’t yet realized he’s gay; And no high school would be complete without the Conan O’Brien-type guy with the "painfully slavish imitation of David Letterman surrogate personality." Corey, having earned his bona fides by living in France for half a year, was their leader. This little knot of poseurdom has Lauren’s tacit permission to coalesce at Diner 51 every Thursday night (our night off) and attempt to out art-fag each other. I shudder just thinking about it.

"Campaigning for Lord of the Flyers?" I pronounced theatrically, tossing Corey his crumpled-up rebus like a grade Z Clint Eastwood heavy.

Corey narrowed his eyes like a gunslinger and snapped his fingers. Leonardo whistled the showdown leitmotif from the O.K. Corral, and Spockboy plunked sticky-note pads of varying colors and a glutton-sized pack of gum on the table. To his credit Letterman-wannabe rolled his eyes before settling back into his booth with the morbid expectancy of a Roman emperor on the day they introduced catnip-flavored barbecue sauce to the all-Christian matinee.

Let’s for a moment forgo the embarrassingly fish-in-a-barrel derision lodestone of second-stringers from the math team trying to act tough, and step back to consider the prosaic improbability of Das Notizenspiel becoming Buffalo Creek’s posturing ritual of choice.

As you may be aware, traditionally a gentleman’s rank in the highschool food chain is determined by a subtle blend of height, wealth, football quarterbackitude, ownership or at least borrowing privileges to a swank car and a personality not dissimilar to that of a particularly-difficult-to-housebreak Neanderthal. The system for determining pecking order among women, by contrast, bears our gender’s characteristic elegance of simplicity: Who can land the best guy?

Buffalo Creek had foregone these time-honored mores and pledged fealty to Lauren with a degree of sycophancy that would make Leonard Maltin blush with professional jealousy. It is perhaps worth noting that Andrea has cited this as evidence of an evolving feminist paradigm, but then she also believes in alien abductions and Atlantis.

In any case, while I am willing to accept Lauren as a Margaret Thatcher-type exception-that-proves-the-patriarchal-rule, the covertly ubiquitous embracing of Das Notizenspiel is quite beyond the pale and demonstrates without a doubt that I am the fictional character I have long contended (which further explains the laugh track I can dimly perceive during my more boneheaded faux pas).

The game itself was allegedly conceived on the spur-of-the-moment during one of Andrea’s periodic, doomed bids for supremacy, which invariably take place at Diner 51. Lauren spread both hands on the table, flat save the slightly bent knuckle of her left pinkie, our private kinetic shorthand for, "Look how spontaneous I appear while executing this plan I’ve concocted long in advance."

Lauren explained that way-famous German novelist Hermann Hesse had written a book called Das Glasperlenspiel in 1943, won the Nobel Prize for literature, then promptly kicked the bucket. Said book hinted at a culmination of all human thought and expression, the Glass Bead Game, the reverse-engineering of which had since become a San Gral of M.I.T.-type nerdlings the world over.

"Why don’t we improvise a version of Das Glasperlenspiel right now?" Lauren smiled innocuously, digging a few sticky-note pads from her bag. "We can use these as the nodes, and bubblegum as the latticework." I think I felt an actual twinge of compassion as Andrea sheepishly asked what the rules were.

In any case, word got out and Das Notizenspiel (the sticky-note game) swiftly became the hip means of intellectual one-upmanship among the nerdlier femme contingent of Buff Creek, evoking uneasy derision from the jock and cheerleader brigade.

Or rather it became hip among the unhip with one qualifier: Andrea couldn’t be bothered learning to pronounce the German, so she referred to it by the sound allegedly made by ripping a sticky-note from its little pad – pif. Within a few weeks Das Notizenspiel was a distant memory and every chick with math team aspirations in a five-town radius was hosting pif tournaments At first Lauren cringed at the "debasement," but eventually even she realized the advantages of simplicity for widespread appeal. Beth cited this as evidence of Andrea’s innate genius for marketing. Lauren agreed there was a sort of "mud genius" in being as lazy and stupid as the unwashed masses you’re coaxing money from. "If you’re gonna bilk the mud people, you gotta speak the same language," she’d say. "The mud language."

These conversations would take place those rare times Lauren would consent to join our Saturday afternoon marijuana fogs. She claimed the altered perspective gave her access to fuzzilogical ideas, game refinements which wouldn’t occur to her while lucid. "If you wanna access the pure imagination, you gotta turn off the cognition." It was so cute the way she could only manage the one sentence structure while baked. She’d hint at a covert feminist agenda, her ambitions for Das Notizenspiel to give women the same kind of addictive mind-expansion she claimed boys had with Legos or Dungeons and Dragons. "If you’re gonna swim with the sharks," she’d say, "You gotta learn sharkeese."

And Lauren’s version of pif did catch on with the brainy types: More and more we found ourselves describing the world through pif metaphors. Sizing people up as potential competitors, keeping a mental scorecard of the degree of abstraction they seemed capable of, and the number of connections they could make on the spur of the moment. Conversation became less an art and more a science as we understood the scaffolding underneath. In History Class Andrea would toss off a Seven: a seeming non sequitur, on closer inspection seven degrees of abstraction from the literal, connected somehow to a half-dozen things the teacher had said and another two from a prime-time soap the night before. The other piffers in the room would nod almost imperceptibly, a silent brethren.

For awhile the trend was for multilingual homonyms, constructing elaborate phrases that meant one thing in Japanese, another in English. Another vogue involved the semiotics of logic, resulting in entire matches without a single written word. Andrea challenged every new refinement of the rules, pushing Lauren to clarify the murky ideas and shave off the clutter. Lauren openly resented the constant challenge to her authority, though even she came to admit the game profited by this constant trial-by-fire.

Lauren’s invention was seductive, infinitely engaging, but there was still something undeniably dry about her emphasis on the coldly factual. It wasn’t until Beth began tinkering with the gameplay that pif crossed the clique barrier. She borrowed ideas from the "cootie catcher"-style origami fortune-teller ubiquitous to the American female high school experience (surely you’re familiar: you fold a piece of paper into a sort of flower, choose a petal and unfold it to discover what you’ll do for a living or where you’ll go on your honeymoon). Beth’s variation on the game was less about facts and more about impressions. So while a node triangle in Lauren’s version tended along the lines of Sting::The Police::Sting Being Arrested by the Police For Swearing Onstage, in Beth’s variant you were more likely to find Brandon from 90210::Pacey Whitter from Dawson’s Creek::The Sheepish Way Bobby Drescher Smiles When He Talks About His Mom (puke).

Beth’s modification served three functions: One, it gave even non-brainiac chicks a new way to explore and communicate about all the stuff they actually found interesting, Two, it gave the brains and the non-brains a common vocabulary (fact/impression hybrid games were surprisingly playable), and Three, it enshrined pif as a for-girls-only activity, ensuring that the boys wouldn’t try it and declare it was uncool (thus ruining it for the girls).

Which brings us back to Corey and retinue. I suspected he was thinking If I win, it proves I’m in their league, while his posse thought Corey’s practially a fag anyway, so one more sissy activity won’t hurt. Whereas my worry was If Corey wins, the boys will co-opt our empowerment tool en masse.

Ironically, it was my duty as a peacenik feminist to kick his ass.

As challenger I had right of first bead, the node which would set the theme for the entire game. Having matched wits with Corey many times before I knew my best strategy was to steer clear of his area of strength: Byron, Rimbaud, Baudelaire... basically anyone who wore frilly shirts and died of consumption, or at least churned out poetry bemoaning their inability to get laid. But I was tipsy with intellectual brazenness. Had I not circumnavigated the rebus? Was I not cleverer than Brer Rabbit after he’d just breezed through a copy of Martin Gardner’s Excessively Tortuous Exercises For Reinforcing Your Intellectual Vanity? Weren’t credible metaphors highly overrated as a yardstick of intelligence? (I sure as hell hoped so.)

I scrawled Sandman on a pink sticky note and slapped it on the table (Sandman of course being the touchstone for intellectual poseurgoths, an "adult" comicbook with literary pretensions). A low murmur rumbled around the table. In effect I had planted the Gallagher flag on the front lawn of the capital building of Corey’s intellectual homeland, Pretentia. Imagine announcing to June Cleaver, Martha Stewart and Barbie® that you plan to soundly trounce them in a Stepford Wife competition, and you have some faint idea of the sheer scale of audacity I was attempting.

Without missing a beat, Corey scratched Elric of Melniboné onto a blue sticky, carefully affixing it to the table. He bubblegummed a string from his node to mine, captioning it with "brooding, self-important albino drama queen with superpowers." (These little annotations are optional during gameplay, but as they inevitably figure heavily into any insights drawn from the final board we nearly always include them.)

Spock, Letterman and DiCaprio all gave the thumbs-up sign, bringing our score to 1:0.

I plunked down the prescribbled The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany. A line reading "black runesword" led to Elric, another reading "flowery faux-Homeric language, constructed mythology" to Sandman.

Corey shuddered visibly, realizing too late that I had done groundwork, and his vanity had lead him into a trap. The air was blur of teenage thumbs, the imaginary scoreboard clicked over to 1:2, and the game was afoot.

As I say, the annotations are an optional aspect of any Notizenspiel ("purists" restrict themselves to the competitive aspects only). Still, for me the juiciest aspect of play is drawing the "insight thread" from a good board, and I’ll often drag the thing home for rigorous post-game annotation. Furniture lacquer or in a pinch hairspray will dramatically extend the life of the piece, especially if you glue to the affair to a bit of cardboard. Also, letting your parents happen upon the lacquered stickynote-and-gum monstrosities in your room does wonders for accelerating the emotional seperation from your parents so crucial to adolescent development.

Since a good game crosses several disciplines and winning moves by necessity draw connections between as many nodes as possible, a single bead can unearth a cross-disciplinary insight that our ever-narrowing focus of Western thought is increasingly unlikely to stumble across. For instance, Andrea and Lauren once charted a constellation between Euclid’s third postulate, Mao’s Little Red Book, Claude Monet’s contributions to Impressionism, and the Gilligan’s Island episode with the duck. (Ah, the heady dalliances of youth.)

The conclusion drawn from what has come to be known as the Revenge Fantasies of the Impotent board is "the more disempowered the subject, the more abstract the power metaphors they’re attracted to." Ergo, the jock who sucker-punches nerds and scores chicks is attracted to alter-egos that kill intellectuals and score even hotter chicks (who seldom interrupt the hero in the middle of a gunfight to ask where the relationship is going). The sucker-punchee who won’t date for a good decade (till his Microsoft shares vest) reads books about green-skinned elph vampyre space babes, who despite their philosophy of nonaggression are obligated to wipe out the dangerous and wiley Jockstrapians.

In ninth grade this was a big insight. (Hey, cut us a break – despite our precocious vocabularies we still watched Bugs Bunny.)

Anyway, with such transcendent intellectual rewards, who gives a fig for minutia such as "winning," or the petty baubles of adulation which come with it? Certainly not yours truly. Above it all, you understand. Yep, that’s me: all kinds of indifferent..

Long story short, Corey kicked my ass. Letterman let out a low whistle as Spock double-checked the numbers, though it was hardly necessary. My defeat had been so crushing it was sure to get around, causing me to lose face on the math team, the chess club and possibly even the teacher’s lounge. DiCaprio put a congratulatory hand on Corey’s shoulder in what everyone but me interpreted as chumish camaraderie.

"I’ve never seen you pass up an opportunity for a William Blake reference before, Corey," DiCaprio told him admiringly. "I guess you’ve done some growing up while you were in France."

"Il était rien," Corey smiled, so jubilant he seemed completely undistressed that his voice had chosen that exact moment to pubescently crack.

"Today, you are a man," DiCaprio kissed Corey on both cheeks, then covertly reduced crotchal visibility by unfashionable moving his sweater from over-the-shoulder to around-the-waist.

I think the Spock kid began to suspect, as his eyes became especially wide and he whispered "Pon Farr" under his breath.

"So I got your note." I slid into the booth across from Corey as his entourage dispersed. "What’s up?"

Corey let out that species of frightening, languorous sigh which indicates the sigher is winding up for an extended soliloquy. "As the Moz once said..." he began.

"Hold it!! Wait!! I’ve got a crisp, new five dollar bill right here if you agree to go the entire evening without quoting Morrissey."

Corey looked as if someone had kicked his head in. Of course, he always kind of looks like that. But his voice is usually less glum. "Why?"

"Because you’re always quoting Morrissey. Sometimes I think you string together song titles in lieu of actually thinking. I didn’t come here to listen to second-hand Morrissey; I want to hear what you have to say."

Corey was half complimented, half suspicious. "And all I have to do is promise I won’t quote Morrissey ?"

"That’s right."

Corey took the five-spot, gingerly held it up to the light and confirmed the little "this isn’t counterfeit" strip. I reflected briefly that for someone who grew up as Lauren’s younger brother, Corey was incredibly unparanoid.

Finally he slipped the fin into his pocket. "Deal."


"Ah, the duel of personalities... it stretches all true reality."

Quasimodo the waitress, definitely beginning to sport some manner of hump, came by and I distractedly ordered a coffee. I had the feeling something was amiss, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Corey stirred his coffee, started whistling a vaguely familiar rock song from "The Crow."

Finally, and with great reluctance, I gave in. "Who...?"

"Nine Inch Nails."

Things were said; unpleasant things. But Corey had my five dollars and I had failed to word our covenant with sufficient precision. Eventually I gave up arguing, and Corey came to the point:

"Dina, I’ll be frank. I need your help."

Lauren often points out that when people use phrases like "I’ll be frank" or "I’ll be honest with you," it begs the question of their relationship with truth, implying that they see lying as an option they regularly consider.

The day was long past when I needed Lauren to points these things out in person, by the way. Most people say they can hear their parents’ voices dispensing advice after years of separation; that’s how I’ll be with Lauren. Out in the big blue world away from Buffalo Creek and still hearing Lauren’s razor insights cutting through every internal conversation. I’ve had hour-long deliberations with the Lauren-in-my-head, when I needed to make a decision and the Lauren-of-flesh was unavailable. If this frightens me to the degree I claim in my diary, I should just stop spending so much time with Lauren. But in a creepy way the internal Lauren makes me feel less lonely.

I was a bit surprised and disgusted with myself by my initial reaction to Corey’s request for help – disappointment. It made me realize that I had assumed he was interested romantically, and I had been looking forward to delivering a devastating rejection. For about three seconds I was furious at him for failing to find me attractive. Luckily, that gave way to gratitude for the compliment implied by his request for aid. Two or three seconds later I was marveling at his perceptiveness for choosing me as the best-qualified person to come to for help.

Lauren’s voice in my head again: Most of the brain’s energy is devoted to constructing lofty facades for petty impulses.

Corey smiled like a used car salesman, which in theory should have contrasted pointedly with his punk/Goth look, but oddly enough seemed perfectly congruous. I made a mental note to ask Lauren her theories comparing the root motivations of counter-culture zombies and sales types.

"Dina, will you do me a favor?"

I raised my eyebrows and stopped smiling. The request for compliance before specifying the proposed task is a gambit that only works with children and the very stupid. I was a little insulted that Corey placed me in one category or the other.

Luckily, just at the moment of response I happened to notice a little sea of science fiction books frothing out of Corey’s knapsack. Immaturity reveals itself by the belief that childish tactics will yield results. Teenagers think everyone else is a teenager, too, wearing bigger bodies and wielding more power.

Lauren had long ago taught me to work around the peculiarly transparent gambits favored by teenage boys, but it was always a delicate thing to openly manipulate someone without angering them. One always ran the risk of overconfidence.

"I’ll see what I can do." Convey a sense of alliance without making a tangible commitment. "What is it you need?" Remind the mark that he is the one who needs something, therefore you are the one in the position of power.

Teenage males have only two concerns: clawing their way up the pecking order and getting laid (come to think of it, the "teenage" qualifier doesn’t really belong in that sentence). I was a fulcrum for both, mainly through my association with Lauren, but what demands could I make on that relationship that Corey couldn’t, as Lauren’s brother? Something he didn’t want her to know about, or which she would refuse him but grant me? I was still exploring connections when Corey spilled the beans. When someone reaches what they’ve been leading up to before you can predict it, that typically means they’re actually going to say something interesting. Moments like these are rare and glorious, so pay attention.

"I want you to verbalize Lauren."

Wow. I took a sip of coffee to buy myself a moment, but the Lauren in my head was silent, and I didn’t have a complete enough jigsaw puzzle of Corey to fit in this new piece.

Strangely, my pulse began to race. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had said something that eluded my immediate grasp – something I couldn’t see straight through to the base motivation at its core. I hoped my excitement didn’t spill over into my voice as I politely asked Corey to explain:

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Like any born poseur, Corey sensed he’d engaged my interest and wrung the last iota of drama out of the situation by lighting a clove cigarette, taking a slow drag.

"Clove?" He extended the pack with studied forties film-star bullshit élan. I contemplated strangling him to death, but then I’d never get to hear what he meant by that great enigmatic comment. It started coming back to me that "verbalize" had been Lauren’s big word when she was Corey’s age. The ability to verbalize interpersonal dynamics is the key to transcending the neural ceiling. People who can’t or won’t move on to this sort of abstract reasoning arrest intellectually at around the age of twelve. Textbooks on elementary education bear Lauren’s theories out, placing the onset of abstract reasoning at around sixth grade. The textbooks seldom mention that most people never reach the rarified stage of intellectual adulthood. Hence the popularity of such television programs as America’s Funniest Home Videos.

"You can distill events and ideas down into words," Corey began, sending an invisible little shudder of synchronicity through the diner. "I don’t know if you realize how powerful that is."

"Sure, I realize how powerful it is. But I’m not on the New York Times best-seller list yet, so how have you managed to realize it?" Oops. I had admitted a true ambition. I was feeling giddy, maybe even a bit reckless with the prospect of acting out a scene of high school soap opera that didn’t feel woodenly prescripted. Also, Corey was still in my good graces for the compliment. Still, I resolved to be a bit less forthcoming with accurate and usable information until I knew more about his little scheme.

"What do you mean by ‘verbalize Lauren,’ anyway? I don’t know if you’ve ever had a phone convo with her, but I’d hardly call Lauren unverbal!!"

"Let’s back up a little. You’re familiar with my ‘zine, Philosopher’s Stone?"

I glanced at my watch; it had been almost five minutes, and this was the first time Corey had mentioned a self-aggrandizing topic. Whatever he was up to, it was bigger than his ego. That put it roughly on the scale of the Dawn of Time, importance-wise.

"Yeah, of course. It’s very impressive." I felt a little surge of pride at my response, it implied that I had read it, but if pressed I would admit that I was impressed only by the sheer amount of work involved, and wouldn’t slog through actually reading the thing for a million bucks. "What’s the circulation?" I asked, to deflect whatever question Corey would ask next, which would almost certainly unearth my disinterest.

"It’s ahead of its time."

"Corey, that is the single best evasion I’ve heard all summer!!" I said with genuine feeling, giving the table a hearty slap. "You’ve avoided revealing the exact number of copies you can move, while simultaneously acknowledging that sales are bad, complimenting yourself, and blaming your poor circulation on the stupidity of others!! And all using only five words!!"

Take advantage of any opportunity to give a sincere compliment, Lauren sez. You’ll earn goodwill. And such opportunities are rare enough that they shouldn’t be squandered.

Unfortunately, Corey’s facial expression indicated that he may not have accepted the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended. I’m realized that I’m complicit in this sort of miscommunication more frequently than I’d like, and tried to dig myself out with a dumbed-down paraphrase:

"Um... I was complimenting you. That was clever."


"Really. You’re one clever guy."

"Wow. Thanks."

Luckily, Corey was able to understand that I was praising his intelligence once I started using fourth-grade English, and I wasn’t forced to downgrade all the way to Tarzan-speak: "You smart!! Me impressed!!"

Corey stood up and pulled on his unseasonable-but-Goth-looking trenchcoat.

"C’mon," he said, gesturing towards the door. "I’ve got something to show you."

"There are five life forms on Earth: the cell, the virus, the prion, the meme and the limited-liability corporation." Corey was guiding us towards the shabbier part of town, where the old paper mill had been. I shuddered slightly, despite the balmy warmth of early summer. All human beings experience panic when entering less affluent neighborhoods. Despite all our altruistic platitudes, deep down we know we’ve attained wealth by screwing the less fortunate, the less fortunate realize it and they have guns.

"Corporations originated in 16th century England, but really these were legal arms of the crown. It wasn’t until around 1870 that the modern corporation was birthed, mostly thanks to American railroad barons. The whole point was for the elite to enjoy a highly liquid form of power without suffering bothersome details like accountability. But, like the Golem of Hebrew myth, the corporate organism has supplanted its creator.

"Oh, strands of amino acid have had our day in the sun, first as algae, then clambering up the food chain as dinosaurs, monkeys, mankind... now we’ve built our own replacement. The System. The Machine." (I couldn’t believe Corey had really started a sentence with the word "Oh." It made him sound like Anne Rice’s Lestat character, who seems sexy and exotic in print, but in real life would come across as an especially swishy and self-impressed drama queen. Somehow I thought it best not to bring this up.)

"There was a time when corporations made campaign contributions to the Republican or Democratic candidate, and gnashed their teeth if the wrong candidate won. But these days they contribute to both parties. It doesn’t matter which shill is in office any more, because they both owe favors to Exxon."

I raised my hand in a "hold on a moment" gesture. "But the corporations are run by presidents and boards of directors and stuff," I pointed out. "Hasn’t the power just changed hands from the politicians to the businessmen?"

Corey smiled as an adult smiles when pressed with exacting questions about Santa Claus.

"They’re just the head slaves. The real power is the ‘bottom line,’ and if they don’t kowtow to it they won’t keep their jobs for long.

"Human beings are nothing more than cells in the corporate structure. Corporations aren’t bound by national borders, or laws, or morals. They have no conception of good and evil, only survival and reproduction. And they’re intelligent: they represent the group intelligence of the human cells who serve in decision-making roles. Corporations are the most dangerous predator the world has ever known. And they’re strengthening the stock, whittling out the weak companies in a hideous process of natural selection that will inevitably leave us with one supreme organism. The Beast."

A lone wolf (okay, probably really just a dog) howled in the distance, reminding me of Lauren’s theory that we aren’t actually real-life people but stars of an overly melodramatic B movie. "In which event," she hastens to point out, "yours is obviously the supporting role." I’ll counter that the film centers on my life and she is at best a side-kick. In the final scene I’ll discover untapped reserves of strength and confidence, take my glasses off, step into an especially flattering and lucid pool of light and be revealed as the beautiful heroine. Lauren’s counter-argument usually involves a comparison between my breast size and the breast size of Popeye’s love-interest, Olive Oyl, implying a lack of certain requisites shared by virtually all "ugly duckling" leading ladies in American cinema. It isn’t complimentary, and I won’t go into it here.

Corey and I walked for a while in silence, him smoking and waiting for me to admit how impressed I was, and me combing my conversations with Lauren for some insight into his theory. I absently took my glasses off to wipe them clean with my sweatshirt, only distantly noticing that my breasts continued to be small, and the lighting remained unflattering.

Young men are attracted to nihilism, disintegration and horror because they’re projecting their own sense of powerlessness onto the world. "I’m helpless not through some deficiency on my part, but because the world is deficient." As they mature, men tend to lose interest in nihilistic martyr fantasies. Only the spectacularly traumatized and helpless continue their fascination with the macabre into adulthood.

On one level I fought to stay cognizant of the dangers inherent in psychoanalyzing Corey and then using that analysis to blithely dismiss him. Everyone’s values are ultimately founded on their prejudices, but that doesn’t render their conclusions and insights valueless.

On the contrary, as far as I’m concerned the more bizarre the pathology, the more likely I am to find the person an engaging dinner companion. I felt an uncharacteristic pang of affection for Corey, which made me silently promise myself to stop intellectually eviscerating him. I even invited him to continue with his lame theory.

Corey squinted in clumsy imitation of whoever pretentious teenage boys were imitating these days. "I read that psychologists’ typical success rate, as measured by patient satisfaction, is identical to the success rate of church confessionals, voodoo witch doctors, and 900-number psychics."

Despite myself, I was smiling. "Psychoanalysts are just the latest name for professional listeners," I agreed. "The ivy league doctorates, ink blots and fainting couches are just for ambiance."

"Ah, for the moment that’s true," Corey countered. "But social engineers are starting to make genuine headway, starting to turn the study of the mind from a soft science into a hard one.

"In literature and myth, Joseph Campbell has identified the common structure behind the fable. Local nuances are draped over the basic skeleton, but essentially the fundamental religion of man has been isolated and analyzed, as coldly and precisely as any virus.

"The Human Genome Project, sponsored by our own government, is mapping all 26 billion human genes. Within a decade or two, we’ll have eliminated all doubt as to which behaviors are nature, and which are nurture.

"Everything’s being mapped, contained, labeled and controlled. The Machine is going to find our every weakness, our every button. And it’s going to press them, over and over until we wear out and die. And then it’ll just replace us with a new cog."

Corey took another slow drag from his clove, dropped it to the ground and stamped it out under his boot. We had come to a stop in the heart of the old factory district.

I tried to laugh, but it came out feeble. "So what’s the answer, Corey? If everything is snowballing into the Fourth Reich, and it’s all predestined, what can we do about it?"

Corey took a stick, drew a line in the sand. "Up to this point, we aren’t efficient enough to survive." He let me consider for a moment, then drew another. "Past this point, we’re hyper-efficient. Just cogs in the Machine. It’s in the space between the two lines that we’re human. And that space is getting narrower all the time."

I marveled at how much more substantive Corey’s argument seemed, now that it had evolved from mere words into something physical (albeit nothing more than two lines drawn in the dirt). Lauren put so much faith in words, I wondered if she realized how persuasive a physical act could be – something her brother seemed to grasp instinctively.

I looked back up at Corey, and he had the most amazing expression. Granted, it may just have been the novelty of a teenage boy concerned with something other than getting laid. But at the time it made a real impact, moved me again to blurt out the first thing that came to mind.

"You think I can help."

"Yeah, I do," Corey answered. He started walking towards the warehouse, confident I’d follow.

"I think you can fight the good fight, Dina. But first I want to show you what you’ll be fighting for. The little strip of humanity that’s left to us."

He threw open a corrugated metal door I hadn’t realized was there, sending light and heat and dust pouring out into the cold June evening.

Imagine an old paper mill so grimy the State Board of Cockroaches had it condemned and vacated the premises. Now imagine the grimier place down the street. This begins to approach the griminess of the abandoned paper mill Corey’s friends had half-heartedly warmed up with some flea-market tables and lumps of candle. The room was full of people I failed to recognize, save a few cigarette-and-foodstamp types one occasionally saw buying lottery tickets at the convenience store on the outskirts of town.

They were mostly a lot older than we were, mid-twenties on up to octogenarian. Most were smoking. The signature smell of marijuana hung about aimlessly like shop kids at recess.

Lining one wall were old card tables covered with brownies and coffee, chicken legs and beer. A rickety, makeshift "stage" had been erected in one corner, and everyone in the room had directed their full attention to the large, sweaty man reciting poetry upon it.

"Isn’t that Ernie, the guy from the post office?" I whispered.

Corey only "shushed" me and gestured that we should take a seat.

"...that the ring around her finger is the remote,

and I’m a television." Like all those attracted to poetry primarily as a desperate bid for attention, Ernie had cultivated a "special poetry voice."

After affecting a slighted artist pose as punishment for our having walked in halfway through His Poem, Ernie slogged on:

"But the batteries have run down,

they’ve run down long ago

I pretend to watch her stations,

but I’ve got a brand new show

[dramatic poetry pause]

My new network’s got everything,

it’s really quite okay

she think this ring controls me," [Ernie held up his left hand at this point, to allow his wedding ring to glint dramatically in the candlelight]

"But I channel surf every day!!"

The room burst into applause. Or rather, they burst into silently waving their hands above their heads. (Is that something one can burst into?) Corey leaned over and whispered that Nelson MacConnor, the guy in the front row, was deaf. The "deaf clapping" was out of respect for him.

"Very artsty," I answered. "One assumes Ernie’s nails-on-blackboard stab at high culture was an admission of adultery?"

Corey started digging around for something in his Official Poseur Trenchcoat™ . "Well, I think you’ve got to take poetry a little less literally," he said, finally producing a bag of blunt and beginning to roll a joint. "Though I will say his poem worked on a lot of levels."

"Oh, yeah," said some terminally unacquainted-with-fashion R.J. Reynolds propaganda victim to our right, dimly visible through a cloud of especially cancerous-looking blue smoke. "It worked on quite a few levels." [note: despite Lauren’s periodic attempts as yenta, Fashion and I have mutually decided a relationship is not in the cards. Still, we occasionally see each other at parties and maintain a cordial, if distant, acquaintance. This unique vantage often prompts me to make disparaging remarks concerning the dress sense of others, seemingly without a trace of irony, whilst sporting what appears to be an old burlap bag.]

Corey started rolling a joint, smiled back excitedly. "Sure, there was the level where he was watching TV, and then there was... uh..."

"The other level," some old guy chimed in.

"The other level," Corey enthused. "So what with the TV level and the other level, it worked on a lot of levels."

I grimaced, sensing my lunch making a concerted bid for freedom. I might have mustered the effort to vacate the premises and tramp home, but Corey picked that exact moment to grace me with the joint.

Nelson was next. He told a story in sign language, translation courtesy of some beat throwback with a dark goatee. Nelson was really something to watch. He had a natural presence and charisma that parsed right through the language barrier. There was a half-empty bottle of scotch at his table, and I think he may have been lending more expansiveness to his signing than was absolutely required.

"We’re the salt-of-the-earth types, blah, blah, blah, we worked our fingers to the bone for the Company, but they fired us all anyway, blah, blah, blah, so now we’re completely justified in spending our twilight years bitterly drinking ourselves to death, which makes us tragically romantic figures in our own eyes, blah, blah, blah, something about the Founding Fathers." Nelson’s contribution to epic poetry was generally along those lines. The audience was positively enraptured, punctuating the particularly moving bits with grunts of assent, and handwaving, and tankards sloshed together in hearty toasts of agreement.

It may have been the blunt, but Nelson’s story struck me as deeply profound. As we were "clapping," I started to experience what Andrea calls "time dilation." Everything seemed to slow way the Hell down. I became entranced with the sensation, and continued waving my hands long after everyone else had stopped waving and started staring.

"Dina?" Corey snapped in my face a few times. "Dina? You in there?"

"Oh..." I looked up, meeting eyes with two dozen confused strangers. "Good poem!!"

That seemed to satisfy them. It was apparently an intermission of some sort, as everyone got up to mill around, overeat or go out back to urinate against a wall (each to his own personal taste).

"Listen, Corey..." I was fascinated with how much time I seemed to have between each syllable. I suddenly became convinced I could fit other words in, between the syllables, and thus convey information a lot faster.

"Listen, Corey... who’s this Nelson guy, anyway? He’s a genius!!"

Corey was returning from the food area with two beers. ("But how can he be coming back?" I wanted to know. "I never saw him leave!!")

"Nelson was the foreman here, when the mill still ran. He lost his hearing in some kind of accident, a few weeks before the plant closed."

"Wow, that’s awful. ‘Cause, you know... he’s a genius!!"

"Yeah, you mentioned."

"Well, did they give him a lot of money? Whoever owned this place?"

Corey had worked his beer open, and was mid-swig when my question prompted Corey’s beer to explosively decide to go the other direction.

"Dad moved the factory to Mexico when I was six."

Corey wiped the spittle from his face with the back of his sleeve. "The Beast."

There didn’t seem to be much I could say in response. Besides, my hand was making trails when I waved it past my face, which I found endlessly fascinating.

It was a few minutes before I remembered that I had an agenda.

"Listen, Corey, Lauren’s got these pins..."

Corey produced the pin in question from a hidden pocket in his jacket. "You mean this? Yeah, Lauren gave me one the second she opened the box."

"Listen, Corey – I know you’re planning to wear the pin on day one, so I won’t ask. But would you mind telling me the particular snow job Lauren used on you?"

"Ever read Algernon Blackwood?"

I shook my head.

"Ah. Well, you know how you listen to an old blues album for the first time and have that little revelation about where Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones got all their ideas? Blackwood was a primary influence for Lovecraft, who was a major influence for Stephen King and Clive Barker."
"In my heart, I just know you didn’t bring this guy up just to give me the family tree of crap horror writers."

"Oh... yeah, anyway, Blackwood wrote about creatures who can only perceive you if you think about them. The Beast is like that. In small things, obey, or it’ll catch your scent. Reserve your rebellion for important things. Choose your battles."

I attempted to prop myself on one elbow, but it went all pasta-y and my head sort of lolled on the table. I did manage to raise one finger meaningfully, however.

"So you’re saying that you’re going to wear Lauren’s stupid pin as camouflage from the corporate anti-christ icky monster?"

"More or less."

"But Corey..." I managed to raise my head, meeting Corey’s equally-bloodshot eyes. "You wear a T-shirt that says ‘Fuck Authority.’ You don’t think the establishment can spot stuff like that?"

"Sure. But I bought it at the mall. The Beast provides sanctioned forms of rebellion as a means to diffuse real rebellion. The so-called counter-culture is just part of the joke. I pretend that listening to alternative music and wearing Doc Martens satisfies my sense of subversiveness, but I buy them at the Red Herring Factory Outlet."

For a moment, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The burst blood vessels in Corey’s eyes seemed especially red and fascinating. "I need a drink."

"Are you sure? You’ve already had quite a few."

"Really?" I considered this information for a moment, cross-referenced it with the sensations snaking through my spine. "Then maybe I need to throw up."

I stumbled outside and, sure enough, it was Door Number Two. Somewhere in the back of my head I was thinking that I could stand to skip a meal anyway, which I’m sure makes some profound insight or another into today’s youth.

Corey had followed me outside and offered me a beer the moment I stopped rolfing, proving that chivalry is not dead. "What’s with you girls, anyway?" He leaned back against the wall of the mill, started hunting around for his cloves. "You all go too far – pushing and pushing at every wall, long after its stopped working, until you’re dead."

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, took a swig. He was right, of course. So I had to punish him.

"Corey, do you want to fuck Andrea?"

On some level I realized I was circumventing the button contest. Let Lauren talk everyone into wearing the damn buttons, I thought, I’ll just escalate to the next level.

Corey’s eyes were wide with shock. Do guys really think we don’t swear just because we rarely do it around them? After a moment, he broke into laughter.

"I like you, Dina. You’re all right."

"Do you have a thing for Andrea?"

Corey took a drag. "Well, she has matured a lot while I was in France." He pronounced France as if he were a native, but I was too busy dredging up my Mental Inventory of Male Code Words to properly ridicule him. Mature was particular to Corey; it meant "large-breasted." As in, "Boy, I remember when Mary-Lou Henninger was only an A cup. She sure has matured."

As previously mentioned, Corey had a boob fetish, which boded well for the romantic prospects of my surgically-enhanced friend. Corey seemed to be trying to gauge my response, rather than just answering, however, which I inferred to mean hesitation.

"So you’d date her?"

"Well, she’s great and everything, but... she just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi." (Translation from the Male: "She doesn’t give me an erection.") "Anyway, I’m seeing Mary-Lou Henninger. I never knew love could be like this." (From the Male: "No one’s ever given me a blow job before.")

Corey pulled me to my feet, threw an arm over my shoulder, and we began the long stagger home.

"Okay, so you’ve introduced me to the amazing and heretofore unknown bohemian underbelly of Buffalo Creek," I said. "How does that tie in with Lauren?"

"Lauren used to be on our side. She used to have an unflagging belief that given enough hard work, everything could work out for the best. Then around the time Kelly died she... changed."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like someone left her milk of human kindness out of the refrigerator for too long."

"I want you to figure out what turned her to the Dark Side." I threw Corey a look which indicated he had crossed my threshold for hokiness. "All right, figure out what quashed her sense of optimism. And verbalize it."

"First of all, what makes you think I can solve the puzzle of Lauren?"

"I’ve been watching you. You’re a writer, so you must be working on a book. You’ve been writing since first grade, so you’ve probably given up on otherworldly fantasy bullshit by now and learned to write what you know. And the biggest experience of your life is Lauren, so you’re probably writing about her. Though to be fair, you’d have to be pretty artless to not be exploring the relationship through some clever metaphor."

My grip tightened on the straps of my backpack. Inside were my notes for Conversations with Lauren.

"For the sake of argument, let’s say I was trying to figure out what turned your sister into a raging sourpuss. And let’s say I succeed. Why would I tell you?"

Corey smiled. "A writer needs an audience, doesn’t she? Who else is going to listen to your story with the same rapt attention?"

"It’s going to take a long time to solve the puzzle of Lauren," I said cagily. "What happens in the meantime?"

"Every piece you find, every credible argument against hers, every chink in her armor, I’ll publish in Philosopher’s Stone. That’ll give you an audience. I want contributions from all the Buffalo Girls, even Lauren. I want to track the Beast, so I can learn how to kill it."

"Hah!!" I hah-ed. "I wouldn’t write for your pathetic rag in a million years, and neither would Lauren!!"

Corey seemed genuinely flustered. "And why not?"

I shakily counted out my reasons on the fingers of my right hand. "A) I would never write for anything called Philosopher’s Stone. It sounds like a testicle joke that misfired."

"I’ll change it."

"B) No one reads it."

"Au contraire. I open every issue with an Elvis-sized helping of cruel but accurate gossip, insuring a higher pass-around circulation than the Buffalo Tribune."

I found this information both startling and plausible, and it was some moments before I could cohere a response.

"You know, Corey... that’ll hardly make you a popular guy."

Corey arched his eyebrows rather pathetically. "Yeah, well... I tried being popular, and it didn’t work out, you know? I see my remaining choices as obscurity or infamy."

We had reached my house. It was three am or so, and my parents had long ago gone to bed. I knew I’d be hung over in the morning, and I wanted to wring one last drop of pathos out of the evening.

"Lauren has no idea you put so much energy into the ‘zine, you know. If she did, I wonder that she might not be grudgingly depressed."

Corey couldn’t resist. "Sister, I’m a poet," he whispered smugly.

Smiling, I extended my right hand, palm up. "Thanks. You owe me five bucks."

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After Kelly ©1995 by Kristen Brennan