Big Talk, Real Slow

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Payday 2

Payday 2 is a broken game. So is Payday 1, but the first has a ramshackle charm to it. It’s held together by enthusiasm and airplane glue. The developers wanted to recreate Heat, without all the talking bits, and made a game that was just extended shootouts while waiting for timers to count down. Still, its commitment to that idea is admirable and it’s an enjoyable, yet tough diversion. It works because it builds up rhythm, and then frustrates it by having an ally get shot down, or having to free a hostage, or having the restart the drills that are getting the vault open, all while fending off waves of cops.

Overkill Software, when making the sequel, expanded the game. More guns, more unlockables, an obscene amount of skills that can be earned, new levels, and, new ways to get through levels. That last point is key. In Payday 2 the waves of enemies don’t have to be endured: There are ways to complete the missions with a minimum of bloodshed.  If it’s botched, the player is forced to endure the siege. The stealth option is usually a lot more satisfying. It offers a variety and challenge that shooting waves and waves of enemies doesn’t.

A lot of recent shooters use stealth and action (off the top of my head: Farcry 3The Last of UsMetal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes) but in those games the combat is interesting no matter which I’m doing. Everything in Payday 2 feels slightly off. The guns handle poorly, with strong recoil and little accuracy. The enemies seem to take too many bullets, and the player too few. When the player is in danger, the game doesn’t quite offer feedback fast enough to respond. Trying to avoid having to shoot everything isn’t easy either: How cameras and security systems work is never spelled out. It took a while for me to realize that shooting a security guard stealthily still requires the player to go over to the body and answer his pager. It’s meant to be played co-op with friends, but still for some reason the game allows the player to go through missions alone with AI companions that can’t perform half of the necessary functions. During a bank heist the AI cannot carry bags of cash or corral hostages or shoot out security cameras. One mission required me to find chemicals to cook meth. I found some and used them on the lab, causing it to explode. I still have no idea what went wrong.

No mission in Payday 2 is enjoyable the first time through: The game thrives on repetition. The player needs to be aware of all the subtle variations a map can have, and where the cameras might be, and all the ways the mission can go wrong. Payday 2 demands that the player stick with it. All of the game’s sloppiness is supposed to motivate the player to keep at it and get better guns, better armour, and skills that make heists more than just prolonged shooting galleries. It’s why I keep playing despite all I’ve written. I might eventually get to that very good game of planning and executing flawless heists if I play long enough. It’ll take days of nonstop playing before getting close. I’ll probably quit long before then. How fucked up is that? Many multiplayer games have unlockables, but they’re adding to the pleasure of that central loop, not fixing it or sidestepping it entirely. The thing that I’m doing over and over, at least for a larger commercial shooter like Payday 2, needs to be pleasing on some basic level*. In Payday 2, almost nothing feels good. It’s a sorta shoddy thing, but if you do it enough, it becomes more enjoyable, by letting the player bypass the shoddiest bits. 

While making his (pretty good) game, They Bleed Pixels, my friend Miguel Sternberg struggled with a design problem. He wanted to reward skilled play, but in the genre, that usually means abilities that make the player very powerful or unstoppable. That wasn’t interesting to him. In those cases, the reward for doing well in a game was a reprieve from play. Payday 2 stretches this out to an extreme: Play long enough and you don’t have to play the game at all.

*Think of the way the character in Titanfall is pleasingly weightless, or the rough, meaty heaviness in Gears of War. In both of those games, even movement feels pleasurable. Notable exception to the rule: the all consuming aesthetic ugliness in Kane and Lynch 2. But in that case, the shoddiness is the point.

The Evenings, Mornings, Afternoons

"How are you today, miss?"

"Cold. I don’t get how people can live here. People live in Africa or those nice places in the States, makes you wonder why they ever decided to come here. How did they survive? How did they not freeze to death?"

"Some of them did."

"I’m asking how come they all didn’t die. They were made of harder stuff. What were they doing then that they could stand the cold? Did you hear about the family in Nevada? Their car overturned and the car fell off the road?"

"No."

"Well, their car went off the road and they were stuck for 48 hours in the cold. And they had some matches — I should do that, I should keep things in the car for things like this — and he had three kids and you know what the man did? He started a fire and he warmed up the rocks and he brought them over to the car. That kept them warm. Saved their lives. You didn’t hear about this?"

"No, I didn’t."

"When I was your age I went on a ski trip and we went on a bus, and the bus had mechanical failure. It wasn’t moving. There was no heat. We had no way to get in touch with anybody and we were freezing. It wasn’t like today, with cell phones. The hotel we were staying at, when we didn’t arrive, they knew something happened though. Me and my friend, we were on this bus, so I tell her, ‘If we don’t want to freeze to death, we should get cozy with those big fellows over there.’ I kept a mickey of something, and back then we were lookers. I was a blonde, she was a blonde. We introduced ourselves and I got to sit on this bigger fellow’s lap."

"I’m sure he was fine with it."

"Of course. It was good liquor too. My father bought me a sterling silver flask. I would drink it when I went to watch games to warm up. My father was very progressive."

"Sounds like it."

"I told my friend, we should be nice to them because they kept us from getting frostbite. Later we took them out for a drink. I hadn’t thought of that in years until I heard about that car turning over. I found my friend on Facebook a few months ago. I should ask her if she remembers. I wonder if those boys remember. It was so long ago. I wonder if they remember."

Floor 13

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I’m playing Floor 13 again. I found it years ago on an abandonware site, and its managed to survive the jump from hard drive to hard drive. Every few years I get drawn in. The game has the player as the chained-to-the-desk director of the English secret service. The last one had a terrible “accident”. Most of the game is menu driven: Every in-game day, a crisis will pop up. Loyal politician in messy love affair, eco-terrorists threaten naval base, South American liberation groups bombing embassies, that sorta thing. The player can use surveillance, tailing, interrogation and even murder, to ensure that the current government gets out of it politically unscathed, The next day, the player’s updated on the progress of these operations or is given headlines if it’s already exploded in their face. All of this is done through a series of boring menus. It’s less James Bond, more 9 to 5 M.

Floor 13 was made in 1992 and, knowing nothing about the UK then, I assume the game sort of reflects some of the anxieties of the time. It’s a soft satire. This is a game where threats include the IRA, environmentalists and the Illuminati. Playing it post 9/11, the game feels a lot darker. What your party stands for is irrelevant: Polling data, which shows the impact of the player’s screw-ups, is represented in two bars, “Us” and “Them”. While some of the plots are matters of national security, some, like a mission involving a clearly mentally disturbed man attacking dog owners, are just slight political embarrassments that, nonetheless, can be dealt with in clandestine and sinister ways. It is possible to accidentally torture somebody to death and get nothing useful from it. What I think at the time of the release was meant to be playful, is now darkened because it all feels within the realm of plausibility.

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What I enjoy so much about the game is that it never really rewards the player explicitly. Do poorly and your character is asked to resign, or worse. Do well and…nothing happens. No pat on the back, no “job well done”, and, in some cases, no indication that anything really happened. The only way I know that I did well is that the game isn’t over and the Prime Minister hasn’t threatened me.

In a lot of ways this makes it a bad game. It’s never obvious what effect certain actions have. In one mission I ransacked a suspect’s apartment and found sensitive government documents. Several days passed with no mention of this character or the incriminating documents. I’ve played the game enough, and know this mission well enough, to know that I prevented a major leak, but the game never gives me that information. The absence of a headline is reward enough. This unclear feedback makes for a lot of frustration the first few times playing: Sometimes you do what makes sense and realize it doesn’t work at all. The scenarios themselves allow for multiple solutions, and some of those solutions, like choosing to assassinate a target, have random outcomes. Sometimes a crisis has to play out because interfering might make things worse. Floor 13 is frustrating, but not in the way we tend to appreciate it in modern games. Dark Souls is also a frustrating game, but many give it a pass because, while the game is very hard, its rules are consistent and fair. This game is barely either.

Part of this is because of the time it was made. I can only guess that the game’s manual spelled some of this out. Even if a game comes out with a manual now, nobody actually expects you to read it. Most strategy games now, especially those with as many moving parts as Floor 13, would spell out what everything does, what the difference is between searching a place discretely and ransacking it, or what surveillance covers that pursuit doesn’t. There would be a tutorial mission that would ease the player into the job. None of this happens. It is possible to get one of the hardest scenarios, a multi-week epic involving the kidnapping of the US President’s son, on the very first day.

But everything that makes it a badly designed game also makes it feel like a perfect simulation of day to day spycraft. If I do the job well enough in the game, there should be nothing to congratulate me on. The world keeps turning, and that’s enough. Sometimes the Prime Minister will say that she’s happy for good news in the papers, but usually it’s due to a random event that is not under the player’s control. The lack of feedback means that an uneasy tension holds over most of the game. After a certain period of time, documents are shredded, letting the player know that that crisis is effectively over. But the shredding can take in-game weeks to happen, so there’s no way of knowing if something was missed, The other foot may yet drop. There is no comfort in this game. It is possible to play Floor 13 well, but impossible to play it perfectly.

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Note: One of the developers, David Eastman, is currently working on a remake

A few years ago I went down to the American Southwest with a friend of mine to see what it was all about. When I got back I did what everybody else does: I put the pictures up on Facebook. But a funny thing happened. As I put the photos up, I noticed, like countless others have, that the slideshow format lent itself to a narrative. I put the photos up, and wrote something to go along with them, and it still stands as one of my favourite pieces.

Early in the life of Big Talk, Real Slow, I threw it all up on here, but it never sat right with me. It seemed messy, and also demanded a lot of the reader. I didn’t bother thinking about it again until I read the (incredible) Hottest Chick in the Game, and realized that there are no shortage of Tumblr URLs, and real estate on the internet is cheap. I could create a proper space for the story. 

I’m probably rambling at this point. This is all to say that you should check out The Big, Quiet Places.  

Salt and Patience

When I was 9, my mother was gone and my father had to learn to cook.

Everyday he would get home from the factory and would try a new dish. There was nobody else: the neighbours were mostly Canadian and we had no family there to help. He didn’t have experience — unless you count heating rations in the army — and he didn’t have the patience. How many times did we eat chewy fettuccine because he couldn’t wait another five minutes? How many pots were destroyed because he wasn’t willing to wait by the stove as the rice burned onto the bottom? How many plates were thrown at the wall in fits of anger, food and dinnerware shrapnel ricocheting off the wall?

Nowadays, sometimes, I laugh thinking about him: a tall brute with hands that weren’t trained for the kitchen. At the time my younger sister and I rarely laughed. Nothing turned out right, and some nights we starved. I learned tricks, but my sister ate it all. She so loved my father. One day he tried to make chicken soup, adding too much salt for flavour. What was left was a salty mess. I sopped it up with bread, making it tolerable, but she ate it all, wincing with every sip. I took care of her that night, rubbing her back, and fetching water while she vomited into the late hours of the night.

I remember when the anniversary came. It was in the middle of summer. We were out all day and came home to find my father, early from the factory, halfway into a momentous endeavour. Vegetables were spread across the table and the counter, pots of water boiled on the stove, potato peels overflowing in the bin. He was pensive, looming over her cookbook, holding it open with one elbow, his lips moving as he read my mother’s annotations. I could see his patience, his dedication, the way he was careful and meticulous like never before. I could smell it — not the singeing of pots or pasta, but a smell that hadn’t lived in the house for a year. This is what a meal should smell like.

We went into the yard and I watched my sister play. I knew the day, knew why it was important, but my sister was too young. She didn’t remember what it was like to have a mother. One day she was there, the next she was gone. My sister missed her, but couldn’t really claim to have known her.

He called us in from the yard. That day, he set the table with our best table cloth. Candles were lit and placed. The water jug was full and cool to the touch (and the table wine was next to my father because he thought I was still too young). I remember a dish full of boiled potatoes, steam still rising off them, soft enough to chew, but easy enough to spear with a fork. A tin of olive oil was in arm’s reach. There was a salad like she used to make, with beets, carrots, onions, and beans, lightly dressed in sunflower oil. At each plate our cutlery and a loaf of bread. And the main course, the beef, burgundy style, ready in the middle. The dishes didn’t really compliment each other, but that didn’t matter. He smiled, beaming over his creation. He knew his work was good.

We sat down, in the cramped kitchen, saying grace, each word said like a thousand times before it, but with new purpose. When we finished we did not rush to grab the food and be done with it. We waited. After a second, giving us time to savour it, he told us to eat.

My sister, of course, attacked with her usual zeal as did my father, hungry from slaving in the kitchen. But I sat still. I don’t know what came over me, even now as a fully grown man. My appetite disappeared. In their hunger, they didn’t notice my empty plate, nor that the only thing I ate was the bread, the only thing not made in that kitchen. My father eventually noticed and asked me why I wasn’t eating. I told him I wasn’t hungry.

“You must eat.”

But I refused. He kept insisting that I eat something, the salad, the potatoes, at least to try them, but I kept refusing to. He tried guilt, and again, I stood defiant. I do not know where this came from, why I became such a pest, why this was so important. I was angry at him, had always been angry at him, and sensed, in the way children can, how to truly hurt him.

“Eat!” he shouted.

“No!”

His fist hit the table. My empty plate jumped, and my water glass fell off the table breaking into pieces on the floor.

“Get out of here!”

We ran to our shared room, lucky that no glass had embedded itself in our bare feet. My sister cried and cried and didn’t want to be consoled by me. She stayed in her small bed. She let the sobs break her to sleep. I heard my father sweep up the glass in the next room, and work to dismantle his elaborate dinner. When I heard water running, I made my way to the door and peered into the kitchen, down the narrow hallway. His back turned, he washed the dishes, taking swigs from the cooking wine after every dish. There was no escape and there was no use apologizing. I crawled back into bed.

I don’t know how long passed when I was woken. He was in the room, at the edge of the bed, touching my leg. His silhouette, illuminated by the light of the hallway, was a hulking darkness. He was something out of a nightmare. I started and he put his finger to his lips and pointed to my sister, a few feet away, sound asleep. I stayed quiet. He raised the bottle to his lips and drank.

He started to whisper and told me this: When he was in the war, not too long before I was born, he got lost in the ruins of a city. It was a place he knew well, one that he’d grown up in. They sent him to scout because of that, but it was that familiarity that made him overestimate his sense of direction. All the landmarks he knew were gone. Everything was like a puzzle, all there, but scattered and rearranged. “You can stay lost for a little bit, but be lost for too long and you die.”

(He waved his hands when he said this, spilling some of the wine on my bedsheets)

He made his way up one of the buildings, one of the few still standing. It was an old apartment building with tiny rooms. It had somehow survived the bombing runs the enemy rained down. From a higher point, he could reorient himself. He climbed up the steps carelessly, more afraid of his lieutenant than the people trying to kill him. Every few steps he heard the roar of a plane overhead. No explosions: It was just scouting.

He reached the top floor and found an abandoned apartment. It looked like its owners left for the afternoon, but the thick coat of dust on everything gave it away. It was a parlour. There was a table in the middle of the room, and a book shelf with everything still on it. Behind the door was a rack with a heavy coat still waiting for winter. He checked the kitchen: a pot was on the stove, half-filled with water. They were there and then they disappeared.

He made his way to the window. It was dusk, and he made out the shape of the city. Looking down, the city was still a mess. This was no longer the boyhood haunt. But he knew where he was. Then he heard the boots.

The enemy, he guessed, had the same idea he did. They were making their way up to get the view of the city. He went into the bedroom and hid in the closet. Maybe, he hoped, they would set up in one of the other rooms. He held his breath and waited. The front door swung open. He listened. One person. It was one person.

He opened the closet, careful not to make noise. He waited for the plane to pass and took a step. He made his way across the bedroom. The steps in the other room started and stopped, started and stopped. It could be a civilian, it could be an ally, but, he knew too, that it could be the enemy. The bedroom door was open a crack. He edged closer, waiting for the plane to pass once more so he grab the knob.

The door opened.

(My father was silent for a long time.)

They both stared at each other. The plane edged close, the loud hum shaking the windows. He went for his gun, but my father went for his throat. His big, rough hands pushed the soldier into the main room. He said he could feel the flesh give way in his hands. It was automatic, he said, something possessing his body to save itself. He lifted the man off the ground and watched his face turn red, then purple, his hands making weak efforts to stop my father. A few more seconds passed, and he was staring at death. My father’s strength left him. The body dropped and he ran from the room.

“I thought it would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to do.”

With the faint light from the hallway, I could see him crying. He took another drink, and stood up, and walked out of the room. He gently closed the door behind him. A few hours later I fell asleep.

He never cooked again.

Preparing for Winter

“No, I’m getting this.”

He put his hand on her wallet, gently pushing it away. He took out his Platinum Visa. Overkill for two overpriced espresso drinks, Jill thought.

“I insist.”

He shook his head. “This is my treat. I feel bad. For having to cancel and reschedule.”

The two lattes came up on the bar and he grabbed both.

“Where to?” he said, and answered his own question by walking to a nearby table by the window.

Jill sat down and took her drink. She was rarely this far west. It was Stan’s idea, of course. Someplace out of the way. It felt too small, yet not intimate at all, with artwork that might work on the cold walls of a gallery, but died outside their habitat. The view of High Park, at least, made up for it. The strong winds were shaking the dead leaves from the trees and they raced in packs downhill, along the gutters. Fall was here.

“Horrible weather.” He said, sitting down.

“You know how you can spot an out-of-towner? He doesn’t complain about the weather.”

“If we’re not boiling to death, we’re freezing to death. Fall and spring aren’t seasons, they’re foreshadowing.” He tried a sip of his drink and winced. Too hot.

“Has it been so long that we’ve resorted to talking about the weather?”

Stan smiled and said, “No, it’s not that bad. How’s John?”

“Good. Good. He’s doing better.”

“He’s recovering?”

“Yes. It’s really…yes. It’s as good as it can get.”

“I’m sorry. For not being…available.”

“And how’s Karen? Does she still hate me?”

Stan made a face of mock surprise. “She doesn’t hate you. You’re bring overly dramatic.”

“Maybe.”

Stan blew on his latte. “Second wife syndrome. She doesn’t understand this, what we’re doing right now. She’s Catholic. Divorce in Latin means ‘scorched earth.’” The rattle of a spoon against the sides of a coffee mug.

“Next time you should marry somebody who can legally rent a car.”

“Oh hush. Does John worry about us seeing each other?”

Jill gave a little laugh. “No. He’s fine with it.”

“Does he talk to his first wife?”

“No. She’s Catholic too.” She took her first sip of the latte. She grabbed sugar off the centrepiece made to look like a flower, each packet a petal. She looked around at the other tables. Everybody else was younger, much younger. Some with kids, some were kids. Stan and Jill were in full business armour, downtown warriors, and everybody else was casual Friday. “This is a nice place.”

“Yes. Julian was thinking of applying here a few months ago.”

“What? Julian? Our Julian?”

“Do you know what they’re calling it? A quarter-life crisis. Too many choices, too many opportunities, and you’re frozen with indecision. That’s what he told me. With a straight face.”

“And what did you say?”

“Have you tried convincing that boy of anything? He gets his stubbornness from you. Thankfully, they didn’t hire him, and I got him that internship. My original point: I like the atmosphere. It’s a nice change from the park. It’s all just children and roving bands of power walkers there. This place maintains a healthy balance.” He took a another sip of the drink, and managed to not burn himself.

“I’m sorry. About Karen. I’m sure she is lovely. I wish you didn’t feel the need to play these cloak and dagger games to have a coffee with me. It’s disrespectful to her and it’s disrespectful to me.”

“Disrespectful?”

“You’re turning me into a secret. It’s not as flattering as you think.”

“I feel like we should change the subject.”

It wasn’t worth the fight. Jill knew better and conceded, giving a casual shrug.

Stan adjusted his seat. “How’s the new job? Julian told me you switched roles.”

“Not so much switched roles. I just…wasn’t going to get further.”

“Oh, don’t give me that glass ceiling bullshit. ”

“Alright, Stan, if it makes you feel better. Five years as a senior project manager with no movement and nowhere to go. It was time to branch out.”

“Consulting?”

Jill nodded. “Richard Barnes, remember him?” Stan nodded. “His firm was looking and we kept friendly after his split.”

“Tactical.”

She shrugged. “Necessary.”

Stan’s eyes tracked somebody behind her and Jill wondered what she looked like.

“And how are things in the world of high finance?” She asked.

“When the inquisition comes, I’ll be fine, but who knows about the company.”

“Skeletons in your closet?”

“I don’t mind if they find those. The whole place is built on an ancient Indian burial ground. I keep hearing these horror stories, like that JP Morgan loss, and a year ago I’d say that we weren’t going to be like that, but, Jesus, some of these kids they’re hiring. You’d think, in a recession, with a employee pool that is swelling daily, we could find somebody who doesn’t need to do simple arithmetic on their fingers. If the company lives much longer than I do, then truly, it was too big to fail from the start. There will be no trace of how I do things: It’s changing.”

“Now who’s the one being dramatic?”

“Maybe. How are you liking the coffee?”

“It’s good. Honestly, I’ve been trying to cut back.”

“So have I.”

They each took a sip of their lattes. Stan took his Blackberry out, looked disappointed and slipped it back into his pocket.

Jill broke the silence. “Going grey may have played a part in it. The consulting, I mean.”

“I knew it.”

“Oh, of course you did.” But she smiled all the same. “Kathy, one of the leads under me, saw it one day when we were out to lunch. She said it made me look more authoritative. What was it she said…’When you go grey, the men working for you will tug on your skirt instead of try to get under it.’”

“You still look wonderful, Jill.”

“Thank you Stan, but I wasn’t fishing.”

“You should learn to take a compliment.”

“And you should learn to keep them to yourself every once and a while. It would save you a world of trouble.”

Stan laughed. “You’re probably right. I don’t disagree. About the consulting. It does sound like a good fit.”

“It’s something. And, for now, I’m enjoying it. Are you planning on staying with your sinking ship?”

“Ummm…” Stan placed his latte down and looked down at the table. “Things are going to…well…something’s come up that…that changes things.”

Jill leaned forward and hunched down. In a half-whisper she said, “Is everything alright?”

Stan smiled. “Karen’s pregnant.”

“Oh.” And Jill’s face froze, for a second, and she knew that a second was all she had. She smiled, quickly. She was going to be happy for him. “That’s…wow. I didn’t…know you were planning to…”

“Yes. Well. You know. She loves Julian but—”

“Of course. Of course.”

“We’ve been trying. And. Well. Yes.”

Jill grabbed the mug with both hands and brought it up to her mouth, taking a small sip, but kept the mug close.

“How far along is she?”

“Six months.”

“Soon. Very soon.”

She placed the cup down. It wasn’t jealousy. Jealousy lives in the shadows of passion and that had died a long time ago between them. And it wasn’t that she wanted a child either. She was happy: Happy for Stan and happy for Karen and happy she had Julian and happy she still had John. Her and Stan had been together most of their lives, as college sweethearts, as a couple, as parents, as divorcees, as old friends. They had survived the strain of it all, their friendship endured. Now, it was different. Their lives were no longer parallel, and he didn’t even realize it. 

“Are you going to wait, or do you already know what…it is?”

“A boy. He’s a boy.”

She knew the answer to her next question. “Do you have a name yet?”

“Yes. Stanley Jr.” And he smiled and didn’t notice the leaves fall from the trees behind him, but it was all Jill could see.

The Great Thaw

A few hours before, in that shapeless purgatory that exists when you stay awake next to a sleeping lover, she wondered what he was dreaming of. Now, in his sullen post-sex silence, she didn’t give a fuck about what he was thinking. 

He was out of bed immediately, pulling up his jeans, covering himself up with a t-shirt, and stumbling to the kitchen, just outside his room. The morning light diffused through the blinds and gave the room a squalor that she was oblivious to in the dark. Every stray bit of clothes on the floor, every dust bunny and errant piece of everyday debris, the smell of condom rubber, culminated into the urgent question: How did I get here?

“Want a coffee?” he said from the kitchen, not turning his back. She saw him, through the door frame, putting the kettle on the stove with a loud clang. She heard him opening the window above the sink and the glass ting of the ashtray finding its way to the sill.

“Hmm?”

“Would you like some coffee?”

“What do you have?”

“Instant.”

“Okay.”

She slid partially out of the sheets and found her purse tossed off just under the bed. She opened it and took out her own pack.

“Don’t. She doesn’t like the smell.”

She wanted to do it anyways, and then realized how petty that made her feel. The cigarettes went back into the purse, she lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling.

The kettle started to shake on the uneven element.

“I’m sorry. About the other day. I didn’t realize you were with her.”

It was a mistake, maybe. She was with friends at Clinton’s, a bar that the young clientele kept out of bankruptcy and irrelevance. He went up to the bar and she didn’t think or, maybe, didn’t care, and walked up to him. He took it in stride, no fear, maybe he had already seen her, planned for this. Then Diane came up from behind and put her arms around him. And when Diane asked about her, he explained she was an old classmate, and she found a way to excuse herself, buying another amaretto sour even though she still had one on the table. She went back to her table, avoided questions, drank nothing, feigned illness and left soon after.

“That’s alright. You’re an old classmate.”

“I think she knows.” The kettle rocked back and forth.

He didn’t turn around. The kettle was taken off the stove and poured into a cup. Shitty IKEA spoon against the shitty IKEA mug. “You think?”

“Can I tell you something?”

His back stilled turned away from her. “Yeah.”

“When you’re a single woman…” she turned towards him, no longer staring at the ceiling. “When you’re a single woman…People look at you different. You’re either a target or a threat. Does that make sense?”

He turned, at last, his face blank. He was waiting for something else. The punchline.

“I think you’re being paranoid. She doesn’t know.” He took a step forward and opened the fridge, out of sight, and she heard the milk being poured into the mug and that fucking spoon again. He moved into the door frame, leaning against it and took a sip of the coffee.

She stared at the coffee, not quite understanding. “Where’s mine?”

“What?”

“My coffee?”

“You wanted one?”

“Yes.” She took a breath. “I’m sorry, I thought I said I wanted one.”

He turned around and got the stove ready again.

“Can I open the blinds?”

From the kitchen, he shouted, “Only if you want those construction workers across the street to see your tits.”

“What?” She walked up to the blinds, and peeked through one set. Below her, the post-morning milling around, business as usual in midtown, but from the second floor she could see the modest beginnings of a condo, or, at least, as modest as a 20 storey building could be in a neighbourhood of low-rises. She wondered why she hadn’t seen it before, then realized it was because she always came in from the back door.

“I was reading a plaque down the street the other day,” she said.

She heard the bangs and clangs of coffee being made.

“When the ice age ended, all the extra water from the glaciers melting flooded the area. So, Lake Ontario went all the way up to St. Clair. That why there’s that steep hill. Can you imagine that?”

Steam poured out of the kettle.

“I wonder, you know, with global warming, if that would happen again. Everything would go back to the way it used to be. All of downtown: buried underwater. Wiping everything clean and starting from scratch.”

He came into the room and the cup landed on the table with a hard thud. “Here’s your coffee.”

She stopped looking out the window and turned toward him. Now that he was in the room, she didn’t want him to see her naked again. She searched the floor for her bra and underwear, among the piles of clothes, and put them on. “You weren’t even listening.”

And she thought of exactly how she got to here. How she thought he was handsome, not hot, not cute, but handsome, and something dangerous and savage. And how he’d come by her shop and was so obviously attracted to her, and how well he thought he hid that attraction. She could see right through him, for all the good that did her. And she remembered when he revealed he had a girlfriend and how it seemed so casual, so off the cuff, mentioned to her after a night of drinks and (was it?) flirting and touches that could be called accidental, if questioned (but she didn’t really question him, did she?)

He sighed and went back to the kitchen, probably to finish the cigarette on the ashtray. He came back a few seconds later. “You really think she knows?”

“What?”

“Diane. You think she knows about us?”

“Are you asking me for advice here?”

“Why do you think she knows?”

“I just…I just have a sense.”

“Women’s intuition?” He almost scoffed out right.

“Yeah. Something like that.”

“I don’t think she knows.”

She sat on the bed and cautiously sipped the cup of coffee. It was a bitter, ugly taste. He went back to the window and took a drag, exhaled.

“Do you even care?” She regretted it the moment she said it.

From the kitchen. “What?”

“You’re cheating on her. What do you care?”

He charged back into view, cigarette in his mouth, smoke pouring out of him. “What kind of question is that?”

“Sorry. Forget it.”

“Where the fuck do you get off asking me that?”

“Forget it. Look, I’m sorry.”

“What, you have her interests at heart? You feel bad?” His face was red, the muscles in his neck thick cables ready to snap. Each question was spiked, quick.

“Of course I feel bad. Don’t you?”

“You think that’s all on me? I didn’t make you do anything. You feel bad because you’re part of this, right here with me!” He was shouting. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and walked back to the kitchen. She waited, because there was nothing else she could do as the seconds became minutes. She was trapped.

He walked back, his body still rigid, but he was no longer baring teeth. “You got yourself here. You feel bad? Why are you coming back then?” His voice was softer, even if his words weren’t. “Maybe I’m the bad guy, yeah, sure, what does that make you? Fuck this.”

He walked out of the room. She wanted to ask here he was going, to stop him. She felt bad, forgetting her fear seconds ago. The back door opened.

She hunted for the rest of her clothes, and sat on the edge of the bed, putting them on. She wanted a cigarette too, and slid one out of her pack and looked at it. Then she slid it back into the package. She stood up and went into the kitchen, slowly. Through the window she could see him, on the fire escape, waiting for her. And she wanted to go to him, put her arms around him like Diane did and have it actually be more true than what they had. Or maybe, just wait for him here, and apologize for making him upset. And then? 

How did I get here?

Behind him she saw the skyscrapers and condos that filled downtown. She could not see the lake, but she wondered, again, what it would be like to for it to rise. And she wondered about being in one of those towers, feeling the water crawl up her leg, realizing it was much too late. A slow, inevitable drowning. 

She put on her shoes, and her jacket. Negotiated the many locks and turned the knob. She walked down the steps, to the front door, pushing it open. Elizabeth got a good look at the condo being built while she lit her cigarette, then she walked north, away from the lake.

Occupy Wall Street Kid

In Japan it’s called The Money Game. The name is direct, almost shamefully so. When it was released here in 1990, it was twisted into something friendly. Wall Street Kid. PG13ification of a culture that’s more comfortable selling kids than hugging them. Wall Street means capitalism. Business. It means making invisible money. It means invisible money turning into fast cars, meals at nice restaurants, gold embossed business cards, Cerruti suits. It implies a world where money is freedom.

The reality of Wall Street Kid: Trapped in my office all day, making calls, checking stocks, reading the paper, buying and selling. I can see my office. 8-bit chic. The phone, a single potted plant, my new IBM with built-in floppy. I spend most of the game in menus reading up on stocks. I’m trapped by the menu-driven interface, the white bordered boxes. In the office I can see a window, but can never look outside. The game is telling me I should be more active. Me, the character, not me, the person. So I go to another menu and select go “to the pool”, but instead of swimming, its just a sentence, white on a black screen, and I’m back at the office.

I’ve grown to resent my girlfriend. I do not like her. She only seems to call me to spend money. I can let her have a certain type of dog, a certain type of jewelry. I cannot ask her about her day, maybe because she never asks about mine. Like everything in the game she has a price, one that keeps rising. I can go on a date with her, but what’s the point? I’m back in the office. Buy low, sell high.

Where does all that money go? I bought a house (“It’s nice. Oh, just a million. You should come by sometime.”), but I’m never in it. She’s calling me again, asking for money for furniture I’ll never use. She doesn’t know I’ve taken a loan against the house so I can buy some ATNT stock. I’ve got a hot tip. When it pays off I’ll buy a boat. I’d like to call it “The Good Life,” People will see my yacht while on their own yacht and nod in recognition. It is the good life, is what their nod will say.

The first goal is to buy a home within a month, then it’s to buy a castle. Why do I need a castle? I don’t, not really. Does anybody need a castle? No, not really. It’s a symbol, a trophy, an achievement, a high score. I’ll have a castle, and everybody else won’t. I’ll be at the top of the leaderboard. I did it in the most soulless way possible, but I did it. The Wall Street Kid has become the 1%.

This game, maybe, was supposed to be about freedom, the freedom that money gives you. A re-skinned power fantasy for the Reaganomics age. Maybe it was supposed to be about all the sexiness we associate with Wall Street, or even just the thrill of money in its most uncomplicated form, as a means of getting the stuff we want. But Wall Street Kid undermines that even when it’s trying to sell the myth to you. Money is ephemeral in the game. One day you can have $600,000 in stocks, but the next, half that. You can be a millionaire on paper, but the bank’s got a lien on your mansion. The chase for more is especially meaningless because it doesn’t lead to anything. You’re back in your office with your sad plant and the clock racing 15 minutes at a time, but it never feels like time passes. We have been promised heaven, but in Wall Street Kid, we are desk jockeys in purgatory.  

But in this day and age, who can afford to question the game?

Transcript of Ronaldo Delacruz Interview

August 28th, 2011

[Interviewee: Ronaldo Delacruz (see attached in-take files). Standard set-up w/ lie detector on table. (see consent form for lie detector attached)]

[Enter Interviewer Peters]

Peters: Well good afternoon Ronaldo. I’m Jonathon Peters. Nice to meet you.

Delacruz: Hello.

[Delacruz tries to lift arm to shake hand, almost detaches himself from lie detector]

Peters: Careful there! Ha, don’t hurt yourself. 

[Peters sits]

Peters: Alright, now I just need you to sign this form. Basically letting us know that you’re comfortable with this test and are fine with conducting this interview with a lie detector. Here you go.

[Peters slides paper over, Delacruz looks at it for a few seconds; signs]

Peters: Perfect. Now, let’s get started. What’s your name?

Delacruz: Ronaldo Delacruz

Peters: The truth! Perfect. You know, I actually had a guy last week who failed that question. Short interview, let me tell you. Have you ever been convicted of a crime?

Delacruz: No.

Peters: Perfect. Good. That was a test. Obviously we’ve run a criminal check on you, you wouldn’t have gotten this far otherwise. How many kids do you have?

Delacruz: One.

Peters: From your wife’s previous marriage. Look at that, true. That’s heartwarming. That’s beautiful. Just thought I’d share that. Back on course. Moving on. You ever cheat on her?

Delacruz: What?

Peters: Your wife. Ever cheat on her?

Delacruz: No.

Peters: Hmm, I see. Okay. Hypothetical situation: you’re playing poker with your buddies and one of them has marked the cards in a small way, but one that he can obviously use to his advantage.

Delacruz: That’s cheating. I think that’s cheating.

Peters: Alright, good, honesty. That’s good. Alright. Now, what if he was counting cards? Like, he was keeping track of the cards as they were played. Is that cheating?

Delacruz: Yes.

Peters: And why? Why do you consider it cheating?

Delacruz: He knows more than he should.

Peters: Hmm…okay, interesting, interesting. Alright, a man has the ability to know the lottery numbers through math. He found a mathematical formula that lets him get the numbers every time. If he uses it, is he cheating?

Delacruz: Is that possible?

Peters: Well, it’s a hypothetical question, so let’s pretend for the next half minute that it’s a very real possibility. 

Delacruz: Umm…yeah, cheating, I guess.

Peters: You guess?

Delacruz: Yeah, I dunno. Yes. It’s cheating. 

Peters: Maybe that was a bit too abstract. Alright, think D-Day. Do you know about D-Day? 

Delacruz: Umm…not really.

Peters: Ever watch Saving Private Ryan? You know that amazing opening scene when it all goes to heck? You know that scene?

[Delacruz nods]

Peters: Alright, well, we pulled that off, the invasion of France, by tricking the Germans. False messages. All the while, we had cracked their code. Isn’t that cheating?

Delacruz: But those guys were Nazis.

Peters: I am aware of that. This is, after all, my example. 

Delacruz: I don’t really get why you’re asking me these questions.

Peters: You don’t understand why I’m asking you questions about cheating in your job interview for a security position at a casino? 

Delacruz: I don’t get all these philosophy questions.

Peters: What I’m trying to assess here are your limits. We all have them: things that we consider right and wrong. So, I need you to answer me: Do you think tricking the Germans, the Nazis, was cheating? 

Delacruz: No.

Peters: Why’s that?

Delacruz: They’re Nazis.

Peters: Admirable. Mr. Delacruz, I’ve seen your record. Moved from the Philippines when you were ten. You took police foundations in college, probably found out private security provided decent pay with less work, and is, yes, a bit less dangerous and went down that path. You have some moral fortitude, of that I am certain, but when does it bend and when does it break. That’s what I’m here to find out. I just need you to indulge me for a few more questions. Okay, this one is bit less hypothetical. You are a runner. 100m dash. You find out one person is using steroids. Is that wrong?

Delacruz: Yes.

Peters: What if you were the only person who wasn’t using steroids?  It’s a widely known secret — pardon the oxymoron — that almost all track runners at the upper levels use the drug? What then?

Delacruz: I’ll run it my way.

Peters: Without drugs?

Delacruz: Yes

Peters: I see. I want to go back to the D-Day question for a second. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. If the Germans tricked us, the good guys, would it be fair? 

Delacruz: I…I don’t know.

Peters: You’re lying, you do know.

Delacruz: Yes, it’s cheating.

Peters: I see. I think that’s all I need. This interview is done as far as i’m concerned. 

Delacruz: That’s it?

Peters: Yes, I’m afraid that is it Ronaldo.

Delacruz: You saying I can’t be trusted?

Peters: I’m saying you’re flexible. If another guard has a great scheme to steal stacks of chips. He wants to cut you in: what do you do?

Delacruz: I say no.

Peters: You say no now. But you’ve shown that you have a certain…situational adaptiveness when it comes to cheating. We can’t afford that here. There is good and there is bad.  

Delacruz: I think that’s bullshit. You’re calling me a crook, but the casino never loses here, right?

Peters: I wouldn’t be able to discuss the finance’s of the casino, even if I was privy to them.

Delacruz: The games are rigged.

Peters: It’s not rigged Mr. Delacruz: You know the casino’s going to win. I know it too. We never lie about that. The game is in our favour, but not rigged.

Delacruz: In the Philippines they say that anything is possible in America. Anything. It’s the same way you say. The game is in your favour. Anybody can come in and win, but most people will lose. I don’t give a shit if the guy is cheating or not cheating: Those are matters for you and for God. You tell me he’s out, I kick him out. That’s it. I just want a job that pays good, because that’s my part of the game. You play that game, anything is possible, you cheat and the game is over, you feel me? 

Peters: I do. This has been informative. I’ll be in touch within the week. I’ll call the technician to unhook you.

[Peters gets up]

Peters: Goodbye Mr. Delacruz. 

A few short conversations about travelling

"It was…a few years ago. I was travelling a lot. I had finished my masters. I was, at the time, 29, and thought that if I didn’t travel now, I was never going to. I did the summer mostly in Europe."

"Because you’re a cliche."

"Ha, yes. I know. But I’d never been before. And it is different in some very key ways. Anyways, I started west and worked my way east. I acquired the habit of going to Starbucks. It’s weird, I don’t really go to Starbucks much here. I did, but it was mostly because it’s hard to avoid."

"Market share through ubiquity."

"Exactly. And it was worse there. It was like its own sovereign nation, with embassies everywhere I went. They serve the same things, with a few exceptions, usually region specific things, and they all seem like they should have a fireplace built into the wall, to warm your feet. It became a sort of home away from home. Really, that’s what it was, a little slice of home. They’re designed with that in mind. Emulating that slice of home. That sort of comforting space that you can always feel safe at. And they have free wifi.

This one time I’m in Barcelona and I’m enjoying my Americano. I’m catching up on emails, planning out my next few days and I see a man walk in. I don’t really pay him much attention. When he’s up at the counter, I have another look at him and he looks like an old college friend of mine. Same short buzz cut, glasses, tall, he’s even wearing the same sweater vest and tie combo. I am staring at this man, and my mind is saying, ‘That’s Adam!’ but that doesn’t make any sense. 

I log into Facebook and, it’s him, I’m not just remembering him wrong. And there’s nothing about him leaving town. At this point the guy gets his drink and he’s coming towards me and I’m…scared, I guess. Something isn’t right here. And the man starts speaking to me, in Spanish — Adam doesn’t know Spanish — and then, in broken English, asks if he can share the table. I nod, in a panic.

I can tell I’m staring at the guy, trying to make sense of this. I don’t know how long I’m doing it, but at some point another person enters. A couple, actually. She looks like a high school teacher of mine. He is…or rather, he looks like, my ex, Jeremy. No doubt in my mind: this person looked exactly like him. Even walked like him. You know how you can get to know somebody’s walk? This guy walked like Jeremy. He looks at me and doesn’t react, in any way. It’s not him.

That’s when I look around, I mean, really look around, and notice that everybody in this Starbucks in Barcelona, far far away from home, looked like somebody else I knew. Friends, family, a few old coworkers, the bartender at the local pub, my landlord. People I know, or knew.”

"What did you do?"

"What could I do? I left." 

"How…do you explain that?"

"I don’t. I can’t. I haven’t told this story in years because people would offer explanations or sympathy, but they weren’t sure what they were offering sympathy for. It’s hard for me to let go of this event and how it made me feel.

Everything was almost the same, but completely different.”

***

It’s a joke, a fucking joke.

These guys, make a few thousand with their penny stocks and think they’re doing alright.

Fucking dilettantes, that’s what they fucking are.

That thousand, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even, that’s insignificant. The giant universe of money doesn’t notice the scraps you’ve put on your plate. You have not gotten away with anything. That is a speck of dust suspended in a beam of light. And you will always be that speck, because you don’t realize how much is out there.

Had to take a plane to Mexico, work, you know. Stupid me, I get sucked into chatting with one of these three legged dogs in the boarding area. He calls me a sucker for having to work when I could be going where he is, Punta Cana.

Can you believe it? That’s his bait. Punta Cana. 

Would’ve laughed in his face, but instead I tell him, “I’ve been to fucking space.”

It’s true. I have been to fucking space.

He looks up to me and says, “You can do that?” and I tell him all about it. Dropping figures because I know that’s what’ll impress him. It’s just that easy. And the rest of the time he’s waiting to board he’s got this big ugly frown on his face, realizing everything he is missing.

***

There are few obvious pleasures in listening to old Mountain Goats songs.

The music is, to be charitable, primitive. “It’s the lyrics! Listen to the lyrics!” becomes the mantra and crutch that most fans try to use when prosthelytizing. Nevermind that John Darnielle’s bleating is, perhaps more than his three-chord structures and the tape recorder hiss, the most abrasive of the sonic elements. And while a solid mix tape can do wonders, few of the early albums and tapes are cohesive enough to recommend. 

Things have gotten easier: Since 2000, the albums have gotten better, at least musically, and the albums thematically tighter. On the best albums, We Shall All Be Healed and All Hail West Texas you get a scope from these slice-of-life portraits of down-and-out characters who have lost all hope.

Lately I started to revisit his “Going to…” series, a collection of songs spread out across several albums about travel. The places range from exotic (Going to Lebanon) to pedestrian (Going to Buffalo). Images of planes and airports, and themes of loss and distance appear time and time again.

Most of the characters in these songs are in denial. They believe that the lover who is boarding a plane can no longer hurt them, that their friend isn’t at death’s door, that they aren’t in mortal danger, that things will be different in Cleveland. They all labour under the assumption that distance will change who they are and how they feel.

And who hasn’t thought about this? Moving somewhere, anywhere, means we have to change so many fundamental things about how we interact with the world. We change our surroundings, our jobs, our friends. Sometimes the ties and relationships that bind us to a place can suffocate us. Moving to a different state doesn’t just signify a change of scenery, it means cutting those ties. 

But Darnielle cuts through this myth. We can only blame so much on our surroundings. Eventually we have to accept that we are part of the problem. Darnielle is obsessed with hopelessness: characters are stuck no matter where they go. They are stuck, and don’t even know it. 

In these songs, place is rendered insignificant. Wherever we go, the exterior becomes a metaphor for the interior, for better or worse. Trouble follows us down the interstate, burdens are transatlantic. Travelling is a form of denial. 

For all its pessimism, though, some “Going to…” songs can be strangely optimistic. The song Going to Scotland is about two young lovers from Oklahoma who are consumed by their young, physical love. No matter where they go, they will always be in love and happy. Here there is some hope. Maybe most of songs are bleak, but maybe I missed what they were actually trying to say. We are part of the problem, yes, but we can be better then the place we find ourselves in.