[This is the fifth short story in a series, the 1st story is here, the 2nd is here, the 3rd is here, the 4th here.]
The subway car was packed with campers heading for a day beach. The kids were rowdy, moving back and forth, yelling at one another in their excitement. Dean had gotten a seat at the end of the row closest to the door. This meant his back was against the side of the subway car, which was fine. But it also meant the the two boys to his right, whose seats were facing the back of the car, were crowding him with their knees. The boys were playing some sort of game that had them both slouched, jerking unpredictably, and waving their hands almost constantly.
Dean fought the urge to hammer the kids, to scare them into behaving. He reminded himself of all the men he must have annoyed when he was a boy. It’s your turn to be the adult, he told himself. Dean might have moved, but one of the councillors was a beautiful girl. Sitting diagonal from him, she had a pretty profile, and seemed to be looking at him out of the corner of her eye. Or at least, she seemed to be aware that he was looking at her out of the corner of his. One of the boys shoved him with his knees and Dean felt his anger rise.
“Everything OK Dean?” he heard in his ear. The voice was a deep man’s voice. Dean pictured the speaker as a heavy set black guy. He tapped his fingers to signal that he was OK. That everything was under control. “You could move seats or even change cars.” the voice suggested. How to explain that I don't want to move away from the pretty girl? He tapped again that all was well. The boys kneed him again and he shut his eyes, and took deep breaths.
When he was a kid, Dean used to visit Brighton Beach a lot. “That was back when they still called it Brighton” he liked to tell people. Dean wasn’t that old. But he liked being able to point out he was a native New Yorker, that he remembered the real New York. Before Boston.
A lot had changed while he had been away. Pretty much everything. But the truth was that everything had changed before he had had gone away, before he had ever been out here at all. The “real” Brighton Beach had been washed away before Dean could remember.
His parents could remember. Coney Island was their old stomping ground. When his mom drank a little too much, she would still inevitably start showing off her tattoos - just like when he was a kid. "I was a mermaid," she'd brag. "She was a stripper," his father would correct. "It was burlesque!" She'd say in mock horror. But it was all show. She was proud of her rowdy past. So was Dean’s father. So am I. Dean thought with a smile.
So at first his mom had liked that he and his friends were spending so much time out here. That was before Quentin LaSane got lockjaw and they all had to get tetanus shots and were forbidden from playing in the ruins. Quentin ruined it for everyone, Dean thought with some irony, but not entirely so. Part of him was still bugged with his childhood friend.
Before Dean was born his family would regularly make the trip out to Coney Island and Brighton to beat the heat on the beaches and shop at the Russian groceries. His brothers could remember eating hotdogs on the boardwalk, as well as the batting cages and rides of the Coney Island amusement parks, but he couldn’t. All that had washed out to sea by the super storms that had battered the eastern seaboard through the Teens and early Twenties, well before "The Big 1-2" hit. But even so, the roller coasters and batting cages were all gone by then, ruined by a series of lesser superstorms. By the time the B1-2 had arrived all there was to scour off the coast were Nissen huts, and sheds set up by the city and its various contractors and NGOs.
The first trip out Dean could remember for himself was just after B1-2. By that time all that remained of the boardwalk were a jumble of cement pylons and all the remained of Brighton was debris. Coney Island was a sandy, garbage strewn dune-scape, punctuated by broken tarmac, skewed foundations, and once-bulldozed heaps of twisted wreckage.
They still called it Brighton Beach and Coney Island then, but it had become something else entirely. That’s why he and his friends had come out here. It had stopped being a wonderland for working class families, and had become a wonderland for roving bands of tweens, teens, twenty-somethings, as well as predatory middle-aged freaks, and skittish homeless geries. Dean and his buddies would come out in packs of a dozen or more to treasure hunt, build forts and have slingshot wars.
The first time Dean had made the trip, he had tagged along with his older brothers and their friends. He remembered that long subway ride, giving way to elevated tracks, surrounded by the scoured wilderness of Long Island's Atlantic coast. The older boys had reminisced about baseball games and roller coaster rides, that Dean was pretty sure they themselves had little memory of. But it hardly mattered, because that's not at all what greeted them. All the bodies had been removed by then, but the smell had still been terrible. Dean remembered he had been afraid, but that the fear had quickly given way to wonder.
As it turned out, the older boys were catastrophe tourists - they had made the trip to take a look around, and to pose for pictures in front of the ruins. All they had really wanted bragging rights, and no sooner than they arrived then they got bored - and didn’t come back until the the food trucks and raves took over. But that was later. But Dean came back the next day and he brought his friends back with him. We weren’t tourists, remembered Dean, we were catastrophe natives. The entire East Coast had been reduced to a post-apocalyptic waste and we had loved it. It had been one of the happiest times of his life.
Quentin LaSane, Kevin Kass, Francis Capp, and the Levine brothers - what pack of knuckleheads. Together the six of them had salvaged shovels and spent a whole day digging out the remains of a flattened wood shop. They had found hammers and saws with rotting handles, socket sets and C-clamps frozen by rust, as well as flashlights, batteries, and a half dozen cordless drills that they spent a week cleaning out and fruitlessly trying to get to work. They gave up on the drills the following weekend when he and Cory Schachter found a dissolving hardware store. Dean still felt pride as he thought of discovering the cache of hundreds of bar clamps after a long day of digging. There had been hundreds of them; brand new, chrome bars and international orange heads. Additionally there had been brand new hand tools and hardware. They now had all the hammers and nails they needed to make whatever they wanted. They even had paint, bleach, and then running water. Quentin LaSane, surprising everyone, had called the discovery "the coup de gras."
It had been Francis Capp who had been the one to find the working main. It was deep under one of the larger piles that had contained a machine shop. The water main was a big deal since the nearest drinking water was a subway ride away. Dean remembered the debate that had sprung up around the discovery - of whether or not the water was drinkable. They decided, for the time being, not to drink it. But still it was important because now they could clean up, cool down, and have water fights. Until then, they had been aware, if not sufficiently alarmed, that everything they touched was covered in sewage. At least after discover the main, they could make a gesture at disinfecting their finds, and themselves.
The main became the axis of their Brighten beach adventure. The twisted end of the metal pipe was cut back with a salvaged hacksaw. The pipe was then threaded, doped and capped with a recovered spigot. The nozzle was fit with a line splitter and two garden hoses, that themselves were eventually split and added to in turn. Into the collapsed machine shop they built a warren of cubbies, secret passages and eventually a room large enough for a dozen boys to lounge in - all hidden inside the existing ruins. It was a miracle no one died, and that the worst thing that had happened to any of us was lockjaw.
It was probably just as well that things were ended when they were. After Quintin's mom had contacted the school, and the shit had hit the fan, Dean had snuck back to the warren one last time. Someone had found it, and had taken a shit in the middle of the big common room. A big adult shit. Dean had been alone, and gotten scared when he realized that there could have been homeless men hiding in the dark along with him. He had turned off his flashlight and sneaked out as silently as humanly possible. But even so, he could tell that whoever it was who had found their warren had hit the mother load, they had "stolen" everything he and his friends had worked so hard to collect.
Looking back Dean no longer thought it was homeless men - the boogymen of his grade school self. More likely it was freaks from Coney Island who had ventured into Brighton looking for supplies or salvage. Partiers from all over the Tri-State - and everywhere else - had begun congregating on the remnants of the amusement parks, turning the dunes into a huge tent city. Coney Island had very nearly become a permanent squatter-favela of artists and weirdos. "The first ever BurningMan served by a NYC subway stop," his older brother Ben had called it. But again, that was before Boston.
“Boston Beach,” announced the train caR. Not that anyone but a caR ever called it that, thought Dean. The arrival of the Massholes had brought that party to a screeching halt. The thought made Dean smile. He hadn’t even known “Masshole” was a slur till he was in his late teens. For years it had just been what you called the fugees at Beantown Beach.
Dean tried to remember the last time he had been out to Brighton - when exactly his parents had moved out here. Dean had graduated high school and was living on his own when they sold their place Ditmas Park. It must have been ‘34 or ‘35. He remembered giving his dad shit about being a Masshole. Things were still good then, but not as good as that first summer.
He thought again about how hard he and his friends had worked, the arguments about ways to lift and shore up heavy timbers, the system of water hoses they used not only as plumbing to bring in water, but to drain waste. If I had been born twenty years earlier, maybe I could have been and architect of an engineer. That’s what his dad used to tell him. Dean sometimes thought it might have been true, but he was never truly convinced. He was too aware of all the advantages that he had squandered.
Jesse and Ben turned out fine, he thought. I was the bad seed. Jesse, his oldest brother was teaching school to rich kids in New Hampshire, and Ben was some sort of consultant and worked with cancer patients. They both had kids he had never met. I’m the catastropharian.
Dean let himself look at the girl. She was laughing at something one of the other camp counselors was saying. The storyteller was good looking black kid with a fauxhawk. Park Slope swells.
Dean had always had an easy time with girls. He used to tease friend who couldn't get a date. "What's your problem? Pussy is so thick in New York you gotta be careful not to step in it." He'd taunt. "You gotta have acne and clubfoot not to get laid." That kind of joke used to make Dean laugh hard, now it made him feel queazy to remember. You're not that guy anymore.
He knew he looked as good now as he ever had. Plenty of time to work out. He could feel the way women looked at his arms, but he didn't enjoy it. He felt disfigured. Now I'm the tongue-tied fuck with the club foot.
He looked down at his wrists. His phone was two form-fitting mesh cuffs, one on each wrist. The mesh was flexible, but only to a point. It didn’t stretch. Dean couldn't slip them over his hands. They were designed that way, not to come off. He couldn't even cut them. Whatever they were made of was stronger than steel.
A few years ago he might have had his pRime, cerbeRus, p2p the girl's pRime, find out if she was interested in him. But any p2p that larRy initiated would start with the court mandated warning: “Violent Offender; Parole.” The train doors chimed and slid open, a scrum of campers formed around the doors. “Last Stop” the caR announced. The girl glanced at Dean as she stood. He watched her leave with an ache. Once the doors were clear and the girl was safely out of sight Dean got up and moved towards the exit.
He knew it did no good to dwell on his mistakes. He had a chance to do something now, and he meant to do. He looked down at his palm. There was larRy, a generic expressionless glyph of a male face, looking back at him. “You’re doing fine Dean.” The familiar voice didn’t solve Dean’s problems, but it did make dealing with them that much easier. He nodded and put his hand in his pocket. At least you got larRy, he told himself, not entirely ironically.
He wondered what he was doing out here. What he had gotten himself into. He thought about the girl on the train. He couldn’t get away from the thought of how beautiful she had been. He never would have hesitated. Before.
Those days are over.
As he exited the station Dean took a moment to look around, tried to get his bearings. I got nothing. The stairs from the elevated station opened onto an intersection two narrow streets, the rough outlines of which Dean knew should have been familiar. But every surface, of every storefront, and even parts of the sidewalk and street, was animated with bright colorful cartoon abstractions. And every edge and corner was capped with cheap mirror polished chrome extrusions. But even so, Dean could make out the curing edges of cheap screen sheet, peeling away from the chromed moldings.
The animations crowded Dean’s eye with bubbling wet shapes that bordered on the pornographic. They decorated all the tiny shops - hardly more than stalls - packed around the entrance of the terminal. Even the sidewalks crawled with suggestive, blob-oid shapes. From time to time huge black san-serif script would move through the animation like weather. There was so much going on all Dean could see was noise. He knew commercial use of screen sheet was tightly regulated - But you'd never know it out here. He couldn’t understand the appeal. They fucking paper their houses with this shit.
“What is it with the Huango and fucking Augmented IRL?” Dean had spoken his question quietly, but out loud, so larRy would know to Query it.
“For the Sino-Africans it expresses of pride of place.” larRy said, pointedly using the polite term; a mild rebuke. It’s not like ‘Huango’ is a slur, its like Masshole, something everyone says. But Dean got it, he was using “course” language. Something he and larRy had discussed a great deal. “The animations are a cultural signifier” larRy continued. “Screen sheet is an inexpensive way to define this neighborhood as Sino-African - a display akin to your mother's tattoos.” Dean often found the his pRime’s answer uncanny. He found it hard to believe there wasn’t a person behind larRy, possibly even a MMOB.
Marking their territory. Dean got that. He lifted his hand to turn off the AR channels, hoping that might help, but all that did was get rid of the directional overlay he was going to need in order to find where he was going.
Suddenly, projected onto the back of Dean’s hand was a view through the animation on the street at the plain tarmac. He swung his hand upwards and wiped at his view of the street in front of him, and just as if he had wiped the field with a wet rag, the animation was replaced by frozen architectural shapes. “Thanks LarRy, that helps actually.”
Dean remembered the day he and his dad had upgraded his sitteR to a navigatoR. His told him to pick out a name. His first choice had had been Kevin, after Kevin Kass, his best friend at the time. But his dad said he shouldn’t choose a person name. “Some people do” he’d told Dean, “but I think it's bad form. It's like giving a person name to a dog or cat.” Their cat at the time had been named House Cat, so Dean had then suggested Phone. His dad had laughed, but told him that most people chose a name with an R in it,"So that they can signal that they’re speaking to AL.”
“Oh, like poRkins and butteRs!” he had said, naming his parents pRimes. “Or quaRt and beaR.” he father said, naming his brother’s pRimes. When Dean told his dad he wanted something cool, his dad suggested they look at mythological names. Going through the list Dean had stopped at “Cerberus! That's the three headed dog that guards hades.”
His dad had helped him pick out and upload the avatar. “Trust me” he had told Dean, “This is WAY cooler than a three headed dog.” His dad had chosen a gray, pig-nosed cartoon aardvark. His friends had loved it. Although it been a fairly simple open source navigatoR, Dean had loved it too. Beyond naming it, and assigning it an avataR image, the only other changes he and his dad had done had been made by toggling through a series of sliders; check and unchecking a series of settings and preferences.
Over the years he had upgraded and altered cerbeRus almost beyond recognition. He had never changed the name or avataR however. But when he went away he had lost access to his pRime, and been assigned a new one by the State. The same pRime as every other inmate in the New York system. His had been designated: NYSDOCS95-R-9876. Thankfully it had answered to “R-ninety eight seventy six.”
But when he was moved to the pen he was assigned larRy, a way heavier software package than NYSDOCS95-R-9876, but as he came to realize, it was also a way heavier package than cerbeRus had been at its most modded out. Dean had been given his very own first gen clinical social workeR. Originally he had told himself he would ditch larRy and get cerbeRus back as soon as he could, even if it was just as a slaved subroutine of larRy, but he was no longer so sure.
It had only been four years since Dean had cut the deal with the prosecutoR, but it was at least eight since he had been out here. I would’ve stayed away longer, but the old neighborhood keeps pulling me back.
“I don’t want to run into anyone I know from before, larRy.”
“I understand Dean.” the voice of his pRime was a comforting presence in his ear. When he was assigned larRy, it had no avataR. Out of resistance to the whole idea of theRapy he had never given the pRime a face. For a time it had been a refusal. A way of showing he couldn’t be forced to do what he didn’t want. But larRy had made the hollow-eyed blank expressive, and Dean had grown used to the anonymous, default blank.
He thought of Kevin Kass' glass eye. I got lucky.
The heat had started after he was associated with an overdose for the first time. Any complaint made against him was flagged and investigated. The second overdose he was associated with had meant if he farted the police knew what he'd had for breakfast. Finally an argument over a pool table had escalated to shoving and threats. That had been enough to drop him. His sentence was light, a two month suspended sentence, six months parole, for assault and battery. But when he was busted for defrauding his landlord it was a third offense, and they gave him 18 months in a low security prison. He had served twelve months when he got into the fight. He had beaten the other guy bad before the other inmates got them separated.
The judge gave him a choice: five years, general population - hard time with other violent offenders, true hardened criminals - or two years solitary in a penitentiaRy. The concept of the penitentiaRy system was based on a failed 19th Century attempt at reforming the wicked. The original Penitentiaries had isolated inmates from one another but also from guards and all other human contact. The idea had been two-fold.
Firstly, to prevent the convicted from forming relationships with more hardened criminals, and thereby prevent further criminalizing the incarcerated. Secondly, and this is a reason for isolated criminals from their keepers as well as their fellow inmates, to protect the “pendants” from becoming known as a criminal. The idea had been that a man might serve his time and, go on to make an honest life for himself, without the fear of being identified as an ex-con by a former cellmate.
“Like Jean Valjean!” his officer of the court, Veronica, had offered unhelpfully. The reference had been lost on Dean, but Veronica felt sure he would have the chance to watch the film during his sentence. “Make sure the ask for the Hugh Jackman version. Its really wonderful!”
She had been a frumpy woman with a huge afro, at or near retirement age, and in addition to walking him through the history of the Penitentiary system, she had explained the penitentiaRy to him. The program that Dean “was being offered the opportunity to participate in” was a “beta test.” And like the 200 year old original, the goal was not just an effort to prevent further criminalizing the incarcerated, it was to reform the penitent.
But the original 19th Century penitentiaries, that hadn’t allowed inmates to speak, and had kept them in total isolation and silence - “They even put cloth pads on the wheels of the trolleys that carried the inmates’ meals.” Veronica told him. “The only thing those poor souls were given was a bible, and they were kept in cells a quarter the size of the room where you’ll be living.”
"I'm sure most of those men went mad" she told him. "You will have this to keep you company." And then Veronica had given him larRy. Unlike when his dad had helped him personalize cerbeRus, Dean hadn’t had options to choose for larRy. Instead he had spent half a week taking a series of aptitude tests, Implicit Association Test, something called "Hare's PCL-Revised" and a half dozen others - "All presumedly named by some sort of algorithm, designed to optimize for institutional sounding benality." Veronica had quipped. At the end of it she had walked him to his cell. It had been small, but as she had promised, not nightmarishly so. She had shut the door, and that was the last he had seen of Veronica. The last person he saw or spoke to for two years.
As it turned out one entire wall of his cell had been a screen, on which he could interact with larRy, and through larRy, the outside world. He had resented the arrangement at first. It had reminded him too much of his grandmother, talking for hours on the phone to conveRsants. He could remember his mother fighting with her when she realized his grandmother had been telling the thing all about the family. About his parents jobs, their income and debts, gossiping about he and his brother’s grades. “What’s the harm?” his grandmother had asked. “It’s not a person, and it's free.”
“It’s not free ma.” his mother had told her. “It sells the the information you tell it. WE are paying for it, with OUR personal information, when you answer its questions!” Dean had been young. Had never seen his mother raise her voice to her mother. He could remember the look of anger and confusion on his grandmothers face. The tears in her eyes.
When, weeks later, he had told larRy that story, larRy had told him “You are not the product. Your reform is the product. I was designed to help you, and thereby help everyone around you.” It had been night. He was lying on his cot, looking across at the dim image of larRy on the screen wall. The cot was warm, and was built to embrace and comfort him at times. He had rejected it at first. Told larRy it was creepy - like “magic fingers” in some stupid old movie. But he had gotten lonely, and the truth was the cot's embrace and touching had felt good.
“Think of it as if you had lost your legs.” larRy had explained. “Providing you with prosthesis, with replacement legs which allow you to care for yourself, and even help support others, that is far cheaper for the State than taking care of you.” Dean remembered that the image had made him cry.
Ahead of him on the boardwalk now he could see his date. She was wearing the big wide brim pink hat she had told him she’d be wearing. He was wearing a baseball cap with an embroidered eagle on it. Just as he had told her. “Hi, you must be Suzanne!” He smiled and waved as he approached.
“Call me Suzy!” Her face looked a lot like her pictures. A good looking woman. She had large jaw that gave her a little bit of a man-faced - almost handsome, but still pretty. He had liked that she was blond and had a strawberries-and-cream complexion. But he hadn’t gotten a sense of her figure. He could see now why she wanted to meet at the beach. Suzy was weary a short thin summer dress, that matched her hat and was clearly intend to show what her profile pictures hadn't. She’s smokin' hot.
All she had allowed his to see was her most public profile. It hadn’t said how old she was but Dean had been expecting someone his age or older. Someone overweight. Strange. She appeared to be a chunk younger. Not a young wisp like the girl on the train, but maybe in her late twenties. Thirty at the most. Better than I ever expected. Better than I ever could have hoped.
After a brief greeting and awkward bit of small talk, they headed down the boardwalk. It had all been redone to look “20th century.” He told Suzy about his mom, that she had been a Mermaid back in the day. That she said the boardwalk never looked like this before. But at larRy’s urging, he also told her he liked it, like it a lot, and that he was glad to be here with her. A lot.
They had beers and a dog at Nathan's, and talked for a long time. It turned out Suzy was studying architectural history at Queens College. She showed him an overlay of changes to the neighborhood that went back to the early 19th century. They watched it together with their frames while she told him about what they were seeing, pointing out lost landmarks as they appeared and disappeared in succession.
Dean had forgotten all about the girl on the train and began to wonder why someone as beautiful and smart as Suzy was willing to meet someone like him for a date - even in the middle of the day in a public place.
Finally, he had had needed to know. He asked her why she wasn't put off by the fact that he was a felon. "I liked the rest of your profile a lot. You listen to cool music. You look good in a suit. And I believe a known red flag, that that is out in the open from the begining, is better than spending years with someone only to find out they've been flying false colors the whole time.”
He wanted to tell her, “What you see is what you get.” - but he couldn’t. She asked him how he'd ended up in jail. He gave her a brief, but complete history. "Are you done with all that?" She asked.
"Yes." He told her, knowing it was true. Wanting it to be. "All of that." That's when he couldn’t hold back any more. When he blurted, “I’m on paRole.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah I know. But you might not be aware that as part of my parole, I’m on paRole.” He made sure to exaggerate the AL-R. Because paRole wasn’t common use, she might have missed it. “I have to use a ‘moral prosthesis.’”
“A what?” She looked at him in confusion for a moment.
“It’s OK Dean. She doesn’t understand.” larRy prompted, perhaps mistaking his elevated heart rate for anger. “She wants to understand. Help her.”
“Its like a navigatoR, but it’s loaded for social woRk.” Her brows furrowed, but she seemed to be getting it. “It has authority.”
“It tells you what to do?”
“No.” he tried to smile. “..although it does try and help me work out what I should do, it doesn’t order me around. But it can tell me what I can’t do. And if I do it anyway, it will report me.”
He looked at her. Her face was still, her eyes serious - hard to read. He thought about making a wooden leg joke; wanted the moment to end.
"Do you need it?" she asked.
Dean thought about Kevin Kass' glass eye.
"Yeah," he heard himself say. "I need it."