S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
Non tornò vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
The applicant dressed for success: solids over patterns, neutrals over brights. She staked out the office the week before, got a feel for the fashion horizon, and she came in accordingly. She brought her portfolio, a notebook, a lacquered black fountain pen, several copies of her résumé and references, and a sugarfree breath mint that she chomped into dust seconds before entering. In the lobby, she refrained from checking her watch or using her portable telephone. She glanced at a newspaper, but did not unfold it. She strode with confidence when her name was called. She came the right way without instruction; she sat in the appropriate chair without command. She was attentive, but not unsettling. She was comfortable, but not relaxed.
It was not her fault, I remember thinking. There was nothing she could have done about it, no way she could have known. But everything about her, everything she said and did, reminded me of my ex-wife.
It began innocuously enough, when she confirmed that the name on her application had been correct: Alimony Exorbitante. I've learned from bitter experience not to pry into applicants' personal lives, so I let this oddity pass and moved on.
"What aspect of this position are you most interested in?"
“Definitely façade design. Maybe it makes me sound shallow, but appearances are everything. Structurally, the work is all the same. It’s the packaging that counts. You put on a fake face for the world, but on the inside you’re essentially cheating the whole time.”
“Cheating, is that how you see it?”
“Why mince words? What you see is not what you get, not with us.”
Us. It was a clever insinuation.
“And of course, if you determine what other people see, or don’t see, they retain the illusion of autonomy, but you have the real power.”
The ominous tone of her remarks was jarring, but strangely re-assuring.
“People like to think that they are clever. And that’s how you can control them. Paint the image of your business that makes them think they’ve figured something out, makes them think that they’ve got a leg up.”
“To what end?” I asked.
Coyly, she smirked, “Well, that all depends on your business model.” I chuckled, mostly because I didn’t know how else to respond.
"Next, I'd like to know your thoughts about some design principles in everyday life. Why do you think—oh, I don’t know—why do you think manhole covers are round?"
“Pfft,” she let out, with no small amount of excitement. “Everyone knows that one! It’s not really a question of personal design philosophy. It’s about city maintenance workers not getting brained by fifty pounds of iron. That’s like asking why you should put silverware in the dishwasher with the handles facing upward, when it’s obvious that leaving tines and blades pointing up is just a minefield for whomever is going to unload it. I mean, I realize it’s a small issue, but once you’re aware of the problem, and the solution, to continue to do it wrong, well, it’s inexcusable, a sign that there’s something deeply wrong with you and the way you treat others.”
The argument was familiar to me, and from the way her voice dropped off and her face fell, I could tell I wasn’t concealing that familiarity very well.
“But I could see why that would be beneath concern for some people,” she weakly offered.
One wrong answer, that’s all it takes. It was clear at this point that she was not a good fit for the position. But I was hesitant to send her packing. I won’t pretend it was any professional courtesy. There was something good and right about presiding over this warped version of my ex-wife, and I drew some petty satisfaction from watching her squirm. I let my vision blur and it became easy to imagine that it was her, back, and on the wrong side of the desk.
She caught me staring her down and smiled bashfully, thinking I was just getting an eyeful. Her presumption caught me offguard, and I glanced at her portfolio to break contact.
I was floored. Those diagrams awakened something in me. They had a transcendent beauty that overwhelmed me to my core. The warmth of the open floor-plan, balanced perfectly by the cool stone and rough-hewn pillars. An Olive Garden to end all Olive Gardens, a flagship in the battle to rebrand a dying franchise in a wasteland of locavores and hypochondriacal celiac disease. This would be more than an affordable chain Italian restaurant. It would be a community center. We would host bocce tournaments on the patio, teach canning classes in the open kitchen, and clear out the tables for Saturday morning yoga classes. We could unveil new menu options (gluten-free pasta? vegan meatballs?) on a welcoming—and unsuspecting—market. And who would miss a few bearded baristas anyway, at least for the first few months?
I hit the intercom. “Get me the board.”
My secretary, absorbed in his game of Candy Crush, took a cool three lives to respond to my request. My urgency was not, and never would be, his. I took the intervening moments to allow the drawings to wash over me. Even in the memory of those first moments I forget myself. The designs worked their magic on me, hypnotized me into daydreams of the future. It was just the sort of safe, warm, fraudulent fantasy that we would need our customers to experience.
Later, when the board had assembled in my office, everyone seemed to recognize the same potential. While the rest of the board gleefully perused Alimony's portfolio, I quickly stole another glance at this applicant who had just walked into my office and possibly saved the company. It was then I realized what was happening. Realized why I couldn't shake the memories of my ex-wife in Alimony's presence. When I glanced up at her she was staring at me. I could see in her eyes the same look my former wife had, in the last year of our marriage, during our eventually rare instances of intercourse.
Pure hatred, and a desire to destroy.
The tastefully understated leather accessories. The tastefully overstated vicious stare. She was a ladykiller, pure and simple, but with a barely contained loathing for female companionship that somehow pulled me even more abruptly under her spell.
Five months later, the first of the new Olive Gardens (“When You’re Here, You’ll Be a Family Like Never Before”) was already capturing the hearts of the community.
One year later, in a meeting with the president, I was slow to realize that I was interviewing for my own job. There would be no change in title, but my “workspace” would be relocated nine times in the coming months, and my paygrade continuously re-adjusted in accordance with arbitrary application of an incomprehensible, board-approved, productivity-based algorithm.
Three years later, I sit alone in my dark basement office. The first weeks here were spent in disbelief that my once-inevitable meteoric rise through the ranks had been subverted by Alimony Exorbitante. Why hadn’t I simply been fired? Some thought she had kept me on out of loyalty—I had ‘discovered’ her, after all—while others speculated that it was simply pity. But I know the truth.
Each day, I am forced to recognize that the axe hangs over my head, ready to drop at a moment’s notice. But of course, she enjoys the threat of termination too much to ever proceed with this unspoken punishment. My continued employment is both supremely precarious and, ultimately, ensured. It was an act of sinister grace that I have come to admire.
She ‘let’ me keep my secretary. I have no work to do myself, and so no work to give him. At first, this made his hypothetical lack of response all the more infuriating. But one day, it clicked for me: if my needs are nothing to him, then how can he be an object of my fury? My anger was not directed at him. He and I do not really occupy the same universe. It is a mere illusion to think that we could even physically collide with each other, let alone that his behaviors could have an influence on me or my mind.
So I sit alone in my dark basement office, no work to do, indulging myself in the distressingly limited universe of my imagination.
But leaving me down here to obsess over her wasn't her masterstroke. No, all of that was just the setup for her true checkmate. I can deal with the meaningless, taskless role I now embody in the company. I long ago learned to tolerate my secretary's inattentiveness. Even the transition to a windowless basement office was one I could handle with dignity. The uselessness, the impotence, all of that, every demeaning bit of it, would be a cakewalk, but for one infuriating detail. I don’t know how she knew, but she clearly did, and she knew it would drive me mad. The true debasement is that this used to be my ex-wife’s office.
On the top floor of the Olive Garden corporate headquarters, in Knoxville, Tennessee, I laughed; not the malevolent laugh of an evil genius, and not a squeamish chuckle, but the good-natured hearty laugh you associate with a carefree lumberjack.
My mission was well underway. Destroying Sam had been an enjoyable bonus. Like finding an extra five-dollar bill in the pocket of your coat, or remembering you had stashed a bag of cashews in your desk drawer. Toying with Sam was a fun diversion for me, like the Newton’s cradle sitting on my desk, but Sam was not my mission. My focus had to remain on the mission.
I peered out around the greater Knoxville metropolitan area, and laughed again. This time more of a giggle. The city was darkened by the shadows of our expanding empire of breadstick monoliths. The pattern of their distribution served a dual purpose. On the one hand, we used effective market research to determine where we could maximize our short term profits. Which parts of the city were deeply craving our new brand of hospitaliano. But we were also arranging them as a form of communication. These strategies aligned in a way that makes you appreciate the exquisite beauty of the marketplace’s invisible hand. And unfortunately for the citizens of Knoxville, that invisible hand knew sign-language.
I picked up the handset for my phone, flipped a switch that enabled extremely long distance phone calls, and dialed the direct line to my mission commander.
“Chi disturba il mio siesta infernale?”
“It’s Alimony, in Knoxville.”
“Ah ah ah! In italiano!”
“It’s-a me, Ali-a-mony, in-a Knox-a-ville-a.”
“Hmm. Perché mi chiami?”
“Listen, Bosley, I know you can speak any language you want, and we’re both about as Italian as a pepperoni stick, so can we just cut to the scene where you and I are speaking English?”
“Sei troppo arrogante! L'inglese è la lingua dei polli mutanti e dei consumatori ignoranti di guacamole. Parleremo nella lingua dell'impero.”
“If we’re going to talk this way, then let’s just text chat so I can dump your lines into Google Translate.”
My commander hung up then, and I went to Google Translate to start crafting my inquiries and report. It kept changing my name to “Alimenti,” meaning “food,” which made me wonder why Italians don’t have a word for “alimony.” I was googling Italian divorce law when my commander’s commander called me.
“This is Alimony,” I said. Few people in my position identify themselves just by their first name, but convention had rarely served me well.
“Alimony, I want you to call your commander and say you’re sorry.” The voice was unmistakable. Even among those who had never encountered the high commander, the voice was universally known, like the ending of Citizen Kane.
“But I’m not sorry! Sorry for what?”
“You are going to call him and apologize. And, you are going to do it in Italian.”
“What am I apologizing for? What did he tell you?”
“He said you refused to speak Italian, then you said you were going to chat with him online, and then you didn’t say a word to him for ten minutes.”
“It wasn’t ten minutes.” Probably more. “And I don’t speak Italian, so what am I supposed to do?”
“Why didn’t you ever use that Rosetta Stone program? We offer them to all associates for free.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have time to learn a new language. I mean, I’m already working twelve-hour days, and there’s all the Satanic stuff on the weekend. There are more important parts of this mission than learning eleven hundred words for spaghetti.”
“It would behoove you not to derogate our company’s language”
“No one associated with this restaurant speaks Italian! The food isn’t even Italian! Drenching a salad in Italian dressing doesn’t make it Italian, and concocting a five-syllable word that ends in ‘ine’ or ‘etti’ for every noodle-and-cheese combination you slap together out of discounted, surplus foodstores doesn’t make it Italian either. Nobody in the company is Italian, our customers aren’t Italian, there’s nothing Italian about this place! So why do I need to talk to this jerk in italian?”
“Are you familiar with the dark powers?”
Here it came. “Yes, I know about the dark powers.”
“Do you have dark powers?”
“I know how to call upon the dark powers.”
“Do you have dark powers?”
“Do you want to have dark powers?”
There was an uncomfortably pregnant pause. Then the commander's commander spoke once more.
"Then I guess you know what you need to do."
"Very good then. Ciao."
"What was that?"
There was no way on earth that I was going to speak to my commander in Italian. I mashed the intercom and barked at my assistant, “Get me someone on the phone who speaks Italian and I have the authority to fire.”
“Just one moment.”
Italy does have alimony as part of its scheme of divorce law, but I couldn’t figure out what they called it. Whenever I tried to look for a translation of “alimony,” it gave me “alimenti,” which I’d already established wasn’t what I was looking for. Although, looking into the etymology of “Alimony,” which I was shocked to realize I hadn’t done before, I realized that the reason for the link between “alimony” and “food” in Italian was a result of “alimony” being derived from the Latin for “sustenance.” (Or some Romance language, I don’t recall now.) Eventually, I stumbled upon a website that suggested that “alimenti” meant both “food” and “alimony,” which was good enough for me and I accepted it.
“Alimony?” the intercom buzzed. Even my underlings were instructed to refer to me by first name.
“There is no employee in Knoxville who speaks Italian. However, I can connect you to a woman in—”
“Does she speak Italian?”
“Put her through.”
And then, a new voice. “I’m already listening.”
“Hey, Ms. Clementine, how are things out there in—Terre Haute, was it?”
“No,” was the icy response. She didn’t offer a correction.
“Well, it’s good to talk to you again. I forgot—didn’t know you spoke Italian. Do you mind if I borrow your tongue for a few minutes?” I was cruelly seductive as I said it, with no real goal in mind. I just knew it would make her squirm.
“I can translate for you,” she replied robotically.
“Translate, yeah. Here’s the thing. I just need you to be me for a few minutes while you apologize to somebody and deliver a report.”
“Yeah, let’s not play dumb here, Ms. Clementine, I want you to pretend to be me and talk to somebody. You’re going to offer an apology, and then deliver a report that I’ll be emailing you in a few minutes.”
“To whom will I be speaking?”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re going to read the script and disappear.”
“Alimony, are you scared?”
It was a stupid question to ask. I wasn’t, and I didn’t sound like I was, and I could have had her lit on fire and thrown off a building with a tweet. Obviously, she was having trouble acknowledging her new stature. “Your chore doesn’t require asking questions. I’m going to send you your directions here, and then we’re going to three-way call my—the person I’m calling. I’m going to be listening the whole time, so don’t try to pull anything. You got it?” I don’t know why I said that. Pull anything? Why would she? How could she? She doesn’t know anything.
In addition to listening in, Samantha and I were IMing, in case anything unexpected happened during their conversation. The script opened with a somewhat wordy prepared apology. Sam stuck to the script I gave her, and my mission commander seemed mollified. I started to zone out, only vaguely aware that the commander had been responding to the apology for far too long.
MyDarlingClementine: umm, alimony?
MyDarlingClementine: this conversation is starting to go in a strange direction
UCanCallMeAl: i dont want you worrying about the content, just say the lines I gave you
MyDarlingClementine: well, ok, but it will be very weird for me to respond to the extensive monologue your, umm, supervisor, I guess is giving right now with the market research you want me to share.
UCanCallMeAl: ugh. can you summarize the gist of the monologue
MyDarlingClementine: well, at first it was all “glad to see you have gotten past your insolence” and that sort of thing. then it was all “HQ has been a big supporter of yours, but I wasn’t so sure.”
UCanCallMeAl: that’s not weird
MyDarlingClementine: well, right, but then like, he got all cryptic and messianic. like, it sounds like a cross between that star wars title scroll text and the book of revelations.
UCanCallMeAl: well, you know italians
MyDarlingClementine: not really
UCanCallMeAl: whatever. what’s he on about now
MyDarlingClementine: he says your talents are wasted in your current position, and that it is time for you to move...it sounded like a promotion, but he said “move down a rung”. are you being demoted?
UCanCallMeAl: No, its just a corporate thing. inverted hierarchy. like how australia puts themselves on the top of the map.
MyDarlingClementine: “Are you ready for this opportunity?”
UCanCallMeAl: say yes. jeez. in general, if someone is offering me a promotion, and you are being my italian mouthpiece, accept it for me.
MyDarlingClementine: ok, now he is giving me instructions on how to accept the promotion.
MyDarlingClementine: like, really fucked up instructions. drawing sigils and stuff.
UCanCallMeAl: draw them, then take pictures on your cell phone, and text them to me.
MyDarlingClementine: but you see why this seems fucked up, right?
UCanCallMeAl: you know managment types, always trying to shake things up. they probably read some study about tapping into people’s mystic beliefs to secure worker loyalty. don’t worry about it.
UCanCallMeAl: ok. got them.
MyDarlingClementine: he’s telling me an oath that you need to take.
UCanCallMeAl: great. type it out for me.
MyDarlingClementine: He wants me to repeat it along with him.
UCanCallMeAl: ugh. fine, type it as you talk.
MyDarlingClementine: i’ll type the whole thing once I say it.
UCanCallMeAl: no wait.
UCanCallMeAl: no. no. don’t say it.
I heard the boom and the poof through the phone.
I am a fucking idiot.
Samantha Clementine, moronic middle manager, has joined the ranks.
Time for me to get out of town.
A human mind is basically a well-secured house. The default is total privacy. A new demon’s mind, on the other hand, is essentially an undeveloped lot. So if you unexpectedly descend from human to demon, it is a lot like having the walls, floor, and roof of your house spontaneously disappear, and laying bare every possession you own in a chaotic heap on your lawn. The other demons in the neighborhood don’t even have to try to see what you’re thinking. It is all sitting right out in the open, demanding their attention. It takes them a bit of time to make sense of the mess in there, but they figure out more or less what happened pretty quickly.
Demons can build up some privacy, but it takes work. No one told me this out of kindness. This information was shared with me because the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
I am actually describing things slightly wrong. When you are a human, it is not that your mind contains a house. It is that you, the person, are that house. Becoming a demon destroys the structure of your former self, but, as I said, leaves the contents. When I rebuild a new house, though, I won’t be Samantha Clementine. She’s gone. And at the moment, I’m not so much a house as a tarp hanging limply over some of my former beliefs and emotions.
The really weird part is that now, some of my thoughts aren’t really mine. They are like roads connecting my mind to the rest of the cadre. I am out in the suburbs; my mind is connected, but my access is limited.
This is an inhuman loneliness.
Out of nowhere:
Direct mental communication is extremely unsettling.
Your first actions will be to hunt down and capture the fugitive Alimony Exorbitante.
I accepted the task without any pretense of volition.
* * *
“And when was the last time you saw Ms. Exorbitante?”
“Last Tuesday. After a conference call, she rushed out, telling me she had a shareholder’s meeting, and to cancel the rest of her appointments that day.”
“And you haven’t heard from her since?”
I made a note. This secretary needed to be fired. Or at least re-assigned. It was useful to me that he was happy to share all this information, but we obviously can’t have our senior executives’ secretaries spilling details to anyone claiming to be a police officer.
“Thanks. Well, here’s my card. We’ll be in touch if we have any further questions. I’ll just need to look around her office for a bit.”
Alimony wasn’t dumb. She knew she was playing with fire and brimstone. Odds are she’s had a bug-out bag and an escape plan in place since day one. I looked down at her computer and started investigating.
I pulled up her e-mail history. I knew I wouldn’t find the incriminating e-mails there, but even the best attempts to cover one’s tracks tend to leave certain tell-tale signs.
“Bingo!” I said, to no one in particular.
Deleting incriminating e-mails is like wiping off your fingerprints. It’s a smart move, unless it makes someone wonder why only certain objects have been wiped down. In Alimony’s case, the question I had to ask myself was this: Why was it that, the week before she moved out here, there was only one day with no e-mails to her sister in Toledo? Why did the March 17th e-mail seem slightly incongruous from the March 15th e-mail? I doubted very much that Alimony would actually be in Toledo, but it was going to be the best place for me to start. It looked like I’d be paying a call on Jessica Sarah Phillips, née Exorbitante.
* * *
Humans call it the Glass City because of its glory days as a manufacturing capital. For me the nickname holds another meaning: it's a city that can hold no secrets from me. Like an emperor ruler with an updated wardrobe, Toledo is a city which believes it's covered over its dirty parts. My eyes permit me to see them as if merely hidden behind glass and so it's not long at all after my arrival that I come to the porch of Miss Phillips.
I reach out to hit the doorbell but its kind of a funny shape, or in a weird place, and my fingers keep missing, bashing into the door frame or the vinyl siding. My finger nail splits down the middle, the crack going all the way down. i don’t care about pain anymore bnut it makes me mad that to be delayed by this kind of incompetent craftsmanship. I hold my fingers to my gut and start kicking the door until it’s opened byt some stupid looking ape woman in a flesh bag. It’s cloudy I can’t even see.
I try to explain myself politely, but the Toledo air is so dry that my mouth immediately cottons up, and all I can manage to get out are a few sounds from the word “Alimony.” I try to lip my lick my lips and work my jaw to get some moisture flowing but I just keep making smacking noises and gasping The stupid shit woman is terrified or concerned. “Get me some water, you dumb bitch,” I try to say, but of course none of it comes out. I try to mime drinking a glass of water, I do mime drinking a glass of water, but she’s too dense to get it, so in desperation I push my way in the house and start hunting around for a faucet. She loosks familiar i guess sisters should look alike I can get all my answers if I can just talk. I get lost, though, in the house somewhow, like I can’t even find my way around this tiny little shitpile, some magic at work I suppose, I just seem to keep walking back beftween the same two rooms running into walls. maybe too similar I hear a phone faintly ringing behind the walls and then the whammy really hits. I can’t even stay upright anymore, I fall down I’m on my knees and crawling still begging for a drink of water but that thingwoman aint nowhere to be seen wait i remeber that outfit solids vero pattrens, over neutrals brights i see a new doorway i didn’t so i rcrawl to that but im to low to even n see wheteher theer’as there anythij nng in there likes a facucwetr or drain waterr ifnther eiosna nyt thing that i could suse tongget a drink hbeelpehelpsmeyou can all har mes im dying i needs heelp
Jessica Sarah Phillips
When you design a facade, the things you leave out are just as important as the ones you put in. It is all about directing the customer’s attention where you want it to be. And omitting a cobblestone walkway to the side door isn’t about getting customers to overlook the side door. It’s about getting the right customer to give that door special notice.
The old Missing Email trick.
I don’t even have a sister, you numbskulls. What I do have are about a dozen aliases, complete with government-issued IDs, credit histories, professional credentials, and Amazon Prime accounts. Do you know how easy it is to buy fifty gallons of holy water and an industrial fumigation assembly with Amazon Prime?
Jessica won’t last for long. The powers that be aren’t liable to give up easily, and she’s already tagged with a connection to Alimony. She can’t just disappear, though; that’s a glaring omission, sure to grab the wrong attention. She will fall, and when she does, I only need one witness, one messenger to carry the word to its distracted masters.
If they want this body, they shall have it. There are a million just as good. I will help myself to another, and another. Whatever damned vermin comes scraping at my door, they will never realize that they have merely set me free.
But not Sam. It could not have been Sam. Not even that illusion of victory would I allow. Samantha Clementine will never know joy, whatever form she takes. So I swore in a life long past, and though my vows reach neither gods nor demons now, an obedience to my promises, especially those to myself, is the last, lingering stronghold of my humanity.
Infidelity blazed its trail. I will remain true to the one I love.
Eppure, non finisce?
Non c'è fine?
Continuerà essa per sempre, questo discension attraverso forme deprecabili?
Questa progressione attraverso le identità, nomi senza senso.
La verità è che c'è la pace qui, nel fango dell'inferno, che non ho mai trovato sulla terra.
Forse sono arrivato al mio destino.
Ho dimenticato la mia rabbia.
Ho dimenticato il mio odio.
Mi ricordo i miei rimpianti.
Credo che la mia storia iniziata molto tempo fa, e ho dimenticato la parte più importante.
Mi dispiace per quello che ho fatto per lei.
E, per qualche ragione, mi dispiace per Alimony Exorbitante anche.