They call at all hours with a thousand problems, and our satellites fix their locations to the square foot while our operators try to help them or put them in touch with specialists who can. They call because they’ve fallen and can’t stand up, because they’re alone and choking on their food, because they’ve been abandoned by their mates, because they smell gas, because their babies won’t nurse, because they’ve forgotten how many pills they’ve swallowed, and sometimes because they’re afraid that we’re not here and crave reassurance in case they need us later. It’s a costly service—sixty dollars a month for the Palladium Global Access package, not including the optional Active Angel Plan, which remotely coaches users through more than six hundred common Life Challenges, from administering infant CPR to negotiating the purchase of a home—and clients deserve to know we’re at our stations even when the skies are fair and blue.
“AidSat?” they ask us, and as we answer them we check our screens for their pulse rates and other vital signs, which are forwarded to us from sensors in their bracelets or, for Active Angel clients, in their ear jacks. If the numbers look bad we press a lighted red key that sends an ambulance from the nearest hospital. If the stats appear normal we stroke another key that records and stores the information, shielding the firm from legal liability should it turn out that the sensors have malfunctioned and the caller is, in fact, dying on the line.
Last Thursday around lunchtime this call came. Peculiar, but not as peculiar as they come. The only reason to write it down is that I decided this month to write it all down, everything, my mornings and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I’m an interesting person, I’ve come to see. We all are. We don’t deserve to disappear.
“I’m in my car. It’s rainy—really foggy. I think I see a coastline on my right.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“I’m lost, I guess.”
“Humboldt County, ma’am, city of Eureka, heading south on Wabash Avenue. On your right you should see a Pentecostal church.”
“Which state is this, though?”
“That makes sense.”
“Do you need any further assistance?”
“You’re sure? All conversations with AidSat are strictly private. You sound a bit frazzled, frankly.”
“Time of month.”
I let out a laugh I’d practiced and said, “No kidding,” though what I meant by this I have no idea. Just trying to sound human, I suppose, which I’ll admit can be hard for me sometimes. It’s a skill like any other skill, and not the natural condition they make it out to be in the children’s books.
The woman terminated our connection. But I tracked her vehicle for the next ten minutes. It’s in the contract folks sign when they subscribe. If an operator has cause to be concerned, he’s authorized to continue passive coverage without the client’s spoken permission. I’ve made a habit of this practice. Three years ago, when I was new at AidSat, I took a call from the distraught head chef of a Kansas City country club who’d learned just moments earlier that he’d been fired. Since the man subscribed to Active Angel, I led him step-by-step through a scripted two-hour crisis-mitigation plan. I stood by in his ear as he ate a light, warm meal, obtained a pen and paper at a drugstore, and sought out a peaceful spot of natural beauty (a nearby city park I guided him to), where, in response to my whispered promptings, he sketched a series of detailed pictures depicting his hopes and desires for his future. He seemed composed after finishing the drawings, and, at his request, I let him go. I should have shadowed him. The man returned to his workplace with a handgun, randomly let off five shots in the main dining room (wounding no one but traumatizing many), then discharged the weapon into his own right ear.
Though AidSat provided me with intensive therapy beginning the next morning and lasting six months, the guilt still scratches, the regrets still bite, and sometimes my dreams light up with violet bursts from the bullets I might have prevented from being fired and never got to hear.
I followed the woman’s vehicle on my screen as it entered the town of Eureka and then stopped moving. That was when her breathing suddenly accelerated and her body temperature shot up. She wasn’t running, though. Slow, even steps, direction north-northwest, along a side street whose major landmark was a Salvation Army thrift store tagged on my screen as a high-crime locale. At AidSat we’re not merely counselors; we’re cartographers. Our trademarked multiaxis maps of America’s physical and social landscape are the envy of the industry. They can pinpoint the safest neighborhoods for children, the highest concentrations of single black millionaires, and the most likely spots to contract a tick-borne illness. Location is destiny, is how we see it.
I fingered a key to buzz the woman’s bracelet and waited twenty seconds for a response.
“What is it?” she said. Then a second voice, male: “Who’s that?”
“We’re checking back. As a courtesy,” I said.
I heard the male voice say, “Fucking turn it off.”
“That’s nice, but I’m fine,” said the woman, Sarah Flick, a licensed practical nurse, age thirty-four, and a resident of Saint Croix Falls, Wisconsin. I had her call history in front of me and saw that she’d used the service just twice that quarter, both times for relatively trivial reasons: to verify the safety record of a child’s playpen she was buying and to ascertain the legal penalty for driving while intoxicated in Iowa.
“I’m really completely okay now,” Sarah insisted.
But the health sensors said otherwise. Blood pressure that would pop the plastic screw top off a soda bottle. Light perspiration. A faint but discernible coronary arrhythmia. I touched the key that opens my conversations to my superiors at our Portland unit and lets them review developing situations. Sarah needed a medic, most certainly. I sensed that she might also need a cop.
“I believe you’re in danger. Answer yes or no,” I said. “Do you feel safe around this man you’re with?”
“No.” A quick and tiny “no,” but vibrant.
“Is he threatening you in any way?”
“A lot of them.”
“Physically? With violence?”
“Not so far.”
“Could the reason you didn’t know which state you’re in be that he brought you there against your will?”
“He wants me to hand him the ear jack now, he says. He didn’t know what the thing was before.”
“Cooperate. We’re moments away,” I said. “We’re almost there.”
Such moments are what I live for in my job. They’re why I get to work early for every shift and volunteer to fill in during the holidays: those times when I and the AidSat system unite—when the broad continental reach of our concern fixes on a single soul in peril and we stretch our arms down from the stars. Our infinite automated tenderness ought to have been built into the universe, and for a few years, as a child, I thought it had been. When my parents split up, I found out that I was wrong. But at last the flaw has been addressed. The machinery for answering prayers is now in place, and I am seated at its mighty center.
Two hours after Sarah’s call, I heard from Portland—from a supervisor named Peter P., whom I’d dealt with once or twice before. I happened to know from AidSat scuttlebutt that he had come to us from the upper echelons of the personal wellness industry. It’s a tame-sounding field, but in my experience it turns out some very potent personalities, including a young woman in my complex whom I once had the pleasure of watching at the paintball range where I blow off steam on weekends. Her name is Sabrina, she’s shapely from every angle, and I happen to know through casual research that she works at the Heart Glow Spa downtown. We’re headed for a date, I hope, as soon as I can finagle a chance meeting and come up with the right restaurant.
“That call could have worked in an ad,” said Peter P. “The guy was her ex. Extensive prison record. He knocked her out with dope and stole her car and drove for two days before she woke back up. Only problem is she was wanted, too. Aggravated assault on the girl she left the ex for.”
“Still,” I said.
“I agree with you completely.”
“We foiled an abduction.”
“Sure as shit. The second one this week, my files show. Now, head on home. Your day is over, Kent.”
I asked Peter P. why.
“New mental-health directive. You engaged in a high-stress intervention there. Depresses the immune system, we’ve found, especially in the winter and early spring. We’re trying to be proactive on this front. Hit the gym, maybe. Take a sauna. Rest.”
I did a few years at military school, so I recognize an order. Before I signed off I asked Peter P. a favor that I’d been thinking of asking him for months: a call history on this Sabrina cutie, who I’d noticed wore an AidSat jack disguised as a clip-on sapphire earring. He went oddly quiet for a moment, the way people do when they’re writing something down, then offered to “dig a bit” and left the line. My impression was that her name meant nothing to him but that he wasn’t entirely thrilled to learn that it meant something to me.
But that’s my impression whenever I ask my colleagues for helpful tidbits on clients I’d like to bang.
DVD/VID/PPV—Ref 467396 AD—Subject ID: Sabrina Matilda Grant
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
King Kong (original)
Little Shop of Whores
Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo
Yoga and the One True Breath
March of the Penguins
Neil Diamond Live!
Educ/Soc Cult Index: Mid-Mid
Agent Notes: First porno all winter; guess she’s getting lonesome. Otherwise, colossal yawn as always, only anomaly the Diamond disk. (Maybe her granny was visiting that night.) Urge immediate termination of coverage. Or termination of program, even better, because it’s a SORRY INCOMPREHENSIBLE WASTE AND AN EMBARRASSMENT TO OUR GREAT REPUBLIC! Just joking, guys. Just frustrated. Just checking if anybody even reads these. OH, MY GOD, IT’S GODZILLA’S ENORMOUS FOOT ABOUT TO CRUSH A DARLING BABY MUSKRAT! No, didn’t think so. Feel stranded here. Abandoned. This brat and her pals are inconsequential, promise. No evildoers here. Will keep at her, I guess, and try to stir things up, but because it’s my duty, not because I’m buying this. (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, though—that impressed me. Maybe you’re onto something I can’t see. Cue Werner Herzog, cut to Neil Diamond? Maybe there are layers to this dope.)
I get tired of protecting America sometimes. I get tired of sifting the chatter to find the plots.
Dearest Small One,
Big news from Sabrina: I have another stalker. His name is Kent Selkirk; he lives across the courtyard; he drives an older black Ford minipickup with bumper stickers proclaiming that he’s a Democrat, a paintballer, and that he’d like other drivers to, question authority, free tibet, support your local satanist. On Wednesday I got a weird anonymous note quoting a diary the guy’s been writing about some tricky scheme of his to go through my file at AidSat, where he works (you know: “AidSat—Always at your Side”), and use the info inside it to seduce me.
The funny thing—and the thing that makes me think the letter writer must know both of us—is that I’ve been eyeing this Kent since he moved in here. He seems like my type: a fouled-up jock with brains who goes around wearing flip-flops and pocket T-shirts and a ridiculous pair of thick dark shades that wrap around his head like plastic bat wings and emphasize the squareness of his huge skull. He reminds me of one of my crushes at U Mass, that guy who supposedly date-raped all the swimmers but wriggled off because of his top tennis ranking, except that he’s less obviously psychotic in terms of his walk and posture and general aura. If he passes a dog, he pets it just like I would, and I’ve seen him hold doors for old ladies in his unit and carry a pregnant Hispanic woman’s grocery bags. He also happens to be about half-gorgeous, with one of those partly caved-in boxers’ noses, sprinkled across the bridge with sandy freckles. The only other thing I know about him is that early one Sunday morning at Starbucks, I noticed him reading a Newsweek in the corner and telling a girl whom he seemed to have spent the night with: “Forget the White House. Forget the Capitol. If somebody wants to kick us in the balls, he should attack the Library of Congress.”
Which all adds up to a favor, little sister. Is there somebody clever in your tech department, some nerd you can maybe bat your lovely lashes at, who can use this guy’s name to find out what he’s been up to before he spotted yours truly and fell in love? It’s pure high school, I realize, and totally unfair. But it might be good for shits and giggles. Maybe that isn’t how computers work, though. I wouldn’t know. I’m just a facialist.
Well, it’s time to head out now and do my Girl Scout’s duty. Or maybe I haven’t told you: I’m playing nurse. Every couple of days for a few hours I sit with this sweet older black man I met last summer during one of the volunteer mass searches for that poor little Hindu girl who vanished here. The guy got sick about five months ago, some vicious new mystery bug they haven’t named yet (it probably started when someone ate a monkey). And mostly he just lies in bed these days making lists for his doctors at the VA of all the people he might have caught the germ from or maybe given it to. They’re interesting lists because he’s been around. He used to be a special army officer stationed in Hollywood, of all strange places, where I guess he helped out with TV and movie battle scenes and slept with all the nasty nympho starlets. He has a tattoo of a dog man on his left forearm, but it’s all shriveled up and it looks more like a weasel.
But hey, guess what? In the courtyard now: It’s Kent. I’m peeking at him through my kitchen window. He’s just back from Costco, it looks like, with lots of boxes, and he’s wearing his flip-flops because of the weird warm spell here. I’m thinking I’ll change into a tighter top now and maybe freshen up my eyes and lips. I’ll vamp him a bit when I walk by, but nothing desperate or flagrant—just scatter my scent. I’m still seeing Lorin, that fruity laser surgeon who gave me the massive discount on my eyes, but I think I’ve worked off my debt there (lick and nibble!), and I’m ready for someone less artsy, with a few hangnails.
Wet kisses until the end of time, girl,
Excerpted from The Unbinding by Walter Kirn. Copyright © 2007 by Walter Kirn. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.