Invagination

by Daniel Arpie

“I would wake and then begin again, They would wake and then again begin.”

                                                                    * * *                                                             

I know a Person who works at one of the McMahill genetic testing clinics in the Pacific Northwest.

McMahill’s marketing has recently become very diffuse and not totally unhip: the new Senior Marketing Director, Bill Koss made the decision to slash the budget for print ads and reroute that cash towards buying up massive amounts of ad space on Ancestry.com[1]—so much ad space that McMahill and Ancestry have, to Ancestry users, become seemingly interminably linked: Ancestry and McMahill basically now appear to be one. Koss dubbed this all the Marketing Revitalization Campaign (MRC). The enormously irritated Ancestry users (who don’t see an end in sight to the head-clubbing ad campaign) complain via official channels and threaten to take their business elsewhere, and initially these complaints were a massive concern to the McMahill CEO, X.Y. Zaihd, but Koss, arguing against much resistance, insisted that they stick it out and wait for the quarterly results to roll in; two months later (April ’11) he was vindicated: the reports concluded that despite the growing Ancestry.com insurrection, McMahill had enjoyed a 30% sales[2] increase since the inception of the MRC.

Interested, highly marketed-to parties (i.e., customers/“clientele” [per the MRC vocab guidelines]) read their credit card information over the phone to a McMahill Telephonic Representative, the MTR reading it back to them as they go, then reciting from the script: “Thank you! We’ll be shipping you a box with some instructions; the whole process is pretty simple. You can expect the box in between seven and eighteen business days! Do you have any questions? Great, have a wonderful day!” and then the MTR hits the “SUBMIT” button on the glowing terminal, and an MPE (McMahill Packaging Expert) puts together the small, economically packed box.

Contents:

-Contents List[3]

-Plastic specimen jar (100ml)

-Specimen jar lid

-Written directions

– Return postage slip (prepaid)

The directions: [1] Open plastic specimen jar (100ml). [2] Spit in plastic specimen jar (100ml). [3] Adhere specimen jar lid to top of plastic specimen jar (100ml). [4] Put plastic specimen jar (100ml) in box. [5] Apply return postage slip (prepaid). [6] Mail. Results typically come by mail in 2-3 weeks.

The job that the Person I know has is to empty the contents of the spit cups into the hopper of a little machine. There is no corporate, M-based acronym for what she does. The machine reads the DNA in the spit and prints out on receipt paper the genetic breakdown of the spitter; additionally, the machine prints an approximate date of death for the spitter according to whatever it is that their DNA says. She explains that this latter bit of information is only really accurate if the person has a genetic predisposition to something fatal. I told her that everyone is genetically predisposed to die; she didn’t think that was very clever.

This clinic does not include the results of the prognostic findings in the final report that is mailed to the person, only the genetic breakdown. Even still, the Person says, it is impossible to not read the prognosis of the spitter. She begs me to understand how awfully depressing it is to be the only person on Earth whom knows that a given spitter is going to die by way of myocardial infarction before their 40th birthday, or that a given spitter already has an inoperably advanced glioblastoma. But what’s worse, she tells me, is the compulsion to spit in the hopper of the little machine yourself.

There are many persons who have the same job as the Person that I know. So far only one of them has admitted to giving in to the compulsion. He submitted his letter of resignation, drove home (stopping to fill up his tank at the Citgo in Junction City and to buy a pack of cigarettes), and blew his brains out all over the inside of his shower stall. We speculate, unoriginally, that the human mind isn’t equipped to handle a fixed date of guaranteed nonexistence, that his suicide was protest against something, like one of those burning Tibetan monks. I wonder if the machine feels cheated.

* * *

The MRC team finishes filtering into the banquet hall, Bill Koss at the helm. He isn’t an ugly man; a little over fifty, not salt and peppered but moving in that direction, and his hair is still thick. His left Oxford is shined more than the right. He is not wearing a wedding ring. He is called up on stage and gives a speech about the progress that he’s been so happy to have helped make at McMahill Clinic #SB233PNW1811, concludes with a sincere tear in his eye, and chokes back a sob as Zaihd hands him the Employee of the Year award. The room, sans Kim Fiorvanti, applauds lightly. Koss takes his seat, stomach rumbling. He looks down at his plate, stops a passing waiter and says something to him. The waiter returns a few minutes later with a take-out box. There are a number of rumors floating around the office about Bill Koss and his allegedly bizarre private life and personal habits, a not small number of which I have heard second-hand from the Person. The girl sitting to the left of me leans over and whispers to the rest of us at the table, “Word is, when Koss was SMD at Dart, he maybe like brainwashed himself a little bit with that “We Make Your World More Convenient ®” campaign. The guy literally does not own a single non-Styrofoam plate, bowl, or cup. Which, if you really think about has a lot of implications: if he doesn’t own any kind of kitchenware other than the Styrofoam stuff then how does he cook? He must just order take out all the time, or else eat TV dinners!” Everybody else at my table is hunched down a little with serious faces on, nodding grimly. I look over at Koss. He’s hunched a little too, but he’s smiling, and gazing at his award.

Bill Koss used to vacation on Block Island, RI annually, always going the same week the nearby (nearby to BI, RI, that is, not to Oregon) colleges let out for Spring Break because BI is, to the Northeastern U.S. University Undergrad, a totally paradisiacal Spring Break destination: yes the booze is expensive, but it’s nothing to pick up a few bottles in Point Judith before hopping the ferry over; yes, there are a ton of cops on the island, but they are totally laid back middle-aged guys who tie their graying hair back in ponytails, wear visors and bumble around the island on bicycles, smiling wistfully and paternally at the college students partying in the sand; the hotels are scarce and expensive (think $400/night) so dugout bunkers on the beach are the most typical accommodations, and there is such a specific charge in the air that anything is possible – racing mopeds through the town center after a dozen beers or experimenting with MDMA or having sex with an attractive stranger – anything, because there are just so many other people around doing the same things; young, affluent, smart, healthy, tanned people from composed, moneyed families, the kind of people who just absolutely could not be doing anything wrong at all.

When Bill Koss is on BI: [1] His diet becomes purely bivalvic[4]; he slurps slimy things out of their shells, forgoing cocktail sauce or lemon, instead opting for a liberal sprinkling of his own pre-mixed blend of herbs (Thymus vulgaris, cymbopogon citratus, elettaria cardamomum, laurus nobilis); [2] Every afternoon he wades out in the water and drops to his knees, allowing the waves to break squarely across his chest, and he smokes an absolutely titanic joint rolled with marijuana procured back in Oregon, marijuana of such quality and potency that the nearby undergrads with particularly keen noses cannot help but look at him with envy[5] and [3] Early in the morning, he totters out across the jetty with a roll of twine, a fish hook, and a can of corn. He plops his mass down and smiles into the rocks, drops his baited line and waits for the Dungeness to bite. Or do they snap their claws down? He is unsure of how they actually affix themselves to the line. But he sits and smiles and says encouraging things to the crabs, urging them to avail themselves, promising not to harm them, saying he only eats the bivalves – that he just wants to catch one so he can snap a picture to frame and put up on a shelf in his 2br/1.5bth condominium, and that he will release it back to its crab friends as soon as the picture is taken.

On a Sunday morning Bill Koss stands up out of his little beach dugout and stretches. The college students are still asleep; it is an overcast morning and the sea is churning and greenish. Koss walks down the jetty, planning his steps carefully, executing all of the necessary hops nimbly. He sits down at his hole and drops the line, leans back against a rock and smiles at nothing in particular. He turns his head out to the far side of the jetty and his smile drops. He sets his line down and anchors it with the can of corn. There is a young man floating face down in the water, his body thumping up against the rocks with the pulse of the Atlantic. Koss whispers, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus,” as he approaches. The dread is building. He kneels down and pokes at the boy, and retches. He doesn’t remember much about the walk back across the jetty or the 911 calls or the ferry trip home. That was the last year that he went to Block Island.

* * *

I remember reading a story by one of the magical realists, I think probably a Latin American, slapping along in Garcia-Marquez’s wake; the story was about spontaneous human combustion. A girl is proposed to by her boyfriend, who abruptly catches on fire, and he stays balancing on one knee while he burns and the girl doesn’t scream or try to swat him out with her jacket or otherwise react much at all. A cop pulls over a speeding moped rider who promptly bursts into flames. A lady comes home from work to find her husband nailing the maid; she explodes with the force of a nuclear device, and the explosion levels the whole block, the whole barrio, and the air rushing in to fill the space from which it was just so violently expelled sucks the wind out of everybody all over the entire South American continent, not fatally, just so much as to make everyone sigh and then reflexively gasp.

I asked the Person, “What do you make of that story?”

“Don’t know.”

“Think there are any parallels between your suicidal coworkers and the flammable Columbians? Art imitating life imitating art imitating death?”

The Person snorted. I laughed too. We shook our heads and looked at the ground and kept shaking our heads. She is well read, better read than I am, and has an M.A. from the U of Illinois. We talked about the novel that she works on at the McMahill clinic between salivary deposits. The novel is basically about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel (between salivary deposits) about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel… and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, and the whole thing is very meta, very alright and very unpublishable. There is a large, self-aware section of the story that deals with infinite regression: the infinite regression of the-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic-about-a-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic; the logical foundation for infinite regression, and an attempt to model the given regress mathematically. She told me about it for a little while and I pretended to be interested. It seemed as though we’d run out of things to say to one another, then she spoke,

“There is no such thing as an answer. You know that right? I mean an answer to any of this. To any of what we’re talking about. Maybe capital-A Anything -slash- capital-E Everything. It doesn’t exist. No such thing as an answer.”

I was incredulous. “I don’t buy that.”

“What’s the answer then?”

“Do you mean… like… What do you mean? You’re asking me to answer that?”

“No. I’m just saying you can’t,” she whispered.

“The other day I decided that I’m radically against online shopping. Convenience in general I guess. Netflix and stuff too, especially.”

“Why?”

“I was sitting and thinking about it and I just really hate how convenient things are getting to be. We’re losing so much and getting absolutely nothing for it, you know? It isn’t making our lives any better on any meaningful level. It’s neat that I can watch a thousand different movies without getting off the couch, but is my life really any better for it? I don’t think so.”

“Would your life be better if you had to drive to the video store every time you wanted to rent a movie?”

“Yeah, actually. I think it would be. At least then there’s some sort of an interaction going on, person-to-person, I mean, between the clerk and me. That’s what you get stories and experiences out of. Walking the isles, looking at the new releases with a friend. Picking up some candy and popcorn, maybe a pizza and some beer on the drive home. Maybe the movie stinks, but the quality of the movie is sort of secondary to the actual experience of getting the movie, and the experience of watching the movie, you know? That’s how life is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be scrolling through a pre-determined selection of movies that are already rated while you sit on the couch. There is no fun in that. We don’t have little adventures anymore. We have forgotten, or are choosing to ignore the fact that we are human beings living in a world that is full of other human beings. We are insulated against every interaction that isn’t with a personal friend. We’re becoming solipsists, basically, I think.”

“I think you’re right,” she whispered, “Science isn’t going to save us. Technology isn’t going to either. What do you think will?”

“Moving to a place that still has video stores.”

* * *

It is late at night. My partner and I are sitting on the couch. I’m watching TV and she is thumbing through her cell phone. A commercial for a product, CREST WHITENING STRIPS comes on. Charlie starts talking to me. I am hearing Charlie talk and staring at the enormous mouth that is slowly moving towards me on the screen. The teeth are very white, and a computer graphics artist has added a digital glimmer to one of the lateral incisors. I stare in awe until the picture changes to an advertisement for PROGRESSIVE AUTO INSURANCE. I realize Charlie is waiting for me to respond.

“Sorry, what?”

“Whatever, never mind.” she says, smiling and shaking her head.

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, it was the mouth.”

“I was telling you that I’m thinking about getting this genetic counseling done. It’s really easy now I guess, they just mail you a cup and you spit into it and mail it back.”

“No, I don’t like that. Stupid.”

“Why?”

“It’s anti-human, isn’t it? I mean, our genetic makeup isn’t really very interesting. What we make of whatever we think it is is a lot more interesting.”

“How is that anti-human?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It is though. Don’t you just feel like it’s very deeply anti-human?”

“No.”

I got angry.

“Well, you’re wrong. Objectively. Objectively you’re wrong. I’m going to get to sleep.”

“Okay,” she giggled.

I shut off the TV as a seasonal advertisement for COCA COLA comes on. I get into bed with Charlie and pull off my shirt. I lie there and shiver. It is cold. I shut off the lamp and close my eyes. I think about the fact that the McMahill Clinic and the Person and Bill Koss all exist in a time zone permanently four hours in my past. I wonder what that means for a few minutes.

I have absolutely no idea.

I am afraid.

Footnotes:

[1] This change was painlessly implemented, as a full 75% of McMahill’s marketing budget was going towards full-pagers in Skymall inflight magazine, but Skymall was going out of print so it’s not really as though Koss had to make an agonizing decision about whether to stay with the magazine or not (really, there’s a fair bit of controversy w/r/t the MRC and if it wouldn’t have sort of just fallen into place regardless of his hiring, etc. amongst the higher ups, Kim Fiorvanti, for one, thinking that his receiving the Employee of the Year award was overzealous in the extreme), and moving the majority of advertising online was the practical, obvious, 21st century solution – thus, his detractors argue, the only credit that should be given to Koss is his selecting Ancestry.com to be the primary target of the MRC – but who’s to say they McMahill wouldn’t be doing even better if they were marketing on a different website?

 

[2]Koss et al. would object to this verbiage, preferring “contract engagements” (the notion being that McMahill does not have customers, but clients, does not sell a service, but offers a “contracted package”, etc. – a memo dated 7/7/14 explaining all of this was shuffled into the mass of papers on The Person’s crowded workstation)

 

[3] Bill Koss introduced this item; Fiorvanti argued compellingly to the Zaihd that it could be absorbed by item 4 (Written Directions), but Zaihd, being so impressed with the results of the MRC, shrugged and told Fiorvanti to let Koss have it.

[4] He eats primarily oysters and mussels (raw) for lunch, steamed clams or pan-seared scallops for dinner. No breakfast.

[5] Being noticed was a significant (but not the sole) motivation for the ritualistic Smoking of the Joint.