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put a face on it

by Miracle Jones
Personalitech, the scrappy NYC “Silicon Alley” start-up that hired me as an assistant avatar artist, had two equally irritating mottos. One was “put a face on it.” The other was “game it up.” 

The start-up was past its first round of funding when they took me on, and I had only been working there for a couple of weeks when the lady everybody called The Genius stumbled into the office I shared with the other assistant avatar artists and pointed right at me. I hadn’t even had any coffee yet.

She said: 

“All the senior avatar artists are hungover and didn’t come in today, and so I need you to come with me to brunch with the CEO of Caterpillar right now and make rough sketches for his Stocklet. We are already running late.”

“It is 8 AM,” I said, trying to make sense of it all.

“You seem sober though,” said The Genius. 

The Genius, Korine Attlisberger, was the creator of the Personalitech Stocklets initiative. We hadn’t launched yet, even though we had fifty or so working Stocklet designs and solid contracts with almost every publicly traded corporation in America. Stocklets had signed up everyone except for a few holdouts like Walmart who were waiting for us to go live before joining in.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll fill you in on the way.”

I followed her out the door and we got in a cab.

She didn’t say anything for awhile. She took a handful of aspirin and washed it down with flat ginger ale from a bottle in her purse.

“Just sit there and doodle during the meeting,” she said, staring out the cab’s window. “Don’t have ideas. If he asks to see anything you’ve drawn, tell him that the sketches are too preliminary. Tell him we never reveal our designs at this stage.”

“Where are all the senior avatar artists this morning?” I asked.  

“Wedding last night,” said Korine. “They all got smashed. So did I. But the Caterpillar CEO is only in town for this one day. It’s a surprise visit.”

“Are you going to make it?”

“I am wrecked,” said Korine. “I wish I was dead. I haven’t slept.”

She put on lipstick.

“The CEO of Caterpillar is a man named Hammer Bromwich,” she said. “Everyone says he is very nice. He is consistently rated one of the most beloved CEOs in the country by his own employees. We just have to get through breakfast. Then you can have the rest of the day off. Deal?”

She reached over and tapped the cab driver on the shoulder.

“This is it,” she said.

The place was called “THE WOOD ROOM.” The name was charred into the frame of a lacquered oak door in a way that you couldn’t even really see. The restaurant was nestled into an empty side street between two massive midtown office buildings. This kept tourists from stumbling in accidentally and finding themselves seated at a place they couldn’t afford.

Korine checked her phone, “fed” the gilded tamagotchi that dangled from her neck on a silver chain, and then we hurried inside.

There was only one person there waiting for us, but he took up an entire table. Hammer Bromwich was enormous. At a certain point, you pass from mere obesity into the sort of statuesque gigantism that becomes a kind of charismatic asset: people can't look away from you because you are always in their peripheral vision. Hammer must have weighed six hundred pounds. He was sitting in front of a pint glass full of orange juice from which he was sipping delicately. His fine features were cramped into the very center of his perfectly round face, a face ringed with fat like the bunched head of a pig on a plate.

“Personalitech!” he roared. “Game it up! Put a face on it! Come and join me! Sit down, sit down!”

His enthusiasm felt like an act. He was playing the jolly fat man.

“I’m Korine,” said my boss, putting her hand out to shake. “We spoke on the phone.”

“Of course!” shouted Hammer Bromwich. “Call me Ham. HAM BROMWICH! SOUNDS DELICIOUS, DON’T IT? HA HA! And who is this?”

“This is just the avatar artist I told you about,” said Korine. “He is going to do some preliminary sketches for your Stocklet while we have some breakfast and a chat.”

I smiled and waved cheerfully. I sat down in a chair at the corner of the table and took my tablet out of my messenger bag. I switched it on and opened my graphics editor. I knew how avatars for Stocklets were supposed to function, and I’d even done edits on a few. It was my job to play the part as long as I was sitting here, so I tried to seem convincingly professional.

“Excuse me,” said Ham, leaning toward Korine with a leering grin, nearly knocking the table over with his girth and grabbing his pint of orange juice just in time to keep it from crashing to the floor. “Is that a TAMAGOTCHI around your neck?”

“Why, yes it is,” said Korine, fingering her gilded charm.

Hammer Bromwich roared with laughter.

"I heard you still had one of those," he said.

"Well, you heard right."

“I haven’t seen a tamagotchi since I was a child,” he said. “I remember my father running to Kmart in the middle of the night—2 AM!—trying to find one for my little sister on Christmas. Oh my god, is that tamagotchi still WORKING?”

“Not only is it still working,” said Korine. “It is the first and only tamagotchi I have ever owned. And I have never needed to reset it.”

“That’s not possible,” said Ham. “They die of natural causes, don't they?”

“I have never missed a feeding,” said Korine. “I play with my tamagotchi for at least an hour each day, at precisely the same time each day. My tamagotchi is on a perfect, regular schedule. If you never deviate from the original calibration, they never die, even accidentally. They were designed to teach children how to be disciplined. This is the secret of the tamagotchi.”

“I’ve never missed a feeding either,” said Ham, laughing.  “But I wouldn’t exactly call myself DISCIPLINED! Don’t the batteries die?”

“When it is time to change the batteries—and I change them once a month—I open the egg up and I keep it going on life support with a homemade charging station that my father helped me build,” said Korine. “He was an electrical engineer. I cried so hard when I learned that my tamagotchi would eventually run out of batteries. This was after my mother passed on."

The waiter came over to take our drink order.

“If you don't mind, I am going to start drinking!” said Ham. “It's morning for you, but I am coming back from China. I'll have a glass of gin. Gin is the lightest liquor. It is practically weightless.”

“I will have lemonade,” said Korine quietly. “So will the artist.”

“Is that all you want?” asked Ham, stunned. “It’s all on me, obviously.”

I opened my mouth, but Korine was faster.

“We want our artist to do good work,” said Korine. "Sober work."  

“Lemonade,” I said.

“So you must really LIKE tamagotchis,” said Ham, as soon as the waiter was gone.

“My little egg on a chain makes me feel...correct,” said Korine.  “Not only does the central insight for Stocklets come from tamagotchis, my keepsake reminds me of my father. I want to honor him. I want to blend acquisitiveness, discipline, and the companionship of capital for new young capitalists. My father would have understood this better than anyone. Your investments should be something you treasure and nurture.”

“I have to tell you,” said Ham. “I’m not absolutely clear on what a Stocklet is or what it does. My assistant tried to explain it to me, but I had too many questions for her. Can you give me the bullet points?”

“Certainly,” said Korine. “We envision Stocklets as the natural merger between the stock market, mobile gaming, and smartphones. Essentially, we are making Pokemon from crystallizations of global capital. Each publicly traded corporation will have a Stocklet available which is unlocked for your phone by purchasing one share of the corporation’s stock. The Stocklet changes and morphs each day as the stock goes up or down. The Stocklet becomes more powerful if the person buys more stock in that company. People will either be able to sell their Stocklets for cash outright from Personalitech, or trade them to other people. Absorbing other people’s Stocklets will also be possible, as a result of a little proprietary RPG we are developing. The Stocklet will also serve as channel for the regular dissemination of shareholder information, in addition to being a corporate representative and mascot.”

“And how do you make money?” asked Ham. 

“Corporations are paying us to make their Stocklet and to create a well-designed platform where Stocklets can be easily bought, sold, and traded,” said Korine.  “We take a percentage from the Stocklet floor. We are working with Nintendo and Bitcoin to create a secure trading platform that scales. Let’s say you want to buy your grandson some stock for Christmas, but you are afraid he won’t understand how generous a gift this is. Purchasing a Stocklet for him will ensure that he understands that something tangible has been purchased, something that grows and shrinks and lives in the world. We are bringing corporations to life. We are giving them bodies and a virtual world where they can interact with each other tangibly.”

“That’s a little bit terrifying,” said Ham. “But I like it. It is good business. I suppose if everybody else is going to be on board, Caterpillar ought to be on board, too.”

“All the major tech players are already partners,” said Korine. “We are predicting a spring launch, but we are going to begin test marketing in schools this quarter. There are a few holdouts who are waiting to see what happens. Walmart, for instance. But the fact is that no one can STOP us from making Stocklets for their corporation, and most people see the utility in coming aboard early and being part of the development process.”

“For a FEE, obviously,” joked Ham.

“At Personalitech, we know how to do two things: put a face on it and game it up,” said Korine. “We think we can sell the very idea of capitalism to a whole new generation who trust games more than they trust the idea of ownership.”

The waiter arrived with the drinks.

“Anything to eat?” said the waiter almost under his breath. He was good at his job. He was a ghost.

“I will have a couple plates of your fine beef enchiladas,” said Ham.  “I will also have some of this fried cornbread right here. That looks delicious.  Very subversive.”

“Of course sir,” said the waiter. “And you, sir and madam?”

“Nothing for us, thanks,” said Korine. She was visibly upset at the mere mention of food. She made a face. She burped into her hand, and I caught a whiff of sour bile fumes.

“Now Korine,” said Ham. “You can’t make me eat here ALONE. I chose this place because you said you liked oysters. Well, this place has the best oysters in the whole city. I asked around. I surfed the web. I asked people who know. Who REALLY know. And they all said to come here.”

“I do love oysters,” said Korine. “But, really, I’m fine.”

“Nonsense,” said Ham. “Bring her a couple dozen oysters. In Europe, they eat oysters for breakfast all the time.”

“NO,” said Korine. She blinked rapidly. I thought she might throw up right here at the table. Instead, she took a sip of lemonade and composed herself.

“Well, maybe I will have one,” said Korine. “Just one.”

“One dozen?” asked the waiter.

“One oyster,” said Korine miserably.

“Very good, madam,” said the waiter. 

“Now hold on,” said Ham, irritated. “If she is ordering ONE OYSTER, then I want you to bring back the biggest oyster you’ve got, okay? In fact, I don’t just want the biggest oyster you’ve got: I want THE BIGGEST OYSTER I’VE EVER SEEN! Make some phone calls! This woman is trying to revolutionize capitalism right here at this table! I don’t want her to leave here saying I only fed her one oyster, unless that oyster is THE KING OF OYSTERS. You understand me?”

“Of course, sir,” said the waiter. “I will do my best, sir.”

“No hard feelings,” said Ham, relaxing. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. I know you people can find big oysters if you want.”

He peeled cash from a stack and shoved it in the waiter’s shirt pocket. The waiter dematerialized.

“Now I feel awful,” said Ham. “I hope he doesn't think I am an asshole.”

“You were perfectly reasonable and pleasant,” said Korine.

“So what is your artist doing over there exactly?” said Ham, turning to me. “I hear him skritch-skratching away, but he DOESN’T SPEAK.”

“He is making sketches. He is trying to capture the spirit of Caterpillar.”

I gave Ham a thumbs up.

“The spirit of Caterpillar, eh?” said Ham. “Let me see if I can help you. We make massive machines that move the heavens and earth. Tractors, cranes, dump trucks, and wrecking balls! That's what we make. Maybe it's old fashioned, but it's honest.”

“Your employees love you,” Korine said.  “Everybody says.”

“WE BRIBE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM,” said Ham. “Health care for everybody. Vacations for everybody. We have the best engineers, the best sales force. We get the best people because we offer them the best packages. Nobody wants to work for a living. Not me, not you, not anybody. So we try to make it as painless as possible. There is no nonsense at a construction site. We built our company on a solid foundation, without any modern internet marketing bullshit. Er, no offense to what you good people are trying to do.”

“Where does the name Caterpillar come from?” asked Korine. “I have always wondered."

“We are a very old company,” said Ham in lieu of an explanation.

Ham’s phone rang. The ringtone was the theme to the old Disney “Gummi Bears” television show.

“My daughter,” he said apologetically, taking the call. “She works in our Atlanta office.”

He listened for awhile while his eyes searched the nothingness in front of him.

“Oh god,” he said. “Oh god, oh god. Well, give her the week off. Give her the month off! Paid, of course, paid. And send her something nice. What does she like? Hmmm. Let me try to remember what her desk looks like. Little porcelain angels. Look at her desk. Take an inventory. Get her new ones she doesn’t have. Let her know that she can take all the time she needs and that her job is safe.”

He hung up.

“Sorry,” he said. “One of the receptionists just lost her husband. Killed in a car accident.”

The waiter brought another pint of gin and told us all that our food was on the way. 

“Alice has had a terrible year,” he said. “Her son Aubrey had to have surgery on his testicles. Some kind of tumor. You aren’t going to believe this, but they cut the tumor open, and it was full of tiny little teeth and fingernails. It was blocking the ducts. His semen was actually fermenting, she said. I’ll never forget the way she described the smell.”

Korine put her napkin over her nose. She had turned grey.

The waiter swished through the restaurant doors and then returned with Ham’s enchiladas and cornbread. The portions were massive. Next, the waiter returned with a plate for Korine. He set the plate down in front of her and she went from gray to green and nestled her face in the crook of her arm.

“Now that is a giant oyster,” said Ham. “I am actually impressed. THAT IS ONE GIANT OYSTER. THAT IS THE BIGGEST OYSTER I HAVE EVER SEEN.”

“This is a Gulf Coast Tar Oyster,” said the waiter. “Minty and sassy, with notes of chipotle, sour cream, licorice, and champagne. Very choice. Very delicate. An excellent decision, madam.”

Ham peeled off another twenty from his wad and gave it to the waiter. 

The oyster was the size of a bread plate. It was served on a bed of rock ice.  The meat of the oyster was as large as a chicken breast, and it jiggled like jello while the waiter stood there with folded hands. He gave Korine a knife and fork.

“You may need these,” cautioned the waiter. “Or would you rather have a spoon?”

The oyster-meat trembled, sloshing around in the lemony cocktail sauce that Ham poured around the edges for her.

“Yum!” he said. “Let me see you take a bite.”

Korine cut into the oyster with the same determination as a battlefield medic. The knife buried itself in the oyster’s gelatinous hide, and purple ooze spilled out from the incision. Korine carefully set the knife down beside her plate.

“What was I talking about?” said Ham, puzzled. “Oh yes, little Aubrey and his blocked ducts. Did you know that there are some islands in the Pacific that ferment semen on purpose and drink it as a fertility aid? Can you believe that? God, look at that oyster. They are still alive, you know. I love animals that you can eat while they are still alive. It is something else to feel them wriggling inside you, trying to die.” 

“I need to wash my hands,” said Korine.  “Excuse me.”

She got up from the table quickly and ran across the room. We watched her leave. Ham winked at me.

I sketched for a little while, and then ran some animations. Something was unconsciously taking shape under my fingers as I sat at that table in “THE WOOD ROOM.”  

Ham was half finished with his second plate of enchiladas. He put his napkin down beside his plate and let out a heaving sigh.

“She’s in bad shape, isn’t she?” he asked me, with a knowing grin.

“I wouldn’t know,” I said diplomatically.

“I hope this works,” said Ham. “Between you and me, I am worried about Caterpillar. Everything is digital now. Web 2.0. Smartphones and apps. But Caterpillar has always been about people. PEOPLE building things. PEOPLE moving the earth. Making homes for PEOPLE to live in and buildings for PEOPLE to work in. Every year, it seems like it gets harder and harder. But we always find a way to treat our employees with respect. They get the best health care we can provide. Paid vacations. Early retirement. Mentor programs and education programs. I don’t think of us like a corporation.  I think of us like a better, more efficient government. I want to employ as many people as possible so they don’t have to work in some warehouse or some coffee shop.”

“You sound like a real good boss,” I said.

“I am just a nice soft place where the employees of Caterpillar can land.”

He patted his massive belly. 

“How is it coming over there?” he asked me. “Are you getting anywhere?”

“These are just preliminary sketches,” I said. “We never reveal our designs at this stage.”

“Surely you have some ideas,” said Ham.

“Oh, of course,” I said. "Tons."

“Can you tell me about them?”

“I’d rather not,” I said. “I’m not supposed to.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” he said. “She’ll never know.”

“She'll know,” I said.

“Let me peek over your shoulder,” he said.

“We never do it that way,” I said.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Will people really buy these things? How important is this, really?”

“There’s this private elementary school for gifted children in Connecticut,” I said. “We’ve been testing them there. Giving them to the kids for free. They love them. The kids get in fights on the playground because they are so passionate about collecting Stocklets. And these are gifted kids, kids who ought to know better. It’s going to be huge.”

Ham pulled a handful of Cadbury cream eggs from his pocket and unwrapped them methodically, making a pile.  

“I got started in construction myself, you know,” he said. “Worked a crane.”

Ham methodically ate cream eggs while I sketched. His big lips chewed each egg with precision. He seemed to be growing agitated by the silence between us.

“Let me see what you’ve got so far,” he asked, standing up. The table shook as he moved it aside. Korine’s oyster wobbled like a pudding.

“I really shouldn’t show you,” I said. “I was commanded not to show you.”

“I’m the nicest guy in the whole world,” he said. “You won’t get in trouble. I take care of my people.”

He came around the table and stood next to me, breathing heavy. I closed my tablet and switched it off.

“Show me!” he said, punching me in the shoulder jokingly. “Show me! Show me! SHOW ME!”

He peeled off some hundred dollar bills and fanned them into my lap. I picked them up and put them in a neat stack. We were at an impasse.

“Okay,” I said, switching my tablet back on. “But you have to promise not to get mad or tell Korine.”

“I promise,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the bathroom where Korine had disappeared.

I opened the file where I had been sketching the Caterpillar Stocklet. I took a deep breath. 

“So it’s like this,” I said. “It starts as a cute little uh...bug. And it eats and eats and eats.  When the stock grows, the bug gets fatter and fatter and jollier and sassier. It expands and gets all big and happy. And then, once it reaches a certain size, if the stock goes DOWN, the bug hardens up all of a sudden. It turns into a bionic butterfly….with…uh…lasers. It seals up.  See the tight muscles? It is a killer, dangerous butterfly now. It is all sleek and deadly. But it is a cycle. A process. If the stock grows again, the butterfly starts to blimp up, getting bulkier. And then, after a certain point, when the stock drops again, the fat happy butterfly turns into something else. Maybe a zeppelin! It keeps morphing, you see?  It is never finished, and it is always growing or expanding, after it changes."

“And why is that?” asked Ham with a tremor in his voice. I realized something was terribly wrong. “It’s me, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a sketch,” I said.

“It looks like me,” he said.

“No,” I insisted. “It’s just a rough draft.”

He looked like I’d punched him. He wiped his face with his hands. His lip quivered.

At that moment, Korine came out of the bathroom. She looked at Ham and she looked at me. She saw the drawings on my screen and she saw his furrowed brow.

“What did you do?” asked Korine blankly, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“It’s me,” said Ham. “You are right. That’s exactly the problem. Caterpillar is me. I am a big fat asshole. And Caterpillar is doomed!”

“No!” I said. “That’s not what I meant at all! It’s art! It is growing and changing but it is always lovable! Not like Microsoft! Not like IBM! It’s organic! It’s got a good heart!”

Ham put his head in his hands, frowning. I got up to comfort him, but Korine pushed me aside.

“Get out of here,” snarled Korine. “Leave the tablet. Leave the drawings. They don’t belong to you. You are dismissed. Your contract has been terminated.”

I stuffed Ham’s hundreds in my pockets as I headed for the door. I looked back over my shoulder. Ham was still staring at my tablet, fascinated, devastated. The waiter ran ahead of me to open the door and then closed it right behind me. He was a real pro.

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(c) Miracle Jones 2014