Chapter 9: Balls and Bow Ties

In which the reader discovers Mark and his penchant for plots!

 

Stephanie was exhausted after visiting with Gilly all day, which is what it had turned into—an all day affair. When she arrived at her apartment building, she caught Mark slouching down the outer stairs. Did they have a date? It certainly appeared they did, as he was wearing his favorite hat, a rare thrift store find of a 1980s Cardinals ballcap, and his JOI-issued, multi-pocketed journalist jacket.

She parked in a hurry and ran after him, shouting his name.

He turned around and grinned at her. “And there she is, the reporter at large!”

She stood on toe and gave him a kiss. “I’ve had such a day. You won’t believe.”

“Can I hear about it later? The game’s about to start. I just thought you might want to go Casey’s with me for a drink and dinner.”

“I don’t know, Mark. I’m trying to save money right now, and I’m on a diet, too. Do you think I have a fat ass?”

He squinted his eyes and rocked back on his heels. “Yes. No. Whatever it is, it’s fine, and you can get a salad and skip the beer. I’ll pay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, we just got paid today, and I want to go to Casey’s and spend time with you. A win, win, right?”

“Oh, wow, I forgot it was payday.”

“Yeah, if you’d gone to the office, you would have seen the hate stares.”

“Why?”

“The League fees went up, which means everybody had smaller paychecks. Oh, and Mr. Mast made one of us stop the centipede and add an exposé on Tomi Corp. So I did it. It’s just a stupid machine, not a monster.”

The centipede was their printing press. It had been built especially for their paper and its grassroots status. However, the engineer who had created it was subsequently diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder due to a chronic psychosis whereby he saw robotic arms everywhere. Because of the visions he couldn’t eradicate from his mind, the printing press had been built with a hundred arms. It appeared to be the monster mechanical version of a centipede.

The entire staff of the Albuquerque Daily was afraid of it, except Mark. Stephanie was terrified of it. It had, in fact, shown up in several of her nightmares. If she’d been at the office, she would have happily let Mark do the dirty deed. Her own hateful stares would have been inspired only by the fact that she had been given the Tomi Corp assignment. Mr. Mast should not have given her assignment to another reporter.

“Why did somebody else write my story?”

“I don’t think anybody else wrote it. Mr. Mast cobbled it together from other newspaper headlines because he didn’t want his paper to look out-of-date.”

“My story was going to be in depth, a true New Mexico story. It was supposed to come out the same week as the retro bots. He assigned it to me because I’m good at what I do.”

“He’s never been known for his savvy intelligence, Steph. I wouldn’t worry about it…until the paper suffers from his idiocy, our wages stagnate again, while the League fees continue to rise.”

Stephanie groaned. “And you want to go out to eat? I have perfectly good Toaster Tacos in my freezer.”

“Yes. I’m not sacrificing my life to the League or Mr. Mast. When was the last time we went out?”

“You mean, really went out, or went out to Casey’s? I don’t think we’ve ever gone to a real restaurant together.”

He wrinkled his nose as though contemplating the thought. “Sorry, even I’m too cheap for that.”

She shoved him lightly on the chest. “Don’t worry about it. If you took me out to a nice place, I’d have to buy a new dress.”

“What’s wrong with the one you’re wearing?”

“According to my grandfather, everything. He doesn’t approve of my wardrobe.”

Mark took her arm and steered her down the street toward Casey’s, which was a few blocks away. “Well, who’s your grandfather, anyway, and what does he think you should wear? Clothes from last century? I’ve seen the floofy dresses they wore, with all the bows and big skirts. And that hair!”

“Oso Beñat.”

“What about him?”

“He’s my grandfather.”

Mark stopped dead in the sidewalk, which was kind of awkward, as he was walking at a fast clip while holding onto her elbow. “You’re shitting me.”

She shook her head. It wasn’t that she was hiding her family relations from him or anybody else, but that she avoided talking about him. So did her brother Javi. Oso Beñat was either revered or hated, and Stephanie could never tell, either, not even by political persuasion.

“You’re not joking. You were holding out on me. On all of us. You’re out there getting a scoop none of us are capable of. You devious little slut.”

“Mark, we’re going to be late for your game.”

“Why are you so freaking poor, if the richest man in the world is your near relation?”

“My dad mismanages money and can’t stay employed. Mark…” She pointed half-heartedly in the direction of the sports bar.

He did begin walking again, though this time at a slower pace. He had a dreamy, meditative look in his eyes. Stephanie hated that look. It meant he was scheming, and his schemes generally either came to nothing or caused all sorts of problems, like the time he’d crashed the governor’s son’s birthday party because he—Mark, that is—was dating the governor’s niece, and the little strumpet had promised him there was going to be a major league football game kickoff there.

Not only was there no kickoff, but when he’d broken in through the back gate with a six pack and the niece, he’d disturbed an eloquent birthday speech by the Legislative Environmental Analyst of New Mexico. The governor went all out for his son’s tenth birthday, and he was not happy to be disturbed, especially by his sister’s spoiled daughter. It turned out she’d been begging, to no avail, to plead her case to him and have him pardon her twenty-fifth ticket for OSDVWI (Operating a Self-Driving Vehicle While Intoxicated). She also wanted her car back, which he’d seized.

That was Stephanie’s precise problem with Mark and why she put off giving him a positive answer to his commitment proposal. Yes, of course, he’d asked. Mark was impetuous that way. He was a journalist of the fine, old impetuous school. He’d asked her to commit to him after just a few dates (at Casey’s).

Truth be known, she yearned to tell him yes, but she was at war with her more practical nature, which, by the way, constantly reminded her that Mark had a steady job in a field outside of robotics, one he’d kept for a full three years now. Even her practical side was losing the battle.

Once at Casey’s, she ordered a chef salad. She was lucky Casey’s served a chef’s salad, as not that long ago, they’d had nothing but fried food and alcohol. That was after the Heart Association bans were lifted—they along with most workaday restaurants went hog wild. Literally.

During Mark and Stephanie’s childhood, food regulations had become such a trying bore to the average person that they began to picket for french fries dipped in beef tallow. French fries were American! They were traditional! And being that heart attack and obesity rates didn’t decrease substantially on the hog-feed rather than eat-hog diet era, the AHA in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security eased up on their bans.

Remnants, of course, still existed, such as the new Nutrilla-is-all-American-all-day-long ad campaign. Nutrilla was the new peanut butter—a spreadable yeast product similar to Marmite, but enhanced with vitamins and bran, and given a cheesy texture through edible plastics to please the American cheese palate. It was also very cheap and staved off hunger when spread on bread or stuffed inside Toaster Tacos. That was why Stephanie lived off it.

She carefully chewed her iceberg lettuce, ham, boiled eggs, cheese, and green chile silently, watching as Mark’s excitement escalated with the beer and the game. By the time he’d downed a few pints, he’d forgotten about Oso Beñat. Or at least stopped talking about him for the present.

She hadn’t, of course. She was lost in the story, ruminating on Gilly’s versus Granddad’s stories. Nothing really surprised her regarding Gilly. If he claimed to have beaten up her granddad, she believed it. While he’d never done anything unseemly in front of Stephanie, she’d always held a simultaneous fascination and disgust for the malevolent look in his brown eyes. Those eyes said he was capable of anything: creating a grotesque soothsayer, for example.

Somehow, she had to pull herself away from these bios for a while and sit in the office mass producing enticing bylines and stories. That was what she was paid regularly to do, after all. In point of fact, she was also paid to refab others’ stories and headlines to make them more enticing. She had a real gift whenever she managed to sit her big fat butt in a chair, dull her mind, and conduct some serious output.

She sighed, both in satisfaction and exhaustion. She had a good life, composed of honorable work, a small but warm apartment, and a boyfriend. Of sorts. She watched him as he watched the screens. He was taking notes, as usual. He was the consummate sports writer. And conspiracy theorist.

Back in her grandfather’s day, the powers that be had outlawed balls in school, just as her grandfather had spoken of. The trend had started with a small school in rural New York, and the way trends spread, it had skipped the entire country, hit the West Coast, and then spread throughout the Southeast and Southwest (except for Texas), before infecting the Midwest. Finally, Texas, not wanting to seem out of date or backwards in a way that might harm children, had capitulated.

But the professional sports teams swore they still used balls. Mark, however, had different ideas. He had analyzed sports videos repeatedly, using the best tech he had available at the struggling Albuquerque Daily, had frozen thousands of milliseconds of action and had finally come to the conclusion that sports were now faked and played with invisible balls. The balls were computer generated.

That was all that was needed, really—nothing too fancy or difficult since live sporting events were rare these days. The threat of thousands of Americans sitting together in one place was too great. The charity ball events marketed at politicians and other famous people were considered to be proof against Mark’s worst suspicions. He stuck to his guns, though. It was all fake, according to him, every game more precisely choreographed than a Russian ballet.

Stephanie turned her eyes to one of the many screens and tried to focus. Maybe the beer Mark drank helped. She’d never actually tasted beer. It was outside her budget. “Hey, Mark, can I have a beer?”

“Why wouldn’t you be able to have one? Just order one,” he tersely said. He didn’t like to be interrupted while examining a game.

She ordered a beer and took a swig. It was bitter and sweet at the same time. It was like bitter-sweet soda pop, like the lo-cal variety they used to serve in elementary school. She guessed it wasn’t high-end stuff.

As the alcohol hit her blood stream, she giggled at the men on screen. It was a soccer game, for heaven’s sake, but it fit well Mark’s analogy of the Russian ballet. At some point, soccer players had discarded their shorts and shin guards for reinforced breeches. They looked like they were wearing tights.

“Mark,” she said, “they’re wearing tights.”

“Might as well be. They’re showing off their dancing skills. Watch in a minute. DeSoto has the ball. He’s going to dance. Looks like a goddamn male model. I bet that’s what they are, put up for tryouts by a whole different set of scouts. Disgusting.”

“Sounds like another one of your conspiracies,” she said, but then was silenced when a Latin-looking player kicked the ball toward the goal and missed, and then gyrated his hips around as though he’d scored. “Is that—?”

“DeSoto.”

DeSoto continued to perform what appeared to be a free-form salsa for the next five minutes. He was sleek, coordinated, and as flexible as a trained dancer.

“He’s going off script,” Mark explained. “I’m telling you, there’s a script, and it’s trending now for these models to defy the script and dance instead.”

“Unless the dance is part of the script.”

“Uh huh, I don’t think so. I’m an expert on game scripts by now.”

Stephanie took his word for it because she didn’t know what else to do. She gazed around to see how the other men were reacting to the off-script dance. The man to the right of her—Mark was to the left—was nodding emphatically.

“Amen!” the man shouted. “Now there is a true artist!”

“Mark, do you think DeSoto is a true artist?” she asked.

Far from being annoyed with her many interruptions this time, he looked pleased that she was interested. He turned to her and smiled wryly. “Absolutely. This is theater, and they’re doing impromptu. Impressive. And stupid as hell because it’s not soccer. Almost as stupid as those bow ties the football players wear.”

“The girls at work gurgle over the men in bow ties. I don’t really get it, they don’t look attractive to me. And now all the little boys are emulating them. At least I think so. Didn’t I see the players from the Jefferson Broad Gap School wearing bow ties on last week’s sports page?”

“Since they don’t have balls, I guess they gotta have fashion to keep them going,” Mark said in his flat tone of voice that often tricked Stephanie into thinking he was joking. “Be quiet for a minute. This is where the rising action is taking place. I can predict the climactic moment when either DeSoto and Kimbal are going to get in a tussle, or DeSoto’s going to score. Those are the two protagonists this game. I don’t know which one will come out on top.”

Stephanie refocused her attention on the screen, trying to see what Mark saw. In the past, he’d written articles about the games having plot lines that were modeled after the soccer field and its halfway line, its ten yards, its penalty area, etc. Stephanie wondered if Mark represented the archetypal writer, finding and discovering plots everywhere.

Stephanie didn’t have the imagination to find plots everywhere. Most journalists did, though. The Albuquerque Daily, in fact, published farcical news stories side by side with the bona fide ones. Readers had to search out the fine print to determine what was real and what was fiction. Critics complained that this trickery triggered the populace to violence, but the paper’s legal department suggested otherwise.

Sometimes, Stephanie was relieved to be branching out to biographies. No plot lines there—no need for them. At least she didn’t think so.

“Mark, do all stories need plots, even nonfictional ones?”

“Huh?”

“Do all stories need plots?”

He looked over at her, his eyes glazed. “Life is a plot that ends in a plot,” he said. And then he turned his eyes back to the plot of faux green grass on the screen.


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