The Futurist never saw it coming. But now that he thinks of it, it’s not surprising. Not surprising that she’s telling him in the most intentionally archaic way: a pen-and-ink note slipped into his state-of-the-art carry-on. Written in past tense. The only way Lauren could have topped the irony of this is to have told him via foot messenger. Or carrier pigeon. Or smoke signals. All of which would be hard to do right now, since he’s 37,000 feet in the air somewhere between New York and Johannesburg. But she does top this. Right after a passage that begins with Among the many reasons I can suffer you no longer and concludes with delusional, sociopathic prognosticator, she tells Yates—the Futurist—that she’s leaving him for a sixth-grade history teacher.
“What?” Yates asks.
“It’s blue-flame hot. Everyone thought it would be revenge. Or some crippling mass anxiety. But it’s healing.” Blevins is sitting beside Yates in first class. He consults part-time for Yates and moonlights as a class reunion designer.
“What, are Yoga for Healers classes suddenly popping up at the Soho Equinox? Has Ben Affleck optioned the rights to the word?”
“I’m just saying …”
“Tonight on the Healing Channel.”
Blevins presses on. “Anything Celtic, for some reason, is still hot. The charming little people part, not the warring hordes. Ancient disasters continue to fascinate. Mountain tragedies and/or nautical disasters, with the fascination value of said disaster increasing relative to its respective depth or height.”
“With an underwater mountain tragedy being the ultimate.” Yates reaches for the Maker’s Mark.
“Angels were hot, but now you can’t give them away. Buddhism, we are thinking, is due to break through in the U.S. in a big way.”
“Is that related to the healing?”
“Buddhism and unprotected sex. The I-don’t-give-a-fuck factor has never been so mainstreamed.”
“I hear Turkey’s still hot. Despite …”
“Yeah. But it’s never just a place. It’s the combination of extreme American activity and obscure locale.”
“Skateboarding in Mongolia.”
“Boogie-boarding the Yangtze.”
“Fucking in outer space.”
“Exactly.” Blevins smacks his hands together, waking the British resin furniture mogul in 4-D. “So?”
Yates stares at the small screen on the seatback in front of him. The progress of his flight is charted by a flashing dot on a map of the hemisphere. Eight hours from refueling in Cape Verde, another four from the Futureworld Conference in Johannesburg.
“Hardly H. G. Wellsian.”
“It is if you spin it right. There’s much more. Titled The Next 111 Things to Rock Your World. I just beamed it onto your laptop.”
Yates looks down, feeling more than a little violated knowing that part ?of Blevins has gotten so close. He looks back at the tiny screen map. For a ?moment the flashing dot seems to go backwards, one hundredth of a degree latitude back toward America. He closes his eyes and tries to picture her planning it, curling up on the couch and listing the best ways to push his forward-thinking buttons with the most humiliating results. Let’s see. Whom to leave him for? An archaeologist? Genealogist? Antiques dealer? Presidential biographer? Or—this is perfect—a history teacher. He pictures her in the apartment of a bearded, vegan Luddite with body odor, coupling on the floor, atop a suede-elbowed tweed jacket and 32 scattered, Internet-plagiarized essays on the Battle of Hastings, and he wonders if a circumstance can be ironic if it’s been so malevolently choreographed.
From the seat pocket in front of him he removes the folder containing the outline of his unfinished speech and the emergency evacuation instructions for the Boeing 747. Most in his field would kill just to be able to network at something like Futureworld, but Yates is even more privileged. He is a VIP Speaker, a bona fide A-list player in the culture of expectation, a highly compensated observer of the global soul with press clippings a yard high to prove it. In many ways Yates’s star has never been brighter, but now he feels it coursing through him, a crisis of faith, a waning confidence in the very future he sells. After so many years of it—two books, commencement speeches, a fawning Charlie Rose, conferences like TED, Davos, Tomorrow-a-Go-Go—after repeated optimistic promises of a world that is yet to come, he feels that none of it will ever be. He no longer feels excitement for the future, but a deep nostalgia for it. As if the future is something already lost.
A young white man with a placard bearing Yates’s name greets him at the international arrivals gate in Johannesburg. “I’m David, your chaperone,” he says, handing Yates a card. “Whatever you need. Transportation, shopping—anything, anytime.” At customs, David nods to the agent and Yates is waved through. At the exit, Yates glances back and sees Blevins fumbling with his documents, scanning the ceiling for a sign that can make sense of the chaos.
Chattel houses in primary colors. Barefoot children in the shadow of the Marlboro Man. The shucked shell of a city. High-rises and corporate parks inhabited by squatters. Yates observes the world through windows that only roll a third of the way down. Through black-tinted, bulletproof glass. He sits alone in backseats and attempts candid conversations with drivers paid to accommodate. He gleans local lore from chatty bellhops, Condé Nast Traveler. From the top steps of grand hotels he elicits profound sociological insights. From a part in the curtains of 18th-floor executive suites he finds geopolitical expertise. He gets it with his healthy-choice breakfast from English-speaking room-service waiters. From gratis newspapers dropped outside his door. From Spectravision. He chronicles it, rolls it around in his head, and distills it down to anecdote, to conversation starter, to pithy one-liner, and finally he turns it into a highly proprietary, singularly respected worldly expertise that is pure and complete bullshit.
Outside the window, thousands in the morning fog, walking. “Where are they going?”
“The bus terminal, Sir. To work in the suburbs. Sandton. Fourways. There’s no work in the city. The real city, the business and the money, surrounds it. But the core is hollow.”
“How can it survive?”
“Exactly, Sir. This is an issue the Ministry of Business Development is addressing. And why they lobbied to have a conference with the prestige of Futureworld here. To have people like you stimulate thought, progress. The economy.”
Yates looks at Lauren’s letter, runs his finger along the blue veins of her cursive script as if searching for a pulse. His phone vibrates and Blevins’s number comes up. Blevins, last seen drowning in a riptide of humanity. Should have offered him a ride. But after 17 hours of his babbling. Still, the poor bastard. Then again, he’s terrified of blacks. Maybe he’ll learn a little compassion, or his fear will turn to hate.
“Hey, David. Why don’t you pull over, let me hop up front.”
“I can’t, Sir.”
“Why not? It’ll be easier to talk.”
“I would love to, Sir. But it’s not safe to stop here. Besides, if you’re seen up front with me I will lose my job.”
He once did a trust fall at an anarchists’ convention. He once gave the keynote address at a sports mascots’ seminar, including a Q&A session that touched upon costuming, mime-bashing, and health care. He once was a replacement judge at the Miss Crete Contest. He once addressed a failing dot-com and a rollicking Luddite symposium in the same week and received standing ovations at both.
At registration they give him a bag filled with books and gadgets, a menagerie of mahogany African animals, a leather Futureworld bomber jacket and two bottles of Capetown Merlot. He scans the lobby for familiar faces. The preliminary materials had promised the likes of Jobs, Bezos, Katzenberg, and the recently dethroned vice president. He sees none of them. He does see Faith B. Popcorn, mother of all legitimate futurists, but he looks away. Faith B. Popcorn, Yates feels, can see more than the future. She can see through him. His sycophantic projections, his scientifically lewd dance with plagiarism. He’s certain she’s on to all of it and is itching to bring him down. He lowers his head and moves toward the elevators.
In his room at 10:00 A.M. he uncorks a bottle of merlot, turns on Sky News, and opens his laptop. At every conference he answers to two sponsors. One is the true host, whose name appears on the posters. The second is almost always a corporate or political sponsor that pays him to subtly and sometimes not so subtly disseminate its message. This time it’s the Johannesburg CBD, or Central Business District. Struggling economically, racially divided, ravaged by AIDS, poverty, and violence, Jo’burg wants to again be a player on a global scale. The speechwriting task is to take the existing formula and replace parts with what they want to hear. Insert name of relevant construction project here. Cite the top-notch leadership team in place, the passionate people who work for them. Quote Thoreau, Verne, and—for tomorrow—Mandela. Insert a few best-of one-liners, with apologies to everyone from Black Elk and John Lennon to Marshall Macluhan and the tabs of wisdom tied to Celestial Seasons tea bags. Suck up to the panelists, especially those who detest you most. Now add an uplifting regional anecdote about a local who overcame great odds, or something from the Jo’burg Times or whatever it’s called, or maybe a profound scene witnessed en route from the airport. Then end it on a note of pure optimistic adrenaline. Paint a vivid picture of what can be. Describe it in absolutes. A day when every South African will be wirelessly connected to the free world. When Jo’burg will again be synonymous with the world’s great capitals. A corporate renaissance. A health care miracle. Racial harmony … Yates used to believe it. Used to think things like this were possible, or at least admirable goals. He used to do his homework and think things through. He actually would talk to the locals, research the region, eschew partisan money. And he would earnestly try to come up with fast solutions to ancient problems. Now …
He e-mails Lauren, suggesting they talk, but it gets kicked back. Her home number’s been disconnected. He dials her cell and lets it ring, for fifteen minutes. Here’s an observation that won’t make it into his next telcom speech: right now it is possible to be digitally dumped from another continent, to careen into a wall of resentment and hostility at the speed of light.
A knock on the door. A young black woman, Joani from Swaziland. Courtesy of the CBD. He gives her 100 rands and the commemorative Futureworld bomber jacket and sends her away. An hour later, another knock. David.
“I thought you were another complimentary hooker.”
“I’m here to take you to the football match.”
“It’s on your itinerary. It is an important game.”
“I really can’t deal with soccer right now.”
“It’s part of your appearance contract.”
Yates has never been to a soccer game, and this is a big one. Ellis Park Stadium is filled beyond capacity. The crowd rocks and sways with a tidal grace and magnitude, a singing, chanting force of nature. Looking around, he wonders if he’s the only white man in the stadium. The riot begins soon after he’s seated, but it will be a while before he notices. A player receives a yellow card. Yates receives a gin and tonic. A teenage boy is stabbed in general admission. A joke is cracked in the VIP box. Blood flows on the hot concrete of section 214 and people start running toward the tunnels. The game continues. When the tunnels clog, a rush is made toward the field, which is caged off with thick wire. Yates notices none of it. The primal roar and collective groan that comes when flesh presses upon itself to the point of bursting he chalks up to raucous enthusiasm. The gunshots he thinks are fireworks, and cheap, third-world ones at that. The men scrambling up the barrier wire he thinks are performing some kind of regional sporting ritual, like the wave, not clawing for their lives. To Yates, it’s all a spectacle performed on his behalf, and when he’s handed his second drink, he’s already wondering how he can integrate this into tomorrow’s speech. Such passionate people!
The first clue that something’s wrong occurs to Yates when an aide grimly whispers into the ear of the minister of business development. The second is the dozens of policemen wading into the crowd. But instead of stopping the stampede, they enflame it. Far above the fray, surrounded by security guards, Yates watches the shiver and press of the mob. Black clubs strobe across the sun-blasted sky and plunge into the multitude. Gunshots. Bodies compacting against the barrier wire, crushed in a vice of their own making. A young man in green face paint atop the cage is shot in the chest by someone in red face paint and falls back upon the others.
At midfield, the referees huddle with players from both clubs. They’ve become the spectators, watching the life-and-death competition in the grandstands.
Half an hour later they walk Yates onto the field, toward the stiffening dead, past the stunned next of kin, faces pressed against the wire, waiting for permission to mourn. They certainly would prefer that Yates were not here, but there’s nothing they can do about it. A man lies unattended on a stretcher, splintered tibia exposed through a bloody gash in his pants. Two policemen are removing film from a journalist’s camera. All Yates hears is the sound of sirens going the other way. All he sees are the privileged and the dead. Body bags in the goal mouth. Some zipped, others empty, waiting to be filled. He stares at the faces of the dead, painted just hours ago with ritual strokes for the opposite of death. A child of five, alone, looks at Yates. Yates cannot hold his stare.
“Forty-three,” answers a policeman. “More heading to the hospital.” The policeman looks at Yates, as if he thinks Yates can do anything to change any of this. Yates looks down, sees blood drops on the white line dust of the goal crease.
“Tell me,” the minister of business development asks Yates. “In your opinion, what can be done to minimize the fallout, to ensure that this will not diminish our chances of hosting the World Cup here in two years?”
Message light flashing on the hotel phone. Faxes slipped under the door. Complimentary goodie basket on the desk. Moans of the dying or the tantrically gifted in the next room. There will be a cocktail reception in the DeBeers Room in an hour, but Yates is too tired, too close to drunk to drink any more, at least in public. And there’s still the speech to be written. With a pen he peels the foil from the neck of the second bottle of complimentary merlot.
He once consulted for a firm that designed edgy logos and teen-centric merchandise for fictitious companies. He recently shared a bottle of Coq du Vin on a red-eye with the CFO of a company that makes antivirus software who revealed to him in an unguarded moment that they’re also the foremost creator of viruses. Last year he was paid five figures by an undisclosed government agency to brainstorm random acts of terrorism.
Nothing on the news about the riot. Just a mention that the game’s been rescheduled. And nothing from Lauren anywhere. He remembers one of their last conversations. She asked where he was in the novel she’d recommended. He said the part where the guy meets the goat woman with the herbs. She just nodded, smiled, and that was that. She didn’t want to discuss theme or structure, or did he like it. She only wanted to know where he stood on ground she’d long ago covered.
At cocktail hour, again at David’s insistence. Sponsored by Absolut. Catered by Emeril. He hasn’t shaved or eaten a proper meal in 36 hours, and the drinks—now it’s bourbon again—continue to go down smoothly. He stays off to the side, close to a bar and an exit. While others proudly display their nametags, Yates pins his beneath his blazer, down by his appendix; when someone bends to steal a glimpse, he shifts his glass in a blocking maneuver. Here’s the thing: at Futureworld, none of the panelists respect Yates. But because he’s here as an official speaker, he is respected and legitimized everywhere else. And it is in the mainstream of everywhere else that the big money flows. So several times a year, he endures the snickers of the intellectual elite, the dismissive sneers of the fallen and reinvented digerati, the cold shoulders of physicists and philosophers, in order to thrive elsewhere.
Here’s an eminent cognitive psychologist in a coonskin cap; here’s the biotech czar whose lecture topic is caveman sex; here’s Bono, Gates, and some kind of Kennedy offspring. There’s the Tiananmen tank kid. The born-again doomsday economist who once wrote a book called Dow 40,000. And the woman who says she can teach string theory to a six-year-old. Make way for Miranda Glowers, the 62-year-old advertising legend appointed by the president to raise the favorability rating of Brand America in the eyes of the world. The way she thrusts out her hand, there’s no way that Yates can choose not to shake it.
“Miranda Glowers.” She squeezes with exaggerated vigor, anything to conceal her true age. She cuts off Yates before he begins. “I know you. You spoke in Monterrey. You look wiped out. I never drink on the plane. Did you drink on the plane?”
“From the strip search in JFK until … now.”
“What’s your topic tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure. Either something like: Rebirth. Redemption. Resiliance. Or: Fear. Paranoia. Hopelessness. Maybe I’ll write it two ways and take the audience’s temperature during my introduction.”
“Lovely.” Miranda Glowers adjusts her signature scarf, if scarf is what you call an eight-foot length of embroidered silk. She considers Yates, contemplating whether or not she wants to play. Yates reads the three-line title on her nametag: U.S. Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
“How about you? You all set?”
“Still the same. Transform the down-with-America issue into the repositioning of a brand.”
“How’s that going?”
“Some polls have us doing better by a click or two. Perception-wise.”
“And perception matters?”
“A poor one leads to unrest, which can threaten national security. We’re an open and tolerant society. They should know.”
Yates finishes his bourbon and motions for another. “I thought that’s precisely why they hated us. I thought the problem wasn’t their understanding of Brand America, but our lack of understanding of Brand Third World. Brand Eastern Bumfuckistan. I thought the sharing of cultural knowledge would be better if it was reciprocal.”
Miranda Glowers rolls her eyes.
“You just rolled your eyes.”
“Right now we’re conducting focus groups in five of the markets that despise us most.”
“I didn’t know they had two-way mirrors in Nasiryah. In North Korea. Borneo. Have some more M&Ms, Mohammed, and tell me how you really feel about democracy.”
“How do you know if it works?”
“A 30 percent conversion for Moslems would represent a sales spike any Fortune 500 company would kill for.”
“Conversion to liking us, or Christianity?”
“We’re launching a global Brand USA news channel. A print campaign. Outdoor. TV.”
“How do you place the media? Cave walls in Tora Bora? Al Qaeda Quarterly? During reruns of a very special episode of Friends on Channel 28 in Uzbekistan?”
“How’d you know?”
“Can you do subliminal stuff? Find the Nike swish in the hide of a camel. Or more blatant. Slip the First Amendment onto page 728 of the Koran. Get Beyoncé to lip-sync during halftime of the biggest infidel stoning of the year.”
“You’re just trying to be an asshole now, aren’t you?” Before Yates can answer someone else does: Faith B. Popcorn.
“Of course he is. It’s a lot easier than being original.”
“I think he’s just drunk, Faith.” Yates looks at Miranda Glowers and thinks of her with something akin to affection. As they stare at Yates, he imagines a montage of a late-night tryst with Miranda. Her taut 62-year-old frame astride him in a red, white, and blue thong. Eating freedom fries and sharing swigs of a sparkling American white right out of the bottle. The imprint of her bridgework upon his left earlobe. Primal moans. Martial thrusts. A faint cry of Mommy.
At a table outside the dining room, Yates finds the seating card with his name on it, in between Yanni and Yeager. He crumples the card and puts it in his pocket.
“Looks like someone’s not properly embracing the future.” Blevins, expressing his purported brilliance with a white linen suit and a red bow tie the size of a piece of Trident gum.
“Tonight it will have to begin without me.”
“Heard about the game.”
A waiter passes with a tray of fluted champagne glasses. Yates grabs two.
“Having a bit of a party, then?”
“Gotta write my speech. Gotta get out of here before I get penalized for Unnecessary Pragmatism.”
“Do you need help? I’ve …”
“Some guys were looking for you. Government types.”
Yates empties the first glass, thinks of offering the other to Blevins, then drinks it, too. Blevins steps closer. “Look. I don’t know what’s bothering you, but I’d kill to have your gig. You make nice-nice here, drop a few sound bites, and you’re golden on the lecture circuit.”
“Tell me when I should look enlightened and hug you.”
“If it’s about a woman, I suggest you sample the local flavors. I just paid a visit to Swaziland.”
“Jesus, Blevins. What was she wearing?”
“A commemorative Futureworld bomber jacket and not a hell of a lot else.”
He once stood in the White House Rose Garden flanked by Carrot Top and Stephen Hawking. In 1984 he went to Japan and swears he saw karaoke coming. He once reset the nanosecond hand on the city of Antwerp’s Millennium Clock. He’s a board member for a start-up company that has built selling out into its master plan.
In his room he breaks every corporate T&L rule and loses himself in the high prices and tiny portions of the minibar. Macadamia nuts. M&Ms. A 6 oz. Heinekin. 1.5 oz. of Dewars. Capetown Taffee. He calls Lauren on his cell and lets it ring forever while he checks his e-mail. The room phone rings and he dives across the bed. Kurt Monicker, chairman of Futureworld.
“Just ensuring that you’re alright, being that you’re not joining us for dinner.” “I’m fine, Kurt. Less than, actually. But fine for tomorrow. The travel. The soccer.” He twists open a tiny bottle of Absolut. “I’m not much of a drinker, Kurt, but that champagne hit me like a riot stick. Thought I’d rest up, polish my speech.”
“Anything you need?”
Yates looks at the open minibar. Most of the booze is gone. He thinks better of it. “No, thanks, Kurt. I’m all set here.”
On the news there’s something about the tourists on the space station. More moans in the next room. Still no answer on Lauren’s cell. He tries to imagine the history teacher friend. Wonders if maybe he’d had him when he was in 6th grade. If this is some kind of sinister payback for a 25-year-old wisecrack. He wonders if he and Lauren were ever in love. He fixes a gin and grape soda and Googles himself. In seconds the browser searches the complete archives of the digital universe for all things Yates and comes up with 68 responses. All but five begin with “Coiner of the Phrase …” One is the text of a speech he gave to a marketing class at Yale. The second is an excerpt from a four-year-old Wired magazine article that ordained him the Codifier of Cool. The third, a Who’s Who—like entry, defines him as a futurist; prognosticator; seer; shaman; snake oil salesman; and coiner of the ubiquitous phrase … The fourth is a website for a Yates from Peabody, Mass., who likes NASCAR, the Sox, and the rapper 50 Cent. The final response is for a mature women sex site that has nothing to do with Yates, unless you count the Miranda Glowers thing.
At 9:00 P.M. the room phone rings. David, asking if Yates is okay. At 10:00 Blevins calls, drunk in the ballroom, rambling about American memes and the space hotel. At 11:00, a quiet tapping at the door. A tall, blonde white woman named Marjorie. He invites her in and waves at what’s left of the minibar. Marjorie grabs a can of Coke and opens it. She stands near the TV, considering the wreckage. Snack wrappers, empty cans, and tiny bottles. The laptop. The scattered speech. All spread out upon the bed, the floor, the desk. He’s slipped Lauren’s letter inside the lower right corner of the mirror frame. Marjorie reads it.
“So do you knock on doors until someone invites you in? Or did they send you specifically to me?”
“Specifically to you.”
“Nice of you to say, even if you’re lying.”
Marjorie rolls her neck, puts the Coke on the desk, and stretches her arms over her head. Her blouse rises, revealing a flat, tanned belly. Yates considers her legs, long and strong, partially covered by a skirt two generations too matronly for her age, which he puts at about 20. Now her face. Blue eyes, long, interesting nose. Tanned and unblemished. Maybe closer to 18. “You’re beautiful.”
She shrugs, changes the channel to a music station. Percussive world beat. Chanting. African hip-hoppers with gold teeth and American baseball caps. Who says the Devil Rays don’t have a broad fan base? She turns toward Yates, swaying awkwardly to the music, betraying her elegance, perhaps purposely undermining any hint of heartfelt sexuality. With her right hand she picks up the soda. With her left she starts undoing her blouse. By the second button, Yates is laughing, shaking his head, waving. No, no, no. “How do they pay you?”
“By the visit. The overall length.”
“How will they know?”
“So if you stay a while?”
“They’ll just assume.”
“Then, get comfortable. Unless you’d rather knock on doors.”
Even though he’s being nice, she gives him a look. Like she distrusts good more than evil. Then her jaw unclenches and her face softens.
“Interesting profession, in a country with a gazillion percent incidence of HIV.”
“Slightly less than. Besides, I’m a virgin. At least this aspect of it.”
“Of course. And I’ve never had alcohol before.”
“It’s for this event. As a favor. The CBD promised me a job.”
Yates opens a bottle of Namibian lager, Windhoek.
“Why does that phone keep ringing?”
“Why’d she dump you?” Marjorie nods toward the note on the mirror.
“Dump is a rough word. I prefer delete. She deleted me two days ago. She changed. Her tolerance level for my self-absorption diminished precipitously over the years. At first she was thrilled to be immersed in the phenomenon of me, but slowly she lost interest, occasionally even thinking of herself and then, inexcusably, others.
Marjorie sighs, kneels in front of the minibar. “Maybe I will have a drink.”
“So what do you think?”
“Me, of course. No faking it.”
“So you do want sex, after all.” She opens a mini Bacardi and pours it into the Coke. “So, do you want me to masturbate you, to affirm your self-diagnosis, or honestly wing it and take you to blissful new heights of self-loathing?”
“Lucky me. The ever-elusive call girl with a Ph.D. You know you can leave at any time. And if you want to stay but don’t want to indulge a heartbroken drunk, that’s fine, too.”
She stares at him for a moment and takes an exaggerated breath. “Okay, I think you’re currently pathetic, potentially interesting. Cute in an odd way.”
“Very good. But what I’m after is how, you know, after you meet someone, you go, I wonder what his deal is? Or, His deal is he’s a liar and is bold only because he’s really insecure. Or, He’s keeping something in, some secret pain. Or maybe he’s just a fool.”
“Fine. Then your deal is you’re drunk. Self-destructive. In all likelihood a nihilist. I wonder if you’re truly so full of your own piss or you just used to be and are in a latter stage of denial. I sense you’re arrogant mostly because you like tweaking people with it. What else. You’re not at all comfortable in your well-to-do skin. And beneath the surface may lie the most minuscule mite of a half-decent soul.”
“So what you’re saying is, you think I’m really, really hot.”
She wants to smile but won’t allow it. Instead she lights a cigarette and walks to the window.
Yates sits up. “Would I be ruining your perfectly foul opinion of me if I asked about you? Why you’re here, to be precise.”
“I’m not from here. I grew up well-off and white in Namibia. Then the government changed and rebels came to our farm. My father, a racist, resisted. They killed him. And my mother, nice person but aider and abettor to a racist. Then they helped me lose the first part of my virginity. Relatives in Sandton took me in until I was 18, and now I’m on my own. This, as I said, is temporary.” She pauses and cocks her ear to the wall. The moans have picked up in volume and rhythm.
Yates says, “At least somebody likes living in the future.”
Marjorie changes the channel to an American show about spectacular car wrecks. Yates pours a 1.5 oz. bottle of $23 cognac into his toothbrush cup and looks at his speech. The more he tries to change it, the more false it—and by association, he—appears. He turns to tell Marjorie it’s okay if she spends the night, if it will keep her from having to sleep with geniuses, but she’s already asleep. He takes the remote from her lap and changes the channel just as a minivan careens into a gasoline tanker. He turns back to her and wonders what her real name is, if her story, her past, is true. Then, as if flicked at by the finger of a Hollywood poltergeist, Lauren’s letter slips from the mirror and drifts onto the floor. For the first time in his life, Yates feels old. As he thinks of them now, pieces of his past seem so long ago, distant the way incidents from a grandparent’s childhood once sounded when described to him. Not just of another time, but another era. Where he had always been a free spirit, never afraid of or angry at anything, he now cynically critiques the world each day and resents his lack of ability or desire to change it. He stares at the speech, clicks the cursor to the left of the title, “Kinetic Tomorrowland,” whatever that means, and drags down through eight pages before pushing delete, then clicking the Yes-I-want-to-permanently-delete-the-highlighted-document button.
He goes through the poses of grief, clutching knees to chest, rocking. He wants to cry. Is trying to, but can’t. He tries to summon the most maudlin, sentimental memories. Funerals and beach walks. The death of his first dog. The boy near the body bags. All in hope that a rush of tears will come, leading to some kind of epiphany, some kind of catharsis. As if that’s the way it really works.
The thrum of the shower wakes him up. At first he’s confused. At first he thinks he’s home and that’s Lauren singing in the cloud of steam. But slowly it registers. Johannesburg. The future. The semi-virginal call girl shaving her legs with his Mach III. He’s got a Level Orange hangover. Anything higher and there would be blood seeping from some combination of ears, eyes, and nose. He needs to hydrate, but the minibar offers nothing except Jaegermeister and a cherry-flavored, carbonated drink that may or may not be alcoholic. In the bathroom he wipes the mirror, not so much to see his disappointing image but to see Marjorie coming out of the shower. He splashes water on his face, cups his hands and drinks. As the curtain opens, he looks up, beyond his reflection and directly into Marjorie’s eyes. She smiles and reaches for a towel. Without makeup, with her hair wet, without clothes from the Cosmopolitan Call Girl Collection, she looks even more beautiful. She wraps a towel around her head and to Yates’s right, wipes clean a patch of mirror for herself.
“I have aspirin.”
“I need morphine, but it’s a start.”
He shakes his head. Doesn’t ring a bell.
“Your chaperone. He’ll be by at 10 to take you to the auditorium. The Mandela Room.”
“Nelson or Winnie?”
“I told him your speech was brilliant.”
He looks at his reflection. Pale, unshaven for 48 hours. Plump bags and charcoal rings beneath what were formerly the whites of his eyes. The cumulative effect is to obfuscate the fact that there’s a beautiful, naked young woman beside him.
“Oh,” she says, twisting the cap off the complimentary body lotion, “I almost forgot. Lauren called. We had a nice chat.”
“You didn’t wake me?”
“I tried. But you got testy. Which Lauren said is par for the course when you’ve been drinking.”
“Did she leave a number?”
“No. She doesn’t want you ringing her at all hours. I told her about your perpetually ringing cell phone, which, by the way, died as the sun came up.”
“Did she ask who you were?”
“I told her.”
“I told her that you were a gentleman. She’s quite happy, you know.”
“Did she sound concerned?”
“Concerned more along the lines of, I hope he doesn’t do something stupid. Otherwise you’re wasting your energy trying to get her back. By the way, who is Miranda?”
He turns to face her. “Why?”
She smiles, clucks her tongue, and rolls her eyes. “Never mind.”
There’s a knock on the door. Marjorie grabs a terry cloth robe off the back of the bathroom door and says, “Breakfast. You need it.”
He nods. He still has to write the damned speech.
Marjorie brings her coffee into the bathroom. Yates sits in his underwear on the bed and tries to ground himself, but it’s like trying to ground yourself on a cloud in a dream. This is how it’s been since he opened the note on the plane, but now he realizes that it’s been like this for much longer. He opens his eyes to Sky News. Must have been on mute. He watches a demonstration in Jakarta, skeleton masks and American flags. Back to the anchor, who has a graphic of the space station over his right shoulder that says “Deadly Orbit.” This is the vehicle on which three wealthy adventure tourists, in part because of Yates’s endorsement, have booked cabins in the first space hotel, an enterprise about which he knew little more than the fact that he’d be well compensated if, as a renowned futurist, in a covertly unofficial capacity, he sanctioned it as a good thing, on the cusp of an exciting new trend. Space is the next Everest, was his officially agreed-upon quote. He watches but can’t bring himself to activate the volume.
This is the how-to guide for all self-proclaimed futurists of limited ability who want to commit career suicide. This is what to say and to whom you say it. This is the elevator you get off, wet-haired, holding hands with a wet-haired teenage prostitute in front of your peers. This is how you kiss her on the lips and tell her to take care, to stay in touch. This is the podium at which you stand, bloodshot eyes, raspy voice, enough of last night’s minibar menagerie on your breath to raise the eyebrow of even the self-absorbed, recently made genius who introduces you. This is how you say good morning to the smiling assassins waiting for you to fail. And these are the glasses you put on to read your incendiary notes, because, in another irony that was never lost on Lauren, Blevins, or Faith B. Popcorn, the Futurist is near-sighted.