Gho$t in the Machine

by Sam Martone

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR DATA PLAN

Living in Tempe, Arizona, is hardest in the months sandwiched between springing forward and falling back. It’s not only the heat, which hits 115 regularly. It’s that time itself warps: Arizona doesn’t observe daylight saving time. We’re the holdout state, after Indiana caved and committed to a permanent and uniform Eastern Time. This time difference may not seem like a big deal, but for me, a transplant to this vast concrete desert, it means my friends and family become three hours removed. They live out entirely different parts of their days. When I wake up, they finish lunch. When I take too many shots at Jester’s, they’re asleep. It makes it difficult to keep in touch. Hard to connect, to be heard. An out of sight, out of mind kind of thing: cross a certain number of state lines and people forget you exist. Ke$ha tells me I should get a smartphone so I can Snapchat. She says it makes a difference. Snapchat is an app that takes and sends pictures. You can draw on the pictures and add text to them, but the key feature is this: you dictate how long the recipient views the photo, up to ten seconds, and after that, poof. It’s gone. Deleted forever. Or stored on Snapchat’s servers forever, but at least inaccessible to your friends. This makes it ideal for sending pictures you don’t want saved or shared, and it even alerts you if someone takes a screenshot. “But that’s not why I like it,” Ke$ha tells me. “It’s the immediacy. The impermanence. It’s like saying something offhand to your friend when you’re actually there, something you won’t remember in a few days, not a photo to look at forever.” Lately, I’ve been sending Ke$ha blurry pixelated pictures from my not-smart phone: a snapping turtle, the first half of a Snapple label, my middle finger and thumb pressed together ready to snap. “Okay, I get it,” she replies. Today, I’m standing in the Verizon store looking at displays. When I find the phone I want, a worker named Ariel guides me through the process of setting it up. “I know, I know,” she says, when I stare at her magma-flow hair. “I was conceived after my parents saw the movie.” I blush and she says, “I’m used to it.” After the phone loads my contacts and Ariel slips it snug in a thick protective case, I download Snapchat. The screen goes yellow and a tiny faceless ghost appears, a logo, a mascot, a phantom personification of all the photos you’ll forget you sent.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR MESSAGE SENT

That weekend, Ke$ha finishes touring and throws a party at her mansion up in Fountain Hills. Getting ready, I Snapchat a picture of myself to friends back home, college buddies, ex-coworkers. You can send a single photo to many people, make the impersonal feel personal, custom-tailored for each recipient. I look at the list of recipients and wait for the red “sent” arrows to ghost into outlines indicating yes, this picture has been opened, seen. Last summer, I escaped the time warp. I worked at an arts camp in Vermont. I led a writing workshop. My co-counselors were scummy art kids from Brooklyn, metalworkers from Providence, farmboys from New Hampshire. All of them had Snapchat. It was the first I’d heard of it. Their conversations swirled around me in invisible data streams, inside jokes I had no means of accessing. Starla, the photography counselor, used Snapchat constantly. She’d say Snapchat shows you how someone else sees the world. Now that I have Snapchat, she’s who I’m most hoping responds. I want to see how she sees how I see the world. On the drive to Ke$ha’s party, I watch the landscape change from run-down labyrinthine apartment complexes to desert suburbia, saguaro cactuses, houses built into red-rocked mountains. At the entrance to Fountain Hills, a geyser sprays one hundred feet into the air. You can see it from a distance, a beacon, a wet middle finger to the drought. The whole way there, my phone buzzes in my pocket, like a trapped bee. I’m hoping Starla got my snap, reciprocated with a picture of her world. I fumble with my phone immediately after I pull into the driveway of Ke$ha’s massive house. I’d gotten so many responses from friends, shock-faced to learn I’d upgraded my old phone, once such a talisman, a defining totem. Nothing from Starla. She hadn’t even opened the Snap. Maybe she’s asleep. Or out with friends. Or at someone’s apartment, taking a picture of herself—her most recent gallery opening was a series of selfies taken in other people’s bathroom mirrors. Starla and I made out once, during an alcohol-fueled night off. She was someone I could see myself with for a long time, but I lived all the way out west, and she returned to Boston after camp. In the fall, she sent me flirty text messages when she drank. I tried not to respond, which was easy, because when she was out, I was usually eating dinner or just getting home from work, exhausted. I didn’t want to lead us on. When the texts stopped coming, I missed them. It’s a weird feeling. I didn’t lose anything. But there are these faint impressions of possibilities flickering in my mind, holographic messages from hypothetical futures: Starla and I hiking down into the Grand Canyon, Starla and I riding the T to Jamaica Plain, where we’d sit beside the fog-curtained pond, eating burritos. I miss all that hadn’t happened, but might’ve.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR GET THIS PARTY STARTED

Of course, I’m first to arrive. “I always look forward to this moment,” Ke$ha says, pulling me inside and handing me a plastic cup brimming with neon liquid. I always get to parties early, even though I’ve known since college no one shows up on time. But when I try to wait, I get anxious, worried I’ll miss something, that when I arrive the best part will be over. “Sometimes I consider telling you a later time so you come with everyone else,” Ke$ha says. “But we need the catch up time.” She snorted at this. “I just imagined ketchup time.” If you’ve never seen Ke$ha, imagine the personification of a Lisa Frank sticker sheet wearing a bourbon-soaked leopard-print leotard. In a review of Warrior, Ginny Malba wrote, “It’s a glittery, dazzling, shape-shifting spectacle, where Ke$ha proves capable in an array of pop styles, though always in the name of partying down and living it up.”[1] That’s a pretty good description of the party, too. Multicolored lights swivel around a dance floor-ready living room, streamers on the wall sparkle and glint. It’s weird and a little sad to see it empty, but I know in an hour it’ll swelter with movement and mass, the humid weather of tightly packed bodies. Ke$ha asks me about my summer in Tempe and I tell her how boring it was without her. She gives me the tour highlights, all the best kisses, the shots she invented, once a week, each named for one of her new songs. Ke$ha is the embodiment of everything I wish I did—the sloppy one-night stands, the endless benders, the leaps and falls and scrambles—if something didn’t always hold me back. I fear looking foolish, I’m convinced the first drug I try will kill me, I stay away from rope swings and high dives. I’m early to everything, never wanting to miss the fun, but I never seem to have any myself. Ke$ha fawns over my smartphone, her own screen long ago splintered. She adds me on Snapchat. I drink long and deep from whatever she’s given me. It tastes like medicine and My Little Pony. When the doorbell rings and Ke$ha goes to answer, I go to the bathroom. I take a selfie in the oval mirror above the sink and send it to Starla. She’ll like this, I think.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR SELLING OUT

Around midnight, Ke$ha forces the DJ to spin Warrior. She performs the new songs on the marble ledge surrounding the fireplace. The crowd is pushing toward her, so I work my way to the back. I’m covered in other people’s sweat. One time, Ke$ha tried to pull me onto her fireplace stage, usher me into a duet, but I refused, worried I’d forget the words even though I’d sung along with her in car rides and dance clubs so many times. I look at Ke$ha dancing, the crowd moving with her. Ke$ha, while certainly her own monster, is part of a recent wave of pop stars who notably write their own songs. Self-proclaimed diva ethnographer Leonard Worthington has studied this phenomenon, writing, “After the initial success of singers like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez, the critical backlash levied against them centered on the knowledge that they didn’t write their own songs, and thus were not ‘true’ artists… Many celebrated pop vocalists through the ages hadn’t written their own songs, but now the public demanded this as evidence of musicianship. An amazing vocal talent wasn’t satisfactory anymore.”[2] I notice a similar trend in movies, screenwriters offering scientific explanations for anything fantastic, as though the most interesting aspect of fiction is how true it is. Batman is the most celebrated superhero largely because he’s perceived as possible—it could be any of us under the cowl if only we had billions of dollars and need for revenge. I blame the internet. We know so much now, about how things work, about each other. It’s more difficult to suspend disbelief. We see through the wool over our eyes, we view artifice as a lie, a betrayal. Pop stars write their own songs to prove they deserve their success, but as Worthington goes on to say, “All this achieves is a further disguising of artifice—a pop star is a construct, so one can never be truly authentic. One can merely have an image that offers the illusion of authenticity.”[3]  Of course, you can extend this to everything. I look at Ke$ha and wonder how real she is. I knew her before she was famous, and I didn’t notice a change, but maybe it was a performance even then. Maybe, in moments alone, she untangles her hair, wipes the glitter from her eyelids and becomes the real her, a her no one else knows. I wander away from the body heat radiating through the house, out onto Ke$ha’s barren back patio for fresh air. The night is nearly as hot as the party itself. A lone smoker tosses his butt and returns inside. I close the sliding glass door behind him and it rattles with bass, muffling the music. I look across the patio at the sloshing pool. It has two levels, one waterfalls endlessly into the other. I imagine my shyness is a performance too, my inhibitions repressing my real self, a wild child ricocheting around inside my skin, trying to break free. He would have texted Starla all those months ago, sent detailed descriptions of secret desires. I undress, ignoring thoughts of who might be watching, and dive in. The first time I ever skinny-dipped was when Starla lured me into a snowmaking pond. She wouldn’t let me chicken out like I always had. She could see that hidden me, knew how to bring out my best and bravest. I wish she could see me now, naked beneath the water, surrounded by the soft chemical glow of pool lights.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR NIGHTSWIMMING

When I break through the surface and wipe the sting of chlorine from my eyes, Ariel from the Verizon store is standing at the edge of the pool, her hair frizzing huge from the heat of the dance floor. How I didn’t spot her in the party is a mystery, though I’d been looking at my phone a lot, and Ariel looks different, her hair unrestrained, a yellow dress outlining the curves of her that had been rendered unseen by a shapeless employee polo and khaki slacks. “I thought that was you,” she says. “Mind if I join?” Before I can respond she’s pulling her dress over her head. I look away, at another corner of the pool, until I hear the splash. Wet isn’t a look that works for most people—I resemble a drowned rat when my hair is weighed down by water, my twitchy nose and rodent teeth accentuated by the clumpy bangs covering my eyes—but when Ariel emerges beside me, she looks, well, like a finely-drawn cartoon character, her hair one perfect scribble of red, her eyes big blue moons. Droplets roll gracefully down her neck as we tread water together. I’m embarrassed to be naked. “How’s the phone working out?” she asks. “It’s good,” I say, and the mention of it makes me worry I’m missing its all-important tremor. I can sense the shape her legs cut in the water with every small kick. “The world already feels so much smaller,” I say. It’s the truth—my ephemeral Snapchat pictures feel like pulsing golden tethers, lassoing people I love and yanking them close. Ariel tells me how a friend of hers got an invite to this party and dragged Ariel along. “I get claustrophobic at parties,” she says. “But then I saw you doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.” The music has almost disappeared inside, though over the splash of the waterfall I catch scraps of Ke$ha’s voice floating to me, the light patter of piano keys. She’s doing a quiet song, closing the party. “Don’t ask me to sing for you,” Ariel says, seeing me listen. “When guys learn my name, they always want me to sing.” “I won’t ask you to sing,” I tell her. “I have a terrible voice,” she says. We drift over to an edge so we don’t have to work to stay above water. Ariel is leaning close to me, a spray of her hair settling on my shoulders. Ke$ha has taught me to read body language. “I’m fluent in it,” she always says, and so I try something: I let my hand float clumsily beneath the water until it touches Ariel’s leg, but her thigh feels wrong, rough and slimy, so I pull my fingers away. “Sorry,” I say, and she kisses me. I kiss her back. We wrap our arms around each other, we put our hands against the pool wall to keep from sliding under. It’s hard to say how long we kiss. At some point, the music stops. We hear cars out front starting and careening away. Yet it feels like an instant. Like an eternity kissing her wouldn’t be long enough. I only stop when I hear the sliding door open, as if I’ve been caught. “Don’t mean to interrupt,” Ke$ha calls out to us. Her voice wavers in an odd mixture of giddy and something I’ve never heard from her before. “But you’ve gotta get back in here.” Ariel smiles at me and slips underwater, barely causing a ripple. I let myself glance at the soft mirage of her as she swims away. For a moment her legs blur together and I see a glimmer of silver, a current of scales propelling her to the other end, and I realize what it was I heard in Ke$ha’s voice: fear.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR SENSING A PRESENCE

When Ariel and I go back inside, our clothes sticking damply to our skin, Ke$ha is splayed out on the floor with a few remaining guests in front of a Ouija board. “Sam. I’m sensing a presence,” Ke$ha says, waving us over. The guests nod solemnly. I recognize them, they’re Ke$ha’s ghost hunter friends. Ariel and I sit down, joining the circle. A guy with a lip ring looks at me. “Non-believers might upset the spirits,” he says. I don’t believe in ghosts, but Ke$ha gives me a please-stay look, so I nod in serious agreement. Ke$ha’s always wanted to be a paranormal investigator. She’s always wanted to live in a haunted house. This is a dream come true for her. We sit around the Ouija board and put our hands on the planchette. Ariel’s fingers overlap with mine. I look at her legs folded under her dress and they are just that: legs. “Oh ghost, tell us why you are here,” Ke$ha says looking up at the ceiling. Soon the planchette moves beneath our hands. It goes to the letter S, which appears like a prey-swollen snake in the lens. “S,” says Ke$ha, and we wait for the ghost to reveal more of its message. Of course, there is no ghost. I know the planchette is moved by us, unconsciously, though the trick is powerful. We wait and wait but the planchette doesn’t move. “S?” Ke$ha says. “For Sam?” Several people around the circle look at me in terror or awe. “Maybe my new phone is haunted,” I joke, and a girl wearing goggles on her head scoots away from me. Ke$ha and the guy with the lip ring examine my phone. The guy has a metal wand for detecting paranormal energies, and it lights up as he waves it over my phone. “I’d like to perform more tests at home,” he says. When I decline, he stomps off. I need it with me. I almost say In case Starla calls but then I remember Ariel beside me. After this, the crowd disperses. Ariel puts her number in my phone. “My friend lives nearby, so I can walk there,” she says, then disappears out the front door. “You should’ve walked her out,” Ke$ha says, but I feel guilty about the pool kiss, as though I’ve betrayed Starla, or myself, but Ariel’s hair is like a beacon in my mind. I see it as an afterimage burned onto my eyelids. I  can’t stop thinking of her, of the moment when she swam away from me and her feet turned into the thin forked membranes of fins. I lie down on the carpet next to Ke$ha and she squeezes my hand. All around us, the ghost hunters fall asleep on the floor, one by one. “I called you a cab,” Ke$ha says. “We’ll figure out your car tomorrow.” She knows I have trouble sleeping when not in my own bed. When the cab comes I thank her, tell her it was a great party, hug her even though I know I’ll have glitter on me for days. When I get home, I notice Starla has seen my Snap, but hasn’t sent a response. I dig out my old phone, the Razzle, and try to turn it on. The battery’s dead, so I find its charger and plug it in. An online review of the Razzle by user DialPforPhone86 described it as a “visual knockoff of a Blackberry without any of the Blackberry’s capabilities. It’s a brick of a phone that disguises its obsolescence with a sleek design and vestigial flipping feature.”[4] It isn’t a flip phone that opens and closes—instead, the bottom half of the phone spins 180 degrees, revealing a keyboard. The review is right, it’s useless, but it’s already what I miss most. I spin the phone back and forth, as I did for so many years in moments of anxiety, impatience and boredom. When the screen comes to life, I click the message button and go through texts I’d saved. Part of me thought they might’ve vanished, migrated to some other digital landscape, but toward the bottom of the list, I find Starla’s. I scroll through the small list, read one after another and then back again, the messages blending, I miss and on top of you and many times in a day, until I fall asleep.

 

THE DOLLAR SIGN STANDS FOR NO LONG DISTANCE FEES

In the morning, my Razzle is no longer in my hand. On my new phone, I have seven missed calls from Ke$ha, one long voicemail. I listen: “Sam, you won’t believe what happened. I was asleep, but then, the presence, whatever it was—whoever it was, I mean—woke me. Shook me awake, just like that. He was invisible, or well, transparent. I could see the shape of it in the air. And it—he took my hand. His hand was cold and like, squishy like Jell-O. And he led me upstairs and then I had sex with the ghost, Sam. We had sex. I was levitating off the bed. It was like fucking all my past lives. In one I was a lumberjack. In another I was a formula one racer, and a medieval warrior, and… Oh Jesus, I hope ghosts can’t get you pregnant. What’s that gunk they leave behind?” Ectoplasm, I whisper, putting down my phone. Ke$ha’s voice keeps going. I look around for my Razzle, I want to read those messages from my past life, from a life I could’ve had, but it’s not under my pillow or tangled in my sheets or stuck between the bed and the wall. I check the bathroom, maybe I peed in the night and took the phone with me, but it’s not there either. I find it in the kitchen, submerged in a glass full of cold, clear water. “Fuck,” I say. I fish it out, search the kitchen for a sack of rice, in hopes the moisture can be sucked from its archaic motherboard, but I don’t have rice. “Fuck,” I say again, not knowing how this happened, if I sleepwalked to the kitchen dreaming of a world where I could forget about Starla and those other lives I glimpse in my peripheral vision. Somewhere outside, there is a screeching song, from a ragged feather-ruffled bird or maybe a malfunctioning weed whacker. It makes my blood hum. When I close my eyes, I envision myself leaving the concrete grid of the city and finding a desert like an ocean floor, throwing myself again and again upon the rocks and cacti, but I shake myself loose from this spell. I return to my room with the soggy Razzle in hand. Ke$ha’s voicemail is still playing. I put the phone up to my ear to hear her over the song still tugging at me. “I figured out what ‘S’ meant. It was a sign. I’m going to spell my name with an ‘S’ again. Be the real me.” I shut off the voicemail and look at the bright white of my new, smart phone, the long list of contacts, too many people I never talk to, who might look at my nameless number appearing on the screen and wonder Who? if I were to call. I scroll down to S and let my thumb hover over Starla’s name. The song outside is getting louder, like a car being crushed into a cube, like aluminum thunder. It wants me to swipe my thumb across the screen, pull myself back up to A. But I bring my thumb down and put the phone against my cheek, cover my ear with my hand. It rings and rings and rings, then clicks, the digitized imitation of a receiver picked up, and then a voice on the other end, a voice I almost recognize, says Hello.

 


[1] Malba, Ginny. “Ke$ha takes on the world in Warrior.” Musical Munchies Nov. 2012. Web. 23 February 2015.

[2] Worthington, Leonard. Going Gaga: Power, Social Media and Authenticity in the New Era of Divadom. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.

[3] Worthington, Leonard. Going Gaga: Power, Social Media and Authenticity in the New Era of Divadom. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.

[4] “User reviews for Verizon Razzle by Pantech.” Phoning It In. n.p., n.d. Web. 27 February 2015.

 


Sam Martone lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.


Editor’s note (Ian): There are so many things I love about “Gho$t in the Machine”. I love the casually ambiguous touch of magical realism of the Verizon store salesgirl named Ariel who suggests a causal relation between her cartoonishly red hair and her conception after her parents’ viewing of The Little Mermaid. I love the specificity and clarity of Sam’s description of Snapchat, as though he’s explaining it for the benefit of a Rip Van Winkle, while at the same time narrating with the same tone of wonder Rip Van Winkle might be moved to as he takes stock of the changes to which he’s awoken. The story turns a critical eye to media trends and the ubiquitous technologies of our era, but it never goes in for the easy, stale, trenchant, handwringing point; the criticism emerges instead from a depth of longing and feeling, and longing for feeling, and a sense of undeterred vulnerability, and a story superficially about Ke$ha and Snapchat slyly reveals itself as a fable on the way we pour our hope into the newest technological innovation, convinced that this will be the thing to make us whole. Though Sam’s reference points are state-of-the-art, his theme is timeless.

 

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