1) Read “Trade Surplus” by James Kendley.
2) Watch Andrew Swainson’s “I Lovely Cosmonaut” (music by Monstrance, 2007).
3) Repeat 1) and/or 2) as needed.
4) Report effects in Comments section.
They first exported mesh bags of plastic army men, all jumbled in platoons of prime numbers. Each soldier was unique. Each was svelte and androgynous. Each sported a monstrous hooked nose and an improbable weapon: this one aimed a defoliated tree branch; this one cradled a gigantic spiked dildo; this one stood tip-toe in the act of hurling a boomerang made of broccoli.
We passed them around. Trade them! Collect them! All one-hundred-and-thirty-seven!
When the clothing came, we fought over it. I wore a vest of acrylic burlap in shocking blue. It had seventeen pockets and an eye-shaped vent that let the breeze up my back, but that was a small price to pay for an ironic fashion statement. My girlfriend wore a shimmering blouse with extra sleeves flapping like rectangular wings. We laughed aloud at the late-night talk show host who proudly displayed his new blue jeans and then had the cameraman zoom in on the superfluous fly at his left ankle. It was open, ha-ha-ha.
Durable goods were dangerous. The filigreed tableware was almost hypnotically gorgeous, but even the spoons were frighteningly sharp, and the pointed handles were so long that diners couldn’t sit side-by-side without risking injuries. The trivets snapped like terrapins, the gardening implements were reminiscent of medieval torture devices, and the drinking glasses required bibs at best. They just couldn’t get it right.
The workmanship was superb, and the quality of the materials was never in question. The utility of these objects, however, was in great dispute. Enthusiasts took a neo-Taoist approach, arguing that those who disparaged these objects were simply using them for the wrong purposes. Gorgeously crafted nine-inch golf tees, for example, made wonderful chopsticks, and twelve-pound, razor-sharp butter knives were a serious chef’s dream come true. Use them for what they are, they said. Just ignore the instructions.
Ignoring the instructions was not an option in my set. The instructions were cooler than the products themselves, Zen kohan with illustrations consisting of stick figures in awkward poses unrelated to the products. We blew them up on tee-shirts and bumper stickers:
NOW POCKET NECK WISHES—SLICE!
(stick figure apparently shot from cannon)
HAPPEN ABYSS 11x11=123 POTATOES—BAM!
(stick figure apparently crying or sweating on toilet)
SPORT CHEST COOLANT POWERS—TRIP!
(stick figure apparently asleep in colander)
and my favorite, the ominous and enigmatic
EAT GLOVE NO BABIES—DESTINY!
(stick figure apparently smoking a dog)
Consumer electronics appeared overnight. There were no design innovations to distinguish them from the products of established makers. There were, however, unexpected functional anomalies. We heard of these UFAs as rumor, but we all faced the reality sooner or later.
Eating directly from the new refrigerators destroyed melanin, which led one feebleminded school nutritionist to tell children that midnight snacks caused albinism. The picture quality of the new televisions was superb, but even limited viewing left owners with a desire to hoard ball bearings and a voracious curiosity about Paris in 1473 C.E. The new hairdryers left users starry-eyed and anemic, but their hair was so lustrous and full-bodied that few could forgo the pleasure.
The products were hard to avoid. We started buying them by accident, which ruined the irony—or worse.
A canned drink had me seeing infrared vapor trails with the first sips, then in x-ray at the half-way mark. By the time it was empty, I was counting mites on a bluebird three blocks away, and I was afraid to leave my bench due to the yawning crevasses and gigantic crawling creatures on the sidewalk, so unaccustomed was I to the startling shift from telescopic to microscopic vision. It was dusk by the time my sight returned to normal, and by that time, I had examined the can as no human had ever examined any object with the naked eye. Below the ubiquitous point-of-origin label, below the allergy information:
SHARP SHARPER SHARPEST CAFFEINES—DANCING!
(stick figures apparently fighting over a pizza slice)
The products penetrated all markets, everywhere. By the time we understood their synergistic effects, how using the products in close proximity to one another created new and more alarming UFAs, it was too late.
We had dug our own graves with our debit cards.
I threw it all out. So did others. The streets were littered with indestructible, immaculately wrought objects creating overlapping fields of complementary and increasingly deadly UFAs. They did not rot or rust or fade, and no one collected them because the sanitation workers had been issued the new smart phones.
Everybody got the damned smart phones. They were better than free; they flooded the market.
We learned to hit the dirt when we heard that peculiar warbling ringtone.
I have examined one of the phones, by the way, a broken one with bits of the former owner still clinging to it with some sort of molecular desperation. It was a flip model, nothing interesting about it except the single instruction on the receiver:
BATTERY LIFE CONFETTI OPEN/HANDS—TRANSMISSION!
(stick figures apparently joined at the heads)
As UFAs tore the world apart, the decision finally came to use focus groups and beta testers. The legacy of our journalism and of our culture is the cynicism of the final headlines:
BETA TEST OMEGA GOODS—POINTLESS!
(stick figure kneeling in prayer)
TOO LITTLE TOO LATE—GOODBYE!
(stick figure exploding)
We forage now. We’ve even learned to joke as we skulk beneath the crisped husk of the little girl catapulted into a tree by her own bicycle or as we step over the poor shivering bastard whose skin has melded with the lining of his seven-sleeved fleece hoodie or as we dodge the lurching woman whose headset has burrowed into her brain.
Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?
We joke, because we are still urban sophisticates, after all, but we cannot laugh. We still hope for escape to the suburbs, but energy-smart and passenger-hungry vehicles prowl day and night, and the new traffic signals are dreadfully efficient. Petrified forests of would-be jaywalkers crumble at every bridge and tunnel leading out of the city.
We forage till one of us opens the wrong cabinet or uses the wrong can opener or steps on the wrong floor tile. Only a matter of time.
We forage, and we read labels. We’re don’t care about high fructose corn syrup anymore.
We look for unusual instructions. We look for the point-of-origin label:
MADE ON ALDEBARAN VI—FANCY!
(stick figure and ice-squid apparently playing pat-a-cake)
Ice-squids from a gas giant, little entrepreneurs with big dreams, ha-ha-ha!
Nobody’s laughing now.
I LOVELY COSMONAUT
FULL-SCREEN MODE RECOMMENDED
• James Kendley is senior editor and archivist for Danse Macabre. More scribblings @ http://www.kendley.com/.