Heathernby Jack Womack
“An exciting sci-fi stylist . . . Womack’s imaginative projection of our imminent fate is crippling.” –People
Heathern, the third novel in Jack Womack’s highly praised Ambient series, is a dystopian, appallingly funny tale of corporate combat and media warfare in the fading years of our century.
Thatcher Dryden, former drug kingpin and now leader of the megacorporation Dryco, intends to supply a waiting world with the Messiah it so desperately seeks. But Lester Macaffrey, a schoolteacher found performing miracles among the human flotsam of the Lower East Side, proves no more controllable than any Messiah. While Thatcher’s minions scheme to sell the world salvation with a Dryco label on it, Thatcher’s own mistress is strangely drawn to Macaffrey—and begins to be transformed into something new and strange . . . something that might change the world.
Written with the black humor, taut linguistic brilliance, and razor-sharp intensity that Jack Womack is known for, Heathern is a chilling evocation of the dark potential on the horizon.
“A savage urban baroque informed by a penetrating humanity . . . his best so far!” –William Gibson
“An exciting sci-fi stylist . . . Womack’s imaginative projection of our imminent fate is crippling.” –People
A baby almost killed me as I walked to work one morning. By passing beneath a bus shelter’s roof at the ordained moment I lived to tell my tale. With strangers surrounding me I looked at what remained. Laughter from heaven made us lift our eyes skyward. The baby’s mother lowered her arms and leaned out her window. Without applause her audience drifted off, seeking crumbs in the gutters of this city of God. Xerox shingles covered the shelter’s remaining glass pane, and the largest read:
Want to be crucified. Have own nails. Leave message on machine.
The fringe of numbers along the ad’s hem had been stripped away. My shoes crunched glass underfoot; my skirt clung to my legs as I continued down the street. November dawn’s seventy-degree bath made my hair lose its set. Mother above appeared ready to take her own bow; I too, as ever, flew on alone.
“Joanna,” Thatcher said, prying loose my memory’s coils that I might freely return to my present.
“You want your face to freeze like that?” Thatcher Dryden, who with his wife Susie owned the Dryden Corporation–that is to say, Dryco–was my boss; my owner, in the conceptual sense. As Vice President in charge of New Projects I rarely listened during the morning rundowns, as I had yet to work on a new project in the nine months since he promoted me. “There’s something I want you to look at tomorrow. See if any thing’s there.”
“Anything where?” I asked. Thatcher’s eyes glazed, as if he imagined me clad in one of those specialized designs he favored, the sort I refused to wear.
“Got some reports in about some fellow on the Lower East Side–”
“Loisaida,” said Bernard. “For appearance’s sake we should pretend to keep the names straight.” As Vice President overseeing Operations, Bernard made sure that when his owners left teeth beneath their pillows at night they would in morning find shiny prizes in their place. He also still handled those New Projects. I’d worked under Bernard before coming to Dryco, through his mentorship learning the skills I no longer used.
“Whatever they’re calling it this week,” said Thatcher. “Give her the lowdown as we’ve got it, Bernard.”
Bernard was forty-five, three years older than me; he held his printout that he might see over the frames of his bifocals, and read aloud, translating the jargon in which all paperwork, for obfuscatorial reasons, was written. “One Lester Hill Macaffrey, age twenty-nine, from Kentucky, present address unknown–”
“Squattin” somewhere, no doubt. We’ll dig him up like a clam if we have to. A Southerner, you’ll notice,” said Thatcher, keen to note his countryfolk.
“Turn over any rock and find one,” murmured Susie Dryden, seated as ever at the far end of the table reading the Daily News, her eyes flitting over the pages, looking for referents, seeking in mundane reports the usable connections that underlie seemingly unrelated events; she reminded me of a hawk searching meadows for mice. Her paper’s headline read: PROBLEM? THEY ASKED/CANNIBAL, HE SAID. Kept Hand in Pocket
“He teaches philosophy and theology at a parent-run facility on Ninth Street,” Bernard said. ‘most of his students are Long Island transferees, including test group children–” Susie grimaced.
“Macaffrey teaches grade schoolers philosophy?” I asked.
“Nothing more eschatological than Nietzsche, I’m led to understand,” Bernard said. “Our friends in the appropriate agencies have examined possibilities mentioned concerning potential political disruption and feel we’re being quote, paranoid, unquote.”
“Told you that’s what they’d say,” Thatcher said, placing a finger to his lips that he might hush his own classroom. “Listen now. That’s all I ask.”
“Said neighborhood is rife with tales of Macaffrey,” Bernard continued, ‘most arising during the past year, most claiming that he possesses, or is possessed by, some supernatural force. It’s sworn by many that through unknown agencies he provides his charges and their families with drugs–”
“Drugs? What drugs?”
Bernard winked at me. “Food, clothing, shelter. Traditional silencers. As so many these days are mad for apocalypse no matter how arbitrarily timed, more outr” stories have begun to circulate, silly even by Nasty Nineties standards and far beyond most recent fin-de-si”clivities–”
“English, Bernard,” said Thatcher.
“Sources claim he foresees and tells of the future.” Bernard smiled. ‘must be a fount of joy for his neighbors. Supposedly he restores sight to the blind. As predictable within such subcultures a consistent belief is that he changes the weather to suit or punish as he pleases. I don’t think these tales can supply his public with the fix they need much longer. Any day now we’ll probably hear stories that he’s cured millions of cancer, turned water into Coca-Cola and parted the East River to ease the shipment of weapons into Brooklyn.”
“Damn good research,” said Thatcher. “Good talking. Thanks, Bernard.”
I remembered how so often to me Bernard referred to Thatcher only as Stonewall’s revenge. “It sounds so charismatic,” I said. ‘so cultish.”
“The snakecharmer’s air clings to him,” said Bernard. “These types rise up in ebullient times such as ours as scum rises on stew. Good to have an accomplished hand lifting the lid now and then to see what’s boiling up.”
“I got a hunch about this one,” said Thatcher, making a series of tiny x’s on his notepad with his pen.
“Like the hunch you had about that fool last May?” asked Susie.
“Messages from beyond could be useful even if true, depending on the beyond,” said Bernard. “At least Swami Lester doesn’t claim to have once lived in Atlantis. So many do you’d think the weight of the populace was what sunk the place.”
“Makes him more believable, doesn’t it?” Thatcher asked. “You got to follow these things up.” Spring’s oracle had professed the ability to lift the shrouds from Elvis. When he conjured up no incubus of higher rank than one claiming to have been Grover Cleveland’s postmaster general, Thatcher felt more assured that Elvis was still alive, or at least for now sat waiting in the lounge of heaven’s airstrip until he heard the boarding call for the return flight to earth. “This boy didn’t come calling on us, it’s cost-free so far. If there’s something usable he’s got it’ll be a damn smart investment, getting in on the ground floor.”
“Send a magician along,” said Susie. “A stage magician. Someone who recognizes tricks and lies and knows what to do about them.”
Bernard, stonefaced, lifted his hand. Thatcher smiled, ogling me for the tenth time that morning, his attitude implying that he’d told all of his classmates a secret I’d asked him not to tell. “Go down there tomorrow, hon. See if his shoes match his suit. Report to me once you get back.”
“May we proceed?” Susie asked. ‘more pressing matters require notice.” She turned to Gus, who’d thus far remained silent. Gus oversaw Security, and so spoke only of matters about which we didn’t want to hear. He was in his sixties, and worked for many in many ways before signing on with Dryco. “Fact me on this Jensen thing, Gus.”
“Mister Jensen, who worked with Latin American accounts–”
“Dog bites man,” muttered Thatcher. “Who doesn’t?”
” –left Chicago two nights ago, arriving at the Newark terminal on our jet number 12AR6. Jake and I were to bring him into town and we met him there.” Jake was Gus’s prot”g” and trainee. “It startled me, how pale he looked, but Jensen said he was fine. I sat with him in the back, Jake sat with the driver. Halfway through the Holland Tunnel he clutched his chest and slumped. A coronary, I thought, and pulled him closer to me. When I tried to place the oxygen mask over his mouth he pushed it away. His face was gray and blue. He felt very cold. He spoke.”
“What did he say?”
“”Can you keep a secret?” he asked. I said “Yes, my friend.” He could keep a secret as well and said nothing else. He entered a paralytic state, almost a coma. In his eyes you could tell he was thinking.” Gus sighed.
“What’s the moral to the tale?” Susie asked.
“None, so far,” said Gus. “Our doctors examined him after he was admitted to our ward at Beekman. Within an hour he died. Poison, the doctors said.”
“What poison introduced how?”
“Fugu,” said Gus, ‘derived from a Caribbean species of blowfish–”
Thatcher nodded. “How much was Jensen allowed to know? He must have been aboveboard if he was using one of our planes.”
“High enough,” said Bernard. ‘sometimes I saw him at various dos, forever resembling a librarian on speed. Just the same he was vouchsafed and seemed no less competent than the rest. Probably at some stage he simply took the wrong path in life.”
“No ifs about it,” said Thatcher. ‘sushi boys are in the bush.”
Bernard frowned, and when he spoke his offering was no less serious than I would have expected. “If those little yellow people weren’t so little they’d be easier to spot.”
“They hid on Guam for thirty years after the war,” said Thatcher.
“We believe the poison was on a projectile fired into the back of the leg, behind the knee, by means of a nondiscernible microbioinoculator,” Gus said. ‘dartgun,” he added, seeing that none of us save Bernard knew what he meant. “Easily concealed within an umbrella, for example. In a car exhaust, in a child’s party whistle. Innocence doesn’t deny death.”
“Sounds like Russian tomfoolery to me,” said Bernard, examining his nails. Whenever he dieted he fed upon his fingertips to supply the calories forbidden. “Those crazy Krasnayas eat up those Bond movies. I’ve often told you it’s our Moscow trolls we should keep a closer eye on–”
“They need the business too bad,” said Thatcher. “We’re partners, boy. Russia’s at war with the country, not us.”
“The recovered pellet fits instruments of Cuban make,” said Gus, his own Cuban accent shading his soft voice.
Thatcher shook his head. “They’re in the damned Caribbean,” he said. “Finally getting into the market.”
“Quit fixating,” said Susie.
“You’ve no reason to suspect,” I said. “All somebody has to do is say Tokyo and you act as if samurai were running down Fifth Avenue.”
“Stick to your assigned projects, hon,” Thatcher told me. “You know something about conspiracy we don’t?”
“Returning to this supposed conspiracy of which we have no evidence,” Bernard said, “if Jensen was into freebooty he may well have been flying solo.”
“Loose cannons sink ships,” said Susie.
“Somebody else was involved, since somebody killed him,” said Thatcher. “Wish to hell I could remember the bastard. These low-level boys, it’s like looking at ants–”
“He was higher on the hill than that,” said Susie. “Investigation’s essentialled.”
“Of course it is,” said Thatcher. “You can bet Japs’ll be holding the dartgun when we catch “em. Talk about watching too many Bond movies. Fugu poison, my ass–”
“You’re such an idiot, Thatcher,” shouted Susie; her snow-pale skin darkened as if she’d been rinsed in cheap wine. Whenever her control over anything slackened Susie rushed to teeter wildly at hysteria’s edge so that one among those who watched might rescue her as she desired. Since aligning with her husband, Susie lived by her balance. “Aren’t there plots enough without your making up ones that don’t exist?” Standing, she walked to the window to sightsee while biding her time; it was Bernard, and not Thatcher, who spoke anew.
“Let’s forget Pearl Harbor long enough to approach this logically. Why not?”
“Give it a try,” said Thatcher.
“The negotiations at Kyoto have been ongoing for a year and a half–”
“Year and eight months,” said Susie, without looking at us.
“On Tuesday you’ll be meeting with the closest Japan has to your equivalent–”
“Otsuka,” said Bernard. “You know his name, use it. He’s the one who made the bid to us and he’s worth hearing. Nothing wrong with forming with Japan the same sort of benevolently hostile relationship we have with Russia, and with Japan there’ll be no need for military interaction. So long as we postnet options–”
“English,” said Thatcher.
“What will Japan matter in ten, twenty years? China’s learned its lesson. Once they attain production levels of even half-strength everything will be left in the dust. Then all we’ll have to do for the Japanese is draw up their retirement program.”
“Like they don’t have enough to retire on. Property, farms, factories, stores, banks–”
“All of those assets frozen since the troubles,” said Bernard. “We do the deal, then apply the blowtorch. We receive a thirty percent cut of their future profits in all aboveground American-based operations–”
“Thirty percent,” Susie repeated. “He bit?”
“With all teeth. Once we sign we will have to abide by the agreement. No clowning about later on. That’s our sole requirement–”
“Sounds good,” said Thatcher. “Too good.”
Susie stood before Gus, sounding more tranquil as she spoke. ‘security’s on double alert?”
“Absolutely. All guards are undergoing allegiance checks. Master Dryden is safe at your house in Westchester.”
“It’s Wednesday,” Thatcher said. ‘settle this Jensen thing by Monday, if possible. Get the police to make pertinent arrests when necessary.”
“We’ve surrounded the usual,” said Gus. “The actual assassin may prove untraceable.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” said Thatcher, regarding Gus until our guard looked away.
“There’s so much else that needs attention,” Susie said, rubbing her forehead as if shifting her brain’s patterns into bizthink; as she eased into her traditional role even her speech began to change. “What’s tagged for intersits? List me.” Intersits were, in our economical shorthand, international situations. Thatcher shook his head, patently displeased with the grate of neology.
“Three point seven million imperial gallons at our Vancouver plant primed for disposal,” said Bernard, reading from a different printout. ‘dispersal, excuse me.”
“As what?” Thatcher asked. “Cancer in a jug?”
“Barter unfeasibled in this instance,” said Bernard, resting his chin in his palm. “Call it charity.”
“Third-world writeoff,” said Susie. “Next.”
“Dryco’s Caracas unit to return online January first–”
“December fifteenth,” she said.
“They ever figure out what happened?” Thatcher asked.
“Major malfunction,” said Bernard. A guess; no one was left alive to ask. I gazed into Thatcher’s face as if to divine the future; found myself again unsuccessful as a seeress. His actions were forever unpredictable, but this day’s whim especially puzzled, that he should make advances to a teacher in a ghetto. Beyond his stated claim I could discern no higher purpose in his intentions.
“What’s this I heard about some delay in the wall?” Thatcher asked. “What’s up?”
“The river.” Workfare recipients built the wall that would shield downtown from rising waters in the event Greenhouse predictions proved accurate. Without working they received no government assistance; for twelve daily hours they received thirty cents. There was a two month wait for spaces that forever reopened. “Higher tides this fall than expected. At Cortlandt Street they ran out of bedrock, Schist one of those things.” He paused, as if hoping for a reaction other than the one he drew forth with his pun, before reading on. ‘struck quicksand at forty feet. Geologists are insisting that additional tests be performed–”
Thatcher’s finger rapped my knee as if he was testing to see if I’d gone bad. He slipped a note to me beneath the table.
“Check it out, Bernard, whatever they say.” J want to see you tonight, his note read. On the message’s reverse I scribbled my reply and passed it back, peripherally watching his reaction. Thatcher glanced at it, his dark eyes fixed. His features could have been called Lincolnesque, had Lincoln been forty pounds heavier, beardless, and worn his hair tied in a short pony in the back. “Precautions. Can’t trust nobody on faith.”
Not tonight, he’d read.
I agreed to drink with them after work; so long as Susie accompanied he usually kept his passions reined. During this season, I settled for such company as would keep me. Through the years, spending the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah -Christmas circuit carving turkey rolls instead of turkeys, decorating bushes rather than trees, I should have convinced myself without reminder that each new year’s holidays might prove more memorable than those preceding, but no; the mind rejects too many lies as the body rejects too many sleeping pills.
“What a beautiful sunset,” Thatcher remarked as we rode the few blocks from Wall Street to Fraunces Tavern. Slivers of sky between buildings showed half-glimpsed glory. Old downtown’s narrow streets held a medieval feel, hemmed in as they were by stone battlements and wide walls. Evening’s lingering heat slapped our faces as we stepped from our car; we saw two visigoths who’d long before invaded the city, bond traders giggling as over a bug in a bottle while they poked umbrellas into a trashbag. The bag groaned; the man within hid his face with his hands.
“Amateurs,” Thatcher muttered, evincing as much concern as I or anyone I knew evinced toward those who’d lost that we might win. Thatcher’s snow queen, Bernard laughingly called me: ice princess, glacier girl, the hoar with heart of frost. Was I better than Thatcher for having noticed but not remarking? That was another lie I couldn’t keep down. My generation’s Zeitgeist preferred to haunt its halls alone, without undue consideration of an unlikely heaven: therefore, like all, I saw but didn’t see, cared yet didn’t care; couldn’t stop long enough to think about what I might do if I tried; convinced myself that there was nothing I could do, and so did nothing.
Susie took Thatcher’s arm as we entered, holding him tight; he didn’t pull away. He’d had involvements before ours, yet Susie never left him, nor did he want her to go. They never spoke of their unavoidable symbiosis, as if embarrassed to admit that neither could have dealt with their world by themselves. There would be no breaking of their ring from without; I’d tired of battering myself, trying. Soon enough, I believed–wanted to believe–I would fly away from it all, not knowing how, not knowing when; wanting in the meantime only to let what moments we had left together pass silently away, that he wouldn’t notice I’d left till I’d gone.
Our drinks were on our booth’s table. Gus sipped from each before we drank. He and Jake–who had accompanied us here–took the outer seats, walling us off from the crowd. Jake brushed debris from my corner of the booth and I sat across from the Drydens. Susie looked at her husband as if recounting the ways she’d loved him.
“I hate this place,” she said. “These animals.”
“Can’t isolate yourself all the time, darlin”,” he said. “Look at poor old Elvis. It’s the courtiers kill the king.”
“Fuck Elvis,” she said. “Look at you. Mister man of the people. Some man.”
‘some people.” Something brushed my foot; I jerked it away, having seen rats in better places. Beneath oak beams, amid tankards and pewter and steel engravings were hundreds at drudgeful play. A post-teen broker barked, crawling on his fours, his tie sweeping the floor; two women armwrestled, their flowcharts forgotten, keeping their sneakered feet firm against their chairs as each struggled to toss the other; I-bankers shook breadsticks at one another as if casting untried spells. An aging mentor at barside held forth before his adminassists and executaries, forking his hand into a cheese-ball, licking his fingers clean as he spoke. Any abomination was excusable so long as you lived in New York.
Gus illustrated a proper table setting with the unused dinnerware for Jake; to his mind social graces were as essential as social control. ‘salad fork always to the left of the regular fork,” he explained.
“AO,” said Jake, examining the tines of both. Something returned to caress my leg. Slipping off his shoe so as not to ruin my hose, Thatcher ran his foot along my calves, appearing to his audience so expertly vacant that he might have been running for office.
“Anyone here might try and do the do,” said Susie, rescuing her olives, drying her hand by rubbing her short hair, hoping perhaps to bleach the gray into platinum tones. “Pop out of the crowd and bingo. You know that.” Gus frowned; in this season he wore his memories so poorly. “What are you trying to prove?”
“Not trying to prove nothing, darlin”. Just enjoying myself while I can,” he said, his foot writhing over my knees. I froze, showing nothing to anyone. I dreamed of assassinating him when he prodded my thighs with his toes. “It’s the edge that makes life worthwhile. Dancing through the minefields of life. Like flying over the border at night with all the lights off. Like dropping in on the competition when they’re not expecting company. Just cause somebody lives straight doesn’t mean they don’t need a rush now and then.”
“You’re such a fool–”
“Too damn paranoid, darlin”, that’s your problem,” he said, laughing. ‘my boys don’t miss when they aim.” Clamping his lips onto her cheek as if to feed, he simultaneously thrust his foot between my legs until he could push it no further; he wriggled his toes as if squeezing mud between them. Choking, I dropped my glass; Jake caught it, not spilling a drop. “What’s the matter, hon?” Thatcher asked, his eyes postcoital as he drew back his foot.
“Went down the wrong way,” I said, pressing my legs together, feeling to have given birth to something unwanted. “I’m all right.”
Susie stared at me, anxious to convict, keen to execute, no more sympathetic than any judge; my innocence was no less real than any defendant’s. “Paranoid,” she repeated. “You’re the one with the lock on every lid. Always claiming you’ll spoon it out next Christmas–”
“I’ve helped you grasp the intangibles of the situation,” he said.
“Imagine what I could do with whatever’s in your files.” He nodded, saying nothing. “You’re so good keeping secrets when you want to. This thing you’re sending her off on tomorrow. What is it you want her to look for? What’s she going to find? You act like you think you’re really onto something.”
‘maybe.” A feigned guilelessness came naturally to him. “Let’s not talk business after work, darlin” –”
“No better time to talk it,” she said. “What’s this creep got that you want?”
He looked toward the ceiling as he spoke, seeming to visualize something he didn’t yet own. ‘somebody drops by your house on their way someplace else,” he said, “and they go to the bathroom while they’re there, and stop up the pipes shittin” gold, you’re not going to call a plumber.”
She had no response to his homily. Susie had known him from before the beginning, when he and his brother owned nothing but a plane and a field in the Colombian highlands. He admitted to me once that her business acumen brought them to where they were, but only because he had, as he put it, such blind fool timing. I can’t imagine she’d ever gotten used to him.
“If there’s something you’re not telling me, I wish you would,” I said, doubting that I would be heard, much less answered. “What’ve you got me walking into?”
His smile resembled an old incision, a caesarean scar. “If I knew for sure I’d tell you, but I don’t. Just take a look and let me know.” He raised his glass. “A toast.”
“To what?” Susie asked, lifting hers; a waiter refilled it.
“Everything,” he said, a whisper to his mother.
Jake held my jacket for me when we rose to leave; I smiled at him, and he grinned in return, his face full of blessings. Gus led us, Jake tailed us; the crowd parted for our movement as if for a clump of bellringing lepers. Everyone in the place must have worked for Dryco, directly or indirectly; reason enough for circumspection. We waited in enveloping night for our cars to arrive. From the west a blur breezed past Thatcher and Gus; a bicycle messenger racing a delivery to one who couldn’t wait, each knowing nothing more valuable than a little more time.
“Watch it!” the messenger shouted, flashing by. As he shot beneath an unbroken streetlight Jake fired. The bicycle passed some distance beyond the light’s cone before falling over. Gus put his hand on Jake’s shoulder.
“You rushed, Jake,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t act. I could see he was unarmed.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jake, his knowledge seeming too much for him as he covered his mouth with his hand.
‘remember breath, though. Breathe in as you fire and hold it. Then let it go a few times after.” Gus demonstrated. “Like a train. Gets air back into the head.”
“Just wing “em next time, Jake,” said Thatcher, dry of emotion. I knew that within he rocked as if in an earthquake. “Low-key. That’s the way.”
I rode home in a Dryco car to my apartment on King Street, which Dryco also provided; Thatcher gave me many nails that I might use. I lived in the bottom two floors of an 1825 townhouse refitted to postmod standards by the previous occupants. They’d lost it during the Readjustment; maybe they never deserved it, I’d tell myself. Maybe I passed them each morning as they raked at my clothes, calling for pennies, crying for change. On the street and on my stoop were syringes and shards of bottle-glass left by passersby to remind the street’s residents how long we’d lingered at our own edges, relying on balance so we wouldn’t fall in.
My neighbor on the third floor wasn’t screaming. Wrapping my comforter around me when I got into bed as if expecting recovery a thousand years hence, I let my memory squeeze me unconscious. A friend who lived in the neighborhood I’d be visiting told me a story that never made the news. Sixty problem people were shot in Corlears Hook Park by the Army. Sanitation men came in white trucks and buried them in red bags. A woman went to the landfill, after. With bare hands she tore away the earth until she found her husband. Retucking the others beneath their blanket, she carried him off that he might sleep alone. One who watched as she patted the earth down upon his new bed asked where she’d go now. To the grocery, she said, I got mouths to feed.