Location: Battle Station, New Jersey
Date: April 24, 1999
The week my anxiety medication started to work, I was in my office at the computer, working on an invoice for a company that promises its customers “a cappuccino machine in every can.” Sales had been down six quarters in a row. We’d been asked to reinvent the firm’s French Vanilla, which was off more than thirty percent since its peak in the early-eighties. But my thoughts quickly shifted from this when I looked up from my computer screen and saw him armed and standing at my door. The overhead light flickered behind him, dropping strange shadows across his face. If it weren’t for my anxiety medication, I would have offered him more than a curious squint.
“What is it, Beekley?”
He came in incensed at my calm, saying once my pulse would have raced and the muscles in the back of my neck gone soft. “You would’ve pictured bodies piled up in back, a wet red streak curving down the hall, and Koba, our own poor dear Koba, twitching on the floor of the lab with his last words lost in a gurgle of blood at the back of his throat.”
It was never easy to take Beekley seriously. He threw all his loose change at the Salvation Army. This morning, he had on a pair of red and blue checked pants beneath his lab coat and a fat tie the same color as his hair, which was rust-red and worn in the style of a young Frederick Douglass or an old Albert Einstein. When he noticed me staring at the price tang that dangled from the shotgun’s trigger guard, he set the weapon down on my desk and asked if I was stoned.
He pointed. “I had Alice playing with the lights behind me.”
She stepped into the door then, eating from a bag of microwaveable popcorn. I still felt me a strange pull in my groin whenever I saw her, like an old wooden roller coaster jerking forward from the gate. To keep from looking, I grabbed the shotgun and stood giving it a bounce in my hands.
Beekley restrained a grin. Alice made bigs eyes over her popcorn as she pulled up at his side.
“I’ve actually always wanted to shoot one.” I brought it up beneath a pinched eye—“Pull!”—and swept the barrel to a high corner of the room.
“Now he’s an outdoorsmen.”
“Mfumbo,” Alice said, using her best baritone, “go into the bush. The dogs haven’t returned with my pheasant.”
I lowered the weapon, holding it as Beekley had in the doorway. Somehow, this was most natural. “All right, I’ll bite. What’s this all about?”
“Oh dear Lord.”
“The smart ones have already built a bunker in Montana, David. We don’t have much time.”
I set the shotgun down and retook my seat. “All right, Beekley, because I like you, because I find you entertaining, as a small child might a clown, I’ll let you state your case, but only so long as your nonsense doesn’t keep me and Alice from our work for more than three minutes, starting”—I glanced at my watch, waiting for the second hand to reach the twelve—“… now.”
He dropped into the chair facing me and spoke of the first generation of computer programmers, saying they had been like a young married couple in their first cramped apartment, looking to save space in every possible way.
“Computers took up entire basements, and a kilobyte of memory cost as much as a Cadillac. So when they entered dates, they used only two digits instead of four.”
I rolled my hand through the air, saying I’d read the same issues of Time and Newsweek.
He sat forward in his chair. “It’s like a line of Christmas tree lights, David. One computer in Mozambique isn’t Y2K compliant, and then it’s a domino effect from there. And remember: that computer in Africa’s only six degrees of separation from the computer that controls our launch codes.
“Everything will fail,” he said. “From the electric grid on down to our automatic toilets. The ATMs will keep our money, or pump it out by the thousands into the hands of anyone walking by. Streetlights will go dark, and prison doors will slide open, spilling rapists and murderers into our suburbs and streets. There will be a panic. You mark my words. A panic, David, unlike any known since the Black Plague.”
Alice sat stoically in the chair beside him, her cheek bulging as she tried to infuse the kernels of popcorn with enough saliva to chew noiselessly. She had skin the color of a nice stroganoff, reminding me of Persia and Babylon and all the veiled women of those dancing tribes. A tiny diamond stud pierced her nose, sparkling beneath FlavAmerica’s otherwise dull fluorescent glow. I looked away from her, to the family portrait on the opposite corner of my desk, and gave Beekley another glance at my watch for show.
“So what are you saying? We should hole ourselves up here with shotguns?”
“We’re flavor chemists, David. We put the savory sauce in your dog’s kibble and the sweet & the sour in everyone’s microwaveable Chinese. Without us, all the push button foods that drive today’s fast-paced lives and economies will simply disappear.
Think about it. The great industrial system of food production will grind to a halt. People will have to farm or fight.
And still you think we don’t need weapons?”
Alice swallowed awkwardly. I shouldn’t have hired her. I stared at the shotgun on my desk.
“Twenty percent of the population will die that first year,” Beekley said, “unable to eke out an existence on the remaining stores of canned food and frozen entrees kept cold in streams or holes dug into the ground. They won’t know what to do with bruised fruit and colorless carrots, with lettuce half-devoured by aphids and the stringy meat of wild game. They will reject food that is not sweetened by hydrolyzed proteins and MSG, that has been removed from its natural papaya flavoring and essence of lobster. You watch. They will realize the power of their artificial flavors only when they revert back to gruel and colorless pastes, to lentils and parsnip soup, to crooked stubs of carrot coaxed up through a dirt as hardened as their souls. Do you hear me?”
We looked at one another — Alice, Beekley and I — acknowledging our importance. I nodded.
“No, people won’t stand for it,” Beekley said. “And when they learn who we are and what we can do with the chemicals on the shelves in back, they will come for us. It’s inevitable, David. There’ll be a new ruling elite, just as at any other time. Men and women who flaunt their wealth and power by wearing dazzling reds and blues, not the dirtied earth tones of everyone else. They’ll speak a language more guttural, German perhaps, and seek pleasures to make them forget their crimes. Boys and girls will be bought and sold at the Mall of America, troupes of actors will delight them with skits half-remembered from VHS tapes forever lost to the electrified past, and flavor, David, of course they’ll want the rarified tastes of the half-forgotten world. So when they come for us,” he said, and here he stood and reached for the shotgun, “and when they push through those doors”—he pointed with its barrel—“you’ll have to ask yourself: am I slave or master?”
He remained on his feet, shotgun at the ready. Alice’s cheek bulged; she didn’t blink.
I looked at my watch — more than six minutes — then turned to Alice. “What do you think of all this?”
She stood and reached into the pocket of her lab coat for a dainty pistol with a mother of pearl handle. “I thought a Glock would be too gaudy.”
I stood then, giving them both an officious nod. “All right. Come back tomorrow with a report on the price of gun safes. So long as it locks, we can keep it back with the Coke machine.”