Online Exclusive

11.26.08
The People Catalogue
Sonia

1. Product description
She moves over a snowless sidewalk under dead winter night. Cold gasps of dryness at her neck—the front, now the back. Trees are not beautiful, as told on lips and pages, but desperate twiggy tremors, frightened from the ground. This is a good neighborhood. Coffee shops where kids in ties go after school. Posh storefronts whose glass faces hold pottery, clothing, and crepes.1 Trees aren’t even real plants, but wooden things in pain, eruptions, like hoary sores or testicles dropping upward. Despite lavish side streets she passes dirty brick buildings and hears a dog howl far off. The branches push outward, trying to pull away from themselves. The grass is still covered with snow scabs. Only a neighborhood dog, really just barking. But now she sees a mess of dogs, a pack. All the local dogs howling loose at once rushing to come ravish and eat up the night. They’ll tear along screaming, pissing in tree branches; gnashing at pavement, making potholes, dog mouths scooping up hard snow and dead ground, singing for flesh. But they’ll pass right by her like a swarm of something loud and famished, mad to rend some other maiden of the late shift. The dogs will die into a hum that spins backwards, collapsing into the first bark, which will then also die, and she’ll miss it. When she gets to the corner to take the lane the night’s silence will turn grey, then the wind will bring metal creakings to her ears. The sound of street signs taking notice. No Parking. Reduce Speed. Snow Route. She’ll pick up her pace down the lane as one tears itself free of the ground and twists into its human shape and rattles after her. And she’ll clip along, almost at a run. But of course she won’t run. And she’ll get to his door and grope through the hurry-jumbled forest of her purse for the key. And she has it, and turn. She’s in. Close behind, lock. And now she’ll mimic the practiced gait of a phantom through the hall and up to the room of the sleeping man, and she’ll be careful not to wake the slumbering young of the other rooms lest they open to the night. And she’ll lift sheets and slide in next to the warm person shape and hold his hairy chest from behind, and he’ll stir, but not enough, his hot breathing sputtering into grunts and phlegmy snarls. But soon he’ll again be a calm bag of measured sleep, and she’ll try and slip away before dawn.

2. Information on the product’s mother
Though the product was birthed in this country and upon entry received as a gift the native tongue, her mother’s heavy accent still feels to Sonia like a box she herself must climb her way out of, an organ scalded in youth she must coax her words to creep past. Her mother is a guardian of the lives of the wealthy, a keeper of alarm codes, a cleanser of rooms, a rearer of children who will call her by her first name until they forget it. She is a stout woman with wide hips and thick, fatty arms—“sturdy,” she likes to say: a condition Sonia beats back with jogging and breaststroke. When she was young Sonia would sometimes go with her mother to the houses where she worked and play with the children there. Some were mean but most were nice, and the parents were almost always nice. Though now she mostly remembers their toys and pets.

3. Sonia’s sister
Sonia has never met her older sister who died before she was born in a land she will never go to. These are the ways in which Sonia imagines that her sister dies:
a.  It is summer. She has left their small house in the middle of the night and run into a thick majestic forest full of spirits and clear streams. She loses her way because of her dreaming wistfulness and falls prey to the many enchanted things of the woods.

b.  It is late autumn. She has left the warmth of their rustic cottage and run through the chill night into a forest full of tall fir trees and strangling winds. She catches her foot in a forgotten bear trap and is left to die of hunger and thirst.

c.  After a love affair with the school master comes to light, she fills her pockets with stones and runs towards the river.

d.  Same as scenario a., except it is early spring and the fragrances are lovely and maddening; the trees bloom with soft leaves and cherry blossoms; she runs alongside streams that are part melted and part frozen over with delicate sheets of ice that the swift currents crack and burst through in fountain-like spurts; she finds herself in a pink wood, only to catch her foot in a bear trap; a band of hunters find and rape her; one of the hunters takes her home to be his wife; she dies in childbirth. Does she find some measure of happiness?

e.  It is winter and she is running over fields of snow. She grows tired and falls to the ground. She hears the cries of wolves in the distance, but the cold takes her before they do.


4. Payment information
To purchase the product’s limbs and channels, her small breath mournful and hopeful on the back of your neck, you need only assume the posture of the sleeping man, a rhythmic device used for heating wind and fluttering lids so as to manufacture the appearance of unknowable gardens of sleep. Your hands should be rugged and larger than hers, and attached to the spinal column should be numerous vessels of promise (your body should be full of rooms). Most importantly, however, you must know by memory, and when stirred from sleep be ready to recite, the oath of the sleeping man, which consists of some version of the following (varying of course with neighborhood idiom):

     “You will bathe in sunshine and stand on a square of green. Brown dogs with perky ears will come smiling, tongues a-wag, to lick your hands and face. The opulent leaves of oak trees will never shake at you in disapproval, and the jump-rope songs of children will evoke your name with reverence. I will enter you, not in worshipful fits, but with the slow familiarity of the high priest, and thusly will you enter me and dwell.”







Howard

Young and pudgy, a bulk that is glistening, hairless, and almost lumpy. Sitting, in concordance with ritual, naked on receptacle that one or both parents clean thoroughly and often. The bathroom has a window, out of which we’ll assume one can see trees, and sometimes children. It is bright when he sits here for long periods, squishing ants with his left hand (that which is closest to the window) between thumb and either index or middle finger, or sometimes his pinky which provides the fleshy artifact with the strongest crunchy sensation followed by an almost-tingle which moves like voice through phone wire into hand, forearm, shoulder, or beyond. Our sense is that he relishes these, and saves them. The ants are large, three-orbed animals. The first orb is black and shiny, with a miniscule owl beak, thin horns that wiggle and collect data, and difficult-to-see black armorlike eyes which never blink, except at crucial moments. The second or middle orb is an orangey red that captures certain fragments of the sunlight, helping them to cry out. The final black orb is blind and dumb. It is slightly elongated and dullishly pointed, as if altered by traveling at great speeds. It is by far the largest and nearly always faces away. Some of the ants carry wings but never, in the sanitized space of the toilet, tub, and mirrors, use them to fly. The ants presumably enter through some helpless aspect of the window. Does Howard wonder about such things? He does, in fact. 

     Howard’s age is not fully clear at this point. The lumpy and hairless qualities of his frame give him somewhat the look of a baby. Yet his grey eyes have known many things, like loneliness, hatred, and almost ecstatic versions of bodily pleasure. Do the ant collapses function as some system of prelude to autoerotic activity? The images are too unclear to convince us one way or another whether the artifact has even reached an age where such things are possible. The ants themselves, after extensive quantities of curiosity mail over the past two calendar years, will soon be made available for purchase. 

     We urge you now to peruse the older Howard who has mastered eight or more forms of discipline and austerity. He is lithe and muscled with skin unpocked by acne scars but mapped into competing territories by stretch marks to an extent that undermines total confidence in the stability of the Howard region. He now goes by H, by the way, in all but three inner locations. H lives alone and has forgotten nearly all traces of the earlier presented image of Howard. He studies the warlike arts as a way towards peace and self-mastery, and although he still sits garmentless on the toilet, he uses this time to read the great works of Eastern and Western philosophy, and in doing so, to improve his mind and renovate any rusted or malfunctioning ethical structures. 

     Of late, ants have begun to troop into his bathroom through some as yet undisclosed passage around the window, made viable by late-winter–early-spring warping of house materials. These ants are like the old ones, except their central globes are black and do not avail interesting displays of light. Also, more of these have wings and some are observed committing bird-like acts. These new ants do not spark memory in the product, and there are currently no plans to market them as accessories. Despite moral resistances which swirl quite beautifully in confined and well-controlled paths that look like fingerprints made of wind, H kills these ants when he notices them. He takes no pleasure in such acts, and, due in part to thirteenth-level vegetarian training, feels something slightly more intense and ambiguous than what certain European retail divisions carry under the name of the prick of conscience. H’s resale value has recently increased due to his arrival at the following process:
I should probably buy some poison to take care of the “ant problem” (which is really such an awful expression). I mean not only would poison take care of what for lack of a better term I’ll call a “problem” but it would also cut down on the necessity of actual individual ant killings (although is it really a necessity—I mean I could always put them out the door or flush them down the toilet or send them down the sink and leave them up to fate and maybe give them a fighting chance? But that’s pretty ridiculous). Although is it really the greater crime to kill ants one by one as they come or to lay a poison that they’ll carry back to their lair and eliminating further generations before they come into being? Is it worse to kill a bug or prevent its existence beforehand? I mean I think all in all that if it were me and I had the choice I’d prefer being killed part-way through life (even if my death was sudden and painful and crunchy) than never to taste the pleasures of existence in the first place. Then maybe the best thing is just not to bother with the poison and take it as it comes. 

     While Howard is only available in a special limited edition, fire-hardened and glazed with a luxuriously sketchy finish, the H model is ripe for mass-market consumption, assuming supplies last. The price of the standard model does not entail the surrender of your entire central nervous system, but merely the payment of those thin cords and bundles of webbing responsible for pain reception. To obtain ordering information for the limited-edition Howard model, turn to appendix 6.4 (special ordering old, used, or dramatically impermanent items), near the back.







Rebecca & Todd

“Excuse me,” he says with a tongue produced in Midwestern factories. She answers with silence of the mouth and a twinkling of the eye that his grey bundles fail to convert into meaningful signals. Due to luminary conditions in the public house, her eyelashes look like beams of light (or so his brow-beaten thought colonies inform him as a means of forestalling translation and further mouth contortions). Centuries of shirtless labor, international feats of transport, decades of multimedia marketing efforts, conspire to focus flame into a bright fiery centre. The other end of the cigarette positions itself between her glossy lips (designed to stifle forward and backward motion in surrounding bodies). In a feat that has consistently confounded the lexical capacities of our competitors and even the terminological thresholds of past catalogues designed by the People Corporation (up until the Great Vocabulary Shifts preceding the Spring 2002 issue) but may now be referred to as the potentially suicidal suppression of logical functions and commencement of extravagant or apocalyptic activities(2002–2004) or simply the leap of faith (2005 onward), Todd takes a step forward, uttering with sudden and alien conviction, “You have pretty eyes.” Rebecca, aware of such ocular conditions (or perhaps merely tuned in to various social, atmospheric, and physiological circumstances that produce a broad series of word combinations from which such a statement may be retrieved), blows smoke into the stranger’s face. 

     Todd comes packaged with a small one-bedroom apartment that has the feel of a studio (according to a.moments of panicked intuition [clarity?] upon waking unintentionally in the dark hours, and b. the smirking words of more than one former intimate), nightly cooking feats that incorporate such items as Pasta Pals and Hamburger Helper, and a pug canine that he adores and worries about or misses at seemingly random intervals during evening excursions (sparked, without the product’s knowledge, by certain items: a picture of a dog on a coaster, the gait of a broad-faced stranger, weather conditions reminiscent of sick animal sounds). 

     With Rebecca we include a small vial of mouthwash that may be carried in the purse or handbag and used with a frequency that borders on compulsive for the freshening of a mouth-&-throat system that the product feels is in constant danger of becoming aesthetically compromised (infested with foulness) through the elegant smoking of pounds upon pounds of tobacco, etc. Oral rinsing is a liquid alternative to gum chewing, an activity the product has early memories of her original father calling a vile, disgusting habit (terrible sounds; ruins the teeth; makes me cringe to think of all that spit). In addition, Rebecca comes with an ongoing reading project through which she hopes to master all seven volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and a voracious if fickle sexual appetite not limited to erotic if antagonistic cat-&-mouse games leading to coital feats that blur the lines between thrilling and degrading for both or all parties, but also include more subtle though no less hollowly satisfying sexual feats constructed as the denial of sex to various lonerslosers, and sad sacks (the product finds the extravagant display of her own salacious charms, culminating in a curt and biting rejection of some beta, gamma, or zeta male, at least as erotically delightful as the most orgasmic, cruelty-laced acts of coital dominance or feats of submission so thorough that they make her feel both abused and abusive at the same time; most members of the l-l-ss contingent witness her provocative dismissals worming into their erotic storage zones and settling into a rigid position that is at once excruciating and exquisite, like the feeling of helplessly pressing on a sore tooth). 

     Years of what felt like love with the man who felt like the one culminating in infidelity (hers) and self-extinction (his), intercontinental feats of travel, decades of various striving efforts (top marks, grade school through college; excellence in varsity sports; cooking to die for) conspire to focus inner flame into a bright fiery centre of the room, crossing and uncrossing legs in a manner acquired from film. The public house is almost empty on a Wednesday night. This is her first time here, but she’s working it like she’s at least part-owner. This is not his first time here, and the disruption is welcome, if confusing. 

     Later, both products will be sharing a smoke (due to passings outside of our reception), building an edifice of sentences that, after tonight, he will dwell in for periods and she will relegate to some cerebral ashcan, out of which from time to time (perhaps when fed up with her reading project) she will retrieve it and run her hand or cheek along its sides. 

     The cost of Todd is a long, thin stretch of solitude marked with the odd burst of transcendental joy ideally unrelated to the social world. For Rebecca we ask only for a small donation, a gift of erotic suffering that may be used as fuel to feed some snarling beast of guilt. Buy one of these items and receive the second for half price. Though they can be purchased separately, the much-in-demand edifice can only be constructed (outside of memory) through the possession of both items. Each increases the value of the other.







Rex

To smooth his skin you should pay him a dollar. This is what he thinks as the old ladies pet him and offer him dainties. He can have dainties any time he wants. An assorted set of young products play outside in well-tailored grey and powder-blue suits, in dresses pink and yellow. Though significantly less sleek and lively than the other specimens, Rex is a favorite among the not-yet-infirm connoisseurs of youth. His portly girth, for one, prevents frolicking escape into hills, trees, & grassy knolls. His freckle-ready flesh largely limits his activity to rooms and verandas, away from any orb which might cook or further crumple the tissue-paper skin of his public. Rex infrequently wears the bright, gleeful masks popular among the other children. Mysterious, windy games rarely tear his face into the stretched-rubber smiles of the too-easily-made-glad. The product’s nearly permanent pout fastens facial rolls into an adorable challenge that ancient hands seek to stroke and feed—a very adult version of trying to make the beefeater laugh. 

     Rex feels something like pity for the little lords of the hoary outdoors. To him they seem like squirrels in people outfits, scampering in sterile display, gathering vague nuts of fun for some stupid winter. Despite its density, the product does not hoard food or amusements. He comes individually wrapped, so there is no danger that he may be chipped or otherwise damaged by sibling products. In addition, Rex has been prepared through a rigorous reward-based process of home schooling and has learned to acquire knowledge in its unbroken, unshared form. Hoarding means an end to bounty, and Rex expects no such end. Grandmothers are a withered language of abundance. His own, The Central Grandmother, functions as a symbol that holds a deathless promise that he will always be taken care of. And Rex believes that he has access to the deeper spirit behind this cookie- & mothball-smelling letter. The Central Grandmother and the countless others who orbit her at garden parties and dinners, often seem like a hindrance, a clear and flimsy skin between himself and his just desserts, which doting old ladies dole out in a diluted form. 

     On the rare occasions that the product thinks about his parents he remembers them only as a pair of bland, blank smiley faces. Sometimes before bed, while playing with action figures and tiny vehicles candied in the moonlight, he imagines that maybe his parents were evil, that somewhere behind the nice masks there lurked a dark world of spankings and withheld meals, and maybe a younger him, tortured and punished, used his mental powers to cause the crash and to spare his life from horror and bring his grandma so much joy. Despite such imaginative scourings, Rex cannot locate any true trace of parental evil within his memory banks. Every time he pulls off one smiley-face mask he finds another one behind it, on and on. 

     Rex may be stroked or gently pinched. For best results: wear the latex gloves w/ wrinkle simulators to approximate the sensation of rotten youth and spent years playing a game of catch with something mysterious and vital. In addition, feel free to tousle his hair, but keep in mind that all fondling activities should be undertaken only when paying close attention to the product’s mouth. The mouth should always be engaged in chewing, and may be fed with shortbread, creampuffs, and any number of other baked goods (see package for details). If the mouth becomes empty during petting, the results may be unpredictable and possibly dangerous or offensive. 

     The cost of Rex entails gathering all available faculties for believing in miracles and focusing them into a single beam of light which should be shone on the product’s many surfaces. Rex is especially well-suited to customers who have lost children and spouses.

1 The faces of the younger children who come into the coffee shop where Sonia works are mostly calm and pleasant, sometimes languidly contemplating the anxiety of deciding between biscotti and cheesecake, but mostly very peaceful—except when they twist in outrage into masks silently encouraged by their parents, and their voices rise in too-articulate anger at some mix-up or mistake in change. Sonia has decided that the children collect these masks and use them to decorate a secret room hidden behind their libraries of dreams.


Michael Parrish Lee is the author of The Food Plot in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan), a study of eating and appetite in fiction. His fiction has appeared previously in Conjunctions’ print and online editions.