A gray sidewalk near a park, with a number of spindly trees on either side. Near the edge of the photo is a road where blurry cars cruise by. In the middle of the photo stand two rows of bird-faced people. It looks as if they’ve parted so that you can pass through and continue down the sidewalk—into what?
People say this photo was taken in Japan, but that is not true.
You know the type: the middle-aged couple who beckons you into their mansion to warm up while they get their wallets. You admire the high ceilings and spiral staircases and wonder how they made their fortune—how anyone makes this kind of fortune. Before you arrived, it smelled like lavender and money. Upon your arrival, the smell of warm pizza drifts in. They return and graciously take the pizza boxes from your hands. They’re the kind who keep their money in a wad, and they peel off bill after bill. With a smile and an almost-apologetic tilt of the head, they send you out into the cold, into your rusty car, into your mediocre life, without a tip.
And so you drive. But as you stood in that pretty house, just beyond your vision was the festering carnage of acquisitions and mergers. It fills their dens and crawl spaces. Those glossy vases are filled with the nectar of sweatshops, and it’s best not to ask about the tarps lining the basement. And always, somewhere in the house, there’s a large bird in a small cage.
You know about birds—you’ve watched eagles and falcons those grainy, disappointing webcams. But if you ever held a falcon and looked it in the eye, the only thing you’d notice is its cold, impassive stare that wavers a little before settling on you. The bird has an unbreakable, almost stone-like beak. Black, with a wicked little hook at the end. As it shifts a little, its mind is sharpening only one thought: how do I eat you? And you thank God that it’s such a light, airy creature, and that you’re big.
One day, bird masks arrive at the mansion. The couple who lives there (who didn’t even eat those pizzas, by the way) slide on the masks without hesitating. Without asking, without thinking, they know what to do.
Remember that clerk at the convenience store? It was late at night, near a generic exit on the weed-choked part of the interstate. You bought some gas and the clerk took just a little too long to swipe your card and hand it back to you. A few days ago, a bird mask arrived at his house.
You know the type: the lawyer with a face that’s stretched a little too tight against his skull, the politician who looks like a scoop of ice cream dropped into a suit, that society wife with the practiced smile and dead eyes. They’re standing on the road, waiting for you. As you pass through the crowd, who is breathing quietly, the flesh of their masks expands and contracts.
If you look behind you, you’ll see one of the women has a fleshy, ridged neck like a pigeon’s foot. In the air, feathers are scattering in a mist of blood, and you really should run faster, since all the prey on this street is about your size.
In the middle of the Mojave Desert, a foam finger, and then nothing. There are a few stringy clouds in the sky and below them, an endless expanse of scrubgrass and parched desert valley. I’m reminded of the old phrase “One can see until tomorrow.” All this unbroken horizon. I am alone and have driven for hundreds of miles with this view. Then, standing beside the road is young woman. She’s bending over, her tongue out and wagging towards the camera on my car. Behind her, a man in an ugly black-and-white suit flashes me a peace sign. This isn’t new—people hear I’m coming in my plain sedan with the goofy camera on the roof, and they pose for me. I even wave sometimes. Only after I’ve driven a few hundred more miles do I realize that this couple didn’t have a car, and I haven’t passed one yet.
This photo was taken near Florida. An alligator hunches in the middle of the road. The top of its head is sheared clean off, leaving a glistening red stripe that continues down its back. I swear I could feel it peeling off as I drove—just the tiniest of rumbles. Somewhere beneath my car is an angry spinning ribbon of flesh. The prehistoric mass of teeth and muscle opens its mouth to reveal an almost jolly grin, the pink of its mouth a wetter shade of the wound. The thing is, as I approached the alligator, I was only driving about five miles per hour. They can move far faster than that.
The road is straight and in my rearview, I watch the alligator amble to the side of the road and slip casually back into the swamp.
It might be the result of a corrupted file, or image compression, but in this photo, a Caucasian woman stands in the middle of the road. Behind her is a grocery store. There are a few nondescript sedans driving on the road, blurred by motion, although it seems like this is a quiet, small town—often referred to as “sleepy” when journalists from the outside world appear to report the latest atrocity. In other words, few strong winds blow through here. The breeze is just enough to make a rustling sound, to shake the leaves on the elm trees, which you can see at the bottom edge of the photo. The woman is wearing a pair of jeans and a red tank top. At her feet is what appears to be a shadow, except it’s white. Its arms appear to curl off the ground in the faint breeze. In this skin-husk at her feet, there are wide eye holes, and the mouth-hole is exceptionally wide. Perhaps because the husk of skin itself is a kind of shadow, nothing else in the photo—not the trees, not the cars, not the husk itself—is burdened with a shadow.
This photo shows a trio of people wearing masks after an unspeakable crime. These masks are: a suburban housewife, with shoulder-length blonde hair and dimpled cheeks. The second wears a lacrosse player’s squarish face, with a chiseled jaw and unusually hollow eye sockets. The third is a soccer mom, her skin a pale and worm-colored, perhaps from spending too much time indoors, with too much time to dwell on unfulfilled hungers. This woman isn’t at the center of the photograph, but she should be. Notice her too-white smile. If you’d looked carefully, you would have noticed that it is a little unhinged, as if her teeth don’t quite fit in her head. That’s because all her teeth were removed and she’s wearing her late father’s dentures. As a tribute. The crime was his idea, after all.
A man with a phone filming a little boy with a phone who is filming a giant snake eating a tortoise. The tortoise’s shell is at least two feet in diameter, and the front half is in the snake’s mouth. I didn’t know snakes in America grew this big. Maybe someone’s exotic pet escaped and bred with someone else’s escaped exotic pet. The whole spectacle is oddly asymmetrical, the snake’s body uncoiling outside of the frame, its head occasionally spasming as chokes forward another inch. The tortoise scrabbles, its rear claws clicking on the pavement. It’s hot, and there are heat lines coming off the tortoise’s shell. There are heat lines coming off the phones, too, and neither the adult nor the child has moved in quite some time.
Picture everything you are looking for as a single beam of light arcing towards a building in Santa Clara County, and then imagine something tracing that light back to you. What insecurities have you typed into the little white rectangle? What base pleasures have you sought, and what comfort did you find? Even the thin, hot line of your idle curiosity is being traced.
Picture the nation’s desires as a throbbing circulatory system made out of light, all of it sliding into a single gaping mouth. But thanks to you, and to me, and what we’ve fed it, it’s not fair to call it a just a mouth anymore. There is a fleet of ancient battleships, packed with servers whose green and blue lights blink among the bulkheads and heavy guns, each ship bobbing in unison somewhere in the arctic. There are glass barges with private security and without registry numbers. The company’s actual headquarters is not that colorful glass campus in Mountain View but a tan, windowless brick building near the San Francisco Bay.
What I’m trying to say is that this building is not a labyrinth that houses a monster but the monster itself. Or the sinews of one, slowly braiding themselves together. But that’s not the disturbing part. Nothing grows around this building, which is located in the warehouse district near the waterfront. There isn’t a single blade of grass in the sidewalk cracks, and the graffiti tends to bubble slowly, then sizzle to nothing as it slides down the walls. There used to be people working there, but they’re all dead now, like the hollow bodies of flies and pigeons that huddle in the doorways, caressed occasionally by a slight breeze.
People who work in the neighborhood wake up with odd bruises but shrug and continue with their jobs loading crates into boats, or selling wholesale flower arrangements, or sliding yet another storage container into a larger storage container. Sometimes, people in the area erupt into moments of startling violence for no reason. Ask the baristas and doormen. All of this is according to someone’s plan. It was three people, actually. Three very smart people. But that’s not the disturbing part. You’ll see how it ends, but everyone in the group is dead. Their plans are on a disk that’s so old that no modern machine can read it, and most of the data has become corroded, bloomed like a dead battery. In the meantime, somewhere in San Francisco, someone’s pretty auburn hair is coming out in chunks. This evening, someone will yank off her pretty designer wedges to find them full of loose toenails, but for now, she’s smiling as she counts out money before handing it to me. The people with the answers are impeccably embalmed and safe below ground, but even so, their mouths are cracking open to reveal a smile.
My job is to drive, and there is nothing to do but drive. The snow is falling in earnest around me, which means fewer cars on the road, but my speed remains unchanged. From driving in the heat, odd blisters formed under the vinyl seats, but the heat in the car no longer works. The camera on top of the car still works, although it’s been suffering from signal degradation for some time now. Some of my photos have an arsenic-orange tint, which somehow matches this odd new smell circulating through the interior. It’s hard to make out in this cold. It that could be anything, but it’s probably my mouth pulsing with an interesting new infection. I can feel the cold in my teeth—it’s so sharp I can feel the outlines of the roots. If anyone passes me tonight, maybe all they’d see inside the car is the glowing of my pretty teeth.