“If Something Is Free the Product Is You”

Chuck Klosterman

July 17, 2019 
The following is a story from Chuck Klosterman's collection Raised in Captivity. A man in prison comes across a screwdriver. Chuck Klosterman is the author of eight nonfiction books and two novels. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Esquire, Spin, The Guardian, The Believer, Billboard, The A.V. Club, and ESPN. Klosterman served as the Ethicist for The New York Times Magazine, and was an original founder of the website Grantland with Bill Simmons.

I think about that screwdriver every day. I think about it more than I think about my parents. Most of my dreams involve screwdrivers, or at least the dreams I can remember. Sometimes I walk into a hardware store and just stare at all the screwdrivers displayed on the wall. It’s like looking at pornography, minus that moment of release when whatever you’ve been looking at explosively becomes absurd. There are lots of reasons screwdrivers are different from vaginas, but that’s one nobody ever talks about.

To fully explicate my acquisition of the screwdriver would require more pages than Anna Karenina, so I will be brief: I owed Jerome a favor, which I will not describe or explain. But I will say this: It wasn’t a conventional favor. It was the kind of favor where, had we lived in a different time in a different place, I would have been obligated to follow him around for the next twenty-five years, waiting for the opportunity to sacrifice my life at his behest. I’d have been his Chewbacca. They say everything is negotiable, but this was not a negotiable thing. This was an obligation that could not be declined.

Jerome had gone to extraordinary lengths to steal this screwdriver (bribes, subterfuge, a physical transaction he refused to discuss, and the temporary electromagnetic manipulation of the metal detector leading into the workroom). I don’t know why he wanted it or why he was willing to take such risks. I’m sure he had his reasons. But once he had it, he had to hide it, at least for a week. I was the obvious candidate, for obvious reasons. They would search every cell in the facility the moment they realized the tool was missing, and someone with Jerome’s reputation would have his room torn apart. All the hard guys would be scrutinized and probed and interrogated.

But the exploration of my cell would be considerably less aggressive. The guards liked me. I didn’t look like the other inmates and I didn’t have the guts to fake it. Nobody perceived me as clever. I was weak. I was even too soft for the Nazis. Jerome slipped me the screwdriver before anyone knew it had vanished and explained how to stash it. There were predictable places and not-so-predictable places. The key was avoiding both. The key was not hiding it at all. It was psychologically terrifying, because I had to consciously place it where it would be easy to see if anyone actually looked, based on the assumption they’d look right through it. Which they did. The two guards halfheartedly searched through my locker and under my mattress, but they mostly made jokes about the way I organized my socks. They were gone in sixty seconds. The black rubber handle was visible the entire time, sitting in a ceramic mug on the sink next to the Lava. It was so easy I actually cried. Now all I had to do was wait a few days and smuggle the screwdriver back to Jerome, which we both knew would be complicated in the wake of the investigation. But then it became uncomplicated, because Jerome died. They told us it was suicide, which always means the opposite. I assume his motive for stealing the screwdriver had something to do with the motive behind his death. Certain things can never be explained. I prefer not knowing. But the upshot was that the screwdriver was now mine to keep, and I was the only one who knew this, because Jerome never told anything to anybody. This might also explain why he’s dead.

I’m not a useful person, to me or anyone else. That may sound like self-deprecation. It’s not. It’s self-awareness. In school, I took home economics instead of shop. I claimed it was for the girls, but it was actually just the work. Whenever I tried to help my father in the garage, he would constantly call me worthless. I never learned how to change my own oil. I can’t even assemble stuff from IKEA. To portray myself as some kind of grease monkey would be more disingenuous than any crime I allegedly committed. I don’t know shit about shit. But even I could tell this screwdriver was sublime.

It was a Husky-brand three-sixteenths flat-head with a five-inch shaft. I’ll remember those specs on my deathbed. Considering where I was, its utility was limitless. You must remember, I was living amongst illiterate geniuses who regularly turned toothbrushes into scalpels. Possession of an actual nickel-plated screwdriver was like possessing ten pounds of enriched uranium. You could dig with it. You could kill with it. You could take things apart. You could scratch through drywall, into the electrical system. You could shatter glass. You could use it as a projectile. You could melt the handle and repurpose the plastic, and the melting process would also get you high. I was told it could be used to strike an arc for welding, although that required additional ingredients. If you somehow got into a vehicle, you could jam it into the ignition and turn the engine over at least once, assuming the vehicle was more than twenty years old. It could work as a radio antenna, if you knew your way around electronics. You could mix hooch with it like an oil worker, which is why vodka and orange juice is called what it’s called. You could use it for torture. You could fuck with someone’s teeth. You could use it for weird sex. It was everything it was intended to be, and it was also everything else.

There was a time in my life, before all of this, when I kept $40,000 in cash, inside a leather briefcase, in the trunk of my Lexus. It may as well have been manure. All I ever did with it was show it to drunk sorority bimbos when I wanted to impress them, and even that only worked half the time. I had so much junk. I owned two Jet Skis. I originally had three, but I lost one in a card game. I had a double-neck electric guitar, even though I never learned how to play a single-neck acoustic guitar. I had pants that looked like normal pants, but were actually produced in North Korea. My penthouse apartment was bigger than a bowling alley. Yet that three-sixteenths flat-head screwdriver was worth more than all of that shit combined. You have to lose your entire life in order to understand how worthless most of life is. You have to lose it all, all at once. That’s the only way to gauge the value of anything.

Here’s my confession: I manipulated a fake world, only to be indicted by a realer world and exiled into the realest world possible. And yet: There are certain social conditions that apply to all three realms. There are qualities—human qualities, human weaknesses—that ignore levels of reality. The reason I ended up where I did is not detached from the explanation behind how I survived undamaged. My misdeed, or what is classified as my misdeed, was based on the illusion of potential: People would allow me to hold their money, and I would allow these people to believe that this holding process was generating even greater money, as long as they never tried to possess the money I was supposedly generating. I realize some see this as lying, or even stealing. But that discounts the nuance. I never wanted anyone to give me all of their money. I only wanted their extra money. The money they didn’t need.

Here’s the thing: Some people don’t realize they’re rich. This tends to happen when someone is born poor and falls into wealth (and therefore never stops thinking like a poor person) or when someone is born mega-rich and only ends up regular-rich (and thereby concludes they’ve failed). All I did was provide these types of clients an opportunity to view themselves as successful. They all had more than enough money to live, but they couldn’t enjoy that money unless they believed they were so grotesquely wealthy that whatever they spent didn’t matter. My skill was allowing that belief to flourish. I helped rich people feel rich. The nuance was that I needed to convince these people that cashing in on that success would also complete their success, by which I meant it would abort their success. That if they somehow got what they thought they wanted, there would be nothing more to want, and that a life without desire was a form of living death.

I was quite adept at this, if I do say so myself. People loved the way I imagined their future. There was always another mountain to scale. There was always something bigger or deeper or more delicious. It was a credible vocation and a net positive for most of my alleged “victims.” I simply got careless. I’d explain what happened, but it doesn’t really matter. Suffice it to say that the power of my creativity was stronger than the power of my memory. I got sloppy with the minutiae. If one story is enough, three stories are redundant. It doesn’t matter how well those stories are told: Details create contradiction and adjectives become anchors. But that is neither here nor there. We all make mistakes.

The night after Jerome died, I came to two conclusions. The first was that I had an object of value. The second was that this object’s value was dependent on its belonging to pretty much anyone who wasn’t me. Like my dad always said—I’m worthless. I’m soft. My aptitude with a screwdriver would be the same as my aptitude with a double-neck guitar. I wasn’t going to stab anyone and I wasn’t going to escape. I certainly wasn’t going to figure out how to weld. I was less competent than every single person around me. But I did possess potential, and my competency with potential is world-class. I possessed an object that could, potentially, change someone’s life. What I needed to do was twofold. The first step was making sure everyone knew I held the potential they wanted. The second was making sure this potential was never, ever realized. Which, to my credit, is maybe the only thing I actually know how to do.

There was this kid everyone hated doing three to five years for “theft by deception,” which really just meant he constantly filled up his car with gas and drove off without paying. His name was Marty. He was hated for being a sniveling gossip, but that only meant he was hated for being popular. I took a piece of typing paper and traced the outline of the screwdriver as precisely as possible, and then I rubbed the pencil lead over the Husky logo to transfer the stencil onto the bottom of the page. I gave the paper to Marty. That was all the proof required. Within forty-eight hours, the knowledge was universal. Everyone knew I had the screwdriver. So I buried it. I buried it, and then a week later, I dug it up and buried it again, in a different place. I did this every week for the next twenty-nine months. It was an illogical thing to do, as every excavation provided an opportunity for discovery. But I always needed to know exactly where it was, and I always needed to assure myself that it was still there, and I always wanted to feel like it hadn’t been that long since the last time I touched it. The machinations of male insecurity are hard to explain. It was like being in a long-distance relationship with a beautiful woman I didn’t deserve. I constantly needed to check in. I constantly had to convince myself that nothing had changed.

Memory is strange and useless. It can’t be trusted, not even a little. I’m tempted to say that everything was wonderful from that point forward, which is how my mind wants me to remember it. But I know that can’t be true. I was still where I was. But you know, part of my previous life really did return with that screwdriver. The person I assumed had been destroyed by the trial was still there, hiding inside my skin, ready to strut and haggle and run the offense. Almost immediately, anyone who’d talked to Marty wanted to talk to me. A few were subtle. Most were not. Some offered trade. Some offered protection. Some dabbled in intimidation. Some used a combination of all three. But in every case, their methodology was irrelevant. Every new proposition received the same two responses, regardless of what they proposed. My first response was some version of “Yes. Of course. I agree. If I’m going to deal with anyone, I’m going to deal with you. I will give you the thing that you want.” Which was immediately followed by my second response, which was always the same: “But not yet.”

You want to stab your enemy in the shower? Great move. Your enemy deserves it, and I’ll help make it happen. But not yet. Don’t attack a man who’s waiting to be attacked. You’ll only get one shot at this, so wait until he thinks you’ve surrendered. His ribs won’t be any less defenseless in a month. You want to escape? You have an escape plan? Tell me the details. I’m impressed. I suspect your plan will succeed, and I have the tool you need to make it work. But not yet. This is the wrong time for an escape. You know that as well as I do. Spring is better than winter, so wait until it warms up. I’ll still have what you need in April. You want it now? I want you to have it. You totally deserve it. But not yet. Not quite yet. Timing is everything, and this is not the time. You said so yourself. Remember? You just said that, right now. Don’t panic. Why would I lie? You know I’m going to give you what you want. You need to be smart about this, in the same way you’re smart about everything else. If you weren’t smart, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Don’t give in to emotion. Don’t let desire trump your intelligence. The one thing we have here is time. Time is on our side. But not yet.

Money is not everything. They tell you that when you’re little, and you believe it. Then you get a little older and you don’t believe it. And then you get older still, and experience makes you believe it again. So what they say is true. They’re right. Money is not everything. But what they don’t tell you is that everything is money. If what you have is what they want, what you have is money, as long as you never give it to them.

I’m out now, obviously. I made it out, and I’m a different person, although not different in the way I feared. It turns out I was right all along, about pretty much everything. I just wasn’t ready to understand how right I was.


“If Something is Free the Product is You.” From Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Charles Klosterman.

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