x

Excerpt

Processed Cheese

Stephen Wright

January 23, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Stephen Wright's novel. Wright is a Vietnam veteran, MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the author of four previous novels. He has received a Whiting Award in Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and has taught writing and literature at Iowa, Princeton, Brown, and The New School. He was born in Warren, Pennsylvania, and lives in New York City.

“So,” said Ambience, “how long you think we can go without sleep?”

The shades were pulled. The curtains were drawn. Was it light outside? Was it dark? Who knew? Who cared?

“Beats me,” said Graveyard. He hit Pause on the clicker. The electronic squall of digitized mayhem abruptly ceased. They were watching Eschatology Force II: Cry Me A River. (Even better than the original.) They were watching the movie on their brand new 103-inch HootchieCootchie flat screen. The picture was so sharp and clear it made real reality look muddy and out of focus. “What day’s today?”

“I forget,” said Ambience. She was slumped in the corner in her favorite puffy chair. She was scarfing down an entire carton of Pat & Pending’s RoyaleMuddyDrawerSurprise. “What day’d you find the money?” She licked the spoon. It was chocolicious.

On her feet was a brand new pair of 800-dollar Loubotomy fuck-me stilettos. She couldn’t take them off. She couldn’t stop looking at them.

“I guess,” said Graveyard, “that would had to have been Mannaday. Then came Doughday, Endsday, and Skrilladay, so that means this must be Cheddarday.” He took the roll of bills in his fist and rubbed the paper edges back and forth across the stubble on his cheek. His hand now always seemed to be clutching a roll of bills. Like a good luck charm. Or a lollipop. “So, my treat, I’d guess we’ve been up for what—five, six days?”

“We must have slept sometime, but I don’t remember doing it.”

“What do you care? This is us now. We’re off the clock. We’re not in time anymore. We’re flying above it.” At the moment he lay sprawled across the black buttery expanse of a brand new emperor-length arcadian leather sofa that had cost twice as much as all their old furniture put together. Strapped to his left wrist was his latest prime purchase, a brand new glittery watch. And not just any watch. This was a signature Tri-Gem Elaboration from PattyCake, Ltd., featuring the exclusive anthracite and freshwater pearl dial and scratch-resistant blue platinum casing engineered to withstand not only the inconveniences of deep space exploration but also high-speed impacts of up to 200 miles per hour. He couldn’t stop looking at it.

“I think there were some missing periods somewhere in there,” said Ambience. “I don’t like missing periods.” She paused. “Hey, I made a pun. I never make a pun.”

“See? It’s working already.”

“What’s working?”

“Why, the wunnerful, wunnerful, fabulous, fantastical mojo of money. From now on our lives are gonna be exploding with all sorts of spooky flavors. Coincidences, enchantments, charms, jokes, prophecies, puns. And cake. Lots of cake. You’ll see. And you know what?—thought of it just this second—something else I want to buy today: a magic wand. And not some cheap juvenile licorice stick, either. I want the deluxe professional model, lacquered and encrusted with diamonds.”

“What the fuck you want that for?”

“To perform diamond-encrusted illusions and stuff with, what do you think? I always wanted to be a magician. Make elephants appear, disappear. You know, magic shit.”

For everyone, man and beast, it was Christmas in July.

“But what do you need a wand for? You already pulled a fortune out of thin air without one.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I? I must be good.”

“You know it, babe. And guess what? You ain’t the only one. I’m so damn good I really don’t think I can stop myself from rewarding me, too, with a very special treat on this very special day.”

“Treat away.”

“I’m thinking gold. I’m thinking platinum. I’m also thinking diamonds of the also encrusted variety. I’m gonna be looking so fucking mint in my brand new tiara.”

“Flapjacks and vinegar.”

“Well, I always wanted to be a princess. It’s been a lifelong ambition.”

“But you already are a princess. You don’t need a stupid hunk of metal to prove it.”

“Princess of what?”

“I don’t know. Rabidiya? Quagistan? Make one up.” “Then I’d be a made-up princess. I want to be a real one.”

“Then you’re gonna have to go out and find yourself a real prince.”

“Well, maybe I will.”

“Fine. Good luck to you.” He hit Play. The Eschatology Force sprang back into action.

She had to shout to be heard over the clamor of Sensosound. “The world is full of princes, you know.”

“That so?”

“They’re all over the place.” “Like germs?”

“Don’t make me want to punish you.”

“Oh, would you, please?”

“How pathetic. Listen, you little worm, you’re gonna have to beg harder than that.”

“I’m already hard.”

Well, you know, this sort of entertaining banter could have gone on for hours. And often did. What they were really doing was mostly just hanging out until the stores opened again in the morning. There was lots more stuff to buy. Where exactly they would put more stuff was another issue. The original used clutter of their desperately cramped apartment had been all but buried beneath an avalanche of new clutter from their recent shopping rampages. They could barely see each other over the mounds, the piles, the heaps, the tottering towers of bags, boxes, cartons, and crates—many of them still unopened—loot from the more or less constant spending spree they’d been on for however many days it had been now. PumpkinClaws ran up and down the narrow aisles between the fresh merch as if she were on catnip. She pounced on the plastic packaging. She rolled around in the wrapping paper. For everyone, man and beast, it was Christmas in July.

*

They had refurbished their dilapidated lives with product purchased almost exclusively in the TooGoodForYou District. They spent hour after hour trolling giddily through shops—shops, mind you, not stores—that would not have dared buzz them in in their previous incarnations. They went to KidMeNot & Sons, jewelers to the bejeweled. The damage? You don’t wanna know. They went to TheTaintedBarrel, where not even the staff could explain most of the merchandise. Ambience bought an old cast- iron thingy called a quarrel. She didn’t know what it was. Neither did the clerk.

She had to have it. Who else had one? They went to Fracas. Kitsch for the rich. They qualified. Of course, they dropped a bundle. They went to Clawfoot&Residue. Who cared how much a silver nutcracker cost? They bought a dozen. They went to the HouseOfNoRegrets, clothiers to the stars and nearby orbiting planets who wanted to bathe in the reflected radiance. They loaded up. Good thing, too. They no longer “did” laundry. When they were done with what they were wearing, they’d simply toss those rags into the trash, tear open a couple of boxes, and put on new. And, of course, they had to drop in to Graveyard’s favorite browsing nook, AlliterativeAlchemy, where you could purchase philosopher’s pizzles, eidolon elixirs, umbonic unicorns, allotropic alembics, plenitude panaceas, and lots of other neat stuff to fulfill all your transformative needs. They went to Methodology, a hidden unmarked-door erotic emporium catering almost solely to the discreet well-heeled sensualist. They left with two shop- ping bags each. They got G-spot stimulators and vibrating cock rings with multiple pulsating patterns. They got variously sized and shaped dildos in glass, silicone, and acrylic. They got anal beads. They got clit pleasurizers and penis sleeves and prostate massagers. They got a couple of Deluxe Condom Samplers, ultra-thin, ultra-ribbed, ultra-dotted, ultra-silky. They got oils and lubes and arousing gels in twelve colors and five flavors, enough to slick a world-class orgy. Could they possibly wait till they got home before busting out their new toys? What do you think? They wanted to get each other real nice real fast. They got busy about an hour later in a locked stall of the women’s room at TheRestOfTheStory, a private club for students and alumni of Porcupine University (of which Graveyard was one, believe it or not), a secluded midtown oasis where knowing people traditionally allowed other knowing people to do what they know. They fucked and they sucked. They rinsed and repeated. Their new appliance friends offering encouragement to exceed all expectations. Then Graveyard got baby batter all over Ambience’s face. Whoops. Boy, was she pissed. And she let him know about it. He apologized. He was sorry. She pretended to forgive him. But later, she had to ask herself, was that true? Was that really true? Or did some teensy messed-up part of herself actually like it? What the fuck. She didn’t know.

After the gluttony, the lust. Clubbing every single night. They couldn’t get enough.

After they repaired the damage and spruced up their mirrored selves as best they could, they went for dinner to TheInnerSequence. Where, for the moment, all the famous rich thin people were supposed to go to eat. The specialty of the place was arranging the food on the plate in alphabetical order. Whenever anyone ordered the SuperSimulatedDiamondButterSteakForTwo, the chef rang a little bell. Graveyard and Ambience didn’t cook anymore. The top of their brand new BurntOfferings dual-fuel range with ten different cooking modes and digital everything was piled high with glossy boxes of cutting-edge electronics everyone could live without. The interior of the oven was stuffed with snacks. They liked snacks. All things salt and sugary. They had SnookerChips. They had BangoNuts. They had CheesySubs. They had ToastedPepperWhackers. And FruityPatooties. And LoopyCrisps. And FudgieWudgiePudgies. Their favorite. A cookie inside a cookie. Munching on all this nasty fun kept their glucose levels up until their next restaurant debauch. They went out for every meal. They went to all the places they would’ve been going to for years if they’d had the money. They went to DoNotAttempt. They had the EarlyRunoffSoup. The SpatchcockedGooneyBird with a HornyNutGremolata. LickMyFingerlings. JollifiedGreens. BreadSpindles. And WhereberryPie in a zesty HardLuckSauce. They went to TheSuperiorCowCo. BurnedBlackenedButteredAndBruised. They went to TenderHydraulics. They had the WeaselRolls and the hibiscus-dusted laser-seared CapeBuffaloDelight and the GrilledJimsonStalks and the RandomGlacéedPears in a puddle of ArmoredMelonGastrique. Then back to DoNotAttempt. That melty mouthy bird. Those tingly taters.

After the gluttony, the lust. Clubbing every single night. They couldn’t get enough. They went to Contagion. They went to ThrashingLimb. They went to ExplodedDiagram. At DigitalAbstraction they got totally whacked on who knew how many rounds of FuzzyQuilts. Then each popped a little blue pill (what the hell, they were rich) out of a paper cup offered them by a sketchy old guy in a wheelchair. He looked as if he were wearing a rubber mask. He wasn’t.

“What is it?” said Graveyard, after he’d already swallowed.

“Ellipsis,” said the old guy, as if you should have known.

“Oh, yeah,” said Graveyard. He’d read about the ex–chem grad student who’d developed it out of utter boredom with the contents of his own mind. Now on the run from the substance cops in a faraway land with a bad reputation. Interesting drug. It turned your life into a movie with a lot of sudden jump cuts. One minute you’re packed in the middle of a sweaty throng of funseekers all throbbing softly to the basic beats of DJMasterMasterChef, the next minute you’re in the back seat of a speeding cab arguing with your wife about something vitally important you’re going to forget in a second because now you’re in the Up elevator at ArchaicMoon wondering why the building is slowly descending into the ground. The doors opened. On a total party blast of noise and light they could actually feel on their skin. On the wall opposite in poison-green neon: welcome to the moment. The place was packed. There was barely enough room to step off the elevator. Everyone was dancing or trying to dance or pretending to try. Everyone was shouting enthusiastically to everyone else.

Ambience smiled. “I love it,” she shouted.

“What?” shouted Graveyard.

“Why didn’t we ever come here before?”

Graveyard shouted something.

She shouted something back.

Everybody seemed to be somebody who wanted to be seen. And every face you saw was a face you recognized or seemed to recognize or wanted to recognize.

Graveyard grabbed her hand and began shouldering his way through the crowd. Turned out this was the drop party for popster Effigy’s latest release, BeatMeKickMeHoldMe. So what were Graveyard and Ambience doing there? Seemed Graveyard was maybe, if you squinted hard enough, a smeared but passable copy of RascalCoupons. You know, the guy who played the quirky motel clerk in ADoubleClutchLife. Plus, to be perfectly candid, Ambience was this evening lookin’—there is no other word for it—totally hellified.

Then the ellipsis must have kicked in for a moment or two because all at once they found themselves seated at a prized table in a corner where the decibel levels were almost bearable. They ordered a couple of MentalCuffs. Great drink. A lemonhorseradish-peppermintschnapps combo. They looked around. Everybody seemed to be somebody who wanted to be seen. And every face you saw was a face you recognized or seemed to recognize or wanted to recognize. Up on the balcony, behind shiny chrome bars and surrounded by a babe posse of unreal boobitude, reigned the grand manipulator of the night, DJAcquisitionFee. He was jazzing on Effigy’s tracks. He not only had his finger on the pulse, he was also regulating the actual heart rate of the room. The crowd vibrated in a sort of civilized frenzy. The lights strobed. The walls shook. If it were possible for a building to have an orgasm, this one was close to it. Then Effigy herself got up on top of a table and began gyrating in sync with her own vocals and her own images, which were being projected on the hi-def Humongotron overhead. Effigy’s crew shrieked with laughter. They jumped up and began stuffing wads of cash into the tighty-tight waistband of her bush-low salt-and-pepper cigarette lowriders. When she finished, she applauded herself. Five minutes later she was in a secluded booth playing tonsil hockey with VelvetRope, the former MissDriveThru and unrepentant convicted felon.

Graveyard and Ambience ordered a round of FlyingBarbarians. Then another. Neither one, at this point, exactly sure which club they were actually in. But what the hell. They were having fun. Then they might have had, might have imagined, probably actually did have sex of one variety or another, either at the table, under the table, behind the bar, or in the john (again). Whatever. Something good happened this night. They were sure of that.

When they were back in their seats, Ambience reached out for Graveyard’s hand. She said nothing. She just liked interlocking fingers with him. She liked feeling his heat.

“Look at that total tool over there,” said Ambience. “Isn’t that TastyAshes?”

And so it was. The nutso one-eyed director of such b.o. gold as The Water’s Fine and Lucifer by Starlight was scuttling about the sticky floor on all fours, catching coins in his mouth tossed by an out-of-control table of movie people with emo hair and narrow rectangular glasses with black frames to show everyone how smart they were.

“Is he drunk?”

“Let’s hope so,” said Graveyard.

The music stopped. A drumroll sounded. A spot came on, catching the dramatic descent of a giant piñata in the shape of Senator HillAndDale being slowly lowered from the scaffolding overhead. The crowd shrieked. The crowd jumped up and down. The senior senator from BadgerPaw hated, or pretended to hate, most everything people at the ArchaicMoon liked. A long line quickly formed. Everyone eager to take a crack at the papier-mâché politician.

“I wanna beat on the rat with a baseball bat,” said Ambience. She hated HillAndDale’s meanie politics. She hated his face. She hated his voice. And she hated the way he reminded her, all too vividly, of her own absconded father.

“Go for it,” said Graveyard. He watched her go. Watched the back of her head bobbing away into the crowd. Watched her take her place at the back of the line. She saw him looking. She waved. He waved back. Inside a minute, two ugly guys in ugly clothes were hitting on her. Lemon meringue and angel food, said Graveyard to himself, she is so . . . well, everything. She looked like someone he’d like to pick up. Why can’t I see her every second of every day the way I’m seeing her now? Cash goggles? He didn’t know.

Everyone laughed. He displayed the bills. He put them in his pocket. More laughter. He was hosting his own show, starring himself.

Meanwhile, down on the floor, the wasted and blindfolded merry-makers were busy, one at a time, knocking major stuffing out of the wildly penduluming senator. And every healthy whack released a fresh shower of coins, candies, playing cards, steel washers, little plastic cocktail animals, fluttering bills of assorted denominations, bits of papier-mâché, and party packets of Hilarium, a fantastic designer drug so new no one had gotten around to criminalizing it yet. It was so potent it made you feel exactly how you wanted to feel. Get it while you can, folks. And boy, did they. Happy revelers scrambled around on the floor, completely ignoring the cash and bar-wrestling over the popular brain renovator. By the time it was Ambience’s turn all four of the senator’s limbs were gone and there was a serious indentation across his upper torso. She leaned back and let fly with a swing out of slugger’s heaven. The sound on contact was like melon on pavement. HillAndDale’s phony head shot across the room in a wicked line drive that bounced square off the back of some guy’s real head. The guy was standing at the end of a long crowded table made entirely of glued-together cereal boxes. Like he was giving a toast or something. He turned around, rubbing his neck. It was MisterMenu. Holy moly. One of those new-money celebrities you see popping up everywhere nowadays. He looked at his hand. He smiled. He said something. Everyone laughed. MisterMenu’s peeps: the former happy-to-see-ya Mayor GuardRails, whose deputy and police commissioner had just been indicted on charges of wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, and tax evasion; StutterStep, star quarterback for the Mammoth City Subprimes, currently under a restraining order obtained by his actor/singer/dancer/stripper ex-wife, Extravaganza; the obscenely rich, almost mythological WheelPlay, CEO of everything this-and-that, generally disliked by the populace at large, universally loathed by the insiders at this table; the supposedly dying fashion designer Monogram, who always looked so incredibly vital, so incredibly tan; AllAccess, that shiny young appetite who’d won last year’s Macadamia Award for her breakout performance as the hooker turned nun turned first female president in the rom-com juggernaut One, Two, Four, accompanied, as always, by that doofus boyfriend of hers, the three- fingered meth-lab-explosion guy she met in rehab; messy-divorce lawyer DoubleDown, of Softsoap&Dropcloth, who wouldn’t even look at you if you weren’t A-list famous; faded legendary songbird and marriage junkie BranchWater, so faded, in fact, that it was pretty freaky to even see her here tonight and even freakier to see that she was still happily numbered among the present and accounted for and apparently dating mega-agent AllRightsReserved, who brokered the deal that brought SordidBones to VulpineEntertainmentMist, and, well, the rest, as you know, is cinematic history; supermodel ScandalONova, of the electric-eel erotic charge, with her fifth appendage, the unendurably foxy BFF PipeCleaner, who couldn’t stop pimping her latest top-tier fragrance, Cents, which came marketed, naturally, in a cent-sign-shaped bottle; the ubiquitous BuzzBomb, gossip columnist for the online Eek!; and, of course, the incandescent MissusMenu, the former Miss AllThat, who was inexplicably wearing a monster neck brace (rad new fashion statement or what? Who knew?). And, at the distant, Siberian end of the table, a random gaggle of plain-looking people Graveyard didn’t recognize at all. Lost tourists? Contest winners? Relatives? A bunch of losers nevertheless.

He watched Ambience drop the bat. He watched Ambience rush across the room. To apologize, no doubt. He knew his girl. MisterMenu’s entourage looked to be simultaneously shocked and amused. Wouldn’t you be? She said something. She made my-bad gestures with her hands. Everyone was smiling, including MisterMenu himself. He was holding the papier-mâché head in his hands. He reached inside and pulled out a handful of bills. Everyone laughed. He displayed the bills. He put them in his pocket. More laughter. He was hosting his own show, starring himself. He lifted the fake head to his mouth and kissed the senator right on his brittle, painted lips. Then he drop-kicked the head back across the room, where it crashed into The Weight of Her Hair, a sculptural assemblage by media sensation and boy wonder MorningDew, most gossiped about for his stratospherically overpriced poster-paint-and-Magic-Marker diptych, the surprisingly underbaked Vaginas 1 & 2. Unfortunate funsters seated directly beneath “the work” were treated to a sudden cascade of broken glass, ceramic chunks, coils of razor wire, knotted plastic tubing, and actual vials of the artist’s own blood. Too bad for them.

“Thank you,” shouted an anonymous male voice. “I’ve always hated that fucking thing.”

MisterMenu shook Ambience’s hand. He gave her a long hug. He said something something something, and she was done. Several grinning celebs at the table also took the trouble to shake her hand as she left. Thanking her for the lucky line drive? Then Graveyard lost her in the crowd. Then all at once there she was standing in front of him. Beaming like a blazin’ member of the leaf community.

“What’d he say?” said Graveyard.

“He said I should be batting clean-up for the Capitalonians.”

“Funny guy.”

“He said I reminded him of his daughter. She plays lacrosse for Mistletoe College.”

“That wasn’t exactly a daughterly squeeze he gave you there at the end.”

“Oh, he was just trying to be nice.”

“But he’s not a nice person.”

“That’s why he’s trying.” She watched him staring at her. She shrugged. “What can I say? Powerful man. His passions run high.”

“And what would you know about powerful men and their passions?”

“I once saw a fascinating doc on the subject on the BadBoysAndBimbos Channel.”

“And your response, if he decided to act out that badness on you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d have to see the size of the check.”

She laughed. He didn’t.

“You know,” he said, “you don’t have to see the size of anyone’s check anymore.”

“But I’m Little Miss Curious,” she said. “I like to find out stuff.”

“So become a detective.”

“It was a joke,” she said. “A stupid joke, all right? Whatever happened to your sense of humor?”

“I bought it out.”

“Let me tell you something: whatever goes on in that nutty head of yours is not exactly what you think is going on in there.”

“And what am I supposed to do with that sound bite?”

“Try it on for size and see if it fits,” said Ambience. She paused. “You know I love you.”

“Yes.”

“And you know that whatever we’re talking about right now doesn’t really mean a whole fuck of a lot.”

“Yes.”

“You wanna go?”

Yeah, he wanna go. And so they did. Around the tables, between the clinging couples, down the thronging hallways, and out onto the street, where a cool crowd of smokers was smoking furiously, and Ambience and Graveyard had the same idea at precisely the same time. They crossed the street to the ValleyDellFreshFarm bodega, where they bought a pack of Daredevils. You know, the cigs with the pitchfork printed on every filter. They went around the corner and found a spot on the dank, greasy steps of some loading dock or other.

First there was the ritualistic opening of the pack. The musical crinkling of the cellophane. Then the rich dark aroma of fresh tobacco. Like raisins or dates or figs or all three at once. And the sparking up, the perennial mystique of the flame, the slow, concentrated inhale. The slow, extended exhale. Ambience studied the business end of her Daredevil. The little orange ember seemed alive, speaking to her in spirals of tender smoke. Neither of them had touched a cigarette in years.

“This is good,” she said. “Why’d we ever quit?” She was feeling a bit dizzy. In a pleasant way, of course.

“I think we said to ourselves that we were gonna die.” “And now we’re not?”

“No, now we don’t care.”

“Same thing,” said Ambience. She took another long drag. She blew it out. A tremendous white plume went exploding away into the humid black night. It was beautiful. I made that, she said to herself. I’m a performance artist.

“You don’t think they’re gonna actually ban this sweet stuff outright, do you?” she said.

“Whaddya talking about? They practically already have.”

“When are those rotten government bastards gonna get off our fucking backs?” she said. Then she laughed.

“Who cares?” said Graveyard. “Even if they outlaw cigarettes entirely, the rich will still smoke. The rich do what they want to do.”

“Is that us?”

“Yes,” he said. His voice as quiet as it ever got. “That’s us.”

__________________________________

From Processed Cheese by Stephen Wright. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Wright.




More Story
Behind the Mic: On the Audiobook Version of Carmen Maria Machado's Memoir Every Monday through Friday, AudioFile’s editors recommend the best in audiobook listening. We keep our daily episodes...