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Vol. 2, No. 1

Public Burning
by Joseph Clark


  Just before the mail arrives, usually at 1:45 PM or a bit after, Iris Meachum gets into her bed and quietly masturbates. Carter has watched her do this a couple of hundred times, and the rhythms, the precise tonal pitch of her climaxes, are soothing counterpoints to a hectic day in front of his multiple surveillance screens. It is the quiet time of the day just after lunch, when there are few callers or delivery trucks. There are muffled sounds and sighs as her hands move toward the edge of the wave and into the ecstatic. Then she is quietly staring at the ceiling, or she talks to herself just below the threshold of microphone enhancement. She showers, changes clothes, then walks the dog around the development's maze of culs-de-sac and möbius streets. This is Carter's favorite time to enter their house and repair a microphone or adjust the position of a hidden camera. He keeps indexed records in his daily log: brand names of the products they eat, the titles of recently purchased CDs, and return addresses on bills and letters--all the things that are difficult to focus on with his limited camera angles. The Meachums have been using 175 more gallons of water a month, and he suspects it has to do with Gabby, their fifteen-year-old daughter's obsession with cleanliness. He suspects the landscaping company is billing for more fertilizations than it is actually applying to the scorched and yellowed lawn. He knows the PIN numbers for their various bank accounts and has a recent copy of their credit report. He knows they are spending a thousand dollars a month more than they make. Last month's mortgage payment was never sent and the telephone bill is overdue. Most of the losses he can account for in overspending and cash advances, but there are several hundred dollars a month that he can't find, as if they were being siphoned out of the bank accounts and deliberately hidden.




Time: June 25@4:34 PM Size: 192K Type: Microsoft Word doc. [Meachum Notes]

  I spoke to Ted Meachum over the phone, then met the entire family to give them a tour. A sunny but cool late-June day. The lawn is freshly mowed, and a cleaning company has just given the place a good going-over after months of neglect. I inherited my mother's old house after she died last year, a stock-model ranch in a placeless suburban neighborhood, but perfect as a controlled constant to place my study subjects in.

  The Meachums were the seventh family I interviewed. The first six applicants were not appropriate as study subjects: two single mothers with their live-in boyfriends, a Pakistani dentist, a Japanese flower specialist, and two families looking for a better neighborhood for their teenagers who already had arrest records. The statistical analysis said that my study group needed to be white and middle class in order to stay within the parameters of the suburban majority. Besides, these were the people I was fascinated with studying. These were the consuming subjects most targeted and tracked, the absolute and undeniable ground zero of the majority, and no one outside of Madison Avenue seemed to know the first goddamned thing about them.

  When the side door opened and the Meachums piled out, I couldn't believe my luck. A minivan! I spotted the soccer ball right away. They were absolutely banal, nothing abnormal or out of place. It was a commercial for just about anything: lawn-care products, real estate, laundry soap, an HMO, side-impact air bags, recycling, or the Republican or Democratic parties. I had a lump in my throat, a real Hallmark moment. In the Meachums I had found my living, breathing statistical model. Bland, white, and wearing strip-mall haircuts and polyester-blend clothing made in China. Even the Meachums's dog was blond and perfectly formless. I chose them according to a statistical probability that they represented a common denominator: a normal. Married working parents living in the suburbs with two children. Republican in local and state elections, they are unpredictable in their choice for Congress and president. Ted had inherited just enough money to place a down payment on the plumbing supply storefront he'd recently opened. Iris worked part-time at a corporate drugstore as a fill-in replacement counter person making minimum wage. She's home most of the time. Ted wore white socks and khaki work clothes, his hands were callused and his face showed some bimorphic anomalies. Of course, I didn't see it until it was far too late, but Ted Meachum was frazzled and paranoid, his desperation nearing the point of no return. Iris is a willowy woman still holding on to some of her college beauty. She prefers slinky, flowing clothes and Indian jewelry that is vaguely erotic. There is a delicate and compelling sadness about her eyes, some continual disappointment that has turned inward and showed up on her face in the form of crow's feet and a slight grayness beneath the blush. Iris was unable to look away in time, to avert her eyes from seeing through the surface of the plastic and veneers, from seeing the particle board hidden beneath faux period pieces and hearing the flat, false notes filling the gaps between silences. She would be the one who always filled the house with sounds; from room to room she had the multiple televisions tuned to the same romantic black-and-white 1930s movie. The Meachums are very clear about their reasons for moving into Blackmoor Heights. Property taxes are low and the school system has high academic ratings with almost no reports of guns or violence. They had done their homework and cared little about the details, the stripped-down, out-of-date interior of my mother's quaint little ranch. They were mobile and quietly fleeing. My statistical normal radiated contentment and polite charm, and they would consume within predictable and orchestrated patterns, primed to fulfill their market-tested and prepackaged lifestyles. They were already paying in time-installments for the overpriced funerals and bland headstones that would be their final home. Here lie our beloved so-and-whats. They died as they lived.

  The two children said nothing. Morgan, who is ten, was obviously excited to be moving. He surveyed the neighborhood skateboard ramps, the hodgepodge of tree houses, and sized-up the adjacent wooded lots he might take over and later fortify. His sister, Gabby, was visibly disgusted by everything but the tops of her shoes and barely looked at me during the introductions. She kept her head down, hands resolutely stuffed in the pockets of her oversized field jacket. Her disdain for the new neighborhood was a palpable charge hanging in the damp air. When she was shown her potential bedroom, she mumbled an obscenity under her breath, and her mother said, "Honey, you have to start thinking about the positive things." Gabby looked over at her father, eyes lighting up and leaning into her words as she spat them out. "Dad, I'll have to have my own phone line. I can't live without it." Everyone smiled and she recrossed her arms and I saw tears welling up.





To: (Jonathon Carter) Thursday July 21, 8:30 AM
From: (Guy Steiner)

  Hey BMOC,

  Your study is time bomb--yeeow!

  Is it true, you're really doing this thing, not some elaborate fantasy a frustrated fellow grad student has come up with? PH-fucking-D! Forget about getting a job unless you are splitting atoms among transsexual aborigines. You are a white man studying white people. Very uncool and uninteresting. But this idea you have could make you famous. Download something at web site. Suburban Real World. Go man, go-go! Something nasty to prove you really did go so far as to prewire this house next door with cameras and microphones. Show me a shower image. How old is that pretty girl, anyway? Visual Anthropology didn't have you in mind when they set down the rules. You are The Man. Later,

  Digital Dog:-)





To: (Guy Steiner) Thursday July 21, 9:03 AM
From: (Jonathon Carter)
Attachments:14min/vidbitmassStrongHoldIIMac/os:ArcCovenant.DOS(DI NA/mdos)00005fcc

  Yo cave dweller,

  Not a hoax. I've really done it and will download some pix. Also, audio if you want mating rituals, too. Girl is only fifteen and no, I won't send you pix of her. I'm already in over my head. Purposely put only microphones in the bathrooms and that's often bad enough. It's my mother's old ranch house. Remember we had Thanksgiving dinner there? I sold it to a family I picked using the Gordenstein method. I've rented another house whose backyard faces theirs. The cul-de-sac camouflage. What I can't see with the internal cameras I can see right out my windows. Hell, I even have cameras in the trees. There are two adults, Iris and Ted, and the two children, Gabby and Morgan, the ten year old. You know what happened with the Louds in An American Family? The presence of cameras and crew alters the ritual, the subjects conform to the gaze and the dormant subcultures self-censor, and fail to evolve. Study subjects mimic popular representations and atrophy within the received ideas. Are you with me? And keep this confidential or I'll sacrifice your lamb. For the first time I have total omniscience. Damn the puritanical American restraints. This is the fucking Wild Kingdom here! Michael Apted, eat your heart out!

  Talk to you soon, pal.




Time: Aug. 9@1:51 PM Size: 70K Type: Microsoft Word doc. [Meachum Notes]

  Iris enters the bedroom, closes the blinds, then removes her clothes and carefully puts them on the vanity chair. She's thin like a long-distance runner, her hair a mass of natural honey-brown curls as she arranges herself on the pillows. She closes her eyes, runs her hands over her breasts then across her stomach. There is almost no noise. After ten minutes the phone rings and she lets it go and go before picking up.

  "Hello?" Her tone is muffled and irritated.

  "Hi, it's me." A male voice low and breathy. It's not Ted but the voice sounds familiar. "Sorry," the voice continues. "Sorry to interrupt anything."

  "Guess where my hands are?" The man guffaws, the kind of laugh that makes loud parties get suddenly quiet. Something tells me he's brawny and went through boot camp. There is a deep bitterness mixed with his joy, like a man in love with a good paradox. His cigarette habit has given a slight bass tremble to his already cottony voice. I wouldn't trust him to change a light bulb.

  "And you were thinking about Mount Saint Helens? About Old Faithful?"

  "Of course I was." There is noise on the line, another person speaking, and the man says, "Okay, I'll be in in just a minute."

  "Well, I've got to go to a meeting," the voice whispers. "Let the lava flow, babe. I expect a new island in the chain next time we meet." Iris laughs and lets the headset clunk insouciantly back onto its cradle. I was holding my breath, hands and feet clenched together. Why do I feel so hot, so deranged by this exchange? Is my normal drifting away from probability or is she following again? I was worried when I looked into those eyes of hers. She's got to try and tear them out of her head one of these days.




Time: Aug. 16@4:34 PM Size: 94K Type: Microsoft Word doc. [Meachum Notes]

  My favorite viewing time is laundry day--a silent ballet of folding and stuffing and the laying out of shirts. Iris likes to have the television in the kitchen on with the sound down, preferring the old black-and-white movies with romantic leads. Somewhere in the middle of the third week I noticed that she was talking to herself beneath the roar of the machines. When I played back the earlier edits she was doing the same thing. It took some enhancing, some adjustment, but I was able to isolate her words. It seems that Iris Meachum hates almost everything about her life at 227 Cabot Court View. She focuses on her family's faults and failures, the onslaught of her invective barely smothered beneath the churning and throbbing machines. During these long tirades--sometimes hours go by--her lips curl back over her teeth and her nostrils flare and her face is illuminated by red highlights. It's made me fall in love with her a little. Stupid little boy is the bane of my life. I should have flushed him out before his weak little mind took over my life, sucked the life right out of my body. All of them--vampires and parasites, sucking and silencing and slowly taking my life from me. Don't want to, Mommy. Get me this, Mommy. It's too cold, Mommy. It's too hot, Mommy. It's not good enough, honey. Why are the clothes wrinkled, Iris? Why did it shrink? Why is my life a total blankness? My darling Clementine, my darling, darling Clementine. A rain of bile will come. A rain of blood and mud. The sound of millions of insects crunching under my bare feet. Someday a real rain will come and wash all the bile off the streets. Someday my prince will come. Someday I'll be suspended in the Rapture--bathed in the light of heaven. Someday soon, I hope. She giggles, laughs at how absurd she sounds, then pounds her fist on the top of the washer three times and the scene is done. She walks offstage. The children come home and everything in the house changes pitch and tone. She's blissed-out and evanescent in her children's presence.

  "Mom, you're acting strange."

  "I'm just happy, honey, so happy to see you both."

  She's standing transfixed in the middle of the kitchen, looking right into my hidden camera. I focus in and see a shadow cross her forehead, the indelible mark still lingering there from having just called out the beast.

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