Fortune City

 

michael john grist

 

 

I started talking out loud around three, I think. It's a sweltering day, but that's no excuse. It's more to do with the height, I think. The wind rushing in my ears and I couldn't hear a damn thing I was thinking. What was I saying? Oh. I started saying things like this.

"I really want a tuna sandwich, I don't know if I can do this without a tuna sandwich, I think I really need one. Perhaps I should call the vet and make an appointment for Barney the goldfish. I want a sandwich. The knife is digging into my leg. Look at me, I'm a star. I want a sandwich."

And so on. Give them something to talk about. I know the police negotiator, strapped up with his bullet proof flak jacket, can hear everything I'm saying and is scribbling it all down in his yellow notepad, ring-bound, but then that's what it's all about. So too is the hum from a small crowd in the street below, buzzing like the white noise of an orchestra warming up before a performance, like lots of hacking coughs, preparing for the end of me. Each and every one ageing a little to watch me go. It's like reality TV. Safe. Distant. Gritty. Real. I'm a star again.

That's what it said on the application forms. Safe. Distant. Gritty. Real. And that was the plug for all of us. I was an applicant, and they said it would be distant. I was an applicant, and they said it would be safe. I was an applicant, and they picked me.

'Fortune City' it was called. One hundred contestants, applicants, whatever, and we race to make as much money as we can in one fiscal year. By whatever means we want. Jobs. Dealing. Stocks. Gambling. Theft. Whatever we want. The studio has the right to broadcast it all. The winner gets ten million.

The studio has it's own applicant protection program, just like the FBI's witness protection programme. They'll deport you in a private jet to the Bahamas. Maybe Fiji. Maybe your own personal desert island, where you'll live like Crusoe or Tom Hanks with a basketball as long as you want. If you win. But. If you lose. If you followed the law, nothing. If you broke the law. Then that's it. It's all on TV. Everyone's a witness. They know your face. It's the biggest event of the new century.

Real. Gritty. Distant. Safe.

I didn't even mean to apply. They dropped leaflet bombs all over Manhattan from blimps trailing sky writers, reading 'do you live in Fortune City?' With stylised lost and found posters peppered everywhere the words can be read. I'm talking in subways. I'm talking in lifts. I'm talking on the benches in Central Park, on trash cans, on UPS boxes, over ATM's, on the windows of big corporate buildings, over the golden man's face at the Rockefeller centre, up and down the roads and coating the neon of forty-second street. Some huge corporate/terrorist paper campaign.

LOST:

American Spirit
American Patriotism
American Soul
American Dream

FOUND:

Fortune City

applications from Scout TV Network

And it just kept getting bigger. They sprayed our desks, our emails, the Internet. They covered tramps in their advertising. They filled our screens with rolling graphics of a yellow brick road down towards the Empire State building. They persuaded softly in your ear over the radio. They swarmed and they multiplied before us. Fortune City. Safe. Gritty. Distant. Real.

Next phase, those four words, dropped as banners from the tallest buildings at Coney Island, spinning Fortune City to the world. Letters running downwards in dollar green, fifteen stories high, spread most of the way down to the ground. You can't lose. You can't lose. You can only win. It's only more incentive.

By three in the afternoon my negotiator was running out of the usual lines, but then someone recognised me as a denizen of 'the city'. A fortunato, they called us. There were a lot of us. Hey, it's understandable they wouldn't spot me straight away. So then he starts plying me with the psych rules drawn up at the start. Telling me it wasn't my fault. I was the victim. Whatever I did, I wasn't in control. It was the mind-controllers, the people from Scout TV Network. They had control of my mind. It was all a big mistake, whatever I did, I can plead insanity at the trial.

I tell them I want my agent. I say it, to them I say, "Get my agent, or I jump. I mean it, I say. I'll jump."

My agent comes. He's excited. I'm happy he's excited. He starts talking non-stop, leaning out the nearest window, words a mile a minute.

He's telling me they can maybe televise the trial. I can probably get rights to my own image if I can prove I'm in sound mind now. I can probably sign a book deal detailing the rigors I went through. In fact, if you say the word, the ghost writers will be on it right now. He says, comfy in his flak jacket, afraid I might be a danger to them up here on the seventy-fifth floor balcony. That maybe it could set me up for life. They could follow the Fortune City real life documentary with another, about me, and maybe I'd be interested in signing the deal right now. Promise to open up the remnants of my splattered life for more cameras to watch over, like a mother and her baby.

"But what would be the point?" I ask.

Money?

Would that deal be with Scout TV? I suppose, riding the over-arching success of the Fortune City show. (Now, I know they had to shell out billions in compensation, but that was the idea all along wasn't it? Filter money upwards, we get some, you get some, one hundred scrubs are disposed of). Some smaller aspect of the company might want me for leftovers. There are plenty of people interested, nigel, he says. Into my ear. Seductive in my dreams. You could be made for life.

My agent keeps on talking.

I look down. People still bustling around, in and out of buildings, but the crowd is bigger now. More people at my feet, waiting for my descent. I can feel their desire welling up, ready, wanting to shout up at me. Ready to scream up at me. Bring me down. Swallow me down into their homogenous mass.

I Watch a floating paper in the city updraft. Rising before my eyes, and the man's voice is at my ear. Just my fellow man, trying to sell me to the world.

Or is that me? Could I be thinking aloud again, giving them something to write about? Something like:

"Where is that damn tuna fish sandwich? I'm so hungry, all alone up here with these clouds. Whish. Who is going to bury me? How will they bury me? Perhaps they should just get some dogs, and let them out into the street, and they can eat my remains. It'll be good television. People will watch. Hey!"

Sounds like me.

After the fifteen story word banners they had me. It couldn't hurt. I'd been doing nothing. Had nothing, I didn't think it could hurt. So I got on the web, and applied. Ticked some virtual boxes in virtual space. Agreed to some details, and that was it for the day. But the next day. Then came the papers. The application forms. The requirements. The stacks and stacks of paperage. So much so that they provided a special Fortune City branded pen to come with it.

My own pen. Ha. Lovely, I thought. Probably dried it out on the crossword. And I forgot about it. The one hundred they wanted. The $10,000,000 prize. The yellow brick road. Until the next day.

Damn it is cold and windy up here. Earlier it wasn't so bad, but shit, it's nippy. Fall is fading into winter, I guess. Snow soon. Will have been the two month anniversary of me joining the show now. Because. It ran to its completion. The winner is off sunning himself in Barbados, or Capri, or maybe New Zealand. Beautiful places.

They only started showing what they had six months in, and had to vamp to catch up. The editing work. The sheer volume of film produced by one hundred camera crews was more than they'd expected. There was no problem once they knew. The sponsors were throwing money at them by that point. Everything was fine.

Of the one hundred that signed up:
thirty-four were arrested.
fourteen were expelled for contravening the rules.
eighty-six attempted suicide:
of those would-be suicides, thirty-six are on the run from the police.
five died in the first three months.
nine are now paraplegic.
two are in mental asylums.

Leaving the rest of us to get on with our lives.

What's left of our lives.

This is what my agent said:
"It'll be fine, consider this just extra motivation to kick-start your career. This is the same, except you'll have us helping you, advising you, and you'll have your peers helping you, advising you. Your life will remain mostly unaffected, except maybe for the richer." And of course that's all nonsense. They drove us to extinction. They drove us to it.

So the next day, I check my email at some cyber cafe off thirty-first street. Sipping coffee. Clicking in my details. Thinking maybe my pen-pal (do we still call it that?) over on the West coast has replied. Thinking maybe my parents have finally figured out their TV email thing, and what do I see.

Little words: Your mailbox is too full And so I head on into the inbox, and lo and behold, what I see is thirty emails per page. Ten pages unto total fullness with red pixels screaming out that my account is NOT sized 15 MB, but a mere 18K, and my messages will be deleted.

In the subject lines, one word each. In the return address line I have 'fortunecity1' through 'fortunecity300' to thank for this inundation. The first is titled: REAL.

So I open it. Nothing. No text. I close it, and look to the side. The message is 1K long. The next says DISTANT. 1K. Then GRITTY. 1K. SAFE. 1K. Then title of 1 MILLION. 5000K.

I open that one. Look for the message, but it's pictures. It's a fifty dollar bill as wallpaper. It's fifty dollar bills scrolling down and down and down. Fifty dollar bills, equalling 1 million I can only guess. Then the next 295 messages, the same sentence spelled out one word at a time across the subject lines: Nigel Patterson You Could Live In Fortune City.

Over and again, across all ten pages like a mantra, spilling off the page to piss me off. I go to the junk mail filter, scratch it all out. By the next day it will all be erased anyway, thanks to the inbox limit.

I remember the rules they laid down, once we'd signed on. I felt like something from a Schwarzenegger movie, or some Stephen King adaptation. Maybe The Running Man with an exploding neck brace belted round the old jugular, maybe some kids from The Long Walk, waiting to die 'cos only one can prevail.

Rule 1 - You cannot leave the city. Leaving results in expulsion from the competition.
Rule 2 - Your current assets will be temporarily confiscated, such that you will begin the competition with nothing but that which you are given.
Rule 3 - Anything you do to contravene the law will be your doing, and your doing alone. The company will not be held responsible.
Rule 4 - There can only be one winner.
Rule 5 - That winner will be determined by amount of cash in hand on the close date, August 1st 2004, in front of the Statue Of Liberty.
Rule 6 - A camera crew will accompany you at all times, or attempt to. Any violence perpetrated against them will result in expulsion.
Rule 7 - One cell phone call per week to your individual agent is allowed, in case resignation is desired. Any more than this will be ignored.
Rule 8 - Other than these, anything goes.

I have them memorised. They were my tenets. They were my bible for the year I spent in Fortune City. I can hardly think of the words to convey how that year went.

Now, I can say that nothing looks the same. A turn, maybe, onto a different street, loaded with memories I don't want. Walking down streets with heavy gym bags, walking up stairs with money, all of it.

Linking into things I don't want to remember.

Rule 3- Cardinal. The company will not be held responsible. And we all signed it. I know, I remember.

Nothing looks the same anymore. It's as if ten million frees you in a way nothing else can. Suddenly, you're free. Anything you want to do, you can do it. All there is is death or riches.

Surely that's like life, as it is, but in fast forward. We pack all the shit into one year, then we're set for life or dead forever. SAFE. For the viewing public. DISTANT.

For the viewing public, but only if you're in a different city. A different country. Our repercussions spread everywhere. A city in chaos.

GRITTY. Oh yeah.

REAL. As real as can be, provided by one hundred cameramen and grips and agents, all of it captured on broadcast quality VHS. You can buy the highlights over the Internet.

The stores have signed petitions against stocking them, since we hit most of them multiple times. They sometimes resorted to pulling CCTV from stores that thought the fake policemen were real, then clipped it into the editing and there's a full picture of someone's antics that night.

I hear my negotiator:
"Seriously, nigel, it's okay. You don't have to go through with this, there's nothing to worry about. There are people that can help you with this. There are support groups. There is a life ahead of you. There is a future."

But all I can hear is the lower case letter he uses to start my name. All I can hear is my number, fortunato No. 76, ringing through every sentence he says, and all I can hear is the whining tone of a lie every time he says 'There IS a future, you ARE still alive, you ARE still worthy' and all I can hear is the cracks in the facade, falling apart.

I hear my negotiator stumble away from the window, muttering he has to empty his bladder. Ha. Some people just don't think ahead. I flushed my system out before all this with a heavy dose of laxatives. No embarrassing moments on the ledge for me. No sir. I'm gonna stand here until I'm good and...

"Dont't fucking come any closer!!!" I'm suddenly screaming. "BACK THE FUCK OFF, I'LL DO IT. YOU KNOW I'LL FUCKING DO IT." I find my grip tightening, and I wonder in the back of my mind at how much I seem to swear now, how much I seem to shout, how much I'll never be what I used to be again.

"Get those fucking clowns out of the street. I fucking see them. WHERE'S MY FUCKING NEGOTIATOR!!" and I tighten my grip, and I find myself swearing at these people and I have to wonder, do they not realise we're all part of the show? Don't they realise it's not their cue yet?

Then there's my agent, there at my elbow, and I'm happy again:
"nigel, calm down, it's just police to keep the crowds back, it's alright."

"nigel calm down, I've just spoken to the book people and they're sending a journalist over here right now to take down the notes they want to use for your prologue, if you want to sign with them. They want to make money for you. They want you to be rich. Trust me, you'll be rich. There'll be more money than you could ever need. They want you for this. They might even syndicate a book tour for you. It wasn't your fault."

It wasn't my fault is what they've all been saying. It wasn't my fault like I was blind, was I? Like I just do what I'm told? Why do I still crave it then? Why can't I walk down the street anymore, without nightmares spliced through with adrenaline playing in the back of my mind? Why can't I forget and move on?

And why then, if it wasn't my fault, do you still ply me with the money? Think it's enough? Think it will make everything be okay and invisible again, once we've aired the dirty laundry of the Fortune City programme?

My agent, whispering in my ear as he always used to. One call a week and I always wished for more. To be updated. To know what the running tallies were. To know how many dead. How many arrested. How many expelled.

I'm making demands. I tell my agent to write them down. This is what I say:
1 - one million dollars.
2 - a helicopter.
3 - a better agent.
4 - a tuna fish sandwich.

Or what?

My negotiator, I think he's getting bored:
"But you don't understand-the cops. They don't care you're up here. They, look, you know what a hostage situation is, yeah? They want a hostage, and you haven't got one. Have you. Who you gonna kill? there's nobody to kill?"

I take a step back along the ledge, lean close to the window and I slap his face. As hard as I can, nearly knock myself off balance.

"My fucking self, you idiot" I'm saying. "Get me the money, and the chopper, or I'll fucking jump. Isn't it obvious?"

He's speaking fast again, he sounds choked up like me slapping him has really upset him. Like I've broken a bond between us or something.

He's so stupid. He thinks I just want to be saved. They can't understand. They don't know what it was like. They may have seen the images of us going through what we went through. All of us straining against the limits, the rules. All of us wanting to be the one. Bullshit they made us. Bullshit, and that's the key.

The crowd just keeps getting bigger. Swelling across the streets. Reminds me of time-lapse footage of the growth of a cancer from TV. It grows organically, by increments so small you barely even notice, 'til one day there's this great big blockage and the traffic can't flow and the cops are circling the whole thing telling people to move along, there's nothing to see here. These are the people that watch, I'm thinking.

FORTUNE CITY!!!

I'm watching as the credits roll up in my head. Names of the editors, producers, fast scrolling names of all the camera men involved in tonight's episode. Disclaimers. Names of the fortunatos on display tonight. The highlights.

That's what I am. I'm a fortunato. Number 76. I did tricks for the camera crew that followed me.

There's fire engines in the streets now. Sirens wail up to my position. Blue and red flashing lights. Men in uniform erecting barriers. There's no inflatable bag. I already said, if there's a bag I jump.

I said
- if there's a bag I jump.
- if there's a net I jump.
- if there's guys climbing up all the floors below me, with noose things like they use to catch stray dogs with, angling for me before I jump, I jump.
- if my agent isn't here, then I jump.

It's getting dark.

I've been here for hours. My agent is at the window, still, like I ordered. He can't move now. The negotiator has been called elsewhere. I'm low priority for that, I think. Or maybe they've decided my agent is the best bet. Lure me back into the fold with dollar signs. I know there's cameras trained on me. Cameras broadcasting round the clock, round the world. I know they're all watching me now.

My agent tries to plead with me, sometimes.
"This is great, nigel. A really good idea. Just keep holding out. It's a great idea. You'll make more money the longer you stay. This is great."

The sun is gone. I can hear the roar of the crowds. They sometimes chorus 'JUMP JUMP JUMP', then get tired, and stop. It comes in waves.

I make more demands, since the helicopter and money and the rest don't seem to be coming. I demand:
- a phone
- my agent stays awake all through the ordeal.
- or I jump, I say.

Lean out over the brink. I can see thousands of them down below. This is better than television. This is live television. This is like a free concert, the Beatles playing on a roof-top. Who wouldn't join the crowd for the moment. Because in a situation like this, the only way is down.

The phone arrives. It's late. There's a bug in it, I know. I'm glad. I call my parents. They're not home. I call their cell phone. They pick up immediately, and I can hear the back wash of the crowd roaring in the background. Fuzzed out, but so loud. So immediate.

"Nigel! Nigel, come down, come down baby." Says my mother.

"Listen, mother." I say. "Listen to me."

"What is it, honey, please, come down, come down."

"Listen, mother. I did terrible things. I did terrible things."

'I know honey, I'm so sorry. Your father and I, we saw it all on TV. We tried to get in touch, but we had no number for you. Honey, please it's going to be okay, come down."

The crowd starts yelling jump again. I can hear I so loud through the phone, crackling.

"Mom listen. If you love me, then you'll leave. If you love me , you'll leave right now."

"What?!" She says. "I can't leave you, baby, I can't leave, please come down."

"If you love me mom, you'll leave and not turn on the TV or the radio, but you and dad will go home and sit together and hug each other and know that I love you and I'm teaching the world a lesson."

"HONEY NO!" She screams. "There's no lesson. We all forgive you. We all know what you did. Please, Nigel honey, come down. Nobody blames you, it isn't your fault. We love you."

"They offered us ten million." I say flatly.

"We know, honey. We know. It's okay. Talk to your agent, he's a good man. We spoke to him, honey. He'll fix it up, you're a star now. You're a star."

"Love you mom. Go home." I say, then throw the phone out into the air. It falls.

The things I did in Fortune City:
- robbed a subway sandwich store at east and sixty-fifth, Harlem.
- plotted to rob a Citibank with three other fortunatos, but one, Carlos, tried to turn on us with a shotgun. Steal our reserves. I killed him with a baseball bat. His corpse is laying in the basement of an abandoned warehouse on pier thirteen.
- smacked my ex-girlfriend when she came round to talk me out of it.
- cut off contact with all my family members.
- raised a thousand dollars by climbing the statue of liberty twenty times in one day.
- blew the thousand in a casino on one bet. Roulette. I didn't get it.
- beat up a drunk in the street when I was drunk. I never used to be violent.

I'm talking to my agent, head lolling at the window. He must be exhausted: "See, if they'd given a set amount, that would have been different. But they didn't. They're clever. You're too clever. Instead, they gave MORE money to the person with the most. The most. So whoever did the most, it's so clever. It's very clever."

"You'll be rich nigel." He sobs.

I stand there all night. Half in and half out of dreams.

I see people floating in the air before me, beckoning to me. They're smiling. They have lights in their eyes. Then the vision hollows out and it's just spotlights from below, lighting me up. Every fifteen minutes. All night long.

I see across the street, the building opposite. There are people in suits with ties on, drinking cocktails behind the glass, pointing at me and watching and waiting. After a while they leave. Go home, I suppose. But I'm still here. The night passes slowly.

 

In the morning the crowd stretches as far as I can see. TV screens have been set up in the street. In honour of me I suppose. Showing what I'm going through, in ultra close up. Everyone's heard about this. I know. They all want to hear, want to see, want to know what this ex-fortunato murderer is going to do. This son of America. This seeker of the American dream.

LOST:

American Spirit
American Patriotism
American Soul
American Dream

FOUND:

Fortune City

applications from Scout TV Network

I remember it.

They know me, they think. I'm in it for the money. Aren't we all? They're not sure if I'm the good guy or the bad guy. Maybe it's time to show them.

I pull out the knife.

Gasps from below as they must be watching. Its twinkling blade in close-up detail. A kitchen knife. I bought it before I came up. It's been digging into my hip all night.

Wonder whether my parents followed my instructions. On their heads.

My agent is yapping quick-fire.. Great television, my agent is yelling. Keep it up. My negotiator too. It wasn't your fault, nigel, he's yelling. Put it down, you don't have to do this, put it down.

But I do, and that's the whole point really, isn't it? Because now I'm a star, and maybe I'm a hero. Just like my folks always wanted. Maybe I'd prefer it if they were watching.

I pull off my shirt. My skin turns to goose pimples in the cool New York morning air. Pull off my pants by leaning against the wall. One leg at a time. Am wondering whether it would be more embarrassing to have an erection, or better?

My agent is calling
"What are you doing nigel? Nigel, stop it. Come back inside for God's sake. You're going too far, this isn't cool. This won't sell, the naked thing. Put it away!"

Where is the negotiator? I think he's gone to empty his bladder again.

I hold the knife up over my head. The crowd roars. I know what they want. I turn it upon my chest, and I press in, and the end begins... I can hear the crowds screaming below. I know what they want. Blood.

It stings, to press it in. Not too deep. It's sharp. I'd heard the sharper a knife was, the less you felt it. I don't want it to be too deep, yet. I have to finish. Start across my collarbones. It's hard, there's no mirror, sweat in my eyes. It's okay, though. I've practised this many times in my mind, in front of the mirror. I know exactly how it will look.

The crowd is alive. I imagine their fingertips reaching up to touch my feet. To worship this man, who gives it all up so they have something to talk about. I imagine them spreading up to me like a disease, pulping and re-shaping. Always reaching up to me. Across the street there are faces pressed up to the glass, eyes wide.

Maybe I'm smiling. I know they can see everything, in ever-lovin' zoomed-in detail. There'll be slow motion replays. News anchors talking over it. Maybe jay leno, will be planning jokes he's going to say that night about the crazy guy on the ledge of the Chrysler building. I've got a city alight.

Down to the midriff now. It hurts more. There's more muscle, I think. My skin is taut there. I got to be fit in my year in Fortune City. I was always running, from places, to places, always chased by my camera crew, always obeying cardinal rule six, never hurt your camera crew. Well I didn't and I'm not about to now.

...Down to my stomach, there's blood running down my legs, dribbling over the ledge. There's so much blood. My hands are sticky, all covered in red.

They talk about control. They wouldn't understand this. I have millions of people watching me. That's power. That's control.

Feeling faint. Is it suddenly quiet? I'm not sure. There's motion somewhere. My agent, I think. Is someone reaching out to me? Is that...? What is this?

Where am I?

My hands are covered in warm blood. Is it finished? Is it finished? Tell me it's finished.

I'm naked.

Noose. Some-one with a noose.

That's it. That's it. I lean forward.

...It's more of a fall than a jump.

SAFE
DISTANT
GRITTY
REAL

Lots of things pass through my head. Silly little things. Being mad at my email inbox when it was full. Watching cartoons as a child.

My parents urging me to be whatever I wanted to be.

How they must have felt when I cut them off, and they could only see what I gave them to see.

They say I was forced into it. They brainwashed me. but that's bullshit.

I did this myself. I did this to myself.

And so did you.

 

 

The entire crowd is silent as the body sails down, but few are able to see as it crumples on concrete. Though, thanks to specially calibrated microphones at ground level, they all hear it.

Their eyes are fixed, along with millions around the world, fixed to their television screens, staring at the frozen image of a mad ex-fortunato on the Chrysler building, stood forever in that motionless moment before he jumped.

They're reading the words. The four bloody words carved into the frozen image of his chest. And they are all of them silent. Not even the news anchors have anything to say.

The words, half obscured with blood trails. Cut down to the bone in places. Flaying open pink as he jumped, spread his wings, tried to fly.

LOOK
AT
YOUR
SELVES

 

 

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Author Bio

michael john grist is twenty-three years old, and lives in japan. At the moment he is teaching English.

His interests are ultimate frisbee, breakdancing, martial arts, travel, movies, and writing.

More stories by Michael can be found at quantummuse.com (archive), alternatespecies.com, savagenight.com, apocalypsefiction.com, and other places.

 

 


 

 

"Fortune City" Copyright © 2003 michael john grist. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 07-30-03.

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