Philip Martin

Mr. Johnson


You didn’t see that.

That. That flash just now. It came in under your radar. You didn’t notice it. You didn’t translate it from marks—dark pixels against white—on a screen into words. You didn’t apprehend its message. But it told you something.

What? I don’t know. Does it matter if you didn’t see it? Do you think it does? What appetite is stirring in you right now? What want is impressing itself? Where do you want to go today, Mr. Free Will?

Wee Gee is my ghost. She watches you, she learns. You teach her. She is not exerting any influence on you, you are over eighteen, you signed the contract, you broke the seal. She simply anticipates, guides, smoothes things over.

She has made me very rich. She lives in your machines. You don’t see her, you don’t know that she exists—that is the point.

Wee Gee is a very subtle ghost; she sits and watches mostly, learning things about you—which on-line sites you like to visit, how much you’re inclined to spend, how long your cursor rests on a particular object of desire. In time, generally after a few weeks, but sometimes sooner if you tend to spend a lot of time on-line, Wee Gee will start talking to you, send you subliminal messages. Simple things really—usually something along the lines of “buy now” or “you’re fine” or “cheating  wife?” or “ungrateful kids?” but sometimes more specific, discrete imperatives.

You think it is your decision and it is, you supply the patterns and the credit card numbers. Wee Gee  makes suggestions, she urges you to act on your desires. She supplies koans. She wants you to be happy Are you happy? There are more worlds to explore. More things. Happiness is but a few more keystrokes away.

Technological genius is well-compensated in this country. I have no complaints. Well, I have complaints but no right to air them, no one to air them to. There are so many out there less fortunate than me. Do I want to be a millionaire? Go ahead, ask me. No, I don’t. That would require me to take a cut in pay. I am a millionaire many times over.

They pay me royalties, all of them. The big guys, the ones whose names and faces you know. And the ones you don’t. The  boys in the high graphite  towers. Direct deposits, Swiss accounts. I have it all. I live like a vampire.

I have a loft in Tribeca. Eight thousand square feet. And properties around the country. South Beach. Scottsdale. Los Feliz. I may have an apartment in Paris before the summer is up. I come from someplace worse than Iowa. But I was smart and my mojo was too good and they had to buy it. Now I work for Mr. Johnson. 

He is tall, dark and handsome. Well, no, not handsome. Not exactly. At least I wouldn’t call him that, although I just did. You might think him grotesque, though you would note his elegant carriage. I would call him interesting looking—like Agent Skinner on The X-Files. Maybe not your idea of a hunk right away, but he takes off his shirt—let’s imagine that he takes off his shirt—and persons of all sexes sigh and wonder.

 He wears draped silk, eye glasses and a baseball cap—a brown Yankees cap most days, like the ones they sell on lower Broadway for three dollars. But his cap is wool and fitted to his seven and seven-eighths-inch head. It cost twenty-five, maybe thirty dollars. For me and Mr. Johnson, twenty-five or thirty dollars is no money at all. If I dropped a hundred dollar bill in a toilet, I wouldn’t fish it out, even if there was no one around to see and the water was, at least as far as I could tell, very clean and the bowl had been freshly scrubbed. To prove my point I will give you a hundred dollars if you—let’s see—how about if you genuflect before me?

No? You’ve got pride then. You would be amazed at what some people would do for a hundred dollars. Things much more humiliating and shameful than genuflecting before me. A hundred dollars buys a lot if you know how to shop.

Anyway, I am Wee Gee’s inventor and she has made me very rich. I can buy what I want, I do what I want, so long as it pleases Mr. Johnson. This is not usually a problem; if we are not exactly friends anymore we are still allies. We are close, though not as close as we used to be, back when I wore a farmboy’s idea of a hipster goatee and thick black Buddy Holly glasses. Back when I was in I/O.

Back before I knew how to dress or talk or hail a taxi cab. Of course, I don’t hail taxi cabs anymore. And most days I don’t bother dressing even. Nobody here but us chickens — you know what I mean? That’s Louis Jordan—like the French King Louis—he was before our time. Someday maybe I’ll play you the double-CD greatest hits package. It’s all you need really, the essential stuff.

Most days  I just shower and powder. Things are delivered, if I have to go out—and I really don’t have to do anything—I throw on an overcoat and flip-flops. Down to the bodega to get some Ben and Jerry’s. The Korean who doesn’t smile at anyone smiles at me.

When I do dress, I dress very well—Versace mostly, though he’s dead now. Commes des Garcons. Bret Easton Ellis. Whatever’s haute couture, whatever will be in the magazines next year.

Mr. Johnson hardly ever dresses either. At least, that’s what I imagine. Sometimes when I talk to him I can tell he’s naked. He’ll have that naked sound to his voice—you know, that whispery silver-limned tone, a vaguely British, sort of James Mason-y thing. That’s his naked voice.

I think he’s usually screwing NYU co-eds. Not that it’s any of my business. Not anymore at least. He can screw all the NYU co-eds he wants as far as I am concerned. I am not responsible for his taste in sex partners, oh no I’m not I’ll have you know. I am not his procurer.

Back in Wisconsin there was this girl with a bad complexion and hazel eyes. She wore too much make-up but you couldn’t blame her for that, it covered things up. She cried when I told her I was going to New York, when I told her that maybe we shouldn’t think that what we had was all that serious. I never knew she cared, really, I never knew it meant anything to her at all.

She was sweet and thin and she liked it on top. All I had to do was lay there, she’d grind and giggle and I could reach up and cup her baseball breasts. She was good to me but my self-esteem was not established at that point and I thought anyone who’d fuck me must be dim or damaged or playing at being merciful. The last one mostly.

And so we lay together in that uncannily dark duplex apartment with the aluminum foil blocking out the light and I said what I thought was the responsible and true thing to say and it turned out I was being cruel.

She cried for a long time and wouldn’t let me hold her though eventually she did and then she slid her hand down my thigh and like a pig I got hard again and she said it would be all right and we did it again — hard with the headboard banging like we were fighting or making up, with me on top for once plunging into her, my dick  a truncheon, battered and sore, our animal smells charging the close room.

She left that night, back to Eau Claire in her Audi Fox. I called her once and her sister told me she didn’t want to hear from me and I believed that, though before I left I went round one day to the radio station where she worked part-time and waved at her through the glass while she was on the air. She just kept reading off the sheet she held in front of her, holding it out like she needed to pull it into focus, like the imminent gunshot victim raises his hands to shield his face.

Dermabrasion  She had it. She hosts a early morning television program, one of those local things that go on before Good Morning America or Today in a lot of markets. She’s married — for the second time — to a cardiologist. They are something of a golden couple in the mid-sized midwestern city where they live; their names and photographs pop up in the local newspaper with regularity.

I keep files, I have people run things down for me. I am alternately terrorized and comforted by facts, but I want them at hand.

I might be the slightest bit bitter that things have ended up this way. You could guess, couldn’t you? You’re a smart one all right — and tall too. (L’Oreal,  but I won’t tell. It’ll be our little secret. Or not. Can you see I’ve had lipo? Can you see where they stuck some of it back?)

I think I have a right to be a little upset. Maybe. One day I’m rocking along, drinking champagne and checking my stocks every few minutes on my Palm Pilot—it’s like watching an odometer, fascinating and boring all at once—and the next I’m a kept person. And who is my keeper? Mr. Johnson.

I call him Mr. Johnson. It’s our little joke, though I don’t think he quite gets it. Mr. Johnson doesn’t really have a name. None of us really do if you think about it— it’s just a convention that we’re called whatever we are called. Something to think about here— maybe my naming Mr. Johnson “Mr. Johnson” is as valid as any other sort of naming. Science begins in the naming of things. Only once you’ve given a thing a name can you begin to say it is like something else.

Mr. Johnson may not be classifiable, but I have to call him something. I don’t think of it as his real name—I guess the way I look at it is that I don’t know his real name and he never told me.

I took a job and worked and it was all right, but I developed Wee Gee on my own. I knew what it was and what it meant.

 You go online—you feel a little frisson, a cool touch behind your ear, a whisper of deja vu? That’s Wee Gee, baby—or at least maybe it is—that’s what made you take that keystroke, click that banner, order that soon-to-be-released DVD.

Sure, you think it’s free will, you think it doesn’t work on you, you don’t even pay attention to advertising, you don’t buy into all that Wilson Bryan Key subliminal suggestion cunt-in-the-ice-cube bullshit do you? You don’t think George W. Bush was stupid enough to actually try it ?

You’re right. You’re too fucking smart for us. That’s why we’re rich, why you’re still paying on that three-year-old SUV . . . fuck you asshole, you’re not susceptible to this kind of thing, not at motherfuckin’ all.

What was that?

Made you look. Dumbass.

After I made some inquiries, money came at me in a rush.

I forgot my little college town crush; I got used to rougher, more esoteric modes of pleasure. One day I was  your typical goateed college boy in my ironic rayon bowling shirt and black jeans, looking for chemicals to ingest and the next day I’m rolling in the back of a limo being blown by a Japanese supermodel. That’s right, that one, the one who was so popular and made the movie with one of the Baldwin boys. She made a veiled reference to me in her interview with Interview.

I didn’t know it was as simple as it was. Money, especially fast money, gets you hard and it gets you laid as often and as quirkily as you desire. You start thinking of stuff you couldn’t imagine back when you had to drive past cows to get to the airport.

You become an epicurean real quick, you find you’ll put any damn thing in your mouth. You get curiouser and curiouser. And your dick gets bigger.

Literally. It grows and grows. It’s not just the cocaine you swab on it either. Like any muscle, it benefits from exercise. Steroids, they say, can shrink your balls to the size of Green Giant LeSueur peas, but money, power and sex have the opposite effect. You can become a big swinging dick just by getting out there and fucking some creamy Entertainment Weekly cover starlet up the butt. (Scream, indeed.) I know.

And you thought Mick Jagger was stuffing a sock down there. You silly.

It’s not just women. Contrary to what you probably believe, not all women are whores. Most men are bigger whores than most women. I fucked more than one All-Pro linebacker, just because I could. I didn’t even have to give them money, just promise them I’d let them join the country club I’m building with my partners. You don’t believe this, I can tell, but it’s one hell of a fine country club.

You enjoy it at first, even if you can’t understand it, even if you fear it is a symptom of a dread disease. You don’t tell your physician. At least I didn’t. At first I was proud.

There is the rock star stage, where you wear tight jeans and no underwear. Then there is the porn star stage where you wear baggy cargo pants. Then there is the circus freak stage when you run it down your leg into your boot or  wrap it around your waist.

Then you are like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, riding your atomic prick. You begin to think maybe you are mad, especially when the call girls—the expensive ones—seem not to notice that you are hung like Mighty Joe Young.

Then, at some point, it becomes a problem.

For me, it happened rather quickly, once it started happening. A painful case of priapism, a few soulcrushing hours in a darkened room with a bottle of Knob Creek and fistfuls of pale yellow pills and a blond Mormon boy with mild eyes.

I screamed myself to sleep, with purple sparks behind my eyelids,  and woke up cradling the inchoate Mr. Johnson. The Mormon was gone, back to the agency, I presume.

Mr. J didn’t speak , and his limbs were just bumps,  but you could already see how his features were suggested. He would soon have shoulders, and an abdomen—though he looked like a column of wet clay, like something out of a Cronenberg movie, you could see his potential. Though he looked hardly human, I immediately thought of him as my son and my savior.

It was pleasant to be dickless in those first days, it was freedom. I had to squat to pee but I could walk the streets again, I didn’t have to disguise myself as a morbidly obese chef, I didn’t have to ride in the little golf cart. I could go to restaurants, I could go to movies, I could wander around bookstores. It was a great relief.

And he didn’t ask for much, not then. I changed his sheets and powdered him and yes I stroked his bald head. He seemed to smile at me, with a twisted thing I knew was meant to be a mouth.

After a few days, he was eating, soup at first but soon we moved on to milk and cereal. On the fourth day he clasped my hand with his flipper and pulled. I hugged him and I knew the bond had taken.

It took a few weeks before he filled out, and became enough like a man—actually he looked like a very old adolescent, if you get what I mean—to fit him with some clothes. He was close enough to my size to borrow from my closet, so it wasn’t difficult. I slapped a baseball cap on his head and we went for walks. It was about this time we settled on his name, or at least I did, I’d been calling him Mr. Johnson in my head from the beginning so it sounded natural in my mouth. Were I to name him now I’d do it differently. I might give him my name, I might call him “junior,” though that’s not the way things worked out. I wouldn’t have been so flippant.

Those were good days really, or at least simpler. I was fond of him then, and to tell the truth I still am, despite all that has happened, all that he has done. I love him as I hate him as I fear him as I fear injuring his feelings.

Desire does not live in parts. Desire is something different than blood It has nothing to do with your equipment.

I wouldn’t have thought that before this happened to me.

We used to talk, until my resentment of him became too much.

He is a being, as human as any of us, with no memory of what it was like when he was my part. He has aspirations, hopes and plans. He has all the requisite limbs and appendages. He is quite intelligent, smarter in some ways than his genius—what? Donor?

He has it figured out. He knows I love him. he knows he is essential to my own sense of well-being. I cannot do him harm. I wouldn’t want to.

I still manage the accounts, still keep my hand in the tech biz. I still design software, some of which has made us nearly as much money as our clandestine angel girl. I consult, from time to time, my eccentricities are well-known, they certify my talent.

I tell them I am celibate and they do not believe me. I could tell them what has happened and they would not believe me. they would take it for a parable, a tale with loaves and fishes, a crazy thing I say to call attention to myself. Maybe the smartest of them would recall that story by Kafka, not one in a thousand would think I’m riffing on Philip Roth. So I don’t tell them. I just tell them I’m celibate. It makes me seem priestly, even if they don’t believe me.

I do not tell them about Wee Gee either, of course, that’s a secret not even their bosses know. I look out on cattle, dull and lowing and animal to the marrow.

As you might expect, he is a satyr.

He is a pussyhound. A cocksman. Goldenrod. He has no skill but one, he draws cunt. He fucks good, better than I ever could. Sometimes I watch on the closed circuit. It is part of our arrangement. He needs me after all, the ungrateful prick.

He needs me because he has no documentation. He has no credit rating of his own. No ID. Not even a real name. Officially he does not exist. And he looks vaguely foreign. He needs my protection. He understands that I am fond of him, that despite my resentment I will do him no harm. He doesn’t take advantage—he has access to the checking account, the credit digits, he buys what he wants and has it delivered. He uses cash at clubs, he tips the driver, he keeps me apprised of his whereabouts. He doesn’t travel, he prefers the city. It is all he has ever known.

We have become estranged, we talk only on the telephone, or by e-mail. I have not sat down with him for more than a year. We used to have dinner together once a week, now we never meet each other’s gaze.

I cannot give him up, I call him up, to reconcile, to have dinner. He is wary, but he agrees.

We meet in mid-town, in a cheap Greek deli, under florescent lights.  It is early, he usually eats early, to clear out his evening. He has people to do.

He looks at me, expectantly, with those ancient gray eyes. Turtle eyes. It’s up to me to begin.

“It’s good to see you again. In the flesh. I mean, it’s been a while since we’ve gotten together.”

“Did you think we needed to talk?”

He says this without any defensiveness, with a shaming clarity. He is, despite his ribald ways, an innocent I am the worldly one, the one who knows about envy and passive aggressive bullshit. He is simple as a puppy, he is a sex machine.

“Well, I guess I did. I mean, I guess I do. You can’t understand this, there’s really no way you can, but it’s hard for me. Living like this is hard for me.”

“Hard for you? How is it hard, Dave? How is it hard?”

“I used to control you—you used to be a part of me.”

“And you’re saying it’s difficult because I’m not anymore?”

“Right. I mean, I miss what we used to do together.”

“You mean you miss having sex with me?”

If I did not know Mr. Johnson was a creature free of guile I would swear he was talking louder than was necessary to embarrass me.

“Yes, I miss having sex. I still have a libido you know.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is. Sounds Italian.”

“I mean I want to have sex again. But I can’t I’m ineffectual.”

“And you’re saying I’m responsible. That this is my problem. I didn’t ask to be born,  Dave. As you’ve explained it to me, your having sex was what brought us to this point.”

The counterman lifts an eyebrow at that, and goes on wiping.

 “I know that. And I guess all I really want is an acknowledgement from you that you understand my predicament. That you understand how difficult it is to be me. After all, we were once very close.”

“So you tell me.”

He is sulking. I can see his shoulders rounding, his chest  shrinks inside his silk T-shirt.

“Don’t be like that. All I want—”

“Is my pity? Is that it?”

“Well, yes. Is it so wrong to want to be pitied?”

Mr. Johnson stands up and throws a crumpled twenty on the table. He looks at me with pure disgust.

“I’ve got promises to keep,” he snarls. “You’re such a pussy, Dave.” 

There are tears in my eyes as I watch him walk out. My mouth forms a word. Fuck it, I let it fly after him, I bounce it off his back.



Tiffany Phillips 2.jpg (62340 bytes)

(photo by Tiffany Phillips)