WRITING WELL 12 - church of glee

by Susan Weber

On a scale of one to ten, my quality of life is zero. It’s the losers and their damned opt-outing. At Church of Glee we thought we had that rectified months ago. Universal winning was my crowning professional achievement. “Kudos to the coder-in-chief,” says my lovely boss at the Winners Make All awards. “Patchett my man, your COG team has solidly defeated the losers!” My phone chirped a BIG WIN as I held my trophy high. Should’ve known the lousy losers had already set themselves to thwarting.

I pride myself on engaging with the populace. It’s how I test the app I support for Church of Glee, COG for short. Our pollsters tend to overstate user satisfaction, so I like boots on the ground. My foot commute home from that awards lunch went something like this...

A little kid was crouched on a tree stump doing her algebra. I’m good at math — who isn’t? — so I stopped. The foot traffic parted like the Red Sea opening for Moses.

“Square root of sixty, mister,” the rascal piped. I did not point out that her pencil needed sharpening. You get more win-win points for teaching than preaching.

“What’s your estimate?” I said.

“Eight!” She gave me a gap-tooth grin. “But the next step's got me stumped.” She was six, the pun intended.

“Divide 60 by 8. Average your answer with 8. Repeat until you nail it.” She was already scratching out numbers — youngsters go tech-free until attention span stabilizes. I’d just racked up more wins than if I’d spoon-fed the child. Over-doing the praise would subtract wins too. “Check your work,” I said, and moved on.

The rest of my commute could not have gone smoother. Stomped a teen’s e-cigarette to smithereens. She knew she was in the wrong and thanked me. Teens get three sullens a month, so I docked her one. Stopped by the coffee shop, tweezed a lady’s eyebrow and touched up her mascara. She’s a waitress so she needs those tips. Referred her to Chuck, my facial fitness coach who’ll pay me back in winner points. Helped a gent with his diaper in the john. The stench was harsh but I got win-win points for hardship duty. How could anybody doubt that winning makes the world a better place? Took a banned book from a street vendor, polished a sailor’s boot — again, no lectures, just my fine example and a boatload of wins.

My latest app feature is you get double wins for self-restraint. Every time I hold back a well-deserved tut-tut, a chime on my device tells the world my win was multiplied by two. Now that's motivation! Users have been lecturing too much in place of physical involvement. Can’t have that.

Church of Glee incentivizes wins to curb loser behavior. One hundred percent compliance is the goal. But for some reason my lab can’t pinpoint, losers are gaining traction. Boss lady called me out today. “Patchett, our pollsters say the loser quotient’s OOC.” That’s shop talk for out of control. I did not need her to point this out. Our user base tanked last week and we had to offer deep discounts in major markets to bolster sales. But I didn’t need sales to convince me either. My foot commute's been horrific. Witness the latest in a series of disasters...

I see the same girl from last month — swear it’s her — only now she’s swinging from the branches of a big tree.

“Get down from there and do your homework!” Okay, so I’m testy from the whole loser thing.

“You’re not supposed to boss me,” she sasses. “Anyway, school’s a sham. Who needs mind control?”

I’m smarting from the points my harangue just cost me. I need the top win score so my underlings and colleagues will respect me. This is key to how I get things done. “I’m an adult,” I say to the girl, this time with impeccable reserve. “I have your best interest in mind.”

“All you care about is stupid wins!” she says, climbing to a higher branch and fussing with her backpack. “My dad says you’re the loser!”

“Do you know who I am, young lady?” I shout. “Louis Bartholomew Patchett, that's who! I invented COG technology!” My face feels like an ant hill on a seismic rift. Bragging is the opposite of Church of Glee ideals.

“Bees brag blubber blag,” she warbles. “I’m telling Pops you fibbed.”

I want to climb up after her and — what? Drag her down a limb or two? Spank her? Yell at her, only louder? People are milling around and starting to stare. It’s humiliating. I’m as powerless as parents used to be before COG intervened. Parents, teachers, managers adore me for keeping their charges on task.

The girl has a large papery object between her hands. Is it some kind of school project? A birthday piñata maybe? I scramble up the trunk squealing, “Put that down, you little brat!” I’m halfway up when she lobs the bundle, a black tail whipping out behind it. My ears fill with a crazed buzzing just before hornets pound against my scalp, my face, my neck and then dive down my collar. I claw at my clothing mid-leap in chiropractic agony and land, wrenching both feet on exposed tree roots. I am writhing, prostrate in a circle of spectators doubled over laughing, pointing, braying. Theirs is a gleefulness no church founder would have sanctioned.

Why does not one soul spring to my aid? How could they ignore the wins their apps would capture? And who is the tree kid’s father who called me a loser? But of course, my version of COG will have his data! I rip my trousers, yanking out my phone to aim it at the girl. First the screen and then my brain go blank.

I’m limping up the library steps, clutching the contraband that's been weighing down my jacket for weeks. I’ve been too busy to get rid of it but I’m desperate for a win so now's the time. I could strangle that kid. It's all I can do to pry open the massive door. This institution’s days are numbered. Where the heck’s the front desk?

“Hey, you, I need you over here!” My request echoes off the stone walls.

She stops wheeling her cart and I notice two things. She is both gorgeous and uniquely unimpressed by me. In a win-win scenario, COG would transmit my status to her phone, including my accumulated wins. She’d get bonus points for deference to the coder-in-chief. But my phone’s dead, the woman clueless, and then there’s my shredded suit and blotched face. I’ve been encouraged by COG not to judge her by her brownness. No worries. Even with the app offline, I keep my superiority in check.

Her voice is like a thunderstorm a few miles out. “Did you address me?” say her glossy lips.

“I’ve — I’ve got a banned book.” I cross the tiles and hold out the paperback. She slides it onto the nearest shelf and says, “Will that be all?” COG can graph impertinence in pie, line, and bar charts but hers must be off any known scale. Her lids descend over stun-gun eyes. She’s bored with me already.

“That’s it? You just cram it in wherever,” I say, demanding her attention.

“Let the random browser be surprised.” The scent of lemon and tobacco assails me. I want to grab her wrists and draw them around my back. This image is appalling. She is short of stature, her fashion choices shameless. What's with the army boots? Her girth could use the root veggie fast I've been recommending lately.

“Um,” I say, with a sudden urge to win this round. “My phone is broken. I’ll be needing yours.”

"I don't own — " She eyes the shriveled remnant of COG insignia weeping from my collar. “I don’t have mine on me,” she says.

There's this function I invented for the app called PAP, short for Positive Attitude Patch. I could use a jolt of encouraging words right now. You’re a light in your beholder’s eye, is the only one I can remember. An asinine inanity, I realize now.

“Have you lost your way?” she says, kneading her nose with blunt nails flecked with enamel. I suck my teeth and try not to judge. Manicures on a shelver’s pay might be unaffordable.

“I’m good,” I say, fingering my monogram. Dust drifting from the rafters makes me cough. “I like to get out with your average citizen, see how the old app’s holding up.” She doesn’t have a clue how important I am, and now I'm babbling.

She says, leaning in, “Shelving brings me closer to the bookworms.” Diesel fumes wafting from her jagged hair fill my welted nostrils.

I belch a few times to relieve my discomfiture. This does not work. “You mean actual worms, or the human kind?” I say, straining levity into my voice.

“More human than you might expect,” she whispers. In between her syllables there's another meaning I don't quite get. How does she accomplish this deception?

“Who comes in here?” I gesture at the towering stacks. The Church of Glee excoriated books when our research suggested reading only complicates the public’s acceptance of obvious answers.

“People like you, I imagine.” She’s in motion again. I scamper beside her.

“Do they take out books?” I’m distracted by a thrusting of her wildebeest haunches and I don’t even know what a wildebeest is. “I mean, who even reads?”

“Surely the populace reads your app,” she says, pushing her cart ahead, leaving me to stare at her posterior. So she knows who I am! “Church of Glee must have its reasons for banning certain writings,” she says, depositing a trilogy into her cart.

I feel a familiar rush at the opportunity to enlighten my fellow citizen. If only COG were here to calculate my wins. “Fiction destroys rational thought,” I begin, citing brain scan research that tracks win-full thinking. "A mind gorged with fiction is nearly impossible to map."

“Imagination is a contaminant from your point of view?” She’s catching on! I quote from studies of the brain getting ‘high’ on poetry, politics, history, philosophy. Science, too, if it’s too hypothetical.

“None of these fields provide clear answers. Uncertainty stimulates cogitation, mulling, delving,” I explain. “Overactive brains respond poorly to COG.”

“What about these manuals?” she says, stopping at the how-to aisle. “Recommended reading for the masses?”

“Top notch! This is strictly confidential, but COG servers will house every how-to by the end of the year. Cookbooks alone are a COG-send. That ought to placate losers opposed to your building’s demolition.”

“How comforting,” she says, pulling leather-bound volumes from an upper shelf into her cart. Where's she taking them, I wonder? There’s a bible in there and a book by Ezra Pound.

“Who’s this Pound guy?” I ask, leafing through pages cluttered with normal words and foreign words and weird symbols. Chinese, or something.

“That’s The Cantos you’ve got there, a significant work of modernist poetry,” she says, levering books against more books.

I scratch where the hornets stung my ear; I've bloodied my nails. “How can anybody understand this?” Now there’s blood on the pages too.

She's telling me the poems have to do with good and evil, a descent into hell followed by redemption. Characters fall into groupings: those who want to remain in hell; those who undergo a metamorphosis and want to leave; and a rare few who lead the rest to paradiso terrestre. Her words are too long and her delivery’s a bore, but I get it. I’m good at learning, even though I mostly teach.

Paradiso what?” I ask.

“Heaven on earth.” She looks me over with a shrug. “Kind of like your church motto.”

“So you’re not a total Luddite!” COG is big on edu-reinforcers — we call them ERFs — and I’m quick to use them. “COG's motto is, Church of Glee for you and me to make our lives a paradise.” I don't hate poetry you can understand. "I made it up myself!"

“I have no doubt,” she says in that dull tone she seems to find effective. She has the most interesting dimples when she’s holding back a smile. I’m glad we’re getting more friendly.

“Name’s Patchett,” I say, offering a handshake.

“Eudora Duncan,” she says, and I’ve never heard a name more — fitting, I guess.

“What’ll you do after the demolition?” I ask. I almost wish this place could stay. It’s spooky, though. Where are all the books?

“I’ll always have a job,” she says, scraping her cart away from me. Her boot steps echo down the corridor. Before she turns the corner, Eudora Duncan looks around and rumbles, “Your phone, Mr. Patchett, will be working now.”

I turn it on, clattering down the stone steps. A drizzle splatters the screen but there it is, COG bestowing win-wins on me for exiting that dungeon. A message pops up asking me to pardon the temporary maintenance blackout. Those screw-ups in the lab will be huge point losers for this. Shutting COG down in the middle of the day is a major transgression.

As I join the stream of citizens with heads bowed to their phones, I tap my new friend’s name into search. Just curious. By the time I get to work I’ve entered Eudora Duncan a dozen times with the same bogus result: Executive Director of Library Systems. Defective search is a royal pain. I slam my shoulder at the door to the lab; the COG team is mute at my appearance. I am tired, I’m an eyesore, and I itch all over. But I know my job. There's glee to distribute and evil to thwart. And that’s what I'm here to do.

Photo by Capturethemoment CC BY-SA 3.0