zoology, anatomy: the terminal or distal portion of the forelimb of an animal, especially a vertebrate, homologous with or analogous to the hand.
Roman law: a form of power or authority . . .
--The Oxford English Dictionary
Yvette and I were in bed, watching through a gap in the curtains as my neighbor, Lou Spellman, stood at his mailbox and cried. The corner of the box was pressing into his gut, and he took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his nose.
“What do you think happened?” I said to Yvette.
“Draft card. Obviously. What’re you, stupid?”
A woman came out of one of the houses across the street and went to stand with Lou. I’d seen her before, always thought she was pretty, but had never gotten around to talking to her. Now she was rubbing Lou’s shoulder while he kept right on crying. I turned away from the window.
“If I was stupid, would you be here right now?” I slid my palm across the sheets, over Yvette’s stomach and her breasts. She’d recently gotten her own draft card giving her two weeks’ notice, and decided to make the most of things while she could. Most people got only a day’s notice, but neither of us was complaining about the extra time—we’d spent the past week holding our own personal Olympics of Sex. Before that, I hadn’t seen her in a good ten years.
“I’d still be here if you were stupid and ugly,” she said. “Don’t think you’re the first person I called.”
I stopped touching her and got out of bed. Yvette was meaner than I remembered. She’d been an art student back when we dated, the only black girlfriend I’d ever had. In her second year of grad school, she’d developed a raging social conscience that meant her apartment was always filled with antisweatshop protestors and militant vegans, but before that Yvette and I had spent most of a year holed up in her studio, surrounded by canvases covered in angry swirls of color, getting high and eating junk food and laughing ourselves dizzy. In those days, her body was always flecked with paint, conté crayon caked under her fingernails. At the time I’d told myself it was just meaningless fun, but it looked like a kind of paradise now.
“Hey,” she said, coming up behind me and wrapping her arms around my waist. “Don’t be so sensitive.”
“I have to get ready for work,” I said.
The architecture firm I worked for had gotten the contract to design the supplementary housing for the Masters’ new American headquarters in Washington, which meant extra hours at the office. A lot of plans were getting scrapped and having to be redrawn, because after seven years we were still learning about the Masters. They despised physical contact, even with one another, so all the hallways had to be three times as wide as we would have made them for people. They hated rough surfaces, so where we would have liked to put carpeting there had to be acrylic tile instead. They didn’t need bathrooms. As soon as you thought you’d sorted things out, they would pass down a new mandate: no incandescent lighting, no windows, as few corners as possible. I was glad we didn’t have to figure out the headquarters building itself—another, bigger firm in New York was designing that, although the construction couldn’t be started until a third company finished hauling away the remains of the Pentagon.
My co-worker Beatrice called the Masters “the Snots ,” because that was pretty much what they looked like—giant globs of snot. Every time she said it, I got the same thrill I’d get in elementary school when one of the older kids did something illicit at the back of the bus. Back then I knew I would never be the one to light up a stolen Newport or put my hand up Patricia Riker’s skirt, but that didn’t cut the vicarious thrill I got from watching other people do it. Beatrice’s desk faced the hallway, so I guess there wasn’t much chance that any Masters could get in hearing range without her noticing, but I still felt a buzz of adrenaline every time she said, “Oh, goody, another visit from the Snots,” or “Guess we’d better add some more troughs to this building so the Snots will have somewhere to eat.” She was an older woman, plump, always wearing frilled blouses—she looked like she ought to be at home watching Family Feud, which just made her defiance more entertaining. Sometimes when the Masters were standing right by her chair, she’d pluck a tissue from the box on her desk and blow her nose for no reason at all, winking at me from behind her Kleenex.
Bea and I spent most of the morning playing online Scrabble at our desks and sending each other links to hilarious or disgusting Internet videos, but around eleven a Master slithered into the doorway and said, “Hey, anyone who don’t have upgrades needs ta go to the conference room.” The Masters all had the exact same voice when they spoke English, a high-pitched, androgynous blend of Long Island nasal tones and fat Midwestern vowels. It was indescribably irritating, and no one could figure out why or how they had chosen it as the one über-voice that all of them would use to communicate with Americans. Word was that their versions of Danish and Swahili and every other language were equally grating. I waited until the Master left and rolled my eyes at Bea.
“Have fun, sucker,” she said.
“You can’t be thinking of words the whole time I’m gone.”
I went into the hall and followed a stream of people down to the conference room. It was a much smaller group than it had been the last time we went through this ridiculous exercise, several months earlier. Once we were all seated, Peggie from HR clicked on the TV, and someone turned out the lights.
The blue screen gave way to the words “Official Rehanding Procedures,” and I probably would have dozed off right then if the video hadn’t immediately switched from the title to a close-up of Daniella Cortège. Which I guess was the point. I had seen this same footage at least a hundred times, like everyone else in the world, but I still did a double take when she came on the screen: the flawless face of the Rehanding Procedures Initiative.
The familiar images continued. Daniella—French, nineteen years old, hot as a cast-iron skillet in a white angora sweater and a tight gray skirt—walks down the hallway of an Exchange Center. She is followed by two Masters, their gelatinous yellow bodies gliding along the floor tiles. Smiling, Daniella walks into the Exchange Room and approaches the blank, buffed zinc face of the “Exchange Apparatus,” known to everyone with legs as the Forker. Here was where I always started to think that the Masters were just playing dumb when they said they didn’t understand why people complained so much about the rehanding, that, in fact, they had a very good grasp of human aesthetics, because when Daniella holds her hands out to insert them into the Forker, they are ugly: mannish, calloused, the fingernails chewed down to warped little buttons. A blemish on an otherwise breathtaking girl. Without hesitation, she puts her hands into the two dark slots in the face of the Forker, and the pneumatic cuffs hiss shut around her wrists.
Daniella stands for a moment with her hands inside the machine, where they are invisible to the viewer, and to her. She looks relaxed and contemplative, as though she’s reflecting on the progress of her life to date, or maybe just on what she should eat for dinner that night. Then the cuffs hiss open again, and she withdraws from the Forker and holds up her arms. Where her hands used to be are five metal fingers, each one fully articulated and as thin as a pencil, connected to a spherical metal base where her palm should be. “Titanium Alloy Hand Upgrades” in Masters’ parlance, “forks” to everyone else, because that’s what they most resemble. She flexes the tines twice, bends a couple of them at strange angles you could never get with real fingers. Then she opens the little leather purse that’s hanging at her side, extracts a compact and a tube of lipstick, and deftly applies her makeup. She nods cordially at the two Masters and walks back down the hall.
Next, a Master comes on the screen and starts describing the draft process, “randomly selected” blah blah blah “everyone will get a card” blah blah. They would go on to say that about ten times before the end of the video, “Everyone will get a card soonah or latah,” but by then I was zoned out, wondering what Yvette was up to and whether I was going to get laid this consistently ever again. When everyone around me stood up, I did, too, and went back to my desk.
“Pugnacious,” Bea said, looking smug as all hell and cocking her thumb and pointer tines at the Scrabble board like a gun. “One hundred thirty-one points. I guess your little ‘pug’ was worth something after all .”