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Whenever Karl Temperley felt that he couldn’t endure another moment, he would imagine that he had just run over and killed a child. The shock of the impact, the screech of his too-late emergency stop, the tiny body in the gutter, a parent—sometimes the mother, sometimes the father—running toward him as he stood by the bloodied hood of his wife’s Fiat Punto. This imagined, he returned to his real world and its trivial sorrows with relief and gratitude.
“Your marital status notwithstanding…” the notary public was saying.
Lately, though, facing 15 months in jail for fraud and a tax infraction he still couldn’t quite fathom—neither what he had done or neglected to do, nor how exactly he had accomplished or overlooked it—he found himself spending longer and longer at his inner roadside.
Karl Temperley wrote consumer reviews of products he had never used and bespoke school and undergraduate essays as “study aids” for ten pence a word. It was a lowly portfolio career, but such was his determination to do something literary with his education: He had studied English and gotten a master’s degree in the metaphysical. It had cost him £78,000, an amount that seemed impossible and therefore easy to ignore.
His employers were email addresses who signed off with different names, but their tone was warm and jovial enough, and he was well thought of—of this they assured him—for his ability to write essentially the same thing as if it were being said by ten different people. Where some saw a carbon-fiber laptop case, Karl saw a Russian novel.
His wife, Genevieve, taught at a local primary school. An enviable demographic once known as “Double Income No Kids,” and yet, once the rent and bills were paid, their debts serviced, Karl found that he had to think twice about buying a pair of shoes when his old ones wore through at the sole. The rent kept going up. He was aware they brought some of this on themselves; they had expectations. Every day they drank flavored coffees the size of poster tubes, which cost as much as the baristas serving them would earn in an hour. They loaded supermarket trolleys with snacks and treats that could largely be consumed on the way home. In the last week of every month, they were inevitably down to the wire, so he would put a week’s shopping on his credit card. Then a return train fare. The pair of shoes he needed. A birthday present for Genevieve. Dinner. The bank was happy to increase his credit limit, increase it again, and, instead of increasing it a third time, offer him a temporary loan to consolidate his debt, so that the double-capacity credit card went back to a tantalizing £0.00. Karl decided he might start taking advantage of the daily invitations to take out more credit cards, credit cards with banks he hadn’t even heard of, cards in every color of the spectrum, cards with limits of £300 that he could use for small purchases, cards with limits of £5,000 with which he could chivalrously pay for a new head gasket when Genevieve’s car got into trouble and, the following week, take her on a five-star mini-break to Paris when she turned 32 (her 30th had been marred by a minor psychotic episode, and her 31st was not much better, so he felt the need to compensate). Finally, there was one beautiful transparent credit card that shimmered like a puddle of gasoline and had a limit of £11,000. He used it to pay off some of the smaller credit cards and make the minimum monthly payment on the middle-size ones. Whenever this one needed servicing, he would take out another bantamweight card or a short-term advance.
Genevieve knew nothing of his 17-card private Ponzi scheme. As far as she could see, both she and Karl worked damn hard all week, and then collapsed, exhausted, and spent all weekend either asleep or streaming complete seasons of American dramas to get back to full strength. Whenever they had some time off, they both came down with head colds. It never occurred to her that they might be living beyond their means, and it took three years for Karl to finally max out his most copious line of credit, the rat queen of his nest of cards. After that, letters printed in red ink started to arrive. Statements with late penalties, interest on the late penalties, penalties for exceeding the credit limit and late penalties on those penalties, punitive rates of interest, and demands for final settlement. The double dose of sleeping pills he was taking with a tumbler of mid-price brandy to silence the grinding gears of his incipient ruination stopped working. He was getting crotchety with Genevieve, and it was upsetting her. His very raison d’être was to not upset Genevieve; it was, so he told himself, the reason he’d got into so much debt in the first place, and yet it had led to him upsetting her anyway.
Maybe I should kill myself? he thought, looking at his face in the communal bathroom mirror one winter morning, his cheeks covered in shaving foam. He pressed the five-blade Ultra Smooth Advanced Wet Shave System safety razor to his left wrist and shaved a Parmesan-thin centimeter of flesh. Blood appeared like a watermark. It really, really stung. Maybe not. He put his watch on over the top of it.
The tiny abrasion tingled and throbbed sporadically throughout the day. It made him laugh. Karl thought of a story he’d once heard about a would-be martyr in the third century who was on his way to the capital with every intention of being tortured and killed for his faith. He had to break his journey; a monk put him up in an old barn and, in the morning, asked him how his night had been. He complained about the draught and the fleabites, and the monk told him that he probably wasn’t ready to face martyrdom.
Karl knew what to do. He wrote to his anonymous employers. Anyone he had ever worked for, all 82 email addresses. He needed more work, better work, urgently, whatever it was. He got only one reply, from someone called Sot Barnslig, offering to make him a supervisor for two click-farms, enlisting people from around the world to generate fake traffic for websites, paying them out of the same reserve from which he would draw his own fee. The work was menial and morally dubious, but the pay was better than his fake copywriting, and he started to make a dent in the most pressing credit cards.
Actually, said Sot Barnslig—after Karl had been successfully paying down his 17 debts for a fortnight and was starting to get some rest again—actually, the click-farms were a front for an enormous skimming operation. Sot Barnslig confessed that he was stealing tiny amounts from thousands of different accounts and credit cards, amounts too small to be noticed by their owners, and Karl was unwittingly assisting him.
Karl emailed Sot Barnslig: Why did you tell me that? and carried on.
Unfortunately, Sot Barnslig either had been compromised by investigators or had been an undercover agent all along. Karl was required to give up his laptop, and, in desperation, he called his old university roommate, Keston, an accountant, told him everything, and tried not to cry during their preliminary conversation.
“ Oh, K-Pax,” said Keston. “You’ve got yourself in a right pickle, haven’t you? That gross yellow one.”
“Am I going to prison?”
“This is where being male, middle class, and white comes into its own,” said Keston. “Nothing but safety nets. And you’ve touched the hem of the right garment.”
Keston organized a lawyer, who failed to adequately demonstrate Karl’s ignorance, and now it seemed that Karl was going to have to spend some time in a low-security prison.
† † †
The young, owlish notary public had been talking for some time. The only representative of Spenser and Rudge currently willing to talk to him pro bono, he was telling Karl it was neither the best- nor worst-case scenario. Did he know, by the way, that the origin of the phrase “worst-case scenario” was not legal but in fact military? Karl said that he didn’t. It’s a strategy, the notary public told him. Before a maneuver, you must always imagine the most awful thing the contingent world might throw your way.
There was a strong antiseptic smell in the notary public’s office. He must have injured himself somehow.
“It’s a good product, Mr. Temperley,” said the notary. “The Transition. It’s worth considering as an alternative. Your accountant is working out the finer details. He agrees it’s a good product.”
Karl pictured a pearlescent turquoise ball bouncing into the road between parked cars, and he imagined slamming down the brake and the clutch at the same time, but he was doing almost 40 because he was a terrible, negligent driver. What is the first thing you say to the parent? It doesn’t matter. You’re so, so sorry? Well, that’s just great. Real voices, official voices with their assurances, codes, and timbre, would take over at some point. Voices like that of his notary public, who had just said, “I appreciate this is probably not what you were expecting.”
Such was Karl’s distraction that by the time he realized that the notary public was offering him a place on a pilot scheme called the Transition in lieu of 15 months in jail, he said yes without asking for further information, without calling his wife to discuss it with her, without pausing for breath.
The notary public blinked twice and handed him a thick, glossy brochure, saying that he might like to read it over before making up his mind. The cover depicted the blueprint for a house, but the rooms were designated things like employment, nutrition, responsibility, relationship, bills, investment, self-respect. A semitransparent overlay had the transition embossed in capitals.
“Your accountant was actually the one who drew our attention to it,” said the notary public.
“Keston,” said Karl.
Aside from the online fraud, Karl’s tax infraction went back several years—a thread that snagged and unraveled the whole of his self-start marketing operation—and it was going to cost him and his wife a lot to pay it back. On top of Genevieve’s car payments and the credit card Karl had been using for groceries for the past six months, they were in a tight spot. And they were two months in arrears with their rent. Genevieve had texted him just before the meeting with the notary public, and the text read only, “Eviction. Next Week :(”
It was unseasonably hot for March. It was hot in the notary public’s office, and although Karl was wearing only climbing shorts and a red Cookie Monster T-shirt, the sweat was running sunblock into his eyes. He peeled open the brochure and scanned the first page but couldn’t take the words in.
Piaget defines the cognitive task of adolescence as the achievement of formal operational reasoning…
He looked up at the clock, at the maroon leather book spines, at the notary public’s suit jacket baking in a shaft of sunlight and mingling a distinctly sheepy smell with the TCP.
“Can you summarize it for me?” he said.
Excerpted from Luke Kennard’s upcoming book, The Transition, out January 2018 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2017 by Luke Kennard. All rights reserved.