'Supervision,' a Short Story by Noa Jones
Plotting a small tear in the fabric of a charmed life.
All photographs by Shriya Samava
This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
I first noticed something strange about Maricruz when I went to her house and she was finishing up a document on the computer. Her font size was set so low, the text looked like a small black line creeping across the screen.
“Can you see that?”
“I have really good vision.”
But my God that was more than good vision. Over dinner she told me about it, straightforwardly, careful not to boast, like someone admitting he’d shielded someone from spraying bullets in Vegas. That is to say gravely, with humility and a touch of sadness, not boastful. The way she put it, it’s not always a gift. Seeing too much. Seeing microbes and dust motes and the millions of confused migratory birds hovering over the 9/11 lights.
“But sometimes I try to enjoy it,” she said. “I love being at the beach and focusing on the point just as the water disappears at the curve of Earth. Whales and ships and birds circling over floating gyres of garbage. Last week I was on the 55th floor of the US Bank Building in Los Angeles, and I could see a boy releasing crickets in a field in Mission Viejo.”
“Why would he release crickets?”
“Some cultures have this practice of ransoming lives. Like if you save a life, you extend your own. So if I look in the right direction, I can see good things.”
“Have you thought of monetizing it?” I asked.
She fell silent and clinked her wineglass with her nail.
“How do you mean?” she asked.
“It seems strange to me that you wouldn’t have already thought about trying to use this incredible ability to make some money.”
“I didn’t say that I hadn’t thought about it. I just asked what you meant.”
Then I had to take a sip of wine careful not to make a gulping sound because it is one of those terrible sounds, and I know I’m not the only one who thinks so. What did I mean by monetizing. I’d spoken without thinking it through. I saw dollar signs, rubles, shekels, rupiah, pesos. The benefits: flying business class, improved grooming, an accountant and a personal assistant, a dog walker, a horse, detectives whenever you need them.
“Like maybe you could get a job working on a ship.” That was not very creative of me, but I was distracted because she had put a fork full of pasta into her mouth. She looked at me steadily chewing. “Hmmmmmmm,” I hummed as if trying to think of a better example, drawing out the “mmm” so that the sharp upper edges of the sound of pasta and saliva gnashing between teeth and palate were canceled. “Or maybe working in a scientific lab. Or for the Russians.”
“I thought you were going to say something about… you know—”
“About what? No, I don’t know.”
“Look, I know what you do,” she said, leveling her eyes for the first time since I’d walked in the door. The blood made a fast adjustment in my body. Rushing from my head to my torso. I clenched my hand and cracked my neck by swiftly turning my head to the left in a menacing way, not because I wanted to threaten her but to get the blood moving back up. It must have looked like I was punctuating some inner angry thought in my head. I didn’t mean to frighten her. But I didn’t mean not to, either.
“What do I do?” I just wanted to hear her say it.
“You prank,” she said, smoothing out her napkin. “I know you do.”
We let that truth hang in the trapezoid of light into which we were both leaning.
“I don’t know how you know that. And I don’t think I want to know.” I looked at her kindly because she had finished her last bite of food, and I was beginning to feel kind again. “Is that why you invited me?”
“What, did you think this was a date?” And we both laughed at that one.
She stood up and went to a roll top desk near the stairs and brought back an envelope that she’d taken from a drawer. She moved her plate aside to make space for the photo that it contained. “This guy.”
It was quaint. So old fashioned. A photo in a manila envelope. Most people just show me their screens. I liked her style.
The guy was handsome but laughably so. So earnest and also shirtless. His torso bore a large multicolored tattoo, some kind of tantric symbol the size of a dinner plate, and his grin was large and a little wet. He was lightly burned on the nose and shoulders, and there were other clues that he’d recently been at a beach: semi-dreadlocks looked sandy, and he wore strings and a couple of amulets and shells around his neck. Despite all his trappings, he looked like a nice guy with a genuine intelligent twinkle in his eyes. The background was an out-of-focus grid of colorfully patterned tiles.
“What’s his crime?”
“I want him to experience a small tear in the fabric of his adventure-filled meaningful artistic charmed life.”
“This we can do,” I said. And what was funny was that her dog, a cute wiry-haired mutt, howled and howled, like he was singing along when she laughed. And then I realized. She was looking at me. Really looking.
† † †
The guy was a cultural appropriator. The dreadlocks and symbols—he had tried out other looks, the shaved head, the ponytail—and he had shed many skins. Single. Living in New Zealand at the moment at the Remarkables ski resort teaching guitar and skiing. I flipped back to the bottom of the pile. At 16 he’d been a popular semifinalist on Britain’s Got Talent. There he is on the stage, clean cut with a bowler hat, girls screaming for him. A tattoo virgin back then and… Oh! He’s a member of the peerage, a real live lord, the son of a baron. I don’t even need to be told the trajectory: He went to a music festival, probably backstage passes at Glastonbury, glamped, dropped some acid, and turned a page. Went to India. Got some random Tibetan phrase tattooed on his arm. Let his hair grow. Met a girl. Met lots of girls. Maybe met a guru. Followed his “passions.”
So here’s this guy. I don’t take on a target unless I connect with the anger or outrage. I connected with Maricruz but was having trouble connecting to her hatred. There wasn’t much to hate with this guy, just a series of annoying qualities. He was no Dick Cheney. He was no Wayne LaPierre. His name was, in fact, Alden.
I called Maricruz for clarification.
“I like your clips,” I said. “I liked touching the newsprint.”
“Yah?” She said. She sounded hopeful.
“But he doesn’t have a hook for me to hate on.”
She sighed so heavily into the receiver that I had to hold my phone away from my ear. “You don’t see it,” she said.
“He just seems pretty harmless. Did he hurt you?”
“No. He made me laugh.”
“I can’t even begin to plan something if I don’t feel it. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t feel it?”
“Are you toying with me?”
And suddenly I got worried. There are people who make it their business to prank pranksters. This could be a setup. A few years ago, some vigilantes pretended to take the bait of one of those African hoaxes (“I have $500,000 in an account that I will transfer to you if you can just help me with the wiring fees…”). They played the game right back at the perpetrator, telling him they would send the money to a specific bank, but he’d have to pick it up. The bank was in the middle of dangerous rebel territory, and the man’s life was put at extreme risk. Then they lost touch with him. He probably died. I mean, he kind of asked for it, but that was pretty brutal. The story still haunts me. I don’t do brutal.
Someone could want to prank me back.
I immediately reorganized myself, cleared my air, and woke my inner army to full attention and readied myself for attack. This was not a time to retreat. When you have parasites in the stomach, sometimes you need to feed them to draw them out before you take an antibiotic to kill them.
“I want to feel it,” I said. “Show me.”
“Here,” she said.
My phone vibrated against my cheek. She’d sent me a text from another phone. “Call me back after you watch.”
The video was of a man lying in tall grass. His camera lens fully engorged, extending toward a bush alive with butterflies. A yellow dog enters the frame and starts to hump the photographer’s leg. The photographer doesn’t move.
MARICRUZ: Sorry that was the wrong link
ME: Oh BC it seemed so right to me in so many ways
She sent me an emoji of a potbellied pig dancing. What did it all mean? Maybe she was just confused or stupid, but she was not boring at all. She had three-mile vision. Basically the only other options were: She’s genuinely interested in employing me for the service of pranking the snowboarding lord, or she’s a counteragent. My phone vibrated again.
This “right” video was of the target, Alden. He’s strumming a guitar in a messy room, seemingly composing as he plays. The fucker can sing. He has range and rasp that he deploys with just the right measure. The strings on his guitar don’t squeak. He finishes and looks at the camera, startled. The woman holding the camera says “more, more,” and he says, “I’ll give you more,” and crawls over to her, disarming her of the camera. The video goes dark.
“Is that you?” I asked. “The girl behind the camera.”
“No, God, no, not me. Why does it have to be me?”
“What is your relationship with him?”
“Well, I have touched his penis. And his anus, too.”
“Go on… He broke your heart?”
“And you didn’t deserve it?”
“I did. I’m grateful that he did. This is not payback. It’s pay forward. I’m doing this for his own good.”
“Technically, I would be doing this for his own good. And we haven’t even discussed terms and tactics so I don’t know if or what ‘it’ is.”
And then I thought, Fine, let Maricruz try to punk me. That was liberating. Instead of getting my pulse up wondering if this farsighted woman was going to somehow expose me, instead of building my defenses—out riding fences like a desperado—I’d just go ahead with the job and face her double cross when she chose to attack, if she chose to attack.
“OK. I’ll perpetrate on your behalf, come what may.”
A man whose wants are few is a difficult target, for it’s our wants that make us vulnerable. I say this perched on a mountain, twisting a long beard. But also to Maricruz, who nods. “Everybody wants something,” she replies glittering like an Avatar.
She is right, any human being can be exploited, even if some weaknesses are deeper. I’m not saying Alden was deep. In fact, that was his weakness: a wish that his depth would become the currency by which he could exchange with the world, his spiritual presence buying his way into hearts and homes from Byron Bay to Breckenridge to Black Rock. Not his looks and wealth and title. Not even his talent.
We hijacked a train carrying nuclear waste through the center of London in order to reveal the weaknesses in the system on behalf of an antinuclear faction of the Occupy Earth group, and that was the point at which I felt like we’d peaked in our straightforward political high jinks. This was years ago, and I’d fallen into a rut. Elections and data dumps, leaks and dirty laundry. I welcomed the return to a more personal interaction, where I had to look at psyche, not system. Alden, charmed boy of the Alex Gray tattoo, sipper of elixirs, man of the heli-ski carrying keys to his parents’ vineyard on a lanyard from his VIP pass to the Secret Solstice Festival. Ah, Reykjavík.
My taxi sailed down Broadway, and it occurred to me that Maricruz could be watching my taillights. “Take the highway please.” We cut west, and entered the speedway, Manhattan’s red, white, and black necklace of shimmering automobile lights heading toward the choker of the Financial District, where I choose to live. As we exited, we passed a film crew with its hyper-board PAs hovering in artificial light and it came to me: Clearly the answer was reality TV and smothering. I had to smother his wants and even his needs—feed his desire, enrich and pacify, but not provoke.
I had a friend, Violet. She was a talking head on a conservative news show. We’d placed her there a few years ago to entrap a producer. The producer was fired, and people loved her. Their ratings actually went up so she stayed and made a career out of it. She was so good at fucking with people on both sides of the divide. They called her Violet Violet, not red or blue. She was our inside girl.
We had Violet pull strings and set up a casting at the main lodge at the Remarkables. Alden was coming off Front Face, icicles in his whiskers, hot orange–mirrored visor. He was used to lights and cameras, so when they approached, he didn’t shy.
“Can we ask you a few questions?”
“Sure right,” he said, leaning into his poles and flipping up his visor. Totally open. I’ve seen the tape. The crew was not told anything but to scout for a new show called Global Groom, a dating franchise that paired people of wildly different cultures. They were told their bachelor had to be open-minded and spiritually inclusive in order to pair up with, say, a pygmy, or a maiden from the Korowai tribe of New Guinea, or perhaps a lass from Nagaland.
We didn’t offer him the role outright. We did a little dance. Made it seem like a real thing, said Daniel Pinchbeck was one of the producers and an ayahuasca trip was part of the deal. Showed him images of jewel-eyed bare-breasted tribal ladies and gave him a picture of the kind of spiritual influencer we needed to take on this groundbreaking project. But he maintained composure and didn’t appear interested. Then one of the senior producers rang him up. “I’m so sorry Alden, it seems one of our junior producers may have given you the impression that we were offering the spot to you, but he was actually not in a position to decide. Our executive producer in LA has selected someone named Donald Makepeace.” That took a little research. Finding who would get under his skin.
“No, don’t tell me that. Not that I want it, but that is a fake. His name isn’t even Donald.”
We toyed with him—made him think he wasn’t quite good enough, led him on, dropped him, planted exotic women into his field of vision like apparitions. We entered his dreams, we entered his tarot, we melted messages into the snow, so that when he got the call offering him the spot after all, he’d been broken down and seen the signs and had to say yes.
The rest of his undoing was automatic. Cast as the Global Groom, placed on a pedestal, beseeched for his holy thoughts, there was no way to go but down. Down, down, down he went—it was hard to watch—down, down, down. Who would catch him?
Maricruz and I met regularly to discuss the case, and during this time, she revealed to me how she’d touched Alden’s anus. It was as his nanny. She had cared for him for eight years, even though she was only nine years older than him. So when Alden fell, it was into the arms of his nanny—humbled and beat, but truer than he had been since he’d had his first shave. She was there for him. Picked him up at LAX at the new members only celebrity terminal that offered “the discrete traveler the securest passage from seat to safety.” Actually an old cargo hold transformed into a sort of halfway house for hounded humans, circumventing crowded concourses.
“He was like a hunted animal.”
“‘Look at yourself in the mirror,’ I told him,” she said. “And he just cried and cried. But at least he has Tsuyan now.” That’s the Tuvan woman he matched with in the end, breaking the heart of one named Amani from an Aka tribe in Central Africa. Everyone hates him, but he found love and reindeer.
And I think I did, too. Maricruz and I arranged to meet and settle her debt in Central Park on a hot November day. There had been a blizzard a week before, and drifts of dirty snow melted into confused grass.
She stepped off the sidewalk and stood next to me where I was staring at the ground.
“I think the grass is confused,” I said.
“The grass will be fine.”
“You did a good job. He isn’t teaching meditation anymore. He’s gotten in touch with his sadness.”
“It’s like making a sauce, a little of this a little of that. Some sadness to bring down the brightness of the juice.”
“I like you because you can see inside people,” she said.
“And I like you because you can see really far. Not just because of that, but it’s an exciting part of your personality.” She handed me an envelope of cash, and we strolled toward the carousel, where sticky plaster horses bobbed up and down, around and around. And I told her my idea for my next job, the president, his Cabinet, Camp David, and a whole lot of MDMA.
“I could use your help.”
“I see,” she said.