Sunday, March 28, 2010

The SoulMate

Grimjack was at the airport hours earlier than necessary to meet Tinka's flight. He sat in a fast food restaurant eating a meal that had been served in a paper castle.

He poked around on his cell phone, trying to bring up TMZ's Web site, but the device had been dropped once too often, and now played a fickle game with connectivity.

When he tried to bring up the Web site on which he'd met Tinka, his soon-to-be-arriving Malaysian mail-order bride, he dropped the phone on the tiled floor. He picked it up and saw the tiny display was frozen on his wireless plan's splash screen.

He pocketed the phone and looked at the tiled floor again. This could be interesting, he thought, Shot-on tiled floor, voices in the background . . . Pull back, and see we're either in a burger joint or the visiting room of a prison.

Grimjack was in television, part of a third rate production house. The company pitched between seventy and eighty "reality show" ideas a month to cable networks. A few of the concepts had made it to air. The disposability of the genre necessitated a chronic tick in the minds of people like Grimjack, looking at everything in their everyday lives for concepts.

He'd pitched some near-misses, or what his colleagues called "almost successes." There was Simmons and Simmons, a show that would have followed Gene Simmons and Richard Simmons as they drove cross country in a classic car, documenting the hi-jinx and "unscripted" moments along the way. Unfortunately, one or both of the Simmons' wasn't available -- and the model of car couldn't be agreed upon.

Then, in the spirit of the near-miss classic, Miss Captivity -- which would have been a weekly beauty pageant of women in prison -- Grimjack had hit upon Dancing With the Dregs, where homeless people would be plucked from streets and park benches and brought to a studio where they'd dance to severely dated music in exchange for cases of Thunderbird and Sneaky Pete.

"It has the feel of a modern Queen For a Day," Grimjack said during the pitch session. No one in the room was over the age of twenty-four, so his reference to the 1950s show Queen For a Day was lost on them. He was about to Wikipedia it when a faux-hawked producer had said, "We've already got a dance show lined up where kids who were given up for adoption dance with a group of older people and have to guess which are their biological parents."

"We're generating great buzz on that one," said a woman who appeared to be on a 300-calorie-a-day diet. Looking at her, Grimjack recalled another idea he'd had, years ago: vitamin cigarettes. People would always smoke regardless what the medical community said, so why not introduce some nutrition in those death sticks? He had been about to suggest it when everyone's cell phones rang.

Grimjack checked his watch and saw there were still two hours before Tinka arrived. He went for a stroll through the terminal.

As he walked, he wondered if there was a show in airports. Maybe have for long lost sweethearts show up -- one arriving, one to pick up the arrival. If they recognize each other, they win a honeymoon to Costa Rica.

Grimjack had said nothing about Tinka to his colleagues for this reason. He'd already thought of its reality show potential, but didn't want to jinx his marriage taking a chance the concept would be rejected.

Anyhow, he'd already pitched his last divorce as a concept. It was rejected.

He'd pitched his dating life as The Middle-aged Bachelor. That went nowhere.

He'd even tossed out the idea of a show based around his experimenting with being gay, called Switch Hitter. Grimjack wasn't gay, had no homosexual tendencies, as far as he knew, but the lifestyle had come so far in being accepted by society, he saw a foray into gay romance as something akin to Super Size Me, or an extreme make-over show.


He passed more fast food places, magazine and coffee shops. As Grimjack went by an alcove that looked to be for maintenance personnel, something caught his eye.

A vending machine.

He did a double-take. The vending machine sold portable MP3 players and cell phones, BlueTooth ear pieces and digital cameras.

"Now what the hell is this?" Grimjack muttered to himself.

He couldn't believe it -- there was a credit card swipe off to the side and buttons for patrons to key in which item they were purchasing.

Visions of the candy bar and potato chip machines at work, malfunctioning and seeing Butter Fingers and Doritos hanging in a maddening limbo from the rows from which they were to drop, stuck, and some stressed out, hungry employee rocking the machine back and forth.

Grimjack had once read that half a dozen people were killed each year by vending machines falling on them. He briefly wondered if there was a show in it.

Who'd take a chance on the phone or camera not coming out? he thought. The machine seemed better engineered than the candy bar and potato chip machine at work, but if the mechanism that pushed the MP3 player or BlueTooth box to the edge of its row simply didn't work, the customer would be S.O.L.

Then Grimjack thought about his own sputtering cell phone, and suddenly felt the urge to check his email, check his voice mail, see if anyone had texted him. On any given day, he and his company had dozens of concepts on production staff tables, and word of success or the need for a chance could come at any time.

Web phones had pretty much kibashed Internet cafes. For a fleeting moment, Grimjack wondered if a stranger walking past would allow him to use their phone. Technology Candid Camera he thought. There's always room for another hidden camera show. But his job came so much inherent rejection, he didn't need any more of it on his own time.

He took out his credit card, swiped it and selected a Web phone called The SoulMate.

There was stinging moment of anxiety where nothing happened, but then the row he chose came to life and the box containing the phone tumbled to the bottom. He reached through the slot and pulled it out.

For the next two hours, Grimjack got to know his new phone. He was surprised to find that it came already charged and ready for us. He popped in his SIM card and he was checking voice messages a minute later. There were none. Checked his email. Nothing. No text messages waiting, either. But the screen resolution on his favorite porn sites was amazing!

Grimjack was so enthralled by his new SoulMate, that there was almost a sense of anticlimax when Tinka's flight arrived.

Like a kid pulled away from a new toy on Christmas morning, he met Tinka. She didn't look much like her picture on the mail-order-bride Web site, but years of Internet-dating had bred a certain acceptance of such discrepancies once the person Grimjack set out to meet was before him in person.

"Hi you!" she said, followed by a wide smile and, "Ell-oh-ell!"

They collected her bag -- a duffel that Grimjack later found contained an assortment of wigs -- and went back to his place for three hours of tantric sex.

Tinka knew little English, other than saying "Hi you!" and "Ell-oh-ell!", often with no discernible instigation. Grimjack had bought her a laptop, set it's language default to Malaysian and turned her loose on the Internet while he worked. He worked mostly from home.

When he needed to communicate with Tinka, he typed what he had to say, and then used Google Translate. Whether he asked a question about dinner, or if she wanted to go shopping or simply to begin laying the groundwork for when she would learn English, Tinka's response to everything he translated into Malaysian was the same: "Hi you! Ell-oh-ell!"

One day, after she'd been with him a month, he received an email message from the mail-order-bride service where he'd found Tinka.

It turned out the woman living with him wasn't Tinka, but a woman named Hi-yu. The agency claimed they'd attempted to inform about this sooner, but their emails to him bounced back.

Grimjack wasn't bothered. Tinka-- err, Hi-yu, was companionable and pleasant. She was great in bed and didn't seem to understand what a mall was. So, that was fine. But when he tried to reply to the agency email with a brief, but definite "np" for no problem, a problem arose: Grimjack's SoulMate died.

It didn't seem possible. He'd taken pristine care of the Web phone since buying it at the airport. For the first time in his life, he read the accompanying instructions, followed its procedure for letting the initial charge in the battery run out entirely before charging it for the first time.

"I've done everything right!" he bellowed at the SoulMate. Tinka-- that is, Hi-yu, looked up from her Web surfing on the couch.

Don't say 'Ell-oh-ell!', don't say 'Ell-oh-ell!', say 'Ell-oh-ell!' he thought. Hi-yu turned her attention back to BukuWajah -- Malaysian Facebook.

Have I just been screwed out of four hundred bucks? he wondered, sick.

This couldn't have come at a worse time. A new concept he'd created -- Black and Black -- had cleared its first hurdle: Jack Black had agreed to drive cross country with Conrad Black, upon Conrad's release from prison. Conrad Black's people had reservations pertaining to the "dignity" of their client. To which Grimjack's boss had said, "Dignity? He's a pseudo British Lord sitting in an American jail! He should pay us to be on this show!"

"There's no way to get this puppy through the birth canal from a gawddamned laptop computer!" he groused. Nobody can create reality shows without a Web phone!" Hi-yu looked up from her laptop. Her neon smile had vanished. She heard the anguish in Grimjack's voice. "It can't be done!"

The failure of the SoulMate hurt almost as much as when his fourth marriage soured. The unfairness of it all. The left-fieldness.

"What am I supposed to do now?" Grimjack mourned. "Go back to the airport and wait by the SoulMate vending machine for the guy who replenishes it to come around? What's he gonna say to me? 'Jeez, who the hell buys a Web phone out of a vending machine?'!"

He powered off the phone and tried turning it back on. Nothing. He tried it again; the Web phone going blurry before him as tears came to his eyes.

He thought to smash it on the tiled floor. The Web phone had betrayed him. It deserved that.

Then a warm, delicate hand touched his shoulder. Hi-yu. He looked up into her pretty face. She regarded him as a zoologist might look upon an errant, lost, rare frog: with pity and reverence. "Di sini, biarkan aku mencoba," she said.

Grimjack did not speak Malaysian, but something about the tone of her voice conveyed her meaning unadulterated to him. "What can you do?"

She held out her hand. "Delicate hands know many things," she said.

He handed her the phone. She turned it over and showed him a small label on the back. It read: Made in Malaysia.

Sudden, dawning realization hit Grimjack. For the first time in minutes, he felt hope.

Hi-yu sat down at the dining room table, which Grimjack used as his home office desk. She handled the phone like a rare, exotic animal. "Aku akan memerlukan beberapa hal," she said.

"Of course," Grimjack said, rising from his chair.

"Pembuka botol," Hi-yu said. "Pisau, pulpen pena, sopir sekrup kecil Flathead."

The corkscrew was no problem. He even had an old fountain pen in his junk drawer -- one of the few things his third wife had left behind. As for the small flathead screwdriver, he didn't have any tools in the house. Not so much as a hammer.

Instead of a small flathead screwdriver, he brought over a small souvenir spoon from Newfoundland, Canada, from when his mother visited there ten years ago. Its ornate top was tiny and flat.

Hi-yu spread the items before her on the table.

"Ketika saya masih muda, aku menghabiskan masa lapan tahun bekerja di kilang SoulMate di desa saya. Mereka mengalahkan kami, membayar kami tidak praktikal, dan memaksa kami untuk bekerja 12 jam hari dengan hanya satu hari libur per bulan," said as she worked.

"That's terrible," Grimjack breathed.

With a few deft moves, she took the phone apart and probed its innards with the tip of the corkscrew.

"Aku menjadi mail-order bride kerana aku tidak boleh lagi hidup dengan penghinaan dari kilang." She looked at Grimjack. He saw wisdom in her eyes that transcended her nineteen years of life. "Aku bersumpah bahawa aku akan suatu hari punya dendam atas SoulMate -- yang berjiwa syarikat."

"Yes," Grimjack whispered. "Yes."

Hi-yu worked on the phone for five minutes. She then reaffixed its back panel and handed it to Grimjack.

"Is it fixed?" he said.

"Hal ini untuk anda sekarang untuk mencari tahu," Hi-yu said.

Grimjack powered on the Web phone. The screen lit up like an Asian sunrise. The phone came to life like flowers in spring. His phone plan's splash screen appeared like a mother's face peering over the edge of a crib down at her baby.

"It works," he said, his vision going blurry again with tears -- tears of joy this time.

There was a text message waiting for him saying that Black and Black was shot down for good. Such news would have sent Grimjack into Häagen-Dazs binging frenzy. But tonight he was renewed.

With the skill and speed of a thirteen year old who could run up a $20,000 texting bill, he pumped out a new idea for his company's pitchman to consider: White and White, in which Vanna White and Jack White drove cross country in a classic car.

He hit SEND and rose from the table. He extended his hand to Hi-yu.

"Hi-yu," he said. "You are my SoulMate. You complete me."

"Ell-oh-ell," she said.

They went upstairs for a few hours of tantric sex.

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