VCO: Chapter 7

"VCO" image

Chapter 7

It wasn’t that weird that this Morgen A. needed a ride. 

Although, our interactions in private messages did make me wonder if I was talking to a computer programmed with auto responses. A bot. 

The driver double-checked to make sure the address I put in was really where I wanted to go.

Why does it always feel set-up whenever someone agrees to hang out with me?

We pull up to 55 Tejas Drive and all the lights were off. Most of the houses on the street look abandoned. Padlocked chain link fences.

There is a plastic drape zip tied to the chain link fence like it’s trying to shield a gruesome crime scene. The banner says ArtoConstruction.

There are rumors that they plan to renovate Dorothea Dix Park to fit into the existential apartment complex most of the surrounding counties are succumbing to.

I was about to ask the driver to wait here while I get her, but as I popped the passenger door lock open, Morgen A. materialized out of the darkness looking at me through the window. 

Her eyes wide and shining like how you see a dog’s eyes in pictures when you leave the flash on.

“May I come in?” She says like a police officer with unwelcome news would in a movie.

Her skirt is pencil tight with decorative leather and buttons down the middle. The bullet-shaped buttons made of wood. The kind that slides through fabric loops and anchors, keeping a seal with tension. Beneath an oversized French Baroque collar her blouse was white with floral lattice patterning. Nothing about her body stood out that I could use as proof, but the sum total of her aesthetic was perfect. Probably because her face was so beautiful.

We say hello and ask how the other is doing. Just like the chat; very direct, very useful conversation. Ain’t cute in the slightest. 

Remarkable the comfort I feel. A simple practice with seemingly therapeutic side effects. Just talking to someone. Being comfortable around each other.

I’m so drawn in it took me a moment to realize the car isn’t moving. The driver is looking at me. Two big bright eyes in the rearview mirror bugging out. 

He says, “Is everything alright?” And he sounds nervous.

“I dunno.” I say, “Is everything alright?”

I look at Morgen who shrugs while buckling her seatbelt.

“Can we just go please?” I say to the driver.

She chose a bar called Ray’s Watering Hole. The sign had a border made of those big hot light bulbs you see in actor’s dressing rooms. But some of the bulbs are out. So from the street view it looked like it said Ray’s Hole.

As we approached the door of Ray’s Hole, Morgen steps ahead of me, and once the doorman sees her he moves out of the way. 

Morgen didn’t glance or acknowledge the door guy’s existence.

He scrunches his face at me and whispers out the corner of his mouth, “Lucky.”

It was one of those bars that looks like a hallway. With the bar top stretching the entire length of the right side. And on the left, booths and tables with tea candles.

Morgen points to a booth and tells me to wait. Instinctively, I sit in it like an obedient dog and she went up to the bar. I know I paid for the ride over here, but I feel like a hostage. 

I’m assessing if it’s arousing.


Social domming, I’m into it. 

The bartender stopped and walked away from two guys in buttoned short sleeve shirts who protested at first until they saw Morgen. 

Even the homeless guy who had made his way inside stopped his shuffling and waited for Morgen to finish ordering before moving closer to the bar to ask for water. 

She has a natural, visible, personal bubble. Is this chick famous?

Morgen orders a drink off-menu. It required some sort of androgynous dark colored powder which she provided. I couldn’t tell whether it was red or black in the dim candlelight. 

The person she keeps calling Butler mixes in the powder. 

The place above Butler’s neck looked like a mop head—instead of parting his hair in the middle, Butler picked a central location in the center and distributed his hair evenly like an umbrella—I only saw his bottom lip.

He slides the drinks over to Morgen, and she sets one of the glasses in front of me before sitting down.

She holds the stem and tilts her glass toward the homeless guy while looking at me. As if her and I were toasting to him. 

She says, “Greatest con there is.”

She knocks her glass back in a way that doesn’t match her outfit. And a fresh one was placed in front of her before she could set her glass on the table.

Earlier that day Everhet had gone on and on about the same thing of how some homeless people are actually very clever criminals and are posing as hobos to receive a decentralized pseudo-state-sponsored income by investing your donation dollars into alternative digital currencies which convert strictly upward. 

But that’s not what’s on my mind.

“I’m sorry.” I say, “But I have to ask you something.”

“Sure.” She sips her drink again.

“Why is everyone staring at you? And being so…nice to you?” I point around the room, “Do you know the people?”

Morgen seemed flattered and embarrassed.

“Know the who?” She says before giving herself a second to breathe and take a big sip of her drink. 

She says, “Do you know who Hans Arto is?”

I say, “Of course.” Then I pick up my drink and push the rim of the glass into my face. I drink like I have the mouth of a horse. Finish almost all of it. Leave a little in the glass to slosh around. Something feels wrong about emptying your glass before you know if you’re going to have another one.

A ball of gas from a burp I swallowed goes wrong and incinerates my nose hairs. Way too much lemon. A throat huff of apricot on the back end made it taste the way ripe garbage smells. 

Swallow again and the burn comes in the form of dryness. 

I try to hide how hard it is to swallow right now.

“He’s my grandpa.” She says, “I’m Morgen Arto.”

My volcanic rock throat pops and I say, “Seriously?” 

In the family tree of influential brands and people all branches lead back to the mighty trunk of Hans Arto. I’m struggling to think of an industry they don’t control a portion of. ArtoNews, ArtoConstruction, ArtoFoods, ArtoArt, ArtoEducation. Artos Inc. is the capstone of the largest corporate umbrella in history.

I think back to my reflection in the TV from last week. 

And how small I no longer feel.

And Hans Arto. 

Celebrated phlebotomist expert whose humble beginnings at Duke University where his lab discovered the correlation between blood types and neural disposition. Using his small fortune to forge the Arto media empire, starting with the Story Project Podcast where he interviewed everyone from the Dali Llama to Santa Claus and had it up for free. 

By whatever force the investments Hans Arto made would sprout new investments, an ever inflating balloon. The limit to his net worth does not appear to exist.

My throat closes and a mist of whatever is in this drink puffs out of my mouth. 

I’m burping pure gasoline.

“I thought…I thought his son—”

“Died, yeah. My dad. He died.” She says making her glass dance with her head tilting side to side.

“I didn’t know he had any family. I thought that was the whole thing.” I say sort of to myself, “Who was gonna get all that money.”

People had been speculating since like five years ago after that video of Hans Arto taking a spill went viral that he may be ill. 

No public video was ever taken of him again. 

So the next question was obviously how will the great fortune of Hans Arto be divided without any children? Who would he appoint?

There was fear of who possessed the original audio masters of the podcast sessions which were etched in acetate, might irresponsibly sell them to a collector who may exercise copyright law and pull the recordings out of circulation.

I ramble on about this until I notice Morgen nodding, but looking everywhere except my eyes, which tells me she’s getting tired of this conversation. 

I slow what I am saying. 

Then it gets silent for a second so I take an awkward sip.

“Most don’t know. Truth is, to be part of the family you just have to be born in Arto County. It’s in our bylaws.” Morgen says, “But he had one son and it was a hush-hush thing. I mean, the first time the World heard of my dad was when he died.” She shook her head looking away, “Which never made sense…” Most people say there never was a son. And that Morgen Arto was from some side piece of Hans and they staged the death of a fake son to explain the appearance of this “granddaughter” of his. Most people say Hans is really Morgen’s dad.

It was quiet at the table for a few moments. Her eyes flick toward me, her pupils obsidian pinholes.

I have to cut the tension somehow. 

“Wow.” I say, “That’s impressive.” Not sure what I was referring to.

People say those cookie cutter housing developments that magickally pop up in cities three months before a major corporation announces a second headquarters is moving there, they say that was an Arto idea.

“Oh.” Morgen reaches into her bag. She says, “I brought something for you. You’re profile said art is one of your interests.”

The dating app had an auto-profile option I picked when I was chewing gum, working out my karma, or crying maybe. It checked every single box, signaling to all possible lovers that I have no distinctive qualities and I am down for anything.

Morgen procures a pamphlet from the new Daniel Richter exhibit at the Arto Museum in Berlin. The pamphlet feels wet in my hands. And for some reason I can’t read it. 

I feel nauseous. Probably because I haven’t eaten. I imagine the inner lining of my stomach glistening with the shine of a blister from a third-degree sunburn being repeatedly punched by a billion microscopic needles.

I try my best to make flipping through the pamphlet look normal. Try to time how long it usually takes me to read one page. Nod and say “hm” then look at the next one. 

I can feel my health declining. 

I try to think about having as much money as Morgen. It’s impossible. It’s like there was a line I couldn’t cross. I touch the mirror but I can’t go through it.

I used to stare into my own pupils in the bathroom mirror until they became so big I felt I could fall into them. I’d get this minty-tingly feeling that was like hanging over the edge. Over the lip of the hole into oblivion. The type of edge you’re destined to fall over, and the only hope you have is the chance that your fall to the bottom won’t take too long. I’d be in the bathroom for hours staring into my own eyes. Like Buddha meeting Buddha.

I have that minty-tingly feeling now. 

My mouth salivates the way you do before you vomit. Is this the dying process? I feel like I should be reading something. 

I squirm between burps and farts. 

I say, “Tell…tell me more. Tell me about…of my f-fguhrp…about your family.”

The only relief is the ratchet ass metal fan blowing right at our face like a plane propeller. It’s making all the sweat beads on my brow into a snowy treat.

She places her wrists on the table’s edges, loosely interlaces her fingers like a plotting villain, then tells me the lengthy Arto foundation myth widely covered in documentaries and books already. 

The famed saga of the company who she has only referred to as “we” this whole conversation. Talking about what “we” believe and what “we” think. I feel like she’s trying to recruit me. When she says “we” I picture all her dead relatives with her.

I look through my empty glass pinching the stem harder as it rolls in the candlelight. 

I say, “What was in this?”

Light from someone’s cellphone camera shot through the glass and refracted. The resolution of my vision shifted between black and white and on through the entire color spectrum. 

Morgen snaps her fingers and points to the source of the light and says, “Butler.”

Butler grabs the girl’s phone, snatches it away, then clamps her bicep with his other hand and raises her elbow higher than her shoulder until she was in pain. And as she’s yanked out the door she shouts, “I just wanted a picture queen!”

My ocular muscles tighten. I feel borderline epileptic. A trickling car battery being drained of life or control, and desperately holding on. What was in that drink? 

The same psychic uncertainty now made me second guess my existence. The thought flashes through my brain so instantly that I trapped myself in a constant state of wondering: Am I dead? Am I Buddha?

Down. In my head. I start formulating existential questions internally with the verbiage of a three-year old: Once body dead where soul go?

The clock on the wall must be wrong. It hasn’t been three hours. Has it? 

I grit my way through conversation until I give in. Whatever is in me. Whatever drug I just drank, it’s in me now. And we’re either gonna make it or we’re not.

For whatever reason, this always settles me.

Then she brings another dancing glass of the same. And I’d drink it with a smile. I don’t want to give up any opportunity to work out some karma with such a divine being. 

I say, “I’m sorry…I must have missed it…When did you say the company was founded? Whe…uh-muh-guh. W-when did it start?”

My brain did somersaults that I thought drinking water would stop but it didn’t. Morgen’s words came in slushed, as if my ears were plugged with chewed fruit. 

She says, “Twothousandsixteen years ago.”

I swung my head then suffered the rebounding recoil of my vision catching up in slow motion as I went, “Whaaaaaaaat?”

“Two thousand sixteen. We re-founded in two thousand sixteen. But we’ve been in business much longer.” She smiles, “Much, much longer.”

I ask, “Do you guys have a logo?”

“No. Which is strange since Hans is obsessed with old religious stuff.” She says as two more drinks were brought over to the table by Butler. “Literally has a full-time librarian on staff for his collection.”

Morgen gave another raise of her glass and I look in my drink with concern. I don’t know what roofies look like after they’ve dissolved.

“It’s a major milestone in the life of a company when they can drop the name written beneath their logos.” She told me to think of the first ad campaign where there was just the swoosh or the bitten apple. “To invoke your essence with a symbol.”

“Arto.” She says, “Our name is our logo.”

It’s true. People knew it when they saw it. There’s enough history and personality in some of the major brands, that you can summarize people with stunning accuracy. Not by the products they use but the brand of products they bought. Capitalism allows these visual systems to be used as customization for one’s life and self-expression. Letters in a name are traveling, advanced hieroglyphs arranged in such a way to invoke a relocation of your emotional dwelling. 

Example: When seeing or hearing a name one is transported to the realm that name evokes. Like Abraham Lincoln. Or Ted Bundy. You feel different things when you recognize the name.

Dizziness increases as I dwell in the uncomfortable void of capitalist society that I usually don’t like thinking about. 

Like how everything is advertising. 

And how advertising is like triangles. 

Money goes from company, to advertiser, then consumer spends money. No money goes to the consumer, and yet the triangle is complete. It’s the abuse of Eros to form evil geometry. 

If I let myself continue to think too hard about this I’m going to throw up on top of this table.

Instead I spread my eyes across the table between us and imagined my livelihood and privacy and personal interests and achievements as dots on a spreadsheet where marketing teams in an office building objectified me like a high value target for a hitman. All with my consent.

Part of the very first Freedom of Medical Care Act (FMCA 1.0) required that all corporate advertisements must only be shown to consenting adults. To show your kid an advertisement before the age of eighteen is like showing a toddler hardcore pornography. This lasted until FMCA 1.1, no studies were conducted.

I’m going to throw up.

“Are you feeling alright?” Morgen asked.

My tongue slides on the back of my teeth as I slur, “I don’t know dude. Fuck.”

While everything else was now broken up into triangles, Morgen’s face was not obfuscated in any way. Her voice descended long crystals carrying light through networks of reflective and clear rectangular prisms. Like a digital windchime. 

She says, “Please, please. Tell. Me. How. You. Are. Feel. Ing.”

It echoed. “Feel. Ing.”

When I look up and I see her eyes I somehow see myself.

Like one spirit inhabiting two bodies.

I feel celestial.

Like Buddha meeting Buddha.

I feel free…in a way. 

But the substances in my system make my enlightenment seem phony. Like I’d cheated my way through school. Like it was so easy this whole time. That this entire cosmic joke of a life boils down to the paradox: hidden in plain sight. 

With my tongue I created a sculpture chiseled out of thin air and painted with sounds. I uttered a noise that felt like an exact replica of how I was feeling. 

“Everything I need is inside me now.”

Then the flickering again. 

For the past month I’d been experiencing sudden flashes in my vision that would leave painless, mercurial dots in my eyes like the ones you get after looking directly into the sun. I can’t stop thinking if maybe each one of my synapses are severing. Like the connections between nodes in a fishing net.


I spread my breath from my lungs to my lips and I get that minty-tingly feeling again. 

All of my edges are pixelated. 

Digital-pleasure sensations warm my face.

Morgen smiles as she slides out of her seat and says it’s time to leave Ray’s Hole. 

I stand up to leave with her, but can’t.

The only words I could get out were, “I can’t feel my body.”

She says, “I know exactly what you mean.” 


James Jacob Hatfield is a displaced engineer, a painter, and many other contradictions. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Havik, and others. His ekphrasis poem “torrents of lahar, No. 36” was anthologized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling Fellow and a Weymouth Fellow. He is the creator and curator of the Gemini Sessions Substack. He lives in Durham, NC.

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