Jeff Malmquist is unaccountably catapulted to the year 2060. He finds himself in New Gary, a labor camp of a million Chicagoans, their identities hacked and incriminated as pedophiles through the collusion of a corrupt US Government, the Russian cybermafia, and China (which runs the USA behind the scenes). He escapes to Chicago, only to find himself in a full-scale replica of ancient Rome in China, erected for the wealthy country’s amusement and manned by a million enslaved Italians. Or did China come first? As he struggles to orient himself in these synchronized urban labyrinths, he is plunged back to real ancient Rome, before being flung yet further into the future: It’s 2115 and the Chinese Empire rules the world. The former Western hemisphere is now the American Special Administrative Region, a vast Cantonese-speaking slave colony. Malmquist will soon be shipped to the most opulent city the world has ever known for an unspeakable fate.
A dystopian satire both bleak and funny, The Kitchens of Canton distills the worst of our present and future societies into a strangely seductive maze of a story.
Chapter 1: New Gary, IN
“What the…?” said the stranger who had just emerged from a secondhand clothing shop onto Broadway.
Concrete-block housing stretched northward toward the lake and southward and eastward and westward as far as the eye could see.
“Hey, can you tell me what city we’re in?” he asked a passerby.
The passerby rolled his eyes and ignored him, doing a double take as he moved on.
The stranger crossed the street and entered a bar. He sat down at the counter.
“What’ll you have?” asked the bartender.
“What do you got?”
“Budweiser and Miller High Life.”
“That’s it? The Mexicans used to drink that High Life shit. You don’t even have Miller Lite? Reminds me of the ’80s. We basically had three choices back then — Bud, Miller Lite, Old Style. You guys don’t have Old Style either?”
The bartender was waiting for a response.
“How much for a beer?”
The stranger looked in his wallet and replaced it in his pants. He then eased himself off the barstool. “Unbelievable. Forty fucking dollars,” he said as he walked out.
Another customer sitting at the bar got down as well. He caught up with the stranger out on the street. “Nice weather today.”
“Yeah, not bad.”
“You from around here?”
“I can see that. Whereabouts are you from?”
“I don’t really want to go into that. All I can say is I am totally freaked out now to find myself in a place I don’t recognize. What city is this?”
“Where is New Gary?”
“You mean Gary?”
“That’s the old name.”
“I didn’t know they changed it. When did they change it?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. That was before my time. There’s an information department over on Polk Street. I’m sure they can answer your questions. Come on, I’ll take you there. It’s just a few blocks away,” the man said with a wink.
“So what do you do?”
“I work in the information department myself, so to speak. Call me Carrot.”
“Carrot? As in the vegetable?”
“Yep. It’s a nickname everyone started using with me, and it kind of stuck.”
“Well, nice to meet you. I’m Jeff Malmquist.”
“Nice to meet you too. Planning on staying long in New Gary?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Several blocks later Malmquist said, “Where is this tourist center, exactly? Seems a bit strange it would be on a residential street rather than back over there on the main drag.”
“It’s just up ahead a couple more blocks.”
On Polk Street, ten blocks later, they turned the corner and Malmquist found himself in front of the New Gary Police Department. “The tourist center doubles up here,” said Carrot, “Follow me.”
Malmquist was escorted up the front steps and into a room in the back of the building.
“Well, Malmquist, why don’t you start by telling us how you got here,” said an officer behind a desk.
“Why don’t you tell me how I got here. He’s undercover? How do you know my name?”
“I’m Stick, Officer Stick, as they call me, in case you were wondering.”
“He didn’t tell you my name.”
“He didn’t need to. Now, where were we. How did you manage to venture beyond the Zone?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I have no idea. I was teaching a class at my university and suddenly I found myself in Gary, Indiana. Please tell me what happened.”
“What were you teaching?”
“The science of signs.”
“Like street signs, shop signs?”
“Yeah, it includes that.”
“How to make signs? They teach that in university?”
“How to understand signs.”
“But you call it semi-automatics.”
Stick scratched his head and said, “Looks like we need to process you, Jeff Malmquist. Born in Chicago. Date of birth?”
“October 31, 1960.”
“1960.” He scratched his head again. “Identification?”
Malmquist pulled out his driver’s license.
“1960, all right. Doesn’t jive.”
“Because that would make you one hundred years old!” said Stick, smashing the desk with his hand. “What’s with the antique ID? And why aren’t you readable?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Put him in the bin till we figure out what to do with him,” he said to Carrot.
Strip-searched and fingerprinted, Malmquist was led to a jail cell containing several other prisoners.
“Leroy, an odd one here,” said Carrot, passing him to the guard.
“Where the hell did you come from?” said one of the prisoners.
“He’s some kind of a professor. He teaches how to make signs for shops selling semi-automatic weapons.”
“All right, fine. Semi-automatics,” said Malmquist.
“So what did you get picked up for?” said another.
“I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t even know how I got here. I also just discovered it’s 2060. Kindly tell me it’s October 1, 2015.”
“You got the day right, but not the year.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to cover my ears with my hands to keep my brains from spilling out.”
“Man, you a trip,” said Leroy. “You musta taken some heavy shit. You okay?”
“Maybe he has amnesia.”
“No, I don’t have amnesia. I’m in some kind of time-warp nightmare. Are you dudes the only prisoners? And what’s with those two cops, anyway, with the strange names? Man, are they weird. They both have this super smooth way of moving their neck when they talk — ”
“All droids are like that.”
“Yeah, droids. Androids.”
“You thought they human?” one of the prisoners laughed. “You stranger than them.”
“Their faces are the same, come to think of it. The only difference is Carrot is shaved with a goatee and Stick has something like a toupee with high-cut bangs like a Roman general. Well, that explains how he was able to smash that police desk cleanly in two. No human could do that. I didn’t know androids could get angry.”
“Oh, they can get angry all right. They equipped with the full panoply of human emotions.”
“This police station is odd. It’s so informal. Only two cops. It’s like a town jail in the Wild West with a sheriff and his sidekick deputy.”
“Crime rate low. One hundred percent employment, twelve-hour shifts. Nobody have the time or energy to get arrested.”
“What are you guys here for, then?”
“Late getting back to work after our break.”
“They put you in jail for that? Are there other droids besides Carrot and Stick? How can they watch over everyone?”
“We all monitored by our chip.”
“Where do they embed the chip?”
“In your brain.”
“Oh, God. I’m stuck in a bad sci fi movie. You mean they control your every thought?”
“No, it just an ID chip. They put it there to keep track of you, know where you are. And make it very difficult to remove the chip should you ever try to do so.”
“So as I was saying,” Leroy continued to the others through the cell door, “I was ridin’ Delilah, see, and she pounding into me bam, bam, bam, so hard she like a machine, man. I’m thinking, maybe she one of them female droids I heard about but never seen. So I turn her over to examine her more closely — ”
“Well, Malmquist, we’re releasing you,” said Carrot, who had reemerged. “We think you have amnesia and got lost after crossing over from Chicago. Here’s your gun. Leroy, would you please drive him to the Zone and see that he gets back across?”
“I don’t understand,” said Malmquist.
“You won’t get very far in Chicago with no gun.”
They laughed at him. “See I told you he has amnesia. It’s the law to carry a gun. As long as you not from New Gary, that is.”
“We had to scrounge around to find an extra one, since you appear to have lost yours,” said Carrot. “We would sell it to you but I saw that play money in your wallet.”
“How do I put this on?” Malmquist asked, fumbling with the AK-47’s sling as Leory led him out.
“Damn! Interrupted again. Don’t you forget to finish your story when you get back, Leroy, you hear?” said one of the prisoners.
They got into Leroy’s car and headed west down 5th Avenue.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Zone, to get you out.”
“I don’t know how to use this. I’ve never held a gun before in my life, let alone shot one. Will you please tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“Man, whatever happened to you, yo head got wiped clean as a sandpapered ho’s ass. Now listen up. We got another four mile to go before we get to the Zone. When we get there, you’ll hear a lot of guns being fired at the Coliseum. That’s when I’m gonna dump you off and you gotta cross over yourself without getting shot. Once you on the other side of 912, you safe.”
“What’s 912? What’s the Zone? And what the hell is the Coliseum?”
“Highway 912 that’s where Gary ends. Hammond on the other side. You see all them thirty-story residential buildings stretching down this way? The buildings face Hammond from the clover leaf where we’re headed down south to I-80, that’s over one mile of residential buildings. That’s the Coliseum. You got thousands of freakos from Chicago and Hammond lined up on the near side of 912 with their AK’s be trying to pick us off. You’ll see sandbags ringed around them towers to protect the residents trying to get back home safe. You gonna slip out around the sandbags and into view. As you do this, you run backwards pretending you shooting at us, and work your way up to the barbed-wire fence and find one of them holes to stick yourself through and out the other side.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re saying I have to throw myself at thousands of gunmen while running backwards and shooting at you?”
“No, not at me. I’ll be long gone before you get to the front lines. It might get a little hairy at first, but their sensors don’t pick up no chip on you, they’ll know you one of them and ain’t pedo.”
“Shit. I got to explain everything to you. As in pedophile. Child molester. When they got you in their sights, your chip is pinged by a laser and your mugshot and stats pop right up in their viewfinder. Everything about you, where you originally from, what particular pedo offense you nabbed for, what danger level you considered to be. But since you ain’t pedo they can’t ping you. And plus they see your gun. New Gary people ain’t allowed to carry no gun.”
“I am not a pedophile.”
“You in New Gary, then you a pedophile.”
“I have never committed any sexual offense against children or anyone else.”
“It’s not what you’ve done or haven’t done, man. It’s what they got on you. As soon as you outta Gary, you no longer pedo.”
“Everyone in Gary is a convicted pedophile? Including you too?”
“You bet. All one million of us.”
“One million! The only thing I remember about Gary is it was a ghost city, with hardly any people living there. They used to use the place as a set for horror films.”
“All them houses of old Gary torn down long ago. Actually I heard they got another million coming down the pipeline soon. They keep building more housing but can’t keep up with the conviction rate. That’s why all these new bastards gotta do their time in the Coliseum. Ain’t nowhere else to put them. They all on a waiting list to get into safe housing. Until then they the sacrificial lambs being fed to the lions.”
“Wait a minute. Chicago’s population is only three million. If we discount children and minors, that would leave about two million adults, wouldn’t it? You’re telling me one out of every two people is a pedophile? No way. That can’t be.”
“They got people here from the suburbs and surrounding areas too. It ain’t just Chicago city where they find them.”
“We used to sweep pedophiles under highway overpasses to get them out of the way. So Gary is one big highway overpass?”
“New Gary is the regional incarceration center for the upper Midwest. They got New Gary’s all over the country.”
“I still can’t understand how there could be so many pedophiles.”
“The more the technology advances, the more pedos they able to find. They got all kinda ways to find you.”
“And I still can’t understand, if there’s a million pedophiles here and another million on the way, how can that shabby little police station with two cops handle them all?”
“They all processed in Chicago, then transferred here by the military over on I-90. The police station only for unusual cases and incidents. Anomalies.”
“What offense are you in for?”
“Kiddie porn they found in my goggles that I never even knew I had. They proved I paid for it and presented the court with evidence of my financial transactions. The money came right out of my bank account. I had no idea.”
“So innocent people have been convicted?”
“Listen man, nobody completely innocent. They also nailed me for porn I was knowingly in possession of but didn’t know was underage. And then there was the porn I had of legal age until they raised the legal age. And there was the underage droid porn I knew was underage. But yes, you’re right, there’s a conspiracy out there. Heard the Russians are heavily involved, with their hacking expertise.”
“Why are we being shot at?”
“It’s a war, man. Those are the front lines.”
“It seems a pretty unfair war, when they have all the guns.”
“They say it’s preemptive. They gotta keep us at bay or else a tidal wave of pedos will deluge Chicago and devastate their communities. But they pretty aggressive, already chewed up the first row of buildings facing Hammond with their M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Turned reinforce concrete into cottage cheese. Lots of pedos were killed and the buildings rendered uninhabitable. Then they–”
“Machine guns are legal? Fully automatic machine guns?”
“Oh, yes. Legal or not don’t matter nohow. Any weapons legal when they unloaded on pedos. The law over there look the other way. But they realized that if the buildings are uninhabitable there ain’t no more pedos to kill. Not too smart. I mean, first they took out all the windows. How can the residents board up the windows without getting shot at? If there ain’t no windows, how can they survive the winter cold? They all left and doubled up with friends elsewhere in the city, which is illegal since place of residence in New Gary is strictly controlled. But they ain’t got no choice.”
“You can’t treat people like that.”
“Oh, yes you can. Anyway a tacit understanding was reached to leave the buildings intact and kill pedophiles selectively, using lighter arms. Since the front row of buildings was put out of commission, they now attacking the second row, which they can only hit at an angle. And the greater distance makes for more challenging target practice, though most freakos don’t have the marksmanship to hit targets 200 yards away. They just spray bullets everywhere. What a waste. So some started cutting holes in the fence to sneak in and shoot at closer range. But because of all the holes in the fence — the same holes you gonna escape out of — they see a new danger of us pedos getting out, so they be calling up more reserves to come out here and protect Chicago.”
“Not sure I follow this logic.”
“This logic’s gonna help you get out safe. They’ll just regard you as one of them more gung-ho types firing his way back.”
“If I’m on their side, why are you being so nice to me?”
“I don’t know. Something about you seems different. Innocent. Maybe you is from another time and place. Now here we are, two blocks away. You hear the roar of them guns? And see those sandbags and that little entrance? Don’t you go in there but go around and down the street. When you get to the next block you’ll be within sight range and firing range. That’s when you turn around and start shooting at the building. Good luck.”
“Wait. I really don’t know how to use this thing.”
“It’s hot and good to go. Just release this safety here and fire.”
“What do I do when I get to the other side?”
“Hope your memory come back by then.”
* * *
Next chapter: Ch. 2: Xinluoma
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton