Confessions from a Dark Wood

Confessions from a Dark Wood

{an excerpt from the novel, courtesy of Sator Press}

At the time of my father’s death, I temped at an internet porn company named Purv which specialized in the niche of industrial machine porn. They were the masters of mechanized fucking, the doctors of advanced dildonics, the mad laboratory of steampunked sex and electrostim labia clipping. Connoisseurs of Purv’s niche preferred zero male participation, and the girls were post-punk, vampire gothy, or wholesome farm girls with a thing for the combine. They enjoyed full health care benefits with no deductible, 100% match 401ks, and access to subsidized housing in Purv’s studio lofts four blocks away, provided they passed semi-regular drug tests and showed up when they said they would. I had heard that early on Purv offered fractional ownership in the videos, which meant that the girls pocketed a small royalty each time the content was resold. Save the camera crew, everyone else was temp or part-time, sans benefits.

The building Purv purchased was south of Market Street in a foreboding ex-armory which still bore the black-and-yellow signs labeled FALLOUT SHELTER. The ground floor housed the reception area and a phalanx of typical tech-company cubicles and offices, connected in the back to a large machine shop. The top two floors housed post-production, web development, affiliate and web traffic management, accounting, technical support, and a dot-commish rec room packed with all of the amenities that flowed down Howard and Bryant at six cents on the dollar when the vaporware companies tanked. A freight elevator connected the machine shop to the studios below street level. Once in a while, you would see a new girl sitting in the reception area for an interview, but the working actresses steered clear of the upper floors, where our bored army spent most of their days processing hardcore images or dealing with the mundane cash flow details surrounding Purv’s enormous profits.

Purv’s founders still took an active interest in the business, being passionistas themselves for the unity of woman and machine. Ray Vance was an old hippie machinist from Fresno and his partner, Collin Baker, was a Stanford MBA and tech startup burnout. They were frequently in the machine shop together, among the partially-assembled pneumatic pumps and small tool engines, fiddling with robotics and silicone molds, while the production assistants ran racks of the “business end” parts from the day’s shoots through commercial dishwashers and autoclaves.

It smelled of acetylene and industrial lubricants and popcorn, as Ray Vance had an insatiable appetite for the buttery stuff, and kept a full-scale movie theatre popcorn machine stocked and running all day long. On last pass, an old-school chalk board displayed a sketch for what looked like a motorized wheelchair fitted with a black horse saddle and gynecologists stirrups. In the open lot behind the machine shop, a circle of wooden picnic tables allowed for lunch outside if you weren’t of a mind to sit in the coffin-plush rec room, which I often did. Short on cash, I was on the one-burrito-a-day diet. Coffee for breakfast, half a burrito for lunch, the other half for dinner. Ray Vance spotted me a bag of popcorn for my walk home.

My specific job consisted of finalizing and uploading the videos to Purv’s websites, writing some of the video descriptions, and editing and partially censoring video stills for the teaser pages. Thankfully, we were all required to wear headphones, or else the top floor would have sounded like a great sapphic polyphonic orgy in a Detroit auto assembly line. After a couple of weeks, complete porn desensitization set in, and I barely registered what was going on in the videos. I was, however, increasingly perplexed by how to wittily describe, for the nine hundredth time, the intersection of Black & Decker, synthetic appendages, and wax-bald vaginas. The cubicle I inherited was peppered with cheat-sheets of nouns, verbs, and adjectives tacked up behind the monitor to make the copywriting easier.

A web page on the Purv intranet helped the temp web monkeys like myself keep the machine names straight. It showed each machine with a brief video clip, so that we would never accidentally disappoint our loyal following by calling a machine by the wrong name. We were reminded constantly to refer to it. In a company-wide email one morning, Collin Baker underscored the importance of accuracy by sharing a “not uncommon” customer service email.

The message customer service received was from 36-month member ($1,078.20) “BigOleBoi,” (Don Lemmon, 39-year-old regional bank manager in Tulsa, Oklahoma) calling attention to the fact that in video #278 (“Go On Down on the Funny Farm”) we had misrepresented “Licksaw’s” top-tongue speed at 3,000 CHM (clit-hits-per minute), when in video #112, (“Lumberjackin’ Time”) Licksaw’s control dial clearly indicated a maximum upper limit of 4,500 CHM. Could we please clear up this discrepancy?

BigOleBoi was not alone in his attention to detail—the Purv forums were jammed with fans who carried the stats of the sex machines in their heads the way others knew the earned run and batting averages of major league ball players. The most active thread on the forum was one in which members regularly discussed what types of future robots could be added to the Purv family. Other members collaborated online over long, meticulous scripts for Ray Vance and Collin Baker to shoot. When Collin Baker once picked up the idea of issuing gasoline-scented limited edition collector’s cards, modeled after Topp’s baseball cards, the entire run of 500 sold out at $89.95 each. Rumor had it plans were underway for a massive live event to take place in an old Air Force hangar in Nevada, a project the members referred to as “Yearning Man.”

So when I returned to San Francisco from my father’s funeral in Florida, head fogged in and body beat to hell by five hours in a center seat on Southwest, I accidentally made the mistake of labeling the robot in a new scene “Captain Fucktronic” when it was actually “The Dildonator.” The mistake generated nearly three hundred flaming all-caps or all-lowercase emails in the customer service department, two cubes to my right. It did not help matters that Captain Fucktronic and The Dildonator were major rivals in our continuing sci-fi miniseries, Warpdriver.

Word reached the machine shop an hour later, and Collin Baker rounded up the entire support staff in the rec room for an emergency meeting. We filed in to find Ray Vance sitting in his oversized, stuffed purple chair, a prop ripped straight from a Dr. Seuss book. He looked dejected. Bits of popcorn nestled in his long salt and pepper beard. Collin Baker waited until the room was full and then stormed in for maximum dramatic effect, his shirtsleeves cuffed by equal centimeters to the elbows.

Though both Vance and Baker had a genuine enthusiasm for Purv’s content, it’s worth noting that Ray Vance saw the enterprise as a labor of love and Collin Baker’s heart was closer to his wallet. Collin’s assistant dimmed the lights. An LCD projector descended from the ceiling. Collin stood beside Ray Vance, sad porn robot king, and pointed a remote at the laptop connected to the projector. A bright image of Captain Fucktronic and all of his weaponized appendages filled the wall.

“People,” Collin began, “who is this?”

“Captain Fucktronic,” we said in a dim, asynchronous chorus. Ray Vance turned his head and looked at the screen lovingly. The PowerPoint slide advanced. An action shot of The Dildonator appeared.

“Very good. Now who is this?”

“The Dildonator,” we said, a little more with it.

“Wow, hey, that’s right. Gosh. It’s hard to understand how we managed to fuck up so bad today, seeing how you all clearly can tell the difference between the two.” Collin advanced the slide and both robots appeared side by side. “Just in case someone out there is not quite clear, let me point out a few of the more obvious differences.” Collin waved his laser pointer over the two robots in shaky circles. “Here? And here? Here? See?”

We murmured assent.

“Let me express this clearly: If anyone still doesn’t get it, we can arrange for a free first-hand experience with the two. I assure you the differences will be vivid.”

The room was silent. Ray Vance sighed heavily.

“It just bums me out, man,” he said in a low voice. “These are like… my kids.”

Collin nodded vigorously.

“You know who else it bums out?” Collin picked up. “Our paying members! You know, the ones with the credit cards?” The lights brightened and Collin closed his laptop with a snap.

His body language softened, he hung his head like a disappointed father and squeezed Ray’s shoulder reassuringly.

“Folks, never forget this: We are storytellers. This enterprise of ours—it’s about creating and maintaining the unbroken arc of a fantastic, magical dream. When we make mistakes, even smaller ones than this, the inconsistencies destroy the fantasy for our fans, and they are rudely blue balled by our sloppiness.”

Two months hence, I would more or less hear the same speech from Pontius J. LaBar’s mouth in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company.

“This isn’t 1999. We’re not the only machine erotica shop in the game any more. Members have choices. We may be the first and the best, but we’re only the best because we’re customer service fanatics. Do I need to rent Tony Hsieh for an hour to cheer you fuckers up? Attention to detail, people. When we fail to uphold the high standards, members notice, and we lose market share.”

“I remember the day they were born.” Ray Vance rescued an edible kernel in his beard and consoled himself.

Collin Baker met each of our eyes, hands on hips. “You want to go through the motions, start filling out your apps for Starbucks. Dismissed.”

We began our penguin waddle out. The idea of free coffee and working with fully clothed women in aprons was by this time far more arousing than another eight hours pixelating nipples a-la alligator clips.

Then: “Nick, can we talk with you for a minute?”

It was as if they read my thoughts.

Ray Vance and Collin Baker freed me up to explore my barista options the very same day.

You have not been thoroughly blacklisted from temporary employment until your agency finds out you were shit-canned from a porn company. They’d been notified prior to the meeting and hung up on me when I called to request a new assignment. A guy with biceps like grapefruits escorted me to the receptionist’s front desk. I remembered my half-eaten burrito in the rec-room fridge. Since I didn’t think Ray Vance would come charging out with a fare-thee-well bag of popcorn, I couldn’t leave the burrito behind. I pleaded with the security guy and he reluctantly disappeared back upstairs to fetch it for me.

This was when I met Sadie Parrish.

She was a loose limbed, straight red-haired beauty with a cosmic calm and twee librarian’s glasses above a bridge of light freckles. On her lap a copy of Circuit Cellar lay open. Her lips moved slightly as she read. I was instantly smitten.

I blurted “You don’t want to work here.”

She looked up and took me in. She squinted at me through her glasses. Her attention was like being shot to death with spring sunshine.

“How do you know where I want to work?” She closed her magazine.

“I don’t know where you want to work, but I know where you don’t want to work. And that would be here.”

She closed her magazine. “Sounds like you might have a little problem with female empowerment, huh?”

“Are you kidding? Tell me you’re kidding.”

“Why would I be kidding?”

“Let me see if I can put it another way: When was the last time you were double-penetrated by twin eight-inch dildos driven by a six-speed Chevy transmission?”

When she looked away and laughed, I noticed the Apple logo tattooed on the back of her neck.

“Is that how you ask all the girls out for coffee?”

“Did I ask you to coffee?”

“Maybe I asked me for you.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said yes.”

“That’s pretty unusual.”

She opened her magazine again.

“I’m glad you asked. Your afternoon should be as free as mine.”

“I’m not walking out on this interview. If you have all this new free time, wait for me.”

“You should skip the interview. They won’t hire you with that tattoo on your neck. No logos, trademarks, or rights-managed characters or likenesses on the actresses. If you had one of those trashy tribal wingdings, no problem. But no logos. Post production would go out of their mind tracking and blurring it, and it would ruin it for the members anyway. Thing is, they won’t tell you that until after you’ve auditioned, know what I mean?”

She bit her bottom lip and seemed genuinely deflated.

“Fucked before I was fucked.”

“Way of the world.”

The security guard came back with my burrito and stood by the receptionist’s desk to see me out. Sadie looked as though she understood.

“Alrighty then,” the security guy said. “Time to go.” He held the burrito at arm’s length like a full diaper. I took it.

He held the door for me, a gesture of civility I owed to Sadie’s presence, I was sure. I stepped outside into the afternoon wind. She wasn’t standing yet, but she leaned over to look at me through the open door.

“Soooo… I guess it’s coffee o’clock,” she said.

I felt like I had to shout as the traffic crowded past.

“I can’t afford to buy you a cup of coffee. But I can offer you half of a burrito.” I waggled my foil package in the air. She stood up and rolled her magazine as if to scold a dog. She stepped outside into that cold and descending light. The security guard shut the door, and we were among the homeless and the windblown garbage.

“What if I loan you a cup of coffee?”

“That’s sort of a relief. It was my last half burrito.”

“Please, please shut up. You had me at double penetration.”

Once in your life should you be so lucky to meet someone like this. Meet someone you start with in media res. Meet someone who seems as though they’ve known you for who you are your entire life. Meet someone improbably, and understand every meaningless moment guided you to this high-speed collision.

The 49 Mission-Van Ness bus lumbered up from the curb and left us there with a poorly understood but shared secret. The fog crushed over the hills above South San Francisco. Take it all as a gift if it comes to you like this.


About the Author

Eric Raymond is the author of the novel Confessions from a Dark Wood, published by Sator Press. His fiction has also appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. He lives in San Francisco.