The others – the Girlies, the New Guy – were on basic sustenance, and we were in a huddle near the ozone dispenser for a second while there were no customers in the shop.
“Paper!” someone yelled, but too late. The manager caught us and made us go back to our places. The computer was down which was why we’d been able to get together in the first place. The circles on the floor where we had to keep our feet 90 percent of the time weren’t activated and the monitor was blank.
Well we didn’t have to, only every percent less than 90 counted against our debt pay.
After the manager turned around we all did the body slam sign. Mentally body-slamming the Papers gave us our tiny victory. That and knowing at Eurofresh we got our air for free, while everyone else had to pay for it.
There still were no customers so we stood in our circles facing forward. The manager had gone back into his module.
“Where does the name Paper come from, anyway?” one of the Girlies asked.
“It’s connected to Teepee,” said the New Guy. “Teepee, Paper, it’s the same.”
“But why, I don’t get it.”
“Teepee. The initials. Toilet Paper.”
“Ohhh.” We all realized it at the same time. Paper was kind of short for T. P. Except that it wasn’t shorter.
The next wave of customers came in. They always come in waves. They always look the same. Not rich enough to have their private oxygen rooms or deluxe masks. Not poor enough that their cards won’t open the front door. They sat and breathed for a few minutes and then left.
I ran from my circles and back several times. The computer was back up. “Wait a minute. Why Toilet Paper? Where’s that come from?”
One of the other Girlies answered. The one who once helped me find the right clickable icon to watch the report of the Airbus collision. I got to watch it for free because my parents were on board.
“Toilet Paper doesn’t come from anywhere. I mean that’s backward. Paper comes from T.P. because T.P. is first, really. Before it. T.P. comes from Tattoo Piercing.”
The manager came back in, with his graying dreadlocks. I couldn’t turn and see him full on, because the monitor said I was hovering at the 90 percent level and so I had to keep my feet in the circles. But I glimpsed the tattoos on his wrists poking out of his sleeves and on his neck poking above his collar and tie.
And his earlobes, which never quite recovered from the holes that had been stretched out there. Looks like they’d once had disks stuck in, been big enough to insert a Girlie finger into. Now they were shriveled glob holes.
After he left I said “maybe it should be shriveled glob holes.”
My friend Girlie started laughing and couldn’t stop. So did I. I realized how it sounded to everyone else, almost like a random statement, or words from someone talking in their sleep.
We tried to stop laughing and it got worse. My stomach started hurting and I couldn’t remember what we were laughing about. For a second I felt like jumping around the room, then I remembered my high school debt. I stopped laughing, but too late. The manager was back and looked angry.
“I don’t know why I have to come in here every five minutes just for you to keep your customer service faces.” He was nodding up and down constantly. “You know when I was your age, we could concentrate. We concentrated for a long time. And we listened to music,” he walked up to my friend Girlie, “with our ears.”
He ripped the nerve pulser off the back of her neck and slammed it on the counter, smashing the sensor. “Real music was sacred to our perpetuality. It wasn’t just exercise!” He stormed back to his module with several massive dread bobs.
Friend Girlie still had a sneer on her face but I could see she was really sad. So I said “What is so up with his head? Or should I say what is up and down?”
She cracked a smile. “It’s a long term side effect of one of the old Paper drugs. Agstasy.”
“How do you know?”
“My Dad told me. He had it.”
Then Dread Manager came back. He still wasn’t finished. He looked like he was having a major chill apart. “I’m talking about the wrong attitudes and judgment of people now. We used to listen to a real person making actual beats,” as he waved the busted pulser in the air, “and the man in the booth got respect. You don’t even realize it. You don’t realize that your good air here comes from our world. From the fight we were fighting. It’s about the feeling.”
He started making hand gestures, like Governor Eminem of Minnesota. “Who do you think made the law that fresh air rooms exist in every Natocity? Who deep-tranced the dream that wouldn’t die, when Green Amnesty was profitized? You are living in the good of our world and you don’t even respect it. Who made sure you could work off your high school debt in equal time? You don’t even respect.”
It didn’t seem fair that I had to listen to this. I was only there because high school debt can only be paid in work units. But after that I was going to be able to rule his Paper groovehead, because I was rich from the airbus crash. He seemed to be finishing: “Let these words of wisdom sink in slowly.”
I looked at him, standing there in close-eyed head dance, weird hand gestures pointing at us, and imagined his head squishing up like his earlobes, the dots of his eyes and mouth fading and smudging together like old tattoos.