Project Skybox

The elevator arrived with a whir and a pleasing ‘bmmm’ as the doors parted to receive Alphonse Oskar. He pressed 5 and leaned back against the railing. He regarded himself as the suspended cabin went sucking down the shaft. He looked good. Entirely of a piece with the class of person who otherwise inhabited the building. His attire was perfect: Oxford shirt, tweed blazer, white pocket square with a triple-peaked fold like the geometry of some royal house. His hairline may have been in the middle of a stubborn retreat up his scalp, but what remained was styled into a perfect auburn wave that was equal parts youthful and distinguished. Yes, as far as appearances went, Alphonse Oskar was every bit the equal of his neighbors. He had never been to a Condominium Association meeting before and was reporting now in response to a penalty it had levied on him for violation of Blixen Building Bylaw VIII – Apartment exterior: fixtures, windows and doors. The elevator geared down and came to a flawless stop.

The doors parted again. He took a breath and started for the conference room whither he was summoned to answer for the crime of having painted his door a fetching foxhunter’s green. His e-mails with the Association President had followed a ratcheting trajectory of ever more impassioned appeals to reason on his part, answered in their turn by the President’s ever more aloof citations of code, procedure, precedent and other saturnine rites. The President’s name was Gerstenpfahl. The man Alphonse Oskar laid eyes on as he entered was exactly as he had pictured him: smug, grave, with furtive, jealous eyes like the patron saint of some bureaucracy, dimly crazed with the least scrap of procedural power he had painstakingly amassed. Gerstenpfahl made no move to greet his problem constituent, opting to meet the code violator’s eyes with an icy gaze instead. Alphonse Oskar looked away first. He felt himself flushing with humiliation and instant resentment as he took his place among his fellow owner-occupants. They were a fine and earnest-looking bunch: physicians, housewives, men of leisure, with a pair of mainland Chinese loot investors thrown in for the sake of variety. Gerstenpfahl called the meeting to order with a gavel whose head had been pyrographed with the Blixen Building’s unmistakable outline. The first order of business was an extraordinary increase in the annual assessment to offset the burgeoning cost of compliance with some ordinance whose details resident 3005 found too tedious to follow. He looked up and let his gaze wander along the cityscape that glowered back at him through the wall-to-wall windowbank with steel beams for mullions. Out there were dozens of condo buildings like his, maybe hundreds, all bound by like straitjackets of conformity that were also alike in being cinched ever tighter by their very own Gerstenpfahls. Alphonse Oskar for one was not going to take it. He would not purchase safety, comfort and predictable property value appreciation at the forfeit of his individuality. What possible justification could there be for every resident being required to lock himself behind identical doors with identical varnishes, identical peepholes and identical handles? Beyond giving an account of his code violation to that prig Gerstenpfahl, he thought his defense might find a receptive ear among his fellow owner occupants. Just look at them – deep down they were all dying to smash the gratuitous codes and bylaws that bound them and make their living spaces the idiosyncratic laboratories of creativity they had every right to inhabit. The reverie was broken by the sensation of Gerstenpfahl’s pale eyes boring into him.

“Mr. Oskar?”


“How do you vote?”

“On what?”

“Mr. Oskar, do you really propose that I go over the resolution again because you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention?”

“Not at all. I vote whichever way you didn’t.”

“Nonsense. You can’t very well cast a blind vote. This is a serious forum.”

“With all due respect, I think it’s a safe bet to take the opposite side of whatever you’re endorsing. Just put me down in the non-Gershenfail column.”


“Whatever. Now do you intend to let me exercise my franchise as a unit owner or not? I’m sure the bylaws provide for the speedy dismissal of any president who engages in vote suppression and similar types of blameworthy conduct.”

Gerstenpfahl’s fist came crashing into the conference table, but his face regained its composure as quickly as the rage had rippled across it. “As you wish, Mr. Oskar. Your franchise is your own and no one else’s. There. I have put you down among the minority of owner-occupants voting nay.” Gerstenpfahl paused briefly to do a sum, licking forefinger and pencil tip repeatedly. Presently he looked down the table with an intolerable mien of satisfaction. “Ah. It is resolved. The resolution passes by a resounding majority of 48 to 2, with 50 owner-occupants abstaining.” He paused to allow the majesty of his majority to sink its teeth into Alphonse Oskar’s mind. For his part Alphonse Oskar thought the result hopeful. Not only was there another principled non-conformist in concealment somewhere behind the uniformity of the mahogany tabletop – there was also a vast swing constituency at large in the building, a malleable mass of slackers and skeptics ready to be lobbied over to the side of individualism, idiosyncrasy and yes – resistance.

Gerstenpfahl cleared his throat as he turned the page on the agenda. It had, Alphonse  Oskar imagined, exactly the sort of intolerant pitch one might expect to hear coming from the throat of a Prussian schoolmaster. Gerstenpfahl now looked up with a poorly concealed sneer. “So. We come now to today’s most irregular agenda item. A disciplinary matter. As you are all no doubt aware, the Blixen Building and its management pride themselves on propriety in all things, above all in matters of code compliance. For which reason defaults of compliance are taken especially seriously. Regrettably, earlier in the week it came to my attention that one owner-occupant in attendance among us tonight had his door repainted a hideous green color in flagrant contravention of Blixen Building Bylaw VIII: Apartment Exterior. Many of you will have seen the ghastly result of this infraction with your own eyes – many more will have heard of it, and at least seven of you have duly approached me directly over the course of the week to lodge a formal complaint that your property values have been put at hazard.”

Mr. Oskar looked up. “Mr. Gershenfail, if I may –”

“Not yet, Mr. Oskar. I am not yet through with the preliminaries. You will have your turn.”Alphonse Oskar sat back, chastened by the temporary check.

“I see no need to artificially prolong the suspense of those of you as yet unaware of the violator’s identity. He is none other than Mr. Alphonse Oskar, seated across from me.” There was an awkward shuffling as the attending residents found pretexts to look casually in Alphonse Oskar’s direction.

Dr. Trevelyan, a corpulent but otherwise impeccable-looking physician who occupied the unit directly below Alphonse Oskar’s, spoke: “But surely Mr. Gerstenpfahl we do not bring this matter up simply to hold Mr. Oskar up to general opprobrium? I confess to being made uncomfortable by the witch-hunt overtones I’m sensing.”

“Oh it’s anything but that, Dr. Trevelyan. You see, in my communications with him this week, Mr. Oskar has been adamant in his refusal to make good the infractionary painting of his door. Says it’s not in harmony with his discretionary judgment. The reason for the public airing is to give you and the other owner-occupants a chance to win him over to the side of good sense before I’m compelled to escalate the matter to its automatic resolution, needless to say to the detriment of Mr. Oskar’s ill-conceived eruption of, ahem, discretionary judgment.” Gerstenpfahl focused his gaze down the sweep of mahogany. “Mr. Oskar, before we proceed I would be remiss if I did not give you the opportunity to put this matter to rest in the least painful manner still available to you by declaring your intent to make good your infringement of Bylaw VIII. Have you anything to say?” Gerstenpfahl eased back into his director’s chair, clasping his hands over his midriff with a look of feline satisfaction.

“In fact I do, Mr. Gerstenfail, and I’m glad of the opportunity. I’ve had the chance this week to reflect on this episode at some length. Obviously there can be no question that I have repainted my door in violation of Bylaw VIII. I’m not so far gone as to encourage you to disbelieve the evidence recorded by your own eyes, I assure you.” Alphonse Oskar beamed amicably at the fidgeting Gerstenpfahl. The owner-occupants’ ears were up. “Friends! Neighbors! Some of you my countrymen! You have seen my door, or have heard its derangement rumored. I submit to you that this matter is much bigger than my violation of such and such codicil to some bylaw adopted by the plenipotentiaries of the Blixen Building. What is at stake here is not the color of a door, and certainly not any jeopardy to property values – it is absurd to suppose that a door painted a tasteful foxhunting green would impinge on the valuations of nearby units. If anything, such an expression of taste communicates a certain sophisticated je ne sais quoi that would tend to buoy the market’s appreciation of this property and its individual units.

“I submit that this agenda item not only touches on, but goes straight to the marrow of a great issue of our time: the individual versus the collective; particular judgment versus one-size-fits-all conformity; actual life versus its fossilized abstraction. I speak here not only as agent in my own behalf, but as the exponent of a tradition and a way of life. I assume all of you save the collectivized Celestials have been taught that the earthshaking dynamo of industrial Western civilization owes its historical emergence to the fitful liberation of the individual from his chieftain, his pastor, his king, even from his people. Renaissance masters and enlightenment minds fostered this liberation and were fostered by it. Our forms of government and jurisprudence were and are still nominally shot through with regard for the individual as their chief preoccupation. But that tradition is dying now. The tide of liberation is ebbing out. The forces unleashed by our dynamism have conjured new mechanisms of enslavement – the most devious, abstract and elusive ever fashioned. The new kings control not by decree or diktat, but by abstraction, algorithm and automatism. You will note that in Gershenfail’s view the resolution to this squabble is “automatic”.

“These saturnine A’s are able to run rampant thanks to the abridgment and indeed abolition of fora for public debate of the pressing issues of our time. You will further note that no provision was made for my appeal in these proceedings. And that’s in the case of a wealthy man, a man we like to think has been afforded every privilege. Only he is not afforded the privilege of painting his door green, or indeed of appealing against the stifling of his individual expression. The question here is what kind of society do we want to be? One in which the individual remains free to tinker with his circumstances, improve his lot and thereby increase the sum of opportunity available to all – or one in which the weight of convention and code compacts us into a Procrustean conformity where every precaution has been taken to prevent our escape?”

Gerstenpfahl, Alphonse Oskar noted, had managed to wrench his face into an expression of amusement. It looked painful.

“And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Oskar bids you subscribe to an antiquated Dionysian free-for-all philosophy comprising equal parts wishful thinking and ethnic parochialism – to spare him a less charitable term that might well put a tarnish on his permanent record.”

The debate, such as it was, continued for the better part of 30 minutes as the sun completed its plummet down the western sky and the diffuse light of day yielded at length to the needlework phosphorescence of electric illumination. Alphonse Oskar may or may not have scored moral points with his impassioned individualist rhetoric, but the quorum was hardly moved to a formal consideration of Bylaw VIII, much less its repeal. Dr. Trevelyan moved that Alphonse Oskar be granted a grace period of at least of three days to remedy the offending paint job – this in lieu of summary refinishing by an outside crew at a cost of $5000 – and was sustained. Thwarted by this reprieve, Gerstenpfahl’s look was stormy as he brought the meeting to a close with a swing of his bespoke gavel.

Alphonse Oskar remained seated at the table as his fellow owner-occupants shuffled out in orderly dribbles. Wanting to see what would happen, he had taken his shoes off and was resting one foot on the table. His socks were an ostentatious pastel blue. The Association President made a show of gathering his many papers all the while, giving Alphonse Oskar his most hateful look over their rim as he tapped them into a uniform sheaf against the tabletop. It was an iciness that would have shaken a lesser constitution, but Alphonse Oskar made a point not to shiver or otherwise react. Presently Gerstenpfahl snorted, stood, and walked out in a huff, papers clutched against chaotic infringements against his impeccable order.

Alphonse Oskar stared out the windowbank as the countersunk wall clock ticked off the minutes behind him. He had friends and acquaintances in many of the great apartment towers that now stood forth against the gathering night like blazing exclamation marks. Acquaintances mostly. But surely some among them had deplored the tightening of the straightjacket?  Surely some few had chafed at complying with codes and bending to bylaws? Surely there was at least one iconoclast among them who’d reared up in harness and sought to shatter his gratuitous fetters? Surely this invisible ally had thought to resurface in a different though tasteful hue some small part of the otherwise featureless aspect of the uniformity he too was called on to present to the world? Different, but tasteful. Had any succeeded, even in part? Where, he wondered, were his confederates?

He looked away from the radiant buildings to rest his eyes on his own dashing reflection in the glass. Unperturbed, unruffled. Good. Suddenly Dr. Trevelyan was in the frame with him. There was no denying that he cut a fine if somewhat over-broad figure himself. Only now did Alphonse Oskar notice that the Doctor wore an ascot.

“Quite a campaign you’re mounting there, neighbor.”

“So it would seem.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but my question would be whether you believe in it.”

“We all of us must believe in something, Dr. Trevelyan. This is where I make my stand.”

“Quite so.” The doctor was grinning.

Alphonse Oskar stood up to look at him. “Dr. Trevelyan, would you join me in this struggle?”

“Ha! Am I an ally then, to be rallied round the banner? What is it you have in mind, Mr. Oskar?”


Both Alphonse Oskar and President Gerstenpfahl brought seconds to the next Condominium Association meeting. Alphonse Oskar’s own half-hearted lobbying had failed to interest any outside friend or acquaintance to attend; it was Dr. Trevelyan whose efforts had rallied reinforcements to the cause. Not only had he recruited a pair of feckless twentysomething resident trustafarians by holding out the carrot of a Dionysian cocktail party as reward for lending their persons to a show of strength – the fruit of his floor-by-floor canvassing efforts – he had actually managed to interest a features reporter from a local cultural rag of no inconsiderable circulation. Dr. Trevelyan had cold-called him on the strength of the impression made by some of his earlier work, which included parking ticket sagas, a drill-down into the ins and outs of garbage truck routing, and a recurring feature on the sordid destinies of a homeless poet. This quixotic agent of the fourth estate had sounded skeptical at first, but his interest was soon stimulated by Dr. Trevelyan’s account of the principals and of the profound forces seemingly at play, to which the door issue was merely the foil.

Alphonse Oskar and Dr. Trevelyan came dressed to the nines. Their attire seemed cut from the pages of a fin de siècle purveyor of menswear to dandies and fops, complete with canes, pocket watches, cravats, top hats and fur-trimmed blazers with velvet lapels. The trustafarians for their part wore prestigious brand-name flannels and cargo pants whose combined retail value likely approximated or exceeded that of their stylistic betters’ battle dress.

Gerstenphahl had brought only one second. A humorless sort with an anvil jaw, he was sunk in note-taking and electronic correspondence from the moment Alphonse Oskar and his detachment strode in through the conference room doors, nor did he look up to take the measure of his opponents even then.

Several things had happened in the week since the previous meeting. For one, Gerstenphahl had bombarded Alphonse Oskar’s inbox with a stream of increasingly menacing warnings and recriminations. Alphonse Oskar didn’t need to read between the lines: Gerstenphahl was prepared, nay keen, to escalate the matter beyond the petty jurisdiction of the Blixen Building. Lawsuits and even warrant service were in the offing, he was admonished. Alphonse Oskar had not bothered to reply, instead making a daily show of retouching his tasteful green door wherever the uniformity of its hue or luster left the least embellishment to be desired.

The day before the meeting President Gerstenphahl had detailed a posse from the building’s Latin American building services staff to knock on the offending door. Whatever his thinking, he had miscalculated badly. Already on excellent terms with these hombres thanks to his insufficient demeanor, Alphonse Oskar was ready to receive them with cervezas and compliments to their home countries paid in rudimentary Spanish. It was not long before the hard-working crew was brought to concede that Alphonse Oskar’s foxhunter green door was really quite prepossessing, and that they would be sorry to see the upgrade undone. Alphonse Oskar leaned in over the kitchen island grinning. “Sabía desde un principio que eran hombres de buen gusto. Just look out there gentlemen. Can you imagine what a wonderful city this could be if we, even unto the least of us, were left alone to pursue our portion of happiness the way we deem fit?” Much nodding ensued between thirsty quaffs and a belch or two of satisfaction. But the week’s most exciting development took place in a different Blixen Building unit, when Dr. Trevelyan made so bold as to repaint his door a captivating shade of burgundy in sympathy with the break with convention pioneered the week before in the unit just overhead. The offbeat features reporter had been on hand for this deliberate act of defiance, covering it live as it were. Gerstenpfahl had not deigned to witness the defacement in person but had no doubt surveilled it, judging by the speed with which the doctor was made aware of the gravity of his offense.

Once they had taken their seats, Dr. Trevelyan looked at his new comrade. Alphonse Oskar was looking at President Gerstenpfahl, who was in turn presided over by the wall-hung portrait of an unknown administrator from days gone by. An imposing man, the administrator wore a charcoal suit with a tie the color of caked blood. He wasn’t exactly scowling. It was, rather, a knowing look tinged with contempt, as if there were something about the moral or even aesthetic qualities of his portrait painter of which he disapproved. Alphonse Oskar let his gaze linger on the portrait. The administrator’s hands were clasped in a diffuse ball in his lap. There was something blurry and contorted about them, as if the painter, having once botched their morphology, had never quite managed to lay them naturally on the canvas. The subject was seated in front of his work desk in a lounge chair clad in green japanned leather. The desk was bare of paraphernalia save a paperweight, an inkwell and a looking glass. Proudly posted on the wall behind the desk was a row of framed documents. Alphonse Oskar couldn’t be sure from his vantage at the end of the table, but they seemed to have the structure of contracts or statutes, with headings, subheadings, lists of clauses and the like. He looked at the subject again. The blazer was unbuttoned, its left breast flung open and draped over the man’s slack arm. Fitted to the torso below the armpit was some sort of harness. Was that – it was. A pistol holster. The pistol’s handle was a creamy white, and the holster’s open bottom revealed the faintest glint of gunmetal.

“You ever notice this portrait, Doc?”

The doctor spoke under his breath. “I think he just had it hung this week.”

Gerstenpfahl called the meeting to order, and now his second surveyed its attendees with cool dispassion. Every seat at the enormous table was filled, and building services had arranged overflow seating about Alphonse Oskar’s end of the table in a rather artful amphitheatric crescent.

“Everyone knows what this meeting is about,” Gerstenpfahl began. “Even the unfamiliar faces among us, I’m sure. I’ll not waste anyone’s time. Before getting down to brass tacks however, I would venture a word on what I believe to be at stake in the present impasse. Which is only proper, given that Mr. Oskar dilated at such length upon his view of the matter last when last we met. I address you not only in my capacity as Association President but as a man concerned with matters of compliance in general when I say that this dispute would be absurd, inconceivable even, in the context of a well-ordered society. That ours is not such a society is only too plain to see. Indeed, in a time when exponentially increasing complexity and compounding threats should demand absolute adherence to standards of transaction and conduct so as to assure us of a smooth transit into the future, we witness instead the crumbling of the solid center of social respectability. We witness a thousand fragmentary individualists veering off in every misdirection to pursue their pet projects and solipsistic fancies, coherence and order and any care for symmetry and propriety be damned. The trend is regrettable enough among our proletarians, but their misconduct is readily checked by the instrument of the police. Where the trend truly becomes dire, and where its undisciplined practitioners should know better, is among the more substantial ranks of society. Yes –” here he paused. “They really ought to know better. Here we are, late enough in the game of technocratic civilization, and we cannot manage to concert the color of a door among a handful of condominium owners.”

Gerstenpfahl’s nostrils flared as he rose from his seat. “Did they or did they not contract in good faith when they transacted for the titles to these units? Are scoundrels such as these even competent to enter into contracts? Ladies and gentlemen, my point is this: if in this mere microcosm we cannot command adherence to the neutral door color stipulated in our solemn bylaws – if we cannot use the proper channels to pursue remedy or amendment when we feel stifled, as I suppose Mr. Oskar must – then how in the larger dimension of human affairs can we hope to act coherently to concert weighty matters of policy, foreign and domestic? Given the indulgent trends on plain display in this building, I submit that it is absurd to suppose that we can. So it is for this reason, even beyond my capacity as Association President, that I am so keen to see a speedy resolution to this matter. Not that we are faced with any sort of choice – the resolution is automatic, thank you very much. The grace period so generously granted last week at Dr. Trevelyan’s whimsical insistence has elapsed. Either Mr. Oskar sandblasts and re-varnishes his door, or we do it for him. A crew has been mustered to do the job tomorrow. Of course, if Mr. Oskar impedes their work I will be compelled to initiate proceedings to bring about the forcible sale of Mr. Oskar’s unit at auction as provided for under Blixen Bylaw XIV – Remedies for Breach of Contract. The same goes for Dr. Trevelyan’s unit, be it expressly noted. We’ll not let him pull the same rabbit from his hat and bamboozle us twice.” Here he cleared his throat with an emphatic sound like a bark. “That will be all for now. This meeting is adjourned.”

Whereupon Gerstenpfahl stood up and strode out of the room, pulling the double conference room door to behind him with a percussive clatter. A buzz of protest erupted, including among owner-occupants who’d never voiced an opinion one way or another.

“He can’t just get up and leave can he?” asked one.

“I’m not sure,” a well-put-together housewife said, “but it was the height of rudeness.”

“Yeah, what about motions and so on brought by the owners?”

“And what about giving Mr. Oskar a chance to respond, even just with a yes or no?”

“Just what I wanted to chime in about,” Alphonse Oskar said while regarding himself in the windowbank. At which point Gerstenpfahl’s square-jawed second stood up from his flanking position at the table’s Executive end.

“Mr. Gerstenpfahl has asked me to convey to you that he will accept your answer in the matter through me.”

“I see. And who are you?”

“Just a friend with my own interest in issues of compliance.”

“Compliance with what? What are you, some kind of dog trainer?”

“Far from it, Mr. Oskar. And I’d watch it with the wisecracks if I were you.”

Alphonse Oskar looked down the alley of mahogany at him. “Or what?”

A constipated sort of grin spread across the second’s face. “I’ll not give you the chance to find out just yet. Good day.” He shook his shirt cuffs out to the proper length in his blazer arms before making for the door, the dimensions of which were fairly crowded by his frame as he passed through.

“Who the hell was that?” asked one of the trustafarians.

“Haven’t the foggiest,” Alphonse Oskar said. “Nice to see you were paying enough attention to ask though.”

“But seriously –” it was the reporter. “What’s that guy’s role? Who brings muscle to a condo association meeting?”

Dr. Trevelyan struck a thoughtful pose. “I’ll wager we haven’t seen the last of him, whatever his identity may be. Now what,” he asked, turning to face his confederate, “are we going to do about the offensive shades our doors seem to have assumed?”


Alphonse Oskar was startled out of bed by a knock at the door at seven the next morning. He struggled out from under his sheets, staggered to his feet and threw a silk robe around his well-trained torso. Catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he made the traverse to his door, he noted with a grimace that last night’s surfeit of wine had imparted a cadaverous purple shade to his lips and teeth, both of which he clamped shut against the attentions of his unknown caller.

“Who is it?” he called through the door’s considerable oaken mass.

“Agent August Winters, Homeland Police, Department of Compliance Affairs.” Alphonse Oskar swung the door open, propping it with his foot to forestall the action of the hydraulic spring. It was the mysterious second Gerstenpfahl had brought to the meeting. The man really knew how to fill a doorframe.

“Good morning Mr. Oskar. How are we feeling today?”

“Free,” Alphonse Oskar said. “Absolutely free. I was thinking of putting up an inflammatory slogan or two in my windows today.”

Agent Winters’ face was all strained patience. “I’m sure that will be very amusing to you, Mr. Oskar.”

The two men spoke at the same time:

“To what do I owe –”

“Let me get to the point –”

And again:

“Go ahead –”

“Go ahead –”

Agent Winters chuckled. “All right,” he said. “I’m here on more of a courtesy call than anything else, I guess. Here.” Winters pressed a calling card on his interlocutor, pinning it against his chest. It was rigid, heavy, lopsided somehow. Alphonse Oskar pocketed it without further scrutiny.

“Courtesy! That’s wonderful! And tell me, what daybreak courtesies do you have in store for me?”

“Hardly early for an honest man, Mr. Oskar. But what I wanted to say is this. Normally my agency would never get involved in a matter like this. You see, Mr. Gerstenpfahl is an old friend of mine, and I attended last night’s meeting in that capacity. But I may or may not be taking a professional interest in you, depending on the choice you make today.”

There was nothing studied or artful about Alphonse Oskar’s response. He was indignant, with wine-stained teeth bared to show it. “Professional interest? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Since when did Homeland Police start moonlighting for petty condo association despots? This is bullshit.”

Winters smiled. “That’s your view, and you’re entitled to it. But it’s not like that. I happen to agree with my friend that we live in a time of great challenge, and that the most privileged among us should set a good example for the rest by their proper conduct. I’ve created a new a new program at the agency in that spirit. Its codename is Project Skybox. Broadly speaking the idea is to promote more high-minded behavior among those whose material comfort and professional idleness put them at risk of what in times past went by the name of degeneracy. To do so we propose to employ an arsenal of sticks and carrots.” Here Winters paused. “Mr. Oskar, may I ask a personal courtesy of you?” Alphonse Oskar arched a brow. “Would you mind terribly popping in for just a second to brush your teeth? Their color at the moment makes me feel like this is a courtesy call being paid at the morgue.”

“You son of a bitch. What carrot are you going to entice me to do that with?”

“It’s your choice Mr. Oskar. I just feel we might have a better discussion if you were more presentable.”

“Just wait here,” Alphonse Oskar said as he slammed the door in Winters’ face in all its outlandish greenness. He made for the bathroom, where he put paste and bristle to the purplish gray of his enamel. To a vain man, waking up with teeth like that was worse than the hangover itself. Vigorous brushing managed to dispel some of the purple, but at the cost of red trickles from his gums, source unseen. The cold water was painful on his teeth as he rinsed.

Agent Winters was as he had left him. “My compliments, Mr. Oskar. You really do look much better. Like a man I might be able to work with.”

Alphonse Oskar cleared his throat. “So what would you have to offer in the way of sticks and carrots, Mr. Special Agent man? Carrots first.”

“Very well Mr. Oskar. For those who fall in line it is envisaged that we should offer membership in a civil preparedness corps made up of our finest and most prominent citizens. Membership would confer certain benefits, like attendance privileges at sectoral security shindigs, enhanced access to classified surveillance feeds, plus the occasional invitation to sit in on the meetings of the Coordinating Council on security affairs.”

“Let me get this straight. If I agree to sandblast my door today and cause no further trouble, you’ll give me a membership card and a tin badge to the fake spying organization you’ve set up to make snitches feel like they’re part of something special. Have I got that right? Is that so? And what if I don’t?”

“That remains to be seen, Mr. Oskar. I was hoping not to have to enumerate the various retaliatory options at the disposal of Skybox. I will say that Mr. Gerstenpfahl spoke in earnest when he mentioned the forced sale of your unit, and I’ll leave it at that. I’ll say one more thing to you before I leave, Mr. Oskar, which is that I would urge you to think carefully along lines of risk and reward before you make a decision. Think not only about your pride. Think about the stakes and what forces may be ranged against you. Think about the wider consequences of you being able to break bylaws with impunity and why we might take an interest in that. It’s what we call a tragedy of the commons down at HQ. Everyone thinks they can just take their cut and walk away, never considering the burdens they place on others or the destruction by a thousand pilferings of the asset they seek to strip. Do you really want to be in the van of that degeneracy?”

Here Winters drew himself up to his full, lofty height. “Do you want to be made an example of?” Disdaining the response, Agent Winters disengaged from Alphonse Oskar’s livid stare and marched off to the elevator bank.

“I’ll have my lawyer with me next time you come calling Winters!”

Once Winters was gone Alphonse Oskar composed himself and dialed the SCPU’s whistleblower’s hotline.

“Soyuz Civil Privileges Union, how may I direct your call?”


That afternoon Alphonse Oskar was joined in his den of subversion by Dr. Trevelyan, the two trustafarians, an ombudsman from the SCPU, and a pair of the affable Latin American building services chaps. The reporter had declined to attend, citing other work. Most of the haphazard cast were there for the beer, wine and whiskey. Alphonse Oskar himself was at least as interested in the few undrunk bottles that remained in his case of Burgundy as in his impromptu cause célèbre. Not that it wasn’t as good a cause as any to serve drinks around. Dr. Trevelyan, who was not a drinker, had confessed to Alphonse Oskar in a moment of candor to have joined the struggle in search of respite from the tedium of his medical practice and his out-of-control television routine. It was 3 o’clock. The visit from the sandblasting crew had been appointed to occur in precisely one hour in Gerstenpfahl’s culminating e-threat.

Alphonse Oskar began by serving up drinks around the kitchen island. Glass aloft, he rallied his troops: “Un brindis! Cheers for the power of the individual to monkeywrench the machinery of conformity and defy the juggernaut police state. Cheers for dreams that break the mold. Cheers for inscribing our names upon the sky. Cheers for messages that crave only to be misunderstood!”

“Here here,” said Dr. Trevelyan. The trustafarians drained their whiskeys and instantly refreshed them.

“Yeah man,” said one, “here’s to like, being a particular individual as unique as a fine 15-year Scotch. And you know what? Fuck anyone who’s not down with that! ”

Alphonse Oskar turned to the building services chaps. “Caballeros.” They wore work uniforms with their names embroidered across the breast pocket. Jesús and Guillermo. “Have you brought the supplies I asked for?”

“Si señor. By the freight elevator.” Guillermo returned momentarily with a dolly on which were stacked a score of styrofoam-backed placards, two roles of masking tape, assorted cans of paint, and brushes of different gauges.

“Excellent,” Alphonse Oskar smiled. “Let’s get to work.” Soon the paint began flowing as freely as the booze, and ’twasn’t long ere the whole motley cast was hard at work daubing posterboards with colorful profanities and rude representations. Before the hour was out most of Alphonse Oskar’s cherrywood floor had been smeared or spattered in odd shades of paint that ran to a dull brown in the areas of highest traffic. The Latin Americans were effervescent with beer and the trustafarians were bristling with whiskey menace by the time the knock came. Besides the throwaway profanities and ceremonial innuendo, the message Alphonse Oskar had managed to concert in his floor-to-ceiling windowbank read as follows: THIS SHIP FLIES ITS OWN DAMN COLORS.

The knock was more that of a soldier than of a craftsman when it came. As planned, it was Jesús who cracked open the door.


“Mr. Oskar home?”

“No se.”

“Well we need to know if we have his go-ahead to sandblast this door. Do you have his proxy?”

“No se.”

“Look buddy, do you know if he agrees to the removal of the green paint job or not?”

“No se.”

One of the other crewmembers spoke. “This hombre doesn’t know a whole lot of anything, boss. I say we just do it. That way we get the heat off him and us both.” The SCPU ombudsman was recording the proceedings. He looked at Alphonse Oskar and pointed at the recorder with excitement. He too was clearly intoxicated.

“All right,” came the assent of the crew boss. “Build the isolation tent and start her up.” There followed the sound of plastic sheeting being unfurled and stretched about a frame. By the time the compressor roared to life in the hallway the unlikely idealists gathered in the refuge within had downed another round of drinks and begun work on the next.

“Hey Jesus,” Alphonse Oskar called out over the noise, pronouncing his name the Anglo way. “Scoot on back in here.” Jesús excused himself from his parley with the workmen. “Now close the door behind you. Good. All right. Jesus, gentlemen, I have an idea.” A heretical light blazed in Alphonse Oskar’s eyes as he articulated his tactical ploy to the ragtag disciples.

Minutes later a voice raised from the other side of the door cut through the drone of the compressor. “Alright Mr. Oskar. We’re pretty sure you’re in there, so listen up. We’ve got the green light to clean up your door post-haste, so fair warning. You can still bring out your own crew if you want to do it that way, but it won’t save you hardly anything what with us already having deployed. All right? Mr. Oskar? You got nothing for me? Just total silence, huh? All right boys. Lay down the gasketing, put on your respirators and let’s hit it.”

The compressor slowed down and nearly missed a stroke. Next came a pulse of blasted sand that buffeted the door at the corners and rattled it in its hinges. The SCPU ombudsman muttered something about his comfort level with the plan being wanting when Jesús donned Alphonse Oskar’s aviator shades and strode to the door with a drunk’s bravado. Dr. Trevelyan was fumbling through the articles in his medic’s bag as the feckless trustafarians extended their expedition into Scotch territory, the pair of them gazing at the door with grins now become positively wolfish. Alphonse Oskar for his part was slouched to one side on his island barstool, sipping from a glass of Burgundy with perfect equanimity. For some time Jesús stood immobile behind the wide-angle peephole, wagging his neck ever so slightly from port to starboard to track the goings-on on the other side.

At some point he turned to the disciples. “Iss no good Señor Oskar. They sand you hole.” Alphonse Oskar made a languid gesture to urge him on.

“Don’t be scared my dear little Jesus. Whatever happens, Dr. Trevelyan and I will take care of you. And I’m as good as my word, my good man.”

“Ten thousand dolares?” Jesús asked with a face every bit as open and uncertain as a child’s.

“Yes Jesus, ten thousand dolares.” Just don’t let them know you’re coming when you make your move.”

“Si señor. ” Jesús took a breath to steady himself. Sand was streaming in from under both sides of the threshold and piling out into little shapes like worms. Without further ado, he threw the door open to receive the stream of blasted sand full in the face.

“Attaboy,” Alphonse Oskar called out with a surge of enthusiasm. “It’s lawsuit time!”

Jesús and the nozzleman both started screaming at once, but in their mutually paralytic shock neither moved an inch for a good three seconds, by which time every inch of Jesús’ face had been pocked and penetrated by high-velocity blasted silica. When at last he slumped to the ground the nozzleman recovered his wits sufficiently to aim the blast at the unfinished concrete wall. “Oh no,” he gibbered. “Oh shit.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, let go the fucking trigger!” the crew boss roared.

The other workman could be seen fleeing around the corner when the nozzleman dropped the applicator gun and began moaning. At which point all hell broke loose. The trustafarians rushed for the door brandishing drained whiskey bottles over their heads like cudgels. One of them tripped over Jesus’ writhing figure in mid-stride and torpedoed headfirst into the compressor housing, where he lay twitching in a heap as the compressor droned on. His associate rushed into the breach and wheeled on the nozzleman with his bottle. The latter began to stutter in mask-muffled protest, but fell silent to the floor when the bottle caught his temple and shattered.

“What the fuck? Are you fucking nuts?” The crew boss was screaming like a woman when the avenging trustafarian looked up at him from his first victim. Holding the bottle’s jagged neck before him like a dowser, he advanced on the blubbering boss with reptilian menace and would have murdered him where he stood had he not been tackled from behind and disarmed by Guillermo.

“Mueve tu culo!” he yelled at the boss. “Socorro! You get help!”

Meanwhile Dr. Trevelyan had entered the carnage inside the sandblasting vestibule, his breathing shallow and rapid in sympathetic stress. Stooping first over the collapsed nozzleman, who was choking to death on the blood welling up inside the respirator, the doctor fumbled through his medic’s bag muttering Oh my God. Oh my God. Without managing to intervene he turned now to look at the fallen trustafarian. He emptied the contents of the bag onto the sand-strewn floor, poking arbitrarily at the supplies as if they might offer some guidance. The trustafarian twitched feebly in the bloodstain swelling into the sand from his head. Oh my God. Oh my God. Finally the doctor staggered over to Jesús and collapsed in a heap at his side. The patsy was moaning. Jesús thrust out an arm and pushed him away when the doctor pulled at his shoulder to have a look. The aviators were still in place over his bloodrimmed eyes.

Now the doctor gathered his considerable bulk and began to wobble among the casualties like a chicken with its head cut off, muttering the same incantation without amendment or surcease. Alphonse Oskar was still seated on his barstool, sipping noncommittally at his Burgundy, while the SCPU’s ombudsman stood off to one side in a state of suspended animation. The sandblasting vestibule and the apartment still pulsed with the noise of the thrumming compressor after the moans and blood-gurgles had abated.


That night Agent Winters came for Alphonse Oskar with a tactical team. When they knocked the door down they found their man perched on his barstool, listing dangerously to leeward. His teeth flashed like chalk dipped in blood when he turned to face his assailants. “So you’ve come at lass. I wasn’t sure I’d make id through another ball.”

President Gerstenpfahl was on hand as Winters’ tactical squad escorted our cuffed protagonist out of the building. “I want you to remember my words, Mr. Oskar,” he said as the elevator sucked down the shaft, “because they’ll be the last you hear from anyone on the outside for a long time.” Alphonse Oskar looked at himself in the elevator mirror as Gerstenpfahl began his harangue. He was looking pretty good, all things considered – save the teeth. “I’m going to sell your unit at auction and rig the bidding so that I snap it up through an intermediary at a deep discount. After all, who would want to live in your little house of horrors? After I do what I can to traduce your memory and thoroughly sensationalize the regrettable goings-on in your unit this afternoon, not to mention the disruptive slogans you put up in your windows, I’m going to search long and hard for the blandest, blithest, most inoffensive, law-abiding square there ever was, and I’m going to put him in your unit. He’s going to have a regulation door, a regulation floorplan, a regulation decor, and a regulation life. He’s going to attend all the association meetings and lend full support to my resolutions every time. He’s going to have a close working relationship with my good friend Agent Winters for the event that any of his neighbors should start chafing at the proper order of things.”

The elevator had stopped and spilled them out, and the crew of squares with their odd-man-out captor now made an awkward assemblage in the cavernous lobby. “And you know what else I’m going to do while you’re wasting away wherever it is they put you? I’m going to send you our meeting minutes, Blixen Building Ltd.’s quarterly reports, our community calendar, our holiday cards – everything, so that every minute of your sentence you’ll be reminded of what a tight ship I run. And by the way, out of all your victims only that horribly disfigured Mexican is going to make it. The other two were killed in your little assault. As for Dr. Trevelyan, I haven’t decided what to do with him yet. Certainly I’ll move to have his license stripped. After that I may just keep him on in the building as a macabre relic. ”

Alphonse Oskar struggled out of his list into the dignity of a more or less upright position. “Quit fooling yourself Gershenfail. I was shitting on my shtool the whole time and I’ve got the wins…widnesses to purve it.”

It was agent Winters who spoke. “Oh we’ve got you dead to rights Mr. Oskar. Dead to rights. Ten counts of conspiracy to create a disturbance, two counts of culpable failure to prevent loss of life, and that’s just for starters. We can also slam you with charges of conspiring with a journalist to prejudice coverage. Not that your little conspiracy will bear any fruit. That reporter scared like fowl when I put the screws to him.” Alphonse Oskar looked at him, listing again to leeward. “Come now, Mr. Oskar. What did you think that business card was all about?”

Project Skybox

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