Matteo dismounted the bike and pretended as though he had shut it off on purpose — there was no reason to call attention to himself on Roosevelt Ave. He kept his head level and confident and walked it across the street and through a wide grassy field. He stopped to rest on the black of a four-spot parking lot adjacent to a bright blue building.
He stared at the bike, looked away, and then stared at it again. He tried the ignition — the bike edged forward and then died again. He tapped his fingernail against the temperature gauge. Then he loosened the cap to the gas tank, inspected it, frowned and tightened it. He touched a chrome part of the bike that looked like it could be movable, burning his hand. “Fuck!”
He approached the low-slung building, a white cardboard sign on the front door read: NO gang colors OR sports gear OR gun OR knifes more than 2 inch. Well, he wanted to hang out a bar, didn’t he?
Footsteps sounded from somewhere and he stepped back instinctively, not quite ready to admit his ignorance of motorcycles to any badass type dude that might walk out of the building. The Sun burned the top of his head and he felt the first beads of sweat form on several places on his body. Then, there was shade, and a crisp voice from above, “Life, uh, finds a way, don’t it?”
Matteo looked to the rooftop at the moment the shadow disappeared, stinging rays of sunlight in its place. He panted and moved his fist to knock on the door, but it swung open. Sonia was standing with her arms crossed, leaning on one hip, a chameleon in a neon green wig. A cold front of freon air whooshed over his body. She was like an intergalactic ice angel.
“You gonna come in?” She wasn’t looking through or past him, like before in class. “Or you could wait outside in the heat and keep looking at the bike until the engine rewrites the second law and unbreaks itself.” A few more seconds passed. “Hey, you deaf?”
“Suh-sorry. I’m hot… and dehydrated. Were you just… upstairs? On the roof?” The chances of him running into his dream girl twice in one day, well, it invoked fate.
“Yeah. Roach nest up there. Best kept secret about this dump. Get in here — let me pour you a drink antes de secarte.”
“Huh? Yeah. Sure. Roaches,” he sputtered. She turned away from him, and he convinced himself that she was probably used to having awkward, lonely goofs like himself lose their vocabulary.
The door opened into a short hallway, lined with faux-wood paneling, which was peeling at some edges. The path led to the main bar, blue-carpeted on the floor and part of the walls and windowless. In the dim calm of the pre-happy hour rush, the space was pinned down in browns and greys. Sonia switched on neon-strung LED disco lights from behind the bartop, forcing the room into color.
“So… I guess your true major is shilling booze?” said Matteo.
“Not exactly. I just pick up shifts here every now and again. What’re you drinking?” she asked.
“Uh… nothing at the moment.” He figured she’d probably heard that line infinite times before, even though he felt he’d made it up on the spot. “What should I get?”
“Lone Star beer for the loneliest star at the bar,” she said.
“Alright… I’ll take it. Am I that obvious? I mean, about the loneliness,” Matteo said as he turned over a barstool to sit on.
“And I’ll pair it with a shot of mezcal for the most adventurest speeder at the bar,” she said, smiling through the last few words.
“Alright… sounds good. Just don’t get me too too drunk. I need to fix that bike… or call someone to. Haven’t tested its self-drive mode,” Matteo said.
“Don’t worry about that. Here is your order, sir. And welcome to Franky Espada’s.” She could give a convincing hospitality when she wanted.
“What do you mean don’t worry about that? I have cells to feed in the morning, on the other side of town in the lab, you know. In the lab at AU. Something you wouldn’t know about, since you’re just auditing.” He was making sure to keep his cover story of being a student straight.
“Ooh, what I know is, well, I’ve never met an expert on what it is I’m interested in. And, just so there’s no lies between us, I wasn’t auditing. I was just sitting in,” she said and poured a shot of Fernet for herself. “Let’s drink.”
He sipped the Lone Star. “Ok Sonia, I am having a… a time, with you. Who the hell are you? I mean, for real. I talk to you once at class and then you’re on the roof spouting our club passwords later on the same day… I don’t know what’s going on here.”
She whispered, “I’m not Sonia. Don’t say that name in here again. Concha, not Sonia. Don’t forget it. But be prepared you may need to forget it. For your own sake, down the line.”
“Concha — like pan dulce or sea shells?”
“Wow, you sure you’re twenty-one? You seem kinda innocent,” she replied with a face holding back a measure of surprise.
“Sonia, Concha, white head of hair earlier and now a bright green head of hair. I’m pretty confused, here. You could be any girl,” said Matteo. He was pretty sure she knew he wasn’t twenty-one and just teasing.
“I am surprisingly capable of putting on different clothing and wigs, aren’t I?”
“Alright, Concha. Very well, then.” Very well, he thought to himself, who says that? “Don’t worry about it — it’s me who’s being awkward.”
“I’m not worried about anything. Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude. On three…” They lifted their shots, gently banged them on the bartop and then took them to the back of their throats.
“Ahhh… ok, better. So tell me about your cells.” She said as she snaked from behind the bar to the table area to turn the jukebox on. “Better get some Rod Stewart in before the locals switch it to one hundred percent Tejano.”
“What’s wrong with Tejano? Wait, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to distract me. So, really, how did you find out about LUFAW? Or did I hallucinate that password you said?” asked Matteo.
“Well yes, I am distracting you. You’re making it pretty easy for me, ’cause you dig me. There’s always more to it than just distraction. You know, maybe you’ve got a point. I do love me some Little Joe,” she said.
“You got Little Joe on there! How? You can only get him on CDs, right? Where did you find a CD jukebox? Somehow he missed the boat on both vinyl and digital. Fuck, you’re doing it again. How did you know about LUFAW, Soni… Concha.”
She sighed. “I really don’t know if I can answer that because I really don’t know if I believe you’re in it to win it.”
“Science. Anybody can make and join a biohacker club. Doesn’t mean they’ll do anything worthwhile,” she said.
“Damn, you did it again. How did you find out about LUFAW?” He wanted to show her how upset and betrayed he felt but also really wanted her to like him. The best thing to do was to appear as stoic as possible.
::Stay cool Sigue asi.
“LUFAW, that’s your workmates at the raspa stand? What’s their deal anyway? You sound like you hate each other. It’s always an odd shouting match. And that one kid from Mexico. Seems a little off. Caught him staring at my ass this one time,” she said.
“Oh, so you just overheard us talking about it. Do you live next door or something? Or did you bug the place?”
“Not exactly. I’m sometimes in that area, visiting people and I’m always aware of what’s going on in my town. It’s not like I hunted you down, specifically.”
Most of the people in that neighborhood were older, she must be visiting family, he thought. Another Alamo native.
“OK. Well, about Jorge and Kaylee’s weird fighting… how can I put this? First time we went to Whataburger, all of us together, Jorge just orders the burger patty with diced pickles on top. No buns, no ketchup, no nothing. I asked him why he likes his patty that way. He tells me he is from another planet and a plain burger’s all he can eat. And the pickles, of course he can eat those too, but only if they are cut a certain way to facilitate absorption. I don’t really think that’s likely, you know, that other beings somewhere are made up of the same stuff biochemically that they could actually survive off of cow meat. What are the chances our food would be compatible with an alien digestive system? Assuming they even have one.”
“Mhmm.” Concha was resting her chin on her palms, leaning across the bar. “One sec. But keep talking.” She turned away and started filling a beer tub with ice.
Matteo spoke louder over the noise. “So, I play along. How is it your species or whatever can digest cow protein? Aliens should eat something totally different. And he looks me square in the eye, and he says ‘My senses tell me there’s no cow protein in this patty.’ And, guess what? He’s fucking right. If you google Whataburger’s patties, you see they switched from cow-based lab meat to some totally synthetic peptide mash. But anyway, that’s what it’s like talking to Jorge. There’s no winning but you’re better off for trying, in terms of perspective.”
“Isn’t it just as unlikely he’d be able to eat something synthetic? And aren’t synthetic patties chemically the same as non-synthetic ones? Nevermind, I can see how this gets annoying fast. Well, so he’s an oddball, where does all the shouting between you clowns come from?”
“Jorge doesn’t really yell, that’s all Kaylee. And it’s love-arguments, I think. She just doesn’t have any patience for his stories sometimes. I get that Jorge probably has a lot of problems though and maybe making up these crazy stories is a coping mechanism or something. It doesn’t really bother me,” Matteo said, wondering if Concha might judge him for so easily giving up the chisme on his friends.
“Ok, so you’re a little family. So, next question, how’d you get your criminal record wiped?” she asked.
“How long were you going to let me pretend like I’m a student?” He reached across the bar and poured himself another shot.
She forced a light frown to hide her smile.
The burn from the alcohol granted him a measure of assertiveness. “Ok, well what do you know about it then?”
“You tell me.”
“You don’t know anything,” he said.
“Maybe I’m just testing you to see whether you’re honest. I don’t know you. And you’ve already lied to me about growing cells at AU.” She had a point.
Matteo exhaled and looked at his beer. “Well, it’s embarrassing.”
There was nothing to discern from Concha’s expression, just a face that seemed to gain attractiveness.
“Well, you know, I wanted to meet a girl.”
“Couldn’t get hearted on Mistmatch?”
“Let’s be real. Let me be real, I mean, any technology that is so common that, you know, everyone has it — it’s gonna be full of boring people.”
“How elitist of you. Surprising since you look pretty averagely brown and poor.”
“Sure, well,” he scanned the room to make sure no one had stumbled in, “I heard whispers about physicals and that seemed to me like a cool new kind of throwback to the old internet, the internet even before the big ‘I’, you know, in the sense of local servers… but mobile in a way since people trade them. I mean, people who are using physicals, they’re sending messages out in bottles, basically, right? I thought, hey there must be some early adopters out there that are cool. Let me put up a profile of myself on some drives… see if anyone contacts me. For friends but also yeah maybe a girlfriend.”
“Wow,” she said, her eyes widening for quick emphasis.
“Yes. And the crazy thing was it worked. I was contacted.”
“By the Rangers. One of my profiles had ended up on drive that I guess had some bad, criminal material on it, so I got linked to that even though it had nothing to do with me.” Matteo felt he had been digested by Concha more quickly than a readme.txt, and that she was deriving more than just information from the way in which he answered questions.
“I have a confession,” she said.
“What’s that, Concha?”
“I fucked up your bike. On purpose,” she said, utterly nonchalant.
“How in the world are you so… so good? So. Why… would you stop me, then?” He would never have a chance with a girl like this, he thought.
::Because she likes you! Chingado. You’re gonna make her do all the work? Stop being so shy.
“Saw your ride blip on my radar. It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday. I’m bored. Don’t read too much into it. Drink up, instead,” she said.
“Oh, come on. There has to be more to it. Why would you go out of your way to hack my bike and Mist just to mess with me. Plus it’s jailbroken Mist, I’m not even sure I’m on the network. I was awkward around you at school, so what? I left you alone. I didn’t like try to flirt with you or anything. Even though I would have if I had the slightest clue how. Wow, you’re just pulling all the confessions out of me.”
“Dude… that’s the alcohol talking. You’re a baby drinker. You know, I saw you stealing supplies from the lab. I wanted to check you out to see if you were the real deal so maybe I could score some pipettes. Naturally, I led you here, where I have control of the setting.”
“Trapped me here,” he said. Her story really checked out.
“Did you know your bike is stolen, by the way? Listen, as soon as you walked into class, even, I saw you flagged on my Mist as a stolen ID with associations to accounts related to suspected biohackers, your two little friends. Whoever is working on your Mist has a pretty weak security setup.”
“You know, between the engine stall and the my AI telling me to kill myself, I thought something was wrong. Thanks for clearing that up. I assume you hacked that, tambien,” he said.
“AI? No, no. I didn’t touch your AI. Just the bike stall,” she said, convincingly.
“I guess the mystery remains. Who would want me to kill me off?” Matteo cooly grabbed the Lone Star can and absently tipped it a little too far and too quickly, dribbling beer over his chin.
“Something tells me that even with a stolen bike you’re not on anyone’s hit list. Your AI probably downloaded today’s wire. Pretty interesting scientific results floating around the pre-print bio boards.”
Matteo lunged to grab a napkin next to the little bowls Concha was filling. He couldn’t decide between the roasted peanuts and individually wrapped spicy watermelon lollipops. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ll see. I’m sure. Or maybe it’ll get covered up. It doesn’t matter either way. We’re living in a different world now.”
“Alright, Ms. Cryptic.”
“Let’s just say, now is a good time to have access to a Church and synmalaria, which is what I know you folks are up to. People are figuring out ways to live longer. La ria is a great way to implement it when the government keeps an eye out for self-engineering.” She slipped out of her hoodie, an odd choice for a sunny day, to be sure. A bit of her belly showed before she pulled down her shirt. Matteo realized it had been a long time since he had sex. Forever even.
“Well, maybe if I live long enough, I’ll be able to take you on a date some time,” he said.
She laughed, not looking impressed.
After a few more drinks, Matteo barreled through the kitschy saloon wooden swing door of the men’s room, which left the area far less than private. Inside, his heavy hands knocked over the loose paper towels on the sink. He came out, just a little bit refreshed.
They plowed through some bright red shots and then after a few regulars started to file in, fresh off their shifts, wouldn’t you know, there they were. Kaylee and Jorge, walking into Franky Espada’s. Concha and Matteo burst out laughing.