After Amazon laid me off I started wandering around my dying hometown mall pretending to look for a job. This was my teenage shopping concourse, so it meant something to me. I could redraw the mall’s color-coded map from memory. I knew the tragic histories lurking behind the crank-down gates of its storefronts. The Sam Goody had become an iPhone repair place. The Applebee’s had turned into a solid, immigrant-owned Mexican restaurant, until it was driven out of business by racist Yelp reviews. The movie theater where I’d gotten my first kiss was vacant, listed for rent by an entity known as Synergism Commerce & Assets, LLC. Every morning I walked past the blank marquee—twenty thousand daily steps on my fitness app, the same elliptical route, entrance to exit. I wore my dead brother’s Oakleys and listened to System of a Down on his fraying headphones, dodging glares from the pretty high school girls working the kiosks. I’d just turned thirty-three. I must have seemed creepy to them, old and pathetic. I’d never been in better shape in my life.
Then, one day, there was a new attraction outside the Build-A-Bear. The small team of employees didn’t wear uniforms, but they acted like they did. They were coaxing unsuspecting shoppers into these comfy-looking massage chairs, lowering big virtual reality goggles onto their heads like crowns. The woman directing this team was in her late twenties, with mandala tattoos on her wrists and a brass, glinty ring in her septum. I tried avoiding her. I veered in the direction of the Auntie Anne’s that had fired my brother from his first job for sneaking me free meal combos, turning toward that familiar doughy-salty pretzel smell, but she flagged me down. “Not so fast, comrade!” the woman said. She asked if I had a second to spare for the multi-millennia struggle for animal sovereignty and self-determination. JANE, her name tag read.
“I don’t have any money,” I said to her, reflexively, apologetically. This was the truth, maybe the grandest truth about me and my family. I’d come to deploy it often on my laps around the mall.
“This isn’t like that,” Jane said with a grin. She had the whitest rich-girl teeth I’d ever seen.
“You’re running some kind of charity then?” I asked her.
“It’s more of a decentralized nonprofit,” Jane said. “Our organization offers consumers a chance to better empathize with nonhuman agencies. Honestly, it’s easier if I show you. You sort of have to experience it to understand it. Can you tell me what you’ve eaten over the past twenty-four hours?”
It was a simple question, one that took me too long of a time to answer. What did I eat yesterday? What about the day before that? Had I been born in the parking lot that morning? I had to wonder. Did some slimy, blooming alien pod hock and spit me out, fully grown, to putz around this mall and preserve the illusion that brick-and-mortar commerce would survive the retail apocalypse? No, no. I had memories: the deep breath my brother would take before blowing into a dusty N64 cartridge, the Happy Meals and orange soda that our sobbing mom bought us before he flew to his pill rehab in Minnesota. It was confirmed; I was a person who ate and drank things every day, though not the kinds of things that I felt comfortable mentioning to someone like Jane. So I said to her, “Yesterday, I had a nutritious smoothie for breakfast.”
Jane nodded and took out a palm-able tablet, then skeptically noted my response.
“What about lunch?” she asked.
“A salad,” I said. “A green salad.”
“Any added proteins?”
“Are croutons a protein?”
“I can google that,” she said with a nod. “Any meat or animal-based products, by chance?”
Suddenly, I knew I’d taken the wrong tack with her. Why was I trying to impress this attractive, worldly solicitor with lies, when I could summon her sympathies by telling the truth? I was an American, after all; I ate like shit, whatever was cheapest and around. Since my brother’s funeral, I’d been surviving almost exclusively on his stash of imitation Pop-Tarts, Kirkland brand, hot fudge sundae-flavored. When I said this Jane’s smile got so wide I saw her gums, pink with perfect hygiene.
“God, I loved Pop-Tarts before I went vegan,” she said, biting her lip. “Can you tell me anything about the origins of the gelatin used in those Pop-Tarts?”
“I would guess. . . it came from an animal.”
“An animal who lived. . . ?”
“On a farm that isn’t nice to animals.”
“And after that?”
“A slaughterhouse, also not-nice to animals.”
“Then a truck, then a supermarket, then my mother’s pantry, then my stomach.”
“Look at you,” Jane said. “Mr. Informed Consumer.” She gave her tablet a few encouraged pokes.
“You know, I get that eating animal products is wrong,” I said to her. “My brother was a vegetarian before it was cool. In the 90s. He used to volunteer in the pet shop where the drone store is now. But I’m not that good of a person. If he didn’t convert me, sorry, you’re not going to either.”
Jane absorbed this information and stowed her tablet in its little waist holster, like a gun.
“Wanna bet?” she said.
Before I could respond she went over to the rack of headsets, chose one, and sprayed sanitizer along its inner lining. She gestured for me to take a seat in the nearest massage chair, and once I was reclining in it, she asked if I was ready to “meet my meat.” There was a tween boy a few chairs away, headset on, his candy-colored sneakers repeatedly popping up and heel-pounding the footrest. He was reacting to what he was watching like he was on a roller coaster at Busch Gardens. “Holy crapola!” he kept saying. “Holy crapola!”
“Before we start,” Jane said to me, “do you consent to being shown a series of potentially shocking and/or disturbing and/or triggering images?”
I said okay, sure. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d held my toothless, overdosing brother in my arms as he died. I’d left him alone in the food court when I wasn’t supposed to, and he’d disappeared and shot up and seized to death on the floor of a changing room in the JCPenney. That was actual reality; I figured I could handle VR. I took the headset and handed Jane my brother’s sunglasses and headphones, which she said she’d guard until I was finished. She was going to clean the sunglasses for me with eco-friendly wipes.
“This technology saved me from the darkness,” I heard her say. “It gave me a reason to stay living in the world and a message to share with others, when I thought I had neither. I hope it does the same for you.”
When the video begins, you’re in the POV of a pig on a factory farm. You can look left, right, up, down, 180 degrees, but you can’t move. You’re stuck where you are, inside the head of the pig on the farm. Pig-you is standing in this narrow, fenced-in walkway with huge, square pens on either side, and they’re crammed with thousands of pigs oinking, farting, stomping their hooves. As an unseen British-accented narrator explains, pig-you weighs 286 pounds. She-you consumes 80 pounds of corn and soy per day and has the problem-solving abilities of a three-year-old child. Pig-you is also a soon-to-be momma. You’re one in a long line of expectant mothers, all about to be induced to give birth. In front of you, in high-definition, is the vagina of another pregnant pig. It’s dilated, irritated. Revolting, fascinating. The mother ahead of you lets out a squeal of pain, and slowly, a newborn piglet’s gooey-bloody head crowns out of the reddening, dilating vagina. Piglet after piglet slides out of her in a gush of placenta, squeals, and tangled limbs; piglet after fragile piglet is born and falls and crashes down hard against the sheet metal birthing platform below until there are twelve in total. Screeching, gasping, they shudder together in a sluice of afterbirth and dirt. It’s shocking and disturbing for you-you and for pig-you. But it’s captivating as well. The constant flow of piglets is, from your hybridized perspective, an event whose miraculousness exists at an equal distance beyond language for both pig-you and man-you. The pure bursts of life-force are raw, furious, ancient. Through the wonder of VR, you are momentarily transported out of yourself. You are neither fully a man in a mall massage chair nor a pregnant pig on a factory farm. Instead, you perceive your consciousness as an alien or an angel or a god might see it, as just another organism among trillions battling for a few fleeting joys in a ruthless, merciless slaughterhouse. This is when pig-you and human-you become indistinguishable, when you realize whatever consuming sadness was inside your brother resides in you and in the pig, and if you continue eating Pop-Tarts for all three meals a day, it’s going to kill you. You can’t keep pretending to look for jobs at this mall. You must hunker down and make not just one seismic change but many of them, and soon, and just as this feels possible, you see the farm workers stomping in and hosing down the piglets and identifying the weaker ones, whose skulls they smash against a spiked riser that appears specifically designed for smashing newborn piglet skulls—
Which is when I decided that I’d seen about enough. I stood up, peeled off the headset, and returned it to Jane, thanking her for an experience that had given me a lot to think about. I walked away before she could stop me, leaving the headphones and sunglasses behind.
From there I speed-walked to the food court and asked each establishment for an application, please. Panda Express, Sbarro, Nathan’s Famous. These were the same stands that fed my brother and me as boys, their neon signage once glowing over long lines and packed tables, but it was dead in there, depressing. All the tables were empty, yet somehow strewn with trash and wrappers and torn Splenda packets. So before I started in on the applications, I went around cleaning the filthy tables. The restaurant managers were all staring at me, whispering to their employees and pointing. But I wasn’t deterred. I wiped away the ketchup and sauce streaks, threw out the smeared and crumpled napkins, picked up every last crumb of wasted food. I cleaned until I was sure that my audience was taking note. Like Jane, I wanted a purpose, a job to do and do well.
I needed everyone to see how good I was.
CARMEN PETACCIO is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Miami. His fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have previously appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Gulf Coast, and The Baffler. He lives in Miami.