“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked as I shed my jacket and signaled for a drink, pointing at the bottles already on the table. We had agreed to meet at seven, but Dr. Mishkin had started quizzing me about how Facebook worked—her daughter had been pestering her to join—and I’d lost track of time.
“Absolutely terrible!” Zoe said with a sunny smile that contrasted with the circles under her eyes. “This is way worse than Greek-gate.”
“Than what?” Oak asked as I slid into the booth beside Zoe.
“My first year here, I made the mistake of launching a digital exhibit on Greek organizations, warts and all. Documenting the quaint tradition of streaking naked through the chapel at the end of midterms. The annual competition to down a case of beer in the shortest possible time. The time hazing got so bad all fraternities and sororities were suspended for a year.” She toasted us with her beer bottle and took a sip. “I got a lot of angry feedback, but this … this time is different. If I were to scrape my accounts and do a word frequency analysis, ‘Asian cunt’ and ‘go back to China’ would show a noticeable increase in the past few days. I was born in Woodbury, by the way.”
“Shit,” Oak groaned. “Have you reported it?”
“To whom? My boss doesn’t get it. The only advice she gave me was ‘Don’t feed the trolls.’”
“Seriously?” I said. “That’s not okay.”
“This is the same boss who just last month asked for stats to include in some report so she could brag about our social media impact. She wants us to be online, but doesn’t want to hear about it if things go sideways. I’ve set my personal accounts to private, but I don’t know what to do about the social accounts we set up for the archives. They’ve been a great outreach tool. People were so positive. We posted quizzes and memes and asked for help identifying people in old photos. It was fun. Now it’s all a hot mess. To be fair, the majority of the comments we’re getting are supportive, but some of them, they’re just … icky. It’ll drive ordinary people away. Who needs to get involved in all that toxicity?”
“Liv organized her section of 101 to report the bigots on the archives Twitter account. Not that it’s going to help much.”
“Oh, she’s so sweet. I mean they’re sweet. Don’t tell them I messed up on their pronouns.”
“She’s cool about it. I mean, they are. Crap.”
“Is Liv one of your students?” Oak asked.
“Yes they are. They are one of my best students. They don’t get along with Michael Knutson at all. Makes that section of Comp 101 extra spicy.”
“I wish they were in my American history class. It’s a pretty quiet bunch. It’s really hard to get discussion going—except for Knutson, who has something to say about everything, so it ends up being me and him debating reality, like some terrible talk show where people are brought on to joust with each other. I imagine you’re getting plenty of online crap, too.”
“Just emails. Lots of them, all using the exact same content to accuse me of being a commie left-wing extremist indoctrinating innocent students into antifa, which is apparently a form of Satan worship. Who knew?”
“I’ve been getting those, too. Had over a hundred by my last count, word-for-word the same, with my department chair copied so she’s inundated, too. I wonder how many faculty have been getting the damned things?”
“Michael’s pretty industrious. I can see him going through the catalog and making a list of faculty targets based on course descriptions. He must be enjoying the hell out of this.”
“My chair got a call from a guy who works in Alumni Relations. Apparently it originated with a posting to a Facebook group for alums called Magnusson Traditions. It used to be a place for sharing heart-warming stories. Sledding down Swede Hill on cafeteria trays. Memorable hockey wins. Parties held in the barn half a mile down County Road 15 that used to be a student hangout before it burned down.”
“We have photos of that barn.” Zoe sipped her beer daintily.
“A group like that could have been a goldmine for an archivist, a place for alumni to share their experiences of college life in the past. Crowd-sourced local history. But like everything else, it’s become politicized. It was taken over by a faction that’s backing the trustees who want to turn the clock back. Make Magnusson white again. Make sure what gets taught in the history department doesn’t include depressing information about slavery or genocide. Whoever moderates that group has kicked out anyone who pushes back. It’s gotten hardcore.”
“Ugh, those private groups.” I was still riding a wave of aggro from explaining how the platform worked and all the mischief it caused to Dr. Mishkin. “What a shitty decision Facebook made setting those up. Everyone could see that train wreck coming.”
“Apparently Mark Zuckerberg didn’t.”
“Like hell. He was facing a shitstorm over failing to take hate speech and extremism seriously, so he let people draw the curtains and hold their racist rallies in private. He knew it was going to get worse, but setting up private groups made it less visible, less likely to lead to government regulation, and just as profitable.” I realized my voice had risen, and glanced around. Most of the customers seemed glued to an outdoors program on the TV over the bar.
“My theory about Mark Zuckerberg,” I continued at a lower volume, “is that somebody wrote a machine learning routine that used an archive of Wired articles as a training set, bought a spare wax figure from Madame Tussaud’s, copied some specs from Boston Dynamics, and assembled him in a Silicon Valley garage. One of those multi-stall garages for the family Lamborghinis.”
“You’re funny,” Zoe said.
“Seriously, look at him. The guy’s an android. Google should sue him for trademark violation.”
Oak choked on his beer.
“And boy, were you ever right about not making those podcasts public,” Zoe said. “I thought you were being over-cautious.”
“Same,” Oak said.
“I should have just assigned a research paper. Let them copy and paste some shit off the internet and grade them on whether they formatted their citations correctly. Sorry I got you all into this.”
“Hey, you can’t take all the credit,” Oak objected. I dug my own grave, thank you very much.”
“How’d you do that?”
“By teaching American history? Duh, I thought that was my job, but apparently there’s a parallel universe where manifest destiny is still a thing and everything American is exceptional and beyond reproach.”
“How did things get so messed up?” Zoe looked sad, but brightened up when a waitress brought my beer and dropped off a clutch of laminated menus. “I’m starving. What’s good here? Is there anything vegetarian?”
“The onion rings are edible,” I said. “If you like grease.”
“Come on, this is classic Minnesota bar food. They even have pickled eggs.” Oak pointed to a giant jar sitting on the bar near the cash register full of unnaturally pink hard-boiled eggs.
I shuddered. “I’ve already eaten. Fortunately.”
They debated the options and settled on splitting a cheese pizza, the only thing available that was both meatless and not deep-fried.
“The provost called me into his office,” I told them after the waitress returned to take orders and we surrendered our menus. They both winced in sympathy. “I’m afraid you might hear from the marketing folks, Zoe. The guy they put in charge of propaganda wants to do a feel-good story about my students doing research in the archives. They seem to think that will neutralize the hate about that student newspaper article. You don’t have to be part of it, though. In fact, we can help you practice saying ‘no’ if it helps.”
“I’m up for that,” Oak said.
“It would be good publicity for the archives,” she said uncertainly. “I know Charlie, we’ve worked together on some things. I can probably keep him from writing anything too stupid. Besides, I doubt it could hurt, considering what’s already happened.”
“You don’t have to, though,” Oak said. “Say it with me: No, no, absolutely not.” He wagged two fingers as if conducting an orchestra.
She laughed. “I don’t mind, really. I can keep Charlie in line. He’s kind of sweet, really, though he’s not very good at his job. He’s a pretty terrible writer.”
“Also, he might hit on you,” I said.
“He tried, once. Oh my god, did he flirt with you, too?”
“Yup. He must be desperate. You know something weird? I found out the college doesn’t have any policy for responding to social media attacks on employees, can you believe it?”
“Totally,” they both said, and Oak added “Actually, there is a policy and it’s CYA. Cover the college’s ass, that is. We’re on our own. This thing is not likely to go away too quickly. Michael Knutson already posted an episode on his YouTube channel about those archives discoveries your students made. He called you out by name, claiming professors always try to make everything about race.”
“He has a YouTube channel?” I asked, then answered myself. “Of course he does. He loves himself, and he loves being a provocateur. Michael and YouTube were made for each other.”
“My American History I syllabus got to star in a double episode,” Oak said. “His ideas are terrible, but his production values aren’t bad. He could go places on the angry pundit circuit.”
“Oh god, he has a lot of subscribers,” Zoe said, looking it up on her phone.
“He’s hooked into a national right-wing student organization,” Oak pointed out. “He’s aiming to build a brand as an internet influencer. And his dad is on a fash power trip, which will likely connect young Michael’s YouTube tirades to an older demographic, and that will bring in even more followers. Eventually, some other cultural crises will come along to distract him, but this could get worse before it gets better.”
The image of a network diagram bloomed in my head. A set of tight little local nodes spreading like a malignant fungus as recommendation engines connected our little college drama to extremely-online right-wing fanatics, amplified by influencers who could boost it to millions of followers. I wondered how to warn my friends what would happen if Eventive got involved, mobilizing troll armies to flush me out and hunt me down.
They had tracked me to that coffee shop where I was a barista, I felt suddenly sure. They would have followed the trail to the collision with the moose, and would be checking for any loose ends to tie off. They wouldn’t fail to notice a trending story correlated to the name of one of those loose ends…
A load of lead-lined guilt landed on my shoulders. I wished I had never dragged Zoe and Oak into this mess. Maybe the best thing to do would be to pack up and leave now, before Eventive tracked me down. Because they would, I was convinced, and they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt anyone near me.
Oak was looking at me, concerned. I gave him the best smile I could muster, picked up my beer, and drank.
“This is kind of scary,” Zoe said quietly.
“I’m sorry this is happening to you. Especially all that racist stuff, that’s disgusting.”
“But you don’t have anything to apologize for. I mean, it’s not your fault that alumni have turned into such angry lunatics. How did this happen?”
“I could give you a lecture on the history of right-wing media, from Father Coughlin to the present, but I’ll spare you,” Oak said.
I took it as a moment to steer the conversation away from ugly messages and looming fear. “I had a really interesting conversation with my landlady tonight,” I told them.
“I love your landlady,” Oak said. “I’ve never met her, but I’m a huge fan. Maggie tells me all these stories. I really want to meet her one of these days.”
“I’ll see what I can do. She’s a retired math prof, Dr. Mishkin. Do you know her?”
Zoe shook her head. “Not offhand. There might be something in our clippings files for faculty.”
I doubted it. Dr. Mishkin seemed pretty determined to avoid leaving a trail. “She was married to a Russian professor, back when Russian was offered at Magnusson. He had a different last name. Daniel something. Daniel Hemingway?”
“Daniel … Faulkner?”
“That rings a bell for some reason. Oh, I remember now. His daughter contacted us a few years ago asking if we wanted his ties. So weird. I had to tell her no. See, I do know how to say no!”
“I guess he really rocked his bow ties. Anyway, after we talked about Facebook for a while, and why she shouldn’t join it, Dr. Mishkin loaned me a book about Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union with a title something like ‘everything is possible and nothing is true’ or maybe the other way around. It’s about how weird things got when reality TV shows got mashed together with propaganda and how Putin wanted to make people get so confused and jaded they just gave up trying figuring out what was going on. Which sounds like the situation over here these days, reality TV and all.”
“That title sounds familiar,” Oak said. “Isn’t it from Hannah Arendt?”
“Could be. Dr. Mishkin gave me a whole stack of books about totalitarianism. Not sure I’ll have time to read any of them, but it was a fun conversation. She’s pretty sharp for her age.”
The pizza came and so did my second beer. They kindly offered me a slice, though I declined. Oak looked hungry enough to eat it all by himself.
“So, looks like I may have to move,” Zoe said after licking her fingers clean. “I live in one of those old houses near campus that has been carved up into apartments. The landlord is talking about remodeling the building, and raising the rent. I found this out when I called to tell him the bathroom ceiling had finally collapsed. I mean, the place seriously needs work, but I can’t afford another two hundred a month. And unlike some people, my car’s too small to sleep in. Did you know Oak sleeps in his van?”
“You mean like … regularly?”
He nodded. “I like the simple life. Besides, I don’t earn enough to pay for rent and food, and leases are impossible when you don’t know where you’ll find work next semester. There’s a guy who lets me camp on his land out County Road 15—actually, near where that barn we were talking about burned down.”
“So how do you … I mean, what do you do about—”
“It’s an old homestead. There’s a privy.”
“Okay. Rustic, but functional. What will you do in the winter?”
“The privy will still work.”
“I mean to stay warm?”
“I have a small propane heater, and plenty of warm blankets. It works, for now anyway. Sooner or later I’m going to have to either win the lottery or do something else for a living.”
“Like fix up old houses, your Plan B. Dr. Mishkin’s house is kind of falling apart. I’ll bet she’d pay you to make some repairs around the place. Her daughter wants her to sell the house and move to an old folks’ place, but she’s stubborn. If we spiffed it up a little, maybe she could stay put and I won’t end up homeless.”
He was agreeable. Now I just needed to see if Dr. Mishkin would be. I had an ulterior motive—if I did have to take off suddenly, Dr. Mishkin would have someone local who could drive her to the grocery store and help her with errands. It would ease my mind if she could continue to defend herself from being forcibly moved into senior housing.
We chatted as the slices of pizza disappeared and we had another round of beer before settling our bill and heading into the night.
“Let me know how it goes,” I told Zoe as she headed up the hill toward her apartment. “With the trolls.”
“Will do. I’ll probably talk to Charlie tomorrow to see about putting that feel-good story together.”
“I’ve sent him the names of some students in my course who might be good to interview. Look, um … don’t be surprised if things get worse. It’s a local issue at the moment, but I have a feeling it will become bigger than that. We could get bombarded with random abuse, even uglier than what you’re already getting. Try not to let it get you down. I mean, ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is useless advice, but you might want to be prepared to deactivate the social accounts for the archives until it blows over. And maybe set up some filters for your email so you don’t have to look at racist shit. There are also ways to remove your personal information from data brokers, which can help make doxing more difficult. I could help if you want. I’ve done it before.”
“Thanks. I may take you up on that. This was fun, tonight. It helps to know other people, unlike my boss, get what it feels like to be ganged up on.” She did seem to be in better spirits. I hoped she would sleep better tonight, and lose some of the shadows under her eyes.
Oak’s van was parked down the street, in the direction I took to walk home. “I hate that Zoe’s being picked on.”
“Intersectionally, at that,” he said.
“Women of color always get more shit than anyone.”
“True, though sounds as if you’ve had your share.”
He said it in a neutral way, not fishing but signaling he was ready to listen. Maybe it was the third beer that made me feel like confiding in him—a little. “I once broke up with a guy who was extremely online. It’s never fun. Can I see inside your van?”
“Sure, though it’s kind of a mess.” He slid the side door open, stepped inside, and shook out a quilt to cover the rumpled bed. There was wooden cabinetry under the mattress, a sink and stove over cupboards along one side, even a bookcase above the bed, filled with books held in place with a bungie cord. He sat on the bed and gave a “be my guest” wave at a chest topped with a cushion. I climbed in and sat.
“It’s roomier than it looks. The top pops up, so you can stand up when you’re cooking, plus there’s a big screen window. When it’s warm outside, I like to leave it open at night so I can see the stars.”
“It looks like a tiny house. Everything tucked into its place. How does it all fit?”
“A friend of mine is a cabinetmaker. He helped me design all the storage, him and a lot of YouTube videos. You wouldn’t believe how many people make a living off of filming themselves living out of their vehicles. Hashtag van life.”
“It would not surprise me at all. People have no concept of how much money there is in influencer culture. Or how many hours people spend staring at those videos and letting automated recommendations take them down rabbit holes.”
He tucked a pillow behind his back and leaned against the side of the van, kicking off his shoes to stretch his legs across the bed. “Those videos weren’t all that helpful, though. They tend to focus more on demonstrating products I can’t afford—”
“Which they got for free to promote them.”
“No doubt. That, plus some blah-blah about freedom and independence, and tons of financial advice about how you should get a job with a huge salary and invest it all wisely so you can check out of the rat race early and spend the rest of your life as an adventurous vagabond. I seem to be doing this backward.”
“How long have you been living in this?”
“Since I defended my dissertation. Four years. This may be my last year, though. My future self keeps telling me I need to settle down and earn some dough so I can climb out of poverty someday. I can’t afford to keep teaching.”
A car passed by, its lights sliding across him and up across the ceiling, bands of light striping the darkness before the shadows took over again.
“I may quit, too,” I said.
“Do you want me to talk you out of it, or help you decide to chuck the academic life? I’m good at both arguments, I’ve been practicing ever since I got the damn degree.”
“Teaching this class has been more fun than I expected, but things may … I may have to leave.”
He nodded. Again that patient open door, that unspoken invitation to trust him. I looked over his kitchen setup. “How does that stove work?”
“Propane. For refrigeration, I just put ice in the cooler every few days. You’re sitting on it, by the way. Does double duty as a bench.”
“What about electricity?”
“I have batteries to charge my phone and laptop, and there’s some lighting installed that runs off the car battery.”
“This is cool. I like it.”
We were silent for a minute. “I should—”
“If you—” He stopped. “You first.”
“I was just going to say I should go.”
“And I was going to say whatever’s going on, I’m here if you need anything.”
“Seriously. I don’t want to pry, but I get the impression you’re in some kind of trouble. You don’t have to tell me what it is, but if shit starts to go down, let me help. I like you, and I don’t want you to get hurt. Whatever it is.”
I nodded, and I thought about telling him. That was the second time in the past two days that I was ready to spill my guts. I wasn’t used to having offers of help. I wasn’t used to having friends, not since I went on the run. It felt good. It felt scary.
I took a breath and gathered myself up, ready to give an excuse and leave. Then, for some reason, I started to tell him everything.