SIDE-B:
RETURN

SUPPLY SIDE STORIES

BAROQUESPIRAL

01//BLACK APOTHECARIA

A lot of people said a pregnant woman shouldn’t even cross the threshold of a black apothecary. Amelia’s eyes bobbed in surprise from under the huge brim (a foot and a half in diameter, ostentatious even for black apothecaries, let alone ones of her height) of her black (technically, a dark navy blue velour) pointed apothecary’s hat. She had seen that Lina’s nanites had confirmed her pregnancy on her encrypted microlog (she had a policy of following regulars’ social media, if they would let her).


Thick and somewhat kitschy, if one understood that the judgment could apply to smell, incense mist diffused throughout the room. The walls of Amelia’s apothecary were hung with paintings (by a local artist) and holographic posters (from online) of large women in various states of undress, fat rolling down their arms and thighs like pads of a regal dress, lushly made up with coloured hair and nails and beaded eyebrows and lashes, neither sexualized nor sexless, gazing into limpid oasis pools or reclining against the rippling backs of jungle beasts. A number of her most loyal customers looked, or at least strove to look like this, and appreciated the paintings, but Amelia herself was 5’4”, narrow and angular even to the tips of her ears which looked either elfin or like they had been bitten by some long-ago dog. She also didn’t wear much in the way of makeup besides a haze of grey-purple eyeshadow that overcompensated for the manic wakefulness of her eyes and sparkle-painted nails.


Lina, on the other hand, looked haggard, more genuinely than she usually did. Her hair, as always a layer of lighter bronze than her skin over a layer of oily and tangled black, looked like it hadn’t been washed in several days, and the dye itself was wearing through. She had pulled a loose-knit shawl tight around her black sports bra and leggings, tassels trailing to her knees, her still hard and square stomach, like the door to a safe, showing through in the eyelets.


She grinned sheepishly. “I went to a white apothecary, but she agreed I can’t go cold turkey just yet. She wants you to titrate me over the first three months.”


While white apothecaries were focused on healing and enhancing bodies to maximum functionality, black apothecaries dealt in potentially addictive and generally recreational - in the fractal consensus of the Academia Apothecaria, there increasingly wasn’t considered to be a distinction - substances.


“Hmmm. Well of course you’re going to have to put me in touch. And I haven’t asked for access to your nanite data before, but at a point like this it seems unavoidable. Would you be comfortable giving me that?”


Lina nodded distractedly.


“In any case, a good starting redline would be 100 mg of caffeine. That’s a big cut from the 300 mg you’re used to.”


Amelia wiggled her eyebrows with a mock-surprise that grated on Lina, with its faintly insulting implication that she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. As if her black-apothecary were simultaneously her pleasure principle, the devil on her shoulder, and her mom - a contradiction all black apothecaries carried, and in Lina’s opinion didn’t carry well, as much as she admired the aesthetics of their shops, which she had been contemplating around the walls before Amelia had dragged her unpleasantly back to their conversation.


“That’s fine. You’re gonna compensate it with other stuff, obviously. I’m not such an addict as I look."


Lina had been taking the energy drinks for her job climbing trees to install satellite dishes and mesh nodes, or the weight training she did for personal reasons on the side, or the dancing in clearing raves she sometimes did until the early hours of dawn - whichever she knew was going to exert her most, not the physical energy in her muscles but the willpower that distorted it through her brain. Not in the sense that a white apothecary would have recommended - it was still not what she needed and nothing more - but Lina had not been brought up in a family that thought about food that way, that still picked up rare formulations of corn syrup and trans fats from outskirt restaurants on weekends that picked them up from black apothecaries themselves.


“Of course not, I’d be apologizing if I thought you were.”


Amelia climbed up on a stool, pulled one of her holographic posters aside from a cupboard, and extricated a culture plate from a stack on a shelf lined with stacks. From the side, they could only be identified by strips of paper with letters so small that Lina couldn’t imagine reading them, or imagined she probably didn’t read so much as read their outlines, a landscape of pre-glyphic tracks. “This one’s called Ashbya gossipii. I love this name. It sounds like it was discovered by a girl named Ashby and she was gossipy. It was actually discovered by a guy named Ashby and I don’t know if he was gossipy, or if his teammates thought so. This was 1923. They didn’t have internet, so they can’t gossip about it to us, I guess.”


Lina giggled.


“I mostly use these to make Vitamin B2 and riboflavin. But I’ve got one batch here, that I barely ever get a chance to bust out, that makes folic acid. You’re going to want some of this, if you’re not already getting a supplement. We’ll start with 100 mg and then titrate you up as we titrate the problem ingredients down.”


Lina shook her head. “We haven’t discussed it yet. They normally -“


“Yeah, check in with your nanite readings, determine probability ranges of deficiencies and all that. But in the meantime it won’t hurt to have extra of this stuff. Same goes for all the EAAs that are in your blend normally.”


“Do I… taste this stuff?”


“As a black apothecarian, I believe everyone tastes everything; every slightly different


“Speaking of which, same flavour profile as usual?"


“Yep. Mango, pineapple, guava… you know what, I think I’ll treat myself a bit and add some passionfruit this time. I guess I should ditch the white tea leaf.”


The flavours didn’t come from the apothecary’s own resources but were packed in powder form from a local food forest, where they had an agreement for a percentage of production in exchange for a percentage of the apothecary’s own products, give or take demand.


“I’ll give you the least caffeinated and titrate it down.”


“God, it’s gonna feel like so little and so much at the same time. I should have done this before getting pregnant.” She paused. “I mean, can I apologize to you? I feel like I need someone to apologize to.”


Amelia started back. “What about the… the guy?”


“Machine.”


“You’re kidding me. You’re a robofucker and… you can’t just pick the one that doesn’t have sperm functionality?”


“Yeah and that’s why I want to apologize to someone, like it was an impulse decision I made all by myself. And I wasn’t drunk or high or anything, because you know my Hamite readouts and know I don’t get much of anything except from you! I mean, it’s a real decision, and I think I want to stick by it? But I didn’t expect to make it. I think I wanted to get out of my job. I wanted to force myself out. And I wouldn’t be able to stop something like this, or everything else I’d need to do to plan it, without quitting, and I wouldn’t be able to quit unless it was something like I was putting another being at risk. Isn’t that fucked up? I wanted to do something else with my body though. My job was like part of my addiction. I wanted to get healthier, I think, weirdly enough. To have an excuse, to force myself.”


Amelia smiled wrily. “Women shouldn’t be forced to do anything, I think. Even by ourselves. We suffered too much for that.” She nodded over to another cabinet (this one much larger than the others), with another bacterial culture. “If you want to change your life, are you sure you want to change it in this way? You know, I could always change your levels on you. Without even telling you, if you think you wouldn’t be able to decide. Give you a surprise.”


“Sucralose is safe, I think I’ll give you a little extra.”


“Titrate that down too.”


She shrugged. “Think about it. What’ll you be doing in the meantime, while you languish away on 100mg of caffeine?”


“I have a huge backlog of music my friends from high school have been sending me. I used to be sort of a connoisseur but then I got just sort of addicted to the stuff I’d hear in the clubs, or the silence up in the trees. Like I wouldn’t even know how to listen to anything else any more.”


“Music in the waters.” Amelia drifted off into a reverie. “You know I don’t think I’ll ever do it myself, but I think about it all the time. I like to read about it. Mothers’ blogs. It’s the ultimate form of alchemy.”


“Send me some of the things you read sometime.” Lina sighed. “Will this be your first time watching it up close?”


“I’ve had pregnant women come in for things, but never… worked with them through it. It becomes transactional. Occasional drop-ins for things we both obviously know and the white apothecary said are fine. Like, friendly. But just…” she laughs. “You know, I’m always friendly! When you’re young, the white apothecary is friendly, the black apothecary is your friend. And when you’re older, the black apothecary is friendly, the white apothecary is your friend. And that’s… still when and how a lot of women get older? I suppose.”


“You’ve always had a white apothecary vibe, for a black apothecary. If that’s not offensive.”


Amelia sighed. “Well, an apothecary’s an apothecary, right? But so many black apothecaries want to be high school drug dealers from prohibition, I guess. Or convenience store owners.”


“And you’re older than me, right?”


They looked about the same age. But Amelia was some five years older. But it struck her that she hadn’t thought about it in almost as many years. She thought of joking that that was her secret, then realized that her customer didn’t want a secret. “Anti-aging” diets and formulae were the indulgences the white apothecaries hawked, sometimes, she thought, with the shamelessness of old drug companies.


“I’m an apothecary.” She winked. “We’re ageless.”


02//FLASH COMPANY

The leather seat bears the reluctance of my body into the void. No matter how eager I am for the ride, momentum always betrays my reluctance. It is the overcoming of reluctance that is the joy of driving. It feels like my mother lifting me into the air as a child, letting go, the discovery that I can lift and fall. If I didn’t have these seats, these seats that evoke a softness and firmness I’m sure I’ll never feel in a woman’s body, not that I’ve ever had the chance to test this, because even those memories of my mother’s chest and belly don’t recall that exalted relaxed tension.

The cop cars are in the rearview again. I’m out of smoke bombs to blow them off with and if they follow me across the bridge I’m not going to be allowed to go to the factory under protocol and the shipment will probably be sent off without any changes. The detours at this point could take me an hour to circle back even if I shake them. My best survival strategy is to confuse their algorithms but I’ve never performed a Doppler drift at this speed.

I speed up and angle my car just enough to shift my momentum slightly towards the edge of the road. Just as I’m about to switch lanes (or where the lanes would have been if the paint on the road had been maintained in two decades) I start drifting, turning my wheels straight again at the same time so I’m realigned by the time I hit the engine again, just as the cop car is starting to gain on me. At which point I turn again. It’s a maneuver that requires both automatic and manual steering - automatic to micro-tune the steering enough to maintain these slight shifts in momentum without just driving off the road, manual to turn it off and drift - which means it’s guaranteed to outwit a car driving exclusively on automatic, and the cops in those cars would barely know how to drive manually in a suburban parking lot, let alone match moves like this. After a few rounds the cop cars behind me are in the wrong lane, no longer able to match my momentum - and zoom helplessly into a turnoff in my rearview.

No one drives any more, so it’s not that bad if it’s just a few badasses like me, right? The road only made sense for us anyway. It’s not like it’s being wasted on traffic jams any more.

I’m alone as I cross the bridge, looking down at the plastic-grey water, its calm and smoothness syncopated with mine, and the wind’s (rolling the top down again, now that I don’t have to worry about stray fusebreaker shots).

I like the quiet of this side of the city more than the quiet of anywhere else. There are no rustling leaves, no tractors or construction, no trains running any more, barely any birds besides crows. The buildings are still huge and concrete. They echo at the slightest noise, they echo at nothing. This used to be known as the Garment District. There are precious few people still using it as one. The corporations that had offices here, coordinating supply chains across worldwide ports and sweatshops, no longer exist. The warehouses have long since been emptied by people like Maisie. People are starting to prefer making and mending their own clothes to what she does, but there are always those who need people like her, and she needs people like me.

“This city,” Maisie once told me, “has been abandoning its factories and offices to artists for over a hundred years; and finally it all belongs to us.”

Myself with the car, Maisie with the fashion district; we make these ideals of the old world what they were always meant to be.

I pull up to 125 Chabanel. From the facade, the windows shaded with sheets of newsprint and canvas, there is no sign the building is inhabited. The doors are unlocked, and within I recognize, along a wall perfunctorily decorated with floral swirls of chalk, a series of small bronze bells, ranging in elegance from cowbell to liturgical, hanging through gaps in the ceiling from trailing liana vines. I pull on the third from the end. Its echoes roll around the cracked linoleum like a marble.

Maisie enters through a door at the end of the hallway. Her hair is now a fiery red, gelled into upturned flame-tips at the back. Her dress, tight and form-fitting and descending halfway down her shins, and accented with recycled plastic-and-tinfoil epaulets, is one of her own, instantly recognizable from its mix of colours; the entire rainbow blent thread by thread into a pastel pinkish-grey brought to life by tantalizing flecks of mint green, electric blue, gold. The world’s most beautiful toxic waste.

I’m a simple man, in my vintage Yeezys.

“I found fucking neoprene in a landfill in Laval!” I exclaim, gesturing her towards the door and my waiting car, trunk and back doors open, full of folded up clothes.

Maisie tilted her shoulders. “Uhhhh. I don’t know if even I can use that."

My eyebrows sank. “Well, there’s a bunch of good Arc’teryx polyester, too.”

“Well, if I’m lucky I’ll learn a few new weaves from that. Did you bring in the latest from the drop-offs too?”

“Yeah. There weren’t that many. Weren’t you applying for a regular transport though?”

Maisie sighed as we heaved neatly folded piles of polyester and neoprene out of the back seats. Around them in more disarray lay the deliveries from the drop-offs - long patchwork shawls with sections of rare materials cut in the shapes of logos and characters, bits of old designs repainted and mashed together in strange combinations, already several generations removed from original production. I didn’t care for these. It took someone like Maisie to make the most of such ancient materials - and not just her machines, which could be used to churn out plain ecofabrics people stopped wearing when they learned what they could do on their own.

Upstairs, she puts a bright green Arc’teryx jacket under a microscope, which feeds analysis to several monitors, breaking down the exact composition, weaving pattern, technical details of the machines and their settings probably required to reproduce it. “Can you sort these by colour and material?” she asks while I lean back on a ratty couch and watch the screen take shapes without interpreting it. I sigh but smile. She tosses me a pair of scissors, to cut where fabrics of different colours are stitched together. I toss her a USB stick with a new compilation of Louisiana mathbeats to plug into the main interface of the vast computer system connecting every machine on this loft - the fibre processors and spinners hulking in the dust, rows of plants between them, and of course the full-wall projections for designs and speakers. Imagine living here, day in, day out. I couldn’t. When I’m not driving my car and visiting Maisie I live a narrow attic, and smoke weed and read webtoons and sleep. Some of the machines still show signs of the oversized, ugly, blocky metal frames of machines she scavenged from the old garment district - machines from a time when the creation of beautiful clothes was cut off from their beauty. Almost all of them have visible additions and replacements in sleek black plastic from the giant 3D printer crouched at the back of the room. She secured a grant for that, saying she was going to use it to make sculpture. Everything else here she found or built. I sort them by throwing them directly into the twelve colour-specific bins.

After I’ve sorted a bunch and she’s worked a pattern out, the bins empty into the shredders. We don’t undye them - that’s one machine Maisie didn’t want to work with because it used too many chemicals that weren’t part of “the loop”. The shoddy here comes out coloured; it loses a bit of its intensity. She enriches it - or sometimes mixes, changes the colour - by dissolving a bit of new dye in the melt bath, usually organic dyes from the Townships, not the kinds of crazy chemicals she’d have to use to strip them. I’ve seen the whole process once. I’m not sure how long I want to stay. It’s really beautiful to watch her at the loom. When her prosthetic forearms - you think her real skin’s that smooth? - split apart and colorshift chrome and plug into the sides of the loom and link her brain directly to the computer system, allowing her to control the weave at a microscopic level, controlling and coordinating all hundreds of spinners at once in real time, improvising tiny variations in the algorithm producing the already complex weft.

That’s the kind of fashion they had in that era - my car’s era, those jackets’ era, that sleek machine era, drunk on the power of wasting a whole planet - but it’s also ours, our era’s. Only we could have made it. Only we could have thought of it. I can imagine flexing on A$AP Rocky in the shit she makes. I can never even bring myself to wear it. The night I stayed over, we didn’t sleep together, she woke me up and dressed me in the morning. She said she had made these for me. Some kind of dense canvas-type fiber, almost unnoticeably terraced in interlocking diamonds like a turtle’s shell. I felt uncannily like a doll, but also like an action figure. I wasn’t sure if I was being presented in the metallic dawn light, like a coat of car paint, to the past or the future. How can you be in love with a genius when you’re just some asshole retro otaku who plays chicken with highway enforcement for fun. I’m never gonna walk out of here on her arm, and I’m never gonna be her runway model either. Although she doesn’t ever seem to want to have runway models, or get money and fame wherever there still is money and fame for something like this nowadays, she just leaves these masterpieces at drop-off boxes around the island for whoever to pick up. I don’t know if anyone even asks who makes them. I’m glad we kept up after high school or I would never have known about any of this. Sometimes I think it’s almost a pity we don’t live back then where if you wanted to do something like this you would have had no choice but to fight everyone else with the same dream and claw your way to the top of the global supply chain, become a brand, a celebrity, a household name. Flashing lights. But then she probably wouldn’t have done it. And I probably wouldn’t have either. I wouldn’t have been able to touch half the designer shit I scavenge, for her or myself. I wouldn’t even have had a sick car (hydrogen modded Nissan Skyline). Someone like her has a pure soul that couldn’t have withstood the demands the world would have made for its realization. Someone like me just doesn’t compromise on anything, even the compromises you have to make to be a loser.

Waste is wasted on us.

Flashing lights.

You don’t even see them on the skyline anymore. But I see them in my eyes; I’m stoned. Her couch isn’t lifting me, it’s cruising, bearing me into an infinite distance, drifting along curves. Why hasn’t she ever fitted this couch out with some new fabric. It’s getting onto evening. She still hasn’t eaten.

“I could go out and get us something.” There’s a street market in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve still that I like to stop by when I visit here.

“There’s popcorn chicken in the fridge. Are you going to stay over again?”

I wonder how many things she might ask me if I stay over that I’ve been afraid to answer. But I’m too stoned to drive, on the highway at least.

“You wanna go to a sideshow sometime?”

She stops. The loom freezes and a popup appears on the screen, saying an interruption in input was detected. “What made you think of this?”

“I think there’s one in Buffalo. Honestly doing one on all the bridges here would be cool as shit, but I think it’s just Hells Angels who do that here? We could like, promote your shit. Or you could just meet new people.”

She turns. “Maybe… just take me out scavenging with you one time. I owe you for coming over here so much, you know.” She pauses and laughs. “You thought of a sideshow before that!”

“…yeah, it’d just be, I dunno, dope? But you’re right, that’s more you. I’d love to see what you’d pick out, it’d be so different from me.”

As I speak I think the couch is carrying me on a track towards sleep, or some kind of oblivion. I can see her racing towards it too, and I don’t know if she realizes, or just has a different deal with it than me. I’d love to ask her, but we’d have to be in the car together. It’d be like showing someone around the inside of my womb. Inside a womb, a loom, a coccoon. I listen to her prosthetics click like katydids. Am I being carried into the same oblivion from which she strains colours? Am I driving along a thread?