The Perfect Brick of Feta

Larry accepts the transcranial advertising patch on his way into the supermarket. The next step in this—his Sunday morning grocery ritual—is to drop it into the return bin, where others have done the same. Supermarkets can compel you to accept the patch in exchange for entry, but they can’t force you to put it on. But someone spent money on this patch. It’s thick, transparent, band-aid-shaped, with delicate gold electronics filigree running between the embedded microchips. None of that opaque nonsense used to obscure the sloppy work in most disposable patches. Larry works in advertising. If worthy competition exists, he wants to know about it. He peels off the backing to expose the electropaste and smooths the gummy device onto his forehead.

Following his usual path to the fruit aisle, Larry thinks with satisfaction of his latest work, which boosted orange sales 7%. The patch warms and emits a single beep, indicating that its thermoelectric module has finished absorbing enough heat from Larry’s head to power itself.

The supermarket blurs. Larry is in a sun-drenched kitchen, the stone and light evocative of an ancient shrine, removing a cast iron pan from the oven. In the cast iron sizzles a flawless brick of feta in a sea of grape tomatoes. The tomatoes have popped and spilled sweet-smelling boiling red juice. He adds garlic and basil, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. The scent of basil does him in. A perfect moment, universal: the simple pleasure of food.

The scene leaves Larry shaken. He has not seen such high-quality advertisements in a supermarket before. As if by a force other than his own will he is inching toward the cheese aisle, where the feta is kept. Larry bares his teeth. He. Will. Not.

Larry creates advertisements. He does not fall victim to them. Since college, when he learned how those patches apply their tiny electrical currents to manipulate neurons, prodding them into artificial desires, he has lived according to cautious, uninfluenced logic. He’d optimized this path to limit shopping time and followed it even when his ex teased him for doing so.

Larry peels off the patch, but the damage is done. By force of will and habit he gets through his pre-planned, portioned list: plain tofu for protein, four servings of canned vegetables, oats, unsalted peanut butter.

When he reaches the checkout, he can still hear sizzling cheese. He wants it so much; he’s broken out into a sweat.

“Oh, honey,” the woman behind the counter says. She’s wearing long red sleeves, a red apron, a red hat. She looks, as far as Larry is concerned, like a grape tomato. “Those new adverts—seem like they’re potent to some people.”

“Not to you?” Larry gasps.

“Nah,” she says. “Tried it this morning. Pleasant. Like myself some good feta. It’ll pass. This one takes five to six hours, I’m told.”

“Not going to tell me to buy feta cheese and tomatoes?”

“Sweet gods, no. Sold out of them hours ago.”

Larry nods. He does not want to seem like one of those people, any more than he already does. He smiles, leaves, and then abandons his afternoon chores to search six grocery stores in vain. By the time he hits the seventh, it’s all over the news: an advertisement for feta cheese gone too far, a raging debate about what should and shouldn’t be allowed on those patches. An interview with someone who has given up his corporate job and bought a sheep farm.

Larry gets home, puts the groceries away, and lies down on his kitchen floor. If he tries to move to the bedroom, he may get into his car and continue searching. He doesn’t try.

In the morning, when Larry wakes with an aching neck, the need to chase down bricks of feta has passed. He calls in sick anyway, which he has not done in a decade. It upsets him—it’s true—that he will never create anything like that. He takes pride in his competent, consistent work. But something else bothers him, and he hasn’t worked out what.

He spends the morning at his desk interrogating the chip, looking for where the electroencephalographic recording of someone’s memory of feta ends and where the editing by an advertiser like himself begins. Sometime past noon he finally has the answer: no neural pathway tricks. It’s just a real person’s memory—untampered with. He should feel satisfied, having found an answer, but he feels worse than when he started and again he can’t pinpoint why.

Larry cleans his bathroom (it being on his schedule for the day) and portions out a meal of white rice, canned green beans, and unseasoned tofu. His ex hated that Larry defaulted to ‘unseasoned.’ Before she left, she told Larry how it annoyed her that he took `lukewarm’ (her word) pleasure in food, in art, even sex. At the time, it seemed a petty, unfair thing to say. He’d had pleasant experiences with all of those. But now, clenching his car keys, he understands. He has never, in his controlled life, enjoyed anything as much as whoever had prepared that cheese. A pleasure so fulfilling, so simple, that moments like those could easily constitute the entire purpose of living. The authenticity—not the artificiality—of the patch is what has wreaked havoc on him.

Larry opens his day planner to today. The same chores, meals, walks for exercise. He trembles. When the trembling stops, he rips out the page, crumples it, and leaves. He walks an inefficient route—at least ten percent more time than necessary—to a downtown plaza where he has no reason to be. He luxuriates in sunlight glittering off buildings and in the lulling chatter of pedestrians. On his way home, Larry purchases a small paper bag of honey-roasted nuts from off a cart, and it smells like life should.


FFO: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

In the last few years–in the context of the pandemic, bitter politics, and all of the interrelated upheavals–I keep returning to themes related to compassion. Namely that acts of compassion are a debt that we owe to other human beings. And that we are individually responsible for making things safer, kinder, more humane, and more truthful.

To read the entire interview...

Become a Patron of Flash Fiction Online. Patrons unlock exclusive rewards like interviews with the authors, issues of the magazine, live chats with the FFO editorial staff, & more.