On a lark, Taglia bought a lottery ticket, after joking with his favorite convenience store clerk over the size of the jackpot, twenty-four million dollars. Meanwhile, he bought his nightly takeout coffee and a pint of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, which usually constituted his last meal of the day. Then Taglia, an aspiring visual artist, won twenty-four million dollars in the provincial lottery. He was utterly astonished and partially silenced of his critique of society and capitalism and social inequity and racism and all societal ill. The money allowed him to pursue his aspirations as an artist, so he felt gratified. Perhaps now he would have the opportunity to focus his energies on attaining critical respect and attracting media attention to his artwork.
If he didn’t succeed as an artist, Taglia consoled himself with the reassurance that finally he would have no money worries. He even hired an accountant and a financial advisor. These business professionals prudently and wisely invested his money. Having gotten the opportunity to know him, they invested the jackpot to provide him a sufficient income to, in their words, pursue his wild, and crazy, and whacky art, his art projects, his conceptual art, his installations.
Meanwhile, he was fascinated by the widespread adoption of smartphones. Having been born and raised in a rural area with landlines, he felt comfortable and most at home and at ease with a simple basic rotary telephone (although he used a cordless telephone, which his real estate agent gave him when he bought the condo from her). So, he deeply immersed himself in computer technology and digital art projects.
Perhaps his refusal to adopt a smartphone was related to the fact he didn’t expect to receive or make many calls, at least until after he had won the lottery, when calls from the financially distressed and opportunists cascaded. Anyway, after he thought long and hard about what would be his next art project, he decided he would surreptitiously gift up to thirteen smartphones, under the numbered corporate name his accountant and financial advisor set up. He decided to abandon the smartphones at various public venues across the city, at beaches, squares, parks, libraries, subway trains. He figured that random people would pick up one of these smartphones. As long as he paid for the calling and data plans, these unwitting art project collaborators could continue to use the smartphones. Taglia set up and configured the smartphones so that he would have access to the accounts, data, and storage. He would harvest the phone recordings, images, videos, texts, e-mails, and social media as raw material for his art project, Thirteen Smartphones. He would edit the material, and present clips and excerpts in an art installation. Eagerly, he set about his artistic journey and endeavor.
Taglia left a smartphone at Hanlan’s Point Beach, where he sometimes sketched landscapes and nudes. He thought this location was perfect: the vibe was cutting edge, antiestablishment, and progressive at the beach. He expected whoever picked up the smartphone could soon provide a rich source of artistic material. Instead, when he downloaded the media from this smartphone, he found countless nude photos, surreptitiously recorded at the clothing optional beach. While he believed some of the material might be useful in his art installation, he righteously and hypocritically considered the majority of these images exceedingly sleazy, prurient, and voyeuristic. The video of gay men having sex along the cruising trail wending its way along the shoreline he found a complete disappointment.
This new artistic material almost caused him to abort the project, but then he saw the user had taken some stunning and beautiful sunsets along the western shoreline of the Toronto Islands facing towards Etobicoke, and these vistas and landscapes looked simply stunning. Once again, he believed he might be on the right and righteous artistic path.
The second smartphone he left in Nathan Phillips Square. This smartphone he soon discovered was picked up by a transgender sex trade worker. He found her fascinating, but as she exchanged intelligent and thoughtful texts with fellow graduate students and tutorial assistants, he realized he may have been in over his head. The academic jargon and terminology he didn’t understand but some of the phraseology he found eminently quotable. The texts from the sex worker’s adventures with clients were the stuff of scripted commercial movies: scary, creepy johns; stolen wallets and handbags; arguments over condoms and protection and risky unprotected sex; daring sexual encounters in public spaces, shopping mall washrooms, parks, corporate C-suites. Astonished at the wealth of raw artistic material and the social and philosophic questions it raised, he carefully curated and archived this material, as was his usual practice, burning digital files to DVDs and recording the data to external hard drives and USB flash drives and data cards.
Then Taglia left a smartphone in Dundas Square. A teenage skateboarder found the smartphone. Following connection, synchronization, and data transmission, Taglia found the image folder filled with images of pizza slices the skateboarder took at various pizza restaurants across the city. The skateboarder gave him the impression he was homeless, as he crashed on the couches and sofas of countless friends, uncles and aunts, and cousins, and even park benches and underneath bridges, alongside his skateboard, but, as Taglia surmised, Mason the skateboarder was instead a free-spirited youth with an entrepreneurial family. Indeed, there were countless unanswered voicemails and texts from his parents complaining about his skipped classes and high school absences. His parents also complained about the emails and calls they received from his high school teachers, guidance counsellors, and the school administration. If Mason dropped out of high school, during his last senior year, which he was forced to repeat, when he was only a few credits shy of graduation, they would have to charge him rent. He would be forced to work as a hamburger flipper at a fast-food restaurant or a box boy at a supermarket, or as a clerk at his father’s convenience store and gas bar. Still, Mason continued to explore the concrete jungle on his skateboard, eating large pizza slices at his favorite pizza parlours along the route of skateboarding nirvana. The video he shot of skateboarders in midflight, leaping, spinning, jumping, crashing, were spectacular and amazing. Taglia thought that he would project the images and overlay these motion pictures and stop motion still captures with quotes of the youth’s text messages arguing with his parents.
Next, Tanglia left a smartphone in the section of heavy texts and formidable scientific journals in the huge reference branch of the Toronto public library, just north of Bloor on Yonge Street. However, he didn’t realize he had left the books in the medical reference section. Soon he discovered texts in German, a foreign language for him, which he translated online, using his favorite internet browser and search engine with enhanced privacy features and automatic English-to-German translation, once he selected the appropriate features.
The texts were between a graduate student and her parents. A striking person, Helga liked to take selfies. She was a large woman, but he also thought she was attractive and possessed a certain Rubenesque beauty. Helga messaged her parents that she needed money, Euros, after she suffered a stroke. Meanwhile, Helga was unable to resume her PhD studies in neuroscience because of her brain hemorrhage, which left her confused, dizzy, with vertigo, memory deficits, and brain fog.
Helga confessed to her parents in her mother tongue that she suffered the stroke after she overdosed: She snorted cocaine of unexpected purity, and her blood pressure skyrocketed. After succumbing to peer pressure, Helga wished she followed the advice of her circumspect and geeky fellow neuroscience student who worried about contamination with fentanyl, synthetic opioids, and designer drugs, or other potentially toxic impurities. Still, Helga insisted that it was the first time she had snorted cocaine and all the other graduate students were using the illicit stimulant that festive night, which became even more celebratory when they were forced to stay overnight because of the snow blizzard. In fact, the stormy winter weather also delayed the arrival of paramedics and an ambulance when her medical emergency occurred, thereby exacerbating her condition.
Despite whatever brain fog Helga said she still suffered, Taglia admired the precision of her prose, the technical language, and her methodical thinking. So, he couldn’t help wondering how someone so intelligent could be so rash and naïve—to snort black market cocaine, which she said she obtained from another graduate student in neurology at the Christmas party.
That would be the tabloid like headline Taglia would project over her German texts and selfies superimposed over screenshots of the academic articles she had published as a graduate student in neuroscience journals. Now he could observe from her own selfies that Helga suffered mobility issues, as she struggled with her cane, walker, and wheelchair. He thought the short video clips and selfies Helga produced might also make, in a disparate section of his art installation, an excellent chronicle of a young woman’s recovery from nature’s retribution.
The smartphone that Taglia left on the subway train as he departed at Yonge Station was found by a teenage runaway girl. Stacy had apparently told her parents that she was moving to Toronto to attend community college, study culinary arts, and become a pastry chef. But Taglia noted from the official e-mail Stacy received from George Brown College’s school of hospitality that her application was rejected because she didn’t have sufficient high school credits. Moreover, Stacy wasn’t old enough to apply as a mature student.
Now, judging from the journal entries Stacy made on the smart phone, she spent her days reading paperback books on the subway. She spent what little money she had on coffee, lattes, espresso, and cappuccinos in cafes and biscotti, sherbets, gelatos, and gourmet ice cream in tony cafes in Greektown on the Danforth, where she resumed her reading. Then, after she did her straphanging act to the opposite side of the city on Bloor Street West, Stacy ate parsimoniously at the fancier restaurants and cafes on the patios and boulevards, where she continued reading her favorite books and magazines she picked up from recycle bins. Stacy admitted she felt guilty because her exacting and fickle taste wouldn’t permit her to eat considerably more inexpensive snacks and cheap meals from fast food restaurants.
Stacy was couch surfing, too, sleeping in a spare bedroom of an uncle one week, the sofa of an aunt the next, and a high school friend’s upper bunk bed the following week. Her friend even got her pregnant and, after a violent argument, during which his parents called the police, she was subsequently forced to live in a shelter. Stacy realized she wasn’t ready for parenthood or pregnancy, which she kept secret. After she overdosed on antidepressants, she talked to a counselor and decided to obtain an abortion. Taglia felt so badly for the young woman, especially when he read she was shoplifting from grocery stores and supermarkets to eat. He entertained the idea of offering her one of the spare bedrooms he used as a studio, but he feared that would compromise the integrity of his art project.
Then Taglia had a smartphone he originally intended to leave in the lounge of the bus terminal or ferry terminal, at the foot of Bay Street, near the financial district, on the shore of Lake Ontario in the harbourfront. But he forgot this smartphone—at his favorite bar and café, where he read newspapers and drank coffee, a place he first discovered when he was a student in art college, where artists, and pseudo artists and pseudo intellectuals, Taglia joked, with some cynicism, loved to hang out. He left the mobile device when he was distracted by a woman in a short leather skirt with a crisscross cut-out crop top and a barking Pitbull.
Soon Taglia found he was looking at cryptic texts for what he could only conclude were illicit drugs and drug shipments. He began to receive the impression that the smartphone had been hijacked by a high-level drug dealer. There were photographs of various types of pills, tablets, capsules, and powders in sandwich baggies, and then large shipments, packaged in rolls of duct tape, shaped like bricks, of what appeared to be illicit drugs. The material and images he observed and studied were like photos police released to media showing smuggled and concealed drug shipments. Why would a drug dealer be so imprudent to use a phone he found castaway in a bohemian café, where the avant-garde thrived. Taglia could only surmise the drug dealer knew more about smartphone technology and apps than he did.
The texts between the drug dealer and his associates were written in slang and argot Taglia barely comprehended. He deciphered and unencrypted the jargon and argot through liberal use of an online urban dictionary. Alongside the images, these messages became extremely graphic and the violence disturbing. When Taglia saw the images of an amputated finger from a drug mule and addict who owed tens of thousands of dollars, he thought he needed to find a way to disconnect this smartphone from the network or even retrieve the device surreptitiously. When he saw a graphic image of a decapitated head, Taglia thought he hit artistic gold, but, at the same time he found the image so graphic and disturbing he considered ending his artistic project.
Then, the global positioning system on the city map of his desktop computer screen showed the smartphone getting closer and closer to his own condo. The bleeps sounded loud warnings through the high-fidelity speakers of his digital studio, with its desktop work stations with dual monitors, purchased with lottery money, in the east end of the downtown core.
The end came with a simple rapping, accompanied by a polite, firm, and loud voice, at the door. The bleeping from the honing device software for the smartphone combined with the loud knocking abruptly alarmed Taglia, interrupting him in his evening labours, when he was processing, editing, and manipulating mixed media, text, images, and videos at his workstation. He clenched the receiver, his tense fingers primed to hit the numbers on the cordless telephone. When the pounding resumed and he didn’t recognize the voice, he hit the preprogrammed emergency number button for 911 for fire, ambulance, or police. Taglia answered the door and a man in a fedora and a tasteful blazer over what looked like a very expensive T-shirt told Taglia that IT technicians and cartel hackers tracked the smartphone to this address. Taglia hoped for the arrival of the police as he clung to the ceremonial dagger a Sikh, whom he had befriended as a teenager, had given him as a parting gift. Meanwhile, Glasgow weaselled his way inside Taglia’s condominium and showed him his handgun.
When the police officer arrived, Glasgow stood near the open door, which she closed. Glasgow apologetically explained that he was attempting to return a lost smartphone when Taglia suffered a panic attack. This jived with what the police officer assumed and presupposed, Glasgow’s forthright assertion confirming her suspicions. Besides, when she saw who the caller was, she took an instant dislike to Taglia. Her body language showed she was uncomfortable with the summons, as she shifted on her shapely hips and legs, shrouded in neatly pressed striped trousers. The officer pursed and twisted her lips in some odd contorted facial expression, as if she was dealing with a perp who hadn’t washed in months. She didn’t want to deal with Taglia.
In that instant Taglia thought he understood. He remembered her as the gorgeous constable who had come to his door during a past encounter. He had attempted to shoo this constable away, like she was some pesky pest, despite the fact he thought she was most attractive.
That evening, before she arrived at his condominium, she conducted a quick database search and traced the telephone number to records of a wellness check she herself had coincidentally done on him in a neighbouring house. She was the police officer who responded after a neighbour called and expressed concern over his frantic pacing, frenetic activity, restlessness, and pressured speech, which she could hear through the walls and in the hallways. In a manic painting spree, fuelled by energy drinks, protein bars, and methamphetamine, Taglia didn’t leave his boarding house room for two weeks. Meanwhile, he worked on his art and painted and stroked and daubed, brushing his way through several oversized murals, for a crucial project for art college. The massive murals ultimately ended up getting hung up around several high-rise construction sites, surrounding massive holes in the construction grounds for condo tower developments.
When a moment of mutual recognition occurred, Taglia felt ashamed at the sight of this officer, embarrassed by how disrespectful and verbally abusive he had behaved towards her when she attempted to question him. He remembered how several years ago, as he splashed and slopped gobs of brightly coloured paint with exotic pigments on his canvas, he attempted to shoo her away. He hurtled spiteful sarcastic retorts, when she told him she was merely there after she had been summoned to his room by a concerned neighbour. He could see she didn’t wish to respond to a call for police service at his apartment. Now, believing that the situation was safe and under control, she found reassurance in the words and manner of the slender man, dressed in a light-coloured suit, pastel shirt, boat shoes, and a fedora. This suddenly ingratiating figure, who had invaded Taglia’s home, the constable found encouraging, and Taglia found frightening and dangerous.
When the constable was ready to leave, Taglia made several gestures in pantomime, including that of a handgun, concealed in a coat pocket. Meanwhile, Glasgow caught wind of his performance and body language. Taglia realized his message wasn’t registering with the constable and became desperate. Taglia showed her the ceremonial dagger and said he was ready to use the weapon to defend himself from the intruder if she didn’t call backup. Glasgow pulled out his revolver. When the constable reached for her weapon, Glasgow shot her. Then, he aimed at Taglia at point blank range, but, virtually instantaneously, Taglia stabbed Glasgow in the middle of the chest. Still, Glasgow managed to fire a bullet into his torso. As Taglia stood bleeding, clutching his stomach, he was giddy with the knowledge he was the last person standing. Still, he reached for his drafting chair for support and soon collapsed.
Glasgow and the police officer were not stirring or moving after they apparently lost consciousness due to their injuries. Taglia struggled to use his misplaced art project smartphone, which had fallen beside him on his floor, but Glasgow had applied a passcode, which barred access to the cell phone and cyberspace. This ending he found too abrupt, too melodramatic, for his art project; his hubris ended too soon his hopes for his artwork project and his innovative subjective reconfiguration of the lifestyle changes induced by mobile telephone technology.
Taglia attempted to crawl across the room, to his cordless telephone. He managed to inch his way across the floor to the end table, where the telephone was mounted, but, weak, nauseous, and in extreme pain, he collapsed in exhaustion. The base of the telephone beeped a muted warning because the battery was low on power and close to dying. He needed to move the cordless handset to its mount to charge its battery, but he could hardly move. He couldn’t even shout or scream for help, where he lay helpless on the hardwood floor, alongside the two other victims.
Taglia faced the uniformed police officer and gazed into her motionless eyes. Entangled in her long dark blonde hair, he lay directly beside her in the pathos. He found her beautiful and considered the romance of suffering and perishing beside this woman in a uniform as he felt his arms go cool and lost the sensation in his hands. To die beside such a woman was beyond his wildest dreams. If he could chronicle and document the moment, he thought, his artistic ambitions, his mixed media project, would be complete.
As his thinking grew incoherent and cloudy, he felt excruciating pain and fulfillment, laying in this puddle of blood beside this woman, alongside her for an infinity, he imagined, drifting through an abyss of confusion. At that moment his field of vision became a grainy scintillating screen. He blacked out and completely lost consciousness, a casualty of harsh reality.
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. Having graduated from arts and science at Humber College and journalism at Centennial College, he more recently earned a Specialized Honors BA in English Literature from York University. His short fiction has been featured in community newspapers and radio and published in a variety of print and online journals and magazines, in the US, Canada, and internationally. His many passions include journalism, literature, economics, photography, writing, and coffee, and he enjoys hiking and cycling.