It was on a Tuesday when the sun became different.
I remember it clearly because Tuesdays I visit with the doctor because I have a hard time walking in a straight line.
“You’re difficult to conform,” he says.
He also thinks he is smarter than me, but I know better. The questions he asks don’t seem very bright to me. He lacks, say, electricity. So like I was saying, as far as the sun goes, I had come home and went to the back of the house and drew the long green drapes away from the large window there. I looked out and there was a bright spot on the fence where the sun was shining and it drew me in, the color of it, like golden metal pressed up tight. It was a cold color, flat, indecent yet proper. And so I looked up and even the whole sky itself looked different. There was a deeper blue confusion about it. The clouds seemed edgy. There was turmoil in the air amid the subtle change.
The house is hidden in the hills surrounding a city. It’s an urban estate of modern aesthetics – tall glass, sharp edges, white and clean as snow and just as cold and empty and lonely, especially in the shadows. The furniture sits rigid and straight. Everything is strictly kept in its place. My home looks as if it has never been lived in.
I have seven bedrooms and don’t sleep in any of them. I have four bathrooms and use only one. My kitchen is always clean. It hums in the dead of day, the big metal appliances stewing in their pipes and electrical cords. There is a window over the sink and I can look out into my yard – a trapezoidal patch of bright green grass surrounded by jungle. A small pool sits empty. There’s some lawn furniture but it’s all scattered about now because of the strong breezes we’ve had lately. The yard is as deserted as my home.
I sat a drink down on a glass end table and the subtle sound of it echoed through the room. Then the telephone rang. It was Fred. I knew this because he was the only one whoever called.
“I’m always amazed that the telephones still work.”
“I’m glad for it. At least I can call my doctor.”
“Not feeling very well? Is it the crooked walking again?” he asked.
“Yes. He doesn’t know what to do about it.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. Would you like me to come by tonight?”
“No. I’m just going to stand here and not move for a while.”
I hung up. Fred hung up. I knew this because he was the only one whoever hung up on me. Fred used to be an accountant of some sort, maybe a lawyer too. But not anymore. I used to be a geology professor. But not anymore. There are many things that are no longer the same. I used to have a wife and twin daughters. But not anymore. I used to park a car in my garage. But not anymore. Walking is all we can do now. If I need something from the city, I have to walk. I walk to the doctor, the grocery, the bar. I even walk to the post office and occasionally send a letter to someone I don’t even know – but no one gets mail anymore.
Sometimes I walk to the city with Fred. I really don’t want to because I don’t like him that much even though we consider each other to be friends. I would even say he is kind of boring, but not boring in the way of going to sleep, rather, boring in a way that makes me want to avoid him at all costs because I have better things to do. And the things he talks about are so pointless. It almost makes my stomach hurt when he starts in on how poorly the sidewalks were made.
“Just look it all the cracks,” he always points out, his long arm nearly touching the ground.
“There have been a lot of earthquakes,” I tell him.
“Even so, they should make better sidewalks.”
“They did their best,” I remind him. “The world was a mess.”
Fred picked up a small stone and threw it. It hit a light post. The sound echoed down the street.
“It’s still a mess, Frank. C’mon, you’re hip to it. You know it will never get better than this.”
I stopped and looked at him. I blew into my hands to warm them.
“Damn it’s cold. I thought we lived in California.”
There weren’t too many people at the grocery store. There were never too many people anywhere. I liked it like that, even though the place reminded me of a morgue with sparse shelves.
Fred strolled off to the produce department, but there wasn’t much there. The stores are never stocked that well anymore. I followed him over and together we looked at a handful of oranges as if we were visiting a zoo for fruit.
“They don’t look very fresh, do they?” Fred said, cocking his head and studying the oranges with a bent eye.
“They never are,” I listlessly noted. “I’m going over to the pharmacy.”
“Yes, more pills.”
“All right then, I’m going over to the meat department,” Fred said. “I want to look at a piece of chicken.”
I walked down the main aisle in the front toward the pharmacy. I knocked on the glass.
“Hey. I need to get my pills,” I said to someone, somewhere.
There was some sort of person fidgeting around in the darkened back. I had to wait. We still always have to wait.
“Your name?” he asked when he came to the window – a little man in a white lab coat all alone with the medicine and a broken heart.
“Frank Buck. Why do you always have to ask? You know who I am.”
He blinked his eyes and barely smiled.
“It’s just procedure sir. It’s company policy. It’s a corporate rule and I cannot break it under any circumstances.” He looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone else nearby. “My life depends upon it.”
The corporations still have all the power.
“All right. I guess you can’t break the rules. I understand. You need this job. Not everyone has a job anymore.”
“Did you know that being a pharmacist is the best job a person can have these days?” he boasted.
“I believe it. You’ve got 14 bottles for me, right?”
“Yes. Any questions?”
“Do I ever have any questions? Does it even matter if I have any questions?”
“Sorry. I have to ask. They’re watching me. They’re listening to me, too.”
“Sounds like you’re trapped.”
“I am,” he tried to whisper through the glass, and I only turned once to look back at the poor old soul as I walked away.
“Do you think we should buy that last piece of chicken?” Fred asked me in the Something Resembling Meat department. “We could have a fry out.”
I peered into the glass case at the lone piece of raw chicken breast sitting dead and gross in a bloody wet tray beneath a bluish-green light. I stepped behind the counter and slid a door open and flipped the piece of chicken over.
“It doesn’t look too pale,” I said.
Fred was hungry and wanted the chicken.
“Go ahead and wrap it up. I’ll pay for it.”
I wrapped up the hunk of chicken like I worked there or something and we made our way toward the front of the store and through the sliding doors. Something scanned us from above as we walked out.
“When they come for the money, we’ll tell them the chicken was mine,” Fred said to me.
The chicken sizzled on the charcoal grill I had out back. Fred and I went to the yard and plucked two toppled chairs out of the lawn. We set them up on the patio. We lit some torches. I poured Fred a strong drink. He watched me suspiciously as I withdrew a cigarette from my pack and stuck it in my mouth.
“I thought you quit those damn things.”
“I did, but why bother now?”
“I suppose you’re right. Not much to live for anymore is there?” Fred agreed.
“I don’t like to talk about it. Why is it we always end up talking about it such horrible things?”
“I don’t know,” Fred wondered. “What else is there to talk about?”
“Tell me about your dreams.”
Fred thought for a moment.
“I don’t dream anymore.”
“I know. I don’t either. Why is that?”
“I suppose it has something to do with that brain evolution stuff they’re all talking about. You know… What they say about us being able to survive when the others didn’t. They say we don’t need dreams anymore.”
“Leaves the night awfully blank though, doesn’t it?” I said with a downcast head, sad about it.
“Yes,” Fred moaned with a slight nod of his head. “I don’t sleep as much as I used to… Wait. I think the chicken is burning. Flip it over.”
I got up and flipped the meat and there were deep dark burn marks on the side already cooked.
“It might be a bit well done by the time I’m finished with it,” I said.
“That’s okay,” Fred said with a quick laugh. “Chicken is chicken and I’ll take it any way I can.”
The doorbell rang. I went through the house and opened the front door. Two officers from the Debt Police were standing there in a cloud of threatening menace. They had come to collect the money for the chicken and the pills.
“Wow,” I said. “It’s been only two hours or so and you’re already here. I swear, it seems you guys get here faster and faster every time.”
“Just give us the money, sir,” one of the officers said. “We don’t have time for idle chit chat.”
I stuck my hands in my pockets and dug around.
“Is there a problem, sir?” the other office asked as he stepped forward a bit. “Do you have the money? Yes or no?”
“I know I have it somewhere,” I said as I began to panic. “It’s in the house somewhere. But look here, that man outside, he has the money. The chicken was his idea. It was all his idea.”
The officers pushed beside me and well into the house. They went out onto the patio and Fred quickly stood up. I went to help him.
“This guy says the chicken was all your idea. Is it your chicken?” one of the officers wanted to know.
Fred shakily adjusted the eyeglasses on his face.
“Yes. I was the one who wanted the chicken. He just walked to the store with me to get his medicine. I told him I’d pay for the chicken.”
“Then give us the money,” the other officer demanded.
Fred nervously dug into his front pants pocket and pulled out some dirty cash. He flipped through the bills with his fingers.
“How much is it again?”
“Fifty-five dollars for the chicken and four-hundred and twelve for the pills,” one of the officers snapped.
Fred glanced over at me. “I’ll take care of it all,” he said, and handed them five 100-dollar bills.
“The rest is your tip,” Fred said.
One of the officers made a disappointed face. “Not much of a tip,” he said.
“But thanks,” said the other. “We’ll be going now. Make sure to lock all your doors and windows and load your guns. There are lots of creeps out there milling about in the night.”
We watched as the officers quickly moved back through the house and out the front door. I sank down in my patio chair, sighed and looked at Fred.
“Where do you get all that money?” I asked him. “You’re not a pharmacist or a cop.”
“I saved my money,” Fred said. “As I worked and lived my life I also saved money… For the times like these that I always knew were coming. I funded my survival.”
“Do you have a lot left?”
“No. The Men of the Wars took most of it.”
I glanced inside at the banner on the wall. It was the banner we all had now – and in big capital letters of red, white and blue, it read: True Freedom Has a Price Tag — and there was a big green Uncle Sam with devil eyes on the banner, and he had his big fists in the air, and he was clutching money in one and a pair of women’s high-heeled shoes in the other. And in smaller capital letters near the bottom, it read: In Greed We Trust and In God We Wonder.
I didn’t really like the banner, but we didn’t have a choice anymore.
After the chicken, some more drinks and a cold handshake, I said goodnight to Fred and closed the door behind him. I locked it just as the officers advised. It was a big cold deadbolt and it made me feel safer even though I knew deep down inside it didn’t really matter anymore.
I walked crooked through the rest of the house turning down lights and making sure the other doors and windows were all locked up tight. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I looked in the mirror and my face looked old. I ran some water in a glass and washed down a handful of pills. I flicked off the light and quietly closed the door. I turned on the ceiling fan that runs right over my bed and sat in a chair by the window. I knew I wouldn’t sleep. What good is sleep without dreams? I looked out the window but all I saw was dark punctured by a few painful points of light. It was my personal jungle surrounding me. I liked it like that. I didn’t want to know everything about the world on fire out there.