29 June 04
"Sure," I say. And I'll keep saying it, right up to the point where I feel sick from the beer and not from anything else. It usually takes four, sometimes five. Six if I ate that day. It used to take three. I guess I'm building up a tolerance.
I like this bar because I can walk here from my super-efficiency (meaning: the closet I sleep in), and because they keep the news feed on closed-captioning, silent. I ask Joe the bartender about that. Does it really fulfill the requirement?
He shrugs and slides a hot, clean wineglass into the stemware rack. "Near as I can tell. So, until they issue a new statement that specifically requires 'sound,' or until somebody complains, the sound stays off."
"Isn't that dangerous?" I ask. I'm thinking of the Right Squad and their pre-emptive crackdowns at the bookstore and the newsstand; they didn't even give them a chance to comply, but had assembled gangs ready to swarm in as soon as the proclamations were given.
But Joe shrugs. "Eh. None of them Righters cares what happens in a bar."
I sit there and contemplate that for a while. He might be right. I can't think of a single crackdown that happened at a bar that wasn't also a hip nightspot, or a homosexual hangout, or something like that. Not places like this. Not an unapologetic dive, with a hundred years of stale cigarette smoke and spilled drinks and fry grease soaked into the carpet, a place with no windows and a 30-year-old jukebox still defiantly playing actual relic standalone discs without benefit of the central entertainment feed, a place with a whole row of beer taps to remind everyone that there used to be more than one kind of beer. That's because there used to really be beer, before the grain blight.
I stare fixedly at the television captions, at the white text crawling across a black bar that partially blocks the red tie knotted just under the serenely smiling face of President Grim. How many damn official announcements can one guy give, anyway? Or maybe they're just broadcasting the same one over and over. I can never tell them apart anyway. It's always just Grim in front of that revised Christian American flag. Am I the only one who thinks the stars in the shape of a cross looks really stupid? I guess I'll never know, because I'm not gonna say it out loud. And nobody else is either.
"I was going to go into journalism before all this happened," I say, and wonder what the hell I'm thinking, talking about myself like that. I mean, I trust Joe, and the bar appears empty, but you never know where the surveillance is going to turn up, and you really never know what's going to get you into trouble.
"Is that so?" says Joe, politely. Still putting the glasses away. I can feel the heat coming off them, the steam, and it merges with the heat and steam of the day, and I'm sweating all of a sudden, I feel claustrophobic, like I've got to get outside into the fresh air which doesn't hardly exist any more anyway, and certainly not on a downtown afternoon in the middle of May and I start to breathe panic, in and out, in and out, a crushing weight on my chest oh God am I having a heart attack?
"Billy? You all right?" says Joe, looking at me in concern.
"Just a little short of air," I say. "Hot day."
"Isn't that the truth," he says.
Everybody acts like the heat is a constant surprise, like they've never noticed it before, or like it's a one-time deviation and things will go back to normal soon. Only, you know, when something has been a certain way for ten years or more, doesn't that make it, actually, normal?
People are like that with the crackdown, too. People say, I think it's getting better, don't you? with these tight, nervous smiles, looking around over their shoulders in that way that has become second nature to most of us. And I just nod. I know we're both probably captured on somebody's security video feed. I know that people might, or might not, be watching me at any given time. At my workplace they are supposedly watching me in order to keep me, the night clerk, from being robbed at gunpoint. I've been robbed a couple of times anyway. Shot in the arm once. We're told to use the store gun to defend ourselves, but there's never any time to get it out and they bloody well know it. By the time you realize you're being robbed, there's barely time to dive to the ground and escape the bullets.
"So anyway," I continue on with my semi-suicidal confessional urge. "I was going into journalism, but the last round of consolidations eliminated so many jobs in the field that my college counselor strongly advised I switch career plans. He said I could get a job in cleanup work, that's where a lot of the ex journalists were going, but I didn't, mm, I wasn't excited by that field so I just dropped out. I was running out of money anyway."
"You don't say," Joe says.
"Until the crackdown, I thought I would still write for the independents. No money in it, of course, but I thought it would be a hobby. You know. Give meaning to my pathetic existence."
He laughs, though I can tell he's not sure if I'm making a joke or not. It's probably safest to assume everything is a joke, if you're a bartender.
"That's some story, Billy," Joe says.
"Yeah," I say. I search his face carefully for anything other than a bartender's friendly blank mask, and now I realize why I'm telling him my pathetically common story -- I'm sending out feelers. How does he react? What does he say?
And I'm disappointed when I realize the answer is, exactly what you'd expect from a bartender.
Suddenly, I don't want any more beer.
"Hey, Joe, I think I'm ready to go home and go to sleep," I say.
"Well, okay, thanks for coming in," he says. He always says that, "thanks for coming in."
I pay him, in cash, which is how the bars like it. I'm starting to think he knows what he's talking about, the Righters don't care about what goes on in his bar, and I guess the cash keeps it that way. Of course, they're starting to phase out cash. Because terrorists and foreign spies use it. And I guess they do.
The midday heat shocks me, knocks my breath out of me, and again that heart attack feeling. Not that I know what a heart attack feels like. And not that I would know what to do about it anyway, since there's no way the night clerk at a gas station makes enough to afford to see a doctor. I picture myself having a heart attack on the sidewalk, what would happen? Well, somebody would call a paramedic, and they'd run my ID number for credit and then they'd take me to the Christian Mercy Hospital where I would probably die waiting for treatment, or if I didn't, they'd fix my heart right up and then I'd be serving in the congregation on my off hours for the rest of my life just to pay for it.
So, it better not be a heart attack.
You hear that, body?
I plod home, wondering if it's me, or if car exhaust and garbage and mucky puddles of storm runoff really do smell more foul today than usual. I wonder if my building has always looked this dingy, and if a black layer of soot has always stuck to my hands when I touch the metal railing, and if the horizon has always been that sick greenish brown color. I'm so tired I think I'm going to just plop on my cot and sleep, but for some reason the claustrophobia won't leave and I can't stand the sight of the upper bunk, can't stand being closed in by the mosquito curtains, and it makes my heart thump nervously in spite of my fatigue. Instead, I get up and wander into the common room, where a TV actually has the sound on. It's entertainment feed, not news feed, and the other people in the common room are laughing at what looks like an old movie, a comedy. Nobody really makes movies anymore because it's so hard getting things past the guardians, but a lot of the older stuff cleans up pretty well and so that's what we get. I stare blankly at it. Is it a comedy? People are laughing, but I can't, honestly, tell what is supposed to be so funny.
"Hi, Billy," one of the women says to me. "You hear the news?"
"What news?" I say, suddenly numb with dread.
"The war's going really well. The Holy Brothers have captured the city and deposed the First Antichrist."
"The first?" I say. I haven't really been following the religious decrees, then realize I shouldn't let on about that. "Oh, well, that's great then."
"Yes, it's glorious news," she says, but looks a little doubtful, as if she isn't quite sure what it means either. "That means things can open up a little bit. Maybe we can even travel. We just don't have to be quite as scared."
"We don't? Wow." I say. "What a relief. I guess I'm going to bed."
"Sleep well," she says. "They treated the curtains earlier today so it might smell a bit thick in there, but you know you don't have to worry about the mosquitoes."
"Thanks," I say. Is that why I felt so oppressed? Pesticide?
Back in my bunk, I think about it. I think about it some more. I reach a decision.
I pick up a pen and start writing in one of my paper notebooks, using the tiny, careful script that I have always used to make sure they last as long as possible. It's so expensive to get paper these days, and it's always that rough stuff. But it occurs to me that I don't have to do that any longer. This is my last notebook. I'm going to leave them all behind.
No, I'm not going to put my plans here for you to examine at your convenience. I thought about putting in fake plans, but didn't have the energy. This is a confession, an apology, and yeah, I thought I might talk myself out of it when I was done with the writing. But I didn't. I'm still gonna do it. And, innocent people might die. I feel sort of bad about that, but I won't let it stop me.
As the Righters themselves are fond of saying, the end justifies the means.