By Todd Outcalt
After posting the latest installment on his blog, Gary Triple rose from his desk chair, yawned as he stretched his twenty-nine year old frame, and then padded into the company kitchen for a beer. The lights were dim — per company policy — so that employees would have difficulty ascertaining the time. Clocks and other time-devices were forbidden, but most people had learned to tell time by the sun and moon. A half-mile below ground, Triple proceeded to the office periscope and peered up into the sleepy city as he whispered to himself, “Midnight, give or take fifteen minutes.”
He’d been blogging for five consecutive days, without sleep, getting by on coffee and pretzels. His eyes were sand. His fingertips numb. Still, it was what he was paid to do, though he’d never met his employers and had never actually talked to anyone in the firm. His instructions came in hourly installments through other blogs, with facts and figures that were meant to provoke him to write a blog directed against the latest political decision. Someone out there in Washington D.C. fed him the information and he jumped on it. He posted his thoughts, and others read what he had to say.
Deep underground, he was alone in the office, as usual, and he was only allowed to surface every few months. But the company provided for his needs.
Triple tugged at a drawer in the darkness, reached inside, and brought out something cold. Holding it up to the dim light, he could ascertain that it was some kind of vegetable — green and limp — and he bit into it and swallowed before his taste buds could adapt to the taste. He had no idea where the food came from. It just appeared in the drawer every few hours. Then, at the end of each month, Triple received a bill for what he’d eaten and the amount was deducted from his pay.
The office was a round module cored deep in the earth, bunkered down in ten feet of slate and concrete, and on a clear day, peering through the periscope, Triple could see all the way to the Atlantic. Over there somewhere, political decisions stirred the country, and he stirred the decisions with his blog. His employers, a mega-conglomerate of pharmaceutical activists and lobbyists, paid his salary and provided the space for his work. He hammered keys and kept the juices flowing.
When he was hungry, he opened the drawer and pulled out an egg or a chicken bone. When he got thirsty, he drank a beer.
Momentarily, an icon flashed on the computer screen followed by a crisp sound that was reminiscent of ice tinkling in a glass, and Triple returned to his post, hunched over his station again. He posted his final blog just as the senators were departing from their chambers and the long session at the nation’s capital drew to a close.
Pharma-Century continues to offer the best in erectile enhancement drugs and sleeping aids. The Tassler Bill (No. 5877-347C), while offering a wider range of options to the public, fails to recognize the patent rights of various medications, including Thera-blend B, Qualvista, Nitrexidone, and Sherpaxalor. The public interest would be best served by a majority vote to defeat this bill. See also Nitrexidoneblog and Vistablueblog for additional details and to order free samples.
Triple secured his keyboard for the evening, yawned again, and considered taking a nap. The senators would not be in session until morning, and if he needed to rise early to get a head start on his next blogging session, he could always take a time released wake-up pill. But a little fresh air might clear his mind, he thought. His nerves twitched with caffeine, his brain stem stirred by the medical concoction that the firm provided through an intravenous drip. And after five days, his body was beginning to shut down. He knew the signs.
Thumbing through the policy manual, Triple noted the small print of his contract and gave special attention to Section Twelve, which provided the protocol for his sleep deprivation and the number of surface hours he would be permitted each year — a stipulation difficult to gauge without the benefit of clocks and calendars.
Rigging up the periscope again, Triple squinted through the lenses into the dark interior of the city and scanned the horizon for signs of life. There was movement, but faint, and he wondered if he would encounter anyone on the surface to talk to. He lowered the scope, snapped it into its locked position, and slipped on his shoes. He’d not showered for a week, but he crept into the small bath next to his work station and splashed a bit of pungent cologne on his neck. Before coding his exit pass into the elevator, he drank another beer and gargled the suds until his teeth shone.
The lift whined as the doors closed around him, and then oscillated in pitch as the elevator rose more rapidly toward the surface. No music. Triple heard nothing but the steady grind of the cables and the successive chugging of the motors’ cogs.
When the doors opened, he was standing on a street corner surrounded by dark, deserted buildings that rose toward the stars like obelisks. He swigged a lungful of air, held it there for a moment as if inhaling a cigarette, and released it was a sigh. Nothing in the area presented an immediate danger or fear, and so he made the quick decision to walk the block. Maybe, he thought, he’d encounter another person. It would be nice to have a talk. His vocal chords stirred in anticipation.
Shuffling up the cracked sidewalk, Triple eased past broken windows and busted street lamps. He lingered under cones of yellow light and breathed deeply, studying the moths that danced beneath the bulbs like a chorus of sparks rising from flame. After some minutes — if indeed they were minutes — he turned toward the heart of the city and noticed a curious neon sign that, periodically, flickered in the darkness like a beacon.
Triple followed the siren song of light past gaping manholes and the stench of sewer breath and eventually found himself standing outside a bar. It was an old establishment, like something out of a movie. Red brick façade. Checkered drapes. Oily windows. Standing in the allure of history, Triple took it in before pushing through the front door. Inside, he found himself facing a near empty room — just a bland sprinkling of wooden tables and chairs, a few glowing candles, and a smattering of deserted wine glasses and beer cans. Behind the oak bar — a beautiful piece of wood polished to a bright gloss — stood a tall man in an apron. The man’s eyes sagged inside circles of wan, forgotten brows and sallow cheeks. He grunted as Triple approached.
“Nice evening,” Triple said.
The bartender didn’t respond, reached over and slid a small card toward Triple.
My name is Avery, the card read. What’ll you have?
“A beer,” said Triple.
The bartender reached for a mug, angled it under the tap, and pulled on the keg lever until a head formed. He blew some of the foam toward Triple as he slid the mug across the bar.
“Kind of hot for a September evening,” Triple commented.
The bartender’s eyes narrowed in anger and Triple wondered if he was pressing too hard to make meaningful conversation. In fact, Triple knew that he was bordering on the illegal by trying to talk to the bartender. And so he determined to get at the issue another way. “Is there anyone here I can talk to? I’m willing to pay for a proper English conversation. None of that abbreviated stuff. I need some real talk, if you know what I mean.”
The bartender gave a faint smile when Triple flashed his Maximus gold card. “I’ll give you twenty free words,” said the bartender, who spoke in a surprisingly gentle voice.
“And what are they?”
“You can talk to Daisy. One dollar a word. She uses full sentences. No abbreviations. She’s in the back room.”
Triple counted the free words the bartender had afforded him. The number was spot on.
Pinching his beer, Triple rose from the bar and crept toward the back room. He lingered at the threshold for some seconds until his pupils could adjust to the low light, and then stepped into the room where, center stage, an alluringly beautiful woman in full makeup reposed on a silken couch. She wore a low-cut red dress with spiked heels, and was polishing her fingernails with an emery board. A tiny lamp at the head of the couch illuminated her voluptuous body and her long tanned legs.
“Are you Daisy?” Triple asked, sidling up next to the couch. When she didn’t answer, he flashed his Maximus gold card again. She snatched it, swiped the card through her wrist scanner, and handed it back. She smiled, then pressed a start button on her wrist scanner before she spoke.
“Yeah, I’m Daisy,” she said, her voice soft and polished. The wrist scanner emitted three muffled beeps—one beep for each word that Triple had spoken. A red LED counter on the wrist scanner then recorded the rise and inflection of Daisy’s voice, and, like a taxi meter, kept a running tab on the price of the conversation. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“How long has it been since you talked to a real woman?”
Triple paused. He’d never actually considered time. It wasn’t in his nature to break the law, but he noted that Daisy also sported an ankle watch. The timepiece was probably hot, or stolen from a museum, but she wore one nonetheless. Triple feigned a casual disinterest, but then gave it a quick glance to confirm that the hands on the watch were ratcheting forward toward one in the morning. He didn’t let on. But he was proud of his ability to tell time by the stars, too. He was never off by more than a few minutes.
“Well … it’s your money, sugar,” Daisy cajoled.
“Oh, it’s been … wow, probably three or four months since I actually talked to someone in a proper way,” Triple confirmed nervously. He was whispering in case the room was bugged. But as for time itself, what did it matter?
“Then you must be starved,” said Daisy, beckoning him to take a seat at her feet.
Triple thumped down in one of the rickety wooden chairs before he could change his mind. There were several subjects that interested him. “Would you be willing to discuss foreign policy?” he asked.
Daisy, a woman who appeared to be in her mid forties, offered a pouted lip. “Honey,” she whispered, “why would you waste your money on water when you can drink the wine?”
Triple brushed a bead of sweat from his forehead. “I see what you mean,” he continued. “I have other options.”
“All drivel,” said Daisy.
“Well then,” Triple wanted to know, “what would you suggest?”
“How much are you willing to spend?”
“I can go as high as seven hundred and fifty dollars,” Triple told her. “That’s a day’s pay.”
“Big spender,” she said, eying the meter on her wrist calculator as it tallied every word she spoke. “Let me see … how about discussing us?”
“You know — us!”
Triple’s puppy-dog face flushed; he gave a quick glance into the corners of the room to make sure there were no cameras, no microphones. “I’m afraid,” he said, “there really is no us. We just met. How can we talk about us?”
“I know your type, honey,” she said mysteriously. “But don’t take offense. You’re the kind of man who can talk about it all day. You probably spend days on end putting your words out there, your life’s work crafted in frenzied little sentences that say nothing and mean even less, words that populate, multiply and pay the rent. But it doesn’t say a damn thing about you, whoever you are. The words are just words. But they aren’t you. You can’t be found anywhere in your blog. Am I right?”
Triple found the logic of the spoken word difficult to follow, and so he tried to imagine her words as stringy, perpendicular paragraphs flowing across his computer screen. He dissected them. Considered their weight and import. He had made a life of seeing words, of writing them, but not hearing them.
“If I ascertain your meaning,” he answered at last, “I gather you consider yourself to be some kind of relationship goddess.”
“Not a goddess, honey. A gift! You want to open me?”
Triple had read about such women. Whores, they were called. Prostitutes. But most of them had exchanged sex for conversation decades ago. The life was easier. And the pay much better. “I’m really not interested in a relationship,” Triple blurted.
“You’ve got me all wrong, sugar … this isn’t about putting our bodies together. This is about putting our words together. You came here because you wanted to make a real connection. Flesh and blood. Am I right?”
Triple tried calculating the running total of her words in his mind. It wasn’t time that was being wasted, but the syllables themselves. “I am …” he said finally, “as you might say … incredibly lonely.”
Daisy stirred on the couch, batted away a lock of silken blonde hair from her green eyes, and stared at Triple’s young, handsome face. She wasn’t trained in psychology any more than the bartender was trained in integral calculus, but her years on the streets had taught her the fine art of counseling. That’s why some men paid for her services. They wanted to hear the truth about themselves. They needed affirmation — if even for a moment — before returning to their cratered-out lives and starved, digitalized existences.
“Listen, sugar,” she said. “I’m going to tell you a story.”
Triple leaned over, set his elbows against his knees, and cradled his head in his hands.
“Many years ago, there were people. Not like now. But people who inhabited these walls because the world was free. There were people then who didn’t sell themselves because they had to live, but who lived because they wouldn’t sell themselves. The best brightened this world for a time or times, and I have been told that words flowed then as freely as wine. Out of lips. Out of mouths. And there were people who drank them. The words were the people. And no one paid to hear them, or to give or receive them as payment. There was no sadness like theirs. Nor no greater joy. To speak face to face. To know the other. And there was time. Time eternal. Before time was taken away and the words with it.”
Daisy groaned a satisfied sigh and relaxed against the couch, her breathing nearly a lustful panting. “That’s what I mean by us, sugar.”
Triple had read various blogs on the taboo — the history of the world when there was time and words were free — and all of them followed the basic storyline espoused by Daisy. Still, he wondered if she considered herself a prophet? He wondered if she talked to the bartender without paying, giving herself away freely? But he didn’t have enough words left to pursue that line of questioning. He wondered about his cache of remaining words in her wrist calculator.
“I don’t think,” he admitted, feeling less inhibited in her presence, “that I would be so lonely if I were allowed to hear spoken words without paying for them.”
“None of us would, honey,” Daisy readily admitted. “But then, where would I be?”
Triple realized the catch. Such freedom would necessitate a complete overhaul of the social order. He might not get paid for his blog. Daisy might not get paid for her conversation. The world as they knew it would break apart.
“There’s a bill in congress now,” Triple said, “that, if passed, would allow husbands and wives to sign a contract when they get married. They could forgo the payment policy and agree to speak freely with each other.” Triple had been blogging mercilessly against the bill, but most of the words that emerged from the corridors of national power were on the fringe of the Ethernet, and heavily censored.
“I was married once,” Daisy said sadly, her soft voice falling away. “Many years ago. We were young then. Less inhibited. And yes, we talked.”
“For nothing? For no reason? Free?”
“Why would we need a reason?” she sighed. “There were so many beautiful things to talk about. The color of the sky. The flowers we planted. The promise of children. The—” Her voice trailed off into unformed syllables that did not register on the wrist calculator.
“I think—” Triple began to give his opinion, but then realized, out of old habit, that his opinions were the property of the firm. Every opinion was to be blogged: his thoughts on policies, politics, yes, but also his opinions about the taste of the beer in the company refrigerator, the sensation of descending into the office, his forthcoming review about the mystery vegetable he had pulled from the drawer. These were property of the firm, not to be given out in back rooms of near-deserted bars.
Daisy understood his dilemma. “It’s okay to think,” she said. “Just don’t say you are thinking it. That’s how we make connection, honey. You have to overcome the fear.”
“Then…” Triple continued, choosing his words carefully, but trying to let go, “I would like to affirm your idea of marriage. I trust it would be … fun to speak and listen without limitations.”
“Are you still married?” Triple asked sheepishly.
“No,” she said, staring at her red polished fingernails. “He died — Joe died — in the Middle East War. We did have a child. But he’s grown now. And our relationship is traditional.”
“You mean you don’t talk?”
“Just digital communication,” she said. “But he’s a good boy. Not one to make waves.”
Suddenly, Triple found himself keenly interested in Daisy. She was a mystery. And he wondered where she had grown up, what she enjoyed when she wasn’t being paid for her services. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked.
It had been years since anyone had asked her a question like that, had been willing to pay for the answer. She touched a red fingernail on her chin and pondered the answer. “Do you know what I like to do, sugar? I like to paint. I enjoy creating the world over again. In fact, these walls…” Her voice cracked a bit. “These walls are filled with my creations.”
Triple relaxed in the chair as Daisy pressed a button on the arm of the couch and brought up the lights in the back room. Suddenly the room stirred with color, like a rush of intoxicating beauty. Triple stared dumbfounded at the paintings on the brick walls: magnificent seascapes wrapped in whorls of azure and turquoise and foamy white; brilliant red-gold sunsets unlike any he had ever witnessed through the periscope; images of people touching each other in stunning wardrobes of aqua-green, velvety browns, and royal purples; lovely mountainscapes in star light and autumn blaze; visions of cities gleaming in yellow, translucent light and glistening glass; the exquisite grace of flowing rivers; ravishing brushstrokes of rainbow hues coupled with elegant movement.
He feasted on the paint, not saying a word, and listened while Daisy spoke.
“I enjoy this room,” she said. “It’s my sanctuary. You’re one of only a handful of people who have seen it. Which is sad, really, but necessary. And now you know that there is beauty in the world and that people used to talk about it, and enjoy it together. This is my love, really. When I’m using my brush, I’m having a conversation. It’s as if these walls are my best friend, and I’m speaking whatever I want to say and I’m listening to what the wall is whispering to me that day. Maybe it’s the ocean, or the mountains, or the people I used to know, but all if it is a conversation. Everything in this room reminds me of the world as it was, how it used to be.”
Triple didn’t move.
“Thank you for asking about me,” Daisy said as she turned out the lights, the mural melting once again into the darkness of the perimeter. “That was sweet of you.”
“I can see why you like to paint,” Triple told her. “All of it is beautiful. Marvelous, really. Your work should be in a museum.”
“Thank you. But I’m afraid I don’t much care for censorship. I’ll just keep the conversation here with me. That way, I won’t get lonely.”
Triple made another mental calculation. He had plenty of time; he was not due back at the office until morning light. He felt good about his word selection. “I believe our time is about up,” he said, then caught his error and smiled. “Actually, I guess time isn’t really a problem,” he added. “It’s the words I’m paying for.”
Daisy glanced at the calculator display, offered a frown, then said, “You’re a premature ejaculator. But you never did tell me your name.”
“Gary Triple,” he said.
“I’ve read your blog,” she admitted. “And believe it or not, I actually hoped you’d show up here one day.”
Triple thought she meant it. But she could have been padding the count, too. The total was approaching. “That bad, huh?”
“Your blog is insightful,” she said, “but trite. And I don’t follow politics. I just take the drugs I need. Beta-blockers. Poloxycycline. Some vitamins. Occasionally a shot of cortisone.”
“Pharma-Century, I hope!”
“Off the street. Cheap stuff from China.”
Triple said nothing, but his face revealed a hint of disgust for her black-market purchases.
“Don’t look at me that way,” Daisy said with a pause. “Just remember me.”
“I will,” Triple said.
There was an awkward moment of silence as the room stirred, then Daisy rose, stepped off the distance to his chair, knelt beside him, and kissed his cheek. Her lips were full, moist, and she deposited a smudge of lipstick near his dimple. “That’s for us,” she whispered.
Triple smiled at her, opened his mouth to tell her about himself, but didn’t know where to begin. He could scarcely remember where he had come from. His past melted into his future and his heart sank as surely as he would descend again into the earth. “I know I don’t have much left on the meter,” he said. “But could I hear you say your name?”
“Daisy,” she whispered in his ear.
He closed his eyes. Listened to the sound of her breathing.
“What else is there to know about you?” he asked.
“I’d like to tell you—” An alarm sounded on Daisy’s wrist calculator. She stopped speaking.
Triple knew that he’d reached his limit. Still…
He sat silently in his chair, staring at Daisy, who smiled warmly at him. She said nothing, but Triple thought that, for a moment, he could read her mind. It was as if she were enjoying his company — not because he was paying her to talk — but because she was willing to make herself available to him, and was willing to simply sit in his presence and be. Was she lonely, too? But Triple wondered if anyone could even quantify that reality anymore.
Triple sat in the chair, inside the dark room, staring at the lovely woman as she returned to her couch, the woman named Daisy, who did not move, nor make any attempt to move. He glanced at her ankle watch, but determined that time was not important. He sat for long minutes — or was it hours? what did it matter? — and observed the way she polished her fingernails with the emery board, the way she smiled, the way she slept, when, at last, she did sleep. And he was still there when she woke, though she did not speak.
Later, after the stars began to dissolve into light, Triple returned to the elevator, descended once again into his cavern bunkered deep in the earth, and stirred his blog by recounting his decision to bite into the mystery vegetable. He blogged on politics. The latest senate bill. He pushed the drugs the firm manufactured.
He thought of writing about Daisy — per his contract — as all of his thoughts and opinions legally belonged to the firm.
But he didn’t.
Rather, he kept her there, like a gift, deep inside his mind — a memory really — and cherished her words and beauty for their own sake, wondering when he might surface again. And if he did, if she would still be there, waiting for him.
Todd Outcalt is the author of twenty-five books in six languages and has written for such magazines as Morpheus Tales (British), Alpha Centuari, Rosebud, and Red Wheelbarrow.