After Sesame Street and the pledge break I switched over to NBC. The network didn't come in perfectly, but after adjusting the antenna I could just make out what it was I was seeing.
The presidential debates were on. Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan were going to have it out on taxes, defense spending, and the death penalty. I watched the fuzz build up on the screen, the reception wavering, and waited for the candidates to be announced.
The front door creaked open and I could hear the sound of Cindy's keys jangling as she put them down on the front table.
"Hello?" she asked as she stood in the front hall. "Who's there?"
"I'm watching television," I said.
Cindy didn't take off her raincoat but stepped into the front room, dripping onto the hard wood floor. She unzipped her coat, and I could see that she was dressed in her usual khaki skirt and green turtle neck, but she looked odd. She looked false, too young for her outfit.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I told you. I'm watching tv."
Ronald Reagan ambled up to his podium, smiled at the audience, and flipped through his notes. Walter Mondale's podium remained vacant.
"Well, I'm glad you asked that," Reagan said. Nobody had asked a question yet, and Mondale's podium was still empty.
"There you go again..."
"Mr. President," one of the journalists on the panel interrupted. "Mr. President."
"I refuse to make age an issue in this campaign," Ronald Reagan said. "I don't want to take unfair advantage of my opponents youth and inexperience."
"Mr. President, the opponent has not...Mr. Mondale has not arrived."
Cindy stood in front of the television screen, waving her hands in front of my face and unzipping her raincoat, she was insistent. "What do you want?"
"Well, I..." Ronald Reagan said.
Cindy turned off the television and crossed her arms. "What are you doing here?"
"I have something..." I started.
Cindy brushed her fingers through her damp hair and sighed a put upon sigh.
"I have something to show you."
Ms. Pac Man and the Men In Black
It only took a few hours for Cindy to come down. She'd been skipping her medication, forgetting her schedule, for days already. She told me how much I'd hurt her, told me that she wasn't sure she wanted to see me anymore. I agreed with everything she said, but I didn't leave. I told her I wanted to talk it out, and I waited for the drugs to wear off.
Without drugs Portland was different. The light rail system was gone, and instead of Starbucks, Blockbuster, and the Gap, there was a record shop, a sports bar and a 7-11. And nobody looked right, everyone had big hair.
Cindy started to get dizzy, she saw streaks of color. She said she wanted something cold to drink.
"Do I want a slurpee?" Cindy asked. "Yes. I want a slurpee."
An electric chime sounded as we entered the convenience store.
"Do you have an espresso machine?" I asked the clerk.
"Not a real espresso machine, but one of those automatic jobs with the stale coffee and the chemicals? You know, one of those cappuccino machines?" I asked.
"Are you on drugs?" the kid asked, quite seriously.
"See anything different?" I asked Cindy. "Anything seem strange?"
"I want a slurpee," Cindy said.
There were two video games in the far corner, Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac Man. Two men in business suits were hunched over the controls.
"Are you on drugs?" the kid behind the counter asked. "Are you voters?"
"One slurpee, please."
"Get it yourself," the kid said.
I went to the back of the store, and while I filled a paper cup with red slush I watched the video game screens. Pixels of light dashing around. I closed my eyes and listened to the repetitive music and bonking noises.
"What's up, Mister?" one of the men asked. He'd stopped playing and was coming my way. He was about six feet tall and he wore a black suit, a silver badge, and almost no expression. "You okay?"
A pink ghost devoured Ms. Pac Man and the game ended.
"How's your girlfriend? She feeling a little woozy?" the man asked.
"She'll be all right."
But they didn't let it alone. The man playing Donkey Kong stopped. He stepped back from his machine.
"You know what time it is?" the Donkey Kong player asked.
"It's a little after ten."
"What year is it?" the Ms. Pac Man player asked.
"I don't know."
The Ms. Pac Man player grabbed my elbows and pulled my arms behind my back. He spun me around and forced my face down, onto the glass surface of the video game maze. The top players' initials flashed across my cheek. FUC, BLT, and CDL held the high scores.
"Take a guess."
"I'd say maybe 1983 or '84," I said.
"I'll get the girl," the Donkey Kong player said.
The Ms. Pac Man agent slammed my face against the glass again, and I was afraid the screen would break, but then he pulled me up and looked me in the eyes.
"You stopped taking your medicine, didn't you?" the Donkey Kong man asked Cindy as he pulled her over, sent her sprawling against the slurpee machine.
"You need to start over," the Ms. Pac Man agent said. He grabbed my arm and tore my shirt sleeve open.
He held the syringe up in front of me, showed me the symbol printed on the side. The Starbuck's mermaid smiled from the needle.
"You said before that you wanted some espresso," the Donkey Kong man asked.
"No," I said. "Not really."
"That's what you said."
"I'll have an iced latte," Cindy said. Her eyes were dull, unfocused. "Or a slurpee?"
"Just sit down and the barista will make you a grande iced latte," the Ms. Pac Man agent said. And he plunged the needle into my arm.
I sat down on the tile floor and listened to the sounds from the games: I heard Donkey Kong shake the rafters. I heard Ms. Pac Man as she consumed the dots.
A Cup of Coffee and the Morning Paper
I came back to consciousness in midstream, chewing a stale scone and then washing it down with a double mocha. What year was it? The air conditioning and natural lighting confused me as I looked around for some sort of clue. It looked like it was morning already.
"When is it?" I asked.
"What?" Cindy asked. She was sipping an iced latte and tearing a paper napkin into little bits.
I went to the counter, to the newspaper rack, and bought a copy of USA Today. It was dated January 23rd, 2000, but the front page photograph was of Ronald Reagan. "His legacy lives on in campaign 2000," the caption read.
I used my visa card, signed my name on the dotted line.
What year was it? It was impossible to tell. USA Today reported corporate mergers and the deregulation of television and quotes from the campaign trail, but it didn't mention whether Donald Duck was seventy or eighty-six. Madonna was making a movie, the Backstreet Boys were at the top of the charts, and George Bush was not going to apologize even though he was very sorry.
I flipped through the paper and drank my mocha, but the news didn't help me decide anything.
"I'm thirsty," Cindy said.
My apartment building was gone, the whole street was missing. Instead there was a giant crater and a few shards of glass. Even the foundation was gone.
"What year are we in?" I asked.
"This is where you live?"
"There was a building," I said.
"It's two thousand and something," Cindy said.
"Yeah, only the paper said it was 2000. We're still a year off," I said. "Do you remember the man with the syringe?"
Cindy shook her head no, and then kneeled down and started sorting through the gravel. She found a rusty nail, a silver lighter, a bicentennial quarter, and a piece of a Rubik's cube. The red and green stickers were burnt around the edges.
"Remember? At the 7-11?"
"How is this helping?" Cindy asked. "Who cares what year it is anyway?"
"Maybe there was a war."
"What do you mean?" Cindy asked.
"I don't know. Maybe there was a nuclear war. Maybe we're all dead."
Cindy flipped the bicentennial quarter, it came up heads. She peeled off the green sticker from the piece of Rubik's cube. "You're dead the moment you start thinking like this. You're dead the moment you break the routine. Dead. Deranged. Done."
"A lot of people live without the routine. Lot's of people are unmedicated."
"Nonvoters," Cindy said. "We're nonvoters now."
Cold Turkey Merry Go Round
That night we stayed in the office, hid in my cubicle. We drank instant soups out of paper cups and tried to distract each other with games like twenty questions and name that tune, but both of us kept thinking about pills.
Cindy and I were withdrawing again.
"When I was about five years old my father, my real father and not my Dad, took me to an amusement park," Cindy said. "He wanted to ride the merry-go-round, but I didn't want to."
"Who sang that song about talking in your sleep?" I asked. "Was that the Romantics?"
Cindy didn't answer, but turned her head away and grabbed a plastic wastebasket. She vomited up chunks of noodles, brown meat.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Oh Christ," she said, wiping her mouth with her woolen sleeve. "I'm all rubbery. I can't decide if I'm hot or cold."
She was bright red, and hot to the touch. She'd sweat big circles around her armpits, right through her sweater.
"I'll get you some water."
"Why don't we take a pill. Shouldn't we just take a pill?" she asked.
Cindy wiped her mouth, took another sip of cold soup, and started again. She fiddled with my solar calculator, turned it upside down and spelled out "BOOB" and "hEll."
"I was terrified of the rides, all of them. I just stared at the different machines and cried," she said.
"When my Dad took me to the amusement park."
"But the worst one, the worst ride was the merry-go-round. There were these miniatures along the top of it, wooden figurines of Dutch girls that rotated back and forth as the ride turned, and I thought that the dolls were real. I convinced myself that they were the shrunken bodies of the children the merry-go-round didn't like."
The office was different; there was a dome-shaped light sitting on top of a swatch of red carpet where there had been a fax machine. And there were no computers anywhere.
"Listen to me," Cindy said. She squeezed my hand and I sat back down, only realizing after the fact that I'd been about to leave.
"Listen," she said. "It wasn't so much that I thought I'd be turned into wood, it was more like I thought I was already up there," Cindy said. "I imagined that I was already made of wood, that I was just a doll."
I took another sip of soup, and burned my tongue. The soup was hot; it had cooled, but now it was steaming again.
"He, my dad, decided to ride by himself. He said that he was going to have fun, that he was going to show me that there was nothing to be afraid of," Cindy said. "And I just knew that he would die, that he would freeze solid and the park people would have to find a spot for him up there, up with the Dutch girls in their wooden dresses. And I knew he wouldn't really fit."
"But he didn't die. He didn't die and everything was fine."
"Didn't he?" Cindy asks.
I didn't say anything. I was too busy vomiting into the plastic wastebasket.
"I don't remember what happened after that, it was a long time ago."
"It wasn't as long ago as you think," I said.
In the morning we decided to leave town. Cindy's Yugo was parked in front of the high school, about two blocks away from my office.
A teenage boy, a punk kid wearing army pants and a pink muscle shirt, was sitting on her car. He was cross-legged on the trunk and smoking a cigarette when we arrived.
"Move it, kid," I said.
"Who are you supposed to be, my Grandpa?"
"Just get down from there," I said.
"You in the present?" he asked. "You need some future?"
"Come on, we've got to go," I grabbed his arm and started to drag him off of the trunk. Cindy grabbed my wrist, and shook me loose from him.
"Wait," she said, "he's trying to help us out."
"Listen to your lady. I'm not loitering, I'm talking business," he said. He took another drag off his cigarette and then flicked it into the street.
"What kind of business?" I asked.
"You know that future everybody says won't ever get here? Well, this is it." He held out a joint, a vial of some pinkish crystals, and a few capsules.
"I don't want any," I said. I grabbed Cindy's hand and tried to loosen her grip on my arm.
"Look at yourself; look at your lady. She's hurting, needing. You two aren't going anywhere without a fix."
"You're a voter, right? The year two thousand and all that?" he asked.
"Sure," I said. "I guess."
"You've been doing the wrong stuff, that's all. They've got you hooked on all kinds of bullshit. Listen, I'm not selling their future," he said. "I've got the year 2000 in this vial, the real 2000 with flying cars and Art Deco and robots. This is the shit," he said.
"Flying cars?" I asked.
"And robots," he said.
"How much is it?" Cindy asked. "How much do you want?"
On the Road
We're like tourists. We stop at rest areas and roadside diners and take pictures of asphalt and urinals and neon signs that read "no vacancy." Except now I can't wait for the next exit ramp, I can't keep driving anymore. I pull over at random, stop on the shoulder of I-5 and get out.
I lean inside the car and turn on the emergency blinkers.
"What are you doing?," Cindy asks. "Somebody might stop for us."
I lean back inside and turn off the blinker, but before I pull myself out again I flip on the radio. Boy George is singing "I'll tumble 4 U," and I spin the dial.
"Get the camera while you're in there," Cindy tells me.
I hand it over and Cindy takes a picture of the highway in front of us. I put my arm around her and pull her to me. I want to be as close to her as possible. I want to live happily ever after.
We get back in the car and just sit for a minute, unsure what to do next.
"Let's smoke some more," Cindy says. She holds up the vial and starts to unscrew the top.
Cindy doesn't reply, but pulls out a metal pipe, takes a hit, and then passes it over to me.
I watch pink smoke fill the front of the car, and then take a drag myself. With water in my eyes I decide to go again, to continue. I put the key in the ignition, listen to the engine turn over, and press down on the gas.
Cindy rolls down the passenger window and peers out, looking through the lens. "Smile," she says to the flat landscape, the patches of brown weeds and barbed wire fencing.
The tires lift up from the road, and I watch the gas gauge transform into an altitude gauge. I take another hit off the pipe and lean back in the ultra conforming gelatin lined driver's seat.
We float away, zip off towards the horizon, and Cindy presses down on the button of her instamatic, takes a snapshot of the ground as we lift away from it.
"Smile," she says.
[ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ]
lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and three children. Look for his work in
Polyphony 1 and on Strange Horizons. Doug blogs, too.