Finalist - Adult Fiction - San Francisco's Writers Conference 2010
|Trail of Smiles
My name is Jacob, and I worry.
My hand trembles just a little as I slide my Contribution Card across the scanner. It has always done that; at least it has for as long as I can remember. The reason for this is the same for me as it is for all of the other trembling hands at all of the other scanners everywhere. There is never a way to tell for sure if one’s daily numbers will satisfy Arty – so we tremble, but this is not why I worry.
The light flashes green.
I mentally exhale in relief. My Productivity Potential Target for the day has been met.
There will be no knock on my door tonight. No one-way trip to the Office of Productivity Oversight. My Mary will still have a father to tuck her into bed. She will smile up at me and whisper “Daddy” one last time before she falls asleep. I will realize that the long day has been more than worth that very short moment.
I sometimes think of Mary’s mother, but only rarely. At those times, I feel her in my chest where the love and sorrow are woven together, forever inseparable. The love of my past died giving birth to the love of my present. I am all that Mary has as she is all I have.
The cold evening air fogs my breath as soon as I step outside of the windowless monolithic building where I work. It’s wintertime now. Sometimes I think it has always been wintertime. Probably it’s just me looking at my monochrome day through overcast eyes. Everything is a different shade of gray. The moving shapes are most likely people. I’m not interested enough to find out for certain.
My daily stream of post-work thoughts is interrupted by the cough I can feel coming. I turn away from a camera I know is watching and cover my mouth with my sleeve. No need for Arty to know about this. The illness in my chest is getting worse, but at least I can still work. I can still contribute.
I make my way to the bus stop where copies of myself stand waiting. We are all clones, but in appearance only. The repetitive weight of each day’s uniformity of purpose and performance causes us all to take on the same somber outlook with regards to our existence. A uniform tiredness tugs down on our shoulders as if it were a lead overcoat. I find this picture saddens me, but that is not why I worry.
Eyes avoid eyes in the unannounced shame of “We did this to ourselves.” It doesn’t matter that we really had no choice.
Generations ago, our excesses, our corruptions and our inhumanity to each other had taken us to an inevitable fork in the road. To the left was a path labeled “Do what you have been doing.” This route offered a short trip to nowhere. The other path was labeled “Step outside of the box.” Our forefathers chose the path with a future. That was why they did what they did. That was when they built Arty and put him in charge.
Now Arty, the long-common nickname for the Artificial Intelligence created for our governance, called the shots.
Those “shots” all basically came down to the same thing. Work, sleep and then work again. Meet your daily Productivity Potential Target, and you will be allowed the privilege of doing it all over again.
Yes, we built this road and then chose to follow it.
Now there is no going back. Arty won’t allow that to happen.
I can feel my spirits rise as the bus approaches my district. I imagine what will happen, unable to wait for it to be so. Mary is playing with the young children in the park near my stop. Her face lights up when she sees me. She drops whatever she is doing and runs into my arms. We laugh as I give her a big hug and lift her off of her feet. As we walk to our apartment, I tell her about my day. She listens attentively, pretending to understand.
My thoughts take me away from the reality of my current sardine-like environment of frequent stops and body odor. I don’t see the grayness of blank faces turtling into jacket collars and stocking caps. I can’t hear the Arty propaganda piped in for the benefit of me and my fellow bus prisoners. There is only Mary.
The metallic voice announces, “District 211,” and I pop out onto the pavement.
I see her running towards me. Mary launches herself into my arms and recharges my soul with cries of “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
She knows other words but this is the one I love - no, the one I need to hear.
She tucks her head into my neck and her coat’s wool collar brushes familiarly against my cheek. After a few moments, I set her down. She long ago outgrew my ability to carry her all the way home. At nineteen, my sweet little girl remains a small child in mind only. Not that such a thing mattered to Arty. When you turn eighteen, you are considered an adult, capable of making an appropriate contribution to the good of society.
Mary is no longer a little girl, and that is why I worry.
I am certain she is mentally incapable of meeting even the lowest of daily Productivity Potential Targets. Yes, I understand that the targets are based on one’s potential. Arty considers your abilities and sets your own personal target. The more capable one is the higher the target; the less capable, the lower the target. Arty was programmed with this in mind. It would be fair to everyone. We all put forth our best reasonable effort and we are all equally rewarded. Too little effort and you miss your target. For such underachievers there is no reward. There is nothing at all.
Our walk home is interrupted from time to time as Mary sees people from the neighborhood here and there. Everyone knows her and she brings a smile to each of them. The street sweeper smiles as Mary runs over to say hello. She is quickly off to greet someone else, but the sweeper’s smile remains. The old woman that cleans the windows watches as Mary runs off to refill the water bucket. She thanks my girl with a hug. Mary runs off again, leaving another smile behind.
We come upon a group of children playing in the empty street. They all light up as Mary approaches. They gather around her, seeking attention. She touches each of them on their heads like a fairy casting a spell and they fall away, each with his or her own special glow.
Mary is out and about. From the oldest to the youngest amongst us, this signals all is well with the world. She raises us above our meager lives to give us a peek at what it means to be happy.
A trail of smiles marks her passing.
Once home, she sets about helping me prepare dinner. This is our favorite time together. I ask about her day and she fills me in as best she can. It is hard for her to stay focused on one event at a time. A jumble of names and simple descriptions flow out of her in random order. To her, it probably all makes perfect sense. To me, well, I am just happy to hear the sound of her voice.
The cough takes me as I dice up some onions for our soup. I hold a tissue over my mouth and try not to let her see how bad it is, but it’s no use. She can see the spittle of blood as easily as I can. She looks up at me with concerned, questioning eyes. She knows something is wrong but has no idea how to help.
Tonight’s episode is the worst one yet. I can tell that my time is limited. Each spasm leaves me weaker than the one before. It won’t be long before I become too weak to produce and my Contribution Card swipes red. When that happens, I know that fate will come for me.
I don’t know who or what will come for Mary, and that is why I worry.
My Mary has no Contribution Card. I conveniently failed to register her once she came of age. I was afraid she would be labeled as a non-contributor and taken from me. I couldn’t let that happen. My only hope was to keep her off of the grid.
Surprisingly, no one noticed. At least no one knocked on my door at night asking about it.
It is not like Arty to miss something like this. I am too relieved to even speculate on how such a thing can happened. In the meantime, I share my allotted resources with my precious daughter.
The days pass with uniform blandness. My hand trembles, the light flashes green, and I worry.
I endure for her. I skimp and save and work so that Mary may live beyond me. The sickness in my chest has become an albatross. I can no longer hide it from my fellow workers. They keep clear, not wanting to share in my curse. Yet I endure because I am all that she has.
Today, my hand trembles as I swipe my Contribution Card.
There is a slight pause and then the light flashes red.
Heads swing in my direction with relief – relief that it was someone else and not themselves who has just received a near instantaneous judgment of “Unacceptable.”
I don’t know what to do. I suppose no one does in such an instance. I pull my coat collar up high around my neck and scurry off to catch my bus. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe no one noticed.
There has been no mistake. I didn’t go unnoticed.
At the stop, there is an air boundary around me that no one will cross. On the bus, the other sardines squeeze even closer than normal so as to keep their distance from me lest I infect them with my substandard performance.
Mary is there waiting for me. She knows nothing of productivity contributions or of doors knocked on in the night. She only knows that I am with her. I cannot help but smile as we walk home hand in hand, she spreading smiles along the way.
That night, they came for me. It was not like I expected. They were gentle and caring. Yes, they knew of my Mary and told me she would be fine. Arty, they said, would take care of everything.
That is what I am afraid of.
I don’t know how long I have been here: hours, maybe days. There have been dreams. My Mary is in many of them. She is standing by my bed, telling me, in her special way, how her day has been. I hold her hand and close my eyes. It is in this place that I still see her greeting me at the day’s end. I still lift her with ease and swing her in a big circle. It is in this place where I pretend, at least for the moment, that I do not have to worry.
Now there are doctors around me. I try to get up but the effort is too great. I cannot speak because of the tubes that go in my mouth and down into who-knows-where. They can see I want to communicate and they place a pencil and paper in my hands.
My query is simple. “My Mary?” I write.
The look in their eyes tells me they don’t understand.
I try again. “Who will take care of my Mary once I am gone?”
They nod and leave for a short while, returning with an official looking man. He shows me his credentials. Office of Contribution Control and Oversight, they say.
“Your Mary takes care of herself. She always has,” he says. His voice is surprisingly gentle, not at all like I had imagined.
He sees the confusion on my face and so continues. “Jacob, surely you can see that one’s contribution to society can be measured in ways other than assembly line output. Her contribution is the creation of smiles, something she is exceptionally good at.”
I cannot believe what I am hearing. “What about her Contribution Card?” I write.
“She doesn’t need a card. Her contribution is measured by the productivity of those around her. Like you, those she comes in contact with are boosted beyond their normal capacity. She brings joy into lives that would otherwise go without. Society is better because she is a part of it.”
It is hard for me to believe. My Mary is going it be alright!
I can feel the burden of worry fall from my shoulders. I grow tired now. The room empties of concerned faces to be replaced by the one I most want to see. Mary is here. She is telling me about her day. Her speech is a little faster than normal, as if she knows she doesn’t have much time.
I listen and I smile.
And I no longer worry.