Constance has total control over her life
Approximately 3800 words
This is a revision of a story I wrote over ten years ago. I liked the basic idea. I hope I've made it flow a little better.
The Examined Life
Constance woke to the caress of an easy melody from her alarm clock. She stretched and yawned. She commanded, "Oliver, please turn off the alarm. Oliver, please start my bath." Even though Oliver was just a computer program, it never hurt to be polite.
"Yes, ma'am." She'd programmed Oliver's voice to be a soft baritone, warm and comforting, with a hint of a lower-class London accent. In her daydreams, she imagined they lived in an English country estate instead of a condo in downtown Tulsa. "Shall I start breakfast, ma'am?"
"Yes, thank you, Oliver." She stood and slipped off her nightgown. She stretched again while the water splashed in her bathroom. "Oliver, Do you think I'm putting on weight?" Her mirror gazed back at her as she posed sideways, lifted one leg and held her tummy.
"You are as lovely as ever. But you have put on four pounds since last week, ma'am."
Her lips soured. "Oliver, I think I'll just have fruit and tea this morning."
"Yes, ma'am. Should I prepare the usual for Master Clifford?"
"Yes, thank you. Please wake my husband while I bathe, will you?" She tested her tub with a toe and immersed herself.
"Of course, ma'am."
Constance lounged in the steamy water and contemplated her day. She had finished her romance novel the night before, so she'd have the annoying task of finding another to while away the time. At least she had her Kindle and wouldn't have to go out.
After her bath, Constance sat in the kitchen sipping her tea. Her brown hair, cut in a blunt bob, clung in wet clumps to her skull. She only half-listened to the news program on the television. The picture showed young people in handcuffs, under arrest for reading something called Ulysses. The voice-over prattled about the dangers of terrorist propaganda.
When Clifford rolled his wheelchair into the room, she turned off the sound. The video panned over other subversive books the students had been reading against the backdrop of a burning city. She didn't recognize any of the titles-- Women in Love, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye . Whatever. She forced a smile and faced Clifford. "Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?"
He grimaced. "Well enough, after I took a pill. Damned nightmares again."
"Um-hm." Constance stood and set the table for Clifford, pulling his meal from the microwave oven. "Here you are, dear. Pancakes and an omelet, your favorite!"
"Thanks." Clifford ran his fingers through his tousled hair. "Can we go out today? I could get a haircut and we could maybe eat at a restaurant? Like we used to?"
She tipped her head and frowned as her gaze raked over her spouse. "We could have that nice lady come and trim your hair. You know, the one from that salon. Designing Women."
"You mean Faitha. I like Faitha. But let's go to her shop instead of having her come here. She makes the people there sound so interesting. I'd like to meet them."
"Now, now, Clifford. You know how much trouble it is for you to go out. We'll just have her come here, like usual." Her voice rose slightly. "Oliver, would you please call Faitha and arrange to have her come to trim Master Clifford's hair today?"
"No!" Clifford's eyes flashed at her. "Oliver, cancel that." His voice snapped across the table at her. "I don't want her to come here. I want to go out. I'm sick of staying inside all of the time."
Constance tightened her lips. "My, aren't we cranky today." She tapped her fingernail on the table, stood and clutched at her housecoat. "We'll see, dear. Just let me finish getting dressed." She poured Clifford some tea. "You eat your breakfast and then we'll talk, OK?"
Clifford scowled. "I mean it, Constance. I'll go out without you if I must."
"Uh-huh, yes dear." She patted his shoulder. "Oliver, be a dear and fix some more tea, will you?"
"Oliver!" He scowled and his eyes threw daggers at her. "I swear, he's more your lover than I am. A machine!" Clifford's fork clanked against his plate. The pancake slewed around and slapped onto the floor.
"Now look what you've done, Clifford." She kept her voice flat and without emotion. She knelt and scooped up the sticky mess. "Oliver, be sure to clean in here today. And fix another meal for Clifford, please." She stood and rinsed her hands at the sink. "You know that sex doesn't matter to me, Clifford. We're intimate spiritually."
Clifford stared at the table and ignored her. His spoon clinked in his tea.
She peered at his face for a moment, arms on her hips. Silence grew between them before she permitted a sigh to escape her lips. She turned and stalked off to her room.
She yanked clothes from her closet and tossed them on the bed. "Oliver! What is this?" She pulled lacy under-things from her drawer, adding them to growing pile of garments.
"Those are your underwear, ma'am."
She ground her teeth. "Of course these are my underwear, you idiot!" She jerked up her panties and snatched at her bra. "I meant what is with Clifford! Is he taking his antidepressants?" She pulled on a blouse. Her fingers tore at the buttons, taking several tries at each before she fastened them.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Master Clifford has asked for a privacy shield on his medical records."
"What? He can't do that. Doctor Lawrence specifically gave me permission to monitor his meds."
"I'm sorry, ma'am. When Doctor Lawrence was here last week, Master Clifford asked for the privacy block. The Doctor himself put it on."
"They locked me out? We'll see about that!" Constance wrapped a skirt about her tight waist and knotted the belt. "Oliver, get me Doctor Lawrence on the phone, right now!"
The conversation between Oliver and Lawrence's avatar buzzed in the background. She kicked around in her closet and picked out a pair of sensible patent leather pumps.
"Lawrence here." The physician spoke with his usual clipped efficiency.
"Doctor Lawrence." Constance took a deep breath and steadied herself on the bedstead. "I'm calling about Clifford. I think he's not taking his antidepressants!"
"What makes you think that? I have this morning's blood work on him right here. It looks fine to me." Clifford's chair constantly monitored his medical status and transmitted it to Lawrence's office.
"Doctor! He wants to go outside. And what's this about blocking me from viewing the records in his chair?"
"Clifford and I discussed this last week and we decided it was time for him to take more control of his life. And really, Constance, I think it would be healthy for both of you to get out."
Her face heated. How dare he use her first name? "Doctor Lawrence." She paused for emphasis. "I'm the best judge of what Clifford needs, don't you think?" She didn't try to hide the scorn she felt.
"Frankly, Constance, Clifford is the best judge of what is good for Clifford. If he wants to go out, there's nothing you can do."
Her chest heaved and her jaw jumped. This was going too far.
"Now, unless you have something else, I'll see you next month." The connection ended with a click.
Constance paced in her bedroom. Bumps and grunts thudded from Clifford's room as Oliver's mechanical minions helped him prepare for his excursion. His chair whirred down the hallway and stopped at her door.
"Constance, I'm ready."
She stopped pacing and glared at the door.
"I'd like for you to go with me. Like we used to." The closed bedroom door sucked the life from his voice.
She ignored him.
"Constance, I need to do this. I'll do it by myself if I must." After a pause, his chair whirred away. The swish of hydraulics opened the front door, oozed it closed, and the latch clacked shut. The house fell silent.
He really did it. She left her room and wandered on aimlessly through the condo. She tried Clifford's door, but it was locked. She ran her fingers along the top of the mantle above the false fireplace. "Oliver. Dust! This place is filthy!"
"I'm sorry ma'am. Shall I order the cleaning service?"
"No! I want to be left alone."
She returned to her bedroom. The book from last night sat on her nightstand; there was no escape there. She sat on the chaise and sulked.
Oliver's soft voice broke her reverie. "Ma'am, the UPS delivery man is at the door. He says you have to sign for a package."
She snapped, "I didn't order anything!"
"Shall I tell him to go away, ma'am?"
Constance stood and straightened her skirt. "No. No, I'll see him." She rummaged in a drawer and stuffed a thick roll of bills into her pocket. The delivery person would expect a tip.
He wore a smile and a brown uniform. "Please sign here ma'am." He offered an electronic clipboard while holding a small package under his arm. He waited with a fixed smile on his face while Constance scrawled her name. "How is Clifford, ma'am?"
She stared at him. "Excuse me?" What was next? A cockroach asking for the time of day?
"Er, Clifford, ma'am. He's always so nice when I make deliveries. Hope he's feelin' all right." The delivery man's smile had a nervous edge now.
Constance narrowed her eyes. She grated out, "Clifford has gone out." She handed the clipboard back.
The man flushed and avoided her eyes. "Sorry, ma'am," he murmured. He handed her the package. "I meant no offense."
She snatched the parcel from his hands and fumbled in her pocket for a tip. The entire roll of bills sprayed out onto the tiled floor of the entryway. The delivery man's eyes widened. "That's a lot of money ma'am. You should be careful!"
She dropped to her knees and scrabbled the bills into a wad in her fist. She shoved a random banknote at the delivery person. "Here. Go away."
The delivery man squatted down. "Do you need help, ma'am?" His fingers trembled before he hid them behind his back.
"No!" Constance clutched the money to her breast and glared at him. "Just go away. I've got my package. You've got your tip. Now leave!"
The man stood. "Yes, ma'am, thank you." He hesitated. "I just meant to be of assistance, ma'am."
"I don't need your help. I don't need anyone's help." She looked at his shoes, worn and brown and scuffed. A stray hair had fallen across her eyes. A tremor shuddered through her hand as she tucked it back into place. She raised her gaze to his face and snarled, "Get out! Just take your money and go!" The force of her words propelled tiny droplets of spittle across his slacks.
He retreated a step before her fury. "I'm sorry ma'am." They stood frozen in a silent tableau for a heartbeat before he tipped his hat and was gone.
Constance staggered into the kitchen clutching the package and the wad of bills. She sat at the table and pressed each bill flat, one after another, stacking them so that the portrait side was up and facing the same way on each one.
Next, she turned the package over in her hands. There was no return address, but she recognized the handwriting on the front. Only her mother would hand-address mail. Brown wrapping paper slathered with transparent tape covered the parcel, as though her mother feared prying eyes would penetrate the contents. She sighed in frustration. She would need to get her scissors. She hoped that the contents would be worth the trouble, but she doubted it. Later, when she was calmer, then she would open it. Now was time for tea. "Oliver, shall we have tea together?"
"Of course, ma'am." Oliver was ever the perfect companion.
Constance sat in the dining room, stared out the window, and sipped her tea. She ignored the package on the table and the scissors gleaming in the sunlight. Outdoors, heat beat onto the manicured gardens where flowers marched in rigid, pastel arrays between concrete pathways. A Guardsman in a creased, black uniform swaggered across her view, his weapon at his hip and his ebony helmet flashing in the sunlight. Here and there uniformed workers tended the plants. Her eyes passed over the people as though they were part of the landscaping. From the shadows, a man in a brown uniform stared at her. Their gazes met, his feet shifted, and sweat gleam on his brow. The Guardsman passed between them, and her gaze rested for a moment on his weapon. She didn't care what Clifford thought. It was good to have the Guardsmen around.
Her glance returned to the table and the package. Sunlight glimmered off the transparent tape. She seized her scissors and sliced at the edges, peeling back layers of wrapping. The packing cloaked a book, ancient, worn, and dog-eared, along with a note from her mother. The note, of course, was handwritten in her mother's angular script. Constance flattened the paper on the table, peering at the cursive characters.
"Dearest Constance," she read. She scowled. Endearments from her mother at this point in her life were too little and too late. The note continued. "I read this book when I was in college. It helped me understand the duality of our spirits: mind and body transcended through shared intimacy. I stumbled across my copy when I was cleaning out needless things and I thought of you. I hope you enjoy it as I did. All my best to poor Clifford. Love, Mother."
"Hmmph. Duality of our spirits. Transcendence!" She muttered, "Intimacy is over-blown anyway."
"Did you require something, ma'am?" Oliver apparently didn't understand intimacy either. In a way, Clifford was right. Oliver was, indeed, her the perfect companion.
"No, no, just mumbling, Oliver." She considered the worn cover. Since she had finished her book last night, she had nothing else to read. She may as well read this. It was easier than searching on Kindle.
She lounged on her bed, devouring the book, lost to time. Hours later, Oliver spoke again. "Ma'am, it's past your usual time for dinner. Would you care for anything?"
She laid the book down and stared at the clock. Where had the day gone? "Oliver, is Clifford back?"
"No?" What could have happened to him? "Oliver, please call him." It would be awful if she had to go out to rescue him.
Moments later Clifford's voice filled the room. "Hello Constance. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Where are you? You have worried me so!"
"I'm fine, Constance. How was your day? Did anything happen?"
"No, nothing. Oh, the UPS man came. My Mother sent me a book. I've spent the day reading."
"The UPS man. You mean Ed. How is he? His little girl is ill. I know he's worried about her medical bills."
"How should I know how he is? He's a delivery man, Clifford! Where are you? Where have you been all day?"
"I went into town and stopped to have my hair trimmed. I gossiped with the customers, just like a normal person. I went to the restaurant in the Mayo Hotel." He paused, as if for courage. "I've rented a room for the night, Constance. I'd like for you to join me."
"A room? At the Mayo? What in heaven's name were you thinking?"
"I was thinking a night away from our condo might do us some good, Constance. It feels like a prison, sometimes, like my chair. A night of romance would be good for both us, don't you think? Won't you join me?"
"Of course I won't join you. Why should I leave my perfectly good bedroom and go to an unseemly hotel room? You come home right this instant, you hear me?"
"Yes, Constance, I'll come home. But not tonight. Tonight I need something different. I wish we could share it, but I'll understand if you cannot."
"Indeed, I will not." She scowled at the watchful walls. "You won't come home, then?"
"Tomorrow, Constance. I'll be home for breakfast tomorrow, I promise."
She glanced at her book and her fingers lingered on the cover; she longed to return to the strange world within those pages. "Well then, see that you do. Call me if you need anything, my love."
"I'll be fine, dear heart. Tomorrow, then." She'd already dismissed him from her mind.
The condo again fell silent once more. "Oliver, I'll have dinner now, after all. Something light, please?"
"Yes ma'am. Perhaps a salad and a feta sandwich?"
"I don't know. Surprise me."
"Very good, ma'am." A random selection was easy for Oliver.
After dinner Constance sat in the dining room and gazed at the dying sunset. The man in the brown uniform still hulked under the tree. Why was he skulking around? She dismissed the thought with a shrug. He was just a delivery man. The Guardsmen would take care of him if there were a problem. She returned to her bedroom. "Oliver, please turn on my nightstand lamp."
She picked up the strangely alluring book her mother had sent. This was so different from the happy romances she usually devoured. It was at once seductive and repellent. She could not stop reading even as she was revolted by the deeds of the characters. They were so physical, not spiritual at all. They behaved like she imagined beasts must, yet somehow they seemed whole and real. They filled her with longing and with revulsion.
The chapters flew by and, at last, Constance's eyes grew heavy. The book slipped from her fingers.
Constance woke to a thumping sound at her window. "What?" The sound repeated, loud and persistent, right by her bedside. "Oliver! What is that?" Abruptly, the thuds stopped, replaced by the sounds of a scuffle and the muffled tone of voices.
"It was an intruder, ma'am," Oliver Informed her. "The Guardsmen have him in custody. The Sergeant of the Guard is in the condo now, to make sure you're safe. He asks you to not worry."
Feet clomped down her hallway and a fist rapped at her door. Constance lurched up and tucked her covers under her chin. "Who is it?"
"Everything is all right, ma'am. I'm Sergeant of the Watch, Raul Gonzales. We've caught a prowler trying to break into your condo."
"Yes, ma'am. May I come in ma'am." It wasn't a question. "I need to make sure you're all right." The door was already opening.
"Yes, yes of course!" She tossed her hair from her face and tugged at the sheets. The book, lying face down on her bed, drew her fingers; she stroked at its cover.
A burly man in a black uniform peered at her from the shadows of the doorway. He eased into the room and looked left and right before he relaxed. He tipped his head toward the microphone clipped to his shoulder and murmured. "All clear." His gaze returned to Constance. "Are you all right, ma'am? We've got the prowler under arrest. Good thing you've got security glass at the windows. He tried to break in with a rock." The officer snorted.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." She spat out the words came in short, electric bursts.
The officer's eyes scanned the room like radar. "Apparently he got into the complex earlier today. He was wearing a delivery man's uniform."
Adrenalin rushed down Constance's limbs and out her fingers and toes. "He was here all day, in the compound? Was I in danger?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. You were never in danger. We're always on the lookout for deviants. Your condo is under constant surveillance."
Constance relaxed. Yes, of course; that was why she chose this place to live. Her fingers ran through her hair, pushing the unkempt locks back from her brow. "Well, thank God for that."
"Yes, ma'am. Criminals don't have any chance. Don't know why they even bother, the way we watch everything."
"Yes, well, he must have been insane then."
"Yes, ma'am, insane or desperate." The officer's watchful eyes scanned the bedroom and rested on her book. "Do you mind, ma'am?" Without waiting for her permission, he picked it up and read the title. He stared at her with no expression and tilted his head to whisper something into his microphone.
"Do you mind my asking where you got this book, ma'am?" His eyes bore into her. She thought no one should have eyes so blue.
"It came today, from a delivery man. Say, do you suppose that was him? The prowler, I mean."
"Could be ma'am. So, you just got this book today?" More Guardsmen slipped into the room, weapons drawn.
"Yes, today. I must have fallen asleep reading it. Why?"
"So, you admit to reading this book, ma'am?" The officer's voice was flat. His eyes, those crystalline windows to his soul, drilled into her. She noticed for the first time how empty those eyes were and a chill ran through her.
"Why yes, of course I read it. It's a book. What else would one do with it?" She put on her best haughty expression, although unease clutched at her heart. "Why do you ask?"
The Sergeant of the Guard nodded at the others, who approached Constance with handcuffs clanking. "I'm afraid you'll have to come with us, ma'am." His voice, harsh and no longer polite, rasped at her ears. "You're under arrest. It's a serious crime to read this book."
The officers grabbed Constance by the arms and lifted her from the bed. She shrieked and pushed them away. "What is this? I've done nothing wrong. You're supposed to protect me." She flailed at the brutal arms that gripped her before one of the officers reached out and touched her throat. She didn't feel the hypodermic, but the effect of the paralytic was instantaneous. Her muscles turned to water and she collapsed on her bed while Guardsmen cuffed her. Two of them dragged her to the floor. Her head hit with a dull thud and her limp legs slapped against the chilly tiles. Cameras flashed as other officers photographed her bedroom.
"Two perps in one night." Gonzales shrugged while his booted foot toed Constance's helpless form. "I guess these friggin' criminals will never learn we're always watching." He poked at the dog-eared book.
From the floor, Constance could barely discern the title, "Lady Chatterley's Lover."
The Guardsman snorted. "Been years since I've seen a copy of this piece of filth. Be sure to photograph it before you burn it."