by Ian Cordingley
I was minding my own business, shuffling through a cold autumn day with crisp dead leaves and yellowing discarded newspapers swirling around my ankles. But the voice wouldn’t let me go.
Your proximity towards predetermined boundaries is...
Shove off. It didn’t do a world of good but it felt good to say. I got a little lecture, how too liberal a tongue led down a dark path. I sighed, shuffling along with my eyes on the cigarette butts and gum wrappers.
The neighbourhood had changed. I’d been gone a long time: most of the stores had new signs or coats of paint. A new liquor store stood where a row of stores had once been; and condos continued their colonization in semi-built state over once vacant lots.
The people seemed bolder, happier now. Perhaps my absence inspired a new confidence. I shuffled along, numb to the world, eyes not coming into contact.
Your demeanor is disconcerting.
Why? Damn thing almost made me lose my composure. After one or two awkward moments of ill-timed passion, the voice toning its displeasure and noting my conduct, I’d managed to keep myself in check. For the most part.
Your tone and stance are intimidating and belligerent.
It was cold, for Chrissakes. Everyone looked hunched over, ready to knife the first person with a wide, toothy grin.
I’m just walking, I said. I’m not out to get anyone.
Your stance and tone display troubling characteristics the voice explained. I’m afraid (it was afraid! That was new) that this conduct will be logged.
I think for a moment and straighten up. It means I have to deal with every stare, icier than the wind, squarely aimed at me. Some hag sweeping out the front of her shop; a couple of young punks almost laughing at me; and try as I might I can’t find a reason why I don’t deserve it.
But I haven’t done anything — not yet — to make them rally around and force me out. I’m on my side of the line, growing closer to theirs but I have yet to dangle my toe defiantly over their side. And despite the nag of the voice my intentions are clean.
I tell the voice to cram it. It logged the profanity, my twelfth of the day.
What’s a man to do?
* * *
“I think I understand you.”
Really I want to punch his little face in. It’s an inviting target: always in a little smile, spectacles that fit awkwardly on an uneven nose and ears. He should be thanking his lucky stars.
“So you agree?”
I chewed on some words for a moment. I wanted him to plead a little more.
“The procedure itself, I can assure you, is painless, and penetration directly into the brain will be shallow...”
“Twelve little nodes, the size of rice grains, in the back of my head, forming a little grid,” I repeat.
“Precisely,” he explains. The happy little salesman of whatever company concocted it, looking for suckers.
I’ve decided to play hard to get for a little longer. “And the benefits are, again?”
He sighs. I’ve made his life hard but I haven’t said no so he can’t give up on me yet. “They have not become mandatory for parole yet,” he says, “the board can be persuaded that your sacrifice indicates a willingness to rejoin society.”
The phone raps against the glass out of habit. Does he even know what parole means to me anymore? Do I even know anymore?
After I spent my first night, after the cold and mumbled background to the bleak sparseness of my cell, I lost the young and tough act pretty quick. My first hearings I practically wept and begged, but every twenty-four months received the same kick to the face. So now, out of sheer ambivalence, I’m contemplating a sip of his snake oil.
And by the way he’s looking at me he’s so close to sealing the deal he can taste it.
“So, you want to put a genie in my head?”
He laughed. “No, no. It’s not that sophisticated. More like a chatbot, a loose...”
“I know what that is.”
“All right. It will log your actions, and offer corrections to your behaviour.”
I don’t like how that sounds. It’s code for something. I’m losing patience with his nonsense, but I’m still compelled.
I’m getting on in years, and ever so congenially he knows what buttons to press. In his eyes, sharp and growing more focused as he closes in on his prey. I can almost hear him finger the clasps of his briefcase, ivory white forms at the ready. “So what will your decision be?”
If I take time to think he’ll find someone else. And my seafoam cell walls will grow colder and become impossibly thick.
“All right,” I say. “I’m interested.”
“Splendid.” He nods towards one of the guards, his hand on the phone. He whispers something, and the guard wanders off, presumably to fetch the warden. I’m being put on the fast track.
I lean back in my chair. I should feel happy, I suppose. It doesn’t sound too bad, compared to the alternatives of faking a happy little lie until out of boredom the board gets tired with my canned excuses and lets me go. But I don’t. I feel rotten, sick almost.
Obviously I am not a principled man. I enjoy freedom. Even I have limits and standards.
But what’s a man to do?
* * *
Around the corner of a familiar drugstore I find one of my favourite places reduced to yet another Starbucks. Typical. I find a bench to sit on.
I spread out. Nobody’s going to force me off, not with my reputation. Go ahead and glare. I almost want to yell that to every passerby. The voice gives a little ticking noise, meaning nothing in particular. Perhaps it is gearing up, waiting for me to make my move.
Defiantly I put my feet up, stretching to fill the whole bench. I close my eyes, and inhale through my nostrils the scents of autumn. I’ve gotten it in brief snatches for too long. I can inhale it now, much as I want.
It doesn’t take long for the voice to ruin the sensation. Public benches are not for...
For once I play good citizen. I get off. I dust myself off and keep walking. But nothing is good enough. Almost every step the voice trips over its words. It can’t make up its little mind: it wants me to stop, no, go walk away to somewhere else now.
Of course — I’m not blind, am I? I know what streets are forbidden. I’m getting closer though. The memories are coming back.
I grit my teeth. I’ve replayed them a thousand times.
I was a little brat back then. No, all my life. It’s just that back then my hostility had reached its artistic peak. It was at the point where I might as well have saved the taxpayers a few thousand bucks and turned myself in ahead of time.
Down the street, a few doors down. Hasn’t changed a bit and I don’t think anyone wants it to.
You are behaving most incautiously towards the conditions of your parole. You are...
I know where I am.
The voice logged the damning evidence.
Move along, please, it instructs.
Just a minute.
I can hear the kids walk past. So damn young and tender. The girls are walking confidently, on the cusp of their youth.
What the hell had I been thinking? I was on something, but that proved weak as a defence.
Every step I make is carefully measured. The area is mostly forbidden but I need to see it again.
Caution: twenty meters until breach of parole conditions.
I can hear my large heavy boots coming down on the ground. It was a day not unlike today. But not quite: I think they’re more diligent now.
I was wild and trouble, but they didn’t expect this. Not from me, not yet.
I stand in silence. I close my eyes trying to remember getting up. And her eyes, which had lost the sense of fear and hope; just glass marbles now. Watching me walk away a few paces, glance back and noticing she hadn’t budged an inch.
Just up ahead, though they’ve paved over it now.
The voice says: Remain here. Arrest warrant has been issued.
My eyes crept open. What?
Your behaviour is sufficient to warrant termination of your parole. Please wait for the arresting officer.
I don’t want to ask what I did wrong.
I might as well kill time.
One of them is walking towards me. A young goddess: smiling and happy without a care in the world. She does not know who I am.
It takes a moment to make up my mind. It’s over so fast.
The voice is silent. I stand triumphant, every eye upon me, waiting for my arrest.
What’s a man to do?
Copyright © 2007 by Ian Cordingley