by Todd Easton Mills
Recidivists! And I’m one of them—
Killer-diller in my two-tone stompers. Hi-de-ho!
We’re cooking with gas.
It was a smoggy morning in August, already 120 degrees. In the quad below office workers were taking their 8:45 break. Hanley adjusted the binocular feature on his eyeglasses, which magnified the leaves of a live oak and revealed a battered squirrel sitting on a branch. The garden of the state capitol building was beautiful with old trees and shrubs, but when he looked across the lawn, he could see seams of SynTurf and artificial gopher mounds. “Soft focus,” he said.
* * * *
“Mr. Hanley, right?” asked a man in line at the canteen.
“No, Hanley Anderson.”
“That’s right. Anderson. You’re the fellow who wears suspenders. A bit of a throwback, are you, Hanley?”
“I guess I am.”
“Don’t see you around much.”
“I usually eat in my office.”
“What’s that book you’re reading?”
“The new budget numbers.”
“Still working on that? I submitted my recommendations two weeks ago. If you can’t cut staff or pensions, the only thing left is facilities. I cut seven percent, not a quarter more. No sense in being a hero.”
“Even if California is broke?”
* * * *
It had been eighteen months. When the call came, Hanley was startled. Turnbull’s handsome face hovered before him at eye level. Hanley felt like he had been caught sleeping on the job.
“You asked me to call,” Turnbull said. He had a deep, warm voice that put Hanley at ease.
“Mr. Turnbull,” Hanley said.
“Call me Jake.”
There was no need to exchange niceties because employers had full transparency on employee history, including an auto-assembled highlight reel of one’s public and private life. Notwithstanding, it was considered good manners to converse in the old way:
“Where did you go to school, Hanley?” asked Turnbull.
“Excellent school. Were you a radical?”
“The opposite, I would say.”
“A conservative at Berkeley? That’s interesting. But I like what I see.”
“On Transparency, sir?”
“Well, yes. Anyway, we have a big job to do. How do we cut thirty-five percent out of next year’s budget without reductions in salaries or pensions?”
“Working on that, sir.”
“I have a good feeling about you, Hanley. The deficit is killing us. All that spending, doesn’t it make you want to spit?”
“Spit? Haven’t heard that one.”
“Funny, Hanley, coming from you. I’m going to Singapore next week with Morehouse. Singapore knows more about prisons than anyone in the world. Did you know they have robot guards? Not for us, of course. Take a look at state hospitals, private prisons, and fire camps. Cut deep. It’s time to think outside the box.”
“How far outside?”
“Up to you.”
* * * *
His office was getting hot. When he tried to turn up the air conditioner, the screen read: “Try again later, Hanley. Everyone is doing their part to conserve energy.”
Hanley spoke into a small microphone mounted on his desk. Twice a screen floated up, which he waved down. He began: “More than eighty percent of the inmate population is serving time for drug crimes. Early release is the solution, but when offenders get out, they must compete for jobs against workers with clean records.” A long discussion about “expunging the record for felonies and misdemeanors” followed.
After dictating fifty-nine pages, Hanley felt excited but tired. He pushed his chair back and ended by saying: “It was clever for planners to install trees that collect solar power, but SynShade made the cities hotter, and now the urban forests smell like burning tires. With every evolution there is the risk of unintended consequences. But what are the consequences if we do nothing? You asked me to think outside the box, sir…”
The long dictation had given Hanley a headache, which was aggravated by the high-speed review with QuickTake. When he finished, the proposal was auto-proofed and edited, with footnotes, statistics, and photographs. It would arrive at Turnbull’s office as a hardcover book. He was tired and strangely giddy. Too late to back out now, he thought. “Send it.”
* * * *
It was almost nine and a red sunset diffused through the layered smog. From the train Hanley saw a swarm of Google cars racing five abreast at 160 miles an hour. After an interval another metallic blur would speed through. He hated it. To distract himself he listened to the conversation in the seat behind him. They started out in French, switched to English, then Swahili and a form of Oceanic pidgin. He looked around and saw a young couple, newly chipped, with double gold bars displayed on their temples. They laughed and bantered in loud voices.
The young woman said: “Bobby, you have a wonderful sense of humor.”
“PunDor!” quipped Bobby.
Hanley braced himself for what he knew would come next.
“Which bug hid in the rug?” she started.
“The lesser of two weevils!” said Bobby.
“You can lead a horticulture,” she challenged.
“But you can’t make her think,” he snorted.
“Too rich!” shrieked the young woman.
“I could pun a marathon,” said Bobby irrepressibly.
* * * *
Hanley slid a worn key into the mortised lock. It was against the law to have a front door that locked with a key, but houses on the historical register were exempt. Hanley surveyed the kitchen. The cabinets were white, aged yellow, with heavy glass knobs. There was a large iron skillet on the stove and shelves with faded boxes of antique food.
The house had belonged to his great-grandmother and was a perfectly preserved California bungalow; it had low ceilings, shingled siding, and a gravel roof. On both sides of the block stood similar bungalows, where some neighbors left their doors unlocked as an homage to a poorly imagined past.
Julie, Hanley’s girlfriend, called out: “You’re burning the toast! How do you cook with that thing? Are you home, Hanley?”
“Just a minute. I can’t hear you. I’m running the mangle.”
“I said you’re burning the toast!”
“It’s not the toast. It’s the toaster’s old wires. I’ll be right there. Grab the toast. I need to mangle the sheets.”
Julie, who was an art student, had blonde hair cut in a bob. She had brought along her little friend, Johnny.
“Damn it, Julie. Why did you bring that thing with you? You know how I feel. Nothing after ’46. Please take it out.”
“And leave him outside? What does it matter? You aren’t bothered by Johnny when you come to my place.”
“That’s because it’s your place and this is mine. When I come home I like everything simple.”
“You mean everything 1946?”
“Even if the car across the street is a 1957.”
“Just one, the ’57 Chevy. He’s promised to keep it in the garage. But he’s a good neighbor. Being a good neighbor myself, I mind my own business.”
Johnny, three feet tall with a face like Johnny Depp, was following the conversation and would have questions for Julie when they got home. Julie hadn’t decided if she was going to marry Hanley. Maybe she would agree to a five-year contract. She liked Hanley’s tall, neat frame. Their dates were pleasant but his fixation with 1946 had become obsessive. Johnny agreed.
“In 1946 didn’t husbands beat their wives?” Julie asked.
“That’s unfair. You know I would never lay a finger on you.”
“How can I be sure?”
Hanley looked pained. “Some people live dozens of immersive lives. Why can’t I live one?”
Julie laughed. “You mean two. You’re forgetting your life at work.”
“Look, I know. There must be something wrong with me because I like books. And I like the radio because it plays my favorite shows.”
“And once you have listened to all the shows from 1946, does it move on to 1947 or repeat?”
“It repeats because that’s the way I have it set.”
“So there you are. You’re an escape artist like everyone else.”
Hanley’s cell rang: “Mr. Turnbull. What a nice surprise. Yes, I’m home early.”
“I know you are, Hanley,” Turbull began. “We’ve been watching your conversation with Julie on Transparency. The governor just finished reading your White Paper and wanted me to call you. He likes it!”
“Likes it but has questions.”
“There is a lot of detail…the part about expunging the record—”
“Here, Governor Morehouse wants to say hello. Better turn off the speakerphone. The governor doesn’t like people listening in.”
“Hello, Governor. Yes, my speakerphone is turned off. I don’t like it either. I couldn’t agree more. We are spending much too much locking people up. Yes, staggering duplication, fraud, and waste.”
The phone went dead. Hanley went outside for a better connection. Across the street a maroon ’46 Packard was doubled-parked.
Turnbull rang again: “It’s the governor, Hanley.”
“I’m sure it was my phone, sir. Happy to. Well, we begin with the early release of non-violent offenders. I assumed two hundred fifty thousand releases year one and eighteen months to retrofit the cells. This includes new plumbing and drop-down IVs in every cell. No, I don’t think we will need to advertise; the press will do it for us. It’s possible we’ll be oversubscribed before we open the doors. You have the numbers, sir, but ten billion dollars the first year might be on the conservative side.”
“Do you really think the prison guards should staff it?”
“That’s the beauty of the plan, sir. No dislocations. The prison union will like the reduced workload.”
“Who selects content?” the governor asked.
“California, of course. We would start with popular programs: Ancient Greece and Rome with feasts and orgies. Avatar adventures on distant planets. I want to think about it but we can get creative. Thank you, sir. I’ll write it up.”
Turnbull came back on the line. “The governor wants to know Julie’s age.”
“She’s twenty-seven. No, I’m not sure if she will be spending the night tonight. I know—full transparency in all things public and private.”
“Was that the governor, Hanley?” Julie asked.
“Jack Morehouse himself.”
“About tonight?” Julie said, looking down at her hands. “I don’t mind. I know they’re watching. I really don’t mind. Nothing they haven’t seen before.”
* * * *
To clear his head, Hanley walked to work, arriving before the temperature rose above a hundred. Governor Morehouse had instructed the “wizards” to run revenue projections for each of the state penitentiaries. There were so many budget scenarios, Hanley needed QuickTake to input the data.
Hanley didn’t think of himself as an odd bod. That was Julie’s expression for him. He had a pretty good sense of humor but he wasn’t being humorous. He was an idea man, someone for whom ideas came easily and poured out without filters. His suggestion seemed to almost write itself—but it was Morehouse who saw the potential.
When the legislature approved Phase One, the media’s response was praise for the bold plan. Certain groups, like Recidivist’s Pride, protested, saying they didn’t want to lose their heritage. Others said the government was taking the final step toward mind control. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Morehouse explained. “We don’t want people to spend their whole lives immersed. People need to work. These are vacation cells!”
The retrofit went faster than planned. Pelican Bay, Salinas, Sacramento, and Mule Creek were now repurposed, and more than a million Californians had opted for “voluntary detention.” The slogan on the California license plate now read: Any land, any dream. Legions of out-of-work screenwriters created cheap immersions called “pulp dips,” sensational exploitation pieces lasting under twelve hours. Others repurposed classics like War and Peace for extended stays. With so many options, the DPC needed more salespeople and trip guides. California was getting back on its feet.
Julie called. “How are you doing with your Immy?”
“I’m surprised. Who knows more about the Eisenhower years than you?”
“Truman, actually. But I’m afraid I’m overthinking it. The story is distracting from the urban landscape.”
“I know what you need,” she said.
* * * *
A million users; then, overnight it seemed, ten million. The State of California was flush with cash. In the ramp-up there were problems: irreversible comas, seizures, and strange brain swellings. Hanley wrote another White Paper outlining how the guards should be retrained as registered nurses. In another he made the case that timeshare commissions were the cause of violence among prison guards.
* * * *
Hanley had collected thousands of images for his set designer. Avoiding the obvious, Frank Sinatra was specifically written out. He wanted it real: the hard times after the war—the dismal truth. He leaned back in his chair and imagined soot on his collar and sidewalks littered with trash. There would be shoeshine boys with snot and men going off to work with lunch pails smelling like baloney and cigarettes. There would be no staged adventures or romantic encounters—no awards for cleverness, initiative, or accumulation.
Julie called. “How’s it going?”
“I figured it out,” Hanley said. “I’m going to make it so nobody wants to live there. I’m going to make sure everything about it is lousy. How do you like that?”
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said a voice coming from the closet.
“What the—” When Hanley looked up, Johnny, Julia’s little friend, opened the sliding wooden door.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked the trespassing bot.
“You need help, Hanley. You’re thinking about this all wrong.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“Well, for one thing, every time you download QuickTake, the paired frequency signs you into the neural network. I just listened in.”
“So now you know everything about ’46.”
“Yeah, but it’s a shell. Nothing happens. No action. Everyone is going to be bored to death.”
“That’s the idea. I’m writing it for me. How do I turn off your insolent ass?”
“You know I don’t have to tell you. Not anymore.”
“Come over here and turn around.”
Hanley opened a small door in the back of the bot and removed a silver bar. Then he sat down and imagined a grim day—too cold—spangled with incidents of polio and tuberculosis. There would be no such thing as seat belts and women would have runs in their nylons. Sirens would wail and the sky would be dark and heavy with recidivist clouds. It would be perfect.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing