Short Story by Jack Bragen
When I was twelve, my father, bless him, had said, “In the old days, one associated men in white outfits as being house painters. Now all of that is different. Men in white are feared.
“If you say something you’re not supposed to say, if you do something you’re not supposed to do, the men in white will come and take you away. You will never be heard from again. God knows what happens to you after they take you away. Son, I did not make this world, and I wish it were different. Be careful.”
My father had then resumed playing video games on his wireless unit, an activity that was permitted. Reading a book was not. In my dreams, I had seen my father reading a book — reading numerous books, sometimes reading them to me. God, I wish he had been able to do that.
When I asked my father again about the men in white, he would never acknowledge my questions.
But I saw them. One day they came to take away my sister. My father showed no signs of grief — outwardly, that is. But I knew that this killed him.
I knew that if I hadn’t been around to be taken care of, he would have gladly slain as many of the men in white as he could, to take vengeance. I remember seeing dad glance toward a fireplace poker — I am guessing it would have been his weapon. However, he stuck around, for me.
When I was eighteen, Dad became ill. He had pneumonia and had been in the hospital for more than the three-day limit. They came for him. One of them muttered, “Too expensive to take care of…”
I knew that I was not permitted to cry. I was to acknowledge that my father’s illness was too much of a drain on the economy. I looked in the eyes of one of the men in white who had just taken my father. I did not hate him; there was no one there to hate.
From the unspoken rules: You do not read books; use of too much paper is bad for the environment, and a source of waste in the economy. You do not think too much, thinking too much is silly, and if you get too silly, the men in white will take you away.
What a twisted world we had created. Where had all of this come from?
Now I was eighteen and my father was gone. I would be expected to find work. I sent an electronic job application to a number of places that I had looked up. Rental on Dad’s nice housing unit was a lot. I might be forced to live in a micro-cube if my future job didn’t pay enough. I did not relish the thought.
I looked at myself in the mirror. I had inherited my father’s good physique, and I appeared formidable. I walked around the housing unit. It was 900 square feet and had three bedrooms. One of them had once been my sister’s, and one had been that of my father. This was a large and expensive unit. If only I could stay!
From the unspoken rules: You cannot live with roommates. Roommates increase promiscuity. Promiscuity is fun. Having fun other than with video games is silly. Being silly is not allowed — the men in white will be summoned.
On my tablet, I sifted through a number of possible jobs. One of them was that of parking lot cleanup. It involved driving a parking lot cleaner truck through parking lots, and doing this between midnight and 7 a.m. The pay seemed out of proportion. However, I thought I should check it out, so I sent a message. “Can you tell me more about this job?”
Within minutes, a reply showed up. “You are hired. You start tonight. My driver will pick you up at eleven.”
The unspoken rules: You do not turn down a job offer…
My timepiece read 10:59 when I heard a knock at the front door. I had dressed in work clothes, and I went directly to the front and opened the door without bothering to turn on the porch monitor.
A man who couldn’t have been more than twenty, in black jeans and a tank top, with a wispy moustache and a scar across the forehead, as well as incomprehensible tattoos on his arms, stood before me. “Ready to work?” he asked.
“I am,” I replied. “Should I follow you to your truck or something?”
“Don’t worry. This job is really a breeze.” He paused. “By the way, I’m Rick.”
“I’m Jim,” I said.
I followed him to a parking lot sweeper truck. A regular car was behind it, and I assumed it was that of another employee.
Rick gave me a key to the truck.
“There’s nothing to it. The truck drives itself; it is fully programmed. You’re in it to push the stop button if there is ever a problem. Have a good shift, and see you in the morning. The truck will take you to our warehouse where you will get your pay.” He started in the direction of the car, but then turned abruptly. “Don’t fall asleep.” And he winked at me.
I wondered at my great fortune in finding a good-paying job in which I was expected to do nothing but sit there.
I got into the vehicle. From the dashboard, an automated voice said, “Press the Start button to begin.”
I pressed the start button and looked for a seatbelt. The truck started up, pulled onto the main part of the street, and cruised along at a safe and sane automated speed.
I noticed there was quite a bright lamp shining above me and I reached instinctively to shut it off. From on top of the sun visor, an object fell, and gently thudded on the top of my head before landing on my lap.
I picked up the object and examined it. By this time, the truck had begun to clean one of the parking lots in town. The object was a paperback book. I was instantly frightened and had the urge to throw the book out the window, so as not to be caught with it and become suspected of reading a book.
But I couldn’t. I had to look at the book. I had to read. Failing to read it would disrespect my memory of my father. The book was titled Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I started to read. The book was baffling. Had people once traveled the seas on ships made of wood? What was their power source — nuclear or battery? And, what was an “island”?
At seven in the morning, my eyes had become tired and I had developed a mild headache. I put the paperback book back in its hiding spot.
I could hear the sweeper truck shut off its pump motor, indicating to me that it would probably soon head to the warehouse, wherever that was. I realized that the truck was taking me to a remote, industrial part of town.
The truck took me down a two-lane road and hummed along at 35 miles an hour. I saw a giant sign ahead that had a checkmark and a dot. (People were transitioning away from use of the written word.) The sign meant “checkpoint.”
We got closer and I realized the checkpoint was staffed by four or five men in white. I began to panic; however, in a flash, my panic changed to rage. The truck stopped, and one of the white-clad men knocked on my window.
I lowered it. “What?” I said.
The individual pointed an electronic device at me. “You have high brain activity,” he said. “Are you thinking a lot?”
“Are you calling me some kind of intellectual scum? You jerks should bug off.”
The individual turned to one of the others, and spoke quietly, not intending for me to hear. However, I had quite good hearing. “Is this guy psychotic?” he asked.
The other replied, “That would explain the high brain activity. He’s obviously not smart or anything.”
I shouted, “You idiots are wasting my time!”
The man clad in white put up a hand. “We’ll be done soon.” He spoke a bit more to his comrade, and then turned again toward me. “I’m going to microchip you. It will help tell everyone that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, and you are above suspicion.”
He produced a gadget and put it to my shoulder. The pain of injection was brief.
“You can go now.”
The truck continued driving itself. I passed by piled-up, defunct, wrecked cars behind barbed-wire fences. The truck maneuvered around manned forklifts and giant big rigs. The road was dirt and gravel. Finally, at the end of the road, my truck went through a gate and into a paved parking lot. In parking spaces were at least a dozen more parking lot sweeper trucks, and most were nearly identical to mine.
My sweeper took a vacant parking space, marked number 27, and it shut off. A voice emanated from behind the dashboard that said, “Your shift is completed. Please go into office and meet with Mr. Jeffries.”
I glanced upward and hoped that the book I had been reading wouldn’t fall out of its hiding place after I was gone. I worried I might get a different truck the following day, and I was tempted to pocket the book. But then, I saw that someone, apparently an employee of the company, was standing at the front of the building and was looking in my direction.
I got out of the truck and went into the building. I was directed to go to a waiting area that had coffee and a television. I drank coffee, and soon my mood was a bit better. A man with spectacles and a necktie came up to me. I started to stand.
“You don’t have to get up. Here’s your pay.” He handed me two hundred units printed on fresh currency paper.
I inspected the money. “Thanks, that’s a lot.” I prevented myself from smiling. Smiling wasn’t allowed.
“Before you go, here is some breakfast to take home.” He handed me a cardboard food box. “Don’t open this until you get home. We don’t want food mess here.”
“How do I get home?”
“Get in the same truck and it will drive you home. From now on, you’ll use that truck. Tomorrow someone will teach you how to maintain it by emptying the dirt tank and filling the cleaner solution tank. Go home and get some sleep.”
I thanked the man, and I went home.
I sat at my eating table; I remembered when my father had assembled it, and I was a bit sad. Then my stomach growled. and I opened the food box.
There was no food in the box.
Instead, there was a book: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
I wondered at this. I had a thousand questions. Was this an underground? I dared not utter a word about this. And tomorrow I planned not to acknowledge any books or any thinking. I had come upon something big.
But for now, at least, much care had to be taken because there was much danger. I marveled at the fact that I’d found people of unimaginable kindness and bravery.
I might never be able to even ask a question. I could not so much as wink at anyone. But that morning, I planned to read myself to sleep, and that was a very good thing.