I had just gotten off of Thoroughfare Highway at the Offramp exit and was driving down Road avenue over to Street street. It was a chance meeting, with some wretched unpleasantness, on the corner of Ubiquitous and Nondescript, in the Housing District of the Residential Zone of Urban City.
The stereo was blaring. The song was Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. The instrument panel shone bright blue. The gear shifter felt solid in my hand. The brakes were taut and responsive; I preferred laying on the accelerator. I was cruising.
The car’s On-Board Automated Personality™, who I had named Lorelei after this old German folktale I heard of once, suddenly piped up.
«Attention, Mr. O’Toole. This is a final reminder that your automobile is overdue for scheduled maintenance.»
“What’d you say, Lorelei?”
She chided me. «Your automobile is overdue for scheduled maintenance, Mr. O’Toole.»
Damn. I had meant to do that. Try to remember to do that later.
The engine temperature meter suddenly spiked. The check-oil indicator light started blinking. The music stopped. The engine roared.
«Warning. Engine overheating. Oil pressure dropping. malfunction.»
The steering wheel jerked right, then left, sharply. I was helpless to control it. It spun beneath my hands.
«Warning. Power-steering malfunction.»
The power windows rolled up and down. The automatic windshield wipers started thrashing furiously.
«Electrical system malfunction.»
Tires screeched and spun. The car fishtailed, swung around. Urban City’s lights danced.
«Anti-lock brake malfunction.»
Gears were grinding. Everything was freaking out; I was trapped.
«Seatbelt release mechanism malfucntion.» Sparks flew everywhere from the console.
The car was out of control and careened into a row of garbage cans. Advertising brochures, shopping catalogues, and credit-card offers exploded in a flurry into the air like startled pigeons. Tossed over the hood of my car, flung amongst the refuse, there was also a homeless man.
When the dust settled, I disentangled myself from the seatbelt and the airbags and stepped out of the wreckage of my automobile. Smoke was billowing out from underneath the hood; the smell of fried electronics and plastic melted by battery acid mingled with burnt rubber and weeks old garbage. I was extremely shaken.
«In case of product malfunction, please call the Emergency Hotline at: 1 (888) 740-7000. 24 hours a day.»
“Don’t worry son: I saw what happened and I’m used to being the victim of surprise acts of wonton technological up-fuck and I...”
The homeless person was stumbling around, coughing and screaming all sorts of nonsense. His bone was projecting out of his arm at an oblique angle, dripping blood. Quivering flaps of muscle wound around it. I maintained a conservative distance so as to avoid being splashed with blood. He may have had diseases. I reached for my cell-phone and dialed for help. I was afraid to even look at my poor car. I could hear the poor, befuddled computer Lorelei sputtering.
«please call the emergency-emergency-hours a day-(888)-(888)-day»
“...chalk it up to the god of disappointment that the system itself never breaks down, but rather by all the break-downs works better and better and keeps moving forever...”
After getting up the nerve, I glanced back at the wreckage of my automobile. I almost wept, right there on the street. My beautiful automobile was in shambles. I had put so much of myself into it. The special hood-ornament was bent. The glass of the sunroof was busted out. The hood was all crunched; my custom racing-stripe looked all goofed up. And Lorelei was too.
«40-7000. 24 hours-of product malfunction-product»
“...because it’s funny that the grease that makes the world go ‘round is pumped out of hell by the ramshackle products of dysfunction to suck the infected lifeblood of cash-money from the masses of consumers again and again in a cyclic age of replacement parts and warranties and guarantees of bygone quality standards that help nobody...”
Slowly, I walked around my car, surveying the damage in detail. There was no way that I could just get the dents dinged-out. It looked like the front right fender would have to be replaced completely. Plus, the grille had been staved in. And the right headlight, which was the special halogen kind, was blinking on and off for no reason. And poor Lorelei was all messed up.
“...but the rich get richer and the rest of us get forced by necessity to eat their shit and die a thousand and one deaths on the alter of preferred customers going mad from clauses in rental agreements and signature contracts from lawyers who get their percentage of flesh from the unthinking and uncaring sheep who make it all possible and get ass-raped for their trouble by their employers according to Keynesian economics and a bullshit market...”
My radar-detector wasn’t working anymore; probably the power-surge or something had ruined it. And I didn’t want to guess about any of the damage that had occurred under the hood. It was too terrible to contemplate. And poor Lorelei rambled on. The surge must have damaged her too.
“...that’s only possible because we stand for it, so God save the Queen and protect her stock portfolio from a volatile market, and remind her corporate Majesty to diversify, divide, and conquer new markets in the name of the New Holy Ism...”
On top of that, my roof-mounted luggage rack looked like a total loss. One of my expensive dual-blade windshield wipers was bent; the other one was nowhere to be seen. And I had a very bad feeling about my upholstery, thinking back to the sparks when my poor car’s computer shorted-out. I could barely stand to listen to the poor, confused Lorelei babbling on and on.
«In case of product malfunction-malfunction-in case-24 hours»
“...since romanticism, idealism, liberalism, humanism, pacifism, environmentalism, positivism, egalitarianism, humanitarianism, conservationism, and all the other noble isms of history have been supplanted by the New Holy Ism of Consumerism, buttressed by commercialese imponderabilia...”
I wished the homeless man would stop babbling. I mean, didn’t he realize how upsetting this whole episode was for me? Talk about inconsiderate. I mean, my car looked like it belonged in a junkyard! Who knows what it was going to cost me?! And how about poor Lorelei?
“...worshipped by the noxious apostles of obeisance to products, who place Things over people on their bottom line.”
An Emergency Services team finally arrived, horns blaring, lights flashing.
“Okay, son. What happened?” The Policeman inspected my papers without looking up at me.
“Well - ”
“It says on your insured vehicle registration license WC-1 form that your vehicle was scheduled for a tune up, a computer diagnostic, and an oil change according to the terms of the Maintenance Agreement. Please state your reason for failing to comply with the manufacturer’s recommended safety instructions.”
“Well I - ”
“This form is a waiver of your rights. Please sign here, and initial here.”
“Well I don’t - ”
“You’re missing your BS 001 form. That’s another fee.” Pause. “And I don’t see a current certificate of Proper Maintenance; this one’s expired.”
“Well I don’t ever - ”
“Are you aware that your failure to properly comply with the terms of your vehicle’s warranty constitutes a breach of agreement with your insurance provider? You understand that you will be held liable for any costs that may be involved in repairing your vehicle?”
“Well I don’t ever really - ”
“Sign here, here, and here, initial here and here.”
“Well I don’t ever really think - ”
“What company handles your health insurance?” The Emergency Medical Technician, though the surgical mask.
“Well - ”
“This homeless man doesn’t appear on your policy. You’re the policy holder? We can’t treat this other man unless you consent to a form SOB-75, under the terms of which, you agree to pay for his medical expenses.”
“Well I - ”
“We can’t administer treatment without it.”
“If he dies, that’s a serious offence.” Police Officer.
“Well I never - ”
“Here’s the paperwork.” Emergency Medical Technician with latex gloves. “You’ll need to get that to a branch office of your care provider in triplicate in thirty business days in order to be considered valid.”
“Well I never have - ”
The homeless man was conveyed on a stretcher into the ambulance, whence he was taken to Medical Hospital.
“Well I never have enough - ”
“Have a nice day.” Police Officer.
“Have a nice day.” Emergency Medical Technician.
“You too. You too.”
So I got that taken care of.
The cost of the necessary repairs to my automobile was considerable. I asked to see an itemized bill explaining the particulars to me:
- - - - - - - -I N V O I C E- - - - - - - -
\ Estimation fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5.70 \
/ Replacement parts . . . . . . . . . . 5,440.25 /
\ Machine labor . . . . . . . . . . . 1,905.00 \
/ Endorsement fee . . . . . . . . . . . . 15.00 /
\ Reinstatement fee . . . . . . . . . . . . 18.50 \
/ Processing fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65.00 /
\ Approximate fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9.00 \
/ Meaningless fee . . . . . . . . . . . . 62.75 /
\ Extra fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.00 \
/ Redundant extra fee . . . . . . . . . . . 6.00 /
\ Collection fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45.45 \
/ Value added tax . . . . . . . . . . . . 103.65 /
\ Federal tax . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91.00 \
/ State tax . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . 76.40 /
\ Municipal tax . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5.00 \
/ Transportation safety fine . . . . . . . . 86.00 /
\ Motor vehicle operator’s fee . . . . . . . 20.00 \
/ Clearance fee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3.80 /
\ Sub-total . . . . . . . .. . . . . . 7,964.50 \
/ Grand-total . . . . . . . . . . . . 8,505.72 /
\ a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a nic \
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I made sure to keep a copy of the receipt for my personal files.
I tried to put the whole thing behind me, and was doing a good job of it too. My car was fixed, and Lorelei was back to normal. I bought myself some new seat-covers and an electronic compass for my dashboard and was already feeling much more cheerful. In fact, I forgot about the whole thing.
That’s when I received a telephone call from Medical Hospital.
It was an automated message. I put the call on Speakerphone™ because I was busy Instant Messaging™ my wife:
«This is an e-Greeting™ from Medical Hospital. Please hold.»
I listened to an electronic version of The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies. Then the voice began again:
«Don’t forget to stop by our Giftshop™ on your way to visit your hospitalized friend or relative and purchase something to bring personal warmth and happiness to him or her. We offer toys, chocolates, flowers, magazines, and other fantastic gift options.»
The voice stopped and The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies resumed. Then:
«Thank you for your patience. Please stay on the line.»
Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies. Then:
«Your hospitalized friend or relative is going to be released from our care tomorrow. We accept personal checks, money orders, or credit cards as a method of payment. Please address your payment to: Medical Hospital / 5101 West Satisfaction Avenue / Urban City. Please stay on the line to hear about the latest exciting offer brought to you by your friends at Medical Hospital.»
Sugarplum Fairies. Then:
«As part of an exclusive promotion going on now, Medical Hospital is offering Preferred Customer Gold Membership™ Cards at a rock-bottom price. With your Medical Hospital Preferred Customer Gold Membership Card™ comes our special quarterly journal that we will deliver straight to your home or business free of charge at a rate that is 75% off the listed cover-price. If your friend or relative is terminally ill, remember that Platinum Membership Card™ holders are also eligible for special packaged discounts with affiliated funeral homes, mortuaries, and crematoria in the greater Urban City area, in addition to our quarterly journal.»
That’s when I remembered that bum that I ran into a while back.
«We hope you’ll come and visit us soon! Have a nice day.»
I stopped at the Giftshop™ and bought the homeless person a magazine about cars. It was my favorite magazine.
I was not happy about having to see that man again. My discomfort was growing. But why should I feel guilty? His injury was an accident. And I was paying money for his hospitalization. So we should have been square.
Let’s see. I tried to think back to the accident. His arm had been broken, I think. So he had to have his broken arm set at Medical Hospital. How long ago was the accident? I thought back.
At least two days ago.
And still I was uncomfortable. This day in age, in Urban City, it doesn’t make sense to ever have to be uncomfortable. But I was. I was confused. The situation had become so complicated.
I asked a friendly-looking blond nurse in the Recovery Ward about where the homeless man with a broken arm was being kept.
«One moment please…»
I took a moment to look around the hall.
It was really a great facility. Modern. Clean. The Russian Dance from the Nutcracker Suite was playing softly. The nurse startled me out of my thoughtful reflection.
«Patient number 00506-07991.56.079 is located in room number 168.»
The nurse smiled at me warmly.
I went to room number 168 and opened the door. The homeless man was inside. He was propped up on a bed, his arm in a cast.
«Hi. How are you?»
“I’m doing okay, really. How are you?”
«I’m the guy that hit you. Here: I bought you this magazine.»
«I can’t really stay for very long. I’m very busy.» One of my favorite shows was going to come on at two’ o’clock and it was already almost one. I really didn’t want to miss this episode.
I was about to turn to leave.
“You know, I want you to know that I wasn’t always a homeless guy. I used to have a great career lined up. Skills. I was going to be famous. I was a dancer in a ballet. Do you believe that!?”
«Sometimes I like to listen to Chopin.»
“My favorite was always Debussy. How melancholy...”
«Anyway…» I wanted badly to go.
“Do you know the Nutcracker? Peter Tchaikovsky? Also composed Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty? Russian. Mid-to-late nineteenth century...”
«I like Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude.»
“Yeah, me too...but so, maybe you’ve heard of Ashleigh Treigh? She was really famous about ten years ago. She was really the premier ballerina in the world; everyone knew her...she and I were going to be together in a performance of The Nutcracker, once upon a time.”
«The Revolutionary Étude is really my favorite.»
“Okay. But, so, you’re probably wondering that if it’s true that I used to be a great performer, how come I wound up on the streets? I wanted to explain to you that I’m not just some bum you crashed into: I’m a person.”
«Of course you are.»
When the director told me that for the opening performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at the Urban City Fine Arts Performance Center for Entertainment I would be paired with a substitute, instead of Ashleigh Treigh herself, it was as though I had been shocked with a cattle prod. Like I said, Ashleigh Treigh was the hottest ballerina back then. Her routines were always the most demanding, and her performance always the most impeccable. She was hailed as the greatest performer of our times. Having gotten to star with her in the ballet was the biggest break a performer such as myself could ever have hoped for. It meant that I had finally hit the big-time. So when the director told me that Ashleigh Treigh was ill and that I was, in fact, going to have to dance without her, it came as a surprise of the most unwelcome sort.
But it got even worse. The director told me that my dance partner was not only not Ashleigh Treigh, but was also not even human. I was beside myself.
I couldn’t even speak.
For starters, as an athlete and performer, I was more than a little pissed-off when I was paired off with some device. It represented a negation of the importance of human strength and dedication. My strength. My dedication.
Of course you understand.
I had trained since my early youth for the privilege of performing. How many months spent in grueling rehearsals? How many days in the weight-room? How many parties missed because I had to train the next morning? How many lost opportunities? How much sacrifice?
What was the reward of it all?
So I could be paired up with some machine-made substitute.
After the talk, I walked around the streets of Urban City for hours like a man stunned by a blow to the head. I was struggling to comprehend my misfortune. It seemed worse than losing my life: my career flashed before my eyes!
Just thinking back to some of Ashleigh Treigh’s performances; if you’d seen her, you’d know what I’m talking about. No machine could ever be that good. Were its wires filled with the adrenaline of that first moment on stage? Did it have a heart that could beat in rhythm with the music? Did the whispers of the crowd move this robot? Could it sense the audience’s excitement and draw energy from it? Was it capable of feeling goosebumps cascade across its plastic flesh when the audience cheered it? Could it feel the exhilaration after a perfectly executed performance? Did it have a sense of utter fulfillment and satisfaction and contentment when the night was over and the lights went off, when the seats were empty and the crowds were gone?
As I’ve explained, I had serious doubts as soon as I was informed of the extraordinary last-minute change in cast. Especially after the director accidentally spilled the beans that her maintenance schedule conflicted with her performances, so it had been decided by management that the routine maintenance was to be postponed. Well, the moment I laid eyes on the two-bit manufactured madam, all of my misgivings seemed very well founded.
She was made-up to resemble Ashleigh Treigh from a distance. Same slim build, long legs, thin neck. The short blond hair was done up in a tight ponytail. The hair was stretched back to reveal a smooth and barren forehead, and unlike Treigh’s, it wasn’t creased by lines of life and worry. It was devoid of thought, experience.
And her eyes were dead, like marbles sitting in plastic cups. No focus, no flicker of intelligence. No curiosity, no dazzle, no sparkle of vitality. This was not Ashleigh Treigh.
And in the performance, everything unfolded more or less as I has foreseen. I couldn’t predict the details, but I just knew something terrible was going to happen.
I remember standing with her behind the two-story high curtains. I knew that in moments, after the introduction was complete, the curtains would part like the thighs of a beautiful young mother, about to give birth to my career.
“Why are you shaking?” The faux-Ashleigh Treigh had asked me. It seemed like the machine was accusing me of weakness, of being soft. That’s never a problem, I guess, if you’re made out of metal.
I don’t remember how I replied.
Everything went off fine until the Intermission.
She and I moved in perfect unison in the center of the other pairs of dancers. Spinning and twirling, the stage lights soaring above us. The crowd watched us breathlessly. In perfect harmony with the music and with each other. She was strong, poised. She seemed totally confident, no nervousness. Plenty of gratifying murmurs of awed approval from the crowd.
I noticed during the intermission though, that the fake Ashleigh Treigh began to blink a lot. Her coordination was a little off while she was changing her costume.
I asked her if something was wrong.
“My warranty has expired.”
It felt like somebody had poured ice-cubes into my chest.
That was it. I dreaded the moment when we went back on stage.
She evidently passed her prime somewhere on stage that night, right before the Intermission; her decline was precipitous.
We were dancing when she started to slip up. Her timing was slightly off, her gracefulness slowly being replaced with faltering, clumsy movements. Everything got worse and worse. But the absolute worst was yet to come.
It was the climax of the Act. Two of the evil Rat King’s men...well, Mice, seized me – I was the Prince – and hurled me across the stage. See, this performance was sort of a modern interpretation of the old ballet. Some young producer was trying to spruce up the blocking called for in the original and revamp it for today’s viewing audience. Anyway, we were on a raised platform, probably 12 or 15 feet high. And they were supposed to grab me and fling me off the platform – this was the big fight scene. Then the Princess was supposed to catch me, you know, to highlight the love between the Prince and the Princess, and also to demonstrate political correctness to the audience by underscoring equality in the relationship. Feminist issues and so on.
Well, ‘Treigh’ was a few steps behind everybody else and wasn’t there to catch me. The Mice chucked my ass off the platform. The Princess was nowhere to be seen as I hurtled to the floor. I remember two distinct thoughts going through my head on the way down. The first was: “My career is over.” The second was: “This is going to hurt.” And then my body made contact with the waxed floor. My leg hit first and my femur was fractured.
As I writhed in pain a little bit off to the side, clutching my broken leg, ‘Treigh’ got slower and slower, less and less in time with the orchestra, until she finally stood still, center-stage. One or two electrical flashes were noticeable underneath her pink dress, underneath her white plastic skin.
The performers – those who didn’t rush over to me in response to my cries - unsure of how to respond to such an unheard-of disruption of a ballet, were at a loss. After some muddled but brave attempts to keep the show going on, everyone on stage began to distance themselves from the Ashleigh Treigh look-alike. I was hauled off-stage by the Rat King and two of his Mice. We all felt betrayed. Especially me: ‘Treigh’ was my partner, and had let me down in more ways than one.
Everyone – the audience and the performers - watched her ‘solo death scene,’ as it were, quietly from the edges of the stage. I was blinded by agony, but I’m sure I would have been just as aghast.
I’m told that it wasn’t beautiful or tragic or poetic or moving in any particular way. Once you got past how strange it was that this beautiful ballet dancer, this star, this stage actress, wasn’t real at all, the whole affair of her demise seemed almost comic. One felt almost embarrassed to watch the bizarre fiasco, actually. Watching this erstwhile epitome of grace, better than the original she had been designed to replace, leap and pirouette and twirl and curtsy herself - quite literally - to pieces, on stage.
I think that the audience initially supposed that the sparks and the smoke were ‘special effects’.
I saw a video of the whole thing about a week later, while I was in Recovery. The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz brought it to me – the Center had understandably switched its billing after the incident. ‘Treigh’ turned into a fucked-up pinball machine. Random sound bites, weird and arrhythmic flashes, bouncing springs, exploding numbers. Her body was rocked by all manner of internal bursts of electricity, winding motors, loose ball-bearings. Her hair came undone. The straps of her dress loosened and threatened to unfasten altogether. She shook angrily.
After what seemed like an eon on stage, but what was probably only about 45 seconds or a minute at most – by this time, one of the Sugarplum Fairies backstage had called for an ambulance for me - she tottered one last time and collapsed, all stiff, onto the waxed floor of the stage. Totally defunct, face down, eyes staring at nothing, motionless except for the smoke. She had finally fallen: so much rotten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
And in the shocked audience nobody clapped once. Ticket refunds were given to the entire audience. The show closed. A few days later, The Wizard of Oz opened.
And that was really it for my career; I would always be remembered as the guy with the broken leg whose dance partner was that robot that fucked up. I could never work again.
If you can believe that.
The homeless man had been speaking for almost fifteen whole minutes. I was becoming incredibly bored. Just then, a nurse came into the room, holding a large syringe. She looked just like the other nurse I had spoken with earlier, except that this one had black hair. Also, this one seemed to be blinking a lot.
«I’m afraid visiting hours are over, Mr. O’Toole. We’re-we’re sorry-sorry.»
Saved by the bell. «Well, I have to go anyway.» The one-hour special that I wanted to watch was going to come on soon. «Nice talking to you.»
“Yeah, sure boss. Bye.”
«I’m afraid-I’m afraid-It’s time for your shot-shot»
“What? What shot? What kind of shot!? Wait a minute! I’m supposed to be getting discharged from the hospital! I’m fine! Wait!”
«time for your shot-your shot-your shot-your shot…»
I hurried out of the room and down the corridor to the elevator. If I hustled, I could still make it in time to see the show.
That stupid homeless man bothered me. As I walked through the Medical Hospital parking lot, I was thinking about how I could cheer myself up. Looking at my automobile, I wondered if it wouldn’t look better if I got my windows tinted. I tried to picture myself behind the wheel, driving, the windows black. That’s when I got the idea to go and get my windows tinted. I would make it a special, well-deserved, surprise present for myself. I started feeling better right away. I put on Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude.
I got another call from Medical Hospital the next day. Too bad I didn’t decide to spring for the Preferred Customer Platinum Membership Card™; would have saved me a lot of money.
ve a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a nice day.Have a ni