A Cautionary Tale
Come closing time my numbness at repulsing such a constant tide of humanity prevents me from muttering the slightest peep as the manager slams the metal gate good night and shuts me in tight like the jaws of the case hardened locks he uses. Only after he's driven away in his Eldorado do I manage a "but wait, I..." that refuses to echo off the linoleum floor and fake wood panelling.
Luckily I've managed to swipe enough shirts, sweaters and lost socks to pad a semblance of a bed. Funny, some of the clothes smell damn fresh. Bounce. But it isn't sleep that's the problem. It's food.
There are vending machines here. They don't help.
The VendMePlease Co., of Rockville, Maryland, put these babies together. VMP, a wisp of sane memory reminds me, was formed from the wasted remnants of some of the country's largest, most powerful, and proudest vending machine companies. Egos bruised from nationwide consumer pilferage battles fought and lost, beaten employees settled in Md. and VendMePlease with a vengeance. Their machines, bred in a stew of hate but in the spirit of service, are scattered throughout the East. You've probably never encountered one. Consider yourself blessed.
To get to a VendMePlease product is to prove yourself worthy, something a half-crazed laundry prisoner just cannot hope to do.
First you put in your change, in this case 75 cents for a Zero bar which is only possible to contemplate after all the natural defenses have broken down. If the counterfeit detector likes your silver a slot opens, looking like a robotic mouth with lips hooted open in surprise after a blow to its well-lit stomach. The gap, thumb-sized, is for your thumb.
The moment you touch the heat sensitive pad therein your print has been relayed via satellite to Marion, Ohio, for instantaneous checking of priors and magazine cancellations.
VendMePlease keeps an immense file, supplanted by the FBI, of past vending machine users. In that brief speck of time a number of questions are asked and immediately then answered:
Pass, and your thumb stays put for the next round of questioning, but this time vendee participation is required. Perspiration, heart rate, temperature and other telling physiological changes in your body believed to involuntarily squeal on you are measured as you utilize a small, state-of-the-art microphone that grows from the VendMePlease at a one-size-fits-all height (5'2") to record and evaluate your answers to its innocuous questions. ("Do you enjoy the scrumptious goodness of a Payday? Now, really?")
Finally, you give some particulars (name, social security number, fixed address) for the benefit of VendMePlease's marketing boys.
If at any point any electric impulse has found you wanting, you're jilted. The slot zips shut with nary the time to keep your thumb from its ultimate hitchhike, and you're refunded approximately 75% of your money -- the rest has been kept to pay for the tests and free fortune. But if you do pass, you're granted a smartly dressed foodstuff.
Practicing citizens of our cashless society are not tolerated. Curious hands find the chutes easy going on the up, but of course firmly guarded deep inside. Retracing one's hand is problematic as the throat you've just tickled has spikes pointed north that tend to shred flesh. Certain inner contact points have also been electrified, so those using coat hangars are dealt with equally harshly.
And a Brinks guard ("Yeah, it's boring, but we get dental") to the VendMePlease to ensure the cash box isn't tampered with.
At first I had plenty of change. Some I squandered in pointless games of penny-pitching. Some I chucked at a wandering office seeker who kept mumbling "A vote for me's a vote for you" to himself and giggling randomly. But most I fed to the VendMePlease in a fruitless attempt at sustenance for myself. Always I did fine until it asked my name, at which time it would make shuffling noises and refund my unwanted quarters while synthesizing a bold "Thank you, but sorry, no."
As the days themselves lost their names, after the machine and I had both had about enough, after most of my money had bought out-of-date fortunes ("You developed many rashes as an infant"), after the microphone had eased out yet once again and the Brinks guard got nostalgic and started singing 'My Way' into it, after despair and hunger had deadened my sense of propriety, I gave in. When it asked what I did for a living I said "Consulting," and when it pried into my formative years I supplied it with details of what little I knew of my sister's sex life as gleaned from her teenage diary. We cried a little, and it spit out a Zero Bar which I promptly threw up out of respect my my stomach. That was the last food I've tasted.
Of course it's water that's the problem. Can't go for more than a few days without it, and having no more quarters for the sugared and canned variety I was left sucking the residue from the stainless steel washer drums. This wasn't enough. I weathered a brief debate with myself over the possible side effects of anionic surfactants should I start tippling All, which I figured would fight the tough stains in my gut as a side benefit. I've since convinced the Brinks guy, with whom I've developed a friendship due to our shared perceived status as underachievers, to hold his hat out the window and catch rainwater to slake my thirst. He doesn't need any of it; he's a Dr. Pepper man, with change to burn and the character to please many a discriminating VendMePlease.
What news I get from the 'outside world' as I've taken to calling it is provided by ViewMePlease, pay TV for the unwashed masses. Fortunately its operation isn't prerequisited by a lot of Fascist rigmarole. Operating on the principle that high quality entertainment should have correspondingly higher prices, a ViewMePlease hierarchy emerges:
This is all just theory to me, though, as the set here was jammed long ago and plays nothing but reruns of LA Law, all day and night, free.
But it's possible to tire of TV, and so on top of all my other hungers (for real food, for something to drink other than hatfuls of acid rain, for political connections, for a typical conversation), I'm ravenous for reading material.
An abandoned Ladies' Home Journal helped for awhile, but it started grating on me that I didn't have any celery, bay leaves or even garlic for the osso buco recipe and in anger and premature haste I slammed my copy into the extractor, which spun it around for awhile and then gave it back to me, all the print flung free of the pages. I have thus been reduced to rereading the wall signs for tone and content:
LAST WASH 11:00
PLEASE DON'T PUT THE SNEAKERS
GOATS ARE ANIMALS,
I plan, of course, to get out of here.
In between teaching myself television law, scrutinizing Mars products that may as well be 49 million miles away, indulging the Brinks guard a sympathetic ear ("Well, Ma always told me I'd never find a gal better then her, 'Especially that Linda woman...'"), and fitful naps mostly spent contemplating a scrawny mohair that has wrapped itself around a heating pipe over my permanent press nest, I scheme. If I can just zig when that sizable muumuu in curlers smoking a Marlboro zags -- or maybe breach the Bronkowski brood while simultaneously block-tackling Egbert the science fiction freak -- or shimmy my way between Raoul and Freonia, wiggling and squirming almost as much as they do, but stowing the oohhs and aahhs -- I might just make the front door, and freedom.
Yes, if only... no. It'll never work. In my confused state the bright colors of the muumuu will collide, dance, and sicken me before I get two feet around. One of the brood will sense intrinsically junk-food laden flesh and take a nip out of my ankle, necessitating a session of healing in the back. Raoul will be positively welded in place, and me without a blow torch.
No, I'll get used to it here. An oral tradition will be born, me its kernal of wild-haired truth, and future brothers Grimm and Grime will harness this tale into workable dimensions. I've given them a start with these notes, written by the light of the guard's LED watch. When it is written my spirit, at least, will be able to stamp on it my blessing with the dying sentiments of The Venerable Bede: "It is well; you have said the truth; it is indeed."