Date: May 19, 2099
Location: The Patriot’s Grill
It was an achingly typical Tuesday afternoon at the Patriot’s Grill: business was as dead as a moon rock, and not one-tenth as interesting. Joe Carlton, who tended bar and, for that matter, was responsible for just about everything else that needed doing in the lounge, glanced noncommittally at the not so pretty/not so ugly face frowning back at him in the large rectangular mirror mounted on the wall behind the bar. With shallow cheeks, a prominent jaw, straight but slightly pointed nose, longish already graying hair and piercing brown eyes, Joe had the look of an old-time gospel preacher, or perhaps a serial killer. He had been a bartender for 20 of his 43 years. He’d only hated it for the last 19.
He wasn’t just a bartender, though. He was an actor – though, as with many self-professed professional actors of this and every other generation, his acting career was mostly aspirational. His only actual parts had been in occasional no-pay community theater productions. And even those were few. Live theater was tricky to put on successfully, and productions were rare. People had only a precious few free hours, given the long workdays and the nightly curfew. Most needed the time for waiting in line at shops and similar chores. Also, few had money to spend on cultural frivolities. Still, Joe was determined that someday, when his residential transfer papers were finally cleared by the Internal Security Service, usually called the ISS, he was going to move to California to act in the movies. It was a long shot. Joe had the face of a character actor, not a leading man. Studios rarely used live actors anymore for other than leading roles. As Victor Davis, CEO of Gramstar Corp. -- the entertainment sector giant -- had put it almost three decades earlier, “Why would we use real actors when the computer-generated characters are just as good? And you don’t have to pay them a dime!”
The bar and tables in the Patriot’s Grill’s lounge were littered with empty beer bottles, dirty glasses and old cigarette butts. Tobacco was back in style -- it could kill you, but it helped to break the monotony. Given the slow pace of business, the mess in the lounge had obviously been there long enough to earn squatter’s rights. “What? You think I’m a fucking janitor?” Joe would respond if anyone complained. No one generally did. Outside of the lounge’s dirty windows, it was a dark, dusty day. No surprise. They were all dark and dusty -- the combination of the industrial pollution and the increased atmospheric humidity brought on by climate change generated a dark smog cover, coloring the sky a sickly gray. There was also the thick dust that settled everywhere, giving the streets and buildings the same sickly gray shade. Everyone assumed the dust was some sort of industrial byproduct, but no one seemed to know exactly what it consisted of. They had been told it wasn’t patriotic to ask, so no one did.
The Patriot’s Grill was in the unfashionable southwestern section of Loyalty City, a municipality of slightly over two million residents. The Grill’s motif was cheap, tacky and supercharged-patriotic. The walls, though peeling badly now, were painted bright red, white and blue. Posters with patriotic messages, mostly distributed long before by the ISS, were scattered about on the walls. One read, “America First, Second and Always!” another “God Bless Our Commander in Chief!” and still another “You’re Either One of Us or One of Them!” All the posters featured the smiling image of the president, Bartholomew Stanton, now serving his fifth term. Truth be told, nobody had been paying much attention to these messages for years. Not that people disagreed with them. It’s just that after a while, it had all become just so much wallpaper. Joe took no issue with the nationalistic tone of the lounge. He believed in being patriotic, or at least that’s how he filled out his Quarterly Online Citizen’s Report (QOCR).
There were only two people in the lounge, aside from Joe. He hated them both. One, a woman, a widow, well into her 70s, had been coming to the lounge almost every day for three years. She had a nondescript face -- actually, everything about her could fairly be described as nondescript except for her hair. Whether by design or secondary to a cheap grooming product, it had a definite greenish tint. Joe couldn’t remember her name. She had mentioned it at least a half-dozen times, but he still couldn’t remember. Joe had a great memory. He just didn’t listen much. The woman with the green-tinted hair would sit alone at a large round table, sipping endlessly on the same whiskey sour. She sat there for hours, sipping and sipping, smiling and nodding anytime someone passed. Sometimes when Joe delivered a drink, which would usually be at least 20 minutes after she had ordered it, she would mention something about how her roses were doing. Joe would grunt and quickly leave. He hated roses. Mostly he hated people who talked about them.
The other customer, sitting at his usual table in the far northern corner of the rectangular room, was a former university professor. He had been fired the year before, briefly imprisoned and banned from teaching for three years for spiritually disruptive conduct. He’d been foolish enough to participate in a university round table, attended by an informant, during which he questioned one of the tenets of the nation’s official fundamentalist faith. Joe hated his guts. He didn’t give a damn about his politics or religion. It just pissed him off that someone who’d had something so much better than he’d ever had, would so recklessly throw it away. He was a fool and, worse still, a self-righteous fool. “They should have shoved him up against the wall and shot him,” he once told another customer, just loud enough for him to hear.
Joe didn’t get a lot of tips, but he didn’t care. “I’m not kissing anyone’s butt for a couple of bucks,” he often said.
* * *
It was midafternoon when an old man walked into the lounge -- actually, more ancient than old: so ancient, in fact, he looked almost brittle, as though if you touched him, he might fracture into a million pieces. His cheeks and forehead were rutted and gray. His nose, which had presumably always been on the largish side, appeared to have grown especially prominent during his later years, as the rest of the face receded. What hair he had was white, combed neatly from front to back. Dressed in an old-fashioned blue suit, with a heavily starched white shirt and a rose-red tie, he looked strikingly like a man you might see in a 100-year-old photo of long-gone ancestors.
“Shit,” Joe whispered to himself. “God, I hope he doesn’t sit at the bar. That’s all I need . . . some old-timer yakking at me about the good old days.”
But, even as he said it, he knew he was doomed. And, sure enough, the old man headed directly for the bar, picking a spot front and center. Slowly, painfully so, he willed himself onto the tall barstool. For a moment, he seemed to lose his balance, teetering slightly. Joe reached hurriedly across the bar to steady him only to find he had already righted himself. The old man then tapped his forefinger twice on the bar and cheerfully declared, “Draft beer, ice cold, please.” Then he didn’t say another word.
Joe poured the beer -- lukewarm.
As the minutes passed, Joe thought he might have caught a break after all. Far from talking his head off, as Joe had feared, the old man stayed silent. He just stared intensely around the lounge, studying it as though he were a student cramming for an important exam. He looked over at the dartboard and smiled slightly. Staring at the empty tables to the southeast, he nodded once and whispered something to himself. Something about the man’s face struck Joe -- a familiar expression, one he had seen before, but not for a very long time. Not quite a happy look, not quite a sad one. Then he remembered. It was the look of nostalgia. Though how anyone could possibly feel nostalgic about this dump left him shaking his head.
Like I said, Joe thought he might have caught a break -- at first. The old man quickly shattered the illusion, however, speaking again, with a large toothy smile. “I used to go to a place a lot like this back in college.”
“Ya don’t say.” Joe struggled to stuff as much disinterest as possible into the sound of his voice. This was a skill he’d refined over his decades at the lounge, improving year-by-year. Now something of a virtuoso, he could shut down the chattiest of patrons with the slightest chill of irritation in his voice or indifference of expression.
But the old man wasn’t taking any hints. “It was different in some ways,” he continued. “I mean . . .”
“Ya don’t say,” repeated Joe. Of all the things that annoyed Joe, and there was a bunch, older people talking about the wondrous times of yore was near the top of the list. Joe had been around long enough to know the score. There had been no great old days and would be no great new days. Life was what it was, period -- the daily grind of survival, of getting a day older only to find that nothing at all had changed since the day before, and the day before that. Nothing was gained by pretending otherwise.
Joe tried a different strategy, clearing dirty glasses off the bar. “Excuse me, but I’ve got to get this work . . .”
The old man still wasn’t taking any hints. “Yeah, they had posters in the other place too, but . . .”
“Like I said . . . “
“. . . they weren’t pro-government like yours. Mostly about sports. But when we did talk politics, and we did a lot, it wasn’t to support the jerks in charge. We raised hell about what a bunch of idiots they were, especially the boob who was president.”
“Yeah, right, sure you did,” said Joe. Now he wasn’t just irritated. He was getting seriously pissed off. It was bad enough he had to listen to this old fucker rattling on. But now he was making shit up. Criticizing government leaders? Yeah, like someone could do that without being jailed and probably worse.
“You should have heard us talk about the moron who was president back then. None of us could stand the son of a . . .”
Joe had heard enough. “I’ll tell you what, old man,” he interrupted, “we both know that’s a pile of crap. Nothing like that could ever happen. And I’ve got no use for bullshit, or for the people who spread it. So why don’t you just get the hell out of . . .”
“So, you think I’m lying?” The old man smiled. But it wasn’t the smile Joe would have expected from someone his age. It was a lot tougher -- more like the smile of a prizefighter looking down at an unconscious foe. It unnerved him.
The old man pressed his advantage. “Answer the question, you accusing me of lying?”
Joe backpedaled. “Look, buddy,” he said, “I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you think you’ve seen, so I’m not accusing you of anything. I just know for a fact that nothing like you’re describing could ever happen. The ISS would never allow it.”
The old man’s smile softened. “You forget . . .” He paused, squinting at Joe’s name tag. “Okay, you’re Joe . . . you forget, Joe, I’m an old man.”
“I’m so old I can remember freedom.”
The old man could have announced he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist, and it would have left Joe no more bewildered. People just didn’t use the word freedom in that way. Sure, the president and other government officials would sometimes throw it around, but no one took it seriously. It was like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as required at every public event. It was just a bunch of words to repeat, like a young child doing numbers by rote. Nobody believed it actually had relevance to their lives. Still, Joe was intrigued enough to ask, “Freedom for what?”
“Well, Freedom of Speech, for one thing.”
Joe scoffed. “We’ve got Freedom of Speech . . . or so they say.”
In a sense, this was true. The First Amendment was still right there in the constitution, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights. You could see it on display at the National Archives, assuming, that is, you could get your travel papers approved. All of the old symbols of liberty and democracy were still recognized, even celebrated. Freedom hadn’t been eradicated. It had been redefined. Freedom of Speech was still alive and well, so long as the speech in question was to the government’s liking. Similarly, Freedom of Religion was wide open, so long as you worshiped in a manner consistent with the authorized beliefs. And people were still fully protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, understanding that the reasonableness of any given search or seizure was completely up to the government official carrying it out.
“Okay, Joe,” said the old man, “if we have Freedom of Speech, does that mean we’re free to call the president a moron?”
“Of course not,” said Joe. The irritation in his voice was growing.
“You ever call a president a moron?”
Joe ignored him.
“You ought to try it sometime, you’d be amazed how good it can make you feel.”
“Yeah, if going to prison makes you feel good.”
The old man laughed and then drew a line in the air with his forefinger, presumably indicating that Joe had scored a point. Joe, who was unfamiliar with this bit of antiquated pop culture, had no clue what he was doing. He also didn’t care. He just wanted this chatty fossil to go away. But just as his mouth was forming the words to tell him to scram, the old man started off again.
“Okay, well, if we can’t be quite that in your face, how ‘bout a speech arguing, respectfully mind you, that the government’s headed in the wrong direction, that new leadership is needed? Think we have Freedom of Speech enough to do that without getting arrested?”
Joe, increasingly weary of the conversation, but unsure how to extricate himself, again simply ignored the old man, making it a point to look out the large picture window to the east. By this point, the late afternoon gloom was drifting seamlessly into late afternoon gloom. Soon it would be getting darker. Night was welcomed at the lounge. It improved the ambiance. Gone was both the peeling paint inside and the sickly gray world beyond it. Nighttime was Joe’s favorite time in the Patriot’s Grill, or perhaps it’s better described as his least unfavorite time. This was especially true when the place was dead, when the after-work crowd had gone home, and he had the lounge largely to himself. He would sometimes turn down the lights and just sit at the bar immersed in the quietness. With the overhead lights turned down, each individual table lamp took on the appearance of a separate small island of light, separated from the others by an ocean of darkness. These few minutes between the after-work rush and the curfew was about the only time Joe ever experienced anything close to peace.
The old man continued to press. “How ‘bout it, Joe, could we get away with saying that about the president?”
“Stop wasting my time. We both know anyone stupid enough to do that would find their ass on the way to ISS headquarters in about five minutes.”
“You’re right. But the thing is, I know something you may not know . . . something kind of important.”
Joe, still annoyed, looked at him skeptically. But there was something else there, too -- a whisper, at least, of interest: something making him at least slightly intrigued by what was being said. So, even as he continued to try to get the old man to shut up, he was listening.
“What I know, Joe, is that making that kind of speech used to be allowed. Hell, it was a sacred right.”
Joe emptied an ashtray -- first time in over a week -- wearing an exaggerated look of disinterest. But he was still listening.
“As I was saying before, a group of us used to gather in a place like this and raise hell. Had a regular table, a lot like the one over there, where the beautiful young woman is sitting.” The old man smiled and nodded his head at the anything but beautiful and far from young woman still sipping away at her first whiskey sour. She smiled and waved back, although being as deaf as an old rock musician who never wore earplugs, she probably hadn’t heard a word he’d said.
While a small part of Joe may have become interested, he was still Joe. “Bullshit,” he responded, “no way that ever happened.”
Joe wasn’t a slow learner. He just didn’t have a frame of reference. It was as if a 17th century Pilgrim had been suddenly plucked out of Plymouth Colony and transported to early 21st Century Las Vegas, and then asked, “So, how does all this strike you?”
It wouldn’t compute.
Freedom didn’t compute for Joe. He had never experienced anything like it.