“ I’m gonna open a restaurant” said 1512.
3590 humored him. 1512 always had some fantastic story to tell, and 3590 didn’t have the heart to discourage him.
“ Oh yeah, what kind of restaurant?” he asked.
“ Oh I don’t know. Like a place where you could go and eat at any time of day. All my employees would be friendly, even if you didn’t have the right voucher. You know? a place where you could just eat.”
“Yeah sounds good, and where is this restaurant going to be?”
“I don’t know yet, somewhere far away.”
“Yeah, pretty far I guess, nowhere I’ve ever heard of.”
Lloyd clipped towards them, face steeled into law mode. He could look quite severe for a man built like a scarecrow.
“How many times, do I have to tell you? Talking time is five minutes, not five and a half. Next time I’m turning you both out of here.”
Lloyd rubbed the gold circle pinned to his shirt and leered at the two figures towering over him.
1512 and 3590 scrambled off in separate directions, slowly in case Lloyd had more to say. Neither was foolish enough to leave a Citizen’s presence before he had finished expressing his thought.
3590 headed east through the compound, pausing to relieve himself at the hallway toilet. Citizens paused on the way past, pointing and laughing at the exhibition. 3590 often wondered what their toilets looked like. He reasoned that they must be somewhat similar, they had the same biology. There was no way to tell. He would never see one, and didn’t want to use his question to answer such trivia.
He remembered when he was small, 3589 had told him that Citizen’s toilets were made of gold. They had their own private rooms too, she had said. She had told him many things, but her stories were no more than fairy tales now, and he did his best not to remember them, but they stuck in his head.
No amount of television could block them all the time.
“Everyone had a name” she had said. And everyone was valued for their work. Anyone could be a Citizen, although there were special ones, who made decisions for the others. “They wore robes.” She had said. “My name was Paula.” she told him, "until names were licensed." She always cried when she reached the names part. 3590 didn’t know why, but her crying had bothered him. There had been a word she used about that time, though he could never quite remember, it was right on the tip of his tongue.
He recalled her eyes welling up as she moaned,
“If only your father had taken that job. Thirty thousand dollars was all we needed. You could have had a name, we could’ve kept ours... only a thousand short... if only he’d taken that job... only a thousand dollars.” Those were the last tears he saw. Here, no one ever cried, as it was strictly forbidden.
3590 lost his balance when a Citizen him nudged him from behind, causing him to spray outside the toilet with urine. When Thomas stopped in the hallway, 3590 realized what had happened. He had been foolish for not being alert in the busy hallway. He could usually handle the shoves without making a mess, but he had been thinking too much, and the push had been harder than usual.
Thomas watched from the end of the hall. Several other citizens had joined him. Four of them stood staring at 3590. Aware of his duty, he pulled off his shirt and began wiping the floor. They laughed and laughed. 3590 laughed too, as the law required. Sufficiently entertained, they dispersed. He tossed the soaked shirt into the metal waste receptacle next to the toilet, and pulled a shirt request ticket from the wall dispenser. He tucked the ticket in his pants pocket, and walked to the end of the wing.
He pushed the doors open and stepped out into winter. Without his shirt, the wind bit deep and he shivered violently until his skin adjusted. He couldn’t afford to wait, not if he wanted to eat on time. If he was late he’d forfeit eating tomorrow. He had learned this the hard way, losing meal privileges for a full week once. He was fortunate that his renewal request form had been granted in time, but didn’t care to try his luck again.
1453 approached on the sidewalk. 3590 extended his palm, indicating that he had already used his talking time. 1453 nodded and walked past. Maybe tomorrow.
He reached the cafeteria doors, and waited for permission to enter, hoping he was on time. The doorman glanced at 3590, then at his watch, before seating himself in a padded chair to read a newspaper. After several minutes, the doorman let him in. 3590 glanced at the doorman, but looked away quickly to avoid an accusation of peeking at the watch. He didn’t understand their concern, as he couldn’t read it.
He approached the counter the proper way, hands at his sides and head slumped down. Clarence, the counter man checked his watch then extended an open hand to 3590, who gave up his meal voucher. The uniformed Citizen examined the paper a moment, crumpled it and threw it away.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked 3590.
3590 maintained appropriate stance.
“If you want to eat you have to come on time. You’re three minutes too late. When are you gonna learn to follow the rules?”
3590 nodded in response to Clarence’s scolding.
“Now get the hell out.”
3590 nodded once more. Satisfied that Clarence was done speaking, he left the cafeteria with head bowed properly. Back on the sidewalk, 3590 cursed himself for being so foolish. He would have to fill out an rationing renewal request form again. He thought of 1776, who had been repeatedly denied renewal until finally collapsing into the street. There wasn’t much left of him after the Citizens’ cars were done grinding him into the tar. 3590 told himself that if he should collapse, he would at least make sure not to fall into the street, as nothing was permitted to interrupt the flow of traffic.
And he thought of 3589 again, he couldn’t lose the memory of her sobbing, “... a thousand dollars short”. 3590 was cold, his skin felt too thin as the wind sent up stinging fragments from the road.
A large hole in the sidewalk caught his left foot, and the leverage of a step in progress pulled him face down into pavement. The raw sensation of bare chest rubbed against cold concrete reminded him of 1776. 3590 felt strange; cold, wet, hungry and overwhelmingly nostalgic, although he didn’t know the word. His eyes were burning and his temples felt as if they were being gripped together. He was crying and it made no sense. The sensation was uncomfortable yet made everything so clear. He knew what his question was, and it was time.
An hour’s trudging through the slush, brought him to his destination; a majestic building of gray stone and glass. The monstrous letters etched above the entrance read, “Superior American District Courthouse”. He had seen the building many times while walking by, and remembered the fear. The unthinkable size, the dark forbidding stone, the immense cloudy windows; he had always passed as quickly as his feet would take him, knowing that if he lingered too long, the men in bright clothes would come out.
Today 3590 was not afraid. The numb burning of his chest felt invigorating. His purpose could not be stopped. He lifted his head high and surprised himself with his own strength, forcing the thick paned glass doors open. A gray haired woman sat perched on a stool just inside the doorway. His blood surged anticipating a challenge, and he was disappointed when she turned her wrinkled face towards him and pointed towards a stairway winding upwards from the center of the floor. She recognized those here for their question. He climbed the stairway to the upper floor. When he saw the dark stained oak door, he instinctively knew he must pass through.
He strained to pull back the hinged slab, and the hallway stretched out like a two-lane street. Two men in yellow suits stood on opposite sides of a corridor doorway, and although the oak door had sighed loudly, the suited men did not appear curious. As he neared them they made no sign of acknowledgment, talking frantically to each other in a strange language, which 3590 could not understand yet found eerily familiar. The suited men clutched bundles of money, tightly white knuckled in each hand.
3590 lost his strength momentarily and stumbled towards the doorway, colliding with one of the suited men, who writhed in agony at the contact. 3590 was surprised when stepping back to regain his balance, he noticed blood staining the man’s yellow jacket. The yellow suited man noticed his gaze, jerking off the offensive garment frantically . He pointed out the stain to his associate, and they both wept profusely at the soiling, still oblivious to 3590’s presence.
He brushed past them and entered the room. Dense films of cobweb concealed the joining of the walls to the ceiling at the corners. Thick layers of dust coated over rows of metal folding chairs He walked the path through the center of the room. A wooden platform resembling a throne sat in the front of the room. He knew that he belonged in the open space before the dais. His stoic strides took him past the chairs into the opening. An altar was carefully placed at the foot of the throne. He sensed that kneeling was expected, but knowing that he was here for the question, he remained standing.
An old man emerged through the curtain behind the pedestal, and seated himself in the chair. The yellow suited men rushed in, hurried to the front and kneeled at the altar. The old man reached into his black robes and pulled out two thick stacks of money, handing one to each of them.
Reaching again into the folds of his robe, he produced a gold mirror and comb and began grooming the his patches of thinning gray hair. With the tone of one inconvenienced, he glanced towards 3590.
“I suppose you’re here for your question?”
3590 nodded, careful not to speak too early.
“Well, come on, what is it?”
3590 felt euphoric with anticipation. This was it, his question. Every one he knew dreamed of this day. The right to have one question answered, no matter what it was. Though asking it ensured that he would never see daylight again, he knew it was worth it. He remembered that word 3589 had used, before she was taken away. Finally, he would know what it meant. He cleared his throat to be sure he sounded as presentable as possible for his final utterance.
“What is an inail… an annailiable right?” he asked the robed man.
“Oh Jesus... That’s your question? I don’t fucking know. What the hell difference does it make?” he answered.
The yellow suited man without a jacket got up and seized 3590 roughly; twisting an arm behind his back. He led him through the curtain. Entering the concealed room 3590 saw 1512 laid out on a slab with only his face exposed, a sheet covering his inert body. 3590 knew he would be there soon, and that didn’t really bother him, as much as knowing that he still wouldn’t understand.
In the court room the robed man resumed combing his hair in the hand mirror, with the jacketed man prostrate at his feet massaging bills.
“Unbelievable isn’t it Peter? Do you think my hair looks better combed down the middle or to the side?”