Before they allowed George to be taken to his room, they wanded his wrist chip to access his most recent SCAR report.
“He’s ninety,” his wife, Lucy, protested, so they wanded her too.
Women were less diligently patrolled but men and boys over the age of ten had their SCARs, the Stats, Crits And Recants regarding their sexual misconduct, both actual and perceived, checked many times a day.
Lucy’s scan registered no activity of any type. Her vibrating VagiEggs lay abandoned in her sex drawer, her virtual Pleasure Palace Passport showed no recent stamps, and even her fantasy profile remained dismally flat. She had fired up her ancient Vibratron the night before George’s departure, but his babbling in the next room had harshed her buzz. George’s SCAR, however, indicated “fleeting but rampant” sexual thoughts. Vascular difficulties precluded tumescence, but the old goat still fantasized.
He was twenty years her senior, with heart and kidney disease, hearing loss, frozen shoulder, claw hands, diabetes and dementia. He’d stubbornly held onto all his flesh parts, refused robo joints, dino discs and metal wheelies, so every few months, a foot or leg infection brought him to the hospital where they carved off bits and pieces like he was the holiday bird. She felt guilty about placing him at the Hebrew Home for Unfortunates but he had a loud, un-adorable strain of pre-frontal dementia that included night-screaming, food snatching, asking strangers to suck his nipples, and a refusal to bathe.
Lucy started to follow George to his room but a hirsute man, a Surgi-mask dangling rakishly around his neck, intercepted.
“Hi. I’m the TC guy, Arthro. Like in Arthroscopic.” He extended a hand, his grip as warm and thick as a new risen loaf. “Do you need help with George’s bags?”
Like most people, Lucy had been masking since the Conflagration, the ten years of fires and fire-nadoes that had ravaged North and South America, but she lowered hers now. “Hi. I’m Lucy, the wife.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve read George’s admissions.” The Transition Counselor smiled a knowing grin.
Arthro manned the luggage cart and the elevator door sealed hermetically behind them. Effusive grey hair sprung from his shirt collar and cuffs, and stippled his fingers. George’s limbs had rubbed hairless in old age.
“Do these seals really do anything?” Lucy thought out loud as the elevator descended. Hermadoors were compulsory, a precaution against FLASH, the toxic flake and ash spewed from the fires.
“Hermetics is inexact, part engineering, part alchemy.” Arthro’s grey eyebrows whirlygigged above his eye-glasses.
Lucy looked at him sideways. George was so deaf, she was unaccustomed to anyone responding to her questions.
While Arthro unloaded the rest of the boxes, Lucy turned her back to him and hocked delicately into her gob-cloth. Grey lung/amber sputum syndrome; everyone had it.
Back in George’s room, she placed their wedding photo on his night-stand.
“No need to unpack. Staff will attend.” Arthro insinuated himself between Lucy and the bed and steered her from the room.
She saw George at the end of the hall, his power chair pulled close to a Jiffy decorated in pink pom-poms. He seemed to be stroking something in the lap of the snowy-haired woman in the cart.
“George? Sweetheart?” Lucy called although he never wore his amplifiers. “What’s he doing?” she snapped at Arthro.
“That’s Mabel and her robo-puppy. They’re our little ‘Welcome Wagon.’ Very comforting.”
Forty years of marriage, almost fifteen of them in service to his illnesses, and he’d already found a girlfriend?
With the lightest pressure on Lucy’s elbow, Arthro led her back to the elevator and pressed the down button. “Less contact right now will ease George’s adjustment. And I bet you could use some well-deserved time for yourself.” Arthro’s brown eyes glistened like moist puddings. “Take care, Lucy, and we’ll see you soon.”
As soon as the elevator door closed, Lucy opened Arthro’s SCAR on her screen. His sheet, just a few raised voice intimidations and a couple of tenters, was remarkably clean.
When she got home, she climbed the stairs and slammed the door to George’s bedroom. She felt so riled up and angry, so sad and confused, she re-opened the door just for the pleasure of slamming it again on his commode, his pill choppers, his no-slide hospital anklets, his wound care supplies, his collection of rusty old license plates, his stack of oily baseball caps.
She nuked a galangal chai rice log for dinner, then passed a restless night.
First, she thought she heard George moaning. Then, she sat straight up in bed, awakened by a dream thud of him falling down the stairs. Her heart pounded triple time and she heard scrabbling, the click of opened larders, of George ransacking the kitchen for forbidden sweets. He’s not here, she reminded herself. He’s not here. I’m alone. I’ll always be alone. She drank more tranquilixir and fell back to sleep.
Everything seemed brighter in the morning. Uninterrupted by George’s constant demands, she toasted her baguette to golden perfection, spread her butter and raspberry jam with sacred attention. Free of his skin molts and dropped food, the floor gleamed. And without his drama screens tuned to “Constant Activity, High Volume,” Lucy heard herself chew. The house breathed. She closed her eyes and matched her own inhales and exhales until she hummed equilibrium with the settled old wood.
Then, she contemplated her future: a writing class, pastry school, moon travel, a writing class or pastry school on the moon. Or maybe a trip to the Verona Rupes cliff on Uranus’s moon everyone was talking about. As soon as she fantasized travel, the wall screens lit with ads: Flying While Female, Flying While Fat, Flying While Anxious, the one with relaxants piped though the air ducts and companion animals roaming free. She’d gotten used to the invasion, the mind-fuck of the screens. It was so completely twenty years ago to rail against de-humanizing BigTech blah blah blah.
She sipped a second cup of cardamom tea and wondered if she’d ever fall in love again. A triptych of dating sites: ABOUT TIME, for people over seventy, JUST IN TIME, for people over eighty and OVERTIME for anyone else still alive, opened full wall. She loved the dating sites, found the contemplation of the faces and alleged qualities more stimulating than reading.
The face of a man with a close-trimmed white beard, Chuck, who liked “liberty, libertines and librettos” filled one full wall. His SCAR reported drunken ass grabs in college, boob brush incidents at work, anger re-patterning, and porn hours exceeding standard allocation. All pretty standard for a male who had not been chemically castrated. Even with that, he was more alluring than the no-chin milquetoast who required “Vanishing beach walks and punctuality.”
Lucy’s phone interrupted, shivered an ascending gamelan, her best friend, Marlena’s, signature ring. “Have you done the deed?” Marlena never said hello.
“Yes. He’s ensconced. George is now a full-time resident of the Hebrew Home. I was just looking at the dating sites.” A little giggle escaped Lucy’s throat.
“What’s the rush? Don’t you ever just want to be alone?”
Marlena was too complicated for sexual relationships. She identified as pan but she’d had sexual rearrangement surgery a few years back. She hadn’t shared every detail but she had told Lucy that she’d finally gone bag-less and alluded to a power stick with “lots of fun attachments.” But Lucy wasn’t Marlena. She didn’t have the confidence or imagination to change her story midstream. Maybe someone had glitched her system, but she was in the habit of sharing her life with a man.
If she and George had actually “shared” a life. Or had she just door-matted her life around his? Technically, they were still married. Did she have to wait until he died to start her next chapter? What if he lived forever? Or until a hundred and twenty? That kind of over-extension was happening more and more.
“Oh, and you know we’re not going tonight, right?” Marlena asked.
“What?” Lucy tried not to sound devastated. They had tickets to a reading by an author whose popularity had risen dramatically after he’d revealed in a messay, the genre that depicted messy lives, that he’d been plundered as a child. She’d been looking forward to celebrating her first real night of freedom with her friend more than she could say.
“Go to the Times. Go to Lit News, go to Book Schlepper.”
The accusations against the writer splashed ugly across Lucy’s screens: “machismo,” “patriarchal prescriptions,” “pussy pounding,” “digital rape,” and “rape by digits.”
“Shit. I thought he was the nice man in his books. I still sort of want to go.” Lucy said the last part softly because she knew Marlena would disapprove.
But for the last twenty years, wiving George through his many illnesses, fantasies of time with Marlena had been her sanity, her surest pleasure. She’d imagined the meals they’d eat, the culture they’d consume, the tattooing, braiding, and henna, they’d endure.
“We’ve got to take a stand,” Marlena insisted.
“Okay, you’re right. Let’s just go out to dinner.”
“I’m not really eating much this week, just kombucha grits. And where would we go? Restaurants have the most abusive work environment on the planet.”
“Do you want to come over and just hang out?”
“Hmmm. My plug in’s broken. All the ride service drivers are rogue violators. And the air’s really FLASHY today.”
She hated that she needed Marlena more than Marlena needed her. Maybe that’s why she’d stayed with George. After a brief period of resistance at the start of their relationship, his fear of commitment, his need to “trounce and roam,” he’d leaned on her for everything.
Lucy thought of offering to go over to Marlena’s immaculate Kondo, all books, clothing and foodstuffs arranged by color and edited by pleasure quotient, but the more her friend spoke, the less Lucy believed she’d find comfort there.
She hung up, disappointed almost to tears, but decided to walk it off. She pulled on a pair of turquoise cling-mesh booties and trudged down the hill to the shopping street of her neighborhood. As soon as the Hermadoor sealed behind her, she realized she’d forgotten her goggles. But if she went back inside, a screen gem would grab her and she be paste-eyed all day.
She passed the Granular bakery, the community meeting room where they held neighborhood Conflag Seminars, and the hardware store with the house paint, cleaning products and garden supplies aisles taped off for “product investigation.” She stopped in front of the animal hospital, her eyes already fire-red and drippy, where a photo of a fluffy long haired white kitty hung in the window under the heading: “MEOW TOO!”
“Please boycott this business!” the poster read. “On numerous occasions, Dr. Miller has molested animals under anesthesia and engaged in inappropriate anal probes. He lingers unnecessarily in the application of mastitis ointment and NEEDS TO EXAMINE HIS G.D. HUMAN PRIVILEGE!!!”
Lucy walked and walked. She needed to hydrate but she’d also forgotten her flask. She thought of buying bottled H20 but the further she got from the center of town, the fewer SCARS and the more NGF’s, the sad, round, buff colored signs that indicated non-gentrified food, she saw displayed in shop windows. She didn’t want to risk a breast glance, or even worse, NGF contamination.
Replacement joints had supposedly been perfected but her top-of-the-line, “ultimate walking machine” knees ached so she rested on a metal mushroom. The city was strewn with public art made from nails, pipes, small appliances and cars that had melted in the fires. She coughed and watched two albino birds pick their way across a mucky puddle.
“ABOUT TIME” buzzed and a man’s face appeared on her screen. She liked his full head of thick grey hair, big teeth and musky olive skin but her wrist chip throbbed a warning: Caution! CULTURAL OBJECTIFICATION IN PROGRESS!!
She tried to open his SCAR anyway, just a tiny peek, but her screen issued a low-voltage shock and screeched: “If you are not Southeast Asian, from the Indian subcontinent, sub-Himalayan, or containing the blood of the SAARC countries, MOVE ON!!!”
She sighed, despairing of ever finding another mate, and got to her feet. She crossed one large boulevard, then another. When she’d walked two miles, her phone showered her with virtual confetti and played the rousing “Excellence of Exercise” anthem. But the howl of SMAD horns cut the celebration short.
“Smoke Advisory! Smoke Advisory! Immediate SMAD Conditions!” a deep voice ranted. “All persons, especially the young, old, and middle-aged, and those with diagnosed and undiagnosed conditions of the lungs, eyes, gonads and spleen, TAKE SHELTER. TAKE IMMEDIATE SHELTER! Those indoors, SHELTER IN PLACE!”
Lucy skittered across the street, zig-zagging between abandoned drone –buggies. A shower of fire-cocks fell from the sky and she swatted embers from her hair.
“SHELTER IN PLACE! SHELTER IN PLACE!” the outdoor warning voice commanded again.
Lucy headed down an alley. The first open door was a restaurant, Louisiana Sam’s, undocumented, except for the solemn Non Gentrified Food circle. What kind of farm life had the beef known? How had the seafood been ambushed? How many times a day and at what temperature were the toilets SaniChlored? She pushed inside with a few other fire refugees. The herma-seal gaped worn and flabby behind them.
Vitamin water was always safe. Maybe, she’d risk a little juice. Then, Lucy saw the menu chalked in primitive writing on the wall, “Shrimp” flourished in pink curlicues. Irresistible. She ordered the Bucket Dinner with a honey butter biscuit, curly fries and a lurid red soda called Hawaii Pop. She alternated sips of the sweet syrupy drink with bites of hot cayenne flecked shrimp. Butter from the biscuit streamed down her chin. Only the curly fries were a mistake.
By the time she’d finished her meal, the SMAD had been lifted When she got up, her knees crankled but she stumbled out of the restaurant farting and happy. She walked without direction, the sky an ominous FLASH‑y gray. A glowing orange fire-prick landed on her cheek. Screen-talk insisted that the population had become inured to first degree burns but the damn thing stung!
In a few more blocks, she found herself outside the Hebrew Home. She didn’t really want to see her husband but the guard-bot was off-duty so she entered unchecked. When she’d called yesterday, they’d told her that George could not be disturbed during recumbent Macarena. This morning, the same rude voice said that he was busy in the Animal Husbandry room “feeding bunny.”
Nevertheless, she strode down the hall hung with distorted nudes and cats painted by the inmates. Her life wasn’t changing as quickly as she’d hoped. Marlena was elusive and she hadn’t booked a moon vacation, picked a pastry course, or found a new partner.
Arthro appeared as soon as the elevator opened and unmasked when he saw her. She feared another lecture about George’s need for independence. Everything still about George’s needs; wasn’t that rich?
“Are you here for the care-taker’s support group?” Arthro asked.
“I am not a care-taker anymore.” She unmasked and savored the spiky words in her mouth.
“Yes, but there are probably lingering issues: anger, fear, resentment, dysphoria, dermatitis, firflots, PTSD…”
Arthro followed her down the corridor to her husband’s closed door. The Do Not Disturb placket hung from the knob. One pink pom-pom littered the threshold.
“What the fuck?” Lucy kicked the door.
“Come with me.” Arthro took her arm.
He unlocked a room she hadn’t noticed before. A sign on the door said: “Transitions.” One side was filled with neatly stacked boxes. She recognized a carton, with a canoe paddle sticking out of the top, that she had packed herself. On the other side of the room, a mattress rested on a low platform, its coverlet bathed in the amber glow from a Himalayan salt lamp.
“We can talk if you like. I’m licensed,” Arthro said.
They kissed instead. She held up her right forefinger, the universal sign that she was okay with the initiated sexual activity, okay with yielding, smoothly bovine inside of his mouth. Arthro raised his finger to concur, and indicate that he felt no performance pressure. His beard rippled like a benevolent muscle, the hair surprisingly soft. They sat side by side on the bed and with his plaid shirt and sweet grassy beard, Lucy felt as if she were on a hayride.
“Are you from the Midwest?” she whispered.
“You’re funny.” His hand moved in deep soothing circles on her back. She thought of another clever question, an enticing remark. It had been so long since she’d spoken into a man’s ear, rubbed her face in someone’s pheromones. But she remembered how to listen, listen, mirror back, to be sweet, sassy, flatter. She remembered how to flirt.
Arthro signaled and placed a hand on her breast. She raised her finger and nuzzled into the heat of his armpit although FEEP, the Fire Evacuation Emergency Plan, advised never opening a hot door.
They kissed again, fingers raised. He slid his hand under her butt. She angled her body, stroked his hair. He kissed her neck.
“Fingers,” she whispered when she realized that neither of them had signaled.
He misunderstood. Took her hand into his mouth, lavished it from tips to webs with his tongue. She convulsed, the pleasure settling in her crotch.
She climbed onto his lap, sat facing him. Her wrist stung, then burned as her SCAR recalibrated. She smelled smoke.
He dipped inside her waistband. “Is this okay?”
Wait, she thought to say. It’s been too long. I’ve forgotten how. I’m parched down there — tree-line withers, ridge rot, smudge root, Silent Spring. But her floaty pants seemed to lower themselves.
She sat on him hard, took his thermal column all at once. Her wrist screamed, shot sparks. Wrapped them in dusky smoke. The room melted. She laughed and cried, on fire.
Audrey Ferber’s work has appeared in the New York Times, LILITH Magazine, Cimarron Review, Fiction International and elsewhere. She received her MFA at Mills College and is at work on a hybrid collection of essays and stories about aging, sexuality and care-taking.