44, freelance writer and yoga teacher, Sacramento
“Deep breaths, Reggie, deep breaths!” Janet screeched this in a way that was probably not soothing to Reggie, but she was trying to get him to “utilize his tools.”
They were standing under the grimy overpass on 21st Street with the auto garage and an empty lot where someone had planted an unlikely row of corn.
Janet would amble by this unprotected crop and casually check if the bright green stalks offered up any actual ears. Not that she could eat it since another tooth had popped out recently.
Reggie flapped his skinny brown arms and made a humming-hissing sound like he just stubbed a toe. Someone had taken their shit.
“It’s alright, buddy, there wasn’t much in there anyway.”
To score a bed in the same facility together was rare, so they took turns guarding the shopping cart. Someone found it; everything was gone. This did not surprise Janet, but poor Reg, she thought.
The old Walkman Reggie had found at a Goodwill with working batteries and a Rob Base tape in it—that’s what distressed him. Janet was more of a Deadhead herself, although her days of being in crowds were long over.
“Buddy,” she said, finding a refried menthol in her ripped coat pocket. “Here,” Reggie accepted the half-smoked butt and started patting at his baggy jeans.
“I don’t even have a light,” Reggie wailed.
“You’ve got plenty of Light!” Janet joked.
Remember when restaurants had little books of matches, their company logo on the front and matchheads the same color as the cover? You never see that anymore. Reggie got his smoke lit and rubbed the back of his head, his way of saying thank you.
Okay, strategies. Loaves and Fishes was probably their best bet. She squinted at the sun in the sky. The line would be huge by the time they got there. They didn’t have money to catch the bus.
“We need to score some food, man.” Reggie nodded, looked at the ground, the itch gone out of him. Losing shit was normal. It was the idea of ownership at all that had become strange.
Probably an hour later, they were trudging downtown when Reggie suddenly perked up. “You hear that?” he asked Janet whose head was pounding, her mouth dry.
“I hear music.” He was right. A steady thump bounced over them from the park. Janet tried to reroute Reggie, but it was too late.
“It’s Friday!” he whooped, his gangly limbs suddenly reanimated but far more—what’s the word—jubilant this time. The thick tunka-tunk-tunk of a rockabilly bass wended its way around the buildings. He would probably scavenge food truck leftovers, but Janet couldn’t go in there. Too many vibes.
“We have to eat,” she tried, knowing Reggie was already disappearing into the undulating bodies of concertgoers to dance in the empty fountain.
It’s okay, she thought to herself as she sloughed towards the promise of a meal. He’s young. He probably needs music even more than food.
31, group facilitator and author of Balkan Grit, a book of short stories, Sacramento
Excerpts from ”A Soft Taco:„
At the corner of D and 15th, I snatched a chicken soft taco out of a kid’s hand and inhaled it before anyone could do anything about it. The kid’s dad threw his soda at me and got me all sticky. A debate ensued. I told him he owed me a new pair of pants and he told me I owed his kid a chicken taco. He obviously won that round.
But I am the kind of man who will shield his honor at any cost to his dignity. For my closing argument, I decided to take off my clothes and prance around my foe in contracting circles. Debate over! Check mate!
When people feel intellectually outmaneuvered, they become consumed with resentment, and sometimes they call the cops. The blue automatons chased me around the block; I shouted and threw rocks at them. They eventually subdued me and asked me to lower my tone. I replied that I enjoyed yelling and that they were missing out. They bought my silence with soda and a stale peanut butter cookie. I thought it a just transaction.
At the hospital they turned a hose over me and gave me a scandalous gown to wear. I protested, told them I wanted a cotton bathrobe, and I halfheartedly punched a man servant. The autocrat in white hid behind the guards and ordered “booty juice” and solitary confinement. The sugary sap muddled my reason and weakened my knees. I sat on the floor and fell asleep. I dreamed about grandma’s cooking.
A youthful virgin woke me up two days later. She asked about my coping skills and leisure interests. I told her about the pectoral cross with which I was decorated for my services to the mankind. She wrote on her pad that my replies were tangential and had no earthly motives. I begged her to ask the autocrat for more “booty juice.” She told me that a second dose was a long shot for the uninsured. As a compromise, I was promised crackers in exchange for attending group and taking part in a tournament of Scattegories. …
My etiquette and overall victory earned me discharge documents. The autocrat himself placed the certificate in my hands, along with sincere words of praise and good wishes.
As the guards escorted me through the cafeteria toward the exit doors, the kitchen stewards rolled their carts passed me on which there were hundreds of soft-shelled tacos. With moisture on my lips and eyes wide open, I looked at the pudgier guard, thinking he would understand. He shook his head firmly and gestured for me to get out.
26, paralegal, Sacramento
Excerpts from ”Urbs Indominita: The Great Flood of 2068 in Retrospect:„
When Jen stepped out of the pouring rain into the autoride, there was, unsurprisingly, already a passenger inside. But she was shocked to see the man sitting on the other side of the bench was wearing a black suit. He was probably ten years older than her.
He gave her a cursory smile as she sat down. The car began to move forward, bouncing roughly over the potholes.
“You’re going South?”
“I’m going to Mack Road, sir.”
“Is that South?”
“I think so, sir.”
“Did you tell the car?”
“What class did you pay?”
“Oh,” he said. “I paid A.” He continued, “I’m supposed to get out at the Capitol. I think that’s north once we get on the freeway. Isn’t that out of your way?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Did you know,” he said in a funny tone, “that we live in a pyramid?”
“Excuse me, sir. A pyramid?”
He chuckled. “Where you work, are you surveilled?”
“Yeah, there are cameras.”
“After you leave your work, all the footage from all the cameras is sent to another firm, where they analyze it to pick out inefficiencies. That’s how we automate. I don’t know where you work, but I know where the footage goes. It’s called Introspection; I work there.”
“The people who analyze the footage, your supervisors, they have supervisors too. That’s my job: supervising supervisors. And I have people who supervise me, and so on and so on. There are fewer people at every level; it’s a pyramid. We live in it.”
“From the top of a pyramid you have one view, and from the bottom you have a different view. When I see the world, I see it as a map; when you see the world, you move around it on paths. I see it from above, you see it from the ground.”
Roughly 30 minutes later the man got out of the car in front of the Capitol.
Jen made it home within an hour, lucky to have the car not pick up any other passengers paying A class. Water flowed into the living room through the front door as she stepped inside the house. Jen peeked into the room where she slept. There were three bunk beds in a row; hers was the top middle bed. It was dark, everyone asleep. Jen rummaged around in her jacket for the packet of shatter pellets she had bought on her lunch break. Four hours’ wages. She put two pellets in her vaper, climbed into bed and finally blissed out.