Once his supply ran out, it was that time again. Time for a drive across town.
The man was, in a word, ordinary. Middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-way. He could be described as frugal, but not cheap. He lived within his means, in a modest home among others, where one was neither proud of, nor despised for, his address. On his taxes, his occupation read “inventor.”
He left in the afternoon.
In the parking lot of his unembellished home, his car was of a similar class, made for transportation and not much else. He’d had it for years, and intended to for some years more. A quiet, nondescript vehicle, painted an appropriate white. The car would be unnotable except for its addition.
Once inside, the man removed his invention from its padded case: a two-piece apparatus, consisting of a gathering funnel and a metal cube. The device had no real name, nor any obvious function, so that its purpose could not be guessed by sight. The funnel went on the car’s aerial, while the cube went in the passenger’s seat, with a tube connecting the two. The curious contraption brought attention to the car, but not enough to warrant question. In all the man’s drives, no one had ever asked.
As he drove from his downmarket neighborhood, the gathering funnel sent off a faint hum in the breeze.
The car crept through the quiet American town, past businesses and schools, past economics and toil. A slow summer sun shone from endless blue sky. The man drove leisurely, casually, fulfilled by the task at hand. He put on music–from a radio, the elderly car having only that–and set off on his afternoon venture. His fingers drummed the wheel as he crossed town, heading toward the well-off district.
Here, the contrast was immediate. The houses were, by design, grander and less economical, none betraying a standard of beatitude. Colors became richer, the mood calmer, the parked cars newer and sleeker. Earth-tone bins replaced trashcans, majesty replaced disrepair, landscaping replaced nature. The plant life was upgraded similarly: the ailanthus trees greener and broader, the topiaries possessing some hidden superiority. Even the traffic lines offered style, bolder than those of lesser areas, being redone on a frequent schedule. The land held a protected, enduring quality, like a wilderness preserve.
Upon turning in, the man pressed a button on the cube in his passenger’s seat. In answer, its light glowed an affirming green. The device’s funnel opened.
And so the man drove through this oasis of prosperity, in his gentle way. Its air of wealth uplifted him even now, as if the surrounding abundance were entirely his own. This was another place, an island, connected with the town only as the moon is the earth. The world sharpened and warmed, gaining new colors and scents. The radio’s music rearranged itself, assuming extra dimensions like things heard in dreams. The womb would feel this way. “Comfort” described nothing.
Throughout, the funnel gathered what was to be gathered. On the cube, a gauge ticked slowly upward.
The man spent an hour traversing the neighborhood, absorbing its moneyed energy much like his device. Though, in his reverie, it felt all of minutes, if not a breath. Only the cube’s beeping alerted him to the passage of time.
He looked down, and the cube’s gauge had topped off at FULL. The device was recharged.
The man stopped in a roundabout, to power off his invention and remove the gathering funnel from sight. He stole one final look around, and with that he was gone, the upscale homes becoming small in his rearview mirror. He felt a mild despair upon leaving, as always, but it was short-lived. With the device replenished, his evening held new promise.
Back home, in the terra firma of his own part of town, the man arrived with the same unhurriedness of his departure. It had become evening, and he took his time with a simple dinner and various chores. Only afterward, when he’d showered and shaved, dressed in comfortable clothes, and drawn his blinds, did he sit down with the device.
Ceremoniously, he detached the gathering funnel and replaced it with an oxygen mask, connected to the cube by the same hose. Then, with the mask over his face, he again activated the device, now set to RELEASE instead of GATHER.
And then it was happening: a chemical tang invaded his mouth, the afternoon’s bounty pouring down his throat and into his veins. The neighborhood’s plush energy cascaded through him, bringing a gentle sensation of shift, in excellence of a lover’s embrace or any known drug. The man settled into his secondhand couch, moaning in absolute pleasure.
There, in the moment, he possessed all the wealth witnessed that day–except without its hidden costs. The commerce of power and pretense, the silent predation, the implied obligations, the acidic desperation of those who must be greater, the denial of these things–all were as distant as the neighborhood in which they dwelt.
All the comfort in the world, minus its consequence. Have your cake and eat it too.
Behind the man’s fogged oxygen mask, a genuine smile could be seen, that of someone wanting for nothing. It did not dissipate, even as night became morning.
A.A. Garrison is a thirty-something gentleman located in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, where he lives and works comfortably above sea level. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies, and web journals, and he is the author of several novels and story collections, including _The End of Jack Cruz_ from Montag Press. He does not open strange letters, mailed or otherwise. Visit him on the web at http://synchroshock.blogspot.com.
Image by Davide Taviani