In which Niall meets Jeeves, goes to market, meets Sam, and is turned down.
Next morning Niall was more adjusted to the time zone and didn’t awaken quite so early. But he still felt that no one else was up yet so he stayed in bed for a while, musing on what he had learned.
The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that the key to the whole matter was in the payers. They were the only new element in society since he’d left that seemed to have any great power. The payers were everywhere, it appeared. They also seemed to have an in with the computer. ‘I wonder who does the programming of the accounts computers? They’d have to know if they were being controlled. Maybe I can get a job related to those payer computers. Of course my computer knowledge is about 15 years out of date but there must be something I can do.’
With at least some vague plan for how to proceed, Niall got up and fetched in the day’s rations and put them away as yesterday. Being a little later, he missed the guy who delivered them this time. He went over to the TV and looked for controls. Failing to find any and being frustrated he muttered to himself, “How do you turn this stupid TV on anyway?”
The TV came on and a quiet voice said, “Just ask for the program you want, sir.”
Niall was a little startled. Damn computer. He asked for the morning news and there it was. The news anchor was telling about some tornadoes in the South and that local businesses felt that they had adequate supplies and labor for the moment. Then he went to a description of Chesapeake Bay and its recovery from pollution, saying that use of the bay for fishing was still inappropriate and would be for about three more years. The oysters were making a comeback but would need that long to increase their numbers and get the waters moderately clean again. For some reason, that struck the newsman as important. Oh, well. The third item was international news about the whaling industry. That was enough for Niall.
“Where’s all the good news?” Niall said quietly.
Once again the computer’s calm voice said, “What kind of news would you like to see, sir? We have the following general categories.” The screen showed about 30 different topics with the expected such as “weather”, “sports” (broken down into several categories), “local” (several categories) and “business” (categories) but also home schooling tips, cooking suggestions, “health” (categories), “science” (categories). “But if you would like to give a specific topic I could, perhaps, find some items of interest?”
Wodehouse’s character Jeeves! That’s who they modeled this computer on. Those sneaky… His level of respect for and fear of the people who had programmed these computers went up another notch. Jeeves the butler/valet always sounded subservient and always seemed obedient but also always managed to control Bertie Wooster, his so-called master. Jeeves also had a way of seeming to materialize in a room rather than walking in like other people, just like this cursed computer. And Jeeves never cracked a smile or showed any expression other than respectful attention any more than the computer did.
“How about some national news and do you have a name?” Niall said.
“A name, sir? What name would you like me to have, sir?”
“What do the children call you?”
“Lora still calls me ‘puter. John calls me a variety of things depending on his mood, sir.”
“Well I am going to call you Jeeves.”
“Very good, sir. Your national news, sir.”
Niall could swear that the computer was laughing at him, but that was probably just his imagination.
The national news seemed to be largely concerned with progress reports on several large projects (such as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay) and reports on how much money was being allocated for various general areas such as public health and transportation. There was also an essay segment in which the essayist presented a case for making all bus travel a necessity rather than distinguishing local from long distance. Normally Niall would have been bored with such matters since he wasn’t directly involved in any of them. He thought they sounded too much like PBS in the old days. But that line about the allocation of money was riveting to him. Whoever was allocating the money was obviously in charge. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” Niall thought to himself. I need more on that. Since it’s in the news, there could only be a little suspicion if I ask for more news about that.
“How about more news on money allocated for projects and things, Jeeves?”
“Very good, sir.”
This time the items were more systematically presented, going from the largest allocations and working their way downward. For some reason Niall got the idea that the computer was doing a civics lesson just for him since the dates on some of the items were over a month old. From time to time he asked for more detail on some item and it was quickly provided. The items presented were in a variety of formats and had different people doing the voice-over. Most were professional but a couple seemed almost amateurish.
Niall decided to ask about allocations for necessities for the local apartment building but the closest he could come was for the neighborhood. By then the rest of the family began to make noises like they were getting up so Niall said, “That will be all, Jeeves.”
“Very good, sir.”
The computer is getting even worse. Now it’s even beginning to sound like it has an English accent.
So someone was setting a budget of considerable proportions for the entire country. Whoever was setting that budget was in charge. Such a budget implied, no positively shouted, a controlled economy. It was centralized planning and no doubt about it. Childhood memories of the fall of Russian Communism and the cold war were brought to mind. It was all of a piece with computers taking the place of neighborhood spies, monitoring everyone’s behavior to a degree that even the most ardent Stalinist would have envied. They weren’t even trying to hide it. Niall could almost feel the walls closing in on him. Even looking at the TV screen made him want to shudder.
He looked out the window and saw other apartment buildings. More of the masses trapped in mindless dependence. He had to get out of here. Brianna would never come with him under the circumstances. She and Tony were completely unaware of their cage. Well, perhaps Tony was aware but it was clear that Brianna was not. Tony might be part of the problem but Niall no longer thought that he was likely part of the controlling organization. No, that organization was too big and too much in power to need to hide subversives among the residents of lower-class apartments, especially when the computer could do the spying for them so much more easily and thoroughly.
“Brianna, I was thinking that I’d imposed on you enough for one visit. I was thinking of getting an apartment of my own so I can start getting settled in somewhere rather than making your place my hotel.”
“Dad, so soon?” Brianna sounded as if she were actually surprised and disappointed. He would have thought his condemnation of her home schooling would have made her want him out of the apartment. It was certainly making him uncomfortable. It would, for example, be very hard to sit quietly and watch her conducting classes for her children. Niall was sure he needed to go and the sooner the better. He could visit her on weekends when the lack of schooling wouldn’t be so blatant.
“Dear, I’ve been without my own place for almost 20 years. I really want some place I can call my own.”
As Tony entered, Brianna turned to him and said, “Dad’s leaving already. He’s only been here for a couple of days and he’s going again.”
“I hope it wasn’t anything we did or said, sir.”
“Oh no, Tony.” Niall quickly responded. “It’s me, not you. I feel a need to have a place of my own. I’ve been without a place I could call my own for over 15 years. It isn’t as if I were going to move across the country or anything. I expect to get something not so far away but just not right here on top of you.”
“Well, sir, I want you to know you’re welcome to come back at any time. You’re family, sir; you don’t even need to warn us you’re coming over. Just drop in on us.”
“Do you have a place in mind, Dad?”
“No, I thought I’d go to the housing office and see what was available.”
“If you tell Rose what kind of place you need and where, she can probably tell you which office to try first. She’s very good at that sort of thing,” Brianna said.
“Yes,” Tony said. “Since they all have the same listings available, it doesn’t really matter which housing office you go to as far as seeing what’s available. You choose a housing office on the basis of how good they are at finding a good match for you personally.”
“OK. I’ll be happy to talk to Rose again. How do I get in touch with her?”
“She told you yesterday. Don’t you remember? Hers is the apartment just to the left as you enter the foyer. Of course I guess that’s to your right as you get off the elevator. Just tell the computer there that you’d like to see Rose when she has a minute.”
“If you need to see Rose, any TV in the building could tell her if she’s near one. But we think it more polite to only ask to see her in a professional capacity from the lobby TV. If I wanted to visit her as a friend, I could use a TV here in the apartment. We could even chat over the TVs if we wanted. I told our TV that since you were visiting we wouldn’t be entertaining and it’s passed on the word whenever anyone asked to talk. Of course, if it were an emergency or something of that sort it would tell me.”
“Are all the TVs linked to the Web?”
“Of course. Why cut yourself off from the world?” Brianna said.
“Well there might be reasons,” Niall said, feeling he had revealed too much by his question.
“So just shut down the TV. Then it’ll ignore everything short of a fire or something until you use the password.” Tony said.
Niall didn’t believe for a minute that the computer in the TV would really stop listening and recording everything. If it could hear the password it could hear everything. Brianna and Tony were living in a fool’s paradise.
By this time Niall had finished his breakfast and it sounded like the kids were up, so he went down to see about having a talk with Rose. As it turned out, Rose was already in the lobby talking with the delivery man about a new family that would be moving in. Niall sat in a chair, one that did not face the TV, and waited patiently for Rose’s attention.
“Good morning, Honey. May I help you?” Rose was obviously a morning person.
“I need to get a place of my own to live. Brianna said I should start my search by talking to you.”
“What kind of place did you want? Do you want something near Brianna? We do have an opening on the sixth floor.”
“I was thinking of getting some place peaceful more away from the city. Some place I can rest and maybe get some small job.”
“What kind of work?”
“I hadn’t really thought much about it. I’ve been out of the job market for almost 20 years so I’ll probably have to start out with something simple.”
“I think I know just the person for you then, Sam Witherspoon. He’s a housing agent. His place is, ah, well just tell the bus driver you want to go to Sam Witherspoon’s Employment. He’ll know how to get you there. Take the westbound bus.”
“This is a free service, right?” Niall said.
“Sure. Finding a place to live isn’t a luxury. Why use money for that?”
“Good,” Niall said “and many thanks. You’ve been quite helpful.”
“My pleasure, I assure you.” said Rose with a big smile.
Niall, figuring there was no time like the present, left the apartment building and crossed the street to the westbound bus stop.
Meanwhile, back in the apartment Brianna was clearly distressed.
“I’m sure he’s leaving because he thinks the kids should be in school.”
“Darling, I’ve been thinking about this and I believe him when he says he just wants a place of his own. I think he gets upset about our home schooling because it feels like a rejection of his whole career,” Tony said taking her in his arms. “You have to remember that he had given his life to helping other nations set up school systems. He comes home and finds that you and half the other mothers in the country are keeping their kids home from school. It’s like they were saying that he’d been hurting all those children in those nations he helped. Naturally it made him rather emotional.”
“But we didn’t reject him. There are lots of reasons for kids to attend school it’s just that home schooling is better for most families these days,” Brianna said nestling against Tony’s chest.
“When he visits we’ll just have to reassure him that what he did was really worthwhile and needed. I think that will keep him calm when the kids’ education comes up.”
“I sure hope you’re right because I will not give up teaching them myself.”
After about ten miles of riding the bus and two transfers (the bus driver had asked his computer about Sam’s place and it told him the route Niall should take) Niall was dropped off on a residential street in what looked, for all the world, like a small town. There was a grain elevator near the railroad station and the single business district was only about four blocks long. The address Niall had been given was for a single family dwelling with a cardboard sign on the porch proudly proclaiming “Sam Witherspoon’s Employment.” Niall didn’t know whether to take the sign as an announcement that Sam had a job or as the advertisement of a business but the address matched what he’d been given, so he went up on the porch and knocked on the door. A black man of about 70 who looked like he’d been farming most of those years opened the door
“Come in, come in. I’m Sam Witherspoon. You must be Niall Campbell. Rose told me to expect you. Have a seat. Just push that cat off the sofa if you’d rather sit there. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Juice?”
One would have thought Niall was a neighbor who had just dropped in for a chat.
“Coffee will be fine.” Niall managed to get in.
Sam stepped into the next room, which appeared to be a small kitchen with a short refrigerator, small stove, and a single sink. “Cream or sugar?” Sam asked.
“No, I like it black.”
Sam did something at the counter and came back in a couple of minutes with two steaming mugs and offered Niall one.
“Just put it anywhere there on that table. It cleans up real easy.”
Sam sat in an easy chair, sighed, and put his feet up on a hassock.
“You in any kind of a hurry, friend?” Sam said as he leaned his head back on the chair and almost closed his eyes.
“No particular hurry but I would like to have something to move into today if possible. You see, I feel a little awkward imposing on my daughter. She says I’m not a burden but you know how women are. They say that but they don’t really mean it.”
“So what kind of life do you lead, friend? Are you one who likes to be up and doing first thing or do you let life come at you a little slower than that? You got something that is pushing you or are you content to let the world drift by?
“Neither, actually. I just want some place comfortable that I can call my own for a while. I also need to get a job of some kind. I’m kind of at loose ends on that. Maybe something involving computers.”
Sam’s eyebrows went up at that but his voice continued calm and his question seemed to ignore it. “You like neighbors close by or down the road a piece?”
“I guess I like a few close by but not very many. Does that make sense?”
“Friend, I think what you want is what we got plenty of. There are several small houses vacant in the area and some duplexes. Is a duplex a little too close for you?” Sam was working his way lower and lower into his chair and his eyes were definitely closed now.
“I think a small house would be best. What would it cost me?”
“Let’s see, just the one person, might use a room for work, no car. I think I should be able to put you on to something for about 15 to 20 dollars a month. Of course that’s assuming you want to rent rather than buy.”
Niall didn’t even need to think about that one. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be here more than a couple of months.
“Renting will be just fine. These houses very far from the bus line?”
“Well, some are and some aren’t. I’ll show you the ones closer to the bus line first. If none of those suit we can try some further out.”
“Sounds good to me,” Niall said.
The cat jumped into Sam’s lap, causing Sam to jerk and almost spill what little was left of his coffee.
“Cat says it’s time for us to get goin’ and leave him alone to sleep,” Sam said pulling himself up out of the chair with apparent reluctance. The cat, having displaced Sam, converted itself into a furry doughnut and closed its eyes.
“Car’s out this way,” Sam said and took Niall out the back to a detached garage. The car was at least 20 years old but was obviously something Sam took some pride in. It was clean and shiny and looked in perfect condition. As they got in, Sam said, “Car belongs to my grandson, actually, but he lets me drive it some when I got a client.”
The car started readily and ran quietly. They went through much of what there was of the town and stopped at a small, neat house with several well kept flower beds and well tended shrubs.
Sam said, “Don’t know if we can get you this one. The widow Larkin expects whoever lives here to tend the plants. The place sometimes is vacant for several months at a time. But it’s the best looking place on the list so I like to show it first.”
Niall didn’t even get out of the car. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for those flowers. I think I have a brown thumb. If they were to die, I’d feel terrible and the widow would just get mad at me.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel. The next one is just a couple of blocks over.”
Sam maneuvered the car easily on the near traffic free streets. The next house needed some yard work but looked in good repair. Sam showed Niall over the house and Niall thought it would do just fine. He didn’t mind wielding a lawn mower from time to time. The furnishings must be what people call “standard”, because they all had that sturdy look with rounded corners. But he never had paid much attention to furniture so long as it was comfortable and the chairs sat pretty good.
Niall said that this one would do fine so Sam took him several blocks over to the home of the owner. In the yard was a small, slender man with a sharp face and jogging shoes that didn’t go with his suit at all.
Sam and Niall approached and Sam said “Morning Will.”
“Got a gentleman here who kinda likes your house over on Putnam Street. That’s a $25 house for a single ain’t it?”
“Depends on how he uses the spare room. What you aim to do with it mister?”
Niall said, “Well I don’t quite know just yet. I haven’t settled on a job so I don’t know whether I’d need it for work or not.”
“What kind of work is your line?” Will’s look got a little sharper and his smile had faded almost completely away.
“I haven’t had a chance to really settle on a line. I’ve been out of the country for a few years and my old line doesn’t seem much use any more.”
“How long you been away, mister?” Will asked.
“Going on to about 17 years, I guess.”
“Where you been for 17 years?” The tone of the questions was no longer friendly but was getting definitely suspicious.
“The Middle East, back in the mountains. I was doing some work for the government.”
“There’s or ours?”
“Both, actually. Our government wanted me to do some work helping their government.”
Niall was getting rather uncomfortable and a little peeved.
“I don’t really think you’d like my house much, mister. I think you better look elsewhere,” Will said with decision.
“Wait, it’s a really nice house. I think I could like it quite well. How about $40 a month.” Niall said.
“You can make it $1000 a month for all I care. I still won’t let you stay in any house of mine. Sam, get him out of here.” With that Will turned and walked back into his house.