Picture, if you will, a line-up. Let’s say it’s at a driver’s license bureau. You are sitting against the far wall of the waiting area, under a very large highway map, watching the people in this line-up make their slow, inevitable progress toward a wicket at the counter. Now first in line is a man in his fifties dressed in mismatched jacket and pants. He holds his chin up and frowns, through what appear to be bifocal glasses, at the occupied wickets before him. After him stands a young girl in her late teens or early twenties, though it’s hard to tell. She’s wearing a ponytail and very little or no make-up. She has a self-conscious bearing, and even steals nervous looks over her shoulder from time to time, perhaps due to the fact that she’s about to take her first written test or because there are a pair of teenage boys behind her who are whispering to each other and snickering. They must be barely sixteen, not much older than you are now, and their baggy pants and cockiness do little to mask the acne that mars their faces. Their laughter, however, is genuine. For behind them is a clean-shaven man in his thirties, with dark hair and of average height and build, wearing a white shirt and grey pants, who’s standing there holding a large, metallic-finish portable cell. It fits amply over his head and barely over his shoulders. At each side he grips one of the many gleaming bars that surround him; the cell extends down past the bottom of his rib cage to his waist. He appears relatively happy, or at least unaware of any sadness he carries, and doesn’t seem to be suffering at all under the weight of the cell. Remember, these were the days when personal cells weren’t affixed to the waist or, as is more the fashion nowadays, to the head of the prisoner. Also, the cell itself was, as you’ve heard, only metallic-finish, so the lightweight plastic material underneath was quite manageable as far as burdens go; one could conceivably carry his or her personal cell for hours on end without so much as a mild ache in the hand.
The man in question did, in fact, stand in line at the driver’s license bureau. He was there to renew his license, which was due to expire in three weeks. He waited patiently, though not quite for hours on end, until it was his turn at the wicket. (Perhaps it would have been in his best interest if he had waited even longer, for as we are about to see, his fate was such as befits a man who carries his own cell.) When asked by the woman at the counter why he was carrying a cell, the man replied, “So I can be easily found at all times.”
And how, the woman asked, do you figure that?
The man smiled. “How could someone who wanted to contact me possibly have trouble tracking down a person who carries their own cell with them at all times? It provides a service. And it just happens to be light and affordable. I’m ahead of the pack, if I do say so myself.”
“Why would you want to be found at all times? That doesn’t sound like fun. Sometimes I just want to hide.”
“Ah, but I should always be available. I’m in sales.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought, but what crime did you commit?”
“I don’t understand,” the man said.
The woman stared at him for some time before saying, “I think you look like an idiot.”
“Ah, you say that now.”
Before the woman would issue the man a new license she made sure to ask him if he ever drove while “using” his cell, to which the man abruptly replied, of course not. Next was the photograph. The woman instructed the cell man to walk around to the side of the counter and stand on the green line, to which he happily obliged. He smiled at the large, odd-shaped camera through the bars of his cell.
“Is it collapsible too?” the woman asked.
“What? Oh, yes,” said the man, noting a stir of interest. “It folds up to be quite small.”
“Then make it collapse.”
The man asked her if she couldn’t just zoom in and focus on his face between the bars. The woman said no because the regulation photograph had to be a clear shot of both head and shoulders and she didn’t know why they were even having this conversation. The man, who had been paying some attention to the young woman’s head and shoulders, and the way her blouse shifted sleepily against her freckly skin as she fussed with the camera, now sighed and, quite dejected, put down the cell on the floor in front of the green line, though he stubbornly refused to fold it as requested. When he stood up he was blinded by a flash.
Back in his recently purchased car, the man turned over the ignition and pulled away, enjoying the sound and rhythm of his manual transmission. He liked the act of changing gears; he always thought you really felt like you were driving. Handling an automatic vehicle was to him more like watching television. Of course it was also a little more involving to drive his manual car at the time because he was, in the woman from the driver’s license bureau’s words, “using” his cell. His one hand worked the gears to his right, while his left hand held the steering wheel through the bars directly in front of him. Since the cell was quite small it fit around him in the driver’s seat and only lightly brushed the interior’s ceiling, though it followed that the spaces between the bars were very narrow, and this made his driving more difficult still. Yet this method, he assured himself quite proudly, worked very well. He had just made a hard left turn on a yellow light when a bicycle came out of nowhere, or the sidewalk, and his car hit both bike and rider square, sending the cyclist sailing twenty feet through the air and splitting his head open against the black steel frame of a billboard, which as you can imagine caused a bloody but mercifully sudden death. Meanwhile, the cell man’s car spun around 360° before smashing through the front window of a credit union. No one else was harmed, not even the attractive young teller whose wicket was demolished by the car’s tail end, since she saw the whole event unfold outside due to an absence of clients lined up before her, and upon seeing the car come spinning toward the window, shouted “Duck!” and calmly stepped aside and crouched to her knees behind the customer services desk. Seconds later there were some sprinklings of glass in her hair, the smell of exhaust and an unbearable scream issuing from the car. The cell, lightweight as it was, proved to be very sturdy and upon impact it remained surprisingly intact. The man broke his right arm in two places, and in one location his bone had pierced the skin. He screamed until the police arrived, and when the paramedics attempted to extricate him from his cell, he screamed even louder, for one of the bars had become wedged in his arm. He remembered little afterwards, save for a police officer standing over his hospital bed asking him why he operated a motor vehicle while hampered by such an absurd device, to which the man replied, “I’m in sales.”
Another officer read him his rights.
After five nights in detention, he took the bus home. He was wearing a cast on his arm, so it would have been near impossible for him to carry his cell even if it had not been confiscated to serve as evidence. With some difficulty he opened his front door to find a small stack of mail on the welcome mat. Among the envelopes was one from the Ministry of Transportation. After he trudged upstairs and awkwardly made a pot of coffee, he eased himself into an armchair. He sat staring at the entertainment centre across from him for a few minutes. Slowly his murky, fish-eyed reflection in the television gave way to a hillside swaying with long grass and a yellow sun shimmering through a pair of trees. He saw himself climbing up the hill and the grass moving like water around him. He yawned, gazed at the table beside him, the steam licking off his cup of coffee, and with some contempt picked up the Ministry of Transportation letter between his first two fingers. When he opened it and took out his new driver’s license, he found that in the photograph he was still looking down.
Rick Maddocks is currently vague and boycotting. Wont last.