Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Safe Zones"

A Story of the Near Future by Karl Wenclas

"You have violated the terms of agreement."

That message popped up in his inbox, informing him his Facebook account had been closed. No other explanation given.

Todd Trentby knew he shouldn't be logging into social media sites while at work. But he always did.

He noted the time. 3:30 p.m. on a hazy gray Monday afternoon. Todd sat alone in his cubicle listening to keyboards clattering from within other cubicles. An entire floor of people in cubicles. Keyboards upon keyboards.

Todd had come into the office early. His work was finished by noon. What else but surfing the internet was he supposed to do with himself?

Todd Trentby was thirty-five years old, single, of medium height and middling appearance. He knew he was soft-- an out-of-shape blob on a swivel chair. Too many hours sitting in an office. Too many sodas and processed cheese snacks. He made a mental note to improve his diet and renew his gym membership. He could do the latter within three minutes on the internet. A few clicks and his card information. He needed to get on a treadmill. Todd stretched, tired at the thought.

Todd was composed, cynical, and smug.

You could call him a generic white guy. Because he was level-headed and moderately intelligent, people believed he was more intelligent-- or crafty, or devious-- than he was. Managers would stop by his cubicle to see what he thought about a project.

"I think it's a good idea," Todd would reply, even if he'd scarcely heard what was said.

The manager walked away satisfied.

Because Todd wore a blank expression, with placid, unreadable eyes, people saw in him what they wanted to see. Agreement or disagreement. Sympathy or dismissal. Modesty or arrogance. He might be thinking about an upcoming football game, or where he wanted to stop after work for a drink.

Women in particular projected qualities onto him, good or bad, that weren't necessarily there. They saw not who he was, but who they wanted him to be.

Todd's eyes scanned the floor for any friendly co-worker who might be momentarily free. He'd been down to the cafeteria for coffee twice today, and taken a ninety-minute liquid lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. What next?

As he considered his immediate future, another email popped into his inbox. This one from Twitter.

"You have violated the terms of agreement," the message asserted.

Shut out of his Twitter account also? Todd clicked on his Twitter tab, finding he'd indeed been bounced out, and was unable to log back in.

"What bullshit!" he muttered to himself. "Absolute bullshit."

Todd pondered what could have caused the deplatforming. Why him? He was strictly middle-of-the-road in his opinions. Properly liberal and politically correct. Supporting approved causes. At worst, a moderate. Harmless.

"The man who takes no chances," a woman said about him once.

He suddenly realized what this was about.

It had something to do no doubt with his Twitter conversations this past Friday about Jim Mackelmeier. Jim Mackelmeier! That stooge. But Todd had defended Jim. He had to defend him. To do otherwise would've been unconscionable. Cowardly.

He'd met "Mac" Mackelmeier two years ago at a business conference in Chicago. An unbelievably boring affair, at which Todd had been looking for anyone who liked to drink.

Lumbering Jim Mackelmeier. Jim stood at the center of any social situation, easily located by his height, piercing blue eyes and handlebar moustache. Absently gabbing while spilling a coffee or cocktail in his hand, constant grin on his always-red face. Bellowing above the throng. Laughing at his own jokes. Mac was the kind of large character too-ready to put his arm around you and share an opinion. To test on you, for the fun of it, this notion or that one.

To share an opinion. . . .

But, a bigot? A fascist? God, no. No way. The idea was ludicrous. Jim Mackelmeier liked everybody and was open to anybody. One of those men who love the world. His wife was Filipino, as a matter of fact. Mass-attending Catholics.

After the convention, Jim and Todd had followed each other on Facebook and Twitter, and stayed in touch via text messages and occasional phone calls. They emailed each other every time they heard a new joke. Mac loved telling jokes. Granted, some of them pushed acceptable bounds.

Last Friday, Todd Trentby had seen a tweet by someone who worked in their field calling Jim Mackelmeier a racist and fascist. The same Jim Mackelmeier, he wondered? Couldn't be. The tweeter said Mackelmeier should be unfollowed and blocked. Todd clicked on the thread.

Mackelmeier was castigated as a hater. Todd couldn't be sure about what. Few specifics were given. One account said he'd been reported. "Avoid at all costs," another put in.

"That's crazy," Todd responded on his keyboard without thinking.

Even if he'd thought about it he'd have still done the same thing.

An exchange followed, Todd trying without success to assure three separate accounts that Jim Mackelmeier was a good guy. One accusation was verbal abuse of some kind at a business function.

Verbal abuse? Speaking too loud, no doubt.

"We have freedom of association not to associate with him," one of the three said, "and to make certain no one else does."

From another, to Todd: "It's better to educate yourself and learn from your mistakes."

"Mistakes?" Todd tweeted back.

Then, what in hindsight was a final conclusion appeared in Todd's notifications, from one of the accusers.

"You're an enabler of hate."

One by one, Todd Trentby was blocked by those involved.

The next day, Todd saw that his number of Twitter followers had declined by more than 300. He shrugged it off.

"Screw 'em," he said to himself.

That was on the weekend. He'd gone out Saturday night and hadn't thought a minute more about the matter, until now.

Screw Twitter, he thought. Maybe there was a similar site he could join. He remembered there had been, but it'd been deplatformed.

He'd have to tell Krisann about the whole thing. Krisann was a woman he saw on occasion. Todd couldn't talk about the matter at work, so he texted her.

"You won't believe what happened to me," his text said.

There was no immediate response.

On his way out of the building at five he passed one of the women on his floor. She didn't see him.

The plastic company identification card in his pocket-- required to enter or exit the building-- checked him out as he passed the gray-and-black security desk. The security officer noted Todd's departure, and nodded.

Screw it all, Todd thought. He needed a beer. He drove to a country-themed saloon near the highway.

The saloon was a splash of noise and color after the controlled sterility of his workplace, with yellow lamps, gold-paneled walls and blazing green felt pool table. Todd sat at a bar made of natural wood.

"Hey there," a brassy bartender named Sherry said to him.

Sherry tossed around straight blonde locks which fell to her shoulders. She was lean, confident, and loud. Sherry did well in tips.

With a golden pint of his favorite brew in front of him, Todd took a deep breath. The world outside was becoming continuous stress.

"Relax," he told himself. "The universe is an empty glass."

He checked his phone. Krisann hadn't responded to his text.

Todd was tempted to ask Krisann to join him. He knew that was near impossible. Going out during the week was problematic for her.

Krisann was a prim, short-haired brunette who worked until 6 p.m. as a librarian. She kept her small shih-tzu dog, Pickle, in her condo all day. Pickle waited the entire day for Krisann to let him outside to do his business. Torture. When Krisann stopped for a beer, Pickle's inconvenience was compounded.

A metaphor for how women treat men, Todd thought.

Krisann wasn't his girlfriend, only a woman to know.

After another beer, Todd dialed Krisann's number anyway. He received a recorded message.

"This phone no longer accepts calls from this number," the electronic voice said.

What--? Todd tried again, thinking he'd misdialed. He received the same message. Impossible!

He sat stunned. Todd reviewed in his head his recent interactions with Krisann, wondering if he'd made any blunderous statements which might've pissed her off. We all make thoughtless statements on occasion. Everyone does. It's part of being human.

Todd tried texting Krisann again. The text didn't go through.

He could use a shot. Todd had a policy of never doing shots during the week. Instead he ordered another pint. After another he paid what he owed in cash, throwing green bills onto the bar, including an ample tip.

"Bye now," Sherry said from behind the bar as she washed beer glasses.

The sun had gone down when he stepped outside. After 8 p.m. The open sky appeared vast and indifferent. A red line shimmered at the edge of the horizon, then was gone. He found his silver-colored car, which looked exactly like other cars. The parking lot was filled with interchangeable black or silver pickup trucks and gray or silver cars. An angry bombardment of them, irritating in their sameness. We're conformists, he thought. Pods.

Todd stopped at a convenience store on his way home. As he walked up he noticed a message on the glass door. It'd always been there. He'd just never read it.

"This Is a Hate Free Safe Zone," the sign said.

Todd placed a bottle of water and two high-protein energy bars on the counter. He handed the clerk his card.

"By the way," the clerk said. "According to my screen, your card expires at midnight tonight. Just thought you'd want to know."

Todd stared at the man. He was surprised, but tried not to show it. What in hell was going on?

"Sure, thanks," he said. Then: "Wait a second. May as well buy a few more things."

Tod smiled stupidly, then grabbed a slice of pizza. a plastic-wrapped sub, and an apple. The clerk rang them up.

The over-bright lights and blue and green colors of the store confused him. With relief he reentered the enveloping darkness outside.

What a crazy day, he thought as he pulled his car into the parking lot of his apartment complex. The car stopped under a prominent light. At least Bob Benkski's car was gone.

Benkski's vehicle had sat in the lot for over a month, even though Bob had moved out. Todd had seen strange people move into Bob's apartment.

"What's up with Bob Benkski?" Todd had asked Juliana one morning out of curiosity.

Juliana was a young woman who worked for building management. She wore the company's trademark gray and blue uniform. The company owned several apartment complexes like this one.

"Bob Benkski?" she asked, blinking. "No, no. He's not here. He's gone."

She skittered away before Todd could ask her anything else.

Now he used a plastic card to enter his apartment and switched on a lamp. A green light flashed on a monitor placed near the door-- a small computer whose sole purpose was to convey information to tenants. The flashing light indicated a new notification in the inbox. The messages were invariably about trivial matters such as garbage pickup, or parking spots. He'd check it later.

His apartment was modest in size, constructed of thin drywall and filled with cheap green abstract paintings and tacky orange-brown furniture. Every object was cheap, built to be used a few years then tossed away.

Todd turned on the requisite wide-screen television-- at least that worked. He clicked on a sports station.

Voices updating scores shouted into the small room as Todd ate half the sub from the convenience store. He'd gulped down the slice of pizza on the drive.

He'd have to call his bank about his credit card-- an aggravating task. Expires at midnight? Quite a coincidence. He picked up his cell phone and noted new email messages on it.

One of the emails was from his bank. He opened it.

"You have violated the Terms of Agreement," the key sentence emphasized in bold letters.

To their credit, the bank quoted the relevant section of the terms he'd agreed to-- those fine-print clauses no one ever reads.

"This relationship can be ended by either party without notice at any time. . . ."

"Violation of terms includes hateful statements, or any other unacceptable words or behavior . . . we have a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry . . . we are free to not associate with any individuals who might potentially damage our business reputation. . . ."

Blah blah blah. He could call their general number, but knew that'd be a waste of time. The signer of the agreement-- himself-- was given limited time to withdraw any available funds before the account was closed-- permanently.

What did he have left in the account? $62.90? Something like that. Hardly anything. But worth getting.

Todd noticed another unopened email in the inbox, from his employer. He was a man walking through a pool of mud up to his neck, his legs and arms heavy. With no way out and no option but to forge ahead.

Or a zombie, clicking on the email without thinking about it. Without daring to think.

They were hitting him from all sides.

"We regret to inform you," the email began, "that we are terminating your employment with this company--"

The email went on to remind Todd he was an "at-will" employee. Upon actions considered detrimental to the company, said employee could be terminated-- fired-- without warning, notice, or severance pay. The email concluded:

"This company is a Hate Free Safe Zone."

That was it, Todd realized. He was ruined. Finished. Like that.

He snapped his fingers to indicate to himself how swiftly it occurred.

All day at work everyone had acted toward him as if he were a walking dead person, but he'd been too stupid, or arrogant, to connect the dots.

Reported! When the social media ghouls report someone they go all the way. Maybe there was a circulating list somewhere, accessible to all relevant parties. Get your name on the list, for whatever reason, and a CYA "Cover Your Ass" mentality ensured all parties dissolved ties to you. Automatically. Clinically.

Yet what had he done? Nothing! Less than nothing.

I'm a good guy, he wanted to say. I've spoken out against bigotry on many occasions-- had denounced racism and fascism on Twitter and Facebook, frequently. All the right phrases. Did that not count for anything?

If he had to do it over, he'd not have supported Jim Mackelmeier in that Twitter discussion after all. It wasn't worth this kind of blowback.

Who was Jim Mackelmeier to him, anyway?

Screw Jim Mackelmeier. He'd dragged Todd into this mess. Maybe Jim Mackelmeier truly was a closet racist, fascist, white supremacist, colonizer, whatever. All the standard accusations. He visualized Jim Mackelmeier dressed in a Nazi uniform, obediently saluting a Nazi flag in his living room, marching about in jackboots while Nazi anthems played on a stereo.

That was insanity, Todd realized. Jim Mackelmeier would mock that kind of thing. He'd howl with laughter at the very idea of it.

Out of curiosity Todd punched in Jim's number.

"This number has been disconnected."

Todd leaned back on the sofa, staring at the ceiling as the television sports channel blared. Exhausted from beer and stress, he dozed.

When he awoke it was nearly ten o'clock, according to his phone. Todd had to get to an ATM before midnight for that $62.90. He might need it.

There was a new email in his inbox. From his phone provider. The email said his cellphone service was cancelled. Service to terminate at 2200 hours local time. 10 p.m.


A few minutes later, he'd been locked out of his email account. He needn't guess why.

Minutes after that, his phone service stopped.

Panic ran through his body. He'd been cut off from means of communication with the world. This meant, in the current age, from necessary tools of survival.

Move! he told himself.

He grabbed his electronic car key and left the building.

The nearest ATM was a seven-minute drive away. Tood reached it and put his bank card into the opening.

"This Account Is Not Accessible. Please see your bank representative at your bank branch for more information."

The bank branch sat dark before him, thoroughly closed.

He'd once thought the world was predictable, orderly. Understandable. Todd Trentby saw it now as a chaos of lights, illusions and misdirections, that one walked (or more often, drove) through as if traveling in a minefield. A gray-dead battlefield full of gaping holes. Holes he kept stepping into.

When he returned to his apartment, the green light on the building management's message machine continued to flash. The green light now seemed ominous. He studied the flashing dot for several minutes. Flashing, flashing. A green dot. On and off.

Todd sat down and watched sports highlights on the blasting television for half-an-hour, his mind numb.

"Man, that's bad," he said about one of his favorite teams. "What a stupid play." Nothing going right.

The images of the play repeated themselves. The sports network's logo cascaded across the screen. "THIS IS. . . ." Electronic colors. Glimpses of plays. More talking.

Todd walked to the message machine and clicked on the inbox.

"You have violated the terms of the lease. . . ."

The disaster which had become his life no longer surprised him.

The terms quoted said that he could be asked to leave upon twelve-hour notice. The message had been posted at 8 p.m. To make sure Todd understood, the message further stated he had to depart the complex by 8 a.m., with or without belongings. At that time, his key card would be cancelled. Access to the building denied.

If he were not off the property by 8:05 a.m., local police would be contacted.

The statement concluded: "We have no tolerance for hate. Harmonious Fields is a Hate Free property."

Tell that to the couples he heard fighting among themselves every night, Todd thought.

He had until morning to be out of here. He found a can of beer in the refrigerator and popped it, downed half, then ate the rest of the sub and one of the energy bars. With beer can in hand, clutched like a lifeline, Todd sat on the sunken orange sofa and contemplated his life.

There was the money problem. What could he sell? He owned nothing of value. His laptop? The television? Even his car was leased.

More immediately: where could he go without a job, credit card or bank account?

He had a sister in Wisconsin. A long way away.

The only possible place around here was the Dead Zone-- a neighborhood near the central city. Dumping ground for the area's refuse. Criminals and transients. Where he could live cheaply, without strict regulation. Underground.

Even the police feared to enter the Dead Zone. What chance would he have there?

A transient. What he'd become in this cold universe. Portable. Disposable. Today it was the way people lived their lives. Refugees within their own country. Conform or die. Follow the program strictly or be gone. There was always someone waiting to take your place. A mass of interchangeable bodies for hire.

It wasn't fair that he of all people was in this fix. He wasn't political. He didn't vote. What were his goals? What did he think about? Not politics! Todd cared more about having a good time.

"What's your goal in life?" a woman he'd dated once asked him.

"To lie on a beach all day with a case of beer," he answered.

Todd never saw the woman again.

His dad's voice popped into his head. A person he'd not seen much of in his life. Those encounters hadn't been happy. A rigid man. Then he died.

"Son," his father's voice said to him. "You need to be squared away."

Did Todd deserve all that was happening to him-- punishment for his failings? He dismissed the idea. Todd snapped his fingers. That's what he cared for the future. But the future had hunted him down.

He thought of his sister. Last he'd heard of her she was living with her boyfriend in a trailer park.

Todd fell asleep where he sat, with the lights on. He had a crazed dream of being on an alien planet, giant red and blue machines chasing after him.

At six a.m. the television went silent. He awoke. Beer can lay empty on the floor like a dead soldier.

Todd sorted his possessions, deciding what clothes to take. A ragged super hero t-shirt? No. His favorite jeans and home team baseball cap? Yes.

He'd take enough to fill a duffel bag and a suit bag-- he needed good clothes in order to look for a job. Also his laptop and a collection of classic cd's he'd owned for two decades. They were part of him. He squeezed them into the duffel bag.

His coffee maker? No.

His phone still gave the time. The minutes rushed on.

7:30: Sixteen hours since the nightmare began. He went to the bathroom one last time.

At 7:45 Todd carried the duffel bag, suit bag, and laptop to his car, then touched the trunk symbol on his key device. Nothing. He touched it again.

The doors to the car wouldn't open either. The car wouldn't start. Todd was fucked.

He threw the useless key device across the parking lot in a moment of anger. Why the hell not? He should've seen this coming. Madness. A universe gone mad.

Reddened portents of the day appeared at the bottom of the horizon, mocking him. Time flowing. The entire universe had conspired against him. He leaned his head against the top of the car. He didn't believe in God, but said out loud, "What now, God? What now?"

Todd remembered an incident from six months ago in this lot, a man busting the windows of his own car with a crowbar, beads of glass spraying out and splashing down. Next, the man destroyed the hood and the trunk. Police cars pulled up. The man was handcuffed. Todd had laughed at the spectacle of it. Laughed!

Now he understood that man.

Todd needed to find something on this car. He'd noticed it before but had never read it. A sentence in small yellow letters.

He found the words at the bottom of the rear window. Scarcely visible, but there.

"This Vehicle Is a Hate Free Safe Zone."

Red bands of approaching sun grew larger. The sky turned a lighter shade of blue, an impressive display, but Todd didn't care. His phone showed 8:00.

Todd ran into the open doorway of his apartment ("his"), grabbed the bottle of water, apple and energy bar and slammed the fake-wood door behind him.

He decided to leave behind his suits and the laptop. Too much to haul. With them he wouldn't make it five blocks. Todd lessened the weight of the duffel bag, stacking the cd's and various clothes upon the asphalt parking lot in a neat pile.

The morning air felt cold. A ten-mile walk lay ahead, to the Dead Zone, across avenues and highways. Todd Trentby took a deep breath and picked up the green duffel bag. His phone showed 8:07. Time to go.

He began to walk.


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