Short Story: “Toasted Roles”

This series began with “Riffing the Life Fantastic“.

“Toasted Roles”
by P. Orin Zack
(part 5 of a series)
[02/13/2011]

The uniformed officer across the table from Ben turned his outspread hands palms up. “Yeah, I get why you decided to turn yourself in, Mr. Benoit. That part I understand. And I commend you for taking the initiative. But this is not an issue for the D.C. police. You’re charged with stealing that motorcycle in Kansas. They’re the people you ought to be talking to, not me.”

“That may be true, Lieutenant Grimes,” Ben said gingerly, “but when I entered a federal office building earlier today, the security agent there told me that word had been put out to detain me because I had left the state. He warned me off before putting my ID through the system so I’d have a chance to deal with this myself rather than involving Homeland Security, the FBI, or whoever else might be interested in having my neck. That’s why I came in. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

What he hadn’t told the lieutenant was that he had intentionally trashed that motorcycle. But he hadn’t simply seen what was about to happen in enough time to avoid the crash and plowed on regardless; he’d seen it a lifetime ahead. Truth be told, it was simply the latest in a series of precognitive memories that he’d let determine the course of his life, and which had earned him more than one fortune. This time, however, it didn’t work out as he’d remembered it. Instead of being picked up by a businessman with the key to his next fortune, he watched the guy drive blithely past. Ben’s charmed life had run its course. Full stop. And if that Kansas state trooper hadn’t stopped a Greyhound to see him on his way, he never would have met Robert Verdun, he never would have left the state, and he certainly wouldn’t have joined the guy’s one-man mission to change the world.

Grimes shook his head. “Then it’s a federal matter, and still not our business. I really can’t do anything for you, Mr. Benoit.”

“But surely the police in D.C. cooperate with the ones in other states,” Ben pleaded weakly.

“I think you may have missed something important here, Mr. Benoit, so let me spell it out for you. The District of Columbia is not a—.”

The sharp crack of someone’s head hitting a filing cabinet in the crowded station’s lobby stopped Grimes in mid-sentence. He peered through the smoky glass behind Ben for a frozen moment. Seconds later he muttered something, vaulted to his feet and took off. Ben grabbed his chair arm and twisted around in time to see a number of people stepping back from an agitated man with his fist in the air. Bob and his math-geek buddy Franklin, whose building they’d tried to enter earlier, were standing astride the door of the glassed interview room, their conversation now clearly back-burnered. Franklin glanced over his shoulder and drew back as the door flew open and Grimes dashed between them.

Ben rose and called out, “What the hell is going on out there?” By the time he reached the doorway, Grimes had spoken with two other officers, and from the look of it, was coordinating the response. A plainclothesman was kneeling beside the woman who’d fallen into the filing cabinet, making sure she was okay, and a patrolman was calmly ordering bystanders to stand quietly at the perimeter of the room.

But the more he calmed the crowd, the angrier the man became. He glared at the officer directing foot traffic and shook his head in agitation. “That’s right,” he said loudly, looking at the frightened faces surrounding him, “be good little sheep and follow the blue man’s orders. You wouldn’t want to be unruly like the Egyptians who brought down their government, now would you?”

Bob nodded towards the man and spoke rapidly. “He just walked in and started picking fights with people. That woman tried to intercede, and he pushed her away. She tripped over someone else and fell into the filing cabinet.”

“Picking fights?” Ben said. “About what?”

“Well, just listen to him,” Franklin whispered, condescension coloring his voice. “He’s been on about people submitting to authority ever since he got in here. And all these idiot cops seem to want to do is play to his paranoia. That lieutenant of yours orders his men around, and then they do the same to the bystanders. He’s not exactly helping the situation, if you ask me.”

Bob gave him a withering look. “Then tell them, Franklin. If you know something they don’t, go over there and do something about it!”

“Not on your life, Robert. One thing I don’t do is to get involved in things that aren’t my business. You know that.”

“Yeah, well,” Bob said, perturbed, “I also know why you don’t get involved. And it has nothing to do with what’s happening right in front of you.”

Ben looked him a question. “Hmmm?”

“Mathematicians,” he muttered darkly. “Franklin here’s all about theory, about being a dispassionate observer. That’s why he took up being an amateur auctioneer, so he could watch the bidders and figure out what makes them tick. That’s what he did to me when I was at the ChiCon IV auction, and that’s what he’s bloody well doing right now.”

Franklin winced.

“All right, all right,” Ben said, nodding. “So you want to be an observer. Fine. But then you’ve got no excuse for not noticing things, and you’ve already demonstrated that you have.”

Across the room, Lt. Grimes took another step towards the man. And although he raised his hands to signal that he wasn’t armed, the other officers looked like they were itching to take him down. “Okay, now,” he said in an authoritative voice, “I understand that you want to have your say, but you’re going about it the wrong way.”

“The way things look right now,” Ben continued, “I’d say that your observations may be the only chance he has of resolving this mess before it spirals out of control.”

Franklin frowned.

“So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell me exactly what actions the officers should take to defuse the situation, and I’m going to tell Lt. Grimes what you said. I’m not going to claim the idea as my own because we both know I wouldn’t have a prayer of explaining your rationale. You’re going to do this because choosing not to would interfere with that nice quiet life you’ve got planned for yourself.”

“I will not!” He turned to Bob. “Call off your dog, Robert.”

There was a hollow metallic crack as the man slapped his hand against a desk. “I am, am I? Well, one thing I’m certain of is that I have your undivided attention. And judging by the way your itchy-fingered subordinate over there just jumped, his attention seems to be a bit too undivided.”

Grimes motioned his men to relax.

“There,” the man said, pointing excitedly at him, “you see?” He looked around at the bystanders. “He’s even got them trained to chill out on cue. Puppets! And every one of you is doing the exact same thing out in your lives. They seduce you into wearing their prefab roles by getting you to wear labels like ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’! Or you kiss up to someone so you can get a job, like these blue men did, and you live out the little scripts they stuff in your brain.”

Ben grabbed Franklin’s wrist. “What should he do?”

The man turned his back to Grimes so he could address a knot of bystanders cowering near the bathrooms. “They call you ‘consumers’ so you’d forget that you’re really citizens and focus on the role they want you to play. Buy stuff. Go into debt.” He glanced at one of the officers, and smiled. “Turn yourselves into pitiful wage slaves to keep them in luxury so you’d forget what you really are. You’re citizens! You’re why this government was created, and you’re the ones who gives it power over you!”

Franklin gaped at the man, his breath shallow and ragged. “What should he do? I’ll tell you what he should do!”

Ben shook his head. “Don’t tell me. Tell him.”

Bob echoed the sentiment. “Do it.”

“All right, all right.” Franklin squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then lowered his head and struck out towards Grimes, his fists clenched at his side.

“Well, well, well,” said the man, looking directly at Franklin. “What have we here?”

Grimes turned to look and started to warn him off, but Franklin continued on, ignoring the lieutenant’s firm command to go back.

“Who is that man?” The guy pointed across the room.

Franklin raised his head and made eye contact. “Someone who wants to know your name.”

Grimes lowered his voice. “What are you doing?”

Franklin responded in kind. “Giving him a little respect.” Then, looking again at the man, he squared his shoulders and said, “I know where you’re coming from. I really do. And I’d like to know who you are.”

“Well, at last, an actual citizen of this benighted country. I’m Ronald Dvorkin. And you are…?”

“Franklin Goertz. I’m a bit surprised that you bothered coming in here, though. After all, if there’s anyone who’s all gung-ho about the role they’re playing, it’s someone with a job that requires them to wear a uniform.” He gestured at Grimes. “But you haven’t really answered my question, Mr. Dvorkin. You’ve given me your name, but you haven’t told me who you are.”

“Who I am?” Dvorkin’s stance eased.

“Yes. We know that you’re very concerned about people getting so deeply into the roles that they play that they forget who they really are. And, I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but all I know about you right now is that you’re playing the role of someone who’s decided to disrupt people’s hypnotic trance and wake them up. What I don’t know is why. You see, you strike me as a man on a mission. But whose mission is it? Yours… or someone else’s?”

The bystanders were no longer afraid, no longer huddled at the fringes of the room. Some had stepped closer, and a few had even sat down to listen. Lt. Grimes was perplexedly looking around. Even his body language had mellowed.

“Well,” Dvorkin said, nodding, “now that you mention it, I did get the idea from someone else.”

The woman who had fallen into the filing cabinet sat up and cleared her throat. “Now do you see my point?”

“Your…?”

“Yes. When you came in here, you were more interested in talking than listening. You accused several people of being willfully blind the moment you opened the door. I tried to get you to talk to them first, but you’d have none of it. And when you raised your voice in anger, I said I’d hear you out.”

“Placate me. You wanted to placate me.”

“No,” she said, standing, “I wanted to understand you. But that wasn’t what you’d come for.”

“Well, then,” Franklin said, stepping closer, “you were playing something of a role yourself, then, weren’t you? So whose role was it? Who did you get the idea from?”

He frowned and looked away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, come on, Mr. Dvorkin. You’ve come all this way to talk to us, at least tell us why. We’ve all got secrets. I’m a closet homophobe, but I try not to let myself be sucked into that role.” He pointed towards Bob and Ben. “That guy over there let his life be ruled by his dreams, for heaven’s sake. Could your secret be any worse?”

His eyes widened and he stared at the two men by the interview room. “Dreams?”

Ben shook his head in irritation. “Memories, but yeah. So what?”

Dvorkin slumped. “So did I. I mean… I didn’t do what they said. But that was the whole point, wasn’t it? Not obeying.” He rubbed his face and fell into a nearby chair. “It was like hearing voices, except I kept living out the orders every night.”

While Lt. Grimes and his men took over, and a small group of bystanders crowded around to listen, Franklin turned and walked back towards Ben and Bob, his face pale and his arms swinging limply.

Ben extended his hand. “Thank you, Franklin.”

“For what?”

He grinned. “For that fortuitous bit of stagecraft. I think Dvorkin over there has led a bizarre kind of reflection of my own life. I spent years following a crooked path through my memories of the future, and he resolved not to listen to his dreams. It’s weird, though. Neither response really worked out too well.”

“But I thought you’d made two fortunes by doing that?”

Ben nodded. “Sure, but like he said, I was playing a role, rather than living my life. This way may be chancier, but I think it’s a better deal.”

They listened in on Dvorkin’s public confession for a few minutes more, and then Bob poked Franklin in the shoulder. “Which reminds me, you’ve just done something that I’d thought was impossible.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You changed roles. This morning, a team of wild horses couldn’t get you to get personally involved in anything, and now look at you.”

“Mmmhmm. Well, maybe it was the excitement of the moment. In any case, I’m glad I finally had the courage to tell my nasty little secret.”

“What,” Bob asked, “that bit about being a closet homophobe?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, then. It was only a secret to you.”

THE END

The story continues in “Particle Wave

Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack

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