Ray put a condom on the dildo built into her bicycle seat and lifted her tunic as she eased it into her. “Keeps me supple,” she winked. Tattooed around her hips and groin was a scrolling text of Chinese characters.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a poem by China’s national poet, Gu Sing: ‘Through jagged rocks I walk towards the seashore. “I know all your languages. Speak!” The sea laughs and proffers up birds that swim, fish that fly, sand that sings.'”
“That reminds me. Can we take a short detour over to the peninsula? I want to see the rocks,” said Malmquist.
“Sure, no problem.”
From Sheridan Road they passed through the Northwestern University campus. They got off their bikes on a sliver of land extending out into the lake. The shore was lined with giant rocks laid out as a breakwater. Some slabs were flat and occupied by sunbathing Chinese students, by themselves or slave at hand. Most of the other rocks were jumbled and formed spaces and little caves.
“I used to play on these as a kid,” Malmquist said as he clambered over them. “They were all painted over and covered with graffiti, but it’s all gone now! No, wait. Here’s something I remember that’s still there, on the side of this rock. You can just make out the words. ‘Savor your sorrow like a fine red wine.’ It’s still there! Now I know we’re not in a simulacrum of the city. But why aren’t people painting on them anymore?”
They got back on their bikes and headed toward Chicago.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To start work,” said Ray. She looked at him slyly. “Now, would you tell me what’s really going on with you?”
“Everything I’ve told you is the utter truth. This was my home — in the 20th century. If you don’t believe me, query me on any details from the period and I’ll fill you in.”
“There’s not much history around here anymore. No more libraries, no more web.”
“What happened to the web?”
“Only the Chinese have access to that.”
“No books anywhere?”
“Sure, there are books. All in Chinese.”
“Decidedly low-tech. You’ve gone backwards in time.”
“Low-tech is ecological.”
Soon they were back in the area Malmquist had originally found himself in with the policewoman Ingmon. They turned down West Lunt and stopped by the El tracks.
“The Heartland Cafe is still here!” he exclaimed.
“The Heartland Cafe Museum.”
“It looks exactly the same. Even the broken nuclear missile is still there on the roof. Museum? Oh, yeah, it’s says ‘Museum’ on the side now. Was that Michael James’ idea? Of course, not. He couldn’t still be around. But the guy had incredible staying power. I remember seeing him the last time I was here, making one of his rare appearances.”
“You mean the founder? His statue is over there.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see his ghost — what’s going on?” Malmquist was looking at a group of servers standing before the restaurant’s entrance, females arranged in front of the males like a church choir. Their heads were bowed as a boss yelled at them in Cantonese. “What’s she saying?”
“It’s the afternoon roll call before the evening shift. Their mistakes and flaws are being pointed out.”
“Isn’t that humiliating, out on the street like this for everyone to see?”
“Not at all. Standard practice. You’ll soon get used to it.”
“I’m going to work here as a waiter?”
“No, they only hire younger people as servers. I mean you’ll get used to seeing it everywhere. Let’s go inside and get something to eat.”
They went into the General Store, through the Buffalo Bar and restaurant and out into the patio.
“The last time I was here, they couldn’t serve us beer on the patio due to some stupid zoning ordinance.”
“Not a problem now.”
A waitress approached, a redhead with clear blue eyes and her tunic open on her freckled chest, holding a baby at her breast in one hand and a digital device in the other. “Neidei maanfaan soeng sik matje aa?”
“She looks like an angel,” said Malmquist. “Her face is so simple and pure. Just like an angel.”
“Keoi gong neoi hau zoeng jatgo tinsai,” Ray said. The waitress blushed.
“I’d really like a beer on tap, if they have one. An ale.”
“What would you like to eat? The Heartland Combo?”
“Tempeh burger, collard greens, whole grain rice, chili and corn bread, and beet and kale salad.”
“Yep, that sounds about right, close enough to the old menu. We’ll see how they’ve kept it up. Are the Mexican cooks still here?”
Ray dispatched the waitress with the order. “So, what was this place like a century ago?”
Just then a massive cock flopped over her shoulder, as a tall elderly man wrapped his hands around her eyes.
“Now who might this be?” she said, stroking his member as if it were a cat and curling it to her mouth to give it a kiss. “Somehow I suspect it’s Cornelius. Jeff, Cornelius. Cornelius, Jeff.”
The man had gray dreadlocks and a parrot perched on his shoulder. If it weren’t for the rainbow stripes tattooed on his uncircumcised penis, one might mistake it for a baby elephant’s trunk. “Nice to meet you,” Cornelius said to Jeff. “Cornelius — ”
“Schlong,” chimed in the parrot.
“Cornelius Schlong,” said Ray.
“Jeff Malmquist. Nice to meet you too. Cornelius Schlong? No, you’re pulling my leg. That can’t really be your last name?”
“It is my last name.”
“You chose it yourself?”
“Sure. We design our own names.”
“How is that?”
“We don’t have real names,” said Ray. “Or I should say we used to have real names, and now we all have numbers. So we adopt names of our own choice. Ray isn’t my real name either.”
“What is your real name?”
“Delilah. Delilah Power. Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve used that name.”
“Delilah?” Malmquist stared. “I know you! I stayed at your place in New Gary and slept with you when you were fifteen. And it was only a day or two ago!”
“But you didn’t have those Chinese character tattoos then. You had the Led Zeppelin symbols on your belly.”
“I still do.” She lifted up her tunic. “See, right under the belly button. It’s quite faded though.”
“Yes. That’s the tattoo. You had a basement apartment in one of those tenements which were getting all shot up by gunmen from Chicago hunting down pedophiles. You had a twelve-year old friend, a boy named Gunther who supplied your ganja.”
“You’re right! I remember you now. It’s really true. How can this be? You’re from the past! Cornelius, this is astounding. He’s a time traveler. I fucked him when I was fifteen!”
“I congratulate you both.”
“Jau matje gam housiu aa? Nei haidou siu matje aa?” said the waitress as she brought them their pints of beer.
“Belinda,” Ray announced to the waitress, loudly so everyone in the patio could hear. “Ngo ge tin! Taaigu dou gok ngaan jan ngo gong! Nigo jan cyunjyut sihung dou zeleoi. Ngo sapngseoi ge sihau tung keoi daa zo jatpaau!”
“Keoi mei lei nidou zicin nei zyu hai bindou gaa?”
Cornelius grabbed Malmquist’s cock, got him to reciprocate, leaned forward and said, “Time is the amnesia of the present. Be at one with the — ”
“Sun,” said the parrot.
“Nei soeng jam bezau me?” Belinda asked Cornelius, who nodded.
“This ale ain’t bad. A nice full-bodied red ale, with a robust head,” said Malmquist. “You know, for so-called slavery, this seems like a pretty comfortable lifestyle, hardly any different from what I’ve always known. So, Ray, what job did you have in mind for me?”
“Job? What job?”
“You said I was going to start work. I want to know what I’m going to be doing.”
“We’re at work now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you mean a job like in the old days. There are very few jobs anymore. Everything’s been automated.”
“What’s the point of slaves, then, if there’s no work to be done?”
“Oh, but there’s a lot of work to be done. Not employment in the old sense, but there’s so much to do. I thought I already told you. We’re training you to be lovable. When you’ve passed training and are officially lovable, you’re ready to be assigned to a Chinese master, if you want.”
“If I want?”
“You don’t have to. But there are benefits, a more commodious lifestyle. Without a master, you have to live on ration tickets.”
“What about all these slaves working in the restaurant? Isn’t that labor?”
“It’s part-time and voluntarily. They work when they want. A lot of people want to work here because it’s fun. They have to turn applicants away.”
“Do they get paid?”
“Not even tips?”
“No. Jeff, we’re no longer living in a money economy.”
“So you have the power to decide if I’m lovable?”
“We all do.”
“Hold on a sec. You previously told me we must have a master until we successfully serve out our term of service, then we’re eligible to be freelancers.”
“You’re required to, but they don’t really keep tabs on slaves. There are too many of us. As long as we don’t get in the way or cause trouble, they leave us alone. They’d just as soon not have to deal with us.
Belinda brought their food. Cornelius got up and said, “I will leave you two to your repast. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Malmquist. Good to have an interesting conversation in English for a change.”
“Nice to meet you — ”
“Too!” said the parrot.
“You’re not joining us, Cornelius?”
“Got me bellyfull of the sun’s energy for the day,” he said as he went off with his glass of ale to join another friend.
“He doesn’t like to eat?”
“He’s a breatharian,” said Ray.
“People who live on air.”
“What’s he doing with the beer, then?”
“Of course, they have to have something. They think the small amount of food and drink they imbibe is life-sustaining because it’s energized by the air.”
“If you ask me, I think he’s imbibed a bit too much acid.”
“Ha ha. Still using that old slang term? We call it ‘goofy’ now.”
“How about bud, can you still get that?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s now called ‘sexy.’ We can smoke some later tonight.”
“Where am I staying, by the way?”
“With me, of course.”
“May I broach something? The young policewoman who brought me to meet you at the Baha’i Temple. Is there any chance I can see her again?”
“You mean Wing-yee?”
“That’s her name? I thought it was Ingmon.”
“Every time I asked her her name, she said ‘Ingmon,’ or something that sounded like that.”
“Oh, I got it. She was probably telling you she doesn’t speak English. The word for English is ‘yingman.’ So you want to have sex with her? I’ll find out if she’s interested.”
“I mean, you don’t have to be so direct. I’d still like to see her again even if she’s not interested in a relationship. Is she married?”
“Come to think of it I don’t know. Though that doesn’t matter anyway, since you’re a slave.”
“Why doesn’t it matter?”
“If a married Chinese has sex with a slave, it’s not adultery. It’s totally acceptable. One of your duties as a lovable is to be a sex slave to any Chinese who desires you.”
“And what if she doesn’t want me?”
“Then you’re out of luck.”
“It is possible to seduce one?”
“Sure it’s possible, but in your case highly unlikely, given your age difference. She would have to happen to be attracted to you.”
“Well, getting to know her better would be a first step.”
“Another problem is you were apprehended. Unaccounted for and unknown, possibly fugitive. They won’t believe you’re a time traveler, you know.”
“But when I was with her I really had the feeling there was something there, a certain tenderness and affection. She showed me her pussy and blushed when I caressed her on the face. She grabbed my cock.”
“I know Wing-yee. She is friendly and has that air of modesty about her. As for showing you her pussy, that’s completely standard practice. Have you already forgotten how we greet people here?”
“We can do that with the Chinese as well?”
“No, not exactly. You’re supposed to read the situation. Let them touch you first. But her showing you her nakedness is perfectly natural, the most instinctive of reactions, since everyone does it. Sort of like when you give someone a friendly pat on the shoulder. How’s the food?”
“Not bad. They’ve got everything more or less down. The tempeh is fabulous. The collard greens are nice and tart. The chili is a little oily. The cornbread is okay but missing something. Insubstantial. The original had at once a certain graininess and moistness that I liked.”
“How in the hell did you get here?”
“You tell me. I don’t even know how I got to New Gary, which was also in the future. And New Rome.”
“China. I told you. They built a complete copy of Ancient Rome. It was the same year as in New Gary, 2060. And Ancient Rome as well — I’ve been there too.”
“It’s really confusing and it all seems so dreamlike.”
“How did it all start? Which place came first?”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. It seems like I was in all three places at once. It’s not that I can’t remember the details, but they all merge together and that makes it confusing. And my memory may be distorting things as well.”
“It’s all coming back to me now too. You were hiding out in my place because some kid from Chicago wanted to kill you and was hunting you down.”
“You mean Danny?”
“Yeah, that was his name.”
“He was hunting me down? I didn’t know that. I just remember him turning me in to the Chicago police.”
“You have forgotten a lot. There was a bounty out on you, and he organized a posse. I think it was because you were stalking him. I do remember Gunther helping you sneak into Chicago.”
“He did? I really have no recollection of that. You’re telling me my future! This is scary.”
“And you had some magic tunic that allowed you to communicate with people by writing on it.”
“Yeah, what happened to it? Did the Chinese cops here take it? I got that in China, in New Rome. It was a souvenir in one of the big bathhouses there, like Roman slaves used to wear. My master knows about it but not its full powers. If she knew I had it to communicate with people she’d throw it away. I was using it help solve the problem of how to get back here. And I got back all right, but the wrong time. If I can have the tunic again I might be able to get out of here, but I’ll be right back where I started, in New Gary or New Rome, or both.”
“Who is your master in New Rome?”
“Her name is Wang, a wealthy woman with some high-powered job in banking.”
“How do you guys communicate? She speaks English?”
“Some, enough. They can’t figure me out because all the slaves are Italian. They were tricked into coming to China for work and are being held as real slaves. I can’t speak Italian, or Mandarin, which is what the slaves speak with the Chinese. Wang happens to know some English, and that’s likely saved my ass. I was almost executed in a previous household when she rescued me.”
“You sure get around. I’ll talk to Wing-yee and see if there’s any way of solving your mystery. There are experts here in telepathic communication and time manipulation.”
“I’m having trouble remembering any of the subsequent events in New Gary you told me about. Perhaps if you could dredge up more details it would help me recall more in turn, and I might begin to see things clearly enough to figure out why I’m here — and how to get back. What I’d really like to do is bypass 2060 and return directly to the Chicago of 2015, before I got caught up in all this mess in the first place. Maybe the solution is to just head for my apartment down in Lakeview right now as if nothing ever happened.”
“That won’t be easy. It’s all gated communities down there. Rich Chinese. Very rich. You can’t even enter Lakeview or you’ll be apprehended again.”
“But how did you ever make it out of New Gary? That’s what I want to know. You’re a convicted pedophile.”
“The big collapse. Liberation. Americans were shooting each other up too much for their own good. Everyone thought everyone else and his brother was a pedophile. People hid in their homes or formed zombie armies combing cities for imaginary demons that didn’t exist. People stopped going to work. The whole country was psychologically fucked up. The USA convulsed in a paranoid spasm and imploded. China stepped in and took over, and got rid of the guns. We were all freed. Then we discovered we were thenceforth slaves.”
“Hey, what about Gunther? Is he still around? Maybe he can remember what happened to me.”
“Poor Gunther passed away.”
“Oh, really? When?”
“Back then. He was helping you, and that boy Danny shot him.”
* * *