10 Steuben Drive
Jericho, NY 11753
Haggarty didn't feel like either a president or a chief executive officer. He didn't know who really controlled the company his father had started. Everything was different since the research department had developed Plasteel. Who'd have thought taking the best qualities of steel and plastic and combining them into a new building material would cause such a fuss? But it had. The environmentalists claimed that plastic had always been an unsound material. They said the production process required too much oil, a non-renewable resource. That, of course, was true. They also said the process was a source of pollution, that it released a massive amount of toxic chemicals into the air. That too was true, but all processing results in some degree of pollution. Finally, they claimed that plastic was slowly killing people, that even as a finished product it released toxic gases into the air and those toxic gases were being absorbed by the tissues of all living things. All you had to do was smell something made of plastic to know that it was emitting a gas. Still, no one had ever been able to prove the continued toxicity of any form of gas plastic may give off. Many things give off an odor and no one ever claims they are unsafe. Besides, combining plastic with other materials meant that there was less of it to give off any kind of gas. But the bottom line, at least from a business point of view, was that plastic was a boon to mankind. It was an extremely malleable material that had an untold number of uses. Plasteel was proof of that.
The steel makers, and their union bosses, were a different kind of headache. They complained because the new compound incorporated recycled plastic. Plastic, they said, wasn't reliable as a building material. Recycled plastic was even less so. What they really meant was that, because it didn't use a lot of metal, Plasteel was cheaper to produce, which meant some steel manufacturers would lose contracts. People would quickly find themselves unemployed. This last point was an argument Haggarty could understand, as an employer.
Now it seemed both the environmentalists and the steel manufacturers were fighting to control Unimat. No, it was no fun being president or CEO of the company any longer, if indeed it ever had been. The battle had been going on for so long Haggarty had a hard time remembering when, or if, he ever had enjoyed his position.
Unimat's research team thought they were doing a good thing. The new material would have many uses. With the increase in worldwide earthquake activity since the mid-nineties the new material, strong but flexible, stood a good chance of making buildings safer during an earthquake. New York didn't have the strongest quakes, but because that had been changing over time it was reasonable to test out theories of new building materials here. After all, though the region was still relatively stable compared to other places in the world, the potential was there for a major disaster. Even small magnitude earthquakes could cause major problems because of the bedrock base underlying the tallest skyscrapers. It had been sheer luck that the region had not been hit hard before the past decade. If Plasteel proved to be successful here it would be doubly so in areas of higher tectonic activity. The development of Plasteel was a humanitarian effort, but like many such efforts it was being condemned because of its economics.
Haggarty was tired. Alicia had started another argument that morning. He couldn't remember what it was about. Unfortunately, she usually didn't need a reason to start. She was one of those people who liked to fight. Haggarty was a different sort. He had a need to understand things. There was always a reason behind every argument. The trick was to find the reason before the argument happened. That way he'd have a chance to defuse it.
In the back of his mind Haggarty thought it was the booze that made his wife so hard to live with. She was beginning to drink a bit too much. He couldn't tell her that, though. He supposed her drinking was partly his fault. He was spending more time at the office and even when he was at home he was usually on the phone talking about the business.
Haggarty looked at the framed photograph on his desk and smiled. The picture was of an earlier time, a time of more sanity. His wife had been different then. She was more carefree, and she looked it. Back then she kept her thick, blonde hair longer. It was one of the things that had attracted him. Women with long hair just looked better, more sexy. Why was it that, as they aged, they invariably changed the length of their hair? He loved the feel of his wife's long hair. He had loved gently stroking it when they sat together before the fire.
“Catherine," he called into his intercom, "send my wife a bouquet of sunflowers."
"Where am I supposed to find sunflowers this time of year?" came the squeaky-voiced reply.
"I don't know, and I don't care. Alicia loves those things. You're a woman. Women always know where to find flowers, don't they? And get me Jeffries on the phone."
"Yes, sir." The voice on the intercom sighed. The intercom crackled then went dead.
Efficient secretary, but no imagination.
The phone rang. Haggarty stared at it, then at the paper he was holding, then at the phone again. Finally he picked it up.
"Jeffries here, Mr. Haggarty."
"Jeffries, what's doing with the take-over bids?"
"I wouldn't exactly call them take-over bids, sir. We're too large for anyone to just walk in and take us over. It is a problem, though, that we're being hit on two sides at once. Either way we go someone will hit us. We simply can't make everyone happy."
"True. I can't see a bunch of environmentalists coming in here and taking over, though they might try to shut us down. The steel companies have too many problems of their own; the unions are screaming again and iron ore is becoming very expensive. It's a wonder they've managed to stay in business this long."
"Yes, sir. Anyway, I'm not sure what we can do to quiet this down. Plasteel is ready to hit the streets, even with the setback we had a few months ago."
"Oh, yes. Caruthers, wasn't it? Did security ever find out anything more about our saboteur? I'm surprised someone like that was able to get into this company so easily. What happened to security?"
"They slipped up, plain and simple. We hired Samuel J. Caruthers as a chemical engineer. A very bright man, really. Too bright. He knew exactly how to weaken the chemical bonds between the steel and the plastic. He made it look as if the process wouldn't work. Our security people knew his professional background, including the minor incident report that had been filed against him during his first job out of college. They even knew he had connections with an environmentalist group when he was younger. Unfortunately, they simply didn't know how deep his ideologies ran. The police said he was affiliated with a group called Gaia’s Children, an extremist organization. Security didn't find out about that tie because people keep their membership in the group a secret."
"Well, let's just make sure our checks are a bit more thorough next time. Shall we? Maybe it's time to re-evaluate our security measures, and the people who administer them."
The voice on the phone went silent for a moment. Haggarty heard Jeffries take a deep breath and realized the man recognized when jobs were on the line.
"So, now you're telling me everything is fixed? We're back on schedule?"
"Yes, sir. Definitely. The prototype buildings are up and they look good. The tests we've done show they can withstand shockwaves up to 7.6 on the Richter Scale. Once made into beams, Plasteel is still elastic enough to withstand most side-to-side motion. It even looks good when judged on the Mercalli Intensity Scale. That's the one we were worried about."
"Why? Most structural codes only worry about Richter."
"That's true, sir. But Richter measures a quake's magnitude. It tells scientists how much energy the movement of seismic waves releases. But Richter says nothing about a quake's intensity or how much actual ground shaking will occur. A building's structural integrity is more affected by ground shaking than by the actual seismic energy of that quake. The boys in the lab wanted Plasteel not only to be strong enough to withstand the strain of quakes but pliable enough to ensure a minimum of micro-fractures in the material itself. Now the shearing, the cutting or breaking that materials experience when exposed to extreme vibrations, isn't a problem. Plasteel is the safest construction material anyone has ever made. It will save lives! Now all we have to worry about is production schedules. The government is screaming at us to start production, but the extremist environmentalists and steel companies are holding us up."
"I knew the Feds would get into this sometime. Can't they wait until all the dust settles instead of stirring up more?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I've told them we're having some problems. I've said we can't start full scale production until we get some of these people off our backs."
"Can't our 'partners' at least help get the nuts off our backs? They are the government after all!"
"That's just it, sir. They don't want to get involved with this problem. They don't want anyone screaming about government encroachment into private business. They say they've had enough of that in the past."
"Goddamn cowards, that's what they are. If they didn't want trouble they should have left well enough alone. They shouldn't have funded Plasteel."
"Sir, you know they were only trying to help. They saw the benefits. They studied the preliminary test results. They couldn't let this project be abandoned, not when it looked like it would help so many people. The government is under pressure too. The world's leaders believe we have all the answers, even about how to control nature. When information about Plasteel leaked the Feds felt they had to jump on it. If they couldn't control nature they thought they'd at least be able to control how it affected the human race."
"Then they should help me with my problems instead of screaming over production delays."
"I know, sir. I'll see what I can do to appease them. There is one benefit to the Feds being involved."
“What is that?”
“Well, at least they’ve been helpful in keeping Plasteel out of the media. We can thank the government crackdown of the media in the early part of this century for that. The environmentalists and the steel workers unions are usually pretty vocal. The Feds have been able to squash any stories they might have leaked to the press.”
"Yes, thankfully. We don’t need the added headache of having the media to contend with along with environmental extremists and the steel workers. Thank you, Mr. Jeffries."
The intercom crackled. Catherine's mouse-like voice drowned out the static. "Your wife is on the phone, Mr. Haggarty."
Damn, that's all I need right now. "Can't you tell her I'm out of the office right now? Tell her I'm in a meeting. Tell her something. I don't want to talk to her now."
"I told her you were busy but she insisted on talking to you. She doesn't sound like herself, sir. Her speech is slurred."
Damn! She's drunk. I don't have time to put up with her right now. Oh well, might as well get this over with. "Put her through, Catherine, but please interrupt me in a few minutes. Make up some excuse to get me off the phone."
The voice on the intercom sighed. "Yes, sir."
This is all I need, dealing with a drunken wife in the middle of a crisis. I wonder what the argument is going to be about now. "Hello, Alicia. How are you?"
"John, I wanted to remind you about tonight."
"What about tonight, dear?"
"We're having company. You know that."
"You didn't tell me about any company tonight, Alicia. I'm going to be late tonight. I have a meeting across town I have to attend. It will probably run late."
"I did tell you we were having company. I remember telling you this morning. My brother and his wife are coming for dinner."
"You didn't tell me anything of the sort. All you told me this morning was that I work too hard and that I need to spend more time with you and the kids."
"Well, you do. But I also told you about tonight."
Here it comes. "No, I would have remembered. I would have scheduled this meeting for another day."
"Well, that's just what you'll have to do then. You look in that pretty calendar of yours and schedule your meeting for another day, one when you don't have guests coming for dinner."
"I can't do that, Alicia. I've already made the commitment. I can't just change my plans for no reason."
"No reason? You call having dinner at home with your family no reason to change your plans?"
"That's not what I meant. Are you sure you told me about your brother coming? You did have a headache this morning." You had a hang over. "Maybe you just forgot."
"Of course I told you. I wouldn't have forgotten something like that. You just be home in time for dinner tonight, John."
"I'll try, Alicia."
"You'd better do more than just try!" CLICK.
Haggarty closed his eyes and let out a series of slow, even breaths before reaching for the intercom switch. "Catherine, get me the head of the local steel worker's union."
"Sir, I think you better look outside first. Security just called. There are people congregating at the front gate."
"People? What people? Who are they? What do they want?”
"They're protesters. They say they represent Greenpeace. Security says they don't look happy, sir."
"I don't care how they look. Just tell security to get rid of them. What do I pay these people for anyway?"
The phone rang. Haggarty growled. What now? "Catherine, I don't care how you do it but take care of it!”
Haggarty took a breath then yanked the phone to his ear. "YES?"
"McPherson here, Sir. I think you better get down here. The situation is getting ugly. I don't know how long we can keep these people out of the factory if you don't say something."
"What am I supposed to say, McPherson?”
"Say anything, sir."
"McPherson, I've said everything I'm going to say to them. The environmentalists know my position. The steel workers do as well. They all know that we're working on a government-sanctioned project. I've had at least a dozen meetings with their leaders. I can't do any more. If they want the project stopped tell them they'll have to take it up with Washington. It won't do any good but it will give them someone new to yell at, and McPherson..."
"Call the police. I want them here in the next ten minutes. I won't have my plant destroyed by a bunch of enviro-freaks."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Mr. Haggarty, do you know how old this union is?"
"Mr. Johansen, I know how old the United Steel Workers Union is," Haggarty said into the phone. "I know you've been around since 1936."
"That's a long time, you know. We're older than many other unions."
"Yes, that is a long time, and before you accuse me of it again, I am not trying to break the back of the union. I am not trying to put people out of work."
"But don't you understand that's exactly what will happen? People all over the world will lose their jobs if you continue your work on Plasteel, and we're not just talking about the people who handle the steel itself. "
How did this guy find out about Plasteel anyway? It was supposed to be a secret project. Someone is going to pay for putting me through all this trouble. "I understand your concern, Mr. Johansen. I'm well aware of the process of manufacturing steel. I know how many people and industries are involved."
"Then how can you continue to do what you are doing? How can you continue your work on Plasteel?"
"I can because I have no other choice. Have you ever seen the ruins left by an earthquake? The larger ones, like those that have been increasingly showing up all over the world lately, destroy whole regions. Even the smaller ones cause millions of dollars in damage, not to mention the human costs. Go and help rescuers sift through the rubble while they look for survivors. Go help the civil engineers find ways to purify the tainted water. When you've done that you'll see what I mean. The world needs Plasteel, and it needs it now. Something has to be done to curtail the damage, to save the lives."
"I know that, Mr. Haggarty. I'm no fool. I've studied the same reports you have. I've even visited some of the sites you're talking about."
No, you're not a fool, just a shortsighted twerp in a thousand dollar suit. "Then you know the situation is going to get worse, much worse. Unimat is just trying to deal with the current crisis, as we always have."
"I have a great deal of respect for Unimat's work. I have ever since your father ran the company. I just think you're going about this in the wrong way. The solution isn't to replace steel. The solution is finding ways to make steel stronger, so buildings can withstand the additional stress being placed on them."
"I am not my father, but I do know the business as well as he did! Plasteel won't replace steel. It will act as a reinforced steel, one that can stand the additional stress."
"No. Plasteel will not work. Adding plastic polymers to the steel simply cannot increase the stress the basic material can withstand. You won't be helping anyone with its production. In fact you'll be doing harm. Not only will you give people false hopes, hopes that they'll have a better chance of living through an intense earthquake, but you'll also be putting a great many people out of work."
"No, as a matter of fact I'll be doing just the opposite. New materials always give people more to do. They always foster imagination about new uses. As people come to understand the principles behind Plasteel they'll develop more uses for it. That, in turn, will create more jobs. The material will allow architects to design different kinds of structures. Builders will become motivated to out do each other. Plasteel will be the beginning of a new age of building. And, as the benefits of the material come to light scientists will want to make it even better. As the inventors of the material, Unimat's scientists will, of course, be there to help. But others will soon join in the task.”
"Look, I don't have time to argue with you right now. I called to postpone our meeting. I'm having 'domestic' problems that need my immediate attention. You understand, I trust."
"Yes, that, at least, I can understand. My wife doesn't approve of my long hours either. Being married is not always fun, is it? Shall we postpone our debate then, until next week?"
"I suppose so. We'd best let our secretaries handle the details."
"Well then, until sometime next week."
Douglas woke with a start. Beads of perspiration rolled down his forehead and stung his sightless eyes. The nightmare was always the same. He'd been standing at the hot dog cart in front of his Brooklyn office. He’d taken a bite and smiled at Eddie, the man who had sold him his hot dogs every Monday for the past two years. Suddenly something came at him. He only caught the blur for an instant. Before he could move something hit him squarely between the eyes. As he fell to the ground he heard Eddie scream. It was a strange sound, high-pitched and ugly. When he woke up he was still lying down, but it wasn't on the sidewalk. He couldn't see anything. Something covered his eyes. He reached up to take it away.
"It's all right, Mr. Abledan," a soft, feminine voice said. He felt a hand gently pulling his hand away from the cloth. "Just try to relax."
"ALL RIGHT?" Douglas started to thrash about on the hospital bed. "Where am I? What happened?"
"Relax, Mr. Abledan." Douglas felt the soft hands pushing him down into the mattress. When he looked toward the direction of the voice he saw darkness.
"You're in the hospital. You've had an accident," the voice said. Later Douglas awoke to the touch of a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Mr. Abledan?" The voice was much deeper than the one he'd heard before. It was a male voice.
As sleep left him, Douglas tried to sit up, to look at the face of the man touching him, but the hand gently pushed him back down. "I'm glad to see you awake but please lie still. You gave us quite a hard time when you were brought in. We didn't know if you would make it."
"Who are you? What's going on?"
"I'm Doctor Peterson. You've had an accident, Mr. Abledan, but you're going to be just fine."
It took Dr. Peterson a little while, but he finally found the right words to tell Douglas he'd been hit by a stray bullet. Drive-by shootings happened a lot in Brooklyn. The bullet had entered Douglas's skull, finally settling in the part of the brain that controlled vision. Douglas would live, but he'd never see again.
That was two years ago. Two years, three months and eleven days, to be exact. Dr. Peterson had promised that he'd be all right but he wasn't. His life had not been the same since the 'accident.' And, of course, there were the nightmares. Each night he relived the shooting. Each morning he woke up in a puddle of his own perspiration.
Life as a blind man was very different than life as a sighted person. Living, Douglas decided, is a very visual experience. Like most people he'd taken that for granted. He still expected to wake up each morning and see the sun. He still expected to be able to see himself in his bathroom mirror so he could shave. He expected to be able to read the newspaper and see what was going on around him in the lively neighborhood in which he lived. All that was gone. Now Douglas had to listen to the news instead of reading it. He had to train himself to hear the sounds of the traffic as he crossed streets instead of watching for the light to change, had to learn to recognize people by the tone of their voice or the smell of their colognes and perfumes. Life had changed a great deal and he hadn't been ready for the change, as if anyone could be ready for such a drastic change. He had been rather set in his ways and saw no reason to change, until events forced change upon him.
Douglas groped for the robe that lay on the edge of his bed. He fumbled with it for a minute or two, trying to find each armhole in turn. Each night before he went to bed he crumpled the robe just to give himself a challenge when he awoke, to see how long it took him to find the garment's proper alignment. Each morning the challenge took a different amount of time depending upon how thoroughly he had bunched up the material the night before. The test was not in determining how long it took him to get the robe on but in seeing how long he could stave off annoyance at the garment. This morning, the robe untangled relatively quickly and didn't give him time to become frustrated.
His robe secured tightly around him, Douglas reached for his sonic cane. At home he carried the device more out of habit than necessity. The position of each piece of furniture, each potential hazard, was mapped in his mind. It had taken him a long time to learn that trick, to find a place for everything he owned and return it to that exact position when he was finished using the item. Without bothering to turn on the lights he walked to the bathroom to get ready for the new day. Finally, just before leaving the apartment, he placed a pair of lightweight earphones over his ears. He slid a small device, the size of a portable radio, onto his belt. The metal-tip of the wire, which trailed from the earphones, he placed in a hole on the top of the device.
The one thing that made Douglas's new life even marginally tolerable was the device he wore on his waist. It saved him from both dangerous and embarrassing situations. In the late 1980's, the Pentagon came up with the idea of placing a series of satellites in orbit around the Earth. Orbiting 20,200 kilometers above the surface of the earth, these Global Positioning Satellites served as the military's eyes and ears, watching for troop deployment and arms build-ups. Completing an orbit in just under 12 hours enabled them to see practically everything that went on. Fortunately the military couldn't keep the secret to themselves. It wasn't long before the private sector found innovative ways to use the orbiting eyes. The scientific community used the satellites to help them find ancient artifacts buried in different parts of the world. The automobile industry built maps into their passenger cars and trucks which, when linked to the satellites surrounding the planet, allowed travelers to find their way even under the worst conditions, though in the beginning the devices were woefully inaccurate when the vehicle was traveling in any densely populated area. The problem was solved only through experimentation with augmentation devices. Hikers and mountain climbers used the satellites as a means of guaranteeing their own safety. There was even some talk of implanting tracking devices inside the bodies of newborn babies so parents would always know where their children were. That idea was dismissed, however, when civil rights advocates shouted about invasion of privacy. Now practically everyone had some form of device that used the technology. When used in conjunction with the sonar units placed in automobiles, the number of automobile related fatalities was drastically reduced. Vehicles could now 'know' when they were approaching each other and they could tell when there were people crossing the road. The latter opened the door to the development of driverless vehicles.
In the early 1990's, researchers sought a way to use the tracking capabilities of the satellites to improve the lives of disabled individuals. A researcher in California came up with the idea of a navigation system for the visually impaired. After ten years of research and scores of trials on various prototypes a device was put on the market. Now virtually every visually impaired person wore a set of earphones on their head and a satellite-signaling device at their waist.
When he first got the device, Douglas underwent a long series of training sessions. He learned how to heighten his senses and create a 'mental map' of any area he was in. That imagery helped him place himself on the electronic maps called up by the navigator. He learned how to listen to the individual signals given off by the unit and to interpret their meaning. He learned to judge distance by how loud a particular signal was. It was hard work. He ran into all kinds of obstacles for a long time, even after he'd been allowed to take the unit home. Once, he remembered, he was almost hit by a car because he misjudged how far away it was as he entered a cross walk. Although Douglas was still learning new ways to use the device, the navigator was far better than any dog or cane could ever be. It almost gave him the freedom he'd known when he was a sighted man. He never went far from home without his IS3 Navigator.
Douglas waited until he'd left the building before turning the unit on. Once he did, the world changed. Instead of music or songs he heard tones. The tones seemed to come from the world around him instead of the device at his waist. As he turned his head from side to side the tones changed. Some became louder while others were muffled. A couple of low tones came toward him and the light scent of perfume hit his nose. He stepped to one side.
"Excuse me, ladies," he said as a couple of young women passed him.
Finally a soft feminine voice in his right ear told him 'Bus stop, bus stop.' Douglas turned to the right. As he walked down Willoughby Avenue the voice became louder. Walking past the old Pratt Institute building he thought about the past and wondered how people in his situation used to get along without a tracking device.
How did they know when they were about to bump into someone or something? Canes and dogs seem so inefficient, and dangerous. I wouldn't want to look so helpless, not in this city.
After walking a few blocks the soft voice sounded equally loud in both ears. He'd reached the bus stop on Flatbush Avenue. For the next five minutes he stood at the bus stop listening to the sounds of the city and the tones made by the people around him. The city didn't seem any quieter now than it was before the earthquakes began, even though thousands of people had been evacuated, supposedly for their own safety. When the number 254 came, he climbed aboard and rode the bus through Prospect Park and downtown.
"Borough Hall next stop," a mechanical voice announced through the bus's loudspeaker.
Already? Must have been daydreaming again. Douglas pushed a button on his seat. The bus slowed. In a moment it stopped and Douglas stood up. As he made his way toward the exit several tones came toward him.
"One side," he said with a smile. "Hot stuff coming through. Move it or get burned." Slowly he managed to push through the people in front of him. When he reached the front of the bus Douglas turned to where he thought the driver should be, but there was no tone in front of him. Apparently this was one of those new driverless buses. "Thanks for the ride," he said anyway, then stepped down into the city's dirty, heavy air.
Douglas was immediately surrounded by sound. Buildings announced their presence. Tones passed him singly and in groups. Car and bus horns honked. Each sound was different and each called his attention. There were so many sounds. He stood where he was for a moment, trying to shut out the unwanted ones. Finally he picked out the two or three familiar signals that would lead him to his office building.
It's funny how life changes. Most of my life I've tried to drown out the world. Now I need to be aware of all its sounds.
Douglas walked the few remaining blocks toward his office. A simple transfer to another bus would have taken him almost to the doorstep of his office building but he liked the walk. As he drew nearer the sound of his destination became stronger. It was a distinct and unforgettable sound. Douglas always knew when he'd arrived at the building; so strong and deep was its sound. If a sound could be assigned a gender the building he worked in had to be a very strong, healthy male. There were no other sounds quite like this one anywhere else in the city and the walk from the bus stop allowed him to enjoy it for a long time.
"Hi, Mr. Abledan," a voice called from a few feet in front of him. Even if the building itself hadn't told him where he was, even if the computer voice hadn't announced his arrival, Douglas would know by the voice that just greeted him that he had arrived at his place of employment.
"Hello, Eddie. How are things? Is your wife over her flu yet?"
"No, she's still sick. Can't seem to shake bugs as easily as she used to. Doctor says its age but I think it’s this techno-junked world we live in. No one thinks they have to protect themselves anymore, even from disease."
"Oh, I don't know. It seems we live in a pretty interesting time. New wonders are emerging everyday."
Douglas wasn't surprised at his friend's words. The world had changed a great deal during Eddie's life. It was hard for a man his age to get used to all the changes. It was even harder for him to see the improvements rather than focusing on the downsides. Eddie wasn't the only one. There were many people who wished for a cessation of progress and change, but Douglas wasn't one of them. If it weren't for progress he'd be a blind man being led around by a dog. He couldn't imagine what that would be like. He'd heard stories of the fights people used to have over where a seeing eye dog was or was not permitted entrance.
"We have the same argument every day, Mr. Abledan. Don't think either one of us is gonna change the other's mind. Still, I wish the world could reach some kinda balance 'tween technology and common sense."
"You may be right, Eddie. Every once in a while I talk to someone who says that human beings are not smart enough to manage all the technological gadgets we've created. I don't know if I agree or disagree. It does seem, though, that morality has decreased in direct proportion to society’s technological advance. Well, I must be heading upstairs. You know the two of us can talk for hours if we don't watch it. I don't want to be late."
"Lunch today, Mr. Abledan?" The tone Eddie emitted seemed to change as he asked the question.
"Today is Monday, isn't it? Haven't I had a couple of hot dogs for lunch every Monday for the past few years?"
"Just checking, Mr. Abledan."
"Eddie, when are you going to start calling me Douglas? I've told you that at least a million times."
"I know. Just can't bring myself to do it. The name just don't want to go past my tongue."
"All right, Eddie. I will see you for lunch."
Douglas turned toward the building that had been calling to him. He listened for a moment before taking a step. It was funny how the building sometimes seemed to sound impatient as it waited for him to enter. After a few moments he began to walk up the ramp. With each step Eddie's tone grew quieter and the sound of the building grew louder. Once inside, the sound of the building was replaced by the computer's feminine voice. "Elevator 30 feet away," she said into his left ear.
Douglas's head moved from side to side as he tried to center the voice. He had to stop thinking about the elevator a few times; the tones of people coming toward him interfered with his concentration.
I could ask where the elevator is, but I'd feel embarrassed. I should know where the damned thing is by now. He turned to his left and began walking. The computer voice became stronger the further he walked. Each time he made a course correction the voice became that much louder. At last the sound filled both his ears.
"Why so skimpy with the onions today, Eddie? Did you forget to buy enough?"
"Sorry, Mr. Abledan, money's getting tight. I've had to cut back a little. If I didn't I'd have to raise my prices. That wouldn't feel right to me. I've got my customers to think about, people like you who've been eating my dogs for years. Then there's the homeless. Some days all they can afford to eat is one of my dogs. I wouldn't feel too good if they couldn't afford a stinkin' dog from my cart."
"I understand, Eddie. I feel good when I give them a little pocket change. It's a shame everyone doesn't feel the way we do. Maybe there wouldn't be so many homeless people."
"Ain't that the truth. Ain't that the truth."
"So, anything new going on around here that I should know about? A blind man can't take it all in you know. Have you seen any pretty ladies? That's one of the biggest things I miss. I miss seeing all the women that walk up and down this street. The scent of perfume is nice, but it just isn't the same. I suppose you wouldn't know about these things of course, being a married man."
"Hey, I ain't dead you know. The missus don't mind me browsing through the store as long as I don't fiddle with any of the merchandise." Eddie laughed.
Eddie's laugh was deep and hearty. It made Douglas smile. In his mind's eye he pictured Eddie's face as he remembered it to be, seeing every detail down to the twinkle in his friend's eye. He held onto that image as he listened to the laugh. As the laugh began the old man's mouth opened into a toothless grin. The laugh then moved to the image's belly. Staying there for a minute, the laugh grew louder and louder until it was too loud for such a small area. When that happened Eddie's body started shaking. It was a sight Douglas missed and would never see again.
"Well, I had better get back upstairs. You know how much they miss me up there. You would think the whole office would fall apart just because I decided to take a long lunch one day."
When Eddie didn't answer Douglas got nervous. "What's the matter? Can't stand to see me leave you all alone?"
"Naw, nothing like that. I thought I smelled something burning. I was busy checking things out on my rig. That's all."
Douglas sniffed at the air. His nostrils caught a faint acrid odor. "There is something burning. You had best check your equipment again. We wouldn't want the best hot dog stand in town to go up in smoke.”
"Nope. Wouldn't want that."
"Well, I'll see you later."
When the work day ended, Douglas wasn't in any particular rush to get home. Instead of racing for the bus he decided to take a stroll around the city. The sky was probably full of stars. He wished he could see them just one more time. He walked for a few blocks. Each building he passed announced itself but the streets were empty of living things. As he walked through the city's many different aromas he began to pay attention to the things he smelled. His stomach began to rumble. On Montegue Street he passed the scent of sugar and dough, an all-night bakery he'd visited on past strolls. An image of rich chocolate cakes filled his mind. He passed through a strong briny scent and wrinkled his nose. Fishing off the pier at Coney Island relaxed him when he was younger, and he was particularly fond of the taste of most shellfish, but he had never gotten used to the smell of the sea. Douglas stopped, considering the smells. I think I'm in the mood for really good Italian food tonight. Finally he smelled garlic. Soft violin music reached his ears. He'd found his favorite Italian restaurant, Angela's Ristorante. As he walked toward the sound of the familiar sonic pulses he could almost taste the restaurant's famous Chicken Parmesan. He could almost feel the Chianti flow down his throat.
Suddenly sounds surrounded and confused him. A large grouping of beeps came toward him. He listened but heard no voices. His female companion announced "Movie Theater." Douglas stopped abruptly.
"What movie theater? There's no movie theater around here!" He turned his head from side to side thinking he knew what to expect but the sonic images he was presented didn't make sense. He'd walked down this street before but he'd never come across the buildings he was being told were around him. He knew Angela's was close by. He could still smell it. But the building's tone was gone.
That's funny. I've been there a hundred times. I couldn't have passed it. Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. Suddenly all the tones disappeared. His virtual image of the world was gone. All that remained was the noise of the street, a jumble of car horns and screeching brakes. He started to sweat.
Ripping the navigation device from his belt he shook it. Nothing. He shook it again. In the two years since he'd owned the device it had never failed. Never once had it given him wrong information or stopped working completely, as it just had. He shook the unit again. Suddenly his world returned. Again he was surrounded by the familiar tones of buildings, automobiles and people around him. Sighing with relief he walked to Angela's. He'd get the unit looked at first thing in the morning. Now it was time for dinner.
Entering the restaurant, a tone came toward him. When it stopped Douglas smelled the scent of strong cologne. He instantly recognized it.
"Table for one tonight, Signore Abledan?"
"Unfortunately, Marcello." Douglas said, smiling. "Unless you know a beautiful lady who's just dying to have dinner with a blind man."
Rather than eating alone Douglas would have preferred to dine with a beautiful brunette, and Marcello knew it. "By the fire if you don't mind. It's a little chilly tonight." He began playing his little game, trying to decide what people looked like by the cues he picked up. The sonic impulse the navigator sent him sounded the same as it did for everyone. He couldn't pick up anything from that. Marcello's deep voice told him the maitre de was a large man. Something in the voice told him the man was anything but a native Italian. The accent was like a suit and tie, part of the man's working attire.
"Only the best for you, Signore." The headwaiter touched Douglas' elbow, then retracted his hand. "This way, please."
Douglas walked through the crowded restaurant guided by his navigator and the gentle beeps of the other patrons. Finally he felt warmth to his immediate right. He listened closely to the crackling of the fire.
"Enjoy your dinner, Signore Abledan."
A good meal always made Douglas forget his problems. Now all he wanted to do was go home and relax a while before turning in. He rode the bus through the park listening to the sounds of a baseball game as they traveled on a gentle, sweetly-scented yet wet breeze through an open window next to where he sat. He'd heard that one of the things that made the BTI Systems’ IS3 Navigator so much better than other navigation devices was that it could be upgraded easily. Adding a special chip would allow users to recognize all sorts of oncoming objects, including baseballs. Douglas never tested this aspect of the device. He was content to let it direct him to where he needed to go and keep him out of harm's way. I was never interested in sports anyway.