Back | Next


“I’m sorry,” the clerk said. She kept one hand on the till and the other on the box of detergent. She looked with doubt at the money in his hands. “I don’t think we take that stuff.”

“What do you mean, you don’t think you take this stuff?” Max said. “This is money. What’s wrong with money?”

“Like I said, I don’t think we take that.”

“Oh, come on,” said Max. “Listen, I came here to buy this, and I happen to have cash on hand. Everyone knows what cash is, right? See? This is just a little more than the amount of the total — I’ve got six dollars here, and you’ll give me fifteen cents change.” He felt like he was explaining to a chimpanzee how to eat bananas.

She beckoned to a tall man who appeared instantly at Max’s side, hands resting in the pockets of his green apron. The name of the store shined in self-lit white across his front: Lucky Power Save! Groceries! Lickety-Quick Service! Instant Checks & Credit Cards!

“Mr. Green,” the clerk said, “we don’t take this stuff, do we? What if it’s fake?”

“Well, well,” said Mr. Green, taking the cash from Max’s hand with spidery fingers. “This is a little unusual, isn’t it?” He held the bills close to his eyes and examined both sides. “Well. Go ahead and take these, Julie. Just be sure to get his credit card and driver’s license, and put the numbers on the back of the bills. And initial them.”

“Thanks, Mr. Green.”

Mr. Green arched one eyebrow at Max before marching off to another part of his emporium. Julie looked at Max expectantly.

“You mean you won’t just take them?” Max said. “This is money, for goodness’ sake!”

“Well, it might be money,” Julie said, screwing up her lips, “but we’ve got to have a credit card number. You have a credit card?”


“Well, then, what about your driver’s license? I suppose if we just had that number — ”

“I walked here today. I don’t have my driver’s license. You want my mother’s phone number? I can give you that!”

“Now, now, I’m just trying to be reasonable. We don’t need anyone’s phone number.”

“You’re trying to be reasonable? I’m trying to buy detergent so I can do laundry. Isn’t it your job to sell me some? I have a date tonight! Will you please take this perfectly good-as-gold, cold cash from me? It’s money. You know what money is, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a credit card or driver’s license, we won’t be able to take your cash.”

“Wha — ”

She whisked away the box of detergent and chucked it into a basket at her side. She pushed the bills back at him.

“Sir? We have people waiting in line to check out. If you don’t mind — ”

“I do mind. How about I get one of your instant credit cards?”

She darkened. “You don’t have a credit card. How do you expect to get one if you don’t have one already?”

“Hey,” he said. “I can take a hint!” He snapped up his money and stormed toward the door.

“Have a nice day,” Mr. Green said, waving.

Max restrained himself from giving Mr. Green the finger, and tried to stomp hard enough across the automatic door-opener to give it tremors.

Flora’s Flor-All, located a few stores down on the mini-mall, looked a little dismal inside. The clerks had arranged the flowers haphazardly in the coolers, as if they didn’t care how they appeared.

He walked up to the desk. A young clerk was busily wrapping some carnations. She whistled to herself as she worked.

“Excuse me,” Max said. “I’d like to have some flowers delivered.”

“Delivered? Okay,” the clerk said, taping up the wrapping paper. “But you can’t place the order here.”

“Oh? Where do I go?”

“Anywhere,” she said, shrugging. “Just not in person. We don’t take orders in person. Just by phone or E-mail.”

“Ah, you’re kidding,” Max said, leaning forward on the counter and grinning at her. She looked cute, with her loose, swinging hair and polka-dot blouse. She was joshing him because she liked his face. “Here I am — I was nearby doing other errands — and since I’m here, I thought it’d be a whole lot easier if I just placed an order now. I mean, you don’t expect me to — ”

“And how would we confirm it? You’re here, so how could we electronically confirm your order? We have to confirm everything! How do we know this isn’t just a prank?”

“How about we just forget the confirmation? It’s just busy-work for you anyway. I’d like to have a bouquet of — ”

The girl put down the bundle she was working on and thumped one fist on the table. “Hey, listen, mister, customers have been giving me grief all morning and you’re going to give me more? We have a store policy. Like I said. No orders in person. Telephone or E-mail only. Understood? Good! And goodbye!” She went back to her wrapping, pointedly ignoring him.

He stared at her in surprise, then turned and stepped from the store, stunned. He walked in a daze past the next few stores and almost missed seeing the quarter someone had dropped on the pavement. He picked it up realizing what a lucky find it was, right in front of a pay phone. He went to a booth, looked up the number of Flora’s Flor-All, and then held up his coin. No slot.

“NO COINS NEEDED!” the sign screamed across the front of the phone. The letters flashed. “ZINGO PHONO NO PROBLEMO! COIN-OP? COIN-NOPE!”

He picked up the receiver and dialed the Flora’s Flor-All number. An operator beeped on, saying, “Your name, sir?”

“Maxwell Brillig.”

“Calling card?”

“Could I have this charged to my home phone?”

“Your number, sir?”

His mind went blank. He gave his mother’s.

“Just one minute, sir,” the operator said.

In a second, a new but familiar voice said, “Hello?”

“Will you allow a Maxwell Brillig to charge a call to this number?”

“That’s my son!”

“Hi, mom.”

“You can damn well charge it to your own number, Max!”

Good old mom. “It’s just a local call. I just can’t remember my own number. I never call myself.”

Max knew exactly the kind of face his mother was making in the pause, and the words she restrained herself from using. Then she told the operator his number, and hung up.

“Just one minute, sir,” the operator said. “That line is ringing but no one answers at your home phone. I’m afraid we can’t let you charge a call to this number.”

“Of course no one’s answering! I’m here, at this phone!”

“You’ll have to go to that phone number to confirm your identity, then. I’m sorry, sir.”

“I’ll mail this quarter to you!” he shouted.

The operator hung up.

At home he rushed for his phone. He would decidedly not call Flora’s Flor-All. If they could afford to turn away his business, he would happily withhold it. He doubted Gloria, his date, expected flowers anyway.

He punched in the number of Dial-a-Psych, and felt gratified to get a line immediately.

“Hello, this is Dial-a-Psych.”

“Boy, have I got a gripe!”

“Modern society? It got you down?” said the sympathetic voice.

“Damn tootin’! I’m starting to hate the way things are going! Everything’s being taken out of our hands and being replaced by artificial substitutes, and you can never get the real thing! And if you show someone the real thing, they won’t take it! We’ve got all these ways of keeping each other at bay — we have telephones, and electronic mail, and credit cards and private cars and Me-Only Exclusive Virtual Shopping Malls! Anything that we can do to keep each other apart from each other, that’s what we do! I hate it! When are we going to get back to the real thing? You know, people talking one-on-one, relaxing, talking, and trusting each other — all the good old things!” Even if he was too young to have known the good old things, he knew exactly what they were.

“I’m glad you can focus your anger so well,” Dial-a-Psych said.

“Oh, I know my angers pretty well!”

“Can you think of a positive activity, to refocus your mind in that direction?”

“You bet! I’m going on a date tonight with a wonderful woman! She’s finally agreed to go out with me!”

“Wonderful! Have a good time!”

“Thanks! I will!”

He hung up, a little relieved, even if he never felt entirely satisfied with these thirty-second sessions via telephone.

He checked his watch. He just had time to get ready. He threw his clothes into the washer, tossing in baking soda since he knew that worked in a pinch. He showered, brushed his teeth, and then worked up a new sweat pacing in front of the drying machine as his clothes tumbled at their leisure. When they were ready, he dressed and admired himself in the mirror. He cut a dashing figure — a humbly dashing figure, admittedly, but a dashing figure nonetheless.

No sooner had he finished than the doorbell rang. He ran to answer.

When he threw open the door, he gasped.

“Hi,” she said cheerfully. Gloria stood there, dressed perfectly in modest but chic fashion, with newly styled hair sweeping back from her appealing face. It was her, and yet —

“You’re Gloria,” he said. “But at the same time you aren’t.”

“Well, that’s true.” She smiled shyly. “May I come in?”

“But wait a minute. What about you isn’t Gloria?”

She looked at him with a tilted head, as if deciding whether to reveal a secret.

She decided in the positive. “Max,” she said. “This isn’t the real Gloria, actually. I’m just like Gloria, down to nearly all her memories — but I’m her surrogate. I’m her Comfy-Clone, Date-a-Fake Gloria. You see, this way I can go on a date with you at no risk to the real Gloria. How many heartbreaks and misunderstandings have arisen because of too-high expectations on the first date — or of broken illusions after the first date? This way, Gloria can rerun my memory tapes of our date at her leisure, and can decide on the basis of my experience whether she wants to continue the relationship or call it off — and all this at no inconvenience to her.” The surrogate Gloria smiled. “Since I have all the personality and memories of the real Gloria, by going on a date with me you get the full experience of dating her, just as if she were really here. Isn’t it wonderful? Now may I come in, Max?”

“I’m not sure I like this.”

“Well, if you’d feel more comfortable, I could just go out with your Date-a-Fake — ”

He slammed the door, and stood staring at its blank surface in disbelief.

Not Gloria

Not the Gloria he’d spoken with, now and then, and had gotten to know a little in high school, and had just met again after they’d both returned from college —

Not her. It couldn’t be her doing this! Gloria, having a Date-a-Fake? She was too honest a person, too open, too real to submit to this world of substitutes!

Yet she had. The evidence stood outside his door.

The evidence, in fact, rang the doorbell and then knocked, and rang again.

Making sure it was locked, Max left the door and headed for the living room. He had nowhere to turn. He could order a six-pack of beer, and get drunk — but would it be real beer? Would it just be factory made — would they even have aged it, or would they have substituted some other process to replace the aging? And would he get real drunk if he drank the whole six-pack — or would it be a made-up drunk, caused by drunkenness–simulating chemicals in the drink?

He probably even lacked the option of suicide. He could probably only do it artificially. He might think he was slitting his wrist or swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills or hanging himself, but someone, somehow, would have arranged that he be swept into some artificial heaven, just to make sure he thought he was killing himself — so that he would be distanced from his own death, for heaven’s sake! He almost cried out at the thought. Nothing would remain possible, then! While he valued only real things, the whole world had moved away: he’d been standing still, living his old life in the old ways, just as usual! Here, in his house, he stood alone while the rest of humankind rushed down the road, eagerly in pursuit of their once-removed, artificially real-feeling lives! What if his mother on the phone today had only been her answering service, a metal box imbued with her crankiness and voice! Inconceivable — and yet, if Gloria could —

And if even his mother and Gloria had given in to this idiotic wave of the plastic and the electronic, of the once-removed and the permanently removed, then what did the world have left to offer him?

The phone rang.

Warily he picked it up. “Hello?”


“Hi, mom.”

“I was wondering if you were feeling all right. You sounded a little piqued this afternoon.”

“The phone company — ”

“I was going to talk to you about that, Max. Why are you using phones when they’re so old hat? Get on top of things, boy! How do you expect to move ahead in this world when you’re going backward? Things are happening! You could be hooked by computer voice-links and wrist-boards so you wouldn’t even need a telephone, and here you are worrying about those Neanderthals at the phone company!”

“Sure, mom, but — ”

“But what you should be worried about, at your age, Max, is finding yourself a nice young woman. Why don’t you have a girlfriend, Max? Do you realize how old you are?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. And — ”

“Good. Now see that you do something about it.”

“About my age?”

“Smart aleck! That’s my boy! I show a little motherly concern and what does he do, he gets smart! Take my advice, Max. Apply a little gumption to your rumption, and get a move on. The world’s going to move with or without you. I tell you this with all my mother’s love, Max.”

She hung up.

“Love you too, mom.”

He flopped onto the couch. Was he getting riled up about nothing? Did it matter if something was or was not the real thing? What was the real thing, anyway? What about money?

He took the bills out of his pocket. A century ago, people would have complained that the bills were anything but real, being nothing more than promissory notes. And coins, even if metal, were made of minerals with about the value of paper.

That word — “currency” — made a strange sense. A medium of exchange, to be acceptable, needed no intrinsic value. It only had to partake in the current framework of exchange, whether it was a matter of bartering, exchanging gold for bank notes, or giving and taking credit. Just because gold was more massive than a plastic card, did that make a gold transaction materially more substantial than a credit transaction? Which was real, after all: the gold, or the transaction? Maybe the cashier, Julie, had been right, in a stubbornly latest-thing-only way, to reject cash. She would have rejected pure gold or silver, after all. She would even have rejected outmoded gold or silver certificates. The bills he had offered her, while still widely acceptable, were simply old-fashioned — and therefor inconvenient — and therefore of reduced value in relation to the one real thing involved: the transaction.

Seeing the sense of it did nothing to smooth over his bruised sensibility, however. The whole telephone issue still bothered him.

But the instrument existed for his use, didn’t it? So:

“Hello, Gloria?” he said when she answered.

“Is that you, Max? Is everything okay with my date?”

“I don’t know. She’s outside.”

“Aren’t you going to let her in?”

“Why should I? I’d rather be here on the phone talking to you than being with a Date-a-Fake.”

“Oh, come on, Max. It isn’t so bad as all that. She’s pretty interesting, actually. I talked a little with her myself after I picked her up at the rental agency and had her imprinted. I was kind of surprised what I was like.”

“Well, what if she isn’t like you? It’s you I want to spend time with.”

“They’re pretty good at these things, Max. She’s probably as close to me as you can get.”

“That’s depressing. I was looking forward to something other than an imitation.”

“Well, what can I say? You’re just an oddball, Max. All the other guys who want to date me would rather go out with a Date-a-Fake — and sometimes they send their Date-a-Fake to go out with mine.”

“Doesn’t sound much fun to me. So what were you going to do tonight?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tonight. While I was out with your Date-a-Fake. I’d be out having fun, while you — well, what did you plan to do?”

“Oh, I’d spend my time here. Read a little. Do some laundry maybe. Something.”

“Isn’t that what you do all the time? How about dating in person, and actually doing something?”

“Boy, Max, are you out of the flat-screen movies or something? Where have you been? People don’t date in person any more. That’s an old form of personal interaction that’s as obsolete as cassette tape players. There’s a lot more efficient ways of getting to know someone.”

“Like using Date-a-Fakes, huh?” Max thought about that. Cash or credit, versus the transaction: the transaction was what mattered. The real Gloria or her Date-a-Fake: was the date what mattered? The exchange of information about each other? The efficient sharing of time, to get to know one another? So dates were supposed to be efficient? Since when?

“Listen, Gloria,” he said. “I admit I’m a greenhorn. I don’t really do any dating. Most women I meet just don’t seem so interesting. But you — you really got my curiosity going. You know, today I went to a florist’s and was going to buy you flowers.”

“That’s a nice thought, Max.”

“Well, they wouldn’t let me. That’s another story, though. I won’t get into it. But now that I think about it I’m almost glad they didn’t. Because I’ve started thinking about what it meant for me to buy flowers. But maybe I shouldn’t get into that, either. I’m taking up quite a bit of your time, jabbering like this, aren’t I?”

“Go ahead. It’s interesting.”

“Well, what do flowers represent? Sure, they’re supposed to represent feelings, and the more expensive the flowers the more elevated the emotions.”

“Such a cynic!”

“I guess so. But they not only represent something, they also serve a particular purpose. In our times they’ve become a kind of substitute for the actual process of expressing feelings and emotions — sometimes of even taking the time to get to know a person well enough to actually feel the emotions in the first place. So in trying to buy you flowers, I was really trying to buy a substitute for the patient, time-consuming occupation of being around you long enough to discover if we have enough in common to generate feelings.”

“Are you always figuring things out this way, Max? I’m following you so far — but I think you’re trying to tell me something, too.” Her voice lifted with an edge of humor.

Max smiled. “Well, thinking about the flowers that way did give me an idea of what we should do. What we should do tonight, I mean. It would be thoroughly up-to-date. The latest thing.”

“And what’s that?”

“We should sit around and do nothing. Together.”

“Together? You mean, just sit around?”

“It’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“That’s so weird, Max.”

“No, no, it’s the natural outgrowth of all the new efficiency of communication and transaction. People need to pass time while the rest of the world whirrs along. After all, we just have to send out a few electronic commands to have most of our errands and chores done, right? So sitting around and just passing the time is the only proper response. Doing it with someone else — well, it sounds better to me than doing it by myself.”

“You know, Max, I’m enjoying talking to you so much I’m almost willing to go along, weird as it sounds. But what about my Date-a-Fake? What do we do with her?”

“I’ve thought of that,” Max said. “You know, my mother loves keeping up on the latest things and all the high-tech stuff that comes into fashion. And Date-a-Fakes — well, I was just thinking I’d like mom to meet you.”

Max,” Gloria said.

She said it in such a way —

Not too strongly, not too softly —

That he knew he’d found the right words —

No, the right flower

To give her.

It meant something else, too.

It meant that this time, with Gloria —

That maybe he’d finally found what he’d been looking for.

Maybe he’d found the real thing. The real thing, or else —

Or else a damned good substitute.

Back | Next