Payouts

I wrote this story in my twenties, sometime in the early 2000s. I didn’t write much at the time, but occasionally a story would pop out of me, and this one of those stories. I found it on an old flash drive this morning.

“Christ, what am I doing here?” I ask myself for the umpteenth time today.

Standing somewhere in the middle of the rapidly expanding line outside of a Payout Consultation Center, I feel conspicuously out of place.

     I don’t belong here.  I am not one of these people.  But deep down, I know that I am.  My presence here is proof enough. I blend in seamlessly with the motley assortment of desperate and downtrodden souls gathered in this place. 

     I try, with limited success, to tune out the cacophony of shouts, screams, and other assorted noises emanating from protesters on the other side of the police barricade.

     Occasionally, one of them attempts to hop over it only to receive an enthusiastic whack upside the head from one of the cops in riot gear.

     In my younger, more idealistic days, I might have stood among them, loudly proclaiming my opposition to something as immoral as all of this clearly is.  The dismal realities of adult life have a strange tendency to alter one’s perceptions about a great many things, however.

     Mounting debts, a malfunctioning cooling system in the midst of triple-digit temperatures, my inability to land a job…  Yeah, stuff like that tends to take its toll on a man after awhile.

     Then along comes the government with a brilliant new program designed, in theory, to provide assistance to struggling families while simultaneously offering a solution to the problem of overpopulation.  Shit, meet fan.

     Resistance to the Payout program was fairly universal at first.  Hell, I thought it was appalling, myself.  Still do, frankly.

Every last one of the religious crackpots left in the world came out of the woodwork for that one, forming an unlikely partnership with the left-wing radicals who saw the program as nothing more than a thinly-disguised attack on the poor. They’d finally found something to agree upon.

     But perhaps even more shocking than the idea of the Payout program itself was the fact that so many people signed up for it without hesitation.  No one expected it to become such a rousing success.

The top-notch propaganda they’ve saturated the media with certainly seems to have convinced me. And that hackneyed, yet effective slogan scrolling across every third billboard throughout North America: The future is in your hands. Great! Where do I sign up?

Some of the signs being hoisted in the air by the protesters are quite elaborate, and I can’t help but take notice of them. I guess that’s the point.

     One of them mimics the marquee of a popular fast food chain.  It’s a giant yellow “P” with a banner underneath reading “Over 20 million served.” Pretty clever, despite the obvious statistical exaggeration.

     Another bears a cartoonish likeness of the President in which he is depicted as Hitler complete with a swastika armband and a goofy little moustache.  The phrase “Final Solution” blinks intermittently in loud, attention-grabbing colors beneath the image.  History buff, I suppose.

     “Nanotechnology.”

     I turn my head in the direction of the voice.  A rather fat, unpleasant-looking man squeezed into a shirt several sizes too small for his bulky frame is staring at me.

     “That’s where everything went wrong,” he says. “All those tiny little mechanical bugs swimmin’ around in everybody’s blood, fixin’ everything, people livin’ to be two hundred years old… It’s not natural.”

Well, no shit, Sherlock. I nod politely, hoping that he’ll shut up and leave me alone. No such luck.

“Then you got all these protesters,” he continues with a sweeping gesture of his meaty hand, his disgust with them plainly evident. He shakes his head. “I wish they’d mind their own goddamned business.”

     Again, I nod, wondering how long this tirade is going to last.  At a time like this, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts, not making small talk with a complete stranger.  The situation is awkward enough as it is.

     My prayers are answered when a wild-eyed, middle aged woman who, somehow managing to evade the cops, leaps over the barricade and makes a mad dash in the fat man’s direction.  Her T-shirt has a picture of Uncle Sam on it.  “I WANT YOU…DEAD!!!” it reads.  Cute.

     She seizes the fat man by the shoulders, frantically babbling something about the sacredness of life.

     Visibly jarred by the encounter, he shoves her into the waiting arms of a police officer who drags her out of sight. 

     The fear in his eyes is tangible.  I can almost taste it.  I recognize it because I share it. He doesn’t want to be here any more than I do, but he’s convinced himself that this is his only recourse.

     Thankfully, his desire for small talk seems to have diminished.  He turns his back to me, staring ahead and saying nothing.

     Several other protesters, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the momentary distraction to rush past the barricade, accosting people and shouting as much rehearsed rhetoric as they can before they too are forcibly removed from the premises.

     It suddenly occurs to me, and not for the first time, how pissed Sarah would be if she knew where I was.  She’d made it known in no uncertain terms just what she thought of Payouts, and on numerous occasions.

     But what the hell else am I supposed to do?  It’s worth checking into, at the very least.  I don’t have a hell of a lot else going on today.

Sarah. I’m doing this for her. But is it really the selfless act I’ve rationalized it to be? What happens when the money runs out and she’s left to fend for herself?

     Suicide is traditionally considered a coward’s way out, a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  The damage suffered by those left behind often far outweighs one’s reasons for going through with the deed in the first place.  Does the government’s seal of approval somehow make it justifiable?

     The frail voice of an elderly woman standing behind me breaks my reverie.  I can’t tell how old she is, but it’s clearly been awhile since her last regeneration session.

     “I really hope I get approved,” she says, fumbling around in her purse. 

     She retrieves an old, weathered wallet and begins thumbing through it.  “My health isn’t what it used to be,” she says, “but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

     She’s referring to the medical examination, of course.  I hadn’t given it much thought, actually, but the irony of a clean bill of health being required in order to kill oneself might be amusing outside of its present context.

     She opens the wallet and presents a photograph of a clean-cut, smiling young man.  Barring the fact that relatively few legal births had taken place in quite some time, he could be anyone’s son.

     “This is my grandson,” she says.  “They had him right about the time the restrictions came along.  Oh, they had to fight to keep him. State wanted to force an abortion, but we got ourselves a good lawyer.  Judge granted an exception since he was conceived before the law was passed.”

     “Nice looking kid,” I tell her, and not insincerely. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a child.” 

     This is the truth.  Sarah and I had discussed registering for childbearing privileges years ago, but ultimately we decided against it.  In retrospect, it was probably a prudent choice.

     “He’s a good boy,” says the old woman proudly.  “Kids are a lot of work though, that’s for sure. Especially in this day and age.  He didn’t have many friends his age growing up, as you can imagine.”

     Her eyes become suddenly distant.  “I want him to be able to go to school.  You know, make something out of himself.  If I can trade in this tired old body so that he can have a chance…” she trails off, dabbing at the corner of her eye with a tissue. 

     “His father took a payout a couple years back when they first started offering them,” she continues, before her voice takes on a bitter edge.

    “That wife of his, though, she spent it all up on God-knows-what.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “Tragic,” I say, for lack of a better word. What the hell are you supposed to say to something like that?

     She stares out at the crowd for awhile, seemingly adrift in a sea of unpleasant memories.  I can’t help but feel sorry for her, despite my own raging internal conflict.

     “Makes me sad, you know,” she says, breaking her lengthy silence.  “Seeing a young man like you standing here, so many good years left.”

     I shrug sheepishly.  I don’t know how to respond to this, so I say nothing.  Seventy-five isn’t exactly young in anyone’s book, but it’s generally considered middle age by today’s standards.

     Perhaps this is some kind of mid-life crisis, I speculate.  One last noble act from a useless old man who only wants the best for the woman he loves.

     Bullshit. I’ve tried to convince myself that my reasons are sound, but I’m not buying it.

     The real motive for any suicide (Sugarcoat it all you want, but that’s exactly we’re all doing here) is escape.  Escape from an existence one can’t bear to endure any longer.  An escape from reality.  Payouts are just a convenient excuse.

     The line advances.  One step closer to death.  No, not death, I remind myself.  Just an initial consultation.

     Yeah?  And then what?

     “I hear it’s nice,” says the old woman.  “They let your family stay in the room with you, if they want.  You just lie down and go to sleep.  Nothing to fear at all.”

“Nice” is one hell of a relative term. Nicer than being mangled by a pack of wild dogs, I suppose, but the end result is the same.

     The lack of fear can be attributed to all the drugs they pump into your system after you get approved.  By the end of the two-week waiting period you could be on fire and scarcely notice.

The old woman smiles, her face faintly reminiscent of my own mother’s. She is somebody’s mother, I’m reminded. Hell, everyone here is somebody to someone. Mother, father, child, lover, friend, whatever—they’re all important to at least one other person, or else they’d be somewhere else instead of queuing up like lambs to the slaughter.

     Damn them for using love as tool of mass-extermination.

     “Christ, what am I doing here?”

     The old woman rests a gaunt, withered hand on my shoulder.  “Go home,” she tells me.  “This isn’t for you.  It’s not your time.”

     Flashes of memories submerged for years in my subconscious force themselves to the surface.  Bits and pieces of life; not all of them pleasant, but damn it, they’re a summation of who I am as a human being.  The common experiences that continue to shape us all throughout the course of our existence. 

     Trial and error; the self-improvement system that’s remained effective since man first walked upright and developed reasoning skills.  That’s what it’s all about.  Killing oneself most certainly falls in the “error” category.

     She’s right.  This isn’t for me.  This isn’t for anyone.

     “Come with me,” I implore her, gently taking her hand.  “You don’t need to do this, either.”

     She sighs and shakes her head.  “I’m afraid this is the end of the road for me.  I’m old enough to remember a time when the sky was still blue and you could still hear the sound of children’s laughter drifting in through an open window on a Saturday afternoon.”

She winks at me and withdraws her hand from mine. “My time came and went years ago. I’m ready to go. And I want my death to have some semblance of meaning. Won’t do my grandson any good to watch me wither away over the next few years. This is his time to live now, just as it is yours. Now go.”

     I know she speaks the truth.  The things she’s telling me, I already know them. Maybe I just needed a little clarification

     Fuck this.  I don’t know what the answer is, but clearly this isn’t it.

     I stare into her wizened eyes for a few more moments. There’s so much history behind those eyes, so many stories.    

      Somehow I know that her spirit will become a part of me for the rest of my life.  Every day that I struggle to survive, to overcome the obstacles thrown in my path, I’ll remember her.

     “Thanks,” I tell her.   

     I step out of line and start walking, my pace quickening as I attract the attention of some of the protesters, who begin to cheer.

I don’t look at them. I don’t look at anything. Someone is waiting for me at home—someone who has stayed loyal to me through all of life’s little hardships. Someone who loves me. And I’m not about to let her down.

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