By Gabriel Valjan
“May I help you?”
He had heard the question repeated numerous times while he sat there on the long bench with the others, their questions waiting to be answered. All kinds of people were with him there in that packed room in their various states of anxiety and impatience, slips of paper in their hands, but it was just the same: they either sat or stood like question marks.
The line moved and another person disappeared. He glanced down at his hand to revisit the letter of the alphabet and then the number. This could take time. He wanted to get up and stretch his legs, but if he forfeited his seat then he would have to stand and wait. He would blend in with any of the other men, hands in their pockets, no slips of paper visible, their call-number memorized, if that. They were all players in this grand line for an answer, still waiting, ready to ask, ready to march to either the next “May I help you?” or the next “Next.” He chose to remain seated; he slid over when a body vacated the bench and another one reloaded it at the far end. Monotony is the great weapon of state bureaucracy.
“May I help you?”
A person at the head of the long snake of people darted forward and disappeared. The rest of the line crept forward, footsteps behind replaced footsteps ahead until the serpent stopped again. An armed guard proctored the room. Her rude voice yelled once at the tail. “Get up! Don’t sit on the floor. This isn’t your house.”
Home for him was a place for sleep and meals and not much more since he worked long hours. He took his dinners like his peers: when he traveled, which was often, and meals were in flimsy hotels with the bar better than the all-you-can-eat buffet. A piano player of questionable motives consoled the depressed and the dejected with his covers of schlock tunes, his oversized glass ready to catch dollar bills.
Unmarried, no children from any flings, though those were rare, he worked the clock to pay the rent and saved money that he didn’t have time to enjoy. Everyone worked long hours, uncertain whether their employment was secure, or if the cost-of-living wage increase would come through that year; it hadn’t for two consecutive years in his department. Taxes ate up the last hike, which was more symbolic than real food on the table.
He heard another number.
The guard looked at him as if she knew that he knew that he was closer to an answer. She walked on, slow and steady in study-hall mode. The stainless steel handcuffs formed a bull’s-eye on her uniformed buttock. He would have laughed had it not been for his realization that the clock on the far wall had stopped and died at an hour none of the hopeful in the room had on their wrists or electronic devices. The latter had been ordered turned off. A “May I help you?” awaited him, all of them, only when the alphanumeric invitation displayed on the electronic board said so. Only then. Someone moved and he slid sidewise again.
He closed his eyes and opened his ears, crossed his arms in meditative awareness. He dared not fall asleep. He had only one ticket for his answer. He didn’t know what kind of face awaited him: male or female, pleasant or sour, kind, tired, or cynical? Perhaps venomous? The red LED ticked another letter and number. He was close.
He was tired. He opened his eyes. He lifted his head like a loyal servant conscious that authority would call him. He had several project leaders at work. None of them could be found when a decision was needed. That was fine by him. He and his team of information technologists had their air-conditioned bullpen of network servers. Let the team leaders have the latest management theories, their methodologies, and heated opinions. He controlled information. He was a god, although he had lost his way like most adults, believing the world was this side of Judas and not the paradise of childhood prayers to Jesus.
His letter and his number confirmed on the slip of paper. He moved, slow at first because the bench had sedated his legs. He evolved from sitting, from sedentary into motion with a purpose. He saw the empty slot that awaited him. Two side panels there intended the minimum of privacy. His world moved towards the interrogative.
“May I help you?”
“Yes.” He handed her the laminated card. “Here to renew my license, please.”
She. Assistance came in female form, neither attractive nor ugly, voice rather neutral, but pleasant nonetheless. The hand that swept the card towards her suggested that she had performed this act a thousand times, as if she were playing poker on Friday evenings. He heard the familiar clatter of keystrokes. He, too, had membership to that section of the orchestra that did so much with so little noise. Her head turned to examine a screen obscured. She wore no glasses for him to read reflections on the lenses. Her lips twitched.
“There seems to be a problem.”
“Problem? My license hasn’t even expired yet, and I have no unpaid tickets or…”
Her finger touched a line that he wanted to read himself. He could not lean over the counter. She said, “The system says you’re dead.”
“Dead? I’m alive. You can see that yourself.”
“I’m just telling you what the system says: you’re not alive.”
“But…I’m not dead.”
“That’s what it says here.” She pointed again and nodded. “Dead. Your license is due to expire tomorrow. Do you want to renew it?”
“What good does that do me if I am dead?”
“But your driver’s license is alive. Care to renew it or not?”
“But how is that possible?”
“Maybe someone doesn’t like you, or there was an error,” she said. Her eyes didn’t blink; they demanded acceptance and obedience.
“Of course there’s an error, but I don’t understand how I can be dead?”
“Someone could have reported you dead; it doesn’t take much – a simple phone call can do it. Answer a few questions and that’s it: you’re not alive anymore.”
“Questions like what?”
“I really don’t have time for this, but if you must know: date and place of birth, Social Security number.” His thinking had frozen when he realized that she had been speaking while he stared off. “Renew it or not?” The guard, who had been patrolling the perimeter, inched in close with, “Is there a problem here?”
“I’m dead,” he said.
“Most people are, but you don’t hear me complaining,” the guard said and then asked, “She asked you if you will renew or not?” Her fat, unpainted thumbs hooked into her belt. He heard her say – he was still numb from the blasé, robotic declaration of his death — “There are people waiting.”
“Yeah. I’ll renew.” He reached into his jacket, retrieved his wallet. He selected his debit card.
“I prefer cash,” the clerk said. He didn’t protest but he must have appeared puzzled since the credit-card device was right there on the counter. She offered a terse explanation: “If you’re dead, which you are, then your bank account is likely frozen until your estate contacts the bank and provides proof of death.” She named the fee and waited for the cash from his wallet.
Photo Credit: Waiting at the DMV by Charlie