drag was really old. his legs had stopped working five years prior and he couldn’t afford one of those wheelchairs that worked inside the subway system, so he couldn’t really get anywhere beyond a few blocks from the apartment he’d lived in for 30 years. so, he did what work he could do from his home computer. the neighbors didn’t really tolerate him much – he was rickety and a burden. just to keep him off their backs, they let him use their net connect for free and signed for his deliveries when he was knocked out asleep and couldn’t hear the deliva when it came to the door.
poor drag. it happens to everyone at some point, even these days when, as long as you stay active, your body can be kept in good shape, twice as long as you could just 50 years ago. drag had been around for a long, long time. most people his age had gotten bored and had auto-euthanized. for some reason, drag kept on.
he wasn’t alone. people talked in wonder about his type pretty often. they were freaks who lived alone, lonely, not sure what to do with themselves. they weren’t senile at all, but they were part of an old way of life and couldn’t fathom moving on. usually they died of natural causes; no one found them until the entire block stank with their rot. i pitied them.
i love the way i met drag. he was rolling along the street in his cheap old wheelchair, humming some weird tune. i was busy ignoring my tea at my favorite outdoor cafe table on 20th street, trying unsuccessfully to read my book, getting distracted by the colorful people walking by. drag was one of the more interesting ones, as he’d been caught in some previous century.
yep. he caught me staring at him as he rolled along. he told me he wanted to mind his own business, but first wanted to know why i wasn’t minding mine. trapped, i apologized and he introduced himself. he was sharp, well spoken and goofy, which surprised me considering his situation.
he was struggling for sure. his mind was good, but couldn’t really keep up with societal changes that changed too fast. the computer work he was able to do so well for so long was being requested of him less and less, and he was confused and dismayed.
i found myself spending more and more time with drag. i’m not sure why i met him at this time in his life just when his obsolescence was speeding up. i often have to remind myself that i wasn’t the catalyst that ruined his comfort, but the timing was eerily synchronous. he’d been so happy before he met me even though he couldn’t move around much. over the first few months I knew him, drag started getting desperate and calling upon me often. i’d started visiting him weekly and soon found myself visiting him daily, bringing food and a movie or two. he became both my surrogate gramps and my inept son.
the movies i shared with him seemed to be the best way for me to ease his hurt. the moments of escapism they brought to his life slowly became his life. one day while he was daydreaming out loud about the movie we’d just watched on his computer, i asked him if he’d ever used a synta system. it was something i’d always wanted to try, but had never found a partner to do it with and didn’t feel safe doing it alone. my wife was disgusted by it, and friends of mine saw it as being too strange. i thought maybe it would provide some real respite for the old guy.
it took a week of what seemed like an unending stream of questions from drag before he agreed to try it with me. i’d never researched something so much – i was both nervous and excited to try the new technology myself. i wound up buying a synta kit with two pairs of goggles and special seats, and brought them to his place so we could both try it out. i was surprised when he chose a quiet place in the woods for our first session – i’d thought for sure he would have chosen to be a superhero of some sort; or a speed run competitor, maybe. I would have chosen something with a lot of excitement and adrenaline, especially if i’d been sitting unable to walk for so long.
the goggles were tight and uncomfortable and the chair felt strange, but my nerves went numb a minute after i’d turned on the machine. then there was data – lights flickering into my pupils, my rods and cones and my brain. i caught a vague understanding of country and woods, but never fully disconnected from the straight data coming at my eyes. when the timer went off, the synta stopped and my nerves began to come back to life. i could feel the sweat that had covered my skin, the place where the plastic of the chair had pressed too hard into my arm creating an itchy indentation, and my eyes hurt from being sucked at under the goggles. once i could move enough, i pulled the goggles off my face and let them drop to the floor. my vision was blurry for a while and i massaged my forehead and brow to shake the tingling feeling the machine had left behind.
when i was finally able to get out of my head and focus on the room around me, i noticed drag sitting limp and slumped over in his chair. i shot out of the chair to arouse him; he looked dead, his skin grey and green. my legs gave out and i tumbled to the floor like a rag doll, hitting my knee hard on drag’s small table. ignoring the pain, i reached up and grabbed his arm that was hanging loose from his shoulder over the side of the chair and called his name, desperately hoping he’d react. he twitched first, then gently pulled his hand away and out of my grip. he reached up slowly to take off his goggles and pressed his hands to his face, his forehead scrunched up against the soreness. when he pulled them away, he looked incredibly sad.
i eventually managed to get out to the kitchen to get us both glasses of water. after he’d had a few sips he’d started to cry. ‘i’m so old,’ he’d finally said. yes. you are so old, drag. ‘what are you going to do when you get this old?’ he’d asked. i won’t get this old, drag. ‘am i a burden?’ no. you’re not a burden…not to me.
we’d set the timer to shut off after 20 minutes, the minimum time for the brain to adjust to the synta’s language. for the machine to have worked on me, i’d have had to of kept it on for a little longer – it’s just the way my brain worked. but not drag’s…drag had seen something extraordinary that his old mind couldn’t quite explain to me. he probably couldn’t explain it to himself. when he told me about his experience, he described trees and water and wind. he had perceived these things visually, but as the synta had reached its time-out, drag had started to feel and smell these things as he had experienced them when he was young. he’d forgotten about them. the synta had brought them back, along with sharp awareness that they were lost to him.
drag was severely depressed after that. he felt useless. he was ambivalent about the memories he’d experienced because he knew they’d just been in his head, and that the regular world containing his old body was his reality. but rather than auto-euthanize, he began to melt away slowly, uninterested in food or talk or movies. when i told him he was making himself very sick, he would just say, ‘i don’t wanna die,’ but he was killing himself. what was i supposed to do? it made no sense that he would want to live for so long.
after this had been going on for a while, i met his landlord, a fint from the wealthy end of town. apparently she’d been one of his clients and his work on his computer had been paying his rent. she’d not heard from him, so she came by, letting herself into the apartment like she’d lived there for years. this was surprising – fints didn’t dare come to this part of the city. not only did they deem it below their status, but they were in danger – most of us didn’t appreciate their presence. when she let her greedy self into drag’s place i was in the midst of reading him a story. i was glad i managed not to yell at her. she was quiet, gentle and polite. she seemed to respect me, and seemed concerned about the man, so who was i to tell her to fuck off. i finally got up the nerve to ask her why she had such a strong interest in drag. her answer was disturbing to me, but i didn’t have any other way of helping him.
it turned out that drag had been under surveillance for a long time. nothing bad, the fint had said to ease the look of anger that had come to my face. she and her colleagues wanted to see if drag was eligible to take part in clinic that wanted to test out a new kind of tool. it used technology similar to the synta, and had been optimized for people like drag, lost in and pining for the past, useless in the modern world. reluctantly i helped her convince drag to move to her clinic where he’d start a new life. what else could i have done?
after looking for a long time, drag finally chose a modest house on a hill in the forest. he was elated at this choice, and it seemed to lighten his mood immediately. his neighbors were a mile away, but easy to walk to, even in the rain. he chose a vehicle that he called a “little Volkswagon beetle,” and learned his way around the town quickly. there was a lake nearby where he could fish and he was given an ample library of old books and a full kitchen. he chose not to have a computer. the plan was for him to drive daily into town to the post office where his job was to sort and reroute mail that had been addressed incorrectly. there was a lot of it – five trillion misdirects every second, i was told – but he worked extremely efficiently, rarely making mistakes. after some time at the clinic, he apparently began dating a young lady. i heard they had quite a thing going and had the whole town talking for a while. he frequently visited the local pub on his off hours and seemed to enjoy playing pool. his life became very simple and very clear.
in the first few weeks i wanted them to revive him so i could talk to him directly, but they said it would be too risky. they told me that his initial depression after his first experience with the synta was a strong sign that bringing him out of this program could damage him. i was told he may not even recognize me anyway, since he had adjusted so quickly to his new environment. i felt like the technicians were patronizing me; their gestures indicated an impatience barely contained.
i visited him every once in awhile. i really don’t know what it was that attracted me to him and his new life, and why i felt the need to be there for him. he seemed to have forgotten me and seeing him was uncomfortable for me. his life seemed grotesque; his state reminded me of how horrid i’d felt when i pulled the synta goggles off my face, and how he’d become so despondent after his own experience. i didn’t understand how he could be enjoying this new life. but they told me he was happy and even showed me clips of his virtual self getting out of his weird looking little car and walking into the little antique post office building with the squeaky doorway, or giving his sweetheart a peck on the cheek before taking her to see a drive-in movie. in one of the clips of his life that i watched, he checked his hair in a mirror and i got to see his face for the first time in months. he was a different man, eyes alight and young. that vision stayed with me for a long time – i’d never seen anyone so happy. it made no sense to me then and still doesn’t now.
the data company that drag’s fint had worked for kept him alive for as long as they could. he was one of their more efficient workers and symbolic, as he was one who had proven their experiment successful. since he’d gone under, hundreds of invalids had followed his lead, not without controversy, of course.
my wife and i were there when they turned his life support off and emptied the water from his tank. his skin had become transparent, and they’d removed his face and eyes at some point replacing them with a mask prosthetic that hooked up to a breathing apparatus and interfaced directly with his brain. my wife cried afterwards even though she’d never met him. she and i agreed that we could never willingly do such a thing to ourselves – we want to auto-euthanize when we become burdens to our children and have nothing left to do with our lives. the kids have different plans for us. one is relentless, insisting that we plug into the synta system in a few years so we can enjoy our old age. she plans on joining us when she grows old. i think she’s naive, but i can’t help but wonder if i’d be able to see drag again.