Anxiety Branson, Social Security Hustler
by Charlie Anders
One day we’ll all leave our bodies forever and upload our essences to cyberspace. And on that day, there’ll still be cities. Somehow, our disembodied psyches will still litter, pee on the virtual sidewalks and throw scalding latte at panhandlers. Cities aren’t places, they’re nexuses of decay.
Every day I scoured the city for end-stage Sock-heads. I made the rounds: the public cybrary, the hospital, the media feed centers and the parks. I learned everything about the smells of walls. Dying people leave scents in brick and alloy, mingled with phosphor residue at the cybrary or disinfectant at the hospital.
My vulture existence, combined with natural paranoia, had led me to expect my own death at any moment. The only question was how. Would the germs on this doorknob do me in, or would that woman over there with macrame woven directly into her breasts murder me?
Terror was my constant companion. Terror, and sometimes Bill.
When Bill asked how I was doing, I always lied and said great. I faked cheer for Bill. I didn’t want him to get tired of me just before he sickened of living. My rent and food depended on being there when Bill breathed his last. He always seemed half-dead: starving and flabby all at once, wisps of almost-beard falling off his jaw and shreds of tattoo on his claw hands.
Bill haunted the Money Hut, facing the retinal scanners as if expecting somebody to beam him cash at any moment. People sidled past him as if he were another gum splat on the floor tiles. He slapped me on the arm, face brightening at my sight despite the vagueness that Social Security left in the eyes of every Sock-head.
“Hey Anxiety. I’m going to buy ravioli.” He eked out every word. “Wanna come with?”
“Why not?” I slapped him on the shoulder lightly. “So where are you today? The beach?”
“No, I’m in a huge garden where mouths grow instead of flowers. All kinds of mouths, lizard and dog mouths as well as human ones. And I’m fucking a woman with nine hands.” Bill knew I loved hearing about his Social Security trips. It spurred my belief his implant was especially vivid and therefore valuable. But it also excited me to escape reality through him.
“I wish people my age were allowed to receive Social Security,” I mused. “All that sex and hallucination sounds way more fun than my ‘real’ life.”
“You’d never get anything done,” Bill muttered. “You need to be a productive member of society, like I was when I was your age.”
“Suck rot, you’ve already told me you were a ‘slacker’ when you were my age. Plus people on Social Security still work retail or menial.”
Bill spent half an hour staring at cans at Buygood. He picked one up and held it sideways a foot from his eyes. “I’m falling through mile-high clover,” he told me. I decided he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, and didn’t seem to be at death’s entry protocol.
So I left Bill with his cans and ran to check on some other prospects. I spent half an hour in Mercer Mark’s Records watching the clerk, Georgina, who claimed to be old enough to have seen David Bowie in concert before he defaulted on his bonds and became a corporate asset. Every day Georgina looked frailer, and I wanted to be there if she kicked the turntable. Harvesting a fresh corpse was no fun, but the first thing they did at funeral homes and morgues was remove Social Security. Unfortunately, Georgina recognized me by now. She scowled at me before I even entered the musical coal cellar.
“What the fuck you doing in here again, you tramp? You never buy anything, you take up valuable space and you look at me like you sick into older women, do you know how old I am? Buy one of these Eminem CDs, only $200 -- you won’t find old discs that cheap nowhere, only a couple scratches this one. What you looking at? You never seen a member of Gen X before? Like, barter a clue, buster.” I wished I could buy a record to make her happy. I wished I still toiled at the Filthy Spoon instead of hustling. I kept staring at Georgina’s sagging everything, trying to imagine where her implant was sending her. My gaze only amped her apoplexy and hastened her hoped-for death.
Georgina threatened to call the cops if I didn’t leave. On the street, I felt someone could be following me, but I couldn’t tell from the sidewalk swarm. How would I know if someone watched for me to drop dead the way I haunted Georgina? What would the categorical imperative say about implant hustling among the living anyway? I’d almost gotten a “categoricalimperative” implant to govern my behavior, but I heard those drove people crazy.
My head still hurt a lot, and it burned a tad when I peed, and I worried I had a disease or maybe just dehydration. I drank a liter bottle of water which made me guilty because I’d read all the bottled water comes from the polar ice caps. How to do the least harm? My own hedonic calculus turned geometrically impossible when I weighed my small pleasures against the pain salad that was the city’s twenty million people.
Instead of the categoricalimperative implant, I’d gotten a “donoharm” implant for about a year. It had made my skull throb with its constant warnings: “Don’t shop there, they use sweatshop cyborgs, that homeless person only wants money for drugs.” I couldn’t afford to shop the places the implant preferred, and it left me with a permanently sore pineal gland. I don’t know how some people live with half a dozen implants beaming them real-time etiquette corrections, hate mail from enemies and terrorism warnings.
At least Bill was easier to keep tabs on than Georgina. I found him back at the Buygood where I’d left him. I was all set to spend the rest of the day, or the month for that matter, just to be there when he died. Then he said it: “You know, Anxiety, you’re my best friend on Earth.”
The way he said it made me shiver and retch. I had to look away from his face. I wished he would abuse me like Georgina instead.
The “donoharm” implant, long since removed, throbbed like a vestigial limb as Bill told me how much my presence meant to him. “Since my partner and kids died, I’ve had nobody to talk to. Now you’re the only one who doesn’t just treat me like a dummy Sock-head. You’re friendly and cynical, the way I was when I was your age.”\
“Hey thanks.” I changed the subject as quickly as I could. “So. Did it hurt, when they put your implant in?” I was genuinely curious. Not that I expected to live long enough to receive Social Security, but after yanking it out of so many brains, I wondered how it felt going in.
“Not at the time. You have to remember, they offer people total neural shutdown instead of anesthetic. Supposedly to be humane, but more likely in the hopes that a few of us won’t wake up afterwards. Myself, I ran like hell. I didn’t want Social Security -- I liked my brain the way it was. I hid in a sewer for a week, but then I craved fresh fruit so bad I dreamed I was floating in orange juice. When I went up to find a night market, they nabbed me. An hour later, I had a sore head and Social Security hardwired to my pleasure centers.”
“But you got used to it, right?”
“Eventually, yeah. I mean, non-stop sex and drugs, what’s not to like? I just miss seeing the world around me clear, you know?”
I can still remember when I moved to the city and found it a playground of all-night tattoo parlors and streets where sex kittens and cyber-pigeons cruised all-night rave-reveries. Somewhere around the third eviction or the tenth second-hand “you-gonna-finish-that?” meal, the city became a playground more like the ones I’d known in grade school, full of bullies and hazards. And that was before I started harvesting Sock-heads. After a few years of that job, they didn’t call me Anxiety for nothing.
Who would come to my funeral, apart from other hustlers? I obsessed over whether dying would hurt, and whether the cops would solve my murder. And how could I die in a way that least inconvenienced taxpayers? I worried a lot about taxpayers, some of whom used to be my friends. If I ever paid taxes, I wouldn’t want people like me to waste them.
Every day the city acted more hostile, like when the ATMs started dispensing only thousand dollar bills instead of five hundreds, and what was I supposed to do, empty my account each time I withdrew cash? The one human teller who still worked at my bank always looked nettles at me.
When I signed up for this gig, I figured it’d be plush. Just hang around with zonked out old people all day and listen to their hallucinations and slightly more believable reminiscences.
I never pictured myself on my hands and knees in a dingy cube-unit slicing open a fresh corpse’s neck with his widow clinging to my back and screaming. I’d heard her screaming that her husband was dead from her window, and raced up there. Now her newly bereaved hands were around my throat.
“Get off my Lester, shit-finger!”
“Lady, it’s not like I can hurt him or anything. He’s already dead. I’ll be gone in a sec. If you’ll just --”
She was a wiry bitch, probably sexomatic back in the day. She dug claws into my jugular and squeezed. “Leave him alone --” as if I were the one who was assaulting someone.
I struggled to remember the class Haupter had taught on SS removal in 30 seconds or less. “Just like coring an apple. Plunge the cutter deep and describe an oval. You want to sever all the connections to the medulla in one go.” It sounds easy, but try doing it with a crazed widow on your ass.
“Greetings and condolences, Mrs. Gerrold.” The two-foot refrigerator at the cube’s corner glowed and spewed out frozen air in the shape of a man in a top hat and dinner jacket. He fuzzed where the chill vapor hit air. “I represent the Wilkinson Mortuary Group, which sponsored your refrigerator.”
“Help me kill this guy!” Mrs. Gerrold ordered the frozen cloud.
“I’m here to discuss the funeral arrangements. You will of course desire the finest posthumous ornamentation, which can be yours at a generous discount.”
I finally had the cutter in all the way. This was a messier job than usual. I had stuff I didn’t want to think about all over my hands. I wondered for a second if Mr. Gerrold had really been dead when I started. I mean, the wife would have checked, right? I severed the main input connection, which left just two more to go. The widow Gerrold gripped a bread laser, the kind they give away with toasters.
I snatched away my hand just as Mrs. Gerrold stabbed. Her laser went right into the base of her husband’s skull. Brains splattered her knee and my hand. I begged forgiveness until I heard sirens. The refrigerator vapor-holo was explaining that all of the damage Mrs. Gerrold was causing with her laser could be beautified for just a few thousand extra. I ran out on the street, the SS implant in my left fist, and kept running for half an hour.
Haupter scrutinized Mr. Gerrold’s implant. “It’s damaged.” He looked up and nearly blinded me with the laser scanners attached to his eyepiece. Good thing I never tried to make eye contact with Haupter anyway.
When I was a kid, I had an mp9 of the Goldfinger theme, and I always thought Shirley Bassey was singing about a man who had the mildest touch. Such gentleness sounded mad sinister, but I’d never felt that brushing on my skin until I started working for Haupter. His fingers had a soul-stealer’s lightness when we shook hands. Which was weird, because he looked meaty and fierce, like someone who’d crush your hand, or anything else he felt like.
“It’s not damaged,” I said. “I mean, the connections got frazzed when I removed it, but the unit itself is perfect.” I stood in front of Haupter’s big metal desk, in his velvet-walled office under that converted movie theater off 3rd. Ave. where sex robots fight to the death. Every now and then we heard inhuman wails and cheering.
“It’ll require repairs,” Haupter said. “My clients expect the implants head-ready.” He sat still for a while, emerald silk smock shimmer-free. I fidgeted and wondered if the widow Gerrold or her freezer cloud had been able to identify me. “I’ll give you eight thousand,” Haupter said at last. I started to argue for my full fee, but knew it was useless.
“I’m close to getting a good one,” I said. “High-resolution, vivid images. Probably the 9600 series. He’s this close to the big logoff.” I held fingers almost together. Haupter stared and I almost thought he’d encourage me to help Bill reach his destination. Instead he wished me luck and sent me away.
By the time I got back to Bill, I was obsessing over whether Haupter would have me killed to keep me from fingering him if Mrs. Gerrold put the bite on me. Not to mention what kind of infections you could get from dead brains. I washed my hands five times.
But of course I had to fake a smile for Bill. Always. “It’s a beautiful day for an outdoor gathering.” I found him at the fringe of the crowd at the Aggro Congress at Park and 23rd. People burned creatures made of human hair and screamed at the cops, who just watched. The Aggro Congress used to be biannual, then annual. Now it’s like monthly. It has no political aims or grievances. Its only beneficiaries are pickpockets, paramedics for hire and bottled water companies.
“The flames look pretty against the cotton rain,” Bill said. “Have you done all your errands?”
“All done,” I said. “I’m yours for the day.” Or the week.
Something about the Aggro Congress fascinated Bill, he wanted to stay and watch. All of the screaming and flames terrified me, put me in mind of childhood Hell nightmares. I tried to pull Bill away, offered to buy him ice cream somewhere else. He wouldn’t budge. Another hustler saw him and tried to glom, but I put my body between the two of them. The world seemed about to end, I wanted to scream, but instead I kept smiling for Bill.
I thought I spotted Mrs. Gerrold across the crowd, pointing at me. Then I lost her before I could be sure.
The Congress burned hundred dollar bills, maybe fake. “So pretty,” Bill said. I gathered that where he was, the sun shone from the ground as well as the sky and birds flew sideways. I felt unsteady and thought for a second that the Earth moved, but it was just the drumming and stomping. Then I thought if someone wanted to kill me here, they could make it appear an accidental trampling.
“Bill, I really want to go somewhere else. It’s not safe here.”
Bill seemed to see me for the first time. “You’re a nervous one. I remember that feeling. You should learn to relax, as I did.”
You didn’t learn to relax , I almost told him. You had relaxation shoved into your brain against your will.
Instead, I said, “You’re right. That’s why I like hanging out with you. You’re like a calming presence.” I meant it, too. It occurred to me that I’d feel like shit when the time came to cut Bill. He’d almost be worth more to me alive than dead.
I’d heard of hustlers bonding with Sock-heads before, and Haupter had warned us against it. “Remember, you’re barely real to them, compared to their Sock trips,” he’d said. “They may appear affectionate, but it’s delirium talking.” In the case of Bill, delirium owned a thesaurus.
Bill was in the middle of explaining to me how he balanced his chakras and shit, when someone elbowed him in the nose. “Hey fucker you stole my wallet goddammit give it back!” Bill looked blank as if a pixie in his Sock dream had tapped him. “I’m talking to you man, you took my wallet give it back!”
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” I said. “Look at him. He’s a Sock... I mean a Social Security recipient. He wouldn’t have the coordination to take your wallet.”
“Well, he found a way, asshole. I felt him grab my shit.” The man dwarfed me by a half meter, and he’d long since consecrated his face to violence, judging from the scars and twisted septum. The crowd sensed mayhem and gathered around us instead of the guy shredding flags of all nations.
I reached into Bill’s jacket pocket and found his Social Security card. I also touched something that felt like a wallet. I pulled the card and waved it in the bruiser’s face. “Look. He couldn’t steal a glance. Why not pick on someone your own age?” I showed it to enough people at the front of the rim of spectators that they moved to restrain the guy, who still wanted to rumble.
Then I grabbed Bill’s arm and dragged him out of there. We put a few blocks between us and the Aggro Congress before I let him stop for breath. “You’re giving me half of whatever’s in that wallet,” I panted.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill said. “I was just admiring the ballet dandelions, and --”
“How did you do it? You’re not even supposed to know what day it is and you lifted that guy’s wallet. Don’t tell me it’s all about the balanced chakras, either.”
Bill bent over and shook hands with an imaginary duck, as if he hadn’t heard what I’d said. All of a sudden, it clicked.
“You can stop pretending,” I said. “I’ve figured it out.” I still had Bill’s Social Security Card in my hand. I held it up to the light. The little holographic eagle looked twisty, as if it’d fallen into an oil slick. I tossed the forgery back to Bill, who caught it one-handed.
Bill looked at me. His eyes met mine and his neck and shoulders straightened out so he gained about five inches in height. “The story I told you before was mostly true.” He spoke about twice as fast as before, with none of the slurring or mumbling. In retrospect, I kicked myself for not seeing through his act sooner. “I did run away when they tried to give me the implant. And I almost got caught. Then I paid someone to forge this card and I was home free.”
“Why didn’t you tell me ... all this time you’ve been lying...”
“Hey, I told you before: I like you a lot, Anxiety. You’re like my best friend. And I knew you wouldn’t hang around me if you knew.”
A second hammer to the gut. He knew what I did for a living.
“Yo, you weren’t too honest with me either,” Bill added. He pulled the wallet and disemboweled it, taking only cash and throwing the rest into a composting collector. He counted the cash then handed me half: three thousand dollars. “So I guess I’ll see you later,” he said. He started to walk away. His gait sagged back into its usual lope.
“Come back here, you manipulative old fucker,” I yelled. “I’m not done with you. I said, come back here or I’m turning you in!” Bill stopped and looked at me. Then he trudged back my way. He kept making eye contact, which freaked me out. “Were you ever going to tell me the truth?” I asked. He shrugged. I imagined digging deeper and deeper into his corpse seeking something that wasn’t there.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Bill said. “I got lonely. It’s not like I can make any friends my own age, you know? And you were always so sunny. Such a happy person.”
“That’s what really pisses me off!” I screamed. “I pretended to be mentally well! I acted all well-adjusted to keep you hanging around, and really I’m a nervous wreck. How could you do that to me?” Bill shrugged. “Think how violated that makes me feel! You think I can afford therapy, in this line of work?”
“Therapy is overrated,” Bill said. “I had ten years of therapy when I was your age. Total waste of time, all I learned was that my family sucked, which I already knew. Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?”
“Look at this spot on my left hand. Look at it,” I said, waving it in front of his eyes. “I got a dead man’s brains on my hand and now I’m convinced I’ve gotten an infection or something. Can you get encephalitis through your hand? I could die at any moment. And I probably deserve to die, all the shit I’ve done.”
Bill considered the spot on my hand. “It looks like a bug bite. As for deserving to die, it’s all relative, you know? I once robbed an old lady, a Sock-head my own age. I still feel awful about that. It was survival. Like, have you ever killed anyone?”
“I don’t think so. Unless I accidentally harvested a Sock-head who wasn’t dead yet.”
“Well, there you have it.” Bill and I found an abandoned sofa on the sidewalk. We spent the next few hours examining my paranoid delusions. It was a weird role-reversal. Bill shook his head a few times and spat on the cement grit. Inevitably, I started feeling guilty for using Bill as my free therapist, even if he owed me, sort of. Bill and I parted a while later, as friends.
The next day, I looked for Bill, to suggest a new arrangement for him. He could pass unnoticed among the Sock-heads and help me find the best prospects. A natural partnership. I looked for him for two days, in vain. I scoured his old haunts. The creature of habit had faded out. Maybe he finally dropped dead, or maybe he didn’t like us knowing each other’s secrets. Or maybe the Social Security people finally caught up with him and he forgot where he went when he only pretended to be a Sock-head. Whatever. I decided a few days later to find a new job. I couldn’t stand to be around those vacant old minds any longer, never knowing what they really understood.
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About the Author
Charlie Anders coedited the anthology She’s Such A Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff. She also wrote Choir Boy, a novel. Her stories have appeared at Strange Horizons, Space & Time, ZYZZYVA, GUD and the anthology Paraspheres: New Wave Fabulist Fiction.
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