From the author: James -- a, shall we say, secretive man -- waits for his license to be renewed.
James glanced at his watch, although of course its primary purpose wasn’t telling the time. Had he really only been waiting twenty minutes? He hadn’t brought a book. He’d never developed a taste for reading. A shame; it would help the wait pass more quickly. He did have his little collection of high-tech gadgets, like anyone else, but none of them were designed to kill time.
A lot of people waiting, as usual. Old men, used up, slumped over as if drugged or dying, but they were only bored and half-asleep, this time. Young people, too. That kid, there – how could he possibly be old enough to get a licence? He sat nervously a few chairs down from James, his tuxedo creased and a slash of shoe polish glimmering wetly on one sock, rich, black hair newly shorn to a reasonable length.
Must be his first time. Looking at the kid made James feel older. His own hair was displaying fringes of grey, and though his weight was under the firm control of a rigorous exercise programme, he knew that he would never again be as flexible and resilient as that boy.
But his own tuxedo was comfortable and perfect, his shoes immaculate, his hair neat -- a lifetime of habit, displayed in his bearing and appearance. Honed. The kid, now – a strand of hair gone astray, the tux just a little too loose there, too tight here, with a betraying bulge high up on the waist. The youngster tapped a foot against the floor. He hadn’t learned to sit still.
Every five years, the same old thing. Stand in the queue, take his number from the dispenser, sit in one of the hard plastic seats. It’s not like he had to take any tests. Just the eye scan, as he read the letters at the bottom of the chart. But they had to get a new picture, had to recertify everything.
He glanced over at the young man again. He was looking up at the lights overhead, obviously bored out of his bloody mind. One of the kid’s hands held a ballpoint pen. James watched as the little fool’s thumb came down, pressed lightly, nearly clicking the pen. But he didn’t, and James allowed the tension in his muscles to dissipate. He could just remember being that young. Wanting that licence so much, that ticket to freedom, he’d have killed for it.
The clerks were in no hurry. They stood behind their counters, faces jowled and creased, thick glasses over their eyes, saying the same things to the same kinds of applicants day after day.
If he were closer, if the plastic seat he was trapped in were just a little nearer the counter, he knew he could charm some expedited service out of the nearest, a middle-aged woman, no matter how secure she might feel behind her counter.
From the way she tilted forward he could tell she was wearing a pair of absurdly high heels. Her cleavage was still impressive, but there were folds of skin under her chin, and her hair looked brittle – too many days on beaches, too many hair products. She wouldn’t be going back out there, but she must miss it. A quick smile, an easy word, and she would be moving him up the queue, or even just renewing his licence right there, gratitude for his acknowledgement. But she was there and he was in his plastic-seat limbo.
Hell with it. He should just get up, walk out. He could. Plenty of people lived full lives without a licence, without pressing their foreheads to the vision machines and answering questions about addresses and eye color. A licence was nothing but stress. How pleasant to sit on a park bench, instead. No running around, no pressure to get things done, get somewhere, get away.
Sit on a park bench in the sun. A well-chilled martini in hand. That would be the life.
Then again, since he hadn’t developed a taste for books, sitting on a park bench would get boring pretty fast. He needed that licence. Without a licence, he could not work. And without his work, what was he?
He looked over at the kid again. He could warn him: leave now. The licence will trap you. You think you need it. You don’t, not yet. But give it a few years, and you won’t know what to do without one. A life with a licence is no life at all. Who, having one, ever got married, had kids, a regular house? Did an Aston-Martin really compensate for--
There was a muted bing sound. “Now serving double-oh-four,” said a mellow voice.
Good, James thought. Just three more.
This story originally appeared in Kline.