From the editor:
Joseph’s only deviation from regulation minimalism is an illicit second bicycle... until he meets Alyssa, a dumpster-diving, live-streaming, crowd-funded wanderer.
Award-winning author Jen Knox hails from Ohio, and her work has been featured in The Best Small Fictions 2017, The Saturday Evening Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and NPR, among many others.
From the author: An aspiring minimalist, Joseph combated excess with routine. He paid his quarterly waste bills on time, overpaying when he anticipated lower commissions. He didn’t engage in unnecessary human-to-human interaction, but he Tweeted and posted and shared a minimum of fifty times daily to maintain the fan base
An aspiring minimalist, Joseph combated excess with routine. He paid his quarterly waste bills on time, overpaying when he anticipated lower commissions. He didn’t engage in unnecessary human-to-human interaction, but he Tweeted and posted and shared a minimum of fifty times daily to maintain the fan base for his streaming channel and, in particular, for his leading Thursday night show, The Many Lives of Art. He sent private messages to fans and associates on a semi-regular basis in order to foster deeper friendships.
Before he met Alyssa, Joseph had been a Level Three Green Citizen for eighteen months running; his individual footprint was 0.013%, which was notable, as most had a 0.02% average (government worker information not disclosed). He worked hard to maintain this average and was proud of it, but not too proud.
Joseph was alone most of the time. Even though he sometimes missed the regular video chats and occasional physical meetings with Trish, his ex-wife, he was content that he’d had his experience as a husband. Once was enough. One of anything was enough.
Joseph’s Achilles’ heel was personal transportation. He, somewhat shamefully, owned two bicycles; his mother gave him a hard time about it, and rightfully so. He paid additional taxes for the superfluous bike, and he sometimes thought of selling or donating it. Everyone had at least one indulgence, he reasoned. He used one bike for transport and another for leisure. He preferred it this way because one was always clean and in good shape. There was no better way to come up with ideas for the show than on his leisure bike, among the dwindling natural things.
Joseph’s behavior on the road was stellar; he’d considered becoming a cycle cop before settling for a writing career, like 89% of the population (not including government workers). Writing was the safer career path, after all, as there was talk of one day eliminating the need for human transport and mobilizing society by drones alone.
Joseph tended to stay in the second lane to the left, never racing or getting tickets, always respecting the speed limits. He voted every year, not only to keep the roads but to extend them. Biking was visceral, freeing.
Alyssa was digging in Joseph’s trash square the Sunday morning they met. He’d wanted to squeeze in a short ride because he was scheduled to have a video conference with his family later that day—most of them lived in Holland, so they had monthly, sometimes bimonthly visits—and even a quick ride on the leisure bike would help him to mentally prepare himself. He paused in the doorway, rubbed his face a few times to make sure he was awake, and asked, “What the fresh hell?”
Alyssa didn’t answer at first. She wore tight jeans and a long, flowing shirt that looked worn but a little too nice for trash digging. Joseph would dig around in his own trash when money was tight or ratings were low, looking for materials to bury or redistribute; but to see someone in his personal trash square made him feel oddly exposed.
She was hinged over at the waist, really digging in with her feet lifted from the ground, so she had to ease herself down. She did this expertly, smiling, holding Joseph’s old blender in her hand. She said, “I dropped something in here by accident. Sorry if I woke you. I’ll pay a dollar or two—whatever the increase.” Her eyes were bright. She seemed to be examining his face to determine whether or not he was convinced, then added, “You can send me your itemized bill. It was just a notebook, a few old poems. Printed copies.”
He eyed the blender. “They’re talking about making print illegal, you know.”
“I know. I just—I like holding them, seeing them off the screen.” She glanced beyond him, at the two bikes securely hung on the wall just beyond his front door, and he thought he caught something like intrigue on her face before she put on a phony smile.
He closed the door behind him. “You want me to help? Trash compacts on Mondays here, and I haven’t thrown much away, so it has to be near the surface. I haven’t taken a shower yet,” he said, noticing that her shirt was quite sheer.
“How sweet! No. But can I have this?” she asked, holding up the blender.
“That costs far more than a few papers.” Plastic was heavy; she was probably saving Joseph $20 dollars in weight fees. The government weighers for block 7D were merciless with Joseph; he’d pissed them off once by leaving out a broken office chair on the wrong day.
“I’m Alyssa,” she said, curtsying. “I’m from Ohio.”
“Welcome to block 7D.”
The next time Joseph saw Alyssa, she was outside in a light rain, wearing a neon-green ball cap, her short blonde hair tucked behind her ears. She was moving, nimble, flipping and twisting a giant arrow leading the way to the scrap sale on block 7N. Joseph was surprised to see she had a physical job—a rarity—or was she being projected?
He pulled his bike up to the curb, trying to determine whether he was seeing a hologram or a person, and another cyclist honked, annoyed, almost clipping his heels. Joseph hoisted the bike up on the curb and took a breath, realizing that Alyssa was actually here. How odd, he thought.
“I can’t believe you do this in real time, in physical form. How long did it take you to get it down? I mean—you have it down. Most of these folks struggle or turn it slowly, and they’re at home, recorded. I can’t believe you do this live!”
“Thanks. We still have a choice, and I like the rain. I also like to do as much physical stuff as possible for my reality show.” She pointed up at the streetlight where a red dot winked at them. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but since you stopped. I mean, if you have the time, can you go to the sale?” She pointed the big arrow. “I get my bonus based on the number of people who walk in the door, so even if you just walk in and walk out ... I mean, if you want. I’ll watch your bike.”
“Why don’t I ever see you?” Joseph asked. Granted, he never saw most of his neighbors, but her condo was always dark, and he never heard so much as a rustle outside.
“I like to be out, have my cameras set up everywhere. I get lonely at home.”
“You can visit anytime,” he offered. “Except right now. I have a scrap sale to go check out.” He smiled, felt the distraction welling up in his belly, and didn’t bother to shake it off.
She clapped her hand against the arrow and smiled, then turned back to the traffic and began to spin. A man on a pink bike yelled out, asking that she flash him, and Joseph flicked him off.
As soon as he entered the scrap store, vendors began yelling from all directions. They were selling vintage items: pagers, phones, laptops, and even a few Apple products. Joseph smiled to himself, thinking of Alyssa’s admission. She was lonely, and this pleased him for some reason.
Before heading out, Joseph paused near a box filled with a couple hundred SIM cards. He liked collecting these for character studies. After finding three or four that had legible ID numbers, he pressed his finger to the payment pad and hurried out. People in the 21st century had been so awkward with technology, eager to use every application that existed, wasteful; they’d left sprawling and exposed lives, and Joseph had found this an ideal way to come up with storylines for his show—a drama about a group of struggling artists who try their hands at everything unrelated to art to find their ideas. The cast shifted every season so viewers wouldn’t get bored.
When he returned, Alyssa was gone, and his leisure bike—his favorite—was gone with her. He figured she had ridden off as part of her show; perhaps it was a comedy angle or a prank show, which was annoying but understandable seeing as how competition for ratings was fierce. He began to walk home. The walking lanes were nice, and it was a thing he hadn’t done in a long time. He had about four miles to go, so he thought about his next story as he took slow steps in the rain.
By the time Joseph got home, his story was basically mind-mapped. His lead artist this season, a character named Eko, would become a professional sign flipper for the show; instead of scrap shops, he would point the way to an old-fashioned circus or animal show. The audience for this season might shift, and Joseph may get some mean comments, but heated discussion boards would only increase his viewership. Animals were no longer forced into captivity, but there was a movement, and many who secretly kept pets from sheer loneliness. They were undisciplined and greedy as far as Joseph was concerned, but he understood.
As soon as he got home, he began to write. He wrote for almost three hours and immediately sent his idea to his agent. She replied with a smiley ping because he was, for once, a week ahead of his deadline.
Stretching his legs, which were oddly sore from the long walk, Joseph choked down his 2p.m. smoothie, a gray and tasteless thing, then went to knock on Alyssa’s door. When she answered, she was naked, but for the sheer flowy shirt he’d seen her wearing the day he met her; her body was as perfect as a human’s can get. He asked her if she was still lonely, and she said yes.
Live sex was exhausting to Joseph. After, he listened to her light snoring and enjoyed the wave of distraction. At one time, Trish and Joseph had been an entity; she had been a co-writer on the show; they had shared the bills and the profiles and the bikes; they spoke to family together; they slept together, either online or in-person, and she would sometimes snore.
Joseph rolled out of bed slowly, quietly, figuring he’d return later to ask about his bike. She woke up and licked her lips. “I took your bike because you have two. I don’t have any. I figured it would be okay,” she said sleepily.
Joseph leaned into her, hoping she’d embrace him again, invite him back to bed. Instead, she said, “I can compensate you now. Feel free to check my computer area, and if you prefer, I will return the bicycle.” Computer areas were private rooms in most homes, locked up like vaults.
“Do I need a key?”
“No. I’m heading out, though, so just be sure the door closes all the way when you leave.”
Joseph nodded. He wondered what she had in mind for payment. Her computer room was lined with purple lights, celebratory. Her avatar greeted him from a screen and asked his name and Citizen ID number. He told her he wasn’t logging in. “Oh yes, the neighbor,” the avatar said. “Alyssa has your bike. She would like to know if she can keep it.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It is extraneous, but I’m attached.”
“It is best she keep it, then, don’t you think? It’s only a matter of time before it is found out.”
Joseph took an audible, exasperated breath. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I still want it back. I pay taxes on it.”
“I must be honest. The bicycle will not be returned, Joseph. Alyssa is a drifter. Would you like footage from your sexual experiences over the course of the last two days? It’s 7K, 4D, with over 40 filters to choose from. You can change hair color and even body shape if you get bored.”
He watched as teaser clips were displayed on the wall, and wished he had footage of Trish instead. Despite his desire to fight, he knew the avatar was right. He would have to move on. “Yes, please,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Anytime. Please give me your hand.” A few numbers flashed, and Joseph was asked to remit payment.
“For the digital copy or the sex?” he asked.
“Alyssa takes donations. It is up to you.”
“Donations for sex?”
“Donations for her life. Her life is crowdfunded. She will not see you again, I am sure. She liked you, however. She wrote that in a poem.”
“We could have meal shakes together,” he said. “Maybe I can convince her to return the bike.”
“Thank you for the offer, but no. She’s busy,” the avatar said. “We both are. Alyssa is no longer lonely. She thanks you for coming over to retrieve your bike.”
“I would have come over anyway,” Joseph assured her avatar. “I still will.”
“That would be excessive.”
Joseph watched Alyssa again in the footage, zooming in and changing the angle so that he didn’t see himself but gained his perspective again. The quality was truly great. But he had learned his lesson, knew there was no point overdoing anything.
He turned it off and got down to business, deducting the bike from his personal inventory and reaching an all-time low-impact footprint of 0.011%. This was something to tell the family about; they’d be very proud.
Advertisers were relentless. Image after image of new bicycles popped up on his screens. Before taking one of many long walks, he searched Alyssa’s name and location, and pulled her up on one of the city’s live cameras; she was pedaling in sandals and loose clothes, waving at cameras as she swerved illegally in and out of lanes.
The dark blue paint of the bike shone in the sun as she parked sloppily in someone’s bike drive. Joseph watched, mortified, as she let the bike rest under an acorn tree. She hoisted herself up and into someone’s trash box, and he shut down the computer, imagining how efficient he would be after the pesky feelings of loss and loneliness passed.
This story originally appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.