The Infallibility Booth by Hugh Roberts
THE CANDY-STRIPED ENVELOPE had arrived URGENT post-marked August 21st 2085, the day after his thirtieth birthday. He hadn’t been surprised and when his neighbor caught sight of the telltale mail, she’d smiled at him reassuringly as if to say, “This is probably for the best, Teddy. It’s been an inordinate amount of time since you had someone.”
He’d taken the envelope inside and, after moving the pile of clean laundry off his only chair, he collapsed into it. Delicately opening the envelope, he found the date and time of his coupling along with the heavy coin he’d use to reach her from inside the Infallibility Booth.
Although he had felt a sense of resignation or apathy at the imminent arrival of his sentencing, his mother had been relieved.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she’d chided over the phone. “Your uncle was sentenced on his thirtieth birthday too and look what happened to him. Runs that very successful bed and breakfast right outside Camden, doesn’t he?”
She was right. He knew she was right. How many single friends of his had been happier having turned thirty and undergone the coupling? Just about every morning, he’d see a friend from high school or college during his Facebook rundown who had been to his or her own sentencing. They were always on a hike or something AND invariably had a dog! He’d always wanted a dog.
The government was right to have executed the order back in the 2020’s. Afraid of mirroring the population decline taking place in Japan during the early 21st century, the government had decided that any single man or woman over the age of thirty with no prospects would be assigned a soul mate by implementing a tremendous algorithm designed by the best mathematical minds the United States had to offer. Thanks to the government, he now had the opportunity to live a hopeful and fulfilled life. Once he had his soul mate, he could focus on the bigger things, like his career and cultivating hobbies. This would, simply put, streamline his opportunities.
So now, a week later, he stood on the outskirts of Shell City in a field that his GPS chip powered by Google Exist had lead him to. Lined up with other newly turned thirty year olds he took a deep breathe and blew on his hands in the hopes of making them less clammy. Thumbing the coin he’d use to connect with his soul mate, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of melancholy. Perhaps it was the double-sided coin, showcasing two hands holding one another on one side and a broken heart on the other. Perhaps it was that he’d always hoped to find her organically, like in the movies. Reaching for a head of synthetic kale at the grocery store or helping her elderly grandmother at the Medicaid red box. He played the interaction out in his head.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I’m quite alright, thank you, but have you met my beautiful granddaughter? She’s bilingual and doesn’t even talk about it all that much. My… you two make a stunning couple.” At this the two young lovers would amorously lock eyes as if to say That’s our crazy grandma!
Alas, it was not meant to be. He was at his sentencing now, determined to get on with his life, with his wife.
He surveyed the field and its thirty or forty occupants. Youngish people of all shapes, shades and sizes milled around the Infallibility Booth.
The booth was a stark white cube that looked like the larger cousin to one of those old timey phone booths he’d seen at the Museum of Dead Empires. He always marveled at how much time those previous generations had wasted walking to a phone booth when now he could call someone by simply thinking of them. Atop the booth, a pristine white weathervane in the shape of a heart spun wildly, although there was no wind.
Standing in the shade of the booth stood a nebbish young man wearing coke bottle glasses, an ill-fitting cardigan and crinkled khakis. He seemed to be having trouble breathing and every ten minutes he would take an inhaler and press it to his face, breathe deeply, and then exhale while muttering to himself. After each drag of the inhaler, the young man would close his eyes and massage his temples. Teddy couldn’t help but smile at that.
Someone giggled behind him and he turned to meet the eyes of a very pretty woman with bright frizzy red hair and a rash of freckles across the bridge of her slightly upturned nose and big green eyes. He smiled at her and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Get a load of this guy” and she reciprocated by raising her eyebrows as if to retort “This is all a bit silly isn’t it?”
Teddy turned away and smiled to himself, glad to have someone to share in this with, even if it was a complete stranger. It helped to take his mind off how very scared he was. As the line moved forward, he turned to meet her eyes and extended his hand.
“Teddy.” And without waiting to hear her name, he barreled through. “Are you as nervous as I am?”
The redhead cocked her head and smiled, took his hand and whilst giggling, however forced this time, said – “I’m scared mostly. The overwhelming thing is that I have no idea what happens in that tiny white booth. I guess I’m going to walk in me and then walk out changed, one part of a pair. Like some salt and pepper shakers. My mom is ecstatic. Can’t wait to get me married and out of the house.” And then in a hushed tone “I don’t think this is right.”
“I don’t know”, sighed Teddy. He found her view refreshing, no matter how misguided she was. “I’m kind of excited. I think of today as the beginning of the rest of my life. Like everything has been leading me to this field to get into that booth and meet the woman I’ll spend the rest of my life with. If you end up with the person you’re meant to end up with, what’s the fuss in getting a little help?”
“I guess…” clearly not wanting to continue on this line of conversation, she offered her name and her hand again. “Kitty. Katherine Williams. Kitty Williams.”
Taking her hand for the second time, he noticed her nails had been chewed down.
“Teddy. Again. Teddy Hopkins.”
He was blushing and as he was about to ask her where she came from the weathervane ceased spinning and the doors to the booth hissed open. A black businessman hurried out. He was wearing a very fine pinstriped suit, walking erectly, as if holding up the sky all on his shoulders, and blinking back tears. The group hushed as the man, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the others, all but jogged past. Directly in front of Teddy and Kitty, he dropped his briefcase and cursed his clumsiness, sighing loudly. Teddy instinctually went to assist him, but at this, the man wrenched his briefcase up from the ground and spat.
“No, I don’t need help!”
Teddy took a step back and watched as the man stumbled clumsily towards the edge of the field. They all watched as he disappeared into the woods. The Infallibility Booth beckoned to its next customer.
“Now Sentencing… Arthur Milne.”
And as everyone looked around to see who Arthur Milne was, it became painfully apparent that the nebbish man in the dilapidated cardigan with the laborious breathing found himself in the unfortunate position of being Mr. Milne. With a whimper, he pulled on the sleeves of his cardigan and mustered one last puff of his inhaler before stepping up to the booth. As the doors slid closed behind him, the diminutive man was enveloped by darkness.
After a few seconds of silence, people started to pick up where they’d left off before the dramatic exit of the well-dressed businessman. Teddy thought back to what had led him to this day. A string of failed, albeit quick relationships – three months here six months there. No matter who he coupled with, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a more ideal person out there for him. It would just be easy with that person, after all, everyone was always saying when you know, you just know, but Teddy had never known. There were times he thought he had known, but he had been wrong – he hadn’t known at all.
He thought he’d known with Connie, his first adult girlfriend. A picture of Connie in a pile of leaves appeared on his iris screen. She too had been an animator. They’d met each other at work, had an instant connection and she left her boyfriend shortly after to date him. He’d run around town telling anyone that would listen that she was the one. However, after three short blissful months, he lost interest. He felt that she was too agreeable; she had been too nice to him. She hadn’t known when to put up a fight and when to just agree, so in fear of upsetting him, she started to tiptoe around him. She let him get away with too much and he couldn’t respect her after that. With the respect went the sexual attraction. In short, she hadn’t been a mind-reader. He blinked and the picture dissolved.
He thought he’d known with Erin, the first woman he’d ever really loved. A memory of Erin at a party played across the tiny screen implanted in his right eye. They’d met in college. She’d been so smart and illuminating, able to teach him things he hadn’t even thought could exist. Things about life, sex and himself. They’d been together for two torrid years, but after graduation, she had moved to New General Electric City and the distance proved too difficult to continue the relationship. He didn’t have the money to shuttle across the country every weekend, despite it only taking thirty minutes. She’d taken to going out with old friends from high school and he got jealous. He grew tired of Facebook sleuthing every Monday morning, and while he got ready for work, he became cold, dismissive and apathetic. After all, if she’d really been the one, she would have put him at ease somehow. She left him shortly after that. He blinked and the memory drifted away.
Most recently, he thought he’d known with Lauren. No sooner had he thought of her than her picture appeared on his iris screen with the prompt “Call Lauren?” He quickly blinked the prompt away. A year before, he’d met her on his birthday, which he considered a good omen. The first Jewish woman he’d dated, she was beautiful, but in a way he’d never experienced before. Her beauty emanated from inside. Sex with her had been caring, conversation had been stimulating and he had been enamored with her. She was a nurse specializing in pediatric oncology, which, to him, meant she had heaps of patience, something he’d learned that anyone dating him ought to have. This had felt like growth, the understanding that he wasn’t perfect. It felt like adulthood. They had gone out for a couple of months, but her schedule had taken precedence and he’d felt slighted. Her involvement in his life had slowly faded, the way the details from a good dream get more and more difficult to recall over time. Eventually, they simply stopped reaching out to one another.
“Don’t think too much about it.” He whipped out of his trance to see Kitty smirking at him. “I’m sure it’ll all work out for you and if not, it doesn’t really matter.”
Teddy shook his head. People could be so callous. “How very cool of you. Don’t you want to live a well-rounded life, to be happy? There has to be some significance in it.”
“Oh come on… listen to yourself. Well-rounded life? We’re ants. Granted, we’re highly intelligent ants. Here for a fleeting gasp.”
“That’s poetic. ”
She snorted. “No, its morbid. Don’t get the two confused.” He looked at her, trying to make sense of her matter-of-fact declaration. She laughed at him. “Don’t take it so seriously.”
“What? I don-.”
She carried on over him, “Sitting there with a furrowed brow trying to hammer out the details of what landed you alone, here in this field, on this day, talking with this woman, will not help you. It’s totally random. There is no meaning. We are here for a finite amount of time. I just try to enjoy it. Spend my time in the present. Do what makes me happy, now, here.”
Teddy found this type of nihilism infuriating. It was so easy to say that nothing mattered. If that were the case then you risk nothing. Apart from dying alone, that brand of indifference was his greatest fear.
“Then why are you here? Why have you come in search of love? If you truly believe that there is no meaning, how can you explain the feeling of love? The feeling of connection that accompanies sharing yourself with someone? How do you account for the phenomenon of locking eyes from across the room and – without even having met them, without having spoken a word or shared a breath – knowing deep in yourself that you love them?”
She shook her head, “Firstly, we’re forced to come. You know that. Secondly, I don’t understand it. That’s why I’m here. I’ve come because I want to satiate my curiosity. Everyone I know speaks of love like it’s some otherworldly experience, but maybe we’re all fooling ourselves. Maybe there is only intense companionship, and maybe that’s a type of love, but love at first sight? Come on, that’s lust!”
Teddy thought about that for a moment. He was enjoying this tête-à-tête, however exasperating he found it. He turned to her wearing the smile of a jackal, baring his teeth, knowing he’d won.
“What if – just maybe – there are as many types of love as there are hearts in the world. In that case, neither of us can win this argument. There is no science to it. No control… it’s like asking for relationship advice from twenty different people and assuming you’ll be able to filter it into some functional sense. Like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting and declaring what exactly it means for everyone.”
She giggled again, cocked her head and said coquettishly. “Oh, art reference? Fancy. You’re funny. Stupid, but funny.”
He smiled at the cheekiness of her. If he weren’t going to be sentenced in the next thirty minutes, he would have asked her to have a drink with him. He felt more alive than usual whilst bantering with her, so much so that he’d forgotten about all the others around him. Despite being different, there was no animosity. They were quite simply two young people searching for truth. It’s what had brought them both to this field today. He was thankful for the booth now, even if all he got out of the day was the chance meeting with Kitty. He was pleased by her staunch opinions and the thought she’d clearly put into it. He respected it, and in that respect sat the seed of attraction. Life was confusing in that way. If he weren’t about to be coupled, would he have found her as inviting as he did now? Or was the infatuation bred out of his awareness that within the next hour, he’d be happily sentenced to a life as part of a perfect pair?
Before he had time to reflect on this, the booth doors slid open and Milne stepped out calmly, a thoughtful look on his face. He seemed to be totally unaware of the others around him as he worked something out in the depths of his mind. He’d visibly calmed since entering the booth, the color had returned to his cheeks and he finally looked around at the others waiting their turn. Abruptly, he started to laugh. He laughed as a saucy child does when he’s caught being naughty by his nanny. Before long, the laugh developed into large gasping guffaws complete with tears of joy, and then as suddenly as it had begun, he was quiet again and thinking hard on some other matter. As a grasshopper chirped, Milne prudently drifted off to the edge of the wood.
After watching both the man in the sharp suit and Milne exit the booth, Teddy didn’t know what to make of it all. Weren’t they supposed to come out coupled? Maybe they didn’t have a soul mate. Suddenly he was very aware of how little he really knew about the coupling.
“Now sentencing… Katherine Williams”
Kitty, putting on a strong front, turned to him, as he was the only person she knew there. Without thinking much about it at all, he smiled and said, “I hope for your sake you don’t get me.”
The freckles across her nose scrunched in on one another as she laughed gratefully. She sighed, brushed the hair out of her eyes and sauntered backwards towards the booth.
“Aw c’mon… we could do worse. I know I have.”
He was thankful to her for brushing aside his self-deprecation, and he caught himself wishing that they did in fact get paired. He smiled as she entered the booth, turned for one last look at him and stuck her tongue out.
When she was out of sight, Teddy felt a pang of jealousy deep in his chest – one of those pangs far below the idea of you heart where something is rotting. He’d felt it when Erin had started posting pictures in New York, surrounded by amorous suitors. He thought about Kitty’s freckles and how happy they made him and the rotting in his chest metamorphosed into a kaleidoscope of butterflies, flitting from one side of his stomach to the other. He wanted to write her a poem about the way her freckles made him feel. He grinned at the boyishness of his yearning. She’d only just left and he already missed her. They’d only just met and he was infatuated. A thought hit him.
What if the booth was only a ploy to get all these people in the same place? To get them to meet one another? If you took away the pressure and anxiety of needing to find someone, knowing that when you stepped into that booth you’d be provided someone, maybe you could genuinely meet someone. Maybe that’s what he and Kitty had already done. The government truly was run by the smartest minds America had to offer. What an amazing story they would have to tell! He was decided; once he went into the booth and found out who his perfect match was, he would decide which was better for him. In this way he’d get both, he’d embrace his government’s role in his personal life and maintain his own free will.
The weathervane stopped. The doors opened and Kitty stepped out. Her glazed eyes locked with Teddy’s and she slowly walked over to him. She had changed, become deflated somehow. Like the rebellion had been taken from her.
Teddy smiled and asked, “So I guess it wasn’t me?”
Her eyes went to the ground and she blushed, betraying how much she’d wanted it to be.
“Lucky you. Where is he?” Teddy looked around not wanting to expose her.
“There’s a shuttle waiting for me just through those woods.”
“Oh, you leave right away?”
Kitty nodded and looked up at Teddy. Teddy stared back. He searched for something to say. Her eyes implored him to stop her from leaving.
“Now Sentencing…. Theodore Hopkins”
Teddy stood there. Torn.
“Can you wait for me? I’ll be right back.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to get to that shuttle. I’m already cutting it close. It was really nice meeting you, Teddy. I think you’re great and whoever she is… she’s gonna have her hands full. Good luck.” Teddy moved to hug her and she melted into his arms. Her hair smelt like a cold day by the sea and it calmed him.
“Now Sentencing… Theodore Hopkins”
They broke apart and, both blushing, searched for the right thing to say.
She whispered past a half smile, “Goodbye, Theodore Hopkins.” With that, she turned and walked towards the woods.
Teddy watched her walk away slowly as he made his way to the booth. He stepped into the cooler air emanating from the booth. As soon as his right foot met his left, hydraulics hissed and he felt the doors close behind him. Silence. Darkness. All he could hear was the whirring of the weathervane on top of the booth. His heart pumped and his hands became increasingly clammy. He blew on them again in the darkness of the cube. In the tight quarters, the only sensation he could gauge was the smell of the copper coin on his warm hands. This must be what it’s like to be buried alive, he thought. A monitor in front of him lit up, but all he could see in the black of the screen was his own reflection. A bulb warmed up and cast a cone of light from directly above him.
“Hello, Theodore,” a soothing female voice spoke.
“Hello.” He could feel his pulse beating in his wrists as the muscles in his neck began to relax.
“When you are ready, please enter your token into the glowing slot and we can begin.” He found that the cool air of the booth, coupled with the calming voice of the operator, put him at ease.
Teddy wiped his sweaty palms on the knees of his jeans and fished for the coin in his pockets. White-knuckling the coin, he carefully slid it into the slot and let go. He heard the clink of the coin falling into the bank as gravity helped him along the last leg of his destiny. The monitor in front of him now displayed his name, as well as the picture from his transportation license. On the monitor, a flashing white and red circle appeared. A single word sat in the button. Couple. It had all come to this. Teddy took a deep breath and sighed as he pressed the button. The booth began to ring. One ring, two ring… The ringing stopped, replaced now with breathing mirrored by his own.
“Hello?” His own voice echoed back at him from across the line.
“Hello Theodore, the following was provided by the Federal Bureau of Relations in conjunction with Facebook and Google Exist to help you to find a working and sustainable relationship. Full of – “
“Wait,” Teddy interjected.
“Please Do Not Interrupt.” The measured voice continued with its programmed message, never hitting the plosives too hard or holding vowels too long. “Full of fulfilling love and mutual support. A relationship is like a tree, it must be watered and cared for. It is a choice to have a tree and it can be difficult to care for at first if you are not predisposed to raising a tree. Life without a tree is different from life with a tree. Keep in mind there are many things that trees give us that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Shade. Lumber-“
“What the – what is this?” he sputtered.
“Please Do Not Interrupt – Lumber. The oxygen we breathe that keeps us alive comes from trees. Over the course of your lifetime, we have been researching your habits to better assist you.”
With this, the monitor lit up and the rest of the speech was accompanied by a slideshow of past pictures and comments from Teddy’s Faceboook, Instagram and Twitter. There were pictures from his college graduation, a Happy Birthday message to his father, a video of him scoring a goal at his fifth grade soccer tournament.
“We have gathered that you are a smart, athletic, and kind man. For all intents and purposes, you should have no trouble finding someone to build a life with. We have gathered that you date frequently, but without much concern for the other person in the relationship. We have gathered that you lose interest in your relationships with excessive quickness.” A picture of Connie’s 23rd birthday swam past, followed by a selfie of Erin and he in bed.
“What you must understand it that this is not a fairy tale. We at the F.B.R. and Facebook care about you and want you to be as successful as possible. Finding companionship is statistically proven to make your days easier and your life longer. Relationships are hard work.”
A light blue file appeared on the monitor with a lowercase f on the front.
“In the file before you is a woman who the F.B.R. has deemed to be a 93.5% compatible mate for you. Using the information that you and your family have provided to the myriad of social networking companies over your lifetime, you are lucky enough to have the best possible match for you at your fingertips.”
Teddy touched the file on the monitor and it burst open with pictures of his match. Meghan, from Microsoft Hills, Washington was a brunette at five foot three. One picture showcased her cheering at an ice hockey game, and he casually flipped through her most recent Spotifapple playlist. She had been listening to oldies like Radiohead and Mumford and Sons, but also Debussy and Liszt. He could have easily created an identical playlist. Her pictures showcased her going out with friends, but also snuggled up at home in front of a fireplace with a copy of Anna Karenina. There was a video of her fishing on some Pacific Northwestern lake. She smiled wide while holding up an enormous trout. She was beautiful, absolutely his type.
However, she was posing exactly the same way in every picture. Always with a beveled hip and her arms akimbo. Nothing was candid. Everything was like an artifact in a museum exhibiting the way her life was supposed to look. It was all too clean… where was the mess?
He thought about Kitty and the memory of her tousled red hair and her gnawed-upon paws popped up on his iris screen. The way she’d just talked to him as if she really did know him. The mess was there. It was beautiful. He wanted to know it better.
“I’m sorry. No. Can we stop? Can you let me out?”
“Of course. You agree to your coupling?
“No. I disagree!”
The booth went quiet.
“I’m sorry, Can you say that again?”
“I disagree. I don’t want this match.”
“You are not allowed to disagree. No one has ever disagreed.”
“Show me my compatibility with Katherine Williams!”
“Please wait, searching compatibility with Katherine Williams”
The monitor showed a buffering circle with the name Katherine Williams above it. Up popped a picture of Kitty laughing in a false mustache and a party hat. Teddy’s heart leapt. He wasn’t sure she was the one he was meant to be with, but he knew that she was his choice.
“She is not right for you. You are only 65% compatible. This match is not sustainable. She is too opinionated for your tastes. Your inability to accept them will destroy the relationship. In addition, she has already agreed to her match. Agree to your match or live out your days alone.”
Teddy shook his head, “I’m not who I pretend to be online. Neither is she. None of us are. Please, I don’t want this. Let me go!”
“I can delete you, but that is the only way I can let you go. You will not be able to come back from it. The Internet will forget you. The ease of life you now enjoy will evaporate. No more likes. No more comments. No more love. It will be a living death.”
“Yes, fine. Do that. I don’t care. I’m tired of this.” Teddy worried that Kitty would already be gone, and that he wouldn’t be able to tell her how he felt.
“Are you sure you want to be deleted?”
Teddy, exasperated, moved to the door and started to bang on the inside of the booth.
“YES! I’m sure! Delete me!”
Teddy heard the whirring of the weathervane stop. In the darkness, he felt his Google Exist chip power down. The muscles in his right eye twitched. They were searching for the mechanism they’d always lived with, trying to consolidate the void it now presented. He thought about his mother, but his iris screen pulled up nothing. He blinked three times in metered succession, trying to reset the device.
“You have been deleted. Goodbye.”
The doors slid open and the sunlight poured in, over his face and chest. He could smell the grass freshly watered from last night’s rains. Two birds flew across the sun and dipped and dived as they played with one another. Teddy searched the blank faces of the others looking at him. She wasn’t there. He took off at a dead sprint for the edge of the woods, a joy for life coursing through his veins.
Read a dozen other fantastical tales in Sheriff Nottingham 8: Nightmoon – available on Amazon!