The Excellence of Oysters
by John Eric Ellison
Jim Valmont jumped out of his sofa and pressed his lips into the living room wall video screen as it continued to flash his six-foot-long name in red. “I won! I won!”
Laura cheered and followed him. She threw her arms around his waist and pulled him to her for a quick breathless kiss. The room pulsed crimson until Jim’s name vanished from the screen and was replaced by a smiling government official dressed in a dark blue suit. The young couple stood grinning and listened to the announcement.
“Congratulations go out to James Valmont, a resident of the Cedar Brook community, in Manchester, Connecticut. Your federal government is proud to award you as our first weekly winner in the new federal Social Security lottery.”
The generically clean-cut official raised a finger and pointed straight into the camera. “Now, don’t go anywhere this afternoon, James. You can expect a prize confirmation to arrive at your doorstep by courier within the hour.”
The Tele’s official laughed and spoke while high definition television cameras panned the small, cheering, studio audience. He continued, “Yes, that’s your federal government in motion, folks. Your Social Security number is your ticket in this guaranteed random retirement drawing, which as you all know by now replaced our Social Security system when it failed.”
He smiled, and said, “Bad break.”
Winking into the nearest camera he added, “I’m sorry, James, but you can win only once. It’s a big win; your entire retirement fund, calculated through age 85, and more checks if you live longer. No worries. And, no more paying taxes into the Social Security system. You’re free and clear.” Bigger smile.
He wandered the stage for effect, and said, “Things aren’t the way they were when our parents paid into the system, but we do have quite a few more choices than they did. Now, we can have a little fun with it, as well.”
Laura grabbed the remote and turned down the sound during a commercial, which always seemed longer than the scheduled programming. She picked up her cell phone. “I’m so excited!” She ran over and kissed Jim again before tapping a number. “Mom’s going to want to hear about this right away!”
She put it on speaker phone at the loudest setting. Her mother answered and got the short version of the story. “Jim won the Social Security lottery! Can you believe it?” She bounced a little.
Her mother was thrilled. “How wonderful, darling! Now, maybe, you’ll finally get married. You know, I think this lottery thing is a slap in the face after that last round of elections.”
Laura carelessly knocked a cup of coffee all over the counter and floor. She wiped it up while she spoke. “Jim can hear you, Mom. Don’t get him started on the government or we’ll have to listen to one of his long angry tirades again. Remember last Christmas when Uncle Frank blamed all of the world problems on religion? Jim came unglued and said something about world governments embracing religious extremists to make it seem like it is a religious problem. They argued for hours.”
Her mother’s voice sounded apologetic. “Hi, James. Sorry to be a party crasher. Of course, I’m very happy for you, and I still say she should accept your marriage proposal.” That last part was said with a nervous chuckle.
Laura spoke quickly before Jim could say anything in return. “Mom, you know the lottery regulations say that there are restrictions on married couples. We shouldn’t get married until after I win. Then it won’t matter.” Her mother tried to say something, but Laura interrupted. “I have to go, Mom. I love you. Bye.” She closed the phone and nearly dropped it in her excitement.
Jim frowned and helped her carry dishes from the dining room table to the adjacent kitchen. “Laura, I know you’re kidding about waiting for you to win, or I’d be very disappointed by what you just said.” She didn’t reply, so he asked, “Why are we cleaning up for a courier?”
She took the plates out of his hands and lowered them into the sink before reaching up to the top of his tall height to ruffle his already unkempt hair. “Cleaning is my nervous habit. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” He followed her back into the living room. “I don’t want to wait to get married. You were kidding... Right?”
She smiled over her shoulder and shrugged.
“And another thing,” he added, “about your Uncle Frank, he—”
She placed a finger on his lips and laughed. “You are as much a fanatic as my uncle.”
Fifteen minutes later the doorbell rang. The government courier required a signature, which Jim provided with a smile and a flourish. After the door was shut, Jim wasted no time in examining the fat envelope by ripping it open. Inside, he found a thin red thumb drive with blue writing on it.
“It says here that it just holds a little over 100 megabytes. Man, that’s cheap.”
Laura grabbed his arm and pulled him into the bedroom, which doubled as their shared computer room. “Come on, let’s plug it in!”
The thumb drive identified itself on Jim’s laptop computer with a government logo. Double-clicking the logo successfully opened the drive window and revealed a single text file. Confusion crossed both of their faces as Jim opened the file and read the message it contained.
It read: “Congratulations! Please report to the following address for further instructions.” There followed an address in Hartford, Connecticut.
A moment of silence passed before Jim closed the text file and reopened the drive window looking for an executable file of some kind. Only a mystery continued in the form of the single text file.
The only thing Jim could think of to say was, “What, no website login and pin?”
Laura’s bright but average face soured in a manner Jim had never seen before. She looked unattractive to him at that moment. Laura rapped the computer screen with a knuckle and then crossed her arms. Thin lines scored the corners of her eyes now squinted over a reddened nose and pursed lips. “This is typical government crap!”
Jim stood up, looking defiant. “Well,” he said, “what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”
“You mean right now?” She stared blankly at him for a moment. “Government buildings open and close later in the day this year, for some odd reason, but they will definitely close in an hour or so. They’ll want to start locking up by the time we get there. Don’t be stupid. Let’s go tomorrow.”
Jim heard himself say, “Maybe. Or you could forget about fixing your makeup and hair, and we leave immediately. We drive like the devil and get there in thirty to forty minutes.” Amazed by his own impulsiveness, he was nonetheless in motion, grabbing his wool coat and hat. He said, “These are crazy times. Everything about the government is stupid. So, they shouldn’t be surprised by a last-minute rush through their front door.”
He smirked and felt oddly indifferent as he pulled the thumb drive out of his computer and put it in his pants pocket.
Laura shook her head and hurriedly threw on her own coat. “OK,” she said, “so we’re under a lot of stress from both of us losing our jobs. I guess I’m up for an insane road trip.”
Thirty-three minutes later Jim’s vintage blue Volkswagen stopped and parked in front of a Hartford government building. Laura climbed out of the passenger’s side while Jim’s lanky form unfolded to his full height on the driver’s side. This time of the evening traffic was not a point of any real concern. However, recent reports of crime in this area did stir imaginative shapes in every shadow.
They both stood and stared at the building for a moment.
“Jim, now that we’re here can you really tell me that this makes any sense at all? They’re closed. Can’t you see how dark it looks? Let’s come back tomorrow.”
“Nope.” Jim flatly disagreed. “I’m their first lottery guinea pig and I feel like nibbling on the hand that feeds me. Come on.”
Laura followed, but held her distance as Jim climbed the steps to the front entrance. He was surprised when he reached out and opened an unlocked door. He stared at the door handle as though he held a snake. “OK,” he said. “I guess I didn’t really expect it to open. I can’t get used to these new government hours. It’s so weird.”
He heard Laura enter the building behind him as he approached a bored security guard stationed at a desk in a dimly lit lobby. A janitor was laboring over the linoleum floors nearby, and Laura wrinkled her nose at the smell of wax and disinfectant. The guard studied them for a moment before saying, “Can I help you?”
Jim cleared his throat. “How much longer are you open to the public today? I’m just curious.”
The guard shrugged and said, “Not long. I can’t say for sure. All depends. What are you here for?”
Jim took out the thumb drive and wagged it in front of the guard. “My name is James Valmont. I’m the guy that won the Social Security lottery today. A message on this thing told me to come here, probably to sign papers and to get my check or whatever.”
The security guard leaned into a goosenecked microphone in front of him. He tapped a button and said, “A Mr. Valmont is here, sir. Says he’s a winner of something.”
Jim felt his exuberance diminish as he met the blank stare in the guard’s eyes.
They heard footsteps followed by a voice calling out from somewhere off to their left.
“Mr. Valmont, I believe I can help you.”
A man strode out of a dimly lit hallway and into the foyer. He wore neatly pressed black slacks and well-polished shoes, but his white shirt sleeves were rolled up and his tie was loosened. His hair was studiedly tousled, as though he chose to look younger than his obvious age of over fifty, and he was a little overweight. He walked deliberately toward Jim and extended his hand, while nodding warmly toward Laura. He spoke cordially. “And you brought a lovely friend, or wife, as well.”
“She’s my fiancée, actually.” Jim replied and shook his hand. He wasted no more time on pleasantries and held the thumb drive out for the man to see.
The man smiled and told the watching guard to relax, then said, “I’ll answer your questions in my office.” He indicated the building with his hands. “Quiet, isn’t it?” He laughed.
The man led then through dimly lit hallways.
He said, “No one is really sure what our hours of operation are anymore. There have been a lot of changes lately, so it’s kind of dead around here right now. You might have noticed. I think there are only a few people left in the building, somewhere. We didn’t expect you to arrive tonight, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re excited about your rather large win today.” After a brief silence he added, “I’m afraid Mr. Shaw, our unfortunate security person, is not one of the brightest lights in our building. Please forgive his lack of comprehension. He does a good job with a limited set of skills.”
The halls seemed long and circuitous. Eventually the man ushered them through a door into a comfortably furnished office. He sat on the edge of his desk while offering his best chairs to the couple. The room looked and smelled expensive, with dark wood and leather furniture. Laura caught the scent of one of those stuffy colognes that are supposed to smell classy. In her opinion, it was cloying.
Jim and Laura visibly relaxed after they had both settled into a luxurious leather sofa.
“Right,” Jim said, and then took a deep breath and pressed, “What do I have to do to get paid?”
The man picked up a pen and absently tapped it against the table while appearing to be deep in thought. He glanced at the pen, put it in his shirt pocket, and said, “First, you can call me Tom. Second, I will bring you a check that you can cash or deposit into any regular account, if you wish.” He seemed to feign concern and then added, “I do suggest that you invest it into a federally sponsored retirement account, but that is your choice.”
Jim was incredulous. His eyes had been wandering over a plaque on the wall that read, “You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters when you can’t eat them without being sick. — A. Huxley.”
He blurted, “Federally sponsored? You are kidding, right?” His neck was getting red. “Since I’m your first winner in this weird retirement lottery, you haven’t worked out all the kinks in your system, obviously, or you wouldn’t make it so easy.”
Copyright © 2018 by John Eric Ellison