Out of Order

written c. 1970
all rights reserved

“Extra dry martini, please. Twist of lemon.”

He felt terribly uncomfortable-he had never heard such a silence in his life, not since he was a small boy anyway-but he decided to go on as though he had heard the familiar whir which always preceded the soft green light.

“Yes, a twist of lemon, and use Bombay gin please.”

Not heard it exactly: he just realized that he never had heard it before, that he was hearing its absence for the first time. The bartender looked at him strangely. Then he looked at the bar and then at the ceiling with the same suspicious bewilderment. He wiped his hands on his apron and walked over to the Creditron to peer at the slowly revolving scroll of paper through the viewer.

Mr. Hobart was quite disoriented. He looked at his calendar watch. Certainly. It was Tuesday. Of course it was Tuesday: he had just left his office and didn’t have to catch his train for another hour. There was no star in the window next to the date, so it was not a holiday. Besides, he should have gotten a response even had it been a state holiday. A breach of decorum like the workday “please” should have warranted no more than some kind of semaphore sarcasm.

Mr. Hobart cleared his throat and tried again. His voice rose at the end in a question. “A Bombay martini, please. Extra dry with a twist of lemon.” A crack had come into his voice.

“That’s funny,” the bartender said. “There hasn’t been a clearance, but there’s no refusal or advice warning either.”

Mr. Hobart looked around him. Fortunately, he recognized no one. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon and the few people who were in the restaurant were seated at tables toward the back. The palms of his hands began to sweat. His forehead felt unpleasantly cool. He tried to speak in a low voice but he felt his usual control slipping away from him.

“But that’s ridiculous. Surely there’s some mistake. I had a particular reason to check my accounts only last month and I was more than a full quarter ahead in my credit. My income is the same as any one’s. Better than any one’s. I had a raise last half and I expect another. The same as anyone else.” Mr. Hobart stopped himself as he realized that he was beginning to squeal.

The bartender looked at him with his head to the side. Then he shrugged. “Maybe your wife …”

“My wife is an unusually frugal woman … no, I mean, she keeps an excellent home, we consume our quota … she never runs over her account into mine. Besides, just to be sure, I put a codex on her voice print. She doesn’t know it, but she can’t borrow even the allowed amount without my being buzzed.”

Mr. Hobart took off his hat and wiped the brim with his handkerchief. He put the handkerchief away and held his hat between his hands.

“Look. Order me some Liederkrantz and pumpernickel from the kitchen. Someone from my office might come in and see me without a drink.”

Mr. Hobart heard the air-conditioning. He heard the click of some one’s cup on its saucer. Behind the bar, the ice machine paused and let down a new frame of ice cubes with a muffled clump. But there was no whir and the felt covered shunt on the bar in front of him did not glow.

Mr. Hobart fought with the tone and volume of his voice. He was imploring.

“Please order me the bread and cheese. You know that food is automatically cleared, even if I’m in debt.”

“Wait a minute. Are you a citizen? Let me see your ring.”

Mr. Hobart closed his fists until the knuckles were white. He wished that he had left the restaurant after the first silence, but now he felt committed to defend himself. He was trembling with indignation. Nevertheless, he loosened the fingers of his right hand and held it out to show the sapphire birth stone set in the platinum seal. The revolving door at the front of the restaurant began to turn and Mr. Hobart pulled his hand back quickly.

“Damndest thing I ever saw.”

The newcomer was a large man. The revolving door kept spinning even as he strode to the bar its plastic sweeps going thump, thump, thump as the door slowed back to rest. He wore a light silk suit of one of the Klimpt patterns: purple and gold squares with beige circles. The trousers were cut tight around the knee. His neck was covered by a white silk ascot with a gold thread.

“That’s the last time I’ll go into the Wouldn’t You . Damned Creditron in there wouldn’t recognize my voice.”

The man leaned on the bar. He was breathing heavily.

“Double Irish old fashioned, please.”

The bartender began to break the sugar cube into the flat bottomed glass. He paused as none of the shunts at the end of the bar glowed green.

“Do those sours again, Tony. Hey, my light didn’t go on.” The waitress banged her tray down on the bar between the steel rails and put her hands on her hips fretfully. “Wouldn’t you know it? This happened to me once at Bloomingdale’s. Tony, you say it for me. You know it’s only until they say the bill.”

The large man spread his hands on the rim of the bar. His mouth was open in disbelief. The bartender looked stranger still. He put the bottle of bitters back on its tray and stared from the large man to Mr. Hobart to the waitress. He covered a short cough with his hand and spoke the words evenly. “Two whiskey sours.”

Nothing happened.

“A dollar fifty apiece,” he added. “On a tab, that is.”

The bartender looked apprehensive-then helpless, in shock.

“I have no patience for this,” the large man said threateningly. The cigarette machine was behind him to the left. He turned and stood by it in two steps. “A pack of Maryjane Marjorams, please.”

The machine stayed still. “A pack of Invictas, then. Damn.” He shook the machine violently.

Mr. Hobart walked to the end of the bar near the entrance. “Isn’t this odd?” he said to the man. “First I wasn’t cleared for a martini, and then not even for a simple plate of cheese.”

The man left the machine alone. “I was just seeing if it would work. I have some cigarettes in my case.” He drew a slim silver cigarette case from his jacket pocket and snapped it open. “Will you have one? The gauge are the ones without filters.”

“No thank you,” Mr. Hobart said. “I have my own pills.” He rummaged in his pocket and found the tiny box of a jade-like, maroon synthetic.

It opened by pressing the side of the top, but Mr. Hobart kept it closed and let it drop back into his pocket. “Perhaps I will smoke this time. Thank you very much.”

The bartender turned his back to the bar and hoisted himself onto his hands until his seat was over the bar. Then he sat down and swung his legs over. He walked to the cigarette machine and jiggled its plug in the socket. It was a thick round plug and was attached solidly.

“There’s nothing wrong with the electricity. All the other lights are on. Even on the cigarette machine. That was the first thing I checked. And the accounts scroll in the Creditron is turning. There’s just no credit for anyone here.”

“How can we all have lost our credit at once?”

“Watch what you say,” the large man interposed. He tilted his brow at the bartender. “No credit signal. No credit signal. I haven’t heard anyone chastised for overspending. And you’ll never hear me chastised. Why, do you know who I am?” He took the bartender by the arm and kept him from swinging back over the bar. “I’m a junior partner in Fennick, Fennick, and Berman at the end of the block.” He slapped at his breast and revealed a wad of papers inside his jacket. “I have a Xerox here of a transaction so big it could buy and sell the whole building we’re in.”

The bartender swung his legs over the bar on the side away from the junior partner. He landed heavily on the dry boards and hitched up his pants through his apron. “I’m sorry mister, but you know that I can’t give anything to anybody until the light goes on.”

The two old ladies who were seated toward the back were turned on chairs toward the front of the restaurant and were blinking with slow inquisitiveness through their steel rimmed glasses. The waitress moved to the back to explain to them that there was a delay. Then she sat at the table where her own cigarette was burning.

The junior partner lit his cigarette and held out the flame to Mr. Hobart. He snapped the lighter shut and thrust it back in his pocket as he hissed the smoke deep into his lungs. Mr. Hobart tried to do the same. It made him cough slightly. He exhaled the smoke early, puffing it over his lips to blow away a strand of tobacco which had stuck there. He transferred the cigarette to his left hand and set his hat down on the bar.

“It seems that we’re colleagues of a sort. My name is Mr. Hobart, James Hobart. I was in bond sales for several years with Mr. Lynch before I went into transfers at the Trust Exchange.” He held out his right hand. “How do you do?”

“How do you do. Ralph Chapman, Fennick, Fennick, and Berman. Pleased to meet you. We’ve probably crossed paths many times before.”

“Isn’t this extraordinary? I can’t imagine what could possibly be wrong. We’re not at war, are we?”

“Well, whatever is wrong, it isn’t with me, I can promise them that. But there can’t be anything wrong. The whole intercity grid could overload and black out without affecting the credit circuits. Each circuit has its own backup circuit. And to make it fail-safe beyond that, there’s the automatic emergency transmitter to the TriComSat.”

“Whiskey is never rationed in wartime, is it? It’s methyl they make air gas from. And there’s no use for cheese …”

The revolving door thumped again and a policeman entered the restaurant. His black book was open in his hand.

“Is the Creditron in here responding?” he asked.

“It hasn’t been for fifteen minutes or so,” the bartender answered.

“Well, get me a cup of coffee, please. I have to try to figure out what to do.” The policeman sat at a table near the door and began to leaf through the black book.

“But the Creditron isn’t answering. No light went on for you either.”

“Can’t you give me even a cup of coffee? I’ve got to think.”

“Not without filing a report on your number. Those are my orders.”

“But I didn’t give any hand signals. I asked for it right out loud. I haven’t taken a bribe since I’ve been on the force. And don’t think I haven’t been offered. There are ways to do it in spite of the regulations.”

The door thumped again and two men entered. They were both wearing Prussian blue work suits. They must have been custodians, because the texture of the fabric was chamois.

“Are you serving in here?” one of them asked, already recognizing that no one inside had anything to drink.

“Think of it,” the other man said, “the turnstiles at the subway wouldn’t recognize us. They wouldn’t recognize anyone.”

“Look,” the bartender said, “the owner of this place isn’t in business to give anything away. I can’t give anything to anybody until the Creditron marks it up for them.”

“You won’t mind if we sit at a table anyway, will you? We can’t get home.”

“No one’s supposed to sit down unless they’re being served.” The bartender folded his arms virtuously across his chest.

“That’s an interesting problem,” Mr. Hobart reflected without speaking. “Payment is made before the product is delivered. Why shouldn’t it be made after delivery? But then the merchant would be exposed to risk. I wonder how it could be done simultaneously.”

Mr. Hobart exhaled a long stream of the pale smoke. The policeman was looking blankly at the index of his book and then leafing back through the middle pages. He was looking at the page on artificial respiration for the third time. “Well I think you could at least serve the officer,” Mr. Hobart said. “My martini isn’t important, but he’s trying to help us.”

The two old ladies had summoned the waitress again. They stood up to leave. The bartender saw them take their coats from the coat tree. He kept his arms folded across his chest and protruded his belly. “Just a moment, ladies. You can’t leave without paying.” The ladies blinked at him in confusion and slow alarm.

“Damn your impertinence,” Mr. Chapman exclaimed. “I don’t care what their bill is: I’ll guarantee it.”

The bartender lowered his belly. “But you’re not getting any credit response either.” Now it was the bartender who was imploring.

“I’ll get to the bottom of this.” Mr. Chapman strode to the telephones.

Mr. Hobart walked to the back of the restaurant and tried to say something comforting to the ladies. He looked accusingly at the other man who had been sitting alone in the back. The man’s coffee cup was empty except for the puddle in his saucer. His ash tray was full. He was busy with his newspaper and Mr. Hobart hadn’t seen him look up once during the whole proceedings, nor had he heard him say anything. Mr. Hobart found the windowed door to the kitchen and looked inside.

A broad woman in a white linen uniform with short sleeves which showed her fat white and pink arms was playing solitaire at a white porcelain table. She glanced to the side as Mr. Hobart opened the kitchen door and then looked back to her cards.

“Do you realize what’s going on here?” he asked. He noticed that the trays of food next to the range were covered with fresh waxed paper.

The woman snapped a card from the deck and matched it against a row that already had four cards in it. “The computer’s on to all of you,” she said without looking up from her cards.

“There’s a policeman here who’s trying to help us. He could think better if he had a cup of coffee.”

The woman snapped another card from the deck and studied it.

“Couldn’t you pretend to pour a cup for yourself and let him drink it?”

“There’s the urn. I won ‘t stop you.”

The cup rattled in the saucer as Mr. Hobart approached the urn. He was assailed by the fragrance as he turned the handle of the spigot. Steam blasted up into his face. He opened the door with his shoulder, spilling coffee into the saucer. The waitress was swishing her knees together in a manner which Mr. Hobart found to be extremely unladylike. “Serve him yourself,” she said as she tamped down another cigarette.

“Yes, it will be more legitimate that way,” he said as he walked toward the front with the chattering cup.

“This musac gets on my nerves,” one of the custodians said. “Has anyone tried the jukebox?”

No one answered. The machine was placed in a relatively inconspicuous alcove at the end of the bar where it could not be seen from the tables in the back. Its lights showed a landscape of a river flowing at the foot of snowcapped mountain peaks. The man pressed the button for the erotic show and the lights changed. He read the list of tunes. “Jesus, not a single thing worth playing.”

His companion joined him. “Whew , Dullsville.”

“How about A Little Pink Heart ?”

“What by the A Heads? Ok, try that.”

“G-6. A Little Pink Heart. .”

The volume of the musac remained the same. No other tune came through the speakers in the ceiling.

Concerned as he was about the situation, Mr. Hobart kept worrying about the idea of credit. He had never thought of it as a problem before. I wonder, he thought, if anyone ever orders anything and then whispers that they didn’t get it. Ah , but there must be safeguards.

Mr. Chapman slammed down the receiver of the phone and banged back the booth door so that everyone in the restaurant, everyone but the man in the back, looked up at him.

“I can’t even get a dial tone All the lines must be busy.”

“What are we going to do?” Mr. Hobart mourned. “We can’t go home, we can’t call for help, we can’t even get a drink.”

“I’ll bet it’s the Turkistans,” the first custodian said. “They’re worse than the Chinese.”

The old ladies looked even greater alarm.

The man went on. “Look what they did to the Hindus. They’ll do it to us, if we give them a chance. They’re doing it now.”

“We should never have let any of them into the country,” his companion growled.

“This guy’s right,” the first said. “What will happen if they don’t fix the turnstiles right away?”

“What if the supermarket isn’t recognizing anyone? My wife never keeps anything in the refrigerator.”

The waitress jumped up from her chair. “Why don’t you men shut up? How do you know there’s anything wrong? It could be just in this neighborhood. Why doesn’t the cop do something?”

The policeman hadn’t drunk any of his coffee. “You people have got to stay calm,” he said. “Stay calm.”

Mr. Hobart took Mr. Chapman by the elbow. He whispered into his ear. “Everyone is getting excited. We’ve got to do something for the ladies.” The policeman got up and went to the phones.

“I couldn’t get a line,” Mr. Chapman said. “You ought to try the police phone outside.”

“I did. Before I came in. I couldn’t get a line there either. The station house must be jammed.”

The men in Prussian blue sat down at the end of the bar. The first man leveled his eyes at the bartender. “What would you do if I just took a drink whatever you say?”

The bartender looked doubtful. “We’ve got a cop here,” he said.

“He might get thirsty himself, you know. What have you done for him?”

The policeman was intently listening on the phone, though it seemed clear to Mr. Hobart that he hadn’t yet gotten a line. Mr. Hobart was fairly certain that the policeman hadn’t heard any part of the exchange between the bartender and the first custodian, but the policeman suddenly hung up and rushed from the restaurant. He didn’t even touch the coffee I got him, Mr. Hobart thought to himself.

The thumping of the revolving door slowed down and then speeded up again. A man in horned rimmed glasses and a conservative business suit of ochre twill stood at the entrance, still inside his section of the door. “Do you have a radio in here? A TV? What are they saying on the radio?” He blinked at the people inside the restaurant, and, receiving no answer, thumped out again.

“What will happen if we can’t get home?” the first custodian asked again.

“What would we do if we got home?” the second said.

Mr. Hobart whispered to Mr. Chapman, “I’ll go outside and see if there are any taxis. Why don’t you try to keep the others from upsetting themselves further?”

Mr. Hobart took his hat with him as he pushed his way through the door and onto the street. He had never seen or felt anything so weird. The weather was warm for early fall and there was little temperature change between the conditioned air inside and the regular downtown air outside the restaurant. Perhaps the humidity was slightly higher. The street was empty of cars, and though the sidewalks were crowded with even more than the usual number of people, there was little movement. The sun must have been dropping rapidly toward the horizon because there seemed to be more life in the uncertain line of shadow which staggered across the different planes and heights of the tops of the buildings to the east, a shadow line obscured by the diffused lights from the street below as well as by the thick air of the city, than there was in the people as they stood at random looking–at what? Not even when Mr. Hobart, years before, had exited from a theater to find the street in a universal numbness, slowly to discover from the motionless image on public television screens, that Angelino Angel had hit a home run out of the old Yankee Stadium, nor after the group assassinations of the potridist ambassadors from Borneo, had he seen such a ubiquitous quiet.

There was a jam of cars several intersections away, at the corner of High Street and Gilbert, Mr. Hobart thought, and horns were blowing, but they seemed to be miles and years away. He knew without looking further that there would be no taxis.

He turned wearily back through the revolving door. Mr. Chapman was arguing with everybody at once. The energy of the confusion inside struck him with a sense akin to relief. The waitress had produced her transistor radio. Official ignorance of what was happening was being broadcast on every wavelength. All normal communications were jammed and the announcers could only guess at how far beyond the east coast the credit silence extended. All seemed to be agreed that it encompassed at least the states as far west as the Mississippi, as far south as Panama, and as far north as Hadley.

The woman from the kitchen came to the kitchen door and coolly announced to the bartender that she was putting all of the meats away in the refrigerator and that if he wanted his supper he had better tell her what he wanted now.

“But don’t you see that we’ll all have to have our supper sooner or later?” Mr. Chapman said to the bartender. “And maybe a place to stay?” He was clearly vexed. “And hasn’t anyone gotten a dial tone yet? I’d like to try to call my wife.”

“I knew a guy once who could just walk down the beach and know what you could eat and what was poisonous,” the second custodian said.

“It’s all poisonous now.” For the first time, the bartender relieved himself in laughter. “Everything between the two Capes.”

Mr. Chapman shook off the irrelevance. The bartender moved away from him down the bar, but he pursued him deeper into the restaurant.

“Surely you see that if I give you my watch and you give me a slip of paper saying that you have it-look, it has a thirty-two jewel movement-that I’ll come back for it and you’ll get credit for any food I might eat, and the bill for these two ladies, and anything that this gentleman might want.”

The bartender rubbed his belly.

“Or let us give you slips of paper saying how much we’ve had and we’ll all sign them.”

“You can forge a signature, but you can’t forge a voice print.” The bartender looked patriotic. “Just ask the cop. Say, where did that cop go?”

“He didn’t drink his coffee,” the waitress said.

“Then we’ll all witness each other’s signatures and everyone will be responsible for everyone else.” Mr. Chapman searched the faces of the others for approval. “I’ll be responsible for everyone else. And you can still have my watch. I won’t even ask for a slip of paper.”

“I’m going into that kitchen and take what I want,” the first custodian said.

Mr. Chapman turned to him. “Do you supervise any of the buildings near here? You could open the door for us and we could sleep on the floor. Maybe I could summon the night watchman at Fennick, Fennick, and Berman.”

“Not me,” said the second custodian. “I’m going to take something to eat and head for the north woods.” He winked at the waitress. “Do you want to come with me?”

Mr. Hobart sat on a stool in the middle of the bar and put his face down into the middle of his hat, cradled by his arms. He rocked his body back and forth on his buttocks. All around him, the world was either going to pieces or standing still. For the first time in his life, he noticed fully how fully dreary the musac was. He found it intolerable that it should have been playing without interruption, all of the melodies whispered by strings in the same slow, innocuous bounce, without a single revivifying silence. He listened to the drone of the air-conditioning. He felt the flash of the light show on the juke box to his left, even though his eyes were shut.

The muscles along his arms and shoulders tensed suddenly. … Someone had called his name softly. … No, it wasn’t his name. And it hadn’t been someone. … It was the whirring! A green presence glowed under his arms. He lifted his head to other whirrings, really the same whirrings, but not his. He recognized his whirring first, even though his sound was no different than the others. All around him the bar was winking and glowing with its green lights in a syncopated rhythm.

The bartender hitched up his pants through his apron and peered through the viewer at the graph of the Creditron. The whirring and blinking halted again, then began again as though it were stuttering. Then began again.

Mr. Hobart punched his hat back into shape. Then he smoothed the Persian wool pattern of its velour with his hand. Funny that we should be charged for what we get before we get it, he murmured to himself. He then addressed the machine out loud. “I’ll pay for Mr. Chapman’s double Irish old fashioned, but cancel my martini. I’m going home.”

I started mounting samples of my fiction online in the early 1990s. None of it had been published, I’d written it to be read and enjoyed after all, to be learned from. I ignored this short story until now because I didn’t think it was that good. Now I change my mind for reasons having nothing to do with its quality as a story. Out of Order is a clear example of my conceptioun of an internet in the early 1970s. Hell, I’d already offered a real internet as of 1970: within a few months I was typing this example of a credit internet dystopia. Notice that I not only invent an internet here, but electronic cybernetic credit as well. In 1971 there weren’t even ATM machines! Not even credit cards were yet common. All but the hard core science fiction buffs would remain ignorant about voice identification software until Minority Report; here I was showing it in Nixon’s “’60s”!

A story I conceived in the 1960s provides another clear picture of how thoroughly I had envisioned an internet of public data bases prior to my founding of FLEX in 1970: or would had I ever actually written it. I’ve talked about it online and will gather such comments into a file to be linked here.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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