20 August 2010
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
By Curtis C. Chen
Dyla rolled down the car window, held out the plastic bottle, and said, "God bless you."
The old beggar woman lowered her cardboard sign, shuffled over to the car, and reached out a hand. "Thank you," she said, and took the bottle. Then her face soured. "What the hell is this?"
"It is a plastic bottle."
"Yes!" Dyla smiled. "Fill it with any electrolyte solution you prefer. I have sterilized the container, and the material does not contain bisphenol—"
"Is this some kind of joke?" The old woman tossed the bottle aside, startling Dyla. "You got any spare change? Dollar or two?"
It took Dyla a moment to comprehend the vocabulary. "You want—currency?"
The old woman glared. "Yeah! I want money! It's not enough I gotta stand out here, you gonna humiliate me, too?"
"I do not understand," Dyla said. "You would need to travel to a retail location to exchange currency for usable supplies. Is this not more convenient? Do you not fear dehydration and exposure?"
"Okay, you had your laugh," the old woman said, walking away.
The old woman ignored Dyla and went back to the corner. The traffic light turned green, and Dyla drove her car forward through the intersection. She pressed the attention button on the dashboard.
"This better be important," said the computer. Its synthesized voice always sounded grumpy to Dyla. "I'm doing analysis here."
"I do not understand this planet," Dyla said, and summarized her encounter with the old woman. "What does your research say about beggary?"
"I'll flag it for collection," the computer said. "But as you've seen, their electromagnetic broadcasts are not reliable information sources."
A red indicator light flashed, accompanied by a dinging noise.
"Low on fuel again?" Dyla said. "This vehicle is horribly inefficient."
She pulled the car into the nearest filling station and powered down the engine. As she stepped out of the vehicle, a uniformed attendant nearly ran into her.
"Sorry! Uh, good afternoon, ma'am!" the attendant said. He appeared to be a juvenile, and he kept glancing down at Dyla's chest. "Fill her up for you?"
"No, thank you," Dyla said. "I will refuel the vehicle myself."
She took a step toward the pump, but the attendant held up his hands and stood in her way. "Whoa! You can't do that!"
Dyla frowned. "Why not?"
"You must be new in town. It's state law. Just tell me which gas you want, and I'll pump it for you."
Dyla shook her head. "I am responsible for the maintenance of my vehicle."
"I told you, it's against the law. You'll get slapped with a fine—"
"A monetary payment?"
"Is this the only punishment imposed for such an infraction?"
"Yeah, but it's like five hundred bucks."
"That is acceptable." Dyla stepped past the attendant and picked up the pump nozzle. "Please prepare the documentation. I will pay in cash."
The attendant shook his head and walked away.
"This is a very strange place," Dyla said to the computer.
"Welcome to Oregon," the computer said.
Photo: "In the Tree Tops" sculpture by Margarita Leon, Lloyd district, Portland, Oregon, March, 2010