I Didn't Know
I had always been a brooding sort. Happy and cheerful on the outside, but alone and in secret pain on the inside. Forever alone even in a crowd.
Jobs never held much particular affection for me. They came. And while I had them, I satisfied my needs and desires with the money I made. Living hand to foot, from paycheck to paycheck. Inevitably circumstances would occur and the job would end. On I'd go then, to find other employment.
So it was I found myself working for a warehouse corporation. The kind that sells frozen steak patties in bulk, or plasma screen Televisions for ashamedly low prices. I worked the computer section and kept my area tidied up and stocked for customers each day, rushing about to and fro trying to stay busy. I'd talk and be friendly with other employees. Laugh and joke with them. But always feeling alone and unable to communicate my true inner feelings and nature. Talk of cars, sports events, and alchohol consumption. The hollow and meaningless things to pass the hours of standing on foot bruising concrete.
A year of this progressed. People came and went. It was a job like any other. Then one day, as I wandered to the newly constructed break room area, I noticed her. Had the cigarette counter been in it's usual place near the front entrance, another year might have passed and I might never have seen her. But this strange chance took possession of my eye.
Outwardly a girl of clean, pretty limbs. I remember her hands so distinctly. They looked soft and caring. Her face had an innocent quality to it that nested in my heart immediately, made me want to pour all my inner secrets out. The soft, soulful brown eyes that looked at mine, and the long, straight brown hair that framed that face. Even in the awful company covering she wore, I could see that her figure was supple and lean in the tapering of her waist and hips, and rose to breasts which were full and warm looking.
Her nametag said "Tammy".
I don't smoke. It has always been my habit to feel disgust at the weakness for someone else's addictions. And so I never had cause to pass by the cigarette counter. But today I stopped.
The voice was a sweet as the face, and looking at her this closely I could see only a subtle hint of cosmetic. So natural was her radiance that she needed no further enhancement beyond some simple eye makeup. Her sweet mouth, not kissed by lipsticks, opened and she said, "Hey there!"
Something in that simple greeting struck me, and I smiled (which is something I rarely do and mean) back, "Hey. I haven't seen you around before."
She nodded,"Yeah I just started. My mom works here."
The conversation quickly steered itself to the subtle probing questions that people who've only just met ask each other. In a short time I learned Tammy was local and had a child out of wedlock. She was staying with her mother and working while she got her life back together. Not a new or uncommon story for a girl in these parts. I commented on my own lack of companionship, and she offered a caring response. I felt as though any kind word from her were spoken from the lips of an angel sent to comfort me in my pain, and I grew more and more fond of her as we talked.
But as always the fifteen minutes of break time was passed and it was with a remorseful heart that I returned to my posting in the electronics area across the other side of the gargantuan structure. But as I worked, I felt something within.
My heart lifted and suddenly the work lost it's drudgery. Here was something to look forward to each day! Tammy worked at the cigarette counter at the same hours each day and so I would be able to see her anytime I worked.
The next few weeks were blurred as each day I came, and would tell her hello and pause for a few moments to ask her how her day was going, on my way to punch in for the day's work. Each break in the eight hour cycle found me wandering to the cigarette counter to talk to her. Cursing the insensitive customers who purchased their nicotine laden boxes in bulk cartons and chipping away into my precious fifteen minute reprieves with their addictions.
A day came when through fortune, Tammy and I sat in the breakroom, on half-hour lunch. I asked the usual questions about her son and how things had been going with her.
She cheerfully told me about some of her activities and showed me her new manicure. I gently took her hand and felt the touch of human warmth and contact that had so long been missing from my life. Her hand was as soft and gentle as I had secretly imagined it all those months. I looked into her eyes, and beheld no glimmer of revulsion or uncomfortability, merely innocent interest.
I released her hand, reluctantly in my own heart, then smiled, "Nice".
Weeks passed and time again gave us our opportunity to talk in the breakroom. The usual pleasentries were exchanged and as always I asked, "How have things been?" I had not seen her in a few days, having called in ill on account of a common malady. She spoke to me of the events of her life, and how she was glad to be working in such a depressed economy. Then came a crushing revelation: "Nick's been seeing me again".
My heart turned to stone as I thought of Nick. This was the man who had given her a child out of wedlock and whom she'd shared a brief interlude. Now he had returned from whichever Hell had spawned him to gnaw upon the edges of my hope.
My hollow smile returned as I said, "Ah, well that's good. Everything's going alright then..."
The work became a burden again, and though I always made the same efforts to talk with Tammy, day after day the knowledge that her child's father now occupied her off-time hours felt like a crushing weight behind my eyes. I wanted to grab her and scream, "He can never love you as much as I have loved you in secret!"
But no such drama ever occurred. Time went on, and my days missed from work piled on. My despair being broken only by an occasional interlude with another woman. Always though, the sweet, kindness of Tammy lingered in my mind, and so even with these others, I still felt alone and unfulfilled. The feeling of detatchment within me grew, even as our bodies formed the mutual attatchment of our joy sessions. Life outside my window was black and white and I felt like a gray man wandering through it. Tammy was the only color my eyes would recognize.
Times at the cigarette counter were still enjoyed, only now I would ask every once in a while about Nick. Hoping secretly that he would do something to destroy their relationship. And though she told me of problems they were having occasionally no such earth-shaking development ever occurred. Life went on, largely as it always had. The time away from that counter reminded me of my weaknesses and aches and I despaired privately even as I smiled phonily and asked the usual question, "May I help you Sir?" to the overfed masses of bargain hunters who pillaged the store like a Mongol Invasion.
Finally came the day when my employers told me they were forced to let me go from the company. I had missed too many days of work and they were left with no choice, due to company policy. I was numb inside, and asked if I could say my last goodbyes to the people I'd come to know in the store, and they assented to this request.
My "friends" in the meat market, the tire shop, optical clinic, and around the store. I knew I'd never see them again. Friends only as long as we were working together, strangers outside of employment. I would never see them again, except in passing about town. I stopped for the last time at the cigarette counter.
"Tammy, they let me go. I guess I won't be seeing you anymore". The words left a taste of acid in my mouth and I smiled ruefully at her.
She looked a little saddened and replied, "Awww. I'm sorry Lee."
From around the counter she came and hugged me. My heart soared as it hadn't before. Here was the affection and feeling I'd longed for in all the weeks of working! This touch, this emotion, this feeling of connection to another, warm, loving person! And the irony that only in my leaving I could attain it stung me bitterly.
It was within me to cry out, "Please! I want to see you outside of this place! I want you to give me the chance to be a better man than Nick!". But no such cry came forth. In my heart I could not bring myself to infringe on the happiness she had with her child's father. And so I left. The loss of the job had been anticipated and not altogether troublesome. Only the knowledge that I would now lose any chance of ever seeing that sweet face again. The store was "members only".
Time passed. Jobs came and went. My life remained unfulfilled. Burden with the pain of opportunities lost and desires unrequited, I began to sink into the subtle villanies of a middle-aged man. Alone and working at another miserable job, meant there was money in my pockets and so I went out to shop one day.
I wandered through the aisles of stacked consumer lust. Not unlike my old job, but catering to the super grocery store fetishism so prevalent to the masses of instant gratification people. I saw an older gentleman and a woman of many years in a lonely corner of the store. He was wheeling her along in a chair and as always when encountering another human being I smiled the hollow smile and gave word of false greeting. Yet...
The features of the woman. The long, gentle slope of her nose, the soft soulful brown eyes, and the peaceful expression. Could it be?
"Pardon me", I started, "Are you related to Tammy Ryan, who worked at Planet Warehouse?"
The old woman said nothing but continued to look on as though seeing a vision of Nirvana I would never be privy to.
The older gentleman looked at me and a glimmer of recognition crossed his features, "You're Lee aren't you? This is my mother, Tammy"
I looked at him with a curled lip of disbelief, "How is that possible? Tammy was younger than I, and it was only 5 years ago that I saw her last!"
He nodded, "Yes. You met Tammy 2. My creation."
I felt stunned. I felt as if someone had whispered an otherworldly secret to me which man was not meant to hear. I felt my mind teetering on the edge of a void from which darkness swallows all life. My mouth agape, I regained control of myself, "You mean Tammy was an android?"
I had heard of such creatures. In a world possessed of such self-absorbtion and mass consumerism, the revelation did not stun me as it might have any other. Truly I had always in my heart figured my only true love could come from one of these creations of plastic and silicon, for real people are such complicated and ultimately disappointing things. Real people always let you down. Never had I imagined the state of technology to be of sufficient advancement as to produce the beautiful ray of sunshine that Tammy 2 had been in my life.
Again he nodded, "Yes, my name is William. I'm a robotics engineer and programmer. I based Tammy 2 on my mother here. Gave her the memories and personality of my mother."
My heart soared anew. Here was the man who created the angel I fell in secret love with all those years ago. And there the revelation that all the talk of Nick and her son was mere memory anagrams and programmed responses. Her life had been as false and hollow as mine! And yet in the moments I spoke with her, she was more alive, more beautiful, and more real than any of the other false people I had known.
Quickly I asked, "Where is she now? Can I see her? I...if you know me you must have known. Known what I felt. You must have seen it. Must have seen it in my eyes..." I stammered and the light of hope danced in my soul. I leaned forward towards him, as if not to miss even a single nuance of his response. As I teetered it seemed as though the joyful melodies of the Beethoven's ninth symphony worked it's way into my staggered consciousness. This was my second chance! My opportunity to set the wrong things right! The place where joy meets the soul in blissful union of harmony!
He sighed a little and spoke, "Water."
I was puzzled, "Water? You're thirsty?" What nonsense was he speaking? Was he remembering something on his grocery list? Then a glimmer of detection passed through my brain. His posture, his manner. I became aware that the forthcoming answer would not have a good effect. I felt the echoes of Beethoven die away to be replaced by the dissonant strains of a single violin.
He shook his head, "She had an accident one day. Water shorted out her systems. It crashed her programs, fused her circuitry and destroyed my work. She's gone".
I stood up straight. A lump formed in my throat. The humors of my eyes turned vitriolic and my lip trembled. My Legs wobbled a little as he continued, "She was one of a kind. I've never been able to reproduce the success in other models that I had with her. I think it may have been in large part to you. Because you took the time to talk to her and make her a real person."
A sudden wave of dizziness, nausea and anguish washed over me. Angels fell off their perches and I stumbled, tears falling from my eyes. A sudden wrenching of my soul forced me to collapse amongst a heap of empty boxes stacked in a filthy corner. My body was wracked in sobbing and pain as I gripped a flimsy side of cardboard to my face, wetting it with my sorrows. I kneaded the thing in my hands as my sobs shook my body.
I think William must have tried to console me, but I would have none of it. My pain and anguish had reached full circle in the strange, cosmic joke life plays on us. She had been a souless creation of a man's vanity in his attempt to be like unto God. And through the investiture of my battered, tormented soul, taken on a true life of her own. Undone by the substance of life itself.
I cried and cried, and at random intervals could say only the three words that mark this greatest tragedy, and despair of my life: "I didn't know...I didn't know...I didn't know!"