“And the girls…wow!” said Ron Morgan.
“what about them?”
“How’d they look?”
Ron was sitting on the edge of the swimming pool, his feet swishing in the heated water. It was a cool, clear, late summer night. Eight of his buddies were clustered around him on the astroturf of the back yard. The only lights were the pool’s underwater lamps, which threw strange shimmering shadows on the boys’ faces.
“New York City girls are something else,” Ron told them. “It’s hard to describe. They’re not prettier than the girls here at home, but… ”
“But what?” Jimmy Glenn squeaked in his cracking voice. “Don’t hang us up!”
“Well…” Ron searched for the best words. “They sort of—well, for one thing, they dress differently. Sharp. Like they want to be seen. I guess that’s it. They know what it’s all about, and they like it!”
“Not like Sally-Ann.”
“Ron went on, “They want guys to notice them. They even stare right back at you when you look them over.”
One of the boys laughed. “Dude, I’m going to talk my dad into taking me to New York City before the summer’s over.”
“Your dad must be okay, Ron—taking you to the City.”
“Hey, he likes it too, you know,” Ron answered.
“Is the City really that great, Ron? I mean, for real?”
Ron smiled. He had an even-featured, good-looking face. Like all the boys around the pool, his teeth were straight, his eyes were clear, his lean teen-aged body was strong and unblemished, thanks to a lifetime of carefully regulated diet, vitamins, exactly eight hours’ sleep each night, and the school’s physical fitness programs.
“It’s the only city they open up, isn’t it?” Ron answered with a question. “All the other cities have been closed down, haven’t they?”
“There’s still a couple cities open out West,” said Reggie Gil-more.
“They’re just little ones.”
“San Francisco’s not so little!”
“Yeah, but Mr. Armbruster in Social Consciousness class said the Government was going to close down San Francisco next year, too. They had an epidemic there this summer.”
“It’s a lot better out here in the Tracts,” one of the boys said. “We’re safer and healthier.”
“You get an A for social consciousness, Leroy!”
All the boys laughed, except Leroy, who knew that all believed the same way he did, even though they kidded him for admitting it openly.
“New York is wild,” Ron said, taking over the conversation again. “The streets are jammed with people. You can hardly walk. Stores everyplace. Not just shopping centers, but all over the place! You can buy anything from clothes to stereo TVs without walking more than a block.”
“But it’s real unsanitary, isn’t it?”
Ron nodded. “Absolutely! The streets are filthy. How can you keep them clean, with so many people pushing around everyplace? And they’ve got old-fashioned gas-burning cars in the streets. The pollution! And the noise! The cars and horns and people talking and shouting…it’s crazy. No wonder they only keep the City open during summer vacation. It’s too unsanitary for people to live in New York all year ’round.”
“Where do all the people go, after the summer’s over?”
“Back to the Tracts, dumbhead! Just like Ron and his dad, right?”
“That’s right,” Ron said. “They close the City after Labor Day and everybody goes back to their homes. Then the next spring they open it up again, for the vacation season.”
“Man, I’d like to spend a summer there!”
“Can’t. They only allow you to stay two weeks, at the most.”
“Two weeks, then. Cheez!”
The boys were silent for a few moments, and the night was silent with them. No crickets, no mosquitos, no sounds of life at all. Nothing except the darkness and the softest humming of the methane-fueled generator, which provided electric power once the sun went down.
Ron splashed at the water with his feet.
“The girls are really terrific, huh?”
With a laugh, he answered, “More than that. They’ve got something they call bedicabs driving around along the streets. With a meter and everything.”
“What’s that for?” Jimmy asked.
The other guys hooted at him.
“Ohhh!” Jimmy finally got it. “Okay, so I’m a slow learner. Do they charge by the mile or the hour?”
After they quieted down again, Ron resumed, “When you leave Manhattan Dome and start out for the train station to go home, they put you on a special bus—it’s sort of like an ambulance. They take off all your clothes and get rid of them. Then they make you shower and they cleanse you with all sorts of special stuff. You have to stick a tube down your nose and all the way into your lungs—”
“Yeah, but you’ve got to get rid of the carcinogens you breathed in while you were in the City. And the germs. You pick up enough germs to start an epidemic back home, the medic told us.”
“Well, cancel my trip. I’m not going through that.
“I am,” Ron said. “I’m going back to New York City before they close it for the winter.”
“Yep. And this time I’m going alone, without my dad. There are a lot of things to see and do that he wouldn’t let me into. He always thinks he knows best…treats me like a kid.”
Jimmy asked, “Does your father know you’re going back alone?”
“No. And don’t anybody tell on me, either.”
They were still talking about New York City when the ten o’clock whistle went off.
“Curfew time already?”
“I bet those security cops ring it early on us.”
“They can’t. It’s automatic.”
The boys got up slowly, grumbling. Ron pulled himself to his feet.
Jimmy came over beside him and asked softly, “Are you really going back to New York City?”
Nodding, Ron said, “You bet. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going.”
“There’s only a week or so left before Labor Day. Don’t they close the City after that?”
“Wish I could go, too.”
“Come on along!” Ron said, enthusiastically. “It’d be terrific, the two of us.”
“Naw, I can’t. My folks wouldn’t let me.”
“Don’t tell them!”
Jimmy scuffed at the astroturf with a bare foot.
“They’d kill me when I got back. Naw…I just can’t.”
Ron didn’t know what to say. He just stood there.
“Well…g‘night,” Jimmy said.
Ron shrugged at him.
The boys filed through the back gate in the fence that surrounded Ron’s house. They fanned out, each heading for his own house. All the houses on the long curving broad quiet street were the same. Each had a broad back lawn of astroturf with a swimming pool and the same low, imitation-wood fences. In each of the houses, the parents sat watching TV, like good citizen consumers.
The Tract houses went on, street after street, row after row, for as far as Ron knew. The only break in their ranks was the big shopping center, where all the fathers worked in offices on the upper floors of the store buildings. The train station was next to the shopping center, underground, beneath the parking lot. The train ran through a deep tunnel, so Ron never saw where the Tracts ended and the City began.
Ron stood beside the pool for a long while and looked up at the stars. The sky was completely clear of clouds. The Weather Control Force wouldn’t start the nightly rain for another couple of hours. Up there now in the blackness he could see sparkling Vega and brilliant Altair. And there was Deneb, at the tail of the Swan—the stars of the Swan stretched halfway across the summer sky in a long, graceful cross, slim and beautiful.
If only Dad could see how beautiful it all is, Ron thought. If only…
Then he remembered the National Exams. The tests that settled what your career would be. The tests that fixed the pattern of the rest of your life. If you did poorly, the chances were that they would put you in the Social Services, or worse, in the Army. But if you did well—incredibly well—maybe you could get to spend your whole life studying the stars.
They’d tell him how he scored on the tests tomorrow.
Tomorrow was going to be The Day.
A movement of light caught his eye. Far down the row of houses, a silent patrol car was gliding along the emptied street. The security patrol, making certain that nobody was out past curfew.
Ron shook his head and headed for the house. He knew that his parents were watching TV: Dad in his den and Mother in her bedroom. Mother never felt very strong, so they seldom had friends over. Ron went straight up to his room without bothering either of his parents.
Before they close the City down, I’m going back to New York, he told himself again. No matter what the National Exam results are, I’m going back.
Copyright © 2003 by Ben Bova