Faster Than Real Time

by: Chris Thompson

Dinner, served-up with an uneasy dose of the future…

Here’s your bacon cheeseburger, cooked-medium rare with a side of fries, and your Sam Adams Octoberfest. Can I get you anything else sir?” The blonde-haired waitress with the jovial smile asked as she placed the items before me.

Shocked, I looked up promptly from my menu, slightly annoyed at her intrusion. “But I haven’t even ordered yet. I just sat down here like two minutes ago. This must be someone else’s.”

“No…I’m sure it’s yours,” the waitress replied confidently. “Let me know if you want any extra ketchup for those french fries. My names Kimmie.”

Smiling widely once again she turned on her heel, all the grace of a ballerina existing within her for that singular moment, and was gone, off to assist an elderly couple by the window struggling to cut their prime rib.

What the hell? I thought. I definitely didn’t order this. Looking around the restaurant I spotted the manager making his way over to the bar. Catching his eye I waved to him animatedly, determined to get to the bottom of this misunderstanding.

“Is everything okay with your meal sir?” The manager leaned in and inquired. He was bursting with eagerness and his breath smelled faintly of peppermint schnapps, the apparent source of his enthusiasm. “How about those fries? Can I bring you some more ketchup?”

“Ummm…no. No, the ketchup supply is adequate, thanks. What I’m confused about is why this burger is in front of me in the first place. I didn’t order it. I was only just seated a few moments ago by the hostess.”

“Ohhh…I see. Sure. This must be your first time dining with us. Well, we’ve a much different approach to service here at Oceana Grill. We call it faster than real time dining,” the manager said excitedly, passing his index finger in front of me as if underlining the phrase in mid-air. “It’s a bold new concept that’s rapidly gaining traction in the restaurant industry. It’ll be everywhere soon. Basically, we know what you want to eat before you do.”

“Wh-what…er, I mean. What?” I stammered. “How the hell…” I trailed off, struggling to grasp the meaning of what the manager had just told me.

“Did you not want a cheeseburger and a pint of beer?” the manager asked smugly, moistening his lips with a quick dart of the tongue. As I took a moment to ponder that question a long, wry smile began to form on the manager’s face, as if he already knew the answer.

“Ummm yeah…I did want a cheeseburger. But I mean, I didn’t even place an order yet. Like, I didn’t order this.” I said, pushing the plate forward a few inches in front of me for dramatic effect.

“And yet, it’s exactly what you wanted.” The manager replied, clasping his hands together in front of him with delight. “Enjoy your meal sir and I’ll be sure to send Kimmie over with that extra side of ketchup the moment she’s free.”

The manager stood up quickly and was off at once, beaming with amusement and the satisfaction of knowing that he’d been correct. As he made his way to the bar, he snapped orders here and there along the way. He was very much a man in tune with the rhythms of his restaurant and as he walked he appeared in perfect control of the events enfolding all around.

Why even have menus then? I wondered as I watched the manager’s animated figure disappear behind a wildly-swinging kitchen door.

I devoured my meal quickly, glancing up between enormous bites of food to take in the restaurants patrons. The extra ketchup arrived almost immediately, served with a warm smile by Kimmie, and I was thankful for the additional ration of condiments. But as I ate, I became aware of a growing uneasiness inside, one that started in the pit of my stomach and then radiated outward to fill my limbs. I began to view each person within Oceana Grill in a brand new light, suspicious of the fact that they now seemed to know something about me. People who were once complete strangers were now potential interlopers to my intentions and to what I was planning to do next. As I sat there my discomfort with this idea grew steadily, until eventually, my sense of alarm could no longer be ignored.

I downed the remainder of my beer in an enormous gulp and watched anxiously over the rim of the thick frosted glass as the manager drifted over to the elderly couple by the window. He positioned himself directly behind the gnarled-looking gentlemen and glanced at his watch several times. Then, as if stretching for a game, he performed a series of quick squats and deftly cracked his knuckles, lacing his fingers together and bending them out backward. My waitress Kimmie drifted momentarily into view, dropping the bill for my meal off at my table, and as I glanced away for a moment to look at the total written in bouncy, girlish cursive, the restaurant erupted with the sounds of someone choking.

Startled, I looked up and saw just in time as the manager swooped in behind the elderly gentleman and performed the most skillful and competent Heimlich maneuver I had ever witnessed. In a singular, fluid motion he was able to wrap his arms around the choking mans chest and with a firm compression, eject in a graceful red arc, the dampened morsel of prime rib that had become lodged in the old man’s throat.

The restaurant erupted into cheers of “Bravo! Bravo!” as the manager bowed and offered concessions to humility and being at the right place at the right time. And as he made his way around the restaurant he stopped occasionally to chat with patrons, saying such things as “It was the gentleman who did all the work, I merely provided support” and “All in a good day.”

I sat there dumbfounded, completely at a loss for words. I had never experienced anything like what was going on in the Oceana Grill before in my life. How did he know that was going to happen? I thought. As I rose from my table and put on my jacket I attempted a closer look at my surroundings, methodically taking apart with an unyielding gaze what exactly was going on in the restaurant. As I stood there, no detail escaping my scrutiny, it became readily apparent to me that the entire atmosphere of the eatery seemed to be operating one step into the future.

I glanced to the table immediately to my right. A recently-seated four-top of talkative Scandinavian tourists seemed eager to wet their palettes after a long day of sightseeing. As I watched them settle into their seats a tray of drinks arrived right on queue, without having to be ordered. At the table across from me, a portly husband and his wife were dining with their three plump sons, each one rounder than the next. As I watched them devour their food with a quiet, focused intensity, a second serving of BBQ ribs and cornbread arrived piping hot to a chorus of delight. Extra napkins were handed out to sauce-covered hands and offerings of “Thank you!” and “Well done!” were sent the waiter’s way. It was a truly strange and unique vision to behold, a place buzzing with potential energy, where every need was anticipated and met before it was even known to the customer. I wondered aloud what sort of sorcery was necessary to execute such clairvoyance but my words fell on deaf ears. Apparently, for the moment, the restaurant didn’t feel the need to address my concerns.

I buttoned up my coat and reached into my wallet to remove the requisite bills to pay my check. I raised my head to catch the attention of a passing waiter and to my astonishment Kimmie was standing there before me.

“All set sir?”  She asked with her perpetual toothy grin, obviously aware that I was, in deed, all set.

“Yes….er, fine. I’m fine. What kind of place is this again?” I asked as I handed her the money and the bill. “How is it that you are so thoroughly able to know the future?”

Looking to her left and to her right, as if checking to see that the coast was clear, Kimmie stepped up to whisper in my ear. She smelled of bubblegum and youth and her breath was warm on my neck. “I’m not supposed to tell customers exactly how we know what we do because it’s a closely-guarded secret but I will tell you this. It’s not the future we know sir. So far, to my knowledge, that is impossible. But what we do know….no better yet, what we can infer from the mountains of data that are out there in the public realm is enough to provide the predictive services that we do here at Oceana Grill. Things like heart rate, body temperature, sex, race, economic success, wardrobe, time of day, season, basically any metric of a person that can be measured and others that can be assumed or guessed, can be used to a very high degree of probability to predict what you, the customer are going to do next, what you want, and when you need it. This is the future sir. It’s the way of things to come and soon this technology will permeate all levels of our lives. Isn’t it fantastic?” Kimmie beamed, pulling back from her whispered confession and raising her arms to take in the entirety of Oceana Grill. “Life, even faster than you know it! Even faster than real time. All your needs anticipated and fulfilled. No more want. No more desire. Just everything when you need it and nothing more. We are living in exciting times aren’t we? Here’s your change and I do hope you have an amazing day!”

Looking down at the money before me I noticed that Kimmie had subtracted out $4.50, the exact amount I had already decided I was going to leave for a tip. Shaking my head in disbelief I walked out of Oceana Grill into the cold November air, making a silent vow never to return to such a place again. Walking home through the city streets I thought about a future world in which others knew my actions before I knew them. About people being arrested for crimes the moment they committed them. Would the authorities even try and stop them? About my neighbors knowing what I was going to do before I did. About my friends anticipating my moods and my lovers my needs. About my doctor’s newfound abilities to predict my health and the implications that access to that type of information would have on future generations. And about whether the fragility of the nature of life, the sanctity of the endless cycles of conception and birth and death, was at all in jeopardy.

As I walked a chill went down my spine and I pulled the collar of my wool jacket up higher against the wind. The night was cold and the air biting and sharp. The people of the city passed by me in droves, each one a potential trespasser into my reality. With each worried step I searched out their eyes, wondering suspiciously what any of them knew about me. About whether they could use that information to somehow do me harm. Up until that point I had lived a long and wondrous life and I was looking forward to the Autumn of my years. But with each successive bite of my meal the world had become a smaller and smaller place, and as I walked home I quickened my pace, anxious to get back to the security of my apartment and the anonymity that I hoped still existed behind its solid doors.

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