issue thirty

art gallery
past issues
current issue
(1520 words)
Bill Carr
Transcendental Tours

Welcome to the Transcendental Tours Chat Line. All agents are currently assisting other customers. Your wait time is approximately two years, seven months, six days, five hours, and thirteen minutes. 


All agents are still assisting other customers. Your wait time is approximately one year, five months, three days, thirteen hours, and seventeen minutes.


All agents are still assisting other customers. Your wait time is approximately
three minutes.


       I spend a lot of time in this room. It's unusual in many ways. For instance, the walls are curved, making the room circular. There's low, burnished wood cabinetry around the periphery of the room, with gold-colored tubing on the top front to prevent objects from falling off. My cot is against the far wall, with my desk on the opposite side. Right now I'm sitting at my desk in my black captain's chair. And, of course, my huge computer monitor is on the desk.
Finally. There's an image of a woman on my screen. She's sitting at a desk with her monitor to her left. She's in an office setting; on the wall behind her I can see, in large gold block letters, CENDENT, which I assume is part of Transcendental Tours.

"Welcome to the Transcendental Tours Chat Line," she says, smiling.

Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as cheerful as she is. "At last," I say. "I've been waiting for an eternity."

"I'm sorry," she says. "We have been very busy."

"This reminds me of the cartoon showing a skeleton with cobwebs in front of a monitor that displays the message, An agent will be with you shortly. Don't disconnect and lose your place in line."

"Yes, I've seen that one."

She's wearing a gray business suit with a white blouse. Both her age and ethnicity are hard to pinpoint. Forty or fifty, perhaps. But 50 is the new 40, maybe even the new 30. She's got dark hair, light brown skin, and a pleasant smile. How sincere is that smile?

I'm still pissed. "You are a real person, I hope." Sometimes on these chat lines you can get a robot programmed to provide only bland answers.

"As far as I know."

"Are the lines really that tied up? You must be getting a lot of complaints."

"We do get a few complaints," she responds. "But we receive far more words of praise."

Smooth. Hard to rattle. Must be their training.

"How can I help you today?" she asks.

"Well, I'm coming to the end of this trip, and I've realized I should start making plans for what's next."

"How have you enjoyed your current voyage?"

"There are certainly plenty of glitches."

She seems surprised. "Like what, for example."

"For example, the service is terrible. You make requests and nothing happens. Everyone says the same thing."

"That's a very serious complaint," she says. "I'll have to look into that."

"Well, let me amend that. There are a few people who claim their requests are fulfilled. But these persons are few -- very few."

She's typing something on her keyboard. "All right," she says. "I've started an inquiry about the service." She confronts me directly. "Now, have you thought at all about your next trip?"

"I was hoping you could recommend something."

Typing again and studying her screen. "Well, the Gold Coast tour has always been our most popular."

"Tell me about it."

"However, in the spirit of full disclosure," she says, "I must say that it's not as popular as it used to be."

"Why not?"

"There's a stopover at a very nice gated community."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Somehow, the rumor got started that this was an open-ended stopover. People didn't want to leave."

"Why not just leave them there?"

"You can't just leave passengers there, and you can't leave without them. If we did either of those two things, we wouldn't stay in business very long."

"That is a dilemma."

"Then another rumor got started about the opulence of this community -- specifically, that the streets were paved with gold. That didn't make any sense. First of all, gold is a very poor paving material. And if it were so plentiful, its value would go down. People would start buying asphalt jewelry."

"I can see that this tour has a few problems. What else do you have?"

She's typing again and studying her screen. "We have a Virgin Islands tour, but I wouldn't recommend that one."

"Anything else?"

"Tell me," she says, "how do you fare in warm climates?"

"How warm?"

"Very, very warm."

"Forget about that one. Any more?"

"Let's see. How do you relate to species other than your own?"

The question takes me by surprise. "Well, I had a dog once."

"How about cockroaches?"

"No, I do not like cockroaches."

She's typing like mad on her keyboard. "At present," she says, "I don't see anything that might be of interest to you."

"Tell me something. You mentioned you get a lot of 'words of praise' about this tour. What's so great about it?"

"Well, you've got the most beautiful ship in our fleet."

She may have a point there. I hadn't really thought about it.

"You may be right. Of course, I don't know anything about the rest of your fleet. What else?"

"We have the best cancellation policy in the business."


"Of course. Picture yourself sick as a dog, leaning over the rail, puking your guts out. You've got the dry heaves -- nothing left to throw up, and the ship just goes back and forth, back and forth, until you just can't stand it any longer. Just say the word and you're out of here."


"Or you're in your stateroom, burning up with fever, head pounding, every joint in your body on fire, you're unable to move without unbearable pain --"

"All right. I get the point."

She looks at me, inquiringly.

"Tell me," I say, "did you get any response to my complaint?"

She smiles. "Our system is fast, but not that fast."

"I mean, I'm getting a little concerned."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be that graphic about our cancellation policy. That was just an example."

"Well, 'concerned' may be the wrong word. Maybe 'uneasy' is more accurate."

"Uneasy about what?"

"Quite honestly, about your inability to find me a follow-up tour."

"I can keep working on that."

"'Uneasy' may also be the wrong word. Actually, I'm terrified."

She looks surprised. "You don't seem that scared to me."

"Maybe not now. But I do worry about being terrified later."

Her expression softens. "Believe me, I talk to a lot of customers. Your feelings are not that uncommon."

"Look, since you really can't find a suitable follow-up tour, what's the chance of getting, say, an extension on this one."

"Not likely," she responds. "There's quite a waiting list."

"Like -- it would take a miracle?"

"Well…" Her gaze reverts to her monitor. "Wait a minute. Here it is."

"Here what is?"

"The answer to your complaint. About the service. We got a response pretty quickly."

"What does it say?"


"What? They're claiming the service we've been getting is acceptable?"

"The response is that there is no service. Yours is a self-directed tour."

I can't believe it. "That's impossible."

She studies her screen. "Well, I've pulled up the prospectus and that's exactly what it says. 'Self-directed tour.'  Before you signed up, didn't you read the prospectus?"

"I never got a prospectus."

"Didn't you attend the orientation that's given right after you come on board?"

"I started this tour so long ago that I don't even remember coming on board."

I don't know whether to feel angry or defeated. Nothing about this session has gone right. I try to stay calm. "Look," I say, "couldn't you at least give me some advice as to what my next step should be?"

Suddenly, the ship lurches, the lights go out, and, to my amazement, when they flicker back on she comes through the screen and is right in my face. "I'll give you some advice," she says sternly. "Get off your butt and do something!"

When I stop shielding my eyes with my arm, her image is back on the screen, composed as ever.

"Wait a minute," I say, "you materialized right through my screen."

"I'm sorry," she says. "We're not supposed to do that."

"No, no. That's not it. You came right through my screen without even breaking the glass."

"And I do apologize. It's just that this job can be so frustrating."

"That's not the point. You performed a miracle."

"No, I don't --"

I feel my anger rising. "You can perform miracles. And I'm not even asking for a miracle. I just want some advice."

"And I gave you some advice. Some very good advice."

"Not general advice! Tell me specifically what I have to do."

She studies her monitor. "I'm sorry," she says. "I believe our time is up. I hope you found this chat at least a little bit helpful."


But the screen goes dark. Minutes later, the whole room goes black.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Bill Carr. All rights reserved.