I always find Kendra by the corgi pen in the courtyard at lunch. We have two hundred square feet of mulch and rubber for the pups to run around down there. The corgis were donated by a local animal shelter after they went belly-up during citywide budget cuts. In December our phones went off the hook with people threatening to electrocute themselves with hair dryers. It was a stressful time. So our boss, Duck, thought it would boost morale to combine a suicide hotline with a corgi shelter for the holidays.
Two days before Christmas, Kendra’s by the pen eating a cobb salad and feeding the bacon bits to the pups. A group of at-risk-youths arrive by bus to peruse the corgis for animal companionship, to teach them love and responsibility, and curb their criminal impulses. I’ve volunteered to watch the pen and make sure none of the pups get into the construction site across the road. It’s a perfect opportunity to impress Kendra. I watch as she lets a cappuccino-colored corgi lick her face in front of a young man with studs on his eyelids, whose heart must melt when he witnesses this act of affection.
Before I know it a particularly determined corgi leaps the fence and runs straight into the construction site. The poor thing doesn’t even see the steamroller coming right towards it. I figure I should run over there, maybe do a summersault to retrieve the pup from certain death. What happens instead is: I shut my eyes and pray for mechanical failure. When I open them I have a fresh batch of puppicide on my hands, the kids groan back to the bus sans corgis, and Kendra throws up in the bushes. So once again I have to rethink my plans to ask her out for drinks after work.
Duck pulls me into his office to talk numbers. He has a whiteboard with our names in one column and sad-face magnets in the other. Magnets are not good. They mean we’ve failed a caller, i.e. they died. This month I’ve already had two jumpers and three pill swallowers. Last week I convinced a Safeway butcher not to slit his own throat after he caught his wife sleeping with the bakery guy. I told him he was still a person of value and made a difference, even if it was just slicing cold cuts. He said thanks buddy, that it put things in perspective, and then he went ahead and hacked the baker. I got two magnets for that.
“See this?” says Duck. “You have so many magnets they’re spilling into Leo’s column.”
Leo just got back from cleaning oil-stained penguins in Antarctica. He never gets magnets. Fridays he brings a sitar and serenades callers over the phone.
“You’re doing a good thing here,” says Duck. “But we don’t have the budget for deadweights. One more suicide and we’re going to have to let you go.”
I go back to my desk where they’ve constructed a cardboard memorial for the dead corgi right across from me. His name was Tater. Leo brings Kendra herbal tea from the kitchenette in a clay kettle he made at home. I fear she may have a thing for him. I thought this job would be more meaningful. Before this, I worked at Burger Durge busting drug deals in the children’s play area. There I ran into my high school counselor, who said I was always doomed for academic failure.
At five o’clock everybody leaves to grab drinks at Scalawags Bar and Cannery. Kendra gets into Leo’s Jeep Wrangler, and I feel my chances with her are disintegrating. But thank god I have other outlets. So I take the bus across town to Little Korea where downstairs a twenty-four hour hookah bar is the secret offices of 4Syte™, Inc.
“Again?” says Dr. Dresden.
“You know the one,” I say.
He happily hums the Cheers theme song and plugs the neuro-pen into the back of my neck. It feels like lancing a boil. Suddenly his musty office filled with VHS porn tapes and cases of Red Bull disappears, and it’s Case #14 – Romantic Dinner For Two Lovebirds, which means Biscotti’s Italian Grill with Kendra across from me, sipping pinot noir and dipping my focaccia bread in truffle oil. Leo comes over in his waiter vest and asks if we want to hear about the specials. I say no, then I kick him in the balls and he falls over while Kendra laughs and says how witty I am. As we watch the sunset by our seaside window, Leo crawls back from the kitchen with our entrees on a covered tray and sets it on our table. But when he lifts it’s a flattened corgi, still raw, eyes popping out of its sockets and maggots digging through the fur. I yell STOP and the simulation stops, bringing me back to Dr. Dresden’s office asking what the hell just happened.
“It’s not the machine,” he says. “It’s your imagination.”
He reminds me that the neuro-pen uses my own memories to create a fabricated reality, but sometimes lingering stress can muddle the experience. Six months I’ve been using this equipment and I’ve never had an incident like this. Originally Duck called in Dr. Dresden from 4Syte™ to teach us about sexual harassment. We plugged into Case #3 – Creepy Guy From Upper-Middle Management Running His Hands All Over Your Thighs. Boy did it make me rethink personal boundaries in the office. So much that I talked to Dr. Dresden after and found out he hosts an off-the-books virtual reality clinic, which is illegal, and his credentials are a bit foggy, but it gets the job done.
I try to clear my head and plug in again, this time Case # 38: Hot Workplace Passion. I’m at the office with Kendra at my desk whispering in my ear how much she admires my gusto and perfectly healthy appetite. This is more like it. This is what I’ve always wanted, finding someone who can appreciate my positive qualities. Behind me someone taps my shoulder and I turn to see it’s a crazy-eyed butcher who yells at me to get away from his wife, right as he chops off my head with a cleaver. I roll like a bowling ball around the office floor until Leo plants his foot on me so I can watch as he and Kendra start getting into some rough nasty lovemaking, and before I can yell STOP, Dr. Dresden unplugs me and says my card has been declined, meaning I’ve reached my limit for the day.
I walk home to my filthy flea-infested apartment, where my cat Roach has thrown up inside the oven. I get another letter in the mail from a student loan collector threatening to post unflattering pictures of me from high school if I miss another payment. I pass out from drinking three tallboys of margarita mix and dream about a team of sled dogs getting flattened by a zambroni. I wake up in the morning to fleas everywhere and I resolve to burn Roach and myself and the whole apartment, until I check the clock and realize I’m late for work.
Today our bus accidentally plows through the Santa’s Workshop ice sculpture outside Westfields and a wheel falls off. The self-driving buses were added to save money after the drivers went on strike, demanding seat warmers. After two accidents and multiple civilian deaths, the city still won’t recall them, or refund our bus fare. So I slog the rest of the way to work in my cheap loafers, which begin to disintegrate from this chemical they put on the sidewalk to discourage homeless people from sleeping there. Christmas is a sad season for everyone.
When I show up there’s a meeting in the multi-purpose room about our holiday bonuses. Duck says there are none. The city’s slashing our budget even further since the police department says it needs new stomping boots. He also dispels rumors that we’ll soon be replaced by a more cost-efficient automated call system called OpenEars®, designed by Silicon Valley techies for maximum sympathy and support. Then he retreats to his office and starts printing out resumes, which is not exactly reassuring.
In the kitchenette there’s talk about unionizing. We all agree that our work is important and we’re not getting paid enough. The city just cut Esther’s water and Carlos can’t afford to get his kid’s braces taken off. Leo brings up the time he convinced his hometown to change five street names to Cesar Chavez. He says we need to organize a campaign of passive-resistance, i.e. not working, until we get this figured out. I know I should be agreeing with him. I could really use the pay raise. Every week I hand over half my paycheck to Dr. Dresden for forty-five minutes of 4Syte™ time. My rent is overdue. My debt is killing me.
Still, I wish Leo would get run over by a zambroni.
After lunch I get a call from a high schooler who’s threatening to swallow a handful of ibuprofen. Part of me wants to say: Get it over with, kid, We’re not going to be around that much longer either. But I think back to why I started this job: To be a person of value. And have some semblance of a social life after spending six months indoors watching TikTok videos. So I tell her that she’s also a person of value, even if her ex-boyfriend has just emailed naked photos of her to everyone in their school. When I ask her if she wants a corgi she hangs up.
I put my head down, but someone taps my shoulder.
I half-expect it to be the crazed butcher from my simulation. Instead it’s Kendra with a cup of instant coffee, saying I looked like I needed it. This is the first thing she’s said to me since orientation day, when I sprained my wrist trying to help her adjust the lumbar knob on her chair. We sit and chat for a bit. She tells me about her kids, who are on indefinite summer break after a measles outbreak at their school. I ask about their father, and she says he took off a long time ago with his creative writing professor so they could start a polyamorous writing colony in Utah.
“Goddamn prick thinks every hole is an invitation,” says Kendra.
Sweet Kendra. Always thinking about others. And still active in the company volleyball league after her divorce. I’m so happy to be talking to her, that for once, I don’t even need 4Syte™ to be happy.
That feeling lasts about two minutes. Before I know it I’m back at Dr. Dresden’s office again.
“Better today?” he says.
“Lots,” I say.
Today it’s Case #88: Celebrity Interview Talk Show. I’m on The Tonight Show with Kendra sitting next to me, talking to Jimmy Fallon about my self-help book Get Motivated! and how it inspired a whole generation of disaffected youths to stop killing themselves. Kendra looks great, and so do I, having finally resolved to achieve that Brad Pitt Fight Club body. It’s after Jimmy congratulates me on my biopic deal that I get on one knee and propose to Kendra, revealing a private jet as the set vanishes, and she says yes, and we fly to Key West for an early honeymoon and consummate our affair at the Hemingway House.
Feeling refreshed after Dr. Dresden unplugs me, I head home where a teen in a hoodie is standing outside my house selling candy bars. I get closer and realize it’s not a teen, but a petite fully-grown man with forearm crutches who says he’s from a debt collection agency and needs all my missed payments pronto.
“Don’t be upset,” he says. “But if I don’t hit my quota this month, it’ll be a very sad Christmas.”
I offer a corgi, but he needs money, preferably cash. I tell him to wait as I go upstairs to get my wallet. Instead I stay there overnight as it rains and I watch him shiver under the broken awning. Then it’s morning and I manage to sneak my way out through the alleyway, boarding the bus right as the debt collector looks me in the eye and collapses crestfallen on the sidewalk.
At work Duck is fuming. Leo’s corralled half the office outside next to the corgi pen with picket signs that read PEOPLE NOT PROGRAMS. Duck finds me at my desk and happily displays my column on the whiteboard, now sans magnets, while Leo’s column is magnetville. He says he admires my dedication and loyalty, and it would show great leadership potential if I help crush Leo’s crusade for better pay.
I think: Perfect. A chance to get rid of Leo.
So I go outside. But there’s Kendra with the rest, standing on top of Leo’s Jeep Wrangler that he’s using as a makeshift podium. She says she’s tired of feeding her kids government mac & cheese and wants to know who will join the cause. Now might be a time to change tactics. So I jump up next to her and begin yelling everything I learned about Marx and Engels from their Wikipedia articles. It gets a riotous cheer from the crowd. Even Leo is taken back. We sit in a circle and talk about how the system has failed us, from Jenny’s sprained ankle that turned into an oxycontin addiction at the free clinic, to Miguel getting beaten by the cops for talking loudly at a movie theater, and Leo who, drunk on his own happiness and pride, lets it slip that he gets a check from his parents every month but it’s not nearly enough to shop at the vegan co-op.
It gets very quiet once we learn that Leo’s a trust-fund baby. Everyone turns on him as a phony bohemian, so he packs up his didgeridoo and leaves. All that’s left is a disgruntled crowd without leadership, so I toss my hat in. I say my aspirations are low, but only to see that my fellow human being is fed and clothed and provided ample emotional support. This gets a big cheer. Even Kendra backs me up. Coworkers I’ve never spoken to before are lifting me up by my ankles as Duck looks down scornfully from his office window before flipping the blinds.
After a long day, I say we should congratulate ourselves on our hard work with margaritas at El Burrlito. A tequila pinata is broken and everyone gets sloshed. I make promises to ensure a free transportation shuttle to and from the office for people who are scared of feral corgis prowling around at night. Kendra gives me an affectionate peck on the cheek, at which point I have to rub the back of my neck to make sure this isn’t just another 4Syte™ simulation. It isn’t. This is real. Somehow I’ve manifested my own satisfaction and joy. I go home loving Roach and every flea in our apartment.
The feeling lasts about twelve hours. The next day at work everyones crowding around Miguel’s computer and looking at me like I’m covered in somebody else’s blood. I go to my desk and check my email, finding a video from my student loan collector.
“This is what happens when you don’t pay back your student loans on time,” he says. “I air out all your dirty deeds.”
I play the video and my heart sinks: It’s all my 4Syte™ simulations with Kendra, including the extra rompy ones. There’s us at HarlotVille where she’s tied up with a garter belt. There’s the one where I’m crying in a miniature golf course and she’s massaging my shoulders. There’s the one where she has a twin and we do unspeakable things at a public library. Et cetera.
Kendra comes out of the kitchenette in real life, equal parts disturbed and embarrassed, even more than the corgi fiasco. She says I’m a creep-o and to stay away from her and I should be arrested for the sick fantasies in my head. The only thing worse than this is what Duck has to say to me in his office.
“Congratulations,” he says. “While you were out protesting yesterday, the city decided they really don’t need us after all once they get OpenEars® up and running. Pack up everything. We’re finished.”
Like clockwork everyone’s against me. Miguel says how foolish they all were to listen to my advice and spits on my wingtips. Jenny says she’ll have to go back to stripping at the Velvet Biscuit. Esther says her kids will love handmade paper dolls for Christmas again. Carlos saunters off with everybody’s headsets in a plastic bag.
I leave work and walk down the moonlit streets of downtown on Christmas Eve. The empty facade of storefronts are too bankrupt to even feign holiday cheer. A police officer is fixing his boots with electrical tape. Cats covered in soot try to lure rats out of the gutters for companionship. A group of kids wrapped in green army blankets go carolling with their youth pastor and hold an empty box of Not-Tarts® for donations.
I ask myself: Is this the reward I get for trying to be a good person? Then: Was I ever a good person? Upstreet a self-driving bus zig-zags through an intersection, and I figure, what the hell, there’s nothing left, and I step off the curb. I wake up next to a fire hydrant a hundred feet away with my arms and legs in spaghetti knots. I close my eyes, awaiting the sweet release of death. But a dozen tiny hands push at my chest and get my lungs working, and for a second I imagine it’s those puppies kneading bread on me, except it’s those little carolers doing everything they can to save me, which they do, better than I could’ve, and then their youth pastor is praising them for remembering what they learned from their Jesus Does CPR videos, and they walk hand-in-hand away to get pizza as a reward.
Sean Nishi is a Japanese-American writer from Los Angeles, CA. He completed his MFA in creative writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He lives with his partner and two cats, Toby & Waffles.
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