Man and Machine
The training at the tenth store in three days concludes with the usual idiot questions. I present a simple concept; the trainees find a way to complicate it.
Today we are discussing…a machine that converts shit into gold. You take a bag of shit, like this, open the top and pour it in, like so. Hit the ON button. The machine starts, the light comes on and tells you it is processing. Then voila! The light goes out. Open the recovery bin. Gold, ladies and gentlemen. Pure gold! From shit! Do you think you can sell this machine? It’s in stock right now. Are there any questions?
Can you use dirt?
No, you have to use shit. The machine converts shit into gold.
Where do you get the shit?
You can use household shit, or purchase shit through our website.
Can you reverse the process and change gold into shit?
No. We will add this feature, if there is enough demand.
Can it convert shit into silver?
No. It converts shit, as I indicated earlier, into gold. That’s all.
Thank you for your attention. Good selling! Remember, there’s a thirty-dollar spiff this month.
And so another training ends, and the young men and women who have somehow managed to stay awake for the entire twenty minutes are now free to get back to their normal activities: calling on their cell phones, taking a leak, going on break, having a smoke, checking email, borrowing five bucks until payday, hitting on that babe in aisle four, ducking the boss, going out to the car a minute, trying to remember turning off the stove, meditating, sneaking a bite, everything except going back into the technology store and trying to sell the product they have just been trained on.
This is what I hear in my head: I mean, it’s bad enough having to come in early for vendor training, but then to have to spend eight hours with these idiot customers interrupting everything, where are the toner cartridges, does it work with Linux, what type of cable does it need? How the fuck am I supposed to know, man? I just work here.
This is the routine in the retail superstore. It’s four in the afternoon and I have a powerful urge to get drunk somewhere far away.
Ordinarily, I would repack my demonstration equipment and head for the highway, figuring to be back home in under four hours if I catch a break with traffic. But my wife called, put an end to that idea.
“I’m going out with the girls,” she told me.
“What about Billy?” I asked about our son, home from college.
“Billy’s gone camping with his girlfriend. Will you be home tonight?”
And something in the way she asks tells me what answer she is looking for. Since her Nip and Tuck, the nights out with the girls have gotten later and later. I was about to start something, when I saw an old friend walking with the GM of the store.
“No. I have to stay over. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
She wishes me a good night. I swear I can hear her signaling someone else in the room, giving the high sign, like a kid, Daddy’s out of town.
Sheila comes up, a pleasant surprise, a roving Area Supervisor with the chain, attractive and flirty, forty-ish with streaked hair and a terrific collection of Wonderbras. Today the color is purple, judging by the strap poking out of her sleeveless silk top. Her make-up is too severe for the smile I get, not that make-up is a turn-off, but there is simply too much of it. Her eyelids are golden, her lips a tawny color accentuated by an outline with dark pencil slightly suggestive of a moustache, and her eyebrows have been painted on with a heavy hand. I can see she is upset about something and pretends not to be, a brave face for the troops.
I have always admired Sheila for her ability to hold her own in a man’s world, the mid-level management of a national corporation where back-stabbing is so common innovative managers have begun actually doing it right in front of the victim, front-stabbing, just to stay ahead. Sheila gives as well as she takes, and ignores the stories of sexual misconduct with the aging CEO, despite him telling everyone about it every chance he gets.
I have known her ten years, through four different companies, the computer business a much smaller world than people think. We flirt and make jokes, but other than a couple drunken embraces, nothing has happened. Like many others my age, I’m trapped in a happy marriage, and constantly on the lookout for opportunities to throw it all away. I sense that same feeling sometimes in Sheila, like she’s one of the guys, or at least on my team, not the opposition.
“How did the training go?” she asks.
“Great,” I say automatically. The trainings are always great, no matter who asks. To say anything else is bad form. Plus they might make you do it again.
“When will you do the Orlando stores?”
“Next Monday. How are you, Sheila?”
“I’m doing great,” she says. Then: “Harry moved out. He wants a divorce.”
“No.” I’m shocked. She’d been supporting Harry for years.
“It’s crazy, right?” She looks around to make sure no one else can hear. “He’s mad I won’t pay for his Greatness.”
Greatness is the marketing term for the new penis augmentation surgery perfected by a South Beach doctor, Manfred Grayt, where the size of a man’s willie could be doubled, even tripled, yet still perform sexually without pumps or electronics. Everywhere there were ads showing male models with curious bulges in the front of their trousers, saying Greatness is more than a look, or Let her feel your Greatness, and my favorite, What is Greatness worth to you? hinting at the high price tag associated with the innovative technique. The operation is so popular clinics have opened all over, and customers fly in from around the world. Going to the beach is ridiculous, with men of all ages parading up and down the shoreline, looking like they’d stuffed sausages into their Speedos. Between cosmetically augmented women and Graytly enlarged men, people like us have no chance. I squeeze her arm.
“You’ve done a lot for that man.” I never liked Harry, I don’t say.
“I have, you know. Now he leaves me. But I can’t pay ten thousand dollars for him to have a foot-long hot dog. Just the thought of it makes me ill. It’s not natural. Do you want to be Graytly enlarged, Randall?”
“No way. My hand gets tired as it is. More work won’t do me any good.”
She laughs. “If I promise not to sleep with you, will you buy me a drink?”
“I’ll get us a room.”
We have a joke, something I’d pointed out to her in a bar after a trade show. It seemed whenever a woman told me not to get the wrong idea, she wouldn’t sleep with me, I’d end up in bed with her soon after. I told Sheila that when I heard that line, I knew to call a hotel, because if it’s on a woman’s mind at the beginning of a date, it’s clear how things will end up. I could talk with her that way, make her smile.
We make arrangements to meet at Happy Hour down the street at the Marriott.
The place is dark and quiet and the high prices keep the sloppy drinkers away. A man and woman could talk in comfort and privacy, and enjoy a buffet made by a creative chef. On Thursday the piano player comes in at five and plays jazz and old favorites. There are candles in little red bowls on every table. And peanuts, little pewter saucers of salted peanuts. The chances of seeing anyone with surgical implants were small. I knew the place well, stayed there whenever business travel brought me through town. Most nights I drank alone, or sat at the bar and watched baseball with the bartender, a die-hard Marlins fan. One wall is glass and the world goes on silently outside, undisturbed.
I am staring comfortably out the enormous plate glass window when Sheila surprises me, bending down for a kiss.
“Randall, you look lost in thought,” she says, and her delightful scent makes me smile as I kiss her cheek and smell her hair.
“I was just noticing how much more I like the world with the volume turned off.”
She sits beside me in the circular booth, so we can both see out the tinted glass, a couple weary executives done for the day, happy that everyone else keeps busy in our absence. The bartender is there immediately and takes her order for good Scotch and water, the same as I am drinking.
“Sheila, do think the world is ready for a machine that changes shit into gold?”
“I’m sure we’ll sell a couple a week. What do your marketing people say?”
“A couple a week per store. Exactly. More when there is a bonus for the sales people.”
“You’d think everyone would want one. But that never happens.”
“In tests, forty-four per cent of the test market feared that the gold would turn back into shit and cause embarrassment.”
She laughs. “That would spoil a night at the ballet, wouldn’t it?”
Our drinks arrive, in the big heavy glasses that made this one of my favorite bars.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” I toast her.
“Back at ya, tough guy,” she says. “Oh God. I forgot to call home and nearly panicked until I realized there’s no one there anyway. No wonder I need a drink.”
So Sheila and I sit and drink and talk about married life, how it’s so different than what we’d expected. How you can be with someone for years and the isolation does not get better, it gets worse, and now you have someone else to make miserable. One day you wake up and love has become a behavior instead of a feeling. You behave in a loving way, buy anniversary presents and cards with poetic messages, you help wash the dishes and keep the lawn mowed. You keep busy, you work extra hours, have constant projects to take up the time. Then your wife wants silicon breasts or your husband wants the Greatness and you realize you are living with a stranger, desperate to please everyone in the world except you. You’re the one person who does not want it done, but what you wanted stopped being important a long time ago.
“Maybe your company can come up with a machine to replace a lover,” she says.
“For sex? I think they’re working on sex robots now.”
“Not sex. A machine that makes you believe it cares for you. That it listens to what you say. A machine that convinces you it wants you to be happy.”
“A machine that behaves in a loving way,” I say, grasping her point.
“Exactly. Think about it. There aren’t really that many behaviors to program.”
“No, you’re right. There aren’t. And as long as the machine didn’t deviate…”
“Then you’d have love,” she finishes for me.
“Until the batteries ran out.”
“Or I unplugged it. I’d want to have that option. To end it, when I couldn’t take it anymore.” Her green eyes seem sad, though she smiles.
“When you feel trapped,” I say.
“When I want to feel something real.”
I don’t know who kisses who, if she leans to me or I pull her close, but we kiss, mouths tasting of bonded whiskey and basic need. There is the breathless excitement of holding hands and jumping off a high suspension bridge into dark icy waters below.
Then slowly the booth reappears, the table and candle and saucer of peanuts, the heavy glasses with amber liquid over tubular ice cubes, the room, the bar, the glass wall separating this quiet place from the men and machines outside. Her face shines in such detail I could have counted her eyelashes or identified her brand of make-up. I must be smiling as she leans back to get a good look at me.
“I’m not going to sleep with you,” she says.
“Do you have a suitcase?”
“Do you have a room?”
I nod. From my shirt pocket I pull out the room card and give it to her. She wriggles her nose.
“Get us another round while I freshen up. This is the weirdest thing I’ve done in a while.”
“And fun too.”
“Does your wife have a lover?”
“Christ, I hope so.”
She slides out of the booth. “Did she have the augmentation?”
I hold my open hands in front of my chest, indicating large breasts. “Out to here.’
“Call me Mister Blue.”
“Get us some hors d’ouevres, Monsieur Bleu. I’m starving.”
With her bouncy step she moves to the alcove in the back, then stops and turns, looks back over her shoulder at me, a femme fatale in a well-made spy movie. It makes me laugh, to see her so playful. I sense the recklessness of water. We’re feeling the pleasure of swimming back to the surface from way down below, gasping, amazed to be alive.