I guess it started with the robot talking to me at the front of Perfect Pizza. It was the check-out clerk, one of the humanoid ones, vaguely male with his square features, bald head and glass eyes. His pupils dilated when the clouds covered the sun, and he had specks of color in each iris: blue and grey, occasionally red. The ‘bot was just human enough to feel comfortable ordering a personal pizza from, yet small and deformed enough to remind us humans that we still dominated the earth. This one was permanently stuck to the counter, with a human-shaped torso, head and arms bursting from the white plastic like an eerie modern centaur.
All the check-out robots were programmed to say specific phrases in response to human interaction, with little variance. “And what kind of toppings would you like?” they would ask after you ordered your pizza. Some days, the only words ever spoken to me were those of the fast-food check-out ‘bot.
Next, the inevitable payment question: “How would you like to pay, ma’am, credit card or G.S.?” Even the robots used the initials G.S. instead of “general stipend,” and pretended that paying with a credit card was still an option. As if anyone who could use a credit card, and not the stipend, would be in a pizza joint.
And at the very end of the transaction, in most of these fast food restaurants, the robot would offer some last line to make you walk away feeling inspired. If you were eating at Happy Burger they’d say, “Have a happy-dappy day!” At Soyfarm Panda, the robot would say, “May your stomach be full and your mind at peace.” At Perfect Pizza, the robots would usually finish with the line, “We hope this pizza helps you to be happy today!”
But that wasn’t what the robot said to me on that day.
I’d gone to get pizza after my shift volunteering at the Synth-H clinic down the street—I had worked up a hunger after spending the morning spray-painting some old picture frames and redecorating the common area to make it feel cozier for the residents. Smog decorated the skyline, everyone seemed to ignore me, and I looked down at my phone as much as I could. I didn’t feel like seeing or talking to anyone. Everything about that day fit into my routine, until those words from the robot pierced my consciousness. After I tapped my G.S. card into the computer, the robot said, “And what have you done today?”
Then, after a pause in which the robot rolled his eyes back into his white plastic forehead, he added, “Happy. To be happy.” Even though it looked like he had been thinking, I knew that was impossible. It was probably a malfunction. His voice was more human than ever, though, with none of that nasally, metallic edge I usually associated with the ‘bots.
I think my mouth must have been open for a few seconds before I shut it and continued with my routine. I tried to process what had just happened while checking the balance on my card and waiting the five minutes while the pizza was prepared by the other, less human-looking robots. Was this, perhaps, the new “mantra” for Perfect Pizza? I’d been coming here for years, and twice this week alone, yet the words of the robot had always been the same. There were maybe five other people in the restaurant, but they were all concentrating on their phones or food. One person was gazing out the window. No one had noticed what the robot had said to me.
When a pizza slid down the conveyor belt in its box with my number printed across the top, I picked it up and looked at the check-out ‘bot again. He was repeating the standard phrases to a young father and his son who had been in line behind me. The father was wearing a see-through plastic raincoat, even though it wasn’t raining, and had puffy circles under his eyes. The child, a toddler with thick arms and legs, wearing a blue-denim jumpsuit, kept wriggling out of his father’s arms and trying to get onto the counter to grab the robot’s face. At least three times, the man had to pick his son up off the counter.
But it made no difference to the ‘bot. His reactions were the same for the man as they had been for me, at least so far. But the robot’s last words were completely different. “We hope this pizza helps you to be happy today,” it said after they paid. Then it looked at me. For maybe a split second, it looked right at me, before turning its head back to center and freezing to wait for the next customer.
By that point, I was in a bit of shock. My first thought was that I had imagined the sentient look the robot had given me with those creepy glass eyes. Was I starting to see things? But my stomach started to growl and I didn’t know what I could do about it, even if he was getting crazy robot ideas, or trying to take over the world, so I turned around and sat down in my favorite corner, farthest from the windows. There was never anything to look at outside other than everything I had started to loathe in recent months: the unemployed, the Synth-H users, and the unemployed Synth-H users like I had once been.
It was best to ignore it all and focus on my pizza instead. It had barbeque sauce, synthetic mozzarella, mushrooms, and strips of laboratory manufactured “rib-eye,” which I’d heard were made from vegetable fibers and soy. I had no way to verify this, as the ingredients weren’t public, but I liked to think there was a possibility some of it was healthy. It was the pizza I’d always eaten since rehab, and I found it soothing. I was far beyond caring if I put on some pounds.
Before I took out my phone to scroll through the usual apps, to look for new clothes or cheap deals, I glanced once more at the check-out ‘bot. He remained motionless at the counter, his frozen, glass eyes staring straight ahead. Perfectly normal. I wondered what it felt like to be permanently stuck to the counter like a piece of furniture. To be stuck in this white plastic pizza place all day, watching humans shovel food into their faces he could neither eat, nor smell, would be hard on anyone. But, I thought, as I slurped up a long piece of synthetic cheese, at least he had a job. I couldn’t even get an interview.
While I ate my pizza, I checked my email to see if anyone in my family had responded to my most recent plea for forgiveness. Nothing. I’d stolen my sister-in-law’s jewelry during my Synth-H days and now none of my three brothers would talk to me. What I had mistaken for cheap sterling silver and sold at a pawn shop for three lousy hits had belonged to her great-great-grandmother, a horse rancher from the Southwest in the good-ole-days, and had sentimental value. A lot of sentimental value, apparently.
My pizza finished, I gave up on trying to contact family for today. My brothers still probably had my email automatically set up to go to trash. I sat for a few moments in the green and white plastic booth, waiting to see if the robot looked at me again. Nothing. Perhaps what he had said to me had simply been a glitch in the system. I wondered where the human manager was right now. It was very competitive to get a job like that. I knew; I’d applied for many robot managerial positions since my rehab from Synth-H.
I finally gave up on figuring out the robot. I left the pizza joint and walked the four blocks to the train, passing advertisements for new electronics, apps, and fast food. All around me were the delightful offerings of the Earth, all within a GS budget if you used your money wisely. The smiling faces in an advertisement—a man and woman looking happy as they connected over their phones, some kind of dating app—made me think about what the ‘bot had said. What have you done today to be happy?
It had been exactly three years, two month and seven days since I had taken Synth-H. It had never made me feel happy, but at least it kept me from thinking too much, like I was today. I looked down as my crusty black tennis shoes carefully navigated the empty liquor bottles, a moldy pizza box, used needles which had fallen between cracks in the pavement, the paraphernalia of a life I knew well. What was the difference between that life and this one? Before, I could fall away into oblivion whenever I wanted. But now, my only distractions were my volunteer gig and my N.A. meetings, which as of late were not helping fill the gap. I needed something else.
But this was the kind of thinking that had lead me to Synth-H in the first place. My N.A. meeting was tomorrow night, not tonight. I could probably find one to go to tonight, but I doubted I could find the answer there, or here. I looked up. The blue sky was there, somewhere, covered with an opaque brown veil, pierced by the sleek high rises of the technology elite. You couldn’t look up in this city without seeing the skyscrapers. They were the center of the city, and everything else was built around them, like the temples or churches of the past.
I walked by a grey-haired man sitting on the sidewalk. His wrinkles were filled with dirt and sweat, and he was hunched in a corner, screaming towards the high-rises, with one fist clenched and raised. I knew that I had only narrowly missed becoming him. But what for? Before, I’d two simple emotions: the blissful perfection of oblivion, and the ravenous desire to achieve oblivion again. Now, the only emotion I had was a flat, sinking feeling in my chest. But, I reminded myself, I was alive, and that was good.
I accidentally made eye contact with the crazy-looking man, and he stood up with a sudden fire in his eyes. “Dildos!” he screamed, “Big fucking dildos!” At first I thought he was talking to me, and I shied away. But when I followed his glare, I almost laughed, because he spoke the truth. No matter how many awards the architects earned for their designs, their buildings looked phallic. Ger would have thought of something funny to say back to the man, shouted something absurd and obscene, proving once again he could charm anyone, anywhere. We would have gone home and laughed about it over dinner, slurping up the red pasta sauce made with green olives. What was it called, something with a “p”? I’d planned to marry him, have kids with him. But he’d brought the habit back from the Asia Alliance Wars, and shared it with me. He’d died a few months later, looking skeletal, lying next to the bathtub, staring up into the back of his head. An eternity ago.
When I got to the train stop and bought my ticket from the machine, the screen pulsed with a yellow and black sad face. Not again.
“Getting low on funds, Helayna,” it reminded me. Unlike the pizza robot, this voice was high pitched and irritating. I wished I could shoot that little sad-faced icon, like you used to be able to do in video games when I was a kid. I wanted to see it burst into flames or disintegrate into pieces all over the screen. That would be a good app, I thought, putting my stipend card into my wallet and getting in line for the train, which was running late. I’d be eating at the free-food stands or borrowing from next-month’s stipend if I wasn’t careful. As I stood in line, I tried to think of the bag of Cheezi-Puffs I had at home, or what television I would watch when I got home. Anything to not think of the robot’s words, and their reminder of my dismal life and lack of happiness.
But my thoughts kept circling back. Malfunction or not, the words made me uneasy, and I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. What had I done to be happy today? Was that too complicated a question, since I had food and a place to sleep, and the government provided for us enough to have gadgets to occupy our time? I knew from college—I shuddered to think that was nearly twenty years ago, now—that most of human history had been filled with misery and oppression. So why should I think I was special, and insist on more?
When the train finally arrived, it was so full I had to stand in the aisle on my toes to grab the handle hanging from the ceiling. As the train jerked into motion, two women on either side of me greeted one another through the mass of people. The first peered under the arm of the heavy-set man who stood next to me, like a pony-tailed gopher looking up from a tunnel.
“The train’s late,” she said to her friend, next to me.
The friend looked over the top of my head and nodded. “Third suicide this month,” she said. “And it’s only the middle of the month.” They both shook their heads and pulled out their phones.
I pulled out my phone too, but didn’t look at it. What was the point of being clean if I was still only the papery thin, worm-like creature I had been on Synth-H, looking at my phone and searching for discount food and jeans while someone had killed themselves just minutes before? Had it been a woman or a man? A friend from college, Carlos, had killed himself before I became an addict. He could no longer find work as an engineer. At the funeral, his wife and children looked deflated, dressed in cheap black clothing from big-bin stores. I didn’t know how he had done it, and his family didn’t talk about it, so I assumed it was violent and bloody.
Now, trying not to lose my balance as the train came to a halt, I pictured a man, with dark brown hair like me, feeling the same black hole in his chest as me, jumping off the platform and in front of the train. He had practiced it in his mind so many times that even when he felt the urge to pull back at the last minute, his muscles still pushed him off the platform.
Standing in the aisle, grasping onto the handle with both hands, I knew that if I didn’t do something I soon would be the one on the train tracks, small talk for the assholes on the train.
I looked at the two women on their phones and was about to say something, anything, even a casual comment just to acknowledge that it had happened. As I opened my mouth, still unsure what to say, I realized it was almost my stop and I had to push through the crowd to get to the door. Whatever I was going to say, I had no one to say it to as I walked the ten blocks of identical six-story stucco buildings of the Dillon Street apartments.
At the front of the building, I looked up, trying to fully appreciate the monstrosity of the thing. All the apartment buildings in this area had been built recently, to address the lack of cheap housing. The plain white walls and small windows certainly spoke more to utility than aesthetics. In another kind of world, someone would have set up film screenings in the summer, using the large, white wall as a community movie-screen. But I didn’t even know my neighbors. The lawn crunched under my feet as I cut across to the entrance; it hadn’t rained in months. The sky was a muted, purplish-brown as the sun crept towards the earth.
I walked into my peeling, beige, carpeted flat and sat onto the sofa. Like my imaginary man on the platform, my body acted from memory, only mine was real. I sank into the faded, black cushions and stared at the three foot wide, two foot tall, flat-screen TV. For once, I felt no urge to turn it on. But it didn’t wait for me. My roommates must have changed the settings.
“Hello, Helayna,” the television said, the voice coming from a white dot bouncing across the screen. “What would you like to watch?” It kept right on talking. “I would like to recommend the documentary A History of Cats, based on your recent viewing of Weapons of the Roman Coliseum,” it said.
“No,” I replied, swiping it off.
I sat by myself for a moment, staring at the blank television. Before I could distract myself, the dreaded question came back: What had I done to be happy today? Other than go to the clinic to volunteer for a few hours and eat my pizza, I’d looked at my phone, taken the train home, and for absolutely no reason, felt drained and tired.
I heard one of my roommates, Stewart, talking on the phone in his room. I couldn’t hear much other than the upticks and affirmations in his voice. He was excited by the human contact he had found. He was a night owl, but he had explained it to me once, when we both happened to be in the kitchen at the same time. He’d been eating a bag of “Queso Krunchies,” which I wished he would offer to me, my mouth watering at the thought of the chalky, salty, orange goodness. I was sipping a cup of instant coffee I had heated up in the microwave.
“What is that?” I had asked him, pointing to his notebook, half filled with crumply paper and thousands of notations. The other half had smooth, white, unlined paper.
“Oh this,” he said, “is my calling game notebook.” He wiped the dark orange powder of the Krunchies onto a napkin—what a waste, when you could lick your fingers clean—and flipped through the pages like a deck of cards. “It’s what I do to fill the time. Basically,” he said, flipping it open to maybe the third or fourth page, “I dial numbers at random and keep a list. I write down whether anyone answers, or if no one answers, what the message is like. I get a live person after about a hundred attempts.”
“Wow,” I said. He hardly ever left his room. “Why, why do you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess to just try and get into contact with different people. Try to see what other people are like. I can walk the street for hours, and see thousands of people, but I won’t talk to any of them.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why,” he said. And we left the conversation there.
From what I could hear now, Stewart would now be able to mark “human contact” next to the number he had just dialed.
Other than Stewart’s conversation, the apartment was silent. My other roommate had recently been hired to supervise the garbage control ‘bots, and she was probably sleeping before her upcoming shift.
I pushed myself up off the couch, and with a creaking in my knees, walked into my room. It was the smallest in the apartment, and my twin bed took up most of the space. All around the bed, my room was filled with crap. As much crap you could buy on a government stipend: cheap t-shirts, plastic gadgets for brushing your hair, little stuffed animals that were supposed to become valuable in a few years. The plastic pieces and colored fabrics, faded by the wash, littered the beige rug in my apartment. I was consistently broke at the end of the month and this junk was why. We talked about it at N.A.; “filling the void.” I was guilty but didn’t care; it was better than a needle in my leg any day. I cleared just enough things off my bed to lay down. The fluorescent light belittled my possessions, so I stared at the smooth, white ceiling instead.
Lazily, almost drifting into sleep, I thought back to the documentary I had watched a few days earlier. The Roman Empire would give free bread to the citizens of Rome and keep them entertained with blood sport in the Coliseum. I think the idea was to keep them from rioting. Rome was wealthy, the center of a vast and heavily taxed empire, but the city itself was filled with the poor. They must have felt uneasy, the holders of wealth, knowing there were so many destitute in such proximity to their golden statues and orgies.
Did they ever wonder how long it would take before the poor overwhelmed them, the rulers of the Empire? I hardly ever saw our own rulers anymore. In the past, they had ventured out on the streets, walking quickly, buttoning the tops of their embroidered jackets and designer suits, catching private cabs, or sitting in the back of their self-driving cars, heads bent over their phones. Now, because of the greater use of A.I., they didn’t have to leave their luxury homes unless they wanted to. Maybe they were scared. Maybe they had simply forgotten about the rest of us.
I joined hands across my stomach. I used to wear jewelry, decorating my fingers with silver rings and my ears with brightly colored plastic earrings. Now, I decorated myself with age, freckles, and folds in the skin.
And what have you done to be happy today?
Staring at the ceiling, thinking about those words, I thought I would never be able to sleep without knowing whether the ‘bot had been trying to give me a message. But I woke up a few hours later with my head pressed against a plastic bag of jeans I’d gotten on sale. I must have rolled over in my sleep. I felt a crease in my forehead where the plastic had left a mark. I picked up my phone and checked the time. 8:45 PM. I hadn’t even turned off the light.
I was hungry and I’d forgotten to shop. I was down to one box of expired macaroni. Or I could return to Perfect Pizza for a slice of that delicious synthetic cheese. Perhaps see what the robot had to say. I got up, grabbed my shoulder bag, and headed back to the train.
The train was nearly empty, and I got a seat right by the window. As I looked out the window, watching white wall, beige wall, grey wall, I realized that all the walls were blank. Weirdly blank. Which was strange, because the streets used to be filled with graffiti. It had been so long since I’d seen graffiti that I’d forgotten about it. As a child, when I had visited my grandmother in San Francisco, the streets used to be decorated with bright and colorful scribbling on almost every corner. The graffiti was so common that when she walked with me to church on Sundays, I would look forward to trying to read the cryptic words. I thought they had a mystical quality about them, and if I could only decipher the words, I could access their magic.
But looking out the train window, I wondered whether people no longer had a desire to write on the walls, or whether they did, but it got painted over. There was probably a whole army of painting ‘bots who come in at night to cover up unseemly graffiti.
At Perfect Pizza, I spoke with the manager. As subtly as I could, I asked, not about the robot itself, but about how his shift had been for the past few days. I told him I had heard things got pretty rough at night with the drug users in the area. The manager, a young man in his twenties with a receding hairline and blond and grey beard, told me that the strangest thing that had happened was some customers had reported the check-out robot had made an off-script statement. The robot had been inspected, a slight malfunction had been discovered, and promptly fixed. He was back to normal, the manager assured me.
I got a piece of pizza to go, plain cheese this time. Mystery solved, but I still felt a little disappointed when he said, “We hope this pizza helps you with your day!”
I walked out into the cold and headed in the direction of the Synth-H clinic. Since I was here, I could at least finish my picture frame project. The front desk clerk, Donna, didn’t look up from her phone. A volunteer, just like me, too caught up in her apps to watch the busy street in front of her. At my locker, I stood staring at the cans of spray paint I’d been using, silver, black, purple. Colors I was hoping would give the place a less sterile, happier vibe. I put the spray paint in my shoulder bag and walked out again. Donna barely noticed as I walked out the door and headed home.
When I got back to the Dillon Street apartments, I took a deep breath. I hated this place, with its wide, colorless walls. It wasn’t much better than the Synth-H clinic, in many ways. I pulled out a can of purple paint and began to write. I felt self-conscious, awkward, even, looking over my shoulder to see whether anyone was watching. No one was. After the first few strokes, each letter went faster. I wrote the words the robot had asked me, over, and over again, each word about two feet in length. I made each letter legible, made the magic of the words available to everyone.
I was writing it for me, and for everyone else who needed to hear those words, the stinging reminder of the unhappy lives we kept living even though we all knew, deep down, that there was a way out. This was the way out, I thought, imagining myself unlocking the mystery of the words.
I was writing it in part for Carlos, I was writing it for my family, wherever they were. I would try to get in contact with them again tomorrow, and maybe see if they had public address listings so I could go directly to their homes. They couldn’t avoid me forever.
I walked around the building, covering the entire first floor in the long, questioning sentence of the robot. I wrote it for Ger, who’d left me alone with Synth-H.
When I made it around the building, I stepped back from the wall, admiring my letters, which were bold, and circular. The words had followed me for most of the day, and now they screamed out from the side of the building, for everyone else to see. I waited, half expecting the wall to crumble and the magic I had unlocked be released to me, giving me the power to alter this shitty reality. Instead, predictably, I saw a cop car pull into the parking lot and two slow-moving, weary-looking policewomen step out.
Some days later, I sat once again at Perfect Pizza, once again after a volunteer shift, as if nothing had changed. The only difference was that I was trying out the seat closest to the window; I wanted to have something to look at other than my phone. I also wanted to convince myself that something had changed. When those two policewomen handcuffed me and put me in the back of their car, I could not find one star in the sky, and I had started to wonder whether it had all been worth it. Two days in jail, community service, and they had painted over it right away, as if it had never happened.
I glanced outside, and my heart sped up. There it was, written all over the side of a building outside, the words of the robot, the same words I had written on my building. A cleaning crew of ‘bots had only just arrived and they were starting on the first letters of “what.” But I could still see the rest of the sentence. A crowd had gathered around the cleanup, just normal people like me who had nothing else to do but stand and watch a graffiti cleanup.
I took my slice of pizza and walked out the door and into the crowd. I’d find this second author, even if it meant having to paint more messages, even if it meant more jail time. I had been right about the words, they did mean something. The wind swirled my hair around my pizza as I took a bite, watching the next word, “have,” being painted over, I felt less alone than I had felt in years.