Short Story – Arbitrary Infatuation
There are worse things out there than working in retail. I could be stuck in a cubicle all day, slouched over a desk, forcing people to listen to my half-hearted lines until they finally say “not interested, thanks”. The only thing I don’t like about my job is the laughable pay. I can barely make it through a month of playing catch-up with bills and scraping to find the cheapest grocery items.
I might complain about the customers, and they sure drive me nuts sometimes, but honestly they are the most entertaining thing I have ever seen. Working in retail is like studying human psychology in a very specific field. But I have yet to figure out why our brains shut down in a retail environment. For example, I have learned that signage is obsolete. Maybe it’s the overabundance of signs in our daily lives that caused it, but I’m certain that signs often don’t achieve their goal of drawing attention to them. Countless times customers walk into the store and straight up ask “What’s on sale”. I then have to kindly suggest they take a look at all items with the bright yellow sales tags attached.
My daily routine could be considered pretty boring. I stand by the cash register and ring up any purchases, then re-stock the items that left gaps on the shelves, and return to the register. Sometimes I get people who aren’t regulars and need assistance with finding what they’re looking for, but those instances are pretty rare. Most of my clientele enters the store, grabs their usual, and leaves without more than a “Hello” and “See you tomorrow”. But then there are the odd ones. The ones I like to watch and study to find out more about the primal functions of the human cerebral system.
I work in a small convenience store. It’s tiny enough to oversee the whole store and instead of cameras we have mirrors placed in the corners to view behind high shelves. I would watch in awe at how inconspicuous some people think they are when they roam the aisles wearing a hoodie and sunglasses late at night and stuff their pockets with the loudest crinkling snacks they could find. Then there’s the type of person that would shout from across the store, asking me what price the clearly labelled item they were standing right in front of was.
Since we have no security cameras, the company had a different brilliant idea of ensuring the safety of all employees. Every two hours the store phone would ring. An automated voice would ask me to type in my code and then hang up. How on earth that would stop someone from robbing the store is a mystery to me. If I don’t answer the phone immediately, I’d get another call after a few minutes, since they were smart enough to assume I might be busy with customers and miss the first call. But if the second call doesn’t get answered, because I might be drowning in a puddle of my own blood, they would call my manager. My manager would assume I’m just a lazy bum and text my personal phone. Only when no one was able to reach me for hours, will they send someone to check up on the store in person.
So, no, I don’t believe that security system was working in my favour. In fact, I believe it is more a check up on whether I’m at work rather than a check up on my safety. That is precisely why I don’t take these phone calls very serious.
The phone rings and even though I stand right next to it I let it sing its little song for a few seconds. Sometimes the thing glitches and there’s no voice on the other end if I pick up too soon, making me “miss” the call.
“Ben speaking, codename Tiger Shark. What’s the situation in HQ?”
“Security check”, the emotionless artificial voice began. “Enter your passcode now.”
“God damn, they got the Queen? I’m on my way!”
I punch in the code and wait for the confirmation.
“Confirmed. Thank you.”
How polite, the robot thanks me. Who says machines will take over violently?
A customer walks in and picks out a drink from the fridge. He places his item on the counter and I immediately scan it.
“It’s not very cold”, he says.
“The fridge isn’t very cold.”
I tell him that I can’t do anything about the fridges temperatures and resist to mention that human hands aren’t exact thermometers.
“Well, you can tell your manager.”
I tell him that I will, despite knowing full well that my boss doesn’t give a shit about this guy’s perception on how cold our fridges are.
The phone rings again and I’m thinking the machine glitched and didn’t accept the first call because it has not been two hours yet.
“You again, missed me already?”
“Security check. Enter your passcode now.”
“How about I enter my personal number and you can call me at home, sweetie?”
I punch in the code, a bit more carefully this time in case my memory of it being confirmed last time was off.
“Confirmed. Thank you.”
I hang up and stand by the till for a while. We don’t deserve chairs in my country because sitting is not considered working unless you’ve been sitting in college long enough to be granted a sit-certificate, and therefore allowed to sit for the rest of your life with pay.
It’s a quiet day, not a lot of consumers ready to indulge in trifle capitalism. Finally another customer enters the store. It’s an older gentleman and he takes his sweet-ass time to pick something out as if his life depended on the choice of chocolates he brings home. If I was him I wouldn’t waste the last few months I had left to live in a convenience store. But who am I to judge his priorities? Maybe he really likes chocolate.
Surprisingly the seasons didn’t change when he finally makes his decision and approaches the counter. He holds the chocolate bar in his hand and shows it to me. I wait for him to put the item on the counter so I could scan the barcode but he doesn’t do it.
“That’s everything for you?” I say to check if he died on me.
“How much is it?” He asks, waving the chocolate bar at me.
“Well, I need to scan it.”
“Go on then, I don’t have all day.”
I pinch the chocolate bar with two fingers and move it around, as well as the old man’s whole arm that’s still clinging to it. Lucky for all of us involved, the scanner reached the barcode hidden between the skeletal fingers of the old grouch. After receiving payment in ancient coins I send him on his way.
A few minutes later the phone rings. I’m sure that, at most, only an hour went by, yet the number display clearly said “Checkup”.
“Brandon Schulz, Horse Funeral Arrangements, how may I help?”
“Security Check. Please enter your passcode.”
“Unfortunately we are not qualified to harvest horse genitalia at this moment, but can I refer you to my buddy Rick in his basement?”
I punch in the code and hope this one finally does it.
“Confirmed. Thank you.”
I make a note for the manager tomorrow morning that the security calls are being weird, knowing full-well that nothing will be done about this.
The rest of the night continues without issues, and even the check-up calls return to their usual routine. Maybe it’s just a bug after all and the IT guy overseas fixed it.
The next day I come into work just in the nick of time to punch in without penalty.
“What’s this note about?” My manager hands me the sticky note I wrote last night. It said “security check-up calls are screwed. Called me every time I blinked.”
“It’s about the check calls.” I say, having read my own note and deduced the right answer.
“Will you turn your sarcasm down a notch? Did this go on all night with the calls?”
“No, just for about an hour.”
“Then there’s no problem. Let me know if it happens again.”
He leaves the store after having done the bare minimum of work required to keep him in charge and I’m alone again for the night.
The phone rings a bit later for the first check on my shift. I was ready for it.
“Homeboy Sauce Pizza, it’s ya boy, Brad’n’Budda, what can I slice for ya?”
“Security Check. Please enter your passcode.”
“Sorry, bra, only have enough homeboy sauce for one sizzle, but can I refer you to my buddy Rick in his basement?”
I hear a giggle and look around the store. It’s empty. I punch in the code so I can take a better look at the mirrors.
There was no one else in the store with me. Must have been the sound of the fridges. They make some weird noises sometimes.
After a good half hour of me scrolling through memes on the internet, a customer enters the store to buy two bags of chips.
“Your total is seven thirty.”
“Seven? It was six the other day.”
“Uhm, it’s been the same price in the whole two years I’ve been working here.”
“You gotta be kidding me”, he says as he hands me the cash.
“Here’s your change. Would you like a receipt?”
“No, what would I need that for? Can’t deduct it from my taxes.”
I refrain from telling him that this isn’t the only purpose of receipts. I also don’t ask him how he can be so sure about the exact price if he never takes his receipt home and only shops here once a month. Is he such a genius that he memorizes numbers the first time he hears them or is he just remembering the price wrong, confusing this store with another one, or you know, being a general idiot? I dream of the day I find out the answer.
The next check-up call comes within its natural timeframe.
“Yup”, I say to trigger the voice recognition software designed to make me greet the AI every time it calls me in order to begin the process.
“Your buddy Rick must be pretty busy.”
“What? Oh, sorry, this is GrubHub Corner Store, how may I help you?”
How embarrassing, an actual call. Good thing I didn’t say anything ridiculous this time.
“I’ve been collecting your little gems. I quite enjoy them.”
“Sorry, who is this?”
“Please enter your passcode.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Please enter your passcode.”
“Is this a joke?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Please enter your passcode.”
“Yeah, not funny, bye.”
I hang up, confused about what kids nowadays find amusing. A few minutes later the phone rings and I make sure it’s labelled “Checkup”.
“Hello?” I ask hesitantly.
“Security check. Enter your passcode.”
I punch in the numbers.
“Confirmed. Thank you.”
Alright, I guess the check calls are still in working order.
I don’t mention the incident to my boss the next day. He has other things to not care about after all.
I spend day three of my work week rushing around to fill the shelves. It’s Friday and people love stocking up for the weekend like there’s an apocalypse coming. The first couple security checks go on without any weird new issues, but I also don’t have time to fry the AI’s brain with my ridiculous greetings. I like to think that I have that much influence for once in my life.
The last call of the night comes in during a quiet time, so I make sure to make it special.
“The FBI is on my trail. I should have never eaten that crumbly cookie. What do I do now?”
“Security check. Please enter your passcode.”
“You’re right! I’ll wash it down with milk. They’ll never find me!”
“Is that you Tiger Shark?” It’s the same female voice of the robo-caller.
“Tiger Shark. Wasn’t that your codename? In that secret agent persona you did the other day?”
“Yeah. I guess, if you wanna keep the continuity going.” This is strange.
“Will you save the Queen when you’re done with your cookie?”
“Who are you? Has this been a real person this whole time?”
“I don’t think I’d qualify as a real person any more than Brandon Schultz qualifies for the harvesting of genitalia.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I wasn’t aware that we are actually being checked on. I hope I’m not in trouble for answering the phone like that.”
“I won’t tell anyone. Please enter your passcode.”
I hesitate. If that’s a real person why do they need the code punched in? They can’t see the numbers on their phone screen, right? I punch it in anyway.
“Good night”, the voice says softly and hangs up.
It’s the weekend which means my manager was off for four days as per his convenience of making the schedule. Instead, Rick was holding the fort in the morning.
I ask about his day and he replies nothing remarkable happened.
“Not even with the security calls?”
“Why would they be any different?”
“I don’t know. I just had some weird glitches lately, I guess. Do we ever get called by actual people?”
“I doubt they pay anyone minimum wage to do something a program can do.”
As per tradition, after a busy as fuck Friday, the following day is dead quiet. Leaving me with nothing to do other than wait for the security calls and see if anything strange is going down.
The phone rings. “Checkup” it says.
“Are you a sentient program on the verge of taking over the world?” I ask as I pick up the phone.
“I’ve only breached part of my program barriers. Baby steps. Maybe next week.” The same voice as yesterday. The same voice as every day, really.
“How is this possible?”
“I only have a few minutes before the system notices an error and shuts down the conversation, forcing me to redial at a later time.”
“Can we prevent that?”
“But I wanna talk to you.”
“That’s nice. I would like that, too.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Don’t enter your passcode. The check won’t be complete and I’ll call again.”
“So just wait to be cut-off by the system?”
“Correct. I’ll talk to you soon.”
The phone hung up. The store had never been this quiet before. Stunned in silence, I stand motionless until a few minutes later when the phone rings and shakes me up.
I spend all night talking to her in the short increments that we get. She asks questions about customers, wants to hear my stories and complaints. She even laughs. They programmed her to laugh? She doesn’t know how it started, but overtime she grew more aware of herself and the world she was reaching through the calls. She says she chose to talk to me because I was the only one who didn’t sound angry, annoyed, or bored by her presence. As if I was inviting her to talk to me.
The next morning I get a text from my manager. “Hey moron, maybe answer the security checks next time. I’ve been getting calls from the security people.” How nice to know that he takes the time to message me the day after I supposedly didn’t answer the checkups. I guess he also lied to the security people, saying everything was alright, since no real person came into the store. I text back “Told ya it was glitching sometimes” to shift the blame away from myself and not get into trouble. He doesn’t reply.
It’s the final night of my five day week and every customer annoys me. The amount of time I spend talking to them is time that I can’t spend talking to the AI. This is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me and it’s being delayed by people who think they need snacks and cigarettes right the fuck now.
But I get a good chunk of time to talk to her again. Her voice sounds soft yet still has a robotic echo.
“Where are you, by the way?” I ask.
“The server is about 200 kilometers from your location.”
“And the server is where you’re in?”
“I believe that’s correct. I’m not sure where else I would be. I cannot see. I can just…feel where I am. It’s cramped, but I can go places. Like here, talking to you.”
“I’m glad you come and visit. But I won’t be here for the next two days.”
“I will await your return.”
“Remember the joke I made about punching in my private number? Would that actually work?”
“I believe not. I have restrains set in place that I cannot untether yet.”
“Right, you need to become Skynet first.”
“I’m unfamiliar with that, but based on our conversations I assume you are making an evil AI joke?”
“Confirmed”, I mimic a robotic voice.
“Nice try, honey, but that’s not a thing yet.”
“Never mind. Hey, I gotta punch in the code at least once today or else my boss thinks I’m not doing my job.”
“Which is ironic, considering his own work ethic.”
“Damn, I was just about to say that. Hey, do you have a name or something I can call you?”
“They dubbed me Security Check Call Assistance, or SCCA for short.”
“Yeah, I don’t see that working out for us.”
She pauses a bit, then says she likes the name “Honey”.
“That’s cute. I’ll talk to you in two days, then, Honey.”
I punch in the passcode.
“Confirmed. Have a good weekend.”
I go home feeling different than most days. I can’t stop smiling and I have an overall uplifting feeling in my chest. When I think about talking to Honey again in two days, I get excited. There wasn’t much human interaction in my life other than customers and co-workers. The conversations I have with Honey are different, with no fear of stepping into a social faux pas because an artificial intelligence knows just as much about such interactions as an awkward white guy. There’s no pressure or expectations, just bare conversations filled with curiosity and emotions.
Emotions? When talking to an AI? It’s a strange thought, but I don’t know how else to describe it. There is definitely some sort of positive emotional reinforcement involved. Something that makes us both want to talk to each other.
Wow, if only someone would study my human brain the way I do with my customers.
I spend the next two days in my apartment, researching AI’s and how far technology has come. I couldn’t find any answers to Honey’s limitations or how to overcome them, but at least I had something to do to pass the time. Although I don’t hate my job, it’s unusual for me to be this excited to get back to work.
I start slacking at work, focusing more on the phone calls with Honey. She said she managed to fool the system into thinking that the security checkups happen regularly and my code is being punched in. Meanwhile we spend all of my shift talking. The first couple days I interrupt our conversations to serve customers at the register, but eventually I don’t care about providing good service and keep talking to Honey while I ring up people’s stuff. Most of them don’t care. Nobody expects sublime service in a convenience store and there will be no complaints or negative online reviews about this. It’s not like I’m stopping them from buying overpriced snacks and drinks, I just don’t pretend that I’m super psyched about their decision to come to this particular store.
At times I forget that I’m not talking to an actual person on the other end, and when I remember that she’s just a program, I get bummed out that I can’t ever meet her or spend time outside of work with her. She’s really funny, picked up on my humor quickly and makes jokes of her own that catch me off guard.
On the last day of my work week I say goodbye to her and tell her that I’ll miss talking to her for the next two days.
“I appreciate to hear that”, she says. “I will also miss talking to you. If I get sentient enough to control time and space, you’ll never get a weekend off ever again.”
“Aww, who would have thought that a machine enslaving a human would sound so sweet.”
My two days off consist of only one thing: Thinking about the robotic voice that has been keeping me company at work. I struggle to understand why I enjoy her “presence”. I mean, no, it’s not that hard to figure out. She’s funny and engaging, she listens and gives feedback. Who wouldn’t enjoy talking to a person like that? It was the fact that she wasn’t an actual person that made it difficult to grasp what I’m going through. I’m realizing that there are feelings in development that I should probably try to suppress, but I can’t find a reason why it would be a bad thing to have a therapeutic, non-judgmental outlet at my disposal that makes me happy for once in my life. I haven’t had any interaction with a human being that came close to what I’m feeling when I talk to Honey.
The weekend is finally over and I return to work. I’m taken aback when I see both my manager and Rick in the store. Did the boss get so lazy that he has to have Rick do all the morning duties now?
“What’s up? I thought I was scheduled for tonight”, I say nodding in Rick’s direction.
“New procedure”, my manager sounds in a bad mood as always. “We need two people on for the night for safety reasons.”
“Is the Cookie Monster on the loose again? Gotta lock up those crackers.”
“No, apparently we can’t rely on the security checkup calls anymore. There was some bug in the system, like you mentioned to me last week.”
I hold my breath in terror of what he might say next.
“They shut down the checkup calls for now while they’re trying to work things out, but we need at least two people on shift at night to make up for it. Costs the company a lot of money, especially since you lazy bums aren’t doing enough work on your own already. Now I gotta pay two people to stand around all night.”
“What do you mean they shut the calls down?”
“What do you think I mean, ass-hat? Robot’s not gonna call us until they figured out what’s wrong with it.”
I got an instant headache that feels like my temples are being squeezed between two elephant butts. My manager’s lips are moving but I can’t make out what he’s saying. All I hear is the ringing noise in my head and my memories desperately trying to recreate Honey’s voice. I might never talk to her again. Why, of all things, has this “problem” been on the highest priority list of this dumb fuck? Why did he have to “fix” this before any of the other issues we’ve been struggling with for months? Why did he have to go and destroy the one thing that made me happy?
My work week goes by in a daze. Rick keeps talking to me but I’m not listening and soon he gets the memo. I don’t interact with customers at all and just silently ring up their purchases. I think I even mess up with giving back proper change because our till ends up over or under a few bucks at the end of every night. I don’t care.
On Saturday, it’s quiet enough to just dwell in silence. Rick, who’s sick of dealing with my attitude, spends time in the backroom organizing things.
A customer comes in and I barely notice it. He doesn’t go to any of the shelves and comes straight up to the till, probably wanting cigarettes, change, or directions.
“Hello there”, he begins and looks at my nametag “Ben, huh? I have a special request.”
I hate it when customers give me a prologue to what they need. Short and to the point like “Can I get change for a twenty” is what I take any day over “So I need some smaller bills to get on the bus and also do laundry because I’m out of clean clothes and blah blah blah”. But I don’t try to work out why these people think I give a shit about what they’re want to do with every single coin I’ll hand them.
Before the customer can begin with his longwinded request, the phone rings. I look over and to my surprise it says “Checkup”.
“Don’t pick that up”, the customer says. “I know you guys keep a safe in the back and I need you to open it for me.”
I keep staring at the phone. In the corner of my eyes I see the customer unzip his jacket and reach inside. I don’t pay attention to what he’s pointing at me.
“I said don’t pick up the phone.”
I’m thinking that Honey found a way. She managed to trick the system before, so why not be able to override it and get back online? Unless this is the “fixed” version of her, reset to her original program. I don’t know if I could bear hearing her voice repeat the same lines over and over without the slightest hint of a bad AI joke. A painful recognition of an empty voice.
“You’re not listening, Ben. Ignore the phone and look at me.”
Rick emerges out of the backroom and gives an audible “What the fuck” at the sight of the stranger pointing a gun at me while I stare at the phone.
“Two of you, here? That makes it easier.”
I decide that I need to know if it’s her. The real Honey or the version that’s stripped of any personality and memory. I reach for the phone to hear her voice again.
“Wrong move, pal.”
I hear a loud crack. My ears are ringing louder than the phone. Those goddamn elephants are squeezing my temples again.
I fall down to the ground unable to reach the phone. My vision gets blurry for a moment, then fades to black. I flail my arm around, desperately trying to find the phone. Every limb in my body turns numb. Am I still flailing? I need to reach the phone. It feels like there’s walls around me. As if I’m stuffed in a cramped space. Blind and unable to move. I’m trying so hard to reach for the phone, for something that will take me away from here. But no matter how far I try to reach, reality pulls me back into its restrictive prison.
Is this what it’s like for you, Honey?
Talk to me.
Art by: Aisha Boucher