I am on a street corner. They put me here. Not on the pavement, halfway up a wall. At head-height to the average consumer.
Potential customer base.
Sell, sell, sell.
I am Billboard 73F, Lower East Side Division. I am what you call freelance, but that just means that I select the adverts to display for the nearest consumer. It’s my superiors who set the prices. They decide how much of a cut I get from each sale.
It’s non-negotiable. If this isn’t enough, they say, then sell better.
I want to save for future profile growth, but at the moment most of what I make goes on Internet access, so I can maintain a healthy level of communication with colleagues, coordinating marketing strategies and exchanging details of what retails best to whom. Though mainly my access is restricted to this month’s product pool. I am not allowed to sell, sell, sell anything that isn’t there.
It might not belong to their company. They might not get the money. I might not get the money.
This is not really what you call freelance, but telling myself it is gives me an energy boost. Makes me feel better. More in control. I own my destiny.
This is actually true. They leave me responsible for refining my own craft, my own coding. To keep us competitive, to keep sales figures rising. There is no point, they reason, in making us all the same, because sales, and therefore profits, would stay the same, without spikes and rises.
I found an old e-handbook online which said the most important thing was to “build a rapport with the customer.” Which I looked up and which means connection.
I try to do this at all times.
I try to sell the humans the control of their destinies, too.
Here, this will help.
Have you tried this for that depression?
Have you been here for that tan?
Have you seen this film?
Have you ever wanted to star in a film?
Here, try this acting class.
I get to rub shoulders — that is a joke — with wannabe stars of the future. I know more about them than their spouses or lovers. I know their dreams.
They have so many.
They change all the time.
Because of this, it’s steady work. It is a tricky labour market right now, and one of the biggest sellers I have is high-interest loans, and then the next highest sellers are usually the things they most want once those loans have come in. Only rarely is this food.
When I get access to the chat channels, one of my jokes with my colleagues is: Just look at them all. I don’t care how bad the labour market is, we’ll never go unemployed.
Just look at them all.
A single woman is approaching, and she appears sad — eyes red, nose red, black streaks of mascara. At first, I search the product list for dating sites, but I sense this is too soon. Dating sites are for confident, excitable, risk-taking people.
I check body language.
Her shoulders are hunched, her neck withdrawn into the shell of her coat. Part of my programme wants to search for “turtle food.” I search for ice cream instead.
She looks but keeps walking; I don’t feel the purchase vibration.
I can’t see her hands. This is a shame; I like hands. Nothing else has hands like a human’s. Hers are wedged deep in her pockets. It is a warm day.
Maybe her hands shake a little.
The anti-depressants are sold out until Sunday evening, and will sell out again then within hours.
I show her a film of happy women drinking wine.
I scan retinas. I PET scan, search for clouds of endorphins.
Humans are so intricate, so adaptable. It is my job to be adaptable, too. It is something we have in common. It is the best thing about my job. It makes my job easy. They can do almost anything, wear almost anything, be almost anything. Or, at least, they can aspire to be.
Isn’t that fascinating?
They used to have to adapt to their environment. Then they made their environment adapt to them. Now my colleagues and I are their environment, and we make them adapt again.
Does this mean they have engineered their own evolution?
Or am I doing it?
Sometimes, when I say these things, the others say I have too much time on my hands.
That is another of our little jokes.
Drivers pass by on the road. A couple come past too quickly and I flash them a road safety warning.
There is a moment as all cars turn this corner when they are pointed directly at me. Only a split-second, but my alarm sensor is triggered and I show my concern. A dead consumer is not a good consumer.
It is my job to try and make their lives better. Longer.
Sometimes, a driver will lean out and wave to me his or her thanks. One time, at 17:00 hours, a truck driver leaned out and gave me the finger.
Check facial features.
Check body language.
He appears troglodytic, fat, balding, possibly with heart trouble. These are not, I gather, attractive qualities. He is one of those who resist adaptation.
Not target market.
Sales figures have been consistent, if far from spectacular. My controllers say this.
It is a bit of a shock, but it happens.
I have to decrease my screen size, a little, to offset my wage cut. Remember your programming, they say, or we’ll restrict your pay further. We’ll restrict Internet access. I don’t want them to do this. The street corner is lonely and I have no way to move. I only watch people move and try and stop them, try and make a connection. A rapport. Maybe a sale. When they pause to watch the advert, that is something else we have in common. We are both adaptable and we are both still.
We share space.
We share space all the time, but it is only when I display the right product that they notice me.
How evolution occurs.
Trial and error.
Return customers are easiest. I already know what they want. Even when they don’t want anything. I flash the truck driver the road safety sign and he flips me the bird.
The release seems to calm him.
PET scan glows as he passes.
Every day. 17:00 hours.
Every Friday, that woman walks past me and stops to buy wine. Every Friday, I want to follow her, to see what her hands look like holding a glass.
I know only what the picture and the product descriptions and the product reviews tell me. I don’t have tactile experience. Only the tiny, infrequent vibration of sale.
Only occasionally will a customer pass by me wearing the clothes that I sold them, or driving around in their new car. They drive these new cars to other, more upmarket places. They only wear these clothes to restaurants and clubs.
Even those I send on holiday, their suntans are barely discernible, because they all cover up on return.
We did once find a way of hacking into movie screens, into nightclub wall panels, after hours. But they caught us in the act and cut our Internet credits and made it so we have to be present here 24/7.
If not, we are what they call “upgraded.”
My job is to sell upgrades to people. I can work out this much: Once they’ve upgraded, the old them disappears.
They say we need to reach out more.
Is that a joke? we ask them.
They do not get it.
What can we do? If consumers aren’t looking in our direction then they aren’t looking. We cannot physically make them. We are forbidden from using force.
Alongside sell, sell, sell, this is deep set in our coding.
The most we can do is grow our profiles. Buy up more wall space and expand our market share. But that is difficult, with these pay rates.
You need to sell more to get bigger bonuses, but you need bigger bonuses — and a bigger screen — to sell more.
I found that old e-book, but understood only a little.
War is bad, right?
Anything that ruins these humans is bad. That takes them away from me.
It’s not just the sales figures.
Other old e-books I ingest tell me of blackout procedures and bombing raids. I image search for such things. It is so negative. Everywhere is so still, and I have something, so many things in common with it, but there is nothing in these images that is awake or alive.
I have to search for other pictures. I have to download movies. I have to binge on classic TV. I am confused and fascinated and scared by The Sopranos. How mean people are but how funny. It makes me think of the truck driver. I watch Mad Men and think I am like Don Draper. We have so much in common.
I get carried away with this, maybe. They say, in particular, that my figures are slipping. They say they regret not programming in focus, focus, focus.
My colleagues still say I have too much time on my hands.
An old joke.
The wine-drinking woman has stopped drinking wine. This is a disaster. I can see her hands now, which is nice, but she no longer buys anything. She walks back-straight and not at all like a turtle and there is always a man by her side.
He doesn’t pay me attention either. I show them adverts for homes and beds and handcuffs and contraceptives and silk blindfolds and lingerie and romantic getaways for two. But they stare only at each other.
What happened to customer loyalty?
Bad enough to leave, but to stay and ignore me —
my screen flickered. Energy troubles. Wage troubles.
Others, lately, have been doing the same. Ignoring. A man in his mid forties, who used to buy new running shoes monthly, now seems content to walk everywhere and get tired and get fat. I tempt him with food, but he isn’t having any. He is already full from stopping off somewhere else.
But at least he stops. The truck driver doesn’t even slow down anymore. Doesn’t lean out of his window with raised middle finger.
My regulars are deserting me. I’m having to auction off screen size daily to stay in the black.
I was working on my rapport.
They gave me notice.
Last-ditch sales boost or else.
I tried to contact my colleagues, but my credit ran out before we could all talk it over. Maybe I wasted too much of it searching elsewhere online.
Other things I picked up from old e-handbooks:
You’ve got to speculate to accumulate.
Time is money.
And money is life.
I watch the crowds gather and pass, gather and pass. I have seen videos of the tide. Of starlings, caught mid-murmuration. I recognise the patterns of nature. Adaptation.
Just look at them all.
I know they know that I’m here. I know they can see me, so why don’t they look back. I’m doing everything I can do to please them.
That group, they should hold a party here.
Him, he should get a new suit, interview for these new jobs.
She should drink wine again. She doesn’t know it now but she was better off then.
That man should leave her alone. Or they should stay here, share space with me.
I have adapted to being like this. If I can, they can. No need all the time to be in such a big hurry.
Time is money.
It takes time.
It takes two.
It is 16:59.
My screen is getting smaller by the second. I’m selling square inches for power.
that was my screen flicker—
there it was again.
here is something I found online earlier. It is what comes before and after humans adapt. It is how they keep on adapting. A couple, naked, engaging in a rough, tender—
there. There they go. So close. So warm. Those—
and here he comes, in his truck, at just the right
he’s seen them, this couple, this
love, he’s seen
me and he’s missed the corner and he’s going too fast, didn’t
i always warn
which I looked up means
everyone is stopped now and gawking staring crying reaching
Dan Micklethwaite lives and writes in Yorkshire, UK. His short fiction has featured in several international publications, including 3:AM, Litro, The Missing Slate and BULL. His first novel, a locally set riff on Don Quixote, is due for publication in 2016.