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Autopilot

It was a pill in those days; you took it with breakfast and forty five minutes later you ceased forming new memories.

He was awake. Hands on a steering wheel. Trees rushing by. Most cars were self-driving these days but he enjoyed it the old fashioned way. Everything was coming back to him. He was on his way home. Emily was making a chicken pot pie. His favorite.

The day was over and he remembered nothing. The new stuff was perfect. Used to be you’d get an image peeking through once in a while, an emotion of some kind. The phone would ring and you’d get a little stab of fear. You’d still have no idea what it was about, but you’d flinch. Now, nothing. Waking up, nice hot coffee, kissing Emily goodbye. The drive to work; starlings swirling over the river. Pull up to his parking space– it was in god damn Siberia, but, who cared; he would forget the walk. Twist the dial in the crook of his elbow left, right, left again. Then he was awake and driving and the sun had moved. Ten hour shift gone by like it never happened.

People couldn’t ask “what do you do” anymore. That was almost the best part. He was old enough to remember the way things used to be, when that was everyone’s second question after “how are you.” He wasn’t exactly ashamed of his job but he never quite nailed down the one line explanation for it either. So he’d had to think about it in detail for a second, and thinking about his work made him remember his work, and suddenly his mind wasn’t at a party by the punch bowl but back under buzzing florescent lights getting reamed out by some prick.

Now, no one could ask because no one had any idea what they really did all day. It was like anesthesia. Count backwards from one hundred, you make it to about 96 and then you wake up and the work day was over. They put a reservoir of the medication right in your arm these days. You turned a dial in a combination only you knew, for safety, and the correct dosage dripped out for however long you wanted. Almost everybody had one, even Emily, who didn’t work. Just in case some trauma happened, or for a long plane ride.

He’d been in a sales gig when it came out. He hadn’t wanted to use it. But when it started to take over work itself had changed. They sold newspaper subscriptions over the phone, the Los Angeles Times. The guys who didn’t remember had nothing to lose, and were merciless. Screaming rejections were water off a duck’s back. They stuck to the script; they created a sense of urgency; they made a call to action. They crushed objections. They hammered the Ben Franklin close. Lonely old ladies who couldn’t afford it suddenly couldn’t afford not to buy the L.A. Times for more years than they would live, even if it meant giving up their cats to the kill shelter. The guys were machines and they were fucking the poor for something they didn’t need, but they didn’t give a shit. 7 o’clock rolled around and it was like it never happened. Except the big numbers they racked up.

Still, he had felt it unnatural. He enjoyed talking to people. He would draw at his little cubicle as the robodialer tried 323–462–0001, 323–462–0002… if someone couldn’t afford the newspaper, he wouldn’t sell it to them. He fell behind. His manager took pity on him and had him transferred to another division. Saul Krauss of the Connecticut Krausses, owner of The Los Angeles Times, had purchased America Online and merged the two companies. He was transferred to America Online Customer Retention. Just as well because the manager started forgetting right after that. He became a superboss and cracked down like Mussolini on the team. They sold the L.A. Times to every household in the state and were now calling through to sell every household a second subscription.

His new job was to handle people who called in to cancel their A.O.L. They provided a specific phone line for cancellations and at the other end of it was him. He got twenty dollars every time he talked someone out of cancelling and was docked five dollars every time they went through with it. What kind of stuff do you use A.O.L. for, he would ask. It was meant to sound like a technical question, like, maybe the web sites you’re looking at use up too much bandwidth, and that’s why your service is so terrible. Maybe you need to clear your cache. But really it was meant to get them remembering their internet fondly and start blathering on about their lives. The pictures of their grandkids they looked at. They would get a warm feeling, remembering a less lonely time, and a positive emotional connection to A.O.L. would be established. They had tried to ship the job to India but the Mumbai college kids weren’t able to establish the same empathy; there was something untrustworthy in their accents. At $199.99 per subscriber per year the stakes were too high. You had to pay an American.

The job got to him. Conning old people out of their cat food money. And of course the screaming, the cursing, the threats. God dammit you cancel this right the fuck away or I’ll call the Attorney General and have your job. There were follow up calls he had to make to people who’d backed out and it was always how DARE you call me during DINNER! Well don’t answer the phone then, jerkoff. But it hurt. To do the job well you had to open some part of yourself up to these people and when you were opened up they’d scream at you. Back then he was killing himself to get through those ten hours and get back home to her.

The new medications were covered by insurance. It was a pill in those days; you took it with breakfast and forty five minutes later you ceased forming new memories. He was nervous, but on the first day he came to swimming in and out of remembering in his car, and there was a post-it on the dash. He had beaten the office’s all time one day record for customer retentions. On the passenger seat was a joke trophy the guys kept in the break room. You knew, when you were “under,” that it all didn’t matter. You were the same person but you knew it would be like it never happened. You sucked it up and you kicked ass and baby got a new pair of shoes.

He had gotten ahead. Or so they told him. He was the top retainer of customers in the division and supervised a handful of his fellows. Emily didn’t have to work anymore. The cars got better and the houses got bigger. Every day he came home bright and fresh as a daisy, smiling. Emily was there with a chicken pot pie. The light of his life. She had cleaned the house and carefully rolled out a thousand layers of pastry for the chicken pot pie crust, which she layered in a becoming manner across the top. He was 44 now, although he hadn’t experienced about 10 of those years.

One day, about a half hour before his shift ended, his stent broke. And he was awake.

He was on all fours. His belly was full, impossibly full, something big and hot was pushing into him and it hurt. He craned his neck around. A black man the size of a Tyrannosaur was palming his ass with a hot hand while he forced what felt like a yule log into him. The man was covered in shiny black painted-on latex and was not smiling. He himself was wearing a dress, a ballerina’s dress, and there was something in his mouth. It was a ball gag coated in something like Vick’s Vap-o-Rub that made his eyes water. He scrambled away on his hands and knees, screaming into the gag. It took what felt like minutes to squirm off the startled guy’s member. He was in a huge room, impossibly huge, a cathedral lit by fire and all around him impossible horrible things were happening. A long dining room table with children eating from a tureen of human shit, an elderly woman skewered by a screaming stallion, everywhere dozens of people and animals were being fucked, being tortured, screaming, laughing, crying. High above at a podium Saul Krauss, of the Connecticut Krausses, Chairman and CEO of United Los Angeles Times/ America Online Incorporated, was overseeing it all, issuing commands, laughing and masturbating.

He got the gag off, screamed again, got up, tried to run, but found he had a diaper around his knees. Waddled wildly until he could get if off. There looked to be a door under a rack where a naked man was wired to a car battery, shrieking. He ran for it. Great Merciful God, it was unlocked. It opened into a beige hallway with synthetic carpet and florescent lights and acoustical tile. A poster of a man climbing a mountain encouraged DETERMINATION. He ran. He wanted the way out but realized he had barely ever seen the inside of his office while he could remember. Out a window he saw cars. The parking lot. To the left. Many stairs, and then he tripped and scraped his knees on the asphalt. He tasted salt. He was weeping, and the seed of many men was smeared across his face. He puked, and ran some more. The parking space, in fucking Siberia. He sped home, gibbering and crying.

She wouldn’t be expecting him for half an hour yet. He could smell the leftover chicken pot pie reheating. He ran up the stairs. He was still in the ballerina dress but he had to see her, had to tell her. They were raping people. There was no job, no company; the whole thing was just some rich guy keeping slaves so he could jerk off. We have to get out of here. Move to out to the desert. It’ll be hard with no money but I can live as long as I know you love me. She was in the bathroom; the door was half open. Her hand was in the crook of her arm, turning on her medication.

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