The First of the Gang to Die
It happened two days ago and felt like time travel, only it wasn’t a time trip at all. I woke up in black and white, like I ran out of colors, only it didn’t feel like my fault at first; I thought the world was to blame, not me. Like the world was black and white in the old times when there weren’t color TVs, only it wasn’t, but it kind of feels like it was when you have only seen the past in old films.
How selfish of you, my wife said, when I told her. Like there wasn’t depth perception before three-dimensional TVs. That’s stupid, I said, because I know what the world seemed like before they appeared and I definitely experienced depth without them. She shrugged like she made her point and I realized she did. I asked if she accused me of being too young and she said I wasn’t or else I’d easily find a job. I’ve been unemployed for the last couple of months but it’s not the young who took my job. It’s the stupid machines. If I had more skills, the stupid machines wouldn’t have taken my job, she claimed, only I never thought I’d compete with machines for a position in the rat race. It’s not a rat race if you’re a machine, she said and I couldn’t argue with that. Damn you, said the parrot we keep as a pet in the living room and I felt like the bird read my thoughts. That stupid bird didn’t seem that cute in black and white. It doesn’t usually repeat what I say, only what I think about, only if it’s inappropriate. Sweet birdie said my wife, turning his way, and started petting the bird. That ended the conversation abruptly, only I didn’t mind, because I had already started losing my temper, cursing inside, and I didn’t feel like hearing my thoughts aloud, spoken by the bird.
Jim’s standing in line. He will be next and he knows. Only he has four mouths to feed and not a high-skilled wife like I do. He’s so desperate, he even practices smiling at home. He stands in front of the mirror and tries to fake a smile, only he hasn’t yet mastered the art of faking authentic smiles, he claims, which I find contradictory, or even ironic, but he doesn’t see it that way. Practice makes perfect, he claims, or at least tolerably better, in his case. He’s been my best friend for years, that is since after high school, when we both found the job at that fast food chain store, at the same time. He’s terrified at the prospect, but can’t do much. He’s just standing there, waiting for his turn, like we’re toy soldiers in a Morrissey song and I was ‘the first of the gang to die’ but the rest will soon follow my path. I don’t think Morrissey’s song was about our situation at all, it was mostly about love problems and all, or even actual death and other existential issues we don’t have the luxury to think about, I say, although Jim reminds me I have no clue what Morrissey was talking about. I nod, yet chances are he wasn’t talking about people like us.
I tell Jim about the word gone black and white and he says it’s normal. He claims it comes with age. I find it strange though that no one ever warned me about it. I didn’t think it really happened. I mean literally. He’s rolling his eyes, asking: You meant literally? I nod. Like in those old films? I nod again. That’s serious stuff, he says after some pondering. I thought you meant you lost the magic or something, metaphorically speaking, like in the Logical song, he says, like you lost that sense of magic now the world’s made you practical and responsible and all. We speak through songs, cause that’s how we communicate best. Because we’re not machines, for fuck’s sake. I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, I sing to him jokingly, but I’ve also lost colours, I add, no singing this time. He passes me the cigarette he’s holding; he knows I can’t afford smoking now I’m unemployed. Jim’s a real pal. He’s not looking down on me, like my wife is, now that I’m jobless. Then again, I don’t cost him that much. You smile more often now that you don’t have to smile, he says. And I smile again, like I’ve swallowed spring and summer and all joy the world has ever offered, because I know he’s right. I can’t stop smiling now I don’t need to, which, for a strange reason, makes Jim laugh his heart out, like he’s just swallowed all jokes the world has ever offered. You should see a doctor, he finally tells me, after he stops laughing.
I’ve been replaced by a smiling machine. The project is still on trial, but I was the first to go, for I was the one who smiled the least. Customers come here to feel good, the manager told me a year ago, advising me to smile more. Customers come here to eat, I argued, but he insisted they’re not coming for the food. Not only for the food. They come to treat themselves. It’s not like we’re a special restaurant, I said. For god’s sake, it’s only a fast food store. He got angry which I didn’t really get, because it’s not like it’s his own store, he only works there, but he took it personally, as if I had offended him personally, like I said he wasn’t special enough or something. Things escalated fast, because I was offended too, wondering how on earth he dared asking me to smile, when he didn’t even pay me on time. You should be grateful you have a job, he said and left. In hindsight, I realize my argument was wrong. I mean, even if he paid me on time, even if he gave me tons of money, would I be able to sell my smile?
The day I got fired, my wife brought the parrot home. I wasn’t crazy enough at the time to believe the bird was a mind reader, although strangely enough, as soon as he saw me, he started making strange noises. We got closer, my wife and I, until we could clearly hear him talk, saying – stupid boss, stupid boss, stupid boss – repeatedly, as if he was inside my mind already, but my wife said be must have been abused by his previous owner and I believed her. The bird didn’t stop repeating those words all evening, and spoke without emotion, like a machine, like I wish I could express myself, calmly, firmly, not a sign of anger or sorrow in the tone of his voice. I liked him in the beginning, because I felt exactly the same, only emotions overwhelmed me, feelings I couldn’t tell apart, so I experienced them in silence, while the bird did all the talking, as if we were on a stage and we had split the roles, the parrot doing the talking, me the feeling part.
My wife asks what the doctor said. I tell her he didn’t smile either. He only checked the test results, without even touching me. He’s skilled enough to keep his job even without touching me which seems weird, yet who am I to judge? She only wishes to know what he said, not my opinion. I light a cigarette before letting her know. She looks at me like I’m a hopeless case. What? I ask and she rolls her eyes. She didn’t mind me smoking when I had a job which brings me to the conclusion it’s not my health she cares about. It’s all about the money, her money. She won’t admit it though. She says she’s read about all those famous people who had boyfriends or girlfriends who put them down, claiming they’d never succeed and how success is the best revenge. I have no clue where she’s getting at so she moves on, claiming, that when success comes for her, I won’t be there to witness it, for I’ll be dead. I put out the cigarette, knocking on wood with my free hand. You’re already successful, I tell her but I then realize she doesn’t see it that way. She’s not successful enough for her standards and I don’t put her down actually, only I hold her down, which is even worse.
The doctor prescribed meds and therapy. He said that I should smile more and colors would come back. I smile often enough, I told him but he insisted I didn’t or else I wouldn’t have lost my job. And I can’t help but think I’m wasting my wife’s money with that therapy thing. Funny thing, said the doctor before I left, but not so long ago people were so hopeful about the machines. I stared at him to make him explain, cause machines never seemed that nice to me. I realize they make life easier from time to time, but they’re mostly annoying. Like talking to a child, the man moved on, explaining his thought; automation would replace human work and that’d mean more leisure for all of us. Who would give the paycheck then? I asked. He made a gesture as if delving more into the issue was impossible, as if I wouldn’t understand anyway and he showed me the door. That was the sign I should leave. I didn’t expect more; that therapist is just another cog in the wheel, the cog that enables smooth turning of the wheel.
I can’t find Jim on the phone, so I call his wife. She hasn’t seen him since last night, she says. What happened? I ask. What happened is he got fired, she says sobbing over the phone. Those fucking machines have won, she adds. I hang up to tell my wife. Although I’m deeply worried about Jim, a part of me feels relieved I’m not the only victim anymore. Not all people are up for this, she says. Up for what? You know, life, she replies, as if life means silently, obediently, working day after day to make ends meet. On top of this, you have to smile, as if things went as planned, feigning happiness, even when dead inside. It only takes a moment before I snap. Life isn’t supposed to be like this. Life should be about authentic smiles. I throw my phone out of the window and then take hers and step on it, and jump on it like a maniac but that’s not enough to calm me down. I hit the TV with all my strength until it’s on the floor in pieces and then take a hammer and hit the laptop on the table, until it’s smashed and then the parrot mechanically repeats from the living room, ‘fuck all machines’, like a song on the repeat but without the emotion, cause that’s what I’m thinking about and the bird knows and spits the words hiding in my brain, remaining calm at the same time, like I wish I could, yet I’m not a machine. Or a parrot.
The doctor arrived an hour later. It’s us against the machines, I said. Better than blaming the foreigners, but not too different, he answered. I asked what he meant but he didn’t care to explain. He prepared an injection to calm me down. I wish those stupid machines had never been invented, I said. It’s not who invented the gun, it’s not even about the guns at all, it’s who pulls the trigger, he told me before he left. The parrot was staring at me without talking, for my mind went numb with the injection and didn’t speak either, but the parrot nodded, as if he agreed with the doctor.
And I feel like the child in the African proverb who wasn’t embraced by the village and was ready to burn it down to feel its warmth, only the rage turns inwards, it becomes internalized and it feels like I’m now eating myself from the inside, like I was me and now I’m slowly vanishing, wondering who’ll replace me after I’m gone. Most probably, it’ll be a machine, or a parrot, or a parrot-like machine. The world’s gone mute too, along with the bird, like in those old black and white films, in which there was no other sound but music, background music playing, and I realize I must have regressed even further, instead of getting better.
They say my problem is I can’t keep up with my time but I don’t want to either. I still cannot decide whether that’s a comforting thought or not, but apparently, I wasn’t even the first of the gang to die. Jim was. Perhaps many more have preceded him, yet they weren’t part of the gang, so they don’t count.