The Manager by Ryan Hyatt
José is the first they let go, although we can’t agree what that means.
“It’s corporate-speak for ‘you suck and we don’t need you anymore,’” he says as we deploy a shipment of toilet paper on Aisle 9.
“Don’t sound so pessimistic,” I say, handing him a six-pack of Delightful. “See it as an opportunity to get out of this mind-numbing hellhole and apply your energies elsewhere.”
“Easy for you to say,” José says, checking to make sure the Delightful is flush on the shelf. “You still have a job, Jane. I’m halfway through college. My student loans aren’t going to pay back themselves.”
With the toilet paper fully stocked, José re-activates the brand hologram. A mummy with a blissful grin, wrapped in layers of Delightful, materializes above the shelf, snuggling up to a single-roll pillow.
I break down the last empty box and toss it on a pile of other broken-down boxes. Together José and I haul the flat pieces of cardboard through the rear of Right-Time pharmacy, out the exit, and toss them into the dumpster.
“For the past few years, I’ve nagged Bill about putting a recycling bin back here, but he’s never bothered,” José says. “You know why? Unless recycling makes the company money, he won’t do it, because he’s a robot …”
José hands me his apron.
“Aren’t you going to clock out?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says. “Better leave now before I ruffle any more feathers …”
“So … now what?”
“Not sure,” he says with a shrug. “Maybe blog.”
“Interesting,” I say. “I would love to read your thoughts. What will you write about?”
José leans on the dumpster, searches the sky for an answer.
“Post-industrial society and the end of labor?”
“Wow,” I say. “You could make bank with promo deals and sponsorships as a top influencer on Chatter.”
“That’s what I’m thinking –“
“But you’d have to compete with people that post pictures of their cats,” I say. “I hear there’s a few of them out there.”
José snickers and gestures at the graffiti, barbed wire, and surveillance cameras that decorate the back of Right-Time. “Yeah. The future is bleak, boring, and predictable, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” I assure him, squeezing his arm. “I believe in you. Tell us about a world that’s worth believing in, too.”
“What about you?”
“I guess I’ll be here as long as they’ll keep me,” I say. “Mom isn’t doing well right now …”
As I tear up, José leans in to hug me.
“You know what?” I realize. “I’ll miss you, even if Bill doesn’t.”
“You better,” he says with a laugh, releasing me from his embrace. He squeezes through a gap in the chain-link fence and hollers down the alley. “But don’t worry, you won’t miss me for long … I’ll be back soon to rob the store, cuz I’m broke!”
Dina is the second they let go. Unlike José, however, the single mother of two doesn’t leave without a fight. She emerges from the restroom after her break with a ‘V’ for ‘victory’ etched in lipstick on her forehead and a thick layer of eye shadow, blush, and other war paint slathered on her face.
She charges the tech worker as he loads her cash register onto a dolly.
“Too legit to quit!” she yells, engaging him in a game of tug-o-war with the register. “I’ve given this company ten years, damn it! I’ve got mouths to feed!”
“Just doing my job, ma’am,” he says, and with a decisive yank, he separates ex-employee from machine. “If you have a complaint, file it with corporate.”
“Fuck corporate!” Dina hollers, dark tears streaming down her cheeks.
As the tech worker departs with the register, I join Dina with a box of tissue. Together we stand in the checkout lane and contemplate life’s economic mysteries.
“It’s not fair,” she says, dabbing her face. “Bill could have kept me, but he didn’t. I wonder, with every layoff, does he get a raise?”
“I would ask him,” I say, “but he didn’t bother to schedule himself today.”
Now there are two customer self-checkouts. The first replaced José, and the second, just installed, is set to do Dina’s job. Only my janky money box remains, a tombstone that marks the end of an era.
“Excuse me, ladies,” says a woman in a business suit. She scoots past us, scans, and pays for a can of cat food without our help.
Dina and I shake our heads and follow the customer to the exit. We gaze past Right-Time’s cramped parking lot at a blinding sunset over a crumbling city skyline. Beautiful, in an urban-decay sort of way.
“Some world,” I say.
“Dumb world,” Dina says, handing me her apron. “Thanks for being a team player, Jane.”
She steps into the rays of sunlight, and the sliding glass doors close behind her.
Bill is the third they let go.
I’m standing behind my register, on the phone with Mom, when he interrupts.
“No personal calls while you’re on the store floor,” he says, staring at me with bloodshot eyes. Does he ever sleep? “You’re neglecting our customers.”
I scan the aisles. There’s an endless array of greeting cards, brands of toothpastes, and other household items, along with their floating holograms, but not a customer in sight.
“The only person being neglected right now is my mother,” I say. “The doctor says she has early-onset dementia. Some scammers have been calling home, trying to get her social security number. I’m trying to keep her from giving it to them.”
“You’ll need to speak to her about it during your break,” Bill says with no crack in his flat expression, just a million wrinkles on his face.
“Can I take my break now?”
“No,” he says. “I need you on Aisle 9. Toilet paper needs restocking.”
“Again?” I say. “Is everyone really that full of shit?”
Bill folds his arms and waits for me to comply. I stare back at him, equally filled with professionally-suppressed rage.
“Fine, have it your way,” I say at last as three youths with black hoodies drawn over their heads dart past us. Their arms are loaded with booze and potato chips.
Bill runs after them.
“We got cameras!” he shouts as they exit. “We prosecute!”
One lingering youth, carrying a skateboard, slams it into Bill’s back, then flees with his buddies into the night.
Bill screams and collapses on the linoleum.
“Mom, I gotta call you back!” I say, hanging up to dial an ambulance.
“Based on the soreness and stiffness of his back, my guess is there’s probably some spinal damage,” a medic says as Bill is hauled off on a stretcher. “I don’t think you’ll be seeing your co-worker around here for a while.”
“Here, take these,” Bill says, wincing as he tosses me the store keys. “In case I’m not back in time to close.”
The next morning, I receive an email from company headquarters with the subject line: Congratulations, Jane, you’ve been promoted!
Corporate takes advantage of the incident to provide upgrades to Right-Time.
My register is removed and replaced with a customer self-checkout, so now all transactions are officially the responsibility of computers to handle, not employees.
A transparent, bulletproof case is installed behind the row of self-checkouts, along with a reinforced steel door, which provides access to my new office space.
Inside, a comfy chair and computer help me manage improved security. An enhanced surveillance system displays camera views of the dumpster, warehouse, pharmacy, and shopping aisles. The information is constantly recorded, uploaded to a server, and shared with headquarters. An expanded alarm system connects to an app downloaded onto my phone that fires a net near the sliding glass doors to secure fleeing shoplifters until police arrive.
Besides me, the only remaining full-time employee is Harry, the pharmacist, locked in his own bulletproof barricade on the opposite side of the store. A small, flexible ‘strike team’ of temp workers replaces fired staff and stocks Right-Time shelves across the city nightly.
Lucky for me, filling Aisle 9 with toilet paper is no longer one of my job responsibilities. In fact, most of my work day is spent kicking back in my comfy office chair, occasionally servicing customers, but mostly tucked inside my impenetrable cocoon scanning the day’s headlines from my phone. I also use my downtime to check in on former co-workers.
Initially, I hope the texting relationship that starts with José after he is let go leads to something substantial, maybe even a date. He bounces back quickly from his lost retail gig at Right-Time to provide door-to-door deliveries for Vanishingforest.com. He also starts a blog, as promised, full of free-market angst and vitriol.
However, over time, the frequency and fervor of the messages dwindle, until finally José’s rants against the corporate oligarchy and corrupt government are nil. Even his Chatter account, I notice, becomes inactive.
By June, I understand why. José’s last blog post is a photograph of him wearing a cap and gown, with a big-breasted honey tucked by his side. Caption reads: Graduation, moving on! I am pleased to announce that my degree in economics will be put to good use. I have been recruited by Rocket & Gamble to join their mergers and acquisitions division! Feeling blessed.
I suppose that means the people’s revolution, and my work crush, are on indefinite hiatus.
Maybe I should move on, too? Instead, I am informed through standard company correspondence (email) that my probation is complete. My management status becomes ‘permanent,’ or as permanent as a career in retail during late-stage capitalism can be.
A raise, along with a lower premium on my health insurance, helps offset Mom’s medical bills and mortgage.
As I grow comfortable in my new role, I engage customers less, kick back in my comfy chair more, and form an evolving construct of reality through my phone. It’s a fascinating world out there, and I wish I could be part of it. Meanwhile, I learn in the news that Right-Time has been bought out by Rocket & Gamble -- a multinational with subsidiaries in military defense, show business, and now, pharmaceuticals.
The next day, an office memo arrives in my inbox that confirms the purchase and provides details on the impact it will have on my work environment. Rocket & Gamble is so impressed with Right-Time’s revamped business model, which the company brass describes as ‘a lean and responsive workforce designed to meet customer needs and maximize profits,’ that additional upgrades to stores are planned to tap into the ‘vast market potential’ of the retail chain.
By the end of the month, the greeting cards, brands of toothpastes, and other household items are replaced with an expanded liquor section and more over-the-counter drugs. Aisles of steel vending machines are bolted onto the floor and provide customers with weed and other legalized recreational substances. FDA-approved versions of illicit drugs are sold, too. Herbal variants of cocaine and heroin, for example, along with natural alternatives to amphetamines and opioids, become widely available to the neighborhood.
An assortment of video games, and a self-serve gun conveyor belt, are also installed along the walls, ‘to better serve customers in their virtual and real-life battles.’
While most forms of subsistence are removed from the shelves, junk food like candy and potato chips remain, along with frozen dinners. As corporate explains: ‘We can not only feed people’s vices. As an upstanding provider to the American public, we must also make sure our customers have an opportunity for proper nutrition.’
To ensure these products are purchased safely and securely through the store’s automated machines, there are additional security upgrades to the floor as well.
Namely, a mechanized terrier with over-sized anime eyes and razor-sharp teeth is set loose on the aisles. With a rubber tongue dangling from its incisors, the fun and friendly guard dog enjoys being pet by customers, unless they try stealing something, of course, in which case it foams at the mouth with a liquid paralytic that incapacitates suspects when it bites.
Harry is the first to witness our new work companion in action after it takes down a homeless man attempting to pocket the last bottle of sunblock ever to be stocked at Right-Time, which he finds sandwiched between shelves.
“Shit, dog‘s got my leg!” he shouts, and collapses in the aisle, body immobilized by bite.
Authorities arrive to confiscate the goods and escort the down-and-out customer to jail.
Ever since, Harry refers to the company terrier as Butch the Bitch, or just ‘BB’ for short.
The name sticks.
Mom dies. She is struck by a car while roaming around lost in the neighborhood. According to witnesses, she didn’t know what hit her.
It’s sad, of course, but maybe for the better. After all, how pleasant can be a life spent as a timeless, forgetful dream?
Mom’s passing is more reason why I should move on, too, but what am I to do? After all, I have no real employable skills.
As I swipe through Bestagram and admire sweeping deserts, mountain vistas, lush jungles, vast oceans, and other naturally exotic destinations, my heart lightens with inspiration as a man wearing a ski mask enters the store with a limp and snaps me out of my daydream.
“What the hell happened here?” he asks, eyes wandering between video games, vending machines, and gun racks.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
When he approaches the checkout, I recognize his bloodshot eyes. He raises a revolver, taps it against the glass.
“Give me all of the money you’ve got,” he says. “Put it in a shopping bag -- or a box – whatever has the most room for cash.”
I don’t bother explaining that the glass around me is bulletproof, or that the pattern-recognition software linked to the security cameras notifies authorities when a customer enters the store with a gun, or that BB is probably already preparing to strike.
“We don’t have any shopping bags,” I say. “Customers must bring their own, to help save the environment. And all of our boxes are out back, inside a recycling dumpster.”
“Recycling boxes?” he says. “Why do that?”
“Turns out, it’s profitable,” I explain. “For every ton of materials we fork over to the city, Right-Time earns one-hundred dollars. The company lets me put some of the proceeds toward Alzheimer’s research.”
“Huh,” he says. “How’d ya manage all that?”
“Easy,” I say, holding up my phone. “Just took a few calls. Comes in handy every shift.”
“All right, wise lady,” the man says, removing his mask. “Enough bullshit!”
“Yes, yes,” he says, glancing around nervously. “Do I need a fucking name tag? Now, give me the money!”
“Unfortunately, most cash on site is locked inside those vending machines,” I say, pointing at them. “They’re pretty much impenetrable and will shock you with 50,000 volts if you mess with them. Most people pay for any other store items at the checkout using RightCoin, credit cards, or food stamps. I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer you.”
I reach in my pocket, pull out a twenty.
“I was going to order Chinese for lunch today,” I say, “but you can have it, if it helps --”
“No, it doesn’t help!” Bill screams, tapping his revolver against his head in what appears to be strained thought.
He turns toward the floor and addresses an empty store.
“Jesus H. Christ!” he screams, arms gesticulating wildly with rage. “I play by the rules, give this country all I’ve got, work hard for thirty years, scrape a living in this damned joint … for what?”
He turns toward me.
“WHAT?” he demands.
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, in tears, “to get crippled by a punk with a skateboard, spend my life savings paying for my recovery, and go broke just a few years shy of retirement.”
“That sucks, Bill,” I say. “It’s been a tough year for a lot of us. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, what do you know, Jane?” he says, limping toward the exit. “You still have a job.”
A growl comes from Aisle 9.
I try to swipe my phone, to access the store’s security app, but it’s too late.
Bill turns in time to see BB lunge. The unsuccessful robber falls backward, slams onto the floor. The terrier’s anime eyes enlarge. Mouth foams, attaches to crotch.
“Oh, fuck!” Bill screams. “My balls! It’s got my fucking balls!”
I dash from my bulletproof bubble and find BB lying sideways between Bill’s legs: bullet holes in the head, tongue dangling from mouth, and anime eyes gazing up at the ceiling.
A net covers Bill and the dead bot. Bill clasps his bloody crotch and rocks back and forth on the floor until his arms and legs convulse, and he, too, stares at the ceiling, immobile.
“The paralysis lasts an hour,” I say. “Plenty of time for the cops to get here.”
As for me, I’ve had enough. I remove my apron, toss it on Bill.
“Anyone who wants a job should be able to get one,” I say. “I’ll be sure to put in a reference for you with corporate. You didn’t steal anything, after all, and with the damage done to your testicles, you might have a lawsuit. Rocket & Gamble, the parent company, may be forgiving. I’m sure a smart guy like you can work something out.”
Bill moans. His tongue twitches. I think he wants to say something. I bend down low enough to catch a whiff of his awful breath.
“Don’t worry about me,” I say, standing. The sliding glass doors open. “I’ll sell the condo, buy some time. See the world, if I’m lucky.”
About the Author
Ryan Hyatt tells stories about your future. He is a former news reporter and author of the Terrafide sci-fi series. He edits the satirical sci-fi news site, The La-La Lander, as well as Not Your Father's Bedtime Stories, kid’s lit he creates with his daughter. Find him at the beach and his stories across the Internet.
Follow him on Twitter: @ucalthisreality