fiction stories

We Don’t Want People, We Want Machines

It is my forty-third birthday today, and this year I am dedicating my annual birthday story, written from the POV of a character who shares the same birthday, to the man called Buffalo Dave.

Buffalo Dave, wherever you are, this story won’t make you famous, but I hope it makes you more human in peoples’ eyes.

Wendy’s makes the best chicken sandwiches in the world; that’s Buffalo Dave’s opinion. He declares this conviction to an audience of eight inside the dining room of said establishment, loud enough so we all can hear him––even me, despite the noise cancelling ear buds I wear.

“Enjoy those chicken sandwiches, folks! Best chicken sandwiches in the world!” he bellows for the third time in as many minutes.

I agree they serve a fine chicken sandwich, though I didn’t order one today. I only stopped here because I need their complimentary WiFi to get some work stuff done. The bonus is they have one of those fancy new soda machines, the kind where you can mix fruity flavors in with your favorite cup of liquid sugar. The soda machine is treating me well, I’m savoring a peach-infused ginger ale today, but the WiFi is so glitchy, I’m inclined to ask for a refund on all the time I’ve wasted logging and re-logging into my company’s VPN. When you’re as busy as I am, you become aware of two immutable facts: there are few things more expensive than lousy WiFi, and nothing is less complimentary than time.

The home screen of my computer always displays the same three items: email, task list, calendar. But you might as well refer to all three as one big, soul-devouring task list. My eyes land on the calendar first––July 8, 2018, Greg’s Birthday Dinner. That’s me. I’m Greg. My wife placed the appointment in the Cloud, a digitized prayer scribed with love, so I would be reminded every time I use my computer or glance at my phone that today is my birthday. She knows me well, knows how scattered my mind becomes, how likely I am to lose track of time and find myself waylaid on the wrong side of the I-5 quagmire with miles of traffic blocking me from the family gathering this evening to celebrate my birthday at the Olive Garden.

The man called Buffalo Dave approaches my table. He has the look of the archetypal Hollywood drill sergeant––broad shoulders, square jaw, silver buzz cut––only this version of Hollywood sergeant appears washed out, sporting several day’s growth on his chin and a badly faded jacket that should have been retired several tours ago. He juts his head perpetually forward, as though delivering a head butt to some invisible assailant. His right arm hangs limp at his side.

I do my best to ignore the man, keeping my eyes on screen, buds in ears, piping Pandora into my brain. “You a lawyer?” he asks me. It’s commendable, his ability to thwart the best tech Dr. Dre has to offer with that gruff voice of his. It’s the second time he’s asked me this question. The first time I feigned like I didn’t notice him there, looming over me like a crazed moon. Clearly my indifference is no match for his want for competent legal counsel.

I extract an ear bud. “Huh? No, I’m not a lawyer.”

“Oh. Well, you know any good lawyers?”

I point my eyes to the ceiling in an exalted way, screw my lips to one side, creating the effect that I’m giving his inquiry honest thought. “No. No, I don’t know a single lawyer.” I glance at the laptop before me, Google at my fingertips, a thousand and one lawyer listings within a few key taps. I pray Buffalo Dave does not make the connection.

He palms his chin with his left hand and closes his eyes. I believe this is the signal he unwittingly uses to indicate I am processing. I think of the spinning wheel my computer displays when trying to power through a bad internet connection, like the one here at Wendy’s. This is Buffalo Dave’s spinning wheel face, his way of powering through the broken connections in his biological hardware.

Finally, he says, “I need to hire a lawyer so I can get back into my hotel. The Day’s Inn ‘cross the street, that’s mine, I own it. But the bitch who manages it don’t believe me. She kicked me out! Can you believe that? Kicked me out of my own hotel. I had a beautiful room with a view overlooking the Kia car lot, and I come down this morning for the free continental breakfast, but it’s gone! No breakfast! So I go to the manager to ask why, and she says, ‘Well, sir, it’s ten-ten. Breakfast is only available from six to ten,’ and I say, ‘So what? I get screwed outta breakfast because I like to sleep in? What happens to all the food after ten o’ clock? Does it vanish? Nine-fifty-nine there’s a counter full of food; the clock strikes ten and POOF, it’s gone! No toast, no fruit? Not even a goddam poppyseed muffin?’ ”

“That’s when I pulled my ace card and told her I own the hotel––that and three others, actually––and I figured, this is it! She’s gonna go in the back and fetch me a poppyseed muffin, but instead she gets the janitor, big Samoan asshole. He says to me, ‘Sir, I’m gonna need you to leave.’ ”

Buffalo Dave moves in close. I lean back, maintaining a protective buffer between us. Guys like him, who likely spend as many nights on sidewalks as they do in cozy rooms overlooking the Kia dealership, tend to smell bad. I’m surprised to find he smells like those complimentary mini lotions they have in hotels. Buffalo Dave must have lubed up before he got booted from his own hotel. “See this?” he says, opening his jacket, tapping his midriff with a fist. “Iron. Sixty-year-old six pack. I told that Samoan mop jockey to bring it on!” He pauses, palms his chin––his spinning wheel face again––and continues, “If my arm still worked, I’d have knocked his teeth out. But he ran me out the door like a twelve dollar call girl. Tore a hole in my buffalo skin coat.” With his left hand––the hand that still works––he peels back his jacket, revealing a small hole in the faux wool liner.

That jacket is the source of his name. I learned this several minutes ago when I overheard him tell the story to a couple disinterested hipsters two tables over. “See this?” he’d said, pointing at the label inside the collar. “It says Buffalo Dave. Friend of mine from the Muckleshoot tribe sewed it for me out of real buffalo hide and put my name in it for me. It’s one of a kind! You know how much people pay for genuine Indian shit these days? This coat’s probably worth more than this whole restaurant!”

Though my eyes are on the hole in Buffalo Dave’s “genuine” buffalo skin jacket, on the periphery I witness a fresh message drop across the screen of my computer. I don’t catch the subject line, but I see a familiar sequence of letters in the address letting me know it’s from a client, a big one who’s expecting a report I promised him two days ago. Panic boils up from my stomach, depositing a carbonated mix of sour peach, ginger, and bile in the back of my mouth. Panic always hits me quickly because it’s always close, lurking along the edges of my mind, a hungry predator ready to pounce from the moment I wake in the morning, there to remind me that I may not make it through today, that there’s too much to do and too little time.

Each day I’m allotted a finite amount of humor, and Buffalo Dave has used up my current supply. I’m no longer looking at him, but I can hear him blathering on like we’re old friends sitting down for coffee and palaver. He’s complaining about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos now, how “that sonofabitch has ruined downtown, just ruined it! ” I replace the ear bud I dropped moments earlier and up the volume on my phone’s Pandora feed in an effort to drown him out, but the song playing––a subdued Brandi Carlile number––is no match for the man’s passionate discourse. His words buzz about me like a swarm of obnoxious house flies as I begin to tap out a butt-kissing response to my customer. For reasons I fail to understand, Buffalo Dave blames Bezos for Seattle’s exploding homeless population, as well as the opioid epidemic.

A chirp in my ear, a text alert breaking through the music feed, and I wince at the thought that this may be another work demand I must attend to with time I don’t have, but a glance at my phone screen reveals a message from my mother. “Happy Birthday! See you tonight!”

Friends send birthday love through Facebook. Moms text you. For some reason, Mom’s loving sentiment mixes poorly with my worried mind and sends my nerves into hyperdrive. And Buffalo Dave still hasn’t shut up.

“You know all those rich assholes get together on the regular? They call them ‘charity events’, but really they’re just an excuse to get loaded and discuss ways to screw us over. I went to one of their luncheons the other day. Paul Allen was there––oh yeah, he’s one of em––and he’s standing at the bar, cute little Asian girly cozied up to his side, and I say to him, ‘Hey Paul! Long time no see! Who’s your date?’ And you know what he said? He says, ‘She’s not my date. I never met her before.’ ”

“Now think about that. He’s married. You know that, right?”

I don’t know what’s more ridiculous––the notion of this crazy fellow attending a luncheon with Paul Allen, or the idea that I’d give a mouse turd if he’s cheating on his wife.

I could teach classes on how to write effective email apologies. The trick is to sound humble, while simultaneously conveying how great you are. My report is late, not because I’m lazy and ineffective, but because work is so busy, and why is work busy? Because I am amazing, and everybody is clamoring to take advantage of my amazing services! I review the message I’ve composed for my client, tweak a couple lines, tap send.

Buffalo Dave has moved from railing against the rich to bashing the poor. “They’d rather smoke dope or stick a needle in their arm than go to work!” he says.

‘Smoke dope rather than go to work.’

I confess, lately I wonder if the dope smokers aren’t on to something. Sometimes, while creeping along the freeway, mind reeling from work stress, I’ll stare longingly at billboards advertising the next new cannabis dispensary in town. Part of me craves that escape. I’ve told myself I’ll never smoke pot, because I’m pretty sure if I did I would love it and never want to do anything else. But what’s the alternative? Maybe this chatty lunatic is an example of what happens to a normal guy who works too hard for too long, and when he doesn’t chill out with a joint every now and then, he breaks; he pops some indispensable gear in his brain and spends his twilight years sleeping outdoors and inciting awkward conversations with strangers at Wendy’s. Perhaps this poor bastard is my future.

I’m deep into an eye twisting Excel spreadsheet when I realize Buffalo Dave has left me. He’s on the other side of the dining room now, admonishing a group of newcomers to “Enjoy those chicken sandwiches, folks! Best chicken sandwiches in the world!”

The ginger ale has my bladder swimming. I scoot from my table and head to the restroom, only to find it’s locked with one of those coded door locks, the kind they use to ward off the sort of dope smoking, needle-armed vagrants for which Buffalo Dave has so much disdain. Personally, I’m more annoyed than disdained. The afternoon is slipping away, my window of work time closing, and I need to piss. I don’t have time for a men’s room door armed like a bank vault.

A swath of menu-gawking faces impedes my way to the front counter. It’s funny the places your mind can go when you are delirious from overwork and preoccupied with the urgent need to urinate. I suddenly picture myself in an episode of 24, desperately seeking the secret code needed to defuse a bomb set to blow up downtown Los Angeles. Only instead of a bomb, the object of doom is my swollen bladder, the setting a suburban Wendy’s. I guess that makes Buffalo Dave over there a CTU analyst who lost his marbles after too many years parsing ones and zeroes. I resist the impulse to conjure a Jack Bauer voice when I cut through the crowd and ask one of the cashiers for the code to the bathroom. With a smirk, she rattles off four digits too quickly for me to catch. Again, the ghost of Bauer threatens to overtake me.

Do you think this is a game? We’re running out of time. The code! Give me the code!

“What was it again?” I ask politely.

Again the smirk, again four numbers in an unintelligible jumble.

Back at the restroom door, I punch in what I think I heard the girl say, already forming a contingency plan should my access be denied. A blinking red light precedes my sigh of disappointment when the door fails to open.

Smartass cashier, I think. I can’t wait till these fast food workers are all replaced with machines.

Foregoing another attempt at the elusive code, I opt instead to fetch my now empty soda cup and head outside to find a private spot in which to relieve myself. I find my salvation inside the three-walled nook where the dumpster is kept.

It’s the circle of life, I think as I fill the cup. The cup giveth to me, and I giveth back.

Few and short are the spaces in the day in which I have time for reflection. The time taken to relieve an overripe bladder is one of those spaces. Moments like this never last long enough. I find myself thinking of a world that may be nearer than we think, a world in which guys like Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos will sell us machines to do our jobs for us, a world in which we’re freed from the menial tasks that keep us from doing what we’d rather be doing with our lives. I imagine a machine that could do reports for me, so I don’t have to stop at places like this and be bothered by guys like Buffalo Dave.

A prediction was made by computer scientist Alan Turing back in the fifties. He prophesied that by the early part of the new millennium, a third of people tested would be unable to discern whether they are communicating with a human or an artificial intelligence. I hear his prediction is very near reality. But it’s not for the reason you would think. It’s true, machines are getting better at mimicking humans. But more so, we are becoming like them, learning to speak and write and behave more predictably, more thoughtlessly. They are becoming more human as we become less so. And we celebrate this, don’t we? We love to exalt ourselves for our dependability, for putting in extra time, burning the midnight oil, being always available. And when we encounter others who lack the dedication and efficiency we so acclaim, we look down on them, consider them worthless and lazy for their inability to perform their duty for the great American pipe dream. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit we don’t want people, we want machines.

In my experience, there are two forms of sadness. The first is the common kind, that drains you and leaves a void you’re compelled to fill with overwork and venti Frappaccinos and social media pissing matches.

There is a second kind of sadness, the kind that fills you. It fills you so full you feel it down in your fingers and toes, so much you are moved to express it in a way that is uniquely human. This form of sadness weighs on me like rain soaked clothing as I re-enter the restaurant. I imagine my computer calling out to me, saying, “Come! Return to me! We have work to do!” Ignoring the machine’s appeal, I approach the smirky girl at the counter, yank the stifling buds from my ears, and order myself a chicken sandwich. I might spoil my Olive Garden dinner with this indulgence, but what the hell; it’s my birthday.

The aroma of deep fried protein accompanying me to the table delights me almost to the point of tears, as does the crinkle of the foil-lined wrapper as I unveil the savory delight.

I’m not alone at this table. There is someone else. Buffalo Dave orbits me.

“Enjoy that chicken sandwich––”

“Best chicken sandwich in the world!” I say with an enthusiasm that startles him and shocks me as well.

Buffalo Dave cocks his head, displays his spinning wheel face, and follows with a gray toothed grin infectious enough to make this sad birthday boy smile in return.

“You’re goddam right it is,” he says and claps me on the shoulder. He remains here, uncharacteristically speechless, as though his most sacred mission is complete, and he no longer knows what to do with himself. He eventually turns to leave, but I stop him.

“Buffalo Dave, wait,” I say, offering him the sandwich. “It’s no poppy seed muffin, but it is, you know, the best in the world.”

I don’t believe Buffalo Dave is malnourished. It’s clear he’s mentally ill, and his motionless right arm tells me he’s disabled from some injury or illness, but he has enough meat on his bones to indicate he’s getting meals somewhere, if not the Day’s Inn. But the look of curiosity he displays now, it’s as if he’s never been offered a free sandwich before. I find it hard to believe people don’t give him food just to shut him up. Perhaps it’s not the gift of sustenance that has him stunned, but the way I addressed him by his name. I imagine a guy like him doesn’t get to hear his name used often. He must get a lot of “Sir” and “Mister” and “Buddy”, as in ‘Hey Buddy, you can’t hang out here unless you buy something’. But no one is Buffalo Dave’s buddy, not really. Except today, maybe I am.

He receives the sandwich and holds it nose level, turning it side to side, examining carefully with pale blue eyes. He nods thoughtfully before taking a massive bite, diminishing the sandwich by nearly a fourth. Working the food with his oversized jaw, he chews for an inordinate amount of time, eyes to ceiling, feet planted beside me. I don’t have time for this. I have a report to finish, but I no longer care. Today I’m taking on a different project.

Buffalo Dave swallows hard enough to make himself wince, nods his head several more times before lofting the sandwich heavenward, and cries, “Yes! Still the best!” His proclamation elicits chuckles from several of us in the restaurant. He walks away while tearing loose another morsel.

Turning to my computer, I close the still unfinished spreadsheet and open a fresh Word doc. They say a word is just a symbol, a name just a symbol. Put the right combination of symbols together in the right order, and you have yourself a story. It’s not complicated when you think of it that way. A machine could learn to do it, perhaps well enough to convince people they are reading the work of a real person, written with greater efficiency and accuracy than a human could ever manage. But a machine would not be frightened at the sight of the unblemished page, as I am now. Nor would it feel creativity’s enticement, the thrill we experience from our earliest years, that of making something that was not, into something that is.

Buffalo Dave does not hear his name used often. I’m sure it’s rarer still his name is written down. It’s possible his name has never been put to page. Today is the day. I’ll make a birthday gift for myself in honor of Buffalo Dave.

“Let’s see a machine do this,” I whisper. The story begins, words dripping from my bones, “Wendy’s makes the best chicken sandwiches in the world.”

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