“Search, Assist, Dispose” by Mitchell Roshannon

Issue 17 / Spring 2019

 

The sun is setting over the horizon as Johnathan Peroux makes his way through the large rotating doors of Happy World Headquarters. He’s well-dressed, as much so as he can be on his budget: a white dress shirt, black slacks, and a pair of brown loafers. He enters a large lobby with white marble flooring and a golden chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The walls are white, like a hospital, maybe even whiter than that somehow. A toilet flushes in one of the bathrooms to his right. There is a “WET PAINT” sign outside of the women’s one. A receptionist sits ahead of him. Behind her sits a large screen playing old footage of a speech by Governor George Kellerman. “This is the future!” Kellerman yells to his flock. “Bill H3762 and the creation of Happy World will give us the resources necessary to fix the greatest problems facing our society: crime, hunger, and unemployment…” The crowd of people that cannot be seen on screen cheer wildly, drowning out portions of the governor’s speech.

“John P. clocking in,” he tells the receptionist. She types furiously for a time, not recognizing his presence. “Excuse me.”

She looks up, with frustration. She sighs. “Your name again?”

“John P. P for Peroux, spelled…”

“Yes, I know.” She turns away from him without a word and begins typing on her keyboard and clicking around the screen. All around them, John can hear the familiar sound of printers and scanners going full speed, and telephones ringing off the hook. “Yes, Mr. Peroux.  This is your first day on the job, is it not?” She is the stereotypical receptionist, or maybe stereotypical librarian. Black glasses, long, dirty-blonde ponytail, and piercing blue eyes that look through a person, not at them.

“It is. I’m very eager to get started.”

“I’m sure you are,” she states with a grin. She hands John a small, glass cell phone with a miniature projector connected to the top. “From here on out, you can clock in and out using this company phone. It tracks your movements, so all you have to do is place your thumb on the home button as so,” she says. She places her thumb over her own device’s home button. The device makes a light chiming sound and turns light green in color. “It will remain green for as long as you are clocked in. Green is clocked in, clear is clocked out. If you scan while clocked out, it will clock you in and vice versa as long as you are within your work station. Do you need assistance finding your work station today?” John is still looking perplexedly at the glass “cell phone” when she asks this question. She repeats herself.

“Um…no.  I stopped by yesterday to hand in some paperwork. I had a chance to find my station then. Thank you though.”

“You’re quite welcome. Enjoy your first day here at Happy World HQ. Remember, stay happy or die trying.” John responds with a final nod and starts walking up the large staircase that sits behind the reception area. The building is a maze of hallways branching in all different directions. He pulls a crudely drawn map from his back pocket that he drew the day before. He makes a left at the top of the stairs and climbs another four stories up another staircase before making a right, then a left down a smaller corridor, and another right. Straight, left, left, up two more flights, right. If he remembers correctly the door he is looking for is 648, which should be up ahead on his left.

He is lucky to have a job like this, and he knows it. Over the past three or four months, his savings account has been depleted while he searched for a job. His family was on the brink of financial ruin, then just like that, just as he was about to make the call, he thought to himself, What if I go work for these guys? Instead of using their service, I can become an employee at their company. Low and behold, they hired him, and now it is time to get to work, fix his life, do a duty to his country.

He reaches for the doorknob and is about to turn it when he remembers that each station is run in pairs. He thought it appropriate to knock. “Come in!” a voice yelled from the other side. Pushing open the door, he began to take note of the room. It is dark compared to the hallway, almost vacant of light besides the glare of four screens attached to the far wall. Underneath those screens is a control panel with a handful of buttons and levers that he hopefully will learn about soon. Above the screens are the words Search, Assist, Dispose written in large, golden letters. Sitting in a swivel chair in front of the panel in this white-like-all-walls-here room is a bald, middle-aged man currently talking on the phone. Like John and the blonde-haired receptionist, who John now realizes he doesn’t know the name of, he is wearing a white shirt. There is so much white here. He holds his finger up to his mouth to shush him before he can speak, then returns his gaze to the panel in front of him.

“Yes, ma’am we can send someone to your location momentarily. Will you be using cash or credit? Credit. Alright then, if I could get your card number. Mhm. Now security code. The security code is the three numbers typed on the back of the card. Right. Now the month and year of expiration. Alright, that’s all I need from you. I’ll dispatch someone to your location to assist you. You said you wanted the premium package? Of course, that’s a great option. You have a nice day,” he hangs up the phone and kicks his foot against the panel, spinning the chair around to face his newest coworker. “Hey there. You must be the new guy. The name’s Gus.”

He reaches out to give John a handshake that John graciously accepts. Gus’ hand is clammy. There is a layer of sweat visible on the touch screen that’s part of the panel. It currently says “Start New Form” in a green box and below it, “Sign Out” in red. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” John replies, nonchalantly wiping his newly moistened hand on his pant leg.

“Don’t give me none of that professional bullshit. Outside of this room, use it all you like, but if you use it when we’re in here, you’re going to bore us both to tears. Especially since it’s the off season. Mostly we’re just goin’ to be sitting here with no one to talk to but each other.”

“Understood. Off season?”

“Yeah, it’s the middle of Summer. Winter is when things usually pick up. Christmas and Valentine’s Day in particular.”

“How long you been working here?” You don’t pick up on trends like that overnight, John thinks.

“About…” he scratches his head and rolls his eyes up as if trying to look at the answer in his head, “25 years now.” After his scratching is done, he pats his head lightly to fold back down the two or three hairs he still has.

“Really? That long?”

“Yeah. It takes a special person to do a job like this. Often once you start, you never stop.” He stares off at the one screen looking back, John ponders on all the years Gus has worked here. All the things he must have seen. “So, what do you know about Happy World? How much have you learned?” Gus plays with buttons on the left side of the panel as he talks and a screen that was showing a map of the United States with little red dots blinking all across the nation is replaced with a radio station playing some old songs by a man named Bowie. He really is old.

“Not much honestly. I just know the job is federal and decently easy to get into. Pretty good benefits,” John replies. He takes note of how much Gus moves his hands when he talks. When he isn’t multi-tasking, he seems to be doing some interpretive dance.

“Now, I’m supposed to tell you all about H.W. HQ because, well, remember that shitty video they make you watch? I assume they’re still using the same one they showed me decades ago,” the phone rings and Gus transfers the call to another room. He then flips a switch that takes their station offline. The middle screen goes dark. “So, the three branches look at three out of four different aspects of life: economics, socialist businesses, which includes police stations, firehouses, and hospitals, and third being accessible nutrition. Through the work of these three departments and our own, H.W. was able to lower crime rates, lower the unemployment rate to almost zero, and make food available to everyone, well, fruits and vegetables at least. Because of the wide success of the program, Kellerman made the program nationwide when he became president three years later and combined the programs into one, realizing that Happy World itself solves most of the problems. Kellerman is the guy ranting and raving on that screen in the lobby when you first walk in, if you haven’t heard of him. It’s been a few years now since his assassination. Now we’re one of the biggest government programs in existence with over 100,000 employees. Most do the work we’re doing now, or something similar.”

“You’re quite the history buff, aren’t you?”

Gus points forcefully at John and whispers, “Knowledge is power, my friend.  The more you know, the better off you are.” Gus turns to the control panel and stares for a while at the blinking red light confirming that they are currently offline. “Let’s turn our attention to the control panel. What you need to know here is very simple. When a call comes in, look to screen one and search for a red blinking dot. That will let you know where the call is coming from. Screen two shows you the different districts of dispatchers, that way you can click on and send an officer from the closest location. Screen three will give you updates on the officer’s progress, and screen four gives you payment confirmation if the individual or group is paying by card. As far as the conversation with the customer is concerned, just stick to the script taped to the panel in front of you. It makes the job a lot easier.” Gus then shows John button after button and switch after switch, all of which he’ll use maybe once per year. “That’s all there really is to it,” he concludes.

“That’s a lot of information at once, and sort of scattered information at that.”

“Damn right! It’s a bit of a scattered job. People call in all different states with all different emotions. Each day is a little different.” He stares off at the blinking dots on one of the screens, the one that represents all calls currently taking place and where the people are calling from on the other end. The light from this screen is reflected in the white of his eyes, some of the blinking dots visible within.

“I more so meant all the controls,” John corrects.

“Oh. It feels like it, but once you get through the first couple calls, you’ll get a hang of it.  There’s really no way to learn except to do it around here,” he says as he flips the panel back online. He calls someone on the phone and request a call be sent to their station for training purposes. They both wait silently. Besides the sound of the cooling fans for the panel and Gus’ heavy breathing, there isn’t a ton of noise. Within minutes, a call comes through.  “If anything goes wrong, I’m right here. Just one switch and I can take over the call. Remember, they can pay by cash or credit. If the cash isn’t there at pickup or their card is declined, there is a program for diverting the cost to loved ones and next of kin that I’ll show you. Unless they ask for something special, assume they want the basic plan.”

The phone rings seven times before John picks up.  “Hello this is John P. with Happy World. How can I help you today?” A woman sobs helplessly through the phone. “Hello?” John repeats. Maybe the call is a mistake.

“I need help,” the woman whimpers. “I just can’t do this anymore.”

“Okay. What’s your name?”

“Martha,” she responds.

Gus replaces his smile with a frown. “Stick to the script. You’re just going to make this harder for yourself.”

“Listen Martha, I’m going to help you okay? Just stick with me.”

The pause on the other end is long. “My children won’t speak to me anymore. My husband died years ago.” Another pause. “He’s the only man that ever really loved me. Honestly, it’s just time for me to go,” she continues.

“Martha, I’m going to divert you to one of our other departments. They can help you.”

“I don’t want another department!” she screams. The sobs are gone, they are replaced with rage.  “It took three years and a bottle of gin to muster up the courage to call you. Just dispatch the officer.” Another pause. “Please.” John will never hear another voice as defeated as her’s.

He hesitates a long time thinking of this woman: Who is she? What has she done for the world? What did she dream of back when her husband held her? He thinks of his own wife, the day she called. By that point she hadn’t been herself for a while, she was already something else; she was already gone.  “Okay,” John surrenders. “Do you have the money ready?”

“Yes, one hundred dollars in cash. I’ll show it to the officer when he or she arrives.”

“Understood.” He slowly types the information into the keypad and presses enter. The phone rings. Quicker than I thought it would be, he thinks. When was it Lucy called? He asks himself. How much time passed between the moment she called and the moment the officer arrived? How much longer until I found her?

“This is Officer 2274. Just calling quick for confirmation. I’m about five minutes out.”

John holds the phone to his head but doesn’t reply. Slowly, cautiously, Gus takes the phone from him. “No. Just an ordinary run,” he answers. He hangs up the phone. He stares at John. John stares at the screen, waits for the blinking dot to vanish. It vanishes.

Gus pats him on the shoulder, the screens lighting up his bald head. “It gets easier as time goes.” He pushes his chair back and grabs a form from a filing cabinet nearby. “Here. When the coroner calls, you’ll need to help him fill out this form.”

 

Mitchell Roshannon is a senior at Susquehanna University finishing up his Creative Writing and English double major. His future plans are a little fuzzy and unknown though he knows for sure that he is going to pursue the creation of his own small press as a passion project with which to continue his love and engagement with writing communities.

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