I walked through the door to find a clean-cut man, chipper and plastic, seated behind the desk.
“I’m… uh. I’m here for the interview,” I said, not sure if I was in the correct place. “This is Greentree Publishing Firm, right?”
“Of course it is!” said the chipper man. “And I’m Dennis Stephenson of HR… well, R, I suppose.” There was something offsetting about the way he stared through me, glassy-eyed. His mouth had barely moved from its cheery grin as he spoke. He seemed to speak through his mouth rather than from it. “Nevermind the formalities. Call me Denny.”
I crossed the room with my hand outstretched.
“Hi Denny, I’m Max Bayer. I’m interviewing for the Office Assistant position.” As I reached his desk he glanced at my hand and stared for a bit. He glanced back up at my face and extended his own hand, though not quite receiving mine. His smile never faded.
“Well,” he said, “please have a seat and we can continue when you feel comfortable.”
I retracted my attempt at a handshake and clumsily transitioned the gesture into a thumbs-up. I sat down and placed my messenger bag at my side.
“Max Bayer,” he said with a sudden bravado, as if he was discovering the words for the first time. His burst of energy startled me.
“Yes?” I replied.
“He stared back at me, as wooden as ever.
“Max Bayer,” he said again with precise tone and inflection as before. “Applying for… office manager… at… Greentree Publishing Firm.” His pauses made the statement sound like the dullest Mad Lib I’d ever heard.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “I brought my resume.”
“May I see your… resume?” he asked, outstretching his hand. I dug into my bag and produced my portfolio. As I thumbed through, I happened to glance up at Dennis. He hadn’t moved an iota. Having finally found my resume, I placed it in his hand. His fingers closed over it in perfect succession and he pulled it in. His motions were so calculated and mechanical that I could swear tiny gears and pulleys were driving his motions.
I figured he would take a minute or two to recline back in his chair and mull over my qualifications. Not so. Instead, he swiped the paper before his eyes as quickly as if he had been wiping his forehead with a napkin and immediately placed the paper on his desk, folding his hands over it.
“I see you have plenty of management experience. Also you speak French and Italian. Also you’ve worked at our sister firm in Boise. And you’ve graduated from UC Irvine with an English Literature major. Minor in film studies, “ he rattled off in machine gun succession.
“Is there… anything else that needs elaboration?” I asked. “I have references here as well.”
“No,” he replied. “It’s rather clear and we have every intention of hiring you here and now. But now it all depends on you.”
“How so?” I asked.
Just then, the door opened. A young man in a collared shirt and tie stepped awkwardly into the room.
“Zhooh-ksh, zhooh-ksh,” he said with each rise and fall of his footsteps. After a few cycles, I realized what he was doing. Though it made little sense why, he was doing exactly what I had done ages before discovering books and girls. He was pretending to be a robot.
He continued his mechanical walk, emulating the whizzing of electronic servos with his mouth at every twitch of his muscles and turn of his head. In his arms, he held a stack of manila folders, which he placed on Dennis’ desk while mimicking the sound of steam releasing from a piston. I had to force myself to imagine a sack of puppies being drowned to stifle an eruptive guffaw.
“Your files, sir,” he said in a monotonous drone, the worst impression of a 50’s B-movie robot I’ve ever heard. Denny hadn’t given any indication to have noticed our robo-guest until this moment. He swiveled his attention toward the young man.
“Thank you… Marcus. You may return to your quadrant.”
“Voooooooo,” said Marcus as he turned about. He froze with the click of his tongue and resumed his “zhooh-ksh” walk out the door, somewhat struggling to synchronize his footsteps with the calculated swing of his arms. Once he had gone, I turned back to Denny, whose eyes were now focused intently on me.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat your question?” he asked.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“That was not your question,” he replied.
“Never mind that. What just happened?” I asked, pointing toward the door.
“That was Marcus. He just started here.” His wide grin never faded.
“But he was acting like… like…” I struggled to find a word that didn’t sound like it came from a comic book or pulp novel.
“Like an automaton?” Denny asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me, but I called his bluff anyway.
“Yes,” I said. “Like a robot.”
Without changing expression, Denny got up and went to the door. He locked it, chained it, bolted it, double bolted it. He strode across the room and shut the window. He locked the latch and drew the shades. Finally, he unplugged the phone and the network cable from the panel on the wall.
As he returned to his desk, something about the look of him seemed to have changed. His shoulders had relaxed from a rigid line to an organic curve. His smile melted down to a neutral pose and he chewed at the air to work the strain out of his cheek muscles. His eyes batted violently, moistening his arid eyes. Denny’s whole physicality had changed entirely with a few tiny adjustments. He twisted his neck to the relieving cracks of air popping from between his top-most vertebrae and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk.
“Okay,” he said, his voice dropping half an octave. “I’ll tell you straight.” He gave his neck one more stretch in the other direction for a satisfying pop and continued.
“A few years ago, we went through some pretty heavy budget cuts. The people up at corporate were about to axe a whole mess of us. They figured personnel was their most expendable cost in this era of growing technology. Machines and automation were the new vision of the future.”
He pulled a decanter from under his desk and poured himself a full glass of water. He put the glass to his lips and downed its contents voraciously. By his reaction, it looked like the most refreshing swig I had ever seen someone take. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Anyway, Bill in IT had a brilliant idea that sounded, well, idiotic at the time. Ended up saving all of us. He wrote up some techno-babble report on the recent advances in android technology. Dropped it on the CEO’s desk while performing maintenance on his laptop. Next day, the whole company gets a memo about how we can all keep our jobs if we start getting biotech implants. The memo listed installation clinics from Bill’s report, but they just turned out to be healthcare professionals; the bastard not only made it so we could keep our jobs, but got us healthcare coverage too.”
Dennis reclined back in his chair and kicked his feet up onto the desk.
“Only catch is, we gotta keep up the charade that most of funding is going to technology upgrades instead of personnel. The more robotic we act, the more the people upstairs think we contribute toward the overall goal of 90% automation.”
“So how do you get around lunch and bathroom breaks?” I asked.
“Easy,” Dennis said. “Bill covered that too. We just call it refueling and cooling periods. Even machines need breaks to keep from overheating.”
“Guess so,” I said. “Makes sense.” For the first time since entering the building, I finally felt at ease. More than that. The idea of working among these people-droids sounded downright entertaining.
“So, whaddya say? Nice cushy salary for a nine-to-five improvisational exercise in tomfoolery?” he asked.
“Vmmm-chk-vmmmm,” I hummed as I stood from my chair, extending my hand. “Execute… hire sequence.”
Denny’s face went plastic-pleasant again as he smiled and stood up like an oversized Ken doll. He put his bladed hand against mine.
“Permission granted… verifying… tck-tck… Welcome!”