…read the bright red sign hung over the gleaming brick white building. The sign had been up, everywhere, since he was a little kid. Nobody was ever not-hiring.
The sign was attached to yet another new building – expensive. The bricks were all nice and smooth still. If they ever started looking grimy, he thought, or any one of them got chipped, they would replace it right away. The building was too nice for the world it was in. Too nice for the people around it, or in it even.
Carl ran his hand through his wavy and disheveled bright red hair. A few strands came off in his palm. They stuck to the sweat and he looked at them; they reminded him of how tired and afraid he was. He had been losing sleep the last two weeks, all after the family reunion where Aunt May and Aunt Clara, and, with them soon, all the other relatives started hounding and hassling him about:
“When are you going to get a real job?”
“When exactly, when precisely?”
“Why can’t you be like any of us?”
Because I have my own ideas, he had always said. Big woop, they’re just going to stay there anyways; or, get taken anyways. Might as well have the safety. And so here he was, sitting at the nice shiny white-picket safety line.
Big chrome machinery, which looked like turbines, hung over his head. Smaller versions were mounted on the wall, pointing upwards like lights. They all hummed a little, like air conditioners mixed with a sort of piano wire sound. He was the only one here in the waiting room. There was nothing else for them to read, but it was not legal for them to be harvesting him yet.
“Mr. Popper, we’ll see you now,” a man with thinning black hair pulled back drooped up his skin flaps for a smile, and pointed – across his stout body – to a small office. Carl stepped in and sat in a chair that was the same as the one outside. Why he couldn’t receive the offer out there, he had no idea. He seemed to be the only one in the whole town that didn’t have a job with INGANO INC. yet. It was their regional Brain-Trust. In some regions it was different, but here it was INGANO. They didn’t really compete anymore; it was illegal not to compete, but they controlled the government too. They, together controlled everybody. And they just sort of licensed the relevant things to each other, INGANO to WALLAX, or WALLAX to BRUD, let the others build it in their automated factories. They kept out of each others’ way, and that’s why everything really had kept humming along – no war, no violence, nothing too notable at all – over the past three hundred years in America.
“We’re thrilled to finally have you,” the pitchman spoke. He couldn’t help but throw in a little jab at Carl. They had a file on him, surely, and knew that he had not taken a job with them for a few years past the customary age of twelve. He was still only a teenager. He was a virgin, naive (which they all knew). And he was coming up with so many wonderful ideas. Which they were missing out on, now. All in good faith, mind you…
The man’s belly was taller than Carl.
“You don’t have me yet,” Carl tried to deliver it as a joke, but he couldn’t help add a bit of punch to it, and it left a little awkward moment in the room for a little too long.
“Right, but, uh, we’d love to!” The man tried to keep up the happy face. He still had someone to sell to. For now, at least, Carl still had the choice.
Carl didn’t say anything. The man felt the pressure to break the silence, and did, after too short a time for it to have been awkward to any normal person. In fact, his eagerness came off as awkwardly needy. He was nervous. Nervous to pitch to a kid. Most of the rest had come so easy.
“So I’m sure you know the terms of the deal, albeit just from friends or family members or what not?”
“Tell me again,” Carl was not so much being snarky as he was postponing the decision; the decision he had already made, but which he felt the burden of trying to make nonetheless.
“Well, you know son, even if you don’t need the money now, and your parents can take care of you, one day they’ll be gone.”
Carl’s eyes looked up just the same, unthinkingly. They pushed a glared stare at the man. He was not thinking about the man’s words because he was too caught up in imagining all of it – the whole life which he, some-why, did not want to live whatsoever. Though, by any measure, it was not so bad.
“And nonetheless, you could get poachers, take ‘em all anyway. Without giving you anything! At the least of all, we can be a security service to you.” This comment particularly bothered Carl, because he knew – and the man knew too – that INGANO was the only one with the equipment here, the only one here at all, and the only one here too that could Poach.
They were the mob they were protecting against (or claiming to). And here they were now, using themselves as the threat to extort him. A hundred years ago, they stopped offering percentages and offered a (low) flat-rate salary. And sold it to all of his great grandparents like they were getting a hell of a deal. A six figure income to do nothing – or as much like it.
“Why haven’t, uh, they, stollen too much already?”
“Maybe they have, and you just don’t know? You don’t keep up too much in the news? Go to the theatre often?” The man was smug, but Carl still strongly felt he was bluffing. He had seen no movies yet made from his dreams.
He didn’t visit the theatre, or even the television in the living room, often. He liked to have his own ideas, rather than get spoon-fed that slop-ground Hollywood pulp. Although, Hollywood hadn’t been anything but a sign for quite a few decades now. It was all automated on digital film-cell stamping machines. “I haven’t seen any products in stores. I do still go to stores. At least the grocers.”
“Ah, but how many ideas do you really have for food?” The man didn’t know, he was only counting on Carl not to be an aspiring Mind Chef.
“I dunno,” Carl shrugged. The man – who had never been asked for his name – could see he wasn’t getting anywhere. He shifted a bit; decided to play up on sex. Lots of 15 years olds already had a love.
“One day, you may have your own family? Need to provide for them. That’s what this could be for you son. And just think how lucky you are. No sorting any of it out – all you do everyday for your pay check is just… walk around. Come in here and sit under one of our Hair Dryers if we need to Zoom In a bit more. Pretty easy life?”
Hair Dryers were the seat mounted brain-readers, meant to get a better signal when a more complex idea couldn’t be radio beamed from the street or the grocers or the theatre to the Brain-Trust machine headquarters. You’d only have to sit for a few minutes, and a full schematic or screenplay or prototype could be assembled by the automated factories. And then sold out to all the other thinker-workers in all the other Brain-Trust Regions, controlled by INGANO or BRUD INC. or WALLAX.
“I like the figuring out, though. I like the thinking through it. I want to make things myself.”
“And do what with them? They won’t be in stores, in theatres. We own all of the stores and the theatres!” The man laughed. It was an arrogant laugh, but underpinned, still, by nervousness. Carl wondered why. He felt powerless coming in, and somehow now felt a bit more lively.
“They’re not for them. They’re for me.” He answered back calmly.
The man changed his tone. This was the hardest sell he had encountered yet, and from a kid! “They still can be son. You can just,” he tried to plaster on the sentimentality, “share them with people.”
“It won’t be the same. I like to write, you know,” Carl paused. He had said it offhandedly, but knew that they must know not only that he did write, but, in fact, know of everything he had ever written, “and the second draft always is just so much fun coming up with as the first. Or sometimes. Nearly, most-times. But I like to come up with it. To play with it. And I like signing my name at the end. It can be mine.”
“It can be ours, son.”
“But it’s not. You’ll just grind it and automate it and change it.”
“You can have your copy – we just make things… sellable.”
“I don’t want it to be sellable, I want it to be me.”
“Damn it!” The man lost his temper, “Why not just take the damn income son? For doing nothing! Have your damn stories, you’re damn tinker-town playthings. What does it matter? We’ll give you an income. Just sign. Just fucking sign already!”
It was the first time Carl had heard an adult swear at him. He looked up, “I don’t want it,” he said.
“That’s it,” the man began pacing back and forth frantically, back and forth. His stout and droopy reflection bounced off the glass surface of the desk between them. The white sweat-spot on his brow moved across it like a knocking ping pong ball. Ping! Pong! Ping!
“I didn’t want to have to do this, but – I checked and we can offer it to you – $1 million dollars a year.” Carl hesitated.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” The man shouted, nearly jumping up and down, “A million a year for nothing! Nothing!”
“It’s obviously not nothing if you want so bad.” Carl was beginning to catch on to the idea.
The man was still pacing, “Oh, you think you’re worth a million at 15?”
“No. But you seem to think so.”
The man threw his head back and barred his teeth, clenched his lips.
“Fine, kid: you got to help us. All the other damn aunts and uncles and 40 somethings go to the theatre, and watch each others’ drivel, and then go home, and think some more up of it. And then they go and write terrible reviews for the movies. And they go to the stores and purse their lips and wag their fingers at the products their neighbours thought up – but they can’t think of any better ones. They’re all just yelling at each other. It’s a big game of telephone. They’re all jerking each other off while they poke each others’ eyes. And it’s all slowing down. After three hundred years, it’s slowing down. Nobody’s got anything! Even the damn kids your age – they do the same thing. Their dreams are a dime a dozen, a penny’s too much for their thoughts! If I have to look through one more Dream Schematic for a nudie mag or a race-car, I’m gonna put a bullet in my teeth. There hasn’t been a Henry Ford, an Edison, a Tesla in two hundred years. America looks the same as it did in 2205! Still we have to pay them for the whole thing to keep rolling along. We can’t all of a sudden plunge to 80% unemployment – from ZERO! Kid, that’s why we want you. Why we need you. Why we waited, why we didn’t steal even – good faith. Building the relationship, building trust – or so my dickhead of a boss told me it would with a shit-head kid like you. You don’t go to the theatres, and you don’t look at the crap in the stores. And so maybe you’ve got something different for us. We don’t know – they don’t know, but, maybe. Just a little different. And we’ve gotta have just a little different to keep the whole thing running.”
Carl looked blank, empty.
The man sighed. He said the words out loud, slowly, deliberately, “Two million dollars a year.”
“Maybe it shouldn’t keep running,” Carl’s eyes got lost, ran away with themselves. His gaze wandered around the office, out the window…
“Three million dollars.” The man was gritting his teeth against each other. You could hear the little bits of teeth-bone fleck off. GRR GRRR GRRRR.
“Why should it keep running?”
“You want your aunts and uncles out of a job kid?”
“They’re not doing anything anyways. They just walk around, nag each other.”
“No,” the man was stern now.
“No, kid, you don’t do anything. Do something. Do fucking something. Four million dollars.”
In a moment, Carl had a very clear thought enter his head. It entered as the words already formed on his lips, and he felt people before him who really were like him, really got him, would have understood it. It came to him fully pre-formed, like it was on a paper in his brain. And so, the turbine machines behind him probably picked it up too, even at a distance. This is what it was. A printer backstage at an INGANO office was already churning it out. They had it, but they would not quite know how to stop it:
for something great
is better than having
And that it why, over the centuries, hope had been the fire-light to humans. And Carl, now, after the meeting he dreaded, had hope.
“Five million dollars.”
“No.” Carl sat up and walked out, knowing they would probably try to steal from him anyways. He was still, however, free to go.