My dad couldn’t reach the middle of his back. He waxed every part of his stocky, thick body–and then I hopped in at the end to get the patch between his shoulder blades. It became part of our Sunday afternoon routine.
In the morning, I was trying, yet again, to make some of my own money through the You’reInControl app, and when I came home for a break, my dad was waiting for me–puffy and pink.
I spread on the wax as he leaned onto a clean, white towel that I’d draped over the sink. With every rip, his skin reddened, and his shoulders jerked, but his eyes, bloodshot and teary, stared down at the tile, waiting for it to be over, so he could get into bed and bleed onto fresh sheets.
My dad’s fear was smelling bad, and he thought that hair trapped bacteria and body odor. He had deodorant rashes under each armpit that made the waxing especially painful.
He said, “They’re talking about me up and down this street. They’re saying ‘He stinks. How can anyone live next to him?'”
I picked up all his scattered deodorant sticks and put them on the counter next to the microwave. He was lying in his tighty-whiteys on bedsheets that he boiled every morning and dried every afternoon.
He got a little weepy, which never would’ve happened when I was a kid–or even a year ago. Growing up, if he’d had any problems, I never knew about them. He was always steady continuity–never a shout or a loss of composure.
“Not a single person is talking about you,” I said. “We’re not moving.”
“We have to move,” he said, turning onto his side and shoving his palms together under his cheek. With his knees pulled up, he looked like a shiny toddler. The bed sheets were speckled red where his back had touched them.
At twenty-three, I felt too young for this, and patting his shoulder or rubbing his back was not a possibility. Everything between us had always been formal. As weird as the waxing had been at first, at least it fell under the umbrella of helping with chores.
Eight months before, my dad had been working at ShrenShrenAmerica, a company that specialized in manufacturing indicators for military aircraft.
Apparently, someone complained to HR that he smelled. The person said it was impossible to work near him. His buddies told him it was just made-up, and it was part of the Executives’ scheme to get mid-level managers to quit through Passive Humiliation in order to move the company toward full automation.
I never thought of my dad as someone who might break.
He was serious and quiet and solitary and logical.
When I was 11, I wanted to make the basketball team, so he welded a huge metal funnel that caught the ball after it went in and looped it back toward me. I was thrilled and thankful. I never wondered why he didn’t just come out and play with me. That wasn’t our relationship.
And I imagined that this was how he operated at work too.
At first, he didn’t say a word about the complaint. He just started painting himself with deodorant and progressed to waxing his body, and I hoped that whatever this was would resolve itself.
Eventually, one of his old work-buddies called me–which was how I learned about the complaint. This work-buddy was crying, and I kind of had to pull the whole story out of him.
“He won’t talk about it,” he said about my dad, “but you should know.” He sounded relieved. He’d done his part by calling me, and it made me feel like a grown man–being on the receiving end of a very man-to-man phone call.
For the past few months, I’d been doing short, QuickJobs through the You’reInControl app. It was not steady or reliable, but chasing these jobs kept me out of the house.
I liked to park near HobbyGrammies while I waited for a QuickJob to be posted. The location was perfect–surrounded by lots of other businesses in a big strip mall surrounded by other strip malls in concentric circles of stip malls.
Even though my dad was struggling, I felt ready to start worrying exclusively about myself–or at least that was the dream.
The parking area where I was this morning was all taken up, so I had to find a spot in a different lot. And before I could dive into a daydream, I got a notification that FixYup Urgent Care needed someone to combine all the little bits of flu vaccine leftover in the tips of used syringes in order to “Pass Along Thicc-Ass Savings To Customers.”
FixYup Urgent Care was almost exactly where I had been parked earlier. It was maybe 300 feet away, and I decided it would be faster for me to run there, than pull out and navigate the traffic. I could actually see the tablet on wheels at the front of the store, waiting for the first phone to ping within 25 feet.
If I hadn’t gone home to wax my dad, I would’ve already secured the QuickJob.
A woman in a business suit was huffing it from the other side of the parking lot. She was farther away, and it seemed like maybe she was coming from either Cheap Ain’t Broke or Clean Rick’s Dance Academy. Her movements weren’t fluid, and her feet seemed to pick up too early with every stride–like when a dog wears shoes. Also, she was carrying a hemorrhoid doughnut.
But she was competition nonetheless, so I pushed hard off of my feet. To my right, I could see a very old man on an ancient Segway, and he was gunning it for FixYup too. The sound of his Segway engine kept whining high and then lowering, like it was struggling to go as fast as he wanted it to. But still, he was zipping along–eleven, maybe twelve, miles per hour. The woman in the business suit just about gave up when she saw me and the older man. But she didn’t stop. She was still moving her body forward in the walk-shuffle of someone who’s crossing the street while cars waited.
I was ahead of the older man on the Segway who was holding his arms forward like a diver, reducing drag.
The woman sat down on her hemorrhoid doughnut and shouted the c-word loudly at no one.
I was going to get there before him. I could tell. With each leg-kick forward, the best-case scenario started to form in my mind. Ideally, this job at FixYup would become long-term and steady–as unlikely as that was. I’d have to be there day after day for months or years. I’d move out of my dad’s house. Get an apartment. Buy groceries. Fall in love. Get married. Have children. Eventually retire to Cape Cod. And also, unrelatedly, my dad would get back to his old self and not need me anymore.
I only had a few dozen more feet to go before this was all possible.
A car screeched to a stop in front of me, and a kid jumped out of the passenger seat.
“I’m here, Sir,” he said to the tablet, and he tapped “Accept That You’reInControl” on his phone.
In the driver’s seat of his car, an older woman with rosacea cheeks banged her hands on the steering wheel and said, “Fuck Yeah, Doug!”
She clapped back at me.
“How. You. Like. That. Bitch?”
She started filming herself and Doug–who now had a QuickJob–which, by definition, was no longer than two hours of work–with her phone. She narrated/explained how “Her son Dougie earned himself a new position with a prominent company.” Then she pointed the camera at me and the old man and the woman on her hemorrhoid doughnut across the parking lot–and made crying/whimpering sounds to mock us.
The old man on the Segway sucked on an inhaler, and then bit into a beautiful-looking tomato that he’d dug out of his pocket.
I left the HobbyGrammies parking lot. I’d been away a long time, and I needed to check on my dad. I passed by a small gray building that I’d always assumed was abandoned. But today, there was a man in the parking lot.
He was tapping on his phone. And the You’reInControl app buzzed.
I did a quick pullover.
The man said, “Do you QuickJob?”
“Yes,” I said. It was so simple. The man tapped on his phone, and the job was canceled. I guessed he didn’t want to have to pay the You’reInControl FoundOne Fee–which was kind of a grimy thing to do. But sometimes it’s important to look at red flags as just regular flags.
He held out his hand for me. “Stu Deja-Stu,” he said, and it took me a second to realize this was his name. “Can you go like this all day?” And he did some of the moves to The Macarena.
“I can,” I said–which was true, and also what I would’ve said if he’d asked me if I could do backflips all day while juggling floppy, mixed-size dildos.
Inside, was just one massive room with machinery everywhere. Conveyor belts, steel and plastic, metal ARMs.
Stu Deja-Stu said, “It’s in back. C’mon. I really don’t want to be here.” He was ducking and jumping and stepping over. There were no walking paths. This place wasn’t designed for people.
When we got to the back corner, there were a dozen old-model Industrial Roombas trying to clean around the body of a dead man with a mutilated head.
Stu Deja-Stu explained, almost in one breath when he saw my face, that he was not a murderer. He hadn’t set foot in this building in almost eight years. Computers in hospitals placed the orders. The factory fulfilled them. Humans didn’t need to think or do anything.
Stu Deja-Stu said, “Listen. I was as surprised as you. I didn’t even know I had an employee. I got an alert on my phone that production stopped for a Non-Maintenance Issue.” He showed me the suicide note that said, I think I’ve had enough. “Normally, I’d just buy another machine to replace whatever job this guy was doing,” he said pointing to the body, “but I’m selling the medical division of my company on the fourteenth. Why would I invest money now?”
The fourteenth wasn’t for four whole days. This QuickJob would be my longest one ever.
“What’s the job?” I said, still looking at the body.
“I couldn’t care less,” Stu said. “Actually, the job is–make sure I never get an alert on my phone.” He seemed pretty proud of this line. “Just figure it out.” And while he was saying all of this, he was back-pedaling out. He gave a big thumbs-up and seemed to hope that I wouldn’t say another word. “Figure it out.”
And then it was just me standing alone in a factory that was being sterilized without any Roombas big enough to scrub away a dead body.
I called the police and they transferred me to the coroner’s office where an automated voice said, “The current wait time for body removal is four hours and thirty-three minutes.”
I searched around. In the lofted office above the factory floor, there was a small tablet in the middle of a room that had probably once been filled with dozens of cubicles. Next to the tablet in the empty room, was a Post-It Note that said, Password is Password$#8.
I swiped open the tablet and typed it in. I scrolled and clicked, but I couldn’t find anything about employees. There were thousands of pages with millions of options.
So, I ran downstairs, and I took the dead man’s wallet out of his pocket to look for his name. And it felt terribly, terribly wrong.
His license said, “Jose Dylan Breadmaker.”
Back at the tablet, I did a system-wide search of “Breadmaker.”
It was under Purchasing. For each unit, thirteen cents were sent to Jose Dylan Breadmaker, SSN 045-05-52JX, Bank routing number and account 109009001-0990889675646. There was nothing listed about him being an employee. He was just another automated purchase built into the price of the product–which I still had no idea about. Just like how 48 cents for each unit were apparently sent to Stenter Medical Plastics and $1.10 to Cardboardz ‘n’ Thingz.
I deleted Jose’s information, and I added my own. Thirteen cents per unit was pretty good money, or not. I had no idea. I didn’t know what the factory made or when the machinery would begin. The Roombas seemed to still be going at it pretty hard, but they’d finish at some point. And then what? I looked to the machinery closest to Jose. There was just a conveyor belt positioned next to another conveyer belt.
I couldn’t be positive until the production line started, but it seemed like the job was to move whatever came down the conveyor from one belt to the other.
There was a small piece of flat plastic with a handle next to Jose’s body–like a square spatula. I practiced doing the Macarena while holding it. It felt really nice to be focused on something new.
And then a little before eight o’clock, the equipment must have been completely sterilized to the satisfaction of the Roombas, because one end of the factory started moving and screaming. Metal spun and turned. ARMs started grabbing. Belts chirped. Drums were opened and poured.
And I got ready. I didn’t know how quickly products were going to start spitting out. It was the same feeling as being at the batting cages as a kid. The light was green. The thing was spinning. A ball would come. It was just a matter of exactly when. I always missed the first one.
I concentrated hard and held the tool that a dead man held. It should’ve meant something, but mostly I just wanted Jose to be gone. In an ideal world, he’d stand up, dust off, pop two aspirin for his mutilated head, and skip out forever.
I stood there for 39 minutes before something eventually came down the conveyor belt. That’s how long it took from when the machinery started to when the first thing popped out at me. They were clear, circular blobs–like balloons filled with water–and it seemed like they were breast implants. They shot out at the rate of one every eleven seconds. That was almost 5.5 every minute. 327 per hour. And at thirteen cents each, it was over forty dollars per hour.
It wasn’t fun, but it had a rhythmic monotony that allowed me to think about whatever I wanted. I fantasized, and an image kept popping into my brain–me turning on a naked light bulb, late at night, in my own noiseless kitchen and drinking a glass of water underneath the dim bulb.
The noise of the door opening snapped me out of it. I felt my stomach go into my throat–the feeling of having something to lose.
It was, of course, the coroner–who was actually six drones–each attached with a strap to another six drones, making six pairs. The straps were maneuvered under Jose. I had to focus on the breast implants, but I felt like I ought to say something to Jose’s body as it left, so I said, “Sorry.”
The twelve zipping drones all said in unison, “Our pleasure!” They carried him, pall bearer style, outside, up in the air, higher and higher. And another breast implant came down the line.
The Roombas could finally get under where Jose was. And they sprayed and scrubbed and burned the spot where a body had been–but wasn’t anymore.
I took out my phone to let my dad know what was going on. I typed out the message with my left hand which took a while. And it was like texting while driving. Get a few letters down, and then eyes back on the road.
I wrote, “I have a job. Don’t know when I’ll be home.” He texted back, Okie Dokie. Love, Dad which was what he always wrote. Under all of that hand sanitizer, he was still my dad.
Around six in the morning, the breast implants stopped coming down the line. I ran over to the end of the production line and read the boxes that they were shipped in. Apparently they were gel pillows to prevent Flat-head in premature babies. I felt pretty embarrassed about all of the squeezing and imagining I’d done before I found out.
I wandered around, knowing that whenever another order was placed, it would start up again, and I’d have 39 minutes to get back to my spot. I was too fired up to sleep. On one of the upstairs doors, there was a little nameplate that said, “Thomas Breadmaker, President,” and the reason why Jose had a seemingly unnecessary job all this time made a little bit more sense. The former President of the company must have built a tiny human job into the operation for Jose–who I guessed was his son.
One door was labeled “Lactation Room” and when I opened it, it was a full studio apartment with a kitchenette and a twin bed. There was a small loveseat facing a flatscreen.
It was almost disturbingly modern. It wasn’t the hodgepodge mixture of garbage-stuff that should populate the room of a lonesome/suicidal squatter. It was all silver and gray. Clear corners and clean metal. And the sterility of the room made it really easy to take over. This wasn’t a man’s unique room, loaded with personal touches. It was low-fat, vanilla yogurt.
It was everything I wanted.
I knew that I should go home and check on my dad, but I couldn’t leave. What if the machinery started up again?
I’d have to wait until tomorrow to do something to help him. I’d call a doctor tomorrow about his paranoia. I couldn’t possibly today. Tomorrow.
But there was also the chance that tomorrow he’d be normal again. Or the day after that.
It was like: hypothetically, if your mom claimed to be a messenger of God who believed she’d be shot dead in two days protecting your cousin’s newborn baby–who your mom believed was the second coming of Christ–it would, of course, be crazy. But if it was the twentieth time she’d said it, it would just be Mom being Mom. And it was easier to say, “Yeah/Yeah/Yeah, but what kind of bagel do you want?”
So I felt okay ignoring his problems for another day, and at this factory, I was in love with how easy it was to forget about them.
A baby monitor hooked up to the factory downstairs woke me up with a noise that sounded like an eagle screech.
My dad was in the shower. The water was freezing, and he was shivering. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in there. He looked relieved that someone was there to make a decision about him. When I was younger, if I had ever opened the bathroom and told him to get out, he would have glared at me until I backed out of the room.
I only had 26 minutes to get back to the factory, now that I’d figured out I could leave in 39-minute bursts and make it back in time–even if it started up the second I left. I didn’t trust Jose’s baby monitor yet. But it was clear that I couldn’t just head right back to the factory like I planned. If I hadn’t come home, how long would it have been until he slipped/collapsed/froze?
I helped him step out, and I dried him off. I turned on the hair dryer and blow-dried him. His fingers trembled as he worked at the plastic on a new package of underwear.
He started his post-shower routine–putting his new stick of deodorant on, taking a shirt out of the freezer, spreading hand sanitizer up to his elbows. And I finally felt like enough was enough. I hadn’t realized I was waiting for this feeling, but it was here.
I went into his dresser and tore into the plastic shrink-wrapped bag that held a new pair of pants. He’d ordered them months ago and had been saving them, clean and ready. He wasn’t sure why.
He watched me cut off the tags.
At the hospital, the A.I. screeners/intake computers weren’t especially worried about his exposure to the cold water.
“No major effects,” the computer said in an artificial staccato voice that was both robotic and somehow British. “What is more concerning is his pattern of abnormal behavior.”
It felt good to be talking about it–even if it was with an intake computer. And for the doctor program to not be looking at me like all of this was insane. When I told the program all of his tics and habits, it just showed the face of a handsome doctor nodding, taking notes, and asking me, “What else?” and “For how long?” I knew the answers to all of the questions.
He was transferred to a psychiatric facility called WhyAren’tYouSmiling.
Inside the new facility, a kid walked by with a row of stitches across his throat, and it was clear to me why I needed to bring pajama pants without a drawstring and slippers without laces.
An older man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s see your hot dog, Young Daniel.”
The nurses were all soft, dimple-knuckled gals, and the doctor on duty wouldn’t look up from her tablet.
“I guess everyone knows now,” my dad said. It wasn’t visiting hours, which were from six to nine, so all I could do was drop off his stuff.
The next day, I got to WhyAren’tYouSmiling right at six. I had Jose’s baby monitor, and I was within its range.
My dad’s eyes glistened, and he looked next to him, making sure there was a free chair.
He told me about the exercises he had to do. He talked about the group therapy he didn’t feel was useful, but the other people–the ones he said were actually crazy–seemed to enjoy it.
He kept smiling at me with new, unbreaking eye contact. After just the one day, he seemed happier and no longer obsessed with his hygiene.
The staff loved how open and chatty he was. And with the doctor and nurses rewarding his “emotional honesty,” I wasn’t sure if the version of him I’d grown up with would ever come back.
At one point, he started to get a little weepy. He wasn’t blubbering and wailing, but there was a wet shine in his eyes.
He said, “What are you hopeful for?”
“What am I hopeful for?” I repeated back.
“They’ve been asking me that all day here. The doctor says that even if it’s a dessert I want after dinner, it’s important to be looking forward to something.” His eyes were earnest and pleading.
“I’m hopeful for a lot of things, I guess.”
I hated how many times I checked my phone for the time–to see when I had to leave, when visiting hours were over. When I’d have no choice but to leave. When it wouldn’t be my fault for leaving.
On my way out, one of the nurses needed me to fill out some paperwork.
“Is it okay that I visit like this?” I said.
“Of course,” she said. “Everyone loves having visitors.”
“No,” I said. “I mean is it beneficial to his treatment? Should I not come by as often or stay as long? I just don’t want to interfere.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Stay as long as you’d like.”
Stu Deja-Stu had said that the buyer was coming in four days to change ownership, and that was tomorrow. If the new owner knew he had a human employee, he would replace me with an ARM and lock the doors.
At HobbyGrammies, I bought everything I thought I might need–cardboard, spray paint, tape, wires, plastic, glue, tubes, and sheet metal. The bags and boxes barely fit in my dad’s car. I kept the baby monitor on me at all times when I was away from the factory, but I still tried to only leave in 39-minute windows.
And I worked on an ARM disguise every spare minute.
When I thought about what my dad might be up to, I told myself that this job mattered more than any immediate problem with his recovery. That securing this job, long-term, would be exactly what my dad wanted–back when he was thinking more logically.
I started to think that maybe leaving the factory for long stretches was wrong. The baby monitor alerted me without fail, but I decided I couldn’t trust it.
This was the only reason I wouldn’t be able to go to WhyAren’tYouSmiling often or for long. I texted my dad that I wouldn’t be able to visit. He texted back, Okie Dokie. Love, Dad with a crying emoji. And I could live with that.
I was at my spot on the line. I kept my ARM costume just to the side of my work station, and as soon as I heard the front door open, I slipped into it and hopped back over to my spot. All of the other ARMs were thin and sleek. My costume had to fit me inside, so the base was wider and the whole thing moved with less flexibility. But I did a pretty good impression of the ARM movements, I thought. Sure I looked stupid and obvious–but only if you were looking right at me, and the new owner wouldn’t be–if he was anything like Stu Deja-Stu.
The man went almost immediately upstairs–like he already knew where the tablet was. I made sure to lock my apartment door, which was still labeled “Lactation Room.”
This had been my home for four days, and my bed smelled like me now and not Jose. I had food in a small refrigerator. I had picked out a place for shoes.
It would have been easier to pull off this ownership transfer if production wasn’t running. All I’d have to do was hide. The new owner would never notice that a particular section of this giant floor was missing one single ARM. But right now, my only chance was for him to rush out and not care about what the rest of his factory looked like.
The upstairs door opened and he came down. He gave the floor a tight-lip nod. It was the same look everyone gave the Grand Canyon once they’ve stood there long enough.
The owner took a first step toward the exit, and then he stopped. He looked up and around. He scanned the floor and then walked over to the very end of the production line. He pressed his fingers into one of the pillows as it zoomed by. Then he did the same to another one. He gave a third one a full-hand squeeze.
“It’s like boobs,” he said.
I tried to be precise and constant in my movements, but I felt stilted and jerky.
The owner had to walk behind me to get to the exit, and after he finished his poking, it was clear that he was heading that way. He shrugged and even took his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket. He owned the business, and there was no reason for him to be here ever again. But something must have caught his eye, because I could sense him right behind me, way too close.
He said, in a sing-song voice, “Hey guys, It’s Tanner. I’m here at my new MoneyMaker I just bought with some of the inheritance my dad left me after my step-mom murdered him. And look what we have here.”
I could feel my saliva get thin. I tried to think if it was possible he was talking about someone else.
“Some little cutie,” Tanner said, and he was pantomiming something directly behind me. I couldn’t know exactly what–but it had to be pinching or pretend-humping. It was just a feeling/instinct. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Tanner said. “Uhh, uhh, uhh.”
And I kept flipping pillows.
“All right Dick-Licks,” Tanner said. “Like my Exclamation Post if I should let him do whatever he’s doing, and Dislike it if I should call the Cops on him. Results in sixty! Go!”
And then it was quiet except for the constant machinery noises, and I kept flipping the pillows in my ARM costume, one after another after another, and I waited to find out my results.
Banzelman Guret is a writer from the Wiener Lakes Region of Connecticut.