Smile brightly and say, “Good morning. Welcome to Mo’s Diner. I’m Jenny.”
I smile brightly and say, “Good morning. Welcome to Mo’s Diner. I’m Jenny.” My name is not Jenny. I pause.
Take out your notepad and pencil. Smile again and say, “What would you like to drink?”
Even though I do this a hundred times a day, six days a week, I wait for the instruction to pull out my notepad and pencil. Then I smile at the customers and say, “What would you like to drink?”
I diligently write down each order, as my earpiece dictates.
At higher-end establishments, the standardization of the wait staff even demands that handwriting be indistinguishable. Mo’s isn’t at that level, although Manny likes to think we are. Manny is our cook and manager, and threatens to file a reprimand if handwriting deviates from his expectations.
Three reprimands warrant a complaint. Three complaints and you’re out. My handwriting has quickly changed to meet his expectations.
Smile brightly and say, “I’ll be right back with those drinks.” You have thirty seconds to fill the order.
I smile, briskly pivot to the soft drink dispenser and punch in the order. While those cups fill, I grab a round, plastic tray. Another Jenny moves up beside me, performing the same ritual. We don’t speak. When my drinks are ready, I load them onto the tray in the proper order. One of my customers has ordered coffee, so I carefully and efficiently add a carafe to the tray.
Diligently, I follow each instruction from my earpiece, dispensing the drinks. I will suffer a reprimand if I anticipate the command. I am a mindless automaton. My earpiece is wired to the diner’s A.I. It monitors customer’s expressions, words and gestures, and determines the proper reaction for the wait staff to any situation.
Return the tray, and check on table three. You have ten seconds.
I return the tray and hurry over to table three.
Smile brightly and ask, “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Table three has finished eating, so they take their handwritten ticket to the cash register so Manny can run their credit strips. I could have brought the reader to the table, but Manny thinks paying at the counter with an old fashioned, completely non-functional cash register is more authentic.
We get a lot of tourists. Mo’s Diner is just outside the main subway station. They get off the train, step out onto the crowded streets of the city and decide they need something familiar before they can tackle our concrete jungle. We’re friendly, clean, and courteous. Our A.I. compensates for every rude comment or gesture. In order to stay employed, the other Jennys and I don’t have to do anything but follow directions and, of course, fit into the uniform.
We have to wear holoprojectors, specifically calibrated to the ideal height and weight of a Jenny. Well, a Mo’s Jenny. That’s how they can get around discrimination laws. Gender, age, race and ethnicity don’t matter, that can be covered up by the projector. Sexual orientation, religious and political leanings are inconsequential, that’s all handled by the A.I. It’s height and weight that are the kickers. Mo’s Jenny is 5’5”, 120lbs. There is a little more wiggle room with body type, as the dress and its required undergarments can compensate for differences.
My first job in the city was with a fancy restaurant in the theater district. There, the wait staff were Tonyas and Phils. Tonya was 5’5”, 115lbs. It was a great place to work. We were even allowed to anticipate the A.I. Unfortunately, I ate a little too well there, and lost my job when I hit 116lbs.
It took me two months to find the job at Mo’s. After doing some research and learning that 5’5”, 120lb was the ideal height and weight for a lot of positions, I gained 4 pounds, and finally found an opening.
So, for sixteen hours a day, I’m a middle aged, red head that smiles brightly at customers and isn’t allowed to speak or move unless directed by a behavior monitoring computer. The rest of the day I’m a twenty four year old artist, lost and alone in the most densely populated city in the world.
I came here to get exposure for my art. I had dreams of shows and sales. Having my own studio apartment that would encompass the top story of an old renovated building, where I could paint and draw inspiration from its rich history and its stunning view of the city. The studio apartment happened, but I share it with a Sue from another diner. It doesn’t take up an entire floor, and its only view is of a back alley and the building beside ours. I have to paint on the fire escape. The Sue doesn’t like the smell of paint thinner. Our building’s A.I. unsatisfactorily, in my estimation not the Sue’s, handled that disagreement. The Sue and I do not argue; the A.I. settles all conflicts with polite words and gestures.
At least I can look like myself in my apartment, even if I can’t say or do anything that could generate an offense.
There are A.I.s for the street, A.I.s for the shopping market, and A.I.s for the bars. Some bars even require holoprojections. If they fill their quota for say, Marilyn Monroes or Grace Kellys, and that’s the only projection you have, too bad.
I can’t handle the bar scene. Random encounters based on what an A.I. tells you to say and do, while looking like someone else. There are no real connections. I’ve heard stories of people meeting at bars and ending up married. I don’t even understand how that could happen. The whole culture of the megatropolis is one of passivity and politeness. Crime rate is at all time low and population is at an all time high.
* * *
The Sue is standing in front of me, not speaking and looking a little bored. She even has the nerve to look away from me to study her manicure while the building’s A.I. explains her latest complaint.
Ms. Alisha Peterson, lease co-signatory for apartment three four zero one, has filed a complaint against the use of the fire escape in temperatures that drop below fifty degrees Fahrenheit and rise above seventy five degrees Fahrenheit. Use constitutes an unacceptable increase in energy consumption. Be advised that use of the building’s fire escape will be restricted to emergencies when the air temperature is outside these parameters.
What? Fury burns through me. The Sue and our building’s A.I. have now conspired to keep me from painting? My art is the only reason I’m in this hell hole. I can’t afford to live alone. It was hard enough to find this place.
Smile graciously and say, “I agree to abide by the new restrictions.”
I purse my lips, but before I recite the line, I take a deep breath and manage a smile. Not all my actions and facial expressions are monitored in the apartment, but if there is potential conflict, it’s best to obey the A.I.
I’m here because of my art, and now I can’t paint. I can’t afford studio fees. I can’t afford the permits required to set up my easel in the park or near pedestrian thorough fares.
In a fog of impotent fury, I nearly jostle some pedestrians on the way to Mo’s. Hastily I check my pace, belatedly realizing that I’ve been ignoring warning messages from the street’s A.I.
Check pace. You are currently traveling at three point five miles per hour. Slow to three point zero miles per hour immediately or you will be fined. You are currently traveling at three point five…
Mo’s is quiet when I enter. I snatch my dress from the hook by the back entrance and duck into the ladies’ room. The compression undergarments feel like a second skin, but pull on easily. Almost too easily. Once the dress is on with the buttons fastened, I access the diner’s A.I.
“Check weight,” I command, in a low whisper.
One hundred nineteen point five pounds. You are at the low end of the permitted range. Recommend higher caloric intake for the next two days. Any further deviation and your employment will be terminated.
Just one more thing to worry about. I smack the wall with my open palm.
Warning, gesture does not comply with Mo’s standards. Another such gesture will result in a reprimand.
I frown into the mirror, then pull my hair back under the flesh colored net. It wouldn’t do for the customers to catch sight of a stray lock of brown hair while ginger Jenny smiles brightly and passes them a burger.
The restroom door opens and the other Jenny comes in. We don’t smile at each other. The diner’s A.I. and Manny do not approve of socialization even when the diner is closed. I flip on my holoprojector. Jenny’s careworn but friendly face stares back at me from the mirror. Fleetingly, it feels more real than my own. I shudder.
I direct my anguish into scrubbing counters and polishing napkin dispensers. The other Jenny, seeing my ferocious cleaning, opts to wipe menus and wrap silverware rather than join me. As long as the restaurant is empty and I am cleaning, my A.I. won’t interfere.
Manny comes in after I’ve finished about half the tables. He throws his furry arm onto the back of the booth where I’m working. He isn’t required to wear a holoprojector since he’s considered skilled labor by the A.I.
“Comp tells me that you’re in danger of not meeting specs,” he says, tapping his ear, like I don’t know where the A.I. connection is. “Eat what you want for the next two days. For you, food will be half off. You’re a good worker Jenny. We’d hate to lose your services.”
Stand up straight. Smile and say, “Thank you very much, Manny. That is very generous.”
I obey, though I really just want to flip him off. I can see the leer in his eyes. Subtle emphasis on words and phrases like “eat”, “want”, “good” and “services” aren’t registered by the A.I. Manny has figured out how to harass his wait staff without triggering its alarms. The A.I. even ignores his eyes as they roam up and down my masked body. I look the same as the other Jenny, the same as every other Jenny that has ever worked here.
“Good girl, Jenny,” he says, and squeezes my shoulder, his thumb sliding a fraction more than permitted.
Reminder, the diner opens in twenty minutes. Resume cleaning.
Customers are supposed to moderate their personalities, but within a booth, as long as they don’t bother the other patrons, they are within their bounds to make a Jenny’s life hell. After all, the customer is always right.
Some seem to take delight in straining our A.I.’s capacity for politeness. How rude, how bizarre can they act and still get a civil, respectful response? With those customers, I completely shut down. Only Jenny remains, and Jenny obeys whatever the A.I. says. She doesn’t even hear the customers or see the customers. The A.I. hears and sees for her and tells her how to react.
Fortunately, I don’t have any of those customers during breakfast. I make it through that crowd without having to flee to the restroom for one of my three permitted bathroom breaks. Bathroom breaks are the only solace allotted the Jennys. The morning routine cools my temper.
Lunch is a different story. Four businessmen in suits select one of my booths. Two aren’t from the city. You can just tell. I obey my A.I., greeting them. They don’t stick to the usual script, veering off almost immediately.
“Hey, beautiful, I’d like a coffee,” says one of the locals, louder than necessary, but not loud enough to warrant a reprimand. He is obviously showing off for his guests.
“Thanks, Jenny, I’ll have a coffee too,” replies the other city dweller, in a polite, moderated tone.
The tourists also ask for coffee.
Smile and fill the order. You have twenty seconds.
Stupid as it sounds, the beautiful comment gets me. Jenny is not beautiful. Jenny is average, boring – plain even. Never beautiful. She’s supposed to blend into the background, be part of the ambiance. Silly to get worked up over a non-endearment like that, but it just goes along with the whole day.
Way in the back of my head, in a place where it will never reach my face, I growl.
I deliver the coffee as directed. When the first local calls me beautiful a second time just as I’m placing his coffee on the table, I rotate his cup ten degrees. My heart skips a beat. Why in the world did I do that? I can’t afford to lose this job.
Smile and say, “Have you had a chance to look over the menu?”
I blink once, then feel my mouth curve into a smile. A real smile. The man’s cup is not at the optimal position for him to use the handle, and the A.I.’s missed it.
The other local, ever so slightly, raises one of his eyebrows at me.
Hastily, I return to the script, “Have you had a chance to look over the menu?” Inside, my heart races.
* * *
The elation of having won a round, however minutely, burns away the last of my rage and gives me an idea. Maybe I’m not as impotent against my building’s A.I. and the Sue as I’d first thought.
I can stretch and expand my talent rather than be confined by circumstances. I’ve spent so much time bemoaning the Sue and her dislike of acetone that I haven’t worked around it, other than to shiver on the balcony with paints that don’t react any better to the frigid winter than my exposed fingers do. That night, instead of spending my weekly budget on oils and canvas, I purchase charcoal pencils and a sketch pad. The week after, I buy watercolors, synthetic brushes and an inexpensive roll of paper.
A week after that, the Sue volunteers to pose for me. She relaxes in faux candlelight with a glass of cheap wine on the mound of pillows that decorate her bed, while I quickly capture the moment. Like me, the Sue had come to the city to pursue her dream. She’d hoped to be a model, but she is half an inch too tall by the current industry standards.
“I almost feel like a real model,” she confesses, taking a sip of the vivid red.
I smile, without any prompting, and absently wonder what would happen if I add a dash of red paint to the charcoal likeness.
* * *
I’m running late. After the late night sketching the Sue and incidentally helping her finish the wine, I have a headache and had barely registered the apartment A.I. when it pinged my wake up time.
Check pace. You are currently traveling at three point three miles per hour. Slow to three point zero miles per hour immediately or you will be fined. You are currently traveling at three point three miles per hour…
A fine would be worse than a reprimand at Mo’s, so I slow to 3.0 mph. My legs keep surging forward, unable to maintain the pace while so anxious. Two long strides and then I catch myself and moderate my steps again.
As I do so, I brace for another burst of noise in my ear, but the voice stays silent. Emboldened, I take two more long strides, then adjust my pace back to 3.0. Nothing. Is this a way around the restriction? I try three paces, then four. At five long strides, I activate the warning message. Two steps at the accepted pace cancels the warning. It’s an awkward gait, four long, two short, but I cover the distance between my apartment and the train station in far less time than usual.
I make it to work on time.
* * *
The grocery store is a little crowded after my shift at Mo’s a few nights later. The store’s A.I. directs customers’ movements if any part of the store gets too congested.
Please have your satchel ready. You have twenty seconds to make your selection.
I swear inaudibly, frustrated that I have so little time to choose a tomato. I frown down at the display. I hate being rushed. All the tomatoes look the same from this angle. Twenty seconds isn’t long enough to choose. My fingers dance in the air, as I try to find a discernible difference. Under my breath, I ask myself, “Which one? Which one?”
Top right bin, third from left on the top row.
I snatch up the described tomato. It’s perfect. I move on to apples. My shopping trip takes half as long as usual with the unexpected assistance from the A.I.
* * *
Unsurprisingly, the diner doesn’t change much as I slowly learn to work with or around the system. Manny is still tolerably creepy and the other Jennys and I just pass wordlessly by. The one notable difference is that Mo’s has attracted a new regular customer.
It probably takes a month before I realize it. He comes in at the same time, the same day every week, but unlike his first visit, sitting in the booth with his colleagues, he generally sits at the counter alone. When I finally notice, the A.I. confirms that he’s eaten at Mo’s four times and always orders coffee, although his food selection varies.
He doesn’t say much, just watches the restaurant around him while he eats in silence. Initially, I don’t always wait on him, but when I do, he always searches my face, Jenny’s face, with a scrutinizing intensity, like he’s looking for something.
When I’d first recognized him, I’d been afraid that he planned to report my tiny rebellion. It had been his friend’s cup that I’d set down askew, but as weeks pass, I toss that theory out as absurd. I grow curious, and more often than not, voluntarily wait on him.
I start watching him. He is younger than Jenny, but older than me. He doesn’t wear a holoprojector. That much is obvious from the small differences in his appearance, like a hair cut one week or a careless shave the next. He always wears a suit, a moderately expensive suit that shows that he is successful, but not so much so that he shouldn’t be eating at Mo’s.
His eyes don’t miss much. He is always watching.
* * *
Smile brightly and say, “Good morning. Welcome to Mo’s Diner. I’m Jenny.”
I smile at our regular – my regular, and repeat the greeting. My regular gives me a small smile and says, “Hi, Jenny.”
We follow the script, and as usual, he orders coffee.
Smile and fill the order. You have twenty seconds.
As I pour the coffee, he looks up at me, with an almost embarrassed smile and says, “Thanks, beautiful.”
My heart races, and my cheeks flush under the holoprojection. He’s talking to me. I blink once, and made an impromptu decision. I set the carafe down to wipe a fictional spill up from under his cup. After a quick swipe with the rag, I put the cup back down in a slightly sub-optimal position.
We exchange a look. His eyes twinkle. My lips curve into a smile, an instant before the A.I. directs me to do so.
My mouth continues to parrot the A.I.s words, but for the rest of the meal, if he calls me beautiful, I shift a cup or a utensil just slightly out of position. The A.I. doesn’t have to prompt me to smile for the rest of the day.
A long week passes before my regular returns. When he does, he ends up in the other Jenny’s section before I can direct him to a spot in mine. Passing by, I overhear him call her beautiful, and I feel unaccountably hurt and replaced. I remind myself that Jennys are identical, and he wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. Shouldn’t be able to. Maybe he actually thinks Jenny is beautiful.
“Excuse me, Jenny?” his soft voice asks, as I bustle by the counter to turn in another order.
Turn, smile brightly and say, “Yes, sir? Can I get you something?”
I follow the instructions. Our eyes meet.
“Coffee, please,” he says, holding up his cup. His Jenny is taking an order at another table.
Smile and fill the cup. You have twenty seconds.
“Thanks, Jenny,” he says, as I pour the beverage. Even without the endearment, I rotate the cup sub-optimally.
* * *
A shock of cold wind hits me as I leave Mo’s after a particularly brutal shift. I welcome it with a smile, finally feeling alive after the long hours of being Jenny. I shake out my hair, letting it dance as it soaks up the chill. At least the night can blow away some of the day’s stagnation.
“Jenny?” a vaguely familiar voice calls.
I almost answer, but remember, at the last minute, that I’m not actually Jenny, especially not in paint spattered street clothes and not with dark hair. Surely, they are calling someone else. I turn toward my neighborhood to start the long walk home. I’d found a tube of the most brilliant cerulean water color at the art supply warehouse, but it means walking instead of taking the train.
Footsteps sound behind me, moving slightly faster than the approved pedestrian speed.
Recommend stepping to the right. Foot traffic moving up from behind at an unmoderated pace. Maintain current speed. You are traveling at three point zero miles per hour.
Ragged breathing accompanies the footsteps, and I sidestep, as suggested, to give the person room to get by. There must be an emergency to warrant the guaranteed fine. As the pedestrian comes up beside me, the quick steps abruptly adjust to my moderated pace.
Startled, I look up into the face of my regular. He smiles at me and I stumble to a halt on the uneven pavement. Other pedestrians flow around us.
Resume pace. Loitering is not permitted here. Resume pace. Loitering…
“I thought maybe you’d like to,” his smile becomes self-deprecating, “get a cup of coffee with me.” He gestures to a coffee shop, just a little further down the block.
“How?” I ask, trailing off. I glance down at myself, double checking that I look like me.
“You have the most beautiful smile,” he says. Then he holds out his hand, “I’m Mike.”
I smile shyly, clasp his hand and say, “I’m Jessica.”
Like most of the population of Huntsville, Alabama, Cheryl Rydbom is an engineer, specifically a software engineer, married to another programmer. She’s currently taking a leave of absence to stay home with their twins. Now she writes to maintain her sanity in the midst of toddler tempers and poopy diapers. Her story, “Sun Kissed”, will soon be published as part of Silverland Press’ YA paranormal anthology.