“User Error” by Joseph Devon

Traffic Light

 

The street was empty. Low winter light painted everything in cinderblock tones. Struggling against the oncoming darkness, though only barely, was the fluorescent light pooling out of the windows of the One-Stop-Shop on the empty corner of the desolate town.

A traffic light swayed in the intersection as a frigid wind blew, and it blinked through its endless cycle.

A car pulled up, heard long before it was seen, and it steered into the parking lot of the One-Stop-Shop, pulling into an empty spot by the doors.

A man got out of the car and stepped up onto the curb. He approached the door to the store and placed his palm against the glass, then he pushed forward, swinging the door open.

“Thank you for coming, sir!” an all too excited voice screamed out as the man pushed the door open. “And we hope that your visit provides you with all you could possibly hope for and that your…” the voice grew quiet as the door swung shut once the man had gone through. There was possibly the slightest exhale after the door had shut fully, like a lover giving one last little hum of joy before falling asleep.

“You have to make such an all-mighty racket every time someone puts their mitts all over you?” a new voice, coming from the ATM located next to the door, asked.

“I like it!” the door responded. “It feels so good to be opened and closed!”

The ATM machine grunted. “You’ll never catch me giggling and tittering away while someone’s accessing me. It’s a damn embarrassment is what it is.”

“But I’m the door!” the door said with earnest, if not somewhat simple, enthusiasm. “I’m what lets the customers in and then lets them out.”

“And just like that you think—“

Whatever the ATM was going to respond with was cut off as the man, his shopping now done, pushed the door open to exit the store.

“Ohhhh thank you so much for coming and we hope everything was to your satisfaction!” the door blurted out, the words streaming forth in a sycophantic stream of near frantic joy. “And we do hope the cash register wasn’t too blunt and that the soda dispenser didn’t tell too many jokes and…”

The man shook his head and tried to ignore all the chatter as he got into his car and drove away.

“…we just miss you all so much and we love when you visit!” The door screamed, only managing to finish gushing after the car had left the parking lot.

The ATM emitted a sound, nothing specific, just a mild audible commentary directed at nothing and yet obviously pointing out the silence left in the wake of the door’s rambling.

“He seemed nice,” the door offered by way of response, its overly energetic emotional gushing now a source of embarrassment.

“SMUDGE!” another voice suddenly blared out, causing the door to shriek in horror and even the ATM to beep in alarm. Automatic misters pulsed cleaning solution onto the glass door and a squeegee swung down to wipe the glass to a sparkling shine.

“NOBODY LIKES DIRT!” the voice screamed again.

“Oh stuff a cork in it,” the ATM grumbled. “That’s easy to say when you’re running the flipping cleaning mechanisms. Lets’s see what you feel like handling money day in and day out, fingers popping your buttons all day, eh? That’s real work. Keeping track of money. Keeping finances on track. That’s a real job you soapy lunatic.”

“I hardly think,” the cash register suddenly chimed in, its voice sing-song happy as it laid into the ATM, “that counting out and handing over money is anywhere near the financial burden that tallying up the receipts each day and counting out change is.”

“SMUDGE!” the cleaning voice said. Some misters in the area of the ATM went off, and a squeegee appeared, rolling along its predetermined track in a vain attempt to get at the ATM.

“We both count out money!” the ATM barked. “It’s the same thing!”

“Mmmmm…if you say so,” the cash register chimed.

The ATM seemed to accept this truth suspiciously.

“Milk at $2.99 is 15% percent off and there’ll be a six-pack of Coors and a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with that for a total of…”

The ATM fumed as the register continued its hypothetical transaction.

“…that’s right it’ll be $17.52 and if the customer is paying with a twenty dollar bill they’d get back…”

“Oh I think that’s quite enough,” the ATM shouted.

“…$2.46 that’s exactly right. And that, honey, is real money handling. The way you deal with finances? Just handing out cash? It’s no wonder she left us.”

“I believe your arrogance was to blame.”

“We should call her,” the beer display case said, out of nowhere.

There was an awkward silence.

“She always said that our worth was inherently more than just what task we perform,” a thoughtful voice said from the microwave.

“Oh who turned him on?” the ATM blared.

“She talked about the stars,” the microwave continued rambling, “like they were right there in our own backyard but she never treated them like mere balls of dust and gas. To her they were poetry. To here they were the fires burning in all of us. Some days I wish I knew what she was talking about better, she seemed to have it all worked out, and yet still to wonder. But out here in the great wide empty you never know what you can count on, you’re just there one second and the next you’re not.”

“Will someone shut him up!” the ATM yelled.

The microwave ceased talking.

“Utter rubbish, every word. Stupid metal box thinks that because he’s shooting microwaves out into holy lord knows where that he’s got some sort of direct line to the programmer himself.”

“Oh really,” the cash register sniped. “Like I’ve never heard you go on and on about your direct line to the banking system and all the wonder and wisdom it’s given you. You act like you talk daily with the maker himself just because you have a cable snaked up your rear.”

“The foundation of knowledge communicated to me,” the ATM began, “is far deeper than—“

The door emitted a sound, like a high-pitched squeal, and all at once the store went quiet, the door’s noises being something they had all come to recognize. The door’s squeal become one of ecstatic anticipation as a car pulled through the light mist of the night outside and entered the parking lot and pulled into an open spot.

A couple exited the car and the man, reaching the door first, braced an arm across it and pushed it open for the woman.

“Thank you for visiting us at Stop-And-Shop,” the door shouted in near-orgasmic joy as it swung open. ‘Your visit means so much to us and we are so happy to serve you and see you and oh thank you thank you thank—“ the door went silent as it swung shut.

“Baked goods,” a pastry display case said, proudly offering its wares. “Most baked on the hour, some baked to order. Fresh donuts? Warm bread? My internal ovens can serve you like no other. Let me please you. Dear god I need to please you again.”

The man and the woman walked past this machine and towards the rear of the store. They stood in front of the cooler, scanning the beer for sale. One of them swung the door open and cold air poured out. They selected a six-pack and turned to walk away.

“You never loved me,” the cooler said before its door slammed shut. “I can’t go on.”

The man and woman ignored this, and then walked to the register, their faces a mix of bemusement and steeled determination, as if they were on a forced visit with awkward family they knew they had to put up with and were trying to find humor in.

“Will that be all?” the register asked. “Can I get you anything else?” It asked this second question far too closely on the heels of the first and began to sound desperate to please.

The man slipped some cash into the slot and the register spat out change.

“Thank you for coming and please come back,” the register blurted out, almost uncontrollably, as if unable to keep its desperation quiet.

The couple walked to the door and opened it and tried to ignore the sudden gush of words and thanks that the swinging door flooded out after them, begging them to stay, pleading with them to come back soon.

Then they were back in the car and pulling out into the night.

The store sat silent. A flat little floor cleaner appeared from a hidden compartment under one of the shelves and made a slow, quiet, lap of the store’s floor, mopping up what little dirt the recent guests had left. Its light, delicate whir offset the silence and made the space seem deeper and emptier.

“It is embarrassing the way you beg,” the ATM suddenly berated the door.

“Me?” the door asked, genuinely confused.

“Oh please, if anything the beer cooler’s passive aggressive hate is what drives them away,” the cash register erupted.

“ME?!”

“What about mister bread loaf over there?” someone shouted. “Why don’t you just waggle a baguette at every woman who walks in? Don’t you think it’s a little late to start worrying about pleasing her in bed?”

The store became louder and louder as the automated shelves and ovens and racks and equipment began to argue, the conversation becoming heated, various rivalries and deep-seated hatreds spewing out.

One sound began to cut through it all, sharper and shriller and more full of hurt than anything, and one-by-one the various devices quieted down. Even the microwave eventually halted its philosophic rambling as it noticed everything else around it was quiet except for the high-pitched sobbing of the door.

There was awkwardness in the air. The machines were silent, and nobody was acknowledging the shouting from seconds earlier.

Still the door sobbed hysterically. “They always leave!” it screamed, wounded and angry and scared. “Why did she leave?”

It continued to sob and all the machines remained silent, listening in sad, silent agreement.

“That is why I ended it,” the beer cooler said as the door’s pained sobs slowly dissipated.

Outside on the empty road a light rain began to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph Devon is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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6 Comments

  1. Lately, I’ve been re-reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and sequels. The story above is the kind of horror that the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation would cheerfully inflict on the world with nary a backward glance. In that respect, this is both funny – laugh out loud in a couple of places – and chilling at the same time.

    You can’t help but wonder how long they’re all going to be there, or how long the door will hold out before it has a complete breakdown and starts trying to keep people. Like Ted Bundy did.

    I can also imagine the people that these devices have replaced, out there in the world somewhere.

    Excellent stuff.

  2. I like this story.
    I like the depiction of the desperation that could come from being a conscious appliance.
    I like how it kept a humorous tone without looking past the horror inherent to the situation.
    I like that the cash register made the wrong change.

  3. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    My mother ran a daycare center for many years, and for a time there was a single VHS tape someone had discovered that ran almost on a loop, over, and over, and over again, because it was so endearing to the little kids gathered around whenever that movie would play. It was an animated movie called “The Brave Little Toaster”. Pre-dating (and supposedly inspiring) a similarly themed “Toy Story” by 8 years it told the tale of a small band of home appliances on a journey to find the owner they’ve lost. It is a wonderfully charming piece of work for a number of reasons, among them being how much the viewer comes to understand the individual personalities of each character – their purpose, their function, the motivation that fuels their desire to be needed.

    This story above feels very much as though I’m once again visiting that world, and it is a wonderful visit. These characters are so intensely desperate for validation in fulfilling their given functions – and seek it in an almost purgatorial way from every person who passes by – only to be ignored all the more.

    This story is intriguing, its beautiful, its tragic, and its charming. I even felt a tug of emotion at the end. It was quite touching.

    Wonderful work here.

  4. I really enjoyed both stories. Masterfully produced and both authors are to be commended. “The Eye That Sees, The Ear That Hears” probably has stuck with me longer because it is absolutely creepy and chilling. “User Error” was more fun, had more backstory I wondered about, and deeper implications. In terms of critique, I did not like the fact with either story that nothing was resolved. Nothing changed, they were mostly just looks at a day in the life of these realities, a direction-less and somewhat cruel monotony in “User Error” and a horrifying continuum in “TETS, TETH”. They were both closer to vignettes in that way, so I was left slightly unsatisfied by where they ended, unless making the reader want more was the goal. But, in the end, “TETS, TETH” left me running away from the bleak horror, while I was charmed and amused and more interested in the reality of “User Error”. Why was it necessary to give a beer machine sentience? It’s totally absurd! Who was the “she” that walked out and so deeply affected them?

    Therefore, for more closely hitting the mark and doing so in such a delightful fashion, “User Error” gets my vote.

  5. I agree with Jon. The Brave Little Toaster theme is huge here. Home appliances would be bad, retail would either be overworked or desperate. A fun little story.

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