Welcome to PER
By Shane Jones - Jul 9, 2019
The following excerpt is from VINCENT AND ALICE AND ALICE, Shane Jones’ new novel, available now from Tyrant Books.
Inside the box is a gold watch with a black tail. Between my fingers the tail is worm-thin, a cord about an inch long with a clear bead at the end. I want to flick it, but Dorian can tell and says not to. He walks around the desk and snaps the watch onto my wrist, the glass face flashing with the waterfall logo. Looking up to Dorian like a child to a parent, I ask what the black tail does. “It’s for monitoring purposes,” he says, and points out the door in the direction of Fang Lu and Billy Krol who wave enthusiastically from their cubicles.
Now we’re walking to the far end of the building, through vacant office space between hallways, cabinets with missing drawers tilted over, windows half-covered with chipped blinds, the blue carpet littered with paperclips, crumpled paper, gum wrappers, dead leaves, chewed pen caps, extension cords and power strips unplugged. It smells like the air in here has been recycled for years.
If my office building is shaped like a robot standing into the sky, then we enter the far right shoulder. Dorian holds his ID against a card reader which flickers from red to green. We go through the doorway and turn right.
“We have the whole floor,” says Dorian, who for a second walks like he’s straddling a horse. He massages his lower back with his forearm. The gel in his hair is losing its hold, little hairs curling up in the back. “It’s like a maze up here because the building went through three architects in five years. It’s all messed up.”
Into another office we pass by a series of floor-to-ceiling glass dividers and on the opposite side – the effect appears to be mirrored – are twenty rows of cubicles endlessly miniaturizing forever. I want to be horrified, but I’m impressed.
“New data entry department,” says Dorian, slapping the glass but still walking. “Ever see anything like it?”
“I told you PER is going to change the world.”
The sun is so bright it doesn’t matter that the blinds are drawn as we enter the last possible room on floor twenty. A chestnut colored leather couch with brass rivets and a bulky TV on a dusty moveable stand are the only items in this small depressing space. The couch I’ve seen before, same style as those across the street in the Dome, positioned in long curving rows outside the Leader’s chambers. The TV stand I’ve also seen. When Leaders want to loop a video of themselves talking, have everyone on their lunch break be forced to pass their moving mouths, they place them strategically around the plaza. It’s creepy but you get used to it.
I’m told by Dorian to watch a thirty five minute orientation video. With this time frame, I’ll take the elevator to my floor just in time to experience my coworkers end-of-the-world disappointment because they don’t have cupcakes.
Getting comfortable on the couch I ask, “Is that VHS?”
Dorian, crouched in front of the TV stand, like what I remember in elementary school, turns his head. There are wrinkles along his cheek bone. His eyes gleam. “Not exactly,” he says.
The video begins on a solid lime-green screen, the sunlight from the windows now dulled but still brightening the room. I lay on the couch as instructed and Dorian pushes both sides of my gold watch inward. Nothing happens. No waterfall image or ascending numbers or twitching of the tail, all of which I imagine because this process is either a dream or a nightmare.
“Wait,” I say, again looking up to Dorian who places a soothing hand on my shoulder. He has this magnetic quality where you just follow everything he says. His touch is – this is embarrassing – it’s motherly.
White text scrolls up the lime-green screen which I recognize as the Know the Laws governing handbook each State employee receives when hired. You sign an oath before you work. But no one reads the entire thing. I didn’t. And it’s extremely important that you read the entire thing. I remember my boss intensely grabbing the book off my desk after my first week and tearing the last perforated page out, telling me it doesn’t matter, just sign.
“What exactly is going to happen here?” I ask, frightened. “I need to know before we go any further.” I say this second part in my professional voice because I want results.
Dorian steps backward then crouches. “Well, in fifteen days you’ll be living in the world your subconscious has suppressed your entire adult life. Is that so difficult to understand?”
“Of course,” I say in more of an exhale than speech. “It’s impossible sounding.”
“Not from our perspective. You look at the results we’ve had elsewhere. I’ve seen the changes firsthand. Think about the world, Vincent, who is running the world right now. We’re both imagining the same face. Anything is possible, it’s a big chaotic mix and it’s time to experience joy. I told you to give us a chance and here you are, ready.” He stands and then walks to the TV, blocking the screen. “The vision, unique to you, is your gate. It will reveal itself as an image at first, which you can’t disrupt, then slowly be integrated into your reality. Remember the amusement park ride?”
I nod. “Hicks.”
“You’ll be working in rigid patterns, brain maps, to position you both on the ride and off the ride.” He speaks with such confidence it’s hard not to just go along. I somehow understand what I’m hearing and also have no idea what’s happening. “Through the training, the repetition schedule, your gate will overlap then blanket your reality,” he continues soothingly. “Imagine a clear film covering the physical radius of your life, ten miles or so. The film is what you deserve, what you desire, everything else, the trips to the grocery store, paying your phone bill, brushing your teeth, changing your car’s oil, stubbing your toe, working with your coworkers, it’s all still visible and you’ll interact with it, but the film is the happiness.”
“But how will I know what’s real and what isn’t?”
“We get that one a lot. But at this stage in your life, does it matter?”
After the lime-green screen, the video begins on a locked shot of a sprawling office layout, hundreds of cubicle walls with barely visible heads. A host, a woman in a lab coat with wavy red hair, big white sneakers, enters from the left and speaks directly into the camera with a Scottish accent about the decrease in worker production as blooming boxes expand then shrink to her left and right, showing workers sleeping under desks, arguing on phone calls, and scrolling social media for days. One box shows a short interaction between two coworkers at the water cooler. The host turns to listen:
Hey Kev, what do you call a two hour lunch for a State worker?
I don’t know, Mike, what?
A clip art frown face momentarily presets over the paused interaction until frosting away. It’s silly, it’s meant to lighten the mood, I think, but it doesn’t really work, I’m still on edge. The host smiles until the box disappears.
She walks the endless cubicle rows, down a center gray aisle holding a notarized legal document as she explains how it’s difficult to fire a State worker with union protection, even if they’re useless. An adjacent line graph, which also appears in a blooming box next to her, depicts the loss of taxpayer dollars from these workers. Another video clip on the opposite side of her, in another box, shows workers happy and productive in the workplace and most importantly, at home. All the workers in this clip have one physical characteristic in common: they’re wearing the gold watch. Another line-graph shows how PER workers are not only happy, but how they save taxpayer dollars, increasing revenue for the State.
“The work life you’re experiencing right now,” she says, “doesn’t have to feel so meaningless.”
She reaches the end of the office – more clips of dead-eyed workers, taxpayer money-loss charts popping out then disappearing – and turns around, facing the camera. She is looking right at me. She is telling me how to live.
The floor goes transparent and falls away to a powder-blue sky and a vibrant farm-like field she now stands on. Electric green trees are on the horizon and in the foreground white butterflies. She steps backwards into the digital background of nature. Still trying to get comfortable on the couch I whisper, “What the fuck.”
“Everything you’ve always wanted is possible,” says the host walking through the field and toward the trees. “It just depends on what you are able to access, what part of your mind can bring to mind what it is you want, what you want to see, how you want to live.” The screen is dimming. “Thousands of societal and cultural entities are against you but we’re here to help you.” The screen is fading to light gray. “What you want is what you deserve. Thank you for letting us help you.” The screen goes dark.
The next section of the video concentrates on two success stories: Lucy from Topeka, Kansas, and Aidan from Atlanta, Georgia. Each one tells their story from a brightly lit hotel room interlaced with documentary style footage of their 9-to-5 jobs performing data entry, frequenting the grocery store, running on a treadmill, eating three meals, then sleeping. Incredibly rigid and boring. But Lucy and Aidan say they’ve never been happier.
“Routine as second nature,” says Aidan, “is exactly that. It helped me open my gate. I didn’t believe it at first, but here I am, not depressed anymore. I wake up smiling.”
I make a pffffftttt sound and the couch squeaks.
Aidan might live in a basement apartment walking distance to his job, but what he experiences according to his testimony is a three story home with granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, basement gym, and a wall-mounted 65 inch television. Of course none of this is shown in the video, only Aidan walking to work and being at work. Lucy is more extreme. She lives with her handicapped mother in a 1940s ranch-style home, a front lawn filled with garden gnomes. Lucy bathes her mother daily and spoon feeds her pureed foods but tells the host in the brightly lit hotel room that she has won the lottery, drives a Lexus, and spends her time at the beach working on her tan. Again, the video just shows Lucy walking around her neighborhood, wearing a headset and typing at work, eating dinner with her mother who takes her meals on a hospital bed stationed in the living room adjacent to the kitchen. Aidan and Lucy never stop smiling.
The TV screen becomes faint in the light coming through the blinds, so I sit up and lean forward. I fold my arms across my chest because it’s cold, the AC never stopping, increasing with the sun. I think about shouting out the door to Dorian for a blanket.
Five more testimonials. Some of them speak like they’re confessing to cops. But everyone has the same thing in common: no spouse, no children, totally alone, like me. It feels like a video to attract cult members. I like to consider myself a good judge of character, and all these people are genuinely happy. They’re not actors, I’m sure of it. Italic white text moves up the screen over Aidan gripping an Employee of the Month plaque, before disappearing into the top of the screen:
A WORK LIFE
AS YOUR IDEAL LIFE
An anti-testimonial is given by a tiny man in denim with a sunken chest, Johnny Star, who speaks with a lateral lisp on the dangers of not participating in PER. Working a 9-to-5 without the program will end in ruin, according to Star, who documents his mental collapse while speaking into his lap. After working eighteen years at COMPAQ, he randomly left work one day because half his computer screen, the words, numbers, and color coded spreadsheet cells were falling off his screen. When he looked at his keyboard it was upside down, and the left side, the same side of his screen that was crumbling, was dripping into the floor. Even when he stood and looked around the office the entire left side of his vision – half cubicles, half printers, half coffee pot, half stacked boxes of paper, half coworkers in suits, were melting into the floor. He felt a tremendous tightening in his chest, but not on the side of his heart. He was sweating so much a coworker asked him before he left if he had been doing sit-ups in his cubicle. In the video Johnny Star laughs and it makes me want to cry. Outside, he didn’t want people cascading into the sidewalk so he shuffled forward while looking only at their feet, the whole world above trickling down his left eye. It took him nine hours to walk home. Later, when everything in his apartment was still dripping down his left side, he called an ambulance.
This section of the video is very effective. There is something deeply compelling about Johnny Star. I don’t want to end up like him. I want to see what Aidan and Lucy saw. It ends with the host saying that what happened to Johnny Star is what happens when reality becomes too much and how you, meaning me, needs a break. PER is the break.
Back inside the office now buzzing with activity, the host sits on a couch flanked by tall green plants. The couch is metallic blue. The plants are identical to the illustration from the Blood article I found online. To her left another box opens, this one neon-yellow with white font:
- Do not confront the gate about its plausibility.
- Do not question humans inside the gate.
- Do not control the gate.
- Let the gate guide you.
- Do not attempt to escape the gate.
- Documenting the gate by video or photo is prohibited.
The screen changes to lime-green as my gold watch lights-up with the waterfall logo:
WELCOME TO PER
Dorian yanks the blinds open. I squint. It’s immensely bright outside, the surrounding skyscrapers once productive agency buildings in the 70s are all windows outside these windows, producing a feeling of surrounding eternal sunshine. It takes a second to figure out where I am and to understand what I just viewed. Dorian seems pleased. Maybe he reads something in my face, it’s hard to tell, but I feel proud, not scared. He’s smiling.
“Well?” he asks.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m ready.”
Read more about VINCENT AND ALICE AND ALICE, available now from Tyrant Books.