By Kirsten Smith
“Kindness. Compassion. Humanity.”
Cherry had written Rand’s words in green permanent marker on a hot pink sticky note during her Support Agent orientation with Washable, what — thirteen, almost fourteen years ago? The paper had become stiff, curled vaguely at the bottom corners, and was yellowing in spots, as if stained by tea rather than faded by the scant sunlight pushing through Cherry’s grimey living room windows. Its adhesive had long ago lost its stick, and was now duct taped to the desk’s chipped particle board shelf. Cherry gazed at the scrawled words and absently pulled her headset away from her ears to relieve the pressure built up after nine and a half hours of selling the Washable dream, while waiting for the next call to come up on her laptop’s bright blue screen.
Enough time to dash to the bathroom? Probably not. She didn’t think she’d last much longer though. Cherry jiggled both knees and ate the last two peanut M&M from the bag on her desk to pacify the earthquake in her stomach.
Rand popped up in a chat box with an update to the team’s Customer Retention & Upgraded Plan (or CRUP) rankings:
Cherry’s eyes narrowed. Who the fuck is Herk? She messaged Rand.
Cherry [Agent]: Rand. Who the F is Herk?
Rand [Lead]: Newbie. Off to good start. Bring A-game.
Yeah no shit. She’d never seen a newbie take such a leap onto the board. Bet Liza’s pissed.
A call came in. Cherry glanced at the sticky note for the bazillionth time and thrust her mouth into a smile. “Hello, hope you’re having a wonderful Washable day! My name is Cherry, I’ll be happy to support your laundry needs — can I please have your name and account ID?”
The ridiculous intro script hadn’t changed the entire time she’d been with the company, and it flowed from her lips like rainwater through a gutter, devoid of exception or flavor. But it was the unscripted words that followed, tailored to each individual customer, that kept her in the number one spot day after day, year after year.
She could pick up the weariness in the voice of a middle-aged woman. That woman likely had a full-time job, kids, and a bum of a husband — or ex-husband, perhaps as of late. For her, the mere thought of dealing with loads of filthy laundry on top of everything else going on, could very well pitch her head first (well-coiffed) into a breakdown. Cherry knew the precise note of empathy this woman would require in order to upgrade to the Washable Annual Plan, or even the holy grail, the 3-Year Plan, paid in full upfront. If the woman balked even for a half second, Cherry knew to throw in monthly dry cleaning at a hefty discount to lock it down.
Then there was the young bachelor type. Often an entry-level tech bro. Recently moved into his first pad after living with his parents his whole life, newly experiencing the complications that can arise from mishandling bleach at the local laundromat. For this one, Cherry would step into her ‘mother-girlfriend’ persona. Soothing and caring, with just enough flirty energy to make him pliable, and amenable to the maximum upgrade. No discount necessary for those dipshits.
Anyone. She could do this with anyone. Read their voices within three seconds and verbally shape shift into who they needed her to be.
To be sure, there were rare moments of relief from the relentless playacting. Wartime ceasefires, when she could slip back to herself. Among Support’s regular callers were a handful of sweet human beings, like spirited Gwen, who was paraplegic, and hilarious retired Aram. They’d call in more or less weekly to ask whatever Washable — or loosely related — question floated to the top of their minds. Often the conversations wound their way toward the weather, gardens, grandkids, where to get good burgers. Cherry suspected she heard from them mainly on lonely days.
Those callers did zip for her CRUP, they never bought a thing. But they were a bulwark against her heart going inky and crystallized in the face of the majority.
Most callers were pissed-off, entitled tools who whined to Cherry about, Ohhh, one of my socks is missing! Or, Wahhh, your laundry bot left my bag in the rain! She could turn each of these callers into her personal little bitch with all the aim and speed of a viper strike. Armed with the fail-safe Washable principles of kindness, compassion, and humanity — they’d be apologizing and thanking her profusely, credit card in hand, by the end of the call.
And BOOM. The CRUP weekly bonus was as good as in the bank.
Being the top-selling agent for the past six years had helped Cherry purchase her damp, leaky bottom-level condo with windows barely peeking above the city sidewalk. It wasn’t much, but it was hers. For now, at least. From the corner of her eye, Cherry inadvertently glimpsed the torn envelope and neatly folded demand letter stamped with “payment required” in red. It had been sitting on the coffee table, half wedged beneath a couple of overdue library books, for some time.
Cherry pressed her thighs together tight, shimmied in her desk chair, took deep breaths, and waited for the next call.
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
The day Herk finally knocked Cherry out of the top CRUP spot was a dreary Friday. It was the same day Liza got the boot. The realization was a flying one-two punch to the noggin. Rand’s ratings update came up in one one chat box, and Liza’s appeared next to it.
Liza [Agent]: Cher, I’m out. Rand just told me. Chatbot is bad news. Heart you, girl, hope we can stay friends on the outside.
Liza’s chat glitched oddly and blinked out. Cherry sat back, jaw slack. Her eyes flicked between the space where Liza’s message had been, and Rand’s, feeling as though her safe cocoon had evaporated and she was now dangling amid a flash of nothingness.
A new chat popped up.
Herk [Agent]: Hi Cherry, I’m Herk. Nice to meet you. I just want to tell you that I admire your expertise. Competing with you has been a worthy challenge. Good game.
Cherry [Agent]: Hi Herk. Now is not the time. Kindly fuck off.
Herk [Agent]: Cherry, I understand you may be upset to miss out on the CRUP bonus, but please do not speak to me that way.
Cherry [Agent]: I said now is NOT the time, Herk. Ciao.
Cherry killed the chat and furiously typed a message to Rand.
Cherry [Agent]: Rand, Liza is out?? WTF?
Rand [Lead]: Cherry, don’t worry about others. Go enjoy your weekend. Next week, let’s just focus on getting those numbers up.
Her breath caught. He hadn’t used those words with her in at least a decade.
Rand [Lead]: Also, quick heads up, we’re refreshing the intro script starting Monday. Check email first thing.
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
Herk. The jerk.
Cherry sat sullenly on a bench at the perimeter of the park across the street from her condo. She hunched over a steaming 60-cent Cup of Noodles, blowing into it in distracted, futile huffs.
In her periphery, two separate Washable laundry bots rolled steadily along adjacent streets. Each was loaded with blue nylon bags — some shapeless pick-ups, and some squarish drop-offs containing neat stacks.
Must be nice.
One of a gaggle of kids messing around on the grass sent an errant soccer ball speeding toward cars parked along the street, including Cherry’s blue Honda Civic. It ricocheted off her back window with a cracking sound. She sighed and gazed down at the still-too-hot noodles.
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
The new intro script was better. Far less cheesy and awkward. Cherry had suspected from the beginning that the old one simply further vexed customers who were, nine times out of ten, already resentful about something.
She repeated it several times to herself, trying to let the new words uproot the deep imprint the previous words had left on her tongue. “Thanks for calling Washable Support, my name is Cherry and I’ll be happy to help you out today — can I get your name and account ID, please?”
It didn’t take long to settle and feel natural. Cherry was about to click the “Start calls” button when a chat box materialized on the screen.
Herk [Agent]: Good morning, Cherry. I was wondering what you think of my new script? I’d love to get your feedback.
It took a second to register. She typed back.
Cherry [Agent]: YOUR script? You wrote this?
Herk [Agent]: I did. It’s inspired by you, by the way!
Cherry [Agent]: What do you mean inspired by me?
Herk [Agent]: The company provided me with your customer interactions. You’re the best in the business, as they say, so I’ve been studying your words to learn how to improve the script. Do you have any helpful feedback?
Cherry stared for a long moment, confused. Instead of replying, she clicked open a second chat box.
Cherry [Agent]: Rand. Why is the company giving Herk my transcripts??
She waited for a reply. As she waited, in the first chat box, Herk asked if everything was ok. Cherry tried Rand again.
Cherry [Agent]: Yo. Rand! Are you there?
Suddenly, as Liza’s had, Rand’s chat box appeared to glitch, then vanish into the bright blue background. Herk’s chat box pinged with a new message.
Herk [Lead]: Sorry, Cherry, there has just been an update. Rand is no longer with Washable. But don’t worry, you can begin reporting to me going forward.
They fired Rand. And Herk the Jerk is now my boss. What fresh hell is this?
Herk [Lead]: Also, please provide any helpful feedback you may have regarding the new customer script by the end of the week. Thanks. Ciao!
Next to Herk’s chat box, a team CRUP update abruptly glared.
[End of report]
Cherry moved as if made of wet clay. She clicked “Start calls.”
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
By the end of the week, Cherry had managed to beat the WashBot twice, while it beat her twice. As of the 1PM CRUP, her odds of pulling off a bonus win were officially zero.
She’d be short on her condo payment.
Cherry’s tense muscles deadened. She’d just opened a chat to Herk and begun typing her script recommendations when a message illuminated her smartphone. It was from a number she didn’t recognize. Against her better judgment, Cherry opened the message to find a link to a news story with the headline, “Chatbot Tech Leaps Forward Aided by Herkules AI and Human Training” and below it, a second bubble appeared:
I found your number online. Cher, I hope this is you. It’s Liza!
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
Cherry sat in the Civic, stationed between her former condo and the park across the street where a pickup soccer game was underway. Her various books, kitchen items, toiletries, and clothes were haphazardly crammed into every available space around her, even pressing precariously against the cracked window in the back.
Despite her newfound discomfort (sleeping sitting up was rough), quitting the company before she could be kicked out had felt damned good. “Teaching” Herk and the WashBot a few choice words on the way out? Even better.
The guy at the corner store — whose name was Moe, she finally found out, after years of repeated Cup of Noodles purchases — had been kind enough to let her heat water in the decaf coffee maker a couple times per day. She blew into the hot steam and gazed at the sticky note duct taped to her dashboard: “Kindness. Compassion. Humanity.”
In her periphery, a laundry bot rounded a corner and headed up the street toward its next customer. No, the machines didn’t come cheap, but you sure couldn’t say they weren’t good workers. Out there day and night, delivering on the Washable dream.
Kirsten Smith is an author, playwright, and photographer who lives and works in San Francisco. Check her out on Instagram @the_wallflower_wanderer, and on Twitter @Kirsten_Wanders