The Last Job
by Scott Barnes
part 1 of 2
“Are you about ready? We’re on the air in five minutes.”
I lowered the flame on my antique, propane stove and stirred the coriander cream sauce. I might have said something rude if Blinky the journalist hadn’t been so deliciously Hispanic: glossy, midnight hair, Mississippi eyes and cheeks like Mexican Primrose, and a feminine line which drew the eye from hip to waist to generous bosom. She was standing much closer to me than necessary. Her Chanel flirted like peony blossoms in a bed of clover.
“Good cuisine can’t be rushed, it must be savored,” I said.
I offered her a taste from a wooden spoon. Her red lips puckered and her pink tongue peeked. “Fabulous!”
“Mussels with coriander,” I said, “shallots, garlic, white wine, heavy cream, and... a pinch of this and that.” There were things to be done about the kitchen, but Blinky stood in my way. I swallowed nervously. “Followed by baron de lapin, a rabbit recipe from the Garonne region of France, and a garniture of endives.” I nearly jumped when she put her hand on the side of my waist, just above the hip; it had been years since a woman had touched me in an intimate way.
Blinky had a Southern accent as sultry as Savannah, Georgia. “You are 52 years old, and you’ve been a chef for thirty years. You are the last American to have a job, Doug. This is big news, enormous.” She stepped back, put her arms to the side and exclaimed, “Prime time!” Her beauty radiated in her excitement; her lacy bra shone through her white chemise. I was suddenly aware of my paunch.
I sprinkled in three pinches of salt; it should have been two. Blinky was distracting.
“Thirty seconds to airtime,” she warned, striking a pose next to the “quaint” wash-basin. Her foot-high copter-bot photographer whirled around the kitchen, taking shots from the most flattering angles.
Blinky began: “Hello everyone. Welcome to this historic night, May 23, 2099. Tonight is the last time an American dirties his hands with labor.
“What a difference a century makes. Ever since Parallel Brain Circuitry gave robots true AI, humans have been achieving their lifelong ambition in record numbers — a life of leisure. No boss, no commute, plenty of time with the family. In fact, human labor is so inefficient it has been banned in all but a few creative arts.
“But one discipline has remained stubbornly hands-on: la haute cuisine. Stuck between art and craft, robots just haven’t had the knack for turning good recipes great, until now. The Martha Stewart-bot, our proud sponsor, comprises every recipe ever filed in the Library of Congress. But the true breakthrough came earlier this year, when the MS line introduced smell and taste sensors built into every kitchen appliance. Making chocolate chip cookies? Why, the mixing bowl samples the sweetness of the dough; the egg beaters test for consistency and chip density; and an electronic nose checks for burning in the oven. In fact, every step of every recipe is monitored against a 50-point checklist set by the greatest chefs from the Cordon Bleu School of Paris.”
“Sell-outs,” I grumbled. “Friends of Pétain.” I folded my arms across my chest and watched Blinky’s performance. My nose told me everything was cooking just fine.
Blinky came and stood by me. The copter-bot hovered uncomfortably near. “This is Doug Haines, self-taught chef extraordinaire, and the last American with a day job. Doug runs ‘Chez Maman’ on Vandewater Street in San Francisco. And what will you do after you retire, Doug?”
“Get a facelift at Star Noses and Boobs.” I ground my teeth at the obligatory response. Blinky promised she’d home-deliver a vintage Bosch Mixer if I complied, and it seemed I’d do just about anything for Blinky.
With a few more words, Blinky sent her viewers off to a commercial. Bots competed with bots, and bot corporations with bot corporations... the holo-vids had as many advertisements as ever.
“What sensors are going to be built into our toilet seats?” I grumbled.
Blinky smiled. “You are behind the times. Sensor-johns already sniff out any deficiencies and add vitamins to your breakfast cereal.”
I wasn’t sure if she was joking.
“You know, Doug,” Blinky said. Her hand strayed to my waist again. “Some people find a working man sexy.”
I hoped the copter-bot wasn’t filming.
I chopped, diced, sprinkled, stirred, simmered and baked like Houdini’s assistant, hiding my movements from Big Brother. Everything I did would be programmed into the Martha-bots by morning, “The Last Human-Cooked Meal Recipe,” so I wanted them to blow it. I even went so far as to sand the interior of my pans so they would heat more quickly, and the Martha-bots would scorch their coriander cream sauce.
“For dessert,” I announced, “Chocolate Ganache with rum-soaked raisins in English cream.” With a flourish, I sprinkled the top with a final, secret ingredient. My best friend Henry had helped me make it that very morning.
Chez Maman was a quaint hole-in-the-wall modeled after the bistros of Provence, with one bot-waiter and me in the kitchen. It had only nine tables, and tonight they were full of out-of-town suits. The show wasn’t about me, really. It was about the President of the Commission on Productivity, William White. Copter-bots hovered in all corners of the room, blowing tendrils of cigarette smoke like graphics from the weather-man (scrubbed of carcinogens, tobacco was making a comeback).
The Austrian-looking president gave me a firm handshake. “Well Doug,” he said. “How does it feel to be doing your last day of work?”
“You’re thrilled, of course.”
White put his arm around me for his speech. The President droned; I half listened. “Doug Haines is a real human. His dishes can nearly be described as works of art... ”
Nearly, but not so. The categories of “art” diminished year by year — actors were already out, writers a dying breed and poets on the slippery slope. Bots learned too fast — and they knew how to rhyme.
“I’m proud to say that Doug beat out famous chefs from all 50 states for the honor of being the last. It is with great honor that I eat Doug Haines’ last dessert, and I declare it... Delicious!”
Many thanks to Henry the rabbit.
I didn’t go home with Blinky. I had no appetite to stick around for self-aggrandizing and, though a smoker myself, the air seemed too heavy to breathe.
Besides, Blinky was an android.
Every day my holo-vid bombarded me with ads for the latest vacation offerings, newest console games, therapeutic massages and sensory ticklers, all guaranteed to produce more enjoyment per minute than ever before. I scratched my privates and zapped. In the news: Strikes in France — the standard of living wasn’t rising fast enough for the frogs; the Swedish government borrowed another 6 trillion Euros from the International Monetary Fund, sending their credit rating plummeting; the suicide rate had risen again, but increases in life expectancy still outpaced it.
The local anchor returned. “And while last-jobber Doug Haines has been unavailable for questions, our Doug Haines Sim-bot will answer viewer questions with only a two percent margin of error.” My twin sat beside him, wearing a stupid grin and chef’s hat.
The doorbell rang. “Off, holo-vid,” I said, and it clicked obediently.
“Can you believe those Frenchies?” bronze Brad, the California tennis god said, barging in. He wore a white polo shirt, shorts and the latest terrain-sensing Nikes. “They’ll have to learn to live without truffles and foie gras at every meal. Why people want to live beyond their means is beyond me.”
His wife Marla waited in the doorway.
“Come in Marla,” I said.
“Beyond me is Brad’s favorite expression,” Marla said. Her blue eyes locked with my own. She wore a mini-tennis outfit that matched Brad’s and she held a pitcher of golden OJ. “I hope you like fresh squeezed, the oranges arrived from Chile this morning.”
“One hundred percent organic,” Brad said, helping himself to three glasses from my cupboard. “Marla squeezed them herself. I don’t know why, very inefficient.”
“I always squeeze my own,” I said. “Something about the salt in the fingertips makes it taste better. I don’t even have a juicer.”
“We have one,” Brad said.
“We don’t use it,” Marla said. “I like to work my muscles.”
She had slender, 29-year-old muscles. Marla was five foot three with small features and fair skin that could be in a Neutrogena commercial. Her black hair was cut Asian-style, straight and round, just off the shoulders.
I felt old and pasty.
“If it’s exercise you want,” Brad said, “Golden Gate Gym offers the latest in deep-stimuli electrical implants, damned efficient.” He rippled his forearms. “Top of the line.”
I broke eye contact with Marla and put the counter between myself and her. “How long have you been married?”
Marla began pouring the OJ, a grin touching her lips. She liked making me ill at ease.
“Only two years,” Brad said, “practically newlyweds.”
The plasma-wall showed a beautiful backyard: rosebushes, lawn, Japanese deer-chaser fountain and a bright, sunny day beyond sliding, glass doors. In reality I lived on the 23rd floor of a cement box, and I suspected outside it was windy and cold.
“Brad thought marriage was the most efficient way to raise a family,” Marla said. “Statistics show that children from married couples are more likely to finish school, stay out of jail, avoid unwanted pregnancy, and use minimal recreational drugs.”
“And stay married.” Brad reached around his wife and gave her breast a squeeze. Some OJ slopped on the counter. “Right my little cabbage? Well, Doug, what do you say, how about a game of tennis?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Still moping about that Last Job thingy? You’ll get over it.”
“Have some sympathy,” Marla said. “You and I chose careers because they were being phased out — Doug wanted to stay in his.”
“It would be more efficient to let humans do something,” I said.
“Nonsense,” Brad said. “In 1800, it took 75 people to feed a hundred. By the year 2000, two American farmers could feed the same number. But did we have 73 percent unemployment?”
This was Brad’s soapbox, and I wasn’t about to give him an answer. After a few seconds, Marla replied, “No, dear.”
“Right, the economy expanded. No unemployment. Same thing when women entered the workforce after World War II: thirty percent more workers but no increase in unemployment. Efficiency, expanded economy and all that. They tried the transfer of money, the Great Society — didn’t work. Trillions spent and the poverty rate didn’t change.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said, “but think of the Chia Pets that won’t get made because Brad and Marla Rose don’t have jobs.”
Brad chuckled. “Shoddy Chia Pets. Come on chap, you need to enjoy life, loosen up. Play some tennis.”
Marla shrugged, clearly used to her husband’s rants.
My neighbors for two years, Brad and Marla had never professed an interest in me until I retired; now they dropped by daily. They claimed not to have seen the report about the “last American to have a job,” but I knew bot society wouldn’t leave me unattended. Someone who had worked as long as I had, who had clearly loved his career, represented danger. I might become suicidal. I might sell shoddy products on the black market; compete at a substandard level. I might become a symbol.
Brad and Marla were spies.
Tennis. I could never beat Brad and his high efficiency training. Marla generally watched from the sidelines. Those few times she wanted to play, I rented a homely, pig-tailed tennis-android named Amy for a partner. She could beat Brad. One day before the start of a couples match, Amy handed me a wadded up piece of paper. She couldn’t remember who had given it to her — impossible for a bot. Someone had wiped her memory.
I didn’t play worth a damn. I couldn’t wait to lose and get out of there.
“What’s wrong?” Brad asked at the end of the game. He was clearly delighted at having beaten me 3 sets to zip. “Are you feeling ill?”
“Actually my elbow is acting up. I’m not sure I’ll be able to play for a while.”
“Oh sure you will, chap. See you tomorrow, same time.”
“No, I think not. Not for a month, at least. It has acted up in the past. I know this feeling.”
“Can we see you home?” Marla asked, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Of course not,” Brad said. “It’s his elbow, not his knees. He can take the streetcar home. I haven’t had my Shiatsu massage yet.”
I didn’t like Marla’s piercing gaze. “Be sure to take care of yourself,” she said. “There are a lot of things you can do to make it worse.”
Copyright © 2007 by Scott Barnes