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The ushers at Clowes Hall were making this fucking impossible. Every entrance to the theater had a team of them, with more just milling around in the lobby. This squadron of geriatric volunteers was hellbent on being helpful, and any time Chris stopped moving he could feel their eyes turn toward him as they wondered if he was lost, if he needed help, if he would like to show his ticket. These weren’t senior citizens. They were wolves wearing cardigans, and they could smell the stink of his desperation from halfway across the hall. Here came one now, white haired and deadly, dentures exposed in a smile.
“Do you need any help?” the usher asked, and Chris tucked his tablet a little tighter beneath his arm. So far tonight he hadn’t used the app once, hadn’t dared to even wake up his device. It took fifteen minutes to administer a survey, and the only time he’d got any privacy was when he’d been in the bathroom. And he knew, from experience, that no one wants to answer questions in the bathroom.
“No, thank you,” Chris said, and he stood up a little straighter and tried to look friendly. He felt very aware of the scuffs on his shoes, and that his button-down shirt was not as crisp or as clean as he’d thought. “I’m waiting for someone.”
The usher checked her watch, a tiny gold face on a tiny gold band, and she frowned. “The performance starts in five minutes. Once the doors close, no one’s allowed in or out until the intermission.”
They stood outside the east balcony. Chris hoped this spot was enough out of the way he might find some privacy here. But no such luck.
“I’ll go see if I can find my friend,” Chris said. “We don’t want to be late.”
The usher was close enough now Chris could smell the lavender of her hand lotion, which he’d seen her use after touching each ticket. Chris did not have a ticket. He was not here for the show.
There was a shout from downstairs. Chris looked past the edge of the veranda to see a security guard pulling Thatcher through the lobby by his elbow. When Thatcher spotted Chris he yanked free.
“They got us!” Thatcher yelled. “Run for it!”
The usher took a step back, eyes wide. “May I see your ticket, please?”
There was a second guard down in the lobby, and now he made a break for the stairwell. Chris pulled out his tablet, opened the survey app, and threw a hail mary.
“Sure,” Chris said, “but maybe I could ask you a few questions first?”
Thatcher swore it would be easy money if they could just stick it out to the end. That’s where everybody always went wrong, he said. This was a binary gig, it was all or nothing: When you got one-hundred surveys turned in and approved, the company paid you five-hundred dollars. And of course Chris got on board, because what else could he do?
Now Thatcher wouldn’t look up from his beer. He kept dipping an index finger into the head and scraping the foam off on the lip of his glass.
“Sorry, man. I really thought that would work. That place was packed.”
Chris had his tablet on the table between them. On screen was his personal dashboard, displaying his survey approval numbers in a Kindergarten-simple pie chart. Two-thirds of it was green, about ten percent yellow, and then there was that last quarter – the only piece Chris really cared about – which shone a bright busted-lip red.
“My rejection rate is up,” Chris said, looking at his stats. “I’m at two to one.”
“Well fuck,” Thatcher said. “That’s pretty bad.”
It wasn’t just bad, it was terrible. When the company rejected a survey, it didn’t count toward your goal. That was the catch, the part Thatcher left out. You didn’t get paid after you turned in a hundred. You got paid after a hundred were approved. And now here was Chris, sunk fast in the swamp of his quota, with a rejection rate so bad he’d have to interview seventy-five people just to get enough through approval. And who knew? It could get even worse. The whole thing was a mess, but it was too late to quit now. He was this close to the money, and he didn’t have time for a Plan B.
“How’s yours look?” Chris asked. Thatcher pulled out his tablet and opened the app. His dashboard looked a bit better: seventy-four approved, twelve in the queue, and only fourteen rejected. But his rejection rate was going up, too.
“This shit has to be rigged.”
“Come on,” Thatcher said. “No. No way. Remember Gary? And Sarah? I’m pretty sure they both got paid.”
Chris didn’t feel any better. “They recruited you. Maybe they’re in on it.”
“You’re overthinking. It’s not like we paid money to do this. It’s not a pyramid scheme. We just have to …” Thatcher tried to think of the words. “Get better. Your phone’s ringing.”
Chris checked his pocket. Sure enough, Thatcher was right. The guy had a weird sense of hearing, said that sometimes in a quiet room he could hear people’s heartbeats. Chris took the call outside.
“Dad, did you know dimetrodon, pteranodon, and ichthyosaurus aren’t dinosaurs?”
“I think I heard that,” Chris said. “They’re birds, aren’t they?”
“No,” said his son. “It’s dinosaurs that are birds, and they aren’t dinosaurs.”
“Ah, shit. You might have to draw me a diagram.”
“Are you coming to my birthday?”
“I’m trying,” Chris said. “I need to get some money together. I got a job I think’s going to help.”
“Where you ask people questions?”
“Right. But not everybody likes talking to me. It’s taking a while.”
“Okay. Do you want to talk to Mom?”
Chris glanced over his shoulder, then took a couple more steps down the sidewalk. “Sure.”
“Did you actually want to talk to me?”
“I don’t not want to.”
“It didn’t sound like you said ‘yes’ to the birthday question. Are you going to be here?”
“I’m working on it. There’s no direct flights out of Indy. It’s an expensive round trip.”
“Just don’t wait til the last second,” she said. “If the answer is no, tell him no, so he’ll be done being sad by his party.”
“It’s just, it might take me to the last second,” Chris said. “I can’t control whether people talk to me.”
“Don’t make him sad on his birthday,” Mina said.
“Yeah, well. I can’t control that either.”
The survey job was shitty, but it was about the only second job Chris could fit around his schedule waiting tables at Ruttle’s. You never knew your hours more than a week in advance, and sometimes not even that much if someone called in. If he owned a car it’d be different, maybe he’d drive for a rideshare, but he didn’t. Shitty or not, the survey job was the best he could do.
But it was Thatcher who’d found the gig. He worked in the kitchen. On a smoke break together he gave Chris a survey, then recruited him.
“I get a fifty dollar bonus if you sign up,” Thatcher said. “I’ll split it with you.”
Chris would have done it for free. Five-hundred dollars was a big prize, and Thatcher made it sound simple. He told Chris about Gary and Sarah, the couple who recruited him, and how the app handled everything for you. So Chris signed up, and within the week the restaurant manager put up a memo in the break room that forbade any form of “survey, census, or questionnaire” on the job. The memo was thumbtacked over the company drug policy.
Although Chris and Thatcher couldn’t always work together, it was nice to have someone else with you when you were giving our surveys. You felt less lonely, for one, and less desperate. You weren’t really competing, either — Chris always seemed to get more people to stop on the nights they worked together when he was working alone.
The night after Clowes Hall, the restaurant was quiet. Chris and Thatcher took as many smoke breaks as they could get away with. They sat on a cement bench that was obscured from the parking lot by a pair of overgrown shrubs. Finches built their nests in these shrubs and gathered their food from the trash. Finches were supposed to eat seed, Chris knew, but this breed ate French fries, having adapted to their environment like Darwin’s finches to the Galapagos.
“We haven’t tried Walmart,” Chris said, watching small shapes shudder inside the shrubs. “There’s the twenty-four hour one, we could go there after work.”
“Eh,” Thatcher said. “Remember when I sold DishTV? They stuck me at Walmart, and people there won’t even look at you. Or they just waste your time because they’re lonely.”
Chris scratched his chest, took a drag. “The bars, then. It’s Friday night, they’ll be busy, we might get away with it longer.”
“Maybe,” Thatcher said. He spat toward the shrubs. “There’s got to be a way to just fake them.”
This was the bone Thatcher couldn’t stop gnawing. He’d tried it dozens of ways, but no matter how he took his own surveys the system would catch him, and kick the forgeries into the reject percentage. Chris figured there was some algorithm behind it, powerful AI that could catch whatever tell gave Thatcher away. Chris never tried to cheat the system himself, but he kept hoping Thatcher might figure it out.
“Let’s just try Walmart,” Chris said. “Just try it. Bars after.”
Thatcher dropped his cigarette into the mulch. “I guess I’m resigned to pretty much anything.”
Chris nodded. “That’s the spirit.”
The price of plane tickets went up. Chris couldn’t believe by how much. He could still afford them once he cashed in his surveys, but he’d gone from comfortable margin to just barely. If he had to wait much longer, they might climb out of reach.
“Did you clear your cookies?” Mina asked, when he called her. “They track you. They see you looking at the same tickets over and over and they jack up the prices to get you to buy.”
Chris wasn’t in a panic, exactly, but he was not feeling calm. His mouth tasted bad. He kept doing push ups.
“I don’t know how to do that,” Chris said, feeling stupid.
“Try looking incognito,” Mina suggested. “That does the same thing.”
He put her on speaker and did what she said. Sure enough, the prices went down. Not down where they’d been, but definitely lower.
“I think that worked,” Chris said. “Jesus. They really fuck you however they can.”
“Where are you at with the surveys?”
“I still need twenty approved. But my rejection rate dropped, that’s been good.”
“Where’ve you been going?”
“Nursing homes,” he admitted. “We say we’re from the census.”
“I think that might be a felony.”
“It’s fine,” Chris said. “They like talking to us. Thatcher’s good, he can be pretty charming. He gets us past the desk people.”
“Your son wants to talk to you.” Mina handed off the phone.
“Mom said I could invite five friends to my birthday.”
“Dang. I wish I had five friends.”
“You have me, and mom, and your work friends. I wanted to invite Jordan but Mom said he probably couldn’t come since he lives in Indianapolis. Do you know if you’re coming yet?”
“I’m working on it, buddy. Are you sure you still want me to? I don’t want to take a spot from one of your friends.”
“You don’t count, Dad.”
“I know,” Chris said. “That was the joke.”
The VFW was a disaster.
“That ain’t the fuckin’ census,” said a man in a Desert Storm hat. “Who’d you say you were?”
“We’ll come back at a better time,” Chris said, and he motioned to Thatcher. The man in the hat wasn’t satisfied.
“Chuck! Hey CHUCK!” he shouted, but Chris and Thatcher beat a retreat before they learned who that was.
“That didn’t go well.”
“Maybe we should try a hospital.”
They were past any consideration of ethics. Slipping into nursing homes, impersonating government representatives, they did whatever it took to get answers. Thatcher wasn’t under a deadline the way Chris was but the urgency seemed to rub off on him. Or maybe he was just getting sick of it. Either way, neither of them wanted to be the first to suggest they were on a bad road. If it was the shorter one, how bad could it be?
Chris worked dinner rush the next night. Thatcher was coming off day shift. It wasn’t his fault, he had no control over scheduling, but Chris resented him anyway. Evenings were always better for surveys, and Thatcher was going to reap the benefits while Chris was stuck hustling for tips. If he wore a brace or limped, would people give him more money? It didn’t matter. To earn enough for a plane ticket he’d need a full body cast.
He had fifteen surveys to go, and two days to do it. Being stuck here tonight could break him. But he still forced a smile when he took menus to a table of six. He smiled when he served up their plates. He smiled when he said, “Who had the Wowzarella sticks?” and he smiled when he passed across the hot basket.
Somebody asked for ketchup. Somebody else asked for ranch. Chris had his tablet tucked in his apron. “I’ll get that right out. And while you wait for your entree, I’d just like to mention we’ve got a quick survey you can take for ten percent off.”
The diners shrugged at each other. Chris opened the tablet and set it down on the table.
“Won’t take you a minute,” he said. “I’ll be back with your sauces.”
And the thing was, it worked. It worked really well. When he rang up the bills, he included a discount. Ten percent was the most he could offer without calling a manager, a way to save face if something went wrong with an order. But tonight Chris offered it up to everyone, and almost everyone took it.
By the end of his shift, Chris had collected twenty-one unique responses. If his luck held with approvals that might just be enough.
When he got home that night he looked up the plane tickets. Incognito. The prices had fallen by nearly a hundred dollars. He was going to make it.
Chris and Thatcher worked lunch together the next day. The soup-and-panini shift. So did their manager, who stayed in his office running receipts. It would not have been hard for Chris to be caught. His receipts all showed the ten percent discount, and they all had Chris’s name at the top. But he felt strangely blasé. Whether his pay got docked or he even got fired, it didn’t matter that much. That money was all coming too late. What mattered was money right now.
Thatcher summoned an Uber at the end of their shift and it took them to the Indiana State Fairgrounds off 38th Street. It was the week of the home and garden show, where there’d be a hundred different vendors and booths selling windows and patios, arbors and mulch. There would be a lot of people with clipboards. There would be a lot of salesmen making pitches. It seemed like a good place to blend in.
“How’d you do last night?” Chris asked, when they got in the car.
“Ate shit,” Thatcher said. “I only got one guy at the end of the night, and he wrote his name as ‘Mister Ass’, so they’re definitely going to reject it.”
“Yeah, well. You got stuck at work. That sucks too.”
Chris said nothing.
The driver dropped them off on 38th Street to avoid the fairground entry fee. They walked up the drive and into the pavilion, which smelled less like a garden and more like a barn — moldering, animal, sweaty, and stale. Just past the front door was a vendor with tubs of mulch in a rainbow of colors, each kind a different texture and size. People stood transfixed at these tubs, cupping the mulch with their palms, breathing it in. Chris had so many questions.
The pavilion had its own security, but the officers were few and far between. Even the ushers at Clowes Hall had been out in greater force. These guys just looked bored. They weren’t going to bother two dudes carrying tablets.
Chris and Thatcher decided to split up. The booths were laid out in one giant circle, so you could see everything just by walking a lap. They agreed to head opposite directions and regroup on the far side of the loop. But first Chris checked on his standings.
The dashboard showed that of the twenty-one surveys he submitted last night thirteen were newly approved. The rest were rejected. Chris could live with that. He just needed two more.
But the attendees of the home and garden show were less receptive than Chris expected. They shook their heads at him before he could even open his mouth. After walking past a few booths he understood why. The pavilion was crawling with salesmen holding tablets and clipboards, and they swarmed anyone who dared to make eye contact. One of them even tried to pitch Chris, despite the fact he looked like a salesman himself.
“Interest you in a free estimate for an above ground pool?”
“Maybe,” Chris said. He held up his tablet. “I’ll trade you info.”
The pool salesman leaned in for a better look. Then he burst out laughing.
“Shit, they’re still doing this? That was my first job out of high school.”
“What was? Surveys?”
The salesman nodded. “I crapped out at, like, thirty approved. Lot of fucking work to never cash in. How far along are you?”
Chris shrugged. “Ninety-eight?”
“Goddamn,” the pool salesman said. He grabbed the tablet and began tapping away. “Gotta respect that. You know, half the guys here did this.” He turned and waved at a man standing by a model brick fireplace. “Hey! HEY! LONNIE! Lonnie’s gonna love this. LONNIE! LOOK AT THIS!”
Lonnie walked over, confused, but grinned like a motherfucker once he got it.
“How close are you?” Lonnie asked. Chris told him. “Fuck, man. You just relax. We’re going to get you there. You know the trick to getting a survey approved, right?”
“There’s a trick?” the pool salesman asked.
“There’s always a trick,” Lonnie said. The pool salesman looked irritated even as he signed his name with a fingertip, then handed the tablet to Lonnie. Lonnie tapped the screen and kept talking. “It’s based on a dim view of people’s intelligence, but the fact is you’ve got to hit your fuck-up quota. Leave a question blank, include a few typos, that kind of thing. If a survey shows up too clean the system tags it as fake. That’s how they weed out chicanery.”
There was a trick. Chris couldn’t believe it. There was always a trick. Lonnie finished the survey, signed his name, then took it again. After the second time he handed it back.
“I don’t know if they’ll accept it from this guy,” Lonnie said, patting the pool salesman on the shoulder, “but I promise you mine will go through.”
The pool salesman still looked miserable. “Where were you five years ago? I could have made bank.”
Lonnie just laughed. “Yeah? What’s stopping you now?”
Chris found Thatcher again at a display of gazebos, looking miserable.
“Garden people are dicks,” Thatcher said, and so they called another car and waited by the front gate of the Fairgrounds. Their driver pulled up and the two of them climbed in.
“That’s not the boat and RV show today, is it?” the driver asked, pulling away.
“No,” Chris said. “Home and garden.”
“I like boats,” said the driver. As the car in front of them slammed on its brakes Chris had just enough time to gasp. They drove straight into its tail so that the hood of their Uber folded up like a tinfoil sheet. Thatcher made a noise like he’d been punched in the gut. It was over just like that, the car suddenly silent, but Chris felt sick with adrenaline. Their driver sounded dazed, his voice soft and wavering as he said, “We should probably get out of the car.”
That made sense. Chris tried to focus on that. He slid toward Thatcher, but Thatcher was sliding toward him. Chris slid back the other direction. He opened his door and got out of the car. It was good to be told what to do. He hoped it would happen again. Everything felt wet and spinning and white. He thought he’d better sit down.
“I think he’s leaving,” Thatcher said.
They watched their driver pull neatly away. He cut his wheel left and pulled around the other car, fleeing the scene at five-miles-per-hour. The whole thing felt backwards. Chris was still shaking, his heart beating a thousand times a minute. Shouldn’t he be the one running away?
“Where’s your tablet?” Thatcher asked. Chris threw up on the sidewalk.
No matter how often Chris refreshed the dashboard, the status of those last few surveys didn’t change. He’d been checking it on his laptop for nearly twenty-four hours. He was also waiting on the police — had they found the driver? Had they found the tablet? And he was waiting on Gary and Sarah, both of whom he’d messaged to confirm that they really, truly did get paid. But he wouldn’t be worried about any of it, not Gary or Sarah or the police or the driver, if he got those last surveys approved.
Chris logged out and logged back in. Closed the window and opened a new one. Restarted the laptop. And yet:
Around seven that night his son called from out west. He’d just come home from school, eaten a snack, watched Spongebob. Chris answered his phone and kept an eye on the dashboard, compulsively refreshing the page.
“Mom got bit by a dog.”
“It was in our yard and she chased it away, but it turned and tried to bite her leg.”
“Is she okay?”
“Yeah. It missed her.”
“So she didn’t really get bit.”
“It’s not really a story if nothing happens.”
His phone vibrated. Chris pulled it away from his ear to see he had a message from Gary.
<I never got paid. Who told you that?
“Dad? Mom said to ask if you got a plane ticket yet.”
Chris put his son on speakerphone.
“I’m trying,” he said. “I’m still waiting on money.”
Another message from Gary:
<I thought the company closed or something?
“From your job asking questions?”
wtf do you mean closed?> Chris texted back.
“Yeah,” Chris said to his son. “But it’s the kind of job where you don’t get paid until you’re all done. Like how you don’t get your allowance until you finish your chores.”
<I don’t know what to tell you. They won’t call me back and my credentials stopped working
i thought you and sarah got paid?>
“So when are you done?”
<No. Sarah got fucked over too. I tried to tell Thatcher
are you fucking serious>
“Soon,” Chris said. “I’ll be done really soon.”
“Are you coming to my birthday?”
“I’m trying. I really am, okay?”
Chris turned back to his laptop and refreshed the page. This time the dashboard logged him out.
“You never told me what kind of questions you ask people.”
Chris tried to log back in, but his password didn’t work. It didn’t work the second time, or the third. He felt like he was going to throw up again.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“I want to know what questions you ask.”
When Chris tried a fourth time, a new message appeared: Your account has been locked. Please contact an administrator. He muted his phone and swore.
“Sorry, buddy,” Chris said. “I got sidetracked by something. Let me just pull them up.”
He shut his laptop and set it on the coffee table, then he switched off the speaker and brought the phone to his ear. He leaned back in the cushions of his curbside-claimed couch and he squeezed his eyes closed, listening to the sound of his son breathing the warm Californian air. Without the tablet or dashboard Chris couldn’t open a new survey, but the truth was he didn’t need to. By now he’d read through it hundreds of times, and he knew all his questions by heart.