This was originally written following a prompt for a challenge. The idea was to write a story situated in a world where everyone had a basic living income.
Father blocked the room’s door. He always did that when he was angry. “Do you know what he said?”
John was sure that his father didn’t do it consciously, but it had to be a way to prevent John from running away like Mother had done years before.
“He told me that you didn’t look like you really wanted the job.”
What was that even supposed to mean? Of course he didn’t want it. Nobody wanted to work. Well, maybe Father, but he was an endangered species.
So of course John had not looked like he wanted to work. But, he’d shown up at the interview. That had to give him some points, right?
“I put my name on the line for you. Again.“
Father’s monologues always went on for at least an hour, but this one had been going on for longer, since the moment he’d arrived home. John had been relaxing after the stress from the interview, watching the new “KuroKami Reviews” episode online when Father punched the room’s door open like a karate master and exploded on him.
Father went on and on even though John tried to show how much he cared by watching KuroKami talk about his sweet new gaming phone.
“Do you even know how bad this whole mess makes me look?” Father said.
Yes, John knew. Father had made sure to tell John how much of a failure he was every single time he got the chance. And, this seemed like another chance. Didn’t he want to rest after work? Why was this so important?
“You are 22 years old.” Father stressed the 22.
So? A lot of people are 22. Pretty irrelevant.
“You dropped out of college.”
Not the wisest decision, sure, but all his friends dropped out too. Computer programing was to boring and so where the other majors. A BA would only end up getting him a shitty job like his dad’s anyway, so why was it such a big deal to drop out? He could always go back later.
“Which I should say I’m still paying for.”
Yeah, that one was a good point until anyone realized John had never asked to go to college. It was overrated. That was his dad’s thing. Not his. Why the hell were parents so obsessed with forcing their dreams onto their children. It was stupid. So, as far as John was concerned, that debt was his father’s fault.
John could’ve lived comfortably at home indefinitely. It wasn’t as if living cost anything for anyone. The perks of contemporary civil rights made it so. Why go to college? Why work? Why do any of that if you can get a basic living income and chill at home? Father was ancient, from a time when people believed that work equaled money, and money equaled happiness.
The basic income everyone had as a human right proved that money didn’t bring happiness. Therefore money didn’t do what they thought it was. Father would work into his grave, a dinosaur burned as petroleum.
“You know John,” Father called him by his name. He reserved that for when he was going to get into his concluding statement. John would finally be free. “I think it’s time for consequences.”
John sighed. Father always went that direction. Sure, this was the way Father showed he “meant business,” but it was burned out at this point. You could only repeat the “consequences” line so much before it lost power.
So, John decided to open his mouth. “What are you going to do? Really, what? Kick me out? Let me live in shit government housing? With all of the crack whores and criminals living in modern day panopticons?”
“You know, yes. That’s a better idea than I had,” Father said.
John, too proud for referencing some obscure philosophical prison concept, didn’t realize what Father had said at first. So, he kept grinning at his phone, while watching KuroKami’s video.
When it finally registered, John looked up. “Wait, what?”
Father had already taken out his own phone and tapped at it like everyone his generation did, with one finger. “There, I’ve cancelled all your services, including your phone. I’m not paying any of your luxuries. And, since already have your mind set on government housing, I will have you escorted out of the house at the end of the week if you don’t leave by yourself.”
John’s video stopped playing, and a message popped. “Please update your payment options to continue your services.”
“Just, for the love of god,” Father said. “Start your own life.”
John looked at the 50-story cement cube that the government accepted as basic income housing, and felt his blood drain.
He carried a small backpack on him with a single change of clothes and the keys to his new life. Father had already taken everything else and donated it, saying something like, “If you want your own, earn it yourself.”
Even now, looking at the shitty building, its walls corroded by the years of contamination, John wanted to turn around and admit defeat. He got the lesson. Working got you luxuries. That wasn’t hard to understand. That had never been the problem.
But, he couldn’t give Father the satisfaction. Screw him. If he was going to kick him out, he’d show him. He’d live the best of life by enjoying life.
The apartment complex wasn’t all that bad, but looked gross and strange. With the expansion of the city moving elsewhere, the old cement monoliths from the late 20th century were “repurposed” as apartments for low income individuals. In other words, the government took what everyone didn’t want, and gave it to people, calling it a great PR move. It wasn’t. They even looked weird too, because the government had put some nets around the building that pointed up. What were they trying to catch, bird crap?
John received a key card to his apartment and was promptly briefed. He would be living in apartment 509, and he’d be sharing the bathroom with the entire floor. It didn’t sound too bad at first. Not until he saw why everything was free. The bathroom was no better than a public restroom at a freeway rest stop.
John wasn’t sure what to expect from the apartment itself, but he set his expectations low because of the stories. Yet, he’d expected too much.
The apartment was the size of a jail cell, but worse because it was divided in two sections: the kitchen and the bed area. There was no actual division though. It was more like someone put a bed in the kitchen and called it a day.
Dimensionally speaking, the room was a rectangle. There were some cabinets and a small fridge at the entrance. At the other end, the bed took most of the space, over half of it. But, this was no prison, the government claimed. They had put a window in the room, and prisons didn’t have windows, right?
To say it was minimalistic was an understatement. But hey, that had to be someone’s style. And, at the very least, father was not going to be telling him anything anymore. No more hour lectures by the door, and no more criticism about how he spent his entire day. If John wanted, he could spend all day being lazy.
John sat in bed of his new room and stared at the white wall. The paint was peeling off. He pulled at the plastic-like paint, rolled the little piece into a ball, and flicked it. The ball hit the wall and bounced right back at him. John stared at it for a long while.
This was going to be shit.
John fell back onto his bed, a feeling he didn’t know how to describe building inside. He didn’t have internet. But, he didn’t have a phone either so that was pointless. He didn’t even have a god damned television. He was in absolute hell, staring at a white wall. People went crazy like that.
Through the window, John watched people walking outside. They all seemed to have purpose, the little ants walking or driving in lines towards something. Maybe having time off the internet like this would be revelatory. Maybe he’d be able to understand life in a new way. Maybe he was like one of those Buddhists monks that somehow lived in silence. People paid big bucks for that.
“Bullshit,” John complained. Who the hell was he kidding. That kind of shit only happened in boring artsy independent films. He was screwed. He hadn’t even heard from his friends all day. How was he going to live like this?
Within an hour, he found himself at the food distribution center in the first floor of the complex. It pretty much looked like the food stores he was used to. But, instead of all the organic food Father usually bought, everything here looked incredibly colorful. In a way, it made the food look a little more attractive, which made him wonder why the hell free food looked better than the food that cost extra.
Walking around with a basket, he picked up a box of cereal. Or, he thought he picked up one. It was hard to tell if it was cereal in the first place, as the box was covered with pictures of other food, marketed as premium stuff rather than the free things he had. The milk bottle he took had pictures of a new super hero movie, and it said “built for real heroes.” The food here was trying to sell other things. It was premium ad space.
Tired, of being unable to close the damned real-life pop up ads, John grabbed some bread and stuff for sandwiches, the only thing he knew how to make, and went back to his apartment. Part of him hoped that he’d somehow time traveled and managed to skip over the boring time he’d have to spend. But, when he got home, he discovered he’d somehow learned to stop time. Only thirty minutes had passed.
The week was just as bad. Within a few days, John had developed a routine. First, he’d wake up and stare at the ceiling, realizing how the white peeling paint in his apartment was a good metaphor for his life. Secondly, because of this realization, he’d turn around and scream into his pillow as loud as he could and for as long as he could, stopping only when the neighbor kicked the wall they shared.
The bright morning then continued to breakfast, which was the extremely sweet cereal he ate. It tasted deliciously diabetic, but hey. It was the highlight of his day.
He’d try to spend as long as he could on his cereal, but it took about fifteen minutes max. Taking longer would make the cereal soggy and disgusting. And, that type of things went against the pleasures of life.
Noon came rather slowly, but it did eventually come. And that was John’s second highlight of the day. He’d eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was amazing, and it made him feel happy, as if he’d just gotten a wonderful jolt of energy from the sugar rush. But, that quickly faded into an afternoon nap.
He was living the life.
In the evening, he’d eat a sandwich. But, it wasn’t just any sandwich. It was the best one ever made.
Methodically, he took one slice of bread and placed it on the center of his single crappy red plastic plate. He took out a jar of mayonnaise, withdrew his one plastic spoon, scooped some of the mayo onto the bread, and spread it on the bread. He did it slowly and with extreme perfectionism. Savages often rubbed the mayo in the center, leaving the rest of the bread without it, so you only tasted it in the center. So, he made sure that it had some of that white shit on all of the bread.
After wards, he sliced some pieces of cheese, which was surprisingly decent, though covered in crap ads. He cut it, patiently, feeling the cheese attempt to stop him. It kind of felt good. “Screw you, cheese. You take it,” he whispered to it.
He placed the slice of cheese on the bread, and then followed it with a slice of ham. Lastly, he took out one more slice of bread, and did not put any more mayo like an animal. He had self-control after all and didn’t want to die of high cholesterol. He wanted a long life. A very long and slow life.
Done, he stood in the kitchen, admiring his creation: the perfect sandwich.
Having taken it kindly off the counter, he got into his best baseball pitch position, and flung it out the window. Well, he tried. The piece of shit split into two parts, and almost comically—but mostly depressingly—missed the entire window, one slice sticking to the side of the window and the other flopping onto the floor.
“Fuck! I can’t take this shit anymore!” John punched the counter and kicked the door to his right, which was a terrible idea as he realized too late he wasn’t wearing any shoes. He screamed even louder, though this time in pain. The neighbor knocked loudly and told him to quiet down. John fell to his knees and sobbed like he’d never before, the anxiety and the anger finally exploding inside of him.
With life like this, he didn’t want a long life. He’d rather die of the high cholesterol from eating the whole jar of mayo. Even the window looked enticing, but in just the one week two others had jumped off, but failed their purpose. The weird nets were there to catch people.
Living like this made him feel as if he were in an existential nightmare. He had no purpose. For He was no better than a tick attached to a dying dog. Eventually he’d roll off his bed, fat and sad, and die.
It was the same as when he’d dropped out of college. He saw everyone run around with some higher sense of purpose. The business kids seem to find success in money, so they always bragged about how much money they had. The computer whizzes were always pushing their shitty apps at everyone. And the art students annoyed everyone by painting weird murals and forcing people to go to lame art shows.
John had changed his major three times. He’d gone into computer programing as his father wanted. But, it got tiring very quickly because he just didn’t understand the concepts, so others ran laps around him. He tried the art major for a girl. She ignored him, so he moved on. Lastly, he did film. He liked movies after all. But, he discovered very quickly that he just didn’t like making them, and critics annoyed him through their snobbery.
He deemed no purpose on his life beyond that of a consumer, and he accept it. It made life bearable. Now, divested of the “KuroKami Reviews” show, what did he have?
Another damned existential crisis.
Weren’t people supposed to have just the one? Maybe this was just a continuation of his first one.
John sighed. It didn’t matter. He was stuck without anything to do all day. Starting at the wall made him miss the art murals from the university.
He’d tried going outside, but everything cost money. Sure, survival was free, but coffee shops didn’t give free drinks. His friends were no shows. Hell, they seemed to be avoiding him because he now lived among “criminals.” Which had turned out to be absolute bullshit.
The people there were mostly families. Big ones. But, they somehow made it work, living in multiple little rooms. It was the weirdest shit to witness, but they worked. It was as if the whole building was a house, and everyone had a room in it. But, people did stay to themselves. His neighbors sometimes looked at him, but they really didn’t seem to want to talk to him.
Maybe it was because he didn’t fit in. But, John didn’t really feel like talking to them either. He thought they were strange, as if there were some abstract wall.
John, still on the floor, looked out the window, the nice buildings of the newer areas of the city at the distance. They looked amazing in comparison. Architects kept improving their building methods and structures, so now these things were getting massive, taller and wider than anything else.
He’d lived there. They were like little cities on their own. You could shop, dine, and live in them. Now, he could only look at them from the other side of the city and wonder what Father was up to. Was he working in the 200th floor until late again? Why did he even try to make money for anymore anyway? It wasn’t as he had anyone to support now. His life was probably way easier though, only having to worry about one.
John pushed himself off the floor, and went to clean the sandwich. It had made a mess. The paint had peeled off into the sandwich now, so it would not be edible. People frowned on wasted food, and if the government caught you, it was considered a criminal offence. But, they wouldn’t mind a sandwich with paint in it, would they?
He couldn’t live like this. He couldn’t stay in his apartment all day, and he couldn’t continue to have nothing to do. He had to do something. For the first time, he realized there was a purpose. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to live again.
Once he finished cleaning, he left the building. It was dark outside, but people still moved around like a hive mind. He joined them, but not aimlessly. It took twenty minutes to get to the first café chain.
Working at one sucked. People there were forced to smile at patrons who demanded bullshit things from them. He’d literally seen a woman scream at a barista once, angry because she could taste the whole milk in her latte when she’d ordered the skim milk. The lady, in her anger, grabbed her latte and tossed it across the room like a grenade, smashing the cup into an explosion of hot coffee.
At the end of the day, once the lady left with a new coffee and five tickets for free coffees for later, the manager made the worker clean up the mess. John sat there at the time, sipping on his own latte, listening in to the gossip. In the end, she double checked the order. She’d used skim for both the first coffee and the second.
John always wondered why anyone put up with that. But, at this point, he needed anything to get out of his situation.
Inside the café, he waited in line; and for the first time in his life, he did not order anything from the store. He simply looked at the barista’s fake smile and spoke.
“Are you guys currently hiring?”
The barista raised an eyebrow. And for a brief moment, she broke her fake smile. “We are usually hiring. You should be able to apply over the internet.”
“I don’t really have internet at the moment.”
This time the barista didn’t try to hide her surprise behind a fake smile. She raised an eyebrow and looked at him as if he were some strange animal. “You don’t? There’s free internet here.”
“I don’t have a phone or computer.” John grew impatient. He hated this whole thing. He didn’t really want to work, but he needed it. So, he kept a straight expression. He didn’t want to seem like he didn’t want to do this. “Is there a paper application, or something like that?”
The barista glanced away, looking for help from a coworker. “Let me go ahead and see if there’s anything we can do.” She walked away for a second, and went off to talk to the coworker.
She pointed at him and talked, the coworker also acting confused. Made sense. Who didn’t have a computer anymore? Unless he was some crazy person, how did he even live. It was as if he were some anomaly. Wasn’t anyone else in his position? People had to start somewhere.
The barista returned. “I’m sorry we don’t really have any paper applications. We got rid of them a while ago. But, you could try and going to a public library. They should have computers and free internet there.”
John forced himself not to sigh. Instead, he imitated the girl and smiled. He didn’t want her thinking he didn’t want to work. “Thank you.” John, about to turn, stopped and faced her again. “Do you by any chance know where’s the nearest public library?”
“Jesus, fuck. Google it man,” a customer complained from behind. “Hurry up. I have shit to do.”
“Sorry,” John said.
The barista looked worried, as if unsure what to do, but acted quickly. “Here,” the girl said. “I’ll lend you my phone during my break. You can wait over there.” She pointed at an empty table.
John stood outside the café for a while before going home. He watched people walk in and walk out. He watched people drive past and go somewhere.
He wondered if that would be him one day, going somewhere, anywhere. The whole idea of purpose sounded so foreign to him. He’d never been sure. And, he was still not sure about the rest of his life. But, he knew he wanted something. He knew he needed something. Before, when he wanted things, he just bought them. There was nothing to it. It felt like life, thus far, was like a video game with cheat codes turned on.
Back home, he slept, woke up, and repeated his every day routine. However, he added one more thing. He’d walk, twenty minutes to that café, where he’d ask about a job. After, he’d move to another establishment, hopping from place to place.
It was boring. It was tiring. But, at least it was something to do.
In one month’s time, he begun working. The barista who helped him at the café was promoted to some other place, so there was a job opening. He’d never properly thank her. But, that day, his life changed. Three weeks later, he received his first pay check. He spent it on a new phone. Still no internet.
On the next pay check, he bought new clothes. On the following, he finally had enough to have service on his phone, and finally entered the world again. His friends still dodged him a bit, but they reestablished a connection. And, eventually, John was moved to a different area, one of the better locations of the company, a café in his old building. He had gotten good at doing what he had believed impossible. He smiled at everyone. It was like a game, a mask he wore. The challenge was to see how much he could take before walking out. Somehow, nothing really changed. He didn’t walk out. He needed to be there after all.
A year later, he still smiled. He always smiled.
“It’ll be 12 dollars, sir,” John said, smiling at an older businessman.
He was on his phone, and never even looked at him in the eyes. He took out the money from his rear pocket, threw several crumpled bills on the checkout desk.
John straightened them out in his hand, counted, and tapped on his screen. “Two is your change.”
The man scoffed. “Can’t you see I am busy here?” he said pointing at his phone. “Yes, I am so sorry,” he said loudly. “It’s this stupid sales clerk who is supper obnoxious. Yeah, people here are so damn rude.”
John kept smiling, and just waited until the next customer came by. That was his day. Just smile at people no matter how much of an asshole they were, which seemed to be the general population, but that was life.
The day progressed as usual. He mopped the floor five times in one hour. Apparently, a child thought it was funny, so he kept tossing coffee out of his straw onto the floor. The father didn’t care. He just laughed and kept on talking to someone on his computer.
It wasn’t a particularly tough day. It was work as usual. Tiring and unfulfilling. He couldn’t wait to get out. But, at least he didn’t have to stare at the white wall.
Back at the cash register, John began to say his rehearsed welcome sentence, “Welcome to…” until he saw who his customer was. It had been so long. Over a year. He had not changed. His expression looked as disapproving as usual. John had fantasized about this meeting before, wondering what he’d tell Father should he ever see him. Even if he didn’t want to accept it, now that he lived by himself, that he resented the man.
John looked at his father in the eyes, deciding to treat him like any other customer. That’s how his father had treated him anyway. It was, in a way, telling him fuck you to his face.
“What would you like today? You look like a man who’s in control, you just give off that aura of power. So, may I recommend an americano?” John smiled.
Father’s eyes did not buckle. His body language was clear. Arms crossed, chin titled up, eyes looking down through the bottom of his glasses.
John kept smiling.
“I’ll have that.”
John tapped the computer. “It’ll be 9 dollars.”
Father took out his phone and paid.
“Thank you very much!” John said in his most cheerful tone.
Father shook his head, turned, and walked away. A few seconds later, John received a message on the computer, congratulating him and mentioning he’d received a tip. John tapped it, and he froze at the sum.
Twenty thousand dollars. The tip also came with a short note, “at least you have your own life now.”
After closing the register, John received the funds instantly to his bank account. In months, he had not had that much money. It was half a year salary. And, he couldn’t get what Father said out of his head. It had been a long year. Too much shit had happened. And now he worked in a shit cafe for the sake of just having some entertainment in his life.
Back home, he cooked some food. He’d gotten much better at that, and had managed not to eat a sandwich a single time since the one he threw at the window. He even bought a couple of recipe books to avoid it.
“At least you have your own life now.” His father’s voice repeated in his head.
Was this it then? Was this life? Getting the things that you need? Chasing the things that you want?
John sat in his apartment and ate. He still lived in the same shitty place, and took the subway to work. He didn’t want to spend much. With the money his dad sent him, he might be able to move, but part of him wondered if it was a good idea. Would he afford it later? He’d have to work harder to maintain that if he did.
John stared at his phone. His notification feed going crazy because his friends had just seen some new phone get announced. Kurokami had just reviewed it, and it was all the rage.
At least you have your own life now.