Perceptual Constancy

“Welcome to Mensa!” the subject line glowed. She sighed. It’s an honor to be recognized in the top 2% of intellects worldwide, she reminded herself, but it was now simply another obligation to attend meetings to listen to things in which she wasn’t interested. Mental masturbation.


The thought made her laugh. At least it was different than actual masturbation; she was bored of that, too. She had only even applied to try to meet smarter men to fuck, anyway. Most men she met didn’t understand what she was talking about half the time, and certainly didn’t get her jokes, though they pretended to so she would fuck them. And she did, because what else was she supposed to do?


Her father had been a member of Mensa, too. He used his membership to pick up women, and had told her as much once when she was 14 and he had brought her to a meeting. There hadn’t been any attractive women he hadn’t already fucked there that night, though. It didn’t matter. He quickly ran through the pool of attractive ones and got bored with the whole organization. She vaguely remembered him joining the Sierra Club shortly after. The women there were hippies and believed in free love.


*** 


When she woke up the next morning, something felt different. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it and decided to chalk it up to grogginess. Oliver Sacks’ book, ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ was still tented on her nightstand where she had left off the night before. She hated breaking the spine like that; it was a sin against books to do so. She picked it up and realized she hadn’t finished the chapter before closing her eyes last night. It was only a few more pages, why not finish it now?


Color constancy, for him, was a special example of the way in which we achieve perceptual constancy generally, make a stable perceptual world from a chaotic sensory flux—a world that would not be possible if our perceptions were merely passive reflections of the unpredictable and inconstant input that bathes our receptors.” 


She read the first sentence and then stopped. Even though she had been forced to sound many of them out, she recognized most of the words, but it was as if they were in an order that was foreign to her. She had no idea what they meant in their current arrangement. She reread it, slowly this time, and while she had some vague recognition, she was still utterly incapable of comprehending the meaning. It was the same feeling she had felt in high school when she had tried to read one of the books her father had written in the field of mathematical topology.


Well, this is weird, she thought, as she absentmindedly stroked her 600-threadcount Egyptian cotton sheet. She knew she had read Sacks’ book a handful of times before. It was one of her favorites from college. She loved the chapter about Tourette’s Syndrome. Mostly because Tourette’s was on the list of optional but desirable traits for her ideal man. It was just so damn funny. 


But unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Tourette’s patients only have minor physical tics, and not the hilarious blurting-obscenities-loudly-in-church version, which made the odds of finding her ideal man that much smaller. Her father had had Tourette’s. Probably. To her knowledge, he had never been diagnosed, but he most certainly had some very odd tics. She could remember countless occasions of sitting in the car as a child and being startled by his face suddenly contorting while he gnashed his teeth and pounded the steering wheel. It was terrifying, and mercifully brief. That particular tic only ever happened in the car. Maybe it was just road rage.


Maybe she just needed some coffee.


***


“Sorry I’m late!” she apologized. Raphaela looked at her strangely from behind the marble-top reception desk. “The, uh, traffic was bad.” she finished weakly. She had no idea why she was apologizing; she never apologized. She was the CEO, after all. She could show up whenever she wanted and no one would bat an eye. At least if they knew what was good for them. But today, she didn’t feel quite so powerful. 


While it was true that she had a hell of a time getting in to the office, it had nothing to do with traffic and everything to do with the fact that she couldn’t remember how to get to the damn office. She knew she usually took the side streets because the freeway was a parking lot in the mornings, but somehow she had made one wrong turn after another and only by accident managed to get to a major thoroughfare. It wasn’t until she was halfway across the other side of town that she remembered she could use her phone for directions. Without Siri, she might still be driving.


“The Board is waiting for you in the conference room.” Raphaela said cheerfully, handing her a USB drive. “Here’s your presentation. I made all of the changes you wanted.” 


***


The Chairman raised his coffee cup in a mock toast as she walked into the sleekly modern conference room. “There you are! Better late than never, or as it is written in Exodus 9:32, ‘But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they ripen late!’” he laughed heartily. The old man’s jovial manner and kindly features masked a will of steel, as always. The message: don’t ever be late, ever again. 


In a previous life, the Chairman had been a very successful traveling preacher. That is, until his faith had been tested to its limits by the realization that his fellow traveling preachers were nothing more than grifters stealing coins from the most impoverished. Regardless, none of his later-in-life corporate investments (including this one) would have been possible without his early experiences and income as a traveling preacher.


“Be that as it may,” the Chairman continued, “I reckon my wife’s gone be madder than a wet hen if I don’t make it to lunch with her sister on time.” The Chairman’s melodious and slow Southern drawl was overexaggerated; he had been born and raised in Chicago by first-generation German-Americans, and his crystal blue eyes missed nothing. Those eyes were sharply focused on her at the moment. Everyone else in the room took their cues from him, and turned to face her expectantly.


It was harder than she thought it should have been to get that stupid USB drive to fit in the projector. Next time, she would ask Raphaela to get everything set up before she got there. When the projector finally cast its shimmering blue light on the screen, she knew she might be in trouble. 


“Good morning, everyone!” she said a little too brightly. “Thank you all for coming. Today, I’ll be covering…” she paused to read the first slide. Damn. She’d always had difficulty with words that began with the letter ‘Q.’ “Uh, we’re here today to, uh, go over the three ‘RD,’ I mean Third, um,” she took an unsteady breath. 


This had never happened to her before. Or had it? She didn’t know. She took another breath and sounded the word out silently. She shook her head as if to clear it of literal cobwebs. Breathing in, she began again slowly, “Let’s take a look at our Third Qu-Quarter, um, Report.”


She could see the Chairman exchanging a concerned look with the Chief Operating Officer, who feigned concern back. That guy was a big fat dickhead, complete with a constantly sweaty upper lip and manboobs. He was always gunning for her job and had his lips permanently attached to the Chairman’s ass. Shaking off the urge to punch Dickhead Scott in the throat, she managed to get the next slide in the presentation to advance. 


It was covered in five long columns of numbers. Although most of them were in black and green, a few of them were red. The numbers were piled on top of one another. And then they began to move. They were dancing in little random number circles, mocking her. The last thing she heard before the dark tunnel closed in was the Chairman asking her if she was okay.


***


“… and your change is ten sixty-three.” She had counted it out carefully. It had taken her two years to master making the correct change consistently. It was no surprise; she had never used cash before. That the cash register screen told her the amount to pull was a godsend. She liked working at Walmart. It was within walking distance of her cozy but dilapidated apartment. She got up at 7am daily, showered, pulled her hair into a ponytail and got to work in time to clock in by 8am. 


Every night towards the end of her shift, she would sneak by the deli counter on a “bathroom break” before she clocked out and pick up a sandwich or some single-serve chicken to take home. Six days a week. The night before her days off she would spend at the bar to meet men.


She had a couple of “regulars,” too. Friends with benefits, really. There was Joe, the auto mechanic, whose large hairy belly rubbed against her clit and made her cum while he fucked her. He smelled like gasoline, but his dick was thick and hard. And then there was Michael. He was married and had four kids, but he liked fucking her, or so he said. But Michael never stayed very long.


She tossed her keys on the milk crate covered with a thin piece of glass that served as her coffee table and switched on the tv. Her favorite show was on tonight, and she hoped that the knock-down drag-out fight that had been in the promos all week was going to be good. That crusty bitch Angie deserved to be taken down a peg or two. 


Returning from the kitchen with a beer, she sat down to enjoy her sandwich. She must have sat on the tv remote, because the screen jumped to a news channel. They were talking about the upcoming election and something about “necessary economic reforms for welfare recipients.” She didn’t care. Why vote? Those rich political guys in their stupid-looking suits and snappy red ties were all the same, anyway. She flipped the channel back and settled in for a pleasant evening. 


***


“It doesn’t matter what the customer said, LaWanda,” she explained patiently. “You can’t call the customers a ‘hoe-ass bitch.’ Even if they are. That jerk shouldn’t have said that to you, but it’s company policy we can’t say stuff like that back.” She gave LaWanda a sympathetic one-arm hug and went back to her booth. It had taken five years, but she was now the Head Cashier. And it was her job to look out for the other cashiers, so the assistant manager didn’t have to.


And even though things were pretty good now, she couldn’t help but be nervous. There were a lot of whispers that big changes were coming to Walmart. That there was going to be a mass layoff. Those self-checkout scanners that never worked right were going to be replacing everyone for good. And they had robots now to stock the shelves at night. She had thought about applying to Target, but they had laid off all of their employees last week.


***


Flipping the channels aimlessly, she sighed. She was bored. And slightly hungry. Definitely horny. There was no one to call. She hadn’t been to the bars in months, couldn’t afford it, really. Michael’s wife had snooped through his phone one night (bitch!) and threatened to take the kids, the house, and his money so he decided to do the right thing and be a good husband. Last year, Joe married a Puerto Rican ex-hooker who apparently gave really good blow jobs and could cook excellent rice and beans. 


She hadn’t been able to find work in months. Thank goodness for her unemployment benefits! All of the big box stores had gone automated, which was great if you were a customer. And because it cost so little to operate all those stores, they were able to lower their prices dramatically on everything. You could buy a pair of really nice tennis shoes there for a dollar.


There were hardly any mom-and-pop stores left. And the ones that remained only employed “mom” and “pop.” They never needed any other employees. Or couldn’t afford them. Even the fast food joints were fully automated and required no humans to operate them. And everyone was happy because the robots never fucked up and put onions you didn’t want on the Quarter Pounders.


Her money came like clockwork every month, deposited directly into her account. Whatever-his-name-is that got elected a couple years back had made sure to increase the benefits she and all of the rest of the big box layoff folks received. It was actually pretty nice. She didn’t have to do anything and she got paid the same as if she had to get up every day.


Now if only there was something juicy to watch on tv.

***

The envelope looked very official. She frowned as she tore it open. “EMPLOYMENT BENEFITS UPDATE: ACTION REQUIRED” took up the top third of the page she pulled out of the envelope. She squinted as she read slowly. “There have been changes to your eligibility for unemployment benefits. In order to keep your benefits, you MUST come to the Unemployment Office at the address below on the date indicated to fill out additional forms. FAILURE TO BE PRESENT AT THE DATE AND TIME INDICATED WILL LEAD TO A REDUCTION OR LOSS OF BENEFITS. Bring this letter with you.” 

Fuck, what a pain in the ass, she thought.

***

It took two different buses to get there. In front of her, an imposing building, brand new on the west side of town, all concrete and no windows. She mused, boy, it must really suck to work at the Unemployment Office. She walked through the wide sliding glass door and found herself in a large atrium. The building looked big from the outside, but not this big. There were hundreds of people milling about like lazy ants. Maybe even thousands. She stood swiveling her head for a moment until she saw a large sign that said, “SCAN YOUR LETTER HERE.” 

The screen lit up, “Welcome! Please proceed to the third floor, Green Wing.” There was a clear Lucite box that had a stack of building maps next to the screen. She took one and studied it before heading towards the stainless-steel elevators on the left.


When the elevator doors opened, there was a giant room filled with rows and rows of computer stations. And people sitting at nearly every station, typing away. There was another sign in the middle of the floor towards the front, “TAKE A SEAT TO BEGIN.” She looked around and finally found an open station towards the back. The computer screen flickered when she sat down. “PLEASE FILL OUT ALL FIELDS COMPLETELY.” It started with her name. 


Fuck this shit, she thought, don’t they have all of this information already?


***

“THE TEST WILL BEGIN IN 60 SECONDS.” Complete bullshit, having to take a test just to continue to get her monthly check. She thought she had heard that the government was supposed to be making it easier to get benefits, not harder! They were supposed to be making things better for everybody!


The test looked familiar. Like the one she had to take to get into that stupid club whose name she couldn’t remember all those years ago. She wished she could remember the answers. She didn’t remember it being this hard. First you had to match some complicated big words with other complicated big words, when she didn’t know what the first complicated big words meant to begin with. She guessed “C” for all of those. 


Then, there were math problems. You only had a certain amount of time to complete each one, and there is no way it was enough time for anyone halfway normal to figure out the answer. If you even knew what all those letters and numbers and weird-looking symbols were anyway. She was glad when that section was complete.


The last section was all pictures. You had to figure out which picture came next in a row. She liked those questions. Maybe she wasn’t getting them all right, but at least the pictures were interesting. Bird, square, square, circle, circle, blank. After a moment, she thoughtfully clicked the picture of a fire truck and the screen went dark for a moment. 


“CALCULATING YOUR SCORE…”


***


86. She wondered if 86 was a good score. She tried to remember what her score was the last time she had taken a test like this. She thought it might have been a little higher. But who gives a fuck, really? You don’t need to be that creepy old dead guy in a wheelchair that did math stuff and talked funny to get unemployment. The screen told her to pick up the printout of her results at the back of the room and proceed to Room 307.


Room 307 was at the far end of a long, fluorescent-lit hallway with bright green linoleum tiles on the opposite side of the elevators. It was very quiet over here. She opened the overly heavy shiny metal door. The door looked to be at least five inches thick. It was wider than her hand. A fat Hispanic woman with short brown hair and a large hairy mole on her left cheek looked up from behind a little desk and said flatly, “Choo got your paper?” 


The mole-woman looked bored. I’d hate your job, too, she thought sympathetically as she handed over the printout. Standing behind Mole Woman there was a tall black man with a faint thin beard and yellowed eyes in a dark blue rent-a-cop type outfit. The badge on his chest didn’t look familiar. He was loosely holding a gun in his right hand. 


He looked bored, too.


“Okay, choo go stand over there for a minute.” Mole Woman waved behind her. The security guard motioned her over towards the far wall with a nod of his head in the same direction. She wondered briefly why security was needed at all, since there was no one else in the room. She walked over towards the wall with the security guard following her; when she reached the wall, the man gently grabbed her left elbow to turn her around so she was facing him directly. Then he took one long step back from her and raised his hand that was holding the gun to her eye level. 

And fired.

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