Fiction, 2200 words (10 min)
Takers were slim for the first month. Jacob lived in a project manager's backyard, in a tent, until the rent increased and he took the tent with him, cycling between sidewalks flush with needles and shit and dead October leaves. There were two interviews: the first was a midsize medical-imaging group. The five employees dancing, raucous, in their 500 square feet.
“I don't even know if we need you,” CEO said. He was trim, a little bulbous in the biceps and shoulders. “We just raised our Series A, so we're looking to expand.”
They didn't discuss his qualifications, not even his models for better chest X-ray pathology detection. Twenty minutes of the CEO sipping water, looking wistfully like there was something he knew he'd forgotten; and then Jacob was gone.
The second was DingDo, pre-seed but buzzy, with ten plugged-in employees apparently all working for free. DingDo was the lovechild of a Swedish financier, who might also be a guru, it was hard to tell online…
“What is feature death?” he found himself asking. The hiring manager, also the CEO, eyed him suspiciously over a cup of kava.
“It's when people decide they don't need you anymore,” he said. “And we've solved it.”
“If you're lucky—” nose descending into kava—“you'll find out.”
On the corner he met Bob, tentless, with long blonde Arthurian hair.
“Always know your worth,” he said from the curb. Across the street, four policemen circumscribed a cartoonishly large puddle of blood, looking down at it, scratching their heads. Behind them the monolithic Child & Child, 38th-most-successful VCs online, 36th-most-prestigious, and 32nd on his personal list of résumé destinations.
In the second month he found DaTable: a fusion of spreadsheets, which he hated, and dating apps, which he'd never tried. Use DaTable to determine your optimal partner, the story went. Offer pieces of your life to an endless spreadsheet: your shoe size, greatest fears, whatever. Each week you'll receive a text reservation at a swanky café or dinner spot (it was configurable) and when you arrive, you'll meet the love of your life, or an optimal fuck (it was configurable).
But DaTable seemed warm, cushy. They literally opened the door for him, or rather the door opened itself. He entered a human combustion engine, groups cycling and gyrating between coworking tables, shouts punctuating the air.
“We need unsupervised algorithms,” Kate, no title, said. “Can you work with those?”
“I am extremely comfortable with them,” he lied. His GitHub did, thankfully, showcase a few.
“We'll talk in three days.”
Two weeks later he was called to a room with a whiteboard and Kate and an old man, prim pink collar starched, where he completed a series of questions designed to test, in order: understanding the theory, familiarity with common libraries, and—the juicy bit—the ability to make decisions without enough data.
“Looks good,” Kate said. “See you soon?”
Oh, he hoped so.
On the day of his offer letter he moved into a real apartment, bigger than his room back home. He had a meeting with Kate the next evening. He could see vaguely the corner where he'd slept or been unable to sleep on the concrete, Bob either gone or merely out of view.
Instead of a desk he had an exercise bike, which PM David explained:
“The new hires save on power,” he said. “Don't stop pedaling or your GPU will shut off. This is also a wellness thing.”
“What if my model’s training when it dies?”
“Hm. Stop after it hits a checkpoint.”
He hadn't exercised in years, and sweated profusely. The GPU sat under a protective shield; the sweat would've made for handy liquid cooling, David mused, but it was conductive and thus too risky.
“What do your parents do?” Kate asked over guac.
“Dad fixes cars,” Jacob said. “Mom used to teach.” A scrap memory—the smells of chocolate chips, cookies baking, cigarette smoke. “Yours?”
Kate was, in fact, a fellow Carolinian. Her family slightly richer, but they too lived Nowhere, swaddled with dogwoods and brown ponds and farmers with sloping fields of wandering cows. She was exactly her dad, she said, pre-dementia. She had worked the syrup out of her accent but it lingered in the corners of words: cain't, two-thousand taen. Undergrad Kate had bootstrapped a digital marketing startup at Georgia Tech, which DaTable had brought in-house for “around three”.
Kate nodded. “Me staying on is a part of the deal,” she explained. “For the next two years.”
“What comes after that?”
She shrugged: “I like to paint.”
She pulled up some pictures on her phone—drastic smears and coughs of paint, crimson and mauve, with meticulous landscapes lurking underneath like memories being forgotten.
One morning of cycling came to a pause with the introduction of the group’s new manager:
Bob indeed, with the same hair but now in a sweatshirt of a single high-quality fabric, hands in pockets.
“I was on a shelter cleanse,” he said. “It's like fasting, but holistic.” Bob would descend from some upper floor every few days, stroking his spotless chin, speaking in riddles like:
“So it’s working?”
“It’s working, yeah.”
“But which is more important—what it’s doing now, or what it can do?”
Jacob's answers—in this instance, the model was 96% accurate, the state of the art, and this was the only thing it could do—were always missing something: Bob would recede, chin-stroking, with his brow furrowed like a cliff-face shorn by centuries of angry waves. Corporate legend held that Bob had once been an engineer himself, but this seemed so distant it was hard to imagine, like a pre-Christian Jesus building chairs.
Jacob began staying over at Kate’s, where they’d work together on her bed.
“What are we doing?” he’d ask.
“We’re connecting people,” she said: her nose was prim, her cheeks cherubic. “In fact, we're better at connecting people than they are at connecting themselves.”
“Yeah, but what does that mean?”
She yawned and leaned back from her laptop:
“You don’t know? You’re training the models we use.”
“I know what they’re doing,” he said. “Linear algebra.”
Kate was gearing up for a campaign to differentiate DaTable from apps like Tinder. She had a way of falling headfirst into her work, so that Jacob would sometimes look over, attention expended, to see her still fully focused. She was able to answer yes/no questions reasonably without really listening, leading to confusions like, “What, we got Chinese? I didn’t say that!”
“It’s like self-hypnosis,” he said. “It’s a superpower.”
“It’s a work ethic,” she said. “You’ll have one too, eventually.”
On the sidewalk he’d only dreamt of other sidewalks, or of rolling onto a needle and catching a disease; but in a warm bed he dreamed of his mother, the way she would cough but then smile from under her hospital blankets. The doctors during their visits said that everything else was perfect—she was so healthy, so healthy, they orbited around the mangled core of her fate in showers of optimistic jargon.
“Just don't smoke,” Mom said, then laughed. “Obviously.”
Even at nine Jacob could understand the strained normalcy that Dad projected, could imagine how it would collapse like a suspension bridge when he was gone.
He and Kate would go to parks, museums, bookstores with fun little themes: this one has cats! This one is take-and-leave! She swam through books, they were her oxygen; Jacob struggled, for her, to penetrate just the topmost strata of War and Peace. He struggled to remember things, too—to go to the store regularly, to do the laundry. Kate helped, then helped less.
“I'm moonlighting as your babysitter,” she said.
“I know, I'm sorry.”
“How did you even make it this far, lacking so many basic skills?”
He'd been asked this exact question before but hadn't yet figured a clever response. He didn't feel clever.
“Whatever,” Kate said, “check your texts.” She was grinning. He found a message from her in the morning, a link to a museum page. An exhibition.
“When did you make this happen?” he said, feeling giddy. Kate sat in his lap, having conjured a bottle of champagne.
“I've been trying for a while,” she said. “And failing—I figured I'd wait until I got a bite to tell you.” She offered him the bottle: “Do you know how to open these?”
She smiled, twisting the cork into her palm.
“I haven’t done this since my acquisition,” she said. “It feels good.”
He’d never had champagne—wondered, with a vague unease, if he’d ever have his own occasion for it.
“I love you,” she said, with a kiss on the cheek. He allowed his gaze to wander upwards, past her floor-to-ceiling windows to her vaulted ceiling.
“I love you too.”
After that he would stay at the office until eleven, midnight, one, then so late that Kate would be drifting off when he reached her every night.
“I just feel more productive there.”
“And what is all this productivity for? Impressing Bob?”
“Bob's not as bad as I thought.”
It cut into the time he used to spend talking, reading, calling home. Bob must have sensed the change and began proposing new features, placing ladder-rungs before him, leading eventually (Jacob hoped) to a Bob-like managerial position.
One of Bob's proposals was so ambitious, so unrelated to everything DaTable currently did, that he pulled three consecutive all-nighters creating a demo. He left his car in the lot and Lyfted home, choosing his steps willfully, slumping against the elevator and barely managing to unlock the door to Kate's apartment.
“Kate,” he said, unsure of the time. He checked his phone—8:00—and saw twenty texts and three missed calls.
“I cannot believe you missed it,” she said, pacing over his floor.
“I've seen them! I saw them on their way into the museum. I can see them there tomorrow.”
“So you don't care that it mattered to me? That I wanted you to be there?”
His thoughts were like unstretched taffy; what was there to say?
“This isn’t even a relationship,” she said. “I’m not your girlfriend, I’m your mom.”
He felt a warmth rising inside:
“You are not my mother.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Give me some time to learn the ropes.”
He was stupid, impotent.
“You have no idea what it's like,” he said. “You had a nice life and grew up and made millions of dollars and now your life is even nicer.”
He knew he wasn't quite right, was simmering over, but did it matter? He would remember Kate’s face later—like she’d been slapped: surprise with one watercolor droplet of disgust.
“Of course,” she said, “how could I forget? Only you have experienced true pain.”
“Truer than yours,” he said.
Something caught in her throat with a huff, and she left.
That first night he fell asleep watching the corner from his window, the corner with no true Bob. Other nights he would call, wait, and hang up.
DaTable grew and grew more—abandoned the exercise bikes, dropped the capital T—and eventually merged with a competitor into Table. In the clamor new floors were purchased, departments transformed and migrated, and he saw Kate carrying her monitor to the elevator.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I hate this.” She reached the elevator and sidled inside:
“I thought you might.”
“What I mean is, I'm selfish,” he said, “and extremely childish.”
Then the doors closed, sealing him out. He lingered for a while, imagining a future where he had pressed himself in with her.
Kate's exhibition was still in the museum for another three days, with many of the larger works red-dotted as sold. He could afford—just barely—the smallest landscape in the set. It sat up against the wall on his kitchen countertop, where it was visible from almost everywhere in the apartment.
The last words he spoke to his mother, when she was either still living or just barely dead, a mantra to stave off his suffocating drumbeat heart: It's okay, mom, I'll learn how to fix this, I'll find other smart people and we'll figure out how to see it sooner, maybe we can stop it, at least we can slow it down…
“We're expanding,” Bob said one morning. “We'll predict careers, credit scores. We have a government contract to predict recidivism. I don't even know what that is, but there’s a dataset.”
“Bob,” Jacob said, “fuck you.”
“Whoa,” Bob laughed, “live one here!”
Jacob quit, which necessitated leaving his apartment, which left him sitting with his things until Kate found him.
“I don’t want to do nothing,” he said, from her couch.
“I don’t want that either.”
There was a moment of fraught silence, something before. At this point, he knew, a smarter person would have an idea.
“I could start a company,” he said. “Superhuman radiology. Better results, no salaries.” He let out a weak and wandering breath, like a human doll deflating. The landscape sat leaned up against the wall by Kate’s couch, still homeless.
“How hard could it be to raise a seed round?” he said.
“I never had to.”
“But how hard could it be, really?”
Kate shrugged, which was better than nothing.