by T. Gene Davis
If it’s sold, the Man chips it. HDTV? Chipped. Shoes? Chipped. Cats and dogs? Chipped. Underwear? Chipped.
That’s life. Who cares? Everything has chips.
When the student loan bubble burst, average folk like me needed new tuition sources. I decided to go with sponsorship. The Man pays my tuition, books, and rent until I get my diploma. In return, I became a walking chip-activated billboard.
Sponsors wear a GPS and tops. The GPS is an ankle bracelet. It tracks location, gets remote data updates, and powers the tops via low energy microwave. You can’t take the GPS off, or you lose your sponsorship.
You get use to it. You don’t even notice, like a ring or watch. Sometimes you get a rash.
Tops are coats, shirts, and sweatshirts. While a sponsor, whenever you step outside your apartment, you have to wear their tops. Nothing on top, but their tops. The tops are e-ink billboards. Whenever your ankle bracelet comes within 10 feet of aggregated chips, the top activates with ads for the owners of those chips. Usually, the ads are just for similar products to those the chipped already bought.
Did I mention tops are back lit? Imagine taking a nice starlit walk, and, … Either way it sucks to be a sponsor.
Want to make enemies in your family? Become a sponsor and walk by the Christmas tree. You light up brighter than the tree with ads for most every present under the tree.
Want to get stomped? Stop by the night club. You wouldn’t believe the ads that appear on your top. Nice blinking ads for wart products and pregnancy tests, if you’re lucky. I don’t have a history of being lucky.
Want to get a date? Don’t get sponsored.
None of my professors liked sponsors, but the university mandated that we not be discriminated against. The Man likes getting paid. So, school policy protects the disadvantaged that become sponsors, and the school gets more paying customers—students.
I was sitting in class blinking of Beano and antacids, wondering which of my fellow students had gas, and which had acid reflux. (Maybe both.) I made a game of it when the lectures got boring. I’d glance at my top, and guess who the ad targeted.
It’s more fun than it sounds.
The professor ended, taking the PowerPoint with him, and we were free. I took my time leaving class. I try leaving class last. With plenty of time before my train, I had plenty of time before I had to be a blinking billboard, again.
Being sponsored is easiest when there is no one around. The top doesn’t go off, and no one hates you. When the room emptied, I casually walked to the door, took a deep breath, and left the now empty sanctuary.
I walked to the train slowly, enjoying the lack of ads. I listened to the wind in the leaves instead of the groans of fellow pedestrians.
At least the ads don’t have sound. I chuckled, thinking of the last Beano ad I’d run. Yes. I was glad for no sound with the ads. Marquees were bad enough.
I saw them too late. They were chipped and within ten feet. He was on one knee. She was sitting on a bench under the autumn colors. I tried walking by without catching their attention. She was looking at something sparkle on her finger. I was just past the happy couple when she screamed. I heard a sharp slap, and a sound of a small metal ring hitting concrete.
I tensed, looking at my top. An ad for a local escort service waved with phone and website information. I picked up my pace. I didn’t want to be around when the newly ditched Romeo figured out what had happened.
I made it to the train platform wondering if a part-time job might be a better idea than sponsoring. She arrived just after me. Her eyes were red, but she wasn’t crying. She caught me looking her way, and I looked down. I prayed I wasn’t about to get a swift kick or slap, like Romeo did.
She sat down next to me. Awkward.
“My friends warned me about him, but I didn’t believe it.”
She sat there pondering my top. I glanced down to see some lipstick plastered across my chest. Very masculine. That little voice told me not to ask, but I hadn’t been out ever since I’d been sponsored.
“If you’re free, do you want to go out sometime?”
Her look belonged in a viral video. She stood up, and moved her chips out of range. My top went blank. She got on the train, when it came. I stayed on the platform, and waited for a different train. I looked up at the sunny sky thinking, shouldn’t it rain or something.
I saw the sponsor that recked my engagement most days after class. His classes must have ended at the same time as mine. I never noticed him before my engagement-gone-wrong. I usually tune out billboards and other mind rot.
How could he ask me out?
He often caught the train that I caught. I stood behind him hoping not to catch his attention. Some Barbie looking thing with sequins all over her blouse, stood uncomfortably close to the billboard. I tried to read my marketing textbook and tried not to eavesdrop, but everything was more interesting than that book.
“Tanaka?” Barbie asked, blinding me with reflected light off her blouse. I closed my book louder than necessary—frustrated. Seriously, … who wears sequin blouses?
“Yeah,” he said. “Brandon Tanaka.”
“You don’t look Chinese.” Brunette, but she acts blonde. I’m blonde, so I probably should shy away from the blonde jokes. She still acts blonde.
“Japanese, … actually.”
“You’re Japanese?” I stifled a groan. Brandon was as caucasian as me and Barbie.
“Only by adoption, … So how about tonight at eight?”
“That sounds great, Mr. Tanaka.” She joked, grating on my nerves. I imagined her giggling a high pitched, tee-HEE. I’d rather be a sponsor than wear a sequin blouse. Looking down at my concert t-shirt, I realized, technically I was a sponsor.
Brandon’s and my train came. I pushed past Barbie, so it didn’t leave without me. I was blinded one last time by a glint of Barbie’s blouse through the train window as I sat down on the last available seat. Sequins should be illegal.
I realized as we drove out of range, I was sitting by a billboard. It was Brandon. Brandon Tanaka.
“Oh, … hi,” I squeaked.
“I guess I deserve that.”
“Nah. I was out of line. Sorry about that whole asking you out right after ruining your engagement thing.”
“I’m not sure it counts as an engagement until after he gets off his knee.” I smiled to let him know it was a joke. Joking would be easier if life came with a laugh track. The train car was too loud for a laugh track, but the guy behind us laughed. I thought about turning around, but resisted.
Brandon grinned, and looked out the window. I reopened my text book. The movement on the billboard kept drawing my attention away from the book every other sentence. I only managed to read a page before my stop. I didn’t say goodbye to Brandon, and he returned the favor.
Over the next month, I spotted Brandon several times. It’s hard to miss a guy flashing advertisements for products that cure severe foot odor. Every time we crossed paths, he was having sponsored moments. That’s how I started thinking of them. I’d look around and there he was. No. He wasn’t stalking me. He was a nice guy with really bad timing. Embarrassment was the word of the month.
Once, I caught him trying to catch a movie, but glow-in-the-dark billboards aren’t welcomed in dark theaters. At the upscale restaurant, he advertised roach bombs. At the bar, he blinked of divorce lawyers. My favorite was the bail bondsman ad at school while he was walking across campus with a Teacher’s Assistant.
Several times he was with Barbie—I didn’t know her real name. I saw Brandon with Barbie at a burger place a week or two after the TA incident. I was sitting in a booth, and they were standing in line. Brandon blinked of periodic feminine products, … or was it facial waxing? His red face looked everywhere, but at Barbie or his shirt. Hey, it could be worse, I thought, and he looked me in the eye. Then I turned red. I could tell it from his expression, he felt it couldn’t get worse.
After he paid for her dinner, she broke up with him. They were out of earshot, but I could tell, even across the room. It was right after the commercial for slimming garments. At first I thought she would dowse him in diet cola, but after a short exchange, she left him to finish his fries alone. He glanced my way, and caught me staring at him.
Two catches. I might as well say, hi. I walked over and sat down in Barbie’s now vacant seat. He looked at me with curiosity.
“Shall we assume this is ‘sometime’?”
“Huh?” He didn’t get it.
“You asked, ‘If you’re free, do you want to go out sometime.’ This is the answer.”
“If you don’t mind, I ….”
“Nope. Don’t mind. And I promise not to dump soda on you, if you advertise I need to lose weight.”
“I suppose we could share our breakup stories,” Brandon said with a grin. He had a nice smile—unforced.
We dated for several weeks before I visited his apartment. My suspicion is that it took him that long to clean it. He is a just a guy, after all.
“To think my name almost became Homely,” I changed the topic just to keep the conversation going.
Brandon grunted something that sounded like, “Funny.”
“My name was Homely, once.”
The drawn curtain kept the narrow unlit apartment dark. Brandon hung his top by the door, and we lay on separate couches in the dark room, just talking. It was nice. His apartment had two parts: by the door and by the window. We lay on narrow couches lining what a generous person might call a living room by the window. The space between the couches was narrow enough that I could reach from my couch and smack him when he told stupid jokes, which I did for the Homely joke.
“Ow. What did I say?”
“That wasn’t funny. His name really was Homely.”
“So was mine. I’m not making it up. Remember? I’m adopted. Do I look like a Tanaka?”
“Too Homely to be a Tanaka?”
He chuckled. That was good. I couldn’t see grins in the dark.
I suggested we open the curtains, but it made little difference. The the brick structure next door was only inches from the window. Obviously, the window was there before the neighboring building went up.
Each time someone walked down the hall, the top by the door went off revealing a little bit about them. The guy next door needed dog food. The couple across the hall expected a baby, … they’d have to move. Baby’s weren’t allowed in this complex. The lady down the hall used adult diapers. Yuck. That’s not all. Brandon knew each person by their ads, and told me all about them. He’d never actually met his neighbors, and didn’t know many of them on sight.
“So what are the Homely’s like?” I asked.
“Really. What are they like?”
“Really. I don’t know. Don’t you trust me when I say I don’t know?”
“Come on. Tell me.”
“Not very trusting today, are you young lady.” At least he called me lady instead of chick this time.
“Why won’t you tell me about them?”
“Don’t know about the trust. Sounds like a personal issue.”
I smacked him again.
“I think I have a bruise,” he complained. “How come girls can get away with hitting guys, but guys can’t hit girls.”
“‘Cause we’re in charge and you’re not.”
I think he grinned again, but absent a chuckle, I wasn’t sure.
“You changed the topic,” I pressed him again.
“Yes, I did.”
“How can you know your birth name, but not your parents?”
“I know my dad’s address. But, …”
“I’m too chicken to go by his place and disrupt his life.”
“Then I have a new goal for our relationship.”
“We have a relationship?”
I smacked him again, a little softer this time. I didn’t really want him bruised. Just subservient.
“John. Can you get the door.”
“Yes, Father.” I answered formally, teasing him. He hated being called “Father”. Dad preferred I use his first name when addressing him.
I answered the door, and there was another sponsor flashing ads for escort services, … like all the others. It wasn’t even my bachelor party, and I didn’t stay past the toast! Those sponsors cost me my fiancé.
“What do you want?!” I nearly yelled at him. Now they were making house calls? Idiot billboards.
“Um, … Mr. Everett Homely?”
I walked away, before I lost it. Do they even care? What kind of horrible person becomes a billboard?
“Everett, it’s for you.” I didn’t even look at my dad. We’d already yelled extensively about the ads I generated. I was getting out of range of the billboard before he answered the door.
I listened from the kitchen just out of range of the billboard. I didn’t catch much of the conversation. I heard the word dad, and then my Father shouting for the sponsor to get off his property. A threat of legal action was in there somewhere.
When my Father came back into the kitchen, I asked what the sponsor wanted.
“Some Pro-Life nut job. That’s all.”
When my father said, that’s all, he really meant drop it. So I dropped it.
“Hi, Beth,” Brandon said to me while blinking an ad for men’s clothes from a store I could never afford. I looked around wondering who the ad was for. “I almost gave up and ordered.”
“Yeah,” I said, waiting for news about his meet and greet with dear old dad.
We sat in silence. He wasn’t going to tell me unless I drug it out of him. For a guy who walks around revealing everyone else’s personal lives, he sure kept secrets.
“I saw him.”
“Did you speak.”
“I tried to.”
“I guess my mom told him she had had an abortion.”
That couldn’t have gone well. I imagined the conversation beginning with Hi Dad, and ending with I hoped you were dead, all the time blinking sponsorships for contraceptives.
“What did he say?”
“He yelled for me to get off his property. He’ll call the police if I come back.”
Not well. It might have been worse, … maybe not. He looked at the menu with red eyes. We ordered. He excused himself to visit to men’s room blinking ads for a competing restaurant as he wove through tables.
I sat in the classroom, … ignored like graffiti. They even turned out the light on me, like I wasn’t there. The sponsorship turned off when the classroom cleared, and I sat in the dark.
The room lit up. It was just ads on my top. I looked down to see half an ad. Another sponsor must be close by. Our tops were synced. Then the door opened, and I saw her. The ring chick. My Beth. My Beth wearing a sponsorship top. She was now a billboard like me.
“Wow. You got sponsored.”
“Yes. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I’m sorry, what’s your name?” I joked with her. I knew she hated sponsorships. “I keep seeing you everywhere, and have to mentally call you the ring chick.”
“No. The ring thing is a bit sensitive still.”
“Oh.” I was embarrassed, again. I always say stupid things when I’m embarrassed.
“It’s okay. You’re forgiven,” she smiled.
“Maybe I can replace the ring some day.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Maybe,” she repeated me. “We have a train to catch.”
T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software.
T. Gene Davis notes, … “The problem with near future science fiction is that if you wait too long to publish it, it loses its science fiction status. All the technology for this story is already available, and in some cases already used commercially. I was afraid to wait any longer to publish it.”