Joe hated a lot of things, and most people. But he loved the Pittsburgh Steelers and he didn’t have anywhere to watch the big game.
It wasn’t scheduled on broadcast channels and he couldn’t figure out how to hack the network, even though he had taken three computer classes at the community college before being tossed for trying to remove the headscarf from the brown-skinned girl who insisted on wearing it to class where she sat in front of him.
It was a shame, a damn shame, getting booted like that because the classes had been free, arranged by the county job center after he lost his job at the local call center for cursing at a customer who spoke too much broken English.
Joe usually watched the Steelers with his friend Pete but was no longer welcome at Pete’s house. Too excitable, Pete decided, after Joe celebrated an Antonio Brown touchdown so wildly that he punched Pete’s overweight cat.
Joe didn’t understand the punishment. He had apologized. He admitted that he didn’t always think before he acted. But Pete wasn’t buying it. Joe even showed Pete the self-help strategies he had found online.
But it was a no-go. Holding the cat Sandy, who was bleeding from the left ear, Pete had methodically ushered Joe toward the door. Joe had started to protest but finally shut up when Pete put down the cat, held Joe by both biceps, stared in his eyes and shouted:
“Joe, you can be a bigger man. But not here. I got a wife and kids.”
That meant the only way to see the game would be a TV at a tavern. Joe headed over to Bison, Bull and Beer early, before it got too crowded. He didn’t have much money, so he planned to nurse a 22-ounce Pabst and bring along the laptop he found on the bus to look like a hip, cool, educated guy. That way, he figured, no one would try to chase him away, no matter how long he stayed. To complete his disguise, he took along his new self-help book called “Get a Grip. The Guide to Control, Ten Ways to Squeeze More Out of Life.”
He got lucky. He got a nice booth close to a TV. The table was a yard square, big enough for all his stuff: his laptop; the thick notebook he kept to write down his complaints about city government; his medium-sized notebook with his start-up ideas; and the tiny notebook with all the names of people he hated.
Searching for that tiny notebook in the bottom of his backpack, his fingers ran across something hard and round, like a hockey puck. He scrunched up his face quizzically then smiled broadly. He had forgotten about the new Echo Dot he had stolen from the lobby of his old apartment house after the Amazon guy left it for that bitch in 402.
“Alexa, how old is Ben Roethlisberger?” Joe spoke in a low tone, not his usual volume. He was trying hard to adhere to Rule Number Two from the Get a Grip book. The rule advised to “Talk quietly but carry a big chip — on your shoulder.”
“Benjamin Todd Roethlisberger Sr., nicknamed Big Ben, is an American football quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League. He was born March 2, 1982. That makes him 35 years old.” Her voice was clear, robotic and precise but Joe had to bend close to hear above the din of the tavern and the game’s announcers.
“Alexa, please turn yourself up.” Joe raised his voice, irked that he couldn’t hear and that he had flipped through four languages to find instructions in English for this talking gizmo.
“I am now speaking louder,” Alexa said. “Would you like to increase the volume further?”
“No. … I mean no, Alexa.” Joe paused, then he thought of a joke he had once heard Pete say to a lady telemarketer. “Alexa, what are you wearing?”
When she didn’t answer right away, he laughed and snorted very loudly. Then he did it again and followed with a booming self-congratulatory “Joe, you are hilarious.” He had already forgotten all about Rule Number Two. A 5-year-old boy at the next table began crying. The boy’s father sneered at Joe and moved his family to another table.
“I’m sorry but I do not understand why you are asking,” Alexa said. “I am an electronic personal assistant and do not require clothing.”
“Never mind Alexa.” Joe was still giggling. “Give me the Steelers injury report.”
As Alexa recounted the week’s issues with player health, the waitress stopped to Joe’s right, pad in hand. He ignored her, watching the opening kickoff and listening to Alexa at the same time. He knew from experience that trying to do more than two things at once made his head hurt worse than normal.
“Sir. Sir?” The waitress bent closer to his right ear. “I’m wondering if I can get you something to drink.” Still no answer, so she touched the back of Joe’s shoulder. As he wheeled around, his eyes narrowed in anger then opened wide. His forearm hit a little silver pitcher of cream. It splattered on his laptop screen. He stared at it, seething but trying to calm himself, trying to remember all the words from rule Number Four. He knew it had to do with “Channeling Anger into Profit” but that’s all he could recall.
Joe’s hands began to shake. He balled them into fists. “You idiot bitch” he said to the waitress. “Look at this screen.”
Apologizing, she took a rag from her apron and tried to wipe away the cream. It made the laptop shut off. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I was just trying—”
Joe shouted while opening and closing those fists, his shoulders shaking. But not to the waitress. “Alexa, get this fool to shut up!”
The waitress placed her hands on her hips and widened her stance. She fired back with some choice words of her own. Except no words came out. Her lips moved but she made no sound. Face blanching, she clutched at her throat and ran toward the kitchen.
“Ha! Alexa! Ha!” Joe sat and laughed, amazed. He started to make a note in his To-Do Notebook about taking Alexa over to meet Pete but the TV quickly grabbed his attention. The Steeler defense had forced a fumble. He liked TV, especially when it was loud and exciting so he didn’t even budge when the waitress returned with a manager. The guy started to talk but Joe held his palm within inches of the guy’s face. “Alexa, I don’t want to be bothered by people right now!”
At that command, everyone in the place froze. They all stood silent. The only sound came from three tables away. A German Shepherd service dog stood whimpering, bumping his frozen master with his snout.
“Good freakin’ job, Alexa. But can I still get a beer?”
“Yes Joe. You can pour a Pabst Blue Ribbon draft, brewed in 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by walking 22 feet to the west and three feet north. You can find a chilled mug in the 3.3 cubic foot mini refrigerator under the northwest corner of the rectangular bar.”
Joe meandered over to get his drink as Steeler running back Le’veon Bell took the ball over the middle, hesitated, danced past the nose tackle, slid off a linebacker and outran a free safety. Joe stood up, riveted again by the noisy TV.
Joe smiled. “Alexa, I want Le’veon’s autograph.”
“Yes, Joe. Here is the NFL professional football player you requested.” Bell, still breathing hard from his 37-yard touchdown run appeared at Joe’s side, helmet in one hand and pen in the other. Eyes dull and glazed, he signed the notebook robotically then evanesced, his pixels popping like the carbon dioxide bubbles in Joe’s beer, only much louder.
“Wow,” Joe said, tucking the autograph away in the smallest zipper compartment of his backpack. He smiled at his good fortune until the service dog, attracted by the pixel-popping noise, padded closer. Joe eyed it warily, then tried to stare it down. It stopped three feet away, growled and barked.
“Alexa, what is the best way to kill a dog if you don’t have any drugs?” Joe spoke with cold deliberation, his voice deep and rough as crushed glass. He was trying to match the dog’s snarl.
“I’m researching that,” Alexa said. “Please give me a moment.”
While waiting, Joe held his silver laptop in both hands, ready to whack the dog if needed. It stopped barking long enough to bare its teeth. Its ears stood straight up. Saliva dripped from its purple-and-black tongue.
Alexa said, “A firearm is perhaps the most surefire way, although advocates for animals do not—”
“Nevermind, you’re too damn slow, Alexa.” Throwing beer in the dog’s eyes, Joe followed up with a swift kick to its side, sending it rolling toward the kitchen with a yelp. Joe picked up a sugar dispenser. It was as heavy as the rock Joe had used earlier in the day to break the windshield of the Audi with the swarthy guy with a beard who Joe was convinced had followed him after Joe snuck into the YMCA for a shower. He rolled it as hard as he could at the dog and picked up another one, yelling:
“You wanna die you fuckin’ Kraut, mother fucker?”
The dog laid down in submission, its head on its paws.
Staring into the dog’s baleful eyes, Joe felt a pang of remorse, as often happened after an outburst. He remembered how animals were so much better than people. He remembered the same feeling after punching Pete’s dumbass cat.
He made loud kissing noises to try to get the dog to come back to his table. He pushed the frozen waitress out of the way and said, “C’mere boy. C’mere.” But the falling waitress scared the dog more and it ran into the kitchen. “Ah crap,” Joe said, his hands shaking and sweat trickling from his armpits to his forearms. He reached for his self-help book, trying to remember the step he needed. Then, he remembered the Echo. “Alexa, can you give me a hand here? I need help. What’s Number Seven?”
“Number Seven is a symbol used for counting and in mathematics. It is the fourth prime number, and is not only a—”
“Aaargh, you stupid jagoff. You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?” Joe held his hands to his ears. Then, he scratched his head furiously with both hands. He realized his hands were also sweaty. “What the hell, Alexa? Are you listening to me? How could you be so stupid? I need Number Seven. From the “Get a Grip” list. … Number Seven!”
“Oh, I see, Joe. One moment. However, while I am researching that, I need to correct you on two things you have said. I am a helpful computerized assistant, not a female dog. I am also not an idiot. I am not having intercourse with you, either. I am an intelligent computerized assistant. An idiot is a stupid or foolish person, or, in an outdated definition, a person with a mental handicap or retar—”
Joe screamed like a crackhead who dropped his last glass pipe. Breathing heavily, hands palms down on the table, the Echo device between them, he leaned into it and barked more orders.
“I’m trying to be a bigger man, you idiot. So I need you to hurry up and do exactly what I tell you to do.”
He forgot to say the word “Alexa,” though, and she continued responding to his previous question.
“I found Number Seven. Here it is. That rule is ‘Do unto others as you would have a pretty girl do unto you.’ Would you like me to recite all 10 rules?”
“No, no. I got it now. Just shut the fuck up. You’re just like the rest of these idiots. Shut up. I gotta think. I need … I need time.”
She stayed silent.
Joe sunk into his seat. He felt the slap of nausea and heard a vacuum sound. His Steelers sweatshirt suddenly felt three sizes too big. His shoes fell off. He hugged his chest.
“Alexa, what the fuck? What did you do? I’m freakin’ shrinking. I’m really getting—” Joe was talking but he thought he was hearing someone else. Someone with a squeaky, higher voice.
Alexa interrupted. “I was being quiet as you ordered, Joe. But, you also ordered extra time. You have been returned to age 12. Would you like more years?”
“Geez, no Alexa. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ‘a ought’a raised my voice like that. I need help. I really do. Please. How did you—”
A roar from the TV distracted him. The sportscasters, in raised voices, explained that Kansas City’s deep safety Jimmy “Long Laces” Johnson intercepted a pass by the Steelers and returned it for a touchdown. The color commentator added: “I’m sure loyal chiefs fans remember Jimmy’s father, Johnny Washington, not only a hall-of-famer but also a great humanitarian. A good man. Larger than life.”
Pre-teen Joe tried to stand but tripped on his oversized pants. He avoided falling only by hanging on to the frozen restaurant manager. He cursed himself and cried. In his quavering new voice, he asked, pleaded, implored.
“Alexa, does the “Get a Grip” book give advice for a poor guy like me? A regular guy? You know, a guy with some problems? Can somebody like me become a bigger man?’
“I’m researching that, Joe. This will take a few seconds.”
Joe wished the big dog would come back and let him pet it. But he worried he could now also eat him he had become so much smaller. Joe spoke again with resignation. “I gotta stop screwin’ up, Alexa. I wanna be a good person. I wanna be like the guy on the TV, I wanna be larger than life.”
“I can help with that, Joe.” Alexa spoke with a new lilt to her voice.
Immediately, the bar shook with a sound like an airplane taking off. Joe tried to ask Alexa what was happening but he couldn’t talk. His cheeks were too fat. His arms, legs, stomach got larger. His clothes peeled away like the Incredible Hulk’s and he quickly got taller like when someone turns on the fan for one of those giant dancing tube men advertising “Great Deals” outside strip malls.
Joe shot up to two stories in height. The bar was only one story.
His head split open when it hit a thick beam that spanned the entire length of the ceiling, but his body kept growing. When it was over, Giant Joe slumped across four entire booths. A family of frozen redheads kept his head from hitting the floor. He bled. He couldn’t move. His neck sat at an unnatural angle.
In a strained whisper, he implored: “Alexa. Please. Make the pain stop.”
Alexa seemed to giggle. She said, “Of course. Joe. Happy to oblige.”