Upon crossing the threshold of the manager’s office and with the door closed behind them, Kay could discern a tone shift in the bald man. He maintained the same politeness and joviality when first seen waltzing into the reception area, but gravity appeared to have gotten a firmer grasp of his being and the impenetrable layer of cheer common the attendants that Kay found overwhelming became more bearable and welcoming in the welcoming demur standing before him. Looking around he saw pictures of the bald man’s family, various plaques, photographs of the facility featuring him standing alongside whom Kay assumed to be very important men. On his shelf sat a simple cactus with an open flower; a plant he had never seen before and imagined it to be imported from beyond their borders.
Kay was offered a seat before the bald man sat down, provided a glass of water and innumerable other amenities that he politely turned down, and given another introductory speech, albeit a more concise one. The bald man, introduced as Mr. Jay, and likewise seen in his bronze name plate on his desk and on several certifications on the wall, folded his hands in polite expectation in anticipation of Kay beginning the conversation. Upon closer inspection, the lines of his face were more prominent and striking now that they had left the dull lighting of the reception area. His face looked as if cast from stone, having been eroded slowly year after year, but with the strange quality of still conveying an atmosphere of congeniality like a strong cologne that hung about the air and stung the senses. It took a few moments for Kay to take it all in before coming to the question he intended to ask.
“Can you tell me about…” he only had a chance to say, before Mr. Jay quickly interjected.
“My apologies. I have been spending a lot of time with the water pumps today, dreadfully loud down there, and my hearing has been off. Would you mind speaking up?”
His throat had grown dry all of a sudden. Kay grabbed the glass of water and managed a gulp before clearing his throat and starting again.
“What is the purpose of these revitalization centers? Why do they and Matching really exist? When I think about it, the answers seem really obvious, but I can’t help but think there’s something else behind it all. Something I’m not seeing.”
Mr. Jay sat for a moment silently before answering, which gave Kay time to acknowledge the childishness of his question and berate himself for not having phrased it better.
Having articulated the direction he wished it to go, Mr. Jay cleared his throat and began, “Now that’s a loaded a question. I suppose I should first ask you why you think they exist.”
This was not the response he had in mind, especially from someone of his station in the industry itself. Nevertheless, he took little time in responding.
“I’m not ignorant to all the supposed perks of them. I’ve been here before as kid when it was still a spa and before it was renovated into this Revitalization Center.”
Mr. Jay sat mouth resting behind clasped hands and elbows resting against the hard wood surface of his desk. He looked at intently as Kay spoke, hanging on every word. This arrested attention in turn arrested Kay’s and he had to focus his eyes to just below his gaze to keep from being intimidated.
“The spa was where I came often with my parents and it was a great way to relax and keep in touch with my friends when when they came with their families. Before it used to be only five spas, all pumped from the same spring just outside the city. I’m not sure what happened next but then a new trend came out and everyone started flocking to these new centers that promised all these new features. Lines are ridiculous and I can’t go as much as I could and the family trips stopped. It became less about relaxing and more about providing services we don’t need, or ones I don’t think the spa needed to offer, especially revitalization surgeries. I’ve never been into an Enlightenment Chamber, but the premise seems absurd…no offense.”
“None taken,” Mr. Jay chuckled. “Please go on.”
“My point is, our city was known for its spas and now its known for this. Now, with the right credentials, you could walk in one way and you leave as somebody else the next…”
Kay finally felt that he was drifting from answering the question he himself posed. Furthermore, he was talking about his childhood to a complete stranger without any inhibition in what he was saying. Mr. Jay looked like someone he could trust and could speak openly to, but even Kay couldn’t tell what was going through his mind or what agenda he had in bringing him to his personal office. He paused for a moment and started again.
“Matching is supposed to make our city better and promote growth. By the time you graduated high school, your potential was measured and your future honed all with the promise of efficiency. By the time you were to graduate college, you were placed in another tier-based system and the most qualified people are Matched, given the most fitting look needed for a job. Jobs now only hire those that reflect a particular face and people are ensured the jobs and wages the deserve without the hassles of a market based on 100% bias thus eliminating bias. Is that right?”
Mr. Jay took a moment to make sure Kay had finished speaking before taking a deep breath before releasing a self-controlled chuckle. “May I speak plainly Mr. Kay? I think I understand what your question is.” he answered.
“Of course. Please tell me.”
“Well to do so, I’ll need to tell you a bit about about the history of the center and myself. By the sight and sound of it, it doesn’t seem like you believe what you’ve been hearing from everyone else to be the answer you’re looking for. Mr. Kay, the goal of each and every Revitalization Center is to rejuvenate ones mind, body, and soul. It’s in our motto: Relaxation, Enlightenment, and Revitalization. Relaxation in our spas reinvigorates the body, enlightenment provides an environment for your brain to synchronize even more with the rest of your body, but the soul, well one’s soul is given material form through our revitalization process. That in a nut shell, Mr. Kay, is what we, Center #4, do and everything we strive to do. That is what we tell customers, new employees, and recite to anyone who visits from any of the other Centers. You name the people, that’s what we tell them.
“But back to reality Mr. Kay. Those researchers you hear so much about, those hidden away in a lab bending and unbending the elements to make your skin softer and your mind stronger, those statisticians up in their offices toiling over the numbers, balancing them out to inform the public that everything’s working, even the unknown forces putting there are beyond both my understanding and yours, they may as well occupy the peaks of Mt. Olympus, so far are they removed from us and so strong is their well that puts everything in place. Now, this isn’t meant to be as melodramatic as it may sound. I am a manager at Center #4 where you currently sit and you appear to me, as I see it, a curious soon to be Matched student trying to understand a backwards system that tries to fix bias with more bias as some would see as fighting fire with fire.You say you fear the loss of the city’s history. As someone well in their 50s that train of thought is no different from anyone who gets to be my age. This city, and all cities as I see it, are drunkards to a bottle and just as quick to forget the past. ”
The air of the office seemed light and Kay began to sweat now hanging on every word Mr. Jay now spoke.
“Times have changed and you let slip that there was part of yourself and your youth left here prior to the renovations. I get that better than most. Believe it or not, I used to work here prior to the renovations. I haven’t always occupied this position nor was I matched into this position right after college. You look surprised that you may not recognize me. Well that may be for a number of reasons. For one, I was 18 when I started working for the spa that stood before this one. My main job was in the pump room attending to the main and only pipe at the time that brought the ground water in from outside the city. It was dirty and exhausting work, but I loved what it for what it was. The clinks and puffs and wooshes of the boiler room, the seclusion from the hustling and bustling that happened over my head, and above all else, the earthy smell the basement used to have. It was the smell you’d have to leave the city get a whiff of nowadays. Sure the heat of the machinery was brutal during summer months, but there was no other feeling like hopping in the cold bath after everyone had left and then soaking in the hottest pool in the building, all to yourself. I was a shy one back in the day and that set-up suited me perfectly and it continued this way for 20 years with no change.”
Mr. Jay eyes shined as he reminisced and his stare seemed to go beyond where Kay was sitting. Looking through him, he was envisioning and trying to capture what once was, where he used to be before. It was a fleeting memory and the images were blurrier than the last time he recalled it, but the imagined sounds and smells enhanced the images and he smile serenely at the feeling.
“As you know, the time finally came when the spa and its property owned by the family I worked for was bought out. The building was demolished only for this, one of many identical pillars all under the same ownership, to rise from many similar ashes. This was my only job and my livelihood depended on it, but luckily for me I was given an opportunity to continue as the assistant to the engineer in charge of replacing the old system with the new. Working under him, I helped put together the new integrated pump system that would connect to new ground water reservoirs and even learned about the new minerals that we would be adding to the water to do wonderful things like reverse aging. This was way beyond what I was doing as the pump boy tending to pipes and doing the laundry. Over time, Center #4 grew larger and larger and, as demand for its services grew each day, the number of Centers began to grow. Lucky for me, however, the space beneath the building was my own time capsule, resistant to change and a constant reminder of why I liked working here.”
“And why do you like working here?” Kay asked.
“Because it makes people happy.” was Mr. Jay’s reply. “Yep. Just as things have been going on above your head all this time, I’ve been going about below your feet trying to please every man and woman who walks through that revolving glass door,” he joked.
“Well,” he continued. “As you mentioned, with the glowing success of the new spas, it didn’t take long for Enlightenment to be added. Soon surgical centers were added on as well. Before long, someone came up with an idea that started out small but grew like wildfire: “Why not integrate surgeries into the process”. I don’t use this word often, literally everyone took to revitalization centers for not only the relaxation and enlightenment, but face revitalization as well. Now I’m not sure where the transition happened either, but eventually Matching started out at one center, then later it was sponsored by one business in conjunction with a school and then I’m not sure what happened exactly but it blew up, but not like the other fads did. It blew up and the dust blew all over the city and the country, settling into the minds of those important enough to integrate it. Poof, just like that, Matching appeared and took hold. In terms of my life, the mechanic who trained me was whisked off to expand and integrate the pumping systems across all other centers and I took his spot eventually moving up administratively as well.”
“Is that it?” Kay asked, expecting more from the story.
“In a nutshell, that’s it. I’m merely a mortal that works in the system. I can’t tell you more than what I’ve seen and been told myself.”
“How did you end up in your position now?” Kay asked.
“Following his leave, I was given the chance to rise from my previous position dwelling underground with the pipes and pumps and be promoted to the face of all aspects of Center #4. In order to do so, however, I had to adopt the face that the company mandated.”
Kay slouched in his chair finally catching up to the real ending of the story, “And you took the job?”
“And I took the job,” was Mr. Jay’s response.
“But why? Why do it? You were happy where you were. More so, why change the face you had before when the people who you were serving wouldn’t even know the real you?” asked Kay, unable to hold back all the questions that flew into his mind with the intense empathy he felt for the man who knew his own struggles.
“Mr. Kay, do you see my cactus over there?”
“I saw it when I came in. What about it?”
“What’s interesting about cacti is that their needles are in fact leaves that have evolved a different shape to adapt to the harsh arid environment of the desert. Their needles, crafted by selection, reduce the amount of water that could be dried out compared to plants with normal leaves in desert conditions. Tiny pores in the leaves that allow gases and water to enter and exit the plant remain closed during the day when it’s extremely hot to prevent evaporation. So, how does a cactus thrive? Well, in the day it uses the sunlight to kickstart its inner processes but only when night falls will it open these pores to allow gases to pass through and complete its cycle without risking losing its valuable water.”
“What does this have to do about Matching?”
“Times change Mr. Kay. The pump room may look the same except with more pipes, but who knows what will happen in the future. Maybe something will come along and make the spa portion obsolete, then I would be out of the job. I couldn’t stay locked up in the basement forever, I would have eventually dried up and withered away. I needed to experience the light for myself in order to be more complete and continue serving the people who I’ve tasked myself with serving all these years. I had to open my leaves at some point, even if it meant giving up who I once was in order to grow.”