After blogging for a decade I’ve received over a million pieces of spam on my blogs. Most of them are deleted before they ever see the light of day, thanks to the spam-extermination software implemented by WordPress. I’ve received at least four pieces of spam every day in my various email accounts. Gmail usually takes care of that but once in a while offers to “Upgrade my penis” or “buy genuine replicas” of luxury watches will slip through. When this happens, I, like most people, just hit SPAM and send it to the barrier islands of East Internettington, never to be heard from again. Yet, of course, I hear from them again. And again. They never give up.
The idea of spam is luridly fascinating to me. Who thinks up this stuff? Is it some desperate person in Africa or some quasi “producer” in Hollywood who is just down on his luck and needs $500 to make rent? Money, of course, is the motive. But the motive behind the motive is what causes me to actually ponder who this faceless person is. He obviously needs money, but why can’t he make it legitimately? What would lead a person to acquire a job in which the description was to harvest email address to which you will send unwelcome messages of “no prescription Oxy!!!” or “penis bigger pills!!” (both are actual subject lines I’ve received in my email.) The pictures that come to mind are desolate and sad. A woman, perhaps, who is fresh out of rehab and trying to get her kids back. She’s so broke she hasn’t eaten in days. The ad said it is a “Sales Position” and she needs a job to keep her probation. There is a shoddy office near the airport, a few blocks from where she used to buy crack in the part of town where every street has a check cashing place, some rather sad apartments where kids run around barefoot outside unsupervised. She is wearing a navy blue skirt that her mom bought for her from the thrift shop – it is too big on her bony frame, so she has used safety pins to try and fold the waistband over, keeping it up. She doesn’t like it because it shows the sores on her legs, but she hopes the guy she’s come to meet doesn’t notice. She’s wearing a blouse that at one time, perhaps in the 1980s, been white but has gone yellow with age and other people’s body oils, particularly under the arms. Her mom paid for some scuffed shoes her mom bought with the skirt. They are beige and have clunky heels and look like something a seventy year old woman would wear to church. But the fact is, they fit and they aren’t too run down, so she feels like she’s passably put together. Her hair – thin, because of the drugs – is brushed back off her face. She takes a look in the rearview mirror, averting her eyes from her face, just glancing to make sure nothing is obviously wrong or out of place.
The door says MKO. She goes to open it but finds it locked so she presses the doorbell. She has never worked in a office but she wasn’t expecting a doorbell. She waits, squinting her eyes from the sun and taking in the industrial warehouses that surround this one. It was described as an office park but doesn’t look like anything she’d ever seen on tv. It is like a row of garages. One of them is open and a few Mexicans are lifting heavy pallets into a pickup truck. When they catch her looking, one of them grins at her, showing a row of metal that reminds her of her old life – the bad teeth, the teeth used for posturing. There is some vibe – an ex con recognizing another – that wafts from them that signal like bright neon letters that they could get her some drugs if she asked. A blow job maybe, for each of them, and in fifteen minutes she could be tweaking.
Before she has an opportunity to turn that idea over in her mind, the door opens. The man standing before her seems old, though she pegs him in his mid-fifties or so. He stands a little stooped but still manages to intimidate with hard black eyes and black teeth. Her own teeth are nothing to be proud of. She has made a practice of keeping her mouth shut, even when she’s smiling, but the man clearly doesn’t care if she sees his rotten, smelly teeth. He has the swarthy complexion of a Mexican, but when he says, “You Linda?” she hears something Arabic.
“Hi,” she says.
He opens the door for her to enter. The room is dark, with a low ceiling, and the smell of clove cigarettes and cologne envelope her, making her gag a bit. She follows him across dark carpet of no particular color past a girl about her age who is at a computer typing. As they pass, the girl looks up and Linda quickly looks away. The problem with being an ex drug addict is that now she can see how shoddy her old life was, how shoddy things still are as she tries to climb out. Before, the shoddiness was invisible, hidden behind a veil of indifference to everything but the next hit. She doesn’t want to see the sad girl, because she knows if she gets this job, which she desperately needs, she will have that same look of penetrating sadness in her eyes.
She sits down across from him at a dining room table that he is using for a desk. Everything in the room – stacks of books and files – is stained yellow with nicotine. On the far wall is a taxidermied deer head. The black eyes look almost identical to the man’s. Linda looks down at her nails, eaten raw.
“You know how to type?”
She nods, lying. “Yeah,” she says softly, confirming the lie. Already she knows she will probably get the job and in two weeks, she will get fired because he will discover she doesn’t type. All she knows how to do is get high: there were no typing lessons for her, no cooking or paralegal school, no college, certainly. Type? Crack and meth addicts don’t need to know how to type. After she gets fired, she will be depressed and scared because suddenly her probation is in jeopardy and in that moment of panic, she will walk over to the Mexicans working a few garages over and ask if she can blow them for some coke or heroin or even weed, whatever they have. And soon she will be back in jail. Suddenly this seems more like a short freedom break than a chance to start over. She figures she might as well enjoy it since she knows it will be over soon.
“I type forty words a minute,” she says with more confidence, not knowing if that is outrageously fast or outrageously slow.
The man grunts. “You know how to sell?”
She used to sell drugs, before she started taking them. “I’ve had sales jobs before,” she said.
He nods. His eyes trace the V of her new blouse to her tits. She forces herself not to flinch or move to cover up. Just a year ago, she wouldn’t have felt the mild disgust at his leer. She would have figured he’d offer her some money and drugs at that point, then he’d fuck her. But she didn’t want him to fuck her – not even for money or drugs. She was having a herpes breakout and she felt bad. The sores hurt. Plus, some other barely identifiable emotion weltered to the surface. She thought maybe it was not smart to sleep with people for money. The girl she wanted to be wouldn’t do that. She knew normal people didn’t do that. But literally the only sex she’d ever had was a commercial transaction. The thought of this man’s hands on her made her stomach clench. It felt like fear.
“You will be selling products,” he says. “You will have to send an email to one thousand people a day to sell.”
A thousand people a day? She feels herself nodding as if she expected this. As if she’d done it before. She tried not to show that she was daunted.
“If you do not make a thousand emails, I will subtract a dollar from your pay for every twenty five that you miss. I will pay you six dollars an hour.”
She remembered something from one of her counseling sessions before she was let out of prison about a minimum wage and six dollars an hour seemed like was less. She instantly decides she won’t bring that up now.
The man flops a yellow stack of documents in front of her. “Here are the email addresses,” he says. He slides another piece of paper to her. “These are the products. You have to write a pitch for all of them. Don’t copy very much because they can block you if it is the same wording.”
“Okay,” she says inanely. She’s never used email. She just never got into the computer thing. Her mother knows how to use it though; her mother does online gambling. Maybe she can sneak away and call her – an idea that feels awful as soon as she thinks it. Her mother bought her interview clothes but they are not on good terms. She won’t want to hear from Linda asking how to use email.
“Karen will show you how to do the blogs.”
She doesn’t know what a blog is but she says, “Okay.”
The man suddenly yells for Karen. A few minutes later, the girl she saw on her way in arrives in the doorway. She’s overweight with a round pudgy face that appears in that instant to be not so much sad but devoid of all emotion.
“Teach her how to do it,” he says and waves them both out of his office.
Linda follows Karen to the small office. “You just email it,” Karen said sullenly.
Linda sits down at the other computer. She touches the mouse, lightly, and the screen blinks alive. She had taken a computer class in seventh grade, right before she dropped out, but she didn’t remember very much about it.
As she blinks at the screen, trying to make sense of it, Karen leans over. Linda can smell the tuna sandwich she’d had for lunch. “Sorry, you click here on the program, and send the emails from there. It will automatically change the outgoing address every time you send one.”
“Oh okay,” Linda says.
Karen sits down and the room instantly fills with the sound of tapping keys.
Linda looks down at the stack of addresses on the paper that seemed somehow filthy – yellow, stained with coffee or something else. Suddenly her vision blurs with tears. She swallows hard, trying to dissolve the knot that had formed in her larynx. She hadn’t cried in years. Not even in jail. Yet looking at the list made her understand that her life was real, and it was this, and there was no escaping it. She slowly begins to type in an address and then the subject line:
D-i-s-c-u-n-t P-e-n-i-s U-p-g-r-a-d