The trouble started at Christmas. Santa had gotten my mum one of them Amazon Echo speakers. You know, the ones that can play you songs or tell you what time it is in Melbourne? She was ecstatic. We all were.
The last time I’d come across one of them was at a friend’s flat a few months back. He was already at work and I was on the late shift so I had carte blanche to play whatever I wished, at whatever volume. There were even a few cans in his fridge that we had leftover from the night before that I had a crack at. The hair of a good boy.
And now here we were. Our own Echo!
My brother did the honours and christened it with Step Into Christmas. Then my dad popped open the bucks fizz. For a few moments we sat there simmering down, making our way through a heap of songs we’d already heard a trillion times this month, only this time it was different. A fresher quality, a less hectic environment. I found myself actually listening to the lyrics, banal as they were, which is something I have never done with music.
My dad suggested I request a song and I was like Woah, okay! I was sat back enjoying everyone else using the Echo so much I’d completely forgotten to make a punt of my own.
Sitting up straight, tapping a nail on my glass, I said: “Oh, what will I go for… blimey. There’s a bit of pressure isn’t there when it comes down to you?” I laughed for a bit and then cleared my throat with a confident hack and said, “Alexis!”
My brother exploded with laughter. And I mean exploded. He jerked up like he was about to puke. My dad shortly followed. From the other room I could hear my mum go, “What did he say!”
“He called it Alexis!” my brother shouted.
My mum started laughing. Howling, in fact.
“Give over you bastard!” I said. “Shut up. I’m having you all on.”
“Are you fuck!” my brother said, rubbing dry a heady drop of bucks fizz he’d spilt on a cushion. “You shat it lad. Completely shat it!”
“Here, leave it out.” I sat closer to the speaker, my arse all but slipping off the edge of the sofa. “Ale-Al-Alek-Alek.”
My dad yelled, “He’s having a nightmare here!” and laughed his way into the kitchen, crossing paths with my mum who came in and asked if I was losing my marbles. None of them could believe what they were hearing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, or rather what I wasn’t hearing. I was so mortified but had to save face in case my brother caught on to any inner peril and coated me off for good. It was 11:00am.
When I finally managed to say “Alexa”, my pause was so long (I still hadn’t thought of a song) that the current tune resumed. I got up and left the room for a bottle of beer.
Over the course of the day I was the sole focus of all things banter. The hilarity of that first fuck up didn’t waver in the presence of other banter, not least when we went round to my auntie and uncle’s that night. It was the first thing my brother said to everyone, taking precedence even above “Merry Christmas.”
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Couple of weeks later and I was at our first work social of the new year. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s an Echo atop a filing cabinet.
It went down a storm, obviously. Everyone was ganged around it like a new kid at school. Me, I was still pretty shaken from Christmas Day. The unmitigated, unbridled baptism of fire that was Christmas Day.
I nudged a friend, Paul, and told him about what had happened. He took it well, implying that he’d done similar. It made me feel a lot better about myself. Shortly after he took himself off for a wazz. Scoffing at the sight of the vocally-gifted, in good nature mind, I went to fill up my Amaretto and coke.
The office died down within the hour. Paul and me found ourselves crab-walking closer to the device, now that it was all but abandoned. He asked to to play a range of artists, spanning from The Weeknd to Glass Animals, wrapping things up with ABBA. We were both a bit pissed. Breaking my vow to never go near one of the things ever again, an urge came over me. “Alexa,” I said.
There it was again, the same inexplicable stammer. This time in collaboration with sweat. A group of people walked into the office. They hadn’t left like I imagined but had instead been outside smoking.
The office, something that a second ago acted as my safe haven, now resembled a zoo. One of them shouted, “Get some tunes on then!”
“He’s doing it now,” Paul said.
Thanks to the crosstalk, Alexa cut me off. “Sorry, I’m having some trouble understanding right now.”
Not allowing the pressure to mount up as it had in my living room, I called for her immediately, yet I was still rendered mute. I knew the song I wanted, Disco Ulysses by Vulfpeck, the problem lied in the sensation that I was choking to death. Paul then betrayed his earlier sympathy, likely due the glare of the others, and roasted me. “Go on, spit it out mate!” he said. The rest started laughing, asking what was wrong with me. Before I had a chance to explain, one of the girls jumped on my back and said, “Alexa, play Sanguine Paradise by Lil Uzi Vert!”
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I was in gobbing distance of the building where I had spent that wholesome morning with the Echo; the blunt sting of humiliation lingering about like a rotten cough. I’d excused myself to the pub in a bit of a crank and failed to improve my spirits. The work lot, on the other hand, had taken the festivities up to the flat.
At a loose end, I decided there were greater anxieties to have than getting a piece of technology to play you a song by saying the song aloud. It was just silly shit, really. Something I should double down on, even adopt as a piece of my personality. Yup, that’s me lad, the guy who can’t talk to Alexa. That’s all I had at time.
It was busier than I expected upstairs. All my department were pretty much present, schmoozing and dancing in the kitchen, but there was also a smattering of unidentifiable mouth-breathers, time-servers, potential dealers, breezing across and beyond me.
I clocked Paul stood by the fridge. He waved me over and handed me a can which I cracked quicker than you can blink. The room went quiet now and then. Every time it did Paul offered me a coy glance. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I knew the set up. I told him about the morning I spent in here, cruising my way through the great hungover songbook. He asked what had happened to me earlier in comparison. My only hunch was that the pressure of a crowd dulled my capacity to get Alexa on my side.
It was weird because generally speaking I wasn’t nervous around people. Holding court was something that came natural to me. My plight with the Amazon Echo — contrasted with other shortcomings such as dyscalculia, visual impairment and a receding hairline — was a singularity. The Achilles heel on an otherwise mannequin physique. And despite every horror story condemning my chances of ever finding success with it, I wasn’t done. Alexa would obey me. How I went about manifesting that was a separate matter.
“Crack on I reckon,” Paul said. “Cunts in here won’t even know what’s happening. It’s too loud to notice.”
It was kind thing for him to say, endearing in its frankness, but it also made me feel a bit handicapped. Like I was right to garner special treatment for something that wasn’t a medical problem. I didn’t have a speech impediment or Tourette’s. A guilt came over me.
I drained my can and went over to place it on the kitchen counter and there she was: dormant, gratifying. Unassuming and protagonistic. Every person in this room loved Alexa, and she them. Every one on the planet loved her. She was an ever-glowing friend who never let you down, never judged you. And would always do her best to accommodate your brain’s arousal.
“Alexa,” I said.
One of my work colleagues, a member of the jeering smokers, snapped around and said, “Oh, ey up. Here he is.” A dozen other faces cast their steely gazes on me. The blue ring was still strong around the Echo. Longer, I’m sure, than it had ever lasted during my previous efforts. Almost as though it had read my mind.
“Sometime before Christmas!” a voice said.
Christmas. Fucking Christmas. That triggered me. It was Christmas that started this. Well, it was the WhatsApp chat between me and my brother brainstorming present ideas that started it. But you know what I mean.
In spite of the bitter memories that heckle visualised, I managed to rejig the negative thoughts into positive ones and puffed out my chest before declaring: “Play Love Me In Everything by Flamingosis.”
Good God. A cheer went up in the flat. What a moment it was. People were clinking cans, embracing each other. It was like when the Berlin Wall fell or when Hitler set himself on fire.
Paul walked over and hoisted my hand in the air like a boxer who, against all odds, had landed a jaw-dislocating hook in the dying seconds of the 12th round. I think wellness types in the States refer to it as exposure therapy.
The song had never sounded so good. They really were good quality things these Echo’s. Anyway, I cracked another can when a girl from the back of the group wriggled her way towards me. I’d never seen her before, but she seemed pleasant. She had long wavy brown hair and wore a white T-shirt tucked into black linen cigarette trousers. There was a hint of a tattoo mostly covered by her right sleeve.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I honestly haven’t ever met someone who listens to Flamingosis.”
“Ah shit, you like him?” I said. “He’s class, isn’t he?”
She smiled. “Yeah. Oh my God, that’s so sick. What’s your name?”
We shook hands and laughed, marvelling at our mutual appreciation. Her eyes, two pools of deep blue, they had a mesmeric effect on me I can’t lie. And what was a pretty dire day had out of nowhere 180’d into something effervescent. The room had gone from a hazy buffer to high-definition.
We danced in the kitchen, making intermittent eye contact. Now and then she’d break it with a smile before taking a sip from her straw. Our bodies got close enough for a kiss but it was too soon for that. She did, however, turn around and ease herself back into my embrace. It was just us and Flamingosis. The others were near enough invisible.
As I leant in to invite her out on to the balcony for a tab, a guy came into the kitchen carrying a fresh crate on his shoulder. “Alexa!” he yelled. “Play Smack My Bitch Up!”