Escape Pod 868: Any Other Customer
Any Other Customer
By Rachel Gutin
Lewis was poking at his tablet, trying yet again to open the training module from Station Commerce, when the sensor above his shop door chimed. “Not now!” he snapped without looking up.
“But… but I….”
Blast it! His tailor shop’s margins had been razor-thin even before Commerce cracked down on him for logging his transactions on paper. And just in case the mandatory training in “proper record-keeping protocols” wasn’t punishment enough, they’d also hit him with a hefty fine. He couldn’t afford to scare away a customer.
He shoved the tablet aside, and plastered what he hoped was a convincing smile onto his face. “My apologies. I was just…” His voice trailed off as his gaze fell on the teen who stood in his doorway, scuffing their feet against the threshold. They looked nothing like his usual customers. For one thing, they were wearing a standard, off-the-nozzle SmartWeave ensemble. For another, the way they had the colors set, a shifting pattern of orangey red and vivid blue, clashed terribly with the faded pink highlights in their hair.
His wealthier clients would never set foot inside the shop looking like such a mess. Their bespoke garments would be perfectly calibrated to flaunt their elevated status. And his Harmonist customers… well. They weren’t allowed to wear SmartWeave at all.
But regardless of their appearance, the teen was standing in his shop now, and that meant he needed to treat them like any other customer. “How can I help you?”
The teen’s gaze darted around the room, bouncing from the colorful bolts of fabric stacked three deep along the walls, to the human-guided sewing machine crammed into the back left corner. They tugged at the cuffs of their shirt, and the motion sent swirls of golden glitter dancing up their sleeves. “They…uh… told me you sell StillWeave?”
“Yes…” StillWeave garments were all he sold, in fact. Which they would know if they’d stopped to read the sign projected in his shop window.
“Well, I’d like… I mean… I need to buy some.”
Buy some what? he almost demanded, but after over a decade in business, he had plenty of practice suppressing his frustration. “What, exactly, are you looking to purchase?”
“It’s… for a job?”
Lewis really didn’t like the sound of that answer. Unlike the SmartWeave that most stationers wore, StillWeave didn’t connect to any networks. It was the perfect fabric to wear if you wanted to avoid tripping a sensor. And given that the teen didn’t fit the profile for either of his two main customer bases.… “This job. Why, exactly do you need StillWeave for it?”
“Because of Shabbat.”
“Shabbat?” It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting.
“Yeh. Shabbat. It’s the Jewish Sabbath, and—.”
“I’m familiar with it.”
“Well, we can’t use electronics, which means we can’t wear SmartWeave, so—.”
“Yes. Of course.” Lewis knew all about the Jewish Sabbath. He made it his business to learn everything he could about each potential customer base on the station. And that meant he also knew that it made no sense for this teen to visit his shop. “Don’t you have your own tailors?”
“We-ell…” They picked at their sleeve again, and tiny purple dots chased each other from wrist to shoulder. “Tthing is, I need work clothing. And besides, I can’t ask them. They’ll go right to my parents.”
“Your parents don’t know you’re here?” That was definitely bad news for Lewis.
“And they can’t,” the teen insisted.
The bitter tang of their fear seemed to permeate the entire shop. It tasted all too familiar on the back of Lewis’s tongue.
“Are you queer?” he asked before he could think better of it.
“Wh-what? No! I mean yes, of course I am. Genderfluid, ace, biromantic. But what does that have to do with anything?”
A fierce wave of protectiveness surged through Lewis’s body. No wonder they were so on edge. He knew firsthand how horrible it felt when you couldn’t safely be yourself. Growing up gay among the Harmonists hadn’t exactly been easy. How many times had he asked girls out on dates just to avoid the the slurs and the whispers? How many ways had he suppressed his true self just to get the Elders to stop “training” him to be straight?
But Lewis had escaped, and so could this teen. “It’s okay,” he assured them in the gentlest voice he could manage. “There are organizations. They can help you get through this. Just give me a moment to find my list.”
But the teen didn’t react in any way he might have expected. “What the void are you going on about? That’s not—It isn’t like that. My community doesn’t even care!”
“No, they never care, do they?” That was half the problem. Lewis pulled open his file drawer and started leafing through the tightly packed row of hanging folders.
“Of course they don’t! Mom keeps trying to set me up with the trans girl down the hall. It’s super annoying because she’s way too femme for me, but the point is no one cares what my orientations are. Ugh!” They rolled their eyes toward the ceiling as if silently begging for divine assistance. “Why does everyone always think that being religious means being closed-minded?”
“Because…” Because it did. Or, at least, it had for him.
“This isn’t about me being queer,” the teen insisted. “It’s my father.”
Oh. Lewis knew he shouldn’t engage. He should take their order and usher them out. Just like any other customer.
But the teen were clearly hurting, and he couldn’t help but ask, “How bad is it? Are you in danger?”
“Am I… What’s wrong with you?” They held up both hands as if to ward off a physical attack. “It isn’t remotely like that. Where did you even get that idea?”
“But didn’t you just say…?” Every time he thought he understood this teen, their responses threw him off all over again.
“It’s just…” They wrung their hands together as their entire outfit flashed orange and green. “He gambles. He takes all of our money, and he gambles.”
“Ah.” The pieces finally began to fit together in Lewis’s mind.
“I graduate next month, and I got accepted into a Tier One engineering program. And I know they always say those programs are free, but they make us pay for our own kits. I had the money all saved up for it too, but Dad went into my account and…” They scrunched up their entire face, clearly attempting to hold back their tears.
“Don’t they offer financial aid?”
“Not to people who shouldn’t need it.”
Of course not. The aid committee would look at her family’s total income, not at how her father threw away so much of it.
“What about your community?” The Jewish community, like the Harmonists, banded together to care for their own. Just as long as you remained one of “their own,” and stayed within the lines they drew around you, anyway.
But the teen was shaking their head. “They’re already helping with our rent. Mom won’t let me ask for more.”
“So… you need to replace what your father took.”
Except… “On Shabbat.”
“On the one day of the week when you’re not allowed to work.” No crafting. No destroying. And definitely no earning money. Lewis might not be Jewish himself, but he knew the basic rules.
“It’s the one day a week when Dad can’t track me.”
The corners of Lewis’s mouth turned up in grudging admiration. For all their nervousness, this teen had a sharp brain inside that skull of theirs. During the rest of the week, their father could follow all of their movement through the station via the signals from their clothing. But that wasn’t the case on Shabbat. As long as they set up a private account for their earnings, their father wouldn’t even know they’d found a job.
“You’ll need to do a pre-auth on a payment plan.”
“Sure. What’s the cost?”
That was a far easier question to deal with than all the others that had crowded into Lewis’s head. Why were they so willing to violate their Sabbath? And was it really true that no one in their community cared if they were queer? But those questions had no place in a business transaction. “The cost depends on what you need.”
“Oh, right! I have specs for you. Hold on. I’ll port them over.” With the swipe of a finger, they pulled up an interface on their left sleeve. They tapped in a command, then dismissed the entire thing with another quick swipe. “Sent!”
Lewis was wearing SmartWeave himself—anything to feel like he’d truly left the Harmonists behind—but he wasn’t sure he’d ever feel comfortable accessing files on his clothing like that. “Good. Let’s take a look, then.” He slid his tablet closer and checked his in-box. Yes, there it was. All he had to do was tap it open and… “Slag it!” The file had done… something. His screen had fragmented into six different boxes, and every time he touched one, all of them moved around until he couldn’t even figure out what he was looking at.
“It’s a pinch, not a tap.” An edge of impatience crept into their voice.
As if he needed an adolescent telling him how to open a file. “Just give me a moment.” In desperation, he shut the screen off, then turned it back on again. The mess of boxes was still there, all squashed together like some surreal new form of virtual mosaic.
“Tap and pinch.” Even without looking up, he could tell they were rolling their eyes at him, this adult who couldn’t do the most basic of tasks on his old-fashioned tablet. “You tap in the corner, then three-finger pinch. If you hand it over, I can…”
“No! No, I’ve got it. Just give me one more second.” Maybe if he restarted the entire thing?
“I need to go,” the teen snapped. “My parents—.”
“Fine! Okay. Listen.” He couldn’t stand to look incompetent like this. Not in front of a teen he’d met five minutes ago. “I didn’t grow up using these things, all right?”
“Who the hell doesn’t get raised using tablets?”
“Every single—Never mind.” He wasn’t going to have that conversation right now. This was a business transaction. The teen would give him their order. The two of them would set up the payment plan. Then, they would leave, and he could get back to his mandatory training.
But first, he needed to open the file, and nothing he tried seemed to be working. “You know what? If you’re so good at this, why don’t you do it?” He shoved the tablet toward them.
The teen sighed so loudly, it practically echoed off the ceiling plates. “All you do is tap in the corner. There. No, upper left. Great. Now a pinch. No. Three fingers. Yes! You got it.”
Just like that, the screen shifted back to its prior configuration.
“And now, it’s a reverse pinch to access the file. Like this.” They gestured in the air, and Lewis tried to copy the motion. He got it on the second try, and the file finally sprang open.
He leaned over to take a closer look at what they’d sent—and immediately recoiled. “No. Definitely not.”
Lewis was almost as stunned by his statement as they were. Paying customer, he tried to tell himself. He needed the business, and he could practically sew their order in his sleep!
But he couldn’t do it. The order was for Harmonist work coveralls. They wanted him to make them Harmonist coveralls. “I won’t sew these for you. Choose something else.” There was no way in hell that Lewis was sending an openly queer kid into a Harmonist workshop.
“What do you mean you won’t make it? They sent me here specifically!”
Yes, Lewis was sure they had. For all that the Harmonists looked for every opportunity to suck unwitting outsiders into their ranks, they only made clothing for their own people. Over the years, he’d probably sewn hundreds of coveralls for the Harmonists’ hired workers. But somehow, this time felt different. “I can’t let you work for them.”
A mix of confusion and desperation twisted the teen’s face so out of shape that Lewis almost worried they’d strain something. “I don’t understand. They offered me a job and I need that money. What right do you even have to refuse?”
“That shop’s no good for someone like you.”
“What the frost does that even mean?”
“People like us. Queer people. They’ll bully you until you break. I won’t be a party to that.”
But the teen refused to relent. “I… I can pass. For one day a week, I can be who they want. Please.”
Lewis understood the teen’s desperation better than they would ever guess. How many years had it taken him to save up the funds to open his shop? How long had he lived in constant fear that he’d run out of money and have to go back. Even so… “I’m sorry.”
“But you have to.” Their shirt flashed a thousand colors at once, and Lewis’s head started to pound.
“Stop! Just stop. Turn that thing off. You need to let me think.”
They were trying so hard to make their own path in the world, and he’d just shifted the gravity beneath their feet. He still refused to sew the coveralls, but he had to find some other way to help them.
If only he could magically generate the funds they needed. But he barely had enough to cover his own expenses. Even that blasted training module wouldn’t teach him how to pull money from exhaust tubes.
Wait. That training. What if they…
No, no and no.
Why was he even entertaining the idea? He certainly didn’t have the money to pay an assistant.
But they looked so vulnerable and so desperate.
Maybe for just a little while. A couple of weeks. A month or two at most. He could raise his prices by five percent. He could make all his meals from printed proteins.
When Lewis finally spoke, he took his time, testing each word on his tongue as he shaped it. “It occurs to me that I might benefit from hiring a part-time assistant.”
The teen just stared at him, clearly not understanding.
“I wouldn’t mind having someone around to tidy up,” he continued. “Track the stock. And maybe…” Why was it so hard to get the next few words out? “Maybe manage the tech side for me. Maybe train me on how to manage the tech side. Maybe four hours a week on Saturday mornings.”
They blinked, then stammered, “I… I can’t—I mean… the tech. And… and Shabbat.” As if the job in the workshop would have been any less of a Sabbath violation.
Lewis considered for a moment. “I’m not asking you to interact with the tech directly. I’m asking you to teach me how to do it. You know, that thing you did? With your fingers in the air just now. I’ll pay you to do exactly that.”
He didn’t give them time to respond before he started laying out the terms. “Twenty credits an hour. Every Saturday for the next three weeks. Let’s call it a trial period. It goes well, and I’ll keep you on long-term. Be here at half past nine. Make sure to dress nicely. The sort of clothing you’d wear to synagogue, yes?”
For someone with a brain as sharp as theirs, it took the teen a surprisingly long time to answer with a nod.
“So I’ll see you Saturday, then?”
“What? Yeh. Sure.”
It was only as they turned to go that Lewis finally dared to ask, “They really know you’re queer?”
The teen glanced back over their shoulder. “Course they do.”
“And it really doesn’t bother them?”
“I mean, there’s always some bigot somewhere, but… mostly, yeh. They’re flush about it.”
A religious community that was totally fine with one of their members being queer. Lewis still wasn’t sure he really believed it. But oh, how he wanted to. “When you’re here on Saturday, do you think you could tell me more? About your community, I mean?”
The teen shrugged, like it was no big deal at all. “Sure, I guess. See you then?” They ran out the door before he could respond, their shirt lit up with sparkling pink confetti.
It was only after they’d disappeared around the corner that he realized he hadn’t even asked their name. But they’d have plenty of time to get to know each other on Saturday. And meanwhile, he had a training to complete. He tried the reverse pinch that the teen had just taught him, and the module sprang right open.
By Valerie Valdes
I enjoyed how the characters overlapped and clashed, their disparate backgrounds and communities impacting how each of them experienced their queer self-discoveries. In our own world, acceptance is still unevenly distributed, and this story illustrates how that can lead to miscommunication and confusion. Ultimately, like our brave tailor, it’s up to each of us to do what we can to help the next generation find the right fit, and to keep learning instead of struggling with stagnation.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Adrienne Rich, who said, “No person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Rachel Gutin is a writer and special education teacher. Her work has been published in khōréō. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is a member of the organizing team for Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. She shares her apartment with a satisfying assortment of books, a growing collection of craft supplies, and an impressive number of fountain pen ink samples. You can find her on Twitter at @Rachel_Gutin.
About the Narrator
Elie Hirschman is a self-described “former aspiring voice actor” who has worked with Darker Projects and Dream Realm Productions and is also involved in Cool Fool Productions, turning bad audio scripts into intentionally bad comedy gold. He’s currently still active in all EA podcasts (including Cast of Wonders) and also appearing semi-regularly in the Nosleep Podcast. He doodles constantly but doesn’t draw enough and moved from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere against his will and better judgment (but has never been in the Southern Hemisphere).
Elie was born in New York City and raised just outside of it. He started down the voiceover path in 2004, with formal voiceover and marketing training by Creative Voice Development Group. His professional voice work ranges from children’s educational material to real estate advice website audio, with a scientific article and a guided tour of a Polish salt mine thrown in for good measure. In his free time, Elie enjoys cartooning, listening to old-time radio drama, and referring to himself in the third person. By this time next year, he will also have mastered speaking in future perfect tense.