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Object!

Story by Matt Goldberg (Read author interview) September 12, 2022

Art by Ante Hamersmit

The way everybody’s favorite gameshow works is the contestant goes into this white, soundproofed room—really not much of a room at all, more of a glorified closet—the door closes behind them, and they shut their eyes. Then, after some theatrics, the contestant comes out as whatever object the audience wants them to be.

The fun of it is the contestant doesn’t know what the audience will choose. Sometimes it’s hilarious. Like when a contestant comes out of the room as a literal bag of dog shit. I was re-watching that episode at work one time, and I remember laugh-snorting so hard that my supervisor, who was making coffee in the office kitchenette at the time, got startled and spilled his coffee. He proceeded to berate me in front of the whole office, but I didn’t mind so much. Actually, I was giddy at the realization that I got to experience anything at all. Compared to a stinking pile of inanimate dog shit in a paper bag, I had it pretty dang good.

Since then, I’ve probably watched about a hundred episodes of Object! I always get something out of it, though not necessarily a shift in perspective. I’ve learned that life can be pretty ironic sometimes. Like how this one contestant, who’d been a celebrity and spouse-abuser, came out as a 20-carat diamond ring. The ring went to auction for 5.4 million dollars and was bought by a hedge fund manager who proposed to his then fiancé. Some say the ring is cursed given how they divorced just three months later, but I’m not so sure. Divorce is very common. Anyway, that’s what happened with me and Elyse a few months back after I lost my job due to the whole TV-chortling incident. Last I heard, the supposedly cursed ring got thrown off a bridge. People still go diving down there hoping to find it. I’ve thought about it myself.

Another thing I’ve learned from Object! is how the universe can be totally random. Like when this single mother working as a secretary at a law firm came out of the room with her body turned completely inside out, after which she collapsed onstage in a mess of blood and organs. The audience started screaming and crying since they’d chosen for her to become a nice music box. I think that one may have been a technical error.

In general, the process for what object the contestant becomes is a bit of a crapshoot. It’s mostly based on the whims of whoever’s in the studio audience that day. The audience shouts objects out, kind of like an improv show, with the final decision determined by applauseometer. Sometimes the contestant will get a good-natured crowd, other times not so much. Of course, contestants always have a final opportunity to come out unchanged. The studio calls into the room and tells each contestant once the audience has made its decision. A ten-second timer starts ticking down, during which contestants can either choose to stay and undergo the instant objectification process or leave the room. If they choose to leave, they’ll go back on stage where boos will rain down on them from the audience. If they choose to become an object, the audience invariably cheers, not that the contestant can hear it by that point.

There’s only one rule after the contestant has decided to stay. They have to keep their eyes closed no matter what. Apparently, the objectification process was so secret that even becoming inanimate didn’t give someone the right to know how it worked.

I wondered a lot how anyone was willing to go on Object! since it was essentially a death sentence, minus the whole decomposing part. But after I got fired from my job and Elyse divorced me, I started spiraling. Days of being unable to get out of bed, nights of lying wide awake staring at the ceiling. I got fat, then rail skinny, then just sickly. Eventually, life got so intolerable that becoming inert seemed like a nice change of pace.

Which, I suppose, is how I ended up in the closet-like room, awaiting the studio to call in and give me my choice to go through with becoming an object or not.

I hear the intercom crackle to life.

“Your fate has been decided. Do you object?”

I don’t bother responding. Sometimes people start getting nervous and wishy-washy, debating to themselves either out loud or internally whether to go through with it. Obviously, the drama makes for great television, but that’s not what I’m after. If Elyse happens to be watching, I want her to know that in my final moments I didn’t flinch. I’d failed at being me, so I would become something else. I listen as the beeps count down. I close my eyes.

There’s just one problem. I’m still so curious. I want to know exactly how it happens, how I’ll be transformed. Is it magic? Science? Are the two indistinguishable?

I open one eye just a crack so I can satisfy this last bit of personhood before I go. But when the timer hits zero, instead of feeling all the matter in my body crunch into a new format, I hear a harsh buzzer. The intercom sparks to life.

“Disqualified. No peeking.”

Then the door opens behind me with a whoosh. The jeers are already swelling. I step out onto the stage and the hot lights shine down on me. The audience howls, mouths twisted in giddy derision. Security comes to drag me offstage and I go limp, trying to feel no sensation at all.

They hand me back my things and put me out on the street. The first thing I do is give Elyse a call. I tell her I can do better. I tell her I understand now why people go through with it. I tell her I finally know what it means to be changed.

About the Author

Matt Goldberg’s short stories have appeared in The Normal SchoolPorter House ReviewFictive Dream, and Bending Genres, among others. His work has also been anthologized in Coolest American Stories 2022 and won first place for the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives with his partner in Philadelphia, PA. Find him on Twitter at @mattmgoldberg.

About the Artist

Ante Hamersmit is a photographer from Stuttgart, Germany.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Seven
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

Deadline November 15!

The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey) is a biennial competition that celebrates and compensates excellence in flash. The grand prize winner of The Smokey is automatically nominated for The Best Small Fictions, The Pushcart, Best of the Net, and any other prize we deem appropriate. In addition to all this love, we will also pay the grand prize winner $2500. Second place: $1000. Third place $500. Finalists: $100. All finalists and placers will be published in the special competition issue in December 2022.