By Joshua Ryan
Chapter 8: The Audition Is the Most Important Thing
I waited two fuckin weeks at Step 2! I couldn’t explain why I was so anxious, but every day that went by, I was thinking how come? and getting depressed and not being able to jerk and then jerkin like crazy just for relief . . . . Like I didn’t have enough to worry about before! Then I started thinking, yeah, they’ve definitely rejected me—they must not like my looks. And why should they? But why don’t they let me know? Will they send me a message or will they just ignore me? That’s probably what they’re doing now. So that was shit! I didn’t even know when to stop waiting!
Then, whoa! Another “Personal” from SLPOUTREACH: “Joel Barlow: Your Documents have been accepted.”
“You are now permitted to proceed to Step 3. Your Interview with Sergeant Henshaw is scheduled for Tuesday, 4 p.m., St. Bevons time. Should this time prove impossible, you will notify us at this address. Access your meeting with the following link.”
No “please”; just “you will notify”! BOING! I was hard again!
Tuesday was six days away, and you can guess what I spent most of my time doing in the meantime. All I can say is that my Bio midterm could have gone better. Even though the interview was obviously gonna be the last thing I had to do with St. Bevons Island, outside of maybe a nostalgic revisit when I was a leading member of the medical profession, lol! But I still felt like I needed to prepare for it. I didn’t know what questions I’d be asked, so I didn’t know what answers I should give. So I wrote out a list of the things I shouldn’t say, or actually, the impressions I didn’t want to give. There’s no point in doing an interview if you aren’t trying to do your best. And now that I thought about it, that’s what I always did—I tried to do my best. What I’m saying is—I knew I wasn’t Patrick or Dobie. They were the best in a lotta ways, and I wasn’t. But they never TRIED to do anything; they just did it. Or not, I guess. I kept trying, that’s all.
So I put on my list:
Don’t act weak—they don’t want weak dudes.
Don’t act gay—maybe they are but no advantage.
Don’t act like a big man, bc you’re not.
Don’t act like you got somethin to hide, wh you don’t.
Don’t complain abt parents–don’t want grievance geeks.
Don’t act EAGER! Don’t act NEEDY! Remem. that’s probly why you don’t get BFs!
There were some other things too, but I don’t remember them. When Tuesday came I rushed home from class and spent an hour fussing with my room. I wanted the computer to be in exactly the right place for my Interview! No dirty clothes in the background! No weird looking “art”! And get the lighting right! You would have thought I was seriously applying for a job, not just jackin around. I cued the link and was just slipping into my nicest looking sweater when bang! It was time. I was being Interviewed!
You know how these online things go. Surprise–people don’t look the way they really are! Seeing myself on the screen, I was scared that I looked too young. And I wished I could get that fuckin startled look off my face. The big surprise I had about Sergeant Henshaw was all the vines and flowers he had in the window behind him. Where I was, it was still snowing.
The Sergeant himself . . . . He was a white guy, maybe 40 years old, sitting at a desk in an office, not out of the ordinary, sort of like a principal, except he was wearing a flattop. That was kind of cool and retro. But the thing that was really impressive, and sort of scary, was what he was wearing—a big, bright, neon-blue uniform. It was “tropical,” I guess, cuz it was short sleeves and no tie, but it had a lot of gold on it and it was fuckin bright blue! And here he was in my dorm room.
So I was nervous, to put it mildly, and I wondered if the reflux was gonna happen, but he started off calm and orderly. “Hello Joel, I am Sergeant Henshaw, and I am here to discuss your application to the State Labour Program. As you know, the Program is . . . . ” And he went on for a couple minutes saying things about the Program that I already knew. I didn’t want to say that, though. I just listened. Then right after that, he got to The Question:
“Tell me, Joel, why you think you would like to participate in the Program?”
I remembered my answer on the form and I said, “I think I’d have a better life. I don’t like being free the way I am right now.” Which wasn’t exactly what I’d written before, but it was probably more interesting.
“Your application indicates that you are a pre-med at the university, and you’re doing well. You aren’t flunking out.”
“I wish I was!”
That was a blurt. I shouldn’t have said it that way. “I mean . . . I wouldn’t have been a pre-med if I wasn’t trying to please my parents. And I wouldn’t be in college. I don’t think I would. I just keep doing it because I . . . . Because I started doing it, I guess.”
“What would you rather be doing? Besides joining the State Labour Program, of course.”
“Besides? I don’t know. I could, like, travel . . . .”
“Where would you go?”
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. Or I could get a job. I’m sorry, I don’t know about that either . . . . I’m not good about making choices.”
That was totally true. Also I was making a fool of myself.
I guess he wanted more of the same, because he asked about my parents and friends and any “significant others” I might have—fuck! “significant others”! St. Bees really are behind the times!—and I told him I wasn’t really “close to anyone.”
“You have a good body, Joel.”
Either that’s just coming out of the blue, I thought, or it has something to do with sex!
“I . . . uh . . . . I guess I’ve never heard that before.”
“With some training, I believe you would qualify as a common labourer in the SLP.”
So that was it. No sex talk, then.
“Thank you. I’m glad to hear that. That’s the box I checked.”
“I know, Joel. And I understand what you said about a need for structure and discipline. When you visited the island, is that what you saw?”
The one thing I understood that I must NOT do was to snitch on Patrick and Dobie, and I wondered whether I should bring up the trail diggers instead. So I decided to do that. I told him I felt good about the way they were all controlled and working together and they were all treated the same. I said that was what “got me interested. I wished I was like that. I mean, working together like that. When I watched them, I could hardly tell them apart.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute, and I saw he was making notes.
“So, Joel, is there anything else you would like to say about yourself?”
I wished he hadn’t said that! If I didn’t say anything, he’d think I was keeping something back. But if I did say something . . . .
“I guess I . . . . ” OK, let him have it. “Listen . . . . I know I haven’t done very well in this interview. But I want you to know, it isn’t easy for me to . . . try to do this thing on my own. But I know what I want to do. And where I want to be. And it’s in a brown uniform on St. Bevons. Sir.”
He looked surprised for a moment, but then he looked down at his desk, where I guess he had a list of the things he needed to discuss, and he said:
“Thank you, Joel. I’d like to see what you have to say about some things I want to tell you.
“First, you need to know that the first 30 days of your life in the Program, if you are accepted, will be a period of rigorous physical and psychological training. Your medical report indicates no disabilities, outside of that minor reflux problem, which I assume results from anxiety about your future, or your college work, or perhaps about this interview.”
He wasn’t smiling, but I guessed that was meant as a joke. “That’s probably true, sir.”
“But are you prepared to be trained?”
“Sir, I played sports in high school. It wasn’t always easy. I’ll be OK.” Not the best answer, but what was I gonna say—I hit the gym ten times a week?
“Second,” he said, “and more important, I want to make sure you realize that at this point SLP is a largely penal program. Our participants are largely young males with criminal records. While we do not accept violent offenders, we maintain penal discipline, and—this is very important, Joel—we apply the same discipline to all.”
“Sure!” I said. “I already know.”
Which I shouldn’t have said, because he started looking like maybe I was just being smart. So I shut up and he said a bunch of official stuff about how “this means that while being transported and on other occasions, at our discretion and the discretion of our associates, you will be cuffed and shackled and confined to locked facilities. Do you understand that, Joel?”
“Yes sir,” I said, as meekly as I could, but I was glad the camera wasn’t showing my pants, because yeah, that sounded like a good idea to me! I hadn’t actually thought about it before; I mean, nobody had ever discussed it, but it seemed very practical.
“You may have noticed,” he continued, “that even my own window has bars on it, because this is a State Labour Program facility.”
“Yes, I can see them now. I didn’t notice before. I guess that’s the way it has to be, sir.”
“That’s the way it has to be, Joel.”
“Yes sir.” I seemed to be falling into the rhythm of this thing, which was definitely a relief.
“Third, you need to understand that corporal punishment is legal on St. Bevons and is frequently applied. Do you understand what corporal punishment is, Joel?”
“Yes, I understand, sir. That’s when you can get hit or, like, beaten and so on, to punish you.”
“That’s basically correct. Although our law does prohibit any punishment that may be disfiguring or damaging to health.” He gave me one of those looks that was meant to find out whether I was just gonna jolly him along.
“That’s good, sir,” I said. He looked like that was the right answer. I didn’t want to be “disfigured”—who would!—but I wasn’t objecting to the rest of it. I’d felt like saying, Wow that would be interesting, to get some corporal punishment! But I knew better than to say that.
“Now Joel, here’s another one of the big things, and I want to make sure you are absolutely honest in discussing it.”
“Thank you—I will be, sir.” So I thought, here it comes, he’s gonna ask if I’m gay, and of course I’m just gonna lie. But that wasn’t it.
“I want to make sure you understand that after reporting for service you would never be allowed to communicate with anyone you had previously known—family, friends, anyone. Most people who regard a prospective life in the Program as an adventure react negatively to this provision. They regard loss of family and friends as a serious drawback to participation. Do you?”
I almost laughed, but I wanted to appear thoughtful. “I’ve considered that possibility,” I said. “And I’m sure I can accept it, sir.”
“Thank you, Joel.”
While I was talking he’d been pulling something across his desk. It looked like a piece of metal.
“I’d just like to fill out the picture,” he said. “To ensure that no one will interfere with your new life—if you are accepted, of course—when you report for service your name and background data will be wiped from all available records. Those who contract for your services will be at liberty to provide you with a new name, but within the Program you will be indexed only by a serial number.”
He held up the piece of metal. It was round and rigid, and I knew what it was. It was a collar.
“Do you know what this is, Joel?”
“No, I don’t, sir.”
“It’s a collar. When you report for service, you will be issued a number and it will be stamped on the collar. Then the collar will be placed around your neck and locked. It is not, as I hear, uncomfortable, but it cannot be taken off, and it contains a tracking device that allows you to be located and apprehended, should you ever decide that the Program is not for you. Can you picture yourself wearing this collar, Joel?”
“Well, sure!” I wanted to say. “I can picture it! I’ve been jerkin about it for months.”
“That’s really . . . something to think about,” I said. “Yes, I think I could handle that, sir.”
Fuck! From the look on his face, I guessed that I’d hit the right answer. But there I went, thinking too much.
Now he was wrapping it up. “If you are accepted for the Program, Joel, when would you wish to report for service?”
I’d never thought of that!
“I, uh . . . I guess after this school year is over.” Why I said that, I don’t know. What difference would it make? But that’s what I was used to thinking about—getting through the school year. Then getting through the next year . . . .
“When is your school year over?”
I had the schedule memorized. School was bad, but going back to my parents was worse. So I knew the date for that.
“June 15,” I said.
He looked like he was making a note.
“If you are accepted and report for service, your next of kin, as listed on your Application—which is, I believe, your father–will receive a brief notice stating that you have joined the Program and that communication with you will no longer be possible. A copy of the notice will be sent to the embassy of your country. As you may know, St. Bevons enjoys excellent relations with the United States. In light of these mutually beneficial relations we have found that the U.S. embassy is particularly good about answering inquiries in an appropriate and accurate way. Your privacy will be maintained. You may also send a message yourself—before reporting, of course—but my advice is not to discuss the matter with family or friends.”
“Why would I want to do that?” I said. Oops! He lifted his eyebrows and made another note. That was bad. “I mean, I’d never want to do that, sir.”
“So you realize that after enlistment, no communication is allowed for any purpose, with anyone outside the Dominion, and within the Dominion only with the express permission of your supervisors, and that no visits are allowed from family, friends, or acquaintances?”
How many times has he recited this? I wondered. It was the second or third time, just with me. And how many potential slaps have said, uh, no, I’m outta here?
“Right!” I said. “I do, sir”–probably too happy, because he made a note of that too.
“Very well, Joel. What questions do you have about the Program?”
I should have seen that coming, and I knew I needed to have at least one question, so I said, “I put down on the application that I wanted Common Labour service. Like you know, sir.”
“Do you wish to change that preference?”
“Oh, no. Just wondering whether . . . . ”
“Whether that’s what you’d get? Probably. But you’ve noticed that there are no guarantees about that.”
“Any more questions, Joel?”
“You will hear from us in seven to ten days. Goodbye, Joel.”
I was staring at an empty screen. What was I gonna do for the next week and a half?
To be continued …