By Joshua Ryan
Chapter 19: We Have Lots of Room for Storage
You may be wondering what I thought of that conversation. I was wondering what I thought, myself. I knew I wasn’t, like “hurt” or “humiliated,” which is probably what I was supposed to be. I did know I was happy to get to see the Owner, no matter what he said. After all, he was the Owner. I was wearing his clothes on my back and the name he gave me on my chest. He paid 90 thousand dollars for me! And he gave me exactly the kind of job I wanted. I was gonna be a grunt. I was gonna be doing mindless labor! No problems! No worries! And it was gonna be for the rest of my life! “What I buy, I keep.”
I guess there are two types of people. One type, if they hear somebody talking about them, and it isn’t all perfect and wonderful, they’re unhappy. They’re upset. They try to figure how to forget it or get rid of it or get an apology for it. The other type, they’re interested in what they heard. They feel good that somebody’s actually talking about them.
I’d obviously turned out to be the second type! I was happy that a man like Mr. Sharma, who you had to respect, would take all that time examining me and talking about me. He was totally smart, so I thought he was probably right—I was good enough for a grunt. Which was cool! But maybe he wasn’t totally right, because I was still “wily” enough to be thinking these things about him! And maybe I’d turn out to be a bad boy too!
So that was all good. Actually great!
Boss Nat didn’t say anything about the conversation, or me either–I guess he’d seen my kind before. Or thought he had! He wasn’t interested in whether I was “wily” or not. He just led me back to the big brick building and called Rickie over and checked a list and said, “Yard detail, stall 15,” and then he was through with me. Rickie took me to the room where he’d fixed up my uniforms and started giving me things I was supposed to have.
“OK, I’m gonna issue you a mattress,” he said. “Stick out your arms.” Which he loaded with a hunk of brown plastic, temporarily folded in two. Same as the Coop. “And a blanket”—thick, scratchy, also brown; again, the same nice choice of color. “And a pillow”—flat, plastic, wait for it . . . brown! “Lotta the proprietors don’t give you a pillow, but Mr. Sharma thinks of everything.” He stacked the blanket and the pillow on top of the mattress, which was stacked on top of my arms. “AND the TWO spare suits that every slappie gets. Just keep em goin back and forth from the laundry, and you’ll always be clean. Mr. Sharma wants us all to be clean. Of course I put your name and number on them, so they’ll never get lost.” He stacked the suits on the pile. “And here’s your baggie. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Suggest you start using it. But now I’m gonna take you to your barn.”
It turned out that the building we were in, which he called the Big Brick, had both of the barns inside it, North and South. I was going to the South Barn, so Rickie led me to a room where you could go left or right but if you went right you ran into a big steel door with SOUTH BARN painted across it. It was closed with a heavy steel bar, and actually the bar was so heavy that it was attached to a cable going up to a pulley on the ceiling, so Rickie could haul it up after he unlocked it. Very cool, very secure.
On the other side of the door was a GIANT room, like, guess what, a barn. Back at the Coop, they called the barracks a barn. But this really was one. The light was dim, like it is in a barn, but when my eyes got adjusted I could see the roof pretty well, and it looked like it was 30 feet up! It was wood, and so was the floor, and what was inside the place looked like a lot of wooden pens. I mean, there was an aisle or whatever in the middle, but on each side there were things like fences, eight or nine feet high, like you’d see in a barn, only higher, like whatever was on the other side of the fences was either really big or really . . . wily.
“When you get to the end of the barn,” he said, pointing into the distance, “there’s the chow room and the showers and so on. You’ll see them later. You’ll see them a lot. But this part is where the grunts are actually stored.”
“Wow!” I said. Pretty clever, eh? But I’d only been in two actual barns in my life, and those were both on class trips “to see where the farm animals live.” And now I was an animal on Mr. Sharma’s farm. It didn’t look like he raised any crops, but I was getting the picture.
Rickie had stopped to admire the view. “From what I hear,” he said, “Mr. Sharma was looking for ‘a big house and a big barn,’ and he found it. Of course it would have to be old; they don’t build barns like this anymore. The barn was here even before the house. When they had horsecars in the streets, this is where they kept the horses. That’s what I hear. Then they kept cars and trucks in here. Mr. Sharma keeps his vehicles in a garage, of course; he had other ideas for the barn. Lots of things probly happened in here, but when he bought it, it had been empty for years. Anything you see, Mr. Sharma put it in after he bought Alcazar. They say he spent more on fixing the barn and so forth than he did on the stuff on the house. And of course he had to buy a whole staff. But, yes, everything you see in here, Mr. Sharma put it in. Stalls and everything.”
“Yeah, like the one you’re standin next to. Slappies in this stall aren’t back from their labor detail. So take a look–they’re all the same.”
Think of a box made of wooden slats, thick wooden slats with spaces between them, like you’d see on a horse’s stall. The back wall is the bricks of the barn. The side walls and the front wall are made out of the same thick horizontal slats. There are slats on the top, too, but there’s also a layer of barbed wire.
“Mr. Sharma doesn’t like the slaps climbing out of the stalls. They can see out, though—they can see the windows up there on the roof.” It was a peaked roof, and there was a box of windows running along the peak. They were windows, but they were covered with bars. That must be why it was, like, twilight in there.
“You do get some lightbulbs, of course.” I could see some hanging from the roof. “They’re turned on later. But here’s the interesting part. Each of these gates . . . . ”
He gestured toward the front of the stall, where there was a part with hinges on it.
“. . . . swings back. It’s in two pieces, so you can open the whole thing or just the top. As you see, there’s a handle and a padlock on each part of the gate. A boss, or an orderly like me, can come along and unlock it, so the grunts can come out, or he can just unlock the top part . . . .”
He opened the padlock and grabbed the handle, and the top swung open.
“ . . . and the grunts in here can talk to the boss, or be inspected, or whatever. But it’s too high for them to get out. You only see the heads, actually. Sometimes a boss will let the grunts keep them open when they aren’t on labor detail. Mr. Sharma says the stalls are the most humane way of managing the grunts.”
“Yeah,” I said. What did I know about animal management, but it did kind of turn me on. It’s amazing the things you can learn about yourself when you’re a slappie.
“So inside the stall, as you see . . . .”
I stood close to the gate and raised myself on my toes to get a better view.
“ . . . is the standard equipment. Double rack, upper and lower, toilet. Mr. Sharma had those put in special, because he hates any kind of dirt. They’re steel, and no seat, so there’s less of a cleaning problem. Big jump up from the Coop, eh? Hope you can adjust. But like I said, Mr. Sharma thinks of everything. Everything’s totally arranged for you. There on the wall, that’s the pipe where the slaps get their water. Then they’ve got their mattress, their blanket . . . he lets us have a pillow too. As you know! You’re carrying that stuff! So come on, you’re in number 15.”
I followed him along the aisle. There was only one lonesome-looking slap with his fingers on the slats, looking out. It was hard to see the rest of him, but he nodded and I nodded back. My first sign of acknowledgment from my fellow grunts! Then we came to a gate with a big 15 on it. Rickie unlocked the two padlocks and pulled it open. “This is where you’re gonna live,” he said. “Meet your stallmate.”
There was a big slappie in the stall, folding his blanket.
“Got one for you,” Rickie said. “Hope you like it.”
The slappie stopped what he was doing and turned around. He didn’t do anything else; he just turned and looked at me. And of course I was looking at him.
“OK,” Rickie said, “you two can get acquainted on your own time. I gotta get back to the office.” I walked in. The gate closed behind me, and the locks clicked shut.
To be continued …