By Joshua Ryan
I don’t know how long it took for Grig to unlock the door and take me out of the room, but by that time all the other workies were back in their boxes. End of another perfect day.
“How’d it go?” Grig said. “Buyer like what he saw?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. My job right then was not to break down in hysterical faggot tears.
“Too bad. Sergeant told me the guy’s got money.”
“Yeah. He does.”
“But I guess he’s lookin for somethin special.” We’d reached the door of my box. “In you go,” he said. And he locked me in for the night.
I hoped that morning would never come again, but it did. After that, every day was the same. The only difference was what I got to scrub or shine or wax–one or many times. Officers had a way of finding you on your knees, just finishing up your part of the hallway, and accidentally spilling your bucket all over it. “Too bad. Guess you’ll need to do it again, workie.”
That was good. It took all thoughts out of my mind. I’d gone from a pampered member of the privileged classes to a naked, hairless worm, taking food in at one hole and passing it out through another. That’s what all of us had become. When I looked at us slithering on the floor or splayed out along a wall, washing it with our tiny brushes, what I saw was the kind of creatures you find on the underside of a rock.
It was two days after Mike’s visit, I think, when we were joined by more animals. It was intake day for convicts. I was on my knees, as usual, because I had the honor to be cleaning up after an officer who’d happened to track a lot of dog shit into the facility. Most of the stuff was just upwind from the place where you lose your clothes and Clinch gives you a collar. The door to the outside opened, and a clanking noise filled the room. I looked up and saw the first color I’d seen in days—the bright, blinding orange of the jailbirds’ jumpsuits.
They were chained up together, six or seven of them, and they must have been used to that, because they had smirks on their faces, the kind of smirks you get when you think you’ve seen the worst and survived it very well, thank you. I looked at them; then they looked at me, and the smirks vanished. They knew that what they were seeing was what they were about to be. And they had a long time to think about that, because it wasn’t easy to clean up that shit. By the time I finished, the last one was getting his collar. At that point, nobody could have told the difference between them and me, except for the hair. But that would be taken care of the next day.
I never tried to talk to them. All I knew is that having more workies doesn’t mean there’s any less work for them to do. There’s always a wall to be washed or a toilet to be polished or garbage to be sifted. You’ve got to do that by hand, “to make sure there’s no recyclables in there.” Seven more dudes means seven more workies to make the toilets shine, but it also means there’s seven more boxes filled up in the workie quarters, with seven more shit holes to clean. So now I understood what that guy Lyons meant when he said that once I signed that paper, there was no difference between me and a convict.
But if I still had a thought, it was “Jerry was right.” I’d obviously lost the bet. I wasn’t special—you could break me down the same way you could anybody else. Easier, I thought, when I looked at the guy that used to be Dylan. Everybody got the paddle. I got it three or four times. It seems like Former Dylan got it more than anybody else. And he cried every time. But then he went back to being just the same little guy that was wistfully hoping for a good home. I’m sure he still thought he was cute.
And somebody else must have thought so too, because one day he went into the Display Room, and just a few minutes later Drum took him away to Outfit, which was where you went if you’d been sold. “That was quick,” I said to Drum. I might as well try saying something. After all, he wasn’t a cop.
“Rest of you are slow,” he replied.
“Nah. Just the usual. Except you. Guy that came to look at you, he must’ve jumped as soon as your listing came online.”
“Then he jumped off.”
“Yeah. But somebody will buy you. If not, the state can always find a use for you. Just like me.”
That would be great, I thought—spending my life in a workie warehouse. But did I say “life”? My life was over. And did I say “my”? I didn’t own anything, even “myself.”
Drum was still in a talkative mood. “Well I knew they’d jump at that one.” Meaning Dylan. “You could tell right away what he’d be used for.”
“Right,” I said.
In the next few days, Dave disappeared. The formerly hairy guy. Who would want Dave? Somebody did. Then one of the convicts went. I was getting less special all the time. There came a day when I was picking a wad of dung out of the shit hole in some convict’s box, and the light suddenly dimmed. It was Drum, standing in the doorway, blocking the light from outside. “Wash up,” he said. “You been sold.” I noticed that he was carrying a set of handcuffs, so I knew I was leaving.
No time for a nostalgic farewell to the place that had taught me everything I knew about life as a workie. I washed up and followed Drum out of the box room.
“Guess the salesmen have been doing their job,” he said.
“But nobody came to look at me. Since that first time.”
“Sure they did.” He pointed up at one of the cams. “Maybe you look better from that angle. Besides, why should any of them talk to you? They’re not buyin you for your fuckin brain power.”
The door at the far end of the hallway had no words stenciled on it—just an EXIT sign above—but if anything made me happy in the warehouse, it was seeing that sign and thinking about going through that door. Although as the door got closer, I got more and more scared. Someplace on the other side of that door was a person who actually OWNED me. Forget all that shit about leases. He owned me and he could do almost anything he wanted with me. And now we were under the EXIT sign.
I stuck out my arms. Drum cuffed them in front and clipped a leash to my collar. “Your owner wants you delivered this way,” he said. So that was something you could do with a collar—clip a leash to it. He pulled me out through the door, like a dog he was walking.
Sunlight hit me like a bomb–and I wasn’t even on the outside, just in a room with windows. I hadn’t seen the sun for so long, it was like a revelation. But a revelation of what? Just that I was being shipped off somewhere, and this big concrete room and the four men in front of me had something to do with that.
Two of them were young guys in jeans and tees. They were leaning on the backs of chairs, looking bored. Another one was a WORC cop, standing next to an outside door. The fourth one was Mr. Lyons, dressed in his coat and tie, just like before. Also, there were a couple of workies standing back against a wall, but I said “men,” so I’m not counting them.
Mr. Lyons came forward and took my leash. I was going to say hello to him, but it seemed like our relationship had changed somewhat. He didn’t say anything to me. He just took the leash and said, “That’s all, Drum,” and I heard Drum going back into the warehouse.
“Here’s the workie your boss just purchased,” Mr. Lyons said. “Please check it, before you sign the receipt.”
The two guys in jeans looked back and forth from me to a piece of paper they had in their hands. “Yup, that’s it,” one of them said.
“Care to inspect the merchandise?” Mr. Lyons said.
“Guess it’s OK,” the jeans guy said, running his eyes up and down and ending with a glance at my naked dong. “Looks like all the rest of them.”
“We’ll sign for it,” the other one said.
“Step over to the table, please,” Mr. Lyons said. The table had a little thing like a clamp on the side, and he attached my leash to it. “Here are the papers,” he said.
One of them signed.
“Thank you,” Mr. Lyons said. “As you see, I’ve included the price of the workie’s first five outfits. No extra charge. Naturally, we will be happy to provide others in future, or you may purchase them from our central storehouse at WORC Products, Please! But is there anything else you need? Restraints, perhaps?”
“Nah. We got lotsa those, out at the farm. We run a few coffles, you know.”
Coffles! Oh my God!
“Sure. We’ve sent a lot of em out there. I assume that’s where this one is going?”
No! No! Please say I’m going anyplace besides a coffle!
“Right. And not a bad price, as I understand it.”
Oh fuck! Oh my God!
“A good price for a good customer. But I’ve got to admit, it isn’t the brawniest specimen I’ve sold.”
“Boss knows what he wants. A little hard labor will take care of that.”
Oh God! I thought I was fucked before! But nothing like this!
“You’re right. By the way, need any workie food?”
“We don’t use a lotta that. It’s a farm. But we could use some a that de-. . . depil- . . . depila . . . . The stuff that keeps their hair from growing.”
“Right, depilatory. But you do mean ‘keeps it from growing’—not just gets rid of what’s there?”
“Fine. We’ve got the product. Slick It Off. Are you looking for weekly, or monthly . . . ? The one we use here, it’s a monthly. You can see that this one”—pointing at me—”it’s already getting a shadow on its head and cheeks. You can see some stubble around its junk, too.”
“Guess I don’t wanta look that close! Anyway, we’re supposed to get the annual. Boss says why waste time, when you can do it all at once and forget about it for a year. He thinks a couple five-gallon drums will do for the whole stock.”
“That’s fine,” Mr. Lyons said. “I’ll put the usual discount on that.” He turned to one of the workies. “Jimbo, take two five-gallon units of Slick It Off 12 to these gentlemen’s truck. Gentlemen, I’m afraid that because this is such a powerful substance, you’ll need to sign an Awareness of Danger form. I’ve got it here. You assure the State that treatments with this substance will be administered in a well ventilated area.”
The guys in t-shirts looked at each other and laughed. “Our showers are so well ventilated,” one of them said, “you could freeze to death in there!” Mr. Lyons shared the laugh, and one of the guys signed. Meanwhile, Jimbo was lugging two cans towards the door. The cop unlocked it for him.
“Want to look over the uniforms?” Mr. Lyons asked. “This is the Outfit department, after all.”
“No, we seen em before. Lotsa times!” More laughs. “But Boss said to make sure you got the name right.”
“Of course. Zander, lay out a suit.”
There was a large white box on the table, and the workie named Zander started taking things out of it. He was laying out the various parts of a workie suit–the white clown cap with the blue duckbill brim, the white shirt with the dark blue collar and the dark blue stripe on the button row, the white pants with the dark blue stripes running up the legs. It was a suit that a janitor or a busboy would refuse to wear. But that suit was meant for me. I would have to wear it.
“As you see, gentlemen, we’ve taken care of the . . . nomenclature.”
Now we were all standing at the table—Mr. Lyons, the two dudes in jeans, Zander the workie, and me–all looking at my new clothes. Nobody cared about the horror I was feeling; nobody realized I was about to puke. Nobody even noticed I was there. They were just checking the imprint on the front of my shirt:
MY NAME IS
WORC NO. 24992
AT YOUR SERVICE
“We gave it the standard treatment, of course,” Mr. Lyons said. “Full placard on the left chest, as you see; ‘WORC’ and the workie’s number on the right butt cheek, the underwear, the sides of the boots. . . . You know you’re getting ten suits of underwear?”
“Right,” one of the dudes said. “Just as long as I don’t have to wear em!”
“I always like a sense of humor!” Mr. Lyons said. “But that’s what your boss wanted to name this item? ‘Butch,’ right?”
“Right. That’s what the man said.” Then he remembered that I was there, attached by my leash to the table. “Hey fella, how you like your new name?”
It was good for me that he was making a joke and not expecting an answer, because now I was shaking with anger and shame. “Butch!” Somebody had just named me Butch. Somebody had just given me that horrible, redneck, biker name!
He turned to the other dude. “Hey man. It’s startin to cry!”
“They do that sometimes.”
“What’s a workie gotta cry about? Look at all this free stuff they get. Everything’s free. It’s even gettin a free ride to its new address.”
“I dunno. They just cry sometimes.”
“Well, I guess that does it, then,” Mr. Lyons said. “Unless you or your boss have any other questions. Always happy to answer them.”
“Nah, just wanted to mention, boss is sorta lookin for a young buck he can use as a house servant. Doesn’t want experience. Says it’s better if he breaks it in.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t know that before! Actually had one of those, but somebody snapped it up.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s somethin he needs right now. Still . . . .”
“Hold on a second, please . . . . ” Mr. Lyons turned to me. “OK, Butch. Get into your suit.” Then he turned back to the dudes in jeans. “As you were saying . . . .”
Zander uncuffed me and took the leash off my collar, and I started dressing up in my new clothes. They were crisp and clean and neatly folded, and all lettered and numbered, just the way he said. The shirt with BUTCH on the chest was resting on top of the pile, so there was no doubt whose clothes these were. They belonged to a workie named Butch. Which was me. All I had to do was crawl into them, and my identity would be complete.
Starting with my underwear. From now on, what I wore on my skin wouldn’t be designer shorts with soft tender cloth and colorful designs; it would be thick coarse white scratchy square-cut workie wear. And what showed me off to the world wouldn’t be svelte Italian clothes in subtle shades and shapes; it would be a thick heavy white work suit accented with blue clown stripes running down my legs and a blue clown stripe running down from my neck, with a row of white buttons poking out of it.
And when I tried to lock my junk up into my new trousers, guess what? There wasn’t any zipper. Workies don’t get zippers. They don’t get leather belts, either. The belt I had to wear was a little web thing with a tin buckle that reminded me of the stuff that Boy Scouts wear.
“Here’s your boots,” Zander said. Two enormous lumps of leather landed on the table. I’d never worn boots before, and I was glad Mr. Lyons was still talking to the jeans dudes, because it was gonna take me a while to lace my feet into those eight-hole monsters. “And don’t forget your cap.” The cap was not a problem. It fitted my bald scull very easily. All too easily.
There wasn’t any mirror, but I could look down at my body and check things out. There were my giant clodhopper boots. There was my buttoned up crotch and the big blue stripes on the sides of my legs. There was my little kid’s buckle. There was the wide blue stripe running from my belly to my throat, and the six white buttons peeking out through it. And there was the sign stenciled above my heart, saying that I was BUTCH, Workie Number 24992, and I was happy to be of service.
It all checked out. Now I was Butch the Workie, and looked like it.
“OK,” said one of the men in jeans, “guess we should get it into the truck.”
“Yeah,” the other one said. “You know what they say–when you’re dealin with workies, you end up doin more work than they do.”
“I hope that’s not true,” Mr. Lyons said. “I’d like to keep your business. Put the cuffs back on, Zander, and leash it back up.”
When I was cuffed and leashed, I heard, “OK, workie. Pick up your gear.” The trucker boys were ready to leave.
The “gear” was the box that contained my four extra uniforms—cost included in my basic price.
Mr. Lyons shook the two boys’ hands. “Don’t be a stranger,” he said. “We won’t,” they said. Then they turned to me. “OK, workie,” one of them said, and he tugged on my leash. “Follow me.”
I thumped across the room in my big workie boots, lugging my box of workie clothes in my cuffed up hands. The cop was hanging next to the door to the outside, and he opened it for us. “Outside” was a loading dock, with a parking lot on the other side of it. More light, and more shocks–the green trees in the distance, the shimmering silver of the razor wire . . . It was a good thing I was leashed. Otherwise, I would’ve been too dazzled to know where I was going.
But it wasn’t a long walk. The truck was parked at the dock. It was a big white pickup, with a sign in black letters on the side:
Gerald S. Hamilton, Prop.
Oh my God! My owner was Jerry.
To be continued …