HALF-DANDY IN THE RUBBISH FACTORY
1829 words by Stanley Lieber
Standing in the mirror and seeing that without a belt, these new slacks are simply not going to stay up. I'm in danger of tipping the balance between classical style and practicality, but I mustn't be caught off guard if anyone should happen to catch a glimpse of me in my civilian underclothes. I find something suitable in my closet and pin myself into the pants, clipping a handful of mesh transceivers to my blouse before pulling on the pressure suit and chiming for a ride. Down in the tunnels, I don't want my breeches coming loose, getting wound around my legs inside of the suit. Before exiting the apartment, I remove a number of petals from a rose and press them between the pages of my notebook. I savor the scent for a few moments before concealing the book within my pressure suit and heading out the door.
At the entrance to the lowest tunnels I pause before a monstrous installation, a war machine from some forgotten conflict of decades past, and affix my collapsed flower to a placard situated below the airplane. It is humid enough that the petals stick to its slick surface with little effort. Even in this diffuse lighting, the mighty nose and wings of the plane gleam immodestly, and I am ashamed to experience a wave of exhilaration, prostrate as I am before such a reverential display of murderous articulation. I gather myself and proceed to the elevators.
In my mind it is all quite different than this.
I embody two discreet realities. Suffering alone, I am continuously in peril of favoring one reality over the other. As of late, a new barricade has been thrown up, an obstruction that permanently divides these tandem perspectives of the rubbish factory. Necessity demands that I pick a side and entrench my position, but my heart cries out for reconciliation.
I take solace in the fact that, being made of plaster, the dividing wall will eventually bow under its own weight.
If memory serves, a similar plaster wall erected around the masterpiece Il Cenacolo protected it from the onslaught of mechanized warfare, early in the last century. No one expected a fresco to stand against mortar fire, but here our fellow Leonardo had produced a hare from his conical hat. The wall stood firm though the building around it crumbled to dust.
I see now that such a wall can be made to serve a useful purpose. Do I really wish for all the evil in my thoughts to pass so freely? It is at moments such as these that I find it crucial to get something down on paper, before mind's effluvium carries mind itself away on a raft of sudden, fatiguing currents. In truth, I write to cleanse the palate. There is a bad taste in my mouth after three weeks toiling on the latest factory inventory. Lonnie plays Microsoft SOLITAIRE at his desk while I scribble in my notebook.
Furthering my previous thought, let us now consider the plaster wall in my mind as ballast. A shift in perspective to interpret the empty, unused spaces as the most precious of cargo: a portal to new understanding.
I boot up a fresh sheet of paper, reflecting upon the true nature of metaphor as filler. A great sewer main has burst in my mind, carrying forth copious amounts of shit and piss -- both having been lodged quite stubbornly in the pipe. This is the opposite of the wall. I observe as each new parcel of feces floats away, bobbling down the stream. There is something that cannot be contained within a mind such as my own, a mind that is slowly breaking up, dividing into dull, gray cubicles.
It seems that we have come full circle.
Which way is it going to be, then? Walls to divide, or portals to connect?
They are both the same. Textures that are defined, even as they are described, by the perceiving apparatus.
There is a great wealth of surface detail to be absorbed, to be sorted, and I do carry on exploring, but I find that there is only one true form of currency, here in the rubbish factory, and that is the universal reserve of the personal imagination. It proves to be an aether that never devalues, that is never appraised relative to markets or governments -- it is the ineffable substance that constitutes essential wealth.
Reaching this point of minor resolution, I close up my notebook and stuff it into one of the compartments of my pressure suit. A whistle sounds, groaning, pixelated. A gavel is banged and my mental courtroom clears of solicitors, making room for me to think other thoughts, to reconnect the cycling belt of my psyche back to the idling gears of its cadaver.
It is time for lunch.
We men clamber into the mess hall, which has not yet reached fifty percent capacity. Two- and three-man teams are clotted into flesh-colored scabs around the edges of each steel table. We dine on whatever has been set down in front of us by the kitchen staff. Between bites of supper, we trade raucous barbs.
"And what, pray tell, is the value of this thing called beauty," a colleague stands up and asks, apparently to no one.
A few of the men turn around in their seats to face the speaker. Some of them get up and leave altogether. But most simply pick over their lunch trays and stare at their food, seemingly oblivious to the philosophical gauntlet that has been thrown down.
"Ah, yes, the dominant minority," a familiar voice chimes in.
"Rather, I should say, an aristocracy of merit," counters the original speaker, earning smiles from every participating table.
I appreciate exchanges like this, here in the lunch room, as they afford us men the chance to unwind between extended shifts in the tunnels. The work can be grueling, the hours long. The repetitive plunging of gloved hands or shielded feet into the crowded arteries of the sanitation lines coarsens men to fellowship. But here, we make our own peace with our situation. Here, we arrive on the cusp of our destinies by the strain and sweat of our honest toil. It is a kind of progress.
Before things really get started, a triumvirate of management stride into the room, enjoying a buffer nearly three meters in diameter as they pass between the huddles of workmen. I grip my lunch tray with trepidation as they float past my table, unsure of the purpose for their visit.
What I notice first is the impeccable styling of their attire. Even when down in the tunnels, these gentlemen always -- always -- keep their gear clean. In the general low-light conditions of the sewer, it is their bejeweled teeth and resplendent gold necklaces which can first be seen approaching, glittering through the humid mists of municipal waste. At times, the ricocheting reflections may cause an entire face to disappear, or at least, they may seem to disappear when one's vision is obscured by a pressure suit mask. But here in the mess hall, we all remove our helmets to talk and eat. Here, the glare does not obscure but instead serves to illuminate.
The small group approaches now, my own supervisor striding to the fore. His low-slung denim splits into a Cheshire grin of plaid cotton undergarments. The suede of my supervisor's sneakers appears to be freshly brushed, having accumulated no floating particles of detritus or dirt. His tasteful, oversize polo tee asserts the classic dialectic of red and white striping, situated masterfully alongside a deep blue rectangle bearing numerous white stars, each of self-evident, sacred significance. I am somewhat taken aback by this sudden explosion of color. It is a moment I cherish even as it overwhelms me, and I briefly clench my eyelids together, attempting to trigger my mesh camera, to stream the scene into the pages of my department's distributed memory.
As the managers pass my table they hesitate, stop, and then double back.
My supervisor's nostrils incline perceptibly. As one, the group turns to face me. I swallow the food in my mouth, which goes down the wrong way, and I begin to worry about the visible stubble on my face. How must I appear to them?
"Yo, ya'll have been selected, son! We're up in this place to request that you authorize a temporary application fee of two billion credits to secure your promotion to management. Know what I'm sayin', cousin? To authenticate this ceremonial enhancement, please press here, fool. Fa sho."
I place my thumb onto the reader and press down, weakly. This elicits a further vocalization.
"Peace. Five thousand, G."
And then they are gone.
I am quite literally bowled over, and my lunch tray pinwheels to the floor in pursuit of my limp form. Lonnie, faithful companion of lo these many years, helps me back to my seat as I slowly regain my composure. Gradually, the ramifications of what has just happened begin to sink in. Promotion will mean an increase in my pension, new quarters... and an unlimited civilian clothing allowance. I have just been created anew. Afforded a repeat birth. I switch on all mesh transceivers and begin capturing every possible angle of my surroundings, preserving this vital moment, etching a record for the corporate archives, for my descendants, for their inheritors.
"What up, son," Lonnie chides, adopting the formal tone of management in a sort of mockery of their stiff, proper elocution. "These negroes done lost they minds."
I nod my head slightly, acutely aware of the expanse that now separates our respective circumstances. The great plaster partition has come crashing apart in my mind, and in this instant, the dejected, isolated occupants of each chamber are crushed together, the sticks of pious liberty bundled into a final, immobilizing unity. I eschew my former concerns, beholden as they were to considerations of slop and waste. The combustion of my thoughts is now fueled solely by the light of its own countenance.
Lacking a prepared response, I yield to myself completely.
My face droops into my hand. A bent elbow evenly supports the increased weight of my skull, flesh and excessively powdered hair. I find that I have grown suddenly weary of contemplating the great weight of my responsibility. Lonnie will come to appreciate this fatigue if ever he is called up, into the obdurate embrace of his betters.
But at this moment I cannot expect him to fully understand. Not while he still finds himself tethered to the undercarriage of our labyrinth of shifting human shit.
I look at him and it is obvious he cannot understand what I have become.
"Dandy," I finally reply, employing the crude language of the tunnels. I burp towards the mess hall out of politeness. In the resulting silence I pick at the visor of my helmet.
Lonnie makes a face, forlorn, but still he says nothing.
I wave him away. I excuse myself and leave my tray for the staff to clear.
I am already running next month's numbers in my head.
Fitting my manicured hands to the master controls of the rubbish factory.