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2341 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 am always throwing off the balance between classical style and practicality, but I mustn't be caught off guard if anyone should happen to catch 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 inToxsuit 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 this for a few moments before concealing the book within my inToxsuit.

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 onto a placard that is situated below the airplane. It is humid enough that the petals stick to the placard's 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 at this inarticulate moment, prostrate as I am before such a reverential display of murderous aptitude. I gather myself and proceed to the elevators.


In my mind it is all quite different than this.

I embody two discreet realities, alone, continuously in peril of favoring one over the other. But now a barricade has been thrown up. An obstruction divides the two opposing chambers, here in the rubbish factory. I find that my thoughts can no longer pass freely between them. Necessity demands that I pick a side and entrench my position.

Of course, being made of plaster, this wall I speak of will eventually come down. But building materials are composed of somewhat sterner stuff, these days, and it is this stubborn and lately actualized durability that troubles me. What if this wall is different? What if this, the ugliest, stupidest wall in the whole of my mind ends up being the last to give way? An irony, I suppose. The dry-rot superstructure of this tenement, having braced the entire edifice for untold years, may only become apparent when someone takes a swing at his wife, misses, breaks his knuckles, breaks through to a cloud of dust and rat shit. The hollow cost of negligent fury.

If memory serves, it was just such a reluctant, pitiful, paltry, plaster wall that held the masterpiece Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena in place, in stasis if you will, postponing its inevitable transmigration from self-evident genius to common rubble spread throughout the topsoil of mechanized warfare. No one expected a fresco to stand against mortar fire, but here our man Leonardo had produced a hare from his conical hat. The wall stood firm. It is a truism that a lot depends on which side of the wall one finds themselves planted, as the tanks proceed to roll in.

There. A rationale for choice. Do I really wish for these thoughts to pass freely?

The wall could be made to serve a useful purpose.

It is at moments such as these that I find it most crucial to get something down, even just a scrawl, before mind's effluvium carries mind itself away on a raft of sudden, fatiguing currents.

In truth, I write all of this just to cleanse the pallet. There is a bad taste in my mouth after a ribald three days spent grunting out the particulars of my new aesthetic manifesto. Lonnie has made it a habit to interrupt my sleep even though I should be resting for my next extended shift, so if I'm going to be awake, I might as well make good use of my time.

Furthering my previous thought, let us consider the wall as ballast. Perhaps after this I can get some sleep.


Determinations are being made, here.

At least the writing has gone well. Having finally honed the core of my manifesto down to an efficacious three-part formulae, the world is accordingly cut loose from its tether and is made a seemingly trustworthy pledge of amnesty -- a pledge to forgive all sins now that my conceptions have sloughed off the scourge of malformation. What these sins might have amounted to is truly anyone's guess. But it is no longer my concern.

Emboldened, I proceed.

I boot up a new sheet of paper, reflecting upon these newest thoughts only after the screen has begun to fill in with words. A great sewer main has burst in my mind, carrying forth both copious amounts of shit and my senses as well -- both having been lodged quite stubbornly in the pipe. What strikes me as most peculiar in all of this is the strange impulse I now feel to care about the results of my efforts. 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.

Still, I do not feel any great pull towards the resolutions and conclusions of others. Mostly, the handouts and donations are worth precisely what one is expected to pay for them. That is to say, nothing. There is a wealth of surface detail to be taken in, but I find there is only one true source of currency here in the rubbish factory, and that is the universal reserve of the personal imagination. That which never devalues, that which is not judged relative to markets or governments -- these are the ineffables that constitute essential wealth.

As I write these words I do make an effort to believe in them. But I sense your perfectly reasonable wariness, dear reader, and I comprehend, even identify with, your reticence.

What is it that makes what I have to say so important?

I close up my notebook and stuff it into one of the compartments of my inToxsuit. A whistle sounds, groaning, pixelated. A gavel is banged and my mental courtroom clears of lawyers, 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 seats around four-hundred, sans inToxsuits; though I'd say the most I've ever seen present simultaneously could hardly surpass a figure of forty-five or fifty). Two- and three-man groups clotted into flesh-colored scabs around the edges of each long steel table. We dine, each of us made up in the first inner-layer of our inToxsuits. Whatever splendor lies concealed beneath this pragmatic exterior is always hidden away, extinguished, stamped out. Perhaps as a response to the visual monotony, it is customary for us to engage in a discussion of politics, during mealtimes. Even through our filtration systems, then, the musk of human excrement may still be distinguished, swimming on the currents of processed air. When we open up our helmets to speak freely, the redolence is quickly made solid.

"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 him. A few get up and leave altogether. But most simply pick over their lunch trays and stare at their food, seemingly distant and emotionless. An artfully stolen glance, however, will reveal that their eyes are widening as far as is physically possible to take in every triviality of the gathering tempest through their respective peripheral vision. So there is a kind of pride, even here, and it can be punctured in the time it takes to pull the emergency release on an inToxsuit.

"Ah, yes, the dominant minority," a familiar voice picks up.

"Rather, I should say, an aristocracy of merit," counters the original speaker. He smiles.

I appreciate exchanges like this, here in the lunch room, as they allow everyone a chance to unwind a bit between shifts in the tunnels. The work can be grueling, the hours long. Mechanically plunging 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. We arrive on the cusp of our own destinies by the strain and sweat of honest toil, and we regard this as a progression, of sorts.


Before things can really get started, a triumvirate of management come striding into the room, clearing a buffer nearly a meter in radius around their party as they pass between the huddles of workmen. I grip my own lunch tray a little closer when they pass by my table, unsure of the purpose for their visit.

What you notice first is the impeccable styling of their attire. Even when down in the tunnels, these gentlemen always -- always -- keep their gear clean. It is my understanding that a phalanx of pageboys are assigned to each manager, charged alternately with the ferrying of his trunks about, location to location, and assuring his diet remains consistent with the recommendations of his personal nutritionist. In the general low-light conditions of the tunnels, it is their bejeweled teeth and resplendent necklets 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 seem to disappear from our POVs behind our translucent masks. But in the mess hall we take off our helmets to talk and to eat. Here, the glare does not obscure but instead serves to illuminate.

And, here is a small group now. My own supervisor striding to the fore. Low-slung denim splits into a full smile, a Cheshire grin of plaid cotton undergarments. The suede of my superior's sneakers appears to be freshly brushed, having accumulated no floating particles of detritus or dirt. His tasteful, oversized polo tee asserts a dialectic of red, white and blue striping, situated masterfully into legible blocks of sacred significance. I am taken somewhat aback by this sudden bursting onto the scene. It is a moment I cherish even as it frightens me, and I briefly clench my eyelids together, attempting to trigger my mesh camera and sear the image into the pages of my distributed memory.


Just after they pass me by they stop, turn back.

My superior's nostrils incline perceptibly. As one, his group turns to face my table. I swallow a bit of synthshimi, which goes down the wrong way, and I begin to worry about the visible stubble on my face. What must I look like to them?

"Thomas Bright, Jr.: Yo, ya'll have been selected, son! We're up in this place to request that you initiate a temporary application transfer of two billion credits to secure your promotion to management. Know what I'm sayin', cuz? To authenticate this ceremonial commencement, please press here, fool. Fa sho."

I put my thumb on the reader and press, weakly.

"Peace. 5000, G."

Then they are gone.

I am quite literally bowled over, and my lunch tray pinwheels to the floor along with my now limp form. Lonnie, faithful companion of lo these many years, helps me back to my seat as I slowly regain my composure. Gradually, it begins to sink in that the scene which has just unfolded will mean promotion; for my pension, for my quarters... for my civilian clothing allowance. I have just been made new. A second baptism. A repeat birth. I switch on all mesh transceivers and begin capturing every possible angle of this vital moment, preserving a record for the corporate archive. 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, richly aware of the widening expanse that separates our respective circumstances. The great partition then comes crashing apart in my mind, and in this instant, the dejected, companionless occupants of each chamber are crushed together, sticks of liberty bundled into an immobilizing unity. At this milestone I had anticipated a sentimental reunification with the magnanimity of the outer world, but I find instead that I am now turned even further inward, the combustion of my thoughts fueled solely by the light of its own countenance. Lacking a prepared response I yield to myself completely, and thus my access to empathy is permanently severed.

My face droops in my hand, a bent elbow evenly supporting the increased weight of my skull, flesh and excessively powdered hair. I find that I have grown suddenly weak from contemplating my great responsibility. Lonnie will come to understand this fatigue if ever he is called from these waste tunnels into the obdurate embrace of his betters.

But at this moment I cannot expect him to fully comprehend. Not while he must still drag himself to face day upon deadening day of wading through an anonymous, anonymizing bureaucracy of shifting human shit.

I move my eyes over to him and it is obvious he cannot understand what I have become.

What I am now, and always will be.

"Dandy," I reply, utilizing 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 gives me a look, forlorn, but still he says nothing.

A short time later I excuse myself and leave my tray behind for someone else to clear. I am already running the numbers in my head.

Fitting my manicured hands to the master controls of the rubbish factory.


To be continued...


photo by my mother, 1973



1OCT1993 | INDEX