You wake up inside a glass cell again. You don’t know how long you have been here — it has been so long that you remember nothing else. People occasionally peer in at you; sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes a child, they all look in with the same sort of amusement one feels toward an irate, yet completely harmless animal in a zoo. You throw yourself against the glass and you shout, hoping they hear you, sympathize with you, and rescue you from this place, but they don‘t.
You do not know if it is day or night — there are no windows in this building and the fluorescent lights glow at all times. You guess the time by the number of people you see outside your cell. Outside, all is white, sanitary.
The corner where you lay comforts you a little with a ragged and dirty navy blue blanket beneath you to soften the hard floor and occasionally provide warmth and privacy. A bowl of mush and a bowl of water sit next to you on the floor but you leave them alone, for now at least. You do not want to eat while there are people to watch you. With no utensils, your only choice is to use your hands and your face. They reduce you to an animal to make you something more base and more profitable, so all the young couples with their young children will come to your exhibit and you refuse as your food continues to cool and harden.
The people become less frequent and you assume that it is closer to night and you eat your mush, whatever it is. You scoop it up into your mouth with your fingers, some of it getting stuck under your untrimmed and already dirty fingernails. You scoop and you scoop, without a thought to cleanliness. The people are gone and no one can see you.
You lie there in the cell. No sound comes through from the outside in. But some things do get transmitted through the glass — a boy points a stubby finger at you, tilts his head back, his mouth wide open, and laughs a laugh that is silent to your ears; understandable nonetheless. You feel your temperature rise and you can almost see, from somewhere outside yourself, your skin redden. Your sweat glands become overactive.
You wake again and relieve yourself in a bucket at the far corner of the cell. You return to your corner and find next to your mush and water bowls something new — a pen and notepad. You pick up the notepad and revel in this new development. You click-click the pen and ruffle through the pages of the notepad and put the pen to the paper and write —
There is a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza
There is a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza
I shit in it, I piss in it, I puke in it
This can’t be sanitary, can it?
There’s a hole in my bucket…
You see a man walking toward you and you get the man’s attention. He comes to you. You press the paper to the glass. He reads. He pulls a small notepad and pen out of his own pocket and writes something on it. “Can’t help. No straw.”
Disheartened, you become limp and drop the pen and notepad where you stand and go back to the corner. You lie and watch the people come and go, sleeping through myriad parts of the day and eating once the people have left.
You awaken this time in a dark room. You are on a bed and you hear a voice. You hear your name and you turn your head toward the sound in an unnatural jerk. “You doing okay? We know it can be difficult out there. Any creaks in your joints, fog in your head?”
You try to respond, to say something like, yeah, doc, I’m doing pretty okay. I’m cold and naked and my shit bucket has a hole in it, but I’m doing pretty okay. Also, there are a bunch of people watching me all day.
You moan a bit instead and shift about on the bed.
“No change, it seems.” The man motions to two others and says, “Okay, take him back.” You’re being moved now and you’re leaving that dark room and you’re back out into the brightness of that familiar, alien, building. They push you on a gurney and you see cells like your own, each with a plaque describing what it contains.
Families eat at a dinner table or friends eat at a dinner table or a solitary man eats at a dinner table. A family watches cartoons, friends watch a B-movie slasher, a single man or woman watches the news, sometimes in the form of a Sunday morning televangelist.
A mother and a father. A son who has nearly outgrown his parents. A cellular phone sits in front of the boy, next to his plate of processed chicken, flakey mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. He cuts the chicken, scoops the potatoes, spears the green beans, chews without tasting. The phone in front of him beep-beeps at him and he reads a message. He looks up from it.
“I’m going to the Red Zed tonight. The Tripolians are playing a free show there.”
“Bring me back some merch, will you?” That’s pa. “Perhaps a purple hoodie?”
“Do you need a ride?” That’s ma.
“No, one of my friends has a car.”
“Oh. Well, what kind of music do they make?”
“Neo-proto-post-rock. It’s like they’re going back to the roots of the end of an era.”
“What do they sing about?”
“Ancient Rome, set to the melodies and rhythms of classic underground music of the seventies and eighties plus classical music arranged for rock instruments.”
A man sits and looks out a window, onto the street, at the forest, at the sunset, at a child, at a pebble, at anything. A blind man listens to music and plays the air piano as two people watch, one finding it deeply comical, the other deeply moving. A woman drives her kids to school, a woman drives herself to work, a woman drives nowhere in particular.
A rural diner. It is lunchtime and the diner is moderately full with people: workers from a couple of the sawmills closer to town, a few miners who, off for the day, decide to come into town for lunch, several who work in the town and the usual vagabonds spending their disability checks gossiping and smoking.
Two men in particular, one slightly past middle age and the other still young, sit at a table. The older man is named Lawrence and the younger man, his sole employee, is named Jeremy and they are among those who work in town, a shop specializing in the repair of starters and alternators. A waitress, herself young, just barely out of high school, comes to get their order. “What can I get for you two today?”
“Cheeseburger, fries, Dr. Pepper,” says the young man.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries. And a Coke will go nice with that, too.”
“Okay, I’ll be back with your drinks.”
Lawrence smiles at the waitress as she walks away and then lights a cigarette. He inhales, holds it, exhales. “You know a little about psychology, don‘t you?”
“I took a class in high school and I read a little on the internet for my own interest. Why?”
“What’s that word for when you think somebody’s out to get you?”
“Is that what they call it? I think I’m getting a little bit of it. What do you think about that?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist. But what makes you think you’re getting paranoid?”
“Well, lately I keep thinking someone else has their hands in my pockets, but every time I check, it’s just me and I’m handing my money over to someone else.”
The waitress comes with their drinks and sets them on the table.
“Thank you.” The conversation continues. “Like, you actually feel someone else’s hands in your pockets?”
“And then you check, because it’s kind of weird for someone else to have their hands in your pockets.”
“You check and there’s nothing there, except your wallet and keys and whatever else might be in your pocket, but not someone else‘s hands.”
“And your hands, of course.”
“Then, almost by reflex, you pull out your wallet and hand someone some of your money.”
“How often does this happen? You just hand over your money to people on the street?”
“Not like that. It’s usually cashiers.”
“So it’s just when you’re buying something anyway?”
“Well, no. The feeling of someone being in my pockets is there nearly all the time. It gets stronger when I’m about to buy something.” The waitress brings them their cheeseburgers and fries. “Thank you.”
“Thank you.” Each plate holds a cheeseburger — patty oversized, industrially sliced cheese on top of it, between a pair of cheap buns — crinkle-cut fries baked in an oven, far from what one comes to expect from Frialator’d fries you find in cities and fast food joints, a few slices from a pickle, a couple slices of tomato, and a leaf of lettuce. Jeremy examines the fries to be sure they have been properly salted and adds more salt for good measure. He picks up the cheeseburger, removes the patty and top bun from the bottom bun, placing two pieces of tomato and two pieces of pickle on top of the bottom bun, then replacing the patty and top bun to their rightful position, making a complete cheeseburger. He skips the lettuce. As a leaf, it offends him and to punish it for its poor texture, taste, and consequently, lot in the world, he tears it up.
He bites into the cheeseburger: beef, cheese, tomato, pickle, grease, he can’t believe he forgot the mayonnaise, it’s too late now, he’s hungry. “There’s something I really don’t like about this setup. They put the tomatoes and pickles on the side so you can choose whether or not you want to put them on. But then they go ahead and put the top bun on top, where it meets the cheese which causes the bun to stick to the meat. It makes me want to not even put the tomatoes and pickle on at all. The pickles and tomatoes are supposed to go on top of the patty not under, but I can‘t do that without inadvertently tearing off bits of the top bun, which stick to the cheese.”
Lawrence, by now halfway through his greaseball, stares for a second from over the top of his cheeseburger, shrugs, takes a bite, chews, swallows, repeats. Another man comes to their table, mug of coffee in hand, and Jeremy shuts up to eat. “Well, hello, Harley,” the older man says.
Harley sits down with them and lights a cigarette of his own. “How are you two doing today?”
“Fine,” Lawrence says.
“All right,” Jeremy says.
“How’s business been?”
“It’s been okay. How’s yours?” Lawrence asks.
“The same. It’s not so bad that I can’t get by, but I can‘t say I‘m not tired.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“I know you know what I mean. Because we both got businesses and our businesses ain’t the same, but we’re still working off the same folks. And this town ain’t gonna be here forever. You know I love this place and I know you love this place, but soon enough the mines’ll dry up and my sawmill and everyone else’s sawmill, too, won’t be profitable, just because the price of everything keeps going up and up.”
“I know it. Lived here all my life. And I was just telling Jeremy here how lately I‘ve been having this feeling of someone‘s hands being in my pockets.”
“I get that. I get it on the interstate and that’s why I live here. It’s harder for them to find you.”
“Them?” Jeremy asks.
“The people in your pockets. The only people who know about this place are lead, paper, and Mr. Sam Walton.”
“His corporation ain’t. And what happens when lead and paper forget about us? You know they will.”
Lawrence says, “I don’t know. Figure I’ll be retired by the time it happens.”
“Me, too. I wonder about my son, though. He just done what I done. Kids these days go to college. He didn’t. Doesn‘t take a degree to do what I do. But he won‘t be able to do what I do forever. And in the meantime, all the other good jobs are heading to India and China and Argentina and God knows where else.”
“I’m sure he’ll make out just fine. But it looks like it’s about going time.” To Jeremy: “If you’ll get the tip, I’ll pick up the rest.”
“Will do.” The waitress brings the check and sets it on the table.
“I hope everything was just how you wanted it.”
“Yes ma’am.” Lawrence takes a look at the check and stands up. “I’m going to go take care of this.”
Harley looks over to Jeremy. “What’re you going to do?”
Jeremy is munching on a fry and watching his employer at the counter pay for the meal, his hands shooting into his pockets, looking around, then, almost robot-like, stiff, pulls his wallet out of his pocket and slaps it down on the counter. “I don’t know. It’s time to go anyway. I’ll be seeing you later, I’m sure.”
A taxi driver rides a bicycle to work. A woman waits to die in a nursing home. A man in a mental institution waits to live. A tent village under a bridge pledges allegiance to the flag with frostbitten fingers covering their hearts.
The orderlies stop and contemplate the scene.
Orderly #1: “I like this one. It’s probably my favorite. Reminds me of my college days before I dropped out.”
Orderly #2: “I’m more fond of the last one. The diner, the people, the burgers, it‘s all just like home.”
#1: “You never went to college, did you?”
#2: “Community college.”
#1: “I should’ve done that. Had a lot of fun, anyway.”
#2: “Me, too. Still, it wasn’t really my kind of thing. I’d rather have a wrench in my hand than a book.”
#1: “How’s the work on your Camaro going?”
#2: “Would you know what it meant?”
#2: “How’s your book coming?”
Two young men, college undergrads, at the Art Building after hours. One opens the door to a room filled with student art projects, letting his friend in. The plaque on the glass wall tells us the art major’s name is Chris, his friend’s name Mike. Chris leads Mike through a maze of art projects until they finally make it to his own.
“This is what you wanted to show me?” A deflated blow-up doll with an anvil on its torso lies on the floor. “A blow-up doll and an anvil?”
“Where’d you get the anvil?”
“Yeah, it was only fifteen bucks. I don’t know who takes an anvil to a thrift shop, but it was pretty nice.”
“Kinda reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.”
“The house falls on the witch and you see her legs kind of deflate.” Mike kneels down and curls up the deflated legs of the doll.
“What are you doing?”
“The witch’s legs curled when they deflated, didn’t they?”
“I don’t know. I never saw it.”
Standing again, Mike says, “Oh. I saw it a bunch when I was a kid. So I’m not really sure, either. It’s been a while since then, you know?”
“Anyway, is it done?”
“Yeah. I think so. Except its legs won’t be all curled up like that.”
“Really? It’s just a blow-up doll with an anvil?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah, it is. I think it says something.”
“It does. Don’t tell anyone what.”
Each of these scenes, none played through the same way twice, are available to the viewer for just one low, nominal fee determined by the free market and a select group of accountants—mostly accountants.
You are brought to your cell, pushed in before you can read the plaque on the wall to see who you are. The door to the cell is opened and the stretcher is pushed inside, now swiveling on a hinge to make you vertical, straps undone, you fall to the floor. Before you can react, the orderlies are out. You squat and defecate on the floor and throw the fecal matter at the glass wall because you know nobody ever said people who live in glass houses ought not throw shit.
A boy comes by and slips a quarter in a slot. Nothing happens. He waits a while longer, still nothing happens. A janitor walks by. “The price just went up. You’ll need a couple or three more of those quarters to make it work.”
He puts three more quarters in, waiting each time to see if anything happens. The third quarter does the trick and the man in the glass cell does it all again.
This is R. Henry Morris’ first publication.