Hissing of automatic contraptions. They execute the cycle of leaf: severed roasted hackled, tobacco. Crooked machines, like iron vultures, nip at their work. Groaning of iron. Fluorescence reflects off their necks into triangles of shadow. They corrode with each crank but grind forth, and they ignore the moment they’ll steam their last screech, twitch with rigor mortis, and decay into rust, gurgling in the yard. Steel cables creep all around, sparking over slobbered oil, and crisscross this factory with the shock-touch cobweb of the metallic Widow, lurking near the rafters. It lures down, rattling its gadget legs. It ensnarls a carton of snuff, yanks it into a storage den, leaves a trail of grime. Hissing … Groaning …
After months of twilight, the mill-mumble swamps into our subconscious – it often lullabies us to slumber. So I startle not from the shop-noise, but because she unchains me from her waist and scoots to the end of our mattress, a special treasure in her hand.
Our bed used to wear a sheet, but our after-hour ardor would wrench it from the corners and wrap our bodies in it, drenched and claustrophobic. So we tore it cold. Thick springs coil from the cushion like snakes, meaning if we’re reckless, we scrape the flesh of our wrists and the fat of our palms. No bed frame. Flat on the factory floor.
In a daze, she tosses the object in her hand, a red ball, into the murk.
“Are you sick?” I ask, clutching for her in this dark drum of mindless motion.
Her gaze fades in from a wild place, then it floats over the litter of hydrogen peroxide and Visine bottles, hospital gauze and box cutters, minimart plastic and liquor jugs. Her sight haunts about, manic. Then it settles upon what hangs many bodies away, many bodies above in the cobblestone: the only window. She moans toward the square moon.
“Vomit if you got to,” I say. “I can always mop it later.” I sprawl behind her and kiss each lumbar lump of her spine. She flops her head and just squats there on the horizon of our trance place. “Do what you need to do,” I say. “I love you too much to care.”
She slashes a hand to cut me short. “It’s a nightmare.”
“What? To hold each other here away from everyone? That’s a dream to me.”
“No, I had a nightmare.”
“Let me guess,” I say, smirking. “Your mother heard you with your vibrator then dragged you to confession again?” That dirty secret always makes us cackle.
She tsks. “I was in a jail yard, guarding a ring of death row inmates. They were playing some stupid game.”
“You?” I ask with a chuckle. “You’re so skinny, I worry you’ll randomly disappear. Poof! What sort of convict could you stop?”
“Quit the jokes. The game was absurd. One man would point across the circle to another, who would have to jump as high as his quads could launch and belly flop dead on the ground. Head slam and hard thud like a corpse being dumped. The rest stood there just guffawing with tan buckteeth… but also smearing muddy tears across sharp cheekbones, or smacking dirt from their chests into dust clouds that choked their neighbors, or nursing wounded ribs – when they grimaced to roll up their shirts: midnight-blue and bloodshot bruises. Point, leap shoulder-high, then face plant and wail, all just to mock the first quitter.”
I yawn. “They were just bored. What else is there to do in prison? Hell, sometimes when we’re beside your parents on the Goddamn pew, I distract myself by counting how long I can hold my breath. A minute twenty-one is the record. And when I’m tired of that, I pray that God’ll save me and set me on fire, right there beside your mom.” When she doesn’t laugh, I decide to grant her some space. I go scouring for the red ball. It’s special to me.
She says while I search, “One new inmate, alone and shirtless, sat far from the circle. He was doing something to himself. Something unusual – I had to find out what.
“When I snuck over, I noticed a tattoo on one of his arms. It said ‘Me’, and under it, [she peers up so even from within the dusk I see the crimson cracks in her eyes] seams of scars, like maggots crawling all over his bicep. I gaped at all the notches and asked what they were for. ‘To keep score,’ he said. ‘But against whom?’ I asked. He responded by lifting his other arm, this one free of marks, but also possessing a tattoo. It was the name of his opponent.”
“And who was this mysterious ‘opponent’” I ask, indistinguishable from the rest of the gloomy waste in this corner. I grope among piles of rope for the ball.
“I couldn’t read it yet because I noticed a shank between his legs – I shivered. I felt my gut yell for help but my throat smothered the shout. I trembled stiff. He took the knife, and right before my eyes, carved a single tally under that second tattoo. The one bearing the title of his rival: ‘The Law’. Blood dripped from his bicep, smacked the land, veined across the dirt, and seeped into the sand.
“All I could do was stammer, so I told him, ‘Don’t worry, it looks like you’re beating it.’ But then a prisoner from the circle, having overheard, scoffed and said, ‘Not when you consider the Judge sentenced him to eternity. Sure, the rest of us will be executed soon, but death happens to everyone. That poor loser has to wither away here forever. What’s worse than that?’
“The marked man nodded and said to me, ‘Yes, but Sister, I no longer have to cut myself, so I ask you, who’s truly free?’ Then he rose and faded to the edge of the yard, like an apparition. Even the other inmates enjoying the game paused to stare. They shook their heads and murmured together that ‘the craziest really are the ones that confess.’”
“The metaphor is obvious, babe” I say, giggling, and trudging from the dark. “Stop torturing yourself with these crazy thoughts.” I slither back onto the mattress and kiss a spoke in her rib cage. “Now that the lesson is over, can we have some fun?” I roll to my back, vigilantly so the bedsprings can’t bite me, and with a wink, I reveal the red ball, dangling it by one of its black straps that lock behind the jaw. The factory hissing. The factory groaning.
“The Prisoner Game” shows how people often ignore their self-destructive worlds and require disasters to teach them the truth. When the author describes his experience in a dangerous and corrosive setting, he does so bluntly and without negative reflections, which hints to the reader that he has come to accept this unusual and unacceptable place. He is also unaware of his own verbal irony when he declares that he’d rather die than spend time at church, a statement reflective of the prisoners in his lover’s nightmare. In contrast to the author, the female character has both physically and metaphorically woken up from her “nightmare.” She separates from the author, inches away from their dangerous bed, and stares toward the window, communicating her desire to flee. The story concludes with a sense that her disturbing dream has inspired her to leave him and their place of lust.Javier Sandoval is a senior concentrating in Computer Science.
Javier Sandoval is a senior concentrating in Computer Science.