Agnes had kept the silver fork rather than turn it in, that very strange day at the Factory five years earlier. She told herself that as an honorable and loyal citizen of Slantia, she would keep it in her safe possession rather than offer it to the work-motivators, and disguised that bottomless feeling of fear she so constantly experienced in her stomach as genuine care for the order and well-being of Slantia. She feared the “misunderstanding” of forfeiting it, of the inevitable accusation of stealing–she knew how this sort of thing went–, and so it remained taped to the underside of her bed, tucked in the groove of a plank of metal.
It had came into Agnes’s clutches after a peculiarly eventful day at the Factory. Most days were calculated, and paralleled the days before it, the ordinariness stretching out in both directions the same as before like a fun home mirror reflecting itself in an infinite line of similarity. But this day did not follow the formula, and despite Agnes’s ultimate involvement with the silver fork at the end of it, she was really rather detached from the spectacle that had occurred.
She had been sixty-five at the time, and while she had begun to grow increasingly more physically drained with each work day, Agnes knew retirement was impending and pushed herself to keep up with all the younger dishwashers in hopes that she would be selected for a higher purpose in the work force rather than shipped off to the Desert when her seventieth birthday arrived. Her hands tingled with a sharp, invisible pain but she pushed through it aggressively, but rather subconsciously tapping into her determination for survival; although it was never spoken, the Desert was often associated with imminent death.
While Agnes’s concentration was pouring into the bowl in her hands that day, her scrubbing hand making swift, circling motions with the wash cloth, a scuffle of shouts had suddenly broken out somewhere down the dishwasher line.
All the dishwashers stood more or less shoulder-to-shoulder over their wash basins, and an assembly of dirty dishes moved along a conveyor belt until a dishwasher removed it and washed it. After it was clean and rinsed, the dishwasher placed it on a rack above the dirty dishes line, which also moved along. Dirty dishes were pumped out from behind a wall and then clean dishes were moved along the line and back into an opening in that same wall.
But because the dishwashers stood so close to one another, when Agnes had heard the shouting and looked up to the direction of its source, all she saw were several backs of heads as others turned to the commotion as well. A few rubber-necked at the outburst, but Agnes went back to scrubbing her bowl. Not my problem, she thought. Better to keep her head down and work harder.
Although the dishwashers were all career dishwashers and worked the same, routine job every day, they were prohibited from forming friendships. It was unprofessional to know a co-worker’s name, and the stations at which each dishwasher worked for the day were shuffled often; one day Agnes would be assigned to Station 212, the next day Station B-V8, the next Station 735, even though they were all the same setup, the same task. Some of the fellow dishwashers she would recognize, but never well enough to know more than if they were a fast worker or a slow worker.
So Agnes didn’t really expect to recognize whoever was involved with this pandemonium at the Factory, nor did she really care. At first the shouting was indistinct and kind of garbled, but then she began to discern it clearer. “It’s not real! See! Slantia is lies! Don’t be such blind fools!” a man’s voice hollered. Agnes chuckled quietly to herself at this man’s mental breakdown. Clearly he had not been working hard enough and allowing delusions to occupy his idle hands.
As his voice grew louder, she realized he was moving closer. Giving in to her curiosity, Agnes looked up from her sudsy water and to the left, where she began to catch glimpses of the psychotic man.
“Wake up, you people! Look at me! Stop washing dishes!” He was moving quickly down the line of dishwashers, sometimes grabbing a worker by the shoulders and shaking them, sometimes just waving his hand in front of their faces. The workers, while they had been gawking a moment ago, all turned their gaze strictly on their dishes when the man got to them. None of them wanted to be associated with him, and so ignored him firmly.
“Please! Get out of this trance!” The man was a worker, now that Agnes could see him, only several stations away from her, and wore the typical orange worker’s jumpsuit. He had tight, curly black hair, trimmed short of course, and dark skin, and those were his only describable features, as workers were required to keep a plain appearance. She could see he had some silverware in his hands, and he would shake them at some people, as though they meant something. “Look! See?!”
Quickly, a squad of Enforcers, in their cherry red uniforms and hard masks, broke through the Management Only door and and charged towards the crazy man. Agnes was tempted to cheer at their arrival, but knew better than to draw attention to herself; “a good worker is not noteworthy or exceptional, but steady and efficient,” she recited to herself, in her old teacher’s voice. She reached up to the drying belt and placed the clean bowl on the rack, and it was slowly carried away with other dripping, clean dishes.
Agnes thought the arrival of the Enforcers would spare her from her turn of the mad man’s series of confrontations, but it was just as he was approaching Agnes that the Enforcers reached him. He grabbed Agnes’s sleeve and out of instinct, she turned to look at him, and was met by the kind, yet horribly panicked face of the man, whose eyes she felt were pulling her in, like black holes. The moment didn’t last more than a millisecond, though, and as he whispered to her, “It’s China!” the first Enforcer tackled him, severing his grip on Agnes’s jumpsuit and taking him down to the floor. It took every iota of willpower for Agnes to turn back to her station and not gawk as the Enforcers subdued the man with brute force and powerful, handheld weapons, and although she was happy that he was now disciplined, her aged heart felt a sudden sadness pumping through her at the finality of how subdued he was.
The Enforcers dragged his body out the same door they arrived.
For the rest of the work day, Agnes felt rattled inside. She had wished for his punishment, had cheered internally for his punishers, but then right at the last moment of his freedom, she had felt so connected to him. As she pondered over this random, unexpected, momentous shared look between them, she realized that it had been so striking to her because that man had been the first person to look her in the eyes in so long that Agnes had lost track. She had forgotten how pure and special simply making eye contact with another human being was, and his eyes, of all people, were so powerfully expressive.
On her shuttle subway home, she found the fork that he had slipped in her jumpsuit pocket.
It was an average silver fork for a dishwasher to come across in their day, smooth and shiny, dense and sleek. But on the back of it, in tiny letters, so tiny that Agnes had to squint, it read, Made in China.
When Ramona left Agnes’s cubicle, Agnes immediately went to her prep room and pretended to accidentally bump the bedside table. Her machine gear necklace slid off the side, the chain unwinding like a snake as it followed the pendant, and after working her way down to her knees, which felt stiff and sore, Agnes pretended to only pick up the necklace as she coyly brushed her hand beneath her bed to caress the spot where–yes, where the fork was still taped. As graceful as possible, so that nothing suspicious would be recorded by the security cameras in the corners of her room, Agnes used her bed to push her body back up, and she plopped down to take a seat on the bed. How did Ramona know about that? She had never told anyone, and had been absolutely discreet.
It really had been an accident, Agnes repeated to herself, although such an innocent discovery had now turned into covert smuggling. She had never thrown it away or tried to get rid of it because she was convinced Slantia’s government was too sophisticated and would find this missing fork and link its composition to Agnes’s DNA, and besides, the shiny, smooth silver sang sensually of a life in which Agnes ate fresh food with silver forks and knives rather than plastic sporks, and perhaps that silver fork was the most minuscule token of her magical fantasies, and so couldn’t bring herself to part with it so easily. Not that she ever used it, because she was so fearful—-well, honorable.
But she supposed she also hung on to it all these years because of the man who gave it to her, and the small connection she had felt to him, despite his clear insanity. She told herself she used it as a reminder to avoid the same fate as him—-to keep her head down and her faith in Slantia so as not to lose her mind and meet the hard bats and lightning tasers of the Enforcers, because sometimes… No, she shook that thought away; no, she was never tempted to doubt the system. The system gave her life.
Agnes was still a little shaken up from her morning excitement. Her heart rate finally slowed as she sat on her bed, processing her conversation with Ramona and recalling the day of the silver fork. She wished she could go to work and wash dishes to take her mind off of it all, but sitting in that cubicle with nothing to do, no activity for her to complete, she felt uncomfortably empty. She had always been taught to fill idle time and hands with work.
Should I not have sent Ramona away? she began to wonder, thinking of why Ramona could have possibly been interested in sparing Agnes from the Desert. And who was her team, that could produce a corpse of herself? The thought of it creeped Agnes out, and she decided that no matter what, she was glad she did what she did and followed protocol, because the repercussions of disobeying the order of Slantia were severe. It still bugged her that Ramona knew about it, though, because Agnes had been so careful about hiding it.
Made in China; what is China? The thought popped into Agnes’s head before she could repress it. She scolded herself for all these rebellious thoughts she was having, and decided that she was not going to entertain these delusional thoughts anymore, because she knew where all that led. She had caught a glimpse of that crazy man at work’s body when the Enforcers had finished their handiwork on him, and that wasn’t even the most brutal offense she had seen the Enforcers commit.
She spent the rest of her Labor Day laboriously focusing on absolutely nothing but a small, abnormal speck on the wall above her bed. When she needed a break from that, she swung the machine cog necklace back and forth in front of herself like a hypnotist’s charm, and she eagerly greeted sleep when it was announced time to rest.
The next morning, she awoke feeling inexplicably unmotivated and somewhat defeated, which was such a foreign feeling for her that she almost couldn’t put words to it. She felt like worshipping her coffee that morning, because it was the only thing she was truly looking forward to, perhaps for the remainder of her life. What would the few years she had left—-if that—-have in store for her? Agnes felt a very heavy feeling in her stomach.
And then the power cut out.
Read Part IV next Friday!
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