When it’s my shift I put the blocks
through the holes as instructed. I don’t know why – no one has told me the
purpose of this exercise, but we all have to do it during our shifts. The
blocks are about the size of a toddler’s wood building blocks – the kind with
the numbers and letters carved on and painted – maybe two inches square, max.
These bocks are not carved out of wood, but I’m not sure what they’re made of.
They are grey, smooth, and plasticky, but I don’t think they’re plastic. They
have weight to them and feel almost like polished stone. And they are totally
blank – no writing, no marks, nothing.
The holes are the same shape as the
blocks and just big enough for the blocks to fit through. Again, like that
toddler toy where the kid has to fit the different shapes through the matching
holes, except these holes are all one shape, a perfect square. There’s only
three of them, in a row about five feet from the ground so there’s no stooping
or reaching necessary. The holes are in a metal wall which I would guess is
some type of machine. It hums quietly with impersonal detachment, and occasionally
other beeps and buzzes escape from the wall.
I don’t remember who told us we had to
Dimitri lays curled up on the mattress
in the corner. When it’s not our shift, we are not allowed to leave our room.
The one door is always locked. We take turns sleeping on the mattress on the
floor. There are three of us, each working eight-hour shifts, so the one-mattress
thing creates some issues for us: there is always one of us working, one
sleeping on the mattress, and one standing around trying to find something to
do. The problem is, there is nothing to do but put the blocks through the
holes. Of the three possible activities in our room, standing around is my
least favorite. I much prefer inserting the blocks or sleeping.
We never see anyone from outside the
Meals are delivered via a dumbwaiter system
three times a day. We have to share these meals evenly, but sometimes disputes
arise when one of us feels he has been shorted. The food is nothing to be sad
about missing, but it is the only nourishment we get, so getting shorted is a
big deal. Dimitri and I almost got in a fistfight one time over it.
We have a small bathroom with only a
single toilet and a tiny sink, but there is no door, so we pretty much do our
business as quickly as possible and go back to the room.
The third person in our little group
is Darnell. He seems very unhappy about being here. Of course, none of us are
thrilled to be here, doing this work without any seeming purpose and unable to
leave. But Darnell makes a big deal about it. I, though also unhappy, try to
make the best of it and complain very little. Dimitri speaks minimal English,
so we’re not really sure if he complains or not.
Still, the way Darnell complains makes
me a little nervous. I’m not sure why.
I try to buck Darnell up but it’s not
easy. He is surly and unappreciative of any positive comments I make to him. I
think perhaps that he was a convict prior to being here. I don’t know why I
think that, it’s just a feeling I get.
Maybe Dimitri was also a convict.
Although I can’t understand him, he is a little rough around the edges, and has
strong territorial issues which I have heard can be developed in prison. He
seems to think that the mattress is his, even though he can only use it for one
shift a day.
Maybe I was a convict before all this.
I can’t remember a time before I was in this room.
Maybe we are all currently convicts,
and this is some sort of workhouse, like the poor houses and treadmills of eighteenth-century
England. I have no way of knowing. There is no one to ask.
The blocks that we put through the holes
arrive by tumbling out of a chute at the far end of the machine. They land on a
large metal table with short side walls. I spread them around as they come out,
so they don’t pile up and overflow onto the floor. Then I begin inserting. It
is simple work, but after eight hours even this is exhausting. Plus, it is very
boring, although not as boring as having the standing-around shift.
Sometimes I think that whoever is in charge
is making us weak so that we have just enough energy to complete our shift, with
nothing leftover for idle talk or arguing. The food is of poor quality, mostly
a grey or dark green color, and pretty much unidentifiable as food except that
it comes on a plate. It is nearly tasteless. Perhaps this is intentional.
They also give us flat, room-temperature water in plastic
It is also conceivable that they are putting something foreign
in the food or water, some lesser poison that slows us down and tires us out
but doesn’t kill us. Without any information, it is impossible to divine an
answer. Anything is possible.
The end of my shift is announced by a ding from the ceiling. Darnell
comes over to the machine. I step away from the wall and look at the mattress,
but Dimitri is sprawled there and sound asleep. I should wake him and tell him
it’s my shift on the mattress, but from prior experience I know that he will be
difficult to rouse and dour when he gets up. I will feel him staring at me as I
try to sleep, making actual sleep unlikely.
I decide to take an extra hour in the standing-around shift.
I stand against the far wall and watch Darnell insert his
blocks. He does it with a forceful anger, jamming each block through a hole, as
if he is trying to break the machine or the blocks themselves. I find his attitude
worrisome and decide to stop watching him. Dimitri is motionless on the
mattress so there is nothing to see there. I decide to count.
I close my eyes and begin counting from one. I am alone in my
head now, with the soft slamming of Darnell’s blocks as a background rhythm,
like traffic noise or ocean waves on a shore. I manage to get to two-thousand-six-hundred-something
before I lose track of the numbers. I consider starting again but anything over
two-thousand-five hundred is a good number for me, so instead I open my eyes. I
see that Dimitri is stirring so I walk over toward the mattress.
Dimitri sits up and blinks groggily. I look down at him and he
grunts acknowledgement, then stands and tromps unsteadily toward the far wall.
I wonder briefly what he does to pass the time during his stand-around shift. He
probably doesn’t count, I think.
I lie down on the mattress, still warm from Dimitri’s body heat
and smelling faintly of his body odor and fall immediately to sleep.
I wake up to Darnell kicking my leg,
not gently but with no obvious intention to hurt. His eyes say it is his shift
on the mattress, so I get up and go back to the stand-around area. Dimitri is
already on the machine, inserting blocks. I look around the room, but it is the
exact same room as it always is with the three of us in one of our unvarying rotations.
I don’t feel like counting. I decide to try to just zone out for my shift. It’s
kind of like sleeping on my feet, and it makes the time go faster when it
I open my eyes when I hear a ding and
move to the machine. Immediately my blocks fall, and I start inserting. Dimitri
flops onto the mattress, and Darnell is against the far wall giving the room a
hard stare. I get into my usual rhythm and the blocks disappear into the holes.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been at it when I hear some grunting and scraping
behind me. I quickly glance to one side and notice that Darnell is no longer in
the standing-around area. I can only look for a second because you’re not supposed
to stop or slow down your inserting once you start. After a moment, with the
sounds still going on behind me but louder and more insistent, I quickly turn my
head and see that Darnell and Dimitri are locked in some sort of struggle. I
turn back to the machine. I don’t know what to think. This has never happened
I want to say something but have no
words. This conflict is making me nervous as, although it has never been delineated,
I am sure that it is not approved of. There may well be consequences. What they
may be, I have no guess.
The sounds behind me become more of
the gasping and wheezing type, with some of the original grunts and scrapes
thrown in. Then it is quiet except for some heavy breathing. I can’t help
myself as I take another peek at what is happening. When I look, I see Darnell
dragging a prone Dimitri by one leg off the mattress and onto the floor. Then I
watch Darnell sit down on the mattress, wipe some sweat from his forehead with
a hand, and then lay down on his back.
Dimitri has not moved and is looking decidedly
inert. He looks slightly less than human now. I consider that perhaps he is
dead. I nervously snap back to the machine and my blocks. I have had my
attention off my task for too long, and my hands are slippery with sweat. A
block slips from my fingers and bounces to the floor. I can’t take time to look
for where it has gone and will have to wait for Darnell to get up to help find
it. I don’t think Dimitri will be helping anyone from now on.
I try not to think about what has just
happened and finish my shift. I am terrified of the repercussions of what has
just happened, sure that murder is not condoned. The ding sounds, and I turn to
look at Darnell. He is just getting up off the mattress and he comes over to
take my place at the machine. Dimitri has not moved from where I saw him last.
There is a kind of bathroom smell coming from him. I try to ignore it, walk
past his body to the mattress, lie down and go to sleep.
I awake to Darnell kicking me again. I
did not hear the ding, but I was asleep, so I hurry over to the machine, almost
tripping over Dimitri, and start inserting blocks. I hear a shushing sound and
Darnell’s heavy breathing and chance a quick look. Darnell has dragged Dimitri’s
body over to the stand-around area, which is a good idea. With only two of us,
no one will be forced to stand there. It will be a good place to store Dimitri.
For the next few days Darnell and I
alternate shifts between the machine and the mattress, and things go on as
before, except that Dimitri is no longer involved. As the days pass the room
begins to smell – the odor starts out as a sweet note in the background, but by
the time we have gone through four shifts it is horrible. It is clearly coming from
Dimitri. I look at him from my place on the mattress while Darnell slams his
blocks into the hole. Dimitri’s stomach is bloated, rising like a basketball
above the rest of him. His face and hands have changed color and look like they
are made of clay. I wish there was something we could do to remove him from the
room. It makes me wonder if those in charge are even aware of what goes on in
our room. Does no one monitor us?
It is very hard to eat when the meals come. I
gag on each bite before I can swallow it. Dimitri’s odor of decomposition doesn’t
seem to bother Darnell as much. He wolfs down his share of the food as well as
We settle into our new two-person
shift pattern, and it works pretty well. The stand-around shift has been
eliminated, and that was always the least desirable one. Now we just insert
blocks, sleep, and occasionally eat. Darnell and I are making a good team.
One day I am asleep on the mattress
and I hear a noise, a different noise from the usual sound of blocks being
inserted. I sit up just as the door – the one that never opens – snicks closed.
I am stunned, my eyes go wide. Was someone just in here? Did someone simply
open the door for a brief moment to take a look at us? Did they bring us
I look over at the stand-around area
and see that Dimitri is gone. That is a relief. His odor was becoming almost
unbearable. In fact, I detect a faint scent of orange blossom Febreze. As I’m sniffing
that fresh fragrance, it strikes me that something else is missing other
than Dimitri, although I can’t think of what it might be. It’s like one of
those cartoon puzzles where they give you two pictures, and you have to try to
find the differences. I close my eyes and try to picture the room as it always
is. Then I open my eyes again and search for the missing item.
It is Darnell. My stomach drops.
Darnell is no longer in the room. He must have been removed when they took
Dimitri. I realize that no one is inserting blocks, and a shot of panic pops in
my chest. I jump to my feet, rush over to the machine, and begin shoving blocks
at the holes with both hands. I am slamming them in like Darnell did. I finish
the pile on the table, and a new load drops down the chute, so I begin
inserting those at closer to my normal pace.
As I’m working new worries arise in my
head. What happens when my shift ends and there is no one to take over? When
will I have an opportunity to sleep? Will they bring me more workers? Or will they
come and take me away, too?
I try to dismiss these worries from my
head. I have a job to do, I can’t control anything except how I insert the blocks.
I could, I think, possibly complete two or even three shifts at the machine if
I had to. Maybe even four. The question is, what will happen after that?
Mark Jabaut was a playwright and author who lived in Webster NY
with his wife Nancy. Mark’s play IN THE TERRITORIES, originally developed
via Geva Theatre’s Regional Writers Workshop and Festival of New Theatre,
premiered in May 2014 at The Sea Change Theatre in Beverly, MA. His 2015
Rochester Key Bank Fringe Festival entry, THE BRIDGE CLUB OF DEATH, went on to
be featured at an End of Life Symposium at SUNY Broome County and is listed
with the National Issues Forum for those who wish to host similar events.
Mark also had entries in the 2016, 2017 and 2019 Fringe
Festivals, THE HATCHET MAN, DAMAGED BEASTS and COLMA!. Mark authored
several short plays performed by The Geriactors, a local troupe of older
performers. Mark’s fiction has been published in a local Rochester
magazine, POST, as well as The Ozone Park Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spank
the Carp and Defenestration.
Mark Jabaut passed away on November 3, 2021.
the hollows of Kentucky, John Sowder divides his spare time
between creating art for Sugar Skull Press and working on various
cryptid-themed projects. He illustrated GEORGE THE HOLIDAY SPIDER by Rick
Powell, which is due November of this year. You can see more of his art at www.deviantart.com/latitudezero