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Carryout: Fiction by Daniel C. Bartlett
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Blocks: Fiction by Mark Jabaut
Nobody Puts Liza in the Closet: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
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Bobbie Gets Her Divorce: Flash Fiction by Robb White
Murder by the Numbers: Poem by Robert Jeschonek
A Pinch Point: Poem by Janna Rollins
Now I'm 64: Poem by Di Schmitt
Hard Work Damned on the Road to Extinction: Poem by Richelle Lee Slota
The Lonely Planet Guide to Death: Poem by Richelle Lee Slota
my mind: Poem by Meg Baird
the non: Poem by Meg Baird
giant cottonwood tree: Poem by Judith Nielsen
great orange orb: Poem by Judith Nielsen
and they are prancing: Poem by ayaz daryl nielsen
crows in our hayloft: Poem by ayaz daryl nielsen
spring kicks off its boots: Poem by ayaz daryl nielsen
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A Reason to Put the Rent Up: Poem by Richard LeDue
Giving Up on Hope: Poem by Richard LeDue
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Disinfected: Poem by John C. Mannone
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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Mark Jabaut: Blocks

93_ym_blocks_sowder.jpg
Art by John Sowder 2022

Blocks

 

Mark Jabaut

 

 

 

          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 do this.

          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 room. Never.

          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 bottles.

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 works.

          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 before

          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 Dimitri’s.

          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 something?

          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.




From 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  



In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022