“Might I be permitted to cleanse myself, Zhuguan? I had an old man’s accident before I arrived. That is the stench you spoke of earlier.”
I walk in front of Zhuguan but it is she who is leading and in control. I have survived the interview and disciplining by Gou, our factory owner and boss and am being returned to the manufacturing floor. As we were leaving Gou told Zhuguan to discipline me as she sees fit, a direction that sent terrified shivers up my spine. She is a small fish in the huge Geng Jia ocean but a fish with sharp teeth that are use to biting and ripping flesh. As I walk in the vulnerable position before her I cannot see her but I hear her sniff and inhale.
“You do smell of shit, Cubile. No doubt you would be more comfortable if you had a moment to rid yourself of that which covers you so pungently but unfortunately I do not have time to grant your wish. We must get you back to your coworkers.”
I know Zhuguan is being less than truthful with me. It is obvious that I have been the topic of lengthy discussions at high levels and that Zhuguan has been instructed to keep an eye on me. Her decision to have me fester in my own waste is one she controls.
We walk to the open row of cubbyholes where the Meiguo workers are allowed to store personal items. There are no lockers for Meiguo workers; only Geng Jia are afforded storage with doors that conceal and lock. Meiguo possessions are subject to inspection at any time and for any reason.
“Your request has decided the form of your punishment, seven four one seven seven six. I was toying with a few options on how best to make an example of you and I think I have come up with a telling exhibition. Remove your clothes and place them in your cubbyhole.”
I hesitate a split second and hear Zhuguan’s nightstick splat against her open palm. “Of course, Zhuguan,” I say as I begin removing my undershirt and shirt and shove them in the small space that already holds my coat, hat and gloves. There are no benches to sit on in the Meiguo area so I plop to the floor and untie my worn boots and remove them and my threadbare socks. Standing, I put my boots on the floor out of the way and undo my belt and let my pants and underwear fall to my ankles. I just step out of them when Zhuguan jabs her baton into the small of my back and sweeps my legs with her foot so that I fall in a heap to the ground. She laughs.
I fall face first and feel Zhuguan’s nightstick pressing against my anus. “You are a pig, Cubile. No human would soil himself as you have, so you must be swine. We will march you before your coworkers to show them just how pathetic you are. Now get on your knees and put your filthy ass in the air.” Her voice is matter of fact and she is giving me direction without apparent emotion. This frightens me more than if she were displaying anger.
I feel her boot on my neck and she pushes against it with definite pressure. “Put your head on the ground, swine.” I comply wordlessly.
She is slowly pushing on her nightstick and I fear I will wretch. “I will give you a choice, old man. Do you wish for me to discipline you with my baton, here and in private, or would you rather be paraded, soiled and naked, in front of the other Meiguo?”
“Please take me to the other Meiguo,” I whisper.
“What was that?”
“The other Meiguo,” I repeat with greater volume.
“Very well, if that is your preference,” she says as she exerts one more push with her baton, “the other Meiguo it will be. Now put your pants in your locker and let’s go. I have more important things to do this morning than tend to you.”
I stand, sweating and shivering and walk out on the factory floor. Humiliated, sickened, defeated, my only compensation is that neither of my children nor Frances will see me like this. I have never been treated more despicably than today and I wonder if this is the depth of my journey or if soon I will be looking back on today as a highpoint.
Gou’s factory employs roughly 300 and operates around the clock. Each Meiguo has a designated shift that lasts eight hours, at least we are paid for eight hours. “On time” means arriving for our shift 15 minutes early and we are expected to work at least through the end of our scheduled hours and then leave our work area clean, a task we attend after our eight hours of work is complete. We are compensated for the extra time by receiving a fifteen minute break in the middle of our shift when we can attend to personal business; business such as eating or using the toilet.
Shifts come in waves. Every hour begins a shift for a wave of a dozen or so employees. Our shift schedule remains fairly constant from day to day and month to month and we are not allowed to swap hours amongst ourselves. Because a new shift starts every hour it is possible to come in contact with most of our fellow workers during the course of a workday. This is not Zhuguan’s first time disciplining an employee and she knows how to create the most buzz and achieve the greatest exposure for her humiliating actions.
Zhuguan parades me naked around the factory and periodically shouts out, “This swine has disgraced himself and now must pay the price! Learn from his mistakes! Be punctual and respectful at all times and your lives will be far easier!”
It takes less than a quarter hour to circle the factory floor and at the end of our circuit Zhuguan has me stand on a box in the Meiguo break room where I am not allowed to speak. Every hour a new group of my fellow employees come in to eat, see me shivering on the box, and be reminded of our inferior, impotent position.
No Geng Jia watch over me as I stand on my box and during the first stint in the break room an odd thing happens. As I shiver from cold and humiliation a fellow employee, someone I do not know nor recognize, surreptitiously hands me some bread that she has soaked in milk. I am shocked by both her generosity and her daring but continue to stare straight ahead lest I give away her act of bravery. With each subsequent shift that rotates through at least one brave soul feeds me. I salute their valor and daring with silent tears.
I am thankful for the hourly parade around the factory that Zhuguan provides. Passing out while standing on the box is a real danger and walking greatly reduces the agonizing leg cramps that maintaining an “at attention” position produces. I wonder if this fifteen minute walk followed by forty five minutes of immobility has been calculated to maximize my time spent in agony; what is the point of punishment if passing out allows me to escape the physical and emotional torture? Around 9:13 during my second stint on the box a man whispers to me, “Don’t lock your knees, and flex your leg muscles,” as he is leaving the break room: His advice helps.
Gou prides himself on his factory’s cleanliness so the floor is free of sharp objects that could stab my feet. My punishment is humiliating, painful, and I shiver with cold but at least I will not have shrapnel in my feet at day’s end.
Just after 11:00 Jason comes in for his break and manages to slip me some food. As he walks by he whispers, “Hang in there, A.J. You got the whole ga damned factory rooting for ya, my man. You gotta pee?”
I nod my head as minimally as possible to let him know that I do indeed have to empty my bladder. “Kay. I’m gonna hold this cup, try not to pee on my hand; friendship only goes so far, ya know?” he says with a wink before turning his back on me. His body shields me from view of the other dozen odd Meiguos in the room and he holds the cup where I can reach it. “Not too bad, old man, just a few drops, no trickle running down my hand, I just gotta dump this and go wash. Hang in there. Oh, and you owe me motha’ fucking big time for this one, A.J,” he says with a smile.
Every hour until her shift ends at 14:00 Zhuguan repeats my parade around the factory and her litany of, “This swine has disgraced himself and now must pay the price! Learn from his mistakes! Be punctual and respectful at all times and your lives will be far easier!” when she is replaced by Yezhu, another guard.
Yezhu enters the Meiguo eating area and taps on the table closest to me with her baton. The Meiguo take the hint and scatter to another part of the break room. Geng Jia are allowed in any part of the factory but I cannot remember ever having one sit in our break area.
Yezhu takes a white handkerchief from her pocket, wipes down her table and chair and then carefully unpacks an item from her lunchbox. It is an apple that rivals in size any that I have ever seen. She munches on it slowly, wiping the extraneous juice from her chin in exaggerated fashion. When she is done with the tantalizingly sweet smelling fruit she stands and nods to me. “Parade,” is all she says and I repeat the rounds of the factory as I did with Zhuguan, feeling more defeated with each step that I take.
At 15:00 Yezhu again torments me with food, we do one last round of my naked march and she dismisses me. “Go, seven four one seven seven six. Go. Cleanse yourself, get dressed, and I’m sure that tomorrow when you return you will arrive on time and will show proper respect, yes?”
I stand before Yezhu with my eyes on the floor, feet together, arms at my side. I feel as defeated as I look. “Yes, Yezhu. I will. Tomorrow and in the future.”
“Good,” she says with a smile. “That is all we ask of you. Go.”
I do as I said and head out of the factory feeling humiliated and contemplating suicide. I am sure I would kill myself immediately if I knew that doing so would not hurt my children nor grandchildren. I round the first corner toward home and my younger son Patrick is standing there. Patrick lives an hour away and we seldom see one another. I wonder if I am hallucinating when he walks up to me, puts his arm around my waist and whispers, “Let’s get you home. We need to talk.”