“Damn hands,” I whisper under my breath.
“What was that?” Zhuguan spits at me staccato and fierce, like a burst from a burp gun.
“Nothing, ma’am,” I reply my eyes averted to demonstrate my inferior status. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be if you don’t make quota,” she retorts grimly, barely even acknowledging my existence before moving down the line to harass the next miserable soul toiling under her feudal fantasy of factory perfection: All us fortunate serfs with heads bowed and shoulders stooped, churning out cheap and tawdry items that jaded consumers will purchase, use perhaps a dozen times before they break and then discard. Once discarded the items will find their way to the junk heaps adjacent to the empty lots where the emaciated children play. There the lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic could either be reclaimed by metal harvesters in the case of lead or allowed to leach into the ground and water for the remaining unholy trinity. Still, those of us on the line know how lucky we are to have any job at all so we carry on in mute dissatisfaction, hoping for better times and dreaming of the blue skies that fewer and fewer of us remember. Could skies ever have truly been blue? Did air once smell sweet and did we get to choose for ourselves when we would eat, piss, sleep, fuck? I know that I did but I am one of the oldest Meiguo on the factory floor, so many of the others think me senile and that I have replaced memories with dreams. I do remember, I do!
I clench and unclench my hands quickly and surreptitiously lest I garner the unwanted attention of Zhuguan again, or worse yet, Yezhu. Zhuguan usually disciplines with a quick jab of her baton to the kidney but Yezhu’s methods are more inscrutable. If one disappoints Yezhu we hear her bone chillingly cold mantra; “Find me on your meal break, Meiguo.” It was fascinating how she never called any of us by name but had each of our identification numbers memorized. As many as 100 Meiguos on the factory floor at a time, nearly 300 six digit numbers memorized, but still not a single time had she ever revealed knowing any of our names. When our break time came around we would clock out, hunt down Yezhu who would use the fifteen minutes that we had to ourselves to lecture us on the importance of deference to authority and productivity. She would sit and eat something delectable while we stood, bladders full and stomachs empty.
I wondered for the billionth time why I kept on, why I didn’t throw myself off of a bridge as some soul seemed to do on a daily basis. My wife had died of malnutrition long ago- malnutrition in the center of a continent that once fed the world!- and our children and grandchildren had been relocated. I kept going in hopes of a better day for our boys and then the sweet granddaughter that brought joy back into my heart, (Always a joy that stabbed, if only my wife had lived to see her namesake!) but lately I had come to realize that hope was dead and that I simply refused to provide entertainment to our Geng Jia who were in constant search of sordid distraction.
Out! I want out, but what can I do? I am too old to sell myself for sex to Geng Jia men, too weak to fight a death match where the winner earns 5% of the net and too proud to be the “catch of the day,” pulled from the turbid river. Death’s release would be sweet but knowing that they would laugh as they kicked my lifeless body once it was retrieved from the river denied me even that escape. I no longer lived my life with pride but I would not intentionally end it.
“You! Seven, four, one, seven, seven, six!” Yezhu’s voice rang out. I froze as my eyes widened in terror. Had I spoken my thoughts out loud, or had these damn tyrants discerned a way to read minds? “You are working too slowly. Find me on your meal break, Meiguo.”
“Yes, Yezhu. Sorry, Ma’am. I will work faster.”
Yezhu emits the smallest of snorts as she turns away. My heart thumps ferociously. My bladder is near bursting and the meager breakfast that I had eaten hours ago has barely sustained me through the morning. I have no choice but to comply, I couldn’t even quit without giving a one month advance notice lest I be thrown in jail and find an even more dismal existence than the one I have currently. My hands no longer hurt as I bend to my task but now they shake ferociously with the palsy of fear. I loath this place, my life, what my world had descended to and fear this woman. I will comply with her demands because I have no choice.
The klaxon alarm sounds three short, three long and then three short burst; break time for my section. I hurry to the time clock queue with my mind racing and stomach churning, what can I do to spare me from what comes next? I hurriedly find Yezhu and stop before her, feet together, head bent down, eyes to floor and say, “You wished to see me, Yezhu?”
“Did I? Let me think a moment.” Languidly she reaches into her cooler and withdraws a piece of chocolate cake. “Oh yes, you were working slowly, dreaming when you should have been concentrating. I think you are in need of a refresher in the Jin jihua, don’t you?” Her mouth is smiling but her eyes are narrow and cold. I am tired of being a dog, a cur, an animal. I look to the future and see no relief, only an exsitence without a life. I realize that I have few choices left to me but this is one. I will not jump from a bridge, I will not keep on pretending that the conditions that I find myself in are worth continuing. Instead my head jerks up and I leap forward and throw all of my strength into a roundhouse punch to Yezhu’s head. I can see the startle in her eyes but there is no fear. She bobs her head and my fist barely grazes her. She quickly grabs my extended arm, pins it behind my back, spins me and with amazing force throws me to the ground where my head slams hard against the concrete. I lie stunned and fight to keep from blacking out when I hear the pistol fire three times and feel the incendiary anguish as my organs are torn to pieces.
Other Geng Jia come running to Yezhu with automatic pistols drawn and tasers at the ready. I look up and see Yezhu wipe a drop of blood from her nose and hear the silence as the factory stops dead for perhaps two seconds. The last thing I see is Yezhu flick the drop of blood my way, laugh and shout out, “Get back to work, Meiguos! Your entertainment is done!” as I fade away from consciousness, finally at peace.