(1) Lunch Break - nicholaiv


- nicholaiv

"Did you hear about the aliens?" said the mixed-brown YP ("young person" as designated by the System) from the back of the break room, his voice cut by the pubescent whine that sounds the same in every language and you could just imagine how red he'd gotten and his rot-toothed smile.

"Shut up lah!" came the hawing dismissal, and then the cackle and hooting of hamandras circling for the kill, all bluster and brotherhood, hid the intrigue of the statement and brought us all back to the inside where the existential threat of aliens could not meet the existential dread of another godforsaken plate of sardines for lunch.

The morning session of kitchen duty dragged its dirty dead legs along like a dying cockroach and I felt fragile after my spigot and bucket shower, but one of the Chinese Chess daddies was seated cross-legged at a table looking for a boy to school, and that got my daddy issues athumping, so I grabbed the Chinese chess set and placed it down in front of him and he looked up at me with a pathetic snaggletoothed smirk and it triggered one of his deep turtling nods. I don't know if it was too much Ice or early onset Alzheimer's or mild Turret's but he nodded and shook his head like he was some kindly tenured professor answering student questions, gingerly, all the time, even when there were neither students nor questions nor anything to be kindly about.

"Muster!" was shouted by one of the orderlies and we ordered ourselves, and then it was over and we quickly disordered ourselves again.

So he was nodding, and I started nodding along with him, and we're nodding and setting up the Chinese chess set which was 32 cheap round tiles with an off centered black or red chinese letter stamped on each, grooved into the tile, and the board was this thin paperbag plastic sheet that someone taped onto a cardboard rectangle with thick slices of masking tape to make it a quick stow. Not a word was exchanged. I was trying to focus on putting each piece in its correct place but I kept glancing at his caramel hands which shadowed half the board in a single palming and was thinking how massive they were, these hands, and it's no longer a relative expression, like relative to the board, they're just gigantic, warm hands in my mind's eye, and they were looking familiar, but I've put the 吗 where the 相 should be and his forearms are flat on the table signing casual impatience; I must hurry along with these wet fingers.

The usual crowd sauntered by in a lazy stream of casual gawkers like the elderly at the zoo and the general sense was of bemusement watching the Ang Moh monkey around in his enclosure, and it made things simple because the foreignness created a moat of incomprehensibility; it's easier to feed a monkey than to clothe it.

So I was monkeying, and the old man's caught thinking about his next move and the TV's crackle and boom drew my attention. What looked like a mockumentary bootlegged off the national channel was being shown as part of our daily looped screenings. It was a sci-fi bit on a partner bot that scored HUMAN on the Kinsey (sp?) scale and would make just a darling little companion for the ultra-rich once the first round of production was complete. It was unlike anything they'd screened and the sparse crowd was glowering at the TV in breathless disbelief, then someone shouted, "Fake lah!" and broke the TV's enchantment and we all breathed out as one for all of humanity.

Chessmate hadn't noticed the TV bit or taken part in the collective dread, but when one of the guards came over and mumbled something trivial he was all slobber and big eyes like a good ol' bloodhound called to attention and then, resettled, he started looking a bit too grandmotherly to me, his lips sweetly pursed, the grooves beside his mouth melting, and the pouches under his eyes were black and ready to burst with all his aches and anxieties.

Suddenly I was feeling like it's all a little too performative, these roles we assume that lace up our limbs and play us like marionettes, because I looked like I was weighing my next move, and he's a stand-in for dad, but my mind's blanked and I was really just aware of the sweat running in thick lines from my armpits and we're barely ankle deep in this game and I was nearly belly up looking for him to throw me a lifesaver, playing the perfect novice, but I've made this move a hundred times, and its all a performance you give to your loins.

And just on cue, "Daddy," slips out of my mouth like silk on silk and floats over the board on the draft created by our game. And for a half second my gut flipped but there's something going on here and I'm curious, almost excited, to see how it landed and looked up at him and he's not even looking at me, his heron eyes still sizing up the board (nodding like a damn pigeon) and he shifted his weight, left leg under his ass shaking, excited about something I can't see.

I asked him about openings to clear the silk, and he went: "There are a few la, but each has got its cons and pro," in the most street Chinese accent you could imagine, but he froze and the look he gave me said he'd caught his little idiomatic misdemeanor and the entire scene came to a tragic end. The curtains fell to reveal one of the leads in a state of undress, his slip and corset askew and his dress at his feet! Oh how flaccid his neck looks! And not a single member of the audience will remember him for his stunning performance.

Then, old Donnie swung by and he's excited, and there's a hubbub around, and Donnie planted himself next to me with his blue gloves still on. He'd never been the excitable type, and we'd never talked about anything but his handmade fans, but he's almost shaking saying, "They got one of 'em bots up in the rooms in cluster," and I could hear the whispers behind echo him, "Inside for murder," he continued, and I was checkmated somewhere far away but all I could think about was the bot, how it changed Donnie and the ethics.

#shortstory #loveprisonandrobots #nicholaiv


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