Down the Spiral Stairs
Autumn stopped before Flan HQ as if ’twere a traffic light sapped o’ its hue, unsure if its pale gray shell was s’posed to be green or red.
Everything was gray: cold & gray. It reminded her o’ starting school this season years ago & the anxiety it’d inflict, only for her to quickly forget weeks later. ¿Would the same happen to here now, years later in merely an advanced mirror o’ circumstances?
Well, the former’s already happening, she thought with foggy breaths.
It a’least provided a familiar tint to an unfamiliar setting. Though most o’ the world would probably consider cyan skies with lightbulb-yellow sun & verdant grass the prototype for an average day, in Boskeopolis gray, windy, & wet with sprinkles from the sky supplanted that a’least 2 to 1.
The parking lot was empty o’ cars & the air was empty o’ all sound save the flapping o’ maple leaves like flags, which only added fuel to Autumn’s fear that she’d arrived @ the wrong time.
Must fuck up ’fore success comes, she thought as she forced her feet to forward toward the front door.
She pulled the handle, expecting it not to budge like last time, fore’er taunted by locked doors. But it opened. She leaned her head in & saw the short man @ the desk in a suit too big for him turn to her & smile.
Hello, Madame. ¿How may I help you?.
Um, I was told to arrive here @ 7 by someone named… ah… Sir Donne. ¿Is that correct?
Let me see. He looked down & tapped a few keys. After a beat he looked up & said,
Madame Springer, ¿is it?.
He wants you to meet him in the warehouse.
¿The warehouse? ¿Where’s that?
He pointed out toward the other end o’ the office.
Go leftward down that hall.
Autumn nodded ’gain & said,
Thank you, so quietly, she doubted he could hear her.
Then she followed his directions farther ’way from the artificially homey office full o’ plastic plants & obscure impressionist paintings out o’ season & into cavernously-tight hallways, forthright in their industrial off-white. She noticed the temperature fall colder the deeper she ventured.
Autumn couldn’t stop her eyes from stretching as they strolled o’er the vast, open space round her, & yet registered all o’ the millions o’ tiny pieces strewn all round seemingly randomly, only to so quickly forget them all, like rain on her mind. Mutlicolored plastic bins; rusty shelves made from wire & pipes; sheets o’ paper & laminated posters strung o’er every wall, painted with blurry photos; stacks o’ plump barrels whose contents were invisible to her eye; a vast colony o’ wheel-legged carry carts o’ a million different shapes, sizes, & colors…
& then there was that conveyor belt… a tortured racetrack o’ silver shining under the interrogation lamps, as harshly artificial white as everything else. Visually identical cardboard boxes — as opposite from from racecars as possible in their practical brown, ’cept maybe the only 1 sponsorship logo they all shared — marched down in military formation, while the belt itself loomed o’er everything like a snake o’er prey; but if it had a head, she couldn’t find it in its thick nest o’ strange loops.
The whole area was a broken puzzle o’ which she could see many o’ its pieces separately, but couldn’t comprehend how they connected coherently. ’Mong it all were various people in the same white lab coats & hair nets rushing here & there, so quickly that Autumn couldn’t interpret what they were doing.
But ’twas a puzzle that impressed with the spectacle o’ mighty efficiency it promised — a magician o’ production who refused to reveal its tricks & threatened to take ’way its gifts it claimed as its creation if one didn’t bow to its prestige.
Vulnerable under such a monolith left her paralyzed for a second, & then, a sharp turn, anxious to start before it noticed her & rejected her already. After a minute or so o’ wandering & turning her head left & right, a bespectacled mole in the same uniform came up to her, which only caused her to pause with a foot held out ’hind her as if she were going to run.
Watch, I probably fucked something up already.
Ah, you must be the new hire…. He peered into her through his bottlecap glasses & scratched his chin with his claws.
’Twas Autumn, ¿right?.
’K. He turned to ’nother worker.
Rudi, show her the work.
Rudi, a plain-looking fellow with short-cut hair, nodded silently, turned to Autumn without looking @ her, & said,
This way, please.
She followed him, her gaze still traveling ’long the winding conveyor belts high ’bove & the mountains o’ cardboard boxes & red, blue, & yellow plastic containers surrounding them on the ground level. The steam round her made her feel so warm that she unzipped her jacket, only to then feel a sudden intake o’ frigidity.
Rudi stopped before a counter with various plastic drawers holding various kitchen items.
This job’s easy. You just have to take 10 o’ these feathers — Rudi grabbed a handful o’ silver feathers from a red drawers sitting @ eye-level —
& put them in a plastic bag. Rudi pulled a pocket plastic baggie out from a roll o’ them sitting inside ’nother baggie.
Keep doing this for the next hour or so.
Autumn nodded. She didn’t dare ask what bags full o’ feathers could be for.
& indeed, she did find it easy — ’cept for maybe the feathers slipping through her fingers or snapping the lips closed on the baggies.
Perhaps this’ll turn out better than I expected….
In the Belly o’ the Serpent
But then she found herself packing boxes on 1 end o’ the conveyor highway. Up close, she could see e’en more o’ its teeth as its heft stretched greater than the largest cobra, long ’nough to smother her many times round. On her end was not 1, but 14 tails, 7 ’bove & 7 below, the top rolling outward & the bottom rolling inward. While the bottom 7 constantly brought in masses o’ cluttered boxes, the top 7 were designated for the 7 types o’ packages she was s’posed to send out, always making sure that the # that entered the eyeless machine’s mouth always straddled ’tween 1 & 9 so that it ne’er went hungry or became o’erloaded & dropped a box kilometers down on the cement floor in a shattered mess.
How she found herself here was now a blur, if it wasn’t always. She briefly remembered someone leading her here & someone else showing her how to make all the boxes once in a few seconds, & then disappearing the next moment.
Despite such a short introduction, she now felt as if all 7 box configurations were burned into her memory, which amazed her, since they were as confusing as could be. Things had multiple names, some in code. She heard some call the box with the dice & cards “L204”, but she only understood it as the type with the dice & cards. She didn’t think o’ it so much as a concept with a name & a logic to it, but simply a pattern o’ images & movements that she’d memorized.
Sometimes her mind would lose its grasp on its surroundings & in the 1st few nanoseconds o’ waking she’d find her hands building the boxes by themselves, & a huge stack o’ boxes already headed for the machine. How any o’ this happened was also a blur.
Granted, she would sometimes find out after weeks or e’en months that the pattern she’d memorized had been wrong the whole time, due to some info being missing from 1 o’ the many inconsistent designs or teachings from other workers. Nobody had noticed till then. @ 1st she had been scared witless that such disastrous mistakes would ruin her, considering how insistent they were on telling everyone how important ’twas to do everything right; but they refused to fire her for her mistakes; they only kept the fear in her that this time if she made ’nother major mistake, that was it.
Welcome to the Machine
In this complex program with millions o’ objects & millions o’ child objects, each with millions o’ variables & functions, Autumn thirst’d for consistency just to keep her mind from crashing & thus keep her body operating.
But no matter how consistently she pressed her effort, the results were ne’er the same, ne’er understandable. 1 minute she was pumping out boxes that she was consistently filling the machine’s slots, the next her coworkers were taking 6 or 7 @ a time, devouring her long-built stores in single gulps. Tiny but hard wrenches would sneak in & clog the machine’s appendages: material plastic cases that needed to be manually ripped open so their individual pieces can be packed into the boxes, bags that needed to be manually filled with feathers. Boxes were sometimes damp or dirty & she needed to decide which would be less time consuming — & would clear out the quickly saturating bottom belts — vs. which would be too dirty to be considered a good job. Every tiny detail was a branch toward efficiency or failure, & the failures sewed themselves together to drag her down like arterial plaque.
& then disaster would strike & some material would dry up — usually packs o’ playing cards, for which most boxes would require a’least 8, & most inbound would come with none — & she’d have no way to create mo’ boxes for which the machine hungered so. Such inconvenient realities didn’t satiate said hunger any mo’ than elsewise, & the coworkers tasked with carrying these boxes would still subject her to eyes o’ anger, confusion, or disappointment.
1 would tilt her head & say,
¿Why so slow?; ’nother would ask if there was something wrong with her.
& then there were whispers o’ the freezer. She knew nothing ’bout the freezer other than that ’twas only e’er brought up when a worker wasn’t doing well, & that no worker wanted to work there. Autumn still remembered cringing as she o’erheard a frail ol’ women — there were a striking lot o’ ol’ people working there — in some kind o’ headdress arguing with the supervisor gainst going there with the hollow voice that knows it has no persuasive power.
All attempts to ’splain fell from her mouth like a flat frisby throw, & the coworker would merely turn ’way with bitterness. Her past record meant nothing — ¿& what was her past record? ¿Were the days that she did well merely unearned luck? ¿Was the coworker who would ride by & sometimes drop off a mostly-done box for which she had few already made — though, granted, sometimes they were for a box type for which she had many already — just giving her pity help? When a coworker who took a ton o’ boxes @ once left 1, ¿was he trying to save her from the panic o’ 1 o’ the machine’s stomachs being empty, just to entertain her neuroses?
Out o’ bitterness she’d work as quickly as she could, pushing all o’ her energy till all her muscles ached & her knees felt ready to break, all the while thinking, I’m not lazy. I’m not slow. If they can do this & stay together, I can, too.
They want boxes; they’ll get a mountain full, the fuckers.
But sometimes she still couldn’t compete with the people who took 6 @ a time. Sometimes she’d be left with slivers o’er & o’er, & she’d wonder if that coworker’s stoic expression was content or petulance. She, ’course, kept her own expression flat as much as she could. Any vulnerability was a flaw, & any flaw was a liability, & any liability was a ’scuse for expulsion, & utter failure as a failure in the bottom rung. The selection o’ workers was enormous & diverse; there was no reason to accept imperfection.
But she just couldn’t adjust to all o’ the inconsistencies, to the point that she dreaded each bus ride to work, on edge o’er whether it’d be a good or bad day, every day clicking the 7-shooter to her temple, awaiting the inevitable unpredictable day when it’d leave a mess.
All Autumn could think ’bout was making sure the rows were all filled with boxes. They kept coming & taking boxes, & she had to make sure she filled them back up. She could not remember if she did well or badly. She was no longer sad, no longer frustrated, no longer fearful. She could feel nothing round her in that photo-negative o’ her already-regular job site, ’cept, oddly, the shaking o’ her right leg. All she could see, all she could feel, were those boxes.
Then it all melted ’way, replaced by the warm numbness in her forehead & the slight tightness o’ a full bladder. Her eyes opened & itched under the bright blue light o’ mid-afternoon. She lifted herself up off her sleeping bag & realized her limbs all felt stiff & as if they’d been hit by a truck.
But she thought li’l o’ this. She checked her phone & saw it say 1:00 PM, & her chest filled with so much cool relief.
It wasn’t real. It doesn’t matter. I still have a few hours before I truly have to work. I’m free.
& yet her body twitched, as if she felt that some invisible magnetic field would repel her from going in yet ’gain; & yet, when the time did come, — not in a bang, but after the casual click o’ a minute; not after her grand, final preparation, but in the midst o’ some idle research — her body rose & walked out to the bus stop as if on automatic.
I have to quit, Autumn thought as her eyes flicked ’tween her paltry piles o’ boxes & what she was sure were the angry glances o’ other workers. There’s no other option. They’re going to fire me ’ventually, anyway, if I don’t permanently destroy myself, & I know these bastards want me gone, want me not to take up such a valuable spot from someone else. They’ll get rid o’ me, anyway, in some way.
But near the end o’ the night the conveyor belts gradually slowed & the variety o’ boxes she needed to fill dropped till she was able to mo’ than catch up with the needs, & finish early ’nough to finish cleaning before the end. Everyone round her appeared to be laughing & chatting, & some e’en offered to drive her home, & the thoughts o’ quitting had dissolved.
Then winter began creeping closer, & the belts slowed with ice. But to make up for this, easier pace, they wanted Autumn to do twice as many boxes, wanted them all to do twice as much — including the supervisors, the sight o’ whom pushing carts full o’ supplies appeared as odd as seeing a monarch vacuum their own room.
But the people who picked them up came just as quickly, so that Autumn was stretched twice as long, to the length o’ insanity, only for all to finish 2 hours early & have to spend those 2 hours shifting round awkwardly under the sardonic glances o’ management. This time ’twas kind o’ funny that they finished so early; but too many times was too many stores wasted — too many stores that could be kept for the e’er-hungry Mammonth.
& as winter embedded itself further into the warehouse, Autumn began to notice faces gradually disappear, & wondered as she pushed her body back & forth ’tween the 2 machines she manned how they were doing &, mo’ urgently, when it’d finally be her turn.
Autumn sat in poison-hearted paralysis, her phone lingering in the corner o’ her mind like a watching wood spider. Though ’twas her day off, & though she could use the extra o’ertime money, she dreaded the call asking her to come in, to abruptly yank her out o’ the warm bath back into the icy rain that was the warehouse without preparation.
Perfect preparation was necessary to maintain success, & maintaining success was necessary to prevent termination. She had to have the right amount o’ coffee in her to not be too tired to function or be too juiced to pay attention; she needed just the right amount o’ food to not be distracted by hunger or weakened by dehydration, for she had to go hours consecutively without drinking; but she couldn’t drink too much too quickly, since her bladder also had to be managed so as to minimize bathroom breaks; she needed to gather all o’ her materials & ensure she didn’t miss a single 1; she had to ensure her phone & bus card were kept fed with electricity, minutes, & ₧.
& then there was her schedule. A call-in would demolish half o’ her schedule — for yes, e’en her “free” time had to be carefully calculated for crafting a secret plan to ’scape the warehouse, & in her now-constricted time, the margin o’ error shrunk. & when her mind veered off into worries ’bout work & other things, errors sprouted like weeds.
Ironically, the call-in was foremost ’mong them. No matter how much she urged herself to focus on her work outside o’ work, her mind obsessed o’er the phantom ring o’ the call always threatening the future, like a bullet ’mong many empty cylinders o’ a Russian Roulette gun. E’en hours after her shift would’ve started, she worried that it might spring on her. Once her supervisor called o’er 4 hours after her shift started just to ask if she remembered to come in tomorrow.
& by the time those hours would pass, she was already so close to the coming workday that she had a new oncoming disaster to look forward to…
Then the infections came. @ 1st Autumn thought ’twas just allergies to the burgeoning cold, but dizziness, exhaustion @ the weakest work, & burns all ’cross her throat set in, too. Like a machine rusted by grease, she felt her movements slow, despite putting twice the energy into it, & felt her thoughts slow, as well, & her memory shrivel. Precious minutes would be wasted making 1 type o’ box when she meant to make ’nother when her arms took o’er from her fallen mind. The feeling o’ revulsion weakened her as well, strengthened by the sour chemical smell o’ substances unknown — known only to be decaying. The simply but repeatedly nagging task o’ blowing her nose required long back & forth trips to the bathroom to prevent the spread o’ diseases, which also devoured scant time.
This left her in an unwinnable situation: her worksite was so ardent on sanitation that they had a rule gainst coming in while sick, a rule she’d already trespassed. So far nobody had said anything, but she knew they could hear her sniffling & coughing & the hoarseness o’ her voice. But in order to take sick days off, she was s’posed to get a doctor’s note, ¿& how could she get a doctor’s note for a cold? & what a waste o’ money going to a doctor for a cold would be.
I hardly e’er got sick before; but now I keep getting sick. ¿What the hell?.
But like all capital, she knew that her operation couldn’t come without decomposition, till the value was finally transferred completely to the boxes & crates & she had to be replaced by newer, mo’ advanced technology.
Ist ja dieser „produktive“ Arbeiter grade ebenso interessiert in dem Scheißdreck, den er machen muß, wie der Kapitalist selber, der ihn anwendet und der auch den Teufel nach dem Plunder fragt
As her stay grew petrified like water to ice, she saw mo’ deeply into how the conveyor belts ran & became less & less enchanted by them. She began to see cracks in its steel. She began to see catch-22-like rules, such as the need for both high standards o’ work & speed that none o’ the workers could accomplish — leading to threats o’ replacing workers with the elusive superworkers both brilliant ’nough to be better than 99% o’ other workers, but dumb ’nough to use their skills in low supply & high demand for minimum wage.
But unlike Yossarian, this company found an easy way to break this catch-22: they simply ignored the rules. Workers had to work with certain care, all the bosses, all the signs, all the TVs flashing commercials for their own company like in an Orwell novel said: boxes couldn ’t have any dents or be the slightest bit damp, feathers couldn ’t miss any hairs, water bottles couldn ’t be missing any water; & yet, in defacto reality, workers didn’t actually have to follow these rules, e ’en though they were explicitly demanded to follow them; & no worker did beyond their 1st few months: they either learned the true, unspoken rules o ’ how work actually worked or lost their jobs, victims o ’ their inefficiency caused by their insistence on following li ’l laws o ’er the 1 big law: the law o ’ efficiency.
( To Autumn ’s luck, she ne ’er witnessed a worker disappear for this reason: all learned this necessity, e ’en probably the supervisors, & probably none felt too guilty ’bout it. The good thing ’bout being a mere cog in the thoughtless, heartless machine, given the bare minimum absolutely needed to keep them there working & not causing profit-hurting reactions like legal fees or union strikes was that cogs ne ’er felt bad ’bout not giving mo ’ than absolutely necessary to a machine with nothing less to give & no emotions to be offended. )
This led to the development o’ a skill businesses would ne’er advertise for, but they direly needed for successful workers all the same: the ability to only break the rules in ways that won’t get caught, to only let dirty packs o’ cards slide through when nobody was noticing, so that both the business owners & the consumers could keep the illusion o’ a mix o’ both quality & speed that was physically impossible.
This seemed like a blow to the conveyor belt god’s claim to efficiency... & yet, ¿what was creation o’ as much value as possible in a world with subjective value but that which creates the greatest height in quality from illusions to the limits o’ reality? While before she fretted o ’er how she could possibly know whether a water bottle was new or had a li ’l drunk from ( likely from a coworker — ’nother stringent rule that they need not obey ), she suddenly came to the realization that the bosses, the checkers — e ’en the consumers themselves — probably couldn ’t discern, either. & if nobody could discern, ¿was there truly an objective answer, or was this just Schrödinger’s water bottle? ¿& why should they fret, anyway? ¿What was laziness but minimizing the cost o ’ time & energy — the most efficient way to work? Basic logic foretold that if one wants to both minimize work & maximize subjective gain, the best way was to whittle ’way the thing that most pitted them gainst each other: quality standards.
Here she found what could be called the “Enlightenment o ’ FredMart” — or perhaps its grandfather, Walmart, would be a better example. Maybe they were wrong to mock the US people & their cheap crap ( whom Boskeopoleons were, hypocritically, becoming mo ’ & mo ’ like ). After all, ¿who was truly smarter: those who waste extra energy & time for the superstition o ’ “quality” or those who are smart ’nough to figure out how to get pleasure & survival from garbage?
& thus it all ran on & on, like blood, no matter how weak the heart felt. Autumn was sure the whole system would collapse before hundreds & hundreds o’ days could pass, but found beyond belief that she was able to keep it up every day for a’least a year all the same.