by Monica Friedman

   You can't look out the window, because there aren't any windows. Hardly any lights, even. Oafs don't need to see. Just strap into the box and crank.

   Shift starts with a couple minutes of grunting and sighing to get up to speed. Machinery groans along with the oafs until the rhythm of the crankhouse regulates itself into background noise. That's when the oafs start talking.

   "So, what happened with that girl you met in the square?"

   To one another, oafs love to talk about girls.

   "Oh, I took her up to the public garden with a bottle of prickly pear wine and got to know her better."

   "What do you know about her?"

   "She doesn't talk much, but she showed me all kinds of things."

   A hundred oafs hang on these stories, leaning their ears to the side of their boxes to listen to these lies. No girls go to public gardens with oafs, or anywhere else, and it's the rare oaf with money for wine, so the stories are always the same, recycled details and make-believe. Oafs know how to crank, and they might have a trade if they're lucky, and that's all they have and all they know.

   And oafs know yewells.

   Everyone knows yewells—most mornings they play animated versions on the public screens before grades—but only oafs tell them like real stories that could actually happen. Only oafs believe in yewells.

   As soon as the oafs run out of ways to talk about girls they haven't had, the yewells start. Lies about pretty girls are good to hear, but yewells make cranking bearable. They help the time go by. Yewells talk about the world outside the crankhouse and the factory and the cube block. They give oafs something to think about. As much as oafs are capable of thinking.

   "This citizen dug a tunnel under the border wall," an oaf says, "lived out there, got water out of cactus."

   "I bet he dies out there," another says. "If the Keepers don't shoot him first, the dust devils will get him. They're cannibals. And they're hungry."

   If it's not cannibal dust devils in the desert, it's City Gov's secret underground food laboratories, or experiments in human mutation, or wandering ghosts, or giant chupacabras. To hear an oaf tell what he knows is to live in a world where haunted devices get passed down through families and upright citizens suddenly go insane without reason, where Keepers help children break the law and oafs developing talents no longer have to crank.

   That's what yewells are like: nobody with an amp of sense would believe one, but oafs believe them all.

   You don't get to be an oaf by sharing brilliant ideas. You get to be an oaf by being big and dumb, by ashing out of grades, or just not being invited to the next set. And if you're big and dumb, consuming more resources than someone smaller, and contributing less to society than someone smarter, you crank to make up the difference.

   Unless you've done a full shift in a crankhouse you probably think oafs don't have anything to say. In grades, guys destined to be oafs are confused all the time, scared to open their mouths because they know the teacher will tell them they're wrong, maybe tease them for being so ignorant. On the street, oafs don't talk because they figure you'll do the same: point out how dumb they sound.

   Around other oafs in the dark, though, they never stop. Oafs talk the whole time throughout their shift, telling different versions of the same story, or the same version of the story, or retelling a story someone else told yesterday but changing little bits they can't remember. It's nice for them to talk to people on their level and not hear that they're stupid and their stories don't make any sense and they should let someone with a future have a chance. The crankhouse is the only place an oaf can tell his silly stories.

   So, for the space of their shift, they talk the whole time.

   Except me.

   Worked in this crankhouse for ten years. Never said anything to anyone.


   Shoulders burn on the way out of the crankhouse. Therapeutic massage in ninety minutes and acupuncture after that, since medsched bumped my appointment this morning. Still, the next hour and a half is mine.

   As if I have anything running.

   Twenty-two years old, living in an interior cube, working forty hours a week installing solar panels I'll never be able to afford myself, and still end up owing a good fifteen or twenty hours a week to the crankhouse.

   No girl.

   Obviously. Who wants a clumsy crank oaf without a single panel to his name? A guy who spends most of his free time at medsched?

   "Rip! Hey, Rip," someone yells behind me. Should keep walking. If someone wants me, they're probably worse off than this oaf.

   But people call your name, it's hard to ignore them, especially if your name rarely gets called. Stop, turn around.

   This kid Merc, it's hard to tell if he's worse off. His folks own the crankhouse, so he's got panels of his own, and he's not an oaf—he's on the small side, and they say his aps are in surgery—so he's still in grades, which means he has some kind of future.

   You know, as long as the dust devils don't jump the border wall and kill us all.

   The president promises that can't happen.

   But you'd think it had, the way Merc comes chasing me down the street, that tension coil of red hair stiff on top of his head. Merc is wiry, or no, rubbery, really: skinny, flexible, with arms and legs and hair flapping all over the place.

   He's waving something. Something green. Slap my own forehead.

   "You forgot to validate!" he says, and he's right. Could have lost three hours of credit, just like that, forgetting to check out.


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