Slaves to the Grind
by Joe Prosit
Perfect coffee doesn’t happen by accident. It takes fresh grounds, good equipment, and attention to detail. When I arrived at work that Monday, I had the equipment and a ration of beans there waiting for me, but I didn’t know if I had the mental resilience to give the process the attention it needed.
My head fucking throbbed. Pulsing pain like a fat big brother sitting on your chest, keeping you from breathing. Hurt like a hangover. I wasn’t hungover. Hadn’t drank a drop all weekend. But still, that dry ach felt like sand poured directly into my eyeballs. I could barely keep my hands still as I put the beans onto my scale.
I shared my workstation with second and third shift, but they didn’t mind my coffee setup on the back desk. The second shift guy had brought in one of those Keurig machines and let the third shift guy use it too. Neither of those twats were allowed to touch my setup.
I removed a few beans and watched the LED digits on the scale react. Twenty-five grams. Perfect. I used my hand and plowed them into the open top of my manual burr grinder.
Behind me, the computer pinged, telling me I had an email. An interruption. A distraction just when I didn’t need it. But the supervisors required immediate responses, and I needed this job. God my head hurt. I needed the caffeine.
I spun around in the wheelie office chair to face the dual monitors and keyboard. The right monitor was dissected into four separate panels, each displaying the view of the four confinement rooms through closed circuit TV. Nothing seemed amiss in the confinement rooms. The left monitor displayed my work email. There was a big notification pop-up window. It was from the supervisors.
You forgot to punch in today.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” I said. “Arcane fucking technology…”
Next to the door of the control station, just to the left of the computer, was an old fashion style punch clock and rack of time cards. There were only three time cards. One of me, one for Second Shift Guy, and one for Third Shift Guy. It’s not like the supervisors were managing a factory full of laborers. We weren’t even paid by the hour. I was monitored by closed circuit TV as much as the confinement rooms. They knew when I came and went. It was just something they insisted on. And it was too petty to really bitch about. So I snatched my time card out of its slot in the rack and jabbed it into the punch clock. The clock put holes in the cardstock, and I returned it to the slot. I spun back to the computer and hit the email “Reply” button.
Send. I spun back to the scale, grinder, kettle and hotplate. A momentary distraction. A hassle. A fifteen second sidetrack. Still, it frustrated me. Death by a million papercuts. Insanity by a thousand anxieties. My brain felt like it was being stabbed to death by a billion thumb tacks. Like someone was tattooing my cerebellum.
The beans were in the grinder. The grinder was set to the second lowest notch between Fine and Coarse. I cranked. The pops and cracks of the beans felt like puncture wounds to my brain, but the aroma was like morphine.
I only took a moment to hold the cup of grounds under my nose and inhale heaven. The smell was only a limbo anyway. True paradise came after the brew was on my tongue and all those happy little neurotransmitters leapt between synaptic clefts and eased the sensation of murder inside my mind. I poured the grounds into the dry French press. Then I popped the plastic cap off the jug of distilled water, filled the kettle and flipped on the hotplate.
“Oh yeah, babe. You know what I need,” I said.
The coffee was the best thing about this job. The only good thing about this job.
I had to let the water get up to temp before I could press it. It was a process, I know. As impatient as my brain was, I was tempted by the automatic single-cup brewer my co-worker had next to my setup. The little plastic cups of knock-off flavors sat in a little basket next to the machine. The tinfoil cap of the cups boasted the name of that international coffee shop franchise who must not be named. Voldemort Coffee as far as I was concerned. Still, I could swap the used cup that was surely still in the machine for a fresh cup as fast as a Green Beret could swap machine gun magazines. The resulting beverage would soothe my caffeine migraine, sure, the same way a two-dollar hooker could get me off. But what about after the deed was done? Could I look at myself in the mirror? Would I give up making good coffee and just spend the rest of my life slumming through auto-brew machines and coporate drive-thrus? Could I ever love again?
I was mesmerized by the slow boil of the water. Tiny bubbles rose up from the bottom of the decanter. But what was the saying about a watched pot? I told myself there was work to be done and doing the work would help the water boil faster. I spun back to the monitors.
I checked the right monitor.
Room 1 held Experiment 1: a woman in a white walled room with a Rubix cube. Room 2 was occupied by Experiment 2: a man with a chess set. He had no one to play with but himself. But there he was with a bunk, an institutional sink and toilet combo, a small table, and a cheap chess set. The pieces weren’t arranged per chess rules, nor were they set mid-game, pawns forward, the queen daring out into the fray, the king secured by rooks, none of that. If I had to guess, he was maybe playing checkers without any regard for which piece played which part. Or maybe he’d never played any game and only set the pieces on the board for his own hidden and purely aesthetic desires. Experiment 3 was the man in Room 3. He had a thick book of old poems. He used it to hide his face from the light in the room that stayed on between zero six and twenty-one hundred hours every day. Who knew if he ever read a verse of Tennyson or a single Shakespearean sonnet? I didn’t. I didn’t care. Room 4, of course, held Experiment 4: a woman, a big dollop of modeling clay, and a complete lack of skill in the field of sculpting. A couple of days ago she’d made a few Play-doh snakes and spheres. Since then, the clay sat on the small table between her bunk and bathroom while she paced from one wall to the other.
Five minutes to feeding time. I had to hit the “Meal Delivery” icon on the computer promptly at zero seven forty-five, or I’d get another piece of hate mail from the supervisors. Five minutes. Plenty of time to brew and enjoy my morning glory.
I spun back to my setup. The tiny bubbles had turned to big bubbles, the size of dimes and nickels. I flipped the switch off the hotplate and set the decanter on a hot pad. I set my kitchen thermometer into the water and watched that digital display. It had to cool. Two hundred degrees. It couldn’t be off by more than a few degrees. I could taste the difference. Second and third shift guys could drink the swill and not know the difference, but not me. I enjoyed my coffee. I respected it. I knew the process and knew it’s nuanced rewards. It didn’t take long for the water to cool to two hundred. I readied the French press. Right when the digital thermometer blinked from 201 to 200, I poured the water over the grounds. I didn’t fill the press. Just soaking the beans there. The full two cups of water would come a little later.
An alarm went off behind me. Not the standard email ping, but a squawking honking buzzer that crucifixed my temporal lobe like audio Roman Centurions.
“Motherfuckers,” I swore involuntarily. Another spin in my chair generated vertigo in my fragile mental state. There was another pop-up window on the left monitor. Another email from the bosses.
I looked at the right monitor and saw that Experiment 3 had abandoned his lessons on Lord Byron and William Blake. Hell, he’d abandoned his whole damn room. I looked back at the email that had arrived as fast as the alarm, only muted by the constant hollowing from some unseen speaker imbedded in the ceiling.
“Confinement breach. No shit,” I said.
I looked back at the French press and the soaking beans. Thirty seconds. That’s how long the beans should soak before I add the rest of the water and start to press.
I left the control station and hammered down the metal grate stairway that led to the experiment floor. God damn job that never left me a moment’s peace. God damn supervisors and their passive-aggressive observations and emails. God damn experiments.
“Hey!” I barked, loud, sharp, and commanding. “Get back in your room!”
Experiment 3 wore a hospital gown. All the experiments wore hospital gowns. He stood in the middle of the hallway lopsided and slow like an unmotivated zombie. His buzzed head and unresponsive eyes barely engaged me.
“I need help,” he said, slow and uncoordinated. His lips moved to form the words with all the agility and dexterity of a mudslide.
“You know the deal,” I told him. “You signed the papers. Get the hell back in your room before you get us both in trouble.”
“I don’t want…” he started to say.
I eased my aggressive posture. I came up to him and took him by the shoulders. I looked him in his limp eyes.
“Listen, man. I this experiment is important. It’s not my fault if you’re bored out of your ever-loving mind. I’d be bored too. But you signed up for this shit and it’s my job to make sure you stick to the deal,” I talked with him. “Come on now. The poetry can’t be that fucking bad. They had to keep it around this long for some reason. Let’s be cool and get back in the room, okay?”
He didn’t so much respond and he didn’t resist. I turned him by the shoulders and guided him back through the open door and he dragged his dirty white socks across the linoleum.
“There you go. Just take it easy. You only got a little while longer,” I said. “Just a few more days.”
As soon as he was inside, I began easing the door shut behind him. I think I heard him ask what day it was, but the door was shut and locked before he finished his sentence.
“Crazy fucking experiments,” I said and I double checked the deadbolt. Fucking Third Shift Guy must have left it unlocked. First the bottle of bourbon under the desk and now this. The supervisors would hear about this. But these were fleeting thoughts. My real concern sat in two inches of quickly cooling water back in the control room.
I ran down the hall, grabbed the railing to powerslide around the turn and pumped my legs up each step like pneumatic pistons. I flung open the door to the control station, plopped my butt back in the chair and spun/rolled to my coffee setup.
How long had that taken? Was the water cold now? Was this cup ruined? Did I waste the only beans I had for today? I touched the decanter with my bare hand. Still hot. Maybe not ideal, but still okay. Who knew. Maybe I’d stumbled upon a new method to brew and achieved a cup that was an evolutionary leap from past cups. That’s how genetic mutations sometimes worked. Maybe, just maybe, this mutation would be for the better.
I poured the rest of the decanter over the soaked beans inside the French press. That particulated steam that only fresh coffee makes rose up out of the decanter. I could almost see the microscopic airborne caffeine molecules rise up out of the French press. They filled my nasal passages and eased the throbbing ache behind my eyes. I picked up the lid and the plunger of the French press.
The email pinged again. So close.
“I swear to every god ever invented…” I spun in my chair and read the left monitor.
You’re late on meal delivery. Timeliness is very important here.
“Timeliness. What about my time? What about my fucking coffee?” I asked. I don’t know if they heard me. I don’t know if they ever heard me. They never spoke to me over the speakers, and they never replied to emails either. One-way traffic only.
No use in arguing. Just another petty task in an endless line of petty tasks. I moved the computer’s mouse and hovered the cursor over the “Meal Delivery” icon. Two clicks, and deep inside the building a series of conveyors and lifts came to work. Those unseen machinations did the actual work. They did the delivery. I just clicked the icon.
Not for the first time, I wondered why they even needed me. I was no computer coder, but I was sure that even I could design some program to put the meal deliveries on a timer. If timeliness was so god damn important, why leave it up to me?
These are things I’d never say out loud, not in here where the supervisors were always monitoring, and not outside where I was contracted to secrecy. I needed this job. After all, my coffee setup, from the fresh beans to the ceramic cup weren’t mine. The company provided it all, just as they provided the Second Shift Guy with the Keurig, and I was beginning to suspect, they provided the Third Shift Guy with the bottle of bourbon under the desk.
I needed this job. I needed this coffee. This perfect, robust but sweet, rich but smooth, cup of coffee. I placed the lid over the French press and eased down the plunger. I’d sell my soul for what was left above the plunger’s filter. Maybe I already had.
I poured my vice from the press into my cup. That aromatic steam that is so much more than steam rose up. Every one of those besieged neural receptors tingled with pleasure, no different than when the pain of a limb fallen asleep erbs in favor of sensation again. For me, this is what life smells like.
The French press was forgotten. I raised the coffee cup off the desk with both hands, careful not to spill a drop. Once I had it stabilized, I turned the chair and eased it towards the monitors so I could watch the experiments in peace while sipping my life’s pleasure.
Cup came up to lips. Coffee rolled to tongue. Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins loosen and traveled down axons. Another sip. Heaven. Fucking heaven. Those neurotransmitters reached the end of their axons and made that daring leap across the synaptic cleft. Already two sips in, I knew this feeling would fade, but not before it peaked around cup number two. Until then, until that restless numbing crash, I cherished every second.
The sensation! Those Folgers commercials could never do it justice.
Over the rim of my cup I watched the right monitor. Beige pureed food-stuff had appeared in each room. The experiments were scraping it off of the plastic trays that had slide through a slit in the wall. The slits had closed like doors in Star Trek and left the experiments alone with their slop. They ate it like competitors, shoulders hunched over their trays on the floor, as if one of them might bust into another’s room and steal the meal.
Everyone has their vises. They had theirs; I had mine.
I closed my eyes and smelled. I raised the cup an inch from my lips when the alarm kicked back on. I jolted, all the wrong nerves firing for all the worst reasons. I came off balance in my chair. Coffee splashed up and landed on my shirt and my hands. It burned. I let out some noise that was less intelligent but more expletive than a swear word.
I held the cup away from me for a moment, betrayed by my closest love. When I realized it could burn me no more but was susceptible to more loss if I continued to handle it, I set it down next to the keyboard. The alarm still bayed overhead. I turned my attention to the monitors. The left one had a fresh email.
Again, no fucking shit.
The right monitor was where the action was. God damn Experiment 3 was loose. Again! How in holy hell did he… It didn’t matter. This head case was going to go back to his room, or I would put him-
“What is he doing?” I asked no one. “What the fuck are you doing?”
He was turning the deadbolt on Room 4; that’s what he was doing.
“No! You son of a bitch!”
My perfectly brewed cup of perfect coffee was abandoned on the desk. A god damn Shakespearean tragedy. Not that Experiment 3 knew anything about that with his god damn poetry book laying on the floor next to his slop tray!
I charged down the steps.
“Motherfucker, I told you to stay in your god damn-” I yelled, but no one was listening.
3 had unlocked 4, the sculptor who was the exact opposite of Michelangelo. Nega-Michelangelo came rushing out of Room 4, screaming like a fucking banshee. The screams hadn’t formed words yet, but Jesus Christ.
“No! Back in your rooms! You signed the fucking papers,” I yelled as I ran towards them.
4 was running at me. We collided like linebacker and running back, or maybe two estranged lovers reunited, or the strangest case of the boy spotting his lost dog across a hay field. She knocked me on my ass and landed on top.
This experiment, this ragged raging woman hung her face over me, her ratted hair making a tunnel between my face and hers. Her drool strung from her lips down to my cheek. I was scared that if she peeled back her eyelids any further, they’d lose grip on her eyeballs, and those would come plopping down on top of me too.
Her banshee moans quickened enough to become recognizable words, like one of those pictures of long lines that, only when you look at it from a sharp angle turn into a secret legible message.
“Get us out of this hell!”
“Get off of me!” I yelled back.
Then Experiment 2 ran by us, he was barefoot and the back of his hospital gown was undone, giving me a great view of his cottage-cheese ass as he went.
“No!” I yelled again. Words were useless, as useless as those messages with the extra-long letters.
I rolled, turning me and 4 over so I could escape her. She clawed as I scattered off of her. She screamed, indecipherable again. As I scrambled away, I saw 3 unlock 1’s room. Great. They were all out now. The psycho sculptor, the ignorant poet, the solo chess master and now…
1 came out of her room like a god damn SWAT team. She crossed the threshold, turned directly towards me, and pelted me with the Rubix cube. A real deadeye this 1. Fucking thing hit me square in the forehead. One of the little cubes popped off and clattered to the linoleum.
Still crawling away from 4’s razor sharp talons, I watched as 2 made it to the one place they could not go: the exterior door.
“No! Get away from that door! I need this job!”
I ran up behind the man as he pulled on the handle. The door was locked from the outside, thank God, but he kept pulling and tugging on the handle, putting all his body weight behind each pull. The door wobbled and shook in its frame. 3 joined him, the zombie chess master who’d started all this. They both put their hands on the handle and were yanking together.
I almost knocked over 1 as I ran and she went to recover her Rubix cube/rubber bullet. I came up behind 2, his bare ass in full view, and grabbed him by the shoulders. I pulled him away, harder than he was pulling on the door handle. He spun away and fell. 3 and I turned face to face. I shoved him as hard as I’d ever shoved anyone before.
Had I ever shoved anyone before? Third graders shove other third graders. We were god damn adults. What was this nonsense?
“I said get back to your rooms!” I commanded them all. “This is my job! And being in your rooms is your fucking job. So go do your fucking jobs so I can do mine!”
“This place is a fucking prison!” 4 screamed at me from down the hall. She was still on her hands and knees, but she crawled towards me. Her eyes were locked with mine like she was Linda Blair. “We want out!”
“Out,” 3 said.
“Let us go,” cottage-cheese butt said from the floor.
1 said nothing, but she chucked that Rubix cube at me again. I ducked. It exploded in twenty six pieces against the door behind me. She didn’t say a word, but I caught her drift.
“Listen. Listen, listen,” I had to calm them down. Had to reason with them. “I need this job. You need this job. I’ve seen you. Watched you for how long now? You can’t live out there. You need your meal delivery. You’ve always enjoyed that. You need it. And haven’t I always been there to give it to you? Haven’t I always done that for you? So do this for me. Go back to your rooms and we can all have what we want. What we need.”
“It’s slavery,” said 4 coming closer to me again.
They were all coming closer to me now. Even cottage-cheese butt had pick himself up off the floor. He and 3 were grabbing at me, taking fists full of my shirt. 4, the banshee, the failed Michelangelo, she was on her feet and walking down the hall towards me. Her fingers were spread but curved, ready to shred me like a pork sandwich. She’d rip my eyeballs as loose as hers would be if she didn’t fucking blink real soon.
“Slavery!” she screamed, spittle spraying out ahead of her like artillery before a cavalry charge.
The charge would come soon. She’d kill me. They’d rip the door off the hinges. I’d be fired and then no more…
That was it. We all had our vices.
I windshield wipered away their grabby hands. I had to shove again, had to put cottage-cheese ass right back down on his… ass. I got free of them, just as the bugles went off inside of 4’s head and she started her Charge of the Mental Brigade. I ran for the staircase. She was right on my heels. I took the steps two at a time. When I got to the door I side-stepped and flung it wide open. It cracked her straight in the face. I didn’t wait to see if it sent her tumbling backwards. I slipped inside the booth, slammed the door behind me and flipped the deadbolt.
The others were coming up the stairs now too. All four of them piled against the glass, pawing and pounding on it. Just as sure as they would have eventually busted through the door to the outside world, they’d bust down this door soon enough. The security glass wobbled in its casing with each slap and hammer fist.
My perfectly brewed cup of coffee was still sitting next to the keyboard. It was cold now. No steam. No aroma. Impotent and lame. I had no time to mourn.
I grabbed the computer mouse. I’m sure this was against protocol. I wasn’t sure it would even work, but if it did, I would certainly get another email. I didn’t care. I was out of options. I drug the cursor across the screen back to the “Meal Delivery” icon.
“Please god,” I said and clicked twice.
The churning and spinning of the internal workings of the delivery machines was like a dog whistle to the experiments. They raised their snouts and turned their heads as if trying to find the source of a smell brought on by a stroke.
1 was the first to abandon the siege, the Rubix Cube sniper. Then 2 left, giving us all one more view of that gorgeous chunky ass as it jiggled down the steps. The conveyors and lifts grew louder and 4’s eyes seemed to glaze over. She shoved off the door, plowed past 3 and then 2. 3 was the last to leave. The poetry hater. The escape artist. The freedom fighter. But we all have our vices. When he left, he made eye contact with me first.
He didn’t speak, but it was clear he was trying to tell me something with his expressions.
I checked the right monitor. All the Star Trek doors opened and fresh trays of beige puree slid out, knocking aside the empty trays the experiments had just cleaned only a few minutes ago. They started filing back into their rooms, like cows at milking time.
I waited until they were all back in their rooms before I unlocked and cracked open the control room door. All quiet on the western front. I snuck down the metal staircase, as quiet as I could. I started with Room 1. I eased the door shut like a parent who’d just tucked in their kid. I flipped the deadbolt and went on to Room 2. I watched him eat from the tray to mouth and couldn’t help but know it was going straight to his ass. The lock went click. Nighty night. Room 3. The poetry hating cause of all the mayhem. I locked him in.
“No!” I heard him call behind the door, but it was too late.
Room 4. The mound of clay was still a blob, the sculptor fascinated by a slightly less malleable medium now. I locked the last door, and that was that.
3 was pounding on the door as I walked past, still calling out. I double checked the lock. Then triple checked it. I even gave the door a pull myself. Locked tight. No more getting out today.
I carried myself back up the stairs to the control room. My legs stung from claw wounds left by 4. I had a welt on my forehead from 1’s Rubix cube. I couldn’t get the site of 2’s pale ungulate butt cheeks out of my head everytime I closed my eyes and 3’s last protest still rung in my ears.
Even worse than all that, my coffee was cold and ruined. I was out of beans to grind and the headache was coming back, worse than before. When I stepped through the door into the control room, I almost broke down in tears.
There on the back desk, freshly poured from a newly filled French press, was a steaming cup of perfectly ground, perfectly soaked, perfectly poured coffee. As I sat down, the little Star Trek door behind my setup slid shut. I wrapped my hands around the cup, and felt the heat. I inhaled and reveled in the particulate airborne coffee. All those happy chemicals went back to firing across those synaptic clefts. I put cup to lips and drank.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Joe Prosit 2017