What He Makes with His Hands

by Ian Hilgendorf

When I wake up in the morning I can feel my bones creaking under the weight of it like a cement truck pouring its load over me.  Another day.  I look over at the bed next to me; its emptiness is as certain as it was the night before when I scoured it meticulously for the scent of Her.  By Her pillow I found a waft of soap.  I wanted to know if there existed a way for me to drink it all in, but finding none, had rolled back to my lumpy side of the bed.

Now I crawl out of my covers to the bathroom where my image in the mirror is frightened of the creature looking at it, eyes bulging and four days growth on its chin.  In the semi-silence I undress, shower in the torpid water cold.

A seven block walk.  Bus-ride, strangers crowd me in the back, their coffee and briefcases and faces.  Some are familiar to me.  I never introduce myself, would rather keep quiet what I know of them.  Instead, I look at a discarded newspaper or study the tread on my boot, which is crossed over my knee.

Work starts at seven and it’s best to arrive early.  I hang up my coat, change into my blue, chemically-sterilized jumpsuit, put on my safety glasses, a white hardhat.  Punch in just as the whistle blows and the foreman is barking at us to get to the line.  Through a maze of conveyor belts I find my way to the station at which I’ve been posted for the last however long and put on my chewed-up leather gloves, which are in the same place I left them the day before.

A sonorous buzzer rips and the belts start moving, parts at my fingertips before I’m ready.  Within the first batch of pieces I’m already plotting my escape, though none will transpire.  Heads roll down the line and if I so much as move wrong they’ll know it. No.  I pick up my first head, rotate it clockwise in my hands.  Two eyes.  Check.  Two ears.  Check. Mouth open.  Check.  I reach into the mouth, squeeze the uvula just to ensure its dexterity, then give the scalp a little tug.  It flaps open like the lid to a teapot, but the hair is secure.  Down the line.

We’re watched closely here, first by the foremen who run the show, then by the guards, and lastly, those multitudinous cameras calibrated to detect our every faulty movement.  I got audited last month for too many wasted movements in the pelvic region, a dead giveaway, they say, that I’m looking to split.  I tell them I’m no flight risk.  They can count on me, but I know they can’t chance it.  It’s too expensive to train a new person.  My foreman smirks and slides a pink slip of paper across the table. “Written up: half day’s pay.”

Work like this, you just have to hold on, which is what I’m doing.  Holding on. Not everyone can handle the line.  People are running off the floor all the time, never to return.

That’s not me though, I try to keep my focus: eyes down, no careless glances or gestures.  I try to empty my thoughts.  Let them empty out like water running into a basin.

My station is at the beginning, the head or unit1 as the bosses call it.  After a head passes inspection, I send it down the line where it’s taken to a sub-assembly center and attached to a throat, tongue, and esophagus.  A tested and certified brain is placed into the skull which is soldered permanently shut with a special tool used for minimizing scars.  That sub-assembly is taken to a sub-assembly for sub-assemblies. The head unit is connected to the torso unit, which is linked to fully functioning limbs. Field testing commences in which the durability is accessed to insure a lifelike feel. Failure rate is below one-tenth of one percent.  Forty-seven heads an hour for eight hours a day.

This run is the over-fifty model.  Wrinkles, gray hair.  The works.  People pay big bucks for these life replicas.  One minute they’re gone, lights out, say goodbye to your family.  Then, with the assistance of a computer program calibrated specially for each individual, some electrodes at the base of the human skull and a plug into the replicator port of the pre-purchased life replica (for a man the port can be found in that place between your testicles and anus) voila, back in business.  Working on this model, it’s like staring at some version of my own face all day long, which makes me think that maybe a man becomes what he makes with his hands.  Maybe the real thing is the one that’s fake.

Now, when I’m not here, sometimes I see the faces of the people I’ve helped assemble.  I bump into them at the grocery store, see them walking their dogs, watch them get takeout in the line ahead of me.  It’s strange, seeing them like that: alive, not knowing who I am.  Not knowing that I, in part, am responsible for their renewed existence.  Just like the bus, I don’t say anything to them; I just keep my head down, go back to doing what I’m doing.

When the shift ends and I’m getting ready to head out, a foreman comes into the locker room with a clipboard in his hand.  Says they need some people to work overtime tonight, time and a half if anyone’s interested.  Of course, no one wants to look at more disassembled bodies after eight hours on the line.  But I think about going home to that empty cave of a house, think about that spot on the bed that still smells like Her, and I shrug my shoulders.

“I’ll do it, boss.”

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Ian Hilgendorf owns an Employee of the Year mug, though he has never been the Employee of the Year.  From it he drinks bitter, bitter coffee.
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