Better Than Jail
Short story by Michael Botur
from True? published 2018.
It’s 3am when the banging wakes you.
WAMP. Ha ha, zseshty na provnm! THUBthubthub. DOOFT. Aiiie. Grezy prinkfift?
Goddamn this noisy YMCA scumbucket hostel Marlena put you in. God damn having to go to a new job in a few hours and pretend you fit into the straighto world. God damn the laws that say you’re not allowed to kill one man for fucking up the other man’s sleep.
You’re wearing boxer shorts and skin, but that’s enough. When you were Inside, cats sometimes wasted each other naked. You can complete the mish in boxers. You can do anything if you’re mad enough, and these noisy cunts are about to find that out.
You creep on the balls of your feet like the lifers taught you. Dim bulbs over every door are the brightest things in the city right now. Silent hallway. Tinny treble from distant nightclubs. Your legs freeze and shatter. Your arsehole knots. Your dick hides inside its sheath. Sneaking, creeping, fists curling into bludgeons.
You go up a floor on cold concrete fire stairs, find room 307, no that’s not it… 309… 311. There are feathers peeking out the bottom of the door. That Aiiie squeal again. You tap softly on the wood with two fingernails. Since you came out of jail, you’ve done everything softly. Talking slow. Never swearing. Holding your fists like icicles that’ll break if you use them.
You tap more firmly, suck a sore knuckle. Looks like you’ve popped a blister, gnashing Miss Fist in your sleep.
You hear voices whispering some gibberish behind the door, then a slice of wall appears, then a portion of a painting, then a human face. ‘What this is you want, is mornink time?’ The accent is a bit like Borat, the last movie you saw before the ninjas snuck silently into your house and pointed rifles at your head and cuffed you. The face this accent belongs to is whiter than the whitest paedo in the Buttercup unit. The face moves and the drunk eyes follow a second later. A good face to smash. ‘Who you are, you come to my room, you fuck with my party?’
The noisemaker is some kind of Eastern European prince. He’s put his champagne on the radiator and it’s tipped over and spilled and bubbles are popping and steaming. The room has a sticky, fruity, brewery stench like when the boys Inside used to brew hooch on the heaters. There are feathers stuck to the wall, sticky liquor dribbling down. A woman comes up behind the Party Prince, tits wobbling, huge and free. She slides a bottle of Jose Cuervo out of the way with her lime-painted toes and drapes herself on her hero’s shoulders. They’ve cranked the heating way up but the curtains are flapping out the window.
‘I say, who are these guy?’ the Party Prince reminds you, ‘You fuck weeth party, I keel you.’ He has gold rings through both nipples and bloodshot blue eyes.
A feather settles on his shoulder. These arseholes have been having a fucking pillowfight. You take one of the breaths Loftus taught you about in the Bougainvillea Room. Loftus was a South African with a thick neck and hair as yellow as a little kid, a total hardarse who loved behind-the-scenes punch-ups with inmates in corners where the CCTV couldn’t see. You disagreed with Loftus plenty, but the man was always wise. Loftus stopped a crew from chucking hot sugar in your eye. Loftus let you get in the ring with Horse – a small fulla who’d put a hit on you– and box it out. The beef was squashed and you held your sore head in your hands for a week then swore no more latenight cruising with the boys, no more dairies, no more chopping bikes or shotties or rolling dealers. Computers would be the future, Loftus convinced you. Do an IT course with those Jehovah’s Witnesses that come in every Tuesday. Last time you saw Loftus, he was squatting beside you during transcendental meditation in Meadow Unit, telling you you had to get the Tide-Fills-Lagoon breathing technique right else you wouldn’t be able to handle the aggravation of the outside.
‘So speak, zgendarya provotznye, mother farker. Hm?’ The Party Prince hefts a chunky green bottle, folds his arms over his champagne-sticky chest, squits through his teeth.
You smack your lips, pick salt out of your eyes. Anything to delay killing this guy. ‘You understand I’m in the room under you, bro? You understand I’m trying to sleep?’
‘So you are puttink pillow over your ear. Anya, kommt!’ His assistant brings him a pillow. He shoves the pillow into your face hard enough to rock you. Instead of falling over, you keep your left foot where it is, swing your right leg back and get into the Orthodox Stance.
Through a drizzle of feathers, the Party Prince begins to look worried. Between four bottles of cognac on the coffee table, there is a laptop screen with a puzzled-looking person on it. Whoever is on Skype falls silent and watches the fight.
‘Listen real good, neighbour. You been makin some real dumb decisions and I’d hate you to make another.’ Your fingers are fern fronds, and you are in a dark, quiet forest in the mountains of China with pandas and a cool breeze. ‘I come from a place called Hafta. Ever heard of it?’
The Party Prince retreats a little into his room, worried. His woman is reaching for the landline. Might be a murder to report.
‘Hafta is a place where a lotta cats hafta do a lotta shit. Why? Someone disses your arse from their window as they’re driving past? You hafta get the rego, go to the post shop, track ’em down, put a cocktail through his window, burn his family up so there’s just their teeth left. Now, us peeps in Hafta-land haven’t really dealt with FUCKING MIDNIGHT PILLOWFIGHTS BEFORE. Know why I’m not used to midnight pillowfights? Cause I’ve been FUCKING SLEEPING CAUSE toMORROW is my ONLY chance to work a OFFICE job and I HAFTA be FUCKING fresh when I go in cause I’m a bit FUCKING nervous about goin straighto and if you FUCK UP MY SLEEP ANY MORE, IF, IF ….IF! IIIIIIFFFFF!’ Your fingertip settles on his nose.
You sniff with laughter, change your hand back into a fern. The ripples. The shoals. The lapping lagoon. You fold your fern fronds into fists. ‘Pick one. Left or right.’
His fingers wriggle up and down the door, unsure if closing it will get him into less or more trouble.
‘Left’s for pashing, right’s for smashing. Pick one. Nah? Scared? And I ain’t threatened you, for the record, so don’t go telling the feds I did, cause y’know why? Cause if I threaten cunts, my arse goes back to jail, so if – IF – I was gonna do something to land my arse back Inside, I wouldn’t just talk. I’d hafta go all the way. So you’re gonna HAFTA ask yourself whether you want me to go apeshit on your arse or not. Cause this is on you.’
The Party Prince shakes as he tries to offer all the Euros from his rhinestoned wallet. Of course you don’t take his money. You ain’t no crook. You do a thumbs-up at the security camera, trot back to bed. Big day tomorrow. New square job. New square you.
This 9 to 5 straighto office job is sposda be B.T.J., sposda be Better Than Jail, but god damn it makes you tense. In Educate Straight, you were trained in how to handle Microsoft Excel, 2010, 2016, Xero, MYOB, Quickbooks, Access, shit, even Microsoft Dynamics, but how to shake hands like a squeaky-clean straighto? You musta missed that one.
You trail behind Prudence Flaherty-Duff, operations manager, as she gives you a tour of the office, looking down on all the peeps on Queen Street. She’s a jiggly old white lady with fake-arse dyed hair who tells you to call her Prue as if that’s any less white than fuckin Prudence. She wears about a thousand bucks worth of jewellery, strokes your desk and the water cooler and also strokes everyone’s shoulders as she introduces people. The handshakes these straighto office squares give make you feel weird, suspect, too rigid and clean. They’re the type of peckerwood shakes you would see when you were kicking back in your cell watching Downton Abbey. That weird typa handshake that’s low-down and doesn’t make a pleasing SMACK as the palms whack together. How are you sposda trust a man if you don’t even press chests? That’s what this office is all about, though: people smiling with their faces instead of their hearts. BTJ? Pfft. Ain’t nothin more crooked than peeps that call themselves straight.
You’re introduced to Gee Ling in payroll and Khushi from HR and Bruce Kan The Server Man. The one single name you absolutely gots to remember is Prudence Flaherty-Duff: Operations Manager.
Prue Flaherty-Duff. Prue Flaherty-Duff. You mutter the name to yourself as she carries on with the tour. You memorise a rhyme so her name sinks in: Prue Flaherty-Duff, silvery muff, money and stuff, rich poodle goes ruff.
There’s this black cat, Julius, one of the accountants. He pats your huge shoulders, says ‘Somebody’s been doing his push ups!’ and you flinch, ready to knock him out if there’s a diss hidden in his words. Julius takes his hands off you, laughing. ‘Sorry, sorry, workplace touching and all that. Don’t tell the boss! There’s a few snakes around here, yes-sir-ee.’
How come the homeboy’s namedropping the word snakes? He saying you’re King Cobras? He saying you’re gonna snitch on him for touching you? You gonna have to kill his arse already?
Prue interrupts with a shoulder massage, melting you down til you pour into a nice swivel chair, stiff back, brand new. It feels plain wrong. Too comfy. Undeserved. You ask her if you can shuffle your desk a bit and you drag it so your back’s against the wall and you can see who’s coming at you across the yard – the office floor, that is. Carpet and computers. She won’t be doing your direct personal management; this Julius brother’s supervising you, it turns out. They’ve given you two monitors. God damn the machines are fast. A million times faster than the grey Stonehenge-looking fuckers in the prison library. The internet here doesn’t even have to dial and whistle to get online. There’s not even any screws standing against the wall watching. It feels cheeky, creepy, fake.
You spend your first morning with your face almost touching the screen, trying to add a GST formula to column F – AND IT WON’T FUCKING POPULATE, GOD DAMN IT – and it’s making you fizz inside so much you don’t even notice the room emptying. When you finally push back and roll a smoke and stick it in your mouth and turn to ask Julius for a light, you realise there’s a party in the break room.
You get a fist prepped, sidle up to the gathering. You widen your chest, put your Apeshit Face on and sniff around the corner. They all have their backs to you. Everyone is laughing over steaming mugs of coffee. In the middle of the table there’s a platter of these round doughnut things with no frosting. Edging along the wall you get spotted, and they tell you to take a “bagel” about eight times before you finally snatch one and retreat.
You’ve never had a doughnut without icing before. Or a desk. You eat in a toilet cubicle with the door locked.
10.29: back to work. BTJ, BTJ. You concentrate on reconciling drawings, receiving payments, exporting worksheets to a couple of people around the corner checking on some budgeting. You don’t talk to anyone, don’t let anyone sneak up behind you, don’t take a piss until the sun has burned down low. At 5 everyone wriggles into their coats and says G’night and Prue Flaherty-Duff squeezes your forearm, leans in with her old lady alcohol-y fruit stench and says you can stay here overnight if you like, but she’s going home.
‘Right,’ you tell her, and turn back to the screen, determined to get the Charteris sheets to match the schedule of payments.
‘Dear boy,’ she says, her words heavier, ‘I’m not asking. You’ve done well. Go home.’
Back up the YMCA, everyone is epic-nice to you. It can only mean they’re scared shitless. That Party Prince must’ve run his mouth. People clear out of the kitchen when you pour steaming water on your pot noodles. Chickypie on reception stands up and bows. The cleaners tiptoe past your room. It doesn’t make you feel like a king. Just makes you feel like you’re back Inside.
May as well do pushups til you’re sleepy, turn the lights out at 8, jet to work at dawn. You’re used to waking at 4.30am, anyway. You catch the 5.30 bus, hoping to hit the staff kitchen and scoff some noodles in peace, but Prue Flaherty-Duff is already there in her office. Your flesh freezes. You duck into the shadow beside a bookcase. The old lady’s doing laps around a bald white guy in a suit who’s sitting in her chair. She keeps flapping her arms like she’s trying to fly, shouting one minute then laughing, and keeps bending over the cat in the chair to type some shit on her computer screen. Your belly bangs furiously, demanding to be fed, but you can’t be seen doing anything except work, gotta act like a robot to fit in with these straightos, so you eat your noodles dry and cold in the toilets, washing the sachet of chicken flavour powder down with a palmful of tap water. On the way out, a staunch dude with an outthrust chin gives you a hard look. It’s you in the mirror. Man the fuck up, boy. You wanted this.
It’s lunch, suddenly. You shake your head, blink, pinch your eyes. This lady who never takes a scarf off her head jokingly pushes your wheely chair towards the elevator and tells you to G.T.F.O. and you look down and your fists are trembling because it almost got real for a second, there. Wheel a man like he’s a cripple? Office culture’s big time fucked up.
You dust off your jacket, put your quivering fist in your pocket. Everyone thinks it’s a big laugh to totally unwind for 30 minutes. Prue even comes in and her and Julius guffaw and squeeze each other’s shoulders. Straightos don’t realise how good they got it.
All you have to buy lunch with is one of the supermarket shopping vouchers Marlena hands you every two weeks. Your metabolism is roaring from the 680 pushups you managed last night. You reluctantly pop out, get a sack of buns and some hot dogs from New World Metro and get back to work within 12 minutes. You sit with the people for another ten and listen to them comparing what brand of line trimmer is best. All these words you’ve never had a need for. Line trimmer. Pauanui. Upgrade. Splurge. You send a silent apology to Miss Fist, tell her you’ll see her soon.
Part of Marlena’s job is she has to drive all the way over from Probation and visit you on your day off. It’s not that she’s here to tell you you’ve had a great first two weeks like some supportive sister. Marlena used to be a human rights lawyer in some place called Zimbubbly, always fighting the power. Now she moves her fat arse slowly and talks like she’s asleep. Marlena does the minimum to keep her bosses happy so her pay comes in to feed her kids. She’s not quite a sister and not quite a straighto.
You’re just settling down with Miss Fist when she knocks on your door. Damn it. No time for a root. You tuck your hand behind your back like a butler, put the kettle on. Wearing this thick overcoat like an old-school private detective, she lifts up your mattress, checks the fire evacuation plan, asks for a cup of your piss in a courier bag to send to the lab. After you’ve pissed for her, she sticks her camel nose in the air, sniffs for weed.
Marlena sees you’ve got one hand concealed behind your back and pulls the door fully open and wedges it and frowns at you and crosses out something on her checklist. It’s protocol, she explains: her job forbids her from being inside a confined space with a client without an exit plan. But that’s not what you’re cagey about – you’re cagey cause just before Marlena arrived you’d painted your left hand with lipstick, turned your fingers into Little Miss Fist, and you were about to let Miss Fist work on your cock, get laid, take your time, feel good for ten minutes. Now you’re just a big dude with a painted hand hid behind your back. Left for pashing, right for smashing.
She sees you’ve Blu-Tacked your favourite poster on the cupboard, your only poster. It shows these two black cats at the Olympics standing on first and second place, numbers one and two, gold and silver medals, putting their triumphant fists in the sky over this white boy hanging his head down, defeated. That poster, man. You were never really allowed it in your cell so Loftus showed you how to hang your clothes in front of it, so it was still there, still part of your world, but the other screws couldn’t see it.
‘Thees ees allowed?’ Marlena asks, puckering her face while she studies the poster.
‘What’s allowed? Putting a poster up? Or standing up against white cunts? I thought you’d love that.’
Marlena snorts. You check the jug, change the subject, tell her how work’s going, how most of the cats are alright, how being an office straighto is all about discussing what was on the breakfast news, discussing jogging and rowing machines, fat-free muffins, signing cards for people’s birthdays and pouring filter coffee into a mug with a kitten on it wearing a tie. You tell her how your first pay was more money than you ever earned standing over clueless students for their Ritalin. You don’t tell her Prue’s up to some weird shit with her creepy dawn accounting sessions. Prue must be wearing a wire, telling the feds you don’t deserve a second chance, something sinister like that.
There’s the thing Julius told you, too. It’s hard to get Marlena to understand how sad the brother’s eyes looked when he told you the company policy about rounding up the bill for each client. There are three figure round-ups, four figure and five. If a client’s about to get a bill for six hundred, you’re sposda make it a nice even nine-fifty and they’ll be grateful it’s under a grand, Julius explained, touching your monitor for support, looking away with shame. $7260? You’re supposed to round it up to seven-nine. These are dollars people would kill for on the outside. People are savage here in the straighto world. People fuck you over then thank you for your business.
You’re pacing the room as you rant. You’ve had no one else to talk to about Prue. That woman, some days you want to eat her out you’re so grateful for the job. Other days you’re positive she’s about to fire your arse. She’ll write shit on a draft invoice like ‘Insufficient’ or ‘Under budget’ or ‘Try again’ and stick it on your screen so you come back from a noodle break and there’s a little reminder for you to keep feeling shame.
Jug’s boiled. You hand Marlena a steaming pot of real good Szechuan prawn noodles. Marlena puts the noodles on the windowsill and dusts off her tablet. ‘I am just getting your notes up. I am in touching these directors at work.’ Marlena’s useless at English, man.
‘So how many peeps know I’m an ex-con? Don’t bullshit me, Mar.’
She points her droopy eyes at you. ‘You have complete all the train course requirement, yes-no?’
‘Honest-to-God, for real.’
‘And you dissarve thees job, yes-no?’
‘Hundred per cent.’
‘I have check. Prue, she liking you very much so. She say you are not so good with the money.’
‘But my numbers add up!’ You punch your palm. ‘Like, I mean, I applied this tax refund directly back to the client instead of us and she pinged me for that. I still don’t get that one. I thought these cats was sposda be straight? They’re the ones oughta be in jail.’
‘In the old country, we compromise.’ You sit on the bed; she takes a turn pacing your room. Marlena looks into her noodles, puts them back on the windowsill. ‘You charge de client, you make de money, you keep de job.’
‘You think normal person like hees job? You think I like thees job?’ Marlena puts away her tablet, stands up, pulls her coat over her belly.
‘There is job I have come into email inbox today. Cleaner. You want to be a cleaner?’
She waddles to the elevator. You follow her out, watch the doors close, unable to answer.
You race the alley cats and the moon to work so you can search for answers to the questions you’re too embarrassed to ask the others, like how to make a pull-out slice from the pie chart, and how to add interest to net projections, and what are the six steps of project implementation.
The fire stairs are supposed to be your quiet way in, but this morning when you walk onto the cream carpet, Prue presses a keypad that locks the fire escape behind you.
‘A moment of your time.’
You’re nervous as fuck but you tell yourself it’s BTJ. You pull the gentle tide into the lagoon. Breathe, bro. B.T.J.
You follow her into the boardroom. You can’t keep your eyes off her pearls, her earrings, her heels.
‘How do you think our shareholders are going to like it if I present to them $483,000 in revenue from Zefferson Truebridge instead of $583,000, hmm? Because that difference in profitability, my friend, comes from you. From you not looking for chances to make the most of this extreeeemly generous opportunity you’ve been given.’
The stairs are calling you, but you’re terrified. This is Horse in the boxing ring. Loftus whapping your fingers with his stick. Gangstas howling your name through the pipes at Paparua.
Emergency plan: make small talk. Get her on side. ‘How’s your dogs? Like, you got six poodles eh?’
‘Seven,’ she goes.
All you can do is gulp as she pushes open the doors of the Board Room. God they musta snuck in early. Something huge has gotta be up. Inside is a circle of directors standing around a desk made of clear glass. They’re each flipping through pages on a tablet. Their mouths are puckered into tight little beaks.
Okay. Whew. Wipe sweaty hands on pants. Fill the lagoon.
The board is mostly Indian and Chinese women, far as you can tell, plus one kinda bony-cheeked Elon Musk-looking cat whose face is all stretched and pink like he’s had surgery. Fuck bro: the parole board’s way easier than this.
‘Your timing is truly serendipitous,’ Prue says. ‘We’re on page 48. Of the quarterly. You look confused. D’you need me to explain what a quarterly report is?’
‘We were hoping for a better result,’ a woman in a purple headscarf explains. She looks like some killer spy-bitch out of a James Bond movie but her accent is local. People have changed since you went Inside. Races are different.
‘So it’s him?’ Headscarf says, tilting her head towards you, ‘Items nine and ten – that’s this guy’s work?’
Headscarf slides you a tablet so you can read the pages that are disappointing them so much. Your body remembers to crouch against the wall so you can spot the attack coming up. God you wish Loftus were here to tell you what to do. Nobody in this room could take you in a fight, but they have the power right now to rip out your mana and slice it up. They wait in silence while you try to understand this graph with dots all scattered across it.
A label says ‘Revenue opportunity lost – 8.32%’ and then there’s other words you can’t stop yourself mumbling.
‘… Human error,’ you go. ‘Shrinkage? A’ight, so… like, I can bill, like, you know, bill eight peeps one percent extra each to make up the money and shit?’ You look for help. ‘Miss Flaherty-Duff, am I, like… are you guys firing me?’
People in the board shake their heads and grin. It’s all smiles with these fuckin jackals.
Prue is the kindest of all. She waddles over and pats your head like you’re one of her poodles. ‘So long as you responsibly attribute the LOFs on each invoice with your own name, nobody’s firing anybody.’
‘What’s L-O- ?’
‘Lost opportunity fee. We have investors to answer to,’ says a tired-looking cat with frosted yellow streaks and a Bluetooth headset on. He doesn’t even look at you as he speaks. His hands are cupped in front of his face as if he’s been crying or praying.
‘So 8.32 per cent to make up, a’ight. And put my name on it. I got ya.’
‘That was last quarter, dear. You have some catching up to do.’
On your feet, you hover around the door, half-in this world, half-out.
You can’t take it any more. You charge at them with your fist out, tossing away everything. Prue Flaherty-Duff is first to get the fist, then Headscarf, then Bluetooth. You shake everyone’s hands, one at a time, going around the board like a travelling circus act, thanking them, letting their firm grip crush your feeble fist.
In jail there was this laundry press that squashed bedsheets flat as stamps. You once got the strap of your overalls caught in the cogs. The screws wouldn’t stop the machine until it had released the sheet cause the sheet was prison property and they didn’t want to get in trouble ripping some cheaparse square of linen. You tried to pull your strap out and it nearly sucked your fingers in.
People that depend on the machine will never break the machine to free someone that’s trapped.
Marlena has the authority to release you from the machine, she tells you, except she doesn’t call it a release. It’s an Exit Interview.
‘The hostel, these resident, they are moving out because they are beink scared of you,’ Marlena explains. ‘The manager, she say she is losing money. Ees time you are getting your own place. You should being proud, moving up,’ she says, lifting your floppy hand and shaking it. ‘I need to visit you no more. You are free. Ees time to start you packing up.’
With Marlena’s help, your room’s in a suitcase in less than five minutes. She pauses to stare at the poster of the black cat with his fist in the air, standing above the white man. Something that’s always bothered you is the way the black cat’s got gold on him. He shouldn’ta done it for the gold.
You grasp the edges of the poster and tear it down.