The Saved Man

by P. Jonas Bekker

I talked to the Saved Man in a bar in Khao Lak, Christmas Day 2004. Not that I cared that it was Christmas: I remember the date because of what happened the next day. I had seen him around and I had heard about him from the other tourists. He hung around these rundown backpacker watering holes and told people his life's story; about how he was saved, how he became enlightened and whatnot. He'd been trying to make eye contact with me all night but I just wanted to get drunk and stay drunk until my miserable failure of a trip to this fake-as-hell supposed-to-be paradise was over. I wanted to get on my plane the next day, inflict serious bodily harm on the idiot co-worker that recommended I take a three-week vacation to get over my wife leaving me and get on with the lonely, never-ending string of office days and booze-soaked nights that was my life now. And I figured I could manage all that without some zealot telling me to commit my soul to Jesus or to follow the path of the Buddha.

But you know how these types are, they don't scare away easily. Besides, I was lonely so I let him sit at my table with his eternal fucking bottle of Muang-Nong mineral water and he told me his story:

“You see, as a young man, I was a drinker like you. And always short of money. I tried going on the dole but they just told me to get a job. I took to borrowing from friends or stealing from my parents instead. But when my mother started hiding her purse and I had no friends left I had no choice: I had to go to an employment office to get some sort of work. On such days I always hated myself for dropping out of college, for drinking so much, for being so lazy. But I hated the others more. I hated my friends for not returning my calls, I hated my parents for not giving me any money, I hated those self-righteous fucks at the dole office, I hated my landlord for threatening to kick me out and I hated the world; I hated the world for not leaving me be. You see, I thought a man should be allowed to do nothing if he so pleased. Why should the world be able to force you to participate in all these ridiculous things people did? Like work. I hated work. The work these agencies made you do was always stupid and underpaid. And the intermediaries were always smiling and trying to make you take a cleaning job. I hated intermediaries. I was a pretty hateful young man back then, you see.

Well, they didn't give me a cleaning job. They sent me to a cookie factory. A confectionery, they called it. But any place that had a 'Production Department' and a 'Packing Department' was a factory in my book.

I was expected to start work at seven in the morning. I arrived at seven forty-five, hung over - I'd found a bar that would give me credit - but it still took them until nine to find a 'Production Leader' that could tell me what to do.

And he made me a stacker. That was about the worst job in the Packing Department. A production line, you see, started with a square hole in the wall. On the other side of that wall was the production department that spewed out cupcakes and cookies and donuts and all sorts of pastry at an incredible rate. The Packing Department's job was to put these in plastic trays and to wrap the plastic trays in their cellophane wrappers and to put a bunch of these packages into a cardboard box, tape the boxes up and stack them on a pallet. And I was the stacker. There was an endless amount of different types of boxes but they were all heavy and when the production leader explained the stacking patterns for the different kinds of pallets I didn't pay attention. So I had to re-stack every other pallet because the boxes would fall off or the people from the Storage Department would complain. And the tape machine would fail to tape the boxes up on the bottom and all the cookies would fall out. And I would run out of boxes, run out of pallets, run out of tape or run out of breath. And they made me check the average weight of the packages and check the metal detector. And the plastic tray machine would jam and I would have to climb up on top and un-jam it while the hole in the wall would keep vomiting up it's buttery products that, with the packing machine jammed, would fly everywhere, covering floor and machines and people and everything in a layer of greasy cookie crumbs that no one ever seemed to clean up... And the boxes just kept coming and coming and coming and no-one would come and help me; they would just scream: “Hurry up, we're lagging behind! If we don't make the production schedule we'll miss out on the bonus payments!” Of course, I was a temp, so I didn't get any bonus payments.

After a couple of days I'd completely had it. Getting up ridiculously early, coming home all greasy, covered in butter and cake crumbs and facing the prospect of having to use all the scrawny earnings of my first week to satisfy my creditors. You see, the aching back, the bucking bowels - I couldn't eat anything but dry bread and greens, figuring if I saw any more grease I would lose my sanity - and not even having any drinking money for the weekend; that was pissing me off, you see.

And then there was the overcoat thing. You see, they made you wear one of these way-too-hot blue overcoats, a clean one every day, and a white hair net - made you sweat like hell and looked ridiculous at that - and I was sort of a fat bugger back then so there weren't too many overcoats in my size. So, in the locker room after work, I didn't put it in the basket like I was supposed to. Instead, I hid it behind some lockers and wore the same one every day.

Until that day when I had completely had it and some idiot took my carefully hidden overcoat and tossed it in the wash basket. I blew up.

“What the fuck are you doing with my coat?”

“Coat's s'posed to be in the hamper, man.”

“That's my coat and I strongly suggest you leave it where I put it. Man.”

A crowd of grinning cake-covered blue overcoats started to gather immediately.

“Coat's not yours, Temp. B'longs to the company. And it's going in the hamper.”

He had a couple of pounds on me but I was too aggravated to care so I took a swing at him, which he swiftly side-stepped and countered with a push to my sternum that sent me flying into the lockers.

“What an idiot.” Someone uttered. And everyone left.

So, there I was. Bruised and alone - well, actually not too bruised. Just alone and feeling sorry for myself - sitting on the locker room floor of a cookie factory. I stood up and looked in the mirror that said “The Quality Control guy? You're looking at him!”.

“Shit, ” I thought. “Can things get any worse?”

I still don't know what exactly happened but it suddenly felt like I was falling. I was in total darkness for I don't know how long. Then there was a crash and I had landed in a waste paper container full of cardboard not unlike the one in the Storage Department.

But this wasn't the Storage Department. It wasn't the Production Department either. This wasn't the Cookie Factory at all or, if it was, this was a part of it I had never seen. Anyway, what I saw was very unpleasant. With the sheer size of the place, there were no windows. Fluorescent lights dangled from wires overhead but their light seemed to scarcely reach the floor where workers were all doing the same thing: filling large plastic jerry cans with a sticky yellowish fluid that flowed continuously from pipes that protruded from the wall. When a can was full, the closed them up with a plastic cap and put them on a conveyor belt that took them through a doorway into a deep darkness.

Every worker seemed to have his (or hers - with the overcoats and the hairnets everyone becomes a sexless blob) own Production Leader. This was terrible. Instead of the Production Leaders coming by every once in a while to scream at the workers like on the surface, here beneath the ground, in this hell, they were standing behind you all the time, yellow-skinned and ominously dressed in a black overcoat and wearing dark shades, stood behind you yelling continuously. “Faster!” These bastards were screaming into the ears of the unfortunate gunk-bottlers. “Faster! Don't fumble the fucking cap! You piece of shit! Get a new can! Faster! Faster!”

This was a nightmare and it was time to leave, I reckoned. I looked up, thinking I would climb back up the chute I'd come out of but two black coats were on me and started dragging me to an empty filling station. I fought them fiercely but was zapped with some kind of cattle prod that temporarily stunned me. “You can't do this, you fuckers!” I screamed. “This is against the law! I'll go to the cops! You people are fucking crazy! I demand to be set free immediately!” They just thrust a jerry can in my hands.

The gunk - 'the fluid' these people, if they were actually people, called it - started flowing and after having filled a dozen of the things I'd have given a sweet thing to be a cookie factory stacker again, you see.

Work hours in this basement were long and there were no breaks. The screaming also never stopped and after what seemed like forever and a million gunk-filled plastic jugs I was covered from head to toe in that yellow shit and completely numb from the verbal abuse. Not to mention parched and starving.

Now, we were fed, but the food looked too much like the fluid I had been bottling for me to be able to eat it. The water they gave us to drink was also yellowish and lukewarm. It made me sick to my stomach.

Sleeping was horrid as well. Impossible, really. Bunked up in three layers, sticky clothes and all, in a dark, windowless... well, I guess 'tunnel' is the best word. Bunk after bunk after bunk in row after row after row farther than I could see in that eternal dusk. I couldn't sleep of course. How could those other idiots sleep? 'Imagine being locked up in a basement', I thought, 'bottling repulsive liquids all day, eating some sort of synthetic crap and sleeping like a rose afterwards. “Zombies,” I called them. “Idiots!” The only response I got was a muffled echo of my own voice and the soft breath sounds of the tired workers.

Still mumbling insults at my fellow prisoners (were we prisoners? Was there a way out of this place?) I climbed off my bunk and set out to find some water or something to at least clean myself up a bit, also keeping an eye out for anything that looked like an exit.

I found a rundown locker room that had a row of wash basins but when I opened a faucet there was no water. Then I looked in the mirror and saw.

“The Quality Control guy? You're looking at him?” It said.

My insane laughter echoed through the dark tunnel.

“O.K.,” I cried. “O.K., I get it!”

Laughing hysterically, I screamed at the mirror: “I get it, I get it! You people are teaching me a lesson, aren't you? Well, I learned my lesson! Loud and clear! So, open the hatch, here I come because I finally got it! It can't... It can't POSSIBLY get any worse than THIS, now can it?”

And the feeling of falling again. The darkness. But now I wasn't screaming. I was still laughing at the sick joke these people had pulled on me.

And then I stopped. I was in complete darkness.

After a few seconds, the smell hit me. I wasn't back at the cookie factory, that was for damn sure. This place smelt like urine. Like a mix of urine, burning flesh and wet concrete.

Before I could even attempt to stand up I was grabbed at both shoulders and dragged across a cold, wet floor towards where there seemed to be more light. There, I got a glimpse of the creatures that had grabbed me. These were certainly no human beings. These were ogre-like monsters with tusk-like canines protruding from their lower jaws and claws that dug into my flesh without mercy. They smelled like rotting meat and spoke in groaning noises I couldn't understand.

More and more loudly I heard the drone of machines. Then, to my horror, I saw where I would be working next.

It was a hard metal chair by a conveyor belt, its single concrete leg apparently an integral part of the floor, with leather restraints and, attached to some invisible place above it, a jumble of tubes and wires, hanging around it. Towards the rear of the seat, there was what looked like a stainless steel nozzle with a smooth round tip.

'Oh, no! No way!' I cried as the ogres tore off my clothes and forced me down into the chair. But fighting these things was no use. They put me in the chair and the nozzle went into my rectum as they did it. They inserted a catheter into my penis, made me swallow a rubber tube and attached a pair of electrodes to my neck.

Testing the functionality of all my station's systems, they washed out my colon with ice-cold water, pumped some warm fluid into my stomach and zapped me through the electrodes, sending incredible bolts of pain through my entire body. Then they left and the conveyor belt in front of me started hurling parts at me at a ridiculous speed.

I didn't know how to fit the parts together. While I was trying to figure it out, I was being zapped in the neck constantly for being too slow. When I finally got it - five different parts were supposed to form an apparently useless conical object - I was crying for the punishment to stop.

I worked as fast as I could but I still got zapped all the time for fumbling the parts or dropping them or failing to put them together the right way.

After my eyes had accustomed themselves to the darkness I could make out the other workers in the stations to my left and right. But I had to be careful because, as I found out, I was zapped every time I turned my head too far to either side. It was useless, anyway. The others were in the same sorry state as I was and I couldn't see their faces or in any way make contact with them.

As for breaks, there were none. Just a regular feeding through the tube, followed by an ice-cold colon washing. You could only sleep during the occasional downtime of the machine. And you would be awakened by a painfully loud siren and a zap in the neck when production would start again. I say production, but I didn't know - and I still don't - what we were producing and I had a nagging feeling that the same parts were coming back to me again and again and that they had some other sorry slob like me disassembling them on the other side of the facility.

One time, the machines stopped for a long time and the ogres got bored. The prowled the workfloor kicking around loose parts that were on the floor, beating random workers with their sticks and roaring with hideous laughter all the time. When they started poking the worker next to me he broke into a heartbreaking whimper, begging them to leave him alone, to let him go home. And, when they undid his restraints, for a brief moment I thought they were actually going to set him free.

But they did no such thing.

They threw him to the floor and, with their big clawed feet planted firm into his back, started pulling on his limbs. All four came off and the spray from his arteries covered me, the conveyor belt and the entire floor in blood. The ogres gnawed at his arms and legs as his dismembered body bled out, still screaming in pain. And when the screaming stopped they tore of his head too and played catch with it until the siren finally rang.

The murderous brutes trudged off to go back to work, leaving what was left of my neighbor to rot.

Some time later, despite or because of a million electrical shocks to my nervous system, I lost consciousness.

The ogres must have dragged me out of the production facility and into some sort of sick bay because when I woke up, I was lying on a gurney-like bed in a dimly lit room that had a dozen more of these beds, all of which were empty. I was in incredible pain but I tried to get up anyway, vaguely thinking about escape. I abandoned this thought completely at the sight of the handleless steel door that was the only exit from the room. Instead, I decided to see if there was a lavatory or something to at least urinate like a person one time before the ogres found out I was awake and came to drag me back to my station.

And there it was again. The mirror.

And then, finally, I got it.

“Oh, no!” I said to it. “Oh, no, not again! You're not pulling that stunt on me again!”

I looked straight into the mirror, as if to challenge it, and saw my face with black rims around the eyes, electrical burns in my neck and my hair shaved off.

You see, it's true what they say. Ultimately, you save yourself. You can sit around and mope and hope someone will come to pull you out of you misery. But no one will come. You have to save yourself. All this time, all my life, I had been walking around with a frown on my face, thinking someone should come and give me what I want, make my life OK somehow. Comfort me. But no one came. No one came and I became angrier and angrier and there I was: locked up in my own anger, shaped like an ogre-run basement factory.

And I looked in the mirror. And for the first time ever, I looked myself straight in the eye. All of my life, when I had looked into a mirror, I had looked at my puffy, tired, pale, alcohol-poisoned face and felt disgusted by it. I had looked at the ever-growing bags under my eyes but I had never had the courage to meet my own stare.

And, strangely enough, I liked my eyes. Even though they were in this bleak, dead man's face. I wasn't looking at my face. I wasn't looking at the electrical burns in my neck. I was looking into my own eyes. And I saw the eyes of a man for the first time. The eyes of a man who was ready to do whatever it took and accept everything that was thrown at him.

“Fuck you.” I said to the mirror. “Fuck you. Things can always get worse.”

Then darkness again. Falling again. No maniacal laughter this time. But no fear either. Just calm. A calm deep and profound like I had never felt before.

Then, I woke up to my alarm clock, in my own bed, still feeling wonderful. Refreshed. A new man. Saved.

I was saved.

And I got up, got dressed and went to work in the cookie factory. Worked there until I was sixty-seven. Never complained about the job again. Went to evening school and made Production Leader, too. I'm seventy-nine now. You wouldn't say, right? That I'm seventy-nine?”

I had to admit, this guy didn't look one day over fifty.

“It's because I don't worry. Ever. Since I was saved, I don't worry, don't complain. Just work and be happy and try to help people out. People that are unhappy. People like you. And, of course, no drinking. Ever again. Drinking ages you, you see.”

Drinking ages you. You don't say! This guy was full of unexpected fucking wisdom.

“Mister, “ I said. “I must say that was a pretty amusing little story. I especially liked the bit with the ogres.”

Goddamn idiot.

“You don't believe me, then? This all really happened, you know.”

Sure. It all really happened. I may be a drunk but if this cat had me figured for a moron he was dead wrong.

“Oh, I believe you. But maybe you should lay off the magic mushrooms for a while, you think? Besides, it's wasted on me, since I am, as you can see, well beyond saving.”

“No one is beyond saving. But I can see you are struggling with some great pain.”

A guy comes to paradise and instead of enjoying himself he finds the darkest corner of the seediest bar around and drowns himself in booze every night for three weeks, with a face like he wishes some natural disaster would come and obliterate him and the whole hateful, godforsaken world around him. It doesn't take a goddamn psychic to tell this guy is 'struggling with some great pain'. I wanted to smack that pompous motherfucker in the head.

“Go fuck yourself, old man.” I said as I paid my tab.

When I stumbled back into my hotel on the beach the night porter handed me a note that said I had been rebooked to an earlier flight. I cursed as this meant I had to take the first airport shuttle of the morning. At seven bloody thirty; I had planned to spend the morning sleeping it off on the beach.

And when I arrived at the airport the next morning, hung over and grumpy, it turned out to be a mistake as well. My flight wouldn't depart until late that afternoon. So, on the 26th of december, 2004, at 10:27 a.m. local time, I was coughing up yellow slime in a Phuket airport restroom, over thirty miles from the beach.

P. Jonas Bekker, november 2009