I hadn’t seen Miles in fifteen years when we bumped into each other at the grocery store. Back then, we’d gone separate ways. He’d dropped out of high school to start learning a trade, and I’d gone to university. Our lives diverged and we fell out of contact. But our recognition was instant, and after a few minutes of conversation he invited me to his house.
It was on the way that we caught up in broad strokes. I was married; he wasn’t. I had a kid; he didn’t. I worked for a corporation in a mid-level office job; he was self-employed. When I asked him what he did, he smiled a little mischievously and said, “I’m a bookie, but you could say I’m a bit of an employer myself these days.”
When I asked what he meant, he said I’d see soon enough.
What I saw first was that his splendid two-storey yellow brick house was situated deep in the suburbs, and seemed decidedly too big for a single guy in his thirties. Nevertheless, I was impressed he could afford it. My wife and I didn’t have our own house yet. “Renting or owning?” I asked as we approached the front door.
“Owned,” he said. “I’ve had a good run these last two years.”
Although the house had looked normal from the street, when we got closer I noticed that the front doorknob was odd. It was shaped like a human hand.
Miles was carrying groceries, so he motioned for me to do the opening. “It’s not locked?” I asked.
He smiled just as I touched the doorknob—the warm, living doorknob!—for it didn’t just look like a human hand; it was a human hand!
Obediently, the front door swung open, and huddled in the triangular space between the door and the wall was a hooded, black-clad figure whose gold-painted fingers I had just touched. Without even raising its head, the figure shut the door behind us and replaced its hand into the door hole.
Miles paid the figure no mind and continued to the kitchen, where another similarly dressed figure stood motionless by the light switch. Miles set down the groceries, clapped his hands and the figure turned on the lights.
By now I had to ask: “What is—”
“Look, I get that it may seem a little weird,” he said, “but hear me out. These are people who owe me money. They’re unemployed and they can’t conceivably pay it back anytime soon.”
I followed him to the living room, where another figure turned on the lights, illuminating several pieces of human furniture.
“So they’re working off their debts.”
Miles whistled, and yet another figure appeared, this one holding two imported beers. Miles handed one to me before setting the other on his nude female coffee table, who / which reacted instinctively to the cold glass bottle by momentarily arching her / its back.
“It’s perfectly consensual,” he added, anticipating my concerns. “And what would be the more humane alternative, breaking their knee caps?”
By now my initial discomfort was turning into a chilled fear. I kept remembering how the doorknob-hand had felt in mine. Ostensibly both were human hands, but the gap in—
“Dignity,” I said, then repeated the word in a whisper so as not to let them hear. “Don’t you think they lack dignity?”
He chuckled. “See, even your natural reaction is to treat them as if they’re invisible. As for dignity, they most definitely had it. Because they mortgaged it, and now they’re working to earn it back. I didn’t force them to gamble. Now they’re house servants, that’s all. Are you opposed to house servants?”
I admitted I supposed I wasn’t. “But this is such a strange form of it,” I said, starting to stammer like in my elementary school days.
By now the stress of being in this bizarre place combined with the mundane act of drinking beer was twisting me psychologically in ways I couldn’t understand. I wanted suddenly out, but the most I could tactfully bring myself to do was ask about the location of the bathroom.
“Just down the hall,” Miles said.
I stepped with dread.
The bathroom was large but felt immediately cramped by the presence of two figures: one wrapped entirely in bath towels, and the other kneeling by the toilet, its hooded head down and arms up, holding a roll of toilet paper as if it were the idol of a long-forgotten god.
Of course, I couldn’t go in these conditions, so I waited uncomfortably for a minute, listening to the figures breathe, before washing my hands.
“Are you OK?” I whispered to them.
“Do you need help?”
I shut off the water faucet, turned—
And nearly fell back against the bathroom mirror as the towel-wrapped one rubbed his / her / its moisture-absorbing material / body against my wet hands. “Please, don’t,” I begged quietly, escaping backward into the hall.
Miles was casually drinking his beer. “Did you try to save them?” he asked.
“They don’t need saving.”
He gestured for me to follow him, and I did, down the hall and up the stairs to a bedroom. But it wasn’t Miles’ bedroom. “I had it prepared just for you,” he said, “in case you wanted to spend the night.”
The room was spacious and clean, decked out with an array of speakers, a large TV and a human night table flanking a queen-sized bed, freshly made and topped with a beautiful handmade quilt, on which rested a mattress-long body pillow, its linen case rising and falling gently with the breath of the human inside it.
I wanted to back out, but Miles caught me by the shoulders. “Remember when in high school you told me I wouldn’t ever amount to anything?”
His grip was firm.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“Don’t be sorry. You were wrong, that’s all.”
“How long do they work for?” I asked, watching the body pillow shift slightly on the bed, desiring more than anything to change the topic. But also curious, genuinely and morbidly curious.
“However long they want. Eight hours, twelve hours, twenty-four hour shifts. It’s really not a bad gig, lying in a pillowcase on a comfortable bed for twice the minimum wage.”
He nudged me forward. “Go ahead. Try it.”
I didn’t want to, but there was a menace in his voice, an unpredictability that made it feel safer to obey than disagree. He may not have been threatening me directly, but the threat was in the air, invisible and atomized like a perfume.
I got on the bed.
Miles watched my every uncomfortable move.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a very nice mattress.”
For a second, I imagined that the mattress was filled with people and I was lying on top of them, crushing them—but as I shifted my weight I felt the more familiar support of springs, and I could breathe again.
“Try hugging the body pillow,” Miles instructed me, the coolness in his voice betraying how used he’d gotten to being the boss.
I didn’t want to do that either, but I did it anyway, not only pervasively conscious of the army of servants Miles had amassed, which he could turn against me at any moment, but wanting desperately to feel even a fraction of the power he wielded over them. Inching closer to the body pillow and turning over onto my side before lightly placing an arm on top of—
It squirmed, bony, warm and human underneath the crisp linen case.
The person inside was a man.
I wondered who and what he had bet on and how much he owed and whether it was really so bad what Miles was doing and if it would have been better for the man to be working two or three part-time jobs, probably labour, probably more tiring and dangerous, than being paid to be this objectified: this passive: this utterly domesticated.
“Nice, right?” Miles asked.
“You can get up now.”
I got off the bed, smoothed my clothes and followed Miles wordlessly into the hall, down the stairs and into a spacious gym. He was so confident that not once did he look back; he knew that I was behind him. Although we didn’t go inside, on the way we had passed a room outfitted with cameras, lights and a circular padded stage, and my imagination was running wild with thoughts of the recordings made in there—
The gym lights flashed cold and bright.
Arranged before me was an impressive collection of weights, workout gear and exercise machines, but it was the object occupying the centre of the room whose existence sent an electric shock down my spine. A leather heavy bag hung ominously from the ceiling.
Miles passed me boxing wraps for my hands, then began wrapping his own. “I know this is a lot, and I know how it feels, the pressure building up inside you right now. Believe me. Jealousy. Disgust. Maybe even anger: at me, the world, your own fucking life. When I get that way, I come down here and work those emotions out. It’s not healthy holding them in. Whatever you do, you can’t let them grow inside you.”
When he was done with his wraps, he handed me a pair of training gloves. I put them on, constantly eyeing the heavy bag, which was swinging now ever so softly from the steel ceiling mount.
“Give it a shot,” he said.
I stood frozen in place. I knew there was someone in there.
“I can’t d—”
“Of course you can,” he said, then pulled his arm back and delivered a wicked right cross to the heavy bag. It responded with a dull thud followed by a reverberating groan. “Just like that.”
“It’s a person,” I said, my voice rising.
“Which makes it even easier. Just ask the person if you can hit her.”
“Do you want to get hit?” Miles asked the heavy bag.
“Yes,” a muffled voice responded.
“See? She wants you to do it. If you don’t do it, you’re deciding for her, and how condescending would that be—for a man to tell a woman what she can and can’t do.”
“Hit me please,” the heavy bag mumbled.
I made a fist and threw a light jab. Just enough to feel the bag: the padding, and the contour of the person hanging inside.
“Come on, man.”
It made me sick to my stomach.
But as I lifted my hand to my mouth to keep from retching, Miles put in a thudding left hook that lifted the bag on impact. I could hear the stifled pain within.
“She gets paid by the punch,” Miles said. “Ask her if she wants another.”
I didn’t want to, but the answer came anyway:
“One thousand dollars off her debt if you give it all you’ve got,” Miles said.
“Do it please,” the bag begged.
I planted my feet, exhaled—once, twice—loosened my shoulder, and put all my weight behind a looping shot that connected sickeningly with the side of the bag, my mind frantically trying to decide where I’d connected, face, ribs, hip, because I was sure I’d felt bone, as the bag bounced, the ceiling mount screeched and the woman inside moaned in pain.
For a while: silence.
Then, “Thank… you,” she whimpered.
“Nice one! What do you say, another grand?” Miles asked with a smile.
So I got her again, and again. And again. Each time connecting with everything I had; each time shaving a thousand dollars off her debt. Good deed followed by good deed—until Miles himself grabbed my arm and pulled me away, and I realized, over the pounding of my beating heart, how much anger there was in me. “Easy, easy,” he repeated.
After I’d calmed down, I felt the horror of it: of what I had done. I had beaten someone, a woman, and all her begging and thanking couldn’t convince me it was right. Not that she was speaking now…
Miles unhooked the heavy bag and laid it reverently on the floor as I took off my gloves and undid my wraps.
He unzipped the bag.
“Do you remember our prom?” he asked as if out of the blue.
“You went with Rashida Parker,” he said.
I did remember that.
“Who did you go with?” I asked.
Miles had pulled a body wrapped in a thick, bloodied sheet from the unzipped bag. He picked it up and cradled it. She looked small and fragile in his arms. For a second, I thought that maybe she was dead, but then she murmured something swollen and incomprehensible, and I knew I hadn’t beaten her to death.
I had almost forgotten my own question when, “No one,” Miles answered. “I was supposed to go with Rashida, and she’d even said ‘yes’ to me”—he had unwrapped some of the sheet, revealing a tangle of black hair, and I thought, No, it couldn’t be, but it was: she was—”when you asked her and she said ‘yes’ to you. After all, why would she go with some skid who smoked cigarettes by the railroad tracks, a future deadbeat whose parents worked in a factory and who couldn’t read Shakespeare, when she could go with someone like you?”
He unfolded the remaining sheet from Rashida’s body and laid her on top of it. Her eyes were swelling shut but she could still see, and all I could do was avert my gaze as she slowly pronounced my name, each syllable willed into a hurt existence, before thanking me repeatedly with her fattened lips. Although she looked barely like the girl I’d fallen in love with, it was unmistakably her. After she could speak no more, she crawled forward, reaching pathetically for my legs, her broken body a coloured patchwork of various stages of bruising, as I backed instinctively away.
I was scared and I was ashamed.
“You’ll appreciate the irony,” Miles said. “She lost her money betting on mixed martial arts.”
There was something about that laugh, something devilish and deep, something true that made me lunge for him—for his despicable throat! But even that did not stop the laughter, which resounded through the gym as we fought like boys on the padded floor. And still he laughed when his hooded minions arrived and pulled me off him, swinging wildly at the air. I’d bloodied his nose but nothing more, and as they dragged me away, up the stairs and to the front door, Miles followed us with a monstrous smile.
“I am the way the world is,” he said.
Then I was out the door and it was closed and it was dark and suburban and I was sitting on the concrete front step, staring at the golden doorknob-hand jutting profoundly through the hole in the door of a yellow brick house. I got to my feet and descended the steps to the street, all the while trying to act cool and not make a scene, because that seemed like the worst thing imaginable: drawing attention to myself. My fighting spirit had evaporated. I was a coward once more.
I buried my hands in my pockets and kept my head down, walking briskly through the cold night air, but when I reached the nearest intersection I turned and started to run.
On both sides houses flew past at a blur. Illuminated windows. Imagined conversations. I knew Miles wasn’t behind me, but because I lacked his natural confidence I kept glancing back—yet the only thing which followed were his words, I am the way the world is, and when I stopped to catch my breath, I looked directly upon a lighted window: several silhouettes gathered around a table. Was it a family or a group of hooded servants waiting on their master? I couldn’t tell, but they must have seen me too because suddenly the curtains were drawn and the illumination ended.
I am the way the world is.
He was wrong. I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Miles was the anomaly—the evil—and in every other house, behind every other beautiful brick wall, there were normal people with normal needs and normal relationships. They desired normal things and they worked normal jobs, just like me.
In my stillness I felt suddenly the autumn cold and took out my phone, and almost without thinking I swiped toward the Uber app—
That’s when I understood.
I smashed the phone against the sidewalk.
Faces looked out.
Miles was right, and I walked home for hours that night, terrified of myself and of every house I passed in which uncounted silhouettes passed silent and unseen.