Gateways: “The Pearl Box” by Michael Strange read by Rachel Granda-Gluski

TRANSCRIPT: Michael Strange was born a storyteller. His strength is in telling a story verbally and he has risen to the challenge of translating his skill to the page. Tonight, we are thrilled to take his writing and give it back to voice. 

When I got first meal after learning she was gone, I overheard Thirty-three say that the plastic-ones take wrinkled numbers to the world outside, where there are no boxes. Thirty-three says the wrinkled numbers become the flat ones we see on our wall screens. He says out there they get to have beds, radios, and microwave dinners, but Thirty-three is young and stupid. I used to be like that. 

I didn’t like Nine, but she did know things. She was the one that told me the flat ones don’t live. They’re just echoes, she said, dreams from some other time before the plastic-ones and their boxes. That’s why the flat ones don’t answer us when we beg them to take us away to their green world; it’s why they do and say the same things over and over again, never learning or remembering what happened before. Nine said the flat-ones are ghosts–ghosts who teach us but also distract us and keep us peacelike until our faces get wrinkles and we’re taken away. Nine knew that nothing exists outside the boxes. The green world of the flat ones now belongs to the plastic men.

I asked Nine once why they keep us at all, but she couldn’t tell me for sure. She thought maybe they liked to watch us, like we like to watch the flat ones, but that never made sense to me. If the other numbers were anything like the flat ones, I would talk to them more, but they’re not. Most numbers are stupid, like Thirty-three was stupid; they’re full of tears with nothing interesting to say. I think that’s why we all avoid each other and keep to our own boxes. Other numbers just remind us that we don’t live in the green world we see on the wall screen.  

It’s really only the rutters that go to the big room to talk to the other numbers. But they only do that for the chance to push against each other and give the females big bellies. I know that’s how it happens, even though most numbers say the plastic men give us the babies. I’ve watched the flat ones talk about the green world, with all its buffalo, rhinoceroses, and wild cats. I’ve watched them rutting on the savannah.

I hate babies the most, even more than I hate most numbers. Babies scream all the time and make their mothers cry. It’s why I don’t leave my box at night, not to rut or even to use the toilet. I don’t want anything to do with babies: their noises nor the misery they bring. I only leave my box to get my meals–when the plastic men bring them–or sometimes to wash when they open the showers. I don’t wash as much though, because numbers rut in the showers too, and it makes me sick to hear. 

I keep to my box, because my box is mine and no one can come in. Even the rutters can’t break that rule–one number per box–else the plastic men come with electric sticks. Children don’t count, because they don’t have marks on their wrists to tell them which box is theirs. They just stay with their mothers, crying and stinking, until they’re old enough to get marks and boxes of their own.         

Nine said my mother was a bitch, but if she was, it was probably because she hated numbers too. I remember watching flat ones say that we are often like our mothers because we come from their bodies. It’s like when you cut a piece of bread; it’s just two pieces of the same thing. I wish I remembered her so I could know for sure. Even if she was a bitch, it would be nice to know someone like me, someone that understood. All I remember of my mother was that she let me watch the neighbor man on her wall screen while she slept. I still watch the neighbor man, even though I know what he’ll say before he says it. I feel good when I see him. I like his red sweater, and his voice makes me think of my mother. I only change the screen when he brings on his puppets. Even as a baby I never liked those. Their smooth faces remind me too much of the plastic men, so I hate them. 

With Nine gone, I’ve been thinking more about the flat ones and their world–why it doesn’t exist. It makes me sad not knowing why the plastic men keep us in the boxes, why they feed us and allow us to watch the wall screens. They don’t come like mothers do when the children cry, and they don’t care when the food makes us sick. The plastic-men don’t force us to rut or even to shower. They just keep us alive and alone in our boxes.  

There was a time when I stopped watching the neighbor man and started to explore everything else I could find on the wall screen. Later, they became my favorite times when the flat people would talk about their green world and I could see it. That’s where I learned about rutting, where I learned about the blue space that hung above the green world, that there were once things called buffalos and rhinoceroses and pearls. 

I think the flat ones really liked pearls. There was a time when a woman with bright teeth and a blue jacket talked about giving pearl jewelry away to anyone who called her, but she said you had to call very soon. I called her, called out to the wall screen, because I wanted pearls too. That was when I was dumb and thought the wall screens could hear me. 

I know now that pearls are only for ghosts to wear. 

They made the pearls. Well, oysters did, but the flat ones put the seeds inside. That’s what the man said on the green-world time. He said they put little round bits of metal in the oysters, deep down in the pink flesh, and over time the oysters make pearls from them. The metal doesn’t kill the oysters; it just makes them unhappy. To make themselves happy again, the oysters cover the bits in pretty white. When the bits are completely covered, the oysters forget they were once heavy and hard and not really a part of them, but it’s just a trick the flat ones play. The oysters don’t get to stay happy, because one day the flat ones come to cut them open and take the pearls anyway.

The flat ones keep oysters in big nets, just like the plastic men keep us in boxes.

I’ve seen babies before they got their own boxes and after. I know that when they’re taken away they come back with their box marks and a scar on the sides of their heads. All numbers have this same scar. Even though we look the same, I think we’re more like oysters then we are like the flat ones. I think the plastic men put something inside us, something heavy and cold. I think that’s why numbers are all so unhappy. Just like the oysters, we spend all our happiness trying to cover that bit up. I think the plastic men know we’ll make it pretty and white. The wrinkled numbers have no more happiness to give, so one day they’re taken.

I think now I’ll spend more time squinting my eyes. The more I blink and bend my face, the faster I’ll get my wrinkles and the closer I’ll come to knowing. I don’t really care if there’s no outside or that I won’t join the flat ones in their green world when they take me. I don’t care that I’ll lose my box, the only thing that’s mine. I just don’t want to be unhappy anymore. I want whatever they put inside me taken out. They can have my pearl.  

Rachel Granda-Gluski is a Chicago based voice actor and movement professional. She currently enjoys working with radio play companies Starlight Radio Dreams, available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded. She also performs every summer with the Bristol Renaissance faire. When she’s not performing she enjoys being a huge nerd and hanging out with her cats.
I won’t miss Nine. During the silent hours the plastic men finally came and took her away. I didn’t hear them, though I’ve tried hard to listen for when it would happen. We all knew her time was coming. Nine had gotten wrinkles near the corners of her eyes, and lined faces don’t stay long in the boxes.

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