Cuffy: Part 2
Content Warning: Violence
"Cuffy" is a novelette set in the year 2500 about a young black man who has earned a seat in an international sculpture competition. His sculpture, Black Power, has gained the interests of powerful people who seek to interpret it for themselves. All the while, his extracurricular activities reliving slave narratives in VR from the POV of the slave master have become increasingly dangerous for his future. "Cuffy" will be published weekly on Argot in six total installments along with a continuously evolving title illustration by Tiffani Gomez. This is Part 2. Read from the beginning at Cuffy Part 1.
At work, Cuffy didn’t talk much. He told the other fast food workers he preferred cleaning tables, rather than working the food processors, so they just left him alone. Behind the counter, his fellow employees, laughed and joked, made friends with each other in between taking orders, but Cuffy stayed away. Sometimes, they would try to include him in their nonsense, but he’d just tell them they played too much and get back to his tables.
He’d walk in between the customers, and listen to their conversations, their voices, lingering here and there, quickly washing tables when they noticed him.
That evening, the final customer walked out of the restaurant and he set the auto-lock function. Unlike their cleaning system, the restaurant’s expensive security apparatus was fully automated except for the one who pressed the on/off switch.
He watched the steel plates descend over the windows and lock into place with energy shadows. They sparked in clean arcs across the bottom matrix, then vanished, leaving behind an ambient glow in the air. Cuffy crouched and put his face close to it, inhaling the ozone.
He hastily corrected his posture, took up his sponge, and began scrubbing off the last few tables.
“Hey, what’s up?”
The girl tilted her head to the side and gave him a few moments to accept her presence. She’d been working at the restaurant a few weeks, much smaller than him, but a little older though. Cuffy didn’t know her name. Sometimes, Cuffy would catch her eying him, like some of the rich girls did at the private school downtown. He didn’t look at her and scrubbed the table.
“You’re too skinny.” She said, finally.
“I know that,” he said.
She leaned over the side of the booth, trying to get into his eye line. “I heard you’ll be at the sculpture competition in a few weeks.”
“People are talking about it. I heard you’re the youngest ever.” She watched him wring out his sponge into a bucket. “That’s big, huh?”
“Relative to what?” He asked.
She ignored him. “You attend that fancy school downtown?”
“You get a scholarship there?”
“My cousin tried to get a scholarship there. He had straight A’s.” Her eyes flashed. “They didn’t let him in.”
Cuffy scrubbed harder.
“I did sculpture when I was a kid.”
“So did everyone else.”
“I came in second place at my school.”
“You smart, Cuffy?” She asked.
He stopped scrubbing, stood up, and moved toward her. She backed into the wall, smiling. He followed and pushed into her space, made her look up at him. At 6’4, Cuffy was taller than everyone. "Am I smart?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know?” He asked her. She glanced at an old man mopping the floor behind him, caught him looking.
“I heard you won all those competitions when you were younger.”
He put his hands on the wall and leaned into her. “You like sculpture?”
“I like money.”
“Why?” He whispered.
Her eyes ticked back and forth, then settled on his face. She opened her mouth slightly, waiting for him to give her more information, but he offered nothing else.
She snapped. “What you mean, why?”
He smiled and pushed off the wall. Her eyes followed him. “They gonna be prize money?” She asked. “If you win?”
He nodded and picked up his sponge again. “Enough to go to college?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Hmm...I bet you gonna win.”
“How do you know?” he asked. “You haven’t even seen it.”
“You always win. My girlfriend said you been winning at stuff like that since you were in elementary.”
“This isn’t the same,” he said, “I’m not going against little kids this time.”
“So? You’ll get some kind of scholarship even if you don’t win.”
Cuffy said nothing and continued wiping the table. The girl watched him from the wall, smirking.
“Why you work so hard?” She asked.
“It’s my job, isn’t it?”
“The boss ain’t here.”
Cuffy straightened up and nodded at her. “I don’t care if he is here.” He pointed the sponge at the girl. “His eyes ain’t my eyes, so... why should I care what he sees?”
She frowned. “His eyes ain’t your eyes, what you talking about?”
Cuffy shrugged and kept scrubbing. “I don’t know. His eyes ain’t my eyes.” He said quietly.
She moved on. “So, how big is it?”
The old man had cycled back with his mop and was now near them again. He shook his head at both of them.
“50 by 50.”
“50 what? Inches?”
Her face scrunched into incomprehension. “50 feet? How you making something 50 feet tall?”
Her eyes widened. “You have a Trans-Shift Room?”
He nodded. “The school does.”
“I’ve only heard about those on TV. Like, you can just float around the room...changing anything you want?”
“If I wanted.” He admitted and began sopping up a spill off a leather seat.
She maneuvered around him to the other side of the stall and watched him drain spilled Kale juice from his sponge into a bucket. This went on for a few moments, before Cuffy asked.
“Look, what do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to you,” she said, “wanted to hear you talk...Listen.”
“That where this is coming from?”
“My girlfriend told me the news, people from all over the world, everybody gonna be there next week.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“What’s it called?”
“What’s what called?” He finished scrubbing the last table.
He held up a fist and threw the sponge in the bucket.
“You’re cheesy.” She said and got out her phone. Tiny pink images flickered across her eyes and a blue orb rose into the air above her phone like a balloon. She shook her head and it disappeared.
“What’s that?” He asked.
“None of your business.” She said without looking up.
Cuffy clicked his tongue, put his hands on the small of his back and stretched. Behind the counter, he could see the rest of the employees making moves to leave. From outside, he heard the bright gulp of a transport beam take Stephanie home.
“You want me to take care a that bucket for you?” It was the old man.
He said no, I got it and the old man said, time and a place for everything. “What’d you say?”
The old man jumped.
“What did you say?” He asked it again.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You said there’s a time and a place.”
“It’s time, and that bucket goes somewhere I’m going. That’s all I said, you know? That’s all I said.” He retreated into the kitchen.
Cuffy’s chest heaved, his shoulders trembled. The girl put her phone down. The lights turned off.
“You okay?” She asked.
“Yeah.” He muttered and carried the bucket out back and remained there long after everyone else left, looking at the squalor around him.
“I think it’s ready, Cuff. I’m going to show it to my boss this weekend.”
“Nah, that was just something...nah, try it again.
Cuffy sat in the holo chair and plugged himself in.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Said Bill.
“Try not deviating too much from the script the first time through so you can see the narrative without triggering the AI reactions...It’ll run more smoothly.”
Bill looked into his monitor and punched a few buttons. “Okay, got it. Go ahead, Cuff.”
“Man, I told you that was-”
He was looking at the stars. A comet was flying across the sky. He was the master. He was the controller. He looked down and saw a torch in his hand. Glints of white flashed beyond the pale. He heard a disagreement behind him. He was the master. He turned and pulled out his knife.
“You got it wrong. You got it wrong. I was getting them frogs out there. I know’s I ain’t supposed to, but...”
“Shut up.” Said the overseer and pushed him towards the master. “Caught this one trying to run.”
The boy looked between the two men, couldn’t help but look at the knife. Inevitability crept into his voice.
“No,” he said. “You’s...you’s gots it wrong, I was out...”
“You calling me a liar, boy!”
He turned to the overseer. “No...No sir, I’s just...I’s just trying to say-”
The master pushed the knife into the boy’s side and held it there, watching the incomprehension slither across his face. Behind the boy’s eyes, something fouled and he slid off the knife and hit the ground. A scream erupted from the darkness and a fat woman ran into the light, started telling the master all the things, telling him about where it comes from, about the time and the place.
This was the moment that it truly began for the master. A moment that held potential.
He didn’t kick her when she stretched across her son. But instead, crouched beside her as she begged and touched her thick wooly hair. She didn’t acknowledge it, she didn’t acknowledge him, and the overseer grinned at the master’s cruelty.
The master looked up at the overseer and then at his own knife. The woman screamed and when he motioned for the overseer to lift her off, she struggled, still pleading for her son’s life. The overseer, unable to drag her off, started working her calloused hands, finger by finger, but her grip was too tight. She held on to her boy until she realized it was hurting him and let go.
The master turned from it and set his torch in the ground. He felt his breathing quicken and shut his eyes, opened them, closed them, and found little difference between. He opened them again and saw something different near the edge of darkness. All the others out there beyond the torchlight, seemed like ghosts, outlines of gray ash under a sickly moon, but here, sticking out from the curtain of shadow, fully lit, were a tiny pair of feet. He had never seen them before.
The master left behind the scuffle, depriving it of his observation, and walked towards the toes. He stopped before them and kneeled. They didn’t move. He set his knife on the ground and touched the small toes with his old fingers.
“What are you doing, Cuff? I told you not to deviat-”
The child stepped forward. It was a boy, younger than the screaming youth behind him. His face was stoic and long and he looked down at the master without curiosity.
“Hey, boss what you doi-”
“Disable overseer AI.”
A large hand came out of the shadows and placed itself onto the boy’s shoulders. It was a man. The master stood up.
“Speak.” He said.
The man looked at him, but said nothing. “Speak.” He said again.
The man opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed his mouth, his eyes twitched. A fiddle began dancing in the darkness off cue, and both father and son turned to join it, but the master stopped them. Fireflies blinked in the distance and a cold wind swept across all of them.
The boy, understanding nothing, rubbed his cheek against his father’s hand and the master smiled. The man smiled too and the master slit his throat. Blood sprayed across him and the boy, but the boy did nothing, so the master killed him too. They fell the same way, twitched the same way, and died the same way. They lay upon the ground the same way, one before the other, father and son, almost spooning, their arms and legs bent at exactly the same angles, their faces caught in the same geometric rictus, lips parted to the same degree of separation.
The master, holding his stomach, returned to the scuffle, which at this point had found itself within a loop. Begging, then laughter, begging, then laughter. As he approached, the woman slid free of the loop and issued a single worded slur. The overseer, free to hear it, delivered his line.
“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”
Cuffy unplugged as fast as he could and rushed out of the holo-store. He hunkered over a trash can by the door and waited for it to come. Passers-by, familiar with the posture, gave him a wide berth, but none offered support.
“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote. As an...18 year old. It is your civic duty to participate in the upcoming presidential election on November 8th and choose the candidate that is right for America.”
Cuffy looked up at the ad-drone floating in front of him. He tried to wave it away without letting go of the trashcan, but the machine didn’t pick up his hobbled gesture.
“Stewart Zephie has your best interests in mind...for...college loan reforms and has also made significant bi-partisan efforts to...increase the minimum wage and decrease costs for...low income hou-”
“NO THANK YOU.” yelled a voice behind him.
“Of course.” And the machine flew away.
Bill stood in the doorway of the holo-store, hesitating to move.
“Didn’t register the motion, huh? Sometimes you got to scream to get em to leave.”
Cuffy rested his head against the rim of the trash can and stamped a foot.
“You okay, Cuffy?”
“What’s it look like, Bill?”
Bill let the door close behind him and stepped to Cuffy’s side.
“What were you doing in there, Cuff?”
“We just...nothing.” He answered.
Bill put a tender hand on Cuffy’s back and glanced into the trashcan. There was nothing there.
Next Chapter: Cuffy Part 3
Erik's Goldsmith's short stories have been featured in Metaphorosis, Hidden Menagerie, and Wavelengths Anthology. He also has a book of short stories called "Tinker's Pain Calculator" published by Scarlet Leaf Press. He teaches English in Texas.