The Repeat Room | Jesse Ball | Granta

The Repeat Room

Jesse Ball

There was a long counter in the diner. The lights were on, but there wasn’t much. It was light for someplace smaller than that, maybe the light from the dash of an old car. It would have to do. It was a small diner, really just the counter, and the counter was empty but for a man and a woman. The man sat and before him was a grayish envelope. He was not fifty, but not forty either. His arms and shoulders were solid. His hands looked abused, broken. His hair was badly cut, and his chalk eyes looked where he pointed them. Right then he was looking at the counter, at the envelope, not at the woman in front of him. She was just finished saying something.

She was somewhere between twenty and forty, with a face and body like a photograph of a waitress. On her neck in serif it said, carlos. Maybe it said, forever, too. Her weight was on one foot or the other. What she said then was,

‘Not that you should listen to me. I don’t care. Just as a courtesy I’m telling you. That bell goes off means you got to be over there. People who take their time, they probably wish they hadn’t. I’ve worked here a while. Take it for what it’s worth.’

The man looked over his shoulder out the window. The building opposite had a massive entranceway funneling down to a tiny single bronze door. Beside it was a guard booth. The building was a courthouse. It was an edifice of stone, something like a pyramid. In monumental letters was written: court 5. Someone was walking up the steps, infinitely small in that place, scarcely human.

‘They ask you to come down, I guess they can wait their turn too,’ he said. ‘And anyway, it’s not like you’ve been inside there.’ His voice was low and raspy. ‘Maybe it’s a picnic.’

‘Suit yourself. What’ll you have?’

He pointed to a menu inset in the counter. The waitress turned, went to a window in the wall and shouted through it,

‘Number six.’

She pressed a button in the wall and coffee came out of a spigot into a cup she was holding. The next part of her dance was she put it in front of him and she looked at him and she looked through him.


The man could see through the window to the kitchen. A face had appeared there, a ruddy-looking cook, fat and dirty, a short-order cook. He put a plate on the partition and turned away. The cook and the kitchen flickered for a second and there was just wall there with a slot. Then it was there again and the cloth of the cook’s linen-clad back was moving out of frame.

The waitress nodded to her customer.

‘I used to ask people who they see in the hologram. For me it’s my mom. No kidding. Twenty years dead but there she is. People say it’s a man, it’s a woman, one guy saw his brother. You remember when they put these in? People couldn’t believe their luck. Now it’s just garbage looking at garbage.’

‘Must get lonely in here,’ said the man. ‘No one to talk to.’

‘That’s right,’ she said, and gave him his plate.

Her hands played with the waitress pad, turning it over and over. It wasn’t even paper. It was just a block looked like a waitress pad. You could see from her fingers she’d had a hard time. Fingers like that.

She was talking, mostly to herself, but she’d look up from time to time, like a child checking to see if it was asleep yet.

‘I never envy the bastards who get the call. Pardon me, you’re one of them, but it’s the truth. I hope to God I never get that envelope in the mail. Me, I’m known to screw up anything and if I had to be a juror, well, I’d never make the cut. I mean if you knew you got to see it, got to see the room, well maybe it’s worth it. Everyone’s curious about the repeat room. But there’s no guarantee. I mean it’s the opposite. And that’s the thing, huh. Mess up in there, end up ranked down. There you were doing nothing, just trying to get by. Never knew you looked so much like a rat, did you?’

The man did something like a smile.

‘I mean, I’m curious,’ she said. ‘Surely I am. I want to look inside somebody’s head. But I’d be afraid too. I’ve heard people die doing it, time to time. You heard that?’

He put some money on the counter, picked up the envelope, inclined his head and went out the door.

‘You look like a nice type,’ she called after him. ‘Don’t let ’em turn you around.’

The man stood in a room. He was in a line. Others were behind him. He had been at the end of it, but now he had come to the front. The paint of the walls was itself the room’s light source and it was too bright for human eyes. The man squinted his and looked up at the glass. A woman was looking down. The space between them was a barrier, but there were metal slats. Whether he was hearing her or hearing her voice reproduced no one could tell. Still she spoke and he heard. She was wearing some kind of cloth helmet that covered her hair.

‘State your name, occupation, age, place of birth.’

‘Abel Cotter. Heavy-machine operator. Forty-six. Born Seaport District.’

‘Put your hand in the box.’

A metal flap flipped up. It was somewhere he could put his hand. He did.

Something locked over his hand; it was stuck.

‘Don’t struggle. Just wait.’

A clicking noise came through the intercom.

‘Not really a heavy-machine operator are you,’ said the woman. ‘More of a garbage man. Says here you’re a garbage man.’

The people in line behind him shifted uneasily.

‘It’s a machine,’ he said, head down.

‘Around here we want the truth. You can go to the next room. Show ’em your number.’

As she spoke, a noise of hydraulics releasing came out of the hole and with it his hand. He rubbed at it. There were black symbols there like numerals. A door opened in the wall.

He went through it, and the person behind him took his place.

A lamp flickered on and off in the ceiling. Abel sat on a long bench. Ten or twenty people were beside him. The same opposite, just a few feet away. A girl with short hair wearing a tight sweater and not much else. Another girl wearing a cast on her arm. The man beside him stank of liquor, old liquor. A woman with dark glasses and a birthmark elbowed him as she sat. There really wasn’t any space. It was like people say: a submarine, being on a submarine. Like that. Someone in the line was talking to somebody else, saying,

‘They want you to get used to each other.’

‘I don’t think that’s it.’

‘Yeah, they want you to get used to each other. It’s a competition.’

‘It’s not a competition.’

‘But you can sure fuck it up.’

‘Nobody knows that.’

Abel went with others into a room with lockers. There they changed out of their clothes and into other clothing, light-yellow colored robes, like hospital gowns, but more substantial. Some of the bodies he looked at in the room were soft and useless, others muscular. Some were male, some female. Everyone had to change in front of everyone else. The place was so squat and pitiless, so endless, repetitive, fluorescent. There was nothing sexual to be found there.

‘Did you know it would be like this?’ an old woman asked the girl next to her.

The girl was naked, trying to put on the uni-robe. She looked like a recruit. She wasn’t bothered by anyone’s eyes.

‘It’s not something to know,’ she said. ‘You just put your robe on.’

The old woman asked if anybody knew how long it was going to take. Someone told her to shut her mouth, shithead. Someone else told them, shut your mouth. Nobody was listening to anybody else, not really. The ceiling of the locker room was low. None of the lockers had locks, but there were cameras on the walls.

‘You put your clothes somewhere. You come back later and get them. It’s easy.’ That’s what the recruit told the old shithead.

Abel leaned against the wall a minute and closed his eyes. People were standing there near him, but he was inconsequential to himself, empty.

‘The cool type, huh? Waiting it out? I get it. Don’t worry, I get it. Probably the best bet.’

A short, low-slung man was crouched on his heels. Boyish and somehow prematurely old. His yellow garment touched the ground like a woman’s dress. He wiped his nose roughly, like he was helping someone else do it. He winked at Abel.

A bell rang. Silence. It rang again.

‘I guess that’s the signal. We keep going deeper. Aren’t you curious?’

Abel met the man’s eyes. What was there was just spilloff.

They went down a hallway, in line like children, some stumbling here and there, unused to such order. The walls were nondescript. There was no signage. The floor was an oddly soft plastic, green like putty. The foot didn’t sink into it, but the tromping of feet made no report. After ten minutes they came to a door, which the official unlocked. They’d watched her walk the whole way but she’d shown nothing, given no details. The task was to walk them in the hallway. When she was doing it, she was the one walking them in the hallway. There wasn’t anything else there. This was the new way for people to be, the new era. The balsa wood can be used once, then it breaks.

‘Find a place wherever you can.’

Room A was enormous and it was full of people dressed like they were dressed, like mental patients, lounging like full-time losers on the hard benches. The newcomers were no different, except they hadn’t found seats. They were later than the others who must have come on time, or early, or even arrived here in the days before. It was a real gathering. No one was missing. Every sort of person was there. It had the cheap expectation of a carnival tent. Abel looked for somewhere to sit and saw it on the far side. He went there. A man with a cane was taking up two or three spots. Abel made him take up two, and sat in his own space, quietly, looking down at the marks on his hand.

The old man looked at him from time to time. He had thick white hair and heavy glasses under which his face shook without warning. He would take his glasses off and then put them back on again, God knows why.

‘Do you think it’ll be long?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Who is going to speak to us?’

Avoiding the question, Abel looked at his robe. Then he looked at the robes the others were wearing. Each of the robes had a number on it.

‘Be careful,’ the old man told him. ‘Whole thing’s a trick to get you to confess to something. Or to get you to do something you shouldn’t.’

‘Pshaw,’ said a stocky woman on the other side. ‘The only ones getting it are the ones who’ve got it coming.’ Her hands were kneading her knees and her knees stuck out. The skin there was fibrous and peeling.

The old man inclined his head in disagreement.

A flat tone, unpleasant by design, loudened and filled the space until all speech ceased. A projection appeared on the wall and people turned to face it. The visage there was another official, not particularly male or female, but the voice was deep.

‘This is the jury. You have been selected at random in order to be what you are now, a jury. The next three days, today, tomorrow and the next day are the jury selection, training and trial, a selection from the pool of candidates, from the group here assembled. As you perhaps have heard we will train you and in training you we will winnow you down until there is only one left. Everyone else will be removed, having demonstrated their unfitness. Only one person will be left, one fit person. That person will be the jury for the case in question. It will be this single opinion that makes the statement of life or death. You may be a coward. This has been taken into account. Do not try to evade the duty for which you are a candidate. The consequences for such behavior, such cowardly behavior, are severe. From now on all errors, misbehaviors, back talk, will be penalized under code 4429-762. This is not your regular life. Have a care.’

The projection blinked out, leaving just the warning behind.

A moment later the tone again. Then another projection.

What they saw was a jail cell and in it a man sitting on a stool. He looked up at the camera and said nothing. He was young, possibly still a teenager. He was several days unshaven and his eyes were ringed with sleep. In the cell you couldn’t see how large he was. He could have been any size.

‘This is the person for whom you are here. From time to time we will show you his image to acquaint you with your task.’

‘What do you think he did?’

Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball (b. 1978, New York) is known for absurd and philosophical works of social criticism, often in the form of novels. His prize-winning books have been published in many languages. Since 2007 he has been on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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