The Last Cup by Michael South

Gray trays upon gray trays are stacked one on another, each imprisoning a six by six brigade of brown plastic cups waiting to be freed. These same gray trays previously dawdled in a parade one behind the other in a floundering commercial dishwasher and now stand chest high on a wheeled cart greeting inmates as they trudge through the dismal dining hall. The prisoners’ feet drag wearily on the floor, as if creeping in procession to some foreboding event, hardly lifting from the tiles and engraving the beginnings of a groove much akin to the labors of a gravestone smith etching his own wretched name.

Each prisoner steals a fleeting second of his sentence to carefully harvest his cup of choice, a decision that mortality itself seems to rest upon. The dining hall cup is one of the few choices a prisoner is afforded to make for himself, as everything else is chosen for him. His clothes. His boots. His bed. His attitude. He is compelled to choose wisely lest he choose for himself a cup of decrepitude, the worst form of self-castigation a convict could inflict upon himself.

After an indecisive moment he settles for a cup from the last row, applying the often but misguided psychology that these cups are somehow the cleanest and least infected. But this ideology also infers that the front row of cups is somehow less than desirable and capable of harboring all manner of unseen filth. The fact that all the cups are cleansed in the very same manner and in the very same machine is circumvented by a disillusioned logic.

Prisoners are a suspicious lot in any circumstance, always paranoid that the worst of situations hide all around them and wait in the darkest of corners, ready to pounce and devour. These drinking vessels in no way dilute a prisoner’s skepticism but rather concentrate it, causing the nearest cups to attract the germs of passing diners like a magnet enticing helpless strands of iron shavings. Cup after cup is gathered into second guessing hands until the last few cups remain like bullets in a spinning cylinder – a game of Russian Roulette with the last cup containing every lethal toxin, bacterium, and disease known to man. This last cup, condemned by a jury of convicts, is a leprous outcast to be avoided at all costs.

Because the cup merely sits there in its solitude on an otherwise empty tray, it has mutated into a beacon that signals every passerby to select not it but a fresher cup from the tray beneath, which purportedly holds undeniably clean cups. This flawed psychology hovers as a dark cloud above, drizzling conspiracies and leaking fears into the leery minds of the prisoners below.

Once again the fresher cups disappear from the back row, then gradually, as indecision settles in, the cups grow fewer and fewer until the tray finally holds its single sequestered cup – a lone decrepit cup that, through no fault of its own, everyone fears and no one wants. Paranoia’s hand pushes the tray back to reveal the purest cups below.

A sweaty dishroom worker, yellow stains wafting in the air behind his apron, lumbers toward the old stack of cups. His forehead drips glimmers of light on the new tray of washed cups cradled in his arms, and in seeing the old orphaned cups, he promptly gathers them up with perspiring hands and fosters them with the remaining brood of fresh cups on the back row.

A plodding prisoner creeps by the stack of gray trays, dragging his feet within the grooves of the floor just as the multitudes had done before him. He takes a fleeting second of indecision to determine his cup of choice, careful not to choose for himself a cup of decrepitudethe cup glistening in the light on the back row.

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