The Shame Exchange

Karen E. Bender
A painting of a bread line
Nicolae Tonitza, Bread Line, 1920. Courtesy Muzeul Naţional de Artă al României.

No one knew who originally proposed it; the government would mandate an exchange of shame. Citizens who held too much shame, which interfered with their lives and productivity, would come to an official site where their shame would be handed to a government official who had none. Many people, in both the federal and technology sectors, were involved in organizing this exchange, and it had not been easy to agree on the terms. The government was, for years, not sufficiently responsive to the needs of its citizens and this was what a panel finally decided to do.

The citizens would be selected by lottery and interviewed, and those who were unduly burdened by their shame would be asked to participate. Psychologists had created a technique in which they could detect a person’s shame and make it a physical, hulking thing. It was generally the size of a large pillow and resembled a raw steak. Before this exchange, selected citizens stored their shame in a refrigerator, carefully packaged by medical professionals, and would present it, in this controlled environment, to those who had none.

The meeting would take place in a large warehouse somewhere in the middle of the nation. Though there was much interest in the details of the exchange–who gave what to whom, etc.–no one outside of the participants would be allowed to watch. The event would be heavily guarded. No one was allowed to meet or speak to one other. Everyone was instructed to wear a mask—a simple plastic one, constructed in the shape of a lion, dog, rabbit, and other animals–to conceal their identity. They would all be told to dress professionally for the exchange, but in clothing suitable to an office.

The shame would be transferred between ordinary citizens and officials in the government. Elected officials would be required to undergo a test. Those officials whose shame did not reach a certain appropriate and decent level were ordered to the warehouse at the appointed time. Every member of the legislative, judicial and the executive branches would be required to take this test, and some would try, cleverly, to impersonate shame when they had none. But the test had questions that revealed these attempts at fake shame. Psychologists had worked very hard on these tests, and all attempts at false shame would be detected.

As word spread, more and more citizens signed up to hand over their shame. They could drive themselves or were provided a pleasant, air-conditioned bus from their homes to the warehouse. More buses were quickly added, as citizens, in buzzing, excited numbers, signed up.

As soon as certain elected officials were informed of their low scores of shame, they were escorted to locked vehicles that would transport them to the warehouse. No one quite knew what happened in the locked vehicles, though the rumors were that the politicians were, during that final ride, given anything they wanted. This had been negotiated, with much back and forth, in backroom deals. The vehicles sped across the country, not stopping until they reached the warehouse.

The ones with no shame entered a large, empty, light-filled building and stood across from the ones who were handing over their shame. The two rows of individuals stood across from each other, wearing masks, which made it appear that everyone was about to engage in a dance. Armed guards, screened for their capacity to resist bribery or threats, stood around all of them, watching. The ones with no shame moved slowly, coolly, but under their masks, appeared to be scanning the room, trying to detect who was here.

Those in Row 1 clutched their bags of shame, the bags heavy as though they contained broken, dripping melons. Some bags would be thick, double-bagged, as shame was both heavy and had a tendency to leak. There was a sharp and bitter odor of rot. They looked embarrassed, shoulders hunched, even if they were handing over this burden. They understood, all too clearly, what this entailed. They could not meet the eyes of the ones in Row 2. Some even seemed reluctant to hand over their shame at all, to burden another with it. But that was what they were here to do.

“Row 2, Hold out your hands,” announced a voice.

The ones with no shame refused to follow instructions; they did not hold out their hands. The guards had to grab their hands and forcibly lift them up. The guards pried the fingers of the shameless ones and forced their palms open. No one said the recipients had to accept the shame willingly. A few of them screamed, and a couple large bodyguards stepped in to stop some from running away. A couple of individuals in Row 2 chuckled, as though not believing this would actually happen.

“Row 1, place your bag into the hand of Row 2.”

Those in Row 1, some weeping or trembling, lifted their own bulky packages of shame, and placed each one in the hands of the person standing opposite them in Row 2.

There was a deadly quiet in the warehouse. The guards pressed the heavy packages of shame into the palms of those who had none. The ones in Row 1 stepped back. They looked at each other and laughed. They were advised just to keep a handful of shame for themselves, not giving all of it up to the ones in Row 2. A handful of shame would help them get along with family, friends, work. A handful, that was all. Some had to be discouraged from keeping more, as the great majority of shame had to be given to the ones in Row 2. The warehouse was silent for a few moments, and then echoed with the sound of one person laughing, then another, then everyone in Row 1. The pure sound of being unburdened, relief. An ice cream truck was set up outside the warehouse, so that they could celebrate with free ice cream. Some of those in Row 1 literally skipped out the door.

The ones in Row 2 clutched the packages of shame, or, more accurately, the guards fit their hands around the packages. There was a deep silence, though some officials began to cry, in a choking, confusing way; it was the first time some of them had cried. Everyone in the warehouse watched them with interest, wondering what they would now be.

Everyone in Row 1 left the warehouse, zipped out to the rest of their lives.

Shame plinked onto the concrete floor. The ones in Row 2 now held shame in their hands, forever.

The warehouse was almost empty now. Outside, drivers stood by the vehicles that brought them here, waiting for the officials to come out. The drivers of the cars had been gathered in small groups, chattering with each other; when they saw the officials now burdened with shame, they quickly went to their respective cars and stood very still. In a few minutes, they would drive the officials back to the Capitol, where they would return to their work governing the nation.

Those who had organized this exchange had no further plan. They expected only that the ones in Row 2 would govern with sensitivity and in a kindly way. Would this happen? They checked that the locked vehicles held food that the officials had requested, though some might be so distraught they would not eat. Had the locked vehicles been cleaned? Were skilled therapists on board each vehicle? Were people knowledgeable about a variety of policies ready to ride back with them? Now that they were burdened with a great deal of shame, the officials needed to be treated with a bit of tenderness.

“This way,” said one organizer. The ones in Row 2 filed out, slowly. The shame was now part of them and the packages could be taken to a sterilized and locked facility. Organizers in hazmat suits took the shame from their hands and set the packages into a special truck. The politicians moved slowly and with deliberation. They would not remove their masks until they were safely inside the cars; many people here were afraid to see their faces. So much work had gone into this exchange, so much planning. Was this, finally, the strategy that would help the nation? The organizers watched the officials get into their cars. The cars started, turned, and drove onto the highway. Those at the warehouse stood, watching the cars vanish into the distance, and then everyone—carefully—cheered.

Karen E. Bender is a novelist and short story writer. Her collection of stories, Refund, was a finalist in 2015 for the National Book Award. The collection The New Order was published recently.
Originally published:
January 21, 2019


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