October 18, 2004
Mother would see an old piece of junk in the bedroom – a hinged lamp or a cheap plastic egg timer, and think of the boy. She would pull him close after a school day, hands on shoulders, and make a straight line from his eyes to hers.
“Billy,” she would say, as though a stern pronouncement would be the next words out of her mouth. “I got you something.”
The boy would be stoic, accepting his fate with big blue open eyes, jaw set firmly like a man.
The house lacked a pretense of childhood, or at least the incompetent screaming and wanting of a child.
The wonder remained.
Father was a distant memory, and so the boy and his Mother eked out a quiet existence, internalizing fears and emotions, contented with meager portions of soup and bread, a minimal amount of television. A musty set of torn novels in the corner served as entertainment. And of course the shiny gears and gadgets in various stages of disassembly.
It was on the boy’s birthday that Mother bought the mechanical piggybank, a flea marked trinket spotted on the walk home from the train station. “It’s perfect,” he said, grabbing the grimy steel base, thumbing the main vault release.
She had bought it on impulse, with the slight growing notion of the boy’s present spreading through her conscience.
It was the figure of a businessman on a street corner, briefcase in one hand, outstretched palm in the other. By placing a coin in the notch of the painted hand, then pressing the black top hat, the briefcase would slap open like an alligator jaw, consuming the money, depositing it in the vault below.
Aside from the mechanical qualities of the device, and Billy’s predilection for such objects, the facial features bore a striking resemblance to her husband. Handsome, industrious, gone.
“I’m glad you like it,” she said, tousling his hair. A slow smile pulled at the corners of her mouth, just barely revealing white incisors, flaking dry foundation on her cheeks. “I love you.” Slow words, as if her mouth were part of a different body, or at least her mind fixating on a different thought. But the boy should have been deaf, for her words fell on unhearing ears. His eyes staring past the painted exterior, the boy explored the mechanical fundamentals of the piggybank.
Upon the press of the hat, a long thin wire traveling through the hollow thorax of the businessman pulled down another “bone” attached to the notched hand. This first backbone was coated in a spring, so the top hat would not remain depressed, and the extended arm was at rest. The briefcase opened and closed on a similar principle.
The boy grasped the mechanical details within moments, but it was the arcing and far-reaching meaning of them that continued to pull his gaze inward. Benign chunks of metal set in motion with little effort, yet capable of ordered purpose.
On a cloudy Tuesday she came to him in the carpeted living room, reaching out to grab his shoulders and lock his gaze. He was feeding the briefcased businessman loose change at an alarming rate, but when he sensed she would speak meaningful words, his busy hand fell limp.
“Billy, I have something important to say.” she began, with slow crisp words. “It’s not going to be easy to hear, but you must.”
The boy’s eyes stared with unblinking awareness.
“I’m sick Billy. Dying. It’s in my chest.” Mother swallowed, then licked her dry, chapped lips. “The doctors say I have only a few weeks left.”
“Why can’t they fix you?” asked the boy, with a twinge of curiosity and annoyance.
Mother shook her head, but did not drop her target gaze.
“Not everything can be fixed in the world. Some things are just too complicated.”
That revelation echoed with the boy longer than the details of the cancer and plans to live with Aunt and Uncle when the time came.
For the boy, the world was no different then the clocks, or mechanical piggybanks. Actions demanded reactions.
The boy could picture in his minds eye probable mechanisms for his mother’s illness. Tiny menacing figures barricading vital streets and passageways, causing traffic jams and chaos. Spongy masses bubbling with vile pus and ilk, stealing food, water and air from unrighteous citizens: the heart and lungs. It made perfect sense to the boy, but he felt powerless in his own skin. The joy of mechanical gadgets rose from the ability to manipulate, change and control – the workings of the body were simply too tiny and vast.
The boy almost wished he could shrink down to cellular size and challenge each and every cancerous cell in a duel to the death. But the boy was not one for wishful thinking.
It was the following Saturday when the boy first heard her crying. He was sitting on the living room carpet, arrayed in a glittering circle with nuts and bolts, screwdrivers, cogs and gears, springs and metal strips. The boy had dissected a windup alarm clock and melded it onto the head of the businessman piggybank. The rotating arms of the windup clock would push down the top hat every minute, when the second hand graced the six.
A funnel and small ashtray were suspended over the notched palm, held in place by a tin scaffolding of bolts and copper wire. The funnel was filled with coinage, and once every minute, when the second hand crossed the nine, the ashtray would slide out from underneath, depositing a single coin into the notched palm. He could even increase the tension in the windup clock, forcing the gears to spin faster, eating money faster.
The boy was already concocting a scheme to count the coins. By attaching a pen to the ashtray, he could draw a single dot on a piece of paper attached to the clock face. The drawback would arise if there were more than 60 coins. If this were the case, the pen marks would begin to overwrite themselves. And besides, different valued coins would be counted. What was the purpose of a coin counter that displayed the number of coins, not the value?
These monumental hurdles were queuing up in the boy’s mind when a rhythmic sobbing began to permeate his shuttered senses. It wafted in like foul, acrid air from his mother’s bedroom. Before he let the weakness and irrationality of compassion to cause him to jump up, most likely dashing his contraption to pieces, he silently sat and listened. There were words amidst the tears, names and shadows from the past. The boy’s father.
“Jonathan…” mother choked out, each syllable a heavy sob. “How could you leave us?” drifted a nasally moan. “How could this happen to me?” A few more unanswerable questions dribbled out with the tears, but eventually silence once again became the norm.
The boy marveled at the psychological machinery behind such a sad moment, and it was logical exploration that assuaged similar reactions in his own mind. Once, the boy had watched with fascination a hairy plumber change the water filter in the basement. Out had come a slimy rectangle; in had gone a clean one. The boy had grasped immediately that it was the shape and size of the filter that separated the water from the filth.
Feelings were just like filters, maybe physical chunks of tissue in the brain. Thoughts were like water, sloshing around through the strainers. If a watery thought got squeezed through a stack of overlapping sieves, all those feelings would have physical representations: tears or flushed cheeks or laughter. The boy figured people had different sizes and shapes of filters, and of course, different flavors of water. Perhaps his mother had very large pores in her sadness strainer.
The again, perhaps the whole thing was in turn controlled by another system of machinery.
The boy could picture his own water box, with blue fine-grained trays stacked up. Slowly, water dripped through all but a few filters. Serene contentment. No waterfalls or torrents. A controlled, measured flow.
The boy began to visualize the water boxes for everyone he met, and for the most part, he was correct in predicting emotions. And when he was not, he shifted the alignment, twisted the water pressure, nudged the entire box until he was satisfied.
That evening, his mother emerged from her room, in her best red dress. Her face was a regal mask of contrasts, white powder and ruby lips.
“Billy, put on your suit, we’re going to eat a nice dinner in a nice restaurant.”
The boy gave a curt nod and rose, gadgetry clattering beneath him. While her son was dressing, she carefully bent down to examine his handiwork. The handsome businessman’s face she had once though had looked like her husbands was now helmeted with the innards of an alarm clock. She humbly attempted to conjure the face in her minds eye, if only for a mental exercise, but could not.
But then she looked up, and there it was, standing shorter but straight and smiling. Jonathan’s face on the son’s body. “You look just like your father. So handsome.”
She smiled and her eyes glistened. Then they turned towards the door, Billy with hands idly in his pockets, she wiping away a solitary tear streaking down her porcelain cheek.
When the matre’de had seated them, and the boy had pictured a water filter box gushing with pride, his mother reached across for his shoulders.
“Billy, let’s have a nice dinner. I want you to remember me well.”
Yet the boy was not emblazoning her countenance into his memory.
Instead, his thoughts were attempting to simultaneously marvel and grapple with the bustle of the restaurant inner workings. From his chair, the boy could peer into the kitchen, full of flaming stoves, chattering chefs and sweating bus boys. This too must be yet another machine, like the clock and the mechanical bank and the filter box. And though this meta-engine was composed of very complex machines – people – they in turn became merely cogs and struts and springs. What was the thread connecting them? What was the shell housing this tremendous food creation and serving machine?
A cry from the kitchen made it overwhelmingly clear. Language! Speech was a machine connecting and controlling all the other gadgets beneath it. Yet it wasn’t confined to doing a single action like the clock or the mechanical bank. It could be manipulated and recombined to produce a chain, much like the water through the filter box.
The boy thought about telling his mother how language was the thread of a machine that connected all people, but she was talking about past Christmases and trips to the beach, so he reconsidered.
When their orders were taken, the boy watched the snippet of meaning travel up the chain of command like the vibrations along a spider’s delicate web. The waitress transported a single item “Lasagna” in her memory across the expanse of the restaurant floor. She then transcribed the sound bite to written words, a messy note scribbled with a big “L” and placed in a queue, wrapped like wriggling prey for the kitchen staff. A greasy fingered side chef grabbed the note, tired eyes flicking to the written word, and like lightning, his own mechanical box had fired up and he knew what he must do.
And so on and so forth, down the line, grabbing onions and tomatoes and spices along the way, prepping the oven, lining the dish, spreading the layers, then bustling off while it sat in dry heat, a melting pot of chemical machinery churning away to appease the taste buds and stomach.
When the steaming plate arrived before the boy, he began to dissects the dish and separately taste each element. This gave pause to mother, who was recounting long lost days when Billy was smaller and father was a relevant family member.
“Tell me about Dad,” the boy said suddenly, urgently, interrupting his mother mid sentence. At first she was surprised, painted eyebrows held high. Then she relaxed, slowly exhaling through her nose, mouth set. She looked soothed and far away.
“You know your father,” she began, slowly, with a statement that was clearly untrue. “He was… a driven man. Industrious, very handsome.” She was evasively listing off qualities as though she skirted dangerously on the edge of a deep pit. “He was always working late at the office. He said he slept there some nights. Or he was away on business. He was very successful, what with all his inventions.”
Her finger caught unconsciously around a strand of hair, fallen from the tight bun on top of her head. She whirled it. “But he was not a loving man. Never letting himself free, with me. I’m surprised you even came along.”
She now fixed the boy with eye contact, her important-topic-of-conversation look, and she was speaking to him and not idly to the air.
“Billy, women have different wants and needs than you. Sometimes you might not understand or agree with women, but you should respect them.” Words spoken at Billy were slow and deliberate, and sometimes the boy wondered if they were consciously conceived or simply prerecorded messages passed along the gene pool, to be told again and again from mother to son.
“He left when you were five. It wasn’t another woman; it was his true calling, his love – gadgets and machines. I’m surprised he couldn’t understand you were enough of a little machine for both of us.” She pushed the strand of hair behind her ear, fiddling with her pasta. “I loved him.” Pause. “I love you.” The corners of her eyes scrunched up like pursed lips.
She sighed and clenched her chest suddenly, clearly in physical pain. The boy held out his hand, palm up, like the notched piggybank. Slowly, gently, another hand grabbed and squeezed.
His mother died in the last week of September, tucked into bed, hands folded, eyes empty. Before calling the doctor, the boy caught her gaze, peering into the dead eyes to try and find what made them unalive. Then he followed their angle, a straight line out the window to chittering squirrels, cold clouds and spiraling red leaves, like slow autumn flames sucked down to the earth.
The boy thought about the earth, and the gravity within. A machine of simplicity, yet giant nonetheless. All machines, regardless of their initial purpose and intensity, were dragged down by the press of gravity, into the ground.
At the funeral, the boy stood apart.
His aunt and uncle were there, and other relatives and supposedly important people the boy could not recall, nor did he care to.
He was thinking of lives – brilliant, pyric stretches of time, and the glory of that entailed machine. So fragile and so overwhelming. Then it was into the ground.
The boy was already at peace with his mother’s death, perhaps because his grief water filter was fine-grained. Perhaps because of some other machination he had not yet designed.
When the casket was lowered and flowers were thrown in to be buried alive, the boy began to visualize decay. Microbes in the soil would excavate tunnels in the stained oak, then slowly devour the boy, in many months leaving naught but dust and bones. This too would be his fate in unknowable time.
And yet, while his own miraculous machine would run down and break, the dirt below his feet would continue on. What goes into the earth becomes the earth. This tiny koan was peaceful to the boy, and for a small time, he smiled as those around him cried.
Then he turned, sensing a change in the winds, of the seasons, as the tiny click of the minute hand propels the hour hand forward, making time real.
The boy began to walk, in life and in death, caught in an inexorable march.
He was going to find his father.