Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

The Machine — Fred Waage

       The unemployment office in Happy Valley Mills fronts an abandoned Colonial cemetery. Before 8 A.M. on their check day, lank and plump bodies wait hooked over the cemetery’s iron fence. Behind them, some of the ancient willows, half-hollow themselves, have uprooted Baptist obelisks. Some of their fallen limbs have shivered grave-slabs. At the cemetery’s grassy margin, a light spray of waiters’ styrofoam cups, beer cans, brown bags–a touch of Time.

      The office foyer is gray linoleum, dusty, expansive. Broken soda machines in two corners (plastic chairs piled: elder daugh-ters glued to younger sons) . Three types of human tendrils reach toward the counter spanning the foyer. On the right, animated, those seeking unemployment compensation for the first time. In the middle,.resigned, five alphabetical vines presenting them-selyes for their biweekly checks. On the left, one reanimated branch waiting the flowering of the checks themselves.
Although organic–sweaty flow, clothcrinkle, fleshcrush?the foyer’s rectilinear vectors of human exchange imitate transistor circuitry.
Behind the counters, a literal maze of half-partitions leads the flow-rejects from one official holding-space to another. Some far spaces are so entropic that they hold us stupified, to wake only at our mandatory retirement age.
The most enlightened creature in the Happy Valley Mills unemployment office is the machine that types our checks. We present our cards, and the employed grey-dusted brunettes type us so we appear on green screens. Then they press a button and the screens void us, somehow, into the mind of this machine. This machine has three servants. One keeps it tonguing out perforated checks, one tears off the checks, and one hands them to us after stamping them with an official seal.
As is characteristic of many other American cities, more civic solidarity exists in the unemployment office than anywhere else in Happy Valley Mills. Old Mrs. Faulkner’s knitting, which she brings every two weeks, and which she can perform standing up in line, seems to web us all together: there is virtue in its patience and patience in its virtue.
The unemployed are the citizens most morally qualified to be employed: we are selfless, lacking the rapacious ambition necessary to hold on to a job in desperate times, and we are honest enough to be incapable of sustaining ourselves through unreportably illegal gain alone.
Although, of course, many of us, like Franco Jones, are drug dealers, or, like Alphonso X, fences–on the side. But these never capture our entire consciousness.
We are most akin to the very rich and successful–the ultimately Employed, like the Happy Valley Mills executives; for us both, informed idleness generates financial rewards; we are both, for different reasons, burdens on society. Caroline does not approve of the above perceptions and sentiments, so I usually keep them to myself. Caroline is my live-in girl friend, and, unlike myself, she is employed. She is the girl who tears the checks out of the machine along their perforations. To Caroline, the machine does not generate the awe it generates in me–maybe because she spends so much tims with it every day. For this same reason, maybe, neither Caroline nor I generates much awe in the other.
And for this reason, we maybe fit together better than some, along each others’ perforations.
You see, in a culture where people define each other pri-marily by the work they do, those who have no work either cease to exist, or must find some deeper sense of being than work. There I go again.
Before we met, Caroline lived with Franco Jones, Alphonso X, and a lot of other excellent dropouts in a King Street house chock full of psychedelic stick-ons, second-hand bongs, and meth burners. She’s a delicate black woman, birdlike, with the thickest black hair. She was born in Alabama, and came up to Appalachia with a family of ten when she was just a kid.
The thing that knocked Caroline out of the HopHeadHouse was when Ralph, sleepy Ralph, the gardener (to define him by his imaginary profession) stuck the plastic bag over his head, attached it to the sweet air canister he stole from Schwartz’s lab, and sent himself up forever.
The thing that got us together was when she wrote her phone number on my check and stared deeply into my eyes as she handed it to me, She was living then with a roomie, Melanie, who was into nudity, and being always nude (in an ill-heated storetop apartment) was either too ill or didn’t have the necessary clo-thing to go out and apply for unemployment. So Caroline did, and where you have to write the sort of job you are “looking for” (ho, ho), or have experience with, Caroline who had only worked ever one week at Wal-Mart, wrote “Unemployment”. And since they had openings at the unemployment office, they offered her the job tearing out checks, and since she’d lose her unemployment if she refused the job, she took it. Of course; now she’s lost her unemployment anyway, but they do pay her. However, when she hands me, my check every two weeks now, and looks deeply into my eyes, she hasn’t written her phone number on it–just the shopping list for dinner.
Caroline and I rent an old country house out on the Nickachucky River down which wind whistles thru like a sieve. Caroline loves her work, because she gets to taste the town and talk with her friends all day. She loves it that I’m unemployed because I keep house all day and make her laugh all night because of the funny things she thinks I say. She feels a steady job would ruin my mind.
At night we sleep under our two dogs and two cats on our urinacious mattress and listen to the wind. Through the holes in our bedroom wall we can see the moon’s still light on the rippling Nickachucy, white as an unprinted check. We both know that when Caroline’s machine breaks down there will be nothing at all to pass from her hand to mine.
Therefore, as well as writing during the day, I’m digging a spring garden and reading Organic Gardening magazine.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I guess I’m into all this history because a funny thing happened to Caroline and me last Saturday. A pretty rich and employed-looking dude bumped his Humvee up beside our porch while we were getting high and discussing the marginal life of the treetoad. We stashed it quick and opened the windows. He identified himself as Hendrik somebody and displayed a real cooling card. He had big rolls of paper and charcoal pencils. He told us he collected rub-bings of gravestones and showed us a topographical map which said, he said, there was an old graveyard back on our property.        “We just rent,” we said. Who wants to go back in all those gooey overgrown pastures?
Then he showed green, so we changed our minds. Caroline made him some ginseng tea. He looked us up and down?in our jeans and workshirts and all?like I’d imagine that rich Mr. Whatzisname in Invisible Man. He took off his neat shoes with those little airholes, and put on some spanking new L.L. Bean hiking boots.
We began to wonder if he was some tricky ax-murderer or something, so Caroline hid a carving knife in her boot: real style. But he seemed like an innocent, like earnest, middle-aged, his vertical head so high he could hardly see down to us.
We tramped very determined past windfalls and whipped saplings. Caroline and I had never had the urge to head back into Nature this way–we were happy with a roof, city-raised slobs–but this must’ve been a big old farm once, buried walls and barn foundations. The rich dude moved like he was zoned into radar. 01′ Caroline laughed as she crunched through thin melting pooly icesheets; we stared at each other through them, and at him. “Are you real, Daddy?” Caroline asked him behind ice. “Are you the walrus?” He didn’t answer anything, like we weren’t there. Three fields back a scrubby pine forest began, right after another tumbly stone fence. The guy consulted his map, looked up into the sun that had really emerged, pointed an iron arm. “The road is there,” he said. “We will find it fifty feet on the right.”
Sure nuff, the stubble, stones parted back, rotten old POSTED signs on the trunks, hollowing back on one side into a swampy mess full of bushes, curled ferns just jamming up . . . “Was that real money you showed us?” Caroline asked. “I’m not going in therer” “Free education,” I protested. “Getting to know the lay of the land like they say in Organic Gardening.” The guy just shoved through and we followed in his trail. No kidding, it opened out into a bog, a preparative to hell it looked like, with all sorts of toothy and moldy slabs toppled against each other, half-sunk into moss, dark water all around, our guide trudged right ahead and sunk in halfway up his legs.
He bent and wrenched at the crumbly stuff, getting more and more frantic. Caroline just stood on the edge, The Black Woman Relinquishing Her Search For Truth. “Shee–it,” Caroline breathed.
He was a mess. He looked almost human. After a while he staggered out and collapsed, crushing ferns. Then he let out this wail, began crying and babbling: “Oh God! I don’t know who I am! I’ll never know who I am !”
This was too much like work, ‘specially on Saturday. Caro-line and me looked at each other and shrugged. We took his arms and got him back over that waste land to the house. He was silent, pale, and the smell of the mud mingled with some sort of cologne. Tough Caroline got him to change, rang out his fancy pants, mean-while delicately (she is delicate) extracting several tens from his wallet. In Franco Jones’s old jeans he looked even more human. He didn’t say much. I piled a fire and Caroline got a half bottle of J & B. We work together well. The Rich aren’t Different: they Just have More Money: I invented this saying. He opened up. He was rich. His grandfather was an adopted orphan. His adoptive family helped found Happy Valley Mills way back. Scotch-Irish. His original family that too. O’Leary. He was trying to find its pattern, its history, his great-great grandfather’s first name. Caroline was real skeptical about Roots. She told him her grandfather, as far back as she knew, was a thin old pitch-black man named O’Hara. She grinned. “The Inshinhim,” she said.  She insisted on telling him about our respective economic positions. He was not impressed. “You young people should be grateful for the social conscience in that machine,” he sermonized. “Your grandfather would have been out tilling this land back here?or he’d be starved to death.” His adoptive grandfather had been a sugar importer. “He didn’t cut that sugar cane with his own hands, did he?” Caroline asked.
We had reached an impasse. It was getting dark, and Caroline and I wanted to make love. He left after giving us some more advice, some (more) tens, and a card with his grandfather’s name on it in case we visited any more cemeteries.
In the night, Caroline woke me up crying. The two dogs barked, and I held her.. She’d told me she’d dreamed of Ralphts dead white face under the plastic, the dead air filling him up. The dude’s visit must have really shook her up. I’d never seen her so morbid. Ralph, who always would be the landscape gardener, was so dead, so absolutely dead. He never gave it a chance. She gathered the blankets, put her eye to the wall; I chose another hole We observed the marchwind whipping branches above the river on whose overgrown banks ferntips were beginning to curl up. But she really liked the guy, Caroline said. He was a Marginal Man. What did she mean? “And we got sixty bucks out of him too.” Definitely Caroline felt better.
There’s a sequel as they call it. On Monday morning I biked with Caroline to work, to pick up my check and buy some stuff–seeds, etcetera–with our sixty dollars. At lunch hour, I made a date with her for lunch across the street in the old Freewill graveyard. We strolled around, scattering pot-seeds in unobtrusive corners. The big old willows were so broad that even just budding they hid us from most of the town, and in partitular the unemployment office. Someone had expertly cabled many of their old, leaning limbs to their main trunks, sustaining them in spite of their age. We sat down on one slab, far back, held in place by roots. Its surface was rough under my butt, so I got her to stand up, and we cleaned it off: O’Leary we could read, a husband and wife–d., 1786. “How beautiful,”Caroline sighed. “They died together.”
“There’s lots of in the world. He must’ve been here anyway. ” “Don’t tell him about it . . Keep him searching.” Caroline is getting too serious.
“I’ve lost his card anyway,” I said, Caroline pinched me,, saying “No, really, Diane, it’s his own crazy machine …”

 

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