The Machine


Lenny woke up late.


He never woke up late. Even in the dark of winter, he was up at 5. But today he’d stayed asleep, without realizing it.

Now Lenny just lay there, a skinny white body on the bare white sheet, the covers all kicked off because of so much heat from the radiator in the corner.

He was having a hard time waking all the way up. It seemed like there was something he was supposed to remember, something nagging at him and holding him back, like one of his friends holding him under in the pool years ago.

He had just woken up from--was it a dream? Or was it that equally haunting oblivion of having no dreams at all, only to awaken with no account for the missing hours.

Instead of a shower, he ran his hair under the sink, and pulled on his coveralls. He made himself the quickest sandwich he know how, a peanut butter and jelly with some chips on the side.

He poured some coffee into a big heavy, metal thermos, and laced up his steeltoes tight.

Armoring up for the day. 

It was still dark out when he got in the car, but the electric blue of dawn was just starting to bleed through. In the car, he pulled a smoke out of the pack over the sun visor, and tried to clear his head while he waited for his trusty old Buick to warm up.

He turned on the radio as he pulled out onto the darkened street. A pull off the cigarette, a sip of the coffee. The radio was just some jerks talking, then the Rolling Stones singing, “Get offa my cloud.”

Finally he shut it off and just drove in silence.

The sky got lighter, shade by shade, as he drove.

When he got to the garage, the Caddy was already up on jacks. Somebody had done him a favor.

Which was good, because the owner--some rich collector--was going to be here first thing tomorrow to pick it up, and Lenny had a lot of work to do on it. But with his late start, he was already behind.

Lenny wasn't sure which of the guys had jacked the car up for him--they all sort of kept their distance from him, because he didn’t talk so much.

But he was grateful to whoever it was and glad to get a jump on the day.

He wheeled the toolbox over to the side of the car, and carefully pulled out the few that he would be using, arranging them in a row along the side of the car. He grabbed a light, uncoiled the long orange cable, and hung the caged lightbulb under the car.

He lowered himself onto the dolly and rolled under the car. He just lay there for a moment, motionless, still tired from this morning.


Everyone else had gone home for the day.

The sun had come up and the sun had gone down, and Lenny was still feverishly working to finish, and get everything put together before morning. The parts of the undercarriage lay on the floor around him, and he still had more to do.

He was exhausted. His only break had been about 7 hours ago, giving him 15 minutes to scarf down his sandwich. The peanut butter and jelly had held him for a while, but now his sugar was dropping, and his hands were starting to tremble.

He was trying to loosen a bolt, way up underneath the underside of the car. His wiry man strength, as the guys at the garage called it, was letting him down. He sat up on the wobbly dolly to get a better angle.

With a grunt and a shove, he finally got the bolt to pop loose, sending a shudder through the whole car.

Whew, he said, and lay down on the dolly, panting.

He heard the creak, and knew, with the clear vision of a prophet, what was about to happen. In the slowed time that passed, heard his own commentary in his head about what was going on.

He had not jacked the car himself, nor had he even checked the stability of the jack stands before he crawled under, as he usually would have, because he'd been in such haste to get to work.

Instead of his life flashing before him, he saw himself walking through his usual steps, making sure the 2-ton death machine he was about to crawl under was stable.

The next thing he knew was the underside of a high-end automobile racing toward his face. He braced himself for the moment of excruciating pain.

It was surprising how loud it was when the car crashed to the floor. The sound of a full-sized automobile falling off a jack and slamming into the floor, even from a few feet above, is shockingly loud.

It was amazing how close it came, pushing down almost to within an inch of his nose. The surprise was actually that it didn't crush him.

Then it was Lenny, alone in the garage in the late evening, panting and shaking, with a car--one that now probably had a ruined suspension--sitting almost on top of him. He lay there for a while, wide-eyed, vibrating with adrenaline, until he finally wriggled out from underneath.

Still shaking, he stood to his full height, touching himself to make sure all of his parts were connected.

Next to him, the car sat all crooked, with one end lower than the other and one wheel bowed out.

He tried to make sense of the scene--the damaged car, the random pattern of car parts and tools sprinkled on the floor, the neat rows of chrome and steel instruments and devices hung on the wall pegboard--and all of it was alien to him right now.

He was listening to this deep-throated hum in his head. It was reminiscent of something he had heard this morning, deep in his sleep. It was like the sound of a hulking, far-off machine running somewhere.

He had to get out of here.

He staggered toward the door, and out into the cold night air. He wasn’t even sure where he was going--to the car, or straight out to the road, to fly off into the sky--no idea. He just had to get out.

The shuddering ache in his limbs drove him forward.


Outside, the high-powered security light shone down on the driveway to the service bay.

Oh, no, he thought, shielding his eyes. Too much.

He felt somehow exposed, now that he was out here, under the sky--it was like a lid having been lifted off and leaving him cold and uncovered--so he headed around the side of the building, into the darkness.

He staggered through the darkness, trying to shake off his chill, and headed toward the junkyard out back.

A narrow path led past the garage and out through the dried-up weeds toward the yard. In the darkness, he stumbled on the occasional piece of metal at his feet--an exhaust pipe here, a hubcap there. The picked-over carcasses of ruined cars lay in the shadows to either side, as the path opened up to the dirt lot.

The giant sky above was tinged with faint orange from the lights of town. Against that glow, he saw the shadow outlines of a hundred trashed cars, heaped together in random piles.

He walked among them, trying to make sense of what he was looking at, if there was some kind of pattern here. These machines all around him, put together by human hands for purpose, for locomotion, and now all dismantled and still, laying here to rust in the darkness.

His chest heaved as his heart still pounded in his chest. This body was also an engine, burning fuel to keep those pistons pumping.

Created. Built, Meant to do something.

He looked up overhead, at the brighter stars that shown through the haze, their constellations studded into the sky. Although he couldn’t see it, he knew that those stars were turning around him, or rather than the was standing on this ball in the middle of it, rotating on its axis as it had been set in motion so long ago.

It was all a big machine, a complex of gears and pulleys and counterweights pushing and pulling their way through complex orbits, churning out the universe itself.

It was dizzying to think of, and his head swirled underneath it all. For a moment, there was a feeling of fear, of being unhinged from it all, a gear falling out of the machine.

It felt for a moment like the massive apparatus of the universe was pulling away from him, that it could drive away somehow and he had to hold on tight to not be left there on the road.

He dug his heels into the dirt, and turned to look back at the garage.

He held out his trembling hands and asked them to calm down.

In that building, was a machine, now half-wrecked, aching to be put back together.

This was something he could do. Something he had to do, in fact.

This was his part of this big machine, and had a job to do.

He took a deep breath and headed back toward the garage, feeling the trembling escape from his limbs as he walked.

Already, in his mind, he was drawing pictures of the car’s suspension, where the impact had been, where the strains had cracked and twisted the metal, where the broken parts would have to be replaced.

He had a lot of work to do.

Fortunately, he had a lot of night left in which to do it.