It was lovely at first. They had this whole twee society in the husks of old war machines. The machines were like giant suits of armor full of gears and enormous chains, and they’d rusted over completely and no one knew had any idea how old they were, but now their chambers were full of record stores and coffee shops and second-hand clothing emporiums. The inventory in these second-hand stores was ninety percent scarves and cardigans. There were bike paths and rolling green hills between the machines. The hills had plenty of trees to sit under with a portable typewriter or a girl. Everybody seemed about twenty years old. It was heaven. Not heaven like the afterlife: they still bled if they fell down and skinned their knee. They still got hungry. Their noses got red and runny in the cold. They were aware of death as a concept. They were aware that at one point the machines that now contained their homes and charming businesses had once been used by some now-extinct race to kill, a lot. They didn’t know if that race had used the machines to kill some other race or themselves or both or what. They didn’t think about it very much.
They didn’t have parents. They did have bands. And the bands didn’t usually write songs exploring the larger philosophical questions raised by all of their very existences, like, where did we all come from, to whom did these machines belong, will what killed them kill us too, etc. They mostly confined themselves to songs about dancing. Their slower songs were about walking, like, walking in a moonlit lane with the one you love, kissing in the shadow of Killdust Maximo (which was one of the main machines, so named because it had KILLDUST MAXIMO written across its miles-wide chest in raised iron letters). Most of these bands had a girl singer and a guy singer and lots of harmonies. Most of the clubs they played in were in the cavernous heads of the war machines, because the acoustics were so good.
There was one band where the girl singer and the guy singer wrote songs together. Most of the other bands spent their time squabbling over whose songs they should perform, and people would complain about not enough of their songs getting into the show, but that wasn’t an issue in this band, because the girl and the guy wrote perfect songs together, each contributing exactly fifty percent, not by any mandate, just naturally. And one night, in his apartment inside the left shin-plate of Organus-XIII: Towncrusher, the guy and the girl were sitting with cups of tea and the guy had his guitar out and they were working and he looked up to see what she thought of one particular bit of melody and she leaned down and kissed him.
“Uhm,” he said after the kiss was over, and she knew she was in trouble.
They stumbled on for a few more weeks as a band. She kept imagining the band as one of the war machines, up and active and moving across a vast wasteland but deteriorating all the while, jets of steam shooting out where they never shot out before, steel plates falling to the desert floor below. And it was all her fault, she thought. They never talked about it. The next time she suggested getting together to write, he said sure, but also said it might be interesting to invite their bassist along.
“Just to get a fresh vibe,” he said.
They had a gig a few nights later and after the show she saw him standing at the bar with the girl singer from the band that had opened for them. The girl singer was talking and he was laughing. They were framed by a half-crescent of the gigantic rusty gear the bar was built around. She longed for it to fall on them. She looked around for the guy singer from the opening band. She would talk to him, flirt with him, get him to knock her glasses off in a furious mid-bar makeout, and that would even the score. She found him in one corner bracing himself against the jukebox. She tried to strike up a conversation about the records contained within but discovered he was clinging to the jukebox for the same reason a seasick person clings to the railing of a boat. She leapt back just in time and got almost no vomit on her extremely cute shoes.
Her singer left with their singer. She biked home alone along the lanes that all the bands wrote about in their slower songs but she felt they had written about the best.
He called a band meeting two days later. He had to keep calling and calling each of their individual home telephones because they didn’t have cellular phones or answering machines.
“Could you come over?” he said, and the smart part of her brain had to explain to the stupid part of her brain how to feel after hearing that question. It was just a band meeting.
She briefly considered arriving early. She screamed at herself internally for even considering it and overcompensated by arriving fifteen minutes late.
“You’re here,” he said, and then explained what he’d already finished explaining to the rest of the group, which was that he was going to leave their group and start a new group with the girl singer for the band that had opened for them the other night. The rest of the new group was going to be made up by the other members of this old group, all the members but her.
“Me and her just write really well together,” he said.
He said, “Her old band will be needing a girl singer though, right?”
She turned on her heels and took the clanking cartridge which served as an elevator all the way down to the foot of Organus-XIII: Towncrusher. She found her bike and unchained it from the tree. There was so much clanging here where they lived, she thought. So much metal-on-metal. There was about to be a lot more.
She biked down lanes and over hills. She almost ran over picnickers. She reached the right hip of Killdust Maximo (it was half-buried and its entrances were in its hips). She didn’t bother locking her bike up, she just threw it aside. She took what seemed like a nearly endless series of spiral staircases and cartridges and catwalks to the head of the machine. She expected to have calmed down by the time she got there. She found that she had not.
There was also a bar in this machine’s head. It wasn’t open yet. The barman, who was washing glasses, apologized after telling her so. She brushed past him. He shouted at her. She turned and punched him in the face. He fell right down. She was amazed.
The stories were true: there was a wooden trapdoor behind the bar itself. The padlock was rusted over and mostly ceremonial at this point. It skidded away across the floor after she kicked it once with her extremely cute shoe. She opened the trap door. She climbed down the ladder.
Now she was in a control room. It was well-preserved. A hundred dead screens buzzed to life when they sensed her presence. The clicks and buzzes and whirs startled rats and moths, who fled the now-living apparatuses in every direction. She sat down in a very comfy chair at the center of it all.
There were tons of levers and buttons. Nothing was labeled. She yanked a lever at random. A ghost appeared next to her. A hologram. A pilot.
“I’ll show you what to do,” he said.
On one of the screens, Organus-XIII came into view.
“You’re upset,” the pilot said, “and I can feel why through the chair.”
“It’s funny,” he said, “you all think we were so different than you. You think we were just war-like by nature. But that wasn’t it at all. You think we didn’t have girlfriends?”
He said, “You think we didn’t have bands?”
What they do is they bring me in when their daughter’s like, one of those magical girls. Not magical like a wizard or whatever but magical like the main girl in a romantic movie will be a lot of the time where good stuff just won’t stop happening to her, like birds land on her shoulder, not gross birds, but bright-colored singing ones, and she can’t seem to trip over a pothole to save her life, she could cross a street full of potholes and puddles of rainwater and speeding cabs and make it to the other side completely dry, hair perfect, not even a run in her stockings. One of those girls.
And the problems that these families have with these girls is eventually when they get to the other side of the street they come upon some dude who’s the exact opposite, who’s a total bum, glasses recently broken, important papers flying everywhere even though his boss told him specifically to “take good care of that report” or whatever, and the boss doesn’t understand how like e-mail works so there’s no back-up of that report anywhere. And she helps him up and picks up all the papers, maybe one of her shoulder-birds helps, and the girl and the guy who’s exactly like her except shitty things are always happening to him instead of good things, they always end up falling in love. And the guys shitty things are always happening to, they’re never from other rich families. They’re always from like, Omaha. And if they are from rich families they’re from the one rich family the girl’s parents HATE. And in the movies, yeah, the two families start out being all down on the relationship and even try to break it up but then they don’t ‘cause their daughter is magical and the guy’s heart is pure and so they come around on the whole thing by the end and then the two families that hated each other at the beginning end up respecting and then eventually loving and finally dancing with each other, and none of them is ever like, “Where is this music coming from,” and the camera goes up and out of the window of the Park Avenue penthouse and turns to take in the New York City skyline and the moon, like, winks.
But in reality, the guy and the girl will get married, sure, but the families will never come around on each other and there will always be two-way hatred and problems. Not fun problems, not sequel problems, just problems, on and on, until everyone’s dead. And they can’t have that. Plus their daughter’s almost always already engaged to some other rich family’s son, a good family, a family that they like, or more importantly, a family they want their family to be mixed up with to make some big business deal happen that’s going to give them the kind of happy ending they actually give a damn about. They need that marriage to happen. Not some new hippie beach wedding with the loser guy whose last name no one’s ever heard of.
So they call me. And I just start hangin’ around. Maybe they call in a favor and get me a job doing something not that important at the place where the girl works, maybe they say I’m like some long lost cousin she has to show around or something. Suddenly, the magic stops. Birds poop on her the same way they poop on everybody else. Not more than they poop on anybody else, just, the same. Nothing about her makes a bird go “I’m gonna land there and start singing.” Nothing about her makes raindrops veer away at the last second. She’s not gonna get killed crossing that street with all the like potholes and cabs and stuff, but she’s not gonna get to the other sidewalk smelling like a rose, either. And I’m not trying to do anything one way or the other. I’m not like, pushing her in the puddles. I’m just there.
It’s kinda always been this way and I don’t know when I first noticed it, but it works. Bring me to like, a basketball game, like the championship where these kids from the inner city are playing the rich kids and the inner city kids, nobody ever thought they could be anything but this season is like, a miracle. Put me in the stands and suddenly the scrawny kid who’s become unstoppable from behind the three point line ‘cause he practices all day every day to get away from his alcoholic dad, his shots are gonna start bouncing off the rim one after the other, and the team captain that like used to be in a gang, he’s gonna get shot at half-time by some guys from that gang he left. It’s not like I make it go bad, exactly. It’s just that I make it go the way it was usually gonna go before miracles got involved.
There’s not much money in making games go bad for poor kids. There is a lot of money in making things go normal for rich girls. And I just kinda stumbled into it, and it turns out rich people need all kinds of services normal people wouldn’t even think to need, and they talk to each other. They will keep you in business.
The worst is when whatever lie they tell the girl of why I’m around doesn’t make it so I’m somehow related to them. Because then once they start getting all normal, they realize, “Something’s weird here,” and I’m the only thing in their lives that’s changed, and so they think, I don’t think they actually think this out loud or anything but somewhere inside of them they go, “I must have to be in love with that guy.” Because they’ve been them for their whole lives and they’re used to just like, spontaneously falling in love with whoever just showed up, someone they feel like is the opposite of them. Which I’m not.
I mean, it’s not all bad. All of them are always really hot. But I pretty much don’t get paid unless they end up marrying the rich dude, so it’s not really in my financial interests to confuse everything. Also I’m not an awful guy, and it’s depressing to watch them kinda flail around and go, there’s normally magic here, there isn’t now, and all they know how to do when they get backed into a corner like that is try really hard to fall in love with whoever just showed up. And I mean “try.” They can’t, really. So they kind of bang their heads against a wall.
I want to explain to ‘em: I’m not the boob here. I’m not the opposite of you. All I do is make you not you. Without a you around, I’m just a guy. Not a broken-glassesed can’t-catch-a-break dude from Omaha. Just a dude. I’m only special when I’m making you not special for long enough for a deal to get done, the marriage thing, so then some other deal can get done, or so some old bat of a grandmother can rest easy knowing the family name is secure, or whatever. And then I get paid, and then I go back to being just a guy until that family passes my name on to somebody else who’s having the same kind of problem. In the meantime I do whatever. I go for walks in the park and when I do it, it’s not like the birds fall from the trees, it’s not even like they stop singing all of a sudden. It’s just that if they normally fly down and land on the park bench next to you and chirp their heads off all cute like they’re trying to talk to you but they don’t know English, they only know bird, they won’t do that today if I’m within like a hundred feet of you.
Do I want that to not happen? Do I want her magic to still work even when I’m around? Maybe one time. But you, the magic girl, you don’t want that to happen. You don’t want me to realize you’re the only one my power or whatever it is doesn’t work on because then I’ll try to marry you probably, and you don’t want that. There’s nothing special about me. I’m not even especially accident-prone like the Omaha guy.
Is that what you’re supposed to want? Are you supposed to want to marry the one person the trick doesn’t work on? But that’s what I want, I think. I don’t know. I never really thought about it that much before.
I walk around the park, my mind is blank. Maybe I listen to music. I wait for the phone to ring.
The protest singer wandered the back roads of America. The government had recently become completely just and fair and this had robbed his old songs of relevance and robbed him of inspiration for new ones. His guitar was on his back and he looked high and low for any reason to sling it around to his front.
He saw a hobo on the side of the road. He got excited. Here, in this land of plenty, where the plenty had recently become perfectly and equitably distributed so that no one wanted for anything, men could still fall through the cracks! The singer approached the hobo and asked him to tell his story, so that the singer might set it to music and make the hobo’s plight known far and wide. The hobo apologized for the confusion, and revealed that he was actually an owner of several railroads, a billionaire, who nonetheless wanted to know more intimately the experiences of the hobos who had illegally ridden his trains until a little while ago, when they were all given clean clothes and homes and jobs. By gaining knowledge of how the other half used to live, he said, he felt he might better be able to use his power and influence to ensure that men less well-off than he might never reach that lowly state again. The singer had to admit that this was extremely empathetic on the part of the billionaire. He also felt moved to compliment the billionaire on his moustache. The billionaire thanked the protest singer, bid him farewell, and the two parted company.
Outside of a roadside café, the protest singer caught sight of a partial headline through the dusty window of a coin-operated newspaper box. It read ATROCITY! The singer fed his last five cents into the slot, opened the box, and grabbed the paper. He doubted the atrocity being described would be domestic, as tranquility was quite suddenly a way of life between these shores, but he would be just as happy to fill complacent American ears with songs decrying the crimes that still went on unabated all over the globe. It was then he realized that the sorry state of the box’s window had obscured the full headline. It was not, in fact, a headline at all. It was the text at the top of a full-page Sunday-only insert advertisement. It said BARGAIN ATROCITY! A local department store was slashing prices on new, environmentally sound washing machines. He briefly contemplated songs on the injustice of losing a nickel because of a badly maintained vending device, or the tyranny of poor word choice in advertising. He threw the insert aside. The newspaper’s actual front page was taken up by stories describing the wave of clear-headedness and peace that was taking the world by storm. A recently resigned dictator was quoted as saying that once he took off his trademark crimson beret, all the blood returned to his head and he realized that all human beings had dignity and didn’t deserved to be killed and tossed in mass graves. The singer flung the paper back into the box he was still holding open with one hand, then let the thing slam shut. He took two steps before realizing the fringe of his denim jacket was still caught in the box’s door. He yanked it out. It hadn’t even been torn. Could nothing bad happen? Nothing at all?
The protest singer decided to wander on home. That was symptomatic, he thought, of everything that was now wrong with his artistic life. It was now a world in which a protest singer (who really ought to be choking on the grit of human misery in the back of a turnip truck, the driver of which should really not even know he is there) could have a home and a mailbox and a wife.
He was halfway home when he came upon a bottomless fountain of pure inspiration in the form of a local farmer whipping a Mexican worker. The two were out in front of the farmhouse. The singer moved quickly to intervene. He would save the man from this brutal indignity, because it would not do to sit idly by and merely take notes, and it would also prevent him for having to write the eventual song in the voice of the farmer or the worker, he could just tell the story from his point of view. He was halfway across the lawn when the whipping stopped. The farmer handed the whip to the worker, and turned his back to him. The worker then began whipping the farmer. The singer stopped in his tracks and watched, puzzled. The worker lashed the farmer ten or so times, and then the farmer turned and the worker dropped the whip and closed the distance between them and the two began kissing furiously. The straw hat, which had remained on the worker’s head throughout his being whipped and subsequent whipping, was knocked right off as the two men tumbled to the grass in a passionate tangle of limbs and dust, of flannel and overall. The whole thing had been some sort of twisted public foreplay. Attitudes about interracial relations, about homosexuality, and about aberrant preparation for intercourse had all advanced at a staggering rate in recent days. The singer knew he should be happy about this. Yet he was briefly tempted to yell a slur so that he might go home and write a song with a twist ending where he revealed that the oppressor was him, that the oppressor was the secret hatred inside of us all. He decided against it. He was hungry and, though he hated to admit it to himself, there was plenty of food at home.
He stopped at the foot of his driveway. He opened his mailbox. It contained one letter from the government, thanking him for his vocal opposition to a recently terminated war. It contained one reasonably sized check from the Federal Bureau Of The Arts. It contained one letter addressed to Mr. Gary Woczyck, which was not the protest singer’s name. Here was his protest song! He would rail against inefficiencies in the postal service! How could a working man expect to make his voice heard if he couldn’t be sure that the letter-eating monster that was the USPS would deliver his critical communications to the proper recipent? Eureka!
The mis-delivered letter was snatched right from his hand. He looked up. It was a man in a suit. His hair and tie were blowing around in a wind created by the still-spinning blades of the helicopter behind him, from which he had presumably emerged just seconds before without the protest singer noticing. He apologized on behalf of the United States Postal Service and assured the singer it would never happen again. He handed the singer a book of stamps and a business card. He told the singer to call the number on the card whenever the book of stamps ran out and a replacement would be furnished, free of charge, any time, forever and ever. The singer’s children, and his children’s children, the man said, would never want for stamps. Before the singer could respond, the man saluted and ran back to the helicopter. He made a twirling motion with his finger and the pilot took off, landing again seconds later four doors down the street, presumably at the home of Mr. Gary Woczyck.
The protest singer walked into his house. He called out to his wife but received no answer. The sound of the helicopter was still extremely loud, even inside the house. The singer walked down the hall and opened the door to the bedroom. He was greeted by the sight of a sweaty male back. It was not an image that was unfamiliar to the singer, as he often employed it in songs espousing the nobility of the working class, of a man who works with his hands. But this man was not operating a thresher or a lathe. This man was making love to the protest singer’s wife.
His wife was still mostly clothed, so once she spotted the singer, it was a simple matter for her to be up and fully dressed and screaming and crying all at once in a matter of seconds while her lover leapt, still naked but clothes in hand, from the open first-floor bedroom window. She wept and apologized and accused. She grew more upset when the singer didn’t say anything, when he just stood there in the doorway. She grew even more upset when he smiled.
She took off, barefoot and confused, down the block to her sister’s house, which was next to the presumed home of Mr. Gary Woczyck. The singer turned and walked out the back door to the tool shed. He took the guitar off his back and laid it down in the dirt in front of the shed. He went inside.
He emerged from the shed a few seconds later. With a scaper, he removed the hand-painted inscription from the front of his guitar. In tribute to Woody Guthrie, it had read THIS MACHINE KILLS FACISTS. He re-opened an old paint can and painted a new inscription:
He smiled again. It was time to switch genres.