Someplace Cold and Dark, Full of Things that are Old and Broken
I drove. My destination was simply away. I drove as if speed and distance could separate me from what I did. A long, fast burn down the interstate with eyes full of tears.
Snow began to fall and I left the highway. I turned onto a state road, then onto a smaller road. I had no idea where I was and I didn’t care where the road went. The snowflakes directly in my path flew at and around the windshield like stars slipping past a spaceship jumping to hyperspace in a sci-fi movie. If only I could really fall into hyperspace and come out somewhere impossibly far away. Impossibly different from here. Someplace where I was different.
I was mesmerized by the snow flowing around the truck and I drifted onto the shoulder. I steered back onto the road and slowed down. Getting mutilated in a wreck would be a good start to accepting the universe’s payback for what I did to Casey. But no. If I crashed, I’d probably just end up hurting someone else. Some other driver who didn’t deserve the suffering that I deserved.
My head swam with guilt. I could hardly see the road through the snow and the tears. I had no idea what to do. Maybe it was time to stop driving.
A few seconds after I decided to pull over, I came to a small gravel pull-off. I took it and rolled into a parking lot in front of a dilapidated steel building. The kind of building you’d throw together if you were setting up an auto-body, or a metalworking shop. An ancient For Lease sign hung over a steel door placed awkwardly off-center of the road-facing side of the building.
The parking lot was empty. I slowly drove down the gravel strip that wound around to the back. The small turn-around area behind the building held a stack of rotting pallets and a truck tire. Behind the turn-around area was an ugly field of mud, clumps of grass gone to seed, and scrubby trees. The half-inch-or-so of snow that had fallen so far failed to cover the grass and sticks. The back of the building was as blank as the front and the side, with nothing but a large garage door held closed with a hasp and a padlock.
I got out of my truck and rooted around in the bed for my bolt cutters. Without thinking about it too much, I opened the cutters and closed them on the shackle of the lock. The lock was a good one, and I had to work hard to get the cutters through it. The effort re-opened the abrasions on my knuckles, and I once again had blood on my hands.
I had the momentary thought: Why am I breaking into this building? At that point though, I didn’t really know why I had done anything. Why had I flown into a rage this morning? Why did I hit Casey? Why did I drive aimlessly for three hours? I guess I was just getting used to just doing stuff for no reason. I said “Whatever” to myself and kept working on the lock.
The lock finally gave way. I worked it out of the hasp and chucked it into the field. I looked around to make sure nobody was watching me - the coast was clear - and lifted the garage door.
The interior of the building was dark, and I could only see a few feet inside. Next to the door I just opened were shelves full of … stuff. Piles of old junk. My eyes landed on the shelf closest to the door, where an old garden hose, tangled up with an extension cord had been heaped on top of more junk. Could I hang myself with the hose, or the cord? The thought just sort-of popped into my mind. An intrusive thought, isn’t that what they call it? Dark thoughts that just show up, unwanted. Everyone gets those, right?
Instead of dismissing the idea of hanging myself as just some kind of meaningless brain-noise, I welcomed it into my mind. I imagined trying to fashion a noose, or some kind of slip-knot with the rubber hose or the electric cord. Would it slip around my neck and choke me properly when I put my full weight on it? Would it be strong enough to hold me, assuming I could attach it to a roof beam? Probably wouldn’t work, I finally decided. If I’m going to go that route, I’ll need something that’s guaranteed to work, and to work fast.
There was enough room immediately inside the garage door to fit my truck. I carefully pulled into the building, then shut the garage door behind me. Inside was cold and dark. It wasn’t pitch black, like in a cave. A little bit of daylight broke in through a few gaps in the corrugated metal walls and roof. The inside had the feel of a basement with the door at the top of the stairs open. Dim, but you can still see.
I decided to stay inside this ruined building for a while. Maybe the cold and darkness were what appealed to me. Eventually, I assumed, the cops will find me, and they’ll lock me up in a place that’s well lit and warm. That will be too comfortable. I need to be treated in ways that are cruel and unusual. I’ve always been a DIY kind of guy. I’ll roll my own self-punishment, thank-you-very-much.
I sat down on the concrete floor next to my truck and stayed there for a few hours. My thoughts drifted around, but always came back to what I did to Casey that morning. I was searching for some excuse for behaving like I did. Some point of view where I was at least a little-bit justified in losing my shit in the driveway. Some reason why I should be given a little slack. But I came up with nothing. She was screaming at me. I was screaming at her. Then I hit her. Screaming then hitting. That’s me. That’s who I am.
My phone buzzed, startling me. I didn’t want to even think about who it could be - the police calling me to “ask me some questions?” Maybe it’s Casey calling to tell me how bad I hurt her. I closed my eyes and picked up the phone - I didn’t want to know who was calling. My fingers found the power button and turned the phone off. Problem solved. For now.
I finally got bored with dwelling on my violent, thoughtless act. I got bored with punching the floor out of despair and smacking the back of my head against the truck.
“Whatever,” I sighed.
I got up and looked about the inside of the building I had designated as my DIY prison.
The place was like an indoor junkyard. Stuff was piled on ancient metal shelves and more stuff was arranged in precarious heaps on the floor. I saw an old outboard motor, a drill press, a reel-to-reel tape player, an air compressor, a tent, a vacuum cleaner, a clock-radio, a bent-to-hell dog crate, a manual typewriter, a busted chair, a refrigerator, a ceiling fan with a missing blade. There was no organization to it. No clear categories or reasons for it being here. I don’t think I ever saw two of the same kind of item.
Everything was old. Ancient. Like from the 1970s or earlier. The vacuum cleaner had a sticker on it that said it was purchased at Two Guys - that store went out of business a loooong time ago. Some of the junk was even older than that. The oven had a “Caloric” logo on it. That brand went extinct with the dinosaurs.
The only other thing the stuff had in common, besides being old, was that it was all broken. Everything had obvious physical damage. Key caps busted off the typewriter, broken tent poles, bent propeller on the outboard.
I found the john during my “tour of the facility.” Surprisingly the toilet (a very ancient industrial model) flushed and cold water came from the tap in the sink. With a supply of water and a working toilet, my dumb idea of long-term self-isolation in this strange building started to look actually doable.
I still had groceries in the back of the truck from my morning Costco run. I never even got them in the house because of what happened - because of what I did - in the driveway. I got back from Costco. Casey and I argued. The neighbors came out to watch. At least two of them were videoing us. I hit Casey. Then I punched the side of my truck a few times. Then I sped away. Now I’m here.
I looked in my truck’s bed. The stuff from Costco was scattered around because of the way I had been driving and was wet from the snow. The tortilla chips were a little crushed but the cans and jars looked okay.
I was hungry, but just looking at the groceries gave new life to the agonizing feeling of guilt and shame. I decided not to eat. Not for a while. I wanted to stay cold and hungry in the dark. Knowing that I was inflicting some level of suffering on myself actually helped my emotional state.
The sun went down and the interior of the building got for-real dark, not just dim. And it got even colder. I fumbled around until I found the broken tent I spotted earlier, and set it up as well as I could next to my truck. With two of its three poles broken, the tent was a derpy mess. I found an old ratty tarp under a pile of broken office chairs. I crawled into the tent, wrapped myself in the tarp, and somehow managed to fall asleep.
When I woke up, there was a dim light behind the crumpled canvas of the broken tent. There was a moment - a second? A tenth of a second, maybe, where what happened yesterday - what I did yesterday - hadn’t bubbled up into my brain. I was in a tent. I was content. Then I remembered. I remembered the argument in the driveway. I remembered how Casey fell when I hit her. I remembered the sound of my fist hitting her face. The guilt, the sickening anxiety and shame flooded back. I crawled out of the tent and threw up.
The indoor junkyard was again dimly lit by a few shafts of light from the building’s bent and corrosion-ridden walls and roof. I sat on the floor for a while. An hour, maybe. Then I got up and used the john.
After I grabbed a few handfuls of water from the faucet, I headed back to my truck. On the way back I found The Machine. I didn’t see it yesterday even though I carefully looked around the whole place. I probably missed it because it was so big, it was easy to mistake for a wall.
The Machine sat in the center of the building, it was ten or twelve feet tall and as long as a bus. It was a boxy, steel-paneled enclosure with a door on one end that looked like it belonged in a submarine - racetrack-shaped, with a huge handle that operated a nine-pin locking mechanism like you’d see on a bank vault. The door had a nice round window made of super-thick, super-tinted glass, like a port-hole made out of the glass in a welding helmet.
What was this giant thing? Any guess I had was as good as another. An industrial sausage-making machine? Something NASA built as part of the moon missions? Like everything else in here, it looked old. Like everything else, it was busted. A control panel full of buttons, switches, and lights hung off the side like it had been ripped out of the machine. One of the steel panels on the side opposite the door was bent out, as if some heavy and fast-moving part inside got loose and flew into the steel enclosure.
I walked back to the truck. I was starving and I absent-mindedly tore open the bag of tortilla chips and shoved huge handfuls into my mouth. Then I remembered that last night I had decided not to eat. I wanted to remain cold and hungry, to punish myself for what I did. Now it was too late. Like a dumbass, I had just shoved food in my mouth without thinking. Actions without thinking - my signature move. Like hitting Casey.
I punched the side of my truck again. Five times with my right hand. There was some blood on my knuckle. I hit the truck five more times. Five more after that. And five more. Now my hand hurt. Blood ran down my middle finger. Did my hand hurt as much as Casey hurt when I hit her?
I loved that truck. Saved for a year to buy it. I kept it clean and well maintained. This morning, though, when I looked at the truck, I saw me. This thing that absorbed so much of my energy and attention somehow represented me. It had to go.
I stomped back into the depths of the building and rooted around for tools. I found a bent screwdriver, a socket set that looked like it went through world-war-one about fifty times, a rusting crowbar, and a claw hammer with a broken-off claw. I brought them back to the truck. Then I smashed the driver’s window with the hammer. I broke all the glass on the vehicle. The windows, the windshield. The headlights. Everything. I used the crowbar to pry off every body panel that I could. I unscrewed every screw that I saw. I took out the seats. Disassembled everything under the hood.
I spent hours taking the thing apart. A few hours before sunset I shoved the rest of the bag of tortilla chips into my mouth to give me the energy to keep at it. I was determined to break the truck down its smallest parts.
The task of destruction took me two days. Two days of prying, smashing, loosening, cursing, and kicking to take that thing apart. But I did it. I completely dismantled my truck. I stacked the parts neatly in a corner of the building. Maybe someone could use them one day. But there was no way in hell that person was going to be me. I had decided that I was never leaving this building. This dark and cold place, full of things that were old and broken, would be the last place I ever saw.
I began my fourth day in the dark and cold building by eating a can of Costco black beans using the bent screwdriver as a utensil. The pile of parts that used to be my truck leaned against the wall next to the garage door. With only a few lousy broken tools, I had to use my body a lot during the truck-breakdown project. My hands, knees, arms, and shins were scratched and bruised from the effort. But the minor injuries were a small thing. Overall, destroying my truck had been therapeutic. That truck had been a decent-sized chunk of my identity. Now that it was a pile of parts, it was like part of me was gone.
You don’t need to drive a truck to be a real man.
Another intrusive thought. It popped into my head completely uninvited. The idea sounded familiar. Like a rant against toxic masculinity I’d see on social media. “A real man doesn’t need to bla bla bla.” Lots of ideas circulating out there about what a real man does or doesn’t do.
Somewhere, I like to imagine, someone is keeping the official master list of “what a real man does.” I don’t pretend to know everything on that list, and which stuff is more manly than the other stuff. I can take a pretty good guess at some of it, though. Making a ton of money - providing - that’s got to be near the top of the list. I sure as hell don’t check that box. I haven’t even had a job for nine months.
Being a protector. That’s gotta be on the list. A man protects his family.
POW! Right in the kisser!
Another intrusive thought. That’s exactly what I did to Casey. Roundhouse to her jaw. In my mind’s eye, I remembered how she fell after I punched her. I threw the half-eaten can of beans against the wall, again too disgusted with myself and what I did to eat.
I returned to thinking about the list of what makes a guy a “real” man. Being a good father? I’m sure that’s on the list too. Fatherhood is something else I fail hard on also. Jessica doesn’t even look at me anymore when she comes home from school. Some days, she even tries to sneak past me to get to her room.
Objectively, I have almost no value as a man. As a human. Almost. There’s one thing I’m good at. I don’t know if it’s on that magic list of stuff you need to do to be a “real” man, but what I’m good at is tinkering. Fiddling with stuff, figuring it out, and getting it to work. I’m shit at everything else. But give me a busted lawnmower, and I will get that thing working again. Guaranteed.
I took a break from thinking about how bad I was at being a decent human and looked around the place again. This weird old building was starting to feel familiar and comfortable. All the old, broken, and worn-out things started to feel like my friends. I was amongst my people!
I examined the old Caloric oven. I checked out a snowblower that had to have been from the early 1950s. I picked up an Electrolux vacuum, then gently put it back on the shelf. Straightened a pair of rabbit-ear antennas on a TV whose cathode ray tube was missing. Then I came to The Machine.
It was a dark green box about thirty feet long and ten feet wide. I knocked on the side and heard the satisfying, deep boom you get when you bang on sheet metal. The controls - a box full of chunky switches and buttons - was hanging on only by the cable harness. The submarine-hatch-bank-vault door was on one of the ends. On the other end was a three-foot-square metal plate held in with screws. Some kind of access panel, I guessed.
The control panel had no markings. No labels on the switches and buttons. I walked around the thing again. There were no labels or signs or stickers or anything that hinted at what The Machine was.
I cupped my hands and tried to peer through the darkened glass window on the hatch, but couldn’t see anything. I grabbed the thick metal door lever and got ready to give it a good tug. Then I let go. I stepped back. Something was wrong. I suddenly had a “stranger danger” sort of feeling. The Machine was different. Different than anything else in here. Different than anything else anywhere, maybe.
I thought for a minute. My fear was one of those “gut feelings.” The feeling you get when your subconscious mind knows something isn’t right, but can’t figure out exactly what it is.
What was my lizard brain seeing that my conscious mind didn’t realize? The hatch was definitely weird. Why make such a strong door, with a bank-vault-style locking system on the outside? Why weren’t there any labels on the control panel? Why wasn’t there some kind of power input to this machine? Or ventilation panels? Why didn’t I notice The Machone the other day, when I first got here and looked around?
I grabbed the door handle and pulled. The nine locking pins slid inwards with a satisfying series of clanks. The door opened with a squeal.
Inside was a dark chamber. I poked my head in. The space inside the door was a perfect cube. The metal walls, floor and ceiling were totally blank - the same dark-green-painted steel as the exterior of the machine. Something small sat in the center of the floor. I stepped in and looked closer. It was an ancient Mr. Coffee brand coffee maker. I picked it up and carried it outside of the dark chamber to look at it closer. It was just a regular coffee maker. The hot plate was grimy. The plastic part that holds the coffee grounds was cracked. There was a scorch mark next to the power switch. Just another old, broken thing.
I carried the coffee maker to the nearest shelf and gingerly put it down next to a broken lamp. “Here you go, little dude,” I said to the Mr. Coffee. “You can hang out with your buddies now.”
I turned back to The Machine. “And you,” I said. “Whatever you are, I’m going to fix you.”
I unscrewed the access panel with the same screwdriver I used to take apart my truck and to eat my beans. The side of The Machine opposite the cube-shaped chamber was filled with gears, shafts, motors and linkages. Clearly, the “doing stuff” part of The Machine was behind the access panel, and the “gets stuff done to it” part was the chamber where I found the Mr. Coffee. What stuff was it doing? What stuff was it supposed to do it to? I still had no clue.
I rummaged around the building and found a few old, cracked mirrors. I carefully arranged them to reflect one of the shafts of sunlight from a hole in the roof into The Machine. I collected the tools I used to take apart my truck, and got started.
I didn’t know what The Machine was when I started, and, frankly, I didn’t learn anything from crawling around the innards, trying to patch it up. Inside were things that were probably motors. One of them had a magnet so strong I needed both hands to pry the screwdriver off it when it got stuck. A lot of the mechanism functioned as a gearbox, allowing a gizmo that reminded me of an old-fashioned mechanical cash register to adjust the rotational speed of a collection of coils and shiny metal parts.
Even with zero knowledge of The Machine’s function, it wasn’t too hard to see what was broken. A large flywheel had been mounted on the end of a shaft. The shaft was bent and the flywheel, which weighed about fifty pounds, must have been flung off into the wall when the shaft was spinning. I found the flywheel on the floor of the mechanical space, underneath a huge dent in the steel wall that was shaped exactly like the metal wheel.
I’m pretty proud of the way I came up with fixing that shaft. I cut out the bend in the shaft with a hacksaw I found, and managed to swap in parts of my truck’s drivetrain. I fashioned a sleeve to hold the thing together from metal I cut out of my truck bed. Let’s just say it was brilliant. It took me three days.
I had a lot of emotional ups-and-downs during those three days. Sometimes I thought that I wouldn’t be able to fix it. That I’d fail at the one damn thing that I allowed myself to think I was good at. Sometimes I got mad. Here I was, working like hell to fix this thing for no reason. Just because. How come nobody ever tried to fix me? Wouldn’t that be great, if someone decided to try to fix me, just because? Not because they had to, or because there’d be some benefit for them later.
After I was satisfied that the flywheel was mounted securely with the sleeve and fasteners that I rigged from truck parts, I took a look at the control panel. The cable harness had been treated pretty roughly and the connections to a bunch of the switches had been torn loose. I carefully re-attached the wires, making educated guesses about which ones connected to which switches. When everything looked good, I bolted the control panel back to the side.
I opened another can of beans and slowly shoveled them into my mouth with my screwdriver as I contemplated my handiwork. Was I done? Did I manage to fix it? Since I still didn’t know what The Machine did, deciding if my fix was any good was going to be tricky.
I walked around it again. Maybe I was missing some detail, some clue, that would unravel the mystery of this thing. I opened the hatch and stepped into the cube-shaped chamber where I found the Mr. Coffee. I sat on the floor and slowly ate beans. Maybe I would have some inspiration or brilliant insight into the nature of The Machine if I sat inside it for a while.
A sound came from behind me. A clacking, whirring noise like you hear from old-fashioned typewriters. Or cash registers. I left the beans on the floor and jumped out of the chamber. I sprinted around the side and stopped short at the control panel. One of the buttons was lit up.
There were three buttons - the chunky square kind that have little lamps inside of them. The kind of buttons you push and they toggle in and out with a really nice “chick” sound. The first button was lit up with a yellow light.
The clacking sound continued - it came from the “doing stuff” side of the machine, where I had spent most of the last three days fixing the flywheel. I walked around and looked inside. Stuff was moving! My flywheel was spinning about at 500 RPM - faster than I thought it would go. But my fix was holding. There wasn’t any vibration or noise coming from the shaft. The cash-register-looking thing was clacking away, like it was totaling up a huge shopping receipt in like, Macy’s in, like, 1930 or something.
I screwed the steel access panel back in. It seemed like the safe thing to do. If the flywheel or another fast-moving part got loose, I’d prefer it to not shoot out of the back of the thing. Then I walked back to the control panel. I got the same stranger-danger feeling that I had when I first examined The Machine. It was stronger this time. My heart was racing. I had a strong, sick feeling in my gut.
Power. What the hell is powering it?
I basically lived inside of this thing for the last three days. I didn’t see anything. At. All. that looked like a source of power. No high-voltage input. No batteries. Nothing that looked like a capacitor. I didn’t see any mechanical inputs either - no pulleys or shafts to connect to an outside source of mechanical energy. So, what’s it running on? The beans I left in the chamber?
The yellow button on the control panel started blinking as if it was saying: Push me. Push me. Push me…
I pushed it.
The mechanical sounds increased in frequency and volume. Whatever The Machine is doing, pushing the button made it do it faster. A light-blue lamp in the second button started flashing. I pushed it.
The sounds coming from The Machine changed again. They got soft, then loud, then soft again. Like the thing was throbbing. A super-high-pitched whine sounded. But it wasn’t coming from the mechanical side of the machine. I held my ears and walked to the hatch. Even though I was holding my ears, the sound was horrible. Hot air poured out of the cube-shaped chamber. My half-eaten can of beans was still in the center of the floor. I closed the door with my foot and the high-pitched squeal was attenuated to the point where it was bearable. I heaved on the lever and the door locked.
I walked back to the control panel. The third button lit up with a blinking orange light.
“Whatever.” I pushed the third button.
Nothing happened. I waited. Still nothing. Ten more seconds. Then a bell from somewhere inside the machine gave a quiet “ding.” The high-pitched whine immediately ceased. The clacking from the mechanical side of the thing stopped too. The lights on the control panel went dark. All I heard was the sound of the machinery slowly spinning down, like a washing machine after the spin cycle stops.
I waited for it to fully spin down, then opened the hatch. The beans were gone. In their place was a tiny, gold-colored object. I checked to make sure the walls of the chamber weren’t hot - they weren’t. And stepped in to examine the thing on the floor. It was an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock. One of the little legs was broken off, the glass face was cracked and the minute hand was bent a bit. It was another old and broken thing. Like the Mr. Coffee. Like everything in this place. Where was the can of beans? Did the beans get turned into a broken alarm clock?
The sun was going down and the building was becoming for-real dark. I made my way back to the derpy tent and crawled in. I couldn’t sleep. What happened to the beans? What is The Machine? What is this place?
Sometime before dawn I came up with a theory. All the old, broken stuff in this place came from The Machine. Everything in here started as something else - something that wasn’t a broken household appliance. The alarm clock started as a half-eaten can of beans. What was the Mr. Coffee before it was transformed by the machine? What about this tent? Or the oven?
It’s just a guess, but I think that everything in here started as something alive. The beans, for example, used to be part of a plant. Maybe the Mr. Coffee, and the snowblower, and everything else started out as a person. A human who entered the machine and came out as a busted old thing.
Based on that theory, I came up with a plan. When I first got here, and saw the old garden hose on the shelf, my first thought was whether or not I could use it to hang myself. I’m really glad I didn’t, because then I wouldn’t have had a chance to fix The Machine. Now I can use The Machine to make someone fix me. I’m going to put myself in the machine. If I’m right about how it works, it’ll turn me into a broken lawnmower or blender or something. One day, if I’m lucky, someone will find me here. They’ll say “Oh, look at this. I can fix this - a little penetrating oil, a fresh coat of paint, and it’ll be good!”
Here’s how I’m going to do it: I’m going to start up The Machine by sitting in the chamber, like I did when I was eating the beans. Then I’ll run out, push the three buttons, and run back into the chamber before the bell dings. Is the plan foolproof? No. Is it safe? Probably not. Is it a good idea? I don’t know, but I’m doing it anyway.
There was just one last thing I needed to do - writing down what happened to me and posting it here.
I crawled out of the tent and found my phone where I left it on top of the pile of truck parts. I turned it off when I arrived, so the battery should still be good. I turned it back on. It booted itself, then found the cell tower. I had so many notifications and missed calls that the thing vibrated for about five whole minutes after it powered up. Fifty-five missed calls. Forty voice mails. Ninety seven texts. Every single app I have that lets you send messages had a red bubble on the icon with two or three-digit notification counts.
I dismissed all the notifications without checking any of them. I’m sure they were all horrible things - people telling me that they heard what I did, and that they were never going to speak to me again. The cops asking me to come to the station. Probably somewhere in that mess of messages was Casey telling me she’s divorcing me. Whatever people were trying to say to me, it doesn’t matter now. I’m going to be a friggin’ lawnmower!
I wrote down everything that happened and posted it here - in this forum where nobody knows me. If Casey or anyone ever wants to find out what happened to me, maybe they’ll find my story here. But I just want to fade away. I want to disappear from the minds and memories of everyone I ever knew. But before I go, I want to say this: if you come across something old and broken at a flea market or antique store or someone’s attic, it might be me. Think about taking it home and fixing it up. That’s what I’d want.