There was no delay in my work. The lathe machines were pumping. I could not get them to stop, no matter how much I begged them. There had never been such demand.
The machines of our street pumped into the night. The air above the tarmac was a shimmering metal dust. As the sun angled down at night, the light twisted over the dust like a loose pack of ribbons. We squinted and breathed through towels we held over our lips.
You may recall that the Great Zelazny had taken our elderly and flown into the sky. We had no choice but machines. And I, a poor lathe man, was making parts to things I’d never dreamed of–mechanical legs to a mechanical armchair on which men could relax. Pull the lever and the footboard popped up your feet. I made the hinges in the door of a mechanical washing machine. It rattled there while the user turned it on. My neighbor and I filled it with water and soap. He threw his children’s clothes inside it and we went for a beer. When we returned, his garage was spilled edge to edge with soapy water which curved into the street like a tail, snatching up metal filings like collecting confetti. My neighbor pulled out the clothes–they were as white as new teeth.
I want to preface this before I say to you, I did, on occasion, overworked and underpaid, create pieces to things I consider morally unconscionable. But then I am only the maker of parts. A nut is a nut. A bolt is a bolt.
But then I saw the horrible fruits of my labor. My neighbor invited me again to the unveiling. Only this time it was not a clothes washing machine. The figure lay on the floor. It had two arms. It had two legs.
My neighbor handed me a small box with an antenna and a large red button. The red button. The figure on the concrete garage floor stood up by itself. It turned its head back and forth. It was unsteady on its feet, stepping, mistepping, correcting. It stood up to a hunch, drooping its arms. Its shoulders jerked back and then forth until finally it came to stand upright, as straight as me or my neighbor.
Its gaze was so intense. My eyes in response opened too wide, as if they would never stop opening. It felt like jumping into a hole, but I looked away and focused on my neighbor’s thirty drawer tool box. I pressed again the red button. The standing thing, as if under the relief of miniature hydraulic pumps, jerked section by section as it gradually collapsed to a heap on the floor. Its eyes did not close. It had no eyelids. It continued to stare from the floor.
The next morning I clicked on the lathe and it whirred into life. It was then I heard the children.
They were playing with a can, kicking it idly, then kicking it violently, a very strange can, kicking it, striking it on the pavement, just as boys would. Perhaps they were friends of the great boy detective.
The can rolled up to my feet. Surely, I should hand it to one of them, dress them down, tell them not to kick trash up-
I kicked it.
The boys chased after it, then they kicked the can suddenly into the garage of a neighboring machinist. I felt like a boy again. How good it was to play. How refreshing. The can echoed in the garage, then rattled to a still. The boys did however not pursue the can any further. In three, two, one–my neighbor’s garage exploded.
Investigators arrived in yellow jackets and their hands on their hips. The garage still plumed black arms of dust. Finally, an investigator, one hand with a flashlight, and the other holding the lip of the entrance, stepped into the smoke. Three investigators followed him. They disappeared completely.
My neighbor was a widower. Shaken but unharmed, he held a red sheet over his shoulders and sipped a paper cup.
The shoulders of the investigators emerged. They dragged out a metal tangle. It scraped high-pitched against the street. A pile of legs and of arms, the twisting black metal like beams reaching up in a fire, as if they were growing.
The investigators all let go at once and the pile rocked like an extremely heavy washer. The head was glued to the shoulder. The arms were glued to the legs. The eyes were invisible, but I felt them peeking out from an elbow. Altogether, it looked like a smelter down on his luck had needed to melt down his favorite metal sculpture for food money, but killed the blast furnace at the last minute.
An investigator handed my neighbor the little box. It two was burned and partially flattened by heat. He brushed off the button, then pressed it. The head turned in the pile. My neighbor’s own head dropped and his shoulders began to pulse. He had lost everything. Everything was gone in the fire–his lathe, his father’s lathe. There was nothing left but a gaping black hole.
I put a nickel into the machine under the streetlight so thick with crawling ivy it seemed to droop toward the street. I dialed for the great boy detective.
“You have dialed-”
“Fuck,” I said. I threw the phone back on the hook and gave it a second nickel.
“Hello,” said the great boy detective.
“There’s a dead man,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “How do you know?”
I looked through the glass. A tow truck driver had his finger on a button lowering his tow-gate. “I’m looking right at it,” I said. The pile of robot was already on a hook and chain, the tow arm out and the fronalready hovering one end of it slightly off the ground.
“That’s funny,” said the great boy detective. “So am I.”
I looked around more frantically this time. No, he was nowhere.
“Come to the wet market,” he said.
“Your call cannot be completed-”
“Fuck,” I said. I hurled the phone to its cradle.
The great boy detective had a six pack of those wax bottles with red or blue flat soda where you twisted off the top and it left candley residue all day on your fingers. He had just finished one and tossed his empty back into the cardboard tray, then withdrew two red ones so we matched. He twisted the tops and looked on at the body. Three investigators, these ones without quotes, were all squatted around it. They were, I thought somewhat inappropriately, poking and prodding it with various medical-looking instruments, one with a q-tip and a handful of tiny plastic baggies, one with massive metal tweezers, and the third with his own blue-gloved fingers. The man was in a pile of blood, therefore he was not a robot.
“Time of death?” I said.
“Seven-thirty this morning,” said the great boy detective. “Yours?”
“Seven-ten, seven-fifteen,” I said. “Think they’re linked?”
He pointed at the body beside an investigator’s foot. A small yellow fold-card with the number “1,” and beside it a little metal box with a red button and antenna.
“I see,” I said. I drank my flat soda. It was like kissing candy lips. How did he always know what I was up to? How was he always one step ahead?
“Your neighbor was involved in something,” said the great boy detective. “Your whole street, I suspect. You’ve been making unfamiliar parts.”
“Yes,” I said. “And they’re being put in unfamiliar things.”
There were a few shady characters, denizens of the wet market, wringing the brims of baseball caps or dirty aprons, looking on at the dead man. For a brief moment the tallest one, a grizzled and burly old bald man with a great beard of black, I thought, The Great Zelazny. But no. This man’s eyes were too dead, too yellow. He was just some other bastard beard.
An investigator approached us with his hand behind his back. The other investigators watched us from the body. “I thought you might want this,” said the investigator. He produced a floating yellow balloon tied to a silver string and handed it to the great boy detective, saying, “Thanks for all your special help in this investigation.” Though his face turned crimson and he gritted his teeth, the great boy detective accepted the balloon and used ‘sir’ when he thanked him. The investigator sneered.
The boardwalk had become more and more popular in recent weeks. Maybe the spell of good weather, or the discounted mangoes, or just the disappearance of the old–whatever it was, the boardwalk had for the first time in years a striking lack of dread and an overall sense of uncomplicated delight. But we were on business. The great boy detective set his wax sodas by a red and yellow ticket booth. The man inside, smoking a cigar that resembled a finger and produced faintly green toe-smelling smoke, shoved open the window of his ticket booth and stared at the balloon.
“You’re too goddamned short,” he said. He pointed at a You-Must-Be-This-Tall measuring sign red and yellow to match his booth. This, for the recently refurbished wooden roller coaster we all knew as “The Rat.”
“We’re here on business,” said the great boy detective.
The man coaxed a long string of spit from his mouth to the boardwalk boards, some of which passed through to the ocean. He slurped up the lingering strand and wiped his grizzled face before pushing his window even wider. “Is that right?” he said.
The great boy detective stood on his toes and slipped a ten-dollar bill on the booth’s counter. The man, who I now saw was as stained and wrinkled as a palm tree, snatched up ten as if it were a bug. All pretenses off, the man stepped out of his booth and the great boy detective absently left his wax sodas and let his balloon fly away.
“Follow me,” said the man. He hiked up his pants. He wore a belt and suspenders. He walked not unlike a cartoon. He took us down the boardwalk, behind the coaster and to a wooden set of stairs down to the beach. We creaked down, they jostled side to side every step, as if they were suspended on strings. Underneath the shade of the boardwalk, there were a group of children being cradled by machines.
The man chewed the butt of his cigar and held up his palm. The great boy detective just looked at it. I shoved into my own pockets and gave the man a ten.
“Five minutes,” he said. He exhaled like a man who loathed exercise, then returned up the stairs. Wooden dust floated from the boards as he departed along the boardwalk back to his booth.
We approached the machines. They were like the cars or helicopters outside of grocery stores that you sat in and jostled you if you gave them a quarter. Only they were flesh-colored and old, many of them wore robes, all of them spectacles, and many of them, squatting there cradling the children, had swollen ankles, fleshy and popping with varicose veins icy blue under the dark of the boardwalk. The children in the machines watched us. They were not idly cradled. Some turned over on their stomachs and peeked under the elbows, holding their fingers on the fingers of the machines.
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“Nor do I,” said the great boy detective.
They were of all ages, some very young, some even older than the great boy detective.
“How do you know about this?” I said.
He shrugged. “I keep my ear to the ground.”
“It’s creepy,” I said.
A boy, cradled in the sagging arms of a rather fat machine, glowered at me. He seemed not calmed at all by his ride on the machine, but ready to spit a big one in my face. The machine began patting his hair and the boy closed his eyes. The machine wore a medical bracelet and many tarnished turquoise rings.
“They are here to fill the void I suppose,” said the great boy detective. “The void since the circus.”
The circus takes everything away.
“Hold on,” said the great boy detective. He held his arm out stopping me. “What’s that?”
I scanned up ahead. There was nothing but the myriad of machines and all the near-catatonic children. But then, in the back, obscured almost completely in shadow, there was a boy standing up. He stood tall and hastily pulled on a jacket.
“Hey,” said the great boy detective.
The shadow bolted.
We ran for him through the dark under the boardwalk. The light was only stripes. We chased him lunging through the sand, though he was so fast he only got further and further away. Finally we came to a second set of wooden stairs. We knew from the sound he’d leapt up them, so we followed suit. By the time we were back on the boardwalk, it was only our guess as to which direction he went. We headed in the direction of the Ferris wheel, then heard a scream behind us.
The great boy detective stopped in his tracks. “The ticket man,” he said.
By the time we’d got to the booth, it was already too late.
The booth was so narrow that the ticket man did not lie but sat upright in a pool of his own blood, his right arm straight up, the heel of his palm still hooked on the counter. His white eyes were wide open in terror and he had partially swallowed his cigar so only the embers stuck out, still smoking, and burning his lips. In the left center of his chest where his heart should have been, there was an enormous bloody hole, the suspender strap hovering over it, not unlike the crude string of a one-string guitar. Bloody footprints led away from the ticket booth to the carnival games. We followed.
Red and white party lights criss crossed over the corridor of games. Most were abandoned, shuttered stands or dark pits with rats licking the milk bottles or sleeping in the abandoned stuffed animals. But inside one in every three stands, there was still a carny ready to fleece you with fifty coke bottles and a heavy glass ring.
“Step right up,” said a carny, tossing a resewn softball up and down. “Step right up.”
The great boy detective confronted the carnie with his hands out like he would choke him.
The carny stepped back. “Wo,” he said.
“We’re looking for a man,” said the great boy detective.
“A man?” I said, taken aback. All this time I thought it was a boy.
“Yes, a man,” said the great boy detective. “You’re going to tell me now if you’ve seen someone come through here.”
What the carnie said was fairly hard to understand. When we squinted, he pointed. There were four bloody fingerprints on the outer-edge lip of one stand.
“Do you have your firearm?” said the great boy detective.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I drew my gun and we walked steadily forward.
A collection of sounds grew as we approached the stand, something like the inner workings of a mouth, the slapping and gnashing of teeth and a tongue, but also something mechanical, something like the top bobbin of a sewing machine, the thin metal fingers that drew its thread into the needle of the machine. We walked toward the back of the stand. Whatever it was doing, it was doing it behind the games stand.
“I have a gun,” I said. We had only one step, one step and we would be around the corner and facing the murderer. “I have a gun,” I said slowly. We turned the corner.
There was the man. His eyes were as clear and confused as the eyes in a retirement center. His mouth, chin and fingers were drenched completely in blood and still dripping. He was shoving the last pieces of something in through his teeth. The expression in his face meant only, I have no idea what I’m doing.
His jacket had fallen partially open and I could see inside a hint of what whirring process was making the sounds of a bobbin. That area too had a concentration of blood. As I approached him, he made no move. He had swallowed the last of whatever he’d had in his fingers, and now kept his hands down stiffly beside his legs as he sat, dazed and breathing heavily.
With one hand, I held my gun steady. Then with my other I reached in and parted his jacket. His insides were silver and in his chest, a dozen bobbin fingers pulsed in and out of a red bulging material as more red matter fell through the gears in his throat and through the working parts to join the organ in his chest. The shiny pulsing fingers had recomposed the heart, which was now beginning to beat. I closed the jacket.
The man could not remember his name, nor if he had had a name, nor whom he had served, nor whom he had grown up with. The family he had served arrived to claim him. Two young children hugged his varicose legs. The mother produced a small silver box from her purse. When she pressed the red button, the heart inside stopped beating, and the old man collapsed in a heap.
“Another case closed,” I said.
We celebrated on the boardwalk with a couple bana splits with neapolitan ice cream, crushed pistachio nuts, hot fudge and dollops of whipped cream.
The great boy detective stared wistfully out at sea. “Again, we have run our emotions too freely,” he said. Fluffy clouds passed over like a graze-land’s lazy sheep. “This is what the circus should teach us.” He pressed his ice cream around with his spoon. “There is a limit and we must keep that limit at all costs. Never cross over that limit. Never cross over that limit. Never cross over that limit.”
It occurred to me then that the murderous robot had had the face of his grandfather. Then I too looked in the sky. Why must you do this to the great boy detective? The clouds became misty and frightened.
Bob Selcrosse grew up with his mother, selling books, in the Pacific Northwest. He is now working on a book about a book. It is based in the Pacific Northwest. The book is The Cabinet of Children.