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“THE MACHINE”
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painting by Violet Brill

 

 

by Matt Conte

 

John is a scientist. He works at a huge corporation. He gets paid a lot to do morally compromising things—some so bad that it seems cartoonish, like you are being beat over the head with how evil the company is, if it were real; testing pills on their own employees, or dumping toxic waste into third world countries, or trying to invent ways to make the American public more miserable in order for them to gain profits. John justifies all of this to himself because when he is not working, his employment here gives him the opportunity to work on the thing that he has been working on his entire life. He uses the company’s resources on his days off.

John works on a machine with his co-workers, Brown and Jackson. They work hard all day, and during the night and days off, they work on the machine.

Sometimes, John’s other co-workers mock them for their machine; they say things like “Are you guys wasting your time again tonight?” and “Look at those guys, they are stupid.”

The reason that they receive such harsh critiques is that their goal, and the goal of the machine, seems silly to a lot of people. John and his friends are trying to build a machine that will reveal the meaning of life.

John is married to Jane. Their last name is Doe. I’m not sure what Jackson’s first name is, or what Brown’s first name is—although maybe those are their first names. Anyway, Jane has always been very supportive of John, but sometimes she gets frustrated with him.

On this night, John comes home really late. He walks in the front door of the apartment, and Jane is still up.

“What are you doing up, honey?” John asks.

“I was waiting for you.”

“You don’t have to wait up for me.”

“Why were you so late tonight?”

“We stayed after work for a long time to work on the machine.”

Like I said, Jane has always supported John’s dreams, and she understands his obsession with the machine, “How did it go tonight?”

“Not so good. We’ve been stuck for quite some time in the same spot. I’d say that we’re at a standstill.”

Jane shrugs. She wants John to figure out the meaning of life not for herself, but because he wants to figure it out. She doesn’t mind that she doesn’t know, and she doesn’t care if she ever knows. She has a lovely husband and she has a great job working as the head chef at one of the best restaurants in town. It’s called the Committed Pig, and they serve their drinks in old mason jars. She loves this job.

On this, the next night, John comes in even later than he did last night. Jane is in bed, but she is awake. When John comes into their bedroom, he tries to be quiet, but she says, “How did it go tonight?”

John says, “So good! We made a major breakthrough with the machine tonight, and I think that it’s going to work. We had to let some things sit overnight though, so we won’t know until tomorrow.”

“That’s fantastic! Who are you going to tell first?”

“When I find out the meaning of life, you mean?”

“Well, hopefully Jackson and Brown will be there with me, so I will tell them, but then I will tell you.”

“You’ll tell me? Aw, that’s nice of you.”

John gets into bed and snuggles up next to his wife. His feet are cold, Jane thinks.

The next day, when John gets to work, Brown and Jackson are already there. It is a disaster. They not only left their machine on to run, but some of the other things in the laboratory, other science-type things that a more science-savvy writer than me would know about, and they ruined some of the real experiments that were more important for the company.

“Sir, it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our faults,” Jackson and Brown plead.

“Are you not partners with John Doe?”

“We are.”

“Do you not stay after work to build a machine with him?”

“We do.”

“Did you not leave these other machines on and ruin the company’s important experiments?”

“Well, sir, that part wasn’t us, that was John. John’s fault.”

“Here’s Mr. Doe now. What do you have to say for yourself, John Doe?” The boss has a stern look on his face.

“What happened?”

“You left these other machines on, and ruined some of the company’s important experiments. The company’s experiments should take precedence over your silly personal projects, and I’ve turned a blind eye to your silly personal project this whole time because it wasn’t affecting your work, but now it has done so in a major way.”

“But we were so close.”

“But now you’re fired.”

After John got fired, he tried to take the machine home to work on it there, and focus all of his attention on it. The company would not let him, though, so he had to start from scratch. Jackson and Brown didn’t come to help because they were mad at him for getting them fired. John works on the machine, until it is up to where they were in the laboratory. John stops making money, obviously, and he becomes completely obsessed with the machine. He does nothing but talk about or think about or work on the machine. John and Jane go months without having sex, because John never comes to bed.

Jane leaves John. I feel bad for John now. He has no friends anymore, and he has no lovely wife who works as the head chef at one of the finest restaurants in town, and he has no job, not even a morally compromising one. I feel even worse for John becuse he has done all of this in the name of finding the meaning of life. I myself know the meaning of life for John, and it would be so easy for me to tell him.

John sits staring at the machine. He does not know where to go next. As the hours wear on, with John simply staring, I begin to feel guilty. I think about how easy it would be to tell John what I know and make his life so much better, and so, the machine begins to whir. Things spin and things light up. John’s eyes grow wide.

I begin to speak to John, making my voice audible to him. I write down what I say, so that I can remember it to write my story.

“John, you are looking for the meaning of life, right?”

John looks ecstatic. “Yes!”

“Well, would you like me to tell you the meaning of life?”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Matt.”

“And how do you know the meaning of life?”

“I will explain it to you. I am a writer—well, I try to be a writer. I don’t know yet if I count as a real writer. Anyway, I wrote you.”

“What do you mean you wrote me?”

“You are a character in my story.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Is it, though?” I can tell you all about you. Your name is John Doe because I am not good at making up names. Your world is black and white because I don’t like to use colors to describe things. When you walk up stairs, you have to step on the same step with the same foot as the person who is walking ahead of you. You do this because it is something that I do, and I gave it to you because sometimes I give my characters some traits that are also my own traits. Like how your parents are named Martin and Kathleen.”

John is quiet. Then he speaks, “What are colors?”

“Never mind, John.”

John sits down and stares at his yellow and green Nike shoes.

“Now you know what colors are, right, John?”

“Yeah.”

“So?”

John sits in silence for quite a long time. I think about stopping writing and going to watch Gilmore Girls instead. He bores me, so I make him stop sitting still. I make him speak.

“If I’m just an invented character, then what is the meaning of my life?”

“Well, you’re in a story, and stories are supposed to entertain the readers, or maybe challenge them, or maybe confuse them, I don’t really know, some combination of those three maybe, or maybe some other things, too. Definitely a lot of stories are made for entertainment.”

“So, I’m supposed to be entertainment?”

“Well, John, yeah I guess so.”

“But then, if I’m just supposed to be entertaining, why is the machine working? Why are you telling me all of this right now?”

“Because the story was getting boring. It was starting to drag. You just kept getting close to accomplishing your goal, but then failing. We can only handle so many failures before you either succeed or the story ends. I am advancing the plot.”

“And you decided to make me succeed?”

“Yes.”

“So the meaning of life is to entertain your readers?”

“Mostly. But how you do that is always up to you, John,” I lie to him. All of his actions are up to me, but he doesn’t know that, and as long as he doesn’t know that, he will continue to treat all of his actions as if they are his own. “What are you going to do now, John?”

“I’m going to tell all of my friends, and I’m going to tell my wife.”

“And?”

“And I’m going to live an interesting and entertaining life, so that your story is interesting and entertaining.”

“Thanks, John, I think that that will help me become a real writer.”

After I’ve said it out loud, I regret using a sentence that has the word “that” in it twice in a row, because even though it’s correct, Microsoft Word underlines the second one in red, which annoys me.

John runs out of his apartment, and to Jackson’s apartment. John is pounding on Jackson’s door. It’s five AM.

“Jackson, get up! Get up! I’ve done it! Come on, I’m sorry about the things that I did, I’ve done it though!”

Jackson gets out of bed, “Alright, alright, I’m coming.” He opens the door and John bursts in, grabbing him.

“I’ve done it, Jackson. The machine! I made it work!”

Jackson’s face lights up. “How?”

“It’s sort of a long story. Well, no, it’s not long at all really, but it’s hard to understand unless I make it long.”

“Did you do various lengthy scientific things that we always talked about doing?”

“No, I did not!”

“So then why did it work?” Brown interjects.

John and Jackson don’t react to the sudden appearance of Brown in Jackson’s apartment at five AM, because it makes it easier for me if he’s there already, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Because it was convenient to the plot.”

“What?”

“Yeah, the machine didn’t work because of anything that I did, just simply because the plot needed it to, in order to progress. It was time.”

“What plot? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“The plot of us. Our story.”

“Our lives aren’t stories, they’re lives,” one of them says.

“No, they’re not. The machine worked, and I learned the truth of our existence. We’re not people.”

“If we’re not people, then what are we?”

“We’re characters.”

“Stop fucking with us. It’s late. C’mon, get out.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“So am I,” Jackson ushers him to the door.

“Jackson, no! Brown, no! Listen to me. You have to listen to me.”

He pushes him out the door and begins to close it, but John stops it.

“No, Jackson! You have to listen to me! I’ve discovered the reason we’re alive!”

Jackson pokes his head around the door and somberly says, “I’m sorry, John.”

John turns to walk away, but then turns right back around. “No, Jackson.” He’s crying. “You have to listen to me! We are here to entertain! Jackson, the meaning of life! It’s right in front of you! I’ve become self-aware! And you can, too!”

John is still in the hallway, being loud. They open the door to relent. “Ok, John, but we think you need to go home now, and get some sleep.”

“Sleep? At a time like this? This is our life’s work! It’s been years!”

“Yes, we know, but it’s five AM. You’ve been up for an awful long time, and I just think you need some sleep.”

“So you don’t believe me.”

“It’s not that we don’t believe you, it’s just that we’d rather talk to you about it after you’ve gotten some sleep. How about you go home, get some sleep, and later today, we’ll come over and take a look at the machine.”

John is unsatisfied. He doesn’t know if the machine will work again when Jackson and Brown come to look at it. He does not know if he’ll ever talk to me again.

“OK, tomorrow. No, today. Later today. You guys come over. OK. Bye.”

“We’ll call before we come over, OK, John?”

“OK.”

John walks home. He doesn’t go to sleep. He sits up in bed. He flips through his book collection. He stays up, writing things down, reading books, staring at the ceiling. He’s sitting at the kitchen table wide awake, doing nothing, when Jackson and Brown knock on the door.

“Hey, how’s it going? Do you want anything to drink?”

“How about a look at the machine?”

He brings them in to the machine. They each take turns sitting in it—wait, sitting in it? What the hell does this machine look like? There’s a place to sit. I probably should have figured this out earlier.

Nothing happens. “It doesn’t matter,” John says, “I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured it all out. We’re in a story. We’re characters, and what kind of a story is it if we’re just sitting around a kitchen table? Huh? Fiction is a powerful thing, you know.”

“Yes, we know, but we’d really like to know how the machine broke.”

“It broke when I was done with it. It doesn’t need an explanation. It’s just some soft sci-fi shit. Stories bring people together. It gives them something to connect over. Something to talk about and laugh about. It gives them an escape from the hardness of their real lives. It’s a fantasy in a harsh reality.”

“Yes these things are true, John, but it’s not possible that we’re characters in a story.”

“It’s not only possible, it’s the answer.”

Jackson and Brown do not believe John. They leave that night still not believing John, and thinking that maybe he has lost track of his mental faculties. The next day, John wakes up. He jumps into his car and drives to the apartment that Jane lives in now. He yells up to her window.

“Jane! Jane!”

“John?”

“She speaks: O speak again, bright angel!”

“John, what are you doing?”

“Winning you back.”

“I don’t think it’s working.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sorry, John.”

“Have you talked to Jackson Browne”—ah, shoot, I knew it was only a matter of time before I messed that up. It doesn’t help that I’m listening to Jackson Browne on my iPod.

Jane disappears into the apartment.

John stands dumbfounded for a minute. He gets back into the car and drives away. He stops at a red light, thinks for a second, and then decides to run it. He drives wildly for a few blocks, running red lights, before smashing into a truck. He gets out of the car, his forehead bleeding.

“Ah, shoot.”

He walks over to the bus stop and sits down, leaving his car in the middle of the intersection and the truck driver standing in the street, yelling, “Hey, buddy, are you OK?”

“Call me Ishmael!” he yells to the truck driver.

Over the next few weeks, John never thinks about working on the machine again. He goes bungee jumping. He hires a private detective to find out if he is adopted. He turns the PI’s search into a noirish story full of backstabbing and double-crossing. He hires prostitutes to make things erotic and steamy. He dresses up like a superhero in his favorite comic book stories. John’s literary reference points are similar to my own, but why am I making him do all of this? I wanted to make some kind of point about free will and destiny, but I also wanted John to have a better life. Maybe I should give John his free will, and release him from the shackles of my story. Then this would be the end.

 

I don’t like this ending. I am going to keep going.

One day, John walks into his apartment to Jane sitting at his kitchen table.

“Jane!”

“Where have you been? We’ve been worried about you! It’s been weeks! Do you have a new job, buddy?”

“Nope, I’ve just been living it up. You know, making things better. You know, for them.”

“For who?”

“For them, you know, everyone reading. Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted…”

“What?”

“Oh, uh nothing, just uh…nothing. I’ll think about it, OK? I’m tired now, I’m going to go.”

“Wait, John, can you at least talk to me? You say that we’re all in a story, right? If we’re in a story, then why do you know that you’re in a story?”

“Oh, I asked Matt that,” he says, which is true, I just didn’t mention it before, and apparently I’m too lazy to edit.

“And what did he say?”

“He said that he didn’t know. He said that I had a machine to find the meaning of life, and this was the best way for me to find out my meaning of life. He said that maybe it was because he is a really clever writer, and I’m going to help him become a real writer.”

“So, he’s telling his characters that they’re characters? He sounds like a hack who’s relying too much on metafic – ”

I stop Jane right there. Jane always has a way of making me make her say what I’m really feeling. John walks by her, leaving her stunned in his kitchen. He walks back out, cocks a gun, and puts it in the front of his pants. He drives to the bank with Jane chasing him, and parks outside. He walks into the bank and up to the teller. He hands her a note that reads:

            “This is a holdup. I have a gun. Give me all the money. Feel free to act super-scared and tremble. Just do it in the most interesting way possible.”

The teller looks up at him with an utterly confused look on her face. Underneath the desk, she presses a button, then turns and begins grabbing money and stuffing it into the bag he handed her.

“Take your time,” he whispers, very sincerely.

By the time he gets the bag and turns to leave, the police arrive. John runs out of the bank, firing shots into the air. His face is angry; his bloodshot eyes hover above an unkempt beard. John is exhausted. Bullets hit John’s chest. He falls to the ground, blood pooling around him.  Jane begins sobbing, because I’m trying really hard to have three-dimensional female characters in my stories. I’m sorry about this, John, I really am. I thought that I could write a story to prove how much life would be like a story if it were all predetermined, but don’t worry, I’m going to try again.

John is a scientist. He works at a huge corporation.

 

Matt Conte is a recent graduate of Stonehill College. He is from Brielle, NJ, which isn’t quite New York but isn’t too far, either, and has spent his life living at the Jersey Shore and dealing with bennies (from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York) populating his town every summer. His grandparents lived in Jersey City for over 80 years. He is currently taking various classes in New York.

Violet Brill is a fifth grader at Central School in Larchmont, NY. She loves crafts, animals, and making abstract art.