The Machine Shop at the End of the World
Fiction by Douglas Cole
Then Larry moved me in to the storage and prep room where he handed me off to Tony, who was supposed to show me what to do next. He was a little guy with one of those thin scraggly beards that don’t fully come in, like he didn’t punch all the way through puberty. He was about my age, with long hair tied back in a ponytail. He wore a Doors shirt with Jim Morrison reaching out a warlock hand at me.
“Now what you do,” he said, taking me over to a table covered by a beat-up sheet of tin and with a couple of large boxes full of little metal plates, “is you take one of these…” He took out a plate that was about the size of a book cover. Then he produced a jar of what looked like red play-dough. “You get yourself a hunk of this…” He pulled out a gob of the play-dough and rolled it between his fingers. “And roll it into a ball…and you…” The plate had holes of various sizes in it, and he worked the putty into the holes. “You’ve got to get it in here and make sure it fits all the way around the inside edge of the hole,” he said, “so that no paint can get in. But you can’t get any of it on the surface of the plate, here, you see? Ya got it?”
“I think so,” I said.
“And you’ve got to fill every hole,” he said. He spoke softly, working the play-dough into the holes of the plate with a delicate, jeweler’s care. Sometimes his tongue would appear between his lips. And as he worked, his thin fingers flipped the plate around like spider legs wrapping up a fly.
“Get a plate,” he said. “By the time you’re done, you’ll know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert’s Hall.”
I laughed. “Nice. All right, John.”
I took a plate from the box, a jar of the putty, and started working on my new task. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, though, especially with my blistered hand still healing, the flesh on my palm buckling when I gripped the metal plates. Sometimes the putty wouldn’t stick to the edge, and sometimes, after I had gotten nearly all of the holes filled, a putty disc would fall out, or I’d knock it out by accident, or my hands would sweat so bad from the dreamy oppressive swelter of heat in that room that the putty would smear on the surface of the plate.
“Ah! Tony,” I said, laughing, “I don’t think I’m doing too well here.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, rotating the plate in his hand so fast and easy he barely seemed to touch it. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
He was done with about eight of the plates by the time I had barely finished two. But I kept at it. I felt determined to master this one task. And for a long time we didn’t say anything to each other. We just worked while we listened to the radio that was sitting up on one of the metal shelves. It was set to a classic rock and roll station: Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Stones, Van Morrison, Steely Dan, that sort of thing. And every once in a while I would hear Tony humming along with one of the songs.
Finally, I asked him, “So how long you been working here, Tony?”
“About four years,” he said. “I’ve been here the longest.”
“Really? And you’ve been doing this the whole time?”
“Yeah. Adam’s curse. I do this, and I’m pretty much in charge of openings and closings, which just means opening the doors at dawn and closing them at sunset, although I like to say opening and closing because it sounds more important. So if someone asks me what I do, I say I’m in charge of opening and closing the shop. Doesn’t that sound good?” and he smiled ironically, pointing back to the wide, sliding doors.
“So you’re the one in control of letting us in and out,” I said.
“Yeah. You know, I’ve actually been here longer than Larry has.”
“Yeah? Who was here before him?”
“His father. This weird guy named Hurd. He’s the one who owns the place. Or he did own it. I think he might be dead, now.”
“But, Larry doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.”
“In fact, you watch. It’s pretty funny. Larry does all the silk screening, right? You know, for instrument panels and that sort of thing. You have to use these stencils, and it’s pretty delicate work, really. I mean, it’s not that hard, either. But Larry thinks he’s the only one here who can do it right. He thinks we’re all a bunch of idiots. I used to do it, when his father ran the place, but whatever. But the problem is, and what Larry doesn’t seem to understand after, I don’t know, more than a year?, is that when it gets hot like this and you try to silk screen the panels—well, you’ll see. He’s such a dumb fuck he doesn’t know that you have to wait till it cools down. It’s the paint—he always fucks it up. And then he gets all pissed off and starts cussing and screaming, total tantrum.”
“Oh, you’ll love it. Poor guy. I do feel sorry for him. And he didn’t used to be this fat, but he’s got diabetes or a heart condition or something, I’m not sure what, and they put him on some medication about six months ago, and he just bloated up overnight. It changed him. He was always a punk, but now he’s a sick fat punk. I can’t imagine he’s got much time left.”
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“Yeah, but you watch. The next time he does a silk screen. You watch. You’ll get a kick out of it.”
And for the rest of the afternoon we worked in the dream heat fixing putty balls into metal plates, listening to the radio play songs like Waitin’ on a Friend and People are Strange, Jim Morrison coming out of the radio and through Tony’s chest with that hand reaching out and leveling on me a talismanic charge or a command or a final request to follow, I could never be sure what, while Tony hummed along with the music. Then the Byrds came on, singing Eight Miles High.
“I feel about eight miles low,” I said, shaking my head, trying to rid myself of the writhing in my skull.
“Little too much afterburn, eh?”
“You know it,” I said.
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou find bliss,” he said.
“I don’t know about that.”
The guitar rippled rapid-fire pulses, rising, higher and higher. “Pretty amazing guitar,” I said.
“Roger McGuinn,” Tony said. “He’s definitely a genius. His real name was actually James Joseph McGuinn. For some reason, he changed it around the same time that he got into this Indonesian religion called Subud. Subud? Yeah, that’s right.” Tony didn’t even look up from the metal plate he was working on but continued to rattle off facts. “He was heavily influenced by jazz and modeled this guitar solo on a John Coltrane song. He played, I believe it was, a Rickenbacker 12-string and had it worked up somehow to sound like a saxophone. And the song, this one, was actually banned because it was considered to be a drug song, but the band members all said that it was really about a plane flight to London, yeah right, and culture shock, or something like that. At first it was titled Six Miles High, but then Gene Clark thought ‘eight’ sounded better than ‘six’ and that it would be a good catchy tune since the Beatles had just recently come out with Eight Days A Week. Smart, eh?”
“You really know a lot about this song, don’t you?” I said.
“Oh, sure, I love the Byrds. I love all music, really, but especially Rock music.”
“Yeah? Tell me more. What else do you know?”
Again, without looking up from his work, and with his fingers working deftly, filling in the little holes with little bits of putty, he recited. “Let’s see. This song came out on their album Fifth Dimension. David Crosby is also listed as one of the composers, as a matter of fact. Many consider the album to be one of their weaker efforts, interestingly enough even though this is one of their most popular original compositions, probably because, like Dylan, they were moving on from the folk sound. 5D, as they were called, actually played a mix of folk and jazz from the very beginning. Oh, and they have this one spooky song called I Come and Stand At Every Door about a child burned in the bombing of Hiroshima whose spirit walks the earth in search of peace, based on a poem written by…Nazim Hikmet and…,” he looked up, finding the thought, “translated by Pete Seeger. Yep. Pete Seeger.”
“Wow!” I said. “How do you know all that?”
“I hear it on the radio sometimes. I read a lot of it on jacket covers, mostly. Some books, too. Johnny Rogan has a book out on the Byrds called Timeless Flight. I read that one. I read a lot of things. I read history, too, mostly about the times when these guys were playing. And I just remember a lot of things. My brain is weird that way. Like, let’s see, when Five D came out, 1966, the US and Soviet Union both landed probes on the moon, same year; Mao’s Red Guard started gearing up in China then, too; Johnson started bombing in North Vietnam after a break of about a month; they started selling those little disposable flash bulbs, I don’t know, do you remember those? Let’s see, what else: that guy Whitman shot those people down in Texas at the university, and that guy Speck killed those nurses in Chicago, a lot of violence that year; um, those two Boeing planes crashed, that was a big deal, and those floods hit Italy and everybody was crying about the art that got destroyed, not the people; FM started getting big around that time, and so did Mission Impossible, that was the big show; then, Valley of the Dolls and In Cold Blood both came out, and they were big; Liz Taylor won best actress for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; the Celtics won the NBA championships; the Orioles won the World Series; hey, and Billie Jean King, do you remember her? She won Wimbledon that year. They published a study that said monkeys deprived of social contact become emotionally impaired, duh—I could go on forever. I love history, really, as long as it pertains to the music. Some of it sticks, anyway, obviously. But if there’s no connection to the music, I’m not interested. But you know, I usually find there is some connection to events in history and the songs these guys are writing, especially the classic rock period. That’s my favorite. Although, I’ve begun to branch out because classical music influenced them and they influenced the music that came after them.”
“Which comes first?” I asked. “The history or the music?”
Tony laughed. “I often wonder.”
“You remember everything in pretty good detail, too,” I said.
“Yeah. I remember everything I read. All of it. I can’t not remember it, in fact.”
“Why, Tony,” I said, “you’re a scholar.”
He lifted up a metal plate full of putty and waved it at me. “Yeah, right. I never made it past the tenth grade.”
Larry came in, then, towards the end of the day. He went right past us without saying a word, and Tony grinned and said in a low voice so that Larry couldn’t hear him, “here we go. Keep your eyes open. Show’s about to start.”
I glanced over at Larry who was arranging a set of black panels for silk screening. He was lining them up in a rack next to the silk screen and arranging canisters of paint and paddles.
“Control panels,” Tony whispered. “They come with these special stencils and have to be aligned very precisely, get it? And not only do you have to line them up properly, but they have to have a sharp line so that they’re readable, but in this heat, the paint’s going to run.” Larry took his time, carefully aligning the stencils, fixing the clamps, setting up his paint. “He doesn’t even realize it’s way too hot,” Tony said. Then, Larry pooled the paint along one edge, wiped it across the stencil with the bat, pulled back the stencil and looked at it.
“Mother fuck!” he shouted.
Tony shot me a glance, raised one eyebrow and grinned. “It’s just starting. It gets better.”
Larry went through the process again with another plate and pulled the stencil back and looked at it and said, “Mother fuck!” only louder and more shrill this time. He wiped the two plates down, stripped them with a rag soaked in solvent and then set them aside to dry and laid down another plate and tried again. When he pulled back the stencil and looked at what he had done, he screamed even louder, “Mother fuck! Cock sucker!” And he held the plate up over his head like he wanted to throw it through someone’s skull, his hands shaking with rage. Then he put it down, wiped it clean, and took one of the previously cleaned plates that had now dried. He started again. Only now he was more careless, throwing down the plate, slapping on the stencil, slopping on the paint hopelessly. And when he failed for the fourth time, he screamed again, “Ahhhh you fucker, fucker, fucker!” swinging his arms and kicking but not actually hitting anything, his fury thrown into the empty air, his rage going nowhere.
Tony shook his head. “I’ve seen it a million times.”
© Douglas Cole
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Douglas’ interview]
Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry and a novella. His work appears in anthologies such as Best New Writing, Bully Anthology, and Coming Off The Line as well as journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, Red Rock Review, Midwest Quarterly, and Slipstream. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry, judged by T.R. Hummer; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is douglastcole.com.