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Strange Mechanisms

Perhaps it is because the sun is always shining here, glaring from a too-blue sky at his balding head. Perhaps this is why The Guy with the Hole in His Throat finds himself yet again beneath the canopy of the large tree shading the sidewalk. The tree’s trunk is strangely mottled, like puzzle pieces in shades of brown, and stuck at the center of a dead lawn. Beyond it, The Woman with the Pickaxe, as he has come to think of her, raises and lowers her ponderous tool at the far side of the yard. The motion is like an oil derrick or metronome, but with a pause and a downswing that is swifter, stronger; a sharp, relentless, chopping force.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat hurries past her and returns to the halfway house of sorts for the aging and damaged located on the next block. He is the newest resident of the three now here, and he considers himself the most stable. His ailment is physical, concrete, the tube in his neck made immediately visible by the white collar that holds it in place. His roommate Max’s problem is more esoteric, caught up in issues of identity, time, and matter. And George, well, whether his issue is related to space or light or basic principles of teleportation, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat has no way to tell. He was an auto mechanic before he retired, before he came here, experienced in testing and diagnosing failures specific to engines, exhaust, and electrical systems. He is no specialist in matters such as these. But still, he can’t help but observe. He can’t help but try to make sense of the patterns he notices.

There are three bedrooms in their shared house, each the same size, large enough for two twin beds, a nightstand and a dresser. Each morning before breakfast, while George blinks over a mug of coffee into the here and now, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat goes for his walk. He can no longer breathe through his nose or mouth, only through this surgically created orifice. To provide the necessary moisture, he sucks in the cooler morning air through a damp cloth held over the base of his neck. He nods or rolls his eyes but has not yet mastered speech, not so much as a simple “good morning.”

The neighborhood is quiet, comprised of old bungalows and newer stucco houses occupied predominantly by Armenian families. Yet there is not one among them that The Guy with the Hole in His Throat knows. He is still learning the layout of the neighborhood, the streets lined with camphor trees, oaks, palms; where there are sidewalks and where the carpets of lawn unfurl to the street. Or so he tells himself when again he comes up on that cloud of dust, the woman’s long, dark ponytail whipping back and forth as dirt churns around her boots.

What was last week only a modest furrow leading to the concrete slab of the porch has grown to a substantial trench. He feels tight in his chest. Does it trouble him that she’s a woman, out here alone, doing men’s work? Is it the ridge of dirt piling up along one side? Or the dust, thick like smoke? He holds the cloth down firmly.

The Woman with the Pickaxe rests the axe-head on the ground and lets the handle fall against her. She dabs sweat from her forehead with one sleeve of her T-shirt. As she does, there is a distance to her gaze, a defiant set to her jaw that strikes him, suddenly, as familiar. The air turns to sand. In that instant, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat is certain that he sees his daughter.

The woman looks at him, sees him now, but her eyes are all wrong: green and rimmed red from exertion, irritated by sweat and grit. Nothing like Milena’s dark, almond-shaped eyes at all. The woman’s features are too sharp, anyway. He’s seen enough of her to know this. As The Woman with the Pickaxe smiles, her features soften and lines crinkle around her eyes. Too old to be his daughter, besides, he tells himself as, wheezing, he returns to the place that if he could speak he might now call “home.”

• • •

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat often finds himself staring out the kitchen window at the cinderblock wall separating the concrete driveway from the house next door. At least once a day, he finds himself refilling the humidifier in the living room and in his bedroom, then in the bathroom watching a reflection of himself in the mirror suction debris from his tube. Max passes through in one form or another, sometimes human, sometimes not. Toward noon, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat usually finds himself sitting at the kitchen table, consuming spoonful after belabored spoonful of a broth-heavy stew, while across the table George blathers on about something from the news he would rather not hear about. He might later find himself napping in his recliner, flipping through an automotive magazine, sitting on the bench out front watching people walk by. He might go for another walk in the evening, even pass the house of The Woman with the Pickaxe again, trying to guess what the larger project might be. Yet it seems just as possible there might not be one.

And more often than not, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat finds himself, as he does this evening, leaned back in one of three identical chairs in front of the television, watching game shows with his roommates. But not the news. He can’t handle the news. It is all too much for him to stomach. To his left, George flickers, dimming with the light of the sun; his aging face and liver-spotted forearms, even his blue flannel pajamas, soon to disappear. To his right, Max assumes a long, youthful form wearing a T-shirt tie-dyed like an expanding galaxy.

On the television, a yet-unrevealed sentence is broken in half with a semi-colon, six words on either side of it. A single “r” on the left side; on the other, an “r” followed directly by a “d” then three words later, a “d” followed directly by an “r.” Like an equation waiting to be balanced. But before The Guy with the Hole in His Throat can make a guess, silently, in his head, Max calls the answer out.

“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man!” Max shouts, his form changed now, for no reason The Guy with the Hole in His Throat can discern, into a woman with the look of an Australian aborigine. White dots are painted around her eyes, and lines emanate from her collarbones with designs continuing down her dark arms and bare, weathered breasts. One of Max’s many alternate incarnations from a life before or a life after this one. Yet isn’t he also her at this moment? But somehow, regardless of form, Max remains Max, with his same knowledge and experience. Even though, technically, it is the brain that holds experience and knowledge, and the brain, like any other organ, would be unique to each form. And clearly, if there is anything that continues, that in any way links the forms Max assumes, it isn’t based in blood or organs. It has nothing to do with DNA. Even the concept of a soul has begun to seem too convenient to The Guy with the Hole in His Throat, too tidy.

A.L. Rowser’s stories appear in Necessary Fiction, The Adroit Journal, and The Monarch Review. After living for a decade in Washington, D.C., she now resides again in California. When she isn’t reading, writing, or wrangling cats, she’s likely involved in a film project. Find her online at alrowser.com.