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.

• • •

Once a week, two women come to do laundry, clean the house, and deliver groceries. Every Sunday, some women from the neighborhood deliver a stew that George graciously accepts. When this runs out, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat cooks another. With the hole, he has to be careful; he can only eat liquid-based foods. Breakfast is up to George. When his form allows, Max eats with them.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat stands over the stove now. He has sautéed slices of onion with celery and carrots. He has added tomato paste, broth, potatoes, and will soon add the lamb he now browns in a skillet. He wads the cloth against the hole, firmly, and breathes in through his nose. He imagines he can almost smell the salted meat, the pungent sting of onions. An odor not unlike the one emitted by his own body, back when he had the strength to lift and carry and a windpipe capable of sucking air into undamaged lungs. Back when he was a man who, at the end of a long day, could enjoy a cigarette on his own or with his daughter who’d taken up smoking after her divorce. Never around the kids, she assured him. Only on the outside patio, like him, or alone in her car. Or, sometimes, with the window open in her room.

So how could he not say something? It was his house, and smoking such an unbecoming habit. He’d all but given it up himself! But she was always so strong-willed, his Milena. If he hadn’t lectured her, she might have given it up on her own, the cigarettes in her room, at least.

A potted broadleaf plant sits on the counter next to him. Its deep green leaves reach almost imperceptibly out and ever so slightly up, taking in the late afternoon light through the thin white curtain. Max, of course. And The Guy with the Hole in His Throat is reminded yet again that the world is not an engine but something much more complex, a mechanism that doesn’t work as one might expect it to. As if the relationship of cause and effect was set up simply to confound us from asking the deeper questions. The Guy with the Hole in His Throat breathes in steam, accidentally; he coughs.

When the stew is ready, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat ladles it into two bowls he will carry to the living room so he and George can eat in front of At What Price.

But The Guy with the Hole in His Throat pauses before crossing into the living room. The voices coming from the television are serious and tense, not upbeat, jocular. The news is on, relaying that dizzying sense of history … not repeating itself exactly. Yet. He has heard the Jewish Holocaust mentioned, this genocide that is better known, or at least talked about more regularly than the one on which the United States is founded. While in Turkey, it is still illegal to speak of the “camps” for those still clinging to life at the end of the marches into the Syrian Desert, the thirst and starvation, the massacres and beatings, women raped until their bodies gave out, the mass gravesites in which they would be buried — in which they were buried, a century ago. His own relatives among the dead, although he’d never met them.

So where would he be now if a ban had prohibited his father from coming here? Who would he be if his father and mother had never met? Would he be suspended somewhere in darkness, waiting for the next life to open up? Or would he be formless, mindless, inert? And wouldn’t that be a relief! But without consciousness, perhaps it would not be.

Of course, such thoughts hardly matter, since here he is. Or there he is, rather, already reclined in that middle chair. At least, he recognizes the stocky build as his own, the same bald circle on top of his head. That now familiar white collar with a clear tube pressed inside his neck.

Yet The Guy with the Hole in His Throat can feel the stew-warmed ceramic of each bowl growing hotter against his fingers curled under each base. He looks down at his white walking shoes against the beige carpeting, feels his feet contained within socks inside them. Somehow, he is seated there yet also standing here. Or rather, he is standing, looking at himself seated there. The Guy with the Hole in His Throat, the one holding the bowls — drops them. Stew slops over the carpet, splatters his shoes. Max scampers in, a Corgi now, and begins licking it up.

“G-grr-oss,” The Other Guy with the Hole in His Throat forces through the tube in a strange, robotic voice.

Later that night, The Other Guy tucks himself into one of the two twin beds. The Guy with the Hole in His Throat takes the bed next to it. He expects The Other Guy will disappear like a specter by morning, just a hiccup of his troubled mind.

But the next day, The Other Guy gets up just before him, beats him to the bathroom. The Guy with the Hole in His Throat waits until The Other Guy finally opens the bathroom door. He traps air with one hand for his eerily robotic speech. “Your turn,” The Other Guy announces before exiting the bathroom and leaving, presumably for a walk of his own. He arrives home first, is the first to suction out the dirt and debris from his tube, while The Guy with the Hole in His Throat is stuck waiting again.

And as one day moves into the next, as George continues his late afternoon into evening flicker and Max switches between myriad forms, The Other Guy is still here. He remains, constant. And instead of finding himself staring at the cinderblock wall or filling a humidifier, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat now finds The Other Guy doing it instead. He finds himself watching him, as if outside his own body.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat stands in front of the bathroom mirror, takes a good look at himself. The Other Guy doesn’t look just like him. He’s fairly certain of this. There are slight differences. The Other Guy’s scalp is faintly liver-spotted; he has more hair sprouting from one dried pear of an ear, a nose more bulbous in profile, eyes less symmetrically placed.

And when The Guy with the Hole in His Throat presses his fingers down over the cloth, he can barely manage, “good,” his voice shaky, barely a whisper. While The Other Guy holds out the controller each evening, asks, “remote?” “Dinner,” he announces when the stew is ready. “Goodnight,” he says before retiring to the twin bed next to the one in which The Guy with the Hole in His Throat tosses and turns.

Yet if The Other Guy isn’t him, how to account for this other version? The Guy with the Hole in His Throat contemplates this as he continues past the porch and along the front lawn to the sidewalk, where he turns toward the faint hum and whine of power tools in the distance. He holds the cloth tight against the gas fumes and freshly cut grass that will irritate his membranes. But he has to keep going. He has to see. Because the only indicator that time is moving forward, that he and The Other Guy and Max and George aren’t all caught on repeat in this slightly new version of their already absurd cosmic loop is The Woman with the Pickaxe, out there each morning like clockwork, chipping away at the hard dirt of the yard foot by foot.

Today, The Woman with the Pickaxe is using a shovel. Her ponytail swings as she hoists each load of loosened dirt onto the ridge mounding higher and farther along the length of the yard. She has almost reached the sidewalk, the area behind her measured out and cut with the axe edge to the same width as the porch steps. A path, this must be what she’s digging. The Woman with the Pickaxe pauses, glances up at him.

“G—.” An impulse more than an attempt. But still the sound snags, sharp. He coughs, tries to dislodge it.

The Woman with the Pickaxe tosses a handful of rocks to one side. She doesn’t notice him, or perhaps she is sparing him the embarrassment.

Wild tufts of hair escape the woman’s ponytail. Her face and arms are coated in dirt; her overalls and sneakers packed with it. The woman inserts the tip of the shovel blade into dry earth, steps it in deeper with her weight. She yanks out a snaggle of crabgrass, unravels a network of roots and stems and pale-yellow rhizomes like bloodless arteries. She tosses each clump onto the driveway.

Green parrots rise screaming from the camphor trees. As The Guy with the Hole in His Throat hurries past, they settle on the telephone lines just ahead and heckle him with their wheezing squawks like poorly played bagpipes.

• • •

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat waits, as usual, for The Other Guy to finish suctioning debris from his tube first. He clears his throat, the scratchiness already abating from the more humid air inside.

“How was your walk?” George asks politely when The Guy with the Hole in His Throat finally appears in the kitchen. He nods, as usual.

The Other Guy is already reading the morning paper at the table, a half-finished bowl of oatmeal in front of him. Max is an infant in a white gown bouncing on The Other Guy’s knee. While The Guy with the Hole in His Throat eats his oatmeal, slowly, carefully, he does not look at The Other Guy. He focuses on the boiled grains clumping around George’s white beard, on his complaints about the sharp pain in his back, the crankiness in his knees. The Other Guy is silent. Neither of them interrupts. Yet if The Guy with the Hole in His Throat could manage speech, he would. He would ask George where he goes at night. He would ask if he remembers.

• • •

One morning, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat decides that he will wait to replace his tube so he can follow The Other Guy on his walk. Only as this occurs to him does he consider it strange that it is only occurring to him now, that he has not done this yet. He waits a minute after The Other Guy leaves, then slowly trails him, lagging almost a half block behind, even crosses the street for good measure.

When The Other Guy reaches the shade of the tree, The Woman with the Pickaxe is not at work but standing to one side of the driveway while a truck backs in, dumps gravel onto a tarp. Dust billows. In order to avoid it, The Other Guy quickly turns around.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat does the same. He continues slowly back around this block as the other guy continues around his, their paths mirroring each other. On the second pass, the truck is gone. Three pallets of boulders sit in the driveway, caged in wire. The Guy with the Hole in His Throat lodges himself behind the trunk of a thick oak across the street. From here, he watches The Woman with the Pickaxe bend the caging back. He watches The Other Guy approach, pause, then lift one hand in greeting. The Woman with the Pickaxe looks at The Other Guy, who presses a balled-up cloth over his neck. Even from across the street, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat can hear The Other Guy’s robotic voice recite, “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” The Woman with the Pickaxe responds. And when she smiles, it’s with more enthusiasm, it seems, than when she smiles at him.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat gets it then, as his heart speeds up, his breathing becomes labored. They must pass by her house each morning, The Other Guy and then him. “Good morning,” The Other Guy says. Then The Guy with the Hole in His Throat passes, nods, as if acknowledging that he has already said good morning, so there is no need to say it again.

But The Other Guy is not him! Yet isn’t he? But how can he be when they don’t share the same experiences?

Yet doesn’t The Guy with the Hole in His Throat find himself nodding in unison with The Other Guy each time he knows the answer to a quiz show question? Doesn’t he find himself swallowing after The Other Guy lifts the spoon to his mouth? And doesn’t his tube always feel less scratchy once The Other Guy has suctioned out his?

• • •

At night, he sometimes dreams of his father’s bakery now, that yeasty scent he can no longer smell. He’s preparing the fillings for byorek, that small stuffed spinach or cheese or meat pie. Or he’s kneading and rolling out the unleavened lavash. But it’s the choereg that gets him. Hot out of the oven, the first bite into the thick braided coils of the Easter bread lodges right behind the hole in his throat. He chokes, sputters, the bakery now consumed in smoke so thick it’s like he’s been buried alive. His father’s voice, as authoritative and calm as the narration on a history documentary, assures him there is nothing he could have done; it’s impossible to stop these things once they get going. But it’s dust, isn’t it? Not smoke at all. Dust kicked up by the dirt that now lays heavy over him. Only then does he wake to his current reality, the humidifier unplugged or his tube clogged again with mucus. Such a relief!

At first. Then, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat remembers.

Then, he gets up and tends to what needs to be done.

And so, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat continues nodding each time he passes. And The Woman with the Pickaxe continues digging. Until, soon enough, the path along the driveway is dug out, and she begins working her way along the front.

The cleared space is wide enough for a father and daughter to skip along, arm in arm, or for a mother to lie down next to her grown daughter, or for a grown daughter to be buried beside two children of her own. And when The Guy with the Hole in His Throat nods now, the hole tears at his neck, this physical reminder of how alone he now is in this world. And when The Woman with the Pickaxe nods back, it’s as if with the motion of her chin up and then down that she is chipping away at him still further.

Yet he is still here. One day still moves into the next. And The Guy with the Hole in His Throat continues following The Other Guy past the house of The Woman with the Pickaxe. Each morning, he watches their daily exchange as if there might be something still to discover, some dot still to connect.

Soon her digging is done, and the woman turns her attention to evening out the ridge. She abandons the pickaxe altogether, alternating instead between a flat shovel and a rake to spread the dirt over and across the desiccated lawn. She spreads gravel for a path then stacks stones the size of watermelons, one on top of two, two on top of three others to form a low wall separating the path from the yard. The boulders are heavy and require substantial effort. Perhaps this is why the spacing is unappealing, sloppy, much too wide.

A shame, The Guy with the Hole in His Throat thinks. All that hard work, for this. It isn’t until he reaches the driveway that he notices the cartons of plants: rosemary, stonecrop, iceplant, thyme. He slows, watches the woman appraise the spaces between the stones. She selects a small carton, squeezes the plastic base to push the plant with its pine-like leaves up and out. Its tiny branches reach like arms.

Was this design purposeful, then? Or is she attempting to make the best of it?

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat pauses to watch the woman tuck the roots into a space excavated between two stones that become, instead, the humps of his grandchildren under blankets, eyes closed as if asleep, the flames some ways from consuming the asphyxiated husks that are already no longer them. They didn’t feel a thing, he was told when he woke up at the hospital, a pain at his throat, as if a lump had formed and burst, split his larynx with the pressure of his grief. He should have gone with them, been in bed with his wife, not asleep in front of the television. He’d even imagined himself guarding over his family as he drifted off, the first line of defense should someone break down the door. Such were the things he’d been taught to guard against.

The Guy with the Hole in His Throat clears the canopy. He emerges again into relentless sun. But today, at least, there’s the relief of a breeze. It tousles the fringes of his hair, and he sees his grandchildren grin mischievously. His wife caresses his cheek with barely a whisper of one soft palm. He is marching out into the desert with them, after his daughter, his grandchildren, his wife. Even though in the context of responsibility, of fault, in the order of generations, of location and time … But perhaps these boundaries are far less substantial than we imagine.


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.