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Machines

An excerpt from Susan Steinberg's Machine
by Susan Steinberg
August 14th, 2019

if I never learned the earth was spinning;
that there was no bottom and there was no top;
that light from stars I could see left years before I could see the light;
that so many stars could now be gone;
that the sun, one day, as well, would be;
that this wasn’t the kind of thing to overthink;
and if I never learned to overthink;
if I could switch thoughts off before they started to spin;
take that first celebrity suicide;
I mean the first one in our lives;
he wrote a note then shot himself;
we weren’t supposed to hear this;
they were whispering so we wouldn’t;
it was our mother and a neighbor from down the street;
we called her aunt, but she wasn’t our aunt;
she was these kids’ mother, and we hated her kids;
we hated her more;
she made our mother act so dumb;
she made her drink too much;
they were drinking, this day, a bottle of orange liqueur;
the bottom of the bottle was shaped like an orange;
it was our fake aunt’s bottle she brought over;
it was too early to be drinking liqueur;
our fake aunt was often drunk in the day;
she was divorced, and divorce, back then, meant something;
it meant fucked-up kids and it meant your reputation;
it meant our fake aunt fell down, drunk, on her way home from our house;
but that was a different day;
that day, she fell over the hose the help had left in a bunch on the lawn;
we heard her scream, and it could have been from anything, a scream like that;
my brother and I ran outside to see;
our fake aunt was facedown in the grass;
we didn’t want to touch her, so we waited for her to get to her knees, figure it out;
our mother didn’t drink in the day unless our fake aunt was at our house;
our mother was weak around other women, and we’d always known she was weak;
now here she was, pretending not to be drunk, pretending an interest in us we knew was just pretend;
then, Pow, our fake aunt said and stood and shaped her hand like a gun at her head;
What, we said;
our mother said, Nothing;
to our fake aunt, she said, The kids;
our mother never once thought before she spoke;
she always ruined it all;
my brother said, Why the gun;
Tell me, he said;
I said, Tell me;
there was no reason to keep a secret from us;
we knew too much already;
there were bigger things than the things they kept a secret;
like all of space, for instance;
like all I knew about space;
like how spaceships floated in a free fall;
how astronauts floated within them;
how weightlessness wasn’t like floating in water;
it wasn’t a calming thing;
how a single force could push you out of orbit;
it could send you to the darkest place;
because you’ve never had control;
you’ve always had to pretend it;
now here we all were, in a kitchen, pretending;
here we all were, as if nothing;
we were about to leave for a party;
it was a bowling party for some kid we didn’t like;
the bowling alley was on the other side;
our father drove us and told us, Be good;
I wasn’t sure if he meant be good at bowling;
or if he meant be good in some other way;
there were holy ways we were never taught, but heard about;
certain kids who knew this stuff, kids we would never be;
they were kids our mother always called good;
but we preferred the asshole kids we hated;
this party was full of assholes;
my brother bowled, but I sat at the counter;
I liked the pizza the bowling alley had;
I liked the local guys who served the pizza, because they also served me beer;
this was because of how I looked;
I didn’t care what the reason was;
I was learning to work with what I had;
so I sat there, feeling old;
I drank beer from a cup meant for soda;
there was music I liked coming from the walls;
and the sounds of all those crashing pins;
like the sound of gravity, I thought, then thought it seemed insane;
like how a crush makes you think, or just drinking does;
but I didn’t care then there were things in space that couldn’t move out of our way;
I didn’t care then what asteroid struck us, what black hole sucked us closer to its edge;
pretty soon, the other kids were at the counter;
they were talking the shit kids always talked; all of them going on and on;
that first celebrity suicide;
they said he’d shot himself in the head;
they said it happened in a kitchen;
so then I was seeing our kitchen table;
then I was seeing our mother and the bottle shaped like an orange;
then I was seeing our dumb fake aunt, her hand like a gun at her head;
like she was better than him, which she was not;
like she was better than anyone, but she was the absolute worst;
there was a night she came by our house with a dog;
we were eating dinner, and she walked in like she lived there;
she held up the dog with one hand and said, Does anyone want a dog;
my brother and I said, We do;
we said, We want that dog;
but our mother said no to getting the dog;
she said no way were we getting a dog when we couldn’t even help around the house;
we looked at each other like what did that even mean;
none of us ever helped around the house;
we had help to help around the house;
our mother was just pretending again;
but our fake aunt was better at this;
this dog was the runt of its litter, she said, and it was the only one that wasn’t brown;
this dog was gray, she said, and it was the only one with longer hair;
her kid, she whispered behind her hand, had kicked it across a room;
because his parents were divorced is what we thought, and now he was all fucked up;
divorce meant that, and it meant our fake aunt was all dressed up for going out;
there was a way one dressed for going out;
there was a way one smelled, so obvious, so desperate;
our mother said, I said no;
but our father was petting the dog now;
he had one arm around our fake aunt’s waist;
he made sounds into the dog’s fur;
don’t turn this into a thing;
our fake aunt wasn’t the one;
we hated her, but she wasn’t the one we hated the absolute most;
and whether or not we got to keep the dog;
it doesn’t matter the outcome of that day;
that scene in our kitchen doesn’t matter;
or any scene in our kitchen;
or in any kitchen, or in any room;
as if rooms could even protect us;
as if the sun would never collapse;
and we would just go on forever;
obeying some law of inertia;
a ball rolling straight down the lane;
no force coming in to stop it;
there was such dumb hope in those laws;
such bullshit in those laws;
because the ball would eventually hit the pins;
it would send them wild across the floor;
the pins would eventually hit the walls;
a kid would press a small white button;
a machine would sweep the pins away;
a machine would reset the pins;
and the whole fucking thing would start over;
that celebrity we loved because he was hot;
and by hot I mean more than looks;
the kids were acting like no big deal;
but I felt I was being emptied;
then I felt a shadow moving in;
like the shadow of something you can’t even see;
or something you’re not supposed to;
my brother kept asking questions;
he wanted details no one else did;
I could see the chewed-up pizza on his tongue;
I said, Close your mouth;
he said, What’s your problem;
I said, Close your fucking mouth;
what was I even thinking then;
it’s hard to explain, I guess;
astronauts again, I guess;
forced travel through unfamiliar space;
nearly everything in it unreachable;
everything in it no better than anything else;
just hydrogen to helium;
just helium to something else;
and something else to something else;
so what good, I learned that day, was hot;
what good, I learned, was celebrity;
I’d always wanted to have it;
I often imagined, late at night, my entourage, my limousine, my attitude;
I often tried to will this future for myself;
though could I even believe in this future;
or could I only believe in the grander one, the destined one;
the temporary free fall;
the on and on, then off;
no wonder the kids shot at their heads, stuck out their tongues, fell to the ground, laughing;
we were all just so confused;
there were times I wanted nothing more than to break free from our orbit;
I wanted a force to come in, already, and upset it;
I’d been secretly holding on, I admit, to the hope of this force coming in;
not an asteroid force or a black hole force;
but the slightest shred of holy;
some shred of belief that everything would be revealed;
that the world was something conceivable;
a linear path directed toward some good;
but there would be more celebrity suicides;
and noncelebrity suicides;
and more explosion and more expansion;
how could you not overthink it;
but the kids got back to bowling;
the guy at the counter poured me another beer;
I wasn’t going to drink this one;
I’d already outgrown this moment;
I called our mother, said, Come get us;
but our father came instead;
my brother put up a fight out front;
he wanted to keep bowling, he said;
he was beating the other kids, he said;
he was now, my brother, officially, the enemy;
we were staring each other down across an invisible line;
in the car, our father didn’t talk;
my brother sighed again and again and again;
some old song played on the radio;
what was out the car window passed too fast;
I couldn’t focus on any of it;
all those houses whooshing by;
and all that grass;
and all those trees;
all those birds;
all those stars;

Excerpted from Machine, by Susan Steinberg (Graywolf Press, August 20, 2019).

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