2 December 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 4
The Confidential Mechanic
In the morning her postcard lay in the mail safe, a little apart from the other mail, singing, "Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think." The postcard had never sung to her before, but the message that followed was the same as always: "Your annual checkup is today at 4:00 p.m. Either you or your Machine must be present."
She opened the rest of the mail—a letter from the whisper man, a sample of herbal euphoria—and then, while she ate her breakfast, she listened to the postcard and felt a rush of gratitude for the confidential mechanic. She thought about his dark, tousled hair and quirked upper lip. With him, all it took was enough good simulations. One year she gave him bighorn sheep in the mountains; another time, three delicate hummingbirds; and once a polar bear, massive and unknowable, somewhere in the Arctic. The confidential mechanic accepted these encouragements, as he called them, with a sharp intake of breath, and in turn helped her out.
Long ago she herself used to go in for the checkup, and it was very simple when the postcard came. Then she began to have trouble passing the exam on her own, so she bought herself a Machine. It had been a good one, the best she could afford on her underminer's salary, but as the years went by, it needed work to make it presentable—everything from the recommended add-ons to an occasional rogue motherboard.
She rose from the table and went out to the garage where her Machine hulked quietly. A low buzzing hum was all she could hear until she put her ear against the smooth flat plates close to the ground, and then there was a kind of monotonous but irregular ticking. She remembered that Adele, the underminer who had worked beside her all those years, had lost her Machine to a kind of subdued, muffled thumping sound. But then Adele hadn't known the confidential mechanic.
She washed her face and called her neighbor. He was a whisper man and always at home. "Can you please help me put my Machine in the truck?" she asked and added, "I have an alligator swamp simulation you might like to have." He was in her garage within minutes, but even together they couldn't budge the Machine.
"I'm not as strong as I once was," he admitted, but he licked his lips rapidly, eagerly as he pocketed the simulation. He turned to leave.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Don't you have a power mover?" He did and had to work for his alligators after all.
Before she left for her appointment, she gave the Machine one last appraising look. It projected from the back of the truck like a small but dangerous spacecraft. If it weren't for the confidential mechanic, she was certain she wouldn't pass. She made sure that she had the simulation—a profusion of flamingos heaving themselves aloft on pink-feathered wings—then got into the truck.
The trip was plagued by small annoyances. The truck struggled under the Machine's weight and seemed barely airborne. Twice she lost her way. Finally she saw the site glowing up ahead like a target in an ultra-game.
She parked in hover orbit and went down to find the confidential mechanic. As she walked, she glanced up anxiously every once in a while to make sure the Machine hadn't fallen from the truck. Her heart beat a little faster at the thought of seeing her special ally, and she kept thinking that every dark tousled head was his. Finally, she stopped a boy pulling a wheeled inspection platform. "Can you tell me please where I can find the confidential mechanic?"
"Gone," he said, shrugging and sniffing.
"But where?" A panic began to coalesce like a mist over water.
"With that woman and her tiger simulations," said the boy as he pulled away.
She looked accusingly at the flamingos and tossed them to the ground. It was nearly 4:00. There was nothing to do but leave the Machine in the sky and run.
About the author:
Alice Whittenburg's fiction has appeared online in flashquake, Word Riot, Locus Novus, Pif Magazine, and Pindeldyboz, among others. She is the co-editor of the online literary magazine, The Café Irreal. She can be reached online at and www.irreal-estate.org.