Vending Machine: A Love Story
My body is a vending machine. Inside me, there is a pass to the nearest theme park, a recovery file with the last text sent to an ex-girlfriend, the matching shoe to complete the final pair a packrat grandfather thought he could find before passing on. Though I suppose that might be projection, as my own grandfather used to stop the truck out near the county line, limp through the grass on the side of the road, and come back with a loafer or boot. Sure enough, days later, he’d find the other one down off a state highway as he headed out to pigtail a few dozen dryers for installation. In my mind, this is where I get it from. Price is no object for me, as I don’t think I’ll ever charge anyone. My mother reminds me of how much I could make, though, constantly, after her shifts in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Why not just charge them something, anything? she asks. I think it’s like when I was a server and had large parties. Automatic gratuity always netted me less cash than if I just took care of them. My body is less boxy than anyone might imagine, though. Normal, with rounded shoulders and a culvert at where my neck meets the junction of collar bone.
Folks still reach inside like any other vending machine once they’ve made their selection, which, I’ve been told, is pleasantly cool and smelling of a chlorinated pool. Something happens to me at that point when I open up, unable to observe what they take; I imagine my spine cranking itself upward all herky jerky like a roller coaster chain, mechanically inching toward the apex of anticipation. So often, I’m left holding the heaving forms of people unimaginable to me without their tears. I feel like my body is predictive of the patterns of our universe—this whole ‘be careful what you ask for’ thing—as though it is a magic trick meant to distract me and the rest of us plebian observers only to reveal I had nothing inside me all along.
Since the word spread, I’ve become the local attraction despite my best efforts to hide. It’s to be expected, I guess. I’ve turned down every interview request, every biography, every television pitch. Until today.
Outside, a line of people hugs the fenceline. Faces haunt the foggy top-end of the mist rising from the five-acre lake across the road. As I crunch down the gravel drive, I can see the silver maples’ leaves turning back over, clamming up moisture from last night. See, the thing is, the production company had told me that they’d found someone like me, Eveline, whose body was also a vending machine. Someone whom folks had been walking up to and asking for things. Showed me an old blog post where she’d written that there was something organic in the way she’d disappeared into cottonballs somewhere in the ether of her mind, only to return to someone weeping into her shirt and pressing a wad of cash, a gift card, whatever they could into her palms. Leaving her standing in the starlight with quarter-sized blotches of either misery or elation. She had no idea.
I’d agreed to meet, only if she came here.
Conner Station Road has gone from one-and-a-half lanes to three-quarters of a lane. The winding grip of asphalt and concrete curling into the hills and disappearing around the bend with a second fence of side panels. Boom mics stretching up over the fenceline like giraffes at the watering hole.
The collective buzz melts away the last whispers of morning fog that curl over top of the surface of the lake, beckoning the catfish to slither out from their caves under the bank, inviting the first line to be cast. The voices are cicada wings and tymbal buckles, I tell myself. All part of the landscape. The whole thing is absurd.
And as I stand there on the gravel stones, here comes the next wave of camera flashes, aggressive bursts clamoring for the mist to quiet the tops of fescue and thistle.
The documentary was an international phenomenon. It showed our awkward first meeting. Both skeptical at the other, wondering if there would be cut-scenes of us telling the camera that we didn’t believe it, that there was no one else like us. There weren’t. It showed the ecstatic cavorting across the world. Montevideo, Jakarta, Helsinki, Nairobi, Detroit. The way our eyes tilted heavenward while all sorts of hands rolled in on whitecaps and darkening bogs and drew forth bundles of cash in all currencies, bracelets and mementos that had been lost, seeds for yam crops and dog collars. The documentary, entitled Not for Sale, was, of course, also a commercial success. We made a lot of money from the project as a result of speaking engagements, a book deal, and several endorsement deals that we, in turn, donated to the American Red Cross. Part of me wants to tell my mother, See, I told you so.
The film was all built, however, on a singular event. On our return home to Kentucky, the producer came to me and told me that he’d found a recovery group for heroin, goaded one of them into his script, and asked me if I was okay with giving him what he wanted.
Naturally, the idea was for Eveline to object, for me to suss out the gray area of our forms, to, as the director put it, “Make the audience question whether or not we really should get what we want, even if someone can give it to us.”
After filming wrapped, Eveline and I went to check on the man who’d been hired. He was still on track in recovery, and he seemed happy to have been involved with the film, but we felt terrible and profusely apologized over a dixie cup of punch and store-bought, frosted cookies.
We eventually retreat from the public eye and shut the gates to my property. The cars are fewer and fewer as the months since our tour ebbed into the sea of fading cicada song, first crackling leaves browning on the wind. We’ve not spoken about the film since we moved in together.
Tonight, for dinner, she pulls a single slab of prime rib and Anjou, only seared. It’s red and sickly looking there on the plate. She doesn’t use a fork and instead just grabs the entire thing with her hands, blood hanging off the char-crusted outsides and falling to the plate, only to form another bubble of former life.
I always ask her more than once. I’m worried about how my hands feel inside her, even though I never feel hers and suspect it must be similar, if not identical. I fear the way my ignorant fingers scrape and tug. She stays silent, neck vaulted backward like a human PEZ dispenser. The stellar arc of her collar bone inching its way into my vision as I pull out a bowl of raw peanuts. I love the way I demand from them, the way I can crack them open and take so many halves.
Eventually, I ask her, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever given out?”
“Probably a replacement high heel,” she says.
Quizzical look. Upturned palm.
“Yeah, this woman in Toledo stumbled up, drunk, holding a pair of pumps draped over her shoulder. Waited all that time just to get another heel. It was like 2:30 in the afternoon. I talked to her for a bit. Found out she was the Matron of Honor in a wedding the next day and hated the man who was marrying her best friend. Said that they’d all known each other in college and that she’d been with him one night while her friend and he were dating, just the once.”
“Sounds like they all suck.”
“Maybe. I dunno. It was strange because it was the only sad cry I’d ever had. What about you?”
“Are you serious?” I ask.
“Besides Fred. That was a setup. I still can’t believe they did that.”
“But I did it,” I say.
“I guess,” she says. “Then I did it, too, right?”
“No,” I say. She hadn’t actually been the one who had to just throw herself open and hope they were right, that Fred (actual name redacted for safety reasons) didn’t start using again. She didn’t have to imagine her insides congeal around the flicker of a syringe once safely inside me now glistening in the autumn daylight.
Of course, this is the beginning of the end. War of attrition, how much the other has to give.
It’s been nearly four years since that conversation, and we’ve not brought it up once. We’ve also never asked anything of each other’s’ bodies except for food and toiletries.
Always wanted to keep that initial common thread, our rib bone, sacrosanct. But at the same time save on the basics, right? Since the film my family doesn’t treat me the same, and I assume that, since we don’t really speak to hers, that they don’t for her, either.
So, we’re out walking the fenceline down to the railroad tracks. Around us hums the throbbing chuckle of frog song and bat chirps. Southern pine spear the night as we step over the tracks and out into the clearing the Cunningham’s put up for sale nearly a year ago.
She takes my hand and asks me, “Do you ever wish you could turn it off?”
“Not really,” I say. There’s a part of me that’s scared of what it would be like to lose this bit of me that’s brought such impeccable suffering to myself, to us…such unswerving elation for others. But part of me also wonders if they were all Freds and just seeking their fix on whatever grief or short-term endorphin rush would get them through such an unimaginable task as being a human without the capacity to open up and give someone whatever the fuck they wanted. I always had this thought of whether or not I’d forget how to do it somehow.
“I’d give anything to,” she says.
In the distance, there’s a sputtering crack of a beater truck clambering up the hill and slithering around the curve toward KY 148. We walk back across the road.
“Why? It’s what brought us together,” I say. I sit down on the river rock embankment leading up to the oaken railroad ties.
“Is that enough?” she asks.
“What else do you want?” I ask.
“Can I really ask you?”
Her eyes the color of snakeskin flecked with a morass of Spanish moss as moonlight peeks out from behind a nightcloud. I know what she means, but I want her to ask it proper.
“I guess we can try,” I say.
We kiss. Somehow the taste smoky and burnt, as though we were back at a high school bonfire. Finally, I’m afraid.
“You can ask me, too, when I’m done,” she says, looking up at me. Cheekbones chiseled out of the watery moonbeams angling through the cypress grove. Her fingers slide down my sternum.
And then I’m climbing into the clouds, tingling and softness filling my heart and bursting out into the night, climbing up the waterfalls some twenty miles south of us. In that infinitesimally small moment between her reaching in and my complete oblivion, I imagine the trailer of another documentary, the opening scene of which is a close-up on a moon crater…cut…pan to a medium two of her face, mine...cut…split-screen choker of half our faces, her lips parted, my eye bloodshot and dry…cut…finally, a medium-full cowboy shot of us there lying on the rocks, waiting for the train to pass above…her pulling out a single sheet of paper and blinking in and out, dissolving into the night like a cloud of fireflies.
When Luke Wortley was a kid he wanted to be an interventional radiologist. After four or five concussions, he forgot calculus and figured out he loved words instead. He has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Butler University, where he was the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal. His work has appeared in Inch, Limestone, Cleaver, and elsewhere. Twitter: @LukeWortley