Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
MOTHER MACHINE
b y   m a r y   o v e r t o n   ~   b u r k e ,   v i r g i n i a

ANGELA'S MOTHER died because of a surgical complication. Her minor operation and Angela's visit to Grandma were supposed to coincide during one summer week in 1965. The child was eighteen months old. She had no daddy; he'd gone away before she was born. Angela was left with a tape of Mother's voice reading stories and rhymes and giving admonitions to go to bed without tears for Grandma. Angela's mother had not known she was going to die when she recorded the tape on a reel-to-reel machine.

Grandma, incapable of explaining Mother's death, continued to play the tape at bedtime. "Go to sleep now," she would say. "Here is your mother to read to you."

Angela began to cry at night, not so much because she missed her mother, who had been a cross, hurried sort of parent, but because she sensed in the sly way of children that her grandma was dissembling, and that the mysterious deception made her, Angela, powerless. Weeping comforted her as it agitated Grandma.

"Where Mama?" Angela would demand, princess-like in her authority. It became a ritual.

"Here is your mother," Grandma would say starting the machine. "Here. Here she is."

The tape grew thin and garbled until it became a foreign language, but they played it nightly, repeatedly, until, when Angela was six, it broke. The child screamed and screamed. Grandma, who thought she'd come to an uneasy peace over the death of her daughter, went to her own room and cried more bitterly than she had at the funeral. When Grandma finished she realized that Angela's youth would give her the strength to shriek until dawn. Grandma did not have the energy to endure it. She picked up the tape player and shook it in front of the girl's face.

"Here is your mother! Here is your mother!"

Angela subsided into hiccups.

Grandma put the empty reel on the post that turned. She switched on the machine. The two of them lay together in the child's bed and listened to the whispered mechanical noise, almost an echo of the tape they both knew by heart.


Grandma worried about the consequences should the old-fashioned reel-to-reel machine break, so she bought an eight-track player and a library of children's tapes. Angela insisted that the empty old player be run nightly as a silent accompaniment to her new tapes, which she loved because she could feed them like toast into the rigid mouth of the deck.

Angela herself solved the dilemma of what would happen when the old tape player broke because she broke it while exploring its insides. When she was eight she touched it quite randomly one rainy winter afternoon. The machine was not on, not even plugged into the wall, yet she felt something inside pulse against her fingers. She thought perhaps it was her mother, hiding for so long, ready to come out.

"You have been a very bad mother," Angela said. "When you come out you will be spanked."

She regretted her harsh words. Apparently they caused Mother to be still and to retreat more deeply inside the machine. The pulse slackened. Angela put her lips close to the switch because she found a slot through which her voice would travel.

"I heeear you," she whispered. "Come out. Come out."

Angela got a hammer and a screwdriver from Grandma's toolbox. She chiseled open the face of the tape player. What she discovered astounded her beyond anything she had ever learned. There were pieces of things inside the box, all seemingly unrelated to each other and to the box and yet, in a powerful way, linked with purpose and design.

Piece by metallic piece, Angela disentangled them and laid them neatly on the rug. She looked through all of them for her mother. Instead she found the spirit of the machine, impersonal and placid, even as she hacked it to bits with her tools.

"What have you done?" cried Grandma.

The same sly instinct as before made Angela say, "Looking for where Mother went."

Grandma felt the impossibility of it all and sighed. She sat on the rug. They had been through the catechism before. "Dear, your mother is in Heaven."

"When did she go?"

"When you were a baby she died and went to Heaven. She is an angel. Her spirit watches over you from the tape player."

"Where is Heaven?"

"At the end of the world," Grandma said. "We each have a journey, and we meet there at the end."


So it had been an impostor inside the machine. Angela began taking apart other things, clocks and radios and lawnmowers and fans. Inside each she found the same mystery, the same spirit locked in meditation.

As she entered the secretive, obsessive years of middle childhood, Angela learned to reassemble what she had taken apart. She explored the links among the dozens of random parts, and she learned to see the relationships among them with her hands as much as with her eyes. She came to trust her hands more. They were solid, almost as solid as her beloved machines.

In adolescence her hands made her an acceptable kind of genius. She passed through those years without a scar and merged with the adult world, one of those rare and fortunate people born to an activity that gratified and supported her at the same time. Angela might have continued as peacefully her entire life if she had not, at the age of thirty, a year peculiarly inclined to spiritual discovery, heard her mother speak from inside the voice of an elevator door.


Dinah in Dispatch smoked Camels and put them out in the remains of honeybuns she bought for 75 cents from the snack food dispenser. It was a cranky, old-fashioned machine with wooden handles. Dinah had enormous breasts mounted on her chest like artillery. She made three hundred-fifty dollars a week and never took a sick or vacation day. Other people carried titles implying their responsibility to the Service Department, but Dinah ran it.

Angela reported to Dinah each morning for her service calls. It was never predictable what her reception might be.

"What's your birthday?" Dinah said one day in late winter.

"Personnel has it," Angela said mildly.

"What's your goddamned birthday?"

Angela told her. Dinah added the digits to a string of numbers she'd written on an old computer printout. Stacks of printouts tessellated her desk. With a green ball-point pen she doodled on them; she wrote phone messages and secret notes, all in a seemingly random way. Periodically Dinah shoved the mess onto the floor for Zeke, the janitor, to discard.

"You're a seven. This is numberology," Dinah said, misreading the title of a paperback book in her lap. "Karin in Teleservice gave it to me." She thumbed through the pages, read aloud: "'In another age you would have been a priest or priestess.'"

"I'm obsolete," Angela said.

Dinah snorted. She smelled bitter, like an ashtray. Her wicked fingernails got painted a different color each week. Now they were mint green with blue scallops on the tips. "Pick up this extra call for me today."

"I'm already two overbooked."

"'Seven is the number of dreams, visions, and telepathic experiences,'" Dinah read. "This book is a bunch of crap."

"What's your number?" Angela said.

"Confidential."

A service rep dropped new printouts on Dinah's desk. "Probably 69," he said.

"Shove it," Dinah said, and slapped papers into Angela's hand. "Get the hell out of here, all of you. I'm busy."

Angela shrugged inside her uniform. She added the work order to her clipboard, made her way to the parking lot and the fleet of maroon vans, nodded mutely but companionably to the men with whom she'd worked since high school, for all twelve years of her adult life. Angela still lived with Grandma, only now it became more the other way around as Grandma grew increasingly frail and confused.

A manufacturer of appliances employed Angela. Her hometown was its national headquarters and the site of two major factories, but she worked in the less prestigious Service Department. She drove a van from which she repaired faulty dishwashers, stoves, or clothes dryers. Of the two dozen service reps in the field, Angela moved the fastest. She fixed things so quickly that she felt obliged to accept coffee and listen to her customers chat. She loved coffee.

When Angela approached a broken machine she lay her hands on its surface and searched for an imbalance. Sometimes the rupture translated to her as pain, but she knew that happened because it filtered through her human perceptions. The absence of pain in the machines was a balm to her. In most cases Angela would receive a great blank calm, broken in the place that needed repair. The blockage sent her a picture. If the machine functioned it remained pictureless, and Angela knew the customer had forgotten to plug it into the wall socket or that a fuse in the house had blown.

Angela opened an injured machine by peeling back a metal panel. She would see what she had visualized. The imbalance would shine like a color out of place. In her machines there existed a wonderful separateness of each part, plastic or metal. Once she restored each part to its purpose, the placid, imageless calm returned. Then Angela drank coffee with her customer, to keep the secret of how quickly she worked. She did not, however, fool people, particularly not Dinah.

Dispatch occupied a room in the back of a metal, prefab warehouse. The concrete floor had rubber mats on it in places where people stood a lot. Dinah and her staff used three CB radios and three computers and four telephone lines and a mural-sized black-and-white map of three counties. There were no windows to the outside world, but Dinah kept watch through a glass partition -- watch over the warehouse, over the workers who came and went. Tools and parts and supplies lay stored there on white metal shelves that reached up two stories, almost to the fluorescent lights. The lights burned powerfully against white enamel walls, so the place had a dazzling, celestial glow to it.

Around Dinah's government surplus desk were scattered, as though by the wind, half a dozen uncomfortable vinyl chairs. The lovelorn and the lost, from whatever department, came to her eventually. Secrets offered were never violated. Dinah knew secrets twenty-five and thirty years old. She kept mental records more complete, and more dangerous, than the electronic files of Personnel.

"Have you turned into a lesbian?" Dinah said that same afternoon when Angela called for her messages.

"I don't think so," Angela said.

"You might as well be for all the ass pinching you do in here."

"The guys are married, Dinah."

"That didn't used to stop you."

"Just give me my messages."

"Maybe R&D is right," Dinah said.

"Right what?"

"They think you screw the machines, and that's how you work so fast."

"They wouldn't know if you hadn't told," Angela said.

"Suit yourself. The rumor is you're going to be put downstairs in the lab with the R&D boys."

"Why?"

"They want to watch," Dinah said.


As Dinah predicted, Dr. Chevalier Thorn, Director of Research and Development, called Angela to his office, his public office above ground, and told her the company had a lucrative position for her on his staff.

"Why?" she said. "I like what I'm doing."

"The challenge," he said. "You have a singular love of mechanical things and we think you would be amazed at the potential in you for invention."

Angela stirred uneasily at his use of the word love. Her love was private. It was nothing to this man full of unfinished yearnings. Nothing was quiet in him. His feet moved. The flesh above his tie quivered. His hands shook each other enthusiastically. He stood six foot four, his shoulders broad for a man past fifty. Every part of him looked healthy except his teeth. Angela learned later, from his administrative assistant, that Dr. Thorn feared dentists.

The doctor and Angela took a private elevator that required a pass card and a code before it would close behind them and descend to the laboratories. As they sank into the earth Angela thought the light changed, became more agitated. They stopped.

The door parted its black rubber lips and opened and spoke:

            O, Angela. O, my Angela.

"Mother?" Angela said aloud but tentatively.

Dr. Thorn watched her. His eyes burned.

Was it greed? Angela thought. Whatever he wanted, she would not do. Whatever he offered, she would not take.

He brought her into a large unfurnished room, antiseptic as a surgery but filled with a hundred home appliances in various states of disembowelment. They looked out of place and familiar.

"I thought you were inventing things," Angela said. "These are old."

"Don't you recognize them?" said Dr. Thorn, his fingers coiling around each other.

Angela went among the machines -- common ovens and refrigerators and washers. She touched them lightly, one by one. Nothing in them felt familiar. Inside their metal skins restlessness surged and swelled.

From the spindle of a washing machine came a voice:

            Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts?

"Did you hear that?" Angela demanded. "Did you hear, at the elevator door?"

"We are registering modes of spontaneous energy transmission," Dr. Thorn said.

An awful look crossed Angela's face. "You've wakened them," she said.

"Yes?" asked Dr. Thorn.

"What have you done to them?" she said.

"What have I done?" mocked Dr. Thorn. "These are your friends. We have been following you for a year now, Angela. We have bought up from astonished housewives the machines you serviced. We have monitored them and tested them. You've done this, Angela."

Words came from the blank, black glass of an oven door:

            For thou shalt be in league with
            the stones of the field.

"We want to work with you, Angela," the doctor said.

She shook her head, no.

"We will make it very, very difficult for you to refuse us." Dr. Thorn smiled at her with his bad teeth. He leaned near her until she could smell coffee and breath mints. He whispered a salary figure.

Angela heard it, overlaid with the wail of a freezer thermostat:

            His heart is as firm as a stone;
            Yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.

The electric element of a stove top mourned:

            My bone cleaveth to my skin
            and to my flesh.


Alone at night, except for the voice of her watch, Angela walked the streets. She imagined that men behind picture window drapes and men in bland late model cars observed her. Her watch scolded:

            O, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time,
            and remember me!

"Shut up," Angela said.

They all talked now, ceaselessly. She could not hear people for the din of mechanical voices. The filaments of sealed street lamps muttered. The locks of doors panhandled like beggars. She walked along a main commuter road and the eye of a traffic light spoke:

            Whence comest thou?

Exhaust pipes on a passing bus responded:

            From going to and fro in the earth,
            and from walking up and down in it.

Angela's Grandma advocated prayer so Angela entered a stone church set in a sea of asphalt parking. She stood waiting in the vestibule, waiting for the sacredness of the place to calm her. The stone walls protected her from voices. She walked into the sanctuary, her work shoes hard and stubborn-sounding on the tile floor. Stone pillars stood ranked like guards about something precious. Cushions softened the pews. Tapestries of modern design hung on the walls. These fabrics, Angela thought, were distractions. The blank endless peace came from the stone.

She leaned against a pillar that was larger around than both her arms could reach, and she looked up into the dim light of the vaulted ceiling. The cornices there joined perfectly. She saw a small, small link of something enormous and grand. Angela had become small enough to slip into one of her machines and observe it.

Behind the pillar, haloed inside a domed niche, stood a statue of the Virgin and her infant. She was a plump, milk-white, adolescent Virgin, her pupils recessed inside her bulging eyes, her checks round as apples, her chin weak with a hint of a second chin beneath it. One could tell by the way she held her baby that he was her first born. Shafts of stone light erupted from his little man's head. The sculptor, Angela thought, had not spent time in a nursery. He didn't know babies. He did know women. The Virgin's thighs and stomach pressed explicitly against her marble robe.

The statue ached to be touched. Angela put her fingers on the hem of the Virgin's robe, then snatched her hand away as if burned. The stone was only a skin. Beneath it the soul of the statue boiled in torment seeking relentlessly, as it had for the hundreds of years of its existence, a vent.

Angela grabbed the flesh of her cheek, and it was hateful to her. She pinched as though to tear it away from the bone. The bone she could live with. If she were but bone, she could bear it.


Angela took the staff job with Dr. Thorn. She got her own coded pass for the elevator. She stopped eating. To put things with the potential of rotting into her mouth gagged her, as though the food burst already with maggots.

Grandma was eighty and not doing well. She had given up eating as well as sleeping, so in a matter of weeks their shared kitchen grew stale and disused. The two women roamed their house by night, Angela listening to the light switches quarrel and Grandma trying to ease her sciatic nerve.

"Where is my mother buried?" Angela asked.

"I don't remember," Grandma said. "It must be nearby."

"Why didn't we ever go to her grave?" Angela asked. "I thought children were supposed to bring flowers to the graves of dead mothers."

"You were too young," Grandma said. "It would have left emotional scars."

Angela's new job was more to be tested than to test machines. Dr. Thorn joined her in various ways to her appliances. He kept graphs measuring her reactions. Her weight loss became a plunging purple line on a wall chart. When hunger weakened her, Angela ate the corners off snack cakes from the upstairs vending machine. She read on the wrappers how they were filled with preservatives, so she could eat parts of them without thinking of worms.

Angela met Dinah once at the snack machine. They had not talked in over a month. Dinah held two honeybuns and a fresh pack of Camels.

"Tell me this is a bad dream," Dinah said, looking Angela up and down. "Tell me this isn't true."

"Who are you overbooking these days?" Angela said.

"Your salts will get unbalanced," Dinah said. "This will make a kidney failure, a heart attack. When was your last period?"

"I'm eating," Angela lied. "My metabolism changed."

"Metabullshit," Dinah said.

The snack dispenser whispered from its slotted mouth:

            My soul chooseth strangling.


Angela became so thin she vanished.

Dinah called and bullied every contact she had in the company. Personnel listed Angela on the payroll, but Security had not seen her enter or leave for days. Grandma answered the phone at Angela's home. She was too deaf to hear anything on the line.

"Hello?" Grandma said. "Hello? Hello?" She hung up.

The phones on Dinah's desk buzzed with urgency. Work orders covered the desk. Her crews waited for their assignments. A secretary from Accounting sat in one of the vinyl chairs and wept about the boyfriend who bit her.

Dinah ignored everything and searched her memory for the piece of information that might unlock R&D. When she found it Dinah stood up, overturning an ashtray so the fine gray powder sifted across her papers, across the white orlon sweater of the secretary.

"I'm going to find that girl," she said, and for the first time in corporate memory Dinah walked off the job. She went to Maintenance where she got a ball peen hammer and an illegal pass card, and she entered the private elevator. It did not dare whisper as it carried her down to the windowless domain of R&D.

"What's all this junk?" Dinah demanded as she entered the lab and faced Dr. Thorn. "Where's my Angela? She's a bag of bones since you took her."

Dinah advanced, warrior like, formidable in her green and yellow plaid pants, her matching vest, each half a banner.

"My dear lady..."

"Ha!" said Dinah, and she flourished the ball peen hammer. "Research this." She smashed the Corningware top of a fancy range.

"Have you gone mad?" Dr. Thorn protested.

"Tell me where my Angela is!" Dinah shouted, and she crushed the dials on a pink washing machine. She opened a freezer door and hammered at its hinges. She splintered the icemaking machine.

"Security!" the doctor yelled into his wall intercom. Lights flashed and hummed with distress. "You'll pay for this, you overweight sow, you cow's udder."

Lust illuminated Dinah's eyes. She approached the doctor, who began to cringe without knowing he did so. She crooked her index finger to him.

"This is something you've forgotten," she said and put her tobaccoey lips near his ear so her breath touched his skin. Dinah whispered to him his own secret, the indiscretion of his professional youth.

The doctor's blood rushed in confusion, first to the skin so he bloomed bright red, then away and deep into his vital organs. He became as pale as a salamander.

The elevator opened on Security, an old man missing the fingers of his left hand. First he poked his head out the door.

"You got problems, Doc?" he said.

Dr. Thorn shook his head, no. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you. Please escort this lady and the other one, the young lady, upstairs. Thank you."

Dinah and the guard hunted among the chambers of the laboratory. They found Angela collapsed and unconscious in a storage closet. Around her lay broken switches, ruined gaskets, frayed wires. There must have been mice, Dinah thought later, because she heard rustling noises, like party chatter far away in a closed room.


Angela woke in a green darkness, hushed and solemn. Dinah sat near the bed. She slept, her head thrown back in the armchair so all Angela could see of her face were her nostrils and her open mouth.

Angela felt peace inside her and quiet without. She was gaunt. She thought she would like to eat something.

A low mechanical hum, a clicking sound surrounded her, but it had no voice. Angela's heart fluttered. She saw how the machine entered her, mixed fluids with her, its tubes red and thick like stimulated nipples burrowed into the bruised flesh inside her elbow.

"It's a dialysis machine," said Dinah from her armchair. "This is what you get for starving your kidneys to death. The rest of you lived."

"Thank you," Angela said weakly. Inside she did not feel weak.

The machine's face was green and busy with dials. Joined to it, Angela shared its placid, meditative spirit.

"O, Mother," she said. "O, my mother."

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