The Small Things
by Jeremy Hight
He turned the knob and flipped the switch and the thing that had sat there for decades in his grandfather’s garage like a curious jukebox eaten by a phone booth shuddered, light flickered and flashed, numbers spun on antiquated dials, Joey even thought he saw smoke make a little cloud for a bit. It was oddly alive in the way machines can be, dormancy over, it actually was doing something.
Joey was sure the thing was a prop from an old film, collected parts of many more likely. It had seen rains and droughts, bird droppings, spider colonies coming and going over the years, tarps gone bad by age but there it was , glowing, humming, almost seeming alive. Joey had seen the old films of the world’s fair robot that smoked cigarettes by remote control, of the future telephones that you could see yourself and who you were talking to. The smoking robot was mostly the old smoke and mirrors, human controls. The new phones had failed because they were too expensive and who wanted to show off that surprise vesuvius new nose zit or rush out the shower to a call from a boss or nun?
Some family rumors were that the crazy old man was trying to build a perpetual motion machine, a space suit for mars, a time machine, a survival booth for the end of the world and on and on. He died and the funeral had both an open casket and fittingly an open garage. People filed past the casket mostly averting their eyes or popping a quick glance out of some tick, some morbid sense of curiosity or duty. The same was true for the garage and that thing in the corner.
Joey had accidentally spilled his soda and fallen when he went to pick it up. The thing was humming and whirring and all he could recall was his fingers touching an odd shaped indentation on the thing when he almost fell. His fingers hurt a bit actually. An odd pain, like a thousand tiny needles not the weight of his body on his hand in an almost fall. It oddly pulsed , this pain, almost like the lights to music at a disco in old movies. The night was warm and pinned with stars amongst the usual edge of the city glow but in one garage on one street in one neighborhood all hell seemed to break loose. The whirring rushing whoosing hissing noises were building now. The lights were changing colors, the thing was shuddering and almost seemed like the odd dance of a washing machine with a brick thrown in it, a dance of near splitting apart. The strangest thing is the neighbors did not seem to notice or at least care, at least not yet.
Joey was the only one who did not attend that funeral. He was away in college and could not afford to make it home. It was painful as he really loved his grandfather and felt inspired by all the odd things he tried and failed in that garage as well as the enginerring things for spot jobs that had worked. The family never opened a spot in a conversation enough for Joey to express this. It was a parade of who got a new car/job/girlfriend/boyfriend/divorce/medical condition/annoying habit. Grandpa was none of those things.
Joey had this summer before his last year in college. His friends were working or the lucky ones were traveling. He was staying with grandma and sifting through old things for a summer. He was helping her clean and he was helping her figure out what to keep and throw away. He was helping her cut grass, clean dishes, organize old papers and he was there to be there for once if she ever fell apart. He mostly was there for her but to also do a kind of surface level archaeological dig of the man, the man he was not there for in the end, the man who no one every truly knew.
The machine whirred and clicked and now opened up like some metallic beast flower phonebooth, it was a door where his hand landed. It opened with the sound of hydraulics and the musty stench was clearly a gasp of air stilted in place for decades. The odor hit Joey like a million rotten blocks of cheese. It was unbearable but…that..was..a..door…..
Joey’s grandmother had been sleeping for 4 months by the exact indentation of the old man in their old 4 poster bed. The ghost of him was a physical weight and the waves of blankets laid up against from her waking was to Joey the waves on a shore of her body so long spooning the man and now the space he left. She was so caring and selfless that Joey was beginning to wonder if she was hiding moments of sadness away in that old tiled bathroom with the door shut ending with her lighting a match to cover the smells that were never lingering really. He helped her make meals, sometimes for 3 with a portion thrown away. The summer only had two weeks left. Back to school. Graduation. A world ending and the gap before whatever comes next. He secretly wished every night to have the money to be there when she fell ill and god forbid when it was her time. He could not betray both of their ends.
The foul air began to dissipate. Again not alerting the neighbors behind that old drooping wooden fence. Their t.v was on at a pretty high volume for this time of night The interior was in pretty good shape but strips of what looked like jerky and carcass proved to be old leather of a bench seat now coming clear into view. There were dials and numbers and a box that held putrid ruins of foods and liquids and an ancient parachute which was laid carefully sometime in the past by that odd chair. What was this machine all about? What side of the grand canyon did this one lie on? At least some things were working this time but for what purpose?
Joey knew she hoarded things. That was unavoidable as neat as she was. The piles of newspapers in that long aging hallway were like a frozen wave of the moments and minutia of decades, 4 to be exact, laid out in towering stacks in perfect chronological order. She was the hoarder where he loved to throw everything away to get it out of view. Away was never quite the word, more passed on to someone else’s problem. Still she slept by his shape in a mattress.
The glow grew brighter now in the garage. Joey moved in closer and the seat was shuddering , the dials were spinning, he saw that there was an instruction booklet. An instruction booklet ? But he kept everything to himself he cared for….threw the rest away
Joey. I know it is you. Nobody else would have worked so hard through all the old crap. Hi. This means you found me out. It also means I am finally dead.
This was the beginning of the ten page instructions clearly typed long ago on a typewriter, the pages yellowing and faded. How did he know? Why? Joey’s mind spun. Maybe he saw me sneaking around back here when I was a kid. Maybe his paranoia. Maybe it is a trick and nothing will happen, a weird grandpa genius punishment for my poking in his old things.
Joey read the whole thing. Turned some dials and one broke. Another shocked him. Sneaky old man. Surely this was just a bunch of stuff. The man did work for the movies making props and was an engineer. Joey typed in a long sequence of letters and numbers per the middle of page 7 in the aging booklet. The door closed.
The garage disappeared.
Light and those stars become pin holes then lines like pinstripes. Then a blur. His body felt like it was stretching. Waves of heat raged in him, all was a sort of visual locust swarm of colored bits, the walls of the phone booth thing shuddered sure to break into atoms.
Then nothing. The loudest of quiet.
Joey looked around the machine and at himself All still there it seems.
He opened the door and the garage looked the same. Ah so it was a prop. As he walked out of the garage he thought for a second the machine looked a little cleaner. There was a stranger’s car parked in the driveway. What a jerk. He would have it towed if it was not gone in an hour. He walked out to the front yard and the house looked like grandma had put out some flowers that she must have bought and hid away like those cigarettes. Joey thought he heard her talking to someone, a young man’s voice. Odd. She sounded friendly as her words wafted out an open window. Maybe some neighbor kid.
Joey thought of that friend grandma had for 40 years, Mrs Kim. She arrived at her door with food and they would just teach other recipes. Maybe the kid was some neighbor’s son back from school to visit the nice lady down the block. The guy across the street was a former gangster who put the word out to leave her mail alone as she loved her smile and brownies.
There were more old cars. Maybe a car club. Joey decided to go for a walk for a bit, let grandma have her visit. Her voice sounded bright today, the cough clearly letting up, the slightly weary tone gone like a cloud burned away clean.
Joey turned the corner and there was a park that had never been there before. He saw a truck deliver ice. Another pulled up to deliver ice cold milk. Odd. The young woman staring at him seemed oddly familiar but he had never seen her before. The park had a fountain.
Joey walked a few blocks and came to a store. The prices were super discount. More of those old cars. Big car club. He bought a soda with a name he had not seen before, excited for this new taste, the future of soda the label said and he believed it, surely a new flavor, a new recipe of some kind and so cheap.
He was surprised to see newspapers for sale with the internet and all but hey somebody stills reads them he thought. He looked closer and dropped his soda, the glass cracking on the floor as the man behind the old register opened his mouth in anger and shock. 1954. August 3, 1954.
Again, like in the odd machine, the world seemed to pitch and bend, stretch, sure to break into atoms, but this time it was just Joey. He ran along streets that had new/old cars, bright green/long dead lawns, past people making meals and chatting on porches on a Saturday, most surely long dead away from here. He ran past the fountain. That woman staring at him, young in a nice hat was Verda, the kind older woman who sometimes had his grandmother over for dinner. He ran back to the yard with those flowers,those voices pouring out his grandmother’s window…..it was a young couple, she and grandpa had moved in back in 1949. It was her voice and a man she cared for. Joey ran past and thought he heard her call this strange young man Raymond, grandpa’s name as Joey rushed back to that garage past the old car that was not old at all.
Joey closed the door, seeing now that the indentation he leaned on when falling 50 plus years from here (such a distance ..more than miles or maps) was a sort of starting button, hand shaped. The thing again whirred and hummed back to a kind of life. Grandpa had hid more than drinking beers in the garage and a few jobs along the way. This was now clear. Joey again scanned the manual that had a mention of him on its first page. He spun dials and input a different set of numbers (page 8 not 7) and all again became stretch and bend then lines then a sort of universe of glowing ash fireflies as atoms then a blur.
Joey opened the door as all again quieted. He was too stunned to stop and fully think of what was happening. He got back in and stopped at 3 other times. In one time he found a coat a woman dropped. Nothing more. In another he bought buttons to fix those lost. In another he got a cup. He then bought a mattress and dragged it all the way. It barely fit in the machine. He did not solve mysteries, stop wars, halt dictators nor did he win lotteries, hoard gold or take credit for discoveries of the unborn future with knowledge unborn in that past. He ran errands, got mundane things, used this odd machine like a bus or borrowed truck.
He then walked in to grandma sitting with a drink of soda. She smiled warmly, happy he was back from cleaning the backyard and garage. He gave her the small things. These were things she needed. Later he would bring in that mattress, get a neighbor kid, Verda’s grandson to help him bring it in and replace her old tired bed, the one with the ghost of a man bent in a portrait in its tired frame. It was time. He would have wanted it that way.
He later covered the machine again in tarps never to touch it again, a kind of burial for the man.
Joey lifted the last old worn tarp slowly with great care and shut the garage door.