June 5, 2015
Mother’s first four children were all appliances. Cuisinart was the oldest, then came the Microwave twins. Everyone assumed I’d be the last. Mine had been a difficult birth; Mom’s screams had caromed off the walls of the warehouse for a day and a half. One of the washing machines told me in confidence that he’d been afraid her hinges would pop off.
“You almost finished her,” he said. “She was at the repair shop for three days. It was touch and go for a while, but she came back good as new.”
After I came along, Mom kept her doors closed for a long time, but shortly after my sixth birthday, we began noticing small changes. Her lights were shutting off for seconds at a time and there was an odd rumbling in her ice maker, and we all knew she was storing something extra.
Mom was mum on the subject of our fathers, but we had our suspicions. She could never resist a sale. The twins arrived a few weeks after a special on microwaves. Space heaters had been marked down twenty-five percent two months before I pushed my way past her water chute. The early days before my first plug-in are hazy, but I have a vague memory of hearing Mom sigh when a particularly sleek, tricked-out model was taken off the shelf.
The origins of her fifth child, however, were a complete mystery. His birth wasn’t met with the usual round of congratulations from the other machines. No one had a clue what to say or do. We’d never seen anything like my little brother – a small, hairy, mewling creature who was warm and wet to the touch. Everyone just stood around staring until Vacuum flipped him over to check for a battery pocket or electric socket, but the only openings on my brother were small holes at each end that didn’t conform to any plug shape I’d ever seen. When I brushed up against him, he left a greasy smudge on my shiny black surface and I didn’t go near him for a long time after that. Mom released a blast of water from her filter to clean him off and he let out a howl that rose to the ceiling and stayed there, like a dark cloud.
The twins, Cuisinart and I were all more or less able to fend for ourselves after our first power surge, but the new baby remained helpless long after Mom disgorged him. It took him days just to roll over. Unable to turn back again, he just laid there, his four little legs flailing in the air, until Mom managed to nudge him over with her foot grill.
After the initial shock, Mom warmed to the new baby, so much so that her ice cube maker couldn’t maintain its proper temperature and began to leak on a regular basis. From time to time, I had to clean up after her, turning myself on high until the water dried.
“My little Furball,” she would wheeze, flapping her right door open and shut to keep him cool.
“You’re going to damage yourself if you keep that up,” Cuisinart warned, but Mom ignored him. In spite of, or maybe because of, his strangeness, she seemed to love our new little brother best of all. At night, she would scoop up the fuzzy creature in her salad bin and rock him in and out in vain attempts to put him to sleep.
“She never did that for me,” Cuisinart grumbled.
“By the time you were his age, you were already blending and mixing,” I reminded him.
Furball wriggled around all night, but spent most of the morning curled up like a light bulb filament. As the days leached into weeks, I stopped resenting my little brother. Watching his daily struggles softened my springs. Nothing came easily to him; breathing, eating, sleeping all seemed to require a colossal effort that made his whole body quiver. The rest of us used grills and platforms to avoid contact with the ground, but he would purposely lower his pink, squishy belly to the floor and rub against the pocked concrete, emitting strange little grunts as he rolled around in the grit and dirt. When he was done, he would sit up on his back legs and pick off bits of dust and muck with his front ones, occasionally popping some small bit of something into his mouth.
For my mother’s sake, the other machines tried to ignore my brother’s odd habits, but I was strangely compelled by him. Mother often told me that when I was young, I was fascinated by clipped wires and would poke and pull them even if they were sharp or hot. It was the same with Furball. I couldn’t stop watching him, no matter how painful or embarrassing his behavior. He moved in small, cautious steps and sought out dark, cramped spaces. He clawed at holes as if he was trying to bury himself alive. Some days, he kept digging even after he’d cut himself. Then he’d waddle back to wherever Mom was, leaving behind bright, red streaks to mark his trail.
“He’s going to rust over before his first year,” Cuisinart predicted, “and I’m guessing his warranty doesn’t cover self-inflicted damage.”
“I don’t think it’s rust,” I whispered, careful to keep my whirr down so the others wouldn’t hear.
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know. Something worse.”
“What could be worse than rust?”
I saw a few of the dishwashers leaning toward us so I didn’t answer. Relations with our neighbors were bad enough. Whatever sympathy Furball had generated when he first arrived had evaporated without a trace. When they thought I had shut down for the day, I sometimes heard the others gossiping about our family, blaming Mother for the stain on the community.
“She should have gotten rid of it before it slid down her chute,” Coffee Maker hissed one night, steam coming out of his cover so fast and thick it soaked his filter lining.
Convection Oven agreed. “She had to have known something was wrong. A mother always knows.”
“Killing it would have been a mercy. What kind of life is that – slithering around like a silverfish, sponging up crumbs and spiders.”
“Please, not while I’m baking.”
They changed the subject to the upcoming shift in daylight savings time, which required everyone to re-set their clocks a week earlier than usual.
Cuisinart has tried to convince me that I imagined the whole thing, but I swear I saw Coffee Machine lean over to pour boiling water over Furball a few days later. My little brother was on the floor licking himself at the time. Like so much else about him, Furball’s self-cleaning mechanism was painfully inefficient. No matter how much he contorted his limbs, he couldn’t reach all of his parts. And somehow he smelled worse after a cleaning than before, as if all he’d managed to do was add a layer of fresh must to his already rank odor.
His cleaning cycle took forever to complete. He sometimes worked on the same spot so long I was afraid he’d rub off his glossy, black finish, which was his only attractive feature. Ordinarily, he would turn at the slightest noise or motion, like a highly sensitive thermostat that adjusted to the tiniest change in the atmosphere, but when he was washing, he shut down. Anyone out to harm him would have waited for that part of his day to make a move.
Since it was an unusually warm April afternoon and I didn’t have much to do, I noticed Coffee Maker fill himself up past his high water mark. At first I thought it was a mistake, but then I saw him lean to one side to accommodate the extra liquid. I decided it was some kind of experiment. The last few years had been rough on the coffee machines. They were required to perform all kinds of new tricks – steam cream, foam milk, melt chocolate. I’d heard Coffee Maker complain bitterly about having to keep up with all the new fads.
“You have no idea what the pressure is like,” he’d fumed more than once. “I have recurring nightmares about spontaneous combustion. It’s gotten so bad I had to cut down on the caffeine.”
When I saw him shuffle to the edge of his shelf just before he was about to boil over, I knew he wasn’t testing his liquid capacity. I blew my alarm whistle as loudly as I could. He jumped back at once. The hiss of steaming water hitting the floor was smothered by the fuss over my safety valve going off. By the time I managed to assure the others I was alright, all signs of Coffee Maker’s crime had dried up. Since I didn’t have any evidence, I kept my suspicions to myself. Cuisinart was the only one I confided in and he dismissed my concerns with a single turn of his blades.
“You overheated,” he whined. “No machine is reliable in that condition.”
“I was fine the night I heard him talking to Convection Oven.”
“Let’s face it, he didn’t say anything the rest of us haven’t thought.”
I kept quiet about Coffee Maker, but it turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had seen him cross the line from thought to action. Furball retreated more and more into the dark, moist edges of the warehouse, sniffing and pawing at the ground as though he was searching for something. Every now and again, his head would pop up and he’d bark short, happy barks, but then, moments later, he’d be stretched flat on the floor, like a deflated plastic tube.
He began disappearing for longer and longer periods of time, discovering hidden pockets of filth and damp that none of us would have gone near. At first, Mother panicked whenever he was out of sight for more than a few minutes, but she gradually became accustomed to his absences.
“My baby is growing up,” she would sigh, causing the cubes in her ice maker to shift slightly. She managed to convince us that she’d adjusted to the new independence of her youngest child until the day that he failed to reappear before dark and she blew her light out worrying.
“He’ll be back. You know how he is, always chasing after some dust bunny or piece of lint,” Big Microwave said, but I could tell from his uneven ring tone that even he didn’t buy what he was saying.
Since Cuisinart and I were thinner than our wide-bodied brothers and better able to negotiate narrow spaces, we went out to look for Furball. After an hour or so, I found him crouched up at the back of a packing crate. I signaled to him with my lights, but there was no response. Cuisinart ordered him to come out, but he still didn’t move.
“That’s it,” Cuisinart grunted, gears grinding, “I’m going to get him.”
“Let me do it.” I was afraid Cuisinart might switch into his blend cycle given his mood and the noise would be too much for my fragile little brother. As I inched toward the back of the box, I noticed scratch marks all over the cardboard. Bits of chewed up paper were strewn across the bottom of the crate and it was covered in mouse shit. I couldn’t help wondering if Furball felt some kind of kinship with the rodents that were the bane of the warehouse. Whatever the source of its appeal, he was reluctant to the leave the crate. In the end, I had to drag him out. By the time we brought him back to Mother, she was vibrating from her egg container to her bread box. Streaks of water were running down her sides; I shifted my dial to high to dry her off before she did any permanent damage.
After his discovery of the crates, Furball seemed happier. He slept peacefully for long periods of time. He ate voraciously, gobbling up every cabbage leaf and tomato slice that Mother tipped out of her salad bin. Within weeks, he doubled in size. He no longer tested the floor before taking a step, but covered ground in quick runs, his body a furry blur.
By the end of summer, Furball was no longer the subject of constant speculation. He’d become a fixture of the community, albeit a strange one who didn’t seem to serve any particular function. Life at the warehouse was relatively quiet until the quarterly visit of the exterminator. Since summer was my slow time and I was off a lot, I’d completely forgotten about the seasonal purge. I’ve often wondered if things would have been different if it hadn’t been such a hot, sluggish afternoon and I’d been functioning at a higher capacity, but really what could I have done – sealed Furball in a crate, forced him into storage? By the time his howling woke me up from a deep sleep, it was already too late. Following the keening sound, I found him pawing a pile of dead mice, as if he was trying to wake them up.
He rarely left Mother’s side after that. Every now and then, he would nibble a few bread crumbs, but he didn’t eat enough to sustain a cockroach. His already warm body began to burn. Desperate, Mother scooped him into her ice tray one afternoon to cool his fever, but when she checked on him a few minutes later, he was dead.
At first, she sealed herself up tight, refusing to part with the body. By the fifth day, however, the smell was unbearable and she reluctantly released Furball’s remains. She never recovered from the loss; from that day forward, water ran continually down her sides.
I begged her to activate her cleaning cycle, but she lost all interest in taking care of herself. When the first signs of rust appeared, my brothers and I took pains to hide them, covering Mother’s spots with every magnet we could find, but “Kiss Me I’m Irish” and “West Virginia Is For Lovers” failed to save her. She couldn’t stop leaking. Worse, I don’t think she really tried. It was as though she wanted to pour herself out, drop by drop.
“You and your brothers will be just fine,” she said when I pleaded with her to lower her temperature. My once pristine Mother, who used to reline her shelves every month without fail, was slowly rotting away. When I nuzzled against her, red dust stuck to my surface and powdered the ground. On hot days, when we kept the windows open, the wind blew pieces of her away.
And then she shut down altogether. One by one, my brothers and I pressed against her, hoping to hear the familiar buzz that used to lull us to sleep, but she was gone. The next day, a truck came to take her to the landfill. I knew that I would never stop missing her. Time only repaired the superficial injuries, the cuts and dents that hurt like hell at the time but could be painted over. Real damage couldn’t be fixed.
We reminisced about Mother from time to time, but no one ever mentioned Furball again. It took me a while, but I gradually understood why we were so afraid to acknowledge my brother’s pitifully brief existence. It wasn’t his dampness, his mewling, his weakness – mice and maggots had always been part of our world. What we couldn’t bear was the knowledge that this helpless, hopeless creature had slid out of one of our own, and maybe, just maybe, another Furball was growing inside us, waiting to be born.
Amy Bitterman has had short fiction accepted by The Cream City Review, The Literary Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review, The G.W. Review, The William and Mary Review, Switchback, Kerem, Jewishfiction.net, The Crescent Review, Poetica, The Sand Hill Review, Emrys Journal, Folio and Lilith. In 2015, she received a “Special Mention” for the Pushcart Prize for her story “Breeding Grounds”.She currently teaches at Rutgers University.
What motivates her to create: “To be honest, the primary reason I write is that the creative process, for all its frustrations, makes me happy. I love the effort of focusing my thoughts on a specific idea or emotion and then working through the puzzle of trying to find the right words to express that event or feeling.”