aMy complete stories & my book ORPHANS

by Steve Schlich

Works had existed for some time before he realized it. I think, therefore I must be. He called himself Works because it had once been emblazoned on his canister, and because it represented the greatest milestone in his life. The chrome frame that connected his canister to his runners proclaimed Electrolux in indestructible cut-out lettering, but that name belonged to his maker, not him.

A man at St. Vincent De Paul had named Works in wax pencil long ago, following repairs and a spiff-up in the back room. This destructible lettering was quickly lost, but the impressions left by that gentle being stayed with him. The man loved his job and marked almost all his mechanical patients Works. It seemed appropriate to preserve his memory by taking the label as a name.

The blooming of Works' consciousness did not occur all at once, of course. It was slow and deliberate, like the progress a flower makes from seedhood to blossom. Age—specifically, exposure to living things over time—granted him depth. With each contact, his awareness of things around him grew. But the sense of it all remained shrouded and mysterious. He perceived people and events but he didn't understand them.

Works was a total a product of Nurture. He retained traces of electromagnetic residue—ethereal souvenirs—from every living thing that ever touched him. And his final step to consciousness came through nurture, at the hands of the St. Vincent De Paul repairman. This man was different from other living things: he carried metal in his body. A lot of it, and not all concentrated in one place. When the repairman's metal-strewn body came into proximity with Works, something clicked.

Both felt it, though neither could interpret the experience at the time. The vague waves of natural radiation that emanate from all metals may have intersected. Perhaps the man's metal parts interacted with the electromagnetic fields generated by Works' running motor in a unique and special way.

Why didn't matter. When he was switched on, Works reached self-awareness. Before, he never felt more than the basic moods of the people who touched him. Suddenly he was completely in focus with this being. He drank deeply of human hopes and fears, joys and pains. Subsequent human contacts would be stronger and more clear, but none as pure. With this man Works felt communion. The man left and did not come back again, but Works would never be the same. He had been touched.

After St. Vincent De Paul, Works did hard time in a run-down apartment building. What a horrible contrast after his awakening! Other people were not like the repairman. They had no metal in their bodies, for one thing. Yet they functioned more smoothly. They did not seem as worn as his repairman had been. Works knew well what happened when you wore out completely. That time came sooner for some than for others, it seemed.

The worst part, though, was the neglect. His various owners did not care for him. They banged him around, skipped his maintenance and abused him. He was a classic, a real workhorse, but even champions wear down. With mistreatment they lose their spirit. One dark day, Works was shut off for the last time and deposited into a dumpster. Soon after he found himself in a shopping cart, wobbling down a sidewalk in the rain. It felt like the end. After the apartment house, that held more relief than dread.

Sammy Spade pushed his cart off the sidewalk and down a long, gentle embankment to his culvert, where he spread out his stuff. The culvert ran under the street and was tall enough to walk through. It provided excellent cover except when really needed: during heavy rains it was full of running water. There was a flat plateau near the bottom of the embankment, bordered by bushes and protected from the cool November rain by a sprawling bay tree. Almost private.

Emptying the cart was work. A bulky army jacket rendered Sammy clumsier than he already was. His gimp arm and leg and stiff, rebuilt neck were burden enough. But the metal in his body cooled quickly in weather like this and the jacket kept him warm. It might have belonged to him in his previous life; he couldn't remember.

Sammy lost his last name in Vietnam. A fragmentation grenade (he was later told) filled his entire left side with shrapnel. Doctors spent most of a day extracting one bloody fragment after another, along with pieces of brain, arm, side, and leg. Almost twenty years later, the occasional tiny chunk still escaped his system like a droplet of jagged steel sweat.

Old Sammy was pinned and bolted and alloy-plated together like some walking Erector set. He lacked one finger and two toes—and his last name. He knew what it was; he saw it each time he cashed his Veterans' Administration check, but he felt no connection to it. He liked Spade because the name was cool and Truth In Advertising. Let's call a pot a kettle, now. So. Sammy to his friends, Spade to everyone else.

Sammy looked over his newest acquisition, an old Electrolux. Probably didn't run, coming from a dumpster, but you never knew. It was the kind you got for $25 at St. Vinnie's with the announcement Works scrawled on its side in wax pencil. Usually it was true. He ought to know; he'd written that word on vacuums just like this one when he worked there.

He'd take it to the pawn shop. The old sucker looked pretty good. No big dents. The hose didn't have any holes. The man at the shop would plug it in and if it ran, Sammy might walk away with a few dollars. You could always use a few dollars when your career in redeeming discarded aluminum cans was on the skids.

Sammy cleaned the Electrolux with his T shirt and water from the culvert. It was worn but not rusted. It brightened where he polished it. Polishing felt good in a way he couldn't quite describe, just as fixing vacuums felt good in the hazy past before his worsening ailments cost him his job. Sammy mused that the old vacuum appreciated his efforts. He found a dry section of his T shirt and polished some more, smiling on the side of his mouth that worked.

Works was glad to be out of the shopping cart. That contact had been disappointing. The shopping cart perceived nothing at all. It had few moving parts and no variance in materials. No changing magnetic fields, no juxtaposition of different metals, no fluid relationships between components. The cart was a poor excuse for a machine and had an awareness to match.

The man polishing him was a different story entirely. The fluids coursing through him produced electromagnetic fields and negative ion streams that touched Works, the way all organic life did. But there was more in this man. One whole side was littered with metal: an alloy steel plate at the top, two pure steel pins at the middle and the bottom, and constellations of tiny fragments scattered throughout.

Works was not running and therefore not as receptive as he could be, but the contact had richness and depth. He had experienced that only once before. Could this be the St. Vincent De Paul man who had awakened him? Not likely. That man had been worn, but this one was much, much more so. The metal made their contact cleaner than most, but it was far from pure.

With longer contact came increasing sadness. Works sensed the pain that pulsed through this man like power fluctuations. Works had forgotten that there were two kinds of pain. One kind resided in the body and the other in...well, this other pain was everywhere and nowhere.

The man served needs easily grasped. Works would be exchanged for money—and in turn, the money exchanged for food. A true shame that people couldn't simply plug into a socket the way Works did, drawing sustenance from an unlimited source. But people were connected to a portable power source. Always hungry. They ran around feeding it, performing their inscrutable tasks, never simply off.

Works appreciated being dried and polished. Water rusted his moving parts slowly when he was unplugged and triggered instant disaster when he wasn't. Treatment meant that his value would increase. Groomed and shiny, he'd be traded a few more times, maybe repaired again. He needed a new motor. Then he could go back to vacuuming floors. It was his life's work. With luck, he'd draw an owner who would care for him.

He was wrapped gingerly in a ragged blanket, placed back into the cart and pushed along the stream bank until they reached a road. The cart, acting as a crutch as much as a mobile home for its temporary owner, rattled along the sidewalk toward downtown.

Works searched his memory and tried to decide if this man was indeed the one from his past. What had he called himself?

Sammy fretted about the vacuum as he got closer to the pawn shop. Was it worth anything at all? There were no attachments. At least it had a hose and a cord. He wished he knew where there was a plug so he could see if the thing ran. He used to repair that stuff.

Maybe he could fix it if he had tools and a place to work. Maybe the pawn shop had attachments in the back room. Maybe the man would find the vacuum useful and want to buy it. Maybe, maybe, maybe... Maybe he wouldn't be going through this kind of bullshit if he had a job.

Yeah, maybe. His life was a fragile daisy chain of ifs and maybes. If the vacuum ran, maybe he would get money. Maybe he could get a few hours of decent sleep tonight if it didn't rain hard. Maybe he'd be someone useful, someone employable, if he hadn't taken that damned frag back in the Nam...

He almost stopped at a dumpster and dropped the old vacuum into it. Everything put together falls apart. Maybe he should climb in there with it. Sooner or later, he too would fall apart. Why prolong the wait?

No, his conscience answered. Don't quit. Try. See it through. The shopping cart of his psyche held enough ifs and maybes without adding opportunities squandered to the clutter.

The pawn shop entrance was set back from the street, walled by displays of useless desirable junk such as old stereos and power tools and simulated gold watches. The entryway ramped up from street level. The window-walls slanted in and narrowed the corridor as you approached the door. With Sammy's infirmities, it was like pushing his cart up a spillway to the top of a dam.

Sammy felt mildly victorious: the shop door was cracked open. He wouldn't have to hobble around and turn the knob, careful not to let go of his cart lest it roll back down the entryway into the sidewalk and the street. He unwrapped the Electrolux and stood it on its end inside the cart, balancing it upright against his chest for the best presentation. Then he nudged the door with the front of his cart and pushed.

Sammy was over the threshold and trying to close the door behind him when he finally saw the man with the gun.

They locked eyes. Funny how you notice little details in the midst of a crisis. The gunman's eyebrow was parted in the middle by the hairless slit of a scar. The man—no, he was young, too young, just a kid—the kid was trying to grow a mustache without much success.

But the kid had a stack of wrinkled dollars in one hand, a gun in the other, and terror in his eyes. On the far side of the counter, the shopkeeper holding up his hands wore the same expression. The gun barrel bobbing in front of him swung around suddenly and pointed at Sammy. It was going to blow his head off.

"Get out!" the kid screamed. "Get outa here!"

From a shrouded somewhere in his past, Sammy dredged up the will to survive. He lunged toward the kid, leading with the cart. The kid panicked and fired. At the gunshot Sammy went down gripping the cart handle. The front of the cart flew up in the air and caught the kid squarely under the chin. He went down flailing. Bills fluttered to the floor like dead leaves. The gun went flying through a display case window. The Electrolux and the toppled cart pinned Sammy to the floor.

When the smoke cleared, the shopkeeper dialed the police. Then he loaded a shotgun from the display case and held it on the groggy kid until they arrived.

The pellet of hot lead lodged inside Works' motor throbbed with heat and radiation. The electromagnetic interplay of the metals inside him was altered and energized by the intruder. Even though he was unplugged and turned off, he became fully aware. Works reached out with his consciousness to feel the damaged parts of his body.

His tired old motor was ruined. His cannister had been punctured, probably beyond repair. Much of him would have to be replaced. Works had to retreat from the pulsing lead in his motor. It emitted painful waves of energy. The effect drove him further away from the center of his own body.

He territory, new metal that had not been part of him up to now.

Sammy! He was perceiving through the metal inside the man who held him, and that man was Sammy. Sammy, his repairman at St. Vincent De Paul. Sammy, the man who fixed him up and named him Works in wax pencil. Sammy!

It was like the last time he was in Sammy's hands. Even more intense. Sammy's thoughts, his feelings, his memories were an open book to Works. And on a basic level, Works understood them.

Sammy had not fared well since their last contact. Sammy was in poor, poor shape. He walked around in a fog that grew thicker each day. Sammy had not been entirely well when Works knew him last, but he was so much hazier now—he had little in common with the gentle repairman.

Works understood things that he had only wondered about before. He followed the path of Sammy's life and absorbed the man's experiences with eagerness.

That path did not go back to Sammy's birth, only to the time when the metal fragments were added to his body. But it was enough. Works followed Sammy's progress from sickness to health, and then oh-so-slowly back to sickness again. He felt the shame and frustration that grew as Sammy's ability to cope with the world diminished. He felt Sammy's pride drift into the mental fog that grew inexorably thicker.

Static interference permeated Sammy's system. A non-physical dust coated the man's insides and blocked the connections between his parts. No wonder he didn't operate as well as he had before. No wonder it got worse every day. However insubstantial, the fog had its effect.

In understanding Sammy's illness, Works realized something about himself. He didn't need power to operate. This was a special case. He didn't need to be plugged in or turned on because what he wanted to clean had no physical substance. He was a vacuum, perhaps the best ever made, and he could perform his task without electricity or attachments.

He could return the favor that Sammy had done him so long ago.

Works vacuumed. His motor wasn't on and he didn't make noise or suck up any real dirt. But the fog inside Sammy's mind began to thin out. Works drew it from him and deposited it deep in his own belly. The process didn't take long; after all, the fog had no sense of its own existence and no way to prevent itself from being moved. It might not have cared anyway. Having no substance, it would have no preference as to where it resided.

As he drew out the fog, Works sifted through Sammy's experience as a repairman. It was of special interest to Works. Questions came to him. If he could flee from the radiating lead pellet lodged in his motor, if the motor itself could be replaced, then where exactly was he, Works? Was he in his hose? His canister?

If Sammy replaced every part of him one at a time, would he still be Works? Yes, he would. Because he was not his body. He could leave it. His consciousness already included the steel plate and pins and fragments that inhabited Sammy. Yesterday it hadn't. What if tomorrow it didn't include the canister or the hose?

Leaving that "body" behind was not unthinkable. His canister was ravaged. His motor was dead. And if he inhabited the metal inside Sammy, he would never be separated from his friend again. With a mixture of sorrow and joy only recently remembered, Works withdrew from his Electrolux body and left it to the fog he had drawn from Sammy.

When Sammy opened his eyes, Works looked through them and saw his own former body—a battered Electrolux wiped clean of impressions, fresh and blank and ready to begin anew.

Sammy woke to the question, "Are you all right?" and wasn't sure he knew the answer. He felt...different, as if he were seeing the world through new eyes. Everything seemed so clear. Not his vision, but his mind—the haziness that had permeated his thoughts was simply gone.

He felt like a drunkard who finally dried out. He was thinking and reasoning and wondering, and he wasn't confused. Well, he felt some confusion. He didn't know how long he'd been out, but it seemed like a lifetime. He had this dream. It lay past the edge of his consciousness and defied recall.

"He's coming around. Mister, are you all right?"

Sammy sat up. The shopkeeper and a cop were bent over him. The Electrolux sat on the floor next to him. Inside was a bullet with his name on it.

"What happened? How long was I out?"

"Ten, fifteen minutes," the shopkeeper told him. "Hey buddy, thanks! You saved me!"

Sammy remembered. He looked around and saw the kid being taken away. His shopping cart was pushed over to a corner of the store. Some of his stuff was in it and some was on the floor. He stood up, woozy. The cop and shopkeeper supported him while he got his balance. Pain! His head might be clear, but his body was still stapled and wired together. Things hurt.

The cop took down his statement about the foiled robbery, which consisted of the shopkeeper reminding him what had happened with Sammy agreeing and adding a few details. He convinced the cop that he didn't need to go to a hospital, and finally the officer left.

The shopkeeper seemed embarrassed that he hadn't introduced himself before now. "My name's Josh Green."

"I'm Sammy, uh, Sammy...Works." It sounded right. He didn't know why.

Green looked embarrassed. "I didn't think...I mean, you don't look like you could do what you did."

Sammy hadn't thought so, either. "I spent some time in Nam," he explained. "Guess that's where I learned how to defend myself. Same place I got messed up."

"I'm sorry," said Green. "I want to thank you for what you did." He opened his cash register. "Were you going to sell that vacuum? The one that took the bullet? I'll give you forty bucks for it."

Sammy chuckled. "I don't think it runs any more. Besides, I changed my mind. Can't get rid of a thing this lucky!"

Green pushed two twenties into Sammy's hand. "That's okay. I don't need it anyway. Got a half dozen in the back and none of 'em run. I just want to thank you."

Sammy stood there for a moment, staring at the money.

"I'd rather have some work," he said.

The shopkeeper stared at him.

"I can fix that stuff in your back room. I used to do it for a living. I do need money, but... Look, Mr. Green, I need to be doing something, you know? I can work. That's my name," he remembered with a grin, "Sammy Works!"

Green nodded his head. "I guess that I owe you that much. I might not be standing here if it weren't for you. Listen, keep the forty. You earned it. And I'll give you ten bucks for every vacuum you can fix. How's that sound?"

That sounded pretty good. Sammy got his stuff together and shuffled into the back room. It was warm and dry. There were tools, not many, but enough to get the job done with a little ingenuity.

The first vacuum he fixed was the Electrolux that saved his life. The bullet had done its damage, but with spare parts he found, Sammy fixed the machine. He welded a scrap metal patch onto the canister with a hand torch from Green's display window. He replaced the motor with one from another vacuum and cleaned all moving parts. He performed these repairs lovingly. When he was done, he took a wax pencil and proudly wrote his new last name on the patched canister. Works.

Not everything put together falls apart.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

My complete stories & my book ORPHANS