My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

by Steve Schlich

The world sang to Kenny Washington. No one had ever told him it was impossible, so Kenny supposed that music was what ran through your head when you ears didn't work. He had been deaf for all of his ten years.

The ancient appliances on the west side of his father's junkyard made the best music. Whenever he felt lonely or bored, which was often, Kenny went to the washers and dryers and refrigerators. If he sat very still, he could hear their songs. Sometimes he stayed there for hours.

When Nature shortchanges a person in one of the senses, it often compensates with the others. Kenny heard ethereal music. And he had a heightened sensitivity for the vibrations that people and objects send through the ground as they approach. So he felt the earthquake coming fifteen seconds before it actually struck.

That was time enough to scramble into the space beneath the rotating drum of a clothes dryer. The music stopped as abruptly as running water halts when you close the tap. Then the ground began to shake in earnest.

Kenny understood that he was in trouble. Some of the appliances in this section of the junkyard were stacked three high. Even a deaf mute boy knew a thing or two about earthquakes. You couldn't live in Oakland—or anywhere else in the San Francisco Bay Area—and not know. Get under something solid like a table or a doorway. Don't be out where things can fall on you.

He was under something solid, all right, but he was also in the middle of an appliance city, complete with skyscrapers sure to come tumbling down. Tumble they did. Kenny couldn't hear the scraping and bending of metal or the screeching groan of washers wedging themselves between refrigerators and dryers after being shaken off their perches. But he felt it.

The earth's own shaking was a ponderous undertone to the sharp shocks of appliances striking each other and the ground. Something fell on top of Kenny's dryer, tipping it slightly and knocking the drum inside against Kenny's shoulder. The drum bounced away again, but whatever had fallen on it pushed down more. The dryer pressed Kenny against the ground. There was not enough pressure to crush him, but he couldn't move.

Kenny lost consciousness briefly. When he came to, the ground was shifting back and forth like shaken Jell-O as the quake subsided. His head throbbed. The dryer eased up and bore back down on his shoulder with each sway of the earth. Dust choked him and burned his eyes. Was this The Big One? Kenny wondered. He'd read about The Big One.

He knew that his father would be desperate to find him. His father was nearly as well acquainted with Kenny's haunts as Kenny was, but there was no telling if a path in or out still existed. A fallen refrigerator blocked Kenny's exit from beneath the dryer.

The afternoon light grew stronger again as the dust cloud thinned out. Kenny took deep breaths and discovered a new pain, in his side. I'm banged up, he thought. I'm banged up and I can't get out and I'm going to die here. He'd never be found! He couldn't hear anybody who might be calling out to him and he couldn't shout back I'm over here, I'm alive, but please get me out!

He listened with his body for the vibrations of appliances being moved by a search party, but the pounding pain of the drum against his shoulder was too strong. Finally the ground stopped moving and the pressure of the drum against him filled Kenny's world.

His pain came in waves, and in the spaces between those waves, Kenny began to hear music again. He realized that it had resumed some time ago; his panic and his pain had deafened him to it. That was funny. A deaf boy losing his hearing. But the music was back and he let it lull him. The deeper he let the music penetrate, the less he hurt. Or minded that he hurt.

Because he had never heard such things, Kenny could not compare the sound he heard to opera, or rock, or any other kind of ear music. Instead, he thought of colors that could be felt as well as seen. Greens and blues and dead-of-night blacks sent chills through him; whites and yellows and warm sunset oranges bathed him in comfort.

It seemed that his clothes dryer prison had become a big ear, and the junkyard around him an orchestra of color and feeling, cacophonously warming up for a performance. He let the colors swell over him like surf, washing his pain away in waves of comfort that withdrew and then built and broke over him again.

Kenny could judge the passage of time well enough. The earthquake had struck somewhere around five o'clock. It was Fall and would be dark in another hour or so. He watched the available light begin to fade and with it the comfort and distraction of his music. He managed to shift so the dryer didn't press against his shoulder as savagely. But he couldn't escape it. Instead of absorbing and reflecting his body's heat, the metal transferred its cold to him. Instead of numbing his pain, the chill exacerbated it.

I'm in real trouble, Kenny thought. His T-shirt didn't provide much warmth. I could die here from—he reached for the word—exposure. But what was he supposed to do? He tried to remember anything he'd read about earthquakes that might help now. In times of trouble, he'd gotten used to leaning on others for help.

People assumed that because Kenny couldn't hear and made blurry sounds instead of words, he was “slow.” He wasn't, but he'd discovered early on that people made allowances for his handicap. They sent him to a special school, treated him like fragile glassware, and generally expected less of him.

However, it was a life of extremes: when people weren't fawning over Kenny like some oversized baby, they ignored him completely. At those times, he was on his own. No one expected anything of him.

He was definitely on his own now. Salvation was up to him. Calm, he remembered. He was supposed to stay calm. Fear was the enemy. Don't panic. He tried to let the music in again, to calm himself and to ease the pain.

But there was pain in the music, too. And the whisper of other feelings. Indistinct images and emotions came to him, fading in and out of focus like the portable TV did when his father fiddled with its antenna in the junkyard office. The images were foggy black-and-white movies, fuzzy memories of things he had never experienced.

Gradually they became as clear as his own senses. He felt within him the stiffness of sheet metal and beneath him the solidity of a concrete floor. He did not see his surroundings, he sensed them. Every thing in existence broadcasts its own aura, and it was by these infinitely varying wavelengths that he now viewed and listened to—listened to!—the world around him.

He sat immobile in the basement of some house. The musty dust of old cinder blocks filled the air. He felt a chill and heard the furnace flame burst to life. The world shook, but not like the earthquake. He shook. His belly rotated, turning wet clothes round and round, bathing them with heat. And there was a foreign pressure on him.

Flesh and cloth pressed against him. A woman. She twisted a dial on his face plate and leaned on him as his drum turned the clothes over and over and over.

She liked the vibration and the warmth; it felt good to her. The sensation transferred to her body and helped her forget the pain that she lived with. The pain wasn't physical, but it hurt just the same. There was something she wanted desperately but could not have—love. Her husband did not love her.

Kenny understood her pain. His father loved him, and knowing that was an important part of Kenny's life. The woman's pain was a deep blue solo of loneliness that rose above the background and filled his consciousness for long, poignant moments. It penetrated Kenny as ruthlessly as the cold, and dragged him closer to panic.

There were other songs. He tried to listen to them instead.

A frolicking yellow staccato offered counterpoint to the mournful blue. It came from the refrigerator leaning against Kenny's washer. Kenny allowed himself to drift away from the dryer and toward the refrigerator. He let its fuzzy images fill him.

He stood in an alcove in a kitchen, all white enamel and chrome, the nerve center of the house. He commanded attention from each member of the family, but especially from the children. They tore open his door and pawed at his contents. They giggled and dropped slices of bread jelly side down on the linoleum. They sneaked up late at night and drank milk straight from the carton.

They were happy, for the most part. They hated school but it brought them friends. They loved summer but bored easily during the long, hot days. The younger ones skinned their knees and grew bigger by the day and cared not one whit for what was going on in the world. The older one bore the travails of adolescence and ached for the responsibilities of adulthood.

All radiated energy and enthusiasm and excitement. This small portion of the world was their private playground.

The sprightly yellow melody of the children fought with the forlorn blue solo of the woman for a time. Finally the two songs entwined in a bittersweet green harmony. The blend offered a serenity that Kenny desperately needed.

But it didn't last. Below the soft green music ran a deep burgundy bass. This new sound came from a stove next to Kenny's dryer. Its song concerned a man, a father.

Every morning, the man leaned against the stove and warmed his hands by the gas flame that heated his kettle of coffee water. On weekdays, he faced the coming commute and his job with melancholy resignation. On weekends he rued the far too little leisure that he would enjoy before Monday arrived again.

In the early years he smoked while he drank his coffee. Later, he gave it up. Earlier, he loved his wife and delighted in his children. Later, when the children had grown and left, he came to view his wife as a stranger. Comfortable, but unknown. And he thought of his time at the stove as the leading edge of a deep daily rut that he had dug for himself.

Could it have been different, the bass line wondered in ponderous, low tones. Could I have done something great?

Kenny wondered about his own father. His father's wife—Kenny's mother—was gone. Maybe his father felt as lonely as Kenny did sometimes. Was his father as scared as he was right now? Kenny loved his father. If he died, they would never see each other again. That would be a tragedy.

If there was a common element to all the impressions Kenny was receiving, it was that happiness comes not from accomplishments but from connections—from the way that you touch others and allow them to touch you.

Soft, pale ivory chords slid smoothly into the empty spaces between the bass notes. The chords came from a dishwasher that had cleaned food from the plates of many different people. Buzzing dinner parties, quiet lunches, orgy-like midnight snacks and groggy breakfasts had all yielded their organic veneer. The dishwasher had cleaned cooking pots and plates and utensils and soaked it all in.

People and their residue had imparted a range of human emotions to the dishwasher. Joy and despair, friendship and betrayal, bravery and fear — but all resonated with that basic need to connect, to share, to belong. So much humanity. So much feeling! So great the desire to escape loneliness. Isolated from the rest humanity by his deafness, Kenny knew all about loneliness.

It was twilight and getting darker quickly, colder too, but Kenny didn't notice. He was brimming with the sounds and colors of these ghosts in the machines of the junkyard. They sang to him and took away the pain of his confinement. They serenaded him and warmed him and soothed him. Gratefully, he sang back to them.

The searchers found Kenny because he was crying—singing tunelessly, really. It was hours after the quake. Deep darkness. His father and a pair of very relieved friends pushed away the refrigerator and freed the tearful boy from his tiny prison beneath the clothes dryer. They wrapped him in a blanket and took him inside, and his father held him until he was warm again.

But he kept on crying long after he'd been rescued. It wasn't because he was scared. He cried because he'd felt the fullness—and the emptiness—of life. He cried with sorrow because his rescuers had separated him from his friends, and with joy because they had reunited him with his father.

He cried again when his father banned him from the appliances in the weeks following the earthquake. But Kenny understood. He thought about his father's loneliness and his own. He spent the time that he would have spent among the appliances in the junkyard shop instead, sitting next to his father or watching him work. Their rapport deepened. And eventually the ban was lifted.

In the years that followed, Kenny expressed an interest in the battered appliances that found their way to the junkyard. And he demonstrated an aptitude for fixing them. Especially those machines that had spent a lot of time around people. His approach was unorthodox, but Kenny's father didn't interfere. He didn't think it odd to see his son leaning against a washing machine or a stove for long moments, feeling its soul and listening to its music.

Kenny didn't either. It was as natural and necessary as breathing.

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

In 1992, I wrote “Repairs,”a story about an Electrolux vacuum cleaner achieving consciousness. Weird Tales published it in 1994. But that story didn't cure my fascination with the nature of mind and machinery. “Steelsong” scratched the itch a little more. It didn't sell, possibly because it's all narrative—no dialog whatsoever.

...But after I published the book Orphans, this story did sell... to a Canadian magazine named Transversions.