Adam Byko is an MFA candidate and Provost Fellow at the University of Central Florida. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, F(r)iction, and the Notre Dame Review among other publications. He has gone six months without walking into a sliding glass door.
The Automatic Man
At my grandfather’s funeral, Dad tucked a gear into my palm. He crouched down and peered over the brim of his glasses.
“You understand,” he said. It was a declaration.
Dad unfolded back to his full height. His grey suit looked like a thunder cloud. Heavy and sodden with unimaginable weight. Creases like lightning at the lapels.
I curled my fingers around the copper gear. I brushed each stubby spoke with my thumb, tracing its outline like I saw the blind girl at school do with her coins.
At the time, I didn’t understand how calamity worked. I thought that if someone else couldn’t see, it was only a matter of time before I was stuck with the same fate. That, of course, would be the fair way to do it. So I memorized shapes, climbed upon my family members to feel their faces. Knowing that when the blindness struck, I would be prepared.
The gear was impossibly cold in my hand. Dad navigated through the crowd of mourners to find his siblings at the casket. Each draped in their charcoal finest.
I closed my eyes and held the room in my head, memorizing every color, every expression of muted grief and weariness. Of course, the subtext would only become clear in retrospect. Loss and permanence and the like were all foreign concepts to me.
I was seven years old.
I didn’t understand.
The first Thanksgiving I can remember is the one where the Automatic Man stole my nose.
I sat at the end of the smallest table, the wire strap of my plastic pilgrim hat biting into my chin. I couldn’t see my parents. Folding tables snaked throughout my Aunt Kathy’s house, winding from kitchen to dining room to entry hall in a jagged semicircle. Seating was determined by age. At one end, my grandmother perched thronelike in a high-backed wooden chair. At the other, I balanced a spoon on my nose to the disinterest of my sister Mara. Conversation swirled above our heads, a dull roar punctuated by the occasional braying laugh from my Aunt Kathy, the occasional exclamation of “that’s unreal!” from my cousin Jen.
The whole experience would have been overwhelming if not for the Automatic Man, cracking jokes and spinning gears to my left.
“I got your nose!” he said, knocking off the spoon as he pinched with two clicking copper fingers. I yelped and scrambled after his clenched metal fist.
“Give it back!”
“What’s the magic word?”
“Hmmm . . .” The Automatic man scratched theatrically at his wire jaw. His voice was soft and crackly like an old movie. “I suppose I could. Close your eyes and count to three. I think I know a magic trick to put it back.”
I shut my eyes tight. Little purple blotches bubbled across the darkness.
“One . . .”
That morning, I had watched Dad assemble the Automatic Man while parades and football games played on TV. My family (Mom, Dad, Mara and me) lived six hours away from Aunt Kathy’s, so we always slept over the night before. We would step over the turkey stewing in brine in the garage, and my parents would set their mechanical parts on the kitchen table. For my father, a steel heart bursting with pistons; for my mother, a simple bolt. We would eat cheap pizza, and then I would be ushered off to my cousin Jen’s room where I would shift restlessly on an air mattress. The rubber moaning with every motion. The night crawling away.
“Two . . .”
At this time, I treated sleep like an adult conspiracy, part of a concerted effort to keep me in the dark. The world was still so mysterious then. The universe ran on secret mechanics. I assumed that around thirteen I would be initiated in how it all worked, but I didn’t have the patience to wait. I needed to know all the whys and hows right away. I needed open eyes to see the world and all of its moving parts.
As a consequence, I had already been awake for hours when my grandparents arrived Thanksgiving morning. The screen door screeched open, and they walked in together. My grandmother holding an iron spinal column, my grandfather carrying a stack of pumpkin pies in plain white boxes. Gram pinched my cheek. Grandpa arranged the pies inside a beach cooler. As Aunt Kathy yawned down the stairs in a plush pink robe, a copper gear and an iron spine thunked upon the kitchen table.
“Two and a half . . .”
By noon, the table was buried beneath gears and metal limbs. My father squatted in the kitchen, piecing together the skeletal frame. His reading glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, his tongue caught halfway between his lips. He greeted new arrivals with distracted waves, accepting their parts with a curt nod.
Around halftime of the first football game, the scattered mass of my family converged around the Automatic Man. Dad had him standing at this point, the shining frame sturdy at around six feet tall. I wriggled my way between legs to watch. My father had only one piece left now, just a sepia tinted lens to secure into a brass eye socket.
Dad pinched the lens into place to a smattering of applause. He nodded to my grandfather, gesturing to the wind-up key poking out of the iron spine. Grandpa turned the key with two hands. A clacking of tension with every spin. After ten turns, he let go.
The gears clattered into motion. The eyes glowed with a dim, flickering light. The Automatic Man tilted his neck and turned to find my father at the edge of the crowd.
"So what did I miss?"
The Automatic Man bopped my nose with the cold tip of a finger.
I opened my eyes.
“And behold! Now you have a nose again.” The Automatic Man leaned back in his chair. He placed both hands behind the gleaming dome of his skull. I could see the gears spinning in the hollow of his chest. The pistons of my father’s iron heart churning in hummingbird motion. “I told you. I can do magic.”
After dessert, the Automatic Man tousled my hair.
“Sorry bud. It’s that time.”
He left for the kitchen before I could protest. He tapped my father on the shoulder, and the two walked into the living room. I followed them at a distance and watched the Automatic Man lie upon the hardwood floor with folded arms. I could hear his gears slow. His heart thrum with less vigor.
“’Til next time.” The Automatic Man’s voice was barely a whisper.
Dad nodded. The gears stopped. I ran away before I could watch my father tear him apart.
The Thanksgiving after my grandfather’s funeral, I set my copper gear upon the table. Between my father’s heart and my mother’s bolt. As I walked away, Mara kicked the hollow behind my knee, and I fell to the ground.
Even though she was two years older, she still didn’t have a part. I had heard her talking to Dad after the funeral, her face red and her lips trembling.
“That’s not how it works,” Dad had said quietly. “Inheritance, it’s not about what you deserve, sweetheart. You don’t get a say. You just have to accept whatever comes your way.”
That year, my father performed the winding. He struggled with the key, only turning it about a quarter of the way with each try. Sweat dribbled down his forehead, dark stains seeped across the armpits of his button-down shirt
The assembled family members shifted on their feet. Light murmurs rippled through the crowd. Dad stripped to his undershirt. A vein bulged in his forehead. Uncle Rick offered to help, but my father waved him off. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, he found a rhythm. Dad grunted with each violent quarter turn.
I had never heard my father curse before. There was something naked about it, something almost violating. I looked at the floor.
After the final turn, my father raised both arms in triumph. A few cheers of congratulations echoed from the crowd. Dad jerked his head around in a state of shock, as if seeing his audience for the first time. Color drained from his face.
Gears clicked. A soft glow flickered. The Automatic Man turned to my father’s receding back and called out.
“So what did I miss?”
The Thanksgiving of my thirteenth year, I tossed the copper gear clattering onto the kitchen table. Mara followed with the bolt that used to be my mother’s. She placed it gently by the turkey centerpiece, balanced upside down upon its hexagonal head.
I retreated to what had been my cousin Jen’s room and sank into the soft bulk of her mattress. Jen now lived with her boyfriend across town, but the room was still cluttered with presence. A corkboard littered with high-school photos, a poster of the Jonas Brothers plastered to the ceiling above the bed, assorted cosmetics scattered atop the dresser. It was simultaneously full and empty. But at least there was enough space where I didn’t have to sleep on air anymore.
I pulled out my PSP and inserted a cartridge called Lumines. I aligned color blocks and watched them dissolve as music surged in the background. The way the game worked, order was an unnatural state. You had to impose it, and, in doing so, buy yourself a little more time in the process. I had gotten good at it. I could go for hours on end, thumb twitching the joystick, new songs unlocked with each subsequent level.
But no matter how fast I moved, no matter how many blocks I pulverized into place, the game always ended the same way. Chaos would creep up from the bottom and fill the screen with an untangleable web. I would fight it. I would try to smush the disorder down with my speed and ingenuity. But it would always crest to the top and bring the whole process to a jarring, silent end.
I woke up the next morning to a host of voices echoing up the stairwell. I checked the time and found 11:24 flashing pink on the novelty Hello Kitty clock. I blinked. My head was still swimming; my bones all ached at the slightest movement. For all the world, I wanted to stay in that bed. I wanted to close my eyes again and sink back into whatever cradling oblivion I had just lost.
But the time blinked, and the voices careened up the stairs, and I knew I would have to descend to meet them. They were family. And as a consequence, they were inescapable.
During dinner, I watched the Automatic Man play with Nathan—my Cousin Jen’s new baby. The Automatic Man crouched and cooed and mesmerized the child with the metallic flutter of his heart.
By all appearances everything was the same as it had always been. You couldn’t see the rust unless you looked closely. You couldn’t see the cracks in his skull unless the light hit it just right, glinting fractious off the chrome.
Skim the surface though, and everything was fine. Watch from a distance, and nothing was falling apart.
Dad gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles for the final two hours of the drive. He glared at me through the rearview mirror at every stop in traffic. I could see him open his mouth as if to say something, but then close it—apparently in deference to better judgement.
There were no words.
When we arrived, Aunt Kathy asked me how my junior year of high school was going, whether I’d made any decisions about college. I politely rattled off a handful of universities—names I’d learned more as a social requirement than out of consideration for my future. She hugged Mara and asked about life at Denison. Mara told a story about a cheese-stealing roommate. Laughter.
We approached the kitchen table. Dad thunked his heart into the center. Mara placed her bolt down lightly, avoiding eye contact with me. I tucked my hands into my pockets. The copper gear still in its shoe box back at home.
“Utter carelessness,” my father had seethed, when I realized my lack just past Philadelphia. “An abject failure to exercise even a modicum of responsibility.”
He continued to fume variations on that theme as we crossed the Delaware. When he finally sank into silence and put in a Tom Petty album, I knew it wasn’t out of forgiveness. He was beyond words. Stewing with enough violence to thicken the air, to turn breathing into a straining exercise.
He practiced geniality around Aunt Kathy, engaged in the texture of jokes, but a darkness still swam behind his expression whenever I caught his eye.
Sleep came in waves that night. I wanted to submerge myself, to escape that leaden sense of dread pooling in my stomach, but I couldn’t ever fully let go. Instead I slept in fits and starts, a stream of feverish dreams that would leave me even more exhausted upon waking.
I watched Dad work in stolen glances the next day. During every conversation, I monitored his progress out of the corner of my eye. Other minor insults had diffused his anger. Instead of a pure rage against me, he vented about the rust on Uncle Barry’s aluminum kneecap, spat obscenities at the memories of cousins who chose to skip Thanksgiving that year, harangued Aunt Kathy for cluttering his workspace.
Eventually, he got the Automatic Man to stand. We gathered and watched the winding. The key turned easier this time, spinning almost as if greased. Dad stood back and ran a hand through his thinning hair, lines of worry creasing his forehead. Gears clacked into irregular motion. The right eye beamed with a blinding light while the left eye smoldered like the tip of a cigarette.
“So,” the Automatic Man addressed the ceiling fan. “What did. Did. Did. What did I miss?”
“We missed you last year!” Aunt Kathy said with a hug. She kissed the side of my cheek with a European flourish, the sort of family greeting that I associated with mafia movies.
“When did we become a kissing family?” I asked Mara as we each hauled our respective suitcases up the stairs. “Like, there should’ve been a memo or something.”
“What’re you talking about Brian, that’s how Kathy’s always been.”
“Really? Cause I don’t remember that ever being a thing. Like are you sure this isn’t just something she started after Rick left?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Gram does the same thing. You’ve just got a shitty memory.”
I thunked my suitcase into Jen’s room and took out my laptop. The Word Document for my undergraduate thesis yawned white on the screen.
I wanted to write a piece on gravity. The previous semester a physics professor had taught me that, contrary to popular belief, gravity is not a force. Instead, it’s just a curve in the universe. I was foggy on the details, but apparently any object with mass warps space and time. Distorts the fabric of our universe, bends it like marbles sinking into a Jell-O mold. So when we fall, it’s not that anything is dragging us down. It’s just us succumbing to the shape of things.
I wanted to discuss the fall. From the Bible to Newton to Einstein to Toy Story. I wanted to discuss fate. The illusion of choice, the implications of a universe where all of space and time already exists, spread thin across galaxies. The very real chance that life is just one long fall, a constant struggle to distract ourselves from the looming force of the ground.
I wanted to say all of these things, but all I had was the flashing vertical line of my cursor. Every time I approached the paper, I would veer off into some calming distraction. Even with all of my bluster about the illusion of free will, I couldn’t shake the sense that my neglect was a choice.
I stayed up all night wrestling with the blank space. Browsing the internet, reading meaningless lists, consuming the thoughts of others. I had been awake for 24 continuous hours when Jen pulled into the driveway with Gram in the passenger seat.
I greeted them at the door. Gram kissed both cheeks in greeting, and I wondered at the limits of my memory. The ease with which I could forget. I offered to take her iron spine to the kitchen table, but she refused. Gram held it in two hands and walked with shuffling steps, but she carried her part on her own. Never even leaning on the arm I offered to help her balance.
As the day wore on, the kitchen table remained as sparse as I had ever seen it. The crowd was lighter without Rick and his side of the family—I helped discreetly take away two of the folding tables as it became clear they weren’t necessary. Dad surveyed his available parts and bit his lower lip.
The Automatic Man was three feet tall and legless that year. My father balanced him on his hands, spread the fingers out to provide a wider base of support. I offered a little extra bit of stability through the winding process, holding the Automatic Man by the skull as Dad turned the key.
Gears clicked. Light flickered through cracked lenses.
“So what did I . . .” The Automatic Man stopped mid-sentence. He looked down at the empty sockets of his hips. Wobbled precariously upon his hands. “. . . what did I miss?”
The last Thanksgiving I spent with my father, I drove alone.
Lisa had wanted me to stay in Virginia. Apparently, every Thanksgiving her family set off a rocket. Lisa and her brothers would each add a shot glass of gasoline to the fuel tank. Every year the rocket went a little bit higher—her brother’s children adding new thimbles of fuel to the flame.
Lisa had offered me my own shot glass in October. Her grandmother had extras, she told me with her hand trailing idle circles on my chest.
I admit, it was a tempting opportunity. But the copper gear sat heavy in its shoebox at the bottom of my closet. My inheritance burning in its cardboard home.
There never really was a choice.
I arrived a few hours before dinner. My father was already on the kitchen floor, rooted in concentration. I tapped his shoulder and offered him my grandfather’s gear.
“How’s it coming together?” I asked, popping a stuffed mushroom into my mouth by the kitchen table.
“It’ll get there.” Dad straightened a chrome shoulder blade. “We might even be able to do legs this year. Not that your sister’s making my life any easier by skipping out on us.”
I watched my father work. Sweat plastered white strands of hair over his bald spot, gears slipped between his trembling fingers. I crouched beside him and picked up his heart. It was lighter than I remembered. Each piston still gleamed despite the passing of the years. The product of continuous polish, of unflagging care.
“So, where exactly does this go?” I maneuvered the heart toward the chest, but Dad grabbed my wrist.
“No," he said. His palm was cold and slick like the underside of a fish. “No, it’s not ready.”
“Okay.” I pulled back the heart. “Then tell me what you need to do next. Show me what to do.”
Together, we assembled the Automatic Man piece by piece. Up close, I realized how many gaps there were in the machinery. Holes where vital clacking organs once churned away. The few scraps of machinery left upon the tile floor paled in comparison with the voids they needed to fill.
Still, we got The Automatic Man to stand. Two legs, maybe four feet tall. Dad pinched the last lens into place, and we stood up in unison. About twenty family members were circled around us, watching expectantly. Gram hunched forward at the front of the crowd. Her eyes milky and drifting.
“I think it’s time.” My father clapped me on the shoulder and dropped back into the crowd.
The winding key was jagged at the edges. The metal so thin that it cut red rivets into my palms. Not breaking skin, but leaving a mark all the same. I gripped the key, and my forearms vibrated with the tension. It didn’t want to give. I could feel veins bulging in my neck. Finally, the key rotated, grinding into motion.
I kept at it for the next five minutes. Every turn was a battle. So much tension and resistance were coiled beneath the surface. I could feel it radiating up my arms, my wrists burning with the struggle. On the tenth turn, I stumbled backward, bracing myself against the refrigerator to keep upright.
Gears clacked. Lights flickered. The Automatic Man craned his neck and tried to find my father in the crowd. But he couldn’t settle upon a single face. He jerked his head back and forth in staccato bursts. Finally he turned to me, leaning alone against the freezer door. The dull glow of his eyes locked on to mine.
“So. What . . . What did I miss?”
During dinner that last Thanksgiving, The Automatic Man sat at his customary spot at the kid’s table. He played with my cousin Jen’s youngest child Nathan.
“I got your nose,” the metal voice boomed over the clatter of silverware.
Then, a shriek of pure, unbridled pain.
It took three of us to unpry the Automatic Man’s two fingers from Nathan’s nose. The cartilage was all mangled, blood gushed from both nostrils onto the child’s wrinkled khakis. The Automatic Man kept reaching out as we ushered Nathan away, snatching at whatever face came nearest. He didn’t stop until my father thrust a hand into the hollow of his chest and pulled out the still humming heart.
Jen drove Nathan to the hospital. My father and I carried the Automatic Man’s body into the living room, leaving our meals unfinished. Together, bolt by bolt, gear by gear, we tore him apart.
Dad lasted three years after we took apart the Automatic Man for good. He tried new combinations, to simplify the project into something more manageable. He reassembled it as an infant, but the head kept toppling over and it wouldn’t stop screaming. He tried reconstructing it as a dog, but then it would always try to run away. Scratching at the door until the paint scraped off and wood chips littered the welcome mat.
I missed these failures, choosing instead to spend Thanksgiving with Lisa. She’s waiting in the car now, our shot-glasses already brimming with gasoline and secured with plastic wrap. Lisa tells me that this year we might break the stratosphere.
I loop a tie across my collar and pull it tight against my windpipe. Before I join my wife out in the car, I open the shoebox in our closet. My copper gear and my father’s silent heart side by side.
That’s the thing about inheritance. You don’t get a say.
We drive beneath a canopy of curling orange leaves and arrive ten minutes before liftoff. We each pour our fuel into the puckered mouth of the long silver rocket. Lisa’s grandmother shows us the thimble she has saved for us. For the moment we decide we’re ready.
The rocket goes higher than ever this year just as Lisa guessed. It punctures a cloud and vanishes from sight. The children run down the street in anticipation, in pursuit of its landing. And as they run, I can still feel the spokes cold against my thumb. The memory is perfect. Past and present churning together in clockwork harmony.
The rocket drifts into view. Its parachute melts red in the evening light. Its descent is long and mournful and inevitable and beautiful, all at the same time.
I watch the fall. Its majesty eclipses my comprehension. But I close my eyes and hold the moment in my mind all the same. This way I will be prepared. This way, when the time comes, I will understand.