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THE MONSTER

Over a period of many years, the Monster patiently assembled itself from various stray parts and pieces collected from neighborhood garage sales, thrift stores, bargain basements and swap meets. Oily gears and levers, large iron washers embossed with dark sticky substances, the ruptured transistor spines of discarded pocket radios and home intercoms. The Monster was such a perfect Monster, it often claimed to forget its own origins. Because it was large, powerful and indelicate, it called itself a man. Because it contained complex intestinal spools of memory and data, it called itself smart. As it came to perfect and complete itself, it became hard, visible, perishable and keen. It walked in the streets. It saw people and spoke with them. It noticed birds in the sky, clouds, airplanes and the cool clinical matrices of high power and telephone lines. “I see,” the Monster said, “I walk. I talk. I know. I be. I am.”

“In order to know the world,” the Monster thought one day, “I must let the world know me.” This was the Monster’s first philosophical thought, and so the Monster cherished it, as well as the particular sprockets and spanners from which the idea had been gentlydisengaged. Shortly thereafter, the Monster went into business designing and manufacturing miniature, fist-sized mechanical Monsters for children, who bought them and their multitudinous accessories eagerly and with much fanfare. Monster House, Monster Railway, Monster Designer Jeans, Monster Sauna, Monster Barbecue Patio Set, Monster Porsche and, of course, the ever-popular Monster Family--Roger, Tina, Troy and Wendy.

“You are the sort of man who knows what he wants from life,” the Monster’s secretary, Tracy Simpson, said admiringly one afternoon, just after her third pina colada. “When you see what you want, you go out and get it. You don’t beat around the bush. You don’t sit around trying to make up your mind. Like, my old boyfriend, Ron, he never made up his mind. So finally I had to make up Ron’s mind for him.”

The Monster and Tracy were married the following June and began raising a subsidiary family of their own--subsidiary, that is, in relation to Man-Monster Industries, which had become so enormously successful that it was now governed by strange, distant men in tall, dark buildings with reflective windows. Cool geometries of finance widened the Monster’s world, making it at once more transcendent and more real. Stock portfolios, notational diagrams, employee psychological profiles, marketing surveys, payroll and tax. “I began this company seven years ago in order to vindicate myself to the world,” the Monster said one day, at the annual stockholder’s meeting in Reno. “I now have no self left that I wish to vindicate. This is a fine company that has extended itself beyond the parameters of any one individual. It has joined itself with the world of business, numbers, profit and loss. Please keep in touch. I will keep my mailbox open here at the office.”

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That afternoon the Monster went home to its family, where the atmosphere had grown rather stale, gray and desultory over the years. The enormous house filled with enormous furniture. blue pool in the yard, topiary hedges shaped like various Monster toys and accessories. There was even a small, spurting fountain. This was a home where the Monster had never belonged. This was a family where the Monster had never been known.

We are divided by different histories, the Monster thought. The history of flesh and the history of iron. Simmering cells, protein, DNA, RNA, blood. Cotton mills, pistons, microwaves, household appliances, plumbing. Men had lived their lives for many thousands of years before iron, eating everything they could get their hands on, killing everything in sight. Sometimes the Monster wished it could know the hard visceral anger that helped men eat. Perhaps then the Monster could live its dense, curious life less wary of being eaten.

“Hello?” the Monster said. “Is anybody home?”

Silence resided here, contradicting the constant, noisy beat of the Monster’s secret, clock-like interior. The Monster went into the kitchen and locked the doors. It opened and closed a number of kitchen cupboards, assembling appropriate implements on the finely varnished wormwood countertops. Then it began making meticulous adjustments on itself. You will be more patient and attentive, the Monster said with its tools. You will take your wife dancing. You will spend more time with the kids.

“Dad?” David called from outside. The kitchen doorknob rattled. “Dad, is that you?”

“It’s me,” the Monster said. Across the countertop lay disemboweled components resembling bolts and washers, springs and flywheels, toaster grills and turkey timers. Hurriedly the Monster reached for them.

“Just a minute,” the Monster said. “Please. Don’t come in just yet.”

David didn’t say anything. The Monster could feel the boy’s weight in the hall, a poised and invisible attention as profound as the silence itself. The Monster’s son knew the bloody world of skin and spine and lung. The Monster’s wife and daughter knew. The mailman and the milkman and the gardener and the tall grocery clerk knew. Even when they didn’t know they knew, they still knew anyway.

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THEN ONE DAY THE MONSTER fell in love, and all its doubts and inhibitions seemed to vanish with the breeze. She was strong, caring, self-confident and, somewhere deep beneath the smooth efficient whirring of her hard mechanical parts, vulnerable and sensitive as well.

“From the moment you first arrived,” the Monster told her, “it was as if we had always known each other. I felt I could confide in you, in your smooth planes and aerodynamic contours, in that funny, anxious little charge we share whenever we touch. And then, of course, there’s the way you always listen. You’re really a wonderful listener.” Her name was Amana Stor-Mor, and they shared many warm summer nights together, until that summer ended.

The Monster’s lawyer and the wife’s lawyer agreed on an out-of-court settlement, and the Monster lost everything. Its house, its savings account, its controlling interest in Man-Monster Industries, even its self-respect. And then, just when the Monster thought there was nothing left to lose, it lost Amana as well. One day the Monster returned home to pack its clothes and found that a strangely purring, over-equipped and falsely congenial creature had taken her place in the suddenly invidious kitchen.

David said, “It’s like, Dad, we couldn’t bear to have it around, you know? Mom’s detective guy showed us the photographs and, well. It’s like pretty disturbing to contemplate. It’s like pretty perverted for some kid in his formative years to have to tell his friends, like, yeah, my Dad’s got this thing for a frigidaire.”

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The Monster carted essential possessions out to its Mercedes convertible and drove away. The smog that afternoon was palpable and rough. The Monster felt itself filling up with a sort of gray, diffuse soundlessness. At first it was a mere nanospeck, some remote decimal fragment. Soon, however, it filled the Monster’s chest, face, simmering coolant, creaking levers and hidden clocks. Then, achieving the stern geometric horizons of Monsterness, the absence invested everything.

THE MONSTER PARKED ITS MERCEDES in the parking lot of a 12-story downtown budget accommodation called the Hotel Cecil, the rooms of which featured oddly stained sinks andtoilets, heavily painted fractured walls and ceilings, cheap plywood doors bearing the scars of many violently ruptured chain locks, and a direct view of the Greyhound Bus Depot across the street. Each day the Monster sat by the window peering down at its automobile in the parking lot. There is something infinite and strange in machinery, the Monster thought. Just like people, machinery often refuses to be known.

In the evenings, vandals and burglars arrived. They cut the doors of the Mercedes with bottle openers, bifurcated aluminum beer cans, crowbars, rings and knives. They disconnected hubcaps, tires, tape deck, burglar alarm, battery, hood ornament and taillights. They carted away the wheel wells and the bumper panels. Soon there was little left of the Mercedes, and after the Monster’s third call to the LAPD, its carcass was hauled away by a grumbling and slow-witted tow truck who went by the name of Tony’s Shell.

The Monster could not even suffer properly. It tried to torment itself, but only managed to invent paradoxes, word games and conundrums. It tried to debase itself, but only succeeded in figuring pi to its final decimal place. Suffering was not a lesson to be learned, the Monster thought, so much as someone to be. One suffered in order to become rooted in the very reality of oneself, like a plant in the mud.

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And so the Monster began making a few internal modifications. “Does this hurt?” the Monster asked itself, applying various tools and implements. “Does this, or this, ordoes this hurt? How about this? Or how about this ?” The Monster’s skilled hands gripped, pried, toggled and screwed. Inside, the Monster experienced dark, tangled thoughts, dimwhispering memories about people it could never be.

“Yes,” the Monster answered itself. “That does hurt. And that hurts, too.”

Then, succinctly, it began to cry. It cried for hours and hours and, just as succinctly, stopped.

“Now I have felt pain,” the Monster thought. “Now I have been hurt. Now I am angry.”

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Because it did not feel betrayed by the world of humans, the Monster lavished its anger on the world of machines.

“No pain is as terrible as my pain,” the Monster told the world. “No anger is as righteous as my anger.” Then it crushed them. It crushed Monster Man and Monster Woman seated at their miniature dinette set on the cracked particle-board bureau. It crushed Monster Children at play on the four-piece Monster Playground and Recreation Area. It crushed the entire Monster Family as they were setting out to the beach in their Monster Limo, replete with Monster Picnic Basket, Monster Pet and Monster Beer Chest. Soon the Monster’s minimal apartment was filling up with more and more Monster Rubble. “Arr,” the Monster cried, perambulating clumsily toward the Monster Family Yacht that floated in the sink’s tranquil, greasy water. “I hate machines, I hate toys, I hate Monster Families!” Then it lifted the helpless boat out of the water. “Help help!” it imagined the Monster Family shouting. “Please help us please!” The Monster smashed each Monster doll against the edge of the sink; their heads cracked open like eggshells, their various limbs snapped sharply like twigs and toothpicks. “I hate Monsters!” the Monster roared. “All Monsters must die!”

By this time, one of the Monster’s neighbors usually began beating the walls or ceiling with a bed board or umbrella.

“Keep it quiet in there!” the neighbor shouted. “What are you-- crazy or something?”

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ONE WARM SPRING AFTERNOON someone knocked at the Monster’s door. The Monster did not respond right away, for many of its response mechanisms were rusty or frozen over from disuse. It waited to hear another sequence of knocks. Then slowly, methodically, the Monster arose from its creaking bed. As it crossed the room, the fragmented plastic frames and steelmachinery of broken Monster toys crunched under its feet. The Monster opened its door.

“Like, hey, Dad. Like, it’s me. David. Your son, right? Can I come in, or am I supposed to stand out in this hall all day? I mean, you don’t look half bad. Your place is a dump, but you yourself don’t look half bad at all.”

David was 25 already and vice president in charge of his own manufacturing firm in Hermosa Beach. David was very blond, very tall and very well-groomed. “I thought we’d have a meal together, you know? Have ourselves a little father-son-get-reacquainted sort of reunion and all that? You could tell me how you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, and how you could just walk away like that from your own flesh and blood, your own children, like we didn’t even matter--oops. Sorry, Dad. Let’s have that meal. I promised myself I wouldn’t start in on you like that.”

LIKE SUFFERING, the Monster learned reconciliation--a softer, more subliminal sort of pain, one requiring less-severe modifications. The Monster ordered a pork machaca , David a chicken burrito. David recounted his two failed marriages and previous addictions to cocaine and Valium. His third wife was older, with two children of her own. Meanwhile, the Monster ordered more salty margaritas.

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“Like, Dad. Do you mind? I’ve always wanted to ask you like a question?”

“What’s that, son.”

“Like, what are those wires coming out of your neck?”

Self-consciously, the Monster touched them.

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“My neck,” the Monster replied, sensing a vague dissonance. David was already regarding him with an unformed expression.

“Oh,” David said after a while. “Like, I always thought you were just wearing one of those Sony Walkmans or something.”

AND SO THE MONSTER went to live with its son and daughter-in-law, its step-granddaughter and step-grandson, where the house was always filled with the human beat of heart and blood, like the kick and recoil of tiny levers and tiny springs, as primordial and unremitting as the pulse of a clock. This was the conspiracy of cells and molecules the Monster had always hateditself for not knowing before. Children opening and closing refrigerator doors and kitchen cabinets. Men, women and children from other houses arriving and departing. There was something ominous about the children and the way they always watched. The liked to touch the Monster’s face and hands. They palpated its skin and musculature and measured its nostrils with plastic rulers and compasses. They asked it ceaseless questions and were never satisfied with any of its answers.

“How does a television work, Grandpa?” they asked. “Or a radio, or a car? How does electricity keep some things cold and other things hot? Where do microwaves come from, and what is the greenhouse effect, anyway?”

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They were always asking, asking. Crawling into the Monster’s lap when it sat reading the paper, running their soft hands across its harder, more efficient ones. It was as if they suspected. It was as if they knew precisely what functions in the Monster they could compel. Sometimes they just looked the Monster silently in the eye, and these times bothered the Monster most of all. They wanted to know what it was thinking. They wanted it to answer the question that was itself.

The Monster watched television with them in the artificially warm rooms. It corrected their math and science homework. It posed in awkward positions on the shag-carpeted floor and permitted them to climb over and around its superficial structure. It read them stories fromlarge cardboard picture books filled with urgent primary colors. Pictures of polar bears in stocking caps and mittens, bespectacled gophers and hibernating geese conferring around tattered maps and spinning compasses. It even read them illustrated adventures of Monster Man and Monster Family, since Man-Monster Industries had recently expanded into almost every area of consumer merchandising. There were now Monster Man bath products and Monster Woman feminine-hygiene deodorants.

“Monster Man and Monster Woman married and were very happy together,” the Monster read out loud, pointing at the pictures of the man, then the woman, in the book. “They moved into Monster House and parked their Monster Car in the big, echoing Monster Garage. Then one day Monster Woman went to Monster Doctor and came home and gave Monster Man the good news.”

The Monster paused for effect, looking from Child Number One to Child Number Two. Both of them were rapt and breathless, filled with the pulse of their own sinewy, parenthetical hearts.

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“Do you know what that surprise was?” the Monster asked, glad to be the one who was asking the questions for once. “Do you know what Monster Woman learned at the doctor?”

Child Number One looked up. His attention seemed at once penetrating and opaque, as if he sought to render everything, even himself, transparent. “Were they going to have a baby?” Child Number One asked. Child Number One was the boy, because he wore blue pajamas and blue socks.

“That’s an absolutely correct response,” the Monster said. “They were going to have a little Monster Baby.”

THEN, SOMETIME in late winter, the deep structure of Child Number Two began to malfunction. All day and all night Child Number Two lay staring in her pink bed, among her pink, illustrated blankets and stuffed toys. There was always a damp, milky residue in her eyes and in the corners of her mouth. She never smiled anymore and took all her meals in bed. She didn’t laugh, or run, or play. Child Number Two was beginning to function veryineffectively in her role as the family unit’s youngest non-financially productive child-member. The Monster could always tell Child Number Two was the girl, because she wore pink T-shirts and pink socks.

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Doctors and therapists began making house calls. They plied Child Number Two with medicines, ointments, conditioners and diet supplements. Three days a week Child Number Two’s mother drove her to the hospital for special treatments that left rough, scabrous rashes on her chest and throat; eventually, her hair began to fall out. The Monster’s son, David, began pouring his drinks from large recurring jugs of Albertson’s vodka, and David’s wife, Mary Lou, cried abruptly from time to time, even in the middle of her favorite programs on TV. Whenever the Monster tried to question them, David and Mary Lou flashed with sudden anger and reproach; Mary Lou carried her clutched handkerchiefs into the bedroom, slamming doors and windows along her way.

“Don’t act like it matters to you, Dad,” David said, taking more long drinks from his tall glass. “There’s nothing you can do, so why bother--isn’t that your attitude? You never bothered about anything that ever happened to me in your entire life.” Then David disappeared into other rooms, too. Whenever David disappeared, the gallon jugs of Albertson’s vodka always disappeared with him.

One night, simply out of curiosity, the Monster entered Child Number Two’s room. While she slept, it performed its own cursory examinations. Child Number Two was malfunctioning at the level of cells and enzymes. Tiny electrons misfired. Bodily fluids were redirected by trauma, cellular shock and unscheduled hormonal rushes. The Monster thought of pistons, solenoids, the circulation of oils and lubricants. This stuff called blood, it was a problem. This heart and this brain. The Monster went downstairs to the basement for its tools. Then it returned to Child Number Two’s bedroom, where everything was glowing and indistinct.

The Monster pulled back the blankets and removed Child Number Two’s pink pajama top. Integument, blood vessels, striated muscle and calcified bone. The Monster closed some major arteries with paper clips; it triggered a number of pain-suppressant levers with alcohol-swabbed hypodermic needles. This was what the Monster most disliked about human beings. Blood was so much messier than metal.

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The Monster installed tidy machinery in Child Number Two’s heart and spleen. It scraped out a nervy gray malignancy with an X-Acto knife. Then it cleaned everything with alcohol and solvent and closed Child Number Two’s chest with a needle and thread from Mary Lou’s sewing basket. Suddenly, there was something comfortable and embracing about this human house. The world of blood is faulty, frail and adjustable, the Monster thought. Just like the world of metal.

Before the Monster finished closing her up, Child Number Two’s eyes opened abruptly, like the weighted glassy eyes on one of her plastic dolls.

“Grandpa?” Child Number Two said.

“What.”

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“I think I’m starting to feel a little better.”

“I know,” the Monster said. It leaned over and bit the thread, tying the loose ends together. “I know you’re better. Now let’s get these sheets down to the laundry before your mother wakes up and sees this mess.”

NIGHT PENETRATED the basement washroom with a fine ambient darkness. The Monster stuffed bloody sheets and blankets into a large, very obvious Maytag, including appropriate measures of detergent and bleach.

“Grandpa?”

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“What.”

“Tell me a story. Tell me a good story.” Child Number Two was sitting in the sofa-chair beside the boxes of bundled newspapers, unraveling tennis and racquetball racquets, neglected photo albums and Family League bowling trophies.

“What sort of story?” the Monster asked. It engaged the wash cycle and rested its hand on the thrumming metal lid. Appropriate lights activated on the otherwise expressionless panel of knobs and indices. The basement is always here, the Maytag said. Me and the basement. We’ll always be here.

The Monster turned to Child Number Two, who was touching the tight stitches across her thin chest as if they were the strings of a cello. “What sort of story do you consider a good story?” the Monster asked.

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“The story about the Monster who went to Mars,” Child Number Two said quickly. She was squirming already, as if blocks of remembered narrative were a sort of fuel. “Or the Monster who saved the world, or the Monster who loved the princess when the princess didn’t love him. The Monster who won the war, or the one about the ugly Monster who grew up to become a beautiful, tall office building. Tell me the one about the Monster’s underwater city, where he makes friends with the gigantic octopus and the menacing black squid. I want to hear stories about when the Monster does good things, and makes other people happy. I want to hear stories where the Monster makes lots of friends, and provides for his family, and lives happily ever after in the Monster City, hidden away in Australian jungles where he can’t be discovered by the world of men. I want to hear one of those stories, Grandpa. I want to hear one of those stories before I go back to bed.”

The Monster heard the Maytag shudder and shift into rinse. The darkness was beginning to disassemble, invaded by the cool morning light. The Monster heard creaks and soundings in the upstairs rooms and hallways. Feet on the floor. A discreet toilet flushing.

The Monster sat down and placed Child Number Two in its lap. Child Number Two was a strange, unappreciable sort of creature, even when she was functioning correctly. She was like quantum mechanics, or the creatures that drifted alone in the depths of unfathomable black oceans.

“OK,” the Monster said after a moment, checking Child Number Two’s pulse with the flat palm of its hand. “But remember--these are not the only stories.”

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