Machine of Average Magic
The oven in 2F had a wide ivory door with an enameled handle, a porthole window, and two standard adjustable racks. The inside was cleanish, with only circumstantial evidence to suggest why it was broken: the marks on the temp dial had been worn or scrubbed off and painted back with crimson fingernail polish. Little blue flames leapt up in the stove burners every time Sheldon turned the knob, but he’d been so taken with the crown moldings and leafy neighborhood—a pre-war of his own, with acoustics, at a manageable price!—that he’d not tried the oven before moving in. Once he got all his boxes up from the car, he asked the white Britisher with the man-bun in 1F to take a look. The dude poked at the burners, leaned close and sniffed for gas, then shrugged. “The one turkey I ever roasted in mine came out crep. I mostly get delivery.” Later, Sheldon begged the opinion of a Eurasian chef getting her mail in the lobby, her toque under her arm and an anti-viral mask concealing half her face. No, she didn’t remember any construction or trauma that might have damaged the oven. Her own oven was a fire hazard from the seventies that preheated to four hundred in under five minutes. “Just call the landlord,” she said, too tired to look at it. The landlord’s answering service said she was in Spain. Sheldon tried shaking the oven, then opened it up and waved a match around inside, but he knew a pianist who’d blown their eyebrows off that way, and cut it out. He called a repair service, plugged in his Keurig and toaster and made do.
That weekend he threw a party. He was known in his circle of creatives for an artichoke dip that required broiling of surface breadcrumbs, but even without the favorite dish, people still stubbornly clumped in the kitchen, variously masked and sitting on the countertops, opening and closing the cabinets, leaning on the oven’s handle as if a house could not be warmed by sitting dully on a couch. The party was well-attended and noisy—Chef Lisa brought a pie but Man-bun didn’t show–and late in the evening, Sheldon told a lanky infectious-disease data analyst from Montserrat about his foolishness with the match. Machines like this should be uncomplicated, he said to her, especially since everyone had one and there was nothing so mysterious about the job it did.
“Oh no?” she said. “It’s not magic when you put tan paste in the oven and out comes bread? Wow!” She popped him on the chest with the heel of her hand. “All you silly people believe in simplicity, as if that is how anything gets done.” She tipped her head sideways and tightened the corners of her mouth with coy scorn. “No one can listen to facts, only talk-talk-talk, feel, feel, feel. Don’t you want to know real things?”
Sheldon felt a pressurized curiosity in the place where she’d touched him, and the heat of yes was in his mouth when the infectious-disease data analyst set her can on the oven with a tink and said actually her ride was leaving, she had to go.
On Monday the repairmen showed up: two white men of similar height with different-sized toolboxes. Neither was masked. Sheldon kicked a path through boxes and packing paper as he led them to the kitchen area. The first repairman set his toolbox on the counter. He was the man who’d answered Sheldon’s call with a thick Eastern European accent: “Andrew of Atlas, hello. Jobs done quick and well.” He wore a navy canvas jacket with Atlas stitched over the breast in pale blue. From his smaller toolbox, he pulled a green foam pad. He spun it onto the checkered linoleum, knelt, and stuck his head in the oven. The second repairman slowly—without any twisting or reaching– leaned further and further to the right until his larger toolbox was three inches from the ground, then dropped it. He backed up to the cabinets and then used them to slide down to sitting on the floor. His name was written on the top of his toolbox in red capital letters: Ernie.
Ordinarily, Sheldon would have let them go about their business, but instead, he sat down in the narrow kitchen corridor too– he had a “personal statement” to write for something he didn’t even know if he wanted, plus a deadline for a difficult musical composition that was extremely short, meaning no spare measures for skillful development or comforting repeats, just immaculate form from note one. Also, the floor was freshly mopped. Sheldon was so tall he was sometimes mistaken for a ballplayer so he could lean against the wooden cabinets on one side while propping his feet comfortably on the other.
“If he’s the boss,” Sheldon said to Ernie, “why do you have the bigger toolbox?”
“He used to work for me and now I work for him.”
“Ha. Did you demote yourself and give him a promotion?”
“Health problems,” said Ernie. Ernie had two shags of moustache split down the center by a clear strip, and he wore a green polo shirt with the logo ripped off. His stomach was big, his fingers were greased and the skin on his arms was ruddy and hairy– he was workmanlike in every regard with the exception of the pale, poreless, extra-white skin on his face. Sheldon had the unnerving sensation that the head and the body had come from separate sets of parts. Ernie didn’t volunteer the nature of his health problems, but he did say, “You got to take care of it. When this guy worked for me he busted his shoulder but kept moving refrigerators around. I used to be stupid like that, but now I just sit and give advice part-time. Ain’t that the case niewolnik?”
Far away inside the oven, Andrew grunted.
“Niewolnik is Polish for workaholic,” said Ernie.
“No,” called Andrew. “Pliers,” he said, and reached an arm backwards.
Ernie opened his box and from a dark wilderness of wires, tape and tools he extracted something that was not pliers and put it into Andrew’s hand.
“No!” said Andrew when he saw what it was, but used the tool anyway. “I think it is something in this top part also,” he called from far away inside the oven. “Something with the gas.”
“Guess you want it turned off then,” said Ernie. He leaned to one side and dug in his rear pants pocket for a small wrench of blue metal. He used the wrench to flip open the skinny cabinet beside the oven, then reached into the dark space and twisted off the gas valve. Sheldon was impressed that he did not have to look; he worked by feel. Ernie pulled the wrench out and thumped Andrew on the back with it. “Check the pilot feeder where it’s connected to the temp gauge,” he said. “See if it needs cleaning out.” He used the wrench to scratch himself in the place where his shirt logo was missing. “My ex-wife’s got an old place like this with her new husband. I did repairs for them too,” he said. “At least she didn’t wait to call. She called right up. Most people wait until everything’s gone so far to hell there’s no hope. I tell people and I tell them: sooner or later, and later is going to be worse.”
Andrew drew himself out of the oven slowly. His jacket was bunched up under his armpits and he had rust on his chin. He slumped against the cabinets.
“I can’t get it out,” he said. “I can’t get this part—long gas tube—out.”
Ernie rolled to his knees. He slapped Andrew away from the oven with the back of his hand and lunged into its mouth, resting the full weight of his great stomach against the door. He reached both his arms inside and then lay still, assessing. Andrew watched quietly. The hinges looked dangerously overextended to Sheldon. Ernie pulled himself a bit further in and then yanked violently, several times, rattling the burners on the stove above.
A big roach shot out of the crack between the oven and the cabinets. Andrew covered his knuckle with a tissue and knocked it one time so it was dead but not squashed, then he wiped it up. Sheldon held his hand out for the wad, since the garbage was on his side.
“Ernie, forget it,” Andrew said. “Ernie!”
Ernie gave a great yank, and then another, and finally the tube broke out. He slid halfway out of the oven breathing heavily. His face bore no sign of exertion. No flush, just smooth, calm ivory. He rested his bulk on the oven door and closed his eyes.
Andrew took the part from Ernie’s hand and climbed slowly to his feet. He drew a pair of half-glasses out of a little pouch in his toolbox and put them on as Sheldon stood up.
“We don’t have this kind with us,” he said. “We will have to order it. Ernie has a catalogue. Probably three, four days.” He stowed his glasses away, reconfigured the layers in his toolbox, washed his hands, drank a little tap water out of his palm, grabbed Sheldon’s dish towel, smelled it, then wiped his hands and face. “You’ll be here at the same time?” he asked Sheldon.
“Most likely,” said Sheldon, getting up. “I work at home.”
“Doing what?” asked Ernie, still leaning on the oven door, eyes still closed.
“I write jingles for advertisements,” said Sheldon.
“Music?” said Andrew.
“Of a kind,” said Sheldon.
“We listen to the radio a lot in the van,” said Ernie. “Ninety four K-rock: all day, your way. He opened his eyes and smiled at Sheldon. You should hear this guy sing. He’s got a set of lungs.” Ernie reached up with both arms. Andrew and Sheldon each grabbed an arm and pulled him to his feet.
In the days after Andrew and Ernie’s visit, Sheldon purchased curtains and a rug. He called the landlord again and found out how to get in touch with the data analyst from Montserrat, through a friend. “Best of luck.” the friend said. “She’s all work and no play.” But Sheldon did not get in touch about cooking dinner for her in his magic oven, or anything else, because he felt she had offered him a dare he could not accept: didn’t he want to grasp the complexity that underlay all things and processes, all life and beyond?
Maybe not. Sometimes, a measure or melody just occurred to him. It just came as he was showering, or navigating the bumpy sidewalk. Greene street was lined with mature linden trees whose roots had thrust the pavers three and four inches into the air, revealing damp, mossy undersides. This hazard had first annoyed him, but it slowed him down in a way that made the sun more lovely hanging in pale curls off the dark stoops of the old brownstones. It unhooked deliberation from creation. He’d solved several musical problems walking over the sidewalk to the subway. He’d even written a full-length song, the first in how long? And the computing in that was unknowable, maybe irrelevant. But it worked, somehow. It happened.
He was laboring on music for a news program— short again, everyone wanted short, short, short–when Andrew of Atlas arrived a second time.
He was alone. He stood at the door in his same neat dark blue clothes, but a sour work sweat burned through a failing antiperspirant, and his face was grimly professional.
“I have the part,” he said, holding it up in its plastic baggie for Sheldon to see. He walked unguided through the apartment to the kitchen as Sheldon hesitated, and then went back to his computer. He did have a deadline. Two deadlines. Andrew opened the oven door with a crash and then lined some tools up noisily on the floor of the oven.
“Ernie had a seizure,” said Andrew.
“A seizure?” said Sheldon, turning. “You mean a muscle spasm?”
“No,” said Andrew. “Here.” He pointed to the side of his head above his left ear. “A tumor. He has to have an operation but this operation is not very often successful.”
“Brain surgery?” asked Sheldon.
“Yes. A meningeal pons tumor.” Andrew wiped his forehead with his flat palm and then wiped the sweat on his thigh, leaving a dark blue mark. “Too tired from Monday and Tuesday,” he said. He looked down at his toolbox for another piece of equipment. Then he put his head in the oven.
Sheldon turned back to his music. He deleted it. He got up and went to his front window and looked through his filmy curtain at his neighbor’s filmy curtain across the street. It seemed the two men had been together when it happened. Sheldon wondered whether this situation was simple or complex and what the data analyst would think about it. Or do. Her name was Cecile.
“I cannot fix it,” Andrew called out across the apartment after some minutes. “This oven is old. Ernie ordered a new part. I don’t know why. Maybe he knew something special to do. I don’t know. Look. I’ll show you.” He beckoned Sheldon to come closer and see the difficulty for himself. Andrew knelt down at the mouth of the oven and shined his snake light in, and Sheldon went over and bent down with his hands on his knees.
Had Ernie been present, Sheldon thought, he would have approached the problem one layer of trouble at a time, the way a ship descends through locks to a lower sea. At the entrance of the problem was Sheldon himself, who’d called the problem into being by phoning Atlas Repair. No matter how anxious he might be to suggest a solution, all he saw was an open spot on the bottom of the oven and a piece too short to reach the brackets on either side. And Sheldon knew that while Andrew had more expertise than he did, Andrew’s ability was still an amateur’s: he could not jury rig the new gas tube into the old oven to work up to code, and it would be very hard to find another size. And even if the Sheldon and Andrew together could guess about what might be done to the gas lines on the first floor to improve the situation, only someone with historical knowledge of the neighborhood and the building could acknowledge a secret and complicated past: the building had once been a single-family home that became stratified when times were lean and the floors were let, one flat per family, the fighters above, the musicians below. New gas lines were installed to accommodate these new residents. The floors were then split to become units for solitary people, working, sleeping, cooking noodles or rice in pots, never baking or roasting. Only an insider–the landlord perhaps– could speculate with confidence that there’d probably been a fire, and certain gas pipes were sealed. And only Ernie himself —the creative technician, an insightful historian, a true expert– would also know that buried beneath all blockages and conduits was a system of citywide sources so vast and complicated that it could hardly be understood by the layman and by the expert only one small segment at a time. And although ideally this system operated under straightforward principles determined by design, construction, and regularity of maintenance—it could at times leap free of these constraints and allow fuel to surge forth and ignite in a surprise burst, and in other cases it could withdraw pressure so that all everything unlit might suck backward toward the center. Ernie, of all people, would recognize that a malfunction appearing simple at the outset could turn complicated further in—could grow absurd, even artistic as it looped back upon itself.
But, Sheldon asked himself, and asked Ernie, and asked Cecile, even at the heart of any repair, right next to the knowledge of every pipe and feeder tube, every source of trouble, every turn of history, wasn’t there something simple lying right beside all that complexity in the toolbox, or maybe even handed to you by someone else? The feeling—belief? Or was it hope?—that stuck valves could open?
“I’ll keep this part for someone else,” said Andrew, tossing tools the part back into the box. “So.” He stood up and looked at Sheldon. “Probably the whole unit should be replaced. This is the easiest way. Maybe also the cheapest. It is your decision.”
They stood awkwardly for a moment. If Sheldon refused the offer it might be insulting. If he accepted, it would cost Sheldon money the landlord should be spending, and which—if Sheldon knew anything about unresponsive landlords—he might not be reimbursed for months or years.
“I’m not much of a cook,” Sheldon said. “Maybe I’ll get a microwave.”
“Probably best,” Andrew said, although he looked furious that even when a person like Ernie possessed a lifetime of useful tricks for holding things together and making them work he might still die before he told anyone—even his best friend—how it was done.
“Let’s just wait for Ernie to come back and finish,” Sheldon said.
“You will wait?” Andrew’s disbelief was pure.
“Sure. Someone close to me had brain surgery when I was small. And it worked.”
Everyone Sheldon had ever said this to looked at him shrewdly afterward, convinced he was lying. The way out of the suspicion was changing the subject. “I’m sorry you had to come all the way here again.”
“No no, my job,” said Andrew. “There is no charge for this time. Under half an hour.” He waved in a half-salute and went toward the door with his toolbox in his hand.
“Give Ernie my best,” said Sheldon.
“I will tell him,” said Andrew. “Goodnight.”
It was only noon. Sheldon watched out his filmy curtain as Andrew walked down the sidewalk to the place where his van was parked. He went carefully, using his toolbox to balance himself as he navigated up and over the uneven pavers. Andrew climbed into a dark red mini-van and closed the door. It seemed so improbable that between repair appointments Ernie just flipped on the K-rock and Andrew began to sing. It was a marvel. Sheldon could recognize that. As a child, Sheldon had never had his surgeries explained in detail because he was too young and they were too complex, but in between them, he’d been coached to pay attention all the time so the marvelous and hopeful on every side would not be missed. A wasp building a mud nest particle by particle until it was stone. The yeasted bread rising in the pan.
He would go to her—Cecile—today, and tell her that he did hear important things, when they were said. He would finally drop off his conservatory application on the way, and tell her the story of the oven and trace the path of mechanical simplicity spiraling into human complexity but all the while orbiting hope … or, maybe just ask if she’d like to hear her song.
Phoebe Baker Hyde’s short fiction has been published in High Plains Literary Review, Confrontation, and Chrysalis, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the LA Times, and her controversial memoir The Beauty Experiment was published by DaCapo/Perseus in 2013.