Machine by Aaron J. Housholder
After all the handshakes and nametags and power points I wandered down an alley so dark that all I could see save a single cone of light from a buzzing naked light bulb was the distant sky and the very top of the Sears Tower. Well, you know the building I mean. I inhaled the silence only to have it broken by a woman in the shadows beyond the cone of light on the left side of the alley plucking an unplugged purple electric guitar and whisper-screaming the greatest hits of Rage Against the Machine. I drew closer, mesmerized by the discordant plucking of the dead metal strings and the angsty breathy whisper that garbled the lyrics. The woman sat back in a niche of the alley, an urban sound booth, and as I approached her the city noises dwindled.
Do you take requests, I asked into the shadows.
I don’t know how to play this thing, she whispered, so I can play anything you like.
I stepped nearer, now fully sheltered. The woman sat on a barstool. She patted the seat of a second barstool beside her.
Let’s sing, she said.
Up close I could see her downturned face in profile and I recognized her.
Aren’t you, I said, but she shook her head and shushed me.
No names, she said. I’m an anonymous HR director, like anyone else.
She switched to Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine.
There’s no soul in corporate, she whispered during the opening mangled chords.
It was clear to me now: she and I were castoffs from the same meeting, the same conference, earlier. The handshakes, the power points, the nametags. The Man.
It’s enough to drive us down this alley, she said, as though reading my thoughts. Then she sang at full volume:
Welcome my son!
Welcome to the Machine!
I listened for a moment as her echoes bounded back and forth between the bricks and down the alley and away. I decided to be bold and reveal a secret.
I have a drum set in my pocket.
Her eyes rose to mine.
That makes no sense, she said.
And yet, here it is, I said, pulling out the drum set and piecing it together. The top hat shimmered sonically.
Can you play it? she asked.
Nope, I said. Don’t know how.
Beautiful, she said. Let’s play.
And we did, well into the night, until the buzzing lightbulb finally blew and the only illumination came from the lighted top of the Sears Tower, you know what I mean, until her fingers bled and my pulse settled into arrhythmia, until we melted into the niche and became two more parts of the city’s quiet grind.
Aaron J. Housholder (he/him) teaches writing and literature at a small university in the American Midwest. His creative work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Barren Magazine, phoebe journal, Unnerving Magazine, and elsewhere. He serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.