The Husband Machine


We found the husband machine half-buried in a fine layer of river silt on the summer banks of the Yadkin, which wove like a thick bolt of blue silk across the county and through each of our unfenced backyards. It was the logic of these things that, without warning or outcry, without the sudden leaping of a doe through a thicket or the muted twinkle of birdsong, the husband machine appeared, a mere shadow in the bindweed and feverbush and eastern bluestar rioting across the river’s edge, and we had to blink two or three times and press our lightly-haired knuckles into our eyes to confirm that what we saw was, in fact, the husband machine, not some figment of our boyish imaginations, not a mythically beautiful white stag or the ghost of James Dean, complete with tumbleweed and lasso, or our friends’ brothers’ unwashed, plaid boxer shorts, buoyed downriver by the imagined power of our desire. No, it was the husband machine, and to this day we cannot describe it as anything more than what it did it for us. At first, we eyed the husband machine with distrust, the way our mothers watched General Hospital and Dr. Phil on our boxy televisions, cigarette smoke harpooning through the air, their gem-dark silhouettes akimbo in our mothers’ petite smogs, and we imagined we watched the husband machine through a thin veil of smoke because our mothers had told us about the evils of strange men, televised men, men from other religions, other states, other worlds, and the husband machine possessed a rocky, masculine beauty, its many sides and angles and vectors all of a gruff linearity, like state lines in a Rand McNally atlas.

But there was something about the husband machine that lured us, some inexplicable desire to touch it, to hold it within our minds and our hands at once, as if then we might understand its impossible shape, the way it seemed to both capture and expel light, the strange heady odor that filled our nostrils as we approached it, sangria and Old Spice and rust. We lay our palms upon one of its sides, this one covered in an array of soft magenta feathers, and we felt an incredible rushing in our chests, as if some water-bearing vessel broke within us, and we realized there was so much and so little to know: we knew, suddenly, the exact location of every Dairy Queen in the American South, and we knew the exact intermingling of air within the lungs of white storks, and although we’d never been in love we knew that the husband machine loved us, we floated above love’s watery world, the eutrophic waters of the Yadkin (and we knew they were eutrophic, not oligotrophic or mesotrophic, because our pimpled faces did not constellate over the water but plunged right into it), and it took a while, no one could put a number on the amount of time it took, but we allowed ourselves to love the husband machine back, its surface now sleek and coarse like the great bristling teeth of a whale, its love for us had grown so large. We felt, again, a terrible breakage, and something galloped out of our bodies and into the husband machine, and we ignored the dull throb of our hearts and focused instead on the sound of the husband machine, the small crack of a sunflower seed splitting into green, and we were no longer touching the husband machine but the body of a man, the most beautiful man we had ever seen. We never found the perfect language to describe him, never knew how to make a space for him with our speech—we never even learned his name—but he was everything we ever wanted: a herd of mustangs stormed over his chest, a porn star’s tattoo, the sort of shapes our mothers would never let us ink onto our skin; his hair was every beautiful shade we could think of, silver blonde and strawberry blonde and a magnificent chestnut and a deep, rich jet; thick blue veins roped over his hands, and we knew them to be both strong and delicate; and never before had we seen such anatomical perfection, not even on the charts our burly gym teacher rolled out during sex-ed, not even on those dormant bodies. And yet something about him evaded perception. As much as ink looped and roiled across his chest, it did not, it vanished and flickered before our eyes like a mirage, and we understood him to be incredibly special, the only thing of his kind. We stared into his eyes and realized that he was the husband machine—that the machine wanted us to take this man as our husband and, giddy with our new love feelings, we reached for his hand and he reached back, almost at the same time, and laced his fingers through ours. We didn’t know what would happen if we brought home a man to marry—if we should have painted the walls a new, starling color, or bought minted silverware, or replaced all the doorknobs, or if our lack of preparation was a bad omen—but the excited clamor of our new love, the violent feeling of our husband’s hand clutched in ours, outweighed any hesitation, and we tumbled through the shrubbery of our yards and into our houses, our heavy oak doors slamming shut behind us.

When we told our parents about our husband, we expected them to clutch at their chests and howl because their baby boys were all grown up, or crinkle their faces like tissue paper and tell us we were too young to get married, that we couldn’t waste the endless possibility of the rest of our lives on the husband machine, and cast him out into the night. We feared the worst, and we felt our husband’s fear quake through his lustrous palms. We watched a crown of sweat break out over his brow and felt the slight prick of perspiration on our own foreheads. But our parents were not upset—they loved our husband. Our mother smiled and put her hands over her mouth and squealed, and we thought we saw the telltale glint of tears in our father’s eyes. They congratulated us, they fussed and preened and cooed over the unfathomable expanse of our husband, and our father shook our husband’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder and we knew this was his way of saying he loved him and accepted him as part of our family. Our mother lamented that we didn’t have a ceremony, but she said she wanted the day to be sacred, so she took our husband by the shoulders and said a prayer, her acrylic magenta nails resting lightly on his tan skin, and sprinkled water and no-bleach Comet over his head because, she said, we were out of well water and city water wasn’t holy enough on its own. Our parents ducked into their bedroom, and we looked at our husband to see how he was handling things. He smiled dumbly at the kitchen’s peeling floral wallpaper, the brightest smile we had ever seen, so full of glee that we wanted to bottle its light and keep it forever in the dark recesses of a closet or pantry, a constant reminder of the power of our love, and we knew we had made the right choice, we were oh so lucky. Our parents returned and shoved a present into our husband’s hands. He made no move to untie the flouncy pink ribbon or tear into the glossy wrapping paper, small dolphins over a blue paper sea, so we took the present from his hands and opened it. Tucked inside a bent white cardboard box we found an arrangement of Lindor truffles, our mother’s wedding garter, and a china plate emblazoned with a cyan dragon. We didn’t know what to say—we were overcome with the beauty and thoughtfulness of our parents’ wedding gift. Our mother batted at the air, and we understood that we didn’t have to say anything, that our husband was welcome in our home.

For a few weeks, we lived in our little house on the Yadkin with our husband in a state of perpetual bliss, what we’d later refer to as our early paradisiacal period. We slept in our little twin bed, our bodies thrown over each other, and we loved the way our husband’s body buoyed us through our dreams, both ship and sail. Every morning, we pulled two pieces of Wonder Bread from the gaudy plastic wrapper in the wire breadbasket and toasted them for thirty seconds and smeared them with blackberry jam and a honey drizzle, and set them on the china dragon plate, and ate our slice in small, coy bites, our eyes flitting up toward our husband to see if he watched us eat, if he tried to see into our mouths. Our husband never ate his toast—we understood that he felt uncomfortable in this new place, and, like good husbands, we gave him the time and space he needed, and left the toast before him until the honey crusted and glazed like amber. Every morning departure for school felt final, an irrevocable snip at the thread that bound us to our husband, and we told him that we loved him and watched his mouth form the words I love you, and while Ms. Eschenbaugh drew models of the interior of a nucleus or Mr. Klemm orated the limit definition of a derivative, we imagined what our husband did alone at home all day. We liked to think that our husband sang, that he pulled song from his throat like water from a well, a dark and impossible song whose beauty would paralyze us, a song that snapped into the sky and shook the birds from their slight perches on the sticky spring branches of magnolias and oaks, and that our husband’s silence was ultimately a graceful protection against the true limits of his beauty, limits our darling minds could not comprehend. Every day, our husband changed infinitesimally—his hair now a shimmering kelp green, his nails now bitten to the quick, his lips now plump and dark, the cupid’s bow at once flat and exaggerated, the smooth mesa of his stomach now taut, now squishy, now a code we read with our fingers as we fell asleep, the body’s braille—and we admired our husband’s efforts to keep the marriage interesting, and felt the bravado of his interest in us grow alongside our interest in him, our love a shifting light within our chests, a shimmering knot in our throats. At night, we sat with our parents on the plaid L-couch in the living room and watched Family Feud or the original Star Trek or Jeopardy or macaroni westerns or 60 Minutes. We wondered what our husband thought about the television shows, how the spectral cotillion of new and recurring characters arranged itself in his mind, if the answer to each night’s Final Jeopardy skittered across the lovely surface of his innermost thoughts, with the lacquered force of an insect he’d never seen before or a chorus suddenly remembered, before Alex Trebek inevitably revealed the truth, Lake Erie or Thomas Edison or American Pekin. Our hands startled into our husband’s—they inched toward each other at the same time, like one hand moving toward its own reflection—and we’d interlace our fingers, and we’d stare at the flickering phantom of the television light on our husband’s face, his beauty somehow deepened by its soft glow. We knew, then and in every moment, that we loved our husband more than anything, and we could not believe our luck. We’d turn toward our husband and see our love in the gentle crests of his face, the same faint smile resting in his cheeks as on our own visage, and it only strengthened our conviction. Our husband did not belong to us—no, we belonged to each other, and we lived in some new Carolina, some new world, together. It was as if everything that came before our husband had detonated around us, and we fumbled and gestured at the wreckage of our past lives, our husband at the center of some wondrous starlight, like an angel or a ball of beautiful gas and ice and dust.

After we’d lived with our husband for one month, our parents announced that they had planned a surprise for the two of us. We looked to our husband and saw the confusion we felt thick on his face, confusion purpled by excitement and wonder. Before we could say anything, our parents shepherded us into their bedroom, and said that if we couldn’t have a honeymoon, they’d at least give us a night in their little chateau, this with a knowing wink from our mother, and before we could protest they closed the door behind them, and we stared at our husband as he stared at us. We smiled at our husband, who smiled back in perfect time, and as we reached up to smooth our cowlicks with the palms of our hands, our husband did the same, his hair an almost violet dark, a stormy and wondrous shock that enchanted us all the more. We felt, in the balmy cavern of our parents’ bedroom, sitting on their lush four-poster bed, a transaction between us and our husband, an interplay of beauty and knowledge, and we moved to place our hands over his chest as he placed his over ours, and we couldn’t tell what sound we felt inside of him: the slow unfurling of a black sail, or a wet stone striking a flint, and the hiss of sparks in the air. We wanted to get to know our husband’s mind the way we knew, in that moment, the particular ballads of his heart. We asked our husband where he was from and he said nothing, but mirrored the shapes our lips made, musing his way toward an answer. We blushed, and looked down at the gentle rise of the bedspread, enchanted by our husband’s bashful nature. We asked what he would do with $1,000,000; we wanted to know his favorite flavor of Slurpee, and how he felt about Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and if he preferred roller skating to ice skating, as we did, or if he enjoyed open- or closed-mouth kissing. But as we spoke, he again shaped the words with his mouth, but said nothing, and we thought we understood what he wanted, that he was playing a coy and devilish game with us, and we smirked and saw our smirk float onto his face, and took him by the hand into our parents’ grand bathroom, and filled the claw-foot tub we inherited from our Aunt Cheryl with a stream of clear, cool water, the same water that vaulted through the Yadkin, because we thought our husband might be comfortable with something familiar. We gestured toward the tub, and his hand graced the air above the water, his hands now calloused, infinitesimal flecks of mica buried under the nails, and we understood that he wanted us to make the first move. We stepped into the tub, and our husband stepped with us, and we watched and felt the water tremor around our bodies, two shadows impossible to distinguish. Some of us smelled the particular spongy odor of the Yadkin, others the viridian smell of tilled earth, and still others the glimmering scent of Carolina clay, and we knew it was our husband’s smell, and we thought of the moment we first met our husband, a flattened and mirthful memory at once distant and incredibly close, and we realized we sat in a space beyond speech, that our husband was waiting for us to touch him as we’d only dreamed of touching a man, the trite and coy touches of pornographic films, and we felt, again, that terrible cracking, the gate of our desire swinging open within us, and as we reached for our husband he reached back, and we saw the faces of every man we’d ever desired flicker across his, Mr. Laramie from Ace Hardware for a select few, and Joe Beckam, captain of the varsity lacrosse team, for most of us, and Gary Stevenson, city councilman with white teeth galore, for the rest, and the array of men who populated our dreams. In the moment before our lips touched, before our bodies blurred into each other, we saw our own faces, and it was as if someone had peeled back the night and revealed some horrible lunar face behind it, a monstrous face, something from the underside of a dream, and fear broke into our bodies the way one hundred birds may shatter into the sky all at once, fear of this thing we could not know, this thing we knew too well. And before we could react our husband jumped back, water sloshed onto the tile floor, and we felt uglier than we’d ever felt, we wondered desperately what our husband had seen in us that so repulsed him, we hated our stupid boy bodies, our loud and leaking bodies, half of us covered our faces with our hands and the other half squeezed our eyes shut and one of us knocked his left hand into the porcelain rim of the tub. We thought we were wrong to think the husband machine ever loved us, we were unmoored from reason, our thoughts awful and dramatic, and we imagined the husband machine leaving us, storming from the house and folding himself into the fabric of the night, never to be seen but in the telltale glimmer of a star out of the corner of our eyes, a lingering possibility, and we wondered, briefly and terribly, if we could truly love the husband machine, and what it meant that he didn’t speak to us or our parents. And we felt something new: a violent shuttering, a latching and locking, and we opened our eyes and our husband was gone.

We held our mouths in large Os, we couldn’t believe what had happened, and we were quick to quash the idea that any of it was our fault, quick to reassure each other with saccharine coos and gentle strokes of the forearm. A small chunk of the original husband machine floated above the water like a toy boat, blackened and lumpy, with none of its original luster, no feathers or rhinestones or vertebrae or bubblewrap coating its surface. We knew, then, that something had ended. We took the shrapnel of the husband machine into our hands and turned it over, two or three times, and there was no secret latch or keyhole, no lock or button or lever, no way to reverse what we suddenly knew about the husband machine, what we knew about ourselves. We no longer wanted anything to do with the hunk of shit in our hands—we wrinkled our faces, and squeezed the husband machine, and scorned its ugly and hidden mechanics, and told it we never wanted to see it again, we told it to look at what it had done and to think about how it made us feel, the sort of position it put us in. We rose from the tub, quickly dried and dressed, and ran past our parents reclining on the plaid couch, reflections of The Outlaw Josey Wales or John Chisum or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly daggering over their faces, and we imagined what might have happened had the husband machine ensorcelled us in one of the myriad worlds of the television, if we’d fallen in love in a houndstooth slip on a wild and magnificent vale, hourly squalls fetlocked in our dark hair, or in a pit gouged into the earth with a bedpost in some square state, would we still have our husbands, would things have ended differently? We shook our heads, we could not bother ourselves with such questions, and darted into the night. Stars jeweled across the sky—a slight and constant wind rattled the oaks and elms, and the forest stood dark and resolute around us, but we refused to believe it held any haints. We knew there was no magic in the world. The waters of the Yadkin spun and swirled in the moonlight, and we knew the river to be violent. We walked to the river and placed the husband machine on the water’s surface, a few of us blowing it a kiss, a few kicking a small skirt of white pebbles into the river after our ancient love, and watched it careen over the water and around the rocks and out of sight, now the shadow of a hawk overhead, now a mossy stone, now only a suggestion of itself, heading further downstream than we could imagine, heading to a place where we might, one day, build a home.

(winner of the Editors’ Prize for Issue 31&2)