Monday, August 15, 2011

Machine of Death: DUCK (the annotated version)

In my last post I presented the rules of the Machine of Death stories, and shared one of my two submissions for consideration for inclusion in the second volume. I think the story stands on its own, with no real explanation necessary - unless you felt the need to look up one cause of death mentioned about halfway through. But I thought it would be fun to share some annotations, explaining what the thinking was behind this story. If anyone were to ask "Where do you get your ideas?," for this story I could respond "A controversial book by Nabokov, a Penn & Teller video game that was never released, a MAD Magazine article from about fifty years ago, a John Waters bonus segment on one of his DVDs, a Samuel Jackson/Eugene Levy buddy movie that nobody saw, and an ancillary character in the Mary Worth comic strip." Or, if you prefer, "I don't know, they just come to me."

I thought of doing these annotations as footnotes, but realized that would get really annoying really fast. So I decided to interleave the notes with the story itself. To read the story without interruption, see this post.

Machine of Death: DUCK (with annotations)

"...and so, see, he's dead, but he doesn't know that when he's writing all this. I mean, he died shortly after he wrote it, though it wasn't exactly unexpected. And the prison psychiatrist or whatever is presenting his memoir."

"Sounds unethical," I said. He'd been going on like this since we left Phoenix, and it was all I could do to hold up my end of the conversation. More a sort of two hour running monologue with occasional commentary by me.

"But the thing is, he's dead, she's dead, her mother's dead, his ex-wife is dead, Clare Quilty is dead. He killed Clare Quilty - without that there'd be no story, since that's why he's in prison, nobody actually knew about him and the girl until after he detailed it in his memoir, and he never knew that she died giving birth to a stillborn baby - I don't remember, maybe that happened after he died."

"But knowing that she was going to die that way, would that have changed anything? For him?"

"I dunno," he said, taking another sip from his travel mug. "Maybe he might have thought that it would be his baby, and he might not have used her the way he did. But when he wrote the memoir he asked that it not be published until after she died, which he figured wouldn't be for another sixty or seventy years. So, yeah, the story might have changed." He paused. "Of course, Nabokov knew all the while that she was dead. Oh, and so does the reader, because the when and how is mentioned in the psychiatrist's introduction to the book. Brilliant writer, Nabokov."

The book they are discussing is "Lolita", by Vladamir Nabokov. This was a thing with me at the time of this writing; inspired by someone whose blog I had recently discovered, I decided to re-read this story for the first time in about twenty years. I was blown away by the richness and complexity of Nabokov's writing, and the almost crystalline structure of his story. One of the things that amazed me the most was something I called "poly-temporal foreshadowing," in which the narrator Humpbert Humpbert cleverly hinted at events yet to come in the story he was presenting without realizing the other events that were being foreshadowed at the same time, events of which he had no knowledge in some cases because they came to pass after his death. Brilliant writer, Nabokov.

"Lolita" is also referenced in another story I have posted to my blog: "The Hoarder."  Not coincidentally, both of these stories feature essentially the same character: an older, overeducated, underemployed man - a stand-in for me, or at least me in twenty-five years or so. I don't think I describe him in either story beyond being an "old man." I do this intentionally, I suppose, allowing the reader to project anyone they want onto the underdescribed characters. However, I did have a very specific figure in mind in both cases. If you need a description of him from me, imagine a bear of a man, about six feet tall, broad-shouldered, pot-bellied, with neck-length white hair and a white fringe beard. If you need even more information you can go here for an illustration of Professor Ian Cameron from the comic strip Mary Worth. Third comic down. Oh, he's just wearing swim trunks there. I guess I should have warned you.

 I looked at the road stretching before us, beyond the illumination of the van's headlights. "So, you drive this route very often?" I asked.

"Once every few months," the old man said. "Usually my nephew or one of his drivers do it. I'm mostly on local routes, shuttling folks around Phoenix. But something came up, and I was available. It isn't a bad route, just boring. Five hours of nothing. At least you weren't changing planes in Tucson. That would be worse - eight hours from there to Vegas. There's those two magicians from Vegas, whattretheycalled, Siegfried and Roy? The tall one and the short one?"

"Penn and Teller."

"Yeah, them. They made a video game once. Supposed to be a crack at all the anti-violent-video game folks, they made a game with no violence whatsoever. You just drive a bus from Tucson to Vegas. For eight hours. It pulls a little to the right, so you have to correct for that. If you make it all the way, you get to drive it back."

"That sounds...awful."

This is a real thing, sort of. Desert Bus was a minigame that was to have appeared on the Sega CD game Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors. Though the CD was never released, the Desert Bus minigame has escaped into the wild and developed a cult following.

This was much of the original inspiration for this story: two people taking this route and just talking, before realizing that they had to keep on talking the rest of the way or risk death. I plotted out the route online and saw that the highway from Tucson to Las Vegas was barren and devoid of anything of interest - with the exception of Phoenix, Arizona! I think Phoenix counts as a pretty big something - maybe a place to take a break, grab a coffee, stretch your legs. I decided that Phoenix would be a better starting point than Tucson. It would also be easier to explain the characters being stuck in Phoenix because of a missed connecting flight than it would be to have them changing planes in Tucson.

"Like I said, it was a joke. Hey, here's a joke: Guy's in Vegas, high roller, big spender. Sees this machine set up on the strip, kinda like one of those guess your weight, tell your fortune things, only this is a Machine of Death, all fancy brass and stuff, right there on the street. And he's feeling pretty good about himself, and he's never gotten a reading before, so he thinks, what the hell, I'll do it now. So he goes up to it, slips in a twenty, sticks his finger in the hole, waits a minute. And out pops his reading. And it says DUCK."


"Yeah, DUCK. And the guy doesn't get it, he was expecting something like HEART ATTACK DURING THREE-WAY WITH CHEERLEADERS or something. So he thinks, this can't be right, and pops in another twenty and takes the test again."

"Big spender."

"Yeah, well, we all know the test will come out the same every time, right. Only this time, the letters seem to be a little bigger. But again it says DUCK."


"So this guy's got more cash than brains, so he thinks, Dammit, I don't want to get killed by a duck, or choke on a duck. So he pops in another twenty, takes the test again. And again, in even bigger letters, it says DUCK."

"Well, yeah."

"So he pops in another twenty. At this point he's running out of fingers, but he jams his pinky in the hole, lets the needle jab him, waits for the test result."


"And all of a sudden this crane on a construction project across the street breaks off its moorings, and falls halfway off a building, and the girder it was lifting goes swinging wildly across the street, and smashes the guy's skull right into the wall of the building he was standing in front of."

"Oh, my God!"

"And the card comes out and says, I TOLD YOU TO DUCK!"

This comes from a MAD Magazine article I've always loved. "If Comic Characters Were Psychoanalyzed," issue 125, March 1969:

I had to modify it a bit to fit it into this story, but I'm happy I was able to squeeze it in. It's a great joke, though it really only works under very specific circumstances. I guess I turned the circumstances around entirely. When I get to the punch line of my version, I am reminded of another punchline: "Maybe I should have said DiMaggio?"

I let out a laugh. It felt good to laugh, after getting our connecting flight canceled at the last moment. "Of course," I said, "that couldn't really happen. The cards can be vague – heck, sometimes they're downright whimsical - but they've always got something to do with how you're going to die."

When I had a friend do an out-loud reading of this story, the original version of the first line of this paragraph was even clunkier.

The old man nodded, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. "There was a guy, once, actually got a card that said DUCK. He didn't think much of it, figured he'd choke on some roast duck or get killed by a duck crashing into his car. So he was on a plane, short commuter hop, and wasn't too concerned, even when he found out that other people on the plane had PLANE CRASH and DISMEMBERMENT and BURNED TO DEATH. He figured, as long as no ducks were involved, he would be safe. Then the plane hit a flock of ducks and crashed. Everybody died."

I had US Airways flight 1549, the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight, in mind here. Only in that case the plane hit geese, not ducks, and everybody lived, thanks to the skill and cool-headedness of the pilot.

I looked at him. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. Things like that changed the way airlines do business. That's why they – well, the insurance companies, really - require everybody to be tested, to submit their certified tests when they get their tickets so they can feed all the results into a computer. They don't care about individual results, just patterns coming out of groups. Like, if everybody on a plane has PLANE CRASH or FALLING or BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA and the pilot has HEART ATTACK, they'll cancel the flight or split everybody up onto different planes. If you're on a plane where half the people have cards that say CANCER, odds are good it's not going to crash. Unless, like, the pilot suddenly dies of cancer."

I'm proud of adding the concept of Cancer Flights to the Machine of Death universe. Others have used people's M.O.D. predictions to fashion human shields or people who assumed themselves unkillable under certain circumstances, but I like the idea of institutionalizing this as a sort of insurance policy for airlines: if you're fated to die of cancer, you fly free - as long as you're not in immediate danger of dying of cancer. Of course, people with CANCER predictions wouldn't all be seated in the same section, but would be scattered throughout the plane. 

"So that's probably what happened to us, then."

"Maybe. They never say. Confidentiality rules. But since they started using those programs, business has picked up for us, and all the other shuttle bus companies. Where are you guys going, anyway?"

"Dental Supply Sales conference. Annual thing, first time in Vegas."

The narrator is based on the character played by Eugene Levy in the amazingly awful movie "The Man." He was a dental supply salesman on his way to a conference who got tangled up with Samuel Jackson's edgy cop character. However, throughout this story I imagined this character being played by Leland Orser, who played essentially the same panicky, hapless, doomed guy in "Se7en" and "Alien: Resurrection." Not that I saw this character as particularly panicky or hapless, or neccessarily doomed.

We drove on. The road seemed to stretch out forever. The driver took another sip of coffee.


I broke the silence. "So, hey, you must hear a lot of death results. What's the weirdest one you ever heard?"

He laughed. "Heh, that's easy. SPLOSHING."

I blanched. "Oh, my God. That's horrible."

This was originally not "SPLOSHING" - which is a sexual fetish that involves people, sometimes fully-clothed people, covered in food. The original was much more horrible, particularly as a means of death. I realized it was a total show-stopper that would cause anyone who looked it up to recoil in horror and probably seek my immediate death. Then I remembered John Waters's documentary on sexual perversions that was included as a bonus piece on the DVD of "A Dirty Shame," and remembered sploshing as the funniest.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Guy who got it thought so, too. At first he had no idea what it meant. Had to look it up online. Damn near took a heart attack when he found out. I told him that would have been funny, to have the prediction come true so directly, with him dead at his computer and THAT sort of stuff on his screen."

"So I wonder how that's going to end up?"

"No idea. I'm thinking he may become fascinated with the thing, then obsessed with it, then decide to have a go at it at a club or whatever, and die there.” He grinned. "Like you said, horrible." He tipped the travel mug back, drained the rest of the contents. "Hey, could you do me a favor? Grab that thermos on the floor and refill this." As I poured, he asked, "So what about you? What's the weirdest one you've heard?"

"Huh. I guess that would be mine."

"Well, I don't want to pry, but..."

"DEFENESTRATION," I said. He paused a minute and chewed on that.

"No shit? DEFENESTRATION? 'Thrown out a window?'"


"I remember reading about something like that in a History class. The 'Defenestration of Prague.'"

"There were several, actually," I pointed out.

"Yeah. The one I remember, two guys, ambassadors or whatever, got thrown out a window and landed in a pile of manure. They lived because they landed in manure."

This line called for an edit. I've always loved the Defenestration of Prague since I first learned about it in college, but I recalled it involving a cart of manure. Technically, this is known as the "Second Defenestration of Prague."

"Yep, that was one of them.."

"So, now think about it," he said. "Imagine some soothsayer came up to those guys the day before and said "Tomorrow you will be thrown into a pile of manure.' You think they would have said 'Hey, great, that sounds fantastic?' No, they would just hear 'pile of manure' and think, man, that sucks."

The van bumped along the road, over some long-dead armadillo or something. He looked at me sideways. "Hey, is your seat belt secure?"

I checked. "Yep."

"'Cause I was just thinking that getting thrown through a windshield might count as a defenestration also. Wouldn't want that to happen."

"Heh," I said. "Can't fight it. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

"You ever read the Koran?" he said suddenly.

"Well, no, can't say that I have..."

"I read it, or parts of it, for Theology class. There was a part that says that if you're called to war, and you chicken out and run away, and you survive the day of the battle, you should hang your head in shame because you would have survived that battle anyway. But if you were fated to die in that battle, then no matter where you run to, you will die."

"Not exactly the same thing."

"No, I guess not."

I read the Koran, or parts of it, for a theology course in college. This bit stuck with me.

"Besides," I said, "I think we're safe with Jimmy back there." I nodded over my shoulder at one of my three fellow Dental Supply Salesmen sleeping in the back. "His card said URINARY TRACT INFECTION. That's basically the equivalent of 'OLD AGE.' That's something you get in a nursing home."

My grandmother experienced multiple urinary tract infections while she was in the nursing home. I think her recovery from her last UTI was so dramatic that the strain was too much for her system to bear. So she went from being very ill to completely well to dead in a matter of days.


"Tom's is a little more interesting. EATEN BY COYOTES. I guess if we crash out here and he's trapped in the wreckage or whatever, that might happen."

"Yeah," the driver said. "Or maybe we could come across some cannibalistic smugglers bringing people over from Mexico. They call them 'coyotes,' too." He took a long drag on the coffee. "But there's coyotes all over the country, not just the southwest. Another thing: anybody confined to a wheelchair is susceptible to urinary tract infections. So say your buddy gets banged up, paralyzed or whatever, he could find himself in a wheelchair or stuck in a bed and getting a UTI anytime."

"Yeah," I said.

Hey, what about the fifth guy in the van? There are two in front and three in the back, and we only know the fates of four people. What about the other guy? Would knowing his fate make a difference? Would it make it seem less likely that this would be the situation in which they would all die? Or would it confirm the fears that should be growing as all the pieces slide into place? Why doesn't either character bring this up? Maybe they don't want to know?

Changing the subject...

“You know,” he said, not breaking eye contact with the road, “I don't know how these Machines will work out economically. In the long run, I mean.”

“They're doing OK so far,” I said. “Most of the companies that make them are making tons of money.”

“For now,” he said. “But – hey, you remember compact discs?”

“Sure, I still own a bunch.”

“Well, when they first came out – well, not when they just just came out, because they hadn't got all the bugs worked out then, and the first CDs actually sounded not so great – but once they got over that, people realized that the sound was a lot better than what they had been getting on vinyl or cassettes. So they decided to replace their entire record collections with CDs. And CDs sold like hotcakes for a few years. And then they stopped.”

“Yeah, digital downloads wiped them out,” I said.

“No! This was even before digital downloads really took over. The problem was, people replaced their entire record collections, and then there was nothing left to buy but new releases. I mean, sure, you had remastered versions, and everybody who already owned every Led Zeppelin album on CD went out and bought them again in the box set. But you can only resell the same thing to people so many times.”

“So people stopped buying CDs because they already bought all the CDs they wanted to buy?”

“Right! And instead of buying a few dozen CDs a year, people were just down to buying whatever new releases they were interested in, and not many of those. And of course, the kids were getting their new releases through digital downloads.”

I think this is an accurate portrayal of what happened in the CD industry, and the cassette tape industry before it, and the DVD industry after it.


“So everybody gets one reading from the Machine of Death. You could take the test a hundred times on a hundred different models, and you'll always get the same result. Most people are getting their kids tested before they're even born. So, see, you have a few billion people who are interested in finding out how they're gonna die, and in a few years, they'll all be tested.”

“And then...”

“And then it's just the people who haven't been tested. Mostly newborns, unborns, whatever. New releases. Instead of Machines in every doctor's office, coffee shop, bar, boardwalk, and amusement park, you'll see them mostly at OB/GYN's offices. Demand will crash. Machines will be sold for scrap. Manufacturers will go out of business. The stock market just might crash, again.”

I don't know of other stories that dealt with the economics of the Machine of Death, though at least one - CASSANDRA - portrayed them as a commercial failure.

We continued on. He slugged back another mouthful of coffee. At some point he was probably going to need to take a bathroom break.

"Hey, not to be nosy, but what the hell. What's yours?"

"ASLEEP," he said. "I kinda like that. I'm going to die in my sleep, I guess. I mean, there are other possibilities, but I like the thought of dying in my sleep."

"So it doesn't bother you, knowing that every time you go to sleep you might not wake up again?"

"Well, does it bother you thinking that every window you see might be the one you get thrown out of? No, way I see it, if I was going to die that way, I was going to die that way, so worrying about it won't change that."

I couldn't find a way of making this first line not sound testy. It wasn't supposed to be.

I sat in silence a while, thinking. "Hey, I just remembered a joke I once heard," I finally said. "Guy says, 'I hope I die like my uncle, peacefully in his sleep, and not like the passengers in his car, screaming in terror.'"

I wrote this joke from memory, since I assumed the character would have the same limitation. It's a Jack Handey joke, but "uncle" was "grandfather." If I could have, I would have entitled this story "Not Like His Passengers."

We both laughed. It was a little more forced this time.

I looked at my watch, and the thermos of coffee by my feet. Nearly three hours to go.

"So...” he began again, after another slurp of coffee. “Everybody wants to get their results, but when they get them...well, it reminds me of what Shakespeare said...”

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." - Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2.

It was going to be a long three hours.

I'll admit it: I didn't know how to end this story. It could have gone on and on until they arrived safely in Las Vegas, or until the driver nodded off and crashed the van, putting the narrator through the windshield despite his seatbelt, leaving Tom to be eaten alive by coyotes as he hangs helpless in the wreckage, Jimmy to survive as a quadruplegic fated to die of a UTI, and the unnamed fifth character to his unknown fate. One of the "things we're looking for" guidelines given by the Machine of Death editors was that characters should undergo some transformation through the course of the story. I don't think I did that here, other than subtly hinting that the characters are gradually realizing that this may very well be the situation which will result in all of their death predictions coming true at once. The driver may have realized this the whole way, which is why he drinks coffee throughout.

I wrote this story partly out of guilt. When I drive long distances I will pump myself up with the appropriate stimulants - diet cola, grapes, peanut M&Ms, whatever. But when I am the front-seat passenger for long-distance trips, too often I allow myself to slip off into sleep - even when it would be in my own best interest to stay awake and make sure the driver does the same. When I can, I will force myself to carry on an encyclopedic stream-of-consciousness prattle, enough like a conversation to make sure that the driver is constantly awake and aware, even when I am drifting in and out of delerium. For those times that I have allowed myself to fall asleep, I apologize. I will try to do better in the future.

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