Bill the Little Steam Shovel
Bill the Little Steam Shovel was very excited. He was getting a fresh coat of blue paint from Dave the Steam Shovel Man in the morning, and the thought of that made him so happy he secreted oil through his metal. He had been sitting idle in the big garage since he had been made and he was ready to go out into the world to do his first job.
The first of many.
He was going to move big mounds of dirt and big piles of rocks. He was going to make basements for schools and hospitals. He was going to clear land for playgrounds so good little boys and good little girls would have a place for swings and merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters. He was going to move big trees and flatten hills so farmers could grow good food for the good little boys and girls to eat. He was going to clear land for churches and synagogues and cathedrals and mosques and buildings for the worship of Vishnu, Voudan, and such.
He was so happy.
He hoped he wouldn't fuck up.
At night, all alone in the big garage, he thought about a lot of things: The work he wanted to do. How well he wanted to do it. The new coat of paint he was going to get. And sometimes he slept and had the dreams. Thinking about the dreams made his metal turn cold and his manifold blow leaky air.
What was happening to him on those long nights in the dark corner of the garage, waiting for his coat of paint and his working orders, was unclear to him. He knew only that he didn't like it and the dreams came to him no matter how much he thought about the good things, and the dreams were about falling great distances and they were about the dark—a dark so black, stygian was as bright as fresh-lit candle. One moment he seemed to be on solid support, the next, he was in mid-air, and down he would go, sailing through the empty blackness, and when he hit the ground, it was like, suddenly, he was as flexible as an accordion, all his metal wadded and crunched, his steam shovel knocked all the way back to his ass end. Dave the Steam Shovel Man, crunched in the cab, was squirting out like a big bag of busted transmission fluid.
Then Bill would pop awake, snapping on his head beams, disturbing others in the garage, and from time to time, Butch the Big Pissed-Off Steam Shovel would throb his engine and laugh.
"You just a big Tinkertoy," Butch would say.
Bill wasn't sure what a Tinkertoy was, but he didn't like the sound of it. But he didn't say anything, because Butch would whip his ass. Something Butch would remind him of in his next wheezing breath.
"I could beat you to a pile of metal flakes with my shovel. You just a big Tinkertoy."
There was one thing that Bill thought about that helped him through the long nights, even when he had the dreams. And that was Miss Maudie. The little gold steam shovel with the great head beams that perked high and the little tailpipe that looked so. . . Well, there was no other way he could think of it . . . So open and inviting, dark and warm and full of dismissed steam that could curl around your dip stick like. . . No. That was vulgar and Miss Maudie would certainly not think of him that way. She was too classy. Too fine. Bill thanked all the metal in Steam Shovel Heaven that she was made the way she was.
Oh, but Heaven Forbid, and in the name of Jayzus, the Steam Shovel Who Had Died For His Sins and all Steam Shovels' sins by allowing himself to be worked to a frazzle and run off a cliff by a lot of uncaring machines of the old religion, in his name, he shouldn't think such things.
He was a good little steam shovel. Good little steam shovels didn't think about that sort of business, about dipping their oil sticks down good little girl steam shovel's tailpipes, even if it probably felt damn good. The Great Steam Shovel in the Sky on the Great Expanse of Red Clay and Jayzus and the Holy Roller Ghost would know his thoughts, and it would be a mark against him, and when it was his time to be before the door of the Big Garage in the Sky, he would not meet his maker justified, but would be sent way down there to the scrapheap where flames leaped and metal was scorched and melted, twisted and crushed, but never died.
Besides, why would anyone as neat and bright with such big head beams and that fine tailpipe think of him? He didn't even have his coat of paint yet. Here he was, brand-new, but not painted. He was gray as a storm cloud and just sitting, having never done work before. And he was a cheap machine at that, made from cheap parts: melted toasters, vacuums, refrigerators and such.
Maudie looked to be made from high quality steel, like Butch, who eyed her and growled at her from time to time and made her flutter. Happily or fearfully, Bill could not determine. Perhaps both.
But Bill was just a cheap little machine made to do good, hard work for all the good little children in the world, and the men and women who made him—
Then Bill saw his Dave.
Dave came into the building, slid the door way open to let in the morning air, went to a corner of the garage, moved something on the front of his pants and took out his little poker and let fly with steaming water, going, "Oooooooh, yeah, the pause that refreshes, the envy of all race horses."
Now I know why it stinks in here, Bill thought. Hadn't seen that before, but now I have. He's letting juice out of himself. Smells worse than transmission fluid, oil, or windshield cleaner. Don't the Daves get an oil change?
Dave went out again, came back with a paint gun and a big canister of blue paint fastened to it. He started right in on Bill.
"How's that, Bill?" Dave said. "How's that feel?"
Bill cranked his motor and purred.
"Oh, yeah, now you're digging it," Dave said.
Dave used several canisters, and soon Bill was as blue as the sky. Or, at least he'd always heard that the sky was blue when the pollution was light. He spent all his time in the garage, where he was built and where he had set for months, listening to the other steam shovels and diggers and such, so he didn't know blue from green. He was just a little machine with an eager engine and a desire to do good, and Dave had promised to paint him blue, so he figured the color on him—the paint coming out of the sprayer—must be blue, and it must be the color of the sky.
When Dave finished with the paint, he brought out a big handheld dryer and went over Bill with that. The dryer felt warm on Bill's metal, and when that was done, Dave took a long, bristly device and poked it down his steam pipe and made Bill jump a little.
"Easy, boy. You'll get used to this."
The bristle worked inside to clean him, but Bill knew he wasn't dirty. This made him wonder about Dave, him doing this, smiling while he did, poking fast as he could in the ole pipe. But, then again, it did feel pretty good.
When Dave finished, he said, "When you go to work, little fella, make me proud."
On the way out, Dave stopped by Miss Maudie, bent, looked up her tailpipe, said, "Clean. Really clean," and departed.
That day, because of the new coat of paint, the finishing touch, Bill thought he would be sent to work. Dave had said so. But no. The day went by and the other steam shovels, including Miss Maudie, went out to do their work, but he remained inside, fresh and blue and unused.
That night, when the steam shovels returned, he was still in his place, and they, tired, weaving their shovels and dragging their treads, were hosed down by the other Daves, rubbed with rags and oiled and put away for the night.
What's wrong with me? thought Bill.
Why are they not using me to build roads and schools and churches and synagogues and all that shit?
What's up with that?
Night came and shadows fell through the windows and made the barn dark. Bill squatted on his treads in the gloom and tried not to cry. He was so disappointed. And with the night, he was scared.
He hated the dark. And he hated the dreams, and he knew if he slept they would come.
But if he didn't sleep, how would that be?
What if they called him out tomorrow? He'd be too tuckered to shovel. He had to sleep. Had to.
And he tried.
Down in the motor functions where the oil squeezed slow and the little rotors turned and the fans hummed and the coals burned, down there, way down there in the constantly fed nuclear pellet fire, Bill dreamed.
And the dream was a blossom of blackness, and he was falling, fast, so fast. Then he hit and his engine screamed. His lights popped on. Then Butch's lights popped on, and there was a hum of Butch's motor, and a clunk of treads, and pretty soon, Butch was beside him.
"You just a big Tinkertoy, and you starting to make me really mad, little squirt. You wrecking Butch's sleep. And Butch, he don't like it. He don't like it some at all, you diggin' on that, Tinkertoy? Well. . . no, you don't dig at all, do you, little friend? You sit and sit, and soon rust and rust. If you live that long. You scream that engine again, you gonna wake up with a crowd of mechanics around you. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Bill said.
"Good. Now. . ."—and to emphasize, Butch lifted his shovel and rubbed it against Bill's side, made a scratch that ran all the way from Bill's cab to his treads—"there's a little taste of what may be the appetizer to a big ole dinner. Dig? Oh, wrong term for you. You don't dig at all. You're too little."
"I may be little, but I'm willing to work," Bill said. "I want to build schools and churches and—"
"Shut the fuck up, Billy. Hear me, little bitty Billy. You just a big Tinkertoy."
"That's better, oil squirt."
"Lebe em alone, ya ole clunk of paperclips."
Lights were coming toward them, along with a rattling sound, like loose bolts and creaky hinges in a bucket, and soon, close up, Bill saw that it was Gabe the Wise Old Steam Shovel. His paint had gone gray and his shovel wobbled and leaned a bit to the left, and his treads were frayed, but his head beams were still bright.
"You talking to me, Four Cylinder?" Butch said. "If that many work."
"Gid the fug away from him," Gabe said, "or I'll slap duh gohtdamn steam out of ya."
"You do any slapping, old shovel, your shovel will come off. You barely running on treads now, you greasy box of parts."
"Kizz muh ass," Gabe said.
"Won't poison myself with that idea," Butch said. "Gonna let you go 'cause you so old you make the stone wheel look like it a modern invention. You do, you know."
Chuckling under the roar of his engine, Butch motored off.
Gabe lifted up on one tread and let fly a steam fart that sounded like a howitzer.
"Thad's whad you can do wid yer gohtdamn stone wheel, ya big hunk of bolt-suckin', leakin' steamin' pile of—"
"Please," Bill said. "There's a lady nearby."
Bill rolled his headlamps toward Miss Maudie, who sat with her beams on, awakened by the commotion.
"Oh," Gabe said. "Sorry, girlie. Gid a liddle worked up sometimes."
"Excuse us for the bother," Bill said to Miss Maudie.
"That's all right," she said, and the sound of her motor made Bill feel a tightening in his joints and a gurgle in his transmission fluid. She blinked her headlights, then shut them down, with, "But I do need the sleep."
"Sure," Bill said. "Of course." And he could feel a tingling in his lines and parts that wasn't just fluid circulation.
"Yah ain't eben giddin' none, and you done exhaust-whipped," Gabe said.
"Sshhhhhh," Bill said, letting out a soft puff of steam. "You'll embarrass her. . . And me. . . And Butch will come back and scratch me again, or beat me. But thanks. Thanks for taking up for me."
"Ain't nuthin'. Jes wand to sleep muhself. So shud up. 'Sides, don't like to see some metal-assed whipper-snapper bullyin' a liddle steam fard like yerself. Now, go to sleep."
"Sure," Bill said, and smiled. "Thanks again."
"Nothin' to id," Gabe said. "And kid, you're habbin' dreams, right? I hear ya moanin' yer engine."
"I am. The same dream."
"Whad is id?"
Bill told him.
"Huuummmm," Gabe said. "Pud my thinker on thad one. I'm a preddy smart fugger, say so myself. . .But in the meantime, ya want to git them dreams outta yer head, least a liddel, what ya do, ya close yer eyes, and ya think of yerself ridin' Miss Maudie's tailpipe like yer trying to climb a gohtdamn straid-up incline without any treads. Gid me? That'll put yer liddle nut of a fire in a gohtdamn happy place, thad's whad I'm tryin' to tell ya."
"Don't say that."
And with that, Gabe chuckled dryly and rattled off to leave Bill with the shadows and his dreams.
Inside Bill the little nuclear pellet fed the fire that fed the coals that heated the water and fed the steam, and once again, Bill dreamed.
He first dreamed of a fine warm place with soft light and he dreamed of mounting Maudie, his dipstick out, riding her tailpipe like he was going up a steep incline. It was a good dream, and he felt a kind of release, as if all his steam had been blown out and all his oils and fluids had been sucked from him. It was a feeling like he could collapse into a heap of smoking metal, and it felt good, this dream, but when it was over, he dreamed of falling again, and falling from way up and down fast, striking the ground, going to pieces, squashing Dave this way and that. And when he awoke, panting heavy through his steam pipe, he found that in his sleep, during the dream about Maudie, he had squirted transmission fluid all over the floor.
(Or had it happened out of fear?)
He was glad it was dark. He was so embarrassed.
Bill looked about, but in the dark all he could see were the shapes of the other shovels. He glanced where Maudie's shape was, and she was still and her lights were shut up tight behind their shields.
Near the wall, where Butch stayed, he heard Butch snoring, the air blowing up through his steam pipe in a loud, masculine way. The big bruiser even snored like a thug.
Rest of the night Bill tried to stay awake, to neither have the bad dream nor to think of Maudie, but think of her he did, but this time, differently, not mounting her tailpipe as if trying to push up an incredible incline, but side-by-side with her, motoring along, the two of them blowing a common tune through their whistles, her turning her shovel to him, lifting it, and underneath, her bright-red rubber bumper was parting to meet with hisÉand kiss.
But that wasn't going to happen.
He was never going to kiss Maudie or mount her tailpipe.
And, the way it looked now, he was never going to build schools and churches and such for all those children, and what did he care?
Little bastards. They didn't need that stuff anyway.
Then daylight came through the windows of the garage and turned the floor bright, like a fresh lube spill, and for a moment, Bill was renewed and hopeful and willing.
A bunch of Daves came into the garage and each of them climbed onto a steam shovel, and Bill, hoping, hoping so hard he thought he might just start his own engine and drive out of there, saw his Dave approaching.
His Dave climbed inside his little cabin and touched the controls and Bill's motor roared. Bill felt his pistons throbbing with excitement, felt oil growing warm and coursing through his tubes and wetting up his machinery. When Dave turned him around and drove him out of the garage, he was so proud he thought he might blow a gasket.
Outside he saw sunlight shining bright off his blue shovel and he could feel the ground and gravel crunching beneath his treads, and to his left and right were the others, rolling along in line, off to work.
His dream had come true.
They motored to the site and began to dig. It was a location that would provide space for a large apartment complex, and it was next to another large apartment complex, right across from two other large apartment complexes and a row of fast-food joints, out of which came a steady stream of Daves who didn't drive steam shovels.
The site was currently a patch of woods, a bunch of beautiful trees full of happy, singing birds and squirrels at play. But fuck that. Bill and his fellow shovels were at work.
The steam shovels rode in and pushed that shit down, dug up the roots and pushed them in a pile to burn. Birds flew away and squirrels scampered for safety. Eggs in fallen birds' nests were crunched beneath their treads.
The machines dug deep and pushed the dirt until anything that was rich with natural compost was completely scraped up and mounded, revealing clay beneath, red as a scraped wound. Half of the patch of woods was scratched away in short time, and Bill was scraping with the rest as hard as he could, knocking some of his bright blue paint off on roots and rocks. But he didn't mind. Those were battle scars.
In the cockpit he heard Dave say, "Now we're talking. Lookin' good. Fucking trees. Goddamn birds. Shitting squirrels."
About noon they stopped so the Daves could climb down and gather up and eat food and drink from the little black boxes they carried.
Bill, parked by Gabe, said, "Gabe. What about all the birds and squirrels and little animals? What about them?"
"Fug em," said Gabe. "They're all gone, who'll gib a shit? Can't fret over somethin' ain't around, can ya kid? 'Sides, whad's them fuggers ever done fer ya?"
"Well. . ."
"Nothin'. Not a gohtdamn thang."
"Well, yeah, I guess. . . . But, gee, Gabe, what happens when all the world is scraped down, and they don't need us?"
"Aw, we'll push down old buildings, scrape 'em down to the red clay, and they'll build some new shit. Always somethin' fer us to fug up so stuff can be built again. Don't fret, kid."
"But, don't the children need trees for shade, and don't trees help make the air fresh. . . ?"
"Don't believe thad shit. Tree is a tree is a tree. Them liddle children, shit, them fuggers can wear a hat and breathe through an oxygen mask for all I care. . . . Hey, saw yer greasy spot when you rolled out this mornin'. Kinda had ya one of 'em nighttime squirdaramas, didn't ya?"
Bill felt embarrassed. "Well, I . . ."
"Fug it. It's normal. Thinkin' about thad liddle cuddie over there, weren't ya, son?"
Bill looked where Maudie was at rest, next to the last line of trees. She looked bright and gold and even with dirt and clay on her shovel, she had a kind of charm, a sweetness. And a nice tailpipe.
"Well," said Gabe, "ya was thinking 'bout it, wadn't you? That's why ya squirded yer juice."
"Gohtdamn, boy. Ain't no suppose to it. Thad's all right. Thad's natural. Ought to try and talk ya up some of thad, thad's what I'm trying to tell ya. Was younger, ya can bet I'd be sportin' around her, throbbin' my engine, whippin' muh shovel. Muh old dipstick pokin' up under muh hood. Hell, all I can do these days is use id to check muh oil."
"I was wondering about that, Gabe. If the dipstick is under the hood, and the . . . well, you know, the lady's tailpipe is where tailpipes are . . . how does that work, Gabe?"
Gabe laughed. "Ya kiddin', ain't ya? Naw, gohtdamnit, ya ain't. Well, son, on the old underbelly is another panel, and ya get stiff and pokey, it hits the hood, but when ya want to do the deed, ya see, ya led thad little section underneath ya pop open, stick lowers, and, well, son, ya'll figure it out. Promise. Figured out in ya sleep, didn't ya? Old parts and lines knew whad to do without no thinkin' on yer part."
"I didn't say I was going to do anything—"
"—shit, boy. Ain't nothin' wrong wid wantin' a piece of tailpipe. Oh, and I been thinkin' on yer dream, and I know someone might be able to help ya on that. Can figure it . . . but later. Here come duh Daves. Time to gid wid it."
They went back to work, and pretty soon Dave said to Bill, "Bill, we got a big old stubborn tree that just won't go, and we got to push it down so we can scrape the clay. I think you're ready for it. Am I right? Are you ready?"
Bill rumbled his engine and whistled air through his steam pipe in response.
"All right, you little shovel, let's do 'er."
And away they went. Bill lifted his shovel and poked it out and Dave guided him to the tree. It was a big old tree and round enough that four Daves with their hands linked couldn't have surrounded it. Must have been hundreds of years old, but Bill, he was determined it wasn't going to get a day older.
He put out his shovel and began to push. He pushed hard, giving it all he had. He revved up his engine and whistled his steam and dug in with his treads and . . .
The tree didn't move.
He revved up higher and pushed and pushed and . . .
He might as well have had his engine turned off and be sitting in the garage with a tread up his exhaust.
He pushed harder, and . . .
He cut one. A big one. It came out of his exhaust with a kind of blat-blat-blat sound.
Bill couldn't believe it. He had cut a fart to end all farts, and right in front of Dave and all the other steam shovels. He turned one of his head beams slowly, looked to his right, and there was Maudie. She was so shocked the split in her front bumper hung open showing her gear-cog teeth (all perfect and shiny), and Bill, he wanted to just run off a cliff. But there weren't any cliffs. Just that big tree standing upright in front of him, and he hadn't done any more than crack a little bark.
"Well," said Bill's Dave, "this is just too much for you. We'll have to get a bigger and better machine. One that can do the job. And we might want to cut back on that cheap transmission fluid, boy."
Dave backed Bill off from the tree, stood up in the cab and called out, "You better bring in Butch. This is a job for a real steam shovel."
Bill felt his body droop on its treads. His shovel hit the ground with a thud.
He was not only a weakling and a farter, he was being beat out by his worst enemy.
Butch revved his engine and threw out his shiny shovel and went up against the tree, and at first Bill thought, Well, he won't do it either.
The tree stood firm, not moving, and then, suddenly, it began to lean and lean and lean, and there was a cracking sound, then a cry of roots and timber like the sound of something being jerked from its womb, and the great tree went down, the roots popping up, clay flying from them in red clunks.
Butch backed off, lifted his shovel, and with a sort of slide, treaded back to the center of the work force.
Bill saw Maudie turn and look to him, and her bumper was split wide again. But this time, she was smiling.
Back in the barn, Bill sat alone as the windows turned dark. Gabe came rolling over.
"Ya all right, son?"
"Damn, boy. Can't believe ya farded. Thad one knocked a bird out of a tree, gabe us all an oil stink ya wouldn't believe. A fard like that, ya must hab passed into another dimension for a while. Yer gohtdamn head beams crossed, you cut wind so hard."
"Ah, don't led it bother you. I led fards all the time. And sometime on purpose. . . . Big ole tree like thad, it ain't for a kid. I couldn't do it. Well, in my day I could."
"Young as me?"
"Oh, yeah. Damn, what a fard."
"Please, Gabe. Don't mention it anymore."
"All right. But, son, it was a champion."
"Ya know, I told ya I had someone could tell ya 'bout them dreams yer always having?"
"Well, I'm gonna bring him over. Sid tight."
Gabe rolled away, and a moment later, Bill saw him return with an old gray steam shovel who had steam coming up from between his bumpers. When he got closer, Bill saw that it wasn't steam at all, he was smoking a metal pipe stuffed with old oily shop rags.
"This is Professor Zoob," Gabe said.
"Ah, how are you ma boy?"
"Fine . . . I guess. Why haven't I seen you before?"
"I am in the back of the garage, yes. I hang there and do little jobs. Push garbage about. But I am old and they do not call me out much. I would think, soon, I will be for the scrap machine, yes. I have been around for many years, I have, and was driven by a student of much psychology. He studied in my cockpit during his breaks, yes. And when he did, he read aloud from his books, and I listened. I learned much. I learned much about dreams, I did."
"Yes. And before we analyze them, might I say, that I heard about today, about your trouble with the tree and the tremendous fart."
"From Gabe, I suppose."
"Oh, from everyone. It was quite some joke, it was."
"But, if you will tell me your dreams, let me consider on it, maybe I can help you understand."
"I don't know."
"Sure. Sure. Try me."
"Well, there's only one that concerns me, really scares me."
Zoob puffed his pipe faster, sending up a haze of smoke.
"That really stinks," Bill said. "And isn't that bad for you?"
"Of course, but at my age, why would I give a shit? I use a seven-percent solution of oil and transmission fluid. The rags burn slower, and in their haze, I think big thinks, I do. And could it stink any worse than the whopper you cut loose with today, huh?"
"I'll never live that down, will I?"
"Won't be easy," Gabe said.
"The dream?" Zoob said.
Bill told him about the dream, about the darkness and the falling and the smashing, and Zoob said, "When you are falling, what is it you smell?"
"Yes. Do you smell anything? Hear anything? Taste anything?"
"Why, no. It's a dream."
"Ah, but there are dreams where one can hear or smell or taste. Have you not had the dreams about the lady steam shovels, and how that feels and smells and tastes, with the after bite of steam on the tailpipe, huh, have you not?"
"I . . . I suppose."
"Yes, of course, you can. You can smell things in a dream if there is something to smell."
"Hope ya can't smell thad fard in one," Gabe said. "Thad would peel duh paint right off."
"That's enough," Bill said.
"Well, then, my little friend, think this, do you remember anything in the darkness of your dream? Anything at all? Anything in the shadows?"
"Ah, then we must resort to the hypnotism."
"Hypnotism. Now," Zoob said rolling back a pace, "I'm going to swing my shovel back and forth, and I want you to watch, listen only to the sound of my voice, and watch the shovel, please. There is a small silver spot scraped near the center of it, and that's what I want you to concentrate on . . . ready?"
Bill watched the shovel swing back and forth and Zoob said soothing things and no one mentioned the fart and pretty soon Bill was feeling sleepy, a little dizzy, as if he might fall over, then he felt like he was in a tunnel, and the only light in the tunnel was the shiny spot on Zoob's shovel, and the tunnel was swaying, and then it went still, and there was just the spot before him, like a beacon, and, Zoob's voice, easy and soft and suggestive.
"Now, Little Bill, you are in the dream. All dark. Tell me now, what is happening in this falling dream? Tell me."
"Well, let me see. It's dark. . . . That's it. It's dark."
"Listen carefully, Little Bill. You are in this bad dream. And it's dark—"
"And you're in there wid thad fard," Gabe said, and chuckled.
"Silence, Gabe," Zoob said. "No more with the fart. . . . Now, you are in the bad dream, in the dark, and you are falling. Are you there, Little Bill?"
"Yes," Bill said. And he was in the dream all right. And it was dark. No little scrape of light visible. And he was falling. And he felt the old fear rise up out of the darkness and come over him in a rush.
"Shit," Bill said.
"Now," said Zoob, "you are falling, and you are feeling the shit feeling, and I want you to slow this fall, and I want you to look about you. . . . It's all right. You'll be all right. You should not be scared this time. We have control over this dream, you and I, and you are falling slow and you can take the time to look about. You look about you now, and you listen, and you tell Zoob what it is you see and hear, or smell. You tell me everything, Little Bill, yes."
"Yes . . . I . . . I am falling, and it's dark, and I'm scared and I can see to my right that there's a shape."
"What is this shape?"
"I . . . I don't know."
"Yes. Yes, you do. We stop the fall. You hang in mid-air. You study the shape and it is . . . ?"
"It's a . . . It's a Dave."
"A Dave, huh? Ah hah. Go on, Little Bill."
"He's standing in the shadows. . . . He's getting around fine in the dark—"
"He familiar with the place," Zoob said.
"Yes, it's his home. There are all kinds of machines and gadgets there."
"A refrigerator, and there's a little light. I guess I didn't notice it before. The Dave is opening the refrigerator and taking something out and the light is coming from there."
"The refrigerator light," Zoob said. "He's getting food. They are always with the food, which is why, over the years, you got the same driver, his ass gets heavy. It makes them blow up like a hot valve. But, go on, Little Bill."
"He's turning, his elbow is hitting something. . . . Something on the stove, and it's falling off."
"What is it?"
"I don't know."
"Take yourself some closer."
"I don't want to."
"It is quite all right, Little Bill. Go closer."
"It's a waffle iron."
"It is a waffle iron. Now that is some confusing business. . . . Ah, ah . . . Okay, what else do you see, Little Bill?"
"Nothing. It's all gone black."
Bill opened his headlamps.
"Wow," he said.
"Ain't that some shit?" Zoob said. "One time, in the mirror, I hypnotize myself into thinking I am one big chicken. Tried to roost on top of the garage, but ended up pushing down the wall. Oh, the Daves were mad that day."
"But . . . what about me?"
"You are the waffle iron."
"The waffle iron and many things. Old metals. Busted parts. They were melted down to make you, and the memories of before, they are in the metal. Are at least certain memories. Like the fall. That was traumatic, and the memory, a little metal ghost, it stayed with the metal. The waffle iron, it must have become part of the mainframe that holds your memories. That is it, Little Bill. You remember the fall, and therefore, you dream of it and you fear it."
"But I'm not the waffle iron. And now that I know, it'll go away. Right?"
"Nah. You have to work through it."
"How do I do that?"
"But you're the professor."
"Well, I call myself that. But this, this is up to you, Little Bill. You have to sort of cinch up the old transmission and deal with it. And, yes, knowing the source, that will help. You must overcome your fears, and when you do, the dreams will stop."
Professor Zoob turned and rumpled away on his treads. Gabe said, "See, told ya he could help you. . . . How about thad? Yer a sissy cause ya got a mashed waffle iron inside ya. Ain't thad some shit? I'm glad I was made from good metal. Well, going to gid a lube job, if you know what I mean, so, hang tight, kid, and good luck."
"Thanks, Gabe, I think," Bill said, and Gabe went away.
Sitting alone in the corner, his shovel dipped, his head beams to the wall, Bill was surprised to feel a soft metallic touch. He turned, and there was Maudie.
"I know you were embarrassed today, Bill, but I want you to know, it's only natural. A lot of fluid in the system, exertion. I wouldn't feel too bad."
"Well, I do . . . and you were laughing."
"Yeah. Well, it was funny. On the outside, anyway. From your point of view, not so funny. It was just so loud and long, and that look on your face . . . I wasn't laughing because I think you're a loser. I mean, a fart like that, it kind of embarrasses everyone, and you're always glad it's the other guy, but, don't feel too bad. I puked once. Oil all over the place, and there was a big chunk of rust in it. I was so humiliated."
"Was it before I came here?"
"I was here a few days before you, and yes, it was."
"Did everyone see it?"
"No. Only me, but I was still embarrassed."
"That's not exactly the same."
"No. Yours was more humiliating, I admit, but, still, I was embarrassed, if just to myself. I mean yours was right out in front of the Great Steam Shovel in the Sky and everybody. . . ."
"Yes. I know. Maudie, I'm going to go right to it. Is there any way you and me could get together?"
"You mean, together-together?"
"I just want to get to know you. I like you. I'm not a bad guy. . . ."
"I like you, too."
"Sure. Everyone in the barn—except Butch—says you're nice."
"Well, that's swell, Maudie. Maybe, you know, sometime, after work, we could get together in the far corner of the garage. Maybe get our oil changed or something. Watch a little TV in the rec room afterwards. There's a car chase movie on, the big new one about car wrecks and the fire department, LOTS OF CARS AND A DOZEN HOSES."
"Oh, those cars. I've seen previews. They're so sexy. So are the fire trucks. That's some metal the cars are built from, isn't it?"
"Actually, I don't know cars and steam shovels go together—"
"Ah, jealous already and we haven't even had our first date."
"I guess . . . a little. I mean, how do you compete with movie cars?"
"That's cute . . . long as it doesn't get out of hand. And listen, those movie cars, they're always being remade and rebuffed and they don't really run as fast as they show in the movie. I'm looking for the real deal, and you're the real deal, I think. I'd sure like to find out for sure."
"Gee, Maudie. That's swell."
"Remember, about the tree? That was a big one. It would take someone like Butch to push it over. For heavens' sake, Bill, he's three times your size. It's not your fault."
"Yeah . . . yeah, you're right."
"You might want to drink a little less transmission fluid, though, you're gonna be straining that hard. I mean . . . you know?"
"Sure. Of course. Good advice."
"See you later."
"Tomorrow? After work?"
"It's a date."
That night Bill slept and he dreamed, but it was not the dream about falling. Zoob had really helped him, and probably had no idea how much. In his dream he thought of Maudie. And it was a good dream, and they were warm and close and friendly, and spent quality time together, watching TV, having their oil changed, and, in the end, he mounted her like he was climbing an incline to a Rocky Mountain trailer-park entrance.
But just as he was about to finish, he cut another one.
He awoke in a sweat.
He had swapped one bad dream for another.
He wasn't falling anymore, but now he was afraid he was going to cut a big one at an inopportune moment.
But, hell, he had about as much chance of mounting Maudie, having any kind of relationship with her, as a bird had of finding a tree in a Taco Bell parking lot.
Morning came, and Bill tried to put a good face on it, smiled his rubber bumpers wide when he saw the beautiful Maudie being driven out of the barn. She waved her radio antennae at him, and he waved his back, and she was gone, out into the sunlight.
For a long moment, Bill feared he was not going to get another chance. Steam shovel after steam shovel was rolled outside, and still he set. No Dave to drive him.
But then, finally, his Dave showed up.
Dave came and climbed up on him. Bill cranked the engine without giving Dave time to do it.
"Wow, you're raring to go," Dave said. "Sorry I was late. Wife felt frisky. Since that happens about once every six months, had to take advantage of it."
They rolled outside and the sun was bright against the concrete. The team of shovels went past where they had worked before, started motoring along the road, puffing steam, cracking gravel under their treads.
They rolled along until the road rose up and the mountains gathered around them, and still they went up. Bill felt a strain in his motor, and he took a deep breath of steam, squirted it out, hunkered down and dug in with his treads. Up he went, carrying his Dave high and deep into the mountains along the concrete road. Bill tried not to look to his right, toward the edge of the road and the great fall that was there. The feelings he had in the dreams came back when he did. His insides trembled like a piston was blown. His nuclear pellets, his gas-and-oil engine, his back-up steam engine, all seemed to miss a beat as they went up. And up. And up.
The road narrowed, and finally they came to where the road turned to clay, then ended up against the mountain.
Bill realized this was a spot where other shovels had been working. It was wide here. You could put four steam shovels across, digging. Digging open the mountain so the road could keep going up and Daves and their Sallys could ride in their cars carrying all their little Daves and Sallys.
Bill was not first in line, but well behind the first four that went to work, Butch and Maudie among them. Dave pulled him in line with three other shovels, and killed his motor. Bill watched Maudie as she worked—the way the sun hit the metal of her shiny ass, the way her tailpipe wiggled—and he was amazed and grateful for her fine construction.
He watched Butch dig and toss the dirt, and was impressed in spite of himself. What a powerful machine. He liked the way the cables rolled under his metal skin and the way he could lay back on the rear of his treads and lift himself up. And he liked the way Butch cussed as he worked, digging, insulting the mountain.
He looked around him and saw Gabe working alongside the road, on little jobs, like making the road wider for more concrete to be laid. He thought of Zoob, back in the barn. Did he wish he was out here, digging?
It was the dream of every good construction shovel.
The digging went on and the day got hotter. His metal grew warm and he could feel the oils, the liquids inside of him, starting to grow warm and loose. He lifted his head beams and looked at the sky. A single bird soared against it, and the blue of the sky faded as a cloud of pollution, the sign of progress, rolled across it, gray as a cobwebbed garage corner. He thought, If I could shoot a rifle, like a Dave, I bet I could pop that goddamn bird.
Then Dave started his motor again.
Now Bill and three others took the place of the four who had been in line. As Maudie rolled past him, she winked a headlight. Then Butch rolled past him, said, "You just a Tinkertoy."
Bill gritted his gears and went up against the mountain with the other three, and he began to dig. He thought: Dig, boy, dig. And don't cut one. Die before you do that. Dig. Dig this mountain down. Dig like you want to flatten the entire earth. Which, actually, seemed like a fairly noble ambition. Making all the world flat and covered in concrete.
But then what would he do?
Why, tear up the concrete, of course. Like Gabe had said. It had to wear out, crack and buckle. Tear it up and scrape it into piles and let them put down more concrete. Oh, yes, Gabe was right. This was the life. Fuck the earth. Fuck the wildlife. Fuck it all. To dig was to live.
And so he dug and he dug, then, suddenly, Dave was wheeling him about. He thought at first he had done something wrong, but realized he was growing low on power. That he had to pull back, like the first four. Maybe get a new pellet to re-fire the steam. That was it. He had done fine.
He smiled as he clattered tiredly back through the line and another four moved up.
So the day went, three rows of four, taking turns, twelve steam shovels working against the mountain, and Gabe working the side of the road. And finally, mid-day, the Daves pulled back all the shovels and stopped, had them set alongside the road.
The Daves went about checking oil and fluids and such, and old Gabe, he was sent up to the front to shovel the bits of dirt that remained, scraping it down to the clay, which was a job that made him happy.
Then, the mountain came down.
It came down with a slight rumble, then a big rumble, and Bill looked up and saw Gabe look up, and the mountain went over Gabe and Bill could hear the sound of metal bending, then there was nothing but a great dust cloud.
Butch, who was behind him now, rolled forward suddenly, without benefit of his Dave, said, "Man, did you see that shit there? Old Gabe, he done fucked now. One less old geezer in the garage. And that ain't bad."
Bill wheeled. He swung his shovel and hit Butch with everything he had. And Butch, well, it didn't bother him much.
Butch swung his shovel too, and just as it hit Bill, making Bill slide back on his treads, Bill heard Maudie's voice.
"You got to get Gabe out from under there, boys. You got to."
"Ain't gonna dig him out unless I got to," said Butch. "He nothing to me, he ain't."
"You're right, Maudie" said Bill, and he hummed up his engine and rolled forward. His Dave tried to work the controls, to make Bill do what he wanted, but Bill ignored him. I got free will, he thought. I can do what I want, and he went at the dirt and began to dig. He dug and he dug, and eventually he saw a bit of scarred metal, and he dug faster, and finally, finally, there was Gabe.
Or what was left of him. He was squashed and his old shovel had been knocked completely off. Oil dribbled all over the earth.
"Gabe!" Bill said.
Weak as a busted oil line, Gabe said, "Thanks, boy. But ain't no use. I'm a gonner. Fugged from bucket to ass end."
And he was.
They brought in a wrecker and took Gabe away, down the hill. That night when they rolled back in the garage, Bill found that Gabe had been dismantled and stacked. Tomorrow, he would go to the furnace to be melted down and reformed.
"It's another life," Maudie said. "He'll be melted into some other kind of machinery. It's not over for him."
"It won't be him," Bill said.
"And there's his soul, it's gone to the sky. That can't be changed. Can't be taken away from him. A residue remains. Isn't it in the manual that residuals can remain?"
Bill thought about the ghost inside him, the residual of the waffle iron. And then he thought about heaven.
"What's heaven like, Maudie? What do you think it's like?"
"Flat. Lots of concrete. But every day, new hills pop up, and new trees, and they have to be taken down. And we'll be there, just like all the others that have gone before us and will come after us."
"Will Butch be there?"
"I don't think so. I think he gets the other place."
"Gabe was just an old guy," Bill said. "A good old guy."
"I know. Don't look at him anymore."
Zoob rolled up. He said, "I am sorry, Bill. He was good, he was. I miss him already."
"Me, too," Bill said.
"I wish you the best of a night you could have," Zoob said. "Gabe, he is all through with the pain. The ache in the bolts and the hinges. Maybe he's lucky. I think maybe I could wish it was me, you see."
"No way," Bill said.
"Thank you. And I wish you, and the lady, good night."
"Goodnight," Bill and Maudie said in unison.
They rolled away together, went to the dark shadows on the far side of the garage. Maudie swung her shovel so that it draped over Bill's back. Her bumper parted and pressed to his, and they kissed. And kissed again. Soon they were holding each other, stroking metal, and then, heaven above and flatten all earth, he was behind her, and down came the oil stick, and then came the loving.
Afterward, they set low on their treads together in the shadows and slid open their side traps and dropped their oil tubes into a fine vat of thirty-weight, sucked it up together.
"I . . . I don't know what happened there. . . ." Bill said.
"What happened was wonderful," Maudie said. "I haven't felt that good since . . . Well, I haven't felt that good."
"Neither have I," he said.
That night, Bill did not have the bad dreams.
Next morning the Daves came and rolled out all the steam shovels, drove them back up into the mountains. Today, Bill was not as aware of the heights. He felt strong and wanted at the mountain.
They came to where they had stopped working, where Gabe had been crushed, and spread into groups of four. He was in the first group. To his left was Maudie, to her left, Glen, an older steam shovel. And to Bill's right, Butch, who was next to the ledge that fell away into what seemed like eternity.
"I gonna show you how to work today, Tinkertoy," said Butch. "Gabe, he done gone now. Ain't here to take up for you. Not that it mattered none, but who wants to beat up an old steam shovel?"
"You don't mind threatening to beat up a smaller shovel than you," Bill said, with a kind of newfound bravado, thinking, Getting tailpipe makes you crazy, makes you brave. "I was your size, you might not be so tough."
Butch narrowed his headlamps.
"You pushing, little Tinketoy. I gonna show you how to work. And, I may show you a thing or two other than that, you hear me?"
"Like I give an oil squirt."
Butch said, "I think maybe you been getting a little business, a little of the golden steam shovel's tail business, and it's making you think you a man, little Tinkertoy, you know what I mean? You ain't no man. You just a Tinkertoy."
Bill shoved Butch. It was sudden. Butch was actually knocked to the side a pace, near the mountains edge.
"Hey," Butch said.
"Stop it," Bill's Dave said. "I came here to work. What are you shovels doing?"
"I remember that you did that, Tinkertoy," Butch said.
"Hope you do," Bill said.
They began to dig and everything went well. The mountain moved for them. The dirt was mounded to the side, away from the ledge, and some of it was put behind them and carried down the hill and away by other shovels. Zoob was working the edges of the road, doing the soft jobs, the way Gabe had been, though even more slowly.
They worked on and on and the sun rose high and grew hot and made their metal warm and finally very warm, and then hot as the top of a stove. Their metal shined like a newly minted coin in the sunlight, and their well-oiled shovels and treads worked beautifully and tore apart the mountain, and somewhere, inside the mountain, as if the mountain had had enough, a vein of rock that ran all the way to the summit quivered and quaked and let go, and the huge tip of the mountain, like a peaked hat knocked over by a high wind, tumbled down on the four working shovels below.
One moment there was the sun, then there was the darkness. Bill could feel the pressure of the dirt and the rocks pushing down on him. Then, below him, the ground moved, and he went down into it. Amazingly, he slipped down at an angle, and down, down, down, as he slid into a weak place in the mountain, a natural tunnel filled with soft dirt. He began to slide back into that. And a rock, dislodged, shot out and stuck in front of him, stopped the progress of falling rock from above.
It gave Bill a bit of space.
He could move his shovel, like a Dave might move his elbow if he were inside a tow sack. He moved the shovel and some dirt shook. He began to move it back and forth. More dirt shifted. Finally he grabbed the great rock and gave it all he had. The rock moved and dirt came in, but Bill rocked back on his treads and the dirt flowed around him like black water.
He kept working that shovel, and it made a sound like it was trying to let go of clotted oil in the lines. Still Bill shoveled, lifting it a bit up and down, a little from side to side. Finally, he had traction, and he was moving the dirt. And he was going up that incline, climbing it the way he'd climbed the sweet, golden Maudie the night before. He put that image in his head and kept at it, and pretty soon the image was as tight in his head as a screwed-down bolt.
Up he went. Up. And finally there was light.
And he realized his Dave was gone. Probably washed away in the rock and dirt, covered up and crushed like an aluminum oilcan.
On the surface, he found the shovels and the Daves digging at the mountain furiously. As he rose out of the ground like a metal mole, the Daves cheered and the engines revved their motors.
He lifted his shovel high.
But it was a short-lived triumph.
He saw that the mountain had come down in such a way that it had covered Maudie and Butch.
Glen had survived it all. His shovel had been knocked off and one of his treads was slightly dislodged, but already a huge wrecker had come for him and he was being hooked up even as Bill looked.
As Bill watched the wrecker take Glen away, he realized he didn't feel so good and his vision was blurry. There was dirt inside of his busted right headlamp, and it was partially covering his line of vision. Inside, way down deep, he felt as if a bag of bolts and gears had been randomly mixed and tossed into a paint shaker. When he moved, he squeaked and clanked and he hurt near the right hinge of his shovel like a Dave had been at him with a welding torch.
Bill hunkered down on his treads and tore at the mountain. Tried to dig where he had last seen Maudie, but he couldn't be sure she was there. Maybe, like him, she had been washed down into a soft part of the ground. He dug and he dug, and finally he saw metal. He revved his engine and other shovels came. They dug and dug and pretty soon they saw the shiny gold metal of the beautiful Maudie, less beautiful now. Dented and scratched gray in strips, her shovel dangling by one bolt.
Bill hooked his shovel around her and pulled her out. And as he did, he saw behind her was a roof of rocks supported by a wall of rock slabs, and in there, crushed down, but alive (he could see the headlights blinking) was Butch. When Maudie came out, the dirt went down. Butch went out of sight.
Bill sighed air through his manifold.
Maybe he was dead. The bastard.
The shovels were slowing down behind him. They had Maudie out, and no one was working that hard for Butch, and Bill could understand that. . . .
But, damn it, Butch was a steam shovel. He was a worker. And he had been caught in the storm of the mountain-fall while on the job. And though Bill thought it might be nice to just let the mountain crush him, he just couldn't do it. That wasn't the way it was in the manual. Machines helped machines. Machines helped the Daves.
Bill went at it again, digging, digging, and pretty soon the other shovels were helping, and the dirt began to move.
When it was clear enough, they could see Butch in there. He was much shorter than before, his metal rippled in the center, and above him, supported on two wobbly slabs of rock, was a much bigger slab of rock. It looked as if it were large enough to build a subdivision on.
Bill moved in close and tried to pull Butch out, but it was like trying to work a greasy bolt out of an engine with a coat hanger tipped with chewing gum. Touch-and-go.
Butch was moaning with pain as the tugging tore at his metal.
"I've lost my crankshaft," he said. "And my oil pan's loose. I can feel it sliding around inside."
"Don't move," Bill said. He dug a space close to the edge of the mountain, and within a short time he found he could scrunch in there. One tread was hanging halfway over the edge, and he could hear rock tumbling down the side of the mountain, and feel it sliding out from under his treads. He felt himself slipping a little. For a moment, the old dream came back, flashed before his inner headlamps, and he was falling, and he was scared.
He shook it off.
He looked out and he saw Maudie. She was banged up, but she was going to be okay. Nothing a few tools, a blowtorch and paint couldn't fix. She looked at him and her lights came on and her bumper parted in a smile, showing that pretty gear-work inside, slightly dusty. It gave him strength. He scrunched back farther. Being smaller, he could fit right in beside Butch.
"What in the world will you be doing, my boy?"
It was old Zoob. He had slid up close to the opening. The old steam shovel bent down on his creaky treads and eyed Bill with his headlamps.
"Why are you in there, my boy? Let the rock crush this one, the big hunk of scrap metal."
"He was on the job," Bill said. "He's one of us."
"I think he's not worth it some at all, that is what I think."
"You may be right," Bill said.
"Hey," Butch said. "I'm right here."
Bill brought his shovel up and touched the great slab above him. He hunkered down on his treads and flexed his metal, and lifted with the shovel.
And the great rock moved.
Shovel God in Heaven, and praise Jayzus, but Bill felt strong. He pushed. And he pushed with his shovel, and he felt the bolts that hinged it go tight as a pair of vice grips, but he pushed up anyway.
And that rock moved some more.
"Pull . . . him . . . out," Bill said.
They came forward, two big steam shovels, and they reached in and got hold of Butch, started pulling.
Bill, looking at Maudie, suddenly felt weak. He could feel his hydraulic fluid starting to eek out, could hear it hissing as it erupted through the tubes.
"Oh, shit," Bill said.
Then there was pain.
And he was flying along through darkness, and ahead of him was a great tunnel lit by a white light. He could see himself flying along, treads working, but touching nothing, and a flock of birds and scampering squirrels and insects and fish and snakes and possums and raccoons and bears, and all manner of wildlife, was rushing along beside him, as well as a flying waffle iron.
And he felt good and happy and fulfilled.
He rushed faster and the light grew brighter, and the animals and insects were sucked forward as if by a vacuum cleaner, and then, just as he was about to go into the brightest and warmest part of the light—
He saw Gabe.
Gabe was blocking his path.
Gabe rammed up against him.
"Gohtdamnit, boy. Not yet. Id's not yer time just now. Ain't far off. But not yet. Got to finish whad yer doin', son."
There was a rush of wind and light as Bill fled back along the tunnel and the light went dark. Then he was standing there, with that great slab of rock on his shovel, and he saw Maudie looking at him, and that look in her eye was worth all the agony in his shovel, worth the tubes he was splitting, the fluids he was draining.
The shovels tugged at Butch, and, slowly, he came free.
Bill couldn't see him now. Couldn't see much of anything. Maudie and Zoob, the other shovels, they were a blur.
"Is . . . he . . . out?" Bill asked.
"He is," Maudie said.
"I love you, Maudie," Bill said.
"And I love you. Oh, no, Bill. Hold on. We'll prop it up and pull you out."
"Too late. I'm . . . a hero . . . aren't I?"
"You are," Maudie said. "Oh, no, Bill. Hold on."
"You'll always remember me?"
Oil slipped from between the edges of her headlamps, rolled down her metal face, over her rubber mouth, as she said, "I will."
"So will I," said Butch. "You ain't no Tinkertoy, after all. You a better man than me. Than anyone I know."
"Nice knowing you some, kid," said Zoob.
And the great slab of rock came down.
It was like an explosion when it hit. Bill felt himself being crushed, washed sideways over the side of the cliff. For a moment he felt the old fear, and it was a fear worth having now, for, in fact, he was falling.
But he didn't keep the fear. Didn't hold onto it.
He was a gonner. He knew it. But he was a hero, too. And as he fell, he looked up, saw the shadow of the great rock slab falling after him. He chuckled deep inside his gears, yelled, "Geronimo!"
Then he hit the ground. His shovel, which was hanging by a strand of metal, came completely off and spun away. His headlamps went out. There was darkness, along with the sound of the great rock falling, a sound like wind through what was left of the world's pines.
"One, one thousand," Bill said, counting the fall of the rock. "Two, one thousand."
Of course, he never heard it when it struck, but—
—down that long black tunnel he went again, and it gave up its blackness to a warm light, and there in the light, fleeing along with him, were more birds and insects and snakes and all manner of wildlife whose homes he had destroyed, and that damn waffle iron, whose soul had been caught up inside him, and he thought, shit, that wasn't good of me, doing that to the birds and the squirrels and such, but here I go anyway, because this must be Heaven, it feels so good, so bright and warm, and he could see Gabe up ahead, beckoning him forward with his shovel.
Then he realized Gabe was whole again. He hadn't thought about that before. In fact, Bill thought, I'm whole again. Bright and shiny with paint blue as the sky.
Now Gabe was beside him. They flowed forward.
Gabe said, "Ya know, stuff I told ya aboud all dem Gohtdamn birds and such?"
"Yeah," Bill said.
"I was wrong. But the Shovel Ghawd, he don't gib a shit. We is his, and he is ours. He knows what kind of fuel pump is in a good machine's chest, and boy, you and me, we got good ones."
Then, they were sucked into the total light of paradise.
"Bill the Little Steam Shovel" was originally published in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy (Penguin/Roc, 2004). It was later collected in The Shadows, Kith and Kin (Subterranean Press, 2007). "Bill the Little Steam Shovel" © 2004 Joe R. Lansdale.
Dig your way back here next Thursday for another tank full of Mojo fun!