One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.

The Mechanics of Life

First line: Until he died of something entirely unrelated, my Uncle Rodney could stop a fan on high speed with the heel of his hand.

Being all of eleven during the first display of this feat, the attempt at first struck me as incredible. Rodney held a larger-than-life fascination for me in my prepubescent years. I had convinced my mother the year before that I was old enough to borrow a friend’s copies of Action Comics, and everything in my life had taken on tremendous import, grave consequences, and four color vibrance.

In my mind, our fan bears little resemblance to the meager plastic shells seen in the drab corridors of K-Mart these days. No one was going to buy a fan if they didn’t count on getting twenty years of use out of it. Hefty steel housing, aluminum blades, two-hundred Watt motor, and, if the owner had bothered to keep it, a wire cage open enough to put a phone book through.

I can see Uncle Rodney looking down at me over his barrel chest. He had all of two feet on me. “Here, captain, see what you make of this,” he said, and held his meaty palm flat out, pushing it toward the metal vortex. I was torn between fear of seeing Uncle Rodney pulling back a bloody stump and fascination at seeing the carnage take place. It just wasn’t done. One might think, upon seeing one of these limb-loppers residing in an antique store nowadays, that we lived lives of general carelessness. But we weren’t stupid. Our mothers grilled the horse sense into us, on pain of death, if we didn’t happen to be born with it. “You come near that fan and you better hope it takes your head off, ’cause if it don’t, I will.”

But here was this living contradiction of common sense, embodied in a mass of taut flesh. His years spent shingling had either fried or ripped any ounce of fat that would be on his body, yet he must have weighed as much as me and two of my brothers. I later learned that his main job was hefting squares of shingles up ladders most of the day. Eighty pounds each, thrown over one shoulder, ferried up one or several flights like some anti-fireman, delivering his payload to the roof rather than rescuing the damsel to safety on the ground.

Had my mother been in the room, her wrath would have ended any such display of bravado and flouting of her dictatorship. There was no danger of this, however, as she had gone to the neighbors for a couple of eggs. The Sutterwhites’ modest coop was already producing more than they had anticipated, and they’d told her several times to feel free to pick some up. Her pride had kept her from considering their offer, but protein had been scarce this week – we’d finished off the bacon on Monday and the sausage on Tuesday. She couldn’t manage a trip to the market until the weekend, and was already clucking at our sallow faces and muttering about anemia. She’d bent a little in her resistance to charity and decided the neighbors could maybe use a loaf of bread, seeing as how we’d decided we didn’t care for the new Sunbeam and its healthy crust would go from leather-brown to chalk-white inside of three days.

Uncle Rodney had us all in rapt attention. Five brothers, three sisters, all in a house built for four. Uncle Rodney usually stopped by unannounced and had to be put up on a moment’s notice being in-between something or other (what they like to call “transitioning” now – back then, nouns were nouns). He was my father’s brother, and Dad had died in the War. Uncle Rodney would say he was making sure we had a man to look up to, and after he left, Mom would say he didn’t know what the words meant. A lot passed between them that I didn’t catch at the time. Mom was only a foot taller than me at the time, but the few words that passed between her and Uncle Rodney went over my head. Knowing the way things ended, I can put together what my momma must have thought of Rodney.

Brraappp fiddlefiddlefiddle thud thud thud thud. The fan stopped. I was too ignorant then, and sufficiently terrorized by Momma’s declarations, to realize the meat of Rodney’s palm, placed flatly and, yes, skillfully on the upturned edge of the blades, and then slowly pushed inward, was a fairly mundane method for bearing the fan down to a stop. “Parlor tricks,” Momma had said of Uncle Rodney and his skills more than once. At the time, I thought a parlor must be a pretty great place to be. I pictured strongmen and sword swallowers practicing their feats in preparation for a show-stopping act under the big tent. The superman quality that underlay all these daredevils provided a palpable allure.

Never mind that it was also the best way to burn out a device that Momma had given Sears and Roebuck a week’s salary for. Washing clothes was a common enough trade of the time, but Momma had a well-earned respect among her clients, and was paid according to her skill. The line between comfort and luxury was sharply defined for us by what others couldn’t live without and what we couldn’t afford. After a summer of three children getting the “withers”, Momma’s word for what was probably heat exhaustion from sleeping in the attic, she had seen the good sense in getting us this one mechanical assistance to relieve the ninety-degree nights a Lexington August often bestowed. Meanwhile, her washboard and hand crank wringer stood by in their ancient repose, waiting another turn, rarely asking for repair, never suggesting replacement.

I was disappointed, I think, and my brothers too, that the fan simply stopped, and Rodney’s hand rested on it unscathed. It was anti-climactic, after all. The meeting of immovable object and unstoppable force should end in cataclysm, not balance. We anticipated something more dramatic than a fan that looked like it had simply been turned off. I had placed my own hand on the unpowered fan many times, and, disregarding the context, there was no difference. Rodney lacked any showmanship as well – no straining muscles, no sense of disaster narrowly avoided. His skill and strength were too great to allow for a sign of weakness or possible overpowering. He grinned at us, awaiting our response, and we all raised our eyebrows in dutiful reverence. We had no real appreciation for the fan’s strength, and simply revised our estimates to downplay the effort required for such a feat. The impossible had been made possible, and the world was maybe a little less exciting for it. Uncle Rodney let the fan go, frowning, underwhelmed at our response. Tit for tat, I suppose. There’s a wisdom to allowing myths to go unchallenged, or at least undefeated.

Uncle Rodney didn’t lose his hand that day, or his arm, or even a finger. Days later one of my brothers tried to execute his maneuver, feeling he’d observed it with sufficient detail, and got a good scrape as he pushed too quickly. Explaining the injury to mother was enough to get the fan’s grille reapplied and to garner Uncle Rodney further disfavor in the household.

Three years after Rodney’s dubious performance, maybe to the day, maybe not, he drove his Model B through the underpass and into the timbers that supported the train tracks above. We all attended the funeral, even Harold, who’d graduated and taken employment with Massey Coal in West Virginia. Something told us we should. It wasn’t Momma, who did her duty with a presence that was too passive to be stoic. She told me later she hadn’t had the chance to see our dad off properly, as there hadn’t been anything to send home, and she thought he and Rodney might cross paths, even if they didn’t have the same destination. In her eye, the choices people made were their own business, and another person’s judgment didn’t warrant a second thought.

But I think she was surprised, maybe even pleasantly so, when she got the notice about Uncle Rodney’s inheritance. It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it was enough for us to buy a fan for each bedroom and an electric washer with its own wringer that allowed Momma to do twice the laundry she used to. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes gave her fits. It was during these times that she called it “Rodney’s washer”. But we knew it was Rodney’s washer whether it was working or not.


Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.



9 Comments to “6/6/11-LAURA NAGLE”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    Laura, evocative as always. it’s going to be a challenge to have the rest of the piece meet the potential of the first line.

  2. Pat Bennett says:

    Love the way you are able to enter into so many different aspects and periods of lives. You are an author! One grammatical comment, too many “at the times.”

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks Mom! I totally agree on your comment. I’ve just re-read it and feel like I’ll probably tighten up the language in every other sentence when I get back to revisions.

  3. Laura Nagle says:

    Love it, love it, love it! Reading all your stories has been so fun. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  4. Dan O'Neal says:

    Good stuff (again!). =)

  5. Joe says:

    Rodney’s washer whether it was working or not is a great line, but it makes me wish the story had more of that—the mother and Rodney saying things above his head that make no sense to the child but do to us. Also, I wonder if you couldn’t have worked his parlour trick fan thing into the story so that we might have ended with Rodney’s fan, working or not. I’d make it more Rodney’s and the mother’s story. The kid narrator sometimes is a bit fancy (transitions?)

    • Cole Bennett says:

      You may be right, Joe. The relationship between the two adults probably has more possibility for interest and nuance than that of the narrator. It’s only little glimpses like that last line that show a sophistication from his now-adult perspective.

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