The Biloxi Machine, by Robert Hinderliter

1.

I keep a naked man imprisoned in my basement, but I am not a sexual deviant. The Machine to which the man is connected causes him a great deal of pain, but I am not a sadist. The man in my basement suffers in captivity so that the rest of us may suffer no more.

I chose the basement primarily because it’s the room in my house with the most free space. There isn’t much down there except empty cardboard boxes and a few buckets to catch drips from rusted pipes. There’s also a litter box. My house is not large, and it would be difficult to find room for the man upstairs even if he weren’t strapped to the Machine, which is bulky and cumbersome. I doubt I would have the strength to move it now, even if I wanted to, which of course I do not. Another reason the man is in my basement is to keep him out of sight. I do not expect others to understand the purpose or the necessity of the Biloxi Machine.
The basement is dark, as I need to conserve energy to power the Machine, and I’m sure the man must be frightened. His bravery moves me, and, though his pain is essential, I do whatever I can to keep his spirits high. I keep him company and try to make sure he isn’t exposed to any distressing visual stimulation, litter box aside. The man surely doesn’t like having to watch Rattles do his business, and Rattles himself was at first reluctant to use his litter box with the man observing, but I think by now they’ve both grown used to the situation. I change the litter often, out of respect for both Rattles and the man.

The man’s name is Mickey, or possibly Michael; he mumbled badly back when he could talk. I call him Mickey, and even though he can’t speak, he can still hear me, and I think he understands why he needs to be here, why all the tubes and wires and antennas and electrodes are necessary. I think he knows that he suffers for the greater good.

In some ways, I envy his life. He is free of so many responsibilities. He doesn’t have to worry about eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. He doesn’t have to pick up a paper, turn on the television, or walk down the street and bear witness to the loss and anguish of his fellow human beings. We are better equipped to experience pain ourselves than to process the sight of it in others. There is only so much suffering a man can observe before it becomes too much. I wonder what Mickey has seen in his life and hope it’s not too late for him. It’s too late for me. The things I’ve seen will never leave me. They tear me from my bed at night and drive me to the basement, where I watch Mickey and the Machine by candlelight. I find some semblance of comfort there.

*
I’d been in town less than a month when I met Mickey. Billings, Montana was quite a change from Mississippi, and I missed the Gulf almost as much as I hated it. I spent most of my days sitting down by the Yellowstone River, watching it bubble and slosh against the bank and working out equations for the Machine in my notebook.

One day I decided to explore farther along the riverbank, and as I walked under the remains of a crumbling concrete overpass that no longer reached across the river, I came across a shopping cart. The first thing I saw in the cart was a tattered kite colored like an American flag, and as I stepped closer I saw an assortment of bottles and cans and rags. At the bottom, half-buried by the other debris and covered with a thin layer of grass, was what looked like a dead rabbit. I was so enamored with the contents of the shopping cart that I didn’t see the man lying next to it until I almost tripped over him and looked down to see his frightened eyes staring up at me.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I took a step back, bumping into the cart. The man began to crawl to his feet.

2.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept into Biloxi, Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico and tore ninety percent of the buildings along the coast to pieces. Houses up to six miles inland were destroyed. I’d evacuated Biloxi and spent two nights in a hotel room in Wiggins, an hour north. The storm devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving every city it hit in shambles. I heard the numbers on the news: hundreds dead, hundreds missing, thousands homeless. Later, of course, the numbers would rise.

When I returned to the city, I gazed in silence at the lopsided shell I could no longer bring myself to call my home. Along every street, others were doing the same. We didn’t say anything to each other because we didn’t know what to say.

I wandered down to the beach and walked through the debris that stretched for miles along the shore. Around me, people crawled on their hands and knees through the wreckage from the casinos, overturning tables and grating through the wet sand beneath with their fingers, searching for coins. I watched them do this for a long time, sometimes whole families bent down together, clawing at the ground, but I never saw anyone find anything. Maybe some of the people weren’t looking for coins, but for something they’d lost. Maybe they were looking for remnants of their old lives. I don’t know. But as I said, whatever they were looking for, they didn’t find it.

I was examining the remains of a splintered dresser when, twenty yards down the beach, a black woman screamed and staggered back from a pile of debris. Her two children jumped forward to look, but she pulled them back and tried to cover their eyes with her hands. A few other people came running. I walked over, almost in a daze, knowing what I was about to see. The people in front of me looked quickly, shook their heads, and turned away.

I stepped forward then and saw her: an old lady twisted under a broken sideboard, her legs pinned underneath it, arms flopped to the side, head facing up. Creased, bloated, bloodless skin. White hair tangled with pine needles, streaked with sand. Mouth gaping open, chalky teeth, tongue swollen and pale. And her eyes, her eyes open too. Open and dark gray and staring into mine. I wondered then, turning away, if—what was I saying? Oh yes, her eyes. Irises dark gray, whites perfectly clear like a baby’s, pupils full, taking in everything. Open, open eyes, looking into mine.

I stared at her for a long time, and I think I got sick right there beside her before I stumbled away down the beach. After a few minutes, I picked up a barstool from the wreckage and wiped off the seat. I took it out toward the water to where the tide was foaming up against the sand. Pinecones, Styrofoam cups, and splintered pieces of furniture surrounded me. I pushed the stool down into the ground and watched as the watery sand sucked at the metal legs. The tide slowly pushed a ping-pong paddle toward me, nudging it a few inches closer with every wave. I felt like I was moving. I closed my eyes.

It was in that moment the idea for the Machine first came to me. When I opened my eyes, I could see my surroundings in sharp focus. The ruin and pain I saw before me could be quantified. There were numbers on the television, numbers to define the devastation. And problems with numbers can be solved by numbers.
But you have to know the exact nature of a problem before you can devise a solution. For hours I walked along the beach and up and down the eviscerated streets, taking in every horror I could witness, searing every image into my mind. Before I went to sleep that night in my car, with Rattles biting at the bars of his cage in the back seat, I’d filled forty-eight pages of my notebook with figures, equations, and diagrams.
There was nothing left for me in Biloxi. My sister in Billings said she knew of a place for sale just outside of town. I had enough money saved up that I wasn’t worried about the price, plus FEMA would be pitching in. It was a nice place. The morning after the moving truck left, I began construction on the Machine.

*
Sometimes the Machine has to rotate Mickey, which he finds upsetting, especially when it requires him to be suspended upside-down for hours. Other times, it has to spin him at high rates of speed, like the furious swirl of the storm, and when this happens I cannot watch. Occasionally, Mickey will have a particularly strong reaction to the spinning and produce a small amount of vomit, but it never reaches his mouth and is instead routed through a tube directly into the waste receptacle.

Mickey is required to remain awake for twenty-nine-hour stretches, followed by six hours of sleep. A bell begins to chime in his ears if he closes his eyes for more than six seconds during the time devoted to wakefulness. If his eyes remain shut, the bell grows progressively louder. Sometimes the ringing will reach upstairs, and Rattles will look up at me inquisitively, then clamber through his cat door and go down to the basement to investigate.

If Mickey opens his eyes for more than six seconds during the time devoted to sleep, a small amount of sedative is introduced into his bloodstream. Thankfully, as I wouldn’t want him to become dependent on the sedative, this doesn’t happen often; Mickey seldom needs prodding to fall asleep after twenty-nine hours of consciousness. At the beginning of his time in the Biloxi Machine, instead of a sedative Mickey would receive a small current of pain through his body to remind him to close his eyes, but this proved ineffective at inducing sleep as the pain would elevate his heart rate and increase respiration.

Even now, the Machine doesn’t always function perfectly. From time to time, I have to make small adjustments to ensure every element is operating at the highest level possible. There is a lot of pressure on both Mickey and me, since so many people stand to benefit from the end result of our time together. I deeply regret the suffering the Machine causes Mickey, and I suffer as well, but we must be strong and persistent. When everything has fallen apart, finding a way to piece it back together is never painless. If we both must suffer greatly so that others may suffer less, then we will suffer. We are picking up the pieces, Mickey and I.

3.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, reaching out to steady the shopping cart. The man had taken a few steps away from me and was watching me closely. He wore a red flannel jacket and a pair of black slacks that came about four inches from the tops of his socks. His face was creased in the deep, asymmetrical way that many homeless people’s faces are creased, which made it impossible to tell how old he was. He could have been thirty-five or fifty.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I said. “I didn’t see you there.” I held up my hands and slowly backed away. Then an idea occurred to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but is that… Is that a rabbit in your cart?”

The man stepped over to the cart, keeping it between us. He swallowed and looked down. “That’s my rabbit,” he said. His mouth seemed to move incorrectly for the words he was saying, making it difficult to understand him. “He was sick when I found him. I’ve been feeding him.”
I walked slowly back to the cart and looked at the rabbit. “He likes to eat that grass?” I said.

“Yeah, he eats some of it.” The man scratched his beard and kept looking down. “He’s getting better, I think.”

I heard the river to my left mutter and bubble. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Mickey,” he said. I think that’s what he said.

I stepped back from the cart. “Are you hungry, Mickey?”

“No.”

“I’m hungry,” I said. “I don’t live far from here. You’re welcome to come eat with me if you’d like.”

“I’m not hungry,” he said.

“We can bring back something for your rabbit,” I said. “I bet he’s getting tired of grass.”

He stared at me. Then he looked back into the cart. “Okay,” he said.

I motioned with my hand and began to walk. He followed behind me. He would never bring back any food for the rabbit, but it had been dead for a long time.

The thought, though, was what was important. Even then, Mickey’s first instinct was to help others. And though it was too late for the rabbit, by providing his suffering for my research, by helping me learn the physiological statistics of human anguish, Mickey will be able to help more people than he could ever have imagined.

*
On nights when the memories swirl with a ferocious clarity across the backs of my eyelids and sleep won’t come, I’ll go down to the basement and watch Mickey. I bring a candle and set it on the floor between us. My favorite time to watch is when he’s awake and rotating slowly, his wide eyes reflecting the flame from the candle, the antennas protruding from his nipples glowing red in the wavering light. Rattles will come down the stairs and rub against my ankles until I pick him up and hold him against me, stroking his fur. I look at Mickey’s frail naked body turning in circles as the Machine gently hums, and sometimes I’m moved to rip out the tubes and the wires and set him free. But then I think of the dead woman’s waterlogged face with its horrorstruck expression, and I remember seeing that same look on the faces of hundreds of the living, and I’m reminded that we live in a world where something like the Biloxi Machine is the lesser of so many evils. And as I stand there in the candle’s glow, feeling Rattles purr against my chest and listening to the sound he’s making and the sound of the Machine, I’ll look into Mickey’s eyes and see them looking back into mine with something approaching understanding, and I’ll set Rattles down, step forward, and put my hand on Mickey’s cheek until the Machine turns him away.


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