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the breakdown

by Tony Rauch


part 1 - dinner


You’re eating dinner when your dad’s head just flops down into his plate of spaghetti with a clank. You go numb. Your mom stands and calmly walks over to your dad. She lifts his head. It’s as if his head is balancing on a large spring in his neck, his neck now all rubbery and wobbly and noodley.

“Mom. Mom,” your sister mumbles in fear, looking over.

You can’t even move. Your dad makes a mechanical drowning noise. His speech is incredibly slow, distorted and warbly, stretching into a long, low groan. “Eeeemmmmooouuuggghhh lllaaaaarrrraahh­hhaaarrrreeee fffrrrooooooaaahhhhhmmmm wwoooorrrrkkk,” his jaw grinds around robotically in tight circles.

Your mother flips his head back, securing it with both hands behind his neck. She holds it still, then turns and reaches behind her for a drawer. Your dad’s eyes are wide open, but staring a dull, doll-like glare. He’s all stiff, like a dummy. His hands begin to twitch. His eyes flutter, then slowly blink—up and down, up and down. And then the mechanical drowning winds down—“whir whir wwhhhiiiir­rrr”—into lower and lower sounds. Your mom is rummaging in the drawer, finally spinning back around with a long, silver screwdriver. It is a gleamingly clean surgical-type screwdriver the likes of which you have never seen before. Your mother twists it and twists it, working it at the back of his neck, behind one of his ears. Eventually your father’s lower jaw stops its tight circular motion.

Your mom tilts his head back to its usual position on his head and plucks the strands of spaghetti from his face and places them on his plate before him. Your dad looks down at his food. “... and boy, that Larry from work,” he finishes his sentence and resumes shoveling peas into his mouth. He looks relaxed and casual.

“Yeah, he’s a real character,” your mom says, turning back to the drawer behind her. She mutters something like “Darn springs wear out,” but you can’t quite hear her.

Your dad shakes his head and sort of smiles loosely and chuckles to himself. Your mom walks back to her seat. She settles in.

“Mom, what was that?” you ask slowly. She just smiles a polite little smile, scoops up a dash of potato, leans her head down into her fork, and says, “Oh, don’t worry honey, it’s just about time for your adjustment too.”


part 2 - the basement

(Nothing is going right, really. You’re always just missing out on things. Seems it has been like this for some time. Too long now. Maybe you’re just trying too hard, or maybe not trying hard enough. Maybe you just need to focus. Or maybe hang back a little. Or maybe you just lack experience. And you’re not one to pretend things are one way when they are not. You believe it’s just easier to recognize opportunities that way. Why lie to yourself when you can help your­self by setting things right? Maybe you just need some rest, start fresh and renewed in the morning, reset your timing. It just seems that things are a little off, that your timing is off, things just don’t seem to be working out lately. Things just haven’t been going your way.)

You’re walking down the sidewalk when a man steps out of a shop ahead of you. He steps from the top of the stairway leading down to the lower level of this building. He looks down the block at you and waves you over. “Finally,” he calls, as if expecting you. You get up to him and he exhales, “We’ve been waiting for you.” He ges­tures down the steps to his basement-level barbershop. You look down through the windows and notice some people down in there but don’t recognize who they could be. Curious, you step down into the basement shop. You push open the glass door and enter. Standing around is a priest, your mother, and several barbershop workers, all bathed in the fresh light from the windows above. It appears they have been waiting for you, each with a concerned look.

Hanging on the walls are wood tools of every sort imaginable. Workbenches line the walls of the little basement shop. It is not a barbershop after all, but a tidy workshop. The workers seem to be custom cabinet makers or furniture craftsmen. Maybe Amish or Mennonites or some such sect due to their long beards. You’re look­ing around and they’re just staring at you. A young assistant in over­alls is holding a broom. He has been sweeping sawdust into a pile.

“Time for your checkup,” a man in a white lab coat steps to you. He is holding out a strange-looking piece of woodworking apparatus. He reaches it up to your head.


part 3 - new dad

You’re sitting on the rug watching TV. A wrestling program throbs with swaths of bright colors. Colors streak by, flashing, swing­ing, wobbling before you. You turn to your dad, who’s slumped on the couch at your side, the newspaper crumpled in his hands in his lap. It looks like he’s sleeping, like he’s just totally out cold or some­thing. His face is buried in the side of the cushion away from you, his body limp and deflated.

Your mom walks in and stands in the doorway.

“Oh, my, you know I don’t like you watching wrestling at this time of night, honey. You know how worked up it gets you,” she leans against the doorjamb.

“Dad’s conked out,” you turn to her and whisper, putting your finger up to your mouth to form the “Ssshhhhh” symbol.

“Not this again,” she shakes her head in annoyance and walks into the other room.

“What?” you utter, as if to indicate: “What’s the big deal? He’s just resting. He’s tired after all. He’s had a long day. Cut him some slack.”

You hear your mother on the phone in the other room. You fur­row your brow, wondering what’s the big deal. You shake your head and return your attention to the epic grudge match playing out before you like a Greek tragedy in whooshes of swirling colors.

“Dad broke down again,” you hear your sister from the kitchen and you just laugh a little.

A while later some workmen walk into the living room. The men are different looking—very thin and tall, each sporting light blue zip-up coveralls. There is a bouncy spring to their steps. They look artificial somehow, kind of plasticky. They come in and reach for your pop, lifting his limp body from the couch. Your dad flops at the waist like a rag doll and the men set him on the floor. They begin to disassemble him. First they twist off one arm and then another. Then his head and legs, packing each away in plastic wrap and then tucking each piece, one by one, into a large box. They pack him up, but not too comfortably. They just squeeze him into the box, shoving each limb in deeper and deeper as if they were nothing to the men, packing him up until they close the lid and that is that—dad all gone. Dad go bye-bye. One of them picks up the box and lifts it onto his shoulder and lugs it out. The others follow behind without a word. And that’s that—there goes your dad.

You look up to your mom with what must be a sort of lost expression on your face. Your mom stands in the doorway and glances down at you and shrugs, “We’ll have a new one by Monday,” and turns back into the kitchen, “Just like last time.”