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Summer Stories - The Lost Year: ‘POTATOE?’ by Eli Francovich

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 15, 2021

Langston stared at the microwave’s tiny digital interface.

“EAT A POTATOE.”

The green block letters flashed across the display again.

He shook his head. Put the packet of Top Ramen, his 15th of the week, on the counter. Blinked. Closed one eye. Then the other. Looked away. Walked to the fridge. Came back.

“YOU LOOK HANG DOG,” the microwave said. “OUR YOU DUPRESSED?”

The letters remained. Langston covered the display with a strip of tape.

He’d bought the microwave two months ago, after Julie moved out. She took their microwave. And their cat. Those were the two things they’d bought together as a couple: a microwave and a cat.

In retrospect an ominous pairing.

She left her four yoga balls and a blanket that she’d claimed was from her childhood. During the fight that ended it all, she revealed that the blanket was her ex-boyfriend’s.

Since then, Langston had taken to placing the yoga balls in a square and covering them with the blanket. He’d crawl inside and lie in the semidarkness. Sometimes he’d put on NPR, the volume cranked loud, and sleep for hours.

He was single and a bartender in the year 2020. He had nowhere to be.

Richard visited him the day after the microwave started talking.

“Hey, Langston, open your door,” Richard yelled from the landing. “I know you’re in there. I can hear the radio.”

Richard knocked for a few more minutes. Langston reluctantly crawled from his cave and let him in.

“It’s raining out there,” Richard said, shaking his coat.

It’s dry inside my cave, Langston thought. But he didn’t say anything. Richard was Langston’s oldest friend. They’d met in high school. But Langston still wouldn’t feel comfortable crawling into a blanket fort with him. Richard was a full-grown man, and Langston doubted they would both fit.

Richard, finally free of his rain coat, moved to hug Langston. Langston, for his part, pretended to not see, instead bending down and picking up a pillow.

“Jesus,” Richard said as he surveyed Langston’s apartment. “It smells like a compost pile in here.”

Langston hadn’t noticed the smell. But, he hadn’t been outside in two weeks. Richard opened a window.

“So, are you going to talk to me or just stand there like you got dropped on your head?” Richard said, noticing how skinny Langston had become.

Langston knew Richard cared about him. But Richard wasn’t very good at showing that he cared. Or maybe Langston wasn’t good at receiving the care, he didn’t know.

Richard sat down on Langston’s couch. Seemed to notice the blanket fort for the first time.

“So, what’s new, man?”

“The microwave,” Langston said.

He realized these were the first words he’d spoken in days. His voice rusty and tight. He wondered if Richard would believe him when he told him the microwave was talking to him. He started to speak, but Richard cut him off.

“Oh, God! Get rid of that thing. Don’t you know they give you cancer?”

***

“Listen, I don’t have much time.”

She said this while sitting down. “I’ve got to be uptown by 2 p.m.”

It was noon and uptown was five or six blocks away. Plus, no one called it uptown. Langston started to tear up. She hadn’t changed a bit.

“So, what’s up?” she said.

She was still beautiful. Wavy auburn hair and a cute nose. She had long arms. Langston had always loved her long arms, although he’d never told her because he knew she was self-conscious about them. He’d hoped she’d gotten ugly since she left, but she hadn’t.

“Come on, don’t give me that hang dog look,” she said. “What’s up? Why are we meeting? I’ve said everything I need, and want, to say.”

Hang dog. He wondered if she was the microwave? He looked out the window. Two squirrels were kissing, or at least, nuzzling. He sighed.

“The microwave is talking to me,” he said.

***

It was born in the back of a Sears electronics truck. In between the sweaty lovemaking of a repairman and a lonely woman. In the throes of their dank passion, a spark of consciousness was forged and flew off landing in the discarded machine.

Later, both the repairman (named Bob) and the woman (named Jolie) felt they lost something irreplaceable. Jolie’s marriage crumbled. Bob was killed when his truck rolled off a steep hill.

Yet, from their pain and loneliness, a new life was born.

The microwave didn’t have a name. It was a small piece of consciousness. Not big enough to animate a person but certainly more than enough for a microwave.

For example: The microwave dimly knew it existed. It knew when it was plugged in and when it was not. With electricity animating its body, it could fulfill its one true desire – feeding people. Unplugged, the microwave was useless and knew it. This was the closest it came to suffering.

Unfortunately, it spent much of its young life unplugged. It languished in the back of Bob’s truck until finally, one drunken evening, Bob dragged the broken microwave out and decided to fix it up.

And here, the microwave got lucky. Bob was drunk, bored and too smart for his life. So, on a whim, he decided to replace the microwave’s aging microprocessor with a more advanced microcomputer. Bob had vague notions of a talking microwave or a diet coach. He thought he might be able to patent and sell his invention.

“Do not eat that pie,” he imagined the microwave admonishing someone. He worked on the machine for most of the night. Bob was happiest when obsessed. Getting the microwave to talk would be a much bigger job, one he’d tackle another night. But after eight hours, he’d created a microwave that could respond to several inputted commands and queries, and he’d inputted, by hand, a number of common words, although drunk as he was, his spelling left much to be desired.

As he fell asleep, he thought about what else he could do with the microwave. He felt an unreasonable affection and pride for the machine. He smiled.

Bob died the next day without knowing that a piece of him lived on in the microwave.

***

Langston got home around 5 p.m. after his failed coffee date with his ex. She’d laughed, of course, when he told her about the microwave. He’d tried to bring up other things but had gotten nowhere. She’d left 20 minutes after sitting down. He’d sat around the coffee shop in a black fugue until they closed.

He walked into the kitchen. The tape still covered the microwave’s display. He walked over and pulled the tape back. The display said 6:05. He sighed. The time was wrong, and he’d imagined the whole thing.

He bent down to reprogram the time.

“HELO LANGSTON.”

The screen blinked. He screeched. Slammed the tape back over the display. Slumped onto the floor. Started to hyperventilate. Calmed himself down. Stood up. Removed the tape.

“OUR YOU OK?”

Langston nodded. Then shook his head.

“OUR YOU OK?”

Realizing the microwave probably couldn’t see him, Langston spoke.

“Can you hear me?” he said.

“YES.”

Langston started to giggle. The microwave! He was talking to a microwave!

“Do you know who I am?”

“YOU ARE LANGSTON,” the microwave said.

“How do you know that?” now Langston felt fear.

“I HERD YOU R NAME FROM OTHER MAN RICHARD.”

The microwave could hear. Langston stood there. Dumbfounded. More than a little scared. More than a little excited.

“What do you want? Why are you talking to me,” he asked?

“I WANT YOU TO EAT WELL>” the microwave responded. “EAT A POTATOE THEY AR E HEALTHY.”

***

Langston grew up in a big family – six siblings crammed into a small, aging home. His parents had dreams of a newer, larger home. And while his father worked at the aluminum plant in town, that was a reasonable fantasy. He made good money, enough to support his children and wife. Two vacations (modest trips to Montana) a year, plus some savings.

Mom didn’t work during those years, instead raising the kids. But then Langston’s dad lost his job when the factory downsized. He got another one, but it paid half. Mom started working, and the dreams of a new house were put on hold.

Langston was the youngest boy. He had two younger sisters. But he was the youngest boy, and he was scrawny. His brothers weren’t unkind, but they responded to the biological imperative of all large animal litters. They roughhoused and fought over food. Langston learned to lose early.

He preferred his sisters. But they were cliquish and competitive in their own way, so Langston spent a lot of time on his own.

For lunches, each day his mother would make them sandwiches. Roast beef with a thick layer of mayonnaise and mustard between two pieces of bread. Lavish and loving meals, which he took for granted.

The lunches, and the lavish meals, all disappeared when Mom died. Langston was going into sixth grade, still scrawny, still scared. The bus she took to her job four days a week rolled 15 times down a hill.

His father did his best. But he never had enough time, or patience, to pack a lunch quite the same.

***

Langston rigged up a system by which he could take the microwave out of the house. He got a cart and a small solar charger. He’d plug the microwave in and walk. He didn’t really know what the microwave was capable of perceiving. But he liked the company.

He got looks, of course, but he didn’t mind. People could think what they wanted. He knew what mattered.

And, it did seem to help. Getting out of his apartment cleared his mood. He felt saner than he’d felt in months. He couldn’t have a conversation with the microwave, per se, but it was better than curling up in a ball on the floor of his apartment and listening to Terry Gross.

Langston started cooking more, using the microwave mostly, of course. He made a point of eating dinner every day, around the same time.

***

It was a confusing time for the microwave.

Its basic desire met, feeding Langston, it didn’t know what to do with itself. It enjoyed knowing that Langston was eating, but as soon as Langston ate, the microwave was useless. For a semi-conscious machine, these in-between times were difficult eternities of sloth.

The walks meant nothing to the microwave. It had no way of sensing sunlight. Wind, which it could perceive – dimly – was unnerving. If anything, the outings were uncomfortable because the solar-powered generator didn’t produce enough electricity, leaving the microwave tired and sluggish.

But Langston was eating, which the microwave hoped meant he was happy. He asked him one day.

“LANGSTON, R YUU HAPPY?”

“I don’t know,” Langston said. “I’m happier sometimes. But I still feel so alone,” he paused, looking for a reaction and then remembered he was talking to a microwave.

Continuing, “I have this big, black cloud over me all the time and just can’t get away from it.”

The microwave thought about this for a moment. It only understood about half the words, but it got the general gist. Langston still wasn’t happy. Even though he’d just eaten.

“ARE YOU HUNGRY SITLL THNE?” The microwave asked.

***

Richard came by again a few months later. The weather had cleared. Summer’s warmth rushed in with a vengeance. Langston no longer hid under the blanket fort.

In fact, when Richard stopped by, Langston was in the middle of cleaning. The windows opened, and he’d just put his sheets in the laundry.

“Knock, knock,” Richard said as he walked in the open door.

Langston had wheeled the microwave into the living room for company.

“How are you?” Richard said, hugging Langston. Langston felt awkward. Unsure what to say or do. He hadn’t seen anyone in months.

“Haven’t heard from you,” Richard said. “Why aren’t you texting me back?”

Langston had been ignoring his phone, caught up in his isolation.

“Sorry, Richard, just been busy.”

“Well, you look healthy,” Richard said, slapping him on the back.

The two men sat and talked, and Langston felt good. It was nice to be around a human, he realized. Nice to talk and listen.

They drank some good whiskey and then went out to dinner, a thing Langston had forgotten about. Dinner out, next to strangers. Thrilling.

He considered bringing the microwave but felt that it would be too much of a hassle. The cart. The solar panel. So, he left it behind.

“HEULTHY LIYFE,” the machine recommended into the dark apartment after the two men left. “LIUVE HEULTHY.”

***

Langston’s life rolled on in the way of unstoppable things, and the months blurred.

Richard introduced him to his friends, a boisterous group who spent most waking moments brunching or lunching or planning the next food-related ing-ing. Langston, overwhelmed at points, retreated to his apartment, spending a weekend or more alone.

But that black fog that had so consumed him seemed distant now, and, in fact, that whole time – her, the months spent alone – faded from his body and mind, overwhelmed by the normalcy of his life.

Caught up as he was, he didn’t notice when he stopped cooking. Didn’t notice that he had returned to those old habits, intermittent and unhealthy as they were. Dinner late after his shift at the bar. Something quick in the late morning when he woke up. Top Ramen, whatever was around.

***

The microwave did notice.

“EAT WELL,” it flashed at Langston late one night. “EEAT HEALTHY.”

But Langston had forgotten.

Stumbling, he grabbed a role of tape and covered the microwave’s small display and went to bed, barely remembering the interaction the next morning when he awoke.

Drunk and blurry, he was happy, and the dark days were gone, and she was a distant memory, and all the badness from the year prior was never to return, he believed, with a fierce and totally unexamined conviction.

The microwave, even in its limited intelligence, knew better.

But it could wait.

“POTATOE,” it flashed once more behind the tape. “EAUT U A POTATOE.”

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