The Vending Machine

by Anthony Santulli

Bleary-eyed, the young bohemian gazed at a vending machine standing in the corn field. It was the largest device he had ever seen, taller than a skyscraper and wider than a lake. This was no mirage. The frame was sleek and modern, finished with an onyx coat that beamed a fuzzy fata morgana towards the horizon. The bohemian searched for any sort of serial number or electrical wires but found nothing; the machine was operating on another kind of energy entirely. All the corn behind the machine was languid and dead from no sunlight, the shadow uncoiling wildly through the earth like a fertile mare. The body was tremendous and impossible, so big it had a built-in rolling ladder just so he could see everything the machine had to offer. The rows climbed from 1-16,942, the columns from A1-Z9 and then α-Ω and then what the bohemian assumed to be Mandarin script. A disclaimer in the corner read:


He climbed the ladder. Behind the streaked glass he saw objects from all the world's history and cultures. Everything, he noticed, was just $1. But the bohemian had always been wary of machines ever since he realized how similar they were to his father and knew there must be a catch. His mother always told him never to buy anything off of impulse alone, so he began to take a mental inventory.

The bohemian spent the next four hours scouting, only stopping to blot the sweat from his sunburnt brow. If he strained his eyes to the top of the machine, he could make out the last Twinkie ever. He saw the second, third, and final drafts of novels he hadn't started, crooked tombstones for children not yet born, college degrees signed by deans in every field, and mason jars filled with sand from every shoreline. There were dozens of vats of potent stem cells, OJ Simpson's leather glove, an autographed copy of Mein Kampf, gay marriage licenses, and Area 51 hangars. Here was the Holy Grail (which was not as impressive as he thought it might be), the sovereign Excalibur, Geoffrey Chaucer's corpse, and chainmail armor. Thousands of hieroglyphics and gold nuggets and mummified cats; Agent Orange canisters and Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle; The Little Red Book and the Tiananmen Square tanks. Somehow there were emotions on sale two for the price of one, the word that rhymes with orange, and an entire lunar cycle. Hundreds of keys to who-knows-what. Buried treasure, maybe, or a little girl's diary. Both possibilities were enticing to the bohemian, the kind of person who loved to exhume the past and snoop where he didn't belong.

The bohemian tried to look for all the American icons; the Golden Arches of McDonald's, scaffolding from Ground Zero, John Hancock's pen, Wyatt Earp's mustache, Jimmy Hoffa, a decaf cup of Starbucks coffee, Walt Disney's frozen head, Bruce Springsteen's guitar picks. He found all of these and more.

Of course there was useless junk, too, like kite strings and empty prescription bottles, but they all cost the same. Useful things included: a handgun (with license), the cure for cancer, 400 year old whiskey, 100% effective acne medication, a new hairdo, buried treasure, and knee-high socks. The bohemian noticed that some of the machine's coils were empty and he wondered who had been here first.

The sun was beginning to set. He slid the rolling ladder.

The bohemian realized that he was approaching his third week away from home and figured leaving must have been the best thing to ever happen to him if this was his reward. He had told the citizens of the towns many different stories about his sad past and they always offered him their moldy books in the hopes they would teach him something his parents could not. But the young bohemian had not left home to read, and he often bartered the books for bread or butcher's offal. Recently, he managed to sell a leather-bound copy of Gulliver's Travels to a teacher for $3 which he kept in his billfold for emergencies.

The truth was he left home because he was tired of his old life, tired of the father who couldn't give enough and tired of the mother who scorned him for wanting too much. He also had other voices that had been guiding him away from home in one way or another for years now, tender voices that spoke about another world with second chances and softer women. When he felt his stomach growl, the bohemian resented himself for what he had done, abandoning home cooked meals and videogames for this life of—well, it wasn't much of a life at all, really.

He knew he needed sleep before he could buy anything intelligently so he lay beneath the shadow of the vending machine. The corn field was a good place for the bohemian to rest because it was different from the 21st century life he had come to despise and he thought the flies made better company than people. As he lay beneath the cool dark, he tried to count all the stars in the sky but never made it past 300 before he had to start over. The stars were brighter and more abundant here than back home where the streetlamps tend to obfuscate the night, almost as if the ozone had shed itself like an onion. The Pleiades lit up the atmosphere a blue electric and reminded him that the world was not as blank as skies can sometimes suggest, a thought that calmed him to a better sleep than he would know for years.

As he snored in the field, the bohemian dreamed of all that he could not have and thought he would never have. He always dreamed like this because he believed that if he slept for exactly twelve hours a day he would eventually lose the ability to distinguish dreams from reality and this intrigued him.

The bohemian woke as the bright orange sun was creeping above the tall stalks of husks. For a second, he panicked because he was no longer in the shadow of the vending machine but it was only because the sun had revolved as it does.

He looked at the machine. Spellbound, his tiny eyes drove across the glass until it became too intoxicating. He wanted as much as his brittle bones could carry.

The bohemian frowned. With $3 to his name and no one around to steal from, he knew he would have to make a decision. He also knew that greed was a sin of excess but he told himself he had already sinned enough for two lifetimes and that made it okay.

The only thing standing between the bohemian and everything he ever wanted was a thick piece of glass, but he knew what he needed to do. He climbed back down the ladder and tore two miles to the other side. When he reached the keypad, he slipped three singles from his billfold and wedged one into the cash slot. He pressed the buttons for item 台北 –5,672. A platform shot up inside the machine and positioned itself in front of the item; the useless kite string. The coil rolled it forward onto the platform. The machine worked flawlessly, but the bohemian did not care much for good mechanics. When the kite string fell into the giant delivery bin at the bottom, he held it to the heavens and mumbled a mangled prayer for the first time since his grandmother died, but his father had forced him to say that one.

Another dollar. π-559. He waited. After the sound of the machine stopped, he pulled out a sewing needle from the bin and prayed again. He hoped God would forgive him his trespasses and understand the situation. For a second, he thought about what this machine was doing in the middle of a corn field of all places, but then he asked himself the same question and remembered that questions are for keeping conversations going.

With the needle, he pricked a small hole into the top of his final dollar bill. He had saved the best for last; a crisp one that looked fresh out of the Mint except for the Where's George? stamp above the serial number. He looped the string through the dollar's hole. He planned to insert the dollar into the slot until it registered and quickly pull it out to be reused. It was a trick he'd learned from years of television but had never actually tried. The bohemian licked his lips, wrapped the string around his index finger so tight it turned his nail purple.

He pushed in the dollar and the machine spit it back out in disgust. The bohemian grabbed the bill. It was wrinkled and torn at the corners. Panicked, he smoothed the dollar on the seat of his pants and shoved it in again, keeping his fingers on the slot to stop it from coming out. The vending machine whirred, beeped, and burped. It would not accept his dirty money. He tried again with similar results. And repeat. Every time the dollar became more useless.

Desperate and impotent, he crawled into the delivery bin to see if he could cheat his way through but it was hot as a furnace inside and made of aluminum. The bohemian screamed in searing pain as the machine cooked him. He quickly jumped out of the bin, his frail body now burned all over and sweating out the last of his energy. He cursed the machine in ancient tongues. He tried to break the glass but could not. He saw his reflection in the glass and aimed for the acne-pocked face that stared back at him and looked too tired for words. He did all of this because he realized that he had always been the enemy and he knew nobody would believe otherwise, not even his parents. For hours he banged on that window, raw and howling until the pale moon fell and his knuckles bled and he cried himself to sleep and dreamed of everything he had that he wished he could get rid of forever, the LED glow of the vending machine the only light around.

When morning rose in the corn field the bohemian rose with it, deflated. He looked to make sure the machine hadn't disappeared overnight. To his horror, it was still there, reflecting sunbeams off its window. No, it had not been a dream, but what did that word mean, anyway? To him it did not matter what you called it because he had slept twelve hours and that made all the difference. He spit on the glass that was now painted with dry blood and picked a few ears of corn for later but he wasn't sure if there was going to be a later or if there was even a now or a was. The bohemian hadn't been sure of anything for years and this was the only thing he was actually sure of anymore, a truth that most likely explained why leaving hadn't meant as much to him as he thought it would. If anything it only made him scared of himself and the pain he hadn't known was trapped inside his fifteen short years like a taxidermied grizzly. His wounds were still throbbing and warm, his body emaciated. He had to keep moving.

The bohemian walked and turned and shallow breathing stopped him at times but still he walked but the field was eternal. No matter how far he went in any direction he was always standing in the cool shadow of the great vending machine. He saw the black box monolithic and mocking in the distance even when he was sure he had walked the length of an entire ocean. And when the sun did finally dip below the horizon and he could not see the machine anymore, he rested. His stomach growled, one of the many voices that had been the catalyst for his entirely sad state of affairs.

Not really feeling much of anything except the hunger pangs, the young bohemian grabbed ears of corn by the dozen all raw and dusty and golden yellow. There was enough to feed him for weeks. So he feasted.

BIO: Anthony Santulli is a New Jersey born writer currently attending Susquehanna University. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in over a dozen magazines including Extract(s), The Review Review, bioStories, the delinquent, Literary Orphans, and decomP.