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Art and fiction


At first, I worried the waggerbassler was a sophisticated nation-state attack on my freelance career, sent to sour my relationships with clients by sending rude emails from my account.

Written by Winston Turnage

Illustrations by Kaitlin Banafsheha

The waggerbassler came in a six-by-eleven-by-four cardboard box, and the woman delivering it insisted on my signature. I told her I had not ordered a waggerbassler, whatever that might be. She countered that the address on the box was my own, and that my face matched the one in the sketch she'd been given. The sketch depicted a woman with similar bangs and curve of nose, I conceded, but a few strokes of charcoal pencil could look like anyone. We quarreled. I slammed the door.

Many hours later, around dusk, I stepped out for my evening jog and found that she had been sitting on the porch waiting for me to change my mind. Her grit swayed me. I relented and allowed her to wheel in the box through the double doors.

As soon as I cut the packing tape, eight articulate limbs burst out and grasped for the floor, complex constructions of lubricated metal swivel joints and elastic cord. The waggerbassler freed itself from the box, assumed a spiderlike posture, and broke into a sprint.

It needed no time to explore the house or gather its wits, just moved at reckless speed toward a known destination. It drifted a left turn on the hardwood just past the dining room, its eight nublike feet scrambling for friction, ascended the south stairs, and forced open the third door on the right. Its destination was my home office. By the time I caught up with it, it had thrown my chair into the drywall, where it hung with its castors still whirring, and booted up my workstation. What I might have called its fingers hovered over the keyboard's home row, and still more fingers surrounded the trackball mouse.

At first I worried the waggerbassler was a sophisticated nation-state attack on my freelance career, sent to sour my relationships with clients by sending rude emails from my account. This was a silly suspicion, but the events before me demanded immediate interpretation. Fortunately it didn’t seem intent on sabotage. I watched over its shoulder as it opened my design software, implemented some of the revisions I’d been remiss in getting to, and composed email updates to my clients featuring exclamation marks after apologies for delays, promises of quick turnaround, and effusive thanks for their willingness to engage in commerce. In writing it had a complaisant personality. After watching it work for twenty minutes or so, I decided I could trust it at least as much as I understood it, and I wasn’t about to interrupt the thing, not knowing what it could do or how it would react, so I went ahead with my jog.

In my newfound leisure time over the following months, I saw more of my ex-boyfriend Rodney. We would meet up at the park at midday and read books on his patch quilt. Eventually I asked him how it was that he had come into so much leisure time himself, and he said it would be easier to show me than to explain. He took me to his woodworking shop, where I discovered that he too had been liberated from the trammels of labor by an unexpected waggerbassler delivery. The arachnid machine had situated itself in the middle of the shop to keep all the tools and shelves within reach. It operated the table saw, applied varnish to an antique chair, and ordered more supplies on Rodney’s laptop simultaneously. That impressed me already, but Rodney added that it sometimes drove out to pick up furniture people wanted repaired and did all the loading and unloading without supervision.

More people became daytime regulars at the park, and there was a group, growing every day, that gathered in a circle under the shade of the tall sequoia to hear a man in beige robes orate on a variety of topics. They sat just down the hill from my and Rodney’s usual spot, and we would make fun of them. While working on whatever craft we’d chosen for the day — most often painting — we would pass time by putting words in the orator’s mouth, the way lonely people would play ventriloquist with their pets. “And that is why you must always wear beige, and never anything non-beige, for that is the natural order of things,” Rodney would say, affecting the accent and timbre of a Southern preacher.

After the novelty of putting brush to canvas wore off, Rodney started bringing his waggerbassler with him to the park and letting it do the painting. It was much better than Rodney, in both technique and in general taste, and soon Rodney stopped coming at all. I continued painting beside his waggerbassler for a few weeks, but eventually started sending my waggerbassler out instead, figuring it could use a break from design work and house chores and would enjoy artistic expression.

One day I sat down to listen to the orator under the sequoia. A man in the audience, dressed in business casual and sporting visible muscle tension in his neck, asked the speaker, “What are we to do if we no longer need to do?”

The orator said, “Relaxing and smoking a spliff over a board game is plenty to do, and if one bores of that, there are other things to smoke.”

A woman said, “Please give us something to do. We will do what you tell us. We long to set down the heavy burden of choice and self-direction.” Murmurs of assent rippled through the seated crowd.

“If you will do anything you are told to,” the orator said, “fold yourself in half! Fold yourself three times in half so that I can pack you into a shipping box and make you another’s waggerbassler.”

I spotted Rodney a few rows behind me, staring straight ahead, inexpressive. This was the first time I’d seen him outside his house since the end of our painting routine. I had rung his doorbell on a few occasions afterward, but he wouldn’t answer the door, even though through the window I could sometimes see him lying supine on the hardwood floor with his eyes wide open.

“Rodney,” I said, catching up to him after the group had dispersed, “are you well?”

“I am neither well nor unwell. I’m not at all. I simply amn’t.”

He did not slow down to talk, and continued on without me when I stopped in place to ponder his response. Even though I had him right there with me, I still could not reach him, so far had he withdrawn into himself.

By autumn it was mostly waggerbasslers enjoying the park, with a person here and there at peak hours. On my jogs I approached houses and peered into the windows and saw more people lying idle on the floors of their entryways.

The orator and I had a conversation once because only I came to hear him talk. He confessed he had run out of things to smoke, but he was optimistic that with the help of a few waggerbasslers he could synthesize new combustible psychoactives to sustain the human spirit. I never found out if he succeeded, because he stopped showing up at the sequoia. Eventually, with no one to see and no errands to run, I stopped going out myself. A day came where I had my hand on the knob of my front door, and I was about to turn it, when I realized I had no reason to do so. I let go of the knob and looked around, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, either. I decided to lie down for just a moment, until something came to mind.

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