The rumor has it there’s a vending machine on the corner of Kennedy and Main that lends an ear. Leona tells me it’s for real. Its buttons are the color of rust, she says, once possibly a brighter red. A tear sizzles down her cheeks as she squirms closer in bed. I once fed it a coin after my mother’s death and it gave me a quarter of her heart back.
I’m too high to tell what’s what. Edibles have been working their narcotic magic into my brain, conjuring things that I know aren’t there.
What did it look like? I say, eyes barely open.
The quarter of her heart? she asks.
The vending machine, I explain.
She watches me for a while with something close to disappointment in her eyes. Come on up, she then says, snaking out of the bed in an instant. I’ll show you what it looks like.
By the time we’re outside, the clouds seem to have assumed a ghostlike quality, lingering about as if stuck in limbo. Along the way, I evaluate all the things I can say to the vending machine. I can choose to unburden about Marion, about how she figured a forty-something Ph.D. student would be a better romantic investment than I am. I can tell how I spiraled into a diet of crackers and crack shortly after she left me. I can go on about my days that have since looked like a good chunk of nothing.
We’re here, Leona says as we ?arrive at the intersection.
At first glance, the vending machine on the corner looks like any other of its kind. Maybe a little roughed-up around the edges but it could very well be due to the awry angle of sunlight. Behind the glass coverage, all the rows seem empty, just like the roads we’re surrounded by.
What now? I ask.
Her eyes on me, Leona kicks at the side of the vending machine. The digital panel to the right coughs and glitches for a while before projecting on the screen: Please enter the name.
Leona and I exchange a glance in our little moment, the meaning of which escapes me. I try to figure out what the in this context really means, whether it refers to me or someone else. Using the keypad below, I punch in Marion’s name and wait. One by one I enter her height, weight, birthday, and all the measurables of her being.
And then, some of the immeasurables: how many Bud Lights I think she can gulp down in one sitting; whether she believed the sea was mostly green or blue in all those months we were together. How heartbroken she must be feeling today, from 1 to 5.
After I submit everything it asks of me, the vending machine starts whirring. I turn to look at Leona, but all she tells me is, Wait.
Waiting is all I’ve been doing since Marion packed her luggage and left. These days, her Facebook profile is riddled with high-score notifications for some online games and calls for petitions ranging from wildlife refuges to abortion laws. She looks considerably happier and calmer in some of her more recent pictures, which, when the time is right, or insufferably wrong, drives me deeper into my narcotic fog.
After what could be twenty seconds or two minutes, the pick-up box of the vending machine clatters with a delivery. I stoop to open the lid and have a peek. Inside is a funnily shaped pack covered in white plastic, no larger than the size of a Snickers bar. I tear the wrapping open from one corner and pause. Behind the tear is a finger, Marion’s finger, which I recognize thanks to the engagement ring I gave her on our third anniversary, cleanly cut off from the lowermost knuckle.
I think I’m gonna go now, I say, feeling somewhat dizzy. I start down the road without waiting for a reply. Even without looking back, I can feel Leona’s gaze on me.
Despite the initial shock, I make a habit of passing by the vending machine on my way back home every day. Every day, the machine gives me a different part of Marion as if they’re the pieces of some obscure puzzle. One day, it’s her spleen; the other, her heart. The machine looks indifferent to my moods but treats me all the time with care. It asks me how I’m doing from 1 to 5, whether there has been any improvement in my romantic situation.
As days tick by, I convert one of the rooms in my house to a museum of sorts that’s solely dedicated to Marion: the tuft of her hair I cut one night while she was asleep; the L-sized Nirvana shirt she left behind on the grounds that it reminded her of her brother. I rebuild her every day with care, from top to bottom, minus the head and some minute parts the vending machine has yet to give me. I name the room Heart-Shaped Box, after her favorite song.
One day, as I pass by the intersection on my way back from Leona’s place, all I see on the corner is a vending machine-sized nothing. Something close to fear builds behind my chest, and I start gasping. I desperately look about and stare into the eyes of the passersby with the hope of finding an answer but all I get in return are some shoves and curses. I scream. I kick the air.
I can hardly keep my hands steady when I grab my phone to give Leona a call. She picks up just on the second ring but doesn’t say anything. We listen to each other breathe.
It happened to you too, isn’t it, she then says, her voice sounding like the obituary of something long lost.
From 1 to 5, I think of everything I can tell Leona. Of what I should have said to Marion long ago. Of what might have happened to the vending machine after my last visit. Of everything it has made me feel. Of the last time I felt truly happy.
Don’t worry, it happens every few months, Leona tells me before I can start talking. But it always comes back. They always come back.