Protagonist Finds an Item (O, To Revel in the Divine Light of the Absurd)
I found a toaster, only just beginning to rust in an otherwise empty field. Not empty by David Attenborough’s standards, who would scoff at my claim before filling me with shame by pointing to the literally teeming communities of life within the tall grass. But empty for the likes of you and me. Us people who are not in the business of “life”.
I checked my hair in the toaster before turning my attention to the real question of why a useful appliance would end up here in such strange solitude. Had I come across functional home-furnishings estranged here, like a nice lamp, a sink, a small, mahogany desk with an attractive flowered vase upon it, the toaster would register differently.
“Oh, someone was trying to live here but forgot the walls and stuff.” I’d think.
Or perhaps if there had been dozens of toasters, I’d begin to speculate about a big-box toaster supplier who had realized their latest model was defective, or worse, shorting-out and attacking their masters, and decided to just dump all the mutant toasters here. Perhaps most of them would still have been underground, but a brave few (ha!) would have wriggled free of the clutches of the Earth to gaze out at the sky in wonder.
But there was just one toaster.
My mind sorted through possible explanations like an engine that wouldn’t turn over. In the forests of Washington, out on some logging roads, a rogue toaster was something, but what it was, exactly, was hard to know. I shook it cautiously, listening to see if there was anything still housed within: a wild animal, a hex, or even some toast that might give me some clarity. But the only signifier was the normal spring-levered toasting system: Tried, true, intact, unremarkable.
It would be a bizarre object to be the bear a person’s broken heart, but it didn’t seem impossible. A wedding gift, the symbol of a domestic and spiritual union that had ended in a bitter separation? Had this same reflective surface once held the red, blotchy gaze of a tear-streaked face? I looked deeply into the chrome. I could find no tear-marks, no buried memory of any kind.
Perhaps drugs had been involved to make the sober act of toaster removal into a bizarre pilgrimage of a toaster to an otherworldly setting. Otherworldly for a toaster. Maybe it was misguided childhood rebellion, blunted by a lack of experience? Some teen that thought they would show mom by throwing the toaster into the woods in unpracticed protest?
I left that day, returning home. I watered the plants (rhododendrons), did the dishes (ikea), played the guitar (Pearl Jam). But my thoughts drifted toward the toaster, of course. I had a perfectly fine toaster, but if this other one worked, there was no reason I couldn’t have two. I didn’t often have guests over, but it might open up new doors in how many breakfast-guests I could entertain. At worst, despite the bit of rust creeping around the belly of the thing, I could probably sell it for a few dollars.
The next day I drove up to the logging road, to a perennially-locked gate just off the main road. I walked the quarter-mile or so, diverting into a region ride with fir and pine trees that had not been logged, through another quarter mile of forest and into the field that contained the toaster. There was toaster, waiting. It even appeared to be happy to see me. Was the cord wagging? I was happy to see it, certainly. I picked it up like one picks up a little pup. It seemed unchanged, undisturbed.
We rode home together as it happily rattled and shook on the passenger seat, the rode gravely beneath us.
Inside, I placed it on the counter next to my other toaster.
“Now don’t fight, you two.” I said aloud.
It was somewhat smaller than my kitchen-aid toaster, but certainly more attractive, with it’s rounded contours and relatively polished finish. My toaster was still bearing the scars of a lifetime of labor: jelly spots, errant juice from a neighboring blender, and a smattering of black crumbs surrounding it.
I plugged the small toaster in and pressed the lever down. My face hovered over the portal to the interior, like a cave-man waiting to see if indeed, the fire would come.
The coils glowed a warm, satisfying red. I was baffled. I had hoped for failure, but the sight of this fully-functioning toaster only complicated a rabbit hole that, at best, was completely useless for me to continue to spiral down.
At the moment, my leads had run dry. All I could do was make toast. If I was going to be a man with two toasters, I might as well use them both, see what kind of difference they made on my bread, if any. I put a piece of rye bread in each toaster, setting the dial for roughly “medium” (there was a 1-10 scale on the Wild Toaster, a “low-med-dark” setting on my normally-acquired toaster), and pressed them down.
Not wanting to be one to watch a pot lest it never boil, I turned my attention to choosing appropriate toast-eating music. Bread? I’d never actually listened to them, but that seemed too on-the-nose. I settled on Vivaldi’s Summer: Presto because I am keen to turn mundane situations into high-stakes emotional affairs. Plus, I could eat the toast with pesto. When I get opportunities to make disparate elements of my life rhyme, I usually try and take that opportunity.
Somewhere near the solo violin’s last-gasp ascent to the heavens, my old toaster popped up some toast. I smiled. Perfectly reliable toaster, you have ever-served me. Were you a knight, I should give you a fine cottage and parcel of land to live out your days. As I set about scraping the pesto across the craggy surface of the toast, Wild Toaster released the bread, popping it peppily into the air.
The toast was completely black, motionless.
“Wow” thought I, marveling that the toaster must have toasted the bread with unparalleled speed.
I reached out a cautious hand to see how hot it was, but felt no heat rising off of it. I grabbed it between my index and my thumb, and it was coal-black and cold, like it had been burned days ago. I hadn’t noticed smoke, now that I thought of it.
Confused, I held it below my nose, sniffing deeply. Smelled like kinda old burned bread.
I placed another piece of bread in the Wild Toaster, this time setting the “toastiness” indicator to around 2. I finished eating the contents of my domestic toaster and I heard Wild Toaster clang chirpily, letting me know the job was done. Gladly, I saw that the toast was not burned to an obsidian crisp, but looked much more manageable. I pulled it out, and it felt pretty under-toasted. After a brief inspection and various squishing and smelling tests, I determined that indeed, it did not seem toasted in the slightest. Moreover, as I looked at it, it didn’t even look like rye. It looked sort of like wonderbread. I compared the untoasted slice to its would-be brethren-in-the-bag, but it clearly was a slice of another loaf. Obviously, I must have not noticed that there was one misfit in the loaf of bread when I bought it, though that seemed improbable, if not impossible.
Determined now to not only unravel the story with this toaster’s rogue stroll into the woods, but now my clear-yet-benign departure from reality, I pressed the wonderbread down into Wild Toaster. Nothing happened. No coils, no activity, no strange transmutation of wheat. I popped it up, inspected it, and saw no indication of anything, really. I pressed the lever down with no bread, and saw the coils quickly turn red, hungry for another slice.
“Well that just seems strange.” Thought I.
I began to feverishly repeat variations on this experiment, but each time the results were consistent. Breadless, Wild Toaster seemed to exhibit normal toaster traits. The coils got hot, seemingly consistent with any toaster. With bread, and watched, it became shy, making no effort to toast my bread, or even heat it. But when Wild Toaster went unwatched, for even a few seconds, a seemingly random piece of bread would emerge from the belly. Sometimes it was untoasted soda bread. Sometimes it ushered out a great ciabatta, seemingly JUST baked. But it didn’t seemed limited to breads, per se, because more than once it popped out a still-somewhat-doughy bagel, a frozen eggo waffle, and a crumpet.
It was beyond reason. I spent the whole night running a single piece of bread through the gamut of transformations: Focaccia, a perfect ka’ak, molded sourdough, rock-hard Texas Toast, canadian white, and on and on, with almost no repetition. It seemed that store-bought wheat bread came through a few times, an occurrence I attribute to sheer probably given how much is produced.
I went to bed late that night, or at least tried to get some sleep. My night-vision was clouded with flying toasters, the smell of grain, and the repetitious sigh-like click of the clamps being released, sending new and strange bread into my kitchen like a haunted jack-in-the-box. After a few hours of restless sleep, I got up, wandering back into my kitchen which now felt more like a laboratory of the occult.
Protagonist Agonizes (A Face Is a Storm, A Heart is Adrift)
I had oatmeal for breakfast.
I pressed a single piece of wheat bread into Wild Toaster, turn in a circle, and it popped up some kind of sweet bread that I didn’t eat. I let it sit.
I went to work at the mill at 9:00, tired and filled with thoughts of this absurd thing in my kitchen. It was hard to focus on my job (though I was thankful quality-control of timber can be a fairly mindless affair on a good day), and I mostly played with the idea of telling my coworkers about my betwitched toaster. I ended up sitting on it, feeling it best to validate my sanity with more testing before I told everyone.
I got home late because traffic on the bridge was a snarl of activity. I threw my keys onto the kitchen table and quickly turned to face the toaster like one gunslinger faces another. The sweet bread was still in the toaster. I clicked it down, turned around, and was staring into the eyes of a slice of pumpernickel with lots of seeds in it.
Again, sleep did not come.
Well this thing couldn’t just sit in my house-somebody should do a study on it, or the newspaper could do a story, or something. Over the next several days I began making a list of places I could call, but as it turns out, the list of agencies that might have an interest in supernatural appliances is incredibly limited. I actually called the newspaper to try and get a hold of a reporter to see if they would do a small piece with the hopes that it would gain national press, but the man was incredulous to say the least.
“Thank you for your call, we’ll have someone reach out to you.” he said, briskly.
No one reached out to me. As my sleep deteriorated and my sense of well-being with it, people seemed increasingly disinclined to come over to my house in the woods and see my magic toaster I found.
“Dude, how about instead of you showing me your wizard toaster, you don’t do that and come to the 4th of July party at the lake like a normal person?” said Fran, one of the few people will to wander into into the the vast and terrifying wilderness of friendship with me.
It seemed like I was cascading further into the abyss. I was obsessing over having my bizarre reality validated, and the harder I tried to draw people in, the more isolated I became. After several weeks, my ability to work suffered, I felt foggy and disoriented, and I spent more of my time at home, watching the bread transform. An endless procession of breads stampeding through my kitchen.
It had been nearly two weeks since I had let Wild Toaster into my home. With the exception of a wealth of bread options, every other part of my life felt like it was suffering. I felt frayed and uncertain, no path to clarity, my kitchen floor covered in crumbs. There was no way I could keep living like this. I felt that having the Wild Toaster in my home was killing me. My thoughts turned to it, hoping to learn more. I kept hoping that maybe after a few more depressions of bread, it would stop, reverting to a normal toaster for normal people. I would realize I had just been crazy, or the toaster had been crazy, someone had been crazy, but now we could just live in harmony as man and toaster. But I only dived deeper into obsession, an obsession I could no longer talk about. It was like being so close to a terrible painting that I couldn’t even remember what it was, only that it was useless and confusing, and no one wanted to hear about it.
It felt clear that Wild Toaster and I could no longer live together. I would be destroyed.
Protagonist Unfinds Item (Escape From High-Voltage/That The Birds Might Sing)
But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy Wild Toaster, and I tried. I hovered over it some nights with a screwdriver. I once set it up on top of a leveled-off tree stump, and actually stood over it with a sledgehammer. But it wasn’t Wild Toaster’s fault, and it seemed a crime to destroy so strange a thing. But it couldn’t stay in my home any more, that was undeniable.
In a fever, I started the truck, this time not buckling it up in the passenger seat, but strapping it down in the back. There was no where to take it. It seemed unconscionable to leave it in some public space, it would only repeat this cycle on another hapless fool. But I couldn’t bear to send it out to pasture, bury it, or remove it from the earth. It’s not my place to banish magic from the world. So I drove out to the logging roads outside of town.
The sun was beginning to rise over the ragged teeth of the clear-cut landscape. My own jaw, clenched. The slow mist and sun baked the earth, sending the aroma of wood, damp earth, and ferns into the air. It felt like a sharp reminder of some wholesome world I had left behind. No cars passed as I drove, and as I stumbled down the first section of the logging roads, only a few birds, birds who had not lost their homes in the deforestation, strong birds, hearty birds, cheeped in the morning light.
I walked well-beyond where I had encountered Wild Toaster to begin with. Several miles of apocalyptically beautiful timberland later, I reach the end of the road. A massive backhoe, in a state of repose in the coming dawn, waited on the edge of the road. It’s massive shovel was resting low on the ground, like a large horse drinking from a stream. I walked beyond the road, into the forest, ducking between fir trees, tromping over ferns, and following the birds. Errant branches scratched my sweaty arms, and needles and twigs began to make their homes in my shoes.
I came to a dip in the woods, where the surface of the Earth descended sharply downward into a valley who’s bottom existed, I assume, but could not be seen through the dense flora. I paused, silent, and the forest greeted me in kind. Not wanting to part in malice, I carefully wrapped the cord of the Wild Toaster and placed it at the foot of a stout Douglas Fir tree. I looked at it, seeing the reflection of my worn-out shoes in it’s still-bright surface. I thought about saying a few words, but I thought better of it. I turned and headed home. No ceremony. No tears.
It’s been several months since that day. I still think about Wild Toaster fairly often, but I can’t go back. I wonder if it has yet encountered someone else, and if that story will yet be told. I can’t conceive of it ever really aging out there in the woods, really. When I found it, it seemed in splendid condition, a few minor blemishes aside. I could not envision a world where it was despoiled by time or the shocks of living in the wild. I can’t see family of fungi making their home amongst the coils. It could never be imbued with the natural world: No careful arrangement of twigs constituting a comfortable home, safe from the elements. I would think of it often, but I could never return to that place.
I still have my regular toaster, but to be honest, I was never a BIG toast guy anyway.