Last Words

My wife and I were browsing around an abandoned warehouse filled with old typewriters.  There were windows high on the walls with grimy, yellowed panes of glass that softened the light that shone through.  There was a strong smell of stale oil in the air.  The typewriters were piled up everywhere, old manual typewriters, electric typewriters, big office typewriters, all sorts of types and brands.  Some were piled in heaps of gears and hammers.  Over on a shelf by the wall there was a bin filled with loose keys that had fallen off the different machines.  I slid the bin out a little ways with my finger and I gave the box a good shake.  There was every letter of the alphabet in there, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Any of the typewriters were free to take, if I could find one that worked and was worth taking.  I came across a few typewriters that were sitting by themselves on tables and desktops scattered around the shop, as though someone had set them up there ready to be used.  Seeing if these typewriters still worked seemed more promising than trying to extract any of the broken machines from one of the piles.  They were at least still left at their posts, still maintaining the semblance of service. A few even had working desk lamps shining down on their carriages and chairs placed before them, ready to be occupied.

My wife started to get impatient as she followed me through the warehouse.  She saw nothing but heaps of old junk.  She said that I’d never find a typewriter that worked, and she couldn’t see the point in trying to find one, anyway.  They were all old and outdated and obsolete.  I came across one that had a stack of blank paper laid out beside it.  It was a little blue typewriter, and it looked just like the one I used to own, except that it had an actual return key, rather than that long metal lever on the carriage.  I told my wife to just give me a second, and I fed the paper in with that soft satisfying click of the wheel.  It jumped to life with a hiccup when I flipped the power switch.  The loose desktop rattled slightly from the warm hum of the machine as it waited for me to tap the first key.

I slid into the chair.  I sat for a moment, looking at the broken parts that had been crammed onto a shelf behind the desk beyond the glow of the desk lamp.  I looked at the ashtray beside the typewriter and the burned out stub of a cigarette left still poised and forgotten on its edge.  I felt like I had to choose the first words I typed carefully.  I felt like the health and fate of this machine depended on what I typed.  It would be a summons from the outside world, a message recalling it to life.  This was a negotiation.  I had to convince the typewriter that it still had work to do, that there were still words out there worth shedding ink for.

I don’t remember exactly what I typed.  I remember the click of the keys and the sharp snap of the hammers against the paper.  But I hadn’t gotten more than five words out before I looked up and noticed that they had all run together on the page, a long smudge of consonants and vowels all hitched to one another in a single incomprehensible word, saying nothing.  I jiggled the space bar.  It felt loose under my fingers, and nothing happened when I pressed it.  I felt the hum of the machine begin to fade away.  The bulb in the desk lamp flickered.  I tapped randomly at the keys, but the typewriter was gone.  My wife just shrugged and shook her head.

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8 thoughts on “Last Words

  1. I don’t know if this is your interpretation, but this reminds me that I like typewriters a lot more than I actually need them. The idea of typing things out on a typewriter has such a romantic notion to it, and yet I know that I’d do nothing but murder trees, and fill my trash can with crumpled up rejects, and the GOOD ones, well, those would be marked to the gills with pen and white out. That was assuming my typewriter was still working correctly.

    Word processing is lame, sure, but SO much easier.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. That’s pretty much exactly how I feel about typewriters too. There’s a romanticism about it, like you said, but it’s totally impractical. Especially now, trying to find ink ribbons and whatnot. Word processors are much more forgiving of typos too. I don’t think I could get through a whole typewritten page without making a single mistake. That would be some kind of Olympic feat for me.

      But yeah, I love the IDEA of working on a typewriter, and I miss it some. Like I kind of wish that I had no other choice and HAD to use a typewriter. I feel like the typewriter had too brief of a run. Like what? Not even a hundred years? I don’t even like the term “word processor.” It’s so ugly. And what does it even mean, really? “Typewriter” just sounds so much better. It’s sounds like a tool or an instrument, like a sewing machine for stitching words together. “Word processor” sounds like some amorphous metal receptacle that’s programmed to pump out units of language in little grey chunks.

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  2. I concur with the post and the comments appended so far. There’s an affection for the typewriter which outstrips its capacity to give us anything useful back. But then this applies to lots of other things too: tobacco-smoking, steam locomotives, transport by canal, delivery of milk to one’s doorstep, telegrams . . . We feel loss, especially when we’re of an age to have known these things in our youth.

    But in your particular piece I wonder if I am wrong in detecting a more personal element. For example, when you say “I had to convince the typewriter that it still had work to do, that there were still words out there worth shedding ink for”, I felt that the typewriter stands for Bryan in his role and intentions as a writer. A sense of mission which exists objectively as an adjunct to our daily life. For a typewriter has no other function but to put out words. And in your dream they had become useless and died.

    So not for the first time I’d class this as an anxiety dream; but then the way you’ve beautifully narrated succeeds in negating any cause for anxiety because the words you’ve produced provide their own justification. The work is being done and the words are being set on a page with the option still open to use up paper and ink.

    I go through something similar, in putting together my “master copy” of written materials I judge worthy of indefinite retention after editing. I have a cupboard of good clean paper ready to print the whole thing, single-sided, currently 1,151 pages, 262,598 words & I don’t know how many illustrations. But but what would be the sense? They’re all safe and backed up.

    Anyhow, you demonstrate that dreams are necessary, and the ability to preserve them in words is such a great gift, and its own reward.

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    • Yes, indeed. I thought about that too: my failure to resurrect the typewriter.

      I had some thoughts on your perfection post, and I was trying to put them in order to make a reply, but I was busy spending the morning at the car dealership caught up in my own small pursuit of perfection called a “wheel alignment.”

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  3. That excuse has long expired, Brian. I waited unselfishly till you were untangled, but now I worry about you & hope all is well. But am also eager for your thoughts.

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  4. I thought you were talking about manual typewriters until you mentioned the plugging in! So they were electric ones, not the more ancient writing instruments, like my old Olivetti. There was something so reassuring about the tappity tap sound and the touch of the keys. I wouldn’t mind swapping my ‘Word Processing’ keyboard for an obsolete typewriter, as long as it could connect to the internet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A while ago I came across this ad for a computer keyboard that looked just like an old manual typewriter, and it even had that nice typewriter click to the keys. I can’t remember the name of it. It was very expensive, though. I think it was about $300. Seems like a lot to pay for a novelty keyboard.

      Liked by 1 person

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