Zoetrope: All-Story Magazine unveils America’s first short-story vending machine.
Press release, July 2016
I was the only one at work on Martin Luther King Day, and the little greasy spoon on the first floor of my office building was closed. My stomach started to growl around a quarter to eleven, and I figured I might as well head down to the cafeteria and see what was available in the vending machines.
The selection ran the gamut from high-salt to high-sugar. A demand by the younger people in the firm that we stock “healthy” snacks had resulted in a natural foods vending machine that sat there, neglected, like a hippie girl in Birkenstock sandals at a junior prom. The stuff tasted so bad the few people who ever bought anything from it ended up eating the box instead.
I got a Gatorade, an tuna salad sandwich that carbon dating would later establish had been sitting there since the second Clinton administration, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for dessert. Lunch, to steal a phrase from a Wheatie’s box, of champions.
I was about to sit down when I heard a tinny little voice of the kind that the Japanese had installed in their interactive vending machines a while back. “don’t you want some sustenance for your brain too?” it said in the inflection-less monotone that computers always use.
I looked up and noticed for the first time a new machine lined up in our little automated food court. Across the top was emblazoned, as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Excelsior, the strange device “Short Fiction Snacks.”
“Excuse me,” I said; we have a Dignity-in-the-Workplace policy that requires us to use a courteous and professional tone with all inanimate objects, from the Post-It Notes to the almost-obsolete fax machine on the 5th floor. “Were you talking to me?”
“you bet,” the machine said. “for a dollar twenty-five you can have a short-story delivered piping hot. just the thing to fill the hole in your soul left by all that junk food.”
I looked down at the meager repast I was about to consume. Yes, it was a bunch of crap, but it was my bunch of crap. I wasn’t going to supplement it with an ephemeral epiphany of three to five thousand words on the say-so of a hunk of metal and plastic.
“I don’t know,” I said with cautionary reserve. “Whadda ya got?”
“we’ve got early hemingway nick adams.”
“I like it, but I want something with a little more meat on its bones.”
“humor with a dark underside like ring lardner?”
“Ordinarily I’d bite . . .”
“virginia woolf praised him you know. and hemingway used his name as his high-school nomme de plume.”
“Thanks, I know all that. But I don’t know how old this tuna salad is, so I shouldn’t risk a grim surprise ending like Haircut.”
“i have a flannery o’connor . . .”
“You know, it has been awhile since I dipped my toe in the real honest-to-God outcast stuff. A Catholic writing in the ‘Christ-haunted’ Protestant South.”
“you know what she said about the sacrament of communion right?”
“If it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”
“you got that right. and yet she’s a beacon for all the godless mfa’s in fiction stalking the land, praying to her as their icon.”
“Did you read that ‘By the Book’ interview of Bruce Springsteen in The New York Times Book Review?”
“in which he compared his sappy sentimental songs to her. i almost puked up a john cheever story.”
“As Miss Flannery would say, there’s many a platinum album that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
“ha ha ha,” the machine laughed. “well, what’ll it be?”
“I’ll go for the O’Connor,” I said, and I pulled out my wallet. “Can you make change for a dollar?” I asked.
“are you kidding? my math skills are better than yours.”
I let it pass, and slipped one, then a second dollar bill into the little slot. Three quarters came jingling down the chute and I pressed button F1. Oops–I missed and hit F2 instead.
“Crap! I hate when that happens. Can I get a refund?” I asked the machine.
“sorry no refunds for human error. you’ll have to read what you got.”
“But I hate O. Henry!”