Engineer’s Dream by Nick Arvin


Three years passed, and the doorbell rang. There was no warning, no call ahead, no email, no text, no mental preparation. I opened the door – Troy. My brother.

Me and Troy. Here is the bitter, tedious backstory of fraternal debacle: Older brother stole younger brother’s girlfriend.

And, yes, I despised Troy for it, and, yes, for plunging me into a three year pit of depression and self-doubt. Here he was again, already talking, gesturing, pacing the little concrete porch with his usual agitation and impatience. Three years—and he didn’t bother with a greeting; he wanted me to come look at something. He wasn’t being very clear about what it was.

In my surprise I lapsed into irony: “Do I know you?”

“Yes, hi. You want me to say hi? Hi.” He smiled. “You haven’t changed.”

“I’ve been in a freezer,” I said. “They pulled me out when they saw you coming.”

Troy smiled again—quick, amiable, impatient.

I peered into the dark. Troy turned to look. “I thought,” I said, “maybe I saw Erin.”

“She went back to Pittsburg, a couple of years ago.”

But I had done my online stalking, and I knew that. “Must’ve been difficult for you.”

“It’s in my lab,” Troy said. “Will you come?”

“Yes, I’m fine, doing great, Troy,” I said. “Thanks for asking. How are you?” I did imagine slamming the door on him, wanted to slam the door on him, and yet—with a shrug, I indicated that he might enter, if he wanted.

I passed through the living room and into the kitchen, where I surveyed the mess. Dishes, empty cartons, bottles, several items of clothing. Troy, however, had stopped in the living room. Scattered around him were large-scale prints of my photographs—a dumpster overflowing with broken crockery, hair trimmings on a parquet floor, moths swirling around stadium lights—and across each photo I had painted a large red Hebrew aleph: א. Troy, looking at the one with the hair trimmings, said, “Interesting.”

“A word of profound equivocation,” I noted.

But it was surprising that Troy would say anything at all. Around the time Troy left for college, he had begun to claim that art for art’s sake was useless vanity. Sculptures and paintings were children’s amusements at best, the senseless bellowings of vague emotion at worst. He wanted practical things, or nothing. “I’d rather have a well-made wrench,” he said to me once, “than a Michelangelo.”

He also didn’t read novels, or watch TV, or go to the theater or museums. (He made an exception for certain blockbuster movies, because, he said, he needed to keep up with the cultural parlance.) During our adult lives, he never asked or talked to me about my art, or any art. A couple of times, I asked his thoughts about a famous painting or artist, trying to make a joke of it. Troy just squinted and talked about something else. It made me angry. But the deepest ache came because I wasn’t always certain that he wasn’t right.

“I earnestly hope they’re not at all ‘interesting,’” I said. “I don’t know if they’re any good, and I don’t want your opinion. That shape is a Hebrew aleph. You might ask, Why an aleph? You might also note that I’m not Jewish and don’t know Hebrew. Well, I might say, the aleph is the letter carved into the forehead of the golem; mystics associate it with the oneness of God; and it’s been suggested that the aleph’s shape is of a man gesturing to earth and sky, representing that the lower world is map and mirror of the higher. What I’d like to do is paint it over the universe.”

“Can I ask a question?” Troy said. He was distractedly stacking dirty plates on the counter. “Do you have a lot of dreams?”

“I didn’t say anything about dreams, and please leave my dishes. They’re organized to a special system.” I took the plates from Troy and moved them pointlessly to another place on the counter. “Mostly I seem to have dreams involving people I’d rather not think about anymore, so I do my best to forget them.”

Troy put his hands under his armpits. “I’ve been so incredibly busy these last years,” he said—as if that were the reason we had not seen each other. “I’ve been so preoccupied. It has to do with a dream.” He hesitated and looked at me, with a curious shyness.

I hoisted up, sat on the counter, set my chin in my hand. I absolutely should have known better, and yet I was still half-waiting for Troy to begin to apologize, to attempt some explanation of himself. Three years ago, I had come home and all of Erin’s things were gone. For a moment, I wondered if we had been robbed. Troy was the one who called to tell me that Erin had moved into his place. As I reeled, he hung up.

Almost three years ago, Troy was saying, he had had this dream, which upended his life. At first he didn’t think much of it. The dream gripped him with a mood of urgency, but the urgency seemed misplaced¾he did nothing in the dream except examine a bit of machinery, turning it in his hands. He knew that the object he held was a part of some larger machine, but the dream didn’t inform him what the larger machine was or did. The mechanism seemed harmless, and despite the dream’s strange urgency he might have forgotten it, except, the next night, he had the same dream again. And again the next night.

Three years ago, I had gone to Troy’s house and knocked and screamed at the door. “How many hints did I ignore, Erin? How many lies did you tell, Erin?” I picked up a rake leaning against the wall and beat the door with it. “Hey, Troy! Are you happy, Troy?” If he had come out, I would have tried to kill him. I beat his car with the rake, and I spent the rest of the night wandering the streets with no earthly idea where I was, obsessively examining and reexamining every moment with Erin, years of moments, wondering when it began. The last time Troy had visited us Back East—was that when it began? And was Erin the reason he had helped me to get my position here? It hadn’t been so strange that he would do me a favor—at the time we still retained some brotherly affection—but that he had done a favor that related to my work had surprised.

The same dream came every night, Troy said, and his daylight thoughts returned to it more and more; after a couple of weeks he could scarcely think of anything else. He saw the object in the dream so clearly that he was sure he could build it. So, finally, he did. He spent an afternoon putting it together, then turned it in his hands—just as he had done in the dream. An odd little object, which didn’t seem to have a purpose. He hoped the dream would stop.

To be sure, Erin’s behavior was, in a sense, purely rational. Troy had many flaws, but he also had an intensity that could carry people away, and she had traded a sarcastic, moody, unknown artist tenuously employed on a year-to-year teaching contract for a brilliant engineer, tenured professor, holder of patents, and author of papers on a daunting variety of technologies: compact solar heating systems, nanotube reinforced composites, piezoelectric micro-pumping devices. At the time he had nearly two dozen grad students working under him. And Erin certainly knew her own mind and made her own decisions. I was left to wonder, and wonder, whether she had decided for him or against me, and I had been derailed ever since. I mistrusted the aleph project (overly conceptual and cold), and I fully despised every other project that I conceived or attempted. I had begun to feel slivers of doubt as to whether I was truly an artist at all.

Indeed, Troy said, the dream didn’t return. But that night he had a different dream. In this dream, he examined a new piece of the machine. Again, the dream came back night after night, and again he resisted, but after a week he couldn’t think of anything else, so he built the thing. Then he dreamed of a third piece. He built it, and a dream came of another piece. So it went. The pieces of machinery grew increasingly intricate; some took weeks to build. Then, months. This work took all of his time. He was inattentive to his students. He did little productive research, and then none. His relationships fell away.

“Your relationships fell away,” I repeated. I had heard that Troy was hardly publishing and his graduate students were in flight; I had supposed that love and the loss of love had affected the implacable Troy, too. I slid off the counter and began stacking bowls. I thought Erin must have finally seen through Troy’s arrogance and ego and abandoned him. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had simply grown distracted and wandered away from her.

Eventually, Troy said, some of the pieces began to fit together. But more pieces were needed, and he still couldn’t see the machine’s purpose. It incorporated a wide variety of materials, large numbers of microactuators, and a decentralized control system. But these were only variations of existing technologies, and he wasn’t sure he was putting them together in a way that would add up to anything useful. He felt a dire anxiety. He told himself that the final assembly must do something, that in dreaming he was inventing, thathis subconscious was creating a device past the understanding of his conscious mind. Because the alternative was madness. Creatures from another world beaming instructions into his brain. God speaking to him. In shame and paranoia he worked in secret. No one was allowed into his lab. Now his academic standing was in freefall, and he had even lost confidence in his own sanity…

“But,” he said, “it’s finished.”

I set the stack of bowls precariously atop all the other dishes in the sink. “So,” I said, “I guess you’re not going to apologize.” I felt suddenly that I would cry, but I pressed it down with the cold force of hatred.

Troy looked confused.

I had had plans for his apology. I was going to explain that I had realized that the thing with Erin was infuriating, and it was a betrayal, but it wasn’t the core problem. Erin had made her own choices, and it was a betrayal that could be explained by passion¾I held a certain philosophical respect for the works of passion. The core problem, if he and I were to have a relationship, was the way that Troy dismissed and rejected my art. I was an artist. When Troy rejected art, my art, all art, he rejected me.

“Well, anyway,” I said. “You’re done? Does it do anything?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“You have to come and see.”

Troy strode along; he had always insisted on walking faster than normal humans. I walked a little behind. The engineering campus was more than a half hour away by foot, but Troy wanted to walk, and I needed a moment to settle my nerves. It was late autumn. Leaves lay scattered over the concrete paths, and the air met the skin with a cool bite. I recalled that when we were children, Troy had been the one who had run outside as it began to snow and lay in the driveway with his arms spread, to make a snow-shadow. Then he stood and turned and shouted with delight at the negative shape of himself. That was art! But I had talked to Troy about this before. No, Troy said, that was playing.

I said, “Just so we’re clear, I am pissed at you.”

Troy glanced back and sighed. “I’m sorry about Erin,” he said. “Although, honestly, I haven’t thought about any of that in so long. Does it really matter, now?” He trailed away, as if thinking of two things at once, and losing track of one.

Yes, it fucking matters, I thought. And suddenly I knew I didn’t really want an apology.

Troy’s lab space was impressively large, with a glossy floor, high ceiling, two long lab benches covered with instruments and equipment, and a variety of tools and parts arranged on the walls. Yet most of the room lay empty. I had been prepared for a machine as big as a blimp, but the cloth-covered lumpy object before us stood only waist-high and a few feet across, faintly moving.

Troy—without pausing for ceremony or drama, but quickly, almost guiltily, like a child handing over a potentially embarrassing report card—dragged away the cloth.

It looked like a large bird. Well, a headless, wingless, legless bird. A shimmering birdlike thing on the floor, the size of a cowering person. Birdlike because it seemed to be covered with tiny feathers, which shifted and rippled. As if muscles beneath were flexing and twitching. As if it were gasping. And it was gradually changing shape. Already now it looked less like a bird and more like a head, lying on its side.

Stepping closer, I saw why it had taken so long to build—it was made from a vast number of finely shaped pieces of metal, wood, plastic, glass, some as small as fingernail clippings. These were linked to one another with exquisitely small hinges, clasps, tubes, springs, pistons, and motors. Despite all its many pieces, the machine had an airiness. In places I could see straight through. The elements interacted in the controlled chaotic motion of an ant colony or a flock of birds, a slow organic action—the little pieces detached from one another and attached themselves to other pieces. It made a constant evolution of shape, and it conveyed the impression that every part and movement of the mechanism was affected and implied by every other. Elements twitched, tilted, expanded, slid, revolved, and swallowed previous patterns into further complications that suggested deep rhythms.

It was beautiful.

I had the sense that, if one were to examine it long enough, one could find embedded in it something like an invented physics, or a model of the action of consciousness. Or of heartache, or envy, or yearning. Yes, I decided, an elaborate advance and retreat going nowhere: It looked like yearning.

“Do you—I don’t know,” Troy said. “Do you know what I mean? Sort of, feel something?”

Then at last I understood what he meant and what he wanted. He wanted to know, What had he created? What was its purpose? He wanted to know, Was it art?

The first two questions, of course, could not be answered, not for an object like this. One might as well ask, What is everything? What is the purpose of everything?

“Is it—” Troy asked, imploring. “Is it anything?”

I noted that my brother couldn’t even bring himself to use the word—art.

But it was obvious: Of course it was art. It was an exceptional, sublime piece of art. So much so that even my art-blind brother had an inkling. But he was unsure of himself. And then I knew what I would do.

“You’re thinking something,” Troy said. He worked his fingers together and gazed at me with an expression so anguished and pleading that I felt embarrassed for him.

I walked around the machine, eyeing it. It had grown now tall and resembled a shimmering, roiling mushroom cloud. I was awed and humbled by it—but I did not let that cross my face.

“And,” I said, “what else does it do?”

“That’s—” Troy opened his hands. “That’s what it does.”

“Oh,” I said.

I nodded, crossed my arms, and peered for another minute at the machine. It evolved branches; it flickered as if with a thousand tiny leaves.

“It keeps on like that, doesn’t it?” I said. “Well—” I spoke with the descending tones of kindness. “So—” Now with the hesitation of a person obscuring disappointment. “Troy, I mean, a machine like this, it seems like—I don’t know, really.”

To say too plainly that the thing was garbage would betray me; it wouldn’t be quite believable.

“I don’t know anything about machinery,” I said. “It’s outside my field.”

“Sure,” Troy said. “But—”

“I have an early class tomorrow,” I said. I shuffled a half-step toward the door. “Troy, I’m so glad to see you. It’s been a long time. It’s good for both of us, I think. And you shouldn’t be alone too much.” I glanced at the machine, and shook my head, very slightly. “Maybe now that you’re done with this, you can take some time off. Step away. Relax. Get your bearings. You’ll start fresh on new projects.”

I kept talking like this, until I saw the collapse. A turn of the head, an angle of the shoulders. An utter collapse.

“But this,” I said, glancing at the machine. “Well, it’s interesting.”

He looked up to assess the implications of this last remark, and I weakened. I knew intimately the despair of years of work judged to be meaningless.

But then I recalled stepping into the empty house, the absences where Erin’s things had been, the way the air itself seemed to have turned thick and malign, and the horror as I began dimly to understand that the foundations of my life had been built on lies and omissions.

So, I looked my brother in the eye and fashioned a pitying smile. I pressed his shoulder with one hand, and I left.

Nick Arvin’s most recent novel is Mad Boy, from Europa Editions. He is also the author of a short story collection, In the Electric Eden, and two more novels, Articles of War and The Reconstructionist. His writing has received awards from the NEA, ALA, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.