The hours pale by. This is the darkest before the dawn. Eight or nine new stragglers show up to replace those we’ve lost. They bring cases of beer, quarts of liquor, little curled-over baggies and aluminum squares of whatever. Nicotine light burns through every window, and from the parking lot Katie’s building resembles a zoetrope moored in the dark.
As soon as everyone’s good and loaded Dean produces an old wooden pickax from God-knows-where, and starts screaming for the fucking laptops. No one knows what he’s talking about, and we all assume he’s just being Dean. But there really are laptops, and Katie arrives about fifteen minutes later to prove it. I could give a good goddamn about some old busted laptops, however; for Katie Ludwick is wearing my jacket.
“It’s my jacket,” she says.
“Okay, it’s your jacket. Can I have it?”
“What is going on?”
“We threw a party.”
“I can see that,” she says.
“Your note said do what I want.”
She gives me a long, smoldering stare that masks her secret delight. She says, “You can have the jacket later. I’m cold.”
Oh, to be in the jacket’s proximity and yet not allowed within its snuggly embrace!
“Look what I found.” Katie opens the cardboard box, revealing three black notebook computers. None of them work. I stare into the box with my head while I leer at the jacket with my powers of peripheral perception. Katie screams, “Take the damn box, I’m pregnant.”
Oh yeah. I hold the laptops like an archaeologist might hold the tooth of a dinosaur. “Where are they from?”
“I stole them.”
“I can’t believe you guys decided to do this here.”
“We figured you’d be too pregnant to go anywhere else.”
Dean rushes up behind me, sticks his red wirebrush beard into the box, and snatches forth a clunky old Thinkpad. He raises it to the sky. He taps the head of his pickaxe against the concrete, and slowly a crowd gathers ‘round.
We grant Adam the ceremonial first toss. Dean at bat. He swings the pickax just like Mickey Mantle, and the laptop splits into two pieces, screen-side and keyboard-side, before it ever hits the ground. From a distance it sounds like pop rock candy to the inner ear.
How broken can something get? When you can obliterate a computer without applying more than the slightest amount of force, what else is left to break?
The beauty is that these things were already broken long before tonight.
We survey the initial decapitation. Is this broken enough? No. It can break so much more. In this state—long before this state—the machine will no longer function. From this point, every subsequent descending level of destruction only describes how much difficulty will be involved in putting it all back together. Like Dante’s levels of Hell: before you even reach Hell you are dead, the body is no longer functional, but down you go. The user says the machine is broken. The user does not care how broken it is, he just wants it fixed. But the technician knows. This is his trade. The priest knows how desecrated a body can possibly become and how difficult that will make his job in preparing the spirit for death.
Dean hands the axe over to Adam. We find joy in crushing the computers, every one of us connected to modernity’s threat of the “rising machine”—the fear of domination by our own creation. But man made the pickaxe as well.
At one point a great blow tears the CD-Rom drive from the chassis, and a Microsoft Windows disk is ejected like a driver through the windshield.
Silence descends for one brief moment. We all gather ‘round. The disk is already broken. A piece of it has snapped off. The disk is completely useless. Smash it, we say. Break it, we say.
We pass the axe around. Some, drunk to the point of emotional assimilation with the tool, must be forcefully separated from it to give others a turn.
“The candy! Be careful of the candy!” Dean shrieks. He runs around, fingers aflame in his blaze of hair, and this becomes the mantra of the evening. “Don’t break the candy!”
But this digital piñata exposes only further levels of itself, deeper layers of brokenness. There are capacitors, circuit boards, transistor chips, plastic fan blades, wires, latches, screws. There are strips of plastic and rubber: items no one expected to see squirting out of such polite and sterile machines. Copper sheets crumple and writhe. Who expected so many moving parts? Peripherals, magnets, perfectly polished silver disks—no one can figure out what these are for. Cylinders. Objects of beauty and symmetry, tiny works of art hiding within. Bits that do nothing but direct the flow of energy.
But there’s still so much more to break.
The CPU pops out. Smash it. There is nothing recognizable inside. Like the human brain it is globular and homogeneous. Such a sharp contrast with the viscera. The viscera make sense like plumbing makes sense. Messy as it is, you can point out, yes here, this fits here and digestible matter flows from here to here where it sits. Here, this place is where the nutrients are extracted. Yes… But the brain? Nothing but pulp. No place to say: Thoughts flow from here to here and are analyzed here. Nothing like that. And the processor chip is nothing like that either.
The chip is senseless, gutless, black-grey matter.
We’re onto the third laptop and it seems as though we’ve been swinging for ages. Going after little pieces like storks after crickets. Missing more than striking now, blasting chips from the street. Can it be broken still further? Transistors are severed. The keys of a keyboard, little helmets popped off of pogo-plastic hammers that close a local circuit. Between this are layers of rubber and thin plastic. The screen itself reveals multiple levels of translucence. One clear slip comes loose and is picked up, held up to a streetlight. The image fades to infrared on one side, ultraviolet on the other.
Our tone is a juggler’s patch: menacing, vindictive, and playful. Laughter. Striking with laughter. Be careful of the candy! Down with fucking machines. “You ate my homework,” someone cries, cursing the hard drive.
The batteries were removed before the smashing began. For safety perhaps, or for ceremony: symbolizing the swift clean death offered by a civilized society. Machines have their batteries removed all the time. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Anesthetized, the laptop has no clue how many levels of brokenness it descends.
There is silence. The pickaxe falls onto a patch of grass. Dean scans the parking lot with wobbly eyes on his wobbly head. I notice Adam out there digging among the shrapnel, occasionally holding some broken part up to the light, looking for God-knows-what. Three laptops in tatters, eviscerated along the gravel. Thousands of pieces, bits and scrap from one corner of the old lot to the other—cracked, smashed, mangled.
“I’ll put it all back together in the morning,” slurs Dean, raising his bottle. “I’ll glue it and duct tape it together. Save all the pieces. Don’t lose any of the pieces! It’ll be a work of art. A goddamn sculpture. I’ll take some glue and fit it all in place and pretend it works. Think of how it will look. The fucking screen is split in two! I’ll put some duct tape right across the middle. I’ll wrap it in string. I’ll carry it to a class and pretend to take notes. I’ll bring it into a systems technician and tell them it just stopped working—see if they’ll diagnose. I’ll do this with a straight face. I don’t know what’s the problem, I’ll say. I’m no good with these things, I’ll say. I’ll send it back on warranty. It just died, I’ll say. I don’t know what happened. It was fine the other day and then suddenly it just stopped working.”
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“Smashing Laptops” was originally published in Cedilla vol. 1, 2008