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  • The Love Life of Rube Goldberg
  • Sam Kean (bio)

Consider: Switching on the circular fan blows open the drapes, shedding sunlight onto the objects in the room for the first time, including one parrot (Step A). The bird is awakened by the sun and, agitated, fires up from his perch toward the window (Step B). Tethered by one leg, however, the parrot swings in a frustrated gyre, a motion that rotates his dowel-shaped perch and, via cogs and a teethed belt wrapped around it, an aluminum eggbeater in a mixing bowl (Step C). The aroma produced by the whipped peanut butter, seeds, and ripe fruit in the bowl is so delicious that the parrot, drunkenly tired, descends to have a snack (Step D). The extra weight on the bowl sinks the half of the balance on which the bowl rests, in turn raising a mirror attached to the opposite side of the balance into the sunlight, which is harnessed and focused into a pencil beam (Step E). The beam sets fire to a hanging rope that frays and snaps, releasing an oar that swings free toward the unsuspecting puck of a parrot (Step F). The bird hurls toward the window and crashes through the pane, never to be heard from again (Step G). The backswing of the oar, still in motion, cracks against the release valve of a tank of helium, the nozzle of which is attached to a balloon—a red balloon that fills itself with a gas much, much lighter than air, and, under the guidance of the breeze of the fan, lifts, and slips through the shards of the hole made by the parrot (Step H).

Step A: The Lifted Drapes (From Sarah to Jacqueline)

Switching on the circular fan blows open the drapes, shedding sunlight onto the objects in the room for the first time, including one parrot.

"Hello, Sarah." [End Page 11]

It was under my breath, but my bowels tightened.

"Jacqueline," I corrected myself. "I meant Jacqueline. Hello."

I'd been getting my date's name wrong for a good ten minutes. I'd made the same mistake—thinking that Jacqueline was named "Sarah"—five or six times while I waited for her at the subway stop. Thank god she hadn't shown up yet. Every 90 seconds the escalator dribbled out another porridge of tourists and locals, and I, idle and impatient, had been letting my thoughts wander, the synapses in my brain throwing levers and switches like a mental Rube Goldberg machine while I searched for Jacqueline among the crowd. I smiled in case she saw me first, clearing my throat and practicing my introduction sotto voce so my voice would sound man enough.

"Hello, Sarah."

Christ—it's Jacqueline, you jackass. Think of it that way: Jacqueline—jackass. Concentrate.

For a minute, I'd be stern. I'd lecture myself on the consequences of screwing up, even imagining I might get slapped. It was no good. I was a student forcing himself to sit down with a multiplication table that he didn't care about, and by the last 30 seconds before every new crowd confronted me, my mind was doodling again. The novelty of the problem wasn't helping my focus, either. Why the name "Sarah" kept popping up, I had no idea. But I suspected Jacqueline would get a few of her own, and not forgiving ones, if my first words to her that evening were another woman's name.

Eventually, Jacqueline arrived. She did not climb the escalator, but let it escort her to the top, alone. She was thin, though slim and slender lack the proper connotation: like me, she was scrawny, and her eyes, though sleepy, heaved out from the sockets. She was shorter than I recalled and her breasts looked smaller. Instead of the jeans she'd worn when we met, she'd selected a fresh white skirt, pink blouse, and flowered sandals, indications she took this as an official date. And upon seeing that, my own scripted, blue-striped dress shirt tightened on my neck. Distracted as I pushed off the pillar I'd been leaning against—my pacing that evening had been...


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pp. 11-20
Launched on MUSE
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