THE CHAOS MACHINE
AN ESSAY ON POSTMODERN FATHERHOOD
by Charles Baxter
footnotes by Daniel Baxter
Late spring in southern Minnesota, 1998: the days build from deceptively clear mornings to damp, overheated afternoons. I have driven from Michigan to pick up my son at college and to take him home for summer break. As I enter Northfield, Minnesota—a sign announces the town, modestly boasting of its “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment”—I open the window and smell the faint receding scent of farm fields and the stronger cardboardish odor of the Malt-O-Meal plant just inside the city limits.
A strange mix, a pleasantly naïve Midwestern smell. Our minivan, emptied of its benches and rear seat, should accommodate all my son’s college paraphernalia, but the van, too, has an aroma—of Tasha, the family dog, a keeshond, and of the coffee I have been drinking mile after mile to stay awake. In fact, the van smells of all the Baxters. In Michigan the previous day I witnessed an accident near Albion, a woman driving suicidally into a bridge abutment; as a result, today I am shaky and still unnerved, and I am giving off a bad odor myself.
Daniel meets me in his dorm room. My spirit lifts when I see him. We hug. He is smiling but preoccupied and quiet, as he often is. Typical college kid? How would I know? He’s the only son—the only child—I have. We arrange to go out to dinner at some air-conditioned Northfield bistro. Later, eating his pasta, a favorite food, he tells me that, yes, he will help me load up the van tomorrow, but, well, uh, he also needs to work with his friend Alex on a physics project the two of them have cooked up and have almost finished, a “Chaos Machine,” as he calls it. He tries to explain to me what the Chaos Machine is, and I manage to figure out that it’s some sort of computer randomizer. Much of the time when he explains anything technical to me—he has a brilliant mind for physics and engineering—I am simply baffled. I try to disguise my ignorance by nodding sagely and keeping my mouth shut. One’s dignity should ideally stay intact in front of one’s adult children.
So, OK, I will load the van tomorrow myself.
I drop him off at his dorm and go back to the motel to get a night’s sleep. All night—I suffer from insomnia, and the motel’s pillow seems to be made out of recycled Styrofoam—I smell the production odors from the Malt-O-Meal plant, the smell of the hot cereal that I was served every winter when I myself was disguised as a child.
My own father died of a heart attack when I was eighteen months old. I remember nothing of him, this smiling mythical figure, this insurance salesman, my dad (a word I have never been able to speak in its correct context to anyone). Said to have a great sense of humor, grace, and charm, John Baxter, whoever he was, withdrew his model of fatherhood from me before I could get at it. It’s not his fault, but there’s a hole in me where he might have been. There’s much that I don’t know and have never known about parenthood and other male qualifiers, such as the handyman thing. I once tried to assemble a lawn mower by myself, and on its maiden voyage across the lawn, it sprayed screws and nuts and bolts in every direction, an entertaining spectacle for the onlookers, my wife and son.
Lying in the Northfield Country Inn, wide awake, I wonder if my father would have driven to my own college to help me move myself back home. Maybe yes. But somehow I doubt it. Growing up, I did not live in a universe in which such things ever happened.
- I’m fairly certain that I had told my dad that we would both load the van after the Chaos Machine was complete. My dad, however, decided to load the van on his own before the machine was finished. ↩