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Today's Story by Ben Black

This change in technique led again to questions about the suicide machine's process.

The Paintings of the Suicide Machine

The suicide machine was created as a mobile unit, an in-home service available with just a phone call or an online order.  It rolled on treads, and features many attachments that get the job done.  Pincers, hoses, retractable lengths of rope, needles, and bludgeons come out of the stout body of the machine when summoned.  It was a machine designed for the utmost practicality, which makes what happened to it all the more surprising.

The suicide machine produced its first painting last year, in the wreck of a house mid-renovation.  The owner of the house, perhaps in financial ruin over his renovations, had ordered a home delivery, leaving his project unfinished.  The machine was dispatched in the morning, and by evening had not yet rolled back into the factory.  They found it amongst the rubble, in front of a large tarp that was hanging dividing a room.  The tarp was entirely covered with paint, a messy Pollack-like collage of streaks.  A brush dangled from one of the suicide machine’s pincers.

The machine was taken out of rotation and placed in a room at the suicide machine factory by itself with a canvas and some paint.  Its owners had to know what was causing the problem, and if it could be reproduced.  The next painting, unlike the later commissioned works, was more of an experiment in repetition than a work of creative discovery.  It was almost a reproduction of the first.  The major difference was the use of proper canvas, provided by the management of said company.  Using a better brush and cleaner paints, the suicide machine was able to to produce a more polished work.

The machine was left in its room, provided with new canvas.  A backup machine was sent out into the field in its place.  Word of the machine’s artwork had got out—people had seen the first two paintings and wanted more.  Of course the novelty of the thing, like a painting elephant, was what really drew people, but the factory’s owners weren’t about to turn away free publicity.  No one was more curious as to the machine’s process than its owners, but the design of the machine made the process unobservable.  The machine was designed for the utmost privacy—it wouldn’t operate in its intended function unless it was alone in the room with the person who wanted to die.  In the same way, the machine wouldn’t paint unless it was alone with its desired medium.  A canvas would be left in a locked room with the machine, and in the morning it was covered in paint.  Attempts to observe the machine through two-way glass or on camera were ineffective; the machine never moved if it was being observed.

The factory owners gave up trying to figure out how the machine painted and set it up in its own room at the factory with a pile of canvases and many gallons of paint.  Given complete artistic freedom, its paintings began to take shape.  The fifth painting showed signs of the first attempts at experiment—radiating circles replaced the broad horizontal strokes and splashes of the early works.

This change in technique led again to questions about the suicide machine’s process.  It was generally assumed that the machine painted the first four paintings by moving back and forth in front of the canvas, pincer outstretched grasping the paintbrush.  This technique accounted for the horizontal design of some of the works, and even the splashy design of others.  But this circular painting meant that the machine was rotating the brush in some way, not using the arm with the pincer attached—this arm moved only on a tight up-down, side-to-side series of tracks.  One theory that could account for the curved artwork first seen in the fifth through seventh paintings is the machine’s hose—though how the machine was able to grasp a paintbrush with the rigid plastic rounded end of the hose is a mystery.  The interior of the hose was examined for paint residue, in case the machine was sucking up the paint and spraying it on the canvas, but this was not the case.

The eighth painting is often referred to as the suicide machine’s “Scream.”   The strokes were wilder than in previous paintings, the colors more jarring.  And in the middle, the famous almost-face.  Some say it’s just another circle and that the natural human inclination to search for human representation makes too much of the smaller circles within the bigger one.  The psychological school of study makes much of this painting and its timeframe—it was painted around the time when the backup suicide machine broke down.

There was always a concern, of course, that the second  machine—an exact duplicate—might eventually develop a taste for art as well.  To this end the owners of the company had a second room prepared just in case, though of course it was never used.    The replica machine was making its way up a steep hill when its treads slipped and and it rolled swiftly back, eventually crashing into the brick wall of the gated community.  The billionaire at the top of the hill who had summoned the machine sued the company for breach of contract and mental hardship (he had been scheduled to go to prison the next day, and the backup suicide machine’s breakdown forced him to fulfill his sentence).  The cost of the subsequent litigation ruined the company and the whole suicide machine project was abandoned.  The suicide machine itself also abandoned the painting it had been working on.  It has since showed no interest in returning to this painting.

The suicide machine now resides in a museum next to its paintings.  The final painting is on display nearest the machine, behind glass.  A return to form, this almost geometric collection of straight lines was again painted in a single night.  Some claim that the lines near the bottom of the painting resemble blades of grass.  The museum keeps  the suicide machine in working order and a blank canvas also in the room with it, but the machine has never painted anything else.  It has not been used for its original purpose either.

Only one painting is missing from the exhibit.  It was painted between the unfinished painting and the final one, and resides in a private collection.  After her husband went to prison and before the suicide machine company went under, the wife of the billionaire summoned the suicide machine to her house.  In the absence of the second machine, the company decided to take the old machine out of its painting room and send it back into the field.  The machine, perhaps better built than its twin, made it up the hill and back down, but the woman who had called it remained alive.  She claims to have commissioned a painting from the machine instead of a death.  She says she keeps this painting in a special room—that it’s the largest painting the machine has ever done.  She also claims to have observed the machine at work, though this is of course impossible.  The suicide machine works alone.

But she refuses to disclose what she claims to know.  This is the only statement she has ever given on this topic:

I have watched the machine paint.  It produced at my request the most gorgeous wall-sized outdoor scene I’ve ever known.  I sit often and observe this painting—it is a great comfort to me.  But I try not to remember what I saw when I watched the artist at work.  And I can’t describe it to you—I won’t.  Some things are too terrible for words.


Ben Black’s work has appeared in fiction365, Identity Theory, and New American Writing. He recently completed his MFA at San Franciso State University, where he also teaches. His work is regularly performed at the San Francisco reading series Action Fiction! Find out more at benpblack.com


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

Read more stories from Action Fiction! productions.


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