Stenger and Sons Self-Aware Appliance Repair has been in my family for generations. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? The work isn’t glamorous, but our business has always been well respected by the community. We never have a lack of service orders—even out of town, because we offer services that other companies aren’t equipped to handle.
I learned the truth about our work when I was a scrawny teenager learning the ropes. Even as a kid I’d tagged along with my dad for the standard jobs, assisting him by handing him tools or pointing a flashlight. Sometimes, he’d have me do the repairs; watching with a stern expression and firm instructions… but I never minded. It was kind of cool that my dad trusted me like that, even if his personality had always been on the coarse side—we’d always had a special bond.
One morning during Spring break my dad burst into my room and yanked off the covers. I’d been trying to sleep in, but it was a lost cause. Dad was barking orders, as usual, but something felt a little different that morning.
As I got ready to go help him on an emergency call, he kept giving me a strange look as though he were uncertain about something. I got ready in silence, and was ready to go in about fifteen minutes. I knew better than to dawdle, or complain about waking up early—he’d let me have it if I did!
“Where’s the job, dad?” I asked as I climbed into the company van. The van was a dated turquoise color with our company name stenciled in navy on the side, nothing fancy… but it got the job done and was considered almost iconic in our quiet town.
Dad handed me a tall metal thermos of hot black coffee, and I sipped it with a grimace as the van chugged along the road in otherwise perfect silence.
He wasn’t talkative when he wasn’t giving orders, but he was a lot quieter that day.
I knew it wasn’t anything I’d done, because if it was … I’d have heard about it. Something told me not to push him, so I just watched the long stretch of road in front of us and noted each turn we made.
The job was local, so it didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to get there. We pulled up to a peach colored house, only a little dingy compared to the other houses on this run-down block.
My dad started walking to the front door while I grabbed the tool bag and hurried to catch up to him. He waited for me on the step before knocking on the door. It opened almost immediately, just a crack, to reveal a thin woman wearing a towel that smelled faintly of mildew.
It was strange because it was obvious she hadn’t showered for a few days, her brown hair was falling in greasy clumps around her face and her skin had an oily sheen to it. I wrinkled my nose but kept my mouth shut. If my dad noticed, he didn’t show it.
The woman was obviously nervous, holding the door like it was a shield as she appraised us with wide, frantic eyes. I kept looking at my dad, but he seemed unbothered and just introduced himself. Business as usual.
“Good morning, ma’am. I’m Raymond Stenger from Self-Aware Appliance Repair. How are you today?” he offered his hand to shake, but the woman didn’t take it. She shot me a suspicious look, then looked back at my dad almost accusingly.
“I thought the company was Stenger and *Sons*?” her words were pointed, but my dad just laughed. It was a question he’d been asked a hundred times before, though usually without hostility.
“I didn’t name the company, I just inherited it. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.” Though my dad didn’t mind how the woman was acting, I did—but I bit my tongue and kept my expression in check. I’d always been a little defensive when people seemed put off by me, but I channeled that frustration into defying expectation.
“I see. Well, I’m Bethany. Come in, then…” she didn’t seem reassured, but opened the door a little wider to let us in. Bethany seemed overly aware of every movement she made as she walked us over to a top-loading Maytag washer and dryer.
Standing there uncomfortably, she gestured helplessly as though the machines somehow terrified her. I couldn’t help but notice that her right arm had a dark bruise from her shoulder to elbow. It looked recent.
“You don’t have to be here for the repair.” My dad told her, “I just have a few questions first. It was the washer, correct? I already told you my rate over the phone.” He was all business and started running through the usual spiel. I looked around nosily, the house was a bit shabby but not dirty. I could tell she had a cat, but the smell wasn’t overpowering.
I was only half-listening to their conversation as I wandered over to the washer, setting our bag of tools on the peeling linoleum. The washer was an older model, older than me, in a beige color that had become dirty with age. It smelled pretty bad too, as though someone had mixed together sewage and detergent.
“It’s eaten my clothes! All of them!” I heard Bethany say in a hushed whisper. She sounded upset, I couldn’t hear the rest of what she said, but I wasn’t actually interested. I thought she was overreacting! If she’d lost some socks, we’d probably find them in the course of the repair.
I was about to flip the lid when my dad noticed what I was doing and reacted furiously! He grabbed me by the back of my shirt and yanked me backwards just as my fingers found the lip of the lid, causing it to rattle as I half-toppled away. I heard a strange metallic whine from the machine, followed by a high pitched screech.
“Get your head out of your ass, Murphy!” his tone was sharp and brooked no argument.
I felt embarrassed and nodded wordlessly as I gave him and the old Maytag a wide berth. I felt hurt that he was acting like I was a dumb kid getting in the way, but… I knew now wasn’t the time to argue.
Bethany made herself scarce, I heard the bedroom door slam down the hall as she left us to our work. I watched dad, a bit miffed but also curious about what made this job so different from all the others. I knew it was different, there was a palpable sense of urgency in the air that I’d never felt before.
“Sorry, dad.” I started to move over to grab the tool bag, but he stopped me with a look and I froze mid-step.
“Listen to me carefully, Murph. I want you to watch. Follow my instructions to the letter, do you understand?” his voice was low and steely, making his expectations clear. I nodded without hesitation, and he gestured me over. “You need to learn how to handle things like this, you’re going to own the company someday.”
“Things like what?” my voice was soft with apprehension. My dad didn’t say anything, popping open the lid with both hands. The smell that followed had me gagging, clamping a hand over my nose and mouth.
At his okay, I moved a little closer to peer into the washing machine. It was filled with cloudy, burgundy water and an oily brown sludge that floated in clumps on the surface. I couldn’t see any clothes.
“Sick!” I gasped in a whisper. It looked like someone had tried to use the old Maytag as a toilet! The hose probably clogged up so the tub couldn’t drain. I was used to helping dad unclog or replace pumps, but the mess was something else altogether.
I watched my dad close the lid, it slammed shut with unnecessary force that made a loud, intimidating clang. He unplugged the power and unhooked the hose systematically before he turned to me. A strange gurgling noise could be heard, followed by a slow leak of filthy, stinking water which formed a dark pool on the floor.
I grabbed the tool bag in time. Dad was wearing rubber boots, but still stepped to avoid the mess. My skin was crawling with the urge to shower, but… I wanted to prove to dad I could handle even the messy jobs. By some miracle, I didn’t throw up but I could still feel the bile rising and sticking, a lump in my throat.
“Our company name is a little strange, isn’t it?” my dad spoke conversationally, but I knew this discussion wasn’t casual.
“Well, it IS long,” I agreed, smiling in spite of the mood, “and inaccurate.”
Dad let out a little chuckle too, but he was shaking his head. “That’s not what I mean, though you’re right on both counts.” He waited for a moment, letting me roll the words around in my head. Stenger and Sons Self-Aware Appliance Repair.
“The rhyme is kind of weird.” I said after a moment. “I get it’s catchy, but you lose the effect when you say our whole name out loud.” We usually just said ‘Self-Aware Appliance Repair’, but dad never could bring himself to officially drop the ‘Stenger and Sons’. Probably because it reminded him of Grandpa.
Dad looked reflective, stepping over the puddle on the floor as we walked back to the van to collect what we needed for the repair. He grabbed a 5-gallon bucket from the back, I could hear the contents sloshing around inside but I had no idea what was in it. I grabbed our industrial shop vac and wheeled it inside so we could drain the water from the washer.
“There are some things in this world that can’t be explained,” my dad began. “I can’t tell you why, but if something is around long enough… it starts to become self-aware. It becomes more than what it was, especially if it’s created and used by humans. Washers are…. Particularly problematic.”
“I think the exposure to our messes speeds up the process. Our sweaty clothes, blood, hair, what have you. Parts of us have the essence of life itself imbued within them, and have a power that can change things over time.”
He lifted the lid of the washer for me, and gripped it very tightly as I lowered the hose from the vac into the water. The process was quick, sucking up the mess as soon as I hit the power… though the smell lingered. I noticed clumps of wet fur in the water, but not a single article of clothing. Not even a sock!
Dad closed the lid once the tub was drained and watched as I vacuumed up the pool on the floor. He gave me an approving smile, then turned to remove the outer cabinet from the washer, taking out the retaining screws and side trim pieces. He flipped the console up, releasing the spring clips with a screwdriver and a practiced hand. I moved to help him tilt the cabinet forward so he could lift it off, waiting for him to continue explaining.
“It’s less common these days, because people tend to replace things quickly. But… appliances are expensive, so people aren’t as likely to get a new model right away. That’s fine, most of the time… but like I said, washers are problematic.”
“Are you saying… that this washer is alive?” I felt almost afraid to ask, half-expecting him to laugh at me for saying something so ridiculous. I wanted him to laugh, but he didn’t.
“Not quite alive. But… aware.” He nodded, “It’s usually a gradual process, which can be stopped by replacing old parts with new ones. But if someone procrastinates and doesn’t see the signs right away… the situation becomes dangerous.”
“What signs? Dangerous? How?” the questions spilled out in quick succession. My dad was not the type of man to play pranks or tell tall tales, so I was taking him seriously even if I struggled to believe what he was saying.
“With washers, the first sign is missing clothing.” He answered, “The washer starts devouring the laundry, a shirt or two at first… but, eventually, this isn’t enough.” I thought of Bethany, wearing nothing but a mildew towel… and nodded my understanding. She’d probably found a way to rationalize the disappearances, until she had nothing left.
“The danger comes when it’s run out of clothing to eat. It needs to eat to stay aware, I think.” Dad continued his work. The repair actually seemed pretty standard, apart from the bizarre circumstances. He removed the hose that connected the tub to the pump, his brow creasing as he checked the hose and found more clumps of fur and a small collar clogging it. It smelled like death, and that’s no exaggeration. He threw the hose in the trash. The whole machine started to make strange grinding noises despite being unplugged; it began rocking back and forth, causing dad to back away and wait for it to stop.
“It got her cat.” He told me, still watching the Maytag which thrashed in a way no appliance should. “Bethany saw it happen, tried to pull Poppy out of the washer…. But the lid clamped down and tried to take her too. That’s how she got that bruise on her arm.”
I grew visibly pale, not sure what to say… I was horrified. Dad was pretty calm considering, but I could tell he sympathized with Bethany. I did too, now that I understood more about what she’d gone through.
The Maytag stopped rocking after a moment, as though it needed to catch its breath. Dad had me help tilt it again so we could place blocks under it. That prevented it from moving again while he examined and replaced the pump.
The washing machine made plenty of noise at first, but seemed to weaken and grow quieter through the course of the repair. Dad replaced everything he could, essentially gutting it.
Once he was done with that, he put it back together and removed the blocks. Together, we poured the contents of the 5-gallon bucket into the washer—it was full of a black fluid, which seemed to neutralize the stink instantly. I could finally breathe through my nose again! I plugged the machine back in so we could run it through a rinse cycle, which concluded the repair.
Dad said the black stuff cleansed the machine and made it less likely that it would become self-aware in the future. It’s a mixture mostly comprised of ultra-fine charcoal powder and seawater. He doesn’t pretend to understand why it works, but it does.
He left to tell Bethany the job was done. I could hear her sobbing, and didn’t want to interrupt so I kept myself busy. I just picked up the garbage and hauled it outside, then loaded up the van. Dad came out just as I finished up, smiling at me.
“You did great today. From now on, we’ll start taking the special calls together.” When he said that, my heart swelled up with pride and I smiled back at him.
“Sounds good, dad!” we both went home, and playfully fought over the right to shower first. He let me win, and cancelled the rest of our scheduled jobs for the day so I could process what had happened, and what would continue to happen as long as we were in the business.
Ever since that first day, he took me on all the “special” jobs. They didn’t happen too often, and we were usually able to catch them early…. But not always. A few years later, dad felt comfortable enough with my training to retire. I run the business now, and will teach my kids just like he taught me when they get old enough. There is a danger to it, but it needs to be done—and we know what we’re doing.
Next time you notice you’re appliances are behaving strangely… don’t ignore the signs. Call Self-Aware Appliance Repair today at (202)555-0150 and ask for Murphy!