Long, long ago, on one of our first dates, Bill drove me to the dead end of a dirt road to show me a parcel of land he had just purchased. For the same monthly payments that rented me one-third of an apartment in Boston, he was buying twenty-five acres of rural northern Michigan. He was going to grow Christmas trees there. The hills all around wore the first green fuzz of early spring and birds chirped. We hiked up the hill in the middle and talked about whether a house should go there, or down by the road.
It started to rain. Then it started to pour. We scrambled down the hillside and bolted across the field to the van and got inside. As the rain settled into an all day soaker, we decided to leave. But we couldn’t. The ground must have been close to saturation when we drove onto it, and now our tires went spinning in the mud.
There was a shovel, and there were some boards, in the back of the van. We tried shoveling and jamming the boards behind the tires. Several times. To no avail. We tried to pull forward, but we only spun deeper, right up to the axles. Along with the rain, the chilly day crossed over into cold. We were wet. We were far away from anywhere, and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. We sat in the van and wondered what to do next. We decided to try once more. Stepping out of the van, we heard the rumble of an engine. It seemed to be coming closer. Who could it be, at the end of this long, dead end road?
“Maybe it’s God,” I joked. Half hoping it might be.
A county road commission truck came down over the hill. The driver was a salt-of-the-earth type man with very thick glasses. We waved him down. He hooked a chain to our van and pulled us out of the mud.
“Deus ex machina” is a term for a plot device that solves an unsolvable problem by bringing some completely new event or character out of nowhere to save the day. The phrase means “god out of the machine,” and goes back to Greek tragedies when gods would be lowered onto the stage from a crane, or raised up through a trap door, to set things right and end the play. It’s considered (by some? by everyone? I don’t really know) a sloppy storytelling technique.
But sometimes, it’s exactly how things happen. Our “deus” was an old Polish guy, and the “machina” was a big orange truck.