a short story
The storefront of the clock shop is unremarkable. Advertised as a purveyor of antiques, sandwiched between a quirky cafe and an apartment building in central Manhattan, the shop looks redundant. Passers-by comment,
“That place looks cute…” and never stop walking.
Some days there are great wooden crates, wrapped in brown paper and string, which are dropped off in front of the building. There are men, coated in sweat and stinking of Cuban cigars, who unload the crates from a nondescript white truck, almost as forgettable as the storefront. The wooden crates are full of parts. What kind of parts? The men never ask. Their employer, the shop owner, never tells them. She tips them generously in cash, always makes the same small talk, no matter which men are working. No matter if they have heard the rehearsed, almost sterile comments on the weather, the traffic.
The timekeeper rolls the crates by dolly through the antique shop to the antique elevator -- almost as old as the building -- and pauses to impatiently wipe sweat from her brow. In the heat, and in her distraction, she has not noticed there is an extra parcel added to her stack. Her short, curly black hair is pulled back with a sash. At the front, a curl of white has started to sprout in her thirty second year. Beneath the elevator, the engine creaks.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she calls down to it, and then pushes the dolly onto the elevator. They -- she and the parts -- head down into the basement, where the engine waits for her. The ticking can be heard as she gets lower. Persistent, subtle, faster than a heartbeat but slower than a clock. The deep hum of the machine comes next, then the sound of pistons firing and gears clicking. Finally comes the soft crunch of metals pressing against each other.
The machine is magnificent: the surfaces gleam, freshly oiled, and they cover most of the gears and the inner workings of the engine. Mixed metals coalesce and clash. The thing grows as a living bridge would grow. The roots and tendrils of wire creep along the cement floor, folding in on each other at gaps in the wall. Bolts and gears, locked into each other, hold together the central nervous system of the engine. It is clear where the first engine-seed was planted, hundreds of years ago, in the center of the room. The tendrils grew out and up, creating this enormous donut-shaped monstrosity. It has steadily filled the room over time: sixteen presidents were sworn in and sworn out, wars were fought, won, and lost, and the machine has been witness to it all, silently, from its basement with the cement floor.
“I know, I know, you’re hungry,” the woman says. The machine whines, less like a dog and more like a fussy carburetor.
She peels back the brown paper, then reaches for a crowbar and pries open the box. Thirty-six hot pink Motorola flip phones tumble out, and the woman rapidly feeds six of them to the machine through a shiny glass tube. The machine crunches its thanks as the phones snap and funnel through the tube. The metals and glass and them will be processed as fuel for the engine, but the rest of the crates will have to wait. She opens the other boxes anyway: old televisions and outdated laptop computers, VHS recorders and rewinders, a box of camcorders, a box of old Nintendo DS mixed with Tamigotchis. There is also, to the machine’s utter delight, a single crate of solid steel bird cages. She pats the machine reassuringly to let it know that she has taken stock of the shipment and is stacking away the goodies as needed.
The machine grunts and the woman, now well-adept at interpreting the machine’s grumblings, turns to the corner it refers to. She grits her teeth to keep from crying out in dismay. There, different from the boxes in its singular lumpiness, is the package that is addressed to the apartment two stories above the antique shop. She looks at the machine. The machine, being made entirely of metal equipment (no ocular faculties) does not look back. The woman rolls her eyes and picks up the lumpy package. She cannot believe she missed it. She takes the elevator back up to the first floor, knowing that the men in the white truck have gone, having made a terrible mistake. Still, driven forward, she strides out of the elevator to try to catch them. If she is not able to catch them, she tells herself, she will have a full-on Karen moment and call their manager.
There is a young woman standing in the clock shop, and the timekeeper stalls to a stillness that spreads up her feet to ankles to her hips like quicksand. The young woman glitters with sweat (the clock shop does not have air conditioning; all the energy reserves go to powering the engine) and the stranger admires her warped reflection in the fisheye glass paneling of a ticking analog clock. She sticks out her teeth -- it cannot be called a smile -- and then sees the reflection of the timekeeper in the mirror, jumps, sputters, and turns around, already laughing with embarrassment.
“Hello,” she says, sticking out a friendly hand, “I’m Valencia, I live upstairs. I just got a notification on my phone that my package was delivered to my apartment, but it isn’t there and I was wondering…” her eyes fall on the brown paper wrapped parcel in the timekeeper’s hands. But instead of snatching at the package, she also stills. She looks at the timekeeper.
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” Valencia starts again. “I’m Valencia. I said that. Duh. I live upstairs. Just moved here, actually. I’ve only been here a few weeks. What’s your name?” She wipes the sweat from her upper lip, then tugs nervously at the ends of long, gold-tipped braids.
“Amelie.” The timekeeper’s voice has a softness to it, as soft as the white curl poking out from beneath the scarf.
“Nice to meet you...it’s a dress,” Valencia blazes on, “A dress that I was hoping to wear to a party tonight. That’s why it’s so important, you know, that I got it today. But you know how it is with these sketchy third-party delivery trucks.”
Amelie laughs awkwardly, a bit too heartily. It is the first time she has laughed since… since when? When was the last time she laughed? When is the last time she has done anything other than feed and care for the machine? When is the last time she has done anything other than keep time?
“It’s nice to meet you,” Amelie says, the same time Valencia steamrolls her with,
“I’m so glad you got it. You know, I don’t really know anyone at this party, and I want to make a good impression. I’ve gotten into school here, you know. I’ll be going to university in a few weeks; I got into the graduate program. It’s lovely to meet you, you know, I don’t really know anyone around the city but it’s so alive. I feel like even the streets are alive. It’s as if the city itself has a soul.”
Amelie laughs again, this time even more awkwardly and heartily. Yet suddenly, as Valencia finally looks down at the parcel, Amelie cannot bear the thought of simply handing the little package over.
So as she does it, Amelie says, in offering, “Well, I’ve lived here my whole life. I could probably show you around if you’re ever so inclined.”
Valencia’s eyes widen with delight. “Oh, how lovely! How does eight o clock tonight sound? Screw the party, honestly. I didn’t want to go. A bunch of sad sacks all sitting around drinking red wine, sounds like a terrible bore. I want to go out and see the sights -- with a local, no less! Look at me now, mom!”
Amelie blinks dumbly at the young woman as she cackles, and then she pulls the parcel back. “I will show you anything you want to see,” she says, “On one condition.”
“What’s that?” Valencia asks. She is not frightened -- although perhaps she should be -- she is intrigued.
“You must wear the dress, or it will all be a waste.”
“Alright,” Valencia says, finally snatching the parcel out of Amelie’s hands. Valencia has missed the danger signs, the stop signs, the blinking red lights, the crossing guards, the cross walks, the pedestrians -- she has missed it all entirely. She sees only Amelie’s soft smile and the mystery it promises. Valencia shrugs off any feelings of doubt. She doesn’t need doubt -- she has everything she needs wrapped in brown paper. “Alright,” she repeats, as if steeling herself, “Eight o clock tonight, in front of the store?”
“Wonderful. Wonderful,” Amelie murmurs.
Valencia nods, grins, and says, “Beastly this heat though, isn’t it?” and laughs and walks out, as if each line of her body was built to move ceaselessly.
Amelie rushes back down to the basement.
“I need your help, please,” she commands the machine, rapping on its hood, “I need to know everything there is to know about the city. About romance. About love. About destiny.”
And the machine creaks and groans and shudders in joy -- finally, after all the years that it has spent collecting data on the streets above, it has finally been asked to tell its story. It has finally been asked to share.
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