New York City skyline at night

Fiction

 

 



Killing Time
Paul Oppenheimer

The room was lofty, half dark in a permanent way because it formed part of a basement, with light sniping in from a few small windows near the ceiling at street level, and crowded with grandfather clocks—tall wooden coffins telling the time in long rows, ticking away—and, I kid you not, a queer sort of grief.

Through the windows you could see well dressed and bare legs passing by on the sidewalk. You could not hear them, though, or anything from Third Avenue in the Eighties. The clocks drowned out the street, as the half-dark any hint that up there, a few feet away, a glorious November morning was making everybody, even the most miserable, feel better looking.

I kid you not about the clocks and grief, or about Mr. Plabic, who said, "One feels at home here."

He liked saying one: "In this room one notices what is important," "One feels traces, these days so hard to come by, of inspiration"—that sort of thing: always one, never you: an affectation comforting in an antiques dealer.

He looked vulgar to the inner eye, where like me you may do your discreet seeing: baggy trousers that slid around his waist under a self-indulgent belly, a dowdy jacket with rumpled pockets and a monstrous head bulling under a cascade of gray tresses that wanted a good brushing, somber eyes up to something—what, you could not tell: he exuded passivity like a wound-up spring unmoving, a creature in his late sixties for whom time might hold few secrets.

 

His elastic formality did not help: it came across as a code you could not crack, by calling him Anton, for instance, even if you had known him over several years.

He released a muted breath, a thin effusion as from a damaged tire. "This large sample would do well beside my chest."

For a second I thought he meant his anatomical chest. He stirred among the shadows: close, with an intimacy too disciplined to be less than earnest.

"The mahogany chest purchased here six months ago." He understood his ambiguity and was in no hurry.

I was likewise in no hurry: hurry did not work with Mr. Plabic, and his prices wanted work. "It might."

A black spark sloped through his hair: his nose swelled in the flimsy light. "This particular sample is eighteenth-century. Colonial, from Philadelphia. Its pendulum has the right set of metallic blendings to prevent irregularity through temperature changes—and they hold now, after so long."

He knew about my yen for time-machines, as he called them: down here was his time-machine chamber: upstairs he sold everything else: sofas, lamps, classroom desks covered with the initials of long-vanished schoolboys, knickknacks, the expensive riffraff of the trade: even an odd seaman's trunk or two. I had bought a fine nineteenth-century Chinese mahogany chest from him, with inlay work in ivory whorls: dragons and orchids. I used it for sheets and my winter duvet: it was not riffraff, but you had to be careful about these things.

"One can feel the pulse of history in a clock such as this." His hands dangled beside his pockets. "The link to the past is sound."

For the first time, I felt the intuition of a phenomenon vaster than grief: of desolation, even murder: I had always felt the grief amid all that ticking, like a huddle of old men in formal dark clothes clearing their throats for mourning: a mechanical obedience reluctant in the shadows and not at all synchronized, as if some clocks were doing catch-up work for others that rushed ahead, sweeping missed seconds into a dustpan. Until then I had never sensed murder. The feeling interested more than alarmed me, and that startled me.

"Care"—he surrendered a sigh—"is everything." The slow energy in him made a hiss: a flame quenched in a cup of water. "This instrument has been well attended to."

What murder?—It would be best not to ask. I make it a point in any recollections never to play my cards close to my chest, or at least I try to present everything at the proper time: not to cheat, which is not easy. So at that point I knew as much as you do. Yet there it was: some hint of violence, or maybe not, because I could detect little except the fragrances of oiled cedar, teak and maple.

I gazed at the clock. A white porcelain disc displayed elegant roman numerals. Across its face moved two hands like spiders' legs. A window at the top showed the painted yellow moon in transit: the man-in-the-moon in the full phase: a pair of ruddy cheeks pillowed wild, almost hysterical blue eyes above an exaggerated smile. I released a sigh myself, noticing my ineptitude at such maneuvers. "An impressive sample. Of course, I have others."

"Of course."

This was not quite true. All of my clocks, in my kitchenette, and the living room-bedroom of my studio apartment a block away, plus the small blue one over the sink in my small bathroom, were electronic digitals. Mr. Plabic thought of them as no clocks at all.

"Digitals supply just numbers," he had reminded me months ago when he first brought me downstairs: a rainy spring afternoon: you could barely make out the legs swinging past his narrow windows, mincing beats in the rain like metronomes. "And numbers tell one so little. Not to mention that digitals are soundless. One wants—needs for one's aliveness—the pie of time. One needs its music. One must hear time to understand it."

"Pie?"

He had stroked one of his cushier models: his puffy hand slid over the sheen of the wood: a sea sponge absorbed light as droplets. "The face of the true clock appears as a pie, and the pie is sliced by the hands."

"It looks like a pie."

"It is one. A pie that sings." He had clasped his hands below his belly, making a strap that supported an orb at rest. "The controlled chimes. Remember Aristotle—"

"Aristotle?" I had little enthusiasm for pedantry.

"Indeed—Aristotle guessed that time, the time of outer space, made music."

The claim seemed preposterous. "What music?"

"The planets moved in the ether."

"What ether?" I thought of dentists' offices a hundred years ago: a squirt of gas left the patient light-headed while pliers were applied to tormented teeth: painful extractions accompanied a dismal hilarity.

"Penetrating the universe." He adjusted the strap beneath the orb so that it rose a trifle.

"The planets made their tones through the medium of the ether, as whips made cracking sounds in the air."

"Planets are not whips."

"That is only a comparison. A helpful one. The tones of the planets produced celestial music." Mr. Plabic had raised the corners of his mouth against his simple gaze: the orb rose too: apparently the comforts of body and mind ran together. "It also matters not a whit that Aristotle was wrong about the ether. That it does not exist. One has the clock's chimes to let time sing, and the pie of time to let one see it. One needs to hear it—to see it—to make sense of it. Mere numbers—modern digitals—deny one this experience."

"Ah." In fact I just half understood. The singing of time, with its chimes, might make sense if you were in another room and wanted your clock to signal across the distance. Yet it was true that the pie of time, or so it seemed, could let you visualize how much of an hour was left. Maybe that mattered. With a digital you had to make an effort to imagine the hour and time remained abstract.

Mr. Plabic nodded: grasping minutes and hours meant visualizing. "A tall clock is not for everyone. But a person such as Geoffrey Pleasance"—he spoke my name with a mildness as if passing a business card to someone else—"given his scientific curiosity, should want to see—the geologist in him should wish to see—"

I had not bought one of his talls, as he called them, though I wanted to: I had little money. Now, months later, though I still had little, I felt intrigued: something about this independent clock, maybe its full moon. "I suppose it needs a lot of cleaning…"

"Best every six weeks. Not the inner workings. They should remain untouched except by the specialist." He bent forward, eased away: the floorboards snapped. "A dusting of the pendulum." As months earlier when he had laced his fingers together, he unlaced them: the orb sank. He extended a finger and stroked the coffin's lustrous moulding, withdrew it.

"The slightest invasion, or mote, might throw completely out the precision." I remembered that he often liked to invert the order of his words, as if to give himself a foreign flavor—a European élan. I had always wondered about his honesty.

A frustration swept through me, a need to test him against that basement dimness, the sunlight catching at the flickering legs outside, my intuition of death.

"It's expensive?"

"No price has been set. A fresh offer would be appreciated." His eyes examined me as from the end of a tunnel crowded with suits of armor, silk fans, circus posters. "A few have been made. They were inappropriate."

"The offers?"

"The people." His smile ran into glitters: his eyes sank at colorlessness. "This one should go to a concerned owner." His hands rose. "A devotion—."

"Yes—sure." I bent at the cabinet, which loomed above me. I scrutinized its delicate trim, the flat ends of the wooden pins that substituted for nails as in the deck-beams of an old yacht. I pretended to look for defects. There were none: the finish retained its crisp delicacy under its two-centuries' scrolled gold-leaf floral pattern: a brace of yellow roses. Unaccountably, though, I shivered: a contraction affected my bowels. I hesitated—and it is probably now that I should tell you about a pet theory of mine, based on watching a captured man-eating jaguar in Mexico and a convicted Viennese serial killer whose New York trial I attended some years ago, that once an animal or person has killed for pleasure you can locate a quiet oasis in his (or her or its) eyes, as if infinity has tipped in there: the weather never changes, and the place itself—a sort of desert—feels limitless. I glanced into Mr. Plabic's eyes and felt that I could glimpse one of those desert-spots just there, in his right one. Yet over both, so burrowing, yellow and serene, lay a scrim of mischief: as if he had come to terms with his spot, his desert, and roamed it with impunity: it held no dangers for him at all: no guilt.

He said, "Sometimes one's visitors are insincere."

I felt baffled, a bit warm in my overcoat. "Yes."

"A professional collector made me an offer on this one." He bent forward, blew on the netted wood: a meteor of dust swam skyward: his basement wrapped us in a constellation of polish and stone. "I later received a postcard from Prague. She was apologizing for abandoning her purchase, for giving up her deposit."

I struggled against my confusion. "I suppose a lack of money—."

"Dishonest. She had changed her mind because she was unwilling to make an appropriate sacrifice."

"What sacrifice?" A flicker of nausea filtered in my throat. I saw a vista of executions, of heads toppling, spewing lymph and blood as they rolled across the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution a couple of hundred years ago: a filthy, well-dressed audience for human disposal swooned and gasped: a whole mad, rebellious age rose in my mind as a lunging of doomed ghosts.

"Not money. Money was not the issue. Commitment. For this clock the right person must be committed—to do it justice."

I still do not know how I was led into a sense of danger in his basement, and then admiration, though I am aware that emotional knives often swipe through me. I mean the type of pinched alertness that I may feel as I realize that I have not done what I have set out to do with my life, that at some point I have made the wrong choice, no doubt from lack of courage. A door has closed, and I have missed slipping through. The courage counts for everything—or so I believe—and as I realize what I have missed, just then, I start to admire those who have it, who have refused to give it up. Mr. Plabic had held onto his courage: he had what I like to think of as the generosity of big cities.

What I mean is what you may know, that big cities differ most from towns and villages in having more doors, a bit like the doors of grandfather clocks, behind which swing the pendulums of adventures—maybe risky ones. Oh, I know how you may object that these cities have other things too: a greater number of corners, plus more buildings, streets, lights. No question about that, and yet I feel certain that the doors alone, the thousands more of them, matter most—that their openings provide dramatic chances that are more important than the size of the cities: not only for their revelations but their closings, which control everybody's deficits of hope.

I felt a few wisps of admiration flow out to Mr. Plabic just then, plus nervousness. His basement felt warmer: its heat misted in the morning air, as in a bathroom with a prepared bubble bath—which looks so smooth and shapely and white when ready: you stick your foot and leg through the soapy glacier, and straight into scalding water, a cleansing shock. I was not ready for that. I made my excuses. I told him that I would think about his Philadelphia. I went upstairs. His eyes followed me as I went into the street and the morning's good sense.

Leaving did not help, though, and that night I was back: as you may have guessed, it was a queer, decisive, punched-out time in my life: a blank Sargasso pause. I felt half ashamed, loveless, standing in the vacant street before his shop at about one in the morning: a respectable young man with a passion for geology, a son doing part-time work at his father's insurance company to get by while he finished his graduate studies: a coil of doubts, unpersuaded that intangible webs between people could be spun or woven.

I soaked up the quiet as few sounds clicked in: a garbage truck a block away: two men fussing over sacks: a ticking of a traffic light as it switched from green to yellow: I did not glance at red.

So may I tell you, without embarrassment, how that street, as it glittered in the November dark, resembled a church? Or a temple? Or a mosque? That while I am not religious, I felt that I could detect a ghostly spill, a type of celestial shadow, moving across the nearby buildings in their indifference? That even my stroll over to Mr. Plabic's shop, after waiting out the evening, after dithering through a greasy dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, felt like the movement of a lost priest or rabbi or imam toward a disused altar?

I know how ridiculous this may sound, how unhip. Yet the opening enthralled me: my surrender to the superstitions of a banished era: as if a witch doctor limped gamboling before some tribal fire: or a star-costumed alchemist busied himself, stirring his flagon brimming with molten metal in his deluded search for gold: a wizard's abusive tarot cards tossed up their hanged men, staves: signals of dearth and greed: of civilizations fast faded.

Through the glass I made out a grove of art-deco lamps: bronze oak leaves, steel flowers: a wall hung with gilt mirrors, gleaming, poured into a pool of darkness.

A young woman stood beside me. I had no idea how she got there: she looked in too. I heard the rustle of her scarf as she pulled it tighter around her neck: a crescent moon-neck shone back from the glass: a smooth burning face, a crease of lava streaked with silver and pouring into a hapless new Pompeii, but now, in our age: a spectral thrust against the dials of the night.

She tugged at her scarf. "Do you have an appointment?"

For seconds I had no idea that she was talking to me: her voice soughed out of the glass.

She stepped around me and tapped. "If you ring, he won't come. If I'm late, he doesn't come for me either. Only now." She glanced away: her face snuggled into the scarf, a friendliness of spices like cold mustard. "Because of the burglars."

"Who?"

She pointed. At the rear of the shop a sprig of light drooped as if pressed by a weight across a couple of mirrors beside the basement stairs: Mr. Plabic hoisting himself through the dark.

"He's coming."

I tried to act disinterested. "Really?"

"Don't you see him?"

I waited, studying the swatch of her pallid beauty in the window like a recovered relic from a romantic film that I would never summon up courage enough to see again: a hint of tangled passion, a clue to its molting into more than a pointless shadow. For weeks—I should mention this—I had been studying mineral stress, geological theories of rock pressures, these accounting for underground boulders being punished into new shapes, often dwarfish elliptoids. On my free evenings I had been going to movies: I do not remember which ones. I had considered, and rejected, buying a television set. But had I ever run into this flicker of a weak ghostly signal—and could it mean more than the clean-up men fussing with their sacks down the street, or the ticking of a traffic light?

"Do you see him?"

"Yes."

Mr. Plabic blossomed in the dark behind his door. I could not make him out, just heard him flip his locks and chains, and then saw him like the petals of bits of fabric. "So"—he reached a hand to her—"you have come after all."

I had never heard him say you.

They embraced: it was not a lovers' embrace. He kissed her cheek: their elbows tilted in the dark.

"And you have brought Mister Pleasance."

"I didn't bring him."

He offered me a friendly hand which seemed to float in the light. "He has come to see his clock."

The mass of his hand surprised me as I took it and skipped a breath: anticipation hid under an ice-age dictum: a stalactite shone against the wet ceiling of a cave: calcium droplets fell to a stone floor. "I don't know."

Into the cave he said, "It seems that he has at least been thinking about it."

I felt a distortion of the air, of its cool fold, yet stepped in and followed him, treading a rope of dark with her as if along a negative beam among the forests of furniture: at the back we turned in our silences and started down the stairs.

Before we were half way, I could hear the whisper of the clocks, their ill-matched ticking like some dispute about propriety, judgments that might mean acceptance or denial. Did he live there, among them?

At the bottom he touched her elbow and she sloped away: for some reason I felt protective: should I speak up for her? He whispered at the stones and wood. "This is my daughter, Sonja."

She turned in a monumental shyness and across my eyes the radiance of her face fled like a storm: hell, I thought, must be a place where you always know what time it is. In the expansive heat I undid my overcoat. "Do you help with the shop?"

She shrugged and smiled and walked into a small room nearby, flicking on a light, leaving the door ajar so I could see her.

Mr. Plabic sighed. "Sonja has no use for antiques. She is a modern woman."

I wondered whether Mr. Plabic knew much about modern women.

"Sometimes she stays here."

I could see her through the doorway. She had begun to lift her dress above her head. Her eyes disappeared into its dark fabric. Gleams of her white thighs pressed at my brain.

She made a motion to close the door. "How nice to meet you."

Mr. Plabic looked away, withdrawing. "I must apologize. Sonja has always lived quite by herself."

I glanced at the windows which glowed in blackness at the layered dark. "Not at all." Behind me, in the room where she was undressing, I heard a sharp snapping of elastic. I did not want to look toward it, to confirm that I could not see her.

Mr. Plabic patted my elbow. "The truth is—and it may seem obvious—that a payment plan could be arranged."

I felt as if he was massaging me: lured into a manipulation, a thickening haze: what could he mean? "You must realize"—I sank, stunned, foolish—"that these tall clocks are not synchronized. Most of them must be telling the wrong time."

"The Philadelphia is not. Its mechanism is accurate."

"I had better go."

"Of course."

In the street, as he let me out, I realized that I had not looked at his Philadelphia. The powerful ticking of the other clocks rose into that snapping of elastic, my deduction that Sonja's belly must be a little plump.

The entire literature on grandfather clocks is not vast: you might skim it in an hour. All of it repeats the frustrating story of Galileo and his son Vicenzio inventing the pendulum at a point when the famous scientist was a dusty seventeenth-century table-pounding invincible yet beaten man who died before his amazing design of the first machine that could tell time with precision could be built. Imagine figuring out how to do it, laying out your plans and designing your instrument, but never seeing it: a bit like Moses gazing into the promised land, which he could make out from a hilltop, but never entering it, or Einstein realizing that there must be one equation underlying all of physics, but able to arrive only at part of it: E = mc2. Or absorbing the snapping of a bit of elastic as an ultimate ticking, a clock, but never glimpsing how or why it produces its unobtrusive sound.

I looked for her in local restaurants, boutiques but without success. I kept returning to Mr. Plabic's shop, musing among his schoolboy desks and in his basement. I never asked about her, feeling that to do so would be unacceptable. Yet I knew that he understood. For several nights I waited in his street, watching the garbage men, listening to their sacks, assuming a connection.

In my mind, the ancient lava rose, sank, blurring into her face and her neck through the dark of his display window.

One morning in his basement room an event occurred that I cannot forget, though it started off in the street. A cold, leonine, autumn gale sprang out of nowhere along the sidewalk. It curled, steeled itself, plunged about. As it pounced, its mane of luxuriant light flew in several directions. It slapped a spray of rusty leaves down Third Avenue. It flung the morning sunlight across the bricks and glass: they glittered, turning silver. Its leaping smeared the smiles on dozens of faces, muffing them, and people leaned into a frantic, angular pace. Never had Third Avenue felt so roomy—it seemed a grand soufflé, with me and everyone tilting about inside it as we pitched against the recklessness.

I found myself in his basement. I knew that few people went there, that I should have been at work, not trying to avoid a neighborhood gale: I also had no idea what time it was. Mr. Plabic was upstairs and the door to Sonja's room stood ajar. I noted a mattress on the floor, a rumpled sheet, a blanket, a hairbrush. I should recall that a hint of unexplained weakness—did it develop as a mental film of a dream, of splattered lines and dried blood?—but whose? and why?—seemed to impress itself on my mind.

But was that in fact her mattress? I moved past the grandfather clocks, touching the special, moon-topped Philadelphia, pausing at the doorway.

A photograph of a middle-aged man, in a cheap frame, stood on a bureau. A red rose, afloat in a glass of water, rested beside it.

Behind me, I heard a sigh. I did not turn: I knew.

The sound stopped. "In a Bosnian refugee camp, we—she and I and others—were sent there for protection during the recent war—she was raped." I had no idea how he had got there, or taken a position among his clocks behind me. "Her family—I am not, I should make it clear, her true father—had thrown her out. They would have killed her. This was customary." I turned and he cocked his head to one side as if listening: I heard the disjointed ticking of the clocks, the Philadelphia that told the correct time: how did he know? "I helped her, but that is not the point."

"I don't understand."

"Sonja often confuses herself with the goddess Diana."

"I cannot understand." It was as if a cavern was opening under the tarmac of Third Avenue as the gale raced along, as the city went about its November business: a lone planet fled through outer space, a ticking among the constellations, other planets: nothing held: just this inviolate motion.

"I killed her father."

"That man."

"She realized that there was no other way." He clasped his hands beneath his belly. "As the goddess of the hunt, Diana gives herself to no one. She outruns her flying arrows, arriving first at her target, perhaps a deer. Homer describes her as fleet. I like this English word, fleet."

It is important not to invent a new arrangement of what he said, or distort it for the sake of sense, or the ticking, the sound of the elastic, the Philadelphia, which I did not purchase: Mr. Plabic: his murmurous heaving at the light. This, I believe, has become necessary to accepting the weather of my days.

 

Paul Oppenheimer has published a novel, Blood Memoir, or The First Three Days of Creation (Marsilio), as well as four volumes of poetry and biographies of Peter Paul Rubens (Rubens: A Portrait (Cooper Square Press) and Machiavelli (Continuum)). Other stories have appeared in Global City, The Jewish Quarterly (U.K.), Alea, Promethean, The Literary Review (U.S.) and The Jerusalem Review.