Monday, November 21, 2005
Ever wonder how some people survive to adulthood? It seems that modern society strives to keep stupid people alive to fill jobs that smart people refuse to fill. Are we just shooting ourselves in the foot by not killing these people early in life.
This morning, I went to the Burger King here in the hospital to get a cup of coffee. I could tell by the slack-jawed, wide-eyed look on the chick's face that she was normally working at the fry station. It took her almost five minutes to take the the first guy's order, and I'm not so sure that it was done that well by the confused look in her eyes.
"Can I take your order, sir?"
"A large coffee please."
"O.K. Is that for here, or to go?"
"Uhhh....Does it matter? Are you going to put it in a bag, or something?"
"There is a to-go button, and a dine-in button. One has to be pressed before I can go on."
"Oh. OK then, make it for here."
She reaches over to grab an empty cup, and puts it on a tray. After a few, long, painfully sad minutes she has entered my order in all its complexity into the cash register.
"That'll be 75 cents."
Seeing a perfect opportunity to give her an IQ test, I hand her $1, 2 quarters, 2 dimes, and a nickel. She stared into her open hand for a full minute, not comprehending what she was given. Once she was convinced that she had added all the money up, she dutifully put each into its correct receptacle in the drawer. She then typed in the amount that she was given, and hit the button. Like a robot, she looked up at the magic math answer machine. Then she pulled out the same 1$ bill I had just given her and handed it back to me with a well practiced smile.
"Have a nice day sir."
"You too." I grabbed my cup and turned to go.
"Sir! You forgot your tray."
"That's alright, I don't need a tray. I decided to drink it at my desk."
"But...But...Can you put it over there for me?" She pointed at the little stack of used trays on top of the trash can. "We can't reuse trays."
Laughing outloud, I picked up the tray in front of her. The same tray that had not touched human hands other than hers, and placed it on the stack, after emptying the paper liner into the trash of course.
Sometimes I think our species is doomed.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
I don't remember my exact age, but I would guess that I was about six or seven years old. We lived in an old farmhouse in the country, our nearest neighbor being a mile or more away across open cornfields. Our home had the same ominous look as the Amityville house. It's front had a row of windows on the first floor that looked like a grinning mouth, full of teeth. The second floor showed two windows that made eyes. Long covered porches ran the full length of the front and back, with roofs that allowed daring children to move from one bedroom to another by scrambling across their shingled surfaces. Chimneys appeared as symmetrical horns from the top of the house, belching wood smoke to the sky in the winter months.
In those days my father hated beer, as I have noted here in the past. My mother always brought the stuff home, and being the guy he was, my father had no choice but to drink it. It was always a valiant effort on his part, he had to dispose of the foul fluid the only way he knew. Often, after long periods of judgment dulling labor, working hard to rid the fridge of beer, Dad attempted to entertain us by disproving all of our weak-minded childhood fantasies.
It was Christmas eve and, as it seemed was always the case back then, a fresh layer of snow had covered everything. We were all sent to bed to lie awake for what might have been hours awaiting Santa's arrival. I can clearly remember staring out my window from across the room. It must have been a full moon because there seemed to be an other worldly light coming from the just fallen snow outside on the roof. The whole world was glowing in anticipation of the coming of midnight, and with it the fulfillment of weeks of dreaming, wishing and begging. Slumber was slow to come. My heart was beating too quickly to allow my mind to grasp hold of the dancing sugarplums I had heard so much about.
As my brain finally felt the first tingles of sleep moving over it, I heard a noise outside. It was a heavy thump on the roof above, followed by another. My eyes snapped open before the first thump had ended. This was the moment I had longed for my whole life. I sat up, looking at the black sky outside. Was it Santa? Another thump had me sitting on the edge of the bed, my legs dangling from the side. The sound of jingling bells slipped into my room from outside, sending my heart into a dangerously rapid pace. A final thump on the roof threw me to my feet, silently running across the cold hardwood toward the window.
Three feet shy of the window, I heard a thunderous BOOM from outside. I stopped cold. The sill of my frost framed window was just beyond my reach. I was stunned by the totally foreign sound, and could not comprehend what it could have been. From outside, down on the pristine whiteness of the lawn, came the crazed voice of my father. I could hear him screaming maniacal laughter as I stepped closer to the glass and looked out. He was standing in the center of the yard bare chested, wearing only rubber boots and jeans, dancing in a circle with his shotgun.
"I got that summabitch! I got him! That'll teach that bastard to land on my roof!"
At my fathers feet laid a red velour hat with a fluffy white ball on top. From across the hall I heard my older sister screaming. She always tended to overreact in such situations, even though she was two years older than me. My mother soon rushed into the room to assure us that Dad had not really shot Santa Claus. It was all just a bad joke and we should get to sleep before the real Santa arrived. Sleep was impossible with the sound of one sister sobbing in the next room, and another screaming at her to shut up from down the hall.
I am often tempted to inject such memories into the fragile young minds of my children; but Mrs. Denotsko always talks me out of it. What harm could come from it though? I turned out fine. Right? Right?
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
In the dim glow of his workbench, Salvador Rollins was a god. There was nothing he could not fix. He had spent his entire life creating and repairing devices of all types. As a child, he had passed countless hours watching his father dismantle and repair jewelry and timepieces in his shop. By the time his father died and passed the business on to him, Sal had far surpassed him in the skills of the trade. He, at one time, was known to build elaborate, one of a kind pocket watches for the most rich and powerful people on the planet. Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon had both carried Rollins' work in their pockets during their famous 1959 meeting. He had even created a matched set of watches for the Kennedy family.
Over the years, the demand for Rollins' expertise dwindled to the point that his only marketable skill was the repair and restoration of antique watches, many of witch he had himself built. A gift of a gold-cased pocket watch is a traditional present given to an employee upon his or her retirement. In that capacity, a "gold watch" has come to be a cultural symbol used to allude to retirement, obsolescence, and old age; Sal himself had become a gold watch.
Right now, he was working on an antique pocket watch that he had built early in his career. It was rather unadorned in comparison to the style of his later pieces, but was one of his favorite creations. He had made several of them to be sold in fine jewelry stores around the U.S., so he had no recollection of this exact watch. They were not cheap watches by any measure. Who ever had originally bought it had good taste. It had most recently been found in a pawnshop on 42nd Street. It was clear that the fat slug behind the counter did not have a clue what its real value was. Sal had bought it for $5 with a cigar box full of other broken watches.
Now with the back open, Mr. Rollins looked at the fine jewels that formed the mechanics. The watch had lived a rough life, but was once truly loved. Through a magnifying lens, its life story unfolded to the skilled eyes examining it. There was an engraving on the back that told of a long ago lover's devotion. The small nicks in the once polished gold case were not from sharing a pocket with a ring of keys, but indicated that it had been in the mouth of a teething baby. A piece of pipe tobacco, intertwined with lint was lodged in the hinge. A jeweler had left tool marks around the rim of the back decades ago, probably the last time it had been repaired. The gears and springs had long ago frozen in place. There was evidence that the thing had been carried for a long time after it had quit telling the time. All these things were what made it so valuable to Sal. The monetary value of it was not important. In a society where 90% of all purchases were clogging landfills within six months, a thing such as this was a rare find.
He was slowly disassembling the mechanism, cleaning the interior and parts as he went, always searching for flaws. Large, oak, cutting boards flanked his bench. Years earlier he had drilled and hollowed hundreds of small depressions into their surfaces. Now each one received a part of the watch. The first piece removed went into the upper left recession, the second into the next... A watch of such fine quality could house near a thousand individual components. In this manner, by working in reverse order, and referring to countless notes and diagrams made along the way, he would later reassemble all the bits into a now working watch. Through the experience gained over his lifetime, he knew how each part worked in unison with its associated parts. He needed no instructions.
Structure and order were things that Sal worshipped. He had spent his life studying how things worked, and the kinds of things that stopped function matter just as much. It is a yin-yang relationship that touches every aspect of existence. All that lives must die. All that is built up will eventually be torn down. All that works will some day cease to function. These are all absolutes that must be.
Understanding how a watch functions is as important as knowing what could cause its hands to stop. While he focused his eyes and fingers to the task of disassembly, his mind saw teeth being torn from gears, springs being wound to the point of destruction. Then, after all is destroyed, his mind will turn to gears spinning around at incredibly high speeds, perfectly meshing teeth as they rotate. He saw his fingers wind the clock mechanism, turning the knob until the spiral spring inside was at the perfect tension and stopping deftly. He saw his soul live on inside that watch.
At this late stage of his life, Rollins worried little about things other than his current repair job. He never made enough money to pay his expenses. Every month his bills reduced his savings a little more. Had he been a keener businessperson, he could be worth millions by now. He chose not to hire artisans to build his watches for him, allowing him to reap the rewards of their labor. Instead, he kept his enterprise small and worked at his own pace, making far less money, but reaping much more satisfaction from his life. He had built a large nest egg over the years, always promising his wife that they would someday leave the city for a quiet home in the country. With her death his obligation to move away had also died. Now, all he had was his work. He couldn't even remember the last time he had climbed the stairs to his apartment above the store. While working at his bench one night, fatigue and weakness had taken control of his body. Intending to just rest for a while, he lied down on the old corduroy sofa in the back of the store, and had been spending his nights there for the last five years. It was easier to just sleep there and be only a few yards from his obsessions.
Most of the work he did was on watches that he had built in the past. He occasionally received requests from collectors to service and repair the treasures they had purchased at auction houses. Sometimes, it was the auction houses themselves that hired him. A watch would sell at a higher price if it were in immaculate, working condition. Usually the only thing required of him was to clean the watch components and reassemble them. Even such a mundane sounding task received his absolute devotion.
His repair jobs would be considered obsessions, if he were to ever leave the shop to be diagnosed by a professional. The watch he was currently working on had spent three months in his pocket before he even tried to examine it. He felt that such a thing, a thing that had been loved dearly for decades, should not be molested by anyone that did not also truly love it. He had devoted himself to knowing this watch. He was always conscious of its weight in his pocket. He held it in his hand while reading his morning paper, turning it and rubbing it with his fingertips. He knew from memory that there were exactly 840 fine notches that formed an intricate rope detail around the face of the watch. The button in the center of the knob that released the cover had a convex head; but was not symmetrical. It bulged slightly to one side, giving it an almost egg shaped profile. Only after learning everything there was to learn about an object could he feel qualified to dismantle it.
Outside his shop, the masses streamed by without noticing the place. His father had built the building in 1920, when the younger Rollins was only a baby. It was three stories high; with what was once decidedly detailed brickwork at every point along its face. Years of decline and the steady build up of lichen and pigeon droppings had hidden most of the fine patterns that had once been tooled into each brick. The street front exposure of the address was only fifteen feet wide, and it was book ended by newer buildings that were both two stories higher. They were home to a cellular phone store and a tattoo parlor. Both had lighted signs with 24-inch letters. The sign above his door was a simple, painted wood and gold leafed plaque that read only 'ROLLINS' FINE JEWELRY & WATCHES'.
The pillars of books and boxes inside, which had accumulated over the last fifteen years of his wife's absence, prevented any glimpse of the interior. He had once been meticulous about indexing and filing his reference books and diagrams. Now they sat in tall piles, randomly distributed around what had once been an immaculate showroom. At one time, the polished marble floor was empty except for the bronze and glass cases full of gold watches and fine jewelry. Now the cases were buried under the debris, the beauty of the bronze hidden under years of corrosion and decades of dust.
The rooftop of the building had once been alive with Ellen's passion, plants. He had built a small green house up there for her, and countless heavy, clay pots still lined the walls. He had never been good with plants, so after her death, they were all left to die. Everything was still as it was when she had last touched it. All the trees had been slowly transformed into dry, brittle sticks held upright by the dirt clumped around their roots. Some had been dead for so long that the rain moistened soil had caused the trunk and roots to rot away, allowing the tree to fall aside leaving just the orphaned pot. Bonsais that represented years upon years of disciplined care and training stood frozen in their winter state. The dense wood of the trees was bleached gray by the sun and the bark was falling away from the dry wood. Only the evergreens still clung to a little of their foliage, but this was all light brown and lifeless. Most of the needles had long ago been picked away by the birds.
Feeling the strain of intense concentration bringing on a headache, Sal put the watch down. After carefully placing it onto the maroon velvet pad in the center of the bench, he stared intently at the work surface. It was his routine to make careful observation of everything on his bench before leaving it. He memorized everything, cautiously noting where each tool and component was resting, so when he returned there would be no panicked effort to recollect what he had last done in the repair process. Only once he was positive that everything was as it should be could he move on. He stood slowly from his stool. Feeling his knees resist the motion, he braced himself for the inevitable crack of his joints that occasionally sent him to the floor. Once it came, he shuffled to the small bathroom in the back.
Feeling the need for food, Sal worked his way through stacks of boxes to what used to be his business office. Eight years earlier he had hired a contractor to install a shower in the bathroom on the first floor, and as a favor for an old friend of his grandfather, the contractor had also turned the office into a small kitchen. In the kitchen, he found no food. He must have eaten the last of the soup the day before. This meant that he was going to have to go out today for groceries. He had last been out on Thursday. It was now Tuesday.
He went to retrieve his wallet and hat. Anything that he might ever need was either at his bench, in the kitchen or on the shelves in the hall outside his cramped bathroom. At the shelves, he noticed stairs to his apartment upstairs. They had a thick layer of dust on them that had not been disturbed in at least a year. In his mind he could see himself carrying Ellen up those stairs fifty years earlier. The memory made him pause for a moment in warm reflection. After a few seconds, he started the trek to the front of the store. As he passed the workbench, the glint of sunlight off the watch drew his eye to the right. He stood staring at the watch, imagining the soothing ticks that would eventually come from its case. He stood for a long time in silence, wishing he could pick it up as one piece and drop it into his pocket. He didn't like to leave unfinished work on his bench. With the pain of separation, he moved on past the bench and out the front door. He looked back over his shoulder one last time after locking it. As he dropped his keys into his pocket he longed to feel the weight of the watch instead.
He and Ellen had always gone shopping together on Saturdays. They would stroll down the sidewalk hand in hand, always along the same route in the opposite direction of their destination. They would walk west to the park and circle around its perimeter until they faced east. They would spend the whole day going to buy a loaf of bread. Ellen had fallen in love with the neighborhood that skirted the park's west side. It was different now, but back then; it was filled with large Asian families. Their influence had turned that side of Speaker's park into a Zen sanctuary. It was dotted with quiet, hidden pockets of peacefully silent solitude. Large stone structures with trickling water shielded the visitors from the noise and smells of the city. It was not unusual for them to sit on a small bench in the park for hours in silence, doing nothing but watching a squirrel play in the trees or a bird continuously venturing out to gather food for its hungry chicks.
Today his path did not include the park. The younger generations had different values than those of their parents. The Zen solitude of the park had been pushed aside in favor of basketball courts and skateboard ramps. Now a stroll through the park was always punctuated with the sounds of cursing arguments over who had last touched the ball and the rumbling thunder of dangerously loud car stereos. Sal had, on occasion, sat watching young boys ride skateboards and roller blades on the cement ramps in the center of the park. The fluid motion of their skill had mesmerized him. The boys seemed to be glued to the skateboard, flying through the air, and the very next instant the board and the boy would be moving in opposite directions, only to come together at the very last instant before touchdown and speed away toward the next obstacle. It amazed him that such things could be accomplished with just a piece of plywood with wheels.
His intended destination today was three blocks east of his home. It was a beautiful early spring day, and despite his reluctance to leave his home, Sal welcomed the outing. An old friend of Ellen's, Bill, owned the only grocery store he shopped at. There were stores closer to his home; but they all lacked the simplicity that he wanted. He refused to shop at convenience stores. Just the idea of going into one of those places made him anxious. He rarely took the long way anywhere these days; but he made the effort. Sal Rollins was going to be eighty years old in July and felt every day of it. Sometimes his once a week walks would result in him spending the next day on his sofa, unwilling to move.
As he walked, Sal could think about nothing but the watch waiting on his workbench. It was not unusual for him to obsess over whatever watch, clock or piece of jewelry required his attention. He had once worked for two full months on a diamond bracelet that had fallen from its owner wrist into a blender. It was returned looking as if it were just purchased from the original maker. This watch had captured his mind more than any other thing. He always tried to build a connection with the objects that he worked on, but this time it seemed like the watch owned his mind. He had just started dismantling it yesterday, so there was still a long way to go. Working at his usual rate, the task would be finished in a few weeks. Years earlier it would be just a few days, but without the dexterity of youth, he worked much slower now.
As he walked, Sal made slow deliberate progress toward his objective. Every step was thought out before it was taken. At his age, a mistake as simple and slight as bringing his foot down on a discarded cap from a soda bottle had the potential to send him tumbling to the ground. Balance, and the ability to recover it once it is lost, was no longer a familiar thing to him. He rarely gave much attention to his age, except for times like this. The last decade had really seen a decline in his health. It was true that you are what you eat. For ten years Sal had eaten little other than canned soup and bread. On his weekly trip to the store, it was always painfully evident that his legs had turned to long, spindly noodles.
As he made his way along the sidewalk, keeping close to the buildings to avoid being knocked down by the faster moving traffic, Sal could see a truck in front of the store he was heading for. Closer now, he could see that there were boxes and appliances being loaded into it. His confusion made the final half block of travel seem like a lifetime. Once he had crossed the void, he could see that the mover were indeed emptying Bill's store piece by piece. Stunned, Sal stood staring into the open door at the foreign sight. Bill had not moved even a display shelf in the last thirty years, so to see the whole damn place nearly empty left him near speechless. At seventy-nine years old, no one had to tell Sal what had happened. Bill was, like himself, a dinosaur. Year after year Bill had lost money to the new generation of prepackaged franchised industry giants. He could not comprehend the idea of quitting his life to retire, even if it meant eventual annihilation.
Bill's wife, Margaret, had fallen ill and died within a year of Ellen. Bill had never wanted to be a storekeeper and always wanted to move from the city. That had always amused sal. Bill and Ellen had dated briefly in college, but decided to be friends instead. Sal always told them that if they had stayed together, they would be living in a little cottage in Maine, wishing they could move to the city. Now Bill was gone too. It mattered little if the store was closed due to Bill's death or due to his bankruptcy. Either one was death for him. If he was still alive, his bitch of a daughter had him locked in some nursing home somewhere so she could sell off his life.
Sal was turning to leave when he noticed a box on the sidewalk. It was open to the sky, and sat separate from the rest. He moved closer and looked inside. The box contained all Bills most prized things. Sal could see pictures, war medals, a trophy he had won in college. He had known Bill for fifty years. In front of him now sat the punctuation of every story he had ever heard from Bill's mouth, tossed to the side like it meant nothing.
"Son, can you help me with this box?' Sal refused to let his friend lose all that mattered to him. If Bill was locked away somewhere, he would want his stuff; and if he was dead Sal could not let it just sit on the sidewalk.
"What 'ya need old dude? Ya wanna take that crap? Cool, saves me some work cleaning up later." The mover picked up the box and set it gently on the two-wheeled caddie that Sal had originally intended to use for his groceries.
"Do you know what happened to the owner of this place? Has he died?"
Looking at his feet, ashamed of the insensitivity of his first words, the mover responded. "Yeah. I'm sorry about what I said a minute ago. Was he a friend?"
"A very old friend. Where is all this going?" motioning with his arm toward the truck.
"All I know is a lady was here earlier saying that the only thing worth anything was the building. I think she just hired us to empty it. Hang on a minute." He walked over to his partner and exchanged words for a few seconds before returning. "We're taking it to The Fischer Auction House down on the waterfront. They usually have weekly auctions of stuff like this."
"What is your name?"
"I'm Jimmy, Sir."
"Can you do me a favor Jimmy?" Sal pulled his wallet from the pocket of his coat and took out a business card, handing it to him. "If you find any more personal items like the ones in this box, I'll pay you for them. My friend's life is not up for sale at auction. Do you understand?"
"Yes Sir. I'll do that. I saw more upstairs, photos and stuff."
"Good bring me all that you find and I will give you fifty dollars for it."
Sal looked down into the box again. He and Ellen had never been able to have children. If they had, he would hope that their legacy of memories would not be so easily tossed aside. He turned to leave and had a thought.
"I'll double that if you bring me a weeks worth of Campbell's Tomato soup and a loaf of bread too."
"I'll be there at six. Just tomato?"
"Just tomato." Sal said, as he turned west. "Just tomato, and some bread."
The walk home was sad for him. Since Ellen had died, he had become a hermit. He had lost contact with all his friends except for Bill, and only talked with Bill when he went out for food once a week. He had been contacted each time an old friend had died, but he never went to their funerals. If he hadn't needed food today, he might have never known that Bill was gone too. The sudden understanding of his long period of selfishness was burning him to the soul. He had never felt guilt so strong. The whole way home he wished for lightning to strike him down.
When six o'clock came, Sal was sitting in the study in the back of his store looking through Bill's things. He stood when he heard Jimmy knock at the front door. He slowly made his way to the front of the room. He was deeply sad, but felt a lot better now. Looking at the old pictures had taken him to happier times.
"Hello Mr. Rollins. I brought the things you asked for." Jimmy was standing at the door with a dolly loaded with four boxes. The two on top were more of Bill's things. Sal could see the edges of picture frames sticking above the edges of the box on the top of the stack.
"Thank you Jimmy. Let's take all these to the back room." Sal turned to lead the way.
"Wait just a minute Mr. Rollins. I still have two on the street. I don't want them to be stolen." Jimmy left the dolly of boxes and returned with two more. They were full cases of tomato soup. "The store still had all the groceries in it. I figured you could use them as much as anyone else."
"I'm almost eighty Jimmy. This should last me the rest of my life." Sal said, laughing now. "I guess those can go to the kitchen."
Jimmy carried the soup to the kitchen and returned for the dolly. Two of the boxes on the dolly were also food. He had brought cheese, crackers, oatmeal, and canned fruit in addition to the soup. Sal sat on the sofa looking at the items in the boxes while Jimmy emptied the boxes of food into the cabinets.
When Jimmy was done in the kitchen, he found Sal holding a small velvet pouch in one hand and a round, leather bound box in the other. He was crying. Jimmy knew what the items were. He had to hide them in the crotch of his pants to keep them from his coworkers. They were looking for valuables to pawn, and Jimmy refused to let them find these. The velvet bag held a gold locket, the finest he had ever seen. The box held a gold pocket watch on a chain that was much heavier than necessary. The engraved backs of both told that they had been gifts from Salvador and Ellen Rollins. Looking around him, Jimmy could hardly believe that Sal could afford such a luxury for himself, so to give such things as gifts told how dear the friends had been to him.
Sal didn't speak for a long time. Jimmy tried to give him privacy, but did not feel comfortable wandering around his home alone, so he just sat and waited. After a while Sal spoke.
"I'm sorry. I guess you need your money. I'll find my wallet." Sal had forgotten that Jimmy was there.
"Mr. Rollins, I don't want the money. I would have delivered the stuff for free if you had asked, and the food didn't cost me anything. I don't think your friend would have minded me taking it for you. Can you just tell me about that watch?" Jimmy was curious about it's origin.
"This watch?" Sal turned the leather case over in his hand.
The case alone was impressive. It was made of dense hardwood, covered with smooth deerskin leather. It was elaborately tooled with swirling shapes that gave the impression of twisted thorn bushes. In the center was a gold leafed monogram displaying Bill's initials intertwined together. The complexity of the monogram rendered it virtually unreadable. He opened the box with a twisting motion, seeing the watch for the first time in more than a decade. It was one of the finest watches he had ever made.
One of his watches had sold for more than $150,000 a few years earlier. This one could easily double that. Its case was gold with inlays of silver and platinum. Despite the detail, it was a relatively modest design. He had intended it to be a gift to a grocer. The face was coverless, with the crystal exposed. It was equipped with almost puritan hands and simple numerals. The only real detail was on the back. Another monogram, this one was a modification of the one on the box, except that it also incorporated Margaret's initials and the date of their marriage. He had spent more time designing and creating the details of the case than he had the inner workings of the chronometer itself.
The locket in the velvet pouch was almost a twin to the Bill's watch. Its details were more feminized, but almost an exact duplication. Releasing the catch on the necklace revealed a two-sided interior. One side contained a timepiece; the other was Bill and Margaret's wedding photo. In the photo, Bill was wearing his uniform with the medals he had been awarded for his actions on the beaches of Normandy. Margaret wore a simple white dress, a spray of tiny white flowers shot from her hair. Sal had taken the picture in 1945, the day after Bill had returned from Europe.
Jimmy sat on the floor of the room while Sal told every detail he could remember of Bill and Margaret. Each story lead to another, which, in turn, sparked a memory with another story attached. It was the first time Sal had talked to anyone for more than just a few moments in years. Being an orphan, Jimmy had never experienced such an orator in his presence. He had never had a grandfather to hear stories from and could not remember ever knowing anyone that captivated him so much.
Sal talked, and Jimmy listened until almost midnight, until Jimmy could see fatigue showing on Sal's face and excused himself. Sal, already sitting on the corduroy sofa, just lied down where he was and slept in his clothes.
For the first time in years, he did not dream of spinning gears or wound springs. He saw Ellen, wearing her planting apron, at a wooden table in the sun. She was working on a large, healthier than possible bonsai tree in the back yard of a small country cottage. The air was crisp and clean, and was blowing her hair gently. Sal could smell burning wood from the fieldstone chimney that pierced the tile roof of the house. The dogwood trees that lined the lawn were all meticulously cared for, and resembled large, flowering replicas of the bonsai tree she was working with at the table. In his dream, he only watched her. He did not try to talk to her out of fear that he would alter the scene.
When he woke, he opened his eyes as if he had just blinked. He was instantly alert, and staring out the door to the hall. His gaze was fixed on the stairs that led up to what was once their home, still thick with undisturbed dust. A few boxes and stacks of old magazines blocked progress beyond the fourth step. He lay still for a long time. He was not sad, just quietly remembering times they had shared. He went to the bench to continue his work, but today it seemed less important. He still gave it his full attention, but he let his mind wander to things long forgotten. Occasionally he would leave his workbench to examine Bill's things. He knew Bill and Margaret would not mind his curiosity. He read their letters from the war, wishing in a small way that he had experienced some of that conflict.
He had not served in the war due to the weakness of his lungs. All the time he had spent with his father in his workshop as a child had left him constantly short of breath. Exposure to the fumes of the furnace used to melt precious metals and the chemicals often employed in the trade is what had killed his father. It was unusual that Sal had achieved his age, considering the circumstances of his existence.
He and Ellen had never had any children. It was through their friends that they enjoyed the thrills and pain of parenthood. Looking now at the pictures of Bill's daughter, Sal felt pained to know how she had turned out. She had perhaps been given too much as a child. She grew to be very greedy, and constantly belittled her father for being a simple shopkeeper. In the last years of his life, Bill saw her very little, even though she lived in the same city. Looking at the photos took Sal back to when she was still a girl. Then, her father was the sun. She did not rise in the morning with out seeing him there. He had declined many opportunities to excel so that he could work just below where he lived. To her, later in life, he was a fool for not seeking riches, but to him, from the day she was born, he was tremendously rich.
Looking through Bill's life made Sal wonder what would become of all his memories once he was gone. He was the only child of an only child. He lacked even distant relatives, no children, nieces, nephews, no one to remember him fondly. He had intended to rewrite his will after Ellen passed, but had no one to name as an heir. He knew that his professional legacy would be sought after by collectors, but what of his personal legacy? He was cheerless to know that when the day came, there would be no one to save his possessions from the fate that he had saved Bill and Margaret’s from. They would just fall to the state, or possibly to the first person to find them unattended.
Jimmy called in sick the day after he met Sal. After leaving Sal Rollins asleep on his sofa, Jimmy went to a nearby bar to meet friends. He was excited to tell them of his new acquaintance, but as he started to tell the story he knew that they were not interested. They had arrived at the bar long before he did, and had already consumed much alcohol. Hoping that his audience would be more receptive on another day, Jimmy put his thoughts of Sal aside and enjoyed instead, talk of sports and supermodels. He stayed at the pub until the early hours of Wednesday morning, arriving home just before the sky opened into a day of torrential rains. He hated working outdoors in the rain, so he took the day off.
Most of his day was consumed with internet searches. By the time he was done, he had learned a lot about Salvador Rollins. He had never imagined that the rundown little shop he had passed dozens of times was the birthplace of so much history. Jimmy found websites devoted to Rollins' work. It seemed that Rollins had once been a name used with the same reverence as Rolex or Rolls Royce. Now collectors respected it even more, but it was for only the truly rich. The lack of mass-market production meant that Rollins' timepieces were exceptional finds that were rarely parted with, which drove auction prices to the extreme. Apparently, auction sales never included a share for the creator. Sal lived very simply, and showed no signs of his former fame.
The idea that a man's name could be worth so much, yet his existence mattered so little bothered Jimmy immensely. If Sal died tomorrow, who would notice? Having not even a name that would live on after his own passing, Jimmy decided to strive to know Sal Rollins. It seemed unjust to let this man's life fade like a season past, with no one that could say "I knew him well." or "We were friends."
Over the following weeks, Jimmy continued to visit Sal. He felt odd just stopping by to visit, but was compelled to know Sal, so that is what he did. At first Sal was wary of him, not knowing his intentions. As a few weeks passed, and Jimmy kept coming, Sal started to grow fond of him. Both had been seeking something, and they had possibly found it in each other. Sometimes Sal would tell him of all the people he had met over the years. Sometimes Jimmy would just fill a stool beside him as he worked, listening intently as he explained how the watch he was working on functioned. It was obvious that Sal loved to explain things. He had shown the engravings and marks of time on the gold case of the watch and told his theories of where each had come from. At times the only thing he did while visiting Sal was clean up around the store. He had found a stack of catalogs from Sotheby's and other famous auction houses that each contained pictures of Rollins watches. Each time one was sold they sent him a copy of the catalog, but never any of the profits.
Jimmy's girlfriend Anne had started to come with him to see where he was spending all his time. She was a warm girl with many of the same qualities as Jimmy. She was from a semi-wealthy family, and was currently at odds with her parents over her live-in relationship with Jimmy. They had not taken the time to get to know him, and saw him as a waste of her time. They saw no potential in him, wanting her to date someone with more of a pedigree. She was true to her love though; her eyes flashed with a light Sal had rarely seen when Jimmy spoke to her.
Over the following months, there was unmistakable improvement in the condition of the store. The polished marble once again looked like polished marble. Layers of fine cherry and walnut paneling gleamed with fresh light. Moldings seemed to have an extra dimension, rising reborn from curtains of cobwebs that had shrouded them in shadows and melancholy. The glass display cases had shed their clutter and dust insulation to reveal treasures and antiques that had been abandoned to darkness. Jimmy, being an amateur, enlisted Sal's help and together they had tinkered with the old wood and brass cash register until it too achieved new life.
Sal, unable to stand the flying dust, sometimes stayed in his shop while the work was conducted. Each night, after Jimmy and Anne had gone, he would wander the store and marvel at all the things that had been cleaned, polished, fixed, or simply found and were now visible. He had forgotten how high the ceiling was, until the chandelier was cleaned. It now threw tiny comets of rainbow illumination across the three dimensional relief of the tin, tiled ceiling, adding fluid motion to that which very recently was lifeless. Coming into the main part of his store now was like stepping into the past. It looked like it had twenty years in the past. Sal's heart ached when he thought about how he been living.
Jimmy's favorite place had become Sal's workshop. It was at he back of the store and was furnished with countless cabinets and drawers filled with tools of near infinite variety. Some were used in the manufacture of the watchcases and jewelry components, such as torches, grinders and mechanical presses capable of reducing a pellet of gold to a thin foil. Others were used to etch and engrave complex designs into the small items. On occasion, Jimmy would discover a series of drawers that held wire made of precious metals or silver roses as small as grains of rice. These had been fashioned in bulk for use in various projects. It was fascinating to him to see all the myriad components that were employed to create the complicated works that were on display in the front of the store. It became apparent that Sal's talents encompassed much more than watches.
Meeting Jimmy had been a life-changing event. Now, with Jimmy's help, Sal felt like he was regaining some of what he had allowed to slip away. He had finished restoring the watch and was itching for something to do with his days. Jimmy worked at the moving company during the days and only came around after work a few times a week, bringing Anne along on the weekends. Sal had spent the last few days bored and now was restless without something to occupy his brain. He had toyed with the idea of reopening the store for regular business, but had always been more engaged with the merchandise than the books. It was always Ellen who was the brain behind the business side of the operation.
Sal eventually started sleeping upstairs again. Anne and Jimmy spent an entire weekend cleaning the apartment. They were amazed with the countless antiques Ellen had accumulated. They had used the term 'living museum' several times while they wiped dust from black enameled cabinets and mopped gray floors. Sal knew that if his estate was to be sold, it would bring a handsome price; but to him, it was just furniture. The third story of his building housed even more items, but they had not ventured that far yet. It was always used for storage and some of Ellen's plants that were too delicate for the harsh sun on the roof of the building. It was equipped as a separate apartment and Sal and Ellen had lived there for a few years before Sal's parents died.
He felt guilty that Jimmy seemed to be putting his life on hold to help him reestablish his. He knew that Jimmy had been enrolled in college the previous year, but had put it on hold so that he could work. His intent was to allow his Anne to finish her education. Sal also was aware of how those kind of noble gestures often worked out. Jimmy had a good job, and once Anne got her degree, she would start working. Jimmy would not go back to school, choosing instead to keep his job because it was secure and familiar. Jimmy was the type of person that, too often, put others before himself.
Sal had decided to offer the top floor of his building to them, so Jimmy could work part-time and still go to school without worrying about paying rent. In exchange, he and Anne could help Sal get his store ready for a possible second life. He knew that there would be protests from Jimmy, so Sal had already contacted Anne and spelled out his intentions. She, at first opposed the idea. She did not want to be a burden to Sal, or take advantage of his kindness. Once he made it clear that they would be working for him to repay the favor, she seemed more receptive to his offer. He asked that she not say anything about the offer until Sal put it forward to Jimmy himself.
The week after he spoke to Anne was Sal's eightieth birthday. Anne had promised him that she would come to cook dinner for him. She was really bothered that he subsisted on tomato soup and toast. His diet had improved a little with Jimmy's delivery of groceries, but he still preferred soup if he was the person responsible for cooking. She had been taking a cooking course and had become quite gifted in the kitchen. She had even tossed around the idea of becoming a cook professionally. Ellen had loved to cook, so Sal's kitchen contained some of the finest cookware available. Anne had been slowly stocking it with fresh spices and exploring the cupboards while Jimmy and Sal were occupied with excavating and cleaning elsewhere.
On the afternoon of Sal's birthday, Jimmy and Anne arrived with bags of food for the dinner, and a potted tree for the store. It was a simple gift, but it touched Sal deeply. Ellen had originally taken up her hobby in hopes that the plants would clean the air indoors, and help Sal breathe easier. Over the years, their home became a jungle of greenery. One of the hardest aspects of all the cleaning they had done over these past weeks was facing the fact that he had let all the plants, that his wife had loved and cared for like children, die from neglect. They had spared the beautiful pots, but the plants had all been taken to the curb. Ellen had invested as much of herself in the task of finding the perfect pot for each plant as she had finding the perfect bookshelf or china hutch. She had impeccable taste in all things.
While Anne started her chosen task of meal preparation, Sal and Jimmy wandered the building, compiling a list of tasks that had yet to be accomplished. The list was divided into two sections. One was for jobs that could be easily done; the other was for jobs that would require the help of professionals, such as plumbing and wiring. Sal chose this as his opportunity to show the third floor to his friend. They had been to the storage room on that floor, and continued up to the roof a few times, but had never entered the apartment. At the door, Sal told Jimmy that he had a gift for him.
"It's your birthday Sal, not mine."
"That's why I'm not calling it a birthday gift. I prefer to call it a friendship gift, for all the work you have done for me. You and Anne have given my life back to me Jim." Sal opened the door to let Jimmy enter.
The apartment had been prepared for extended vacancy years ago. Everything was draped with canvas and looked pretty barren. It had the same simple, yet finely crafted woodwork as the floor below. It's fixtures were a bit more out dated, but had even more charm. At each window were more horticultural graveyards.
"Another cleaning job? You're too good to me Sal." Jimmy joked, not knowing Sal's intentions and confused about what his response should be. He entered the apartment when he felt Sal's hand on his back, pressing him forward.
"I want you and Anne to live here. That way you can finish school. Both of you can finish school." Sal was waiting for the standard Jimmy response of gracious refusal. It never came.
Jimmy walked slowly forward to what looked like a small dining set, covered with white canvas. He was idly pulling at the canvas, sliding it up onto the tabletop creating a series of horizontal ridges that pressed against each other; and then letting it fall under its own weight to its original position. He was not sure what he should say. From the first time he returned to Sal's uninvited, he had secretly hoped that he would be taken in. He had, over his 25 years, found himself often forming friendships with people out of some internal longing for a father. As a teenager, he dreamed of meeting someone that would provide a chance to escape his life of hardship and loneliness. Like Dickens' Pip, through some small act of kindness, he could earn the opportunity to live a great life. Too often, he was the victim of grifters and thieves, or just pushed away when he gave the impression of being too needy. He had tried to be close to his friends' fathers as a child to the point of straining his friendships and being shut out.
Sal was an old man. Would he be taking advantage of him if he accepted? Was he now the grifter, befriending a childless old man so that he could gain his favor before his death? He felt suddenly guilty for all he had done for Sal. He thought that maybe Sal felt obligated to him, and was only making the offer to even the score. On the other hand, was Sal not what he had seemed? Was he trying to pull Jimmy in closer to take something from him?
"Why? You don't owe me anything Sal."
"Jimmy, do you remember what this building looked like the first time you entered it?"
"You can't offer me this because I helped you clean up some dust. The most I could expect from you would be a little cash for my labor."
"I'm not talking about labor Jimmy. The mess was deeper than this building. I was just sitting here in the dark, waiting to die. You and Anne reminded me that I still had a life to live. You showed me that I could remember Ellen fondly, without feeling guilty for still breathing. You showed me that my life had not ended when her's did. I am not making this offer out of obligation. Call it a trade. If you live here, you don’t have to commute all the way here to work for free. Anne can stop dragging groceries to two addresses, and bitching at me about tomato soup."
Jimmy laughed at this last bit. Sal had no clue, but Anne complained about his diet to Jimmy far more than she complained to Sal. It was the one thing she had found to criticize about the old man. Other than his one-track diet, Sal was flawless in her eyes. He truly was a very likeable person.
"I will talk to Anne. If she's OK with it, I guess I have no choice." Jimmy conceded.
"I already talked to Anne for you. She's all for it." Sal started his slow deliberate shuffle toward the door, turning his back to the now protesting Jimmy.
"What do you mean you already talked to Anne? Were you asking to court me, or something? Did you need her permission to ask such a thing?"
"No. I just wanted to make sure she was as willing to put up with you for an extended stay. Things like this should be long term. Don't you think so?" Sal turned toward Jimmy again with a devilish grins growing on his face. He held out his hand toward him, showing a small glint in his eye. In his hand sat a small velvet pouch, similar to the one that had held Margaret's locket. This one was half the size, but looked ominous in Sal's skinny hand. "I'm a bit old fashioned Jimmy. If you want to ride the train, you have to buy a ticket."
He deposited the article into Jimmy's frozen hand and made as quick an exit as his frail form would allow.
With a weight of dread as big as any he could imagine, Jimmy felt the contents of the bag without removing it. He felt the bite of reality cause his chest to constrict and his lungs begin to panic for air.
"Wait Sal. I can'...you can't do this. What are you trying to accomplish with this?" Jimmy was almost yelling now. Having caught his breath, he felt that if he did not use it forcefully, it would leave him again. Waves of heat and frost alternated through his face and scalp, causing him to wobble and follow Sal with numb steps. He was lost. Ten minutes earlier he was thinking of nothing more than how much Sal's building needed better windows and an alarm system. Now he had a gun to his head and the assassin was his best friend.
"You don't have to keep it Jimmy. You could just set it down and walk away. Walk away to your job, your old apartment; or you could just face what you know you really want." Sal had made his way down to the landing that was halfway between the second and third floors. He turned to look back at the rigid form at the top of the stairs. "Just hang on to it. Anne and I didn't discuss that part of the deal. Understand me clearly though, it is part of the deal." He smiled warmly at Jimmy and made the turn toward the second floor.
Jimmy sat on the top step looking at the bag in his hand. He slowly pressed his fingers into the top of the drawstring that held it closed. As he pulled it open, the warm glow of gold escaped the black hole darkness of the maroon velvet. In the afternoon sun that was falling through the dusty window, the gold looked as if it was melting into his flesh. His skin took on the color of the metal as if it was transforming everything it touched to gold. Squeezing the bag slightly, he made the contents pop out into the palm of his hand, instantly confirming what he had known in his soul as soon as he had seen the pouch in Sal's hand.
Sal had been working on the set of rings for another young couple when Ellen had died. He had abandoned the project and forgotten about it until Jimmy and Anne had entered his life. He had been working to finish them for the last few weeks, always keeping them hidden when Jimmy was around. They were forged from the finest gold, polished and etched with immaculate ivy and roses. The matched set of three rings each held fine diamonds set in platinum. The wedding band had no immense central stone, but instead was covered with a series of small diamonds that were handpicked for purity. A larger stone could not have added to the detail that Sal had labored to achieve.
Jimmy stared at the set for a long time. He and Anne had never seriously discussed marriage. It was something that seemed to be an understood inevitability to them both, but was not a priority for them. Happiness was there whether the world had proof of their commitment or not. Now Sal had pushed the issue to the front of Jimmy's mind. It did not seem like a price that had to be paid, but a bill that was due anyway. He pushed the rings back into the bag and put the bag into his pocket before rising to join the birthday dinner.
Inside the second floor apartment, Anne was working at an incredible pace. She had already prepared a chicken to be roasted and placed it in the oven, and was now in the final stages of readying side dishes. She had the amazing ability to start all the bits and pieces of a meal with perfect timing so that each finished simultaneously. At the precise time, a bell would ring, and she would remove the bird from the oven just as all the accessories were ready to be transferred to serving dishes. Diner would then be served in a matter of minutes. Once she had progressed into the waiting period, she exited the kitchen, not looking in the least like she had been slaving over a stove.
In the den, they all shared a bottle of wine and listened as Sal told the story of when he had traveled to Italy to deliver a timepiece to a rich business executive, only to find that he had died the previous day. He arrived at the home as the memorial service was underway. Not wanting to intrude on the families mourning, he made his way back to his hotel, intending to return to the U.S. the next day. It turned out that the business executive was actually a mafia don, and his underlings had the impression that Sal was trying to escape paying a debt. Sal was rounded up and brought back to answer to the don's son for his indiscretions. After some reluctant assistance from an English-speaking butler, Sal was set free, but only after he was made to place the watch in the vest pocket of the dead client and kiss his corpse goodbye.
Sal was filed with stories, and Anne loved to watch Jimmy hear them. He would watch Sal with an intensity that could not be faked. His eyebrows would move up and down, as if they were mimicking the punctuation at the end of each of Sal's sentences. His forehead would form furrows when the story grew tense, then it would melt smooth again when the resolution of the tale brought Jimmy's laughter. It was almost as if Jimmy was an interpreter for the hearing impaired.
When the meal was ready, they all enjoyed it while sitting in the den, using folding T.V. trays placed in front of them. A large percentage of the apartment was still scattered with boxes a various debris from the cleaning process. Stacks of boxes still lined the hall and dining room, which was also serving as the staging area for items to be donated. Much of what remained was left for Sal to do alone. He insisted that he should inventory Ellen's personal belongings and keep only those things that were truly sentimental to him. All the rest would be donated to charities or sold in consignment stores.
Ellen had amassed an amazing wardrobe that spanned decades of ever shifting fashion trends. Anne's favorite things were also Sal's. He had shown her many pictures of Ellen wearing gracefully elegant business suits and dresses in the fifties and sixties. Like many women of the era, Ellen was riding the fashion coattails of Jacquelyn Kennedy, except that she had actually met her on more than one occasion. Those clothing items that were on the to-go list had been sorted into three boxes, items to be donated, those to be sold on consignment, and those that Anne had claimed for herself with Sal's blessing.
While it was informal, the meal was a very fitting birthday for an eighty-year-old man. He was able to sit comfortably in his favorite chair for the meal, and did not have to relocate after the meal in order to nap off some of the wine. Jimmy and Ellen cleaned up while Sal snored loudly in the den. The younger two were getting used to his geriatric narcolepsy. It was just one of the added perks of longevity.
Jimmy took advantage of Sal's downtime to hurry to the car for his gift. He carried it up carefully, and placed it on the stone toped coffee table in front of the sleeping man. He had been eager to give it to him for days, constantly fussing over it and adding last minute touches. He was desperate to make Sal proud, to give him some peace from some of his guilt. With the gift in place, he returned to the kitchen to join Anne for coffee.
"Sal offered us the place upstairs earlier tonight." Jimmy stated bluntly while pouring his coffee, knowing that Anne already knew.
"I know. He was worried that you might take his offer the wrong way. He approached me about it first, looking for a clue about how you might feel about it. I hope I wasn't wrong, keeping it from you I mean. He really does love you Jimmy." Anne was caught off guard. She had expected Sal to make the offer while she was there. She thought he would do it after he got his gift.
"Did he tell you what he wants us to do in exchange?"
"I don't really think things would change much. We are always here cleaning and helping him anyway. I hope you said yes Jim. Sal and I both want to see you finish school. We would be helping ourselves as much as Sal. Please tell me that you said yes." Why was he acting like Sal was asking for something beyond what they were already willing to give.
"That's not what he said he wanted from us. Not just that. That is just to pay the rent. There is something else he wants before we can have the place." Jimmy was standing, hand in his pocket, in front of Anne. He could see confusion in her eyes as he slowly sipped his coffee. He was waiting until he was sure she was off balance.
"What could he possibly want from us before we can move in? I don’t understand."
With that Jimmy set his cup down and pulled his hand from his pocket. In the same fluid motion, he dropped to his knee, allowing her to see the glimmer in his hand for the first time.
Sal's eyes opened when he heard foreign sounds in his home. After living alone for so long, he was accustomed to silence. The voices of burglars became voices of friends, as he realized the circumstances of the commotion. He could hear Anne's panicking voice from the kitchen and knew that he would soon have new neighbors. He was pleased to find that his request had prompted Jimmy to do today, what he would have done eventually anyway.
He pulled forward on the arms of his recliner to fold down the footrest so he could go congratulate the young lovers. As he leaned forward into the gloom of the now darkening room, a flash of light caught his eye. In the fading evening light, he saw the silhouette of a tree. Curious, he moved his hand to the left, while still watching the shadowy form in front of him, feeling for the lamp. As he flicked the lamp on his breath left him. He immediately recognized the shape, but not the form.
It was the shape of one of Ellen's most prized plants, a bonsai in the form of a thick-trunked, ficus tree. They had first seen it on a trip to Hawaii early in their married life. After five years of seeing her look at the photos of it, commenting how much she loved it, Sal arranged to have it delivered to her. The owner was reluctant to part with it. His father had raised it from a seedling and passed it on to him when he died. At the time that Ellen had passed, the tree's estimated age of the tree was more than fifty years. Sal had allowed all those years of dedication and love to whither in the hot sun.
In front of him on his table was the same tree reborn. It's bark and thick, buttressed roots were wrapped in swirling silver wire. Each strand of wire was pressed tightly against the bark of the tree. It followed the twisted grain of the wood all the way up the branches, out to the fine tip of each branch. Small foil leaves hung from every twig, the slight movement of air from Sal's breath caused the tree to look alive. He recognized the pot as the same that had held the tree in life. Inside the pot, he recognized what had once been flakes and slivers of bronze shavings. They were no longer piled around his band saw, but also had new life as soil for the tree. The hint of grass on the soil was from a piece of green, enameled metal he had used as inlays for a jewelry box. It too had been trimmed on the same saw. At random points along the trunk of the tree were polished semiprecious stones and crystals. At each, the wire wound around it creating a knotted pattern in the silver grain.
Sal could not believe the complexity and detail of it. He had been an artist his whole life, but had never been able to master natural forms. All his work had symmetry and order, things this lacked. It was natural and flowing in its perfection. It still held all the features and beauty that it had possessed in life. All the added elements were from his workshop, but in a form that he would never have been able to achieve. He was awed by its presence and its deep familiarity. He was brought to tears by seeing something that Ellen had held so dear, something that he had thought was destroyed by his neglect, given a second life.
Over the following weeks the third floor was readied for its new occupants. It was light work since it had been used very little in the previous decades. New lighting and plumbing fixtures were installed, as well as wallpaper. The floors were sanded and refinished after new windows were installed throughout the building. By the start of the fall semester, Jim and Anne were in their new home, and both were adjusting to the school schedule. By the first snowfall, they were settled in and felt as if they had always lived above Sal. The three dined together four nights per week, at Anne's insistence, so Sal could get more nutrition than his soup diet afforded him on its own. Anne also insisted that Sal begin receiving routine medical exams to make up for his history of personal neglect. Life was incredibly good for the newly formed family.