Stories from the Are You series:
Are You Alienated
Are You Jealous
Are You Adaptable
Are You Loveable
Are You Jealous
A package. Gabriel Pinion heard Eva’s voice . . . her put on voice, he called it. She spoke this way to delivery people, sing-song, thanking them, ushering them out the door. He heard the door close, slue into its frame with a rush of air followed by the metallic thunk of the bolt hitting home. He heard silence, then rustling. Eva talking to herself about the scissors. Next, she was on the phone. He guessed she was speaking to Presby. He heard her say, “I did get your email. Fad, you know I have no attention span. Ha. I didn’t know it had a calendar. Oh . . . “
Gabriel heard uneven, muffled footsteps, with something labored about them, as she climbed the stairs. She approached, and her conversation approached, growing more distinct, Eva interspersed with microbursts of Presby.
“Oh,” Gabriel said to himself. “McFadden, now.”
She laughed. “Well, it sounded funny. I don’t know what you call those things. I know you said bushings.”
He kept his back to her. She had broken his concentration, but he kept his back to her. McFadden Presby. Could anyone on earth have such a name? Eva had rung off. She placed the clock on Gabriel’s desk . . . near, almost touching, his right hand. She leaned over him, and straightened his collar. She placed her phone in front of his keyboard.
It was her little habit. She was always tucking her phone under Gabriel’s eyes: at the dinner table, on the coffee table. At his desk, while he tried to work. She would tap an arrow in a box; a video or song would play. He would have to love it, for her sake.
For her sake, he loved all Eva’s mannerisms. But they irritated.
He found himself looking at a cipher, which spun into a logo. The logo was muted gun-metal; spare in design. The logo faded. McFadden Presby stood before a leather armchair. The chair was a fixture; yet, in the auction house videos, Presby never sat. He pivoted. He occasionally stepped, one pace to the left, one pace to the right. The chair acted as Presby’s magnetic center; he hovered as a gyroscope hovers. He had a pair of eyeglasses which he never wore, but held, and gestured with, inviting his audience to see his point. Presby imparted the esoterica of the antiques trade in a sonorous voice . . . the accent sounding British. After a while, one noticed something continental about the vowels.
Continued from ” . . . about the vowels.”
Gabriel supposed Presby had got his name from someone’s luggage tags. His real name was probably Klaus. Having decided this, Gabriel had come to think of Presby as Klaus. It was childish . . . it didn’t help.
“What do you think?” Eva asked.
Since he hadn’t been listening, he side-stepped by countering with a question of his own. “Have you decided to sell it?”
“My clock?” She treated him to another of her mannerisms: wide eyes, coquettish hand to heart. “I’ll never sell my clock. McFadden says it’s only middle range. But it’s good.”
She wore a long velvet skirt, an Indian tunic. Her black cardie, cashmere, once obtained for a great sum, had fallen moth-eaten. Eva had thrust fingers into the holes; she’d stretched them out. Now bright hues and patterns of her tunic showed through irregular ovals. Eva moved swiftly, and her clothes made their own small whirlwind of motion. She tinkered with the clock. Her clock, she would have Gabriel discover, did not merely chime. . . it carillonned, it deedled, it piped intricately. Eva looked enraptured. She tapped a finger on Gabriel’s bald spot.
“He fixed it. That’s what the man . . . Emil Reiff, McFadden’s guy who has the little shop full of gears . . . and bushings, I guess . . . ” Eva laughed, a fond moment of recollecting Presby’s wit. “That’s what he did. McFadden said he’ll send the bill.”
Gabriel thought: Too much joy for one morning. But he said, “Well, I ought to finish one or two things. Then we’ll have lunch, won’t we?”
She looked at him. She slipped her hand, in a rather stealthy way, across the desk, and picked up her phone. She left the room.
Gabriel sat angled to his desk, taking surreptitious views of his client’s product photo. Clients, he found, often had this idea of selling. The expanse of shirtfront, as he preferred to express it, was distressing, off-putting. Her moles and creases made a poor framing device for her kitchen gadget. She would need to send another photo; she would need to omit herself next time.
He opened his email. “Your charms, my dear”—Presby’s baritone, his rolling vowels, intruded upon Gabriel’s imagination—”must come as a happy surprise.” Well, Presby was a self-created being. He stood high with his auction-house clientele. Gabriel envisioned becoming Presby, instructing, mesmerizing with voice and gesture. He would stand high with Eva, presumably.
He saw an unfamiliar name. He saw, a moment before trashing the email . . . a bit tardy loading . . . his wife’s name in the subject line. He was unsurprised to see a spare deconstructed logo dissolve against an ink outline of Palladian architecture. The outline filled discreetly; a modest Tibetan flute accompanied the animation. The background remained dim, dove grey. A photo emerged from the right, captioned: “Henderson Young”. A tiny icon, shrouded, enabled disabling of the animation. The animation had run its course by the time Gabriel had disambiguated this.
Mrs. Pinion. I will call you Eva. It was your own request. You will recall our very pleasant chat at lunch; you, McFadden, and I.
“Why are you reading that?”
Gabriel was startled.
“It isn’t yours,” Eva said.
He made an uncertain finger-flail towards the screen.
“No,” she said. Eva moved to the side of the desk; she placed her hands on the clock. “McFadden,” Eva told him, “wanted to invite you to his gathering. Henderson might have made a mistake. What’s it got to do with you?”
The clock struck four. Through some devil’s bargain, the clock’s chiming mechanism built complications of leitmotif that grew (he could not doubt it) with the passing hours. They waited. Eva’s left eyebrow was raised in defiance. The clock subsided. Gabriel said, “I’m sorry. You say Klaus . . . “
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“Presby . . . McFadden . . . “
“I hope you feel better soon,” Eva said.
Her mood seemed to brighten. He thought this brightness had a putting-a-stop-to-it-all edge.
“Where should we put it?” She picked up the clock, hugging it against her cashmere, holding it by its gilded columns. “Would you like it in the kitchen?”
“I would. I very much would.”
Gabriel averted his gaze conscientiously from the stranger’s email. Henderson Young meant to sell Eva another clock. He had found one he felt was within her range, suitable for a beginner. You, McFadden, and I. Not that Gabriel kept to any particular schedule, being always free, in effect. But Eva could have lunch in town. She could have lunch with two men and not bother to mention it.
The next email was from Klaus.
Gabe. Our gatherings are quite informal, and as I must consider you a friend . . .
Gabe. He could not tolerate being called Gabe. The name belonged to someone stepped on, imposed upon, called over to run an errands, dismissed when no longer of use. He was sensitive on the point; he felt shortchanged, baptismally. He’d confided this to Eva.
“I’ll remember that,” she’d told him.
He had always found her ways charming. She’d been nestled on the sofa, arms wrapped around a tasselled pillow. Eva squeezed this, lowered her head, looked up at him.
Perhaps, rather than charming, foreboding.
A horrible intimacy it was, to laugh at someone, take confidences and share them as little amusements. He had no proof she’d done that. Presby might easily be a nick-namer.
Gabriel looked at the next email. Emil Reiff’s request for payment. He looked twice. As though it knew, as though it mocked, the clock gave out a brief, twinkling note, as it struck the half-hour.
How could the repairs have cost so much? Reiff had not itemized; he extenuated nothing . . . but he had included a phone number. Gabriel stood. His phone would be in his jacket. His jacket ought to be downstairs. The clock ought to be downstairs. Why had he heard it as clearly as if it were in the room?
He approached the thing with trepidation.
Eva had placed the clock on the island, below the pot rack. A thought crossed Gabriel’s mind. If a bus were to go by and shake the foundation, one of those pots . . . but it would have to be cast iron to do real harm. He tapped up his email, got Reiff’s number.
“I accept a credit card,” Reiff told him. “I accept cash. Also, through McFadden Presby. He will arrange for you.”
“I don’t object to paying . . . “
“My business is such,” Reiff said firmly, “that I must be paid. I expect to be paid.”
Well, as Gabriel supposed, ending the call, everyone’s business is such, for that matter.
Continued from ” . . . for that matter.”
The day was not really sunny; it was not really warm. He felt clammy wearing his jacket. He knew that if he took it off, he would feel chilled. The sun, hazy through low clouds, as though a dim shop light were burning, seemed warmer where yellow leaves remained, withdrawing coldly where limbs were bare. He passed three businesses in a row, shuttered and closed, signs advertising their premises available for lease.
Vows and pledges can’t obviate human nature. Passages in life run their course. Eva’s nature was to fix things—to take a shabby thing and make art of it; to take a broken thing and restore its utility. Eva, on the other hand (as in her blithe way she always said), had a short attention span.
“You don’t, you know. You choose to.” He had said this back to her. He saw Eva’s face.
Yes, she cast things aside; she moved on to new enthusiasms. She was mistaken, Gabriel thought, if she believed her work was finished.
And yet . . . could it be? Eva had once explained her obsession to Gabriel. As a child, she had coveted this clock. Her eyes turned upwards, Eva could see the clock . . . she could not reach it . . . not even standing on a chair. Forbidden, withheld, the heirloom sat atop the wardrobe. The wardrobe itself was a fortress, a castle keep, crafted from rosewood, fitted in greened copper. It had hulked in its family corner for an age; it had been burnished to umbrageous depth; its drawer pulls had the faces of angels, and nuances of hue, from black oxidation to brilliant glints of red-brown. She had studied them all, sketched verdigris in her spiral-bound book.
Eva’s grandmother bore a resemblance to the wardrobe; she held this family possession in esteem. She did not love the clock. She used it, pointed to it, opened the door, closed the door. And the clock, the splendid clock, the gilded clock, the chiming clock, enchanted the child Eva. The clock, aloof, speaking of prosperity’s legacy, lost and deserved, enticed.
She had not even told him. For a week, he’d found her singing pop tunes, pulling down artisan cookbooks, fixing odd dinners. She got on these jags of experimentation when hatching a scheme that pleased her. He had found Presby’s card. She’d meant that. Eva liked clues and secrets. She had reached across the table, arrested his hand.
“I’m expecting a package,” she’d said.
But he could not suppose this downslide had begun that day. An object, an inheritance, had not shattered the fragile egg of their married life. The fissures in its surface had always been there. Merely, the clock—tinkling, echoing, crescendoing—had chipped away at the shell.
Gabriel had a vague picture of Reiff’s shop looking like the inside of a cuckoo clock. He walked around the block, found the address again. The narrow brick exterior, sand-colored, had a window that said nothing, blinds which admitted no interior view. The door was black, a muted semi-gloss. On frosted, beveled glass, the name Emil Reiff was de-etched, as it were, in clear, nearly invisible lettering. The lettering was like the typeface of a ’40’s wartime dispatch.
Inside, Gabriel had a moment to look around. The shop seemed empty. He felt that a tone had sounded as he’d opened the door, an oddly discreet and undefinable note which was not a bell nor an electronic bleat, but resembled the high register of a Buddhist temple chime. The room itself reminded Gabriel of a meditation chamber. Everything approached white. He’d nearly described the color as vanilla, but vanilla was a coffee-shop designation. The Reiff milieu wanted something industrial: gypsum, perhaps. The shop was the next plane in post-Reductionist design. It asked of the observer, why have more than one color, if color has nothing to say?
The walls had shelves, the shelves had drawers, the drawers had tone-on-tone lettering—Reiff’s signature lettering. Scanning inventory, Gabriel strained to read, from among hundreds of uncapitalized possibilities: “balance wheels”; “counters”; “impulse levers”.
Pins . . . rollers . . .
Reiff, white hair in minimalist proportion to brow; this, deeply furrowed with the demands of craftsmanship, blue eyes riveting . . . also, was capable of emerging from a trap, it appeared. Gabriel, in surprise, said, “You know me?”
“I expect you,” Reiff answered.
With Gabriel’s credit card, he vanished again, into an alcove, one optically concealed by the sheer whiteness of the space. Seemingly, he had no other customers today. Gabriel had come in person to do what he might, saving time, have done over the phone. He had reason. A friend of Presby might know information to Presby’s discredit.
But Reiff’s forbidding manner had come somewhat athwart Gabriel’s scenario. He could no longer imagine engaging the clocksmith in chit-chat.
Reiff returned. Without a word, he held out the card and receipt.
“You work with Presby,” Gabriel said, tucking the card into its slot, the receipt into his right pocket, the wallet into his left.
“For Presby, I sometimes work.”
“You admire Presby?”
“Why should I admire Presby?”
“You . . . like Presby?”
“Why should I like Presby?”
“You dislike Presby?”
“Why should I dislike Presby?”
Checkmated, Gabriel fell silent.
“You dislike Presby, of course,” Reiff said. “A troubling thing, a clock.”
“A clock, a complication, a conjecture, a theorem, a pattern, a wheel, a pivot, a pendulum. The earth’s rotation.”
“Here is a story,” Reiff said, and telling nothing, disappeared into his alcove. He had in his hands, as he issued from the half-light, a clock. It was black, but abraded with antiquity to a matte umber. The numbers on its face had both a sturdy peasant lumpishness, and a fine, thin grasp at elegance. The face was yellowed to amber. The hands were stopped at 3:14. The clock had a little arched door with a keyhole, and a delicately painted floral design.
“In Großherzogtum Weimar,” Reiff said. He had spoken the name with a great enunciation. Gabriel attended. Reiff went on. “This clock was sold. Eighteen forty-five, that was. That is all we can say of it. Certainly, it was made three hundred years ago, maybe older.”
Gabriel hoped Reiff had never shown it to Eva. He’d been on the verge of calling it striking; once more, he checked himself, and said, “I’m impressed. The painted bit. Done by hand, I assume?”
Reiff gave him a hard look. “The clock is broken. So long as this clock has been known, no one has found the part to fix it. But a part is nothing.”
“Ah.” He found himself answering Reiff in this manner. “Is a part nothing?”
“I, through great luck, have come to own the clock. For my life, I have worked to solve it.”
Continued from ” . . . to solve it . . .”
Gabriel forced an effort. He had no idea what sort of exercise this was.
“For such an old clock, I would think, you’d have to make a part . . . fabricate one . . . you wouldn’t find anything.”
“You can of course make the part. If you know where the part must go. If you know what function the part must have. Now see.” Reiff pulled a remote control device from his pocket; he aimed at the blind on the shop window. Soundlessly, slats shifted, sunlight weakly filtered in. Reiff gestured. Gabriel looked. The street was empty. The clouds sagged, seeming nearly to touch the russet hills, seen beyond the plodding shabbiness of the neighborhood, with its brick buildings weeping mortar from their upper stories, flickering neon below. Yet he saw a small opening of blue sky, a welling blaze of setting sun, too painful to more than glance at.
Reiff said again, exactly as before, “You can of course make the part. If you know where the part must go. If you know what function the part must have.”
Another name cropped up. Saturday, Gabriel, at his end of the sofa, had been reading an article; while Eva, at hers, leafed through catalogs. She stood, gathered her recycling, and went to the garage. Gabriel, submerged with the methane bubble which threatened to burst from the thawing permafrost, blinked when Eva placed a note-card on the screen of his tablet. She’d reached around from behind; he hadn’t seen her come back in.
From the desk of Kuaia Bodmin-Hodges, it read. Calligraphic script bumped over what looked like seed hulls and insect wings entombed in hand-pressed paper. The paper had been cut to the size of a large biscuit; it was held to another of its kind with a strip of raw linen. Ms. Bodmin-Hodges was a senior partner of Henderson Young’s antiques concern. On Presby’s behalf (though she called him McFadden, as though they were all become chummy) she wished to extend a personal warm invitation to Gabriel. He had no idea, now, who was hosting the event.
“I have to go early.”
Eva, wearing black, many layers, but all black, rooted in her bag. She pulled out her turquoise beads. She said, “Gabriel, do the clasp.” She had all her hair out for this day; normally she kept it bound in a scarf. He tried to not annoy her by tangling the metal fastenings. She said, “Oh! Gabriel!” And repeated, “I have to go early. Henderson has a clock. I’m working with McFadden, anyway.”
“Working for?” he asked. He never really knew what she was doing, professionally.
“Working with. Helping him set up.”
“And . . .” he said. She was at the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. Her expression was not friendly.
“You’re collecting clocks . . .? That’s what you mean to say?”
She took her keys from her bag. Among all her layers, she had no pockets. Some effect she’d meant to create was spoiled by the futile search. Eva clenched the keys. Then shrugged. “I’m buying a clock from Henderson.”
He thought she had decided to do so at that moment.
On this Monday, then, to attend an afternoon party—a working event for those who did not strictly work—Gabriel made his way alone, and became familiarly lost. He had located Landingfield Road. He had driven up, he had driven down; in some disconcerting way, Landingfield Road intersected the same highway at both ends. The house he sought (alone), was called Waldhütte. Which proved nothing in particular. The owner might be Ms. Bodmin-Hodges, the firm might own it. Renewing acquaintance with a stone pillar recently passed, Gabriel noticed the design more an ornate W, than the Druidic etching he’d at first supposed. That, for signs, was all.
The drive carried on through a windbreak of pine, then opened onto hedge and pasture. He arrived at the forest lodge, overall Tudoresque in style and taste, one of the fresh-planted country châteaux.