I pulled into the grassy ditch at the side of the road. I cut the engine and tried to remember what my mother smelled like… like sweat and apples, or maybe mildew and copper. I looked out the passenger side window and watched the green, full trees claw at the gray sky, creeping as far out to the tarmac as they dare. A few cars blew by before I found myself again and got out. I must have tapped the key fob ten times before I slid it into the base of a bush, then trudged into the woods. There was a steep decline just past the treeline that was invisible until I was jogging down it, trying to keep my balance long enough to trot to the bottom.
They called my father a Tinker. He could craft wondrous things. He was famous in certain circles, known as a sort of conceptual artist, a maker of strange things with no apparent use. He insisted all his life that the small intricate objects he made each had a function. He would say that each piece was something that was missing from the buyer’s life that he had crafted for them.
“You have to discover it, you have to understand what i’ve repaired, then you then use it.”
I read that quote in an old magazine I stole from the library when I was little. I’d collect magazine clippings about my father and stash them in my pockets like secrets. I’d never met him, never knew what he smelled like or if he kept spare change in his pockets for beggars or how loudly he snored. I thought often of these details, I’d ask my mother and she would touch her chin with the tip of her finger and smile apologetically, but she would never answer my question. I knew that they met when he was in new york, that she was a fan of his work, amazed by his pieces, and wanted so badly to know more. He had told her that she was like his objects, important, existing to serve some purpose, to repair him. When he left her it was soon after she discovered she was pregnant with me. He didn’t fight with her, didn’t argue when she requested child support, nothing. He simply left and never came back. When she was dying I couldn’t speak to her. All I could think about was my father, the same little questions: how did he stretch when he was tired? did he scratch his nose when he concentrated like I did? Could he wiggle his ears? I watched her fade away and die in a big bed. She left me a fortune that he’d been paying out to her for years. She hadn’t spent a dime.
The money my mother left me could have set me up for life, but the moment I came into it there wasn’t a single question about what i’d do with it. By the time I came of age the internet had arrived, and secretly I thought perhaps the whole thing ran on one of my father’s devices. I spent long nights researching my father’s pieces, collecting names and dates.
Each piece my father made was special and it wasn’t hard to know who had the pieces, as they were all, it was said, eccentrics, but there were few pictures of them online back then. Before they came to me they were kept by their owners like precious secrets.
“We call him a tinker because he does not create, he repairs the form, reshapes it into the material world, as a blacksmith gives shape to an ingot, you see?”
William Pastorolli said that. He was an Italian spiritualist who refused to sell to me. I had to wait for him to die of a fentanyl overdose in his compound to reclaim the piece in the name of my father’s estate. When the cult he ran protested, it was because they believed the piece contained Pastorolli’s soul. Indeed, when i held the item, i could feel something within it, a warm humming in the palm of my hand that, if you paid attention to it, would vibrate outward infinitely, until you lost focus and it became a little bauble in your hand again.
There were people who thought my father was a charlatan, that he sold bits of filigree to gullible people too mad to know better. That he was at best a performance artist and at worst a fraud. This notion became even more popular after he died penniless in some cave. After creating twenty perfect objects, his last days were spent starving himself to death with a holy man in the countryside who, when questioned about my father’s passing simply said
“He has repaired himself, and no longer needs this broken machine.”
The trees at the bottom of the hill were loping, short and sad. They tangled their sapling branches together and sprouted tiny, pathetic leaves that couldn’t catch the sun. it was dark down there, as if I had stepped into the night. I looked up and saw the thick canopy of massive branches overhead, sprouting from the enormous trees that reached over the little gorge I was standing in to touch their cousins on the other side. With great effort I began my trek up the other side of the gorge.
The idea that he was either a fraud or crazy came almost thirty years after his death, as the internet became curious about him. The world had contextualized him posthumously as a man who made toys for the mad. I resented this characterization, but It made it easier for me to find pieces. Their popularity grew along with a kind of shame in owning one, and the incentive to sell to the highest bidder – which was always me – overpowered almost every owner of a device, most of whom were the sons or colleagues of some religious zealot or moneyed eccentric.
I collected dozens of pieces. I catalogued them, stored them, documented them in photos. My lawyers were under the impression that this was all leading to a sort of museum, they began asking me if I had put any thought into buying a gallery in New York or L.A. and I assured them that it would all happen in good time, but this was, of course, a lie. I think they knew it, but they were beholden to my father’s legacy and the money which was mine to dole out for whatever I wanted, and I wanted this – to connect with my father’s ghost through the objects he gave men.
My father’s death happened soon after I was born, but growing up all I knew of him was that he had left me and my mom, that he had stopped making devices, and that he was dead. Part of my mother’s claim to the fortune he made from the moneyed, decaying old families whose entire lineage seemed cursed with an insanity we call “eccentricity” was that she kept her relationship with him – and thus me – a secret.
I reached level ground and my chest felt like it was on fire. I fell to my knees, holding myself up by the hands and heaving. When I leaned back to sit on my heels I swallowed and gasped, wiping my face of sweat, and ahead of me in the endless tangled brush of the woods I saw a firefly floating between thick tree trunks. I watched it flitter and dance in the darkness under the canopy. I was no longer sure what time of day it was, and when I pulled my phone out of my pocket I saw that it was dead. When I got to my feet I looked ahead. The firefly was still there, dancing in the black, but when I started forward I froze right away. I could make out the shape of something behind the firefly, about as tall as me. I narrowed my eyes as if that would help them focus, and the firefly seemed to oblige me when it landed on the object and for a split second I saw the white tail of a deer in the green glow of the lightning bug. The deer sprang away into the woods and I scoffed as I continued ahead.
The first piece I procured belonged to David Lier, an accountant who had obtained the object from his great aunt, a famous manhattan witch who had put a curse on the mayor the same week he died of a brain aneurysm. Her powers of dark magic evident, she translated that coincidence into a fine life of talk show appearances and televised seances. It was a box exactly one inch on every side. It was bronze and engraved in letters from an alphabet entirely of my father’s invention. On each side these letters made up a pattern, not quite a word but not quite gibberish. Lier kept the piece for many years after his aunt’s death, never sure why it came to him specifically. At first he displayed it proudly on his desk, perched on a platform with my father’s name embossed on the base, but eventually the device was boxed and stored, and finally sold to me. Lier said that his aunt had never actually paid for it, and so decided to give it to me as a gift. He refused payment politely one afternoon at a coffee shop we had planned to meet in to discuss terms. I was struck dumb when he pulled it out of his pocket, considered it thoughtfully, then slid it across the table to me and left, turning as he did to say that covering his half the the cheque was payment enough: a fourteen dollar cup of espresso. I wondered how many of these transactions would be so strange and the answer, as it turned out, was most of them.
I had buyers who refused to sell outright and then a week later would send their piece to me and become unreachable. Those who did take payment always took my first offer. The slightest hesitation to my price would crumble within hours of the first phone call. In one year I had collected seven pieces, each unique, bespoke and incomprehensible in craft. There was a little triangle that would tip over when you placed it on a surface unless you balanced it on a particular corner. There was what looked like a tumbleweed of silver filaments as delicate and slender as glass but indestructible. Each tiny strand unbendable, impervious to shift or scuff. There was a little ebony sculpture of a crow that when inspected under a microscope, revealed tiny strokes of silver paint imperceptible to the naked eye that gave the miniature bird’s feathers a life-like sheen.
The woods were dark and green, the canopy above was impenetrable with thick branches full of leaves above and let only glimmers of light through, making it all appear like a starry night sky. The smell of lichen filled my nose as I stepped blindly along, forging a narrow path through root and branch and mulch.
After a decade, I had collected all twenty of my father’s pieces, the small apartment in manhattan where i kept them was, essentially, my home. It was bare save for a cot, a laptop and a cheap coffee table where each piece was set beside the other just so. I had fired my lawyers and accountants. They were frustrated and told me so, clucking their tongues and telling me that I needed good, sane men to watch over my father’s legacy. Ultimately though, they resigned to the idea that their years of taking the money of a madman were bound to come to an end sooner or later. I told them that the last part of all this was coming, and that I needed to be alone for this last part, the part nobody knew about – the part about the twenty first device.
I had always known it existed, there was never a doubt in my mind. From the moment I knew there were twenty, I knew there was a twenty first. My father had a weakness for madmen, so perhaps it would comfort his ghost to know his son had become one. The same night I dismissed the men in suits who picked my father’s bones, I packed my laptop and the devices into my car and made for a small lumber town in the north of New York state. I don’t know what drew me here, but I knew that the twenty-first device was in this tiny, forgotten little place full of tiny, forgotten little people. I spent a month in a cheap hotel, spent my days staring at the devices. The cleaning ladies would come into my room and I’d scoop the pieces into my bag when they knocked and keep the bag in my lap until they left. When they were together the pieces made a hum that I was convinced only I could hear. When I laid them out on the cheap particle board coffee table and focused on them, odd things would happen. The light in the room would change, the air would grow cold, then hot, then a temperature i cannot describe, a sort of dry, prickly tension in the air that would contract and expand as if reality itself were catching its breath. Sometimes i would become so lost in them that it would appear as though a cleaning lady walked out of the room and then the moment i laid them all out, one would knock at my door again to clean the room.
The locals considered me like a rumor. many wondered what it was I did for a living. “Finance. Acquisitions.” I would reply to the grocery store clerk and the Chinese food delivery man. That was enough to make them stop asking, though they’d chatter to themselves about me as I passed, like I was an animal that had wandered into town to rummage through their garbage and terrorize their pets.
I spent my days reading about my father. I would sit in my room and stare at the pieces with my hand on my chin, set on the coffee table, arranged just so. I would listen to the wind shudder my window over that hum, trying and failing to count the moments as I attempted to fathom the totality of the pieces, to consider what the strange sensation i felt when i looked at them was, and what was missing, in a vain hope that knowing these things would lead me to the reasons why i was here in this town. When i would break for meals or sleep i would look at my email, hoping to confirm what i knew – that someone, somewhere had found a twenty first object. A piece that would answer my question, make it all make sense. I would look out the window at the woods, vast endless waves of green lapping over themselves with the wind.
I saw it again, just beyond the furthest, thickest trunks, the deer. It flitted past one tree and behind another, then disappeared like a ghost. I froze to see if it would emerge but after a while of listening to the wind rustle the impenetrable canopy above, to the insects chitter and the birds sing their haunted little tunes in the dark, I moved forward through the brush, looking as far ahead as my eyes could manage, trying to find a break in the canopy – a shaft of light to guide my way. I made for the tree that the animal had disappeared behind, expecting, I suppose, to find it there hidden.
After a couple months of lethargy, spending each day eating the same bad food in the same bad hotel room in the same bad town, I felt I had made a kind of peace with all this. I stopped wondering, no longer thinking in constant circles about my father, if his breath smelled sour, if the stubble on his chin was thick and prickly or soft and giving, all these secret little questions washed away in the gray of my daily life. The objects, their magic, became something of a chore to me now. Whatever supernatural glamour they were once cloaked in seemed to have faded in my eyes, now they just looked like little metal trinkets. Interesting the way a toy is interesting. I had become deaf to the hum, i could no longer feel the breathing of reality. The certainty that the final piece existed had not dulled, but the desire to find it had worn to a nub. My father was now an idea to me, an idea like any other, like water, and shadow, and money, and moon. A certainty which I could neither wrap my hands around nor do anything to stop, only accept. Time had become meaningless. I could no longer tell when a day had passed, even the cleaning ladies stopped coming, and I could find no rhythm in the light of day or dark of night, had no conception of them. All I could will myself to consider was the objects, and for no purpose other than to consider them. Whatever came next, if anything ever would, seemed so far away, like everything else – like the world itself. I forgot what my father’s face looked like. To me, now, he was simply these objects, all twenty of them, with only one piece missing, somewhere out there. A last piece to repair the whole of it.
I approached the tree. I had seen the animal disappear behind in the darkness, and as I reached it I noticed the glow of the firefly. There was a moment of deja-vu, and my mouth hung agape as I watched it dart by and deeper into the dark woods. I stepped past the tree, half hoping and half expecting to find the animal waiting for me, staring at me and beckoning me to follow it like a fairy tale.
One morning as I dragged my feet through the poorly lit grocery store and gas station at the very edge of town, I came to realize that my presence was becoming less of a novelty to the locals and more of an annoyance. They watched me with suspicion and glared openly at me as I tucked cans of irish stew and boxes of pre-cooked chicken fillets into a little metal basket. I avoided eye contact and that seemed to give them a kind of permission to speak freely about me, as if i wasn’t there, listening.
The deer was gone, and the insect fluttered off ahead of me. I followed the faint green light it produced, noticing how much darker everything was getting. I looked up and noticed far fewer breaks in the canopy above for light to pierce through. All was black save for the little bug, guiding me through. I stepped as carefully as I could, but a root snagged my shin so stubbornly that I doubled over and landed on my elbows in a heap of dead leaves and god knows what else.
“Guess there are two hermits in this town now.”
That’s what the woman said as I passed her. She was visibly shaken when I turned to her and asked her to repeat it. She insisted she hadn’t said anything but when i repeated it back to her, her lip trembled and she said in a squeaky, indignant voice that she only meant that i was like a hermit, never saying anything to anyone, only ever coming out of my hotel room for food, living all alone, never saying hello. She said i was rude, that all New York City people are rude, too good for her and her small town folks. The cashier touched my shoulder and asked me if I’d like to check out. The woman took this moment to slip away and disappear down the beer isle, away from this conversation.
When I got up from the floor I felt wet from the chest down. I got to my feet and looked around, trying to catch my bearings, and there was my little friend, the firefly, perched on the bark of a tree a few feet away. I adjusted my backpack and quickly noticed that behind the tree on which the bug was perched was the deer’s unmistakable white tail. I stepped forward with sore, skinned knees shivering to control my careful, silent footfalls as I approached. I just wanted a good look at the thing i’d been chasing, not sure what compelled me to do so or why.
The cashier made a performance of bringing me to the register and taking my items to scan and bag. I placed my hands on the lip of the counter and tried not to seem as tense as i felt. I licked my lips and thought to ask a question, and the cashier began to speak as if anticipating my query.
“There’s a hermit just north of the town. Lives in the woods they say with the bucks. Every hunting season the boys gotta watch themselves they don’t shoot the fella. Nobody’s seen him for years but they say he’s harmless.”
I paid for my food, drove to the hotel, collected the twenty devices in my bag, and made my way to the woods outside of town, still wearing the pajama bottoms and faded t-shirt I seemed to have never taken off since I came here.
The forest was silent. No bird chirp, no insect song, even the wind held its breath as I rounded the tree to meet the animal’s eyes. What I saw I couldn’t quite comprehend. The animal seemed somehow transient in state, blurry in globs of swirling time that crept all over its body, parts were vibrant and thick one moment, then decayed and skeletal the next. All over its body like spots its fur changed from autumn red to haggard gray and back and inbetween. It didn’t seem to be afraid of me anymore, surely it noticed my presence, as its skeletal face turned to glare at me with eyes at one instant full and wet and at another dry and hollow. Its mouth openned and from its eyes burst millions of small points of green light. Fireflies whirled around me and attached themselves to the tree. I staggered back and whatever was doing this to the poor animal radiated from it, swirling up the trunk of the tree and slithering through its branches in swarms of green lights. I looked up as the canopy above broke in waves of tumbling leaves, immediately replaced by fresh green ones that would, at that instant, curl, dry and snap off the branches to the forest floor. A thick shaft of daylight unfolded like a curtain. I saw the deer stagger into the light, the temporal insects had left it a dry husk of bones and skin, and as it collapsed in the sun I stared at it so intently that I didn’t notice the thunderous cracking of the branches of the tree above me. I was thrown into the pile of bones that a moment ago had been a deer. I looked up and threw my open hand over my brow to see through the shaft of light showering me. I could make out a figure standing in the darkness among the ruins of the huge tree, a single firefly buzzing around it.
“I knew it. The moment I knew you existed, I knew it was you.”
“My father always had a passion for mad men.”
“The twenty first piece.”
“It doesn’t exist.”
“It has to. If I knew about you, I would know about it.”
“I’ve been here a long time.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means i was here when my father built the first piece. It means i was here when he made the first piece, which was this one here – in my pocket.”
“You have them all?”
“Of course i do. So do you. They’re all I have. All twenty.”
“You’re not listening.”
“You never left?”
“Not when he died? Not when mom died? Not when I was out there finding the pieces?”
“If i had, who knows what would have happened?”
“You just stayed here all alone?”
“Did you meet him? Do i.. Meet him?”
“Bullshit. Why would you even go back if you couldn’t meet him?”
“I went back because that’s what all the devices do. ‘You have to discover it. You have to understand what i’ve repaired, and then you have to use it.’ That’s what my father said. You remember.”
“But you didn’t use it. You didn’t. You’ve been here all this time, you’re not repaired. Nothing is.”
“I wasn’t supposed to be repaired. Don’t you understand yet? I understood. You’re just a piece, a tool, like mom. Just another part of the fix.”
“You could have met him.”
“What would you say if you met him? If you walked out of this place and met him, hm?”
“I wouldn’t say anything! I wouldn’t have to.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure you’d like what you saw? Do you believe he would scratch his nose like you do? Smell like what you think he smelled like?”
“He wouldn’t recognize you! You could have met him and he wouldn’t recognize you.”
“You know that isn’t true. You know that if you found me here, if you knew what that hermit in the woods outside of town was, then you know that isn’t true. He’d know exactly who we were.”
“He might be happy to see us.”
“He might be horrified. He might see the mistake he made and decide he didn’t want to be a tinker, decide the devices are dangerous, who knows? One can never tell with other people.”
“Other people? My father.”
“What if he didn’t like us?”
“His entire life was about precision. He made objects so perfect that they were more than objects, they were concepts. Don’t you understand that? He wanted to repair the universe, give people the perfection only he could conceptualize, but then there was me. There was you. Imperfect, a regret, something he wished he could take back.”
“How do you know? Did you go back and meet mom? Did you finally get her to talk about him?”
“Don’t you understand why she didn’t talk about him? What do you remember about mom?”
“She raised us. She loved us.”
“Do you remember what she smelled like?”
“Of course i do.”
“I wish i still did.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you spent your entire life looking for your father, and you let her slip away from you, from me. You let her slip away and forgot her, she was just another piece, and now all you have are the inventions of a man who didn’t want anything to do with you. A man who wanted to erase you because you were an imperfection. A failure.”
“But he didn’t! He had this, he could do this, and he didn’t.”
“Maybe it wasn’t for lack of trying. How does someone dedicate their entire life to repairing things and end up with a time machine they never used?”
“I know this is hard. It was hard.”
“This is a loop, then. Closed. A circle.”
“A perfect circle.”
“So i’m going to make all the choices you made. I’ll come to all the conclusions you came to.”
“It’s the only way.”
“So you just keep coming back here to talk me out of it?”
“That’s about it.”
“But you keep all the devices?”
“I have to.”
“And what comes next?”
“That’s a very good question.”
“Will you ever die?”
“I hope so.”
“Do you miss people?”
“And you never left?”
“And I never will.”
“I’m the only one you’ve seen since today.”
“You’re the only one i’ve seen since today.”
“How long has today been?”
“Today has been forever.”
“What did mom smell like?”
Thank you to Katie Sawatsky, Allison O’Toole and Syd Lazarus