The Time

Whether we belong to time, or time to us; and whether we subscribe to the cliché that time is money, or whether we are among those who have condemned it to a life of ironic, sardonic utterance; and whether we agree that time cannot be made the object of thought if we are not to turn thought back on itself, or whether we believe that time cannot be made the object of thought if thought is to have any object at all; we can agree that we have been born into it like a sculptor stumbling into a quarry, that it is the medium in which we all must work, and that some are more fortunate than others, blessed by arbitrary powers, in that they can discern or retrieve it in its purest form.

One such woman, who muttered to herself when she walked late into the classroom, blustered through the opening minutes of lectures with anecdotes of the great Oxford Platonist under who she had studied, and yielded herself, gleefully, to the aporia of the late dialogues, was troubled once when, in the corner of her office, she found one day, nearly melting under the radiator, glistening as if with perspiration under the brightness of the corner lamp, and tremoring, like a sea-sponge must in its conception of itself, a lump of time so pure, alabaster, strangely ridged, and shaped that she nearly fainted. It recalled a sculpture by Brancusi—but a sculpture that he had not completed, or even commenced, so that it’s features, the subtle smile on the face, the sensual hug of the arms, the languorous, tempting, shielded eyes were both present and entirely absent.

Louisa, her name to her parents, her rare lovers, and her colleagues, felt a sudden urge to care for what may have been alive, but at any rate contained life within it.

The weekend approaching, the rain that had commenced in late October had persisted into early November, threatening slush, and the walk to and from work, along uneven brick sidewalks under dim lamplights in the evening, faceless windows in the morning, and inexplicably proud, determined, and liberated passing strangers at all times, had become monotony rather than routine; the thought of the succulent mustiness of her office in the abandoned philosophy department, all quiet on a Saturday afternoon, with only the creak of the rickety carpeted stairs as she descended its heights and braved its ascent with tea in hand, bespoke a strange absence of pleasure along this stretch of days, when such a nest, built up out threads of the past, of near-recovered thoughts, of half-lost arguments over etymology and philology, ought most to have appealed.

She decided to bring the time home with her.

There, amidst the clutter and dusty corners of the apartment she could coax it into shape, or at least wonder at its being what it could become, and perhaps, if she was brave, she could run a hand along its cold contours and smooth edges (she imagined they were cold, though the thought, as it appeared, brought with it a possibility that they were warm, even hot at certain junctures); it would likely not abandon her. After all, it had sought her out, or been sought out and donated to her.

The colleagues would be jealous, so she waited until later than usual to leave, sitting first through a faculty meeting more torturous for the knowledge that it might already be forming the impression that she was negligent and unkind. She had left a blanket out on the floor next to it in her office, and a small platter of tea, and a copy of three books, one in Latin, one in Ancient Greek, and one in English; she did not know what it could read. The Greek text was philosophy, the Latin was history, and the English was a tattered detective novel; the highest forms, the frivolous thought glided through her mind, that each language had produced?

Listening to a heated argument over whether the course in Roman Elegy would draw students from the Augustine and the Church Fathers seminar, she remembered that she had not asked its name, or given her own. Perhaps it was not curious, but upon her return to her office, she begged forgiveness, apologized, and offered hers up. It was well-received.

There had been a brief scare when a colleague had knocked, in search of reassurance that his point about Heraclitus had not ruffled her feathers; before he entered, she swept up the blanket and threw it over the time. He did not notice it, but remarked on her perfume before leaving. She was wearing none, but she noticed that her office had been diffused with an intense scentless aroma, the sort that one experiences when inhaling deeply on snowy mountains or when trying to inhale directly from the petal of a barren flower; there was a promise or expectation of scent in the air.

An hour later, when her colleagues were departed and the rain ceased, she had made her way down the stairs, carrying the time, wrapped in the blanket, down with her, but it being too heavy, she was forced, in the gloom of the evening, to first drag, and then roll it along the brick sidewalk ahead of her. Crouching down, she progressed slowly, so that the walk took an hour rather than the usual ten minutes. She stopped to see several times whether it had abrasions, and, for the first time, out of necessity, she brought her hand to rest on its surface directly, as if feeling for anything that might have oozed from its skin. It was room-temperature, even outside, and remarkably dry, despite the blanket’s dampness, and the heavy air. It did not tremble or quiver, but at any time it might have, and she did not want for it to hold its breath and clench its muscles for too long, she her examination was not thorough.

Three quarters of their way home, the rain started again and she noticed the blanket had partially fallen aside. She reached down to refit the cloth to its shape and to dry it when she noticed, grazing it by accident with the back of her hand, that the time was still dry and room temperature, though she thought it was more at ease now than it had been, seeming somehow less clenched and taut.

In the living room of her second floor apartment, she perched time near the window; it was dark out, but she thought that the occasional passing gaggles of college students, or wandering vagrants, or cars, might afford it exposure to the world. She transferred it from the blanket to a pillow, turned on a lamp beside it, and found a record that she thought it might enjoy looking out on the wet cold: Winterreise.  In the kitchen, she had put water on the stove and was chopping garlic, deliberating over penne and linguine, when she heard a thud.

She started and hurried back to the living room where the time was on the floor, having rolled off the pillow. It would have looked at her, would have implored and not blamed, but she blamed herself on its behalf, taking it with her back to the kitchen, understanding for the first time that it was her presence that mattered to it more than the view of the world, more even than Schubert’s beautiful melodies. She set it on the counter, and it glistened at her as she chopped, and added garlic and oil to the pan, pasta to the water, and then stirred at one and the other variously.

Stepping back from the counter and stove, she was caught by the urge to cease, and she did, standing and looking. She noticed something in the time, but was unsure of what. Without reasoning, and yet with reason, she walked to the wall, turned off the overhead lights, and in the darkness thinned by blue and yellow flames from the burners, she saw looked carefully at the preternatural brightness of the time in the dark.  She was shocked without immediately recognizing the source of her shock; the time had changed, had taken on a resemblance to someone she knew—not herself, not family, or colleagues, or any acquaintance, but a familiarity that was complete in itself, and she recognized then that it had taken on just that, a resemblance to what familiarity was.

She could have burst into tears, and nearly did, but for the smell of garlic burning. She rushed to stir it, and as she did so, was drawn to look at it, on the countertop, smiling like a bird, and needing her. She turned off the burner, turned and took it in her hand, running them along its cheeks and whispering, “it will be alright, I’m here, I won’t leave.” She even closed her eyes while she said it, holding it in her mind, and imagining distinctly what its voice would have been in return, not what it would have said, but its cracking rustle and open depth.

That moment, as she formed an affirmation of love on her lips, she felt, suddenly, nothing between her hands and opened her eyes to find that the time had withdrawn, rolling to the back of the counter, soundlessly, bashfully or anxiously, she did not know which.

“Dammit, dammit, dammit, too far, too far Louisa,” and for the rest of the evening, she let time sit in the same room as her, but at a distance, glancing at it only occasionally, despite her longing. She spoke sometimes, but only half to it, and half to herself, and she found soon that, with the excitement of the day, she was exhausted.  Once more wrapping the time in a blanket, she placed it on the floor of her room in a bed of pillows from which no night-time stirring could upset it. From her bed, she could see it in the corner, when she peeped furtively from beneath her sheets. Soon, she was asleep.

She had no recollection of her dreams in the morning, and the time was where she had left it. With the renewed day came a sense of renewed intellect; evenings had always marked a weakening of her best faculties, an incursion of mawkish desperation on the frontiers of her mind, and she regretted what had happened, most of all regretting that the time should have known her so unlike herself.

As it dozed there, in the corner, the time seemed more itself than it had in the kitchen, no longer familiar, and yet also, happily, not especially alien. In fact, it took on, in its sleep, a more mineral aspect, like dead coral or a fossil might possess. It seemed susceptible to her action and energy, and the thought grew in her that she may have had it entirely wrong, that perhaps the time was alive within the carapace for which it no longer had any need, that she ought, and that rather than roll away from her the night before, it had been intending to signal itself to her—that even the fall from the table had been an attempt rather than an accident.

She turned the thought in her mind, feeling it ripen; she knew the feeling well, and trusted it to lead her into rewards. She did not rush it but, letting the time rest in the bedroom, sat with it while she proofread her article and while she returned to a thorny passage in Theaetetus.

The decision, when it arrived before noon, had been formed within her more than it had been seized by her, so that she rummaged blithely through the closet and carried the hammer and screwdriver to the bedroom without much reflection, pausing before the time only to consider where the best pressure point might be. Taking in its irregular curves conspiring to resemblance once again, she might have been made to reconsider, but trusting instead to the decision, she applied to point of the screwdriver to the surface and brought the hammer down on the end of the handle with as much force as she could muster. Not even a chip flew from the surface, but there was also no response, no cry, as if the creature within could not be woken by even that disturbance; her effort only succeeded in pushing the time away from her, into the corner. Inspired and courageous, she reached and drew it back towards her, this time setting it between her thighs, to hold it firm while she tried again, once and then twice, and then losing herself in the blows she delivered to the magnificence of its resistance.

Eventually, exhausted and bewildered, she went to the kitchen, set the hammer and screwdriver on the counter, and made herself a sandwich. She ate staring into the drizzle, into the clouds, and into the dark windows across the way. The light was off, and she did not much mind.

It had almost become a burden. With each slow chew of the pulpy tomato and flavorless bread, it became more of one, adding nothing to the weekend, and seeming only to want to sleep, or else to cower or avoid her. Its intentions were most burdensome at all. She was not at the point of doubting it had any—and she would never reach that point—but she doubted whether they were for her to realize.

She spent the afternoon in the rocking chair in next to her bed, intermittently staring at the time as it moped in its corner. With the waning afternoon and the idle hours, the burden of its presence grew heavier, and her understanding of the situation no clearer. Dimly, she attempted to read, but her resentment prevented any absorption in a book. She looked at it again, its shape, and then at her book, and then again at the time, white, caked with white where there should be pores, and glistening as if reflecting light.

When the realization happened, she did not sit upright, but closed her eyes, as if to hold it in place behind her eyelids. It wanted to be understood; it’s presence wanted the attention of reading, or counting, or trying to see, and yet it was always too subtle, always frustrating the desire it inspired. She sighed loudly, and then opened her eyes wide, and spoke sternly: “I know what you expect. I know what you want for me to think you deserve. But I won’t. I know allegories. You are not, this is not—we are not—an allegory. And you know it too. You are a gesture, a mere, silly gesture.”

She knew then that she could not keep it there, that it would continue demanding from her: some reciprocation she could not provide or some confirmation that she could not muster.

It was late afternoon, but not too late. The shops would still be open, and so, drawing a raincoat over her pajamas, drawing up its hood, and stepping into her galoshes, she made ready to leave.

At the bottom of the stairs, she set the time on the handcart she used for shopping and strapped it in with the blanket around it.

As she entered the studio, the man behind the counter looked up, drew in his cheeks in perplexity and stared at her over his glasses.

“I am interested in making a sale, or even a donation, to the studio,” she said as she lifted the time from the cart, still nestled within the blanket.

“We don’t usually…but I’ll…I’ll take a look at wh—“

She had opened the blanket, to reveal the time, and his voice caught in his throat, his hand moving to his mouth.

“You have to leave—you can’t—is that? I…you have to leave or I’m going to have to call the police—and the—did you make that? Is it real? Did you find it somewhere or…? What happened to it? Jesus—you need to leave immediately, immediately, ma’am”

Startled, she looked down, saw the time, ran her hands over it to verify what she saw, and as she did so:

“You can’t—how can you touch—leave immediately”

He rushed for her and pushed her to the door, only pulling her back when he noticed that the time was not accompanying her, that it remained in the wet blanket in the floor. He motioned to it with his boot-toe but did not lean down. Confused, anxious, and embarrassed, she clung it, took it in her arms and lay it roughly on the cart, while he held his hand across his eyes, half-watching.

Outside, at the street corner, she stood unsure of what had happened but, unable to guess at an explanation, gathered her breath, loosely settled the blanket on top of the time, and moved on.

The antique and pawn shop was three blocks away, and as she made her way there, she passed several gatherings of young men and women on the busy street. They paid her no mind. But as she neared the shop, the sidewalk dipped suddenly, the cart tottered, and the blanket fell to the side, exposing the time to the view of a young man, a freshmen or sophomore in college, nearby. He gaped, swayed towards it, and then, a flustered hand to his hair, turned violently away and hustled across the street.

The incense-filled interior of the antique shop was nearly empty, except for a couple, a man and a woman, nearly graduated she guessed, in the corner looking at an obsolete sepia globe.

The proprietor, a large woman, a sort of low-fee “grand dame,” in hoop earrings and the carcass of a feathered boa, with muslin drapes arranged across her shoulders and arms, was arranged in the corner above a dog and between two cats, who purred curiously at Louisa and who moved towards the blanket.

“I have an item for your store—I am not sure what it would fetch but it’s, it’s a rarity and I…I should let it speak for itself.”

As she spoke, a cat rubbed its arched back alongside the blanket, and meowed maliciously. The proprietor tilted forward to stand and shuffled dizzily forwards.

“Let me just see–.”

She balled the blanket greedily in a fist and jerked on it, then again; something seemed to be offering resistance.

“NO! Randy! No!”

Louisa could see nobody near, and took a second to understand that the proprietor was addressing the cat who, on the other side of the blanket, just by Louisa’s feet, had taken hold of it between its teeth, and seemed to be engaged in a remarkably feline game of tug-of-war.

The proprietor, though, won the day, and the cat was thrown forward into the time at the moment that the blanket rushed off.

The proprietor stared. Her eyes widened and remained immobile, so that Louisa’s confusion was impaired by fascination with the cracking blue and pink makeup lining their edges. Then she blinked, gasped, and drew in her breath in a sob, then again, louder, of terror or pity, Louisa did not have time to ask herself, for the couple had been drawn out of the corner by the sound, and the woman had shrieked into her husband’s shoulder where she buried her head. His chest out, he held her and stared at Louisa with anger and concern, while the proprietor now broke into a stream of tears, breaking,

“But how could anyone…how could…how could you—you could do this?”

“Should I call the police?”

The man had asked, and the woman who had recovered some composure, answered:

“But there’s…what could they do? There’s nothing to do, it’s just…”

“Did you do this? Is this something you made?” He turned to her aggressively, and the accusation pricked her to act, to speak, and to defend herself.

“I don’t—there’s nothing wrong with it—I found it, but yes, it’s mine and and and, I’m sorry but I don’t understand why you are all so upset, or what you think is wrong with it”

In one motion, the blanket was atop it again; the proprietor’s softened tears and the couple’s righteous indignation behind her; and the shop door slammed shut. To have seen her at that moment, you would have thought that she was rushing home to turn off a forgotten burner on the stove, or racing after a child in her charge who had flown into a fit and run away. Her face gaped with regret, her cheeks sagged with anxiety, her nostrils flared with desperation.

The trees blurred and the rain must have started up again because she was wet when she stood inside, and turned to the blanket, and the time, removing it, taking it up into her arms and standing at the base of the stairs, in the dark entranceway, holding it, swaying, half-leaning against the row of mailboxes.

“It was a terrible, cruel, stupid idea. So terrible of me. So terrible.”

That night, with the time at her feet in the bed, she slept restlessly. With a headache that persisted through the morning, she attempted to gather her thoughts, but they scattered before her, no matter the lure—a book, knitting, crosswords, proofreading. She had set the time on the couch in the living room, while she worked at the table. Frequently, she rose and paced, and then turned to it, and, looking away out the window, touched it, to feel its dry tepid cool surface, and ran her fingertips along its curves.

By afternoon, she needed a nap, but she knew sleep would not come.  In the bathroom, where she rinsed her face, she noticed the familiar tapping of a tree’s branch against the window. The small yard outback was hers to share with the apartment below, but the infirm man who lived there did not venture outside much. It was a torrent of weeds and desolate patches of dirt that might once have been gardens. A wooden fence bordered its three sides.

There was nothing else to be done. It could not remain with her in the house, or in her apartment, distracting her, gesturing, pleading. It would be the end of her. Nor could she abandon it, be it as art or antique. Nobody would have it, and, the perplexing memory made her shudder: their reactions, their sadness and disgust and horror. In the small yard, though, she could visit it on occasion; there, it would be half-hidden, tended by the patient, neglected growth, and would be no more conspicuous than a rock or shattered statue.

In the blanket one last time, she carried it down the stairs, and walked through the backdoor at the far end of the hallway, behind the base of the stairs. The day was bright with clouds, and yet, as she removed it from its cover and rolled it beneath a tree in a dense cluster of tall weeds, the time outshone the mild light. She smiled, and she sighed. Then, she sat, the ground still wet from the night before, and setting her head against the time, she closed her eyes and dozed.

When she woke, it was nearly dark and the time was inches from her face. It was all she could see as opened her eyes, and she imagined its surface populated with an entire civilization in miniature; the next day they would be holding a festival, and some of the people, young girls and boys, were already in bed, waiting to fall asleep, already excited to awake.

 

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