Tuesday, October 25, 2011


(Thanks to Rebecca Clayton who suggested the watch.)

The single man wanted no encumbrances. That’s the way he thought of other people or even pets. He felt he was walking that line on a planet where the light of the sun ends and the dark of the night begins. There was a name for that line, but he had forgotten it. What he knew was that on a planet with air, that line was blurred. On a planet or asteroid with no air, it was a crisp and abrupt line. At one moment one was in the dark, then the light came -- the sun coming up -- and it was bright. Or vice versa. And it was a line that moved all the time. It might be possible to stay on that sharp line, more or less, if one kept things simple, moving along. Not literally moving, but figuratively -- through time. Though it certainly helped to be out where the sky was complete and both sunrise and sunset were abrupt.

This was all fantasy, of course, science-based as it might be. Out here on the open prairie frontier, it was a little too easy to indulge in such fantasies. Still, there was truth in it. He kept moving. He was solitary so he could. He moved from his house to his workshop and from his workshop to the house. Sometimes to the little barn. There’s no sense in trying to figure out which was bright and which was dark because that was a metaphor. His house and workshop were realities. All he really cared about was his hands on wood, working it, persuading it, polishing it into fine furniture.

He did fine work. When the railroad had come through the nearby town of Elgin, the station agent had commissioned him to create the paneled counter wall where transactions were made through a wicket window. The wood gleamed richly and people said it was elegant enough to be a bank. In fact, when the head of the rail line came through on inspection, he was so impressed that he commissioned a roll-top desk for his office back in Minneapolis. Everyone was full of admiration and the solitary man couldn’t help being proud.

As a token of friendship, even before the desk was begun, the railroad bigshot gave him a railroad watch. The solitary man did not know that it was obsolete, not quite up to the new specifications, which were meant to make the trains run more closely to a tighter schedule for a bigger profit. To him, the watch was simply a beautiful time tool. A railroad watch had to be open faced, size 16 or 18, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least five positions, keep time accurately to within 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temps of 34 to 100 degrees F. have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, regulator, winding stem at 12 o'clock, and have bold black arabic numerals on a white dial, with black hands.

After that he kept meticulous track of the time, always matching the railroad watch that he kept in a special pocket of his vest against the sun. So far, they always matched, even after days of clouds made sun-time hard to tell. Because of his satisfaction that the little machine was accurate, he never forgot to wind it. He understood that if the trains didn’t stay EXACTLY on schedule, there was always the chance of a collision. Humans were involved, so the face couldn’t be hard to mistake and out here on the prairie weather made problems. The temps were far lower than zero in winter and easily ten degrees above a hundred degrees in summer. Anything metal was affected. In fact, the rails themselves could expand so much in the heat that they became curving snakes derailing trains. Contraction in cold meant gaps in the rails. Even when a train had the right of way, an hour’s “head way” was imposed. If it weren’t enough, there were terrible wrecks. In his watch pocket at body temperature, the watch worked evenly.

The solitary man appreciated good tools and guarded them well. He even his own foot-driven lathes, saws and drills with their belts and gears. His hammers were balanced and his scribers had sharp points. His very fine furniture didn’t make him rich because there wasn’t enough prosperity yet to demand good prices. Everyone assumed the railroad would bring that prosperity. Wasn’t that railroad owner willing to pay top dollar for a roll top desk?

Originally the solitary man had made chuckwagon and sheepwagon grub boxes that had compartments and drawers for specific things: the flour, the bacon, the pots and pans -- though they could just as easily hang from hooks and swing along jangling when the driver moved the wagon. The sheepherders weren’t particular, but cookies were inclined to ask for special caches for the sugar so it could be locked up or maybe a little place for spices. Even a ventilated basket for onions that needed to stay dry with circulating air. A place to hide money. He got a little better at the work all the time, both in terms of designing it and executing it. Then people living in homestead shacks asked for simple chairs. At first he made them out of peeled pine with snowshoe-woven rawhide seats, but rawhide is slippery, slimy, stinking stuff -- not his taste. He liked the dry scent and feel of wood.

Happily working alone on this new roll-top desk, making dovetail corners on one of the desk drawers and pleased that they were fitting together so neat and tight, he heard a lot of giggling and rustling behind him. When he looked, there were three Blackfeet girls, not quite adolescent, wearing mission dresses, worn-out men’s suit jackets for coats, and cowboy hats that appeared to have been sat on as much as worn. They were more than a little rumpled, but when he turned they became very grave and formal. “We’ve come to take care of you.”

He was terrified.

They were serious. They understood that what they were good for was keeping house and what he was supposed to be good for was providing food. That’s all they asked.

Since he couldn’t think of what to do with the girls, he just ignored them. They went into the house and began turning it upside down, scrubbing and rearranging and dragging things out to the clothesline until he dreaded the thought of going into his own house. They were washing things that had never been washed in their entire existence. Since now his dovetails refused to fit properly, he went off on a “game trail” that led into a deeper draw than the others.

His still appeared to be safe. He had to be careful about not drinking while he worked, but at the moment he couldn’t work anyway. He collected enough pure alcohol at the drip from the copper “worm” for a good comforting jolt and sat on a rock to sip while he tried to think of a way to get rid of the girls, whom he considered a kind of cooties. An affliction, even if they were Indian. Now and then he checked the time. In an hour he stood, weaving, and went home.

Though he had drunk enough liquid courage to return, it didn’t look like his house anymore. They had raided his stash of newspapers, lined the shelves with the paper and cut fancy edges to hang down like lace. Others were spread on the table in lieu of a tablecloth. They had blacked the stove, polished the nickel trim on it, and washed the bedding. The floor was swept and things put square against the wall. The place even smelled different. He had no idea where they had found the soap since he hadn’t seen it for several days. Something was steaming on the stove. He hoped it wasn’t his socks, though boiling them was probably the only way to get them clean.

It was a lovely stew. In fact, between food and whiskey, he was in a good enough mood to attempt conversation. There was a fat girl and a thin girl, but the third girl was a puzzle. Her distinguishing feature was not where you could see it unless you were an alert person: it was the little whirligig going in her head. She was a thinking girl, her head ticking like his pocket watch and all the gears turning smoothly. Since he couldn’t understand their language, he entertained himself by naming them. He called the littlest “Rosie” and the roundest with freckles “Lily.” He wasn’t thinking of town garden flowers, but rather of the silky little wild roses and the bright orange prairie tiger lilies. The oldest tallest one stumped him. She just didn’t look like plant life, with her big observant eyes and busy brain. He settled on “Owl.” It was this way of trying to categorize and romanticize females that always got him into trouble with women. They loved it.

But these girls didn’t make trouble. They rolled out their blankets by the stove for the night, and he didn’t trouble them either, crawling into his bed wearing long johns as always, but clean ones which hadn’t happened for a long time. In the morning they had not only carried water, but also heated it. So he shaved. Which was not his habit. Rosie and Lily smiled, holding out a towel. A CLEAN towel.

It didn’t take long for a routine to develop. Rosie and Lily ran the house in the efficient way they had learned at the mission, which was more interested in making them household servants than ladies, but Owl haunted him in the shop when she wasn’t looking after the horse, Mr. Bartleby, who thrived. She didn’t talk, thank goodness, but she watched so closely that soon she began to be helpful, knowing when to hold something still or to fetch what he pointed at.

One day, feeling good, he told her about the time an old chief asked him to make a calumet on his lathe. A calumet was only a pipestem, but as long as your arm, and meant to be decorated for ceremonies. When he got to the part about how he put the turned wood back on the lathe and drilled it carefully down the exact center, like a bore in a rifle barrel, he realized she was understanding him. “Good,” she said. So now he had an interpreter.

But the household didn’t last. A big mixed-blood man with a mustache arrived in a buggy and demanded his daughters back. Lily and Rosie sighed and got in. The father drove off with no talk. He did not claim Owl who simply said, “Time to go home for them. Not me.”

Housekeeping standards deteriorated a little after that, but the roll-top desk was coming together quickly and well. Owl’s smaller hands were good at some tasks, especially installing the little springs and latches he was designing into the secret compartments at the backs of pigeon-holes. She was good at tasks like sanding or rubbing and could do it for hours without complaint. In the evening she began to do beadwork. He thought about teaching her to read, but she wasn’t interested. They didn’t stay on a schedule and sometimes put everything down to hitch up Mr. Bartleby to the spring wagon for a trip to Elgin for groceries, discretely slipping some jars of moonshine to certain people, which generally covered the cost of the supplies.

Very occasionally, they indulged a bit themselves, often sitting alongside the busy little still as it steamed away like a teakettle. On one of those occasions he took his pocket watch out to check it, but before he could replace it, she held out her hand. Precious as it was, he only hesitated a moment. She looked at it very carefully, held it to her ear. He told her about Time Tables and Train Order. The problem of railroad engineers was the inverse of the problem of sea captains who needed dependable chronometers. The latter needed to know the exact time in order to calculate where they were, because they could be anyplace on the open sea. But a railroad engineer always knew where he was because he could not vary from the path of the track. He just had to know where he was in time, on the schedule, so he wouldn’t meet another train.

He told her about the July 17, 1856, Camp Hill accident when two Northern Penn Trains crashed head-on, killing half a hundred people, mostly children on their way to a Sunday School picnic. She looked sympathetic until he got to the part about the Sunday School picnic. “No good,” she said. She wouldn’t explain.

At last the roll-top desk was ready. The railroad big shot was coming through on a certain train on a specific day and the solitary man had to meet that train. The heavy piece of furniture was loaded into the spring wagon and covered with a tarp. Mr. Bartleby, in the small barn, looked at the arrangement skeptically. He could feel a big snowstorm coming. The humans were so delighted with meeting the deadline that they over-indulged in the booze the night before. Usually they settled down to check their load and arrangements. Not this time.

Next morning Owl, in spite of her headache, had real misgivings. She was worried about the weather, the big woolly roll of clouds rising over the mountains. But the solitary man brushed her off. “I can beat it!” he said. “I’ll start a little early.”

She insisted. “Better to go later when the storm is past!”

He argued. “You don’t get it. The whole thing depends on punctuality. It means keeping my word, making on-time delivery.” Then, “You’re thinking Indian-time.”

She declared she wouldn’t go along -- he said fine, he liked it that way. Neither of them remembered to check the harness in spite of the unusually heavy load. Owl went back in and resumed drinking. The solitary man left alone.

For a while the solitary man was fine, enjoying being alone, though it was clear Mr. Bartleby was having to pull hard. He didn’t really notice when the first snowflakes fell. Soon they were too thick to see through and had piled up enough to impede progress. He kept taking out his railroad watch to check the time. He was running late. It was getting very cold, too cold for his watch to run. He didn’t know that the important man’s train was now storm-stayed in a town way up the line.

Much later Owl was restlessly pacing paths in the unfenced yard. They were not straight and she was singing as she went, carrying her Mason jar of moonshine. By the time Mr. Bartleby showed up with no buggy, just the broken harness trailing along, she didn’t notice because she was inside, passed out on top of the bed. She had never quite admitted how much she cared about the solitary man, who treated her like a son, and she had never let him know how much she had become a woman in the short time she’d been with him.

In the morning when it had cleared and warmed and as soon as he sensed movement, Mr. Bartleby kicked the front door hard. Owl, leaning in the door frame, stared until she understood. While the horse ate, she found the other harness. Then she rode him out through the pathless sea of snow, over the swells of buried land, using horizon landmarks and weed shadows for reference. When she came to the becalmed spring wagon, she saw the roll top desk shining tarp-less on the wagon in the sun but no solitary man. Under the wagon and under the tarp was the carpenter, frozen to death.

It took all her strength to push the roll top desk out of the wagon and load the carpenter, wrapped in his tarp. Mr. Bartleby stood quietly to be hooked up to the wagon and found that his load was much lighter. “No need for that roll top desk anymore,” said Owl. She was not one for regrets. Everything in its own time and place. It cast a sharp-edged blue shadow on the bright snow.

She would make the man a good coffin with dovetailed corners and wind his watch, but put it in his pocket, because she had no need for it. The cold may have ruined it anyway. When the coffin was done, she would bring it to the railroad and send it to his family back East. The still would be a good living for her. Later in life, she even learned how to age whisky in barrels she made herself.


Rebecca Clayton said...

I love what happened with the railroad watch--I thought it would be a single simile!

prairie mary said...

I googled railroad watches and found a MASS of great stuff! Then it was just a matter of writing down what my subconscious poured out. Often the way it happens!

Prairie Mary