Kurt Andersen met Rob Walker, co-editor of Significant Objects, at Vintage Thrift in Manhattan to pick out three objects for our contest. Rob gravitated to this thing: “A block of wood, rounded at each end, with screws; it opens; it has no obvious function or decorative property whatsover.” Kurt thinks it looks “homemade-ish. ... It must have cut something?” he offers. It is marked faintly with something that looks like "Rs 5/" in pencil.
We want to read your backstory for this object!
Mom said it would help, and I believed her. I don't know why. Nothing she ever said was true. Well, that's not true. She was right about the fact that I would get over it. She just left out the part that it would take forty years. ###
When she brought it home from the flee market, she held it up. "I thought of you when I saw this," she said. "You know why?" ###
"Because it will remind you that everything will be fine." ###
At ten, I was too young to form my questions into words. "What is everything?" "When will it be fine?" ###
"See," she said, "if you look at the eye on this end, it's a grasshopper. If you look at the eye on the other end, it's a rabbit. And there you have it. What do rabbits and grasshoppers both do?" ###
She didn't give me time to answer. "They hop," she said. "Hopping is the answer." ###
"The answer to what, Mom?" ###
"The answer to whatever makes you sad, Sweetheart. Whenever you're unhappy, hop. That's what I'm doing. I can't live with your father any longer. We're not happy. So you and I are hopping to a new family." ###
"But I don't want to hop, Mom. I'm happy with Dad." ###
"You only think you're happy because you don't know what real happiness is. You'll see." ###
I waited to see. I wanted to see. But I never did see. Nothing was fine, but I couldn't hop. I was stuck with Mom and a new family who didn't like me and a school where I had no friends. Hopping continued to work for Mom though. She hopped again after I graduated from high school. This time, however, I didn't have to hop with her. I hopped to college instead. For a while I began to think that maybe Mom was right. Everything was better when I started my own hopping. When my roommate nagged me for being a slob, I hopped to another dorm. When I failed economics, I hopped to another college. I continued hop, hop, hopping. For the next 30 years I hopped from job to job, relationship to relationship. ###
After my 50th birthday, I was feeling the need for a change. My marriage was boring at best. My youngest daughter was starting college, so it seemed like a good time. While she was packing she went up to the attic for suitcases and came down with this funny looking wooden object. "What's this, Dad?" ###
I took the object from her and turned it around. "Well," I said, "it's a long story, but your grandmother gave it to me just before she divorced your grandfather. She told me it would remind me that everything would be fine." ###
"Was it?" ###
"No," I said. "It wasn't. And seeing this again reminds me of how wrong she was. Here, why don't you take it with you. See, if you look at the eye on this end, it's a grasshopper. If you look at the eye on the other end, it's a rabbit. And what do rabbits and grasshoppers both do? They hop. I want you to have this to remind you that hopping is not the answer." ###
###It was supposed to be a wedding present to me. Andy was making his own version of a cu-cu clock in his father's workshop. This was what he practiced on, trying to figure out how to make the robins, my favorite birds, fly out and back in swiftly. He used his favorite graphite pencil to engrave the initials for Rebecca Stien, what my name would have been. He was about to mark the date that he made it, May 4th, 1950. I suspect he looked around and saw the time, realizing he should be home for dinner. I made his favorite, pot roast with corn and my famous mashed potatoes. He never saw the car. We never ate the food.
###Anyway, what does this block of wood with "no obvious function or decorative property" mean? It embodies undying love an devotion. It is a symbol of promises. It is a representation of what could have been but never will be, no matter how much those left behind beg and plead.
###It is simply my future with Andy, unsure and filled with too many possibilities and what if scenarios. This failed attempt at a clock holds the background of the biggest unanswered question in my life, and to tell you a secret, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Quimbus started patting himself down, searching every pocket.
“Ohhh…oh, no. Ohhh, SHOOT. Shoot, shoot, shoot.”
“What is it?” called Xylor from the Captain’s chair.
“I, ah, think I may have left my cromulator behind.”
Xylor put the ship on auto-pilot and stormed over to Quimbus.
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”
“Well, it might be in my bag, so—”
“And why would it be in your bag? What is the protocol, Lt. Quimbus?”
Quimbus stared at the floor and mumbled, “Your cromulator never leaves your person.”
“YOUR CROMULATOR NEVER LEAVES YOUR PERSON. Well, this is a fine mess, isn’t it? We can’t go back for it—we’re already, like, a million light years out. I don’t know what High Command is going to have to say about this, but it won’t be good. You think I’M mad? Wait until you go before THEM and have to explain yourself. Do you know how much one, just ONE, of those units costs? I can assure you it’s far more than you make in several complete planetary rotations. There’s a reason the cromulator protocol is in place.”
The Captain stomped off, then turned back to the Lieutenant and bellowed, “And one more thing: You better hope to Xenu that no one finds your unit and figures out how to engage it. Do you have ANY IDEA what one of those would do to human DNA when activated? Our mission was to go and observe, Lt. Quimbus—ONLY observe. I hope you haven’t turned it into a mission of destruction.”
The Captain turned again and marched off, shaking his head, muttering “Unbelievable.”
Quimbus went back to his bunk, sat twiddling all his thumbs, and crossed his antennae, hoping he hadn’t accidentally ruined his second favorite planet.
In this particular case the event is singular: something observed through a hallway door by accident, something explicit and precise, something momentary and with a secret, non-obvious purpose, the pointing of a mirror that reflects back the sunlight cascading in through the closed window. ###
On this specific day and at a specific time the young girl takes the mirror from the wall where it normally hangs and places it on the sill, facing the street so as to catch the sun. She removes a small anonymous wooden device from her dress pocket and pivots the wooden blade open as if it were a knife. Thrust gently between the base of the mirror and the window pane, the sharp wooden tip forces the two glass surfaces into a precise, offset angle, tilting acutely at 65⁰, redirecting a small, illuminated square from the wide sunlit shaft onto the high up shadowed facade across the street.###
She seats herself quietly in the chair next to the window observing the second hand on her watch following it sweep, once around, from twelve to twelve. She rises quickly to grip the mirror and rehang it on the nail. The surprisingly precise wooden device is gently closed and dropped back into her dress pocket as she smiles and exits the office.###
Action Figure Noah told them their sins were an abomination, foretold unto the other toys that The Great Flood would come -- but did they listen? Ever since little Aiden had graduated to video games and girls, and his smarter sister Sarah shifted to books and boys, their toys had been banished to a large, Rubbermaid container for basement purgatory. It wasn't long before they devolved into debauchery, became increasingly bacchanalian. Sealed into such a tight space, I suppose the Barbies hooking up with GI Joes was inevitable, but who could've predicted My Little Ponies bedding Transformers, tiny Lego men writhing around with huge stuffed bears, plastic guns penetrating Easy Bake Ovens, and so many other unmentionable carnal convulsions, until all was whipped into an unholy Doll-On-Soldier-On-Animal-On-Robot-On-Weapon-On-Cooking-Implement-On-Humanoid-On-Monster-On-Lions-And-Tigers-And-Bears-Oh-My Sex Fest (the lions and tigers were, much to Noah's disgust, from his own ark starter set). ### When the container was transported to the shed fifteen years later and the lid jostled loose, things were in such a depraved state that Noah was left calling his warnings with hoarse voice from a tiny make-shift cage in the corner. All were laughing at him, even as they spread throughout the shed into friendly little fiefdoms of fornication. But Noah knew he would have the last laugh. For here in the shed were all the materials and tools needed to make the Great Ark that the Lord had prescribed so long ago. Not the fake cardboard ark that came with his packaging, but a real Ark made with balsa wood and oak and screws and wood glue and saw -- the means to the detailed plans that Jehovah had implanted in his plastic brain, back in the early days of basement. He'd just finished the much-derided construction, five years later, when came the Great Flood (or as it was known to Aiden and Sarah's parents, That One Kind Of Bad Storm That Flooded The Shed And Ruined Some Of Our Storage That One Time). ### Action Figure Noah mounted his mighty vessel, finally triumphant, never guessing that he himself was the punchline to the cosmic joke: The Great Art, constructed exactly to specifications, did not float. "Ha! Don't you wish you'd at least had a good time?!" gurgled the drowning, debauched toys. "No! At least I was true to my Lord!" Noah yelled back. "Okay, well, He did predict the flood, we'll give you that," replied the toys, "but the plans he gave you were faulty! Which means either He doesn't know what He's doing... or He's just plain mean!" And to that, Action Figure Noah had no reply, as they all washed out into the spill below the back garden, to be buried deep beneath the mud, to slowly decompose over hundreds of years. ### Noah's Faulty Ark, however, remained in the shed. It was later auctioned off, still silently asking the question, "Was Noah's god incompetent, insane, or just plain masochistic?" Slight wear and tear on the joints.
The call came at seven. His powerful voice startled her to a level of consciousness that allowed her to take him in. He had a favor to ask. She stumbled to the table and wrote the times down — the schedule for the day. It would be brutal. It had to be.
He apologized for waking her, offering a future meeting over coffee and toast. “Thanks,” she managed without laughing at the implication.
“Thank you indeed” she tells herself with barely awake eyes. She surrendered and crawled back into bed. Taking on the world requires rest. Noon would be a more appropriate time to rise for a girl who was going to be killing that night.
But sleep eluded her as she thought about the last time she worked with Jon. The project involved a lot of downtime. Well, maybe not downtime but waiting in the shadows of an abandoned building. He kept fidgeting with a wood gadget no one could quite figure out, but the click became more familiar than his voice as the hours passed. The one time he spoke was in response to a conversation she was having with another colleague about the deterioration of the moral code and the loss of hope in something worthwhile. Certainly being in our business gives rise to questions about good and evil. This particular time we were discussing Nietzsche and his idea that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murders of all murders?” It’s not that Nietzsche didn’t believe in a God he just no longer saw God as a reliable source of any absolute moral principal.
She pondered this thought sitting in the dark, thinking about why she was there and questioning her own belief system. It made for great fuel for the discussion why she felt some of Nietzsche’s reasonings were faulty. It was after one of these exchanges Jon stopped twisting the arm of the wood object and after what seemed minutes Jon broke the silence, “To contradict Nietzsche, how boldly delicious!”
"Pul-eeze ...please dad, I have to have something." I knew to start early and in a week or so we were down in the garage. Every tool possible was precisely arranged on pegboard, his work bench clear and ready for work. The table saw placed just so but it prevented the passenger's door of my mom's car from opening. He was an engineer, efficiency was essential.###
"you're so good at this, dad, I don't care what it is, just something."###
"Dad, we can use that old scrap wood, I can sand it then you can drill the holes. Its really gonna be fun. The others will be so jealous, their dad's barely have tools."###
"Dad, can we work on it tonight? ...or tomorrow after school? Come down & see the screws I found, paint too. It's OK if it isn't perfect." When he lifted it, it seemed much heavier than it really was, I helped decide what to cut next so he didn't go back upstairs.###
"Gosh, dad, this is great." He'd sigh, nod and glance beyond me. I saw the twinkle in his eyes, at least where it used to be. The garage was underground, cool and quiet except for the hum of the shop lights, It was just me & my dad in an illuminated cube. I didn't accept that I was selfish, I thought it would be fun for him too, he used to love puttering away down here.###
"Thanks Dad, it's really great." He told me to make sure they got a lot for it.###
"I will." It was on the workbench, the toy fair was long since over so I screwed the last piece on and hid it away. I know he loved the garage, its where he ended it all. When the loss would overwhelm me, I'd visit it. I did get a lot for it.###
July 11, 1967 ###
Journal Entry ###
10:23 p.m. ###
Downtown is blazing. As if projected off a broken mirror ball, lava lamp yellows and oranges swarm in kaleidoscopic clusters. Churning ... twisting ... hovering in suspension... tumbling back into themselves. Appearing out-of-nowhere, a flashing orbit of red dots whirls dervish-style echoing siren songs. Waiting incessantly waiting. ###
As a brilliant spotlight meticulously rakes for its mark, Huey grasps my collar tightly squeezing our bodies into the solid black stripe cast from an alley door. Having ventured out in violation of the mandated police curfew, we must avoid detection. One false step to the left to the right and the cops will show no mercy in treatment of apprehended 12-year old delinquents. He whispers, "dissolve into shadow"..."wait in the darkness"..."wait in silence". ###
In the coffee shops, we had carefully listened to those unfortunates that were caught in the act. Split-lipped narrations of hippies and freaks whose shaved heads revealed protruding Easter egg-hued bumps as well as to the badass bikers, gangers, and Vietnam vets who were clubbed to bloody pulps, striped naked, and sprayed with hoses. Just unlucky or unskilled? We knew the risks but couldn't resist. "become my shadow's shadow"..."follow me closely"..."shift your shape to become that pile of knocked over trash cans"..."follow me". ###
Time slows to free-fall sucking all sound into its vacuum. Steps left left right, belly-crawling to an overturned vehicle, Huey crisply snaps off the radio antenna. I watch him pull the telescoping chrome tube sections apart then the tip ball shaft to desired length. Positioning the widest diameter tub on to the top of a scrap 2 X 4, he pounds it with finishing nails from a Levis pocket. Nailing the tip ball to the 2 X 4 side, he test snaps it forward and backward until it strikes the center of the tube hole end precisely. The .22 caliber bullet slides exactly into the antenna tube. He points to the floodlight bulb over a warehouse door, tip ball hammering bullet in an explosive flash, we continue in darkness. ###
Yeah yeah yeah back in the day more militant or less peacenik types began to handout free how-to-manuals . Protect yourself on the street or at the demonstrations man! These "Zip" guns could be assembled quickly from ordinary found stuff. I did not like the idea and such would be the last thing anyone wanted to hear. but once again, Huey had proved to be one step of the hounds. Almost home, stepping over the railroad trestle spanning the creek, I hear the sound of evidence floating merrily away "plunk", "spalash", "spoloosh". ###
March 25, 2012 ###
Meanwhile...driving in my car...listening to WNYC Studio 360 and imaginging the significant object to be a "zip" gun. Back home, I conclude from the online picture that it is a "shoff-off's zip gun". If one had been a fly on this craftsman's shop wall, observing him calculating plans, selecting highest quality grained wood, curly spiral shavings falling from great-grandfather's razor sharp chisel, boldly signing the stock, one would likely conclude the same. This guy was oblivious to notions of street assemblage or disposing of evidence. In fact, he is described as being "flabbergasted" while officers fingerprint him in the station. One cop angrily quips, "I should a blasted this s--- for brains away. This dim wit moron might as well have been packing a real pistol." He mutters, "Gee whiz fellas, do I get my Zippy back when i get out of here?" ###
Many still remember the coverage in the press as the trial went national because of "The Nutty Professor" label. That photograph of him standing in his shop filled with thousands of strange invention prototypes while holding Zippy to his lips blowing invisible smoke from the barrel. His gadgets disappeared one-by-one from the evidence locker and the photo was useful for determining "provenance". Collectors love "a factual story attached to a specific object". As the story faded...a cop removes the zip gun for a funhouse game of marksmanship at their Annual July 4th barbeque. Turns are taken blasting holes in the neighbor's fence in a connect-the-dots attempt to draw a silhouette of a star. Game over as antenna barrel disengages, loops in the air, then falls between the decking boards. The family dog chews on it then buries it with a bonanza of T-bones. ###
It is lost until a new owner finds it with a metal detector. It is tossed into boxes of estate stuff then into a rented storage container. A local flea market couple buys the contents of the unit at auction then sorts it out for yard sale. Over the years it developes a sun-baked patina (except under a sticky price tag). Catching the eye of a guy driving by, it is purchased despite the blemish. Presently, it is listed in a New York City auction catalogue with value estimated beyond anyones wildest dreams. The seller scoffs, "It is an object that speaks to collectors of all genres." furthermore "It is missing some parts, but, it is of great historical importance."
For two weeks we have been clearing out Mama's house. Just that morning we had cleared the doorway enough to enter her craft room. Like an archeological dig with each layer we found evidence of dalliances with different art forms. This wooden thing marked the beginning of the wood carving strata. As we excavated there had been the oil painting strata: wooden boxes filled with rainbows of oil paint, fine brushes and vivid landscapes. Below that was the sewing era. That excavation had revealed an open, threaded sewing machine set up on a long table poised for the next project. There was the knitting era, the drawing era, pastels, toile painting, china painting, doll making, needlepoint, cross-stitch. We still had a ways to go until we hit bottom. Each layer exposed beautiful and artistic work, all abandoned without a backwards glance.###
It is a fantastical and frightening task sorting through this house. Everywhere there is evidence of a creative and unusual mind inclined toward the fanciful and not the practical. Someone inclined to collect items that catch her eye and not inclined to ever throw anything away. “You don’t know what it was like living through the depression”, was a common wail. ###
All mixed together are objects ranging from leather bound first editions and silver tea sets to corncob pipes and bags of 30 year old junk mail. Much we find is impersonal and odd; much is deeply intertwined with our personal histories. Everything tells something about our mother. But, there is much from each of our own lives; toys, report cards, school projects. More extensively there are letters and pictures exposing 100 years of the loves and hurts of my entire family. ###
We found the 1955 obituary of our uncle found dead in his rented room at age 35. We have his two Silver Stars and the letter from a 2 star General describing the heroic acts that earned them. There is a long eloquent letter to his parents telling how this honor was really theirs. We found letters from our Grandfather to the VA entreating them to do more to help him, ' I sent you a healthy man, and you returned him broken'. And finally, letters from friends and family expressing sorrow and some relief that he was finally out of pain.###
There was a 1907 newspaper article the morning after our great-aunt eloped. It served as the wedding announcement to her recalcitrant father. The bridal couple wanted a honeymoon and a fortnight before facing him. They left town while the morning paper detailed her escape and their deception. The groom explained that her father's objection was not to the groom, but to any man wishing to marry his daughter. They stated they would be back when his wrath had abated. There was a later newspaper article commemorating this same couple's 30th wedding anniversary.###
In the attic we found boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations. As a child, I remember the house decorated like a little magical fairyland. Packed away with all these decorations were piles of condolence letters and cards from 1975, the Christmas my father died. She packed all the decorations and all the cards up and never decorated for Christmas again. In spite of that, throughout the house we found bags of Hallmark Christmas ornaments that she continued to buy through the years.###
The most frightening thing we found in the house was the arsenal: guns, sabers, knives, hand grenades, bombs and ammunition. Most were souvenirs from all the wars of the 20th century. Once, behind a bookshelf we found what looked to be an intact bomb, WWII vintage. If she was going to blow us up, I wish she would have done it at the beginning of all this. We shrugged and put it upstairs in the arsenal closet, which also doubled as the temporary Robert E. Lee Memorial. ###
The box of pictures from 40 to 60 years ago entertained us for a while. We laughed and pointed to items in the pictures. “I threw that away yesterday”, “That went to Goodwill”, “I took that home last trip”, “I saw that sitting in one of the piles in Grandma’s room”. These items from our past, from the lives of our family ranged from hats and dresses, to furniture, paintings and statues and they were all here in this house. We were slowly dismantling it all.###
I peed myself a little when the phone rang like I used to when I heard her footsteps approaching. I knew it was the lady from the day before. She had found me somehow. Of course this was impossible and it was simply not the case. Stupid. I hear my own voice, shaky and managing an even higher pitch than usual, followed by the familiar sound of George, my neighbor. Yes, George. It was round and ripe and safe now. If only he knew. What if he were to know what I had stowed away and everything that came along with it? Cliché, but how a life can change in an instant when no one looking. There’s no going back or is there? Again, it is just as one’s shadow extends out always there, rarely seen yet still part of you, clinging. It has form, your form, and it’s not to be liked though there is that work to be done. George wants to play, but I’m not in the mood. I’m not having it. Not now. Not after this. So I tell him no and good night. It’s done. Over. But it remains in place, in my bag, where I shoved it on my way out the door. I see it protruding at a sharp unnatural angle. The leather is strained. I’ll let it be until morning. The phone rings again. It’s not George. It’s my mother and she’s no lady now. She has found me. It was possible. Her voice like mine is squeaking. What had I done with the evidence? She’s squawking now, accusing me. No one else could have taken it. My childhood held only the four of us and my brother got the hell out of Dodge to join a better family. I didn’t make it that far and return annually and too often. My dad long gone too, and lucky, leaves me guilty of theft at the least. It was his invention that she grabbed, looking like a miniature wooden Winnebago or some instrument created with parts flipping this way and that for a use only Dad could engineer, as it was his vocation practiced outside or inside the workshop. I knew the day would come when she would snap, but I was hoping to beat her to it with an expression more passive than aggressive. Here we were just the two of us and even with miles of space and electricity between us I am malleable, unable to manipulate the truth even to save myself if not us both. I cannot sever the connection. But what was the point? I thought I was helping, but in this moment my true motivation becomes clear; it wasn’t for her, but to damn us both to life for the life she had taken albeit well deserved many would agree. What he had done was only mildly criminal: the taunting, the quick out-thinking of others, nasty witticisms cutting us to the core, reserving nothing for the sake of tomorrow or proximity. His escalation led to the poisoning of the lawn, the dog, and then him shitting in the daisies as they slept until it ended the night she waited. Half his size with a lifetime of fury she could no longer contain, she had had enough and she would be venerated. With the last of his breath he gave her what no one had, not even me. There would be no more living out of anyone’s childhood. They had shared more in common than either could have imagined or believed. I hear her desperation now so I do my verbal juggling act. I took it and I’ll take care of it. I watch a disjointed hand hesitate then stretch out to transfer the sticky contents of my bag to a large mailer on the desk. I’ll see her again soon. I ring George to apologize. I have a favor to ask, after we play.
Ball Puzzle Box ((wooden thing) significant object Studio 360)
Jack liked detail. The work bench he labored on was equidistant from all four corners of his shed and parallel to the roadway that fronted his property on Route 79 in Upstate New York. That wasn’t the sort of detail that anyone would notice, but Jack did and he liked it.
Jack made his living selling handicraft wooden objects. For four months over the summer, he loaded up his old station wagon with boxes of wooden puzzles and train sets and various other bric-à-brac, and set off after the caravan of DIY affineurs and cheese mongers, bees’ wax soap makers, pagan jewelers and herbalists who rode the circuit of swap meets and farmer’s markets from the Finger Lakes up into New England and down into the Shenandoah mountains. It was a nomad’s existence that made it very easy to go unnoticed.
Jack spent most days on the circuit sitting in a corner behind his own unkempt moustache-less beard, tapping away at a piece of hardwood with a block and chisel until someone stopped by his table. Then he’d perform a flourish of movement, hold the piece of cast off wood under a glass lens attached to a retractable arm and stare at it. Like a wizened old clock maker checking alignment down to the micrometer, Jack curled his body up around the glass and stared at the wood grain through the lens for a count of twenty Mississippi.
During that uncomfortable pause, Jack didn’t say a word. He sat completely still and waited until the customer grabbed up two or three baubles, then he put down the chisel and block, made the proper change and sent them on their way. Five or six exchanges like that a day was all Jack needed to survive financially, and it freed him up to focus on what he considered his real work.
Jack loved to make puzzle boxes most of all. He took his time with those and enjoyed the ingenuity of their design. His favorites were the hinged ball puzzle boxes. From the outside, they appeared devilishly simple, but Jack knew the secret. Each roughhewn wooden box was a marvel, dependent on a delicate sequence of movements to engage the mechanism that unlocked each level and uncovered a hidden treasure pocket at the puzzle’s final solution.
These, his favorite, he never sold. Instead he used them to wager with children between the ages of eight and twelve. The wager was simple, the kids were given five turns at the device to solve the puzzle, if they did it they won the puzzle and the treasure, but if they didn’t Jack would solve the puzzle for them and the children would have to forfeit a treasure to fill the next one. As the reports show, Jack took pride in filling each secret alcove with a prize worthy of a child’s most earnest efforts and no child was ever forced to give more than was wagered.
Now these wagers didn’t happen every time he set up his little workshop space in a farmer’s market, and it happened rarely enough that Jack was able to spend fifteen years traveling the country before anyone noticed. But when it did happen, when all the moving parts, the unaccountable variables met in congruency and some child took his wager, Jack would disappear for a few weeks with his winnings. Then he would suddenly show back up, without a word and continue tapping away in his corner until the next one.
When the authorities finally caught up with him, Jack had almost a hundred of these ball puzzle boxes each meticulously documented in his ledgers. In the time since the first gruesome discovery, investigators have been able to account for all of Jack’s treasures, save one--an innocuously marked Rs 5/ entered into one of Jack’s ledgers. As of this posting, investigators have been unable to confirm either the whereabouts of the missing puzzle box or the contents therein, but continue to hold out hope for its recovery and the closure it will bring to a grieving family.
(Significant Object: Wooden Thing)
by Judith Ellen Sanders###
Don’t cry Abraham don’t cry###
I will hold you up, embrace you,###
Keep you safe from wind and snow###
I saw you moving###
Heading for the undertow.###
Explore and ponder###
Feel free to see###
But do it safely next to me.###
I know you’re too###
But my stanchions brace and can embrace you.###
Think about your myriad thoughts###
And choose me as your place,###
Rest your head upon my chest###
I’ll hold and keep you safe.###
At first I thought, it is a Boz. They are putting us on, they know what they have. And then everyone said it. Emails. Articles. The guy from the Modern and the guy from the Met said without a doubt. And then it turns out the two guys that purchased it for a buck did not know. Seems impossible, I know. The part that moves, the screw, the pencil mark no less. Built, shaped, created by Boz'n Smit himself. It will probably go on auction and everyone knows who will buy it. And what will the price be this time? And what will the two guys do with the money or were there two guys involved in the purchase? Like art people say, "A Boz is a beautiful object with a lot of stories attached". And what did happen to Boz'n Smit? How can someone so well known just disappear? Anyway, you know, you look at it and you know.
“What is it?” Titus asked. ###
Ptolemy looked closely at the object Titus held. “It doesn’t appear to be much of anything, although – clearly – it was supposed to have been,” he said. ###
Titus held the object at arm’s length and then, unsatisfied, removed his glasses and brought it close to his eyes. It was small, the size of half a stick of butter, a wooden block with a lid that swung open like the blade of a pocket knife. It hid nothing. ###
“What do you mean by that?” Titus asked. ###
“Well, it’s clearly not a random assemblage of pieces. They all fit together to well. It was clearly made with care,” Ptolemy said. “And yet, it seems unfinished to me. It’s barely a thing at all.” ###
“Well, obviously it’s a thing,” Titus said. ###
“Yes, but it’s barely a thing. It’s more than nothing, but less than something. If it were less than it is, it would be a thing. If it had no moving parts or hardware, it would be simply a block of wood, which is, clearly, a thing. If it were more than it is, it would also be a thing. For instance, if it had a small compartment under the lid, it would be, perhaps, a pill box. As it is now, though, one doesn’t know what to call it. In fact, the more likely a person is to use the word “thing” to describe something, the less of a thing it actually is. I find the tension unbearable.” ###
“Look at the way it’s worn. How many people have handled it? This thing – there’s that word – has been around a long time, waiting to be something. Maybe decades. It’s crying out to be finished. To be something, not just barely a thing.” ###
“’Crying out?’ Isn’t that a little heavy handed?” Titus asked. ###
“It’s making nervous. C’mon. Let’s go.” Ptolemy grabbed the object from Titus and went to the register. ###
“How much for this?” he asked as he showed it to the clerk. ###
The clerk looked up and glanced at the object. “One dollar,” he said. ###
“Here,” Ptolemy said as he handed the clerk a dollar and turned for the door. ###
They turned right on the sidewalk and headed north toward Ptolemy’s studio. “I find it irritating that this thing only costs a dollar. It seems disrespectful,” Ptolemy said. ###
“I don’t think its feelings were hurt,” Titus said. ###
Minutes later, they arrived at the studio, and Ptolemy walked directly to the drill press. He inserted a 1” forstner bit into the chuck and tightened it. He placed the object in the vise, swung open the lid, and carefully centered the bit over the lower section of wood. He turned on the drill press and lowered the bit, creating a neat, 1” pocket – about ½” deep – that would be hidden when the lid was closed. He turned off the drill, retrieved the object from the vise, and left through the front door, on his way back to the thrift store. ###
“C’mon,” he said. Titus followed. ###
At the store, Ptolemy went to the back shelf where he had found the object earlier. He turned to look at the counter. The clerk from whom he had purchased the item was still there. ###
“Let’s wait a few minutes,” he said to Titus. ###
They leaned against the shelf, hands in pockets. About ten minutes later, the clerk was replaced by another. ###
“Alright, let’s go,” Ptolemy said. ###
“How much for this pillbox,” Ptolemy asked the new clerk. ###
The clerk took it from Ptolemy, swung the lid open to see the hole beneath it. “Three dollars,” he said. ###
Ptolemy smiled at the clerk and gave him three dollars. They left the store.
That wooden thing he had displayed on the bookshelf like a piece of modern art – to me it looked more like some religious relic – kept me up at night. I had emptied the kitchen drawers of all his fancy doohickeys and William Sonoma gadgets; I’d sorted out his clothes (shall I confess to keeping a clean pair of boxers in his underwear drawer?) and allotted appropriate recipients. My Dad got a woolen winter coat, I gave his brother a brand new pair of shoes, and I kept a couple of t-shirts for myself.###
None of his books were any I would read, most being treatises on economics, Marxism or the Cuban revolution, so they all went in the trash. Yup, I don’t apologize: into the dumpster. I kept the ones we gave each other on a special shelf I cleared, titles at eye level.###
I put his dead mother’s ceramics on the very top shelf, where I never looked and would not notice the dust they carried.###
When I was done with that, it was time to deal with his couch, which was too old to keep and pointless to reupholster, so I bought another one that was the same size, shape and color.###
Photographs were tucked away in boxes, a few souvenirs from his family –why were there all those funeral cards?- were hidden in drawers and that was that. Until I noticed the chunk of wood.###
I have to admit that I hadn’t really noticed it before. When I looked, all I saw was a piece of wood that seemed to accompany the sculpture of a Pregnant Woman (She Was Carrying a Boy) that we had bought at an art fair one Easter. Now that I looked more closely, it was obvious that it had nothing to do with the sculpture. It reminded me of an Ikea futon I’d finally given away a few years earlier, but there were no uneven breaks in the smoothly polished surface, just an odd, articulated stub.###
It might have been part of a collection, if he had collected anything, which he didn’t. Neither did it form part of any hobby, for he had never indulged in hobbies. It had been awful and disquieting to discover how little space he actually occupied.###
Thus it was that I remained so reluctant to dispose of this ungainly piece of wood. There was a surfeit of space for his memory, and yet I felt there was something missing, maybe something missing in me because I could not give the object a name, much less a purpose or meaning. Yet it had been his. He had placed it there at some point, for some reason, and I did not know why.###
It wasn’t like finding a key to an unidentifiable lock, or a packet of love letters, or a box of whips and chains, but it was just as disconcerting. Had I asked, he might easily have said ‘It’s not mine, it’s yours ‘ or ‘I keep meaning to ask you what the hell it’s for!’ But now it sat beside the Lady Pregnant with Baby Boy sculpture, and immediately began mocking me. How self-involved could a person be to not know what this wooden thing was, what it meant to him, what its history was, under what circumstances he had come to possess it. Forget about those people in his photo albums (just open the rings and entire pages disappear), those names in his old address books. This block of wood with its smooth curves and articulated joint (was it part of some avant-garde train set?) sat imperviously upon the bookshelf, challenging our time together, disdaining the home we had built, scorning my loss.###
Soon, every morning I would pause by the bookshelf on my way into the kitchen, rub the sand out of my eyes, and stare at the wooden thing, willing it to reveal itself to me. It became the first thing I saw when I snapped on the lights upon returning home every evening. Late at night, as I contemplated returning to fitful sleep and dark, insomniac dreams, I would again stand before it and stare, trying to make sense out of things being an integral part of my life and then not being a part of life at all.###
I considered taking it off the shelf and putting it in a closet, but when I moved it away from the sculpture (Pregnant Woman, It’s a Boy) I had a violent premonition that engulfed me in sorrow and guilt. I put the pointless wooden object back in its place and felt a rush of relief. I stepped back from the shelf and when I looked at it again it was with tenderness. No tears sprang to my eyes, my throat did not contract, I was not saddened, angry or even perplexed. I decided that this feeling of sudden joy was really nothing more than an easy contentment. And because it was something I hadn’t felt in such a long time, I confused it, was willing to confuse it, with joy.
Arthur heard his wife calling, but he ignored her. Pills she yelled. Or maybe it was Bills. She knew better than to bother him while he was in his workshop. This was his creative time, his time alone with his thoughts and the wood, the saws, the sandpaper. ###
Where were his saws? He looked under the work table and in his tool box. Nothing. He could ask his wife but she might laugh. She didn't like to come down into his lair. That was the word she used, lair. He couldn't think what that word...Ah, there on the board with the holes like polka dots was the outline of his little saw and big saw, the saw shaped like a square with a hole in the middle and the tiny one on the end. The name of the tiny saw was...but why weren't they hanging on the board? ###
He touched the outlines, hoping he would remember. Key. That was the name, but it wasn't shaped like a key. He took a bunch out of his pocket to be sure. Bright plastic things. Not like his key saw at all, which he seemed to have lost. ###
Thank heavens glue remained on the workbench. I'll make a little car for my grandson, Arthur. Or Brian. Do I have a granddaughter? One of each seemed about right. Brynn. that's the girl! Pleased he remembered her name, he started sanding the wood. Make it nice and smooth so as not to hurt her tender hands. ###
He sanded and glued, carefully cleaning up drips and smoothing edges. There was a little trouble with the shape. Wheels, yes, that's right but how does the driver sit inside? There has to be a place for his head, especially if he's tall. Like me. ###
When he finished, Arthur turned the car over and over in his hands. Something seemed not quite...but he couldn't... ###
Dinner! This time he heard his wife clearly. He left the gift drying on the table.
“What is it?” I turn the strange object over in my hands. It's made of honey-colored wood, with two screws attaching hinges or flaps.
### “How should I know?” Terri says, taking it from me and dusting it off. “The State would never manufacture something like this, something so... useless.”
### We're squatting in the dirt in Terri's greenspace, behind his family's living unit. A shallow hole lies in front of us, earth strewn about it, and I hold his younger sister's hand. She dug the hole in a typical 3-year-old's game of make-believe, and ran to Terri when she unearthed the object beneath the ground.
### “It can't have been buried very long before the creation of our State, it would have rotted.”
### We pause to recite the State's motto after each mention of It: “Glory in protection, glory in asceticism, glory in service.”
### Then we turn back to the block of wood. “What does that say, Arora?” Terri asks me.
### I specialize in language and communications, just as Terri studies materials. We're both on course to work for some of the State's many bureaus once we turn eighteen. Two years to go.
### But the strange markings scrawled right on the wood grain make no sense to me. “Something that looks like an 'R,' then maybe an 'S' or an 'A,' I can't tell. That's definitely a 5, though. The figures are written by hand.”
### “Really?” Terri is astonished. It is rumored that only the Presiding Officer of the State (may He be blessed and may He experience glory in protection, glory in asceticism, and glory in service) can write by hand, using a utensil. Terri and I have watched Him sign documents on broadcasts over the large screens in the Central Square. Sometimes I wish I could write, too, and draw, instead of simply tapping away on the screen of a portable tablet.
### “This wooden thing has to be from before the Formulation of the State,” I say quietly. Terri and I look at each other gravely. Terri's little sister, Lilah, begins to hum tunelessly. For the first time I can remember, no words of glory fall from our lips after the mention of the State.
### The State incinerated all known artifacts from before the Formulation that were deemed unneeded, in the last recorded use of raw fire. Now, no one is allowed to be in possession of objects without a purpose.
### “We're hoarding illegal property,” Terri hisses.
### Before I can respond, Lilah unexpectedly seizes the object from me and shakes it. A small piece of metal tumbles down from where it was wedged between one of the flaps and the main body of the chunk of wood. When Terri reaches over and picks it up, we can see a small face, a man's, depicted on its flat, round, coppery surface.
### “It's a coin,” I say.
### “Worth five... units of some kind?” Terry muses.
### I take up the wooden object from where it now lies on the ground, and brush my finger over the markings. Rs 5/. I think of the way someone wrote them purposefully many years ago. I wonder if it was to communicate with someone else, or as a note to themselves; in passing, or as part of a larger ceremony.
### At that moment, a strong wind begins to blow, ruffling the grass and Terri's hair. With the breeze comes a loud thrumming sound. Lilah shrieks and looks around wildly in infant terror. ### The State hoverpod makes itself visible in the sky above our sector. A computerized voice begins to issue the famous Last Words. Terri and I grip each others' shoulders and try to shelter Lilah. We all shut our eyes. This is the last thing we'll ever hear:
### “A well-known idiom from before the Formulation said simply, 'Close, but no cigar.'”
on their last trip together to the beach, her mother was unfathomably cheerful the whole week, bringing home bits of flotsam from her morning walks along the shore.
one day she fished an odd chunk of stuff out of her bucket: a little gadget with two screws and one moving part, waterlogged, streaked with algae, a small ruffle of barnacles embellishing one edge.
on the low stone wall along the patio her mother made her new treasure the centerpiece of ephemeral still-lifes with shells, feathers, sea oats, bits of colored glass. “look.” she said, toggling the piece of wood back and forth. “open, close. open, close. inhale, exhale.”
“look,” she said. “open, close. give, receive.”
as they packed their bags, her mother, wordless, eyes shining, gave it to her. another piece of junk for the junk shelf.
he gave her a heart-shaped rock: quartz, shot through with bits of schist that looked, to her, like bullet wounds.
of course she didn’t mention it, for fear of breaking their unspoken rule to be freakishly upbeat for the few hours a month they spent together.
he called her “angel”. he murmured words she yearned to hear as a girl, but now, at this late stage, they grated. when she tried to describe her collapse, he cut in with ”every breakdown is a breakthrough.” and when she was alone, again, for the holidays, he said, “you know you’re never really alone.” it all sounded too much like the trite sayings on the little paper tags of tea bags to let it in.
she needed something odd, something found, to give in return for that sad stone heart. so she brushed the dust off her mother’s funny gizmo from the sea and tossed it in her overnight bag.
he swung the little lever back and forth, remarked on the barnacles. he knew what it was, but not what it was called. “a carpenter uses it,” he said. “to make things.”
she did not want to know what it was called.
soon she found that she drifted off to sleep with the lost gift on her mind, and woke up the same. for all she knew, she dreamed of it too, but she had long lost her knack for catching dreams.
it was simply too silly to ask about. she mentioned it once, lightly, as they lay on the fake-hard hotel bed. “it’s on my dashboard,” he said.
she tried to picture his dashboard: grimy, strewn with old dead parking stubs, faded ribbons and cast-off medals from his sons’ track meets. perhaps, god forbid, one of those toxic cardboard pine trees swung from his rearview mirror.
she tried to tell him about the back and forth, the inhaling and exhaling, the strange exuberance. her mother’s impending death flitted in and out like the junco on the finial at the end of her back stairs.
“yeah,” he sighed, staring at the ceiling. “we are the stories we tell.”
she wondered if he drank peppermint tea, or chamomile.
she wanted it back.
Back in the day, when all phones had cords, my mother would walk around the house stretching the cord and generally annoying everyone in the house and regularly ripping the cord out of the phone rendering it useless until my grandfather could fix it.
One day grandpa showed up and had this little wooden thingy he made in his shop. He attached the thingy to the phone cord about two feet from the phone and when mom tried to stretch it around a corner the thingy would catch and stop it from being stretched too far. Grandpa was a genius.
He carried it instead of food for years without rest and I can’t let them know it is here. ###
The scanners come on alternate festivals and our compound is being celebrated this year. How can I let my friends down? We worked so hard, long days, singing The songs through each scattering, again safe from the things that hide in dark places, without Transparency. We even found some Ego-objects hidden like secrets. ###
Before showing the pinwheel I’d found to our Master I held it up for the wind. ###
“The Child has Art, my dear. How very much this saddens us. She is gifted, Mother. She cannot help but seek inwardly – do you understand how this must terrify her? The Teacher tells me the Child has never won the Looking Game!” ###
When he put it in a jar in the earth before our compound was Blessed he told me why. “Mary said this would help us when she was saved”. For years after he ran I would dig the jar up on her Day and try, very hard, to see. When Mark lifted her to the sky so that she could feel Grace, Mary went limp as a prayer book as he spun her, tracing the orb of the sun. ###
The rust is thick under its lid. My hands are pink from trying, slipping as they grow wet, crimson runes forming on the palms. ###
The glass broke easily, loudly, and for the first time the thing she made and he carried fell into a shape I could see. Surely they will find me now. ###