Excerpt of Tinkers by Paul Harding
(Page 3 of 4)
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The stubbornness of some of the country women with
whom Howard came into contact on his daily rounds
cultivated in him, he believed, or would have believed,
had he ever consciously thought about the matter, an
unshakable, reasoning patience. When the soap company
discontinued its old detergent for a new formula and
changed the design on the box the soap came in,
Howard had to endure debates he would have quickly
conceded, were his adversaries not paying customers.
Wheres the soap?
This is the soap.
The box is different.
Yes, they changed it.
What was wrong with the old box?
Whyd they change it?
Because the soap is better.
The soap is different?
Nothing wrong with the old soap.
Of course not, but this is better.
Nothing wrong with the old soap. How can it be
Well, it cleans better.
Cleaned fine before.
This cleans better - and faster.
Well, Ill just take a box of the normal soap.
This is the normal soap now.
I cant get my normal soap?
This is the normal soap; I guarantee it.
Well, I dont like to try a new soap.
Its not new.
Just as you say, Mr. Crosby. Just as you say.
Well, maam, I need another penny.
Another penny? For what?
The soap is a penny more, now that its better.
I have to pay a penny more for different soap in a
blue box? Ill just take a box of my normal soap.
George bought a broken clock at a tag sale. The owner
gave him a reprint of an eighteenth-century repair manual
for free. He began to poke around the guts of old
clocks. As a machinist, he knew gear ratios, pistons and
pinions, physics, the strength of materials. As a Yankee
in North Shore horse country, he knew where the old
money lay, dozing, dreaming of wool mills and slate
quarries, ticker tape and foxhunts. He found that bankers
paid well to keep their balky heirlooms telling time. He
could replace the worn tooth on a strike wheel by hand.
Lay the clock facedown. Unscrew the screws; maybe
just pull them from the cedar or walnut case, the threads
long since turned to wood dust dusted from mantels.
Lift off the back of the clock like the lid of a treasure
chest. Bring the long-armed jewelers lamp closer, to just
over your shoulder. Examine the dark brass. See the pinions
gummed up with dirt and oil. Look at the blue and
green and purple ripples of metal hammered, bent,
torched. Poke your finger into the clock; fiddle the
escape wheel (every part perfectly named - escape: the
end of the machine, the place where the energy leaks
out, breaks free, beats time). Stick your nose closer; the
metal smells tannic. Read the names etched onto the
works: Ezra Bloxham - 1794; Geo. E. Tiggs - 1832; Thos.
Flatchbart - 1912. Lift the darkened works from the case.
Lower them into ammonia. Lift them out, nose burning,
eyes watering, and see them shine and star through
your tears. File the teeth. Punch the bushings. Load the
springs. Fix the clock. Add your name.
Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There
was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the
ring in Howard Crosbys ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed
into them. His head thrummed as if it were a
clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes
and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his
body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and
he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This
was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that
encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full
seizure. Howard had epilepsy. His wife, Kathleen, formerly
Kathleen Black, of the Quebec Blacks but from a
reduced and stern branch of the family, cleared aside
chairs and tables and led him to the middle of the
kitchen floor. She wrapped a stick of pine in a napkin for
him to bite so he would not swallow or chew off his
tongue. If the fit came fast, she crammed the bare stick
between his teeth and he would wake to a mouthful of
splintered wood and the taste of sap, his head feeling
like a glass jar full of old keys and rusty screws.
To reassemble the dismantled clock, the back plate of
the works is laid upon a bed of soft cloth, preferably
thick chamois folded many times. Each wheel and its
arbor is inserted into its proper hole, beginning with
the great wheel and its loose-fitting fusee, that
grooved cone of wonder given to mankind by Mr. Da
Vinci, and proceeding to the smallest, the teeth of one
meshing with the gear collar of the next, and so on
until the flywheel of the strike train and the escape
wheel of the going train are fitted into their rightful
places. Now, the horologist looks upon an openfaced,
fairy-book contraption; gears lean to and fro
like a lazy machine in a dream. The universes time
cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy
device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly
ghosts. The front plate of the works is taken in hand
and fitted first onto the upfacing arbors of the main
and strike springs, these being the largest and most
easily fitted of the sundry parts. This accomplished,
the horologist then lifts the rickety sandwich of loose
guts to eye level, holding the works approximately
together by squeezing the two plates, taking care to
apply neither too much pressure (thus damaging the
finer of the unaligned arbor ends) nor too little (thus
causing the half-re-formed machine to disassemble
itself back into its various constituent parts, which
often flee to dusty and obscure nooks throughout the
horologists workshop, causing much profaning and
blasphemy). If, when the patient horologist has finished
his attempt and the clock, when thumbed at the
great wheel, does squeak and gibber rather than hum
and whir with brass logic, this process must be
reversed and tried again with calm reason until the
imps of disorder are banished. Of clocks with only a
going train, reanimating the machine is simple. More
sophisticated contraptions, such as those fashioned
with extra abilities, like a pantomime of the moon or
a model fool juggling fruit, require an almost infinite
skill and doggedness. (The author has heard of a clock
supposedly seen in eastern Bohemia that had the likeness
of a great oak tree wrought in iron and brass
around its dial. As the seasons of its homeland
changed, the branches of the tree turned a thousand
tiny copper leaves, each threaded on a hair-thin spindle,
from enameled green to metallic red. Then, by
astounding mechanisms within the case (fashioned to
look like one of the mythical pillars once believed to
hold up the earth) the branches released the leaves to
spiral down their threads and strew themselves about
the lower part of the clock-face. If this machine in fact
existed, Mr. Newton himself could not have sat
beneath a more amazing tree.)
- from The Reasonable Horologist,
by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783
Excerpted from Tinkers
by Paul Harding. Copyright © 2008 by Paul Harding. Excerpted by
permission of Bellevue Literary Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.