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 better?
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.
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