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Tours of the Black Clock
By Steve Erickson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Steve Erickson
All rights reserved.
There was always a moment, sailing between the boat-house on shore and Davenhall Island, when neither was in sight. There was nothing in this moment but his boat in the fog on the water; there might as well have been no sun in the sky or anything that called itself a country. He didn't notice it when he first got the job working for the old man, transporting the tourists from the mainland to the island and back three times a day. Old Zeno died seven weeks later. The young man's name was Marc. Marc took over the business and sailed into that moment his first trip out, when there on deck in the fog he almost said out loud, among the unsuspecting tourists, Where in the universe am I? Finally the outline of Davenhall Island emerged in the gray. In the days to come the moment might arrive at any point of the journey, halfway or when arrival was imminent, with the island appearing so suddenly Marc thought he might run the boat right up the banks of the river. Sometimes it happened so near the last moment he thought the moment wouldn't come at all. There was never once he didn't feel its fear and desolation. He'd look around the boat at the tourists poring over their itineraries, at this moment when no itinerary made any more sense than a scroll from the Dead Sea of some other hour, stolen from the clock of some other place. Perhaps the place that preceded this moment or the place of the moment to come; but not this particular moment anyway. Not this one.CHAPTER 2
This moment was the first lapse in a life of innocence. Marc grew up on Davenhall Island in Davenhall chinatown, the only white kid of the town's only white woman and, it had to be presumed, one of the town's fleeting transitory white men. One perhaps who'd come in as a tourist one night some twenty years before the night Marc left the island forever, or what he thought at the time would be forever. Marc's eyes were green. His hair was white as noon, not yellow, white; it never darkened. When he was small he sat in front of the mirror in his mother's room on the second floor of the hotel across from Greek Judy's in the middle of mainstreet, and pulled his eyes at their corners to narrow them like the rest of the eyes in town. As though there was nothing amiss in the genes other than his having been born into a darkness before which he never had to squint, a dark that sucked into itself all the color of his hair. A dark like his mother must have been born into too, though not so fuliginous and depthless since her hair wasn't the stark white of his, nothing of her was that white except the small scar at the upper corner of her mouth. Nothing about her came to characterize her for him so much as this small scar. He came to measure what she felt by it, or what he supposed the scar told him that she felt. When she caught him trying to look like a Chinese in the mirror of her room, the scar lifted to some expression between humor and alarm; he saw it and didn't do it anymore.
At night she warmed some milk and read to him in her strange accent, the accent of many languages woven into a jungle of one. She read from books in which neither of them had any interest except for the sound of her reading them. It was a rare gesture of motherhood though this isn't to say she didn't feel like a mother to him even when she made no gestures. The fact was she couldn't have been less prepared for him; when she had him she was at the age she could have been a grandmother. She had borne him after reaching a point where she supposed it was possible only in theory. Thus she regarded him as a bit of a theoretical child. She observed and considered him in the way she might observe and consider an extraordinary figment of her imagination. When she was most brutally honest with herself, she'd ask if, given this, it was possible she really loved him deeply; she was never so brutally honest she could bring herself to answer, though had she been that courageous it's entirely conceivable the answer would have been yes. At any rate the milk and reading were acts by which she stepped into her own imagination and took part in it, with conviction.CHAPTER 3
Then she'd fall asleep too, sometimes right there on his bed. There were times he thought she'd perhaps been drinking a little. On these occasions he'd lie awake thinking, just a kid staring at the black ceiling, and it was always then he heard the footsteps out in the hall. He'd sit up and look at the light through the crack beneath the door, and listen to the footsteps and how they paused outside the door. As far as he knew, nobody else lived in the hotel but the hotel's manager, a small Chinese lady who never spoke and was never seen; anyway the steps in the hall were those of someone big. Someone very big. For years, in the middle of the night, he heard right outside his door the tread of this unseen giant. There's someone else living in the hotel with us, he said to his mother. "Who?" she asked. If she'd simply said No, he would have known she was lying.
The sounds of his life on Davenhall Island were those footsteps in the hall at night, the trees in winter and the throttled din of the ice machine out behind the rice shop, a white and black unit that ran entirely on its own, blocks of ice spitting out onto the ground to the absolute indifference of everyone but Greek Judy who carved them up and put them in the bourbon she served in her bar. Judy was a young woman who had taken over the business some years before; her actual name was Garcia, nothing greek about her. Otherwise the ice sat like glittering glass fusing with the dirt of the town. Greek Judy's tavern served bourbon and beer, steak and onions to the tourists that came in on old Zeno's ferry. From four in the afternoon the concentrated red roar of life billowed from the bar in the middle of translucent oriental silence, and after the last ferry went back Marc, who sometimes saw other children in the bar with their parents, went around collecting their artifacts, which he hid under his bed upstairs in the hotel across the street. For years he assumed these things of an outside world were contraband before the will of his mother, who in fact knew all about them but recognized how necessary to a child was the glamour of his secrecy.CHAPTER 4
She knew he'd leave someday. When he was eleven he got it into his head he wanted to be a monk. Every day he built a small cathedral out of the ice-blocks in the dirt; after a while all that was left of his monkdom were the ice cathedrals on which he would lie and listen to the crackling of the melting blocks. It seemed like the sound of ticking. It would be many years later, when he was sailing the boat back and forth to the island, that he'd forgive the men who found release in the legs of his mother. It would be many years before he forgave her, too.CHAPTER 5
The only negotiation Greek Judy ever had with the Chinese of Davenhall concerned the bodies in the trees out in the northern graveyard. The town could be crossed on foot in six or seven minutes walking up mainstreet, and the island in something between twelve and fifteen depending on the season. In the hard rains of autumn the graveyard flooded and the island diminished, shrunk at its northern border where Marc remembered seeing one afternoon, in a storm that came faster than any consideration of shelter, blue bubbles floating up around the tombstones; something unimaginable was gasping up from underground. The Chinese peasants of Davenhall routinely hung on the graveyard trees the bodies of the Davenhall dead, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, before interment. It was the peasants' conviction that if one died without speaking his or her name in the final breath, then to seal away the corpse that had been wrenched loose of its identity by death would exile the spirit to some nether between place. At each funeral witnesses would be called forth to verify that, before dying, the dead one had established without doubt his memory of himself. If no witness could attest to such a thing, the body would hang in the graveyard trees until the universe chose to write his or her name in the sky, so that he or she could read it and call the name out. Sometimes a body hung in the trees for quite a while. Sooner or later one of the peasants would wander into town and report to the others, "I heard him today, today he said his name," and with satisfaction the body was then buried. In the summer, especially when it was very hot, the bodies tended to remember their names much more quickly. It came to pass that the inhabitants of Davenhall kept on the tables by their beds small index cards with their names written in large letters so that should the moment of death come suddenly, and with it perhaps a paralysis of instant recall, they could read their names from the cards and cry them out in the night in order that someone walking by in the street might hear it. But when Marc saw the blue bubbles floating up around the tombstones, he realized that the interred had come to find they preferred crucifixion in the trees to slumber in the cold wet ground of the Davenhall marsh, and that they were casting out from under the rising river their very memories so that they might hang amnesiac and free before the sky and the pale rosy smear of sunset, and the writing of the universe. When Marc, huddled that day beneath a wood shack in the rain, saw the blue memories of a hundred ghosts drift off riverward to finally and vainly burst, he gathered up his innocence in all its fierceness and directed it toward the leaving of this town forever.CHAPTER 6
The night that Marc saw the stranger lying dead at his mother's feet, he was nineteen. He turned and walked down the hotel stairs, out into mainstreet, down to the dock in time to catch the last boat to the mainland. He'd thought about doing this many times but this was the first that his nerve caught up with his imagination. Over the years he'd watched old man Zeno with his red river-bitten face and his long blue coat with the dingy gold buttons sail his small human ferry back and forth each day, bringing over the years thousands of strangers to the black and amber lights of Greek Judy's tavern. Now in the dark Zeno didn't give a second look to the boy as he stepped onto the boat, crowding in with the others, huddling against them in the fog and reek of Judy's bourbon. But at some point during the twenty-minute journey, the old man looked Marc's way and said something to the effect of, "Boy, that hair's some kind of white."
They got to shore and the tourists piled out of the boat and onto the buses that were waiting to take them twenty miles northwest to the city of Samson. It's possible Marc wouldn't have gotten on the bus even if he'd had a ticket, nerve having lost ground to imagination once again. Nothing irrevocable had yet been crossed. But there was no boat back to Davenhall until the morning, and so he stood there in the dirt watching the lights of the last bus vanish down the highway and then looking over his shoulder at the river behind him, and Zeno's boathouse in the remaining desolation. Zeno sized things up. He stood in the doorway of the boathouse where he lit the gaslamp next to the window, and after blowing out the match and tossing it on the step he called out to the boy's white hair, "Just what is it you imagine you're doing?" I imagine, the boy answered, that I've lived on that island long enough, and am now about to put some real distance between us. "Not tonight, I'd say," the old man answered. After a moment he added, "Come on in and drink something stiff, and I'll take you back first boat of the morning."
I'll come in and have the drink, Marc answered. But I'm not going back.
They played cards in the boathouse, in the light of the lamp. The old man bet the gold buttons of his blue coat, since he plainly cheated and there was never the slightest danger of his losing them. He fell asleep against the wall while the boy made various accusations.
Marc did not go on to Samson the next day. Rather he did return to the island with the old man, much as the old man had figured, though he refused to step foot on it. Back and forth three times he sailed with the old man and more busloads of tourists, refusing to enter the town and waiting on deck as Zeno went to get some of Judy's beer. Once Marc glimpsed in the distance his mother walking up main-street in a tattered salmon-colored dress he recognized, her arms folded in that way of hers and her face set with a familiar and incomprehensible determination. He glimpsed her long hair in the rising dust of the town, the gray hair that once had been a tarnished panic of fool's-gold yellow. Marc lay low on the deck of the boat facing out toward the river, away from town and the island, leaning over the side and dragging his hand in the water, lunging for fish that he had no intention of catching.CHAPTER 7
Marc did not go to Samson the next day either, or the next. He continued sailing with old Zeno back to the island, hiding on deck and never stepping ashore. Zeno put him to work collecting the fares; it also became his job to yell at passengers who leaned too far over the side, and lie to them about things in the river. It might be alligators one week and piranha the next. The old man filled Marc in on how to operate the boat through the sophistication of the currents. Sometimes, on the trip over, the fog would clear enough for a moment so that Marc could see the whole of the island as he'd never seen it. Beyond the island, beyond the interminable river in which the island rested, he might almost have believed he saw the river's other side; in the distance a red train crossed on its tracks high above the water. The dust out over the plains were the herds of short-haired silver buffalo that had begun appearing out of nowhere at the turn of the century's final decade. "You don't eat one of those," Zeno said, "however hungry you are. Light you up like a city boulevard." Past the end of the island was the old rubble of a small shelter that had been built on wooden pillars out over the river; it was charred black from a fire that had taken place before Marc was born. The boy believed he could still see the smoke of the inferno. It was something nobody, including his mother, talked about. Know anything about that fire? he asked the old man. "Not something I talk about," the old man muttered.
After several weeks Marc said to the old man one night, I'm not getting to Samson very quickly this way. "Don't say it like it's my fault," Zeno snapped back, "I'm not stopping you." Well, the boy said after thinking about it a moment, I don't have a ticket for the bus. "I'll give you the money for the ticket," said Zeno, "you can leave tomorrow. I'm not stopping you." You don't have any money, the boy said, those fares don't add up to anything, how do you get by with charging them four-bits anyway? What kind of business is that? "It's my business, that's what kind," the old man answered, "the fares don't mean puckey. Pocket money. I get my main cut from Judy on the island, a percentage of her take. I bring her the tourists and she provides a place for them to be brought. Don't worry about my business." He pulled a canvas sack from beneath his mattress. He pulled from it some ratty old bills and a lot of loose change. The boy turned away. He built a fire in the stove and lit the gaslamp, not looking at Zeno who stood with the money in his gnarly hands, affronting the boy with it. Marc's head was light and pounding from the final trip back—the liquor of the passengers and the fumes of the boat's motor. What about you? he muttered finally, still not looking at Zeno who by this time had dropped the money to his side. "Hell I got along forty years without you, punk," said Zeno. The two of them sat and had a drink together, and at last the boathouse began to warm though it never lost its dampness. The fire burned down and the boy fed and stoked it again, and when it burned down again, before they slept, Marc said, A couple more days. Then I'm gone. The old man nodded and muttered back, "Sure. You can leave tomorrow if you want." When Marc was sure Zeno was asleep he added, You fucking cheat at cards anyway. Closing his eyes he heard, "Sure, leave tomorrow. I'm not stopping you."
Excerpted from Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 1989 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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