Up and down the dark flights echoed their labored breaths of ascension. The walls were black and the wooden stairs creaked with their lamplit upward march and with each flight the man and woman drowned further in the clank and crash of the giant working gears.
In the belfry they stood silent about wavering shadow and watched the innards of the great clock, their bodies quaking with the sheer mass of sound, the measured scream of grinding metal and time. The man walked over to the control unit and with his entire body weight pulled down on the kill switch and the room trembled around them and the immense machine slowed to a halt.
The silence was complete and stunning, a sudden presence of swirling spirits, insidious and arresting in their scrutiny. The man and woman looked at one another for several seconds and then set down their pails of water and degreaser and other like solvents and began to scrub.
“Are you married,” the man asked.
“Yes, three years,” said the woman. “You?”
“No, no marriage.”
“A girlfriend, then.”
“I have a neighbor.”
“You have a neighbor.”
“Sometimes I feel like she’s my girlfriend. I imagine we inhabit the same intimate spaces, we breathe the same air. We have long dramatic and inane conversations in my head.”
“Forgive me, but isn’t that a little strange?”
“For years I’ve been asking people do they think I’m strange. Because I’m not convinced either way. They always say no. Then they add something very profound or insightful about me and I’m glad I asked the initial question.”
“Maybe you’re not entirely strange but it sounds like you do some pretty strange things.”
“I was dating this girl a couple years ago, actually dating her, not just imagining dating her, and I asked her do you think I’m strange or peculiar or weird or odd and she said no, she didn’t think so. ‘But I think you live completely inside yourself,’ she said, ‘And that must be exhausting.’”
“You always look very tired,” the woman said, scrubbing with a brush between the teeth of the giant main gear, cleaning away black gunk and rust and dirt and all the attitudes of time and wear. “Like you’ve been traveling varied expanses, or something.”
“I am tired,” said the man. “When I’m at home in my apartment I have the feeling that she’s with me in the room, she’s observing me. The girl from upstairs. Not just sometimes, but always. She’s always there, watching, and so I talk to myself, or I talk to her, but there’s really no one there. I say things out loud to explain why I do certain things or what I’m thinking. I speak to her to justify my behavior. I’m cooking a meal and I tell her, ‘You can never have too many tomatoes. And beans. Beans are necessary, good for the heart and colon.’ Or maybe I’m giving her a recommendation: ‘You should seriously consider supplementing your nutritive plan with a probiotic.’ I imagine how she would respond to my words, which of course means I then must speak back to her, keep the dialogue going. I speak more words and then more words and before I realize what’s happening I’m carrying on an entire conversation with an imagined person. Even though she really exists. I’m talking to myself, thinking she’s there with me, critiquing my behavior and actions. Telling me to do something or not do something. Asking me questions about how I live my life, commenting on the state of cleanliness of my apartment. Making small demands. Without even noticing, I’ve already tagged her with a knack for subtle harassment. She’s a nag. She nags me. The poor girl never even had a chance. In my mind she’s nagging, and every time I see her for real out there in the world and I talk to her face to face and not just in my head, I’m always wondering when I’m going to have to duck and juke and put up my hands, go defensive. But she never nags me and then we part ways and she goes into her apartment and I into mine and the strangely unforced conversations with myself continue. I tell her about the books I’ve recently read. I talk to her about jazz, that immense presence in my life, as if it was important to her. I pretend she likes me or maybe she doesn’t like me, she’s just getting to know me. I tell her what it’s like to be a creative person, the loneliness, exalted breath of life, the ridiculous self-demand. The loneliness. Perhaps I frighten her, the real her. I’ve considered this repeatedly. Maybe she can hear me talking to myself through the ceiling or the walls and she finds it strange, but certainly not as strange as she would if she knew I was talking to her. Or her projection. Her imaginary nagging presence. Then when I step back and observe myself, what I’m really doing here, it saddens me terribly. I feel the sadness in my bones. The solitude is crystalline in its purity, its edges sharpened to a razored danger.”
They scrubbed in silence. The only sounds their back and forth scouring motion, the slosh of dirty liquid in the pails. The woman thought about the dream she’d had the night before. She was a child again and back on the farm in Montana, gray sky and pallid sloping landscape of green and flaming brown, and it began to rain, the drops large and heavy and cold. She started to run up to the house with the clouds tumbling low and fast and stark directly above her and she stormed smiling with eyes wild into that familiar sanctuary of family and nurture but the inside of the house was nothing like she remembered it. Everything had changed. New furniture arranged in different places, different wallpaper adorned with alien photos and embroidered scripture. Unusually ornate statues of women in various elegant poses, all of them nude, haunting and surreal. Even her family members had been substituted. A bearded man who acted like her father and a fat dark-skinned woman who was not her mother, the mother she knew and loved and with whom all was sacred and plain. A thickness grew in her throat and she began to cry, tugging on the frayed ends of her long brown hair as she always did, and then a furious rolling sonic clap of thunder shook the house and she woke startled and alone, sweaty palms tugging curiously on the ends of her hair, now much shorter and much more pale in the fleeting morning dark.
“Do you believe in time travel,” he said.
“I don’t believe in anything.”
“I was thinking about taking up a religion. Something morally precise, deeply ascetic in nature. I want to strip my world down to its bones. I want to believe in something just for the sake of believing. Take the blind leap, rescue myself from myself. Because that’s what religion is, when you dismantle its myths. It’s a rescue mechanism. Have you ever heard of the term eschaton?”
“I’m working here,” she said.
“It’s the philosophical study of the end times. Each religion or theological system of beliefs adopts or creates its own, they weave it into the body of their respective myth to give people the option of being rescued. This works most effectively on a micro level, interpretations taken from the myth, entrenched and transformed in the individual believer’s mind.”
“You’re making this up as you go along.”
“I told you I’ve been looking into it,” he said.
“We’re living in peculiar times.”
“I’m almost finished with this gear,” he said.
He polished the cog he’d been working on and moved over to the next as she continued to scrub the giant main gear, her face frozen in concentration, the lamp tossing waves of yellow light about the small dark room.
“If you could go back in time,” she said, “where would you go and what would you do?”
“I would definitely want to witness the crucifixion of Christ. Imagine the energy in the air, thick and electric with so much historical force. The birth of myth, ground zero of prophecy. This is all contingent on Jesus being the son of god, of course. Or even a real, breathing person in history.”
“I would want to witness my own birth, she said. “Stricken by the shockwaves of irony. Then I’d hang around in the shadows and watch my life unfurl. Try to confirm some things, warn myself of grave dangers. Either that or the beginning of the universe. I’d like to be there at the commencement of time. Listen to those words: commencement of time. I’d like to see those massive electrical storms of energy, feel the enormous wrath of mathematics. A witness to the jumpstarting of the currents of history.”
“How much longer?” he said. He stretched his back, his shoulders and abdomen. He cracked his knuckles and bent over to pick the brush back up and then he walked over to where the woman was working and helped her scrub away the grime on the main gear.
“When I was a girl,” she said, “I used to imagine what I’d be doing when I was the age I am now. I always imagined I’d be traveling the world, city to plain, living in bungalows or cloistered shacks and eating fresh vegetables. Snapping photos, speaking to the locals and listening to their stories, matching fable with scar. And now that I’m older I imagine what I’ll be doing twenty years from now. If I’m still alive. I can see myself running a small unconventional business. Maybe a hot air balloon park in Flagstaff, Arizona. A themed coffee shop in Norman, Oklahoma. You can never have enough themed coffee shops. In twenty years I’ll be mid-forties, the ideal age for a woman to begin grandmotherhood. I’ll be the cutest grandmother ever, little beaded necklaces, my hair graying and always pulled back in a pony tail, sandals every day of the year.”
“I picture myself as an article of history,” he said. Twenty years from now I’ll exist only as a newspaper clipping. Headlines like: Religious Fundamentalist Assassinates Pope. I see myself as a casualty in some grand personal war, a war I’ll attribute to my newfound religion. Anyone can commit a crime, violent or otherwise. But when you apply religion to it, an impassioned set of beliefs upon which you’ve vowed to die for, you assign novelty to the act, you thrust the crime past the news briefs in the daily paper and into the leather-bound volumes of history.”
“Man Stabs Librarian, Says She Was Satan,” said the woman.
“Bank Robber Vows Money ‘Belongs to God.’”
“That’s the stuff,” he said.
“How about: Strange Man Impregnates Imaginary Girlfriend.”
“How’re we doing on time?”
“No, really,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
“I think we’re done here.”
“I’m laughing on the inside.”
“Let’s get this baby cranking.”
And so bejeweled by flickering light the man pushed up on the heavy switch and the room tremulous and sallow jolted he and the woman from discourse back into the confines of their own minds. They contemplated the majesty of engineering before them, sensorially merciless, and it humbled them into something like mirth, an inner shadowed room of awe and pleasure. The gears picked up speed and charged into a maddening frenzy of energy to compensate for the time lost to maintenance, a whirling and howling fury, a sudden massive force of heat and light and wind born of sprawling dendrites and tentacles snapping and licking electric white, crippling in its power. The man and woman with their eyes shut and faces turned upward surrendered complete to that relentless god of time with silent supplication, the lines of worship and the body of humanity’s sacred mantras painted in water upon them.
The gears slowed into their steady circadian truth and the man and woman picked up the lamp and pails and brushes and began the long journey back down the rickety stairs to the pool of faint light at the base of the tower.