By Martin Law


The old man has removed anything that might be considered him.  Anything identifiable, recognisable as his, as belonging to a him that people can point to.  He generates a constant wave of electrode white noise, fragments of popular song and conversation, TV ads, images of street signs waves and rocks, oil derrick against a cloudless blue sky.  He needs no story about his early life, he needs no opinions about what he likes and dislikes, no questions will ever get through. 


He sits in his antique shop.  Weak sunlight reaching through a small high window behind him, stretching and stretching but giving up and leaving the back of the shop to darkness, a lost city at night, sinking away to black.  He is there straight, feet on the floor, left hand holding the top of a cane tightly.  The cane is smooth black, he has it always but doesn’t use it for walking.  The cane never touches the ground, never touches anything except his left hand.  He sits behind stacks of yellow newspapers and magazines, boxes, low cases full of old books thick and heavy with cigarette smoke and breath and hands.  Bookcases and shelves all around the walls, old snuff boxes, music boxes, mechanical wind-up toys, photographs, cigarette cases, towers of bleached newspapers and books in piles on the floor.  It all forms a trembling vulnerable maze of aisles and patrons work their way around the shop slow and careful.  The aisles often collapse papers and books scattering, making new paths, impossible to map.  There is dust over everything, books written in dust, photographs of dust in waiting, dust in the nose the eyes the mouth, dust in the lungs.  Clocks and watches tick from everywhere, scattered, random times, a constant rhythm full of counterpoint, different beats emphasised changing as you move through the maze. 


Most don’t see the old man, don’t know he is there, motionless behind bundles and towers.  Few are foolish enough to try and steal from him.  The thought is there, just take it, there’s no one here, and the brain sends the signals but the body feels underwater, struggling to the surface, hands pushing them under again, holding them there.  The brain stops sending the signals it talks panic and they are outside swallowing hard afraid of everyone.  Bad luck follows them.  Little things, kind of accident prone lately, stumbling, used to be so sure and steady, constant toothache the pain unbearable can’t sleep, a tooth comes out and the pain starts on the other side of the thieving mouth, dentist can’t see a cause books spread on the desk phone calls to colleagues no, teeth were fine until a few weeks ago.  Finally all the teeth are out and the pain is still there, somewhere in the face moving around, not toothache but the pain of their own foolishness and there is no practitioner who can extract past mistakes, no novocaine for regrets.  


The old man talks to himself under the sound of the ticking clocks, a low crackling growl someone throwing their voice lips not moving, and the cane trembles and emits a black mist only he can see, surrounding everything, absorbing all it needs.  Directed by his tone and intensity, the mist brings back information.  Other places people and times, fragments pictures and sounds, he makes plans and preparations, sets a course to meet points of opportunity and avoid points of danger.  Deliberate, stagnant, no more eating, no more breathing, just the mundane random talk collecting immortality.  Nothing about him moves, his talk a drone to earth part of him while the rest travels, looking with black eyes there and not there, locked behind them somewhere or out in the world with the black mist. 


Faint music plays and his talk stops, abrupt, mist retreats back to the cane.  He can hear chimes playing in with the clocks.  Someone is here.  Something moves into his face, the black eyes get blacker, wall of interference becomes more intense, thousands of images transmitted in all directions, waves of energy pouring out of his still figure.  Someone is here.  The cane should see this, see anyone before they come in, all pictures all perspectives, see the walk see the eyes know the mind.  Someone is here, through all the trips, past all the interference. 


The black eyes see the visitor’s back, see him stand at a music box.  The box closes.  The visitor taps it twice with all four fingers of his right hand and moves away from the old man, deeper into the shop.  Slow, looking close at everything he passes, light grey suit, old wristwatch radium hands glowing green in the dark.  The old man puts the cane to work again.  He talks a low rustle, sound like brown red yellow leaves cracking on a Sunday walk in the park and the cane vibrates low and soundless, a hum in the organs, a hum changing cells changing blood.  His eyes go out and waves of blackness fall off the cane, drifting through air, black mist arms exploring without touch, black mist around the visitor. 


Photograph smiles from dead faces, newspaper stories long forgotten, autographs from movie stars long faded.  To the right people, to the people with enough need, the items in the shop are not dead, they writhe with possibility, shine out and call them, transport them.  There are never any sales to those who cannot see this.  Those who cannot see this never ask to buy anything, they feel suddenly depressed, cold in the darkness and dullness of everything, they leave shielding their eyes from the sun, breathing deeply, headaches raging for hours. 


No, the old man’s trade is not in the items themselves and not with anyone who cannot feel the items.  His trade is in impressions, memories, experience, and the items are time machines.  Old photographs a day at the beach in 1952, a catalogue of prom dresses in 1974, a ticket stub from a dance in 1926, and you are the right person and you are on the beach with sand between your toes and a freckled girl breasts against her swimming costume running after her friends making your young cock hard, you are at the prom in a beautiful dress dancing closer than you are meant to and maybe tonight is worth more than all the nights maybe tonight, you are at the dance hair and eyes gleaming and it is beautiful.  All the possibilities all the thinking, it’s there it’s how it was it’s the only way it can be.  His patrons get that young feeling, time stretching out on and on and on and they are in it happy smiling dynamic possible.


They come back for more and more and buy with things they think they don’t need, but the old man takes a lot of what they have for a little of what he has.  What he takes is stored behind him in filing cabinets, resonating around him, spilling with bills and divorce papers, death certificates, insurance claims, journeys to work and mundane nights in front of the television, arguments, silence, distance, lost hangover days, abortions, violence, loss, emptiness.  The old man takes it all and they are so grateful can’t believe it feel so good now like I’ve came up for air like I’ve finally took a breath really opened my eyes like all that’s gone but all of these things gone, leaves something missing, something nagging at them.  When you take away emptiness you leave only more emptiness.  He is careful not to use his own items, knows they are more addictive than life itself, a fool’s addiction.  Immortality is not a heaven full of good times, immortality is a slow, slow, slow grind of neutrality.


The visitor moves out of the darkness, stiff, pulled along on wires.  The mist retreats back to the cane defeated, nothing here to read, nothing to absorb, and the visitor stops in the weak sunlight.  The old man can see his face.


Whatever it is that makes a human, it’s not there.  The skin is smooth and white, a black and white photograph, dark eyebrows solid dark hair slicked back, a face that could be handsome but the old man can’t meet the eyes, nothing there. 


“Fantastic collection you have.  Interesting pieces.”


The voice comes from far away, seagulls and breaking waves, high laughter, music through static and shortwave interference.  A hand and arm appears to the left, points behind him. 


“Must have taken years to build this up, real dedication.”


The old man nods but doesn’t speak. 


“Yes, lots of things I’d like.  If the little woman would let me of course.”


A laugh erupts, loud, throwing sound around the shop, throwing the music boxes open the clocks tick even louder, flying and bouncing off the books and shelves and papers.  The old man tenses but keeps his eyes on the visitor’s stiff jerking face, moving with another laugh from another time.  The laugh stops flat, taking the music box chimes, taking the ticking clocks.  A faint electrical hum under the new silence.         


“Yeah, keeps me on a tight leash.”


The shop feels empty and huge.  The visitor’s hands jerk and flicker from his side onto his hips, smiling to the distance, a picture of an easy stance. 


“So, you been doing this long?  The collecting I mean?”


The face staring at the old man is grainy, not looking at him, looking at everything but him.  The old man circles his cane just above the floor and forms the words careful and slow.


“You could say collecting is my life’s work.”


“It does feel that way sometimes, doesn’t it?  Don’t want to brag but I have a nice little collection myself.  You know some people laugh at us?  Wonder what the point is, you’ll never be able to collect everything.  Well maybe not but we can sure try can’t we?”


The laugh leaps out again and his right hand appears watch hands bright, phosphorescent. Nothing else about him moves. 


“Are you interested in anything you see?”


The laugh stops.


“I’m interested in everything.”


The voice comes from all around, flatter, quieter, just enough there to understand over the crackles and static, no tone or power.  The old man wants to work the cane but feels weak, tense like something is near him, his wall of white noise fading.  The visitor brings his watch up to his face and the old man sees him pixelate, flash and fade.  His cane jumps, forcing him to grip it tighter, the black boiling.  The visitor’s eyes are looking around the old man if they are looking at anything at all.  There is something near him, behind him, around him.  The glowing watch falls, green numbers and lines blurring to the ground.


“Sorry, but it’s time to go.”


Said a long time ago, a projection of a moving mouth on a static face, ghost image flashing in and out, gestures and easy stance, open face smile, frames of friendly customer movie.  The old man hears the words coming through an old gramophone, through an old telephone.  Images swirl around him, sun shining on black car metal, cigarette burning in an elegant hand, diving in cool water sun hot, lying in grass sun hot sun there, bursting through water silence into sound laughing laughing laughing.  He feels things going, the cane falls to the floor, the shop goes out and comes back. 


The visitor’s mouth moves but the words there not spoken written with fountain pen on brittle yellow paper pictures falling lights and dark clean air possible possible possible.


The old man bends over and puts his hand around the cane.  The cane feels heavy, old head falling onto chest, vulnerable bleached out faded, trembling to dust, a 1970’s youth turning in sun and yellow, 1920’s girl dancing jerks slower and slower and slower, photograph eyes there smile going out light going out.




Martin Law has been writing for around three years and has completed a novel and a number of short pieces. Some of his short fiction has been broadcast on the radio and featured on Elimae and 971 Menu.

Published on June 30, 2008 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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