Martin stands directly behind her in line at the bank: her narrow black heels planted in thick carpeting; full-length wool coat, blue, close-fitting around her boot-tops, less so at the hips, swelling in padded luxury about her shoulders; curls, deeply hennaed curls, falling in lovely and profuse abandonment down her back.
“Next in line, please.”
She steps quickly to the counter, vacating a column of perfumed air where he now takes up his place at the head of the line. She turns slightly, though not enough for him to see her face, and removes a small parcel from her handbag. Her hands are white, her fingers long and jeweled.
“Can I rent a safe deposit box for a month or two?” he hears her ask the teller. But things seem not to go her way.
“No, I don’t have an account here.”
“Sorry, regular clients only. But you might check down the block at Wells-Fargo.”
“I see. Thank you. I’ll give them a try.”
The package falls to the floor as she backs away from the counter. Martin’s instinct is to reach for it but he checks his hand. The woman returns the package to her purse, then strides through the cordoned exit and out the door before he can catch even a glimpse of her face.
She would have been beautiful though, he thinks.
At dinner Martin considers relating this scene to his wife. The incident is trivial but the woman and her package intrigue him. What would Sarah say? It’s one thing to look at a woman, another to install her in a gallery of romantic fantasies. Sarah has said this to him more than once, in gentle reproof, that he cultivates, he can’t remember exactly how she puts it, a secret garden or something equally suggestive.
He thinks he is no different from other men—or women for that matter, with the possible exception of Sarah. He assumes we all occasionally imagine life in the company of another who once, if only in the space of a glance, sent through us something as delirious and full of possibilities as the sound of an orchestra tuning up.
But Sarah has gotten to him with this garden thing. Why give her the opportunity to bring it up again, unjustly too? For thirty years he has been faithful to this woman who prepares his dinner, who has been putting on weight these last years, whose skin has started drooping a little over the cheekbones and puckering under the eyes, this woman he has promised to have, hold, and so forth until death. Yet even as he opens his mouth to describe the day’s events, he looks at Sarah and feels the sting of an old reproach. He will not mention the lady in the bank.
Martin steps from the streetcar at precisely seven fifty-five AM. So completely has he forgotten the incident of the previous day that he now walks directly past the bank’s locked doors thinking only of the work he has planned for this morning. He is a lean man, with an energetic step, in clothes a size too large. His gray coat and rumpled slacks reveal neither vanity nor concern for style. A fringed, multi-colored scarf that Sarah has made for him lends an incongruously rakish quality to his tall, slightly stooped figure. The rounded shoulders are not uncommon in his profession, nor are the eyes. They seem to take in nothing that is not directly in front of them. They examine the sidewalk as if trying to decide the exact placement of his leading foot. Yet he walks briskly. As always, he will stop at Helen’s for a cup of coffee before opening the shop. He will order decaf so that his hands won’t shake.
Coffee is now served at Helen’s in the kind of insulated foam cup which threatens to force scalding liquid up over the lip and onto your hands if you grip them too tightly. A paper napkin in one hand and such a cup in the other, Martin recalls a time ten years ago, or was it fifteen, when Helen’s employed a good china cup, a reassuringly solid restaurant cup of pleasing dimensions, and a real saucer.
There are no vacant tables this morning. Each stands in a zone of studied privacy with its solitary reader, muncher, gazer at nothing in particular. He is looking about for a familiar face when he sees her for the second time, again from behind. It must be she—the same coat, the red curls. He circles the room affecting the slightly confused, indecisive attitude of the seat-less pariah until he can see her face. He is not surprised that she is beautiful; though she is older than he would have guessed, mid-forties perhaps, not that much younger than himself.
“May I join you?” he asks. He has to sit with someone, after all. He finds it easier and generally more pleasant to talk to women than men. And here he will know how to begin the conversation.
“Of course.” She smiles easily, small crows feet linking green eyes and high cheekbones, a smudge of lipstick on perfect teeth.
He puts down his cup and before he has even settled into the chair asks, “Did you find a safe deposit box?”
She swallows hard on a gulp of coffee.
“I was behind you in the bank yesterday.”
“Oh. Well, yes, I finally got one. Good thing there’s lots of banks on this street.”
“Good and bad,” he says. “Any more and there won’t be a place to get a cup of coffee.”
Martin is almost comfortable sitting with this stranger. Another man, he thinks, might have been intimidated by her style of dress, her makeup. He is pleased with himself.
“Do you live near here?” he asks.
“No, I’m from Santa Rosa. I was raised in San Francisco, though, just a couple blocks from here.”
“So you’ve come back to visit us.”
“My father passed away last month. I’m down to put the house up for sale.”
“It’s been coming for a long time.” She pauses briefly, acknowledging grief, then banishing it with a toss of her head. “It’s depressing staying in the house and sorting through all the stuff so I walk over here to get out sometimes. I hope I don’t sound too dreary.”
“It must be hard for you.”
“You’re very nice. I’m just about done. I’m taking a few things back with me, the rest goes to Goodwill. What about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a jeweler, a watchmaker actually. I have a little shop down the street.”
She places both hands on the edge of the table and there again is that gorgeous smile.
“You’re kidding! Really?”
“A watchmaker, I mean.”
“The best,” he says with a shy grin across the top of this coffee cup.
“Well, you’re just the man I need to see. Dad had a lot of old pocket watches. He worked for the Southern Pacific and used to collect them. Some are gold, I think. That’s what I was putting in the bank yesterday.”
Martin winces, remembering the fall her package had taken.
“I thought maybe they’re worth something so I should put them someplace safe for a while. Maybe you could look at them? It’s not like I want to sell them or anything but I suppose I should have them appraised.”
“I’d be happy to.”
“I’d pay you, of course.”
“No, no… It would be a pleasure to look at them.”
“See, I knew you were nice. Can I drop by today?”
He gives her his card. “Anytime. It’s on the second floor. I’m Martin.”
“Gillian,” she says, extending her hand.
Martin climbs the flight of stairs to the neighborhood shop he has opened at exactly nine o’clock for nearly thirty years. Not once has his schedule varied—streetcar, Helen’s, work—except for the switch to decaf in ’81. At fifty-two his eyes are still good and his hands steady. “The best,” he’d said. But isn’t it true? The walls of his cramped quarters are lined with lathes, presses, and old oak cabinets of a hundred drawers crammed with still older and irreplaceable pinions, springs, wheels, and pallets. His workbench bristles with tools of surgical precision. He is not a jeweler who spends his time selling watchbands and replacing batteries. Only the occasional client sets foot here. Yet a stream of rare and antique timepieces flows through his skilled hands. They arrive from collectors, museums, and other jewelers across the country, drawn by his reputation as a master repairman and restorer of old watches. His new acquaintance cannot suspect how fortunate she is to have his services, and for nothing.
It is with satisfaction then that Martin opens a parcel from yesterday’s mail and withdraws a Waltham Premier Maximus pocket watch. The exact layout of its movement is in his mind’s eye: its harmony of twenty-three diamond, ruby, and sapphire jewels, gold jewel settings and train, so fitted and balanced that even today he can adjust it to within a few seconds a week.
He removes his jacket and scarf, then sits at the bench where so many years of his life have passed in quiet labor. There are no distractions here except for a travel poster of Geneva that Martin has taped above the bench. From long habit his eyes glance upwards. Couples are strolling at early evening beside the lake. In the distance a paddlewheel steamer is passing near a yellow and white building of rococo cornices and black iron balconies—the Hotel Bellevue. A soft light comes from a dormer cut into its slate roof. Martin has calculated that the view of someone standing there would be of the steamer, the opposite shore, of dusk settling on blue hills.
He turns the watch several times in his hand—and he is thinking of the lady in the blue coat. He is a nice man, she said. What would Sarah say?
Martin opens the case, the artist’s eye beguiled by the exquisite damascening of the movement, fantasy etched in imitation of an extravagant god who hangs unseen rainbows in the shells of oysters. But the watchmaker’s eye perceives the chaos. The mainspring has snapped in its necessary effort to escape an order of gears and pivots. He deftly removes the bridges to discover that three leaves of the center wheel pinion have been chipped and its lower pivot twisted beyond repair. Replacements are not available. They would have to be machined with difficult and time-consuming effort. And the watch has been abused. The once beautifully damascened bridges are discolored and deeply pitted with rust. Tomorrow he must return the timepiece to its owner for it is not restorable at reasonable cost.
There are footsteps in the hall. Martin glances up to see Gillian smiling and waving at him through the door’s glass pane.
“I’m sorry,” she says, sweeping in and flopping a huge, silvered handbag on the narrow counter that separates his work space from the entryway. “I just couldn’t wait to hear what you’d tell me. Do you mind or should I come back later?”
“No,” he says. “It’s OK.” He smiles. “You look… different.”
She is wearing loose-fitting, black cashmere slacks, and an open jacket of white moiré silk. Her blouse is a print of enormous flowers in brilliant reds. On her head rests a black bowler, an amethyst-capped rabbit’s foot pinned to its band.
“Oh, the day’s so nice I thought I’d go back and put on something a little more cheerful before the bank opened. I like your poster.” Her eyes take in the faded green walls. “I’ve got lots of them you can have,” she says. “I’ll bring some down next time I’m in town. This place could use a little color, don’t you think?”
He laughs. “Maybe it could.”
“You know, this is really nice of you.” She removes the familiar package from her handbag and unwraps it on the counter. “Dad loved these things. He’d wear a different one every day. I think they all work OK.”
The watches are well-packed. Martin is less concerned now about the fall in the bank. And they are magnificent. More than a dozen examples of the finest watches made to exacting railroad standards by American manufacturers: Waltham, Hamilton, Ball, Howard, Rockford, Elgin, and the rest. He takes them to his bench and opens each one. Then he astounds her with his assessment of their worth.
“Whey!” she says. “Glad I got to them before the tax man.”
Martin invites her to the bench and places a loupe in her hand. As she bends closely over his shoulder, he points out the characteristics of a railroad timepiece, the beauty and precision of its movement.
Her hand is on his shoulder now, a careless gesture perhaps. “Martin, this has been so good of you. Could I invite you for dinner tonight? Kind of a thank you. I’m going to try that new place where the drugstore used to be.”
He is not prepared for this. “Well, I… that’s very nice of you…”
“You’ll come then?”
“I can’t really. I mean, look at me!”
“Oh, come on. You’re just fine. We’ll have an early dinner and I’ll drive you home afterwards. I’ll make reservations for 5 o’clock.” And she is out the door before he can make some further protest.
Did he just let this happen? She must know he is married. He wears a ring. So to her it doesn’t matter. Why should it, after all? The invitation is perfectly proper. He’s been out with clients and sales representatives in the past. And if Gillian had been rather flirtatious he’d certainly done nothing to encourage her. It’s just the way she is.
He wishes he could speak with Sarah. He would like to tell her that his secret garden, if she must call it that, is a simple, uncluttered place. Most of its occupants come and go in a matter of days, hours, even minutes. Few have proven durable over the years, and even these are merely the subjects of innocent reminiscence. One is an angelic girl who scratched his name in her leg with her father’s hunting knife when they were twelve. She moved shortly afterwards, “MARTY” still visible in the delicate traces of her dried blood, and he never saw her again. Another is a dancer who left for New York years ago but never fails to send a birthday card to the shop.
He picks up the phone. He’ll be home late tonight. He is going to be appraising a consignment of old watches after closing. No, he’ll just grab a bite at Helen’s. He’ll be home around eight.
Aisles of soap and toothpaste have given way to pink-draped tables and potted plants but Martin is pleased that the new proprietors have retained the black and white tile floor of the old drugstore. He and Gillian are seated at the exact spot where, for years, a scale told fortunes for a penny.
“You haven’t told me what you do,” he says when they have ordered.
“Oh, I have a travel agency in Santa Rosa. But it pretty much runs itself nowadays. Mainly just an excuse to travel.”
“Ah, the posters.”
“That’s right.” She smiles at him. “Do you like to travel?”
Martin is relieved to speak at last the words “my wife.” He explains that she will neither fly nor take a ship and dislikes sleeping in any bed other than her own. This is not untrue, but he fails to add that it could apply equally to himself.
“But what about you, Martin?” Gillian insists. “Wouldn’t you like to travel?”
“Well…perhaps I would. I have this notion of visiting Switzerland and seeing all those places I’ve ordered bits and pieces from over the years. I’d snoop around for old watches during the day and eat cheese fondue at night.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know—a bridge, I guess.”
Gillian orders wine with dinner, and a second bottle when the first is emptied midway through the main course. Biographical details are allowed to fall into place, the significant carefully set in a context of the irrelevant to avoid too obvious an acknowledgement of this sudden intimacy. That Gillian has been single for many years is revealed in reference to the demands of setting up her own business after a divorce, a love of life on the road, an inability to settle down. The quotidian of Martin’s work and childless marriage is presented half-apologetically and without complaint.
Yet the concertmaster’s ‘A’ has been bowed. By dessert, Martin, who is beginning to feel the effects of too much wine, scarcely hears his companion’s voice. He is walking the streets of Geneva, Gillian’s hand in his. A bell in the distance has just tolled seven. They turn onto a promenade that will take them along the shoreline. It is growing dark, and colder now. Gillian leans into him. The warmth of the Hotel Bellevue lies not two hundred yards ahead.
Gillian signals for the check. “Martin,” she says, “did you and Sarah never want to have children?”
He takes a last sip of wine and begins to carefully refold his napkin. “We never…there was an understanding.” Yet as he speaks he cannot recall the nature of that understanding. “Time went by,” he says, “our lives fell into a routine.” Was it really nothing more than this? The thought oppresses him.
“So you never really wanted kids?”
Martin places his napkin to one side and looks at her. “I think I would have liked…yes,” he says, “perhaps a son.”
Ten minutes later they are standing at the door of Gillian’s father’s house. Martin is thinking of Gillian playing on these steps as a child, as a teenager returning from a date, and then she is inviting him in.
“How about some coffee?” she asks.
Martin glances at his watch. “It’s getting late…”
“It’s not even seven. Have a cup, then I’ll drive you home.”
Inside, their words echo faintly in the empty rooms. Martin leans against a wall, watching Gillian prepare the coffee.
“I think I’m a little tipsy,” she says. She turns towards him, her hand to her mouth. “I don’t normally… It was fun though, wasn’t it?”
In the living room there is but one place to sit, a large couch that has been covered with a protective sheet. Martin sits at one end, Gillian in the center. Her saucer is in her lap, her arm rests on a cushion between them. She looks about the empty room and says, almost to herself, “It’s strange after your parents die, when you’re not married, no kids.” She sighs a self-mocking little sigh, and smiles at Martin. “It’s lonely here.”
“When will you be leaving?”
“I’m listing the house with a realtor tomorrow. A few more days and I’ll be on my way.”
Neither speaks for a time. Then: “Martin,” she asks, “are you happy?”
He replies slowly, not wanting to slur his words. “Such a question! I suppose so. I guess I never really think about it. Are you?”
“Sometimes I am.”
“What makes you happy?”
“Oh, seeing a country for the first time, meeting people unexpectedly, people I like. Being here with you.” She takes his hand and turns to face him. Her legs, bent at the knee, are drawn up and tucked under her thigh like a mermaid’s tail. Head and curls incline to one side and rest lightly against the high back of the sofa.
Martin reaches out, hesitates for a moment, then touches his fingers lightly to her cheek. “You’re so beautiful,” he tells her.
Twenty minutes later Gillian is dropping Martin off a block from his house. “Tomorrow, if you like,” she tells him. “I’ll be at Helen’s tomorrow morning.”
The following morning, for the first time in many years, Martin skips Helen’s and walks directly from the streetcar to his shop. He allows the door to lock behind him. The shades are still pulled and, from the hall, it appears that no one is inside.
He sits with his eyes closed, or staring occasionally at a row of tools or the poster that hangs above them. Perhaps the mainspring of Martin’s life, measured out in an orderly repetition of unremarkable beats, is at this moment threatening to burst the mechanism of its restraint. What things are within his reach, one might ask: travel, laughter, absurdity, the fulfillment of many dreams? A child, perhaps? No, better now to grow in endless intellectual and erotic awakenings, unleashing devils in one another to be their children. Helen’s is two minutes away.
Yet as Gillian, who still sits there, sees the clock’s hands slide past nine o’clock, Martin reaches for the Premier Maximus he had intended to return unrepaired. Within an hour, over two hundred of its parts lie before him. When they have been arranged in dishes for cleaning and polishing, he clears his bench except for the damascened bridges. These he measures to within one-thousandth of an inch and traces replacements on nickel shim stock of the same gauge. Two hours later the new pieces have been cut and shaped, pivots drilled, and the undamaged jewel settings remounted. Then he secures each bridge, in turn, to the workbench and with tools unused for years begins the damascening. For hours he remains bent over the work, inlaying in gold a fantasy of swirls folding endlessly in upon themselves. Like some medieval artisan laboring in the high vaulted darkness of a cathedral he carves beauty where none will see it. Noon passes without his noticing. He is undisturbed except for a faint knocking at the door around three. By five he has finished. Tomorrow he will make a new center wheel and fit a spring to the motor barrel. Still another day will be spent in cleaning and reassembling the watch. He will be unable to charge the worth of his labor.
He unlocks the last bridge and examines it under the loupe. It is perfect. In three days the watch will be fully restored. And so precisely will it be adjusted as to never vary by more than a second or two in a week’s time. By five-fifteen he is on the streetcar, heading home.
Patrick Butler is professor emeritus of political science at City College of San Francisco where he taught for thirty years. Now retired, he lives with his wife in Washington State on the shores of Puget Sound. Relatively new to writing fiction, this is his sixth published story.
Cagibi Issue 5