What You Are I Was
(Part 8 of 9)
By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek
I was waiting for my Predecessor one Tuesday afternoon, two days after calling him to report that a scroll had been attacked by mice during the night. Since I stopped going in to see my advisor, my Predecessor had become the only person I really spoke with on a regular basis, and I was looking forward to seeing him. I was on the ground floor, where, behind the boarded-up windows of the storefront, I performed all of my duties that did not involve the machine. I had just sat down to burn a stick of incense. It was the kind generally employed to mask the smell of marijuana, but I doubted whomever I was burning it to would mind.
I heard the expected knock at the door, and left the incense smoldering in an ashtray as I got up to answer it. My Predecessor came in with his usual solemn nod, bringing with him the smell of impending rain from outside. By the time he had taken off his fedora and hung it on the hat stand, the scent of rain had been absorbed by the cheap, illicit-smelling smoke and the distant odor of oil and paper. He set a fresh scroll down beside the old cast iron umbrella stand, and sat down in one of two well-worn arm chairs that had been in the corner by an elderly space-heater when I arrived. I could see his reflection in the dull, glazed metal of the heater, and I noticed for the first time that my Predecessor seemed to cast a reflection on nearly every surface, from the scuffed wood of the floor to the smooth-worn cloth of the arm chair opposite him. It must be a shadow, I thought, looking at the outline, vague and textured by the cloth, but I caught the flash of light glinting from where his eyes would be in the shape on the facing chair. He was being reflected, ever so faintly, by the cloth.
“Good to see you, Elder of the Temple of the Childless,” he said, the same greeting he used every time he spoke to me since I took the job. He never called me anything but “Elder” since handing over the duties of the Temple. I sat down, wondering if his image was visible on my own skin. It occurred to me that since he had visited the previous Monday, I had only left the Temple to go to the grocery store, and had exchanged no more than a few words with anyone, unless you counted the silent prayers I sent out to the various gods of the Temple. This was the first real conversation I had had since he last left, and I tried to remember whether I left the Temple at all in the past few days. The routine of working the machine and minding the temple had made the days blur together, but I doubted if I had. He tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair, and smiled a little wistfully as he looked around the room. I wondered, not for the first time, if he missed the days when he was the Elder.
We chatted for a while about our usual topics: the technicalities of the machine, the weather. I’d been having a few problems with the machine, an odd creak here, a stiffness in the gears there, and he advised me on them, rattling off lists of parts and how to manipulate them from the top of his head. “There’s no manual, is there?” I said.
He shook his head, and his indistinct image on the plaster wall did likewise. “If there is, I didn’t get a copy,” he said.
The answer surprised me. I’d always assumed, somehow, that he built the Machine himself. I told him so, and he leaned back in his chair, and smiled broadly, steepling his fingers in front of his face, watching me over his nails. Under the inkstains they were ragged, cracked, and that there was dirt trapped beneath them, though the rest of his appearance was, as usual, impeccably neat. “Not me,” he said. “I’ve never been much for building.”
As we headed down to the cellar to place the new scroll and examine the problems I had reported to him, I realized that I had just missed a perfectly good chance to ask who the original mechanic had been. Weeks ago, I would have been annoyed by that, but somehow it didn’t seem important. “I don’t know why,” I told him on the way down, remembering the real reason I had been looking forward to his visit, “but when I used to stop turning the crank the scrolls would keep going for a few turns. They didn’t today, and I thought there might be something wrong.”
He nodded. His arms were occupied carrying the new scroll, and he used his elbow to nudge open the door at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll take a look,” he said.
- - -
I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a BA in creative writing. Since college I have worked as a nanny, and as a tall ship sailor, helping to sail old-fashioned, traditionally rigged sailing ships from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. I was born in New Mexico, raised in Delaware, and currently live in New York City.
Labels: Miriam Rosenberg Rocek