Side Chapter III - A Spark of Sloth
My wife, Clara, was a visionary. She took the old and reshaped it into something new and beautiful. That's how she made her living when I met her: "recycled art", she called it. She'd accept donations of old clothes and stitch them into designer dresses; people would send old junk to her shop and she'd craft them into art sculptures for sale.
We met because mechanical repairs were never her specialty. It was her car; I'd always notice the old clunker in the back lane - how could anyone miss the dented bumper held on by duct tape? - and it bothered me to see such a straightforward repair go unchecked. Money must have been tight, but still... When I finally introduced myself and approached her about it, Clara shrugged. "I know it's not right, but I can keep going. You understand, I'm sure?"
I didn't. Building and maintaining machines has always been second nature to me. At four I made my first toy car out of a cereal box and jar lids, and from there on I could always see the potential in my world. A tree was just an unshaped table; steel an unrealized machine, and copper wiring was a snake waiting to thread itself through a house and bring light. The next morning I returned to Clara's shop with my welder and tools. "Free of charge," I assured her. I wanted to know more about this woman who could breathe new life into the old. I wanted to make sure she'd never have to "keep going" when things weren't right.
Forty-five years later I think I finally understand what you meant, Clara. It isn't right when a man wakes in the morning, turns to kiss his wife and remembers he's alone in his bed. It isn't right when all that's left of your lover's smile is framed photograph on the nightstand. It isn't right being so alone but you man up, you plug up that hole, and you keep going.
The hoots of twelve coo-coo clocks greet me every morning. My bedroom shelves are lined with delicate music boxes, wind-up figurines and toy robots with light-up eyes and action sounds. I've decided I like clockwork mechanics. Lots of little pieces. Lots to keep you busy when the going gets slow.
These days, all my goings are slow. I'm slow to rise, slow to get dressed; my fingers fumble over the buttons on my shirt. The surgical scar dug into my chest can't hide fast enough. Those doctors act like such big-shots but I'd never leave such an obvious seal on my repair work. I don't care much for mirrors anymore. I can't stand to see that scar, that show of weakness, or the stranger with gray hair and withered skin who looks back on me.
That man isn't Wattson Voltaire. That man couldn't assemble the precision electronics on a circuit board, his hands couldn't carve, hammer and raise up a house for his wife. He can't even maintain himself.
When I shuffle into the kitchen Abigail is bowed in prayer - scrunched over her poketch and texting orders to the underlings at her office. "Breakfast's getting cold," she says, forgoing 'good morning', or even 'how are you feeling, dad?' I think back over my years of parenting; try to remember what I might have done to make her turn out so cold, so distant. I've built automobiles and computers that have lasted for years. Surely I could raise a decent human being.
Breakfast is a bowl of sludgy oatmeal served in a styrofoam bowl, one of those 'instant meal' concoctions Abigail swears by. I try a spoonful and, sure enough, the slop clings to my throat like sawdust. This isn't what you need to start the day. Breakfast means protein - eggs and bacon with a healthy squirt of hot sauce to jumpstart your taste buds; then coffee, black and steaming, to slurp it all down and fire up your body for the day. My daughter may be a grown woman, but she's not too old for a lesson on a proper meal. I march to the fridge to gather my ingredients and do a double take. The fridge - my fridge - has been ransacked; emptied out and filled with nothing but flavorless yogurt and protein shakes.
"You're on a diet, dad. Doctor Markenson told us you've got to watch your cholesterol." Abigail doesn't even look up from her wristwatch, and her indifference makes me bristle. I don't care if she's four or forty; you never speak to your father so flippantly!
"I don't need you to buy my groceries." I slam the door, grateful to shut out the refrigerated cold. I've dressed in long pants and a sweater but my teeth still chatter. Abigail's bought a quilt that I'm supposed to wrap around my shoulders but it's heavy and cumbersome; might as well stuff me into a burlap sack. No, what I need is a jacket. A jacket with interior pockets that you can slide a hot water pack into. I've already figured out the design in my mind's eye; all that's left is to craft my invention.
"Dad, what're you cutting up those washcloths for?"
"It's cold. I'm making a jacket."
Abigail yanks the scissors from my hand and sits me back at the table. "Honestly, dad, you don't have to make things so complicated. I'll turn up the heat."
You'll crank up my heating bill, you mean. I've saved away, but I'm not made of money. Not after the surgery. I'm too tired to argue. If I had a joltik for every time we fought, I'd have enough energy to power an entire city. Abigail goes back to her texting while I stir up my oatmeal, trying to make it more appealing. How long has it been since we actually talked to one another?
"How are things at the office?"
What do you care? She doesn't say it, but I can read the irritation in her face. "Fine. We're evaluating a new formula for battle potions. Animal testing starts tomorrow."
"Uh huh? And what about that boy you're seeing? Rory or something?"
"I'm not seeing anyone, dad."
"Why not? A pretty girl like you ought to have -"
"Dad, we've had this conversation before. I'm happy with my life and I don't need to share it with anyone."
"Well who's going to look after you? You never let me teach you how to cook or how to change a tire or how to use a hammer! What're you going to do when things start falling apart around your place?"
"When I'm hungry I order take-out. I call the tow-truck when my car breaks down and I hire repairmen to fix my appliances. People don't need to worry about building or fixing things, dad. I make enough money that I can let other people handle that for me."
Where's your pride? Where's that spark to shape your world? I glance at the trees in my backyard. "The sitrus berries look plenty ripe. I'd better get a ladder and start picking them."
"Outside?" Abigail shoots up and blocks my path. "Dad, it's the middle of summer; you shouldn't be out in this heat."
"I can do whatever I damn please!"
"Dad, you had a double bypass surgery; the doctors warned you about exerting yourself and now you want to go outside, climb up ladders and lift heavy pails? You need to rest and take things easy!"
"Rest up for what? You won't let me work in my shop; you won't let me cook my own meals! I'm like one of your damn pokemon - trapped inside a little cage and only let out to do whatever you say!"
"Dad, that's not - "
"I built this house and everything in it! I don't need you telling me how to live my life! Your mother and I, we made everything ourselves and we didn't rely on anyone!"
"And is it any wonder you're in such bad shape? Look at yourself - your clothes are nothing but patches, the roof is falling apart, and if your license wasn't already revoked you'd still be driving that god-awful wreck you call a car. By Arceus, do you realize how badly you embarrassed me every time you showed up at school in that junk pile? Or how the girls made fun of me for wearing nothing but home-spun hand-me-downs? I guess you never did; you were always too busy building some new 'invention' that blasted workshop!"
"You... you ungrateful little girl! After everything your mother and I did for you -"
"You know dad, you're right. I should be thanking you for inspiring me. Do you know why I always worked so hard? At school, at my part-time jobs, at university? I worked so I could get a real job and I wouldn't have to grow up a worthless miser like you and mom!"
Ticking clocks and humming appliances fill the silence. I'm furious but I can't scream anymore. I've got no breath in my lungs; my heart is aching like a swollen fruit, ready to fall off. My heart...
Abigail catches me, keeps me from falling. She sits me down in my chair and gets me a glass of water. I guzzle it down as I pant like a dog. "We looked after you. Your mother and I - we tried teaching you to be resourceful."
"Wake up, dad. You're not a young man anymore. All this heavy lifting, this climbing; all this tinkering - it's not safe, dad."
"Living isn't safe," I growl.
My daughter takes my hand and kneels so she can look me in the eye. "Dad, I don't want to lose you. You always say there's nothing you can't fix; well, I want to fix us. I don't want us to be cold and angry anymore. But you have to help me, dad. Please? For me?"
Abby always did have her mother's eyes. "I'll try," I mumble, and my daughter hugs me tight. It's the first real warmth I've felt since Clara passed.
Then the beep of her poketch brings us back to reality. "I've got to run, dad - there's a big meeting at the office this morning. I've set out meals for lunch and dinner; you just need to re-heat them in the microwave, okay? Oh, and remember: two tablets after every meal. Got it?"
She slides over the pill box with my blood thinners. "Right..." Pleased with my compliance, Abigail kisses my forehead and marches out the door.
And I survey my accomplishments. She's right; the house really is falling apart. The kitchen sink is leaking, the paint is peeling, and the cracks running through the plaster are too many to count. I look over the toys and trinkets on my shelves; arrange them from oldest to newest and realize just how cheap my latest creations look. Like a child pieced them together. These problems should energize me, motivate me - there's something that needs to be fixed and improved, but...
You're not a young man anymore, dad.
I look at my trembling, withered hands, scarred and callused from years of labour. My mind is brimming with inventions and ideas but how could hands like these ever keep up?
What's left for me now? Sit and think about my wife and how empty the world seems without her? This isn't living, this is marking time. Stuck in a glass jar and kept under observation. Frozen alive and left on display.
Two tablets after every meal.
I carry the pillbox to the kitchen sink, pop out my morning ration and flush the pills down the drain.