He’s very mechanically minded.
Yes. It’s scary at times.
There is a darkness to mechanical objects that he is a bit too quick to appreciate and understand.
(The elderly lady turned ahead of them down a long hall and the mother and the boy followed. The three of them turned again, passing a shelf covered with whiskey bottles and a mahogany cabinet which the boy noticed was full of wine and single-malt scotch.)
In that case (the elderly lady said) I have something–something mechanical–that he might like to see. The girl next door wanted to see it this morning, so it’s already wound.
The boy to whom the two grown women are impolite enough to be indirectly referring is fourteen years old and is following them through a Victorian-looking house on his first day in New Orleans. He is to take six weeks of intensive French lessons in a special summer program for adolescents in a school on Jackson Avenue. The elderly woman is a moderately-distant friend of his mother’s who is going to put him up and who is leading both of them now into a parlor tinkling with prisms and light.
Indeed, the idea of “something mechanical” immediately had this boy’s interest. Just as immediately, he saw it and was disappointed. Enough so, that it was difficult to fully conceal his disappointment. The mechanical thing was a clock. It was a glass clock in the center of a marble table. It was ticking steadily. The clock had an exposed mechanism, a pendulum weighted with dual glass tubes full of mercury, but otherwise was of a rather familiar style and unremarkable. There were some other antiquated objects in the room, some family pictures in ornate somewhat brassy-looking shadow-box frames, a spinet-style piano, two medallion sofas facing one another beneath a third medallion on the ceiling. Indeed, there was something of a medallion “theme” to the entire center of the parlor. It is unlikely that the boy would have known or noticed this. He was, after all, mechanically, not architecturally minded. On the left-hand sofa, however, there was something he did notice, couldn’t help but, a doll, a virtually life-sized doll, not a “baby” doll either but a doll representing an adolescent girl, a girl in her mid-adolescence, perhaps. Had she been standing up she might have been over four feet high, perhaps well over. She was wearing a nineteenth-century, European, many-buttoned, fin-de-si�cle dress, a maroon velvet jacket and some high-topped black shoes. She had been positioned so that she was looking somewhat wistfully out of a long French window, one elbow on the arm of the sofa. There was a black ribbon with a medallion on it around her neck.
(The boy went dutifully to the clock.)
We think a Swiss clock-maker made it, the woman continued. It’s from 1892, over a hundred years old at this point.
The boy looked at the beveled glass, the spattering of color on the marble table-top, the mercury-filled tubes, and stood there waiting for the woman to say something more about it. Actually, though, he knew the theory of the tubes himself. Heat causes metal to expand and the pendulum being metal will lengthen, lowering the center of gravity and therefore slowing the clock–not much, of course, infinitesimally, as a matter of fact, but when one is counting seconds over months or years the differences become significant, then profound. The mercury in the tubes is confined so that it can only expand upward, raising the center of gravity so the effects cancel.
(Well, he thought, standing patiently, politely, at the table, at least he could show off his knowledge.)
Is this the original key? he said.
It was only then that the boy realized that the woman was neither looking at him nor the clock.
Oh, that, she said. Not that. I know nothing about that. That’s new, for us anyway. That was at an estate sale last year. Sit down.
Sit down. Here. The woman patted the sofa beside her, rubbed the red velvet flirtatiously, made room between herself and the boy’s mother.
This woman, with her well-applied makeup and at least one face-lift, was elegant in the slightly decadent manner of the best-preserved of sixty-year-old females. She was the sort of woman who can successfully squeeze the last remnants of sensuality out of age, possessing, still, the power of crossed legs in cocktail dresses, knowing well the uses of black chiffon, gold jewelry, French perfume and alcohol. In fact, bringing a fourteen-year-old into a parlor tinkling with such temptations might have given many a mother pause. But this particular woman had a husband she was still moderately crazy about, a handsome lawyer with an alcoholic nose who was a member of one of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes and a fixture at Galatoire’s on Friday. (In fact, the husband was there now, this being a Friday.) So that particular story is possibly over before it starts.
Wait, the woman said, facing the other sofa now.
The doll continued looking out the window. The clock continued ticking on its table.
The boy sat down, began waiting, leaned forward slightly.
It may take a while. Would you like a Coca-Cola?
The boy was equally puzzled by both sentences.
He was still facing the sofa. He had already noticed that the two sofas were not quite identical. The one the doll was on was slightly longer and had darker, somewhat different-looking woodwork. He was beginning to make other comparisons. But, at that moment, the doll began to turn. She began to turn toward him, slowly as he watched, though not so slowly as to be unlifelike. It was as though she had been interrupted in the midst of a daydream. Her brilliant hazel eyes were not fixed, not what they call “doll-like,” they moved independently of her head and slightly in advance of it, giving an effect the realism of which was uncanny. Her hazel-colored eyes were crystalline, maybe literally. There was no movement of her mouth, which, like her face, was ceramic, or ivory, or alabaster and was doll-like, though the lips were full and there was a feeling and even a glimpse of natural teeth. She moved her elbow and left hand from the armrest and crossed both hands (politely?) in her lap. She was wearing long white gloves which, had her jacket been removed, would have proved to extend past her elbows. She moved her right hand and tugged on the fabric of her left glove as though to straighten it or exorcise some ghost of disorder.
Then she looked at the boy again, directly at him, through him. There could have been no more steadfast stare. The most saucy and impudent thirteen-year-old that has ever taken the perilous step of trying the effects of lipstick on a stepfather could not have had such a gaze. The doll had a breathtaking face, not innocent, but breathtaking: high cheekbones, shadowy eyes, dark hair that seemed real. His own gaze flinched down somewhat to the black-and-white medallion around her neck. Her breasts were so well-formed, her blouse so tucked-in as to give a sense of suspended breathing.
The woman was talking to his mother now.
It’s the only one like it we’ve ever seen. It’s Swiss, we think. It stayed in the attic for decades in a cedar-lined box. It was in my husband Eric’s family. Eric’s grandfather would have had to know something about it, since this was his house and furniture. Eric himself says he had never seen it before. His grandfather never mentioned the thing, had forgotten about it, perhaps, or perhaps kept it a secret deliberately, since he had three daughters in addition to his son. Maybe he wanted to avoid a fight. We didn’t find it till a few months ago. The year 1892 was stamped on–actually burned into–the wood of the box. It was in an alcove under an unbelievable number of blankets.
(The women, of course, are talking around the boy again.)
The crank is in that case, the woman said, pointing to a narrow leather box. There are a number of movements it goes through randomly, sometimes randomly, sometimes not. I’m not sure that we’ve seen them all as yet. It seems, at times, that where you touch it very much affects the internal program. You may touch it, if you like.
The boy came closet but could hear no sound of clockwork. The doll’s eyes had not moved, her head had not moved, still she seemed to be following him. He grasped the tips of her gloved fingers, tremulously, as though shaking hands, as though saying hello.
After a moment, the doll turned slightly and looked up at him. Her eyes, once again, slightly leading the movement. It was impossible to believe it was coincidental.
It will run for days, the woman said. The spring must be enormous. It feels enormous when you wind it.
What’s her name?
My God! You’re the second person who has asked that today! Actually, we haven’t named her. Or maybe we have. My husband and I have begun calling her “the doll.” You can name her if you like.
(The boy was still waiting, still holding the doll’s hand.)
Can you stop her? he said. Her motion, I mean. Is it possible to shut her off?
(Outside the house, he heard the shriek of a young girl’s voice next door.)
Yes, there’s a little wheel in the back of her neck, just under the ribbon.
The boy went behind her, behind the sofa and rested both his hands on the doll’s shoulders. Her eyelashes were almost assuredly real, her hair, too, human, straight, long and luxurious. It seemed he could smell a trace of perfume. He looked down at the fabric of her dress, felt the little wheel beneath the ribbon.
Interesting, the woman said. See what I mean? (The woman was talking to the boy’s mother now.) I’ve never seen her do that before.
The doll was turning around to look at the boy. She succeeded, too, to a surprising degree, finishing by staring up at him, her neck arched slightly.
During the first week, the boy attempted to make a complete catalog of the doll’s movements. She seldom moved as much as she had the first day. Sometimes, she would go a full hour or two without any motion of any kind. He would come into the parlor in the afternoon or evening and watch her and wait. Her activity was completely unpredictable: five minutes, thirty minutes; forty-seven and a half minutes between movements. Then she might do a lot, an entire series of things, as though bored by the long inactivity–straighten a glove, adjust her knees, slap at an invisible fly. The most elaborate thing she could do was the following: put both hands down, curl her knuckles slightly, and lift her entire body a fraction of an inch to the right. But before that motion was ever repeated, she would move to the left again, so that there was no overall change in position. Often, she would fold her hands together, waiting; and from that position move her eyes, alone, so as to look slowly around the room. (Literally, she seemed very much to look at something for a while, then at something else.) Occasionally, she would look down at the floor for quite a period of time, so that one would be very tempted to say: “This little doll once had a little dog.”
Her eyes themselves, the boy noticed, seemed as though they should be able to close, the lids seemed to be hinged, or potentially hinged, but they never did, or he never saw them do it. They never blinked, even. He could hear her ticking only by holding his ear directly on her body, but anyplace on it, would work, her back, for instance, or one of her shoulders. There was quite a presence in the sound, not a slow tick…..tick…..tick….tick…like a clock; but something faster, shorter, more breathless and passionate: a tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, full in its own way, of the quality of construction, of the click of micrometers, of the precise cut of lathes, of the tempering of steel for shafts and mainsprings.
The boy had other concerns, of course. Before leaving home, he had had daydreams that there might be some girl in New Orleans waiting just for him. But those dreams did not pan out. All the girls were older. He was literally the youngest individual in his class. Most of the girls had boyfriends with driver’s licenses. They were friendly enough but definitely not interested in any fourteen-year-old “mechanically-minded” boy. On several occasions, he hunted for but did not find the girl next door, nor, for that matter, did he ever hear her again.
Under the circumstances, the question that became paramount for him was how long the doll would run. It dawned on him that it might be somewhat difficult to tell. The doll might continue to tick long after she had stopped moving because it should take less energy to do that. In fact, every day, after class, he would wonder, has she stopped already?
He began to leave things in her hands, little bits of paper, to see if she had moved in his absence. Infinitesimal, these pieces of paper were, some of them virtually the size of lint. He would find them later, on the sofa, on the armrest, on the floor beneath her feet. After a while, he began writing tiny messages on them. To camouflage, as far as possible, what he was doing he would write very small, so that what she ended up holding was an unreadable blob of ink. But in each case he knew what he had written and was pleased to think she did as well.
Thinking of you.
I think you’re beautiful.
Will try to dream of Switzerland for your sake.
(He would find the messages on the cushion of the sofa, on the armrest, on the floor beneath her feet.)
The boy did try to dream of Switzerland for her; and, in order to get a focus for his dream, saturated himself with ideas and images of the area from two sets of encyclopedias in the house: pictures of the Alps, of cows, of cheese, of Zurich and Bern. He thought that perhaps she might come alive for him in a dream.
(And, as he began to learn more French, he tried speaking to her.)
On the sofa sometimes, unmoving for hours, he would stare at her, trying to saturate his brain with her beauty. Her hazel eyes were so realistic it was impossible to believe she was not seeing him too, watching him, waiting for something.
Nothing carne of the dreams, though. That is, they did not happen.
In truth, the two of them didn’t get much time absolutely alone together. Other things would intervene. The maid would come in. The husband would enter with his pipe, the wife with her cigarettes, or both, simultaneously. They seemed, mainly, to smoke in that room. The boy noticed one evening that the doll was looking directly at the husband as he fiddled with his pipe and he suddenly realized he was feeling something very like jealousy.
One afternoon, while waiting for the doll to move, he began looking at the family pictures in the shadow-box frames. He noticed there was a resemblance, a definite resemblance, between this doll and certain of the women in the pictures. He thought they might be the wives. The maid came on Tuesdays and Thursdays and he began to ask her questions. She knew the answers to most of them and the woman eventually provided him with the rest. He found that the daughters in the family had something of a resemblance, passed on, no doubt, genetically; but what he had guessed initially was the truth. The real resemblance was to the wives.
The boy opened the leather box, looked at the crank with its mahogany handle, lifted it up, set it back. There were some spare buttons for the blouse, a long Allen wrench with a T-shaped handle, some regular wrenches, too, three screwdrivers, a button hook. (There was also an impression of these things crushed into the velvet lining of the top of the box.)
How long could the spring last? he wondered. It was already more than “days” as the woman had suggested. It was “weeks,” now, past two, and well into a third. But then it quit. The boy came home one afternoon and found his last message (unread?) in her hand. The doll had run down. She was stopped, frozen, dead, caught in the middle of a motion. It was a most unnatural-looking position for her, her eyes on the floor, her neck in the process of a turn.
Seeing it, he immediately understood the importance of a little-appreciated role and function of funeral directors, who have as their responsibility the final, strictly physical, disposition of a human body: the adjusting of hands and feet, the closing of eyes, the stopping of life at a node.
The boy felt strongly that the doll shouldn’t be left like this. Did they even notice, the man and woman? Why didn’t they? Maybe they weren’t really looking at her. He decided he would rewind her himself. He decided he would fix the problem.
It would be three days before he could do that, though. The man and woman were going to dinner at Commander’s Palace on Saturday. Afterward, they were going to a party in the French Quarter. He would have two full hours at least, maybe more, maybe considerably more.
(In the meantime, she sat there, gathering infinitesimal dust.)
Saturday evening he waited a full twenty minutes after they left. Then he waited another ten in case they had forgotten something. Finally, he went into the parlor, locked the doors, closed the curtains and opened the box of tools. He saw the mahogany handle, the black velvet lining, noted, in passing almost, that the top section of the box (where the images of the tools were crushed) was somewhat thicker than it had to be. He realized the velvet lining of the case might hold or conceal something, might, in fact, fold down (did fold down he discovered with the aid of a bent paper clip). What he saw immediately inside was a certificate.
The certificate had a name, Moriya, printed in ornate black script at the top. There was some more writing, too, near that, in a smaller, different script: Austral Kraftwerk, Prague. Then there was a paragraph of print and some hand-written specifications in an antique and purple-looking ink in a series of printed blanks. The writing might have been German, might have been Czech. He did not know. He had had two years of Latin and now, of course, a smattering of French. But he had no idea. Austral Kraftwerk, Prague. What he saw now was that the design on the medallion on the doll’s neck was the trademark for the company. Not one word of the writing was meaningful to him. There was a serial number and part of a decorative scroll around the edge of the certificate. One of the bottom comers of the scroll had been tom off. He thought there might once have been an engraved picture of the doll in that comer. If so, it had been tom off. Why had it been torn off?
The boy thought that there might have been such a picture because there was something else engraved on the other corner, something totally unexpected: the sofa! But of course! The sofa was part of the doll! Not connected, obviously, but a platform for it, as it obviously had to be. Probably the doll had to be placed at the end of it, at the far left end, too. There might be things inside it, magnets, for instance, that allowed the doll to orient herself. Who, then, in this family had known to put her there? Someone was not telling the whole truth here.
Well, well, well, he thought. So, then, the doll’s name was Moriya.
“Moriya,” he said, coming around in front and looking at her, touching her fingertips.
But she continued to look dead to him, distorted; and, of course, there was no movement of her eyes.
Still, the boy realized, it was very possible that only he knew the rest of the story. This doll had not been made in Switzerland; she had been made in Prague. His hands were slightly tremulous now as he began to undress her. He was worried, at first, about how to handle her arms; but her maroon velvet jacket unhooked in the back, came off immediately, he discovered. He unlaced the back of the dress, which also came apart easily. The dress had innumerable pleats and revealed underneath what he would have called a black corset; but which the woman, outside of the house now, would have known was a bustier. The boy saw that he didn’t have to remove that. There was a hole in the fabric itself in the low back. As a precaution, though, before he inserted the crank, he moved the wheel in her neck to the “off” position. He inserted the short, stubby, but rather massive crank and began to turn it. He was expecting a heavy sound like click… click…click. What he heard, instead, had more of a roaring quality and feel. He wound it on and on, tighter and tighter: ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty, thirty, a total of forty times before the spring began to feel really tight to him. At the end, he relaxed the crank very carefully to be sure the ratchet would hold. Then he turned the wheel in her neck and watched as she completed the turn she had begun days ago. She came to rest in a position he had seen many times before, her eyes slightly averted. Was she being shy? Flirtatious?
Disheveled now, her jacket down, her young back showing, what he saw was the breathtaking, incredible modeling of her scapulas and vertebrae. Her skin was not ceramic, but what was it? Ivory? Alabaster? It was something that looked like ivory to him. It was slightly warm-feeling. He saw the dark bustier, the stunning shoulder blades, the pleated cloth hanging off her right shoulder, and all of a sudden the temptation became too great for him.
He began to undo the front of her dress.
The little fabric-covered buttons were somewhat difficult to manipulate. He saw it would be rather easy to break one. The doll’s breasts were not overly large. Her nipples were of a deeper hue than her lips. Her pigments were getting darker, it seemed, in the more caudal direction (a word he would not have known but a principle he might have appreciated). What he noticed about the breasts was that they were not unfinished. The doll’s breasts, like her back, were perfect; they were not just forms and armatures for fabric; they were meant to be seen. He began to see very clearly now; this doll was not designed around a dress. She was designed around a nude body.
The doll’s nipples were of a rubbery material, darkly pink. Where the rubber came together centrally, it could be pulled and teased apart. It dawned on him that something might be hidden beneath the rubber. Screws perhaps. This might be the way to take off the front of the doll.
The boy was well familiar with the deviousness of mechanical constructions. In disassembling such things as vacuum cleaners, radios, televisions and lawn mowers, he had learned long ago (virtually in kindergarten, in fact) that the innocent-looking moldings and chrome strips frequently hid the mounting attachments for a motor or chassis. This was wildly different, of course; yet, all things considered, it was right up his alley. He turned the doll off, ran to the kitchen, and got a flashlight. With the light, he looked carefully as he pried gently into the rubber nipples with the tip of the buttonhook. No, there were no screw heads. The holes went deeper, though, so maybe something else would fit. The Allen wrench, perhaps. It was possible that he was on the right track. Another thought, though, was beginning to bother him. Would a dress of this era normally lace in the back and button in front? He had no idea.
It seemed this doll’s clothes were made to be taken off quickly.
Behind him, on the marble table, the clock continued to tick. The boy was taking rather more time with all of this than he realized. And now, in his rush to get the flashlight, he had left the door to the parlor unlocked.
He took the T-shaped Allen wrench out of the case and tried to insert it directly through the rubber in the right nipple. He was not successful. He met resistance immediately. Still, to be thorough, he tried it in the left as well. It went in. Not a little. It went in the full length of the shaft.
With one hand on her back and one hand on the T-shaped handle, he now had a decision to make: whether or not to turn the wrench. The doll’s eyes were still averted. This could possibly cause her body to spring open. He might not be able to get her back together again. There was no clue as to what was going to happen. He waited several seconds thinking, deliberating, resting his full palm flat against her bare back. Then the doll’s eyes began to move. They moved upward a matter of millimeters and began to drift steadily to the right toward him. It was a move he had never seen her make before. Finally, her eyes met his, not exactly but almost. He leaned down to intersect her gaze. It was impossible to believe she was not seeing him, talking to him, begging him silently. He took a quick breath and turned the handle clockwise. Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. He met complete resistance. (Actually, he was almost relieved to find it.) Then (being very thorough again) he turned the handle the other way.
Something clunked deep within the interior of the doll. Deep within the doll, he heard something rather heavy-sounding move into another position.
The boy listened quickly, almost desperately, holding his ear to her bare shoulder. There was no change whatsoever in the noise (tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic). Then again, maybe there was. Maybe the ticking was faster now.
The boy held the Allen wrench in his hand, waiting, but nothing happened. He sat down beside her, still nothing. He looked at the clock on the table. Fifteen minutes, he thought.
He waited beside her, the doll with her breasts bared, her black bustier open. She seemed to be looking toward but not directly at the clock. A woman ignoring you might look in such a direction. Suddenly, the boy remembered the unlocked door. He jumped up, ran to lock it, sat down again.
He should be safe, anyway, he ,thought, should have plenty of time. They should still be at Commander’s Palace now. He should have plenty…hours, maybe. On the other hand, what if they dropped by here on the way to the Quarter.
Fifteen minutes, he thought.
But it didn’t take that long.
After six minutes of ticking, the doll blinked. Actually, what the doll did was a good deal more than a blink; it was slower, and more prolonged:
She fully closed and opened her eyes.
Then she began to move her right hand. The doll moved her right hand forward and set it down rather firmly near the boy’s knee and began to pull along his leg and thigh. She did not stop. She pulled steadily and directly into his crotch and stayed there for a long time. What she was doing now was evidently not unintentional. She was steadily moving her hand. The boy did not know whether to look at her or not. He could barely see her dark and tender lashes. Then he felt her hand on his shoulder. The doll had changed positions somewhat; she had put her gloved hand on his left shoulder and leaned into him. This was an entirely different, beseeching, sort of movement. In a human being you would say that what was wanted now was a kiss; the girl–or lady–wants a kiss. In a doll, of course, you could not say that, not accurately that is. But the boy said it anyway. He kissed her. He kissed her on her mouth. The doll’s mouth was not unpleasant feeling. Her mouth was electrifying. She looked up, seemed to lock onto his eyes. He felt more and more pressure in her kiss, more and more and more of the pressure. Then he realized what was happening
The doll was climbing on top of him. The boy fell the full length of the sofa and her sudden, unexpected heaviness was upon him. Her dark hair fell completely over both of them. By helping her slightly he got her legs on the sofa, too, and centered in his groin area. She was as heavy as a small sack of fertilizer. Altogether, the sensation was unexpected, weird and magical; she felt real. Not that he had ever felt a girl in this situation. But then again there was no object that had ever felt like this. Her balance was perfect. He had already been phenomenally, wildly, turned on by the kiss alone. With this extra activity, he was reaching unprecedented heights (or lengths). But he didn’t feel any receptacle for what had now grown between them. Steadily, powerfully the doll began to grind against him. Her searching eyes locked firmly onto his. He felt desperately, but her groin was perfectly smooth. He inserted his hand down beneath her clothes to make absolutely sure. There was nothing. She continued to pin him with her mouth and grind against him. What must such a doll have cost? was almost his last thought before he exploded into his own underwear. She ground into him for another full minute, then stopped, leaving him with her weight and the warm, soapy stickiness.
Je t’aime, the boy said. J’ai la t�te de la m�canique.
The doll’s eyes remained closed, as though sleeping. The boy put his hand on the back of her head. He stayed on the sofa an additional ten minutes, feeling her satisfying weight, the slight vibration of her body, all fear of being discovered gone, the glass clock on the table steadily ticking, all centers of gravity in the room perfectly balanced now. The boy waited another five minutes, even afterward, vaguely curious, vaguely thinking something else might happen. But nothing did.
At last the boy sat up, then sat her up and turned her off. Her dress was still more or less in place. But he wanted to take a closer look at her groin area. There was nothing there, nothing. The area was perfectly smooth, sexless in a way, an ivory groin. No, wait a minute. There was something but it was not a part of her. There was something written, embroidered in the cloth of her underpants (they didn’t really look like panties to him but it was the last garment before her bare body). The writing was in script in dark letters, a phrase in Latin:
Talis umbras mundum regnant.
The boy smiled and said it aloud, musingly. So, the sole use, thus far, in his life, of two full years of Latin was to understand the message written on a doll’s underpants. He began to put the doll back together. He checked carefully for stains. All was fine, perfect; no stains, nothing. Finally, with the Allen wrench, he set her back to the clockwise position, waited a moment, looking.
The doll suddenly opened her eyes.
He kissed her and turned off the light.
Have you thought of a name for her?
(This was three days later, in the parlor, where the boy was sitting after class, studying a list of verbs. The woman had come in to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from a carton.)
The boy was shocked at how quickly he had been able to lie, to think of all the unknowns and ramifications and know the name he now had for her, her name in fact, could never be said. It was one of those moments in life that he knew, for sure, that he was developing the adult mind.
I think “the doll” is a perfectly fine name, he said, watching the woman.
The woman fished a pack of cigarettes from a carton. (Even she resembled the doll; could she possibly not see that?)
Who thought of putting her on the sofa? the boy said.
Oh? You think she looks good there?
Four times, and four times only, the boy and Moriya were able to intersect. During the last two, the boy was bare from the waist down and Moriya was almost perfectly nude. By diligently searching up and down Magazine Street, he had found a filling station with a condom machine in the restroom. He had bought several; they were a bit large, of course; still, they simplified certain worries–not so much of a problem, after all, for a fourteen-year-old, but enough for staining a sofa or a dress.
All through the days that followed, the boy had more energy than he had ever had in his life. He felt more alive. He would watch Moriya in the afternoon light, the saucy, impudent, perfectly beautiful face, the risqu� and hungry mouth, cherish the memory and anticipation of her ivory groin grinding into his. In the actual sexual encounters, it helped to know, now, exactly what was going to happen, when her hand was going to move, when she was going to need assistance with her feet.
Since the boy now knew where Moriya was really from, he decided to try the trick of the dream again. It worked, too, this time, and magnificently. (But once, and once only.) He sneaked a heavy volume of the encyclopedia to bed with him and read the entire article about Prague, twice through, completely, just before turning out the light. Sure enough, during the night she came to him. Or, more correctly, he went to her. He went to Prague. He and Moriya were suddenly walking across the Charles Bridge together. She was tracing the veins in his hand with her gloved hand.
Then they were in a cafe, each with a glass of wine.
I have a secret, she said.
(There was a light heaviness to her voice; it was precisely articulate, as though English were her third or fourth language.)
What? he said.
She was bubbling over with excitement.
But she would not tell him.
I know a secret! she said again, later. She came around the little table and sat on his lap, dangling her feet above the ceramic tiles. She pressed the tips of her fingers into his cheeks, head-to-head, nose-to-nose, her eyes locked onto his, to fix and center his vision. There was an incredible glow of energy around her. She leaned forward as though to whisper something, but licked his ear instead.
Interestingly, the boy’s dream was not set in 1892, not in the era of gaslights and horses, the era of her construction, but in a strange and intermediate time. It would have had to have been somewhere in the 1930s just before the second world war. There were only a few cars, very dark, dusty. But what cars! What magnificent machines! He saw a fair number of Mercedes, a couple of Rolls Royces (the great roadsters and dual-cowled phaetons), a Bugatti, an Invicta, an Hispano-Suiza. The cars were parked on the stone bridges, the stone streets, the horses clopping by them. The greatest cars of the twentieth century, covered with dust from the road.
It was a mechanically minded dream.
But four times, and four times only, the two of them had together. Not that that was absolutely all the possible chances. It was because on the last chance something disastrous happened.
The man and woman were going to another party (in Covington, this time, across Lake Pontchartrain and The Causeway).
The boy knew he would have plenty of time.
Thirty minutes after they’d left, he had the doll perfectly nude. But with such a luxury of time, he began to look at her more carefully. On her flanks now, he saw several other places for the Allen wrench to insert, a total of six of them, between her arms and her waist. This had to be the way to get inside her. The boy’s curiosity began to get the better of him. There was so much she could do and he couldn’t begin to imagine how. He simply had to see, first-hand, what was going on. He quickly removed six long machine screws with hexagonal insert heads and set them on the marble-topped table. He managed to get his fingernails into a seam in her back and then, with the smallest screwdriver, pry her alabaster skin up carefully, very carefully so as not to crack it. He had to break a sort of suction. He could scarcely pull the skin off. This doll had probably not been opened in a hundred years. He saw some green felt, some brass gears, some shafting; then, suddenly, an incredible surprise: Wires! Electrical wires! Yellow, cotton-covered wires! Bundles of them, everywhere, even attached to her back through a very odd-looking detachable connector. There was a flywheel between the doll’s shoulder blades. It was not spinning, though, and would not spin even when he released the control in her neck. He suspected some chunks of unmachined metal that he saw near the flywheel might be magnets, and tested one of them with the blade of the screwdriver:
It was all he could do to pull it away again.
A magnet indeed, a very powerful magnet! What he was looking at was a dynamo. This doll generated her own electricity! There were several copper discs attached to the underside of her skin. He saw a number of others inside, too, maybe an eighth of an inch thick, maybe thicker, and a couple of inches in diameter. For what? Capacitance effects? Probably not, at least not in this era. On the other hand, thermocouples were a definite possibility. Thermocouples were really old, he knew; he had seen a book from the 1880s that had them in it. Thermocouples would be sensitive to heat, too, or to changes in heat. So she could know when and where she was being touched.
There was absolutely no dust, though. The doll’s body might have been sealed yesterday. Only the dullness of the brass and some corrosion of the bearings revealed her true age. So moisture itself can enter, the boy thought (or perhaps it simply condensed inside her). He saw shafts with differential gearing and hard-rubber wheels pressing against discs to give integrals and derivatives of motion. Along her flanks, and in the back side of her breasts, there were areas where lead had been cast to give the proper weight distribution. All of this was so much more elaborate than he could have dreamed. There were banks of wire-wound resistors in what appeared to be a series of Wheatstone bridges, arranged, perhaps, in a sort of decision tree. (Wouldn’t you need to amplify the current though? Maybe not.) What must such a doll have cost? he thought. Her movements themselves were powered by the spring; but many of the decisions were evidently electromechanical. Not all of them, though, because he saw a cylindrical stack of metal discs with slots, like in a music box, tiny relays, strain gauges, electromagnetic clutches. The doll had to be pushing the absolute limits of the technology of the era. Still, the great majority of the time everything was evidently disengaged; she sat there ticking steadily, declutched and waiting.
The boy sat the doll up and put her, very carefully now, in the counter-clockwise position, since the motions were continuous there and he knew what they would be. The flywheel of the dynamo suddenly began to spin. He could slow it, stop it, though, by touching the escapement wheel. The escapement was finer-toothed than a clock’s. Every time he put his finger down on the wheel, the doll’s hand would stop. If he let it go, it would run. It would run, then stop, run then stop. Tic-tic-tic-tic….tic-tic… He was watching the part of the movement where she would normally grab for his shoulder. But this time there was going to be no shoulder for her to grab. With his finger he had complete control of her: Tic-tic-tic….tic-tic….tic-tic. She moved now an inch; now a quarter of an inch, now a matter of millimeters. Something seemed to have been filtered out of the movement, though. Something very real but difficult to describe. What? Well. Something. Passion maybe. It seemed to be passion.
Was passion some function of time?
She would run, then stop, run then stop: tic-tic-tic-tic….tic-tic. Her movements had become somewhat jerky at this speed. The boy was utterly fascinated. He found himself watching the tremor of her gloved hand. Had he inadvertently aged the doll? He touched her again and again, letting her move only incrementally. Tic….tic…..tic……tic……………….tic
At that moment, the escapement wheel sheared off. It sheared completely off and dropped deep within the mechanism. What was left of the little shaft began to spin furiously. The gloved hand of the doll shot eight inches in less than a second. The boy’s sense of panic could not have been greater had there been an artery spurting blood across the room. He quickly grabbed at the other control in her neck, stopped the motion, stopped the shaft, his heart pounding furiously.
Oh my God!
He couldn’t get to the wheel. It had fallen deep inside. He could not reach it within the labyrinth of machinery. The boy tilted the doll, shook her a little, righted her. There was a tinkling springy noise as the wheel fell down and lodged somewhere near the bottom. It would take a major disassembly to get to it now and would do no good whatsoever since the shaft itself was broken.
There was absolutely no way to put the wheel back.
The boy stood there, terrified. In desperation, he tried inserting the wrench and turning her back to the clockwise position. He thought there possibly might be a second escapement for that position. (Just possibly.) At the same time, he knew in his heart, that that would never be true. Absolutely knew, even before he turned the wrench. It was impossible. And yet there was. He heard it as soon as he released the control. There was indeed another escapement ticking more deeply inside her. He waited, sat her up, her back still open, waited, waited (tic-tic-tic). Suddenly, she began to move. The normal position seemed to be OK. The boy held his ear close to her shoulder. (Tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic.) The sound was exactly the same as always. The normal position was OK, or seemed to be. He began sealing her shut again.
After all, he thought, perhaps no one knew about the other position. Working furiously, he began to put Moriya back together. The precision of this doll’s construction was absolutely unbelievable. He had to wait to let air escape before the two halves would seal together. He was virtually spinning the Allen wrench now, his hands moving as accurately as a surgeon’s. Soon, there was no trace whatsoever of his entering, no felt showing, no misalignment. It was all snug, tight, perfect.
The boy began to dress her, then to lace up her bustier. He had a sense that his time was limited, that something else was about to go wrong. He laced up the back of her dress, missed one position and had to start again. The normal position was OK, he thought, and perhaps no one knew about the other. Or, if they did, they might assume they had broken her themselves. He straightened her dress, began to hook her velvet jacket. Get her dressed! Get her dressed! Hurry! he thought. The normal position is OK he told himself (or was telling himself) until a question brought him up short in his thoughts:
Exactly which position was normal?
He finished hooking up her velvet jacket and quickly turned out the light.
There had been absolutely no need to rush. It was several hours before the man and woman returned. Still, afterward, for three full days, the boy worried himself sick about the doll. Why? Because of the escapement wheel. How could he be sure it was completely out of the way? For all possible movements, that is. It might still strip a gear or cause something to short-circuit. The boy studiously avoided entering the parlor. He didn’t want to be physically in the same room if something within Moriya began to grind and malfunction. Each day before class, he looked in to see whether or not she had moved. When he was home, he went past the parlor doorway, nervously, almost hourly. Had she changed position? Yes. No. Maybe. Yes. (Yes, indeed.) The doll seemed to be running perfectly. Still, he could not study for worrying. All he thought of in class now was Moriya, alone, in that parlor, initiating each perilous new motion. Three days, four days, five days, six. She should have gone through most of her program now. The man and woman would go into the parlor, leave it, notice nothing, say nothing. Mostly, though, Moriya sat there all alone. The boy would watch her from the hall. He, too, noticed absolutely nothing. Indeed, it seemed absolutely nothing had changed.
But in those days of worry and despair, he began to see the doll in a new light, as something of an agent, ambassador and spy. What kind of reasoning had gone into her? What was she all about? Her design was more than clever; it was demonic in its brilliance, compulsive in its perfection; perhaps the work of some famously dirty-minded old clockmaker from the Austral Kraftwerk in Prague who had sent her into the world in search of fourteen-year-old boys. From this point of view, the boy saw that he had been set up, framed, completely. There was nothing necessarily gentle or bright here. What dark imperatives was this doll fulfilling? The boy could imagine a shop with lathes and drill presses, wires and electromagnets, petticoats and steel filings–pipes too, and cheese, micrometers, and tankards of beer. What was he thinking of (the clockmaker) when he had designed her? Was he dreaming of the sex himself? And, if so, with whom? Was it his hand that found its way up your leg? After all, the message on the underwear was not from her but from the clockmaker: Talis Umbras Mundum Regnant. That was a message from the clockmaker, wasn’t it?
The feeling did not last long. Another feeling soon replaced it in the boy’s heart. The new feeling was loneliness, a bottomless loneliness, the most abject loneliness imaginable. He went through a daily agony. It was as though he were broken, not she. He would stand at the door, watch her adjust her position, straighten her glove, scratch an invisible fly off a sleeve. She was trapped now. He was trapped without her. His misery and guilt became unbearable. After dinner one evening, he realized he simply had to go in to see her again. Cautious, shy, nervous, he tucked his shirttail in, actually checked his appearance in a mirror, before he went through the door. He sat down on the opposite sofa with his French book as though nothing had happened. He waited there nervously. Why was he nervous? What was this, silliness? Superstition? She was a toy, wasn’t she? At last the doll began to turn and look directly at him. He held his breath as her eyes met his. Then he saw her, truly saw her, for the first time in a week. Her face. He had forgotten it. He had not forgotten it. He had… He went numb inside.
Then she continued her turn beyond him, seemed, at last, to be looking at something out the door. She adjusted her glove, became motionless once more.
She did not move again for two hours.
She was trapped now. He was trapped without her. The doll did not look at him again. She seemed to avert her eyes.
The boy’s dream of Prague came back to him. What secret could she have had? What could it have possibly been? That she loved him? That she was pregnant? What could it have been?
It was an agony to remember it. It was simply too painful to think about.
There was nothing now, nothing. The doll would adjust her gloves, straighten them, fold her hands, look up, look down, and just about break his heart.
I have insulted her, he thought, with these thoughts of a clockmaker. He had met her in Prague, or at least had met something that very much seemed to be her. They had talked. She had talked to him. She was not bound by those wires. There was something, a shadow of something, within her that got beyond everything, beyond the gears, the shafts, the magnets–an umbra, so to speak; umbras the plural would be. Was that her secret? Was that what she had wanted and not wanted to tell him? Talis umbras mundum regnant. (“Such shadows rule the world.”) He could not have had that dream without her.
Did she say she knew a secret or had a secret?
His memory of the dream was already fading.
And then his French course was over.
And then there was the afternoon he came to visit her for the last time. He felt the briefest flush of hope when he entered the room. Everything was not perfectly gloomy. What can be broken, can be fixed, he thought. What can be broken, can be fixed. There was a dimension to all of this he had to ignore, a reality, if you will. But a balance wheel can be reattached, a shaft can be machined, from scratch if necessary. Still, it would be too late for him. The normal, or maybe not the normal, part of the doll still worked perfectly. The other could be fixed. But not for him, never for him, fixed or not, that was gone forever. He would never be in this parlor again, never have another chance, never be on the sofa with this girl, never feel her pressure against him, never see her close her eyes like a kitten to sleep.
The dangling prisms weighed heavily on his soul. The doll sat on her sofa, perfectly motionless. He stood there, watching her, breathing mainly out of his mouth. “Je t’aime,” he said, quietly.
It had been impossible, over the days, not to see longing, then reproach, then anger in those eyes.
He would leave tomorrow. He told her that. (Out loud, in fact.) He waited, waited a long time. She did not move. Je t’aime. I love you, he said again, finally.
The doll still did not move. She continued staring out the window. She did not believe him anymore.
The boy picked up some papers that he had left in the parlor and walked toward the front of the house. He heard, outside, in another world, another block, the shriek of some children. On the spur of the moment, he decided to go out onto the front porch. He saw the street lamps, the live oaks, stood there quietly, glum and melancholy. There was a solid hedge of boxwood in front of him and to his right.
The loveliness of the afternoon was almost but not completely lost on him.
Did she say I have or I know? he thought.
Strange, in six weeks, he had scarcely been on this porch. He stood there, patiently, in the late afternoon light, looking out at the enormous hedge. Whatever life held for him, whatever waited for him, lay beyond it now. There was an immense stillness, a perfect quietness to the tiny leaves. He had learned some French in this town, some other things. Well, it would pass. Time itself would pass.
Passion was some function of time.