Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Object Of His Affection

     [I’m dry of commentary this morning, and the news is anything but stirring, so have a piece of fiction instead. I wrote the following story about twenty years ago, in a fury over all the hackneyed, unoriginal uses of magic as a motif in storytelling. -- FWP]

     Carl Harris stuck his clipboard under his right arm and shouldered open the door of the little storefront. The assortment of unrelated objects he'd seen through its grimy front windows told him nothing about what kind of business it was. He hadn't targeted this shop specifically. It wasn't on his rolls, and that was enough to warrant a look. When he let himself see and smell the place, he regretted his decision to enter.
     The shop was small, dank, and dimly lit. The air hung still and dusty. No one else was in sight. The bare counter he faced from the doorway stood unattended. Harris scanned the room for some indication of what kind of business was transacted here.
     The place was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed to their edges with junk. An old chrome toaster stood next to a battered teddy bear, which leaned precariously over an antique shaving mirror. Beside them stood a jumble of shabby jewelry boxes, their fabric hinges frayed to uselessness, and a matryoshka doll whose painted surfaces were more chips than paint. There were tarnished candleholders of rococo design, and decorative candles in fanciful shapes, some that had been lit, some that had not. Ancient clocks and watches abounded. Commemorative plates and mugs were everywhere, proclaiming the glories of places no one in his right mind would ever visit. Over all of it hung an odor of mildew and decay.
     The driftwood of innumerable lives had washed up on this lower Manhattan beach. It was a junk shop, not even a pawn shop, and there was nothing more unpleasant for a retail inspector.
     People bring objects of value to a pawn shop.
     He'd take little or nothing from this place. The owner wouldn't have a cent to spare. Likely, he did this only to stay busy.
     Harris might have pretended he'd walked through the wrong door and backed out, but a short, portly old man in faded coveralls emerged from the corridor behind the counter, noticed his uniform and approached him, smiling gently.
     "May I help you with something, Officer?"
     Harris deployed his badge folder with a practiced flick: long enough to let his intended victim glimpse something official-looking, but not long enough to read his name. "Retail Establishments division," he growled. "This address isn't on the city's retail registry, nor on the tax rolls. What's going on here?"
     The old man spread his arms as if the matter ought to be self-explanatory. "Nothing in your line, Inspector. I'm just a collector of old things. I don't sell, though I do occasionally buy or barter. You'll note that I have no cash register."
     Harris fixed the coot with a dubious stare. The benevolent old uncle act had been tried on him before. He was armored against a lot better than that. Now that he'd entered this rat's nest, he wasn't about to leave without something to show for it.
     As always when he allowed himself to become conscious of what he was doing, he heard Amanda's ghost whisper chastisements in his ear. His left thumb caressed the smooth gold of his wedding band.
     "Why the storefront, then? This is a commercial block. Don't try to tell me you're paying a commercial rent here just to maintain a place for your hobby."
     The shopkeeper smiled but said nothing. His anger rising, Harris stepped toward the nearest of the shelves and reached for the antique yet new-looking toaster. All he had to do was find a price marked anywhere upon it, and the old fraud's story would collapse.
     The moment his fingers brushed the chrome surface of the old appliance, he was washed by a wave of acute stubbornness, a defiance of the forces of time and the universe that only death could overcome. His mind filled with the picture of a kitchen in a tenement apartment. Though the decor and the furnishings all looked to be from the Thirties, each appliance and item of furniture was as clean and shiny as it had been when new. He jerked away, and the image faded.
     Harris examined his fingertips. They were unmarked. He peered at the appliance. Its cord and plug dangled in plain sight over the forward edge of the shelf. The shelf itself was a plain slab of plywood. Whatever he'd experienced, it hadn't been an electric shock. He shook himself, approached the shelf a second time, and grabbed at the matryoshka doll.
     Upon his first contact with the doll, he was seized by an overpowering grief. Involuntarily, he envisioned a dimly lit room where a woman past her childbearing years, garbed all in black, stood weeping over a child-sized coffin. It was much like what he'd felt when Amanda died.
     Harris withdrew his hand, backed away from the shelf full of oddments, and faced the old man again.
     The shopkeeper's eyes drifted across Harris's countenance and down to his left hand, where the inspector's thumb continued to rub idly at his wedding band. Harris forced down his unease and started to bluster.
     "Look, you really don't want me to demand your papers and start looking this place over closely. Tell me what you've got going here, and we can come to --"
     "What a lovely piece of jewelry, Inspector. May I have a closer look at it?"
     The interruption stopped Harris cold. The shopkeeper's voice had dropped an octave and acquired a honeyed warmth. When the old man donned a jeweler's monocle and reached for Harris's left hand, the inspector was too stunned to react.
     "What fine workmanship." The shopkeeper rotated the perfectly plain gold band around Harris's finger. He studied it for several minutes, from several angles. "I've seldom seen one this nice." He removed the monocle and looked Harris in the eyes. "But you're no longer married, are you, Inspector?"
     The old man's gaze shone with an intensity that both compelled and soothed. An alarm issued from a deep corner of Harris's mind, but he could not compel himself to attend to it.
     "Well, no. I'm a widower. Four years now."
     "And you still wear it. A young man like you, who could so easily be starting a new family with another woman." The old eyes were wise and sorrowful. "You must have loved her very much. What was her name?"
     "Amanda." Harris's heart clenched at her memory. Even to think her name usually brought him to tears, and that wouldn't do, not here.
     The old man folded both of his hands around Harris's own. His grip was soft, warm, and soothing, like his eyes and voice.
     "Do you wear it always?"
     Harris nodded.
     "Does it help you to keep your memories of her alive, Inspector?"
     "Yes." He forced down the urge to weep. "It's been so different since she died."
     "Not better."
     "No." Harris could barely manage a whisper.
     "You must be very lonely." The shopkeeper's eyes, voice and hands caressed him in harmony. "There's so much loneliness in this city. Come in the back, Inspector, and talk with a lonely old man a while. I'll fix us a pot of coffee, and you can tell me about Amanda whom you loved."
     The shopkeeper pulled Harris gently toward the rear of the store, and he did not resist.

     Harris found himself in his own apartment late that evening, lying on his bed, with no memory of how he'd gotten there. Oddly, he was still wearing his uniform, which he usually doffed the instant he was home. He hadn't even removed his shoes.
     He rose creakily, noted the hour, and began to undress. He was in bed with the light out before he realized that he couldn't remember a thing he'd done since he arose that morning. His weary mind tugged at the day, trying feebly to pull even a single fact through the opaque shroud around his brain, until sleep claimed him.
     He didn't notice until the following morning that his wedding band was missing.

     Harris tore through his apartment in a pure frenzy of loss. He ravaged everything he owned, everything that might somehow have concealed his errant ring, not caring how much damage he did. His wedding band, his last priceless keepsake of his years with Amanda, was not in his apartment.
     Nothing would come back to him about the previous day.
     He rushed out into the Manhattan winter without his topcoat. Where had he been? What had he been doing that his ring had come off? He hadn't removed it since the day of his wedding fifteen years ago, not even to shower. How could it have come off without his notice?
     He groped for Amanda's memory. He needed desperately to apologize to her for his inattention. For the first time since her death, he could not form her face in his mind. The failure pushed him over the border of hysteria.
     He lurched through the streets, screaming, crying, jamming his hands into storm drains and scrabbling through heaps of trash. Passers-by, New Yorkers who normally kept a protective barrier between themselves and the lunacies that prowled their streets, could not help but note the coatless, wild-eyed man stumbling through the frozen concrete canyons. Later, behind closed doors, they would recount the events to their loved ones and wonder what loss had sent him forth to rave and stagger in the rising gale.

     It was three days before Harris rediscovered the junk shop. He was at the limit of his resources, having neither eaten nor slept since he'd discovered his loss.
     The old man was there.
     "Inspector Harris! Come in, dear boy. What a state you're in! Come in the back, I'll pour you some coffee."
     Harris allowed the old man to shepherd him to the rear of the store, where a small stove, table and two chairs awaited. The shopkeeper sat him at the table and turned to the stove for coffee. Harris sat inert, his memory of the place seeping back.
     "You weren't supposed to find this shop a second time, you know." The shopkeeper's voice was casual.
     "I suppressed all your memories of your visit, and everything around them for eight hours in either direction." The old man came to the table with two steaming mugs and passed one to Harris. "You were supposed to come to in your apartment at about ten PM. Did you?"
     Harris nodded.
     The shopkeeper sipped from his mug. "Your attachment to your ring must have been very strong. I shouldn't wonder. It was incredibly potent. I was lucky to find you."
     Harris couldn't make sense of the words. "Potent?"
     The old man nodded. "Why do you suppose I wanted it?"
     Harris started to rise from the table. "You have it? Where?"
     "Calm yourself, Mr. Harris." The shopkeeper chuckled, but there was no humor in the sound at all. "I'll fetch it." He rose and went to the front of the shop, and returned moments later with a gold wedding band.
     "Here." The old man laid the ring in Harris's hand.
     Harris stared stupidly at the ring. It felt wrong. It could not possibly be his. He began to slide it onto his finger, and the sense of wrongness intensified. The metal was cold and repulsive against his skin. He yanked it off and would have thrown it across the room, but the inscription on the inner surface caught his eye. He brought it close to his eyes and read.
     Carl and Amanda Harris, June 1, 1986. Now and Forever.
     It could not be his ring.
     It was his ring.
     Harris looked into the shopkeeper's eyes, pleading silently for an explanation.
     The old man smiled thinly and nodded. "It's yours, Mr. Harris. And you won't lose it again, at least not to me. I've no further use for it."
     "Why?" Harris whispered.
     The shopkeeper cocked his head as if waiting for Harris to answer his own question.
     "No guesses, Mr. Harris?"
     Harris stared, uncomprehending. The old man chuckled gently and looked away.
     "I had a lady visitor, two weeks ago, who complained of a straying husband. Now, some with that problem want vengeance. Others want to forget. But this young woman wanted the situation corrected. Firmly, so that it would never recur. So I began assembling ingredients for a love spell."
     " spell?"
     "Oh my, yes. A blockbuster. The lass will have no further difficulties with her straying husband. Though I doubt she'll get as much satisfaction as she expects from having bound him to her through my arts."
     The old man leaned back and folded his hands behind his head as Harris gaped at him.
     "Every artisan needs raw materials, Mr. Harris. I'm constantly on the lookout for them. Objects with real potency aren't that common in this city of cynics. New Yorkers are obsessed with newness. Just as their possessions are beginning to acquire a hint of power, they throw them away." The shopkeeper clucked his disapproval. "Makes it hard for a man in my line, now and then."
     The old man's voice acquired a tone of reminiscence. "Have you any idea how much mana is stored in a pocket watch that a man has carried around with him for thirty years? That his father carried before him, and his father before him? I could keep this whole city suspended in time for a year on the power in one such. But the last one I saw was half a century ago.
     "Or take hair combs. They used to be passed from mother to daughter for seven or eight generations, back when they were made of bone rather than plastic. A woman with a seven-generation comb who knew how to use it once paralyzed a twelve thousand man army, singlehanded, for eight days."
     The shopkeeper sighed. "But that was yesterday, and yesterday's gone. What else is gone, Mr. Harris? Can you remember Amanda now? Can you call her image up from your memory?"
     Harris shook his head. "I can't see her anymore. For four years she's been there whenever I wanted, but..."
     The shopkeeper nodded, not without sympathy. "I know. You formed the habit of caressing your wedding band whenever you thought of her. The habit became a fixative, a binder for your memories and the emotion they carried. You had no idea, of course, but you were steadily storing all the passion you had for your late wife in your wedding band. You made it into a most potent talisman of love."
     Harris stared down at the circle of gold in his palm. "Then why...?"
     The shopkeeper smiled. "I've told you, I needed that love and passion for a customer. And I shall always be grateful to whatever gods guided you here to provide it to me."
     Harris began to quake. The sense of loss was too strong to be borne. He slumped back in his chair, whimpers gradually breaking through his shredded self-control. His hand brushed the grip of his service revolver.
     It occurred to him, as if shouted at him from a great distance, that the appropriate thing to do with what remained of his life would be to draw his weapon, level it at this smirking gnome and blast him out of existence. With the last ember of his will, he tried to muster the rage necessary for such an act, and failed.
     The shopkeeper leaned toward him. "How are you feeling, Mr. Harris?"
     It didn't occur to Harris to dissemble. "Empty. Pointless."
     "I'm sure. You're nothing but a parasite who pesters honest tradesmen, holding your powers over their heads, squeezing petty graft from them in exchange for your permission to earn their livelihoods. Your love for Amanda was the one bright spot in your soul, wasn't it? You could go home to her each night and hide within that love. You could pretend that the rest of your miserable existence was nothing but a dream."
     The words sped with deadly accuracy to the fading ember within Harris and smothered it.
     "Nothing in my grimoires has equipped me to fill an emptiness like yours. Yet, you've been of so much use to me, surely there's some sort of kindness I can do you. Wait, I have it."
     The shopkeeper rose and stared down at Harris from a measureless height, eyes glowing.
     "Go home, Mr. Harris. Sit in your bedroom, with all the lights off, and strain to remember your dead wife. And at ten-thirty this evening, when you're drained from the struggle and dry of tears, take that gun you're wearing, put the barrel in your mouth, and pull the trigger."
     Carl Harris rose from the table, made his way out of the shop, and did as he'd been told.


Copyright © 1996 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


Linda Fox said...


I needed that. It reminds me just how powerful words can be.

On a related note, I've been busy lately with reviews, mostly on Amazon. I was reading about how helpful they are to authors in pushing them up the recommendations lists, and decided to stop reading books without also taking the time to review them. It doesn't take THAT much time, and it's a mitzvah, as they say in Yiddish.

Dystopic said...

A very powerful short, sir.

JWM said...

...Enter Rod Serling for the denouement. Oh holy cow, just as my kindle is getting books stacked up like airliners in a holding pattern. That was great. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for making my lunch time reading extremely enjoyable today.

Anonymous said...

That was fabulous. And riveting