The afternoon light bent around a corner, and, camera in hand, she followed. Someone’s radio was playing loud enough to stir up dust-devils. She wondered who else was listening to that radio in this faded downtown.
Down the alley she saw one window with the shade pulled back, a metal door open. Peering in, something cornflower blue caught her eye—an enameled machine casing. Lots of old machinery, polished, gleaming in the filtered light. From inside, almost behind her, a voice: “Hey, didn’t I see you here about a year, a year and a half ago?” A man with short sand-colored hair stepped around in front of her, wiping his hands on a shop towel.
“Uhm, no, I don’t believe I’ve ever been here.”
He frowned at her, said he was sure she’d been there before, asked her what she was doing with the camera. Wasn’t she a journalist?
“Oh no, I just wander around taking pictures of old rusty things, bits of machinery…just a hobby.” She noticed his hands, black grease-rimmed cuticles, bits of metal flake catching the light. “I guess that’s what made me stop—all your tools. What do you do with these machines, anyway?”
“I make things like this,” he said, cupping a small piece of shiny machined aluminum.
She bent closer to take a look, and while the aluminum clearly had significance for him, she couldn’t tell what it was or what it wasn’t. So she smiled. “I have friends who do metalwork and woodwork,” she said. Looking over his shoulder—“Is that a lathe? It looks old.”
“It is old. They don’t make equipment like this anymore. It’s a 1963 Clausing.” As he told the history of the lathe and how he came to own it, he led her a bit further into the shop.
Out of the daylight, her eyes took time to adjust. Tiny curlicues of shaved metal scattered on the dark wood floor looked like a night sky underfoot. The dim corners, the moon-glow of burnished metal under shop lights, the spangles of shavings made her feel as if she were in someone else’s déjà vu.
“And this,” he said, leading her to another machine, “I got this at an online auction a few months ago. With it, I can make things like this bushing.” He handed her a small perfect donut of tooled black plastic. “But it took me more than a month to get it working—the voltage was 440, and I had to reverse it, run it backwards through—well, do you know anything about electricity?” She shook her head.
“Let’s just say it was a real case of buyer beware, took a whole lot of effort to get it going, but that first job’s paid for more than half the cost. Excuse me, my music’s too loud—I’ll go turn it down.” She noticed he wasn’t much taller than she was, but he was solid, thick-set, as dense a presence as the iron and steel bar stock racked in the corner.
As he came back into the workshop something wary rippled through her. She said, “I know you must be busy…I hate to take up your time like this, I should head out while the light’s still good—”
“Now, let me show you just a few more things. You see that table over there?”
She turned. It was impossible not to see that table. It stretched across most of the back wall, looked as if it were rough-sawed from a whole forest, its steel plate surface covered with metal forms and blanks, each snaggled drawer fronting bent and cockeyed metal tubing for pulls. It was painted a dark emerald green.
“I bought it with all its tools still in the drawers. Files, bearing-poppers, reamers—thousands of dollars worth of tools, got them all and the table for $50.” He leaned over, worked a massive drawer open to pull out a long, beautifully machined piece of steel.
That feeling of leaving rose again, but her curiosity tamped it down.
“Here—look at this. You can’t find reamers like this anywhere anymore.”
Standing close, he placed the reamer in her hand. It was very heavy, pulled her arm down as if it had its own gravity. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and meant it. It was made well for a purpose, and she loved those sorts of things.
Running a finger lightly over the cutting edge of the reamer, a droplet of blood as red and shiny as a pomegranate seed blossomed. The metal was sharp enough that she felt no pain, but both noticed the cut.
“I am so sorry,” he said, and put her finger to his lips.
For Stewart Sternberg's writing challenge this week.