Fiction Fiction Issue

The Safe

A junkyard mystery
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When the safe came in, Alva’s head was down sideways on his desk. When he heard the junkyard’s box-bed truck grind through the main gate, he got up and stepped out of the office door, giving a hand signal for the driver to get up some speed so he could make it onto the scale through the slurry of mud, battery acid, cinders, burned insulation, asbestos, and grease. The tires pinwheeled in the olive-colored slop, and the truck waddled into place, dripping and sizzling. The crane operator swung an electromagnet over the scrap in the truck bed and began picking up clumps of cast-iron fragments, dropping them in a pile next to the yard’s wracked fence. Alva checked an invoice and saw that this was another load from the demolished sewing-machine factory, tons of rusted-together treadles, fancy flywheels, ornate stands. The magnet crane finished its work in twenty minutes, and Alva, who owned the junkyard, would have returned to his nap, but he noticed that the truck was still squatting low. He watched the crane operator disconnect the magnet and attach a hook to the end of the cable. Little Dickie, the welder, got up into the truck’s box to attach the cable to something. At Little Dickie’s signal, the cable jerked taut, and the whole truck rose on its springs. An antique office safe, at least eight feet high and six feet wide, swung up into the sooty air.

The rambling brick sewing-machine factory had been out of business for sixty years, its huge inventory of parts and partially assembled machines rusting in heaps even after most of the buildings were taken over in the late forties by a tire-manufacturing plant. The new management jammed all the left-behind equipment into the owl-haunted foundry building and went about their business until their tire process became obsolete in the 1970s. A millworks took over the hulking factory but soon failed and was replaced by a warehousing firm, which gradually vacated the crumbling plant as roofs fell in and smokestacks tumbled across the storage lot, startling only pigeons and rats. Finally, a chicken processor bought the site, and the owners decided to tear the factory down as quickly as possible and sell all the scrap metal to Alva. Hills of sewing-machine components, and the machinery that made them, had been coming in for two weeks. The truckload containing the safe was the last shipment.

Discarded safes showed up at the junkyard a few times a year, but this one was older and larger than most, a symbol of a substantial business, which Alva felt his own enterprise was not. He studied the safe’s thick, arched legs that showed off their rusty iron lilies, and he noted the precisely cast rope design rising along the borders of the double doors. He was a man who enjoyed the artful details of things, even of objects he shipped daily to the smelter. The crane operator pulled a lever in his cab and the safe came down, slowly falling back and flattening a Chambers range. Alva walked over as Little Dickie climbed out of the truck box. The crane engine died, and they stood there, listening to the stressed porcelain popping off the range’s shell.

Alva climbed up on the safe and tried the dial, which was pitted and green. It rotated with a gritty resistance. The safe looked as though it had been dug up, and it was slimed with a rusty wet clay. Alva hollered to the driver, “This thing hasn’t been opened. Who told you to bring it on?”

The driver had only his right eye, so he turned his head severely in the truck window. “The head construction foreman hisself.”

Alva stepped back to the ground and bobbed his boot toes in the mud a few times. “Hell, this thing might be full of diamonds.”

The driver looked at him. “It was facedown in a pile with the rest of the junk. Foreman said you bought every piece of iron out there, including this thing.”

“Well, I better call him.”

“It was left behind in a sewing-machine factory. What could be in it?”

“That foreman didn’t want to know?”

“He had thirty cement trucks lined up and ready to pour around where the safe was. Soon’s I loaded up, he run me off.”

“All right, then. Go on to the transmission shop.” The truck slithered away toward Perdue Street, and Alva turned to the burner. “Open it up.”

Little Dickie grabbed a cutting torch off a nearby tank dolly, then stopped to give the safe a look. “I don’t think so.”

“What?”

“Remember Larry Bourgeois?”

Alva crossed his arms. Larry had worked for the yard when Alva’s father ran it. An old riveted safe came in one day, and when Larry started to cut it apart with a torch, it blew up. Larry and the door came down two blocks away. The safe had belonged to a construction firm and held a box of dynamite. “Ain’t you curious?”

Little Dickie pressed the lever on his torch and let out a derisive spit of oxygen. “I’m curious about what’s on TV tonight. I’m curious about what Sandra’s gonna make for my supper.”

Alva walked to his office, a cinderblock cube, and pulled open its leprous steel door. The room’s interior walls were lined with possibly functioning automobile starters, tractor transmissions, boiler valves, chain saws, bumper jacks, and one twin-floppy computer. Though he made good money, Alva was in no way proud of his business. He had started out working part-time for his father, intending to go on after high school to live in New Orleans—maybe take drafting, or even art lessons, since he loved to draw things—but somehow his hours had gotten longer, and then his father had passed away, leaving him with a business that nobody but Alva knew how to run. He looked out his dusty window at the taken-apart world of his scrap yard, a place where the creative process was reversed, where the nasty burnt-umber insides of everything spilled across his property.

His eyes fell on the safe. He thought about how his yard workers had no curiosity, no imagination, how too many people glanced at the surface of things and ignored what was inside. For the rest of the afternoon he tallied the scale sheets and figured his little payroll, but in the spaces between tasks he daydreamed about the insides of the safe, wondered how many times in its life it had been opened and shut. He closed his eyes and imagined himself inside the safe, some sort of invisible eye that saw the light-flashed face of the sewing-machine-factory employee who opened the door each day to retrieve patent drawings, payroll, gold leaf for the fancy embellishments on the machines’ black-lacquered bodies.

That night at supper he sat with his wife, Donna, and his two daughters, René and Carrie. He told them about the safe, and René, a somber child of eight with a narrow head and watery eyes, stopped eating for a moment and said, “Maybe a ghost is inside.”

Alva frowned, but was delighted by the way she was thinking. “Couldn’t a ghost get out by just passing through the metal?”

René stabbed at her potato salad. “At school Sister Finnbarr says our souls can’t get out of our bodies.”

Her sister gave her a sharp look. “Oh, be quiet.” Carrie was eleven, already pretty, and smarter than all of them, and Alva dreaded her growing up and leaving them behind like bits of her broken shell. “A ghost isn’t a soul.”

Alva avoided her eyes. “How do you know?”

Carrie made a little huffing noise against the roof of her mouth. “A soul is either inside you or it’s in heaven or hell. It sure isn’t hiding in some rusty safe sitting in a Louisiana junkyard.”

“Then what’s a ghost?” Alva asked.

René put up her hands, palms forward alongside her pale face, and began to sway from side to side while speaking in a wavering voice. “It’s this smoky thing that drifts around and talks.”

“You’re crazy,” her sister told her. “A ghost is something made up, like in funny books or movies.” The girls began to bicker in rising complaints until their mother stopped them.

Donna put a hand on her husband’s arm. “When you gonna open that thing up? It might have some money in it.”

Alva noticed for the first time since he could remember that her brown eyes were bright, glistening under her sandy bangs. “There’s probably nothing in it but drawings of sewing machines and stuff like that.”

“Or the last payroll.”

“Don’t think so.” Over the years he’d noticed that his wife’s interest in him depended on how much money he brought home. Three years before, when the margin on copper was high, she was his best friend. Last year she’d cooled off a bit. “But there might be something interesting.”

She took a swallow of iced tea and banged the glass down. “What’s more interesting than money?”

He looked at her, wondering if she had finally defined herself. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out.” He glanced into the darkening backyard, where his yellow dog, Claude, sat placidly with a forepaw planted on the back of a large toad. Claude was an older dog, vaguely like a golden retriever, but really just a yellow dog, which is what happens when every breed on earth is mixed up in the course of a hundred years. The animal had been a gift from Alva’s brother, who worked for a federal agency. Claude had been trained to find bodies, but was never a stellar performer, so he’d been retrained to find drugs at airports, a task at which he excelled only too well. If he found marijuana, he tried to eat it all in a gulp.

The next morning, a yard crew was busy crushing all the old washing machines and dryers that had come in from the burned-out coin laundry at the edge of town. Snyder Problem, a big ex-preacher whose job it was to stand at an anvil and break bronze and copper out of the ferrous scrap, was cracking open rheostats with a maul when Alva walked by. Snyder was an old man, but his arms were still round and firm. The sleeves had been cut off his blue work shirt at the shoulders, and his biceps jumped each time the hammer fell against the anvil. It was a hot day, and sweat rolled off his bald head in beads. Alva couldn’t imagine Snyder in a shiny suit addressing his congregation back in the days before his church burned down. “Seal welds,” Snyder announced in his big preacher voice.

Alva stopped and looked over his shoulder. “What?”

“Me and Little Dickie was lookin’ over that safe, and ever’ door seam and joint on it is welded up with thin seal welds. Looks like Heliarc work, too, so that dates it.”

“How’s that?” Alva walked over and saw that the mud had dried on the doors and someone had swept it off with a broom.

“Heliarc wasn’t used till the early forties.” Snyder picked up a brass bibcock and broke the iron handle off with a sparking blow of his hammer. “Somebody welded it up about when the sewing folks went out of business. That big ol’ thing’s tight as a sardine can.”

“What for?”

Snyder shook his head slowly and looked Alva in the eye. “It’s a mystery, and I don’t know if you want to solve it or not.” He spat a dart in the safe’s direction. “Some men would just get a backhoe and bury the thing.”

“It’s a safe, not a coffin.”

Snyder picked a brass doorknob off the ground and shook the iron shaft out of it. “I hope it’s a safe,” he said.

Alva took a step back. “You’re letting your imagination run away.”

“I thought that’s what a imagination was for. It didn’t run away, it’d just be like seeing.”

Alva looked at him for a long time. “I didn’t think you thought like that.”

Snyder waved his hammer toward the safe. “You got to use your imagination. You can make stuff with it, like ideas nobody never had before.”

In the cluttered office, Little Dickie draped an arm around the water-cooler jug, holding a triangular paper cup in his free hand. Alva pointed at him. “Seal welds, huh? You decided to burn off the hinges yet?”

Little Dickie shook his head, his long bronze-colored hair shining like a schoolgirl’s. For a welder, he took uncommonly good care of it, always putting it in a ponytail when he was using a cutting torch. “Taking the hinges off won’t help open that type. Big iron rods come out the door and pass into the frame. It’s lying on its back, so it’d be easy to drill it and sniff at the hole to see if dynamite’s in this one. It has a pretty plain smell.”

Alva opened a rusty file cabinet’s bottom drawer and pulled out a 5/8-inch tungsten drill bit. “Here. Put a hole in it, then.”

By 11:30, by standing on the doors and taking turns with an enormous drill that smoked and spat sparks as it ran, Snyder and Little Dickie had managed to drill two holes in the safe, one in each door. A quarter-inch-thick iron skin covered a deep layer of cement backed by another plate of steel. Dickie’s sinuses were smarting and running from all the dust caused by the drill, and he couldn’t smell anything, so Snyder got down on all fours and put his big red nose close to one of the holes. Alva walked up behind him and watched.

Little Dickie hawked and spat as he wound up the big drill’s cracked cord. He had been a foreman at the wire plant, Alva recalled, but had been let go because he couldn’t do enough math. He was supposed to be working in the scrap yard temporarily, but he’d been on the payroll for three years now. Alva looked through the windows of a ’78 Volare that Dickie had been cutting up, and thought about how his junkyard employees generally had fallen down the work ladder for one reason or another. The crane operator had been a trained mechanic, and even the old one-eyed truck driver had once made good money, back when he owned his own shrimp boat. Alva had always been what he was, going neither up nor down in fortune. He thought about how he was forty-five and in a small way envious of the men on his payroll because they at least had done something else in their lifetimes. He looked over at the wrecked and rusted chain link forming the west corner of the yard, where a bramble mountain concealed a heap of uncrushed car bodies and refrigerator doors. The thought that he might straighten the place up a bit crossed his mind and kept on going.

Snyder Problem stood up and blew his nose into a red shop cloth. “Just smells like a hundred-year-old safe to me. Dynamite has a sweet smell, maybe with some rubbing alcohol mixed in.” He gave Little Dickie a look.

“I don’t know,” Little Dickie said. “I guess I could grind off those little seal welds to start with, if you want me to.”

Alva looked at his wristwatch. “Lunchtime. We’ll get on it when I come back at one.”

His house was just down the street, and Donna had a hot lunch on the table for him for a change. She walked over from the stove and stood by the table. “How about that old safe? You get it open yet? We rich?”

He swallowed and looked past her out into the yard, where Claude’s blond body mounded above a bed of asparagus fern. “If nothing is in it, will you start serving me a cold sandwich again?”

Donna didn’t blink. “I might. It’s the old hunter-gatherer thing. You bring home an ox, we eat ox. You bring home a little squirrel, that means slim pickings around here.”

The analogy pleased him for some reason. “This is good stew.”

“Thanks.” She sat down across from him and began to eat. “You think I don’t think much of you?”

“No,” he lied, taking another bite. “But you know, I’m the junkman.”

“You’re Alva.” She pointed at him with her fork. “And you’re the one who decided you’re the junkman.”

He thought about what she might mean. “You’re saying I could be something else?”

She began wiping her plate with a pinch of white bread. “Only you can decide what you want to be.”

“The junk business is all right, I guess, though sometimes I feel like I’m going about it wrong.”

Looking out the window, she said, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Be like Claude and take a nap.”

When he finished eating, Alva stood up. “Where’s his leash?”

“Hanging on the coat hook by the door. Why?”

“I’m going to take him down to the yard.”

“What on earth for?” Donna put down her fork, alarmed. “You’ll drop something on him.”

“Naw. I just need his nose for a minute.”

Snyder and Little Dickie were already back at work when Alva walked through the big yard gate, pulled along by Claude, who was panting, his long pink tongue dripping beads on the dirt.

“Hey, boy,” Snyder said, holding out a thick, blackened hand. Claude put his nose in Snyder’s palm, wondering at the paint, silicon, putty, zinc, cupric oxide, lime scale, and graphite he smelled there.

“I figured I’d let him get a sniff of the safe,” Alva told the men. “See if he gives a reaction.”

Little Dickie looked doubtfully at the dog. Claude sat and returned his steady gaze. “That the dog trained for dead bodies and dope?”

“Sort of.”

Little Dickie extended his arm in a sweeping motion. “Well, be my guest.”

Alva pulled the dog over to the safe and grabbed his collar, bringing his nose close to the door. At first Claude seemed uninterested, but then he put one nostril to the drilled hole and sniffed in short intakes, as though he were pumping his head full of air. He snuffed loudly, blowing his nose free, then smelled again, putting his forepaws on either side of the hole. He drew back, cocked his head sideways, and rolled his ears forward; then, raising his snout to the gray sky, he howled a long sorrowful note that flew over the fence and haunted the whole neighborhood.

Little Dickie took a step backward into a puddle of dark fluid leaking from a refrigerator compressor. “Damn. That yell could peel paint off a porch.” Claude howled again and began scratching at the safe door, drawing scent from one hole and then the other.

Alva had never seen the dog express anything close to excitement, and for the past few years had considered him to be little more than a slow-moving lawn ornament. He was the kind of dog that didn’t do tricks, didn’t ask to be scratched or to be let in or out. He was a drifter dog, a brassy apparition noticed only when he was discovered on the sofa or found blocking the walkway to the mailbox. But now he was pulling the leash like a caught fish, dancing on the rusty safe’s front like someone who’s been told a relative is locked inside. He made so much noise and got so upset that Alva towed him over to the office and shut him in.

Snyder Problem rested a hip against his anvil. “Know what I think?”

“What?”

“If you call the chief of police and tell him what that dog did, he might could find someone to unlock the safe. Save you the price of a locksmith.”

“What about the seal welds? A safecracker can’t get past those.”

“They’re thin,” Little Dickie said, reaching up to put a rubber band in his hair. “I can take them off with a angle grinder before the law gets here.”

Alva looked back toward the office and could hear Claude’s muffled barking. He didn’t like the idea of bringing police into the yard. He lived in secret envy of their clean uniforms, nickel-plated decorations, and shiny boots, the possibility that one of them might be promoted to something. Claude began to howl like a wolf. “Tell the operator to get the crane and stand the thing up, then.”

At first, the policeman who answered the phone was not interested, but when Alva explained how the dog had been trained, the receiver went dead for a minute, and then the chief of police came on the line. “What brand of safe is it?”

“It says Sloss on the knob. Why?”

“I’ll tell that to Houston, the locksmith.”

“I thought he was dead. You think he can open it?”

“Is it a real old safe?”

“Yes.”

“That’s his game.”

In an hour the chief’s cruiser pulled up, a black, freshly waxed Oldsmobile with an elaborate gold-leaf badge on the door. Alva saw that even the tires were shiny, and he pursed his lips. The chief was a short, balding man, and with him was Jack Houston, who slowly rose out of the passenger side and seemed so pained by a general arthritis that he stayed bent over, almost in a sitting position, as he walked around the hood.

“Hey, junkman,” Jack Houston said.

“Mr. Houston.” Alva took his soft hand and then the chief’s big paw.

“You say your yellow dog smelled something he didn’t like?” the chief asked.

“It’s unusual for him to get upset.”

The chief hitched up his gun belt. “I’ll listen to a dog’s opinion before that of most people I know.”

Jack Houston looked around and seemed surprised at the big safe sitting upright under the yard’s crane. “That thing ain’t gonna topple over on me, is it?”

“It’s stable where it is. The legs have sunk into the ground.”

“If it fell on me, that’d be a sad end,” he said, moving in his creaky bowlegged stride toward the safe. He pulled out a stethoscope from his baggy khakis. “You say it’s a Sloss?”

“Yessir.”

“Is it marked on the door or the knob?”

They had walked up to the safe by then, and Houston was looking right at the knob. “Well?”

“It’s on the knob there,” Alva said, noticing the locksmith’s milky eyes.

The old man touched the dial. “I need a spray can of brake-parts cleaner.”

“I got some spray lube.”

“Is it got the little plastic squirter?”

“Yessir.”

“Then fetch it,” Houston said, twisting the combination knob back and forth, trying to work the grit from under it. Alva returned with the spray. After Houston used all of it blasting behind the knob, he pitched the can and plugged the stethoscope into his hairy ears. He worked the dial for five minutes or so, then his head came up. “Damn it, turn off the crane engine.” He looked over at the office. “That air condition, too.” After a few minutes he pulled off his earpieces and stuffed the stethoscope into his pocket.

“Give up already?” the chief asked, his tongue fat in his cheek.

Houston chuckled. “Stethoscope’s mostly for show. It don’t tell much.” He cracked his knuckles, clapped his hands, and hung his arms at his sides. “Got to let the blood build up in my fingertips.”

Alva looked around at the other men, who were waiting patiently for something to happen, a treasure or a body to fall out onto the crushed battery casings and muck of the yard. “How’d you learn to crack safes?” For the moment at least, he envied the crippled and near-blind Jack Houston.

“Pressure,” the old man said.

“What kind of pressure?”

“The pressure of eating a sandwich every day. Of paying the light bill. Sometimes more than that.” He looked down, closed his eyes, and allowed only the very tips of his fingers to touch the dial. “One time a little four-year-old girl got in the Moeller safe down at the dime store, and damned if she didn’t pull the door shut on herself. If you don’t think that wasn’t a scene, with me on my knees in the storeroom in August and her mother crying down my back while I’m trying to feel my way through those tamper-proof Moeller tumblers. It took so long we all knew she was dead, a pretty little girl with black hair and violet eyes. The daddy comes in and starts punching me in the back to hurry me up like I’m a balked mule, the Catholic priest is praying in Latin behind the safe, and here comes my young wife to stand to the side and look at me while I worked. The store manager offered me two hundred extra dollars to hurry me up, like a boxcar full of money would of done any good.” He pulled his hand away and brushed his fingertips with a pale thumb.

Little Dickie went into a squat. “Well, what happened?”

“What happened? What you think happened? I got the door open and jerked her body out like a fish and gave her to Doc Prine. She was blue in the face and limp, but after a pretty scary while he brought her around, and when she opened her eyes I went from the stupidest ox in town to some kind of saint. You never heard such noise in your life.”

“That was the Delarco girl?” Snyder Problem asked.

“It was. She grew up and is a school principal over in Pine Oil. Had four children and one of em’s named Houston.” He put his right hand on the dial and began to move it slowly.

“How long’s this gonna take?” Alva asked.

Jack Houston closed his eyes. “Shut up and we’ll see. This big nasty-looking baby was made in the 1800s. It’s simple as a box of crackerjack. I’d as soon put my money in a cigar box behind the piano.”

The men walked over to the entrance gate and stood in a little circle in the shade of a hackberry growing through a rotted tractor tire. “You know,” the chief began, casting a long look around the yard, “I had a call or two about the rats living in this place.”

Alva put a foot on an engine block. “You want me to talk to the rats?”

“No. But you could teach them to work a weed whacker.”

Snyder guffawed. “Chief, you could loan us a couple prisoners to pull up the brush.”

The men went back and forth like this, weaving a meaningless talk just to pass the time. They knew what they were doing, clouding their minds’ eyes to the fact of what might be in the safe—some sign of murder, a crumbling body falling to gray ash as the air reached it, or sign of thievery, a stingy payroll never given out to the perhaps-starving laborers at the factory, or the stale air of nothingness, a sixty-year-old breath of fiscal shame and bankruptcy. They talked and tried not to think for an hour, moving with the ball of shade thrown down by the hackberry. At last, Jack Houston’s voice came around a hill of tire rims: “I’ve got it.”

They all walked slowly, as if toward a grisly diagnosis. Houston beckoned them with his thin arms. He turned to the safe door and spun the wheel that drew out the deadbolts from the frame. “Someone will have to pull the right door open for me. If there’s another thin door inside, I’ll have to deal with that one a few minutes.”

Snyder stepped up and muscled open the squalling door, an antique and sweet air gliding past his face and on into the universe. He worked a lever and swung wide the other door. He saw no inner barrier, just a system of low metal shelves that stopped halfway up and then what appeared to be a large pile of sacks wedged into the remaining space. Snyder seemed disappointed. He cocked his head and stepped back. “I guess the dog was smelling those hemp sacks.”

Little Dickie looked back at the office. “He got a snootful and thought he was in for a big buzz. Thought it was hashish.”

Alva walked up and felt around in the sacks, which were whispery as dry hay. He turned to the men. “Something’s inside the pile.” He and Snyder pulled the sacks away, revealing a maple crate with dovetailed corners. The men slid it off its shelf and carried it into the office, where they placed it on the gray metal desk. The lid was nailed on, and Alva pried it up with a small crowbar. Inside the box he saw a layer of thick burgundy velvet cloth, which he unfolded as the men gathered around.

“Hey,” the chief said, “it’s made out of thick glass, whatever it is.”

Snyder picked up the desk lamp and held it high. “It’s a big glass dome with a handle on top. Kind of shaped like a suitcase. What’s that in it?”

“Let’s see.” Alva pulled up on the handle, which was textured and also glass, and he raised something—what, he couldn’t tell—out of the enveloping cloth. It was too close to see for a moment, heavy, two feet long and a foot wide. Snyder moved the crate to the floor with a wheeze, and Alva set the object on the desk where the crate had been. He stepped back.

The locksmith adjusted his glasses and leaned in. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “Will you look at this.”

The men bent down at the waist, hands on knees like schoolboys, and studied the oblong cut-glass dome etched with the emblem of the Wiewasser Sewing Machine Company, a logo shaped like a shield, with a waterfall in the middle surrounded by alternating stars and lightning bolts and fine, careful crosshatching. All over the glass beyond the emblem’s borders were hand-cut leaves, little women in Grecian dress walking up a mountain path leading to a tunnel formed by the leafy limbs of trees, and on the other side of the dome the etched water of a rock-studded stream ran before a long temple whose fluted pillars framed the figures of goddesses, their hands aloft to a sun crosshatched white. With a forefinger Alva traced the handle, a glass dolphin. On the two long sides, near the bottom, four gold-plated latch hooks swung on golden rivets in the glass. Inside the dome, the men began to comprehend an elegant sewing machine, antique, with a hand crank on the wheel. Alva slid the latches through their bright arcs, lifted off the dome, and placed it in the hollow place under his desk.

Little Dickie whistled. “Man, they coulda sewed a suit for the pope on this thing.”

The base of the machine was shaped like a fiddleback, made of intricately cast and clear-lacquered brass. The edges stepped down in a triple ogee to four detailed turtle feet, each cast toenail bearing an amber jewel the size of a small kernel of corn. The feet planted themselves on a dark sub-base of burled rosewood, showing a carved border of miniature ocean surf. “I know they didn’t make them like this to sell,” Alva said.

“Not hardly.” The locksmith’s face brightened in the machine’s glow. “In the old days, there were international machinery expositions. Factories would make up special exhibit versions of their products. They’d go all out trying to best the other makers, no matter what it was they manufactured, even putting together fancy locomotives and giant mill engines, steam gauges that looked like religious items off an altar. This thing’s gotta be a hundred years old.”

“They used to crank them by hand?” Alva touched the flywheel’s bone-white handle. “This an early plastic?”

The locksmith’s eyes swam and focused. “Ivory. Do you see a pattern?”

Alva looked closer. “Little shallow fish scales. Helped you grab it, I guess.”

Snyder straightened up and laughed. “It’s a tree.”

“Damned if it ain’t,” Little Dickie said. The machine’s bright gildings placed star points in his eyes. “The whole body of the thing’s like a bent-over tree.”

Alva was gradually disheartened by the cleverness of the design. The main body of the machine was gold plated, indeed rising like a tree trunk and then leaning into an arch that ended in the machine’s head, a flattened mass of bunched metal leaves. The presser foot and needle protruded from the bottom. The bark pattern Alva knew well—water oak, like the big one in his yard—but this metal tree showed sinewy ridges of gold. Out of the machine’s leaf pattern stared the embedded garnet eyes of birds, squirrels, and toads hiding in the foliage. The casting and fine engraving showed the handiwork of what must have been the factory’s most talented worker. Near the flywheel was the maker badge, a repeat of the design on the glass cover, but here the stars were inlaid with small diamond-cut rubies, and the lightning bolts were coated with alternating layers of gold and silver. The flywheel itself was gold plated and scalloped along the rim, with a serpentine row of hyacinth inlaid with ivory dyed apple green.

Alva felt belittled by the apparatus, as though his life were suddenly small and beside the point. He knew the feeling would pass after a while, but really, who could make this? He hardly understood how to look at it. Every surface was a surprise of coherent innovation. The men pointed and stared for fifteen minutes before the police chief motioned toward a small wishing well protruding from the lower frame of the machine, exclaiming, “The little crank and shaft for the well bucket is the bobbin winder!”

It was a good while before anyone thought about value, which even to the scrap men seemed beside the point. Little Dickie pushed back his hair and straightened up. “What’s something like this worth?”

Snyder Problem closed one eye. “Even if someone would bust it up into scrap and jewelry, it’d bring a good bit.”

Alva put two fingers on the flywheel handle and turned it around through a cycle. The machine made no sound, and the motion was as smooth as water pouring from a teapot. “Mr. Houston, who could appraise something like this?”

“Oh, everybody knows everything nowadays because of that Internet. Just get your wife to take a picture and e-mail it around to some antique dealers. You’ll get a ballpark figure, anyway.”

At the end of the day, after everyone had left, Alva sat in his desk chair and toured the sewing machine, touching the inlaid slide plates, the platinum tension adjustment, and, on the fiddleback base, the mosaic peacock inlaid with bars of amethyst. He even examined the machine’s innards; the shuttle in the bottom was engraved with boat planks and false oarlocks. The machine’s glow was warming, clarifying, and when Alva took his eyes away from it, he saw that the dingy office was subtly changed. He could see it for what it was.

Nearly every day, some of the men would come in during break and look through the glass at the machine where it rested on a low double file cabinet. His wife took photos and sent them to appraisers. She spent a great deal of time with the photography; in fact, she spent a whole afternoon shooting frame after frame, finally just sitting in front of the machine with her mouth open a little, as though exhausted by looking.

He’d walked up behind her and asked what she thought they ought to do with it.

“Well, I can’t just sew curtains with this thing, can I?” She closed up her camera case. “But I’d hate to see it go.”

Alva discovered that a small number of exhibition machines were in private collections, and those with semiprecious stones were worth upward of $10,000. One dealer responded with a letter, not just an e-mail, admitting that the machine was among the finest he’d seen, and could bring up to $19,000 at auction. Donna told Alva that it was up to him to decide whether or not to sell it, but his daughters wanted to bring it home and put it on the mantelpiece. What Alva did do, after the final appraisal came in, was have a beefed-up security system installed in his office so he could keep the sewing machine there. If the appraisals were right, he couldn’t even purchase an average sedan with the proceeds. And what would $19,000 buy him that wouldn’t turn to junk in ten years and wind up piled on the oily ground outside his office window.

He moved the dusty spare parts lining the room’s walls to a storage shed and then painted the inside of the office antique white. He bought a new desk, chairs, and filing cabinets, as well as a rubber plant and brass lamps. Sometimes his daughters brought their friends to the yard to study the machine, and these were the first visits René and Carrie had ever made to their father’s place of business. His wife, who’d always liked to sew, bought an expensive Italian machine and began a small alterations business; in her spare time she embroidered butterflies and name tags embedded in crests on his work shirts and even on Claude’s soggy collar. One day she followed him back to work from his lunch break and filed his invoices for the week. Sitting in his padded chair, she looked over at the machine. “If you want, one of these days I could get some new velvet and make a dustcover for it with a little lifting strap on top. Run some embroidery around the bottom with gold thread.”

He stepped next to the desk, followed her line of sight, and rubbed his chin. “Yeah. That’ll work.”

She reached out, put a forefinger through one of his belt loops, and gave it a tug. “I won’t charge you hardly nothin’.”

Over the next several weeks Alva began to tolerate the bookkeeping of the scrap yard. He paid a crew to pull up all the brush and saplings from the hills of twisted metal that had lain unexplored since his father’s death, and he had the exposed junk crushed and shipped out in a railroad gondola. He graveled the yard. He put up silvery new fencing.

Snyder Problem would wipe his feet and come in during hot weather and linger at the water cooler next to the sewing machine, looking down on it where it rested in a cone of light cast by a brass floor lamp. When he was at his anvil he seemed somber and bored, hitting at the scrap as if he were angry with the steam gauges and toilet valves under his hammer. Two months after they had cracked the safe, Snyder began meeting with his old congregation members in the low neighborhood behind the sawmill, and during August he leased the empty Woodmen of the World hall and reopened his church there. Alva was surprised when Snyder told him he was leaving, but not as surprised as when a month later Little Dickie departed for an exotic welding school in Dallas.

“What brought this on?” Alva asked Little Dickie, the day he gave notice.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I figure I can do better if I learn some real welding. You know, Heliarc, and some good pipe-joining technique.”

“I guess I can give you a raise, if it’ll change your mind.”

“It’s not all money,” Little Dickie said, snapping his gate key down on the shiny desk.

“What then? I’m still not used to Snyder not being here.”

“I just figure I can do better than burning stuff apart. Time to put some stuff together for a change.”

In the next month Alva hired two new workers, mildly handicapped men provided by a federal program. His truck driver and crane operator stayed on, but they hardly ever came into the office. One or two times he saw them look briefly at the sewing machine, but he could tell they didn’t understand what it was and that they thought it was some shiny plastic thing he’d bought on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

About once a week, right before leaving the office in the evening, he’d lift Donna’s sea-blue dustcover, which flowed like an expensive gown. He’d remove the cut-glass cover and turn the machine through a few cycles with its ivory handle. On one of these occasions, five months after he’d opened the safe, he bent down to examine the machine yet again and discovered that even the needle was engraved. The next day, he brought a magnifying glass from home and squinted at the script running along the lightning-silver shaft. It read Art stitches all.

He sat back in his chair, feeling as though his skull had become transparent, letting in a warm illumination he didn’t comprehend any more than an animal standing in a winter’s false dawn understands the physics of the sun. He had become satisfied in his business and wasn’t sure why.

Alva turned and looked out of the office window at a hill of I beams cut into rust-red chunks, and he wondered for the first time about the steel mill where the pieces would be reborn into plates and coils and rolls. He used his imagination, and a long flowing image, such as on a running length of cloth, showed steel panels night-riding a railroad flatcar under streaking stars all the way across the Great Plains toward a factory where they would be stamped into automotive frames, surgical instruments, brackets for church bells, braces for thick glass shelves holding diamonds and pearls, and he felt that he was now part of this flowing upward toward all the things that people make. He reached down to replace the dome, and the glass dolphin swam in his palm.

Tim Gautreaux, recent winner of the John Dos Passos Prize, taught creative writing for thirty years at Southeastern Louisiana University. His most recent novel is The Clearing.
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