Fiction Fiction Issue

The Safe

A junkyard mystery

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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