By J. Rohr
“In a vial, ladies and gentlemen, I give it to you in a vial. Your own personal dose to do with as you please. Five minutes out of the day. Step right up and pay for the one thing you never thought you could buy back: Time!”
Dad said to take note of everything. “Especially your Uncle E. Nota bene. Never mind the man; he’s got faults like any of us, but he knows the business.” So, it’s best to keep my mouth shut and just listen to Uncle E.
Uncle E. says, “Now pay attention. I don’t care to repeat myself. The barkers line the thoroughfare selling their wares. Most ears find the sales too familiar to even hear anymore. Children sometimes like to stop and wonder at the pageantry, but the call of a parent soon has them hurrying along. Apparently, there’s still no time to dawdle.
“Every city has one, the market spreading from the factory. Men banging on drums, women dancing, flag wavers, fire breathers, music, loud speakers, exotic animals, vivid videos, free samples, melodramatic demonstrations — it’s a wonder anyone can pay attention to a single stall. And it’s important to pay attention. Some vendors aren’t as reputable as others. Sure they’ll sell you a few hours cheap, watered down of course. Hell, you’re just as well off purchasing a handful of seconds, the briefest of minutes. Yet, business is done on a regular basis. Some people come every day, rarely claiming to be buying for themselves.
‘My grandmother wants …’
‘My husband needs …’
‘A little more time for …’
“Excuses: to feel better about bad decisions; and there are plenty to go around. Only the barkers have heard them all, though they aren’t ones to judge. Cash in hand is more than enough reason to sell to someone. People do what they want regardless, and if it isn’t you they buy from, there’s always someone else. Might as well take the money, it never did anyone any good down in a pocket. Here in the shadow of the factories, under those coiling, boiling clouds of black smoke, arcs of purple lightning crackling through them, the bazaar is hard at work.”
Uncle E. sure loves the sound of his own voice. I wonder if he knows how to stop.
He just keeps going, “Step lively now. Make way for the man. Excuse us, sir … that was a Harvester. You can tell by the gray skin and hollow eyes.”
I’ve never seen one so close, can’t help shivering. We, my parents and I, don’t normally come down to the lots. Dad doesn’t believe in buying Time. We must really need the money.
I shouldn’t be thinking. Got to pay attention. Nota bene, like Dad said.
Uncle E. is talking, “They tend to pass through during the shift changes. Poor bastards. Harvesters never seem to know when they are, and they rarely speak for fear the foreman is over shoulder, this now just a glimpse caught by accident while they run the collectors. Visions caused by stray time leaking out the vats. The only way for them to function is to stick to routine. I am on my way to work; I am on my way home; I am eating; I am sleeping; et cetera, et cetera. They work themselves to the bone, planning to buy it all back later.”
It’s hard to pay attention. Someone is always shouting something, and when I recognize a voice I tend to focus on it.
Like Dad’s poker buddy Warren Heaney, “We even provide the apparatus. Simple and easy to use, you just touch this tiny button and viola!”
Yet none of it interrupts Uncle E. There’s no world outside his words.
Uncle E. tells me, “The plight of Harvesters is like that of coal miners. It’s a hard life, however, people need what they provide. So no one cares too much. But enough unpleasantness. Watch Genevieve juggle. Her colorful cloud, a veritable rainbow shower, every ball a pinpoint. She moves so quickly, as if she knows where the balls will fall before they even get there. The quickness of her eye, ‘A steal at five dollars!’ Or visit Ol’ Tom and his guillotine. He’s been working the market near fifteen years performing the most unique act. He cuts, carves, and threatens to amputate, though it’s never gone quite that far. The Mercurian speed of his healing is like none other — save for those willing to pay the price of a bottle, a vial, ‘Whatever quantity you require.’ See the fifteen year old infant, the woman who remembers because she re-experiences, Billy the Bullet, or visit the Fracture whom no one has seen in one single moment for he exists throughout infinity: the new freak show, like none other before it, and the act is for sale.”
Every barker has a gimmick, a theme.
Like Uncle E.’s ex-wife, Stacy Griffin, “Work away the weekend but never mind the loss, just have another.”
Or our old neighbor, Paul Miller, “This Time is your time, sir. And make no mistake, the only time you waste is what you don’t use.”
A hundred voices saying the same thing, but I only need to listen to one.
Uncle E. says, “Listen to it. Barkers calling to drown one another out, their voices blending into a cacophony of head spinning hooks. Music clamoring to get that one extra eye, the lingering glimpse that brings in the pigeons. The crowd that murmurs a steady static of chatter. Ah, hell, there’s more of them.”
Harvesters. Six total. I don’t like the way they look at me. They don’t stare at anyone else.
Uncle E. says, “Now, like I said, they are poor bastards, but always keep in mind that Harvesters are bad for business. One glimpse of them is liable to halt a sure sale in its tracks. One look at those ash-colored skeletons and zip, the deal is out the window. There are two prices to every purchase: the one you know and the one you don’t want to. And Harvesters imply the latter. Sure you can tell who uses the most Time by the way they appear. However, who said Time was safe? Use it every day of your life and you’ll end up dead. But that was a fact even before it came in vials.
“See them? The shuffling feet make straight for an exit. Stooped over, the Harvesters disappear down an alley. Lord only knows to where. And, oh, can you hear it? The crowd breathing a collective sigh of relief, though no one admits why. We need them, after all, to keep the Time coming. So a Harvester’s plight isn’t any cause for concern. Sure some folks like to say how horrible it must be for them, but it’s just words to look like a better person. No one does a thing to stop the Time flowing.
“Take a turn here. The grand tour as it were. It’s best to catch it all in one take. You can always come back later for the details.”
“And why would you ever pass up such a golden opportunity?”
“Indeed. That’s Charlie Ritter. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known myself. Good man, though he can’t pick a woman to save his life. Decent women I mean, like your mother. She’s an angel. God and I won’t ever understand her being on Earth. Did you know her cousin is a Harvester? Or was. I don’t know the situation. Folks tend to lose track of those working in the factories.”
Mom didn’t. Her cousin is still a Harvester. I wonder if I’ll see her here. If I would even recognize her.
Uncle E. tells me, “In a way it’s a shame. The cousin I mean. I met her once, some Christmas long since past. Pretty girl. I hate to think of her as one of them. Graying body and thinning hair with that haunted look always on her face. She used to smile like she was the sunrise itself.”
I know. She left for the factory before I was old enough to remember her, but her smile is in a photo we keep on the mantle. I’ve seen Mom looking at it with her face all tight and grim. She never cries, or at least, I’ve never seen her. We don’t cry in our family. We endure … that’s what Dad says.
Uncle E. says, “People say Harvesters have that look because they catch glimpses of when and how they’ll die. Heart attacks, cancers, old age gasping last breaths: the inevitable glanced at by accident. In nomine patri et fili spiritu sancte. Harvesters are the closest thing to the walking dead. However, remember, if you’re inclined to pity them go ahead, just not so much you let ‘em hang around the booth. Turn here.”
Needed and unwanted in the same instance — I just hope we don’t get so desperate for cash that Dad has to start working in the factory. It sounds like, if that happens, there’ll be two photos on the mantle to set Mom tight. I’ve heard her teeth crackling as she grinds them to bits. Dad does his best to keep spirits high, but there’s only so much anyone can do when the third notice comes and the power will be turned off soon. Fortunately, it’s the start of summer, so I don’t have to miss school, though I think that taut conversation is coming. Mom won’t like it, but if things haven’t changed … we need the money. So I’m learning a trade.
Not everyone seems to sell Time alone. Chris Hudson, met him at one of Uncle E.’s barbeques, told me he makes more off the paraphernalia than Time. I almost recognize him by his pitch alone: “Just look at this vial, a work of art in and of itself. And isn‘t a little class worth the extra cost?”
But I’m losing focus. My family needs me to do my best. Pay attention.
Uncle E. is talking, always talking, “Sales are all about distractions, convincing another there’s no need for concerns or doubts whether they’re valid or not. Thus the pageantry. Always keep in mind: around here most hesitation isn’t about the product but a person’s own wants. There are things people don’t want to admit wanting.
“But hell, you’ll learn as you go. I could go on for hours, however, this is us here. Booth seventeen, aisle one.”
He can’t help beaming, and I can’t help catching a piece of that smile.
Uncle E. says, “I’ve been in the market nearly twenty-five years, worked my way from the worst lane of the whole bazaar to right here, and I never needed a gimmick of any kind. Pure oratorical skill: the ability to articulate with such style and grace no ear can resist your honeyed words. The wonders of an Irish upbringing.
“It’s too bad your father never went in with me. I would have been glad to have him. He might have lived on more than paycheck to paycheck, but I digress. You’re the smartest one in your family now Jackie. Stick with Uncle Ériu, you’ll have your own fortune in a blink.”
For a minute, I felt like I could enjoy being here. It certainly beats the factory. But as usual, Uncle E. rambled on too far. If words alone could lead a person off a cliff … my Dad does his best. Mom pulls in her share. It’s my turn to pick up the slack. Fifteen is too old to expect anything too rosy, not without being willfully ignorant.
Ériu. Give me a break. The man will go on about being Irish as if he bleeds green. His name is Philip J. McNiece, born and raised in the USA. He didn’t even know he was Irish till he was near nine years old. Dad told me how his little brother, somewhere around twelve, looked up the word Irish in a dictionary, saw the term Ériu in the word origin, and ever since insisted on being called that. Uncle Irish, what a joke. It’s what he prefers, but I’ll never give him more than Uncle E.
Still, that’s no reason to fail. I promised to do my best.
So I listen close when Uncle E. says, “Cac bó ar ardán! See if you can get that rope untangled. I say no gimmicks and what I mean is no dancers or videos or music. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some color. A fine banner is all one really requires, though I’m not trying to detract from the spectacle others provide. Each to his strengths when the battle is fought. And make no mistake, this is a war. Here we engage in the subtlest of combat, a campaign fought entirely by spies. We murder with words and intrigue, leaving the living to wonder, ‘How is charisma like a knife?’ Because it cuts you open without you ever realizing. Our war is fought from the first barker’s call to the last booth shut. And tomorrow we do it all over again. As for — MADAME! Have you ever considered you deserve more than you’ve given yourself? How about a glass of second chance?”
Well done Uncle E. I’m so glad to be learning from a master.
“… ah, well. It’s best to get the first failure out of the way early, that way it doesn’t seem to be looming. While I set the wares out, sweep the platform.”
Hey, look at that. There’s some good looking wood under this grime. And holy Jesus, the man will not stop talking.
“You know what Jackie? I can’t help swelling a bit when I look around here. I don’t mean to sound like a lord in his own lands, but I do feel a bit aristocratic on these grounds. People know me here, and it’s hard not to feel pride where you’ve done well.”
He just loves the sound of his own voice. I don’t think he’s even aware I haven’t said a word all this while. Which isn’t to say I’m looking forward to shouting at a crowd of strangers, ‘MISS! You look ravaged by age but don’t worry. Those wrinkles just need a little Time.’
I shouldn’t complain. Like Dad says, we’re the people who endure … and we need the money.
It’s funny how a few seconds can change everything. One minute Dad’s just another guy at work, and the next he’s one hand fewer. Not many machinists can work their equipment with one hand. Mom begged him to pay for some Time, use it to heal up, but Dad put his foot down. He said, “If you erase a mistake you won’t be afraid to make it again.” Scars may make good reminders, but they sure don’t pay the bills.
I should shut my head off. It’s distracting, and Uncle E. is talking.
“That’ll do with the broom. Let me have a look at you. I didn’t want to say anything in front of your mother, but if this is the best suit you have I know the first thing we need to fix. It’ll do for now. In the meanwhile you just watch on the side, be quick handling customers’ purchases, and above all keep your eyes open.”
What does he think I’ve been doing this whole time? No, I’m sorry Uncle E. I’ve been too in awe of your ranting to pay better attention. This would be more tolerable if he didn’t take himself so seriously. At least some of the other barkers try joking around.
I don’t know who she is, but I love her line, “Try it yourself and if you still doubt the quality, I’ll pay you to leave.”
Uncle E. likes to keep things all business.
He informs me, “These are the rules. One: never sell more than a month. According to the government you’re supposed to check how much a buyer already owns but that’s bullshit. How is it my problem if someone walks the whole market, gathering up months to brew years? That being said, to keep regulators off our back everyone sticks to a one month limit.
“Two: time doesn’t travel. If someone wants it shipped anywhere other than within the city you tell them to Arra, seafóid! Piss off, A phleidhce! Say it with me now, Arra, seafóid! Piss off, A phleidhce! Simple, eh? Maybe flourish the hands in a threatening manner. Let me tell you, I’ve no desire to be the last dot on a line tracing back when a Time spill came from.
“And that about does it. Anything you feel unsure about, just ask me.”
Why do the Harvesters keep looking at me? I’m sure Uncle E.’s got some snappy diatribe to answer that, and it‘ll only take fifteen minutes to hear. Every Harvester that wanders passed looks right at me. It’s starting to freak me out. Their stare is like ice. I don‘t know. Maybe they stare at a lot of people, and I‘m just not used to it yet. I should ask. However, Uncle E.’s at work.
He speaks to the crowd, “Ever notice how the Past has a feel? One you can’t ever quite get back … till now.”
But Uncle E. carries on, “Sir! Have your first kiss again?”
A glance and the man continued on his way.
Uncle E. shrugs off the loss, “… fair enough. At least he looked at us. There’s little worse than being blanked. Hell on a hangover, there are a lot of Harvesters wandering around. You’d think they know something we don’t. I didn’t hear the shift change, did you? An electric sort of screech. No? Never mind. Polish the vials and put some shine on those bottles. The more they sparkle the better they move.”
I’m sure they do. And all you need is to get the people’s attention. I suppose it’s best to get the first four or five failures out of the way. Then they aren’t looming, waiting to interrupt your flow.
Uncle E. continues to pitch, “Time. The only thing more desirable is air itself. Although, I would be willing … Miss, have you ever wished you’d made more of your day? Then have a peek through the keyhole. Nine dollars and the future is yours.”
“Okay.” A passerby turns into a buyer.
“Excellent! Jackie, ring the lady up. You won’t be disappointed Madame, I assure you,” Uncle E. addresses her then whispers to me, “It’s just that easy.”
A ten, so that’s a dollar. Smile for the lady. Should I bow? I guess I should bow after I give her the vial. Or not. What the hell am I — I’m bobbing, a grinning idiot bobbing back and forth in this lady’s face. When I get home, in a mirror I’m going to practice my delivery.
I’ve got to give it to him. Uncle E. reeled her right in, a fisherman with words. It seems like you have to watch and bark. When someone glances at the booth give them your full attention.
Although, I have noticed some sellers don’t have booths. They strap a box around their neck and walk the lanes calling out things like, “Sand for the hourglass. Get your sand here. Sand for the hourglass. Get your sand.”
I see the strolling seller passing our booth, and he’s just a thing to witness, another spectacle in the lots.
Uncle E. sees him and can’t help saying, “I used to be one of these poor fools, cruising the aisles with fifty pounds hanging from my neck, selling minutes for pennies. Well, we all have to start somewhere. I started with three hours. Some folks kick up with less. I had to work up to having a booth.”
I don’t plan on owning a booth. This is, with any luck, just a summer gig. I mean, I wouldn’t mind doing this every summer, I guess. It’d be nice to have some cash of my own. Dad tries to toss me a five now and again, but I feel guilty taking it. It barely pays for anything, and I know I’m just wasting it. What I really need is Time.
If Dad used some he’d be able to do his job with one hand. There are no restrictions on using it to operate equipment. In fact, most people are practically encouraged to do so. But Dad would never go for it.
Mom might, however, that would just make the two of them fight more. They fight too much now as it is.
I could sell it. That is, if I had my own stash I could sell it to people my age. Typically, no one under eighteen is allowed to buy Time. So I could charge whatever I wanted. I’d only need a few hours. The trick is getting some.
Uncle E. counted the bottles the moment he unlocked his case. I bet he counts them before he locks up and makes sure the tally always matches the next day. I guess I can’t fault him for running a tight ship. But he did mention brewing.
“That’s a hell of a breeze striking up. Jackie, keep an eye on the platform. We don’t want dirt blowing right back on our clean floor.”
I noticed Uncle E. filled a few vials from a larger bottle. Drops get spilled all the time, I’m sure. Besides, my hands can be clumsy on occasion. Whatever gets spilled is mopped up, and if I hung on to those drops seconds add up to minutes, which turn into hours, and so on and so forth.
Uncle E. says, “At least it’s blowing toward the factory. It’ll help keep the industrial aroma at bay. My good man, sir. Sir!”
I can’t keep it at home though. If Dad found it he’d go ballistic. And Uncle E. is sure to find anything I stash around the booth.
Uncle E. remarks, “… ah well. Enough of this one on one. Let me show you how the pros get things done, eh?
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, IF I MAY HAVE YOUR ATTENTION. THE FINEST TIMES — MINUTES, HOURS, DAYS — FOR THE LOW, LOW PRICE OF …”
I’ve got it. Back one or two Falls, Mom and I came here to visit Uncle E. I figure Mom was really trying to maybe catch a glimpse of her cousin. Ivy. Her name was, is Ivy. Anyhow, we sat in this little nook. It’s set on the opposite side of the factory away from the bazaar. I guess it’s for Harvesters to sit at when they’re on break, but I don’t think any of them ever use it. Mom and I sat on this rusted old bench surrounded by wild flowers and weeds. I thought it was cool. I’ll check it out when I get the chance. Quiet and secluded, I figure I could keep a stash hid there.
Thinking about that trip with Mom, I liked this place then. We didn’t see any Harvesters. Now there are more and more as if …
“… the factory is letting out. Do you see this, Jackie?”
Yeah, and they all glance at me. Some even glare.
A bolt of purple lightning erupts from the other side of the factory and before it has a chance to register a siren is screaming. The electric wail draws a flurry of activity all over the bazaar.
I don’t even have to ask, Uncle E. just starts explaining, “Pack up everything. We’ve gotta head out. The siren means there’s a time spill near the factory, and we do not want to be last in line.”
“Last in line for what?” My first words all day.
“Clean up detail. You have to sign up. Volunteers only, first come first served, and they only take a hundred or so.
“I won’t lie to you. It’s dangerous, but the pay is great. A few weeks worth of work, and we can live like kings.”
I like the sound of that. Mom won’t, but we need the money. Or maybe this’ll force Dad to find a job. Either way, this is what we need.
Uncle E. says to me, “Plus, there’s the betting. Right now there’s no telling when this thing started, so me and some of the other guys like to have a sort of pool as it were. Depending on how bad it gets, the spill could have happened today, tomorrow, or even weeks or months from now. Hell, I’ve seen ones that started on a yesterday and didn’t show up till some tomorrow. But it gets cleaned up. All it takes is a little time. Ha, ha, ha! Come on, you got to laugh in the face of the storm, you know why Jackie?”
Because we are the people who endure.
J. Rohr is an internationally published author. His work has appeared in magazines such as Britain’s Jupiter (issue #39) as well as Annalemma, The Mad Scientist Journal, and Silverthought Press Online. Currently, he runs the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com in order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life. A Chicago native, he has a passion for history and midnight barbeques.