The Time Tree
Arturo laughed. Arturo was fucking penniless.
You didn’t just wake up poor one day. It never came as a shock and surprise. Even people who suddenly lost all of their money in stock market crashes or in catastrophic wheat fires still had plenty of rich friends to call on who knew the tricks of the money-making game. They knew what branches to shake and which slots to stick a finger in and pull out a dime.
No, poverty was always pathologic – a slow, creeping disease with a distinct epidemiology and several critical stages. You either climbed out of it or it killed you. But it never caught you by surprise, unless you were crazy or sick. Like the sun going down on a big city, you could watch as it fell below the buildings, lighting up the clouds as it hit the horizon, turning the glass windows of seventy-story offices into burning prisms that seemed to warp and pulse along with the buzzing of the urban cicadas. You squinted as long as you could into the dusk, and then you were blind, running into fence posts, laughing joylessly as slick cats ran underneath your staggering feet. You had to laugh. If you didn’t laugh, you would crumple, and the roaches would rip off your rags and eat you alive.
Arturo sat on the curb in front of the Lux-O-Lube and laughed. The Lux-O-Lube was closed, as were all of the liquor stores, all of the shelters, and pretty much everything else in town except for the automats and police station.
Arturo laughed because today Arturo had spent his last fifty dollars on the rent for his storage unit. He would not be able to pay next month and he would have to find some other place to store his papers and canvas. Perhaps he would bury them like pirate treasure. Perhaps he would set them on fire and charge admission to see a life’s work in art burn. With the money, maybe he could make some changes. Maybe he could afford a doctor, a lawyer, his medicine, his dignity. A sandwich, a cup of coffee, paint, a future.
The night was long and hot, good for being outside if you had to be. Even though it was late, cars still passed him every once and awhile, but even when he stretched his long legs into the street they rarely swerved or noticed. It had been a month since he had been able to afford his anti-clotting medication, and it was only a matter of time before something froze inside him. He laughed and laughed, wondering if a car would stop, wondering if a tire across his chest would pop his tongue out of his throat and keep him from swallowing it if he had a stroke or seizure.
Down at the end of the long commercial street, a pair of headlights materialized in the mid-summer haze. They were bright and blue, almost too dazzling to be functional. As the car hit bumps in the road, the lights jostled and blinked. It was nauseating. Arturo put an arm over his eyes to shield them, waiting for the car to pass.
The car didn’t pass. Arturo quailed under the intensity of the beams as they settled on his face. Arturo stopped laughing. He looked up from his elbow. The car had halted right in front of him with the lights trained like dissecting pins holding open the guts of a frog. Arturo stood up, blinking, feeling raw. Was it the cops here to hassle him? Usually, they didn’t like giving away a free bed when they didn’t have to.
It was not the cops. It was a long green limousine with fins along the side like a barracuda. The driver side door opened up and a man squeezed out. He was gargantuan, with a tiny, puffy little red-face and a grimace that looked chiseled out of asphalt. He stood leering over Arturo like a child contemplating the murder of a bug that had become boring, squeezing a driving cap between his thickly-knuckled hands.
“You got fambly?” asked the man.
“Not the kind you ever see,” said Arturo.
“You a drunk, then? A dipso?”
“Not really,” said Arturo. “Not yet.”
The man put his hat back on his head and chuckled.
“You are a bum, though, for sure. Just a bum. You want some money?”
He fanned out a stack of hundreds. Arturo squinted at the bills, confused. The man put the fist of cash under Arturo’s nose, close enough that he could smell the ink and the fresh copper-plate funk. Arturo took the cash and frowned, ready to run at any moment.
“I’m an artist, not a bum, not a prostitute,” he said.
“Then how come you’ve got such a big hard-on?” asked the Driver though his straining teeth.
Arturo looked down at his pants. The Driver punched him in the ear and caught him as he fell to one side.
“Come on,” said the Driver, carrying Arturo with one arm like a sack of groceries. “You can count it in the car.”
His head lolling against his spine, Arturo heard a car door creak open. He felt cool fabric against his skin as he was thrown inside, and then heard a car door slam. Air puffed against his ragged tennis shoes. He sat up in the seat. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. The smell of motor oil and wet garbage was gone, replaced with sandalwood, French vanilla, and stale cigarettes.
“I’m sorry you had to be hit,” said a figure sitting across from him. “The blow must have stung quite a bit. But our intentions are clean, not frosty or mean, so please listen, relax, and submit.” Arturo blinked the last bit of confusion away and found himself staring into the smiling face of a brilliantined rooster. If Arturo were painting him, he would have represented him with a series of bright yellow lines and hard angles, with black spirals for eyes and a jeweled crest of silver hair. He had a pale, slender face that looked not so much shaved as scraped clean of stubble, and a chin that you could use to pound in battleship rivets. He was about 20 years older than Arturo – late forties, early fifties. The most remarkable thing about him was his eyes. They were so blue that they might as well have been clear. Arturo had learned early on in life not to trust anyone whose eyes weren’t leather colored.
“I’m listening,” said Arturo. “I’ve certainly been hit harder before.”
“We will pay you in cash, we’ll pay you up front. You’ll make quite a stash if you agree to our stunt.”
“I certainly need money,” said Arturo.
“Money is nothing, like pepper or air. Take all you want. We really don’t care.”
“I would like a lot of it, then,” said Arturo, checking his ear for blood. It was clean. He stuffed the wad of bills the Driver had given him into his sock. “The more the better.”
“Spend it on drugs, spend on tail, spend it on schemes, and then spend it on bail. Spend it on dreams, or some dyspeptic frail – you’ll have so much damn green, you can go choke a whale.”
“Actually, I just need a place to put things. I still have things, you see. I’m not a drunk, or a bum, or a washout. I’m an artist. I used to be a pretty good one, actually. Arturo Montana, painter of souls.”
“We don’t care what compels you, or what gives you fever. All we need you to do is pull one hot little lever.”
With that last couplet, the car started to move.
“Is there any way I can get you to quit rhyming?” asked Arturo. “It’s very distracting.”
The man cocked his head to the side.
“I can’t make any deals if I don’t understand what you want me to do,” explained Arturo.
“I can try if you like,” said the man. “But it makes me turn sour.”
The man grimaced and pulled at his collar. He shut his eyes and put his hand to his temple. Arturo looked around the limo. The interior ermine was as green as the exterior paintjob, and along the walls between the windows were framed pictures of towers and castles. A chandelier dangled down next to a chartreuse-tinted bubble sunroof. As the dapper kidnapper blanched, the Driver stuck his head up in the rear-view mirror and looked into the backseat with a concerned grimace.
“You alright, Cap’m?” asked the Driver.
“It makes me turn sour,” said the man again, snarling at the Driver. He looked like he was taking a particularly gnarly shit. He held his hand up in front of him. It was shaking.
“It makes me turn sour. It makes me TURN SOUR.”
He looked at Arturo with pleading eyes. Arturo shrugged.
“It makes me turn sour, like milk that’s been spoiled, or a wilting corn flower,” said the man very softly under his breath. He let out a deep sigh. The wrinkles on his forehead smoothed.
“How about I start asking questions, and then you start answering them?” said Arturo, now intrigued. “Maybe that will make things easier.”
“Fine and dandy, like pecan sandy,” said the man.
“Who are you, and where are we going? And why?”
“My name is Reloj, and I keep time for the City. I’m neither elected, nor picked by committee. My job is a burden, but the perks can be grand. Time can be bottled, can contract and expand. But tonight there’s a problem – the works are all dented. We’ll be caught in a loop unless the time can be vented. We’ll hire you freelance to cut through the strands. But the tree can only be touched by virginal hands.”
Arturo considered this.
“I have no idea what you are talking about. And I’m not a virgin.”
“It’s better if we show you,” said the Driver. “Reloj don’t get out much.”
Reloj winked and patted Arturo on the knee. They drove along in silence for awhile and Arturo looked out of the window at the sleeping metropolis. They were headed for downtown. The buildings grew taller along the sidewalks like mushrooms blooming in the darkness of a forest. Finally, the car came to a stop in front of the Click Tower, the biggest building in town, the city’s center, the gleaming finger of steel that pointed highest at the moon and therefore owned the orb’s sense of blood-spattered inevitability, a lunar lightning rod for all human epicycles, a buckle of business that cinched the city’s commerce belt into a cruel, mammoth institution, wrangling the bloat of vice, the fat of progress, the distended gut of the future, into respectable, lint-free, pin-striped, relaxed-fit slacks.
Arturo had once tried to paint a series of pictures of the Click Tower, but he had abandoned the project after several false starts. He couldn’t put his brush on the soul of the place. Was it the crest of gargoyles that circled the top in severe gothic contour? The angled black glass windows? The constant stream of suits that carried haunted acolytes in and out, imprisoned by buttons, money, and the expectations of the envious hordes? Was it the legions of men and women who threw themselves from the top every year after decades of silent, restrained agony?
The Driver got out and opened the door. Reloj and Arturo joined him in the arches above the Click Tower’s façade. The stone steps to the door were gloomy (too-bright, too many artificial shadows, too much man-made space) in the hot empty night.
“Now we go in and we go down, boss,” said the Driver. “You are going to see something you just won’t believe. But it don’t matter, because you’re just another fucking drunk.”
“Again,” said Arturo, “I’m not a drunk.”
“You will be,” said the Driver. “And you’ll wish that was enough.”
“If you scare him away, and he won’t do our bidding, then the one in the fire will be you,” said Reloj, poking the Driver in the chest. “I’m not kidding.”
The Driver frowned.
“Alright, alright,” he said, opening one of the wide Click Tower doors with a key from a ring. “Come on, then.”
The Driver led them inside and across the tiled floor to the gleaming gold elevators. He put a key into a lock next to the dark buttons and the lights lit up. An elevator opened and the three stepped inside. The Driver turned another lock inside the elevator and opened a cage full of buttons. He pressed an ebony knob labeled “TTT.”
The elevator didn’t go anywhere. Instead, the back of the elevator slid aside, exposing a winding steel staircase that only led down. The walls glowed green like an illuminated pool table inside this little well, and the stairs seemed to descend into inky infinity. The walls only glowed around the threshold.
As they began to climb down, the illumination followed them, lighting their journey. The Driver reached out a hand and touched the wall. It glowed fiercely under his touch and then began to fade as he took his hand away.
“It’s bioreactive light,” said the Driver. “Fungus and shit. It will last for a thousand years.”
Arturo wrote “tempus fugit” on the wall with an index finger and watched it fade.
“I’ve been working with these people my whole damn life,” said the Driver. “They get you when you’re a kid, see. It’s all kids. That way, they can make sure they knows what you know. I don’t knows any of that bunk you people get taught. I only knows the truth, so I don’t have no crazy in me. Mr. Reloj knows even more than that. He’s one of them that do the work of it. He’s barely even here, if you want to know the real truth. They get all spacy when they leave their little rooms.”
“What little rooms?” asked Arturo.
“You’ll see,” said the Driver. “You’ll see the whole thing.”
They continued to descend, spinning around in circles as the stairs ground down into the earth. The stairs actually bent at an angle, which made it difficult to keep your balance. You really had to use the handrails, or you risked keeling over and falling in between the iron slats. The stairs twisted around and burrowed down and out, following the sloping tunnel like a gun barrel canted on its side. Each step had a slight tilt; each bend went further than the one before.
“Why no elevator down here?” asked Arturo.
“This was here before elevators, man. Long before elevators.”
They traveled for what seemed like hours until they finally reached bottom. The stairs corkscrewed into a wooden platform and, as their feet hit the grain, a current of cool swept up along the floor and chilled Arturo’s face. It was good to be on solid ground after the dizzying spin down. At the end of the platform was a brown door with the name of the city burned into it, along with the enigmatic “TTT.” From the popping in his ears, Arturo realized that they were deep underground, deep under the Click Tower, deep under every layer of the human fundament. Deep under the basements, deep under the subways, deep under the sewers, deep under the parking garages. This was the roots.
Even though immense, the door swung open at the slightest push. They went through into the cavern beyond. The wooden platform abruptly ended, and then swept downward into a crater like the mouth of a volcano. An enormous tube of clear plastic exactly the size and shape of the Click Tower itself carved through the center of the chamber.
Inside the tube, at the roots of the Click Tower, at the roots of the city, grew a tree.
Arturo gasped and put his hands over his eyes with the shock of recognition. He started to claw at his face, but the Driver grabbed his arms and pinned them back.
Arturo had nightmares about this tree.
“We all have,” he whispered to himself.
The Driver made him hold his head straight, and squeezed his neck until his eyes popped open.
“You have to look,” said the Driver. “You are going in there.”
The tree was a thick black monster, as broad around as the Click Tower itself. It grew out of the center of the immense sunken cavern and through the ceiling, exposing its midsection like the pole of a circus tent. The plastic tube in which it developed formed a hermetic terrarium that seemed to have an alternate, shimmering atmosphere. A palate of mint green grass grew right up to the edge of the lucite, carpeting the rocky ground like hair growing from the scalp of a corpse. Butterflies and lianas twirled out their frenetic guts in the steaming cave – flipping, flopping, live as raindrops. Along the edge of the glass were squat little hutches at regular intervals that seemed carved from fallen seeds. The tree was so big that even its seeds were the size of trailer trucks. They were black and smooth and poisonous-looking. Velvet pillows were crammed inside each hollow like stuffing for a capon.
In each hutch sat a man or a woman who looked like a brother or sister of the enigmatic Reloj. It was Reloj at different ages and with different haircuts and outfits. Arturo counted 59 such hutches, along with one that was empty. Most likely, that was where Reloj fitted.
The people in the hutches were seated cross-legged, coiled like springs. Every second, one of them stood up and shouted either “tick” or “tock,” alternating accordingly. It was as if they were playing some sort of counting game. Reloj clicked his heels together and took off toward the empty hutch, shouting over his shoulder.
“My duty is done, and I return to my post. Life out of time is like the breadth of a ghost.”
He sat down on a pillow and waited patiently for his turn to come in the counting.
The Driver led Arturo closer to the tree. There was only one person inside the clear shield, a small child with her nose pressed against the glass. Her legs were manacled to the floor by a post near the base of the tree. She was a prisoner, unable to leave through the sealed portal carved into one side of the plastic.
“This is where the city gets its time,” said the Driver. “It comes from the tree, and then the people in the little sheds purify it and control it. They dole it out as necessary, slowing things down and speeding things up as the tree demands. These people never leave unless there is a problem, and the little girl in there is supposed to vent the time if things get fucked up. That’s her duty, you see. I’m a driver, and she’s a venter. That’s how it’s all supposed to work. The problem is that she is refusing to do her job, and we haven’t trained up anybody else yet to work the system. To deal with the paradoxes and the confusions and the contusions. In the meantime, for the time being, we need you to go in there and pull the lever that is going to vent off all of the excess time. You may not realize it, but we have been living in something of a bubble lately. This whole town could pop.”
“So there are trees like this one all over the world?” asked Arturo.
“Sure,” said the Driver. “Where do you think time comes from? Science? Psssh, science can’t even tell you which dinosaur was the funny one. Or how come jellyfish skin makes the best condoms.”
“I’m not going in there,” said Arturo.
The little girl physically looked like she was about eight or nine. But there was something hollow and ancient about her eyes. She looked like a night nurse at a state mental hospital. They were lucid eyes, alive and strong, yet they seemed to see far beyond Arturo’s own personal island of contingent verities. If Arturo were going to paint her, he would use a canvas made of glass and her pinafore would be mottled like the shell of a tortoise.
Near the base of the tree, near the terminus of the girl’s chains, was a bright orange lever that had been striped with black like a candy cane. The ground underneath the lever bubbled and breathed, as if it were covering a nauseated diaphragm.
“It’s real easy,” said the Driver. “You just pull that lever and the whole works should fix itself. I don’t know how it all happens, but I do know that you are going in there, with or without a couple of broken legs. If it’s got to be me or you, it’s going to be you. That’s all there is to it. Look on the bright side: after this, you’ll never have to work again.”
“I don’t need money that bad,” said Arturo. “I dream about this place. I wake up when I walk through that glass.”
“That could mean damn near anything,” said the Driver, putting his hand on the small of Arturo’s back and pushing. “Now, march. Hup two.”
Arturo opened the door and stepped inside.
The Driver went over and climbed inside Reloj’s hutch. Reloj was poised and ready, waiting with the finely-honed temporal instinct of a junkie or a lunatic -- a bent spoon, a squeezed trigger.
“What do you think is going to happen in there?” asked the Driver.
“The tree will be fixed, the bum will be nixed, and despite our success, some time will get mixed.”
“What are we going to do about the little girl? Are we gonna give her the chop?”
Reloj was silent. Suddenly he jumped up to his full height and shouted “tock.” Sparks shot out of the ends of his fingers.
“And the money? Are we really gonna pay this guy off?” asked the Driver.
“If he returns to appeal, we will honor our deal. But those odds just hit bottom since he walked through that seal.”
Inside the glass case, the air was thicker and wetter. Time itself was thicker and wetter and flowed like pancake syrup from the end of a fork. Arturo realized that there was no such thing as intelligence: some people just used their time faster than others. They ate the fruit of this tree too fast. The time tree pulled him close and yet repulsed at the same time, as if dancing with him. There was a junction box on the ground that appeared to have been destroyed by the feet of somebody small. Ropes of what looked like green snot poured out of a dent in the side and seeped into the ground.
As Arturo walked along the grass to the lever, the little girl followed him silently, tugging his pants, trying to get him to stop, to slow down, to pay attention. Arturo tried to get the chains off of her, but they were too tight, too well-crafted. He kicked at a link with his shoe and the chain just rattled across the ground like an electric snake.
“I’m sorry, little girl. I can’t get you out of here. Where would you go?” asked Arturo.
The girl didn’t say anything. Evidently, she had never been taught to speak. Instead, she pulled on the flap of Arturo’s frock coat, trying to dig the heels of her sensible sandals into the ground to stop his progress.
“I’ve got to pull that lever, little girl,” said Arturo. “No choice. Anyway, I wouldn’t be in this mess if you would do your job.”
Arturo put his hand on the black and orange switch and gave it a yank.
The tree shivered and then Arturo was gone. The branches high above that were connected to the steel girders of the Click Tower moaned and sighed. The little girl sat down in the grass sadly and put her chin in her hands.
But where was Arturo?
Arturo sat on the curb in front of the Lux-O-Lube and laughed. Arturo was fucking penniless.
As a green limousine approached him on the sidewalk he had a moment of deja-vu, but it passed. The limousine did not pass. A deal was made. Arturo got in, and the limo drove downtown.
After he pulled the lever the second time, and then the third time, Arturo didn’t laugh anymore. Something seemed familiar.
The next twenty times Arturo had to be dragged screaming into the limousine. He fought the stairs, he fought the lever, but in the end he always pulled it. What choice did he have?
Eventually he stopped caring. We’d like to think that eventually his soul went somewhere else, and that eventually it was just a machine made of man that the green limousine continued to pick up on the sidewalk in front of the Lux-O-Lube, delivered to the Click Tower, and placed in front of the time tree to be pulled into this infinite loop like iron shavings pulled into a magnet. We’d like to think that eventually Arturo Montana, painter of souls, got the death he deserved as ersatz savior of his city.
But bubbles float on forever, and their skin can be tough as dreams.