Time, that mysterious movement issuing from the indefinable, filling the vacuous dimensions men chose to call days, months, years. . . With his marker, he would regulate its motion, crossing each day off the calendar, replacing it with another, which, because it possessed the same characteristics, caused him to see in every passing day but one eternal day. But Time, despite his efforts, continued passing through the four walls of his room, in a succession of nights and days, of days growing shorter and nights growing longer, accumulating in the great reservoirs of days, weeks and months. It would flow forth interminably from a corner of the universe, a bottomless font; and it had been silly of him to have believed he had discovered a means of halting its motion, of paralyzing it, even for the moment. What he had done, perhaps no man had ever done before, not here in this country. In the east, the far east, men had probably seen what he had seen, the timeless tranquility of paradise. But even that now was a memory, since he had not possessed, nor understood the motion itself.
It seemed to him, as he followed the flow of this motion through the wheels and pinions visible inside the bell jar of the rotary pendulum timepiece on the mantle in the rear of the shop, that he had perhaps never left this place, that all the countless visits since that eventful day last spring had been nothing more than one continuous stay, one continual day, that summer had never passed away through its countless days, but instead remained as one day, that day, or, to be exact, this day. He chuckled over the idea, thinking it absolutely the product of a genius, of an adventurer on the verge of a momentous discovery, who could, so to speak, spare the time to dally with such metaphysical concepts while the rest of the country floundered in the chronological whitewater of temporality. Their stupidity was the cause of all the ensuing chaos, the ups and downs, the transience and fugacity of modern living, if one could call it living. If the present was tenuous and reality untrustworthy in appearance, it was because of their attitudes and lack of courage. They made appointments and rushed to keep them. They hurried to work and were upset when they were late. The claimed to value the moment, but complained when it was over. Cancellations destroyed their composure; their relaxation dissipated in expectation. They followed the common delusion of believing they were the masters of their schedules and would one day arrive at the end of their troubles, at the fruits of their labors. Despite their plans, their frustrations grew. Hope had sealed their fates. None of them would ever escape the routine. Like small figures bound to the revolving carousels of clocks, they would continue appearing on the hour, pounding their anvils, sweeping their floors, spinning in circles and blowing their horns, until the moment when each, having traveled through their repertory of movements, disappeared forever behind the closed doors of Time. They would expire in a breath, without a thing to show for their efforts, while Time continued its throbbing course.
He could see his smile erupting across the face of the bell jar. The course of his own life would be different from the rest of them, for he had taken the leap which fear prevented them from doing. So enraptured was he by these thoughts that he ignored the impatience of the proprietor, who, being anxious to close shop, was dusting the glass cases behind him with obvious irritation. But what did he care of this man, whose lust for money was leading him through the meaningless process of eventual dissolution as all the rest; and he continued with his reverie, knowing this man would never close up until the deal had been made. He, Thomas Vellum, was the master of the situation.
Money, Ha! It meant nothing to one who had risen above the rest. There came a time when the realization of the prize overwhelmed petty wagers. It was then all or nothing. Once already he had weighed the chances of success with those of failure and despite the heavy odds against him, had accepted the risk and gone his own way. True, he had not yet arrived, his situation had not improved, another daring step had to be taken. And yet, had he not stepped above the worldly mire that day last spring when he had made the decision? And could the feeling he had experienced since then be computed in the simple terms of material value? What he now knew, none of them could possibly know. They still mistook the material for the eternal.
He recalled his own mistakes for he too had mistaken the process for the end. Yet all the while a shadow of discontent had been invading his solicitude. When he had covered all his wall space, he had made use of the ceiling and had thought himself clever lying on his back, completely prostrate, commanding a myriad of views without loss of energy. Still he couldn’t prevent the disquieting sounds from returning. They disrupted his reverie, articulated his dissatisfaction. He felt ridiculous. He couldn’t enjoy his recent investments. His time was consumed in expanding his paradise, improving it, forgetting in his wild appetite, his mad consumption of “things,” to appreciate what was already there before his eyes.
Then he discovered the alluring sounds which described Time in denominations – epoch, era, decade, century. He was drawn into the snares of vocabulary. At the end of the millennium he saw shadowy forms, the American continent not fully formed, reptilian creatures crossing the fetid swamps of Nevada. He heard the voice of regeneration speaking through a chain of life reaching back to the very beginnings and because each generation brought an earlier one to light, the most distant era was made familiar in the common tone of succession. He heard fathers telling of the time when the sun’s day had dissolved in the hardwood forests of Ohio and Indiana and the guns of the revolution had only just been silenced, heard them retell the stories of their fathers, of the still earlier times of the French and Indians wars and the Appalachian frontier and further still in the tradition of the epic, other stories of the founding of cities and the journeys up great rivers in search of a gateway to the east. Within ideophonic restrictions, he had discovered another control and once more the spirit, in a flurry of wings, took on the eminence of the sun and traveled across the nation. He saw the last of the revolutionary fathers, the western explorations and the birth of the technological age. His pictures became for him, period pieces, preserving a particular moment in the surge of Time. Because of his new understanding, he felt he had established a more realistic link between himself and those moments.
In a fury of excitement, he visited the bookstores in the area and bought histories with stimulating covers. At home he carefully read the prefaces and parts of the introduction. He read bits and pieces drawn here and there by a familiar name or date. He held each book reverently and experienced an osmotic sensation, felt as if the material inside was entering him through his finger tips. He put each book down promising to return and picked up another. He saw in each one another door leading further and further into the process of Time.
Dates intrigued him with their singular importance. They encompassed an action fully completed. When one appeared on the calendar, he celebrated the event by riveting his eyes on the print which best depicted the occasion. His heart would enter the bodies of the original participants and from the original scene a thousand more images would evolve fulfilling the entire sequence of actions only partially displayed in the print. He experienced the episodes which had become national holidays. On July 4th he became one of the signers; on October 14th he was with those who first sighted America. He looked down on those who were celebrating these holidays without knowing what exactly they were celebrating, who went shopping in the department stores that were now staying open, even on these sacred days. His fascination led him to study the facts surrounding them. He knew the date when the reaper was invented as well as the inspiration and development of McCormick’s idea. He knew the time of day when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought, the weapons used and the strategies of the antagonists.
One day he bought an enormous pictorial history on the opening of the west. Here he found not only the paintings by the masters but photographs as well, taken by those living then and now. He compared the visions of yesteryear with those of today and found in the new, the living presence of the old, which again confirmed his belief in the similarity of all times. The book was divided into sections, each section presenting a particular era, and each was prefaced by a small introduction to that time in history. They were lucid and short accounts describing the pictures that were to follow and he found them far more interesting than the endless, uninterrupted pages of print he had been reading before. The expense was nothing compared to the endless enjoyment he derived from it. There seemed to be always some new painting or photograph he had forgotten or missed before. He would spend hours on pictures of the California Gold Rush, and when tired of them, read the introductions and captions beneath each picture. Then the pictures would repossess what they had lost before. He would notice objects he hadn’t seen on the first glance. Then he would travel to the Yukon and from there to the opening of Oklahoma. In this way the entire continent unfolded in endless stories.
He bought others but soon realized the expense was too great. He visited the sale tables but found there none of the books he was looking for, or else he found there the books that he had already bought at a far greater cost. He went to the library, but many of the books were already out or unaccounted for. When he did find a book, he would discover almost invariably his favorite picture torn out of it. More discouraging than this were the crowds. Elbows clashed, people whispered and the librarians talked in loud voices. Uplifting his eyes he would find an unpleasant face staring at him. He would long for the privacy of his room. Since the books he wanted were for reference only, he would leave empty-handed.
All the way home he would dream of a particular picture with a dazzling view, or a certain passage with a thought provoking word or phrase. At home the picture fell short of what he had imagined, the view was not as exciting. He would reread the passage, but the more he read, the less appealing the past became. Could he call Manifest Destiny with its Mexican Invasion a truly heroic and justified war, or just another act of expansion on the part of the United States. When he came across the name of a certain object he had seen in one of the prints, he suddenly lost interest in the print. Then again each book referred him to several others and they in turn to still more. Finishing one book, he would peruse another whose author differed in view. In one book Thomas Jefferson was the heroic author of the Declaration of Independence; in another he was hypocritical owner of slaves, the author of anti-seditious laws. He became uncertain. Who was he to believe? Every viewpoint was convincing despite the disparity between them. He began confusing the dates, forgetting which prints were associated with which holidays and mixing the wrong men with the wrong exploits. He confused the expeditions of Roger Clark with those of Lewis and Clark and couldn’t remember whether Stonewall Jackson had been a Confederate or a Yankee. In the biographies he discovered characteristics he lacked. Far from being full of possibilities, the past became hard and brutal. Men lived in sod huts and went mad because of loneliness. Few found gold, most starved and the stench of the mining town was awful. The monotony of these lives overflowed the boundaries of the page and filled his own. Their provincial beliefs upset him, seemed close to his own.
All around him he saw junk accumulating, displacing him. There were too many glass frames to wipe. Those on the ceiling he couldn’t easily reach. Unread books crowded him. He grew tired of watering his plants, forgot them for many days. The leaves began to yellow in the failing light. The trees began shedding their leaves. Instead of an earthly paradise, his room had become a hell sunk in shadows.
He questioned his rash spending, was depressed on looking at his bank book. He tried thinking of his expenditures in the light of his summer enjoyment; instead felt his best moments were over, his future behind him. His behavior seemed foolish and childish. He was embarrassed and ashamed of his earlier activities. Why hadn’t he been out looking for a job instead of wasting his time and money, here.
He brought a newspaper. Instead of turning to the employment section, he read of an impending energy crisis. The big corporations were laying off more people. The ranks of the unemployed were swelling. Thousands were looking for work. Washington seemed helpless or unconcerned in the face of rising prices. The economic advisors were arguing among themselves. One promised a solution if government spending was reduced; another said such measures would only compound the crisis, and a third advised letting the problem peter out of its own accord – he called it an adjustment. Still others joined in, all ideas were accepted, laws and counter laws were implemented and repealed. Some argued for Federal intervention while their counterparts rallied for State Rights. Some citizens said that if something wasn’t done soon, the economy would fall catastrophically. Other laughed, bought more, saved little and bragged that the country, love it or leave it, was as great as ever, and still the land of opportunity. Still others preached salvation through scripture and claimed that Genesis was the equivalent to Big Bang. In corners of society, small pockets were forming revolutionary groups under leaders who only yesterday had been students or petty thieves. Even though his college years filled him with some of his fondest memories, Vellum shuddered when he thought of the campus riots he had witnessed then. Still, he was distressed to learn that many of those in corporate finance had invested in expensive homes abroad, that repressionary laws were being considered.
One afternoon he entered the shop as had become his habit when bored. The old man was glad to see him, no doubt believing he would buy another print. He walked down the aisles preoccupied with his problems. Suddenly he was aware of something stirring all around him. At first he attributed this to his agitation. Still, he looked to see if anything new had been added to the shop. He saw nothing and yet the atmosphere seemed charged with an unknown presence, a force he had never felt before, a kind of whispering modulation pervading throughout. He thought it was the light, shifting from corner to corner, dissipating and disappearing. But it was not that. He listened. The entire room was whirling in circles, like the smoke from his cigarette. The hour struck. The bells of the church down the street began ringing. The doors of a nearby clock opened and a ballerina appeared with her arms extended over her head. She spun in circles, seeming to imitate the motions in the air. Other doors opened, other figures appeared, each following the steps of those before them, whirling around on carousels, before disappearing. A melody surfaced; a rhythm prevailed. He followed it carefully and discovered at a dozen points, the source of the prevailing cadence. In his excitement he rushed from point to point, listening carefully, watching closely, the throbbing palpitations, the whirling motion. The pendulum of a large grandfather clock lilted from side to side accenting the passing moments with orderly intervals of silence. In the pearwood case of a mantle clock, he heard what seemed to him the links of a delicate chain winding through the mechanism, each link preserving for the next the ensuing pattern. The toothed wheels of another meshed and intermeshed, while the pendulum above, visible through the bell jaw whirled round and round according to a flawless arrangement. Everywhere, the flow of Time was visible.
At home he surveyed the prints on the walls. The images could barely contain his excitement. At last he had arrived. He had discovered in the source, the end of all his troubles. He had completed a full circle. With this investment would go the last of his savings. But money was the last of his concerns now; he wouldn’t need it where he was going. When others followed, money would become obsolete. He didn’t need religion. He didn’t need the state nor the federal government. He had been mistaken before. In the landscapes where he had luxuriated, the imaginations that had created them, had belonged to the people living in the earlier years of America’s development. Into their world he had entered, filling himself with their aspirations, the hopes and dreams of their times, still unattained. His imagination had merged with their. With them, he had become the spirit of their age. How pleasant it would have been to have remained there, with an epoch already completed, drifting in eternal reverie, forgetting the transience of this world in the adventures of the imagination, living our his time in niches built of dreams. Had he done that, he would have been no different than the others who escaped from the world through similar delusions, telling themselves they were the masters of the process when they weren’t, losing themselves in street corner fantasies sustained by ever tapering schemes. Like them he would still be dependent on his external crutches as a street corner fanatic is dependant on his bottle of wine. Oh, perhaps he wouldn’t have fallen into those dependencies, of alcohol or cannabis. He would have probably begun dressing in the fashions of those past eras where he was living. Dressing up as a revolutionary on the 4th of July or celebrating the meeting at Appomattox in the shabby dress of Ulysses Grant or in the snappy grays of Robert Lee. Thank god he had come to his senses! He struck out on his own, a conqueror of reality, not a follower of dreams. While they envisioned the future, he was conceiving it! If he had dallied in the past, it was to understand the process that created the past, like spools spinning out interminable tangles of brightly colored threads. All his life he had been treading water without knowing it, thinking he was getting ahead; to realize his stagnation, he had to literally give up and allow the river Time, composed of so many currents, to sweep him back from the present; from the vantage of the past, he saw how instantly the present dissolved into history; to regain the present, he had to swim faster than the pushing diverse currents. Because of his labors, he understood the motions as no one else did.
Yes, yes it was so clear now. He had been no more than a tourist traveling along this flux, dependent on it for his motion, as dependent as the rest. He had taken on the aspirations of those who had lived in the past, had traveled with them through the unveiling of the nation. He had mistaken the past for the future, had believed that in possessing the past, he had possessed the future. But he had possessed neither, because in being present at the unveiling, he had become a part of the process of history and one can’t acquire a time which is and must always be moving along. As long as there is still something ahead, anticipation rules, while acquisition leads to stasis. Once something was consumed, the inspiration ended, what the shopper eagerly bought, in a sense, was lost. But now his travels were at an end, or ironically, just beginning. With this final possession he would leave all his other possessions behind. In actuality, he had never possessed anything, since Time had already swept everything aside. In his hands he held the symbol of that great inflator, pushing outward at the borders of the universe, rushing forward through voids of possibilities, slowing only in the presence of earthly creations. By possessing the gear box, symbolic of Time’s activity, he would no longer need Time’s appurtenances, the daily costumes of an era, an era’s dreams, an age’s beliefs. Time would be everything, the quintessence of past and future, at once. There wouldn’t be the need for the distracting features of its particular divisions.
Unlike the prints, which had deceived him by depositing him in the sediment of ages already past, this mechanism, though only a symbol for this agent of deposition, didn’t misguide him into idolatry. It wasn’t the object of his worship, but the conduit uniting him with Time; by using it, he joined Her in a sacred ceremony. With Time his sole companion, he would travel far and wide. He and Time would be partners; not he in Time but He and Time. The past had been Time’s work, not his. From now on, what She conceived would belong to him as well. With Her he would unravel new creations. Like Her, he would be dispassionate, an onlooker, composing and guiding. Yes, with history at an end, the eternal moment had begun at last. He was only the first, others would follow him. America was at the gates of paradise, Vellum’s Paradise.