This One Time, 89

This one time I was looking at my pipe, a meerschaum that had certainly seen some action, stained black and mahogany brown with a hundred years of nicotine and handling, but beautiful, and in beautiful condition. It was covered in little abstract paisley-like swirls in a continuous spiral starting around a smooth ring around the lip of the bowl, getting larger or smaller to make up for the swell of the bowl or the bend where the stem was attached. The overall effect was somewhere between waves and the scales of a snake or a fish. It was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I owned.

That might sound a bit sad, or it might not. I’m not any kind of collector. All of the artwork hanging in my house are framed photographs of my family, my children and their children. Other than that, I have a few books that have been handed around and an old weight-and-pendulum-driven wall clock that, while a bit on the baroque side, isn’t exactly what I call beautiful. Technically it’s a cuckoo clock, but a couple of decades ago, the cuckoo actually jumped out of it and landed in a bowl of oatmeal that I was letting go cold in my lap because I was watching television. On my oldest granddaughter’s advice, I replaced the wooden cuckoo with a ballerina from her wind-up musical jewelry box that wouldn’t work and traded her the cuckoo.

As such things go, the music box started working again after a big thump — some spat or other that knocked the box off her dresser with a dramatic sweep of an arm. Now the cuckoo dances to Fur Elise and the ballerina goes cuckoo a hundred and fifty-six times a day. And every time it does I have to wonder on behalf of both myself and the ballerina where we would be if things had turned out differently, and whether we were better off for not having followed what we thought our dreams were when we were young.

I’d had this pipe, treasuring it while using it at least twice a week, mostly in the little spare room where I kept my books and my work bench and a little writing desk, because old books were supposed to smell like pipe tobacco and once I’d made that declaration out loud, all resistance to me smoking it in the house vanished completely — I’d had the pipe for forty years, and had the opportunity to study it now and then for an additional ten or fifteen, and I’d never noticed until now that there were little dots and strokes in the loops and scallops that repeated every so often. I mean I’d noticed before, certainly, but this is the first time I thought of those patterns in terms of a substitution cipher.

So I got out some paper and one of my finest-point drafting pens and began to lay down the designs on paper, unspooling them off the bowl of the pipe and stretching them out in a line until I’d racked up a number of rows. Then I did the usual thing, making a chart of all of the designs used and ticking off how many times each appeared. With a yellow highlighter marker, I marked patterns that repeated in the rows.

In fact, I made three or four passes through, since I couldn’t tell whether a handful of symbols were actually different enough to be different symbols or just drift in handwriting, as it were. In any case, I really didn’t have much else to do with my afternoons. Regardless of how similar this was to how I previously made my living, the only time it seemed tedious and annoying was when I really wanted to smoke my pipe, but I had to keep referring back to parts of it without dumping burning cinders in my lap to make sure my initial transcription was accurate enough. But at the end of three days, I had a set of twenty-two to twenty-four possible characters, and transcriptions both backwards and forwards just in case I’d made a bad guess which end of the string was the front end. The message was a couple hundred characters in length, assuming it was actually a message, which means I had a pretty good chance of working it out — assuming I knew the language in which it was written.

It was about then, right before I started in earnest, I started wondering whether I really wanted to know what the message was. This old pipe was a piece of my life and a chunk of family history, having already changed hands three times before it got to me. It would certainly change the flavor of the smoke once it had meaning.

It took me no more than a week to pick the project up again. After all, it was only a pipe. After all the ways my life has wrecked and changed course over my seventy years, I can throw away a pipe and break in a new one. Even this one.

I was worried about the language, given the pipe’s history, but I shouldn’t have. It was merely German, though the spelling was a bit haphazard and the syntax more tortured and archaic than I was expecting. In the end it merely said:

The powers have allocated to the world ten-thousand worthwhile days. The world will not end until that last worthwhile day burns and the smoke of that day ascends to the heavens as a prayer.

As the sun began to set, I packed the day into the bowl of the pipe, and lit it, and smoked it completely to ash, watching the smoke, as I always do, play along the shelves and the wood-paneled walls and pool at the ceiling, spectral in the failing light from the open window. Then the world ended.


March 30, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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