art by Agata Maciagowska
by Alan Baxter
I twist the tiny cog into place, my old-too-soon fingers gnarled, golden brown, and cracked, but true. Complete, I turn the miniature dog over in my hands, the brass and copper of its construction shining in the late afternoon sun. I lift it to my lips, breathe softly into its mechanized heart and it stirs, shifts, and wags.
The girl reaches out a greedy hand, eyes alight with wonder and I smile, place the wriggling clockwork puppy on her palm. She hugs it to herself, teeth white in a smile of innocence and immediate love.
"It'll never wind down, really?" the mother asks, eyes wide.
"Never," I reply, as the life draws through my chest like a thick needle through stubborn canvas. I wonder how many more I have in me. The breath is mere delivery, convenience. Something far deeper is taken every time.
"Thank you," she says, handing me so many grubby used notes, as weary as my hands and eyes.
"What do you say to the nice man?" the mother demands of the child.
"Thank you, mister!" the child enthuses and bounds away, her new pet dancing across her hands with tinny yips.
"Khob kun kub, little one," I whisper at her back.
The money goes into the leather satchel at my feet. I wonder when I'll have enough. Soon, I'm sure. I sit back in my tattered deck chair, let the sun bathe my wrinkled skin. My eyes roam the unsteady table before me. Boxes of parts glitter, cogs and tiny pistons, nuts, bolts, brackets, and bars. But to me they are all limbs and muscles, nerves and hearts.
A man approaches, smiles unsteadily.
"Is it true?" he asks.
"Is what true, sir?"
"The toys you make. They act as if alive and never wind down?"
I smile. They never really believe, even when they see it. "They are alive, sir, and they will live forever. At least, until the parts wear out."
"Some old Chinese sorcery, is it?" he asks with a crooked smile. He has no idea how offensive he is.
"I'm Thai, sir."
"Ha! Well, there you go." He leans to inspect the compartmentalized case of parts, my neat row of tools in their leather wrap, looking anywhere but into my eyes where he would have to acknowledge the hurt of his words. "Can you make a bird?" he asks suddenly.
"And will it fly?"
He points to the sign on my table, written when my hand was a lot younger, steadier. "Your price is very high."
America, where even the capitalism is subject to suspicion. I smile. "What you buy is absolutely unique, sir."
The chill of the Washington autumn lifts my wispy hair, chills across the back of my hands. The man pulls his jacket tighter. I wish I was back among the warm, humid days of my home, but it's foolish to pine for the past. Instead I am lost in the land of opportunity. But it wasn't for me that we came here. Always for the children. At the thought I smell disinfectant and bleach, see harsh fluorescents and white coats and quickly cast the thoughts away.
"Cash only, eh?" the man asks.
I nod, smile again. Where I come from this much smiling shows nerves, but the Americans seem to think it denotes honesty. Only sharks and the guilty smile this much, but I've learned it can save me a lot of conversation.
"All right, let's see it then!"