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The Coin's Decision
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4
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Three Face Flip, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 3

Like so. This summed up the sacred for Thomas: when things fit like so.

The world, he knew, was resplendent with chaos. In small pockets there were isles of natural order accumulated by the aeons -- isles in whose shelter a thing like a man might grow and live to cast his lot upon the froth. All he can do is exercise what little control he has available to build a bridge between his life and the spume: a woven cloth, gathered wood with flame, a source for water and a market for meat.

Whatever could be juggled into brief harmony, whatever could be arranged to work like so, might cohere long enough to do a man a service.

And so with this in mind Thomas rotated a final screw into place and then sat back to admire the architecture of gears inside the now restored antique pocket-watch. He put the screw-driver into his mouth and chewed idly on the handle, nodding to himself with satisfaction at the little corner of order he had wrought.

The watch was perfect. All of its parts fit like so.

Thomas snapped closed the cover, then gingerly turned the winding knob. The response was good, the clicking smooth and even. When he released his fingers the second hand began to walk patiently around the sun-faded face.

Thomas smiled.

No ticking could be discerned because the watch was not alone: everything in the apartment ticked. The radio, the oven, the ice box, the door bell, the toaster, the bathroom scale -- all of them built upon or extended by the artful application of clockwork. Thomas began each day with an hour of winding.

First to be wound was the crowning jewel of his labours, Wai-Po, a songbird. Her golden cage was framed by the window, a place of honour wreathed by Thomas' light-hungry plants. He would wind her before his morning Tai-chi on the balcony, asking after her dreams as he carefully inserted his fingers between the brass leaves of her plumage to twist the key.

When he righted her she would blink, tilt her head, and choose a song.

Thomas invariably said, "An excellent selection, my belle."

Today she favoured Chen Yi, interspersed with a little bit of Mozart. Thomas hummed along as he put aside his working glasses and squinted at the grandfather clock across from Wai-Po's cage. He held up the pocket-watch and dialed in the proper hour. It was noon.

He rubbed his hands. His knuckles were swollen, and they ached. With a sigh he wound up the crank on his workbench, then sat back while the clean-up routine ran. It wasn't a good run. The armature with the charged dust brush was squeaky, so he gave it a little oil. The sorting arm knocked one of his tools to the floor.

"H'm," said Thomas, brow furrowed. "Something's out of kilter."

Things being less than like so were a special source of anxiety for Thomas, because today of all days was supposed to be perfect. Today was the day he was going to get even with Henri Tang, the swindler -- Henri Tang, the grocer who told Thomas he was getting thirty percent of every sale of his carefully roof-gardened square watermelons, when in fact he was getting less than three percent.

Thomas had imagined the square watermelons arousing the curiosity of passersby, not the subject of back room deals to snobs and foreigners at grotesquely inflated prices. Instead of inspiring the imagination, the unusual melons were inspiring ridicule on behalf of anyone foolish and wealthy enough to indulge.

It was a crime against fruit.

It was an indignity to gardening!

And, worst of all, Thomas wasn't getting a fair cut of the action.

Feeling superstitious made him angry with his mother so he opted to curtail the emotion by flipping a coin to settle the matter. He withdrew a Euro from his change purse, then walked over to Wai-Po's cage, the light from the window warm on his face. "If Tang hadn't cheated me," he told the clockwork songbird, "I'd have enough money to make you fly."

She cocked her head.

The coin sang as it spun, bimetallic face flashing in the sun. Thomas was too slow to catch it but he saw where it landed, tracked it skittering over the floorboards. He leaned down but failed to resolve the image, so he was forced to fetch his work glasses.

"Ah ha," he said to the bird. "Heads."

Thomas kicked off his slippers, then sat down on the chair by the door and pumped up the shoe machine with his foot. It buzzed and chuffed as a rubberized platform inclined into place. The shoes were loaded in backwards but it was otherwise a good performance. Thomas didn't have to bend over very much.

Wai-Po started a cheerful set of Youlan variations. Thomas consulted the pocket-watch.

He stood up and put on his overcoat. It was too heavy for the weather, but it was the only coat Thomas owned with the proper pockets to ferry and disperse his cargo: nine clockwork rats swathed in very authentic looking fur, with ropey, worm-like tails that swayed as they scuttled. He methodically wound each tight with a master key, then loaded the rats in his pockets.

The overcoat was heavy and faintly alive. It seemed to rumble with portent. Thomas grinned to himself: there would be quite a panic at Tang's grocery.

"I'll be right back," he told Wai-Po. She twittered.

Thomas was old. He had been born deep in the maw of the twentieth century. Walking down the stairs made his hips hurt. If Tang hadn't cheated him he would've been able to afford to move to a place with an elevator.

Tang!

The street was busy. All of the girls looked like prostitutes. The boys looked like homosexuals. Thomas would consider moving back to Canada if his brother hadn't assured him it was worse there: the young people were hopeless, greedy and wanton. It was a world-wide phenomenon. The dollar had replaced the spirit, and race was reacting like animals.

Thomas, however, refused to live without honour. Thomas refused to be Tang's fool.

He stepped in dog shit on his way down the block to the grocery. A childish part of him wanted to take it as a grim omen. He soldiered on, picking his slow way through the throng. It was a warm day and he was beginning to sweat. The overcoat was getting heavier all the time. Wai-Po's last Youlan variation reverberated dully in his head.

Thomas lingered by the crates of produce arrayed outside Tang's grocery, casting a critical eye over bruised apples and over-ripened cantaloupes. He pursed his lips. Who did Tang have growing for him -- monkeys?

He worked a rat down his sleeve and deposited it between two boxes of cauliflower, then moved on.

He stopped short at the entrance when he saw Tang heading his way with a squeeze-bottle for spraying the produce. Thomas spun to loiter on the sidewalk, his back to the enemy. He glanced left when he heard the sharp crack of breaking glass. Down the street a black was shoving a white girl into the back of taxicab. A moment later he smacked his grimy hand on the roof and started shouting.

"Africans," muttered Thomas darkly.

He looked up and noted the apartment house the couple had burst out of had tendrils of white smoke weaving out of its upper windows. He looked down again: horns honked as the taxi tried to force its way into traffic -- the girl didn't seem to know or care about the fire. The black appeared to be chasing the car, like a dog.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Henri Tang wave to the girl in the taxi as she passed. The smile dropped off his face as he spotted Thomas. A second later he was rudely shoved aside by a white man in a fancy suit who hurried out into the street carrying one of Thomas' square watermelons.

When Tang recovered he found himself staring eye to eye with Thomas. "Zhang!" he sputtered. "I thought you said you would never set foot in my store as long as you lived."

"Hot words," said Thomas. "I have reconsidered our relationship."

Tang's hooded eyes went wide. "You have more melons for me?"

Thomas chuckled. "What would be my percentage?"

"We can work that out, Zhang. Trust me. Why don't you come in the back and we'll talk?"

Thomas hardened his face. "The time for talking has ended, Tang."

"What do you mean?"

Thomas hesitated, suddenly uncertain. This part was supposed to happen after he'd deployed the rats. He grunted, balling his fists. "This is now a matter of war between us. I...have come to inform you that my revenge will not be kind."

"Is this a threat? I told you, we can work out the details. I'm truly sorry about our miscommunication, Zhang. Please, come to my office. Let's have a drink."

"The time has come for your customers to see you in the same light of disfavour as I do," Thomas continued, glowering. "Behold," he cried, raising his voice, "this store is infested!"

He gestured dramatically to the cauliflower. Nothing happened.

Tang frowned sceptically and put his hand on Thomas' shoulder, giving it a sympathetic squeeze. "Your revenge is cauliflower?"

Thomas had no answer. His brow glistened. His mouth opened but no sound came out. He kicked at the crate experimentally, but nothing stirred. Suddenly the dramatic screech of brakes caused both men to turn toward Rue de Trevise where the taxi with the white girl in it was bearing down on a skinny, Slavic-looking kid sitting on the curb.

In a heartbeat Thomas knew the kid was going to die. He suddenly felt futile and stupid, petty and menacing.

In the face of real tragedy Thomas knew Tang was his friend.



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