Short Stories

The Desk  

©2017 By Paul James Zack

     The desk spoke to me before I left the room.

     The magic is here and available to all.

     I went back and stood in front of the desk, hoping it might speak again.  A vintage roll-top of fine oak, it had seen a lot of use. Its once-lustrous finish had dulled and was scratched in places.  The corners were nicked and the writing surface was scarred, but the wounds provided the desk with a degree of character reserved for elderly sages and shamans of high wisdom.  It still had stories to tell.

     The desk once belonged to Cameron Hale, an author whose work I had admired for years.  It was the desk he used in his bedroom while growing up, in this very house, many years ago when he’d been connected to whatever magic flowed through this small Iowa town.  It was the desk where Hale had done his schoolwork, composed gushing letters to high-school sweethearts, and presumably, created his first fiction.  And now, there was perhaps an opportunity for me to acquire it.

     Hale’s mother had lived here until her recent death, and family friend Claire was supervising the cleaning out of the house, disposing of unneeded items and arranging to have the remainder of the furniture and contents moved to Hale’s residence down south.  I had known his mother, Betty, but I’d never had the pleasure of meeting Hale himself.  It had been nearly forty years since he moved away.

     To my disappointment, Claire had not marked the desk for disposal.  She intended to see it loaded into a truck tomorrow morning, along with other furniture.  I didn’t have much time.

     I ran my hand across the top of the desk, as if stroking a cat.  I was certain I could absorb some of the magic it held.  Whether the magic came from Hale or from the desk didn’t matter to me.  I knew that his presence for so many hours at the desk imbued it with a special resonance.  It spoke again.

     The magic is here and available to all.

     “To all?  To anyone?”

     “What did you say?”  Claire had come into the room.

     “Oh, nothing.”  I turned toward her and coughed.  “Just thinking out loud.”  She gave me a skeptical look.

     “This is a nice old desk,” I said.  “It’s worn, but it has character.”  I couldn’t let her know how much I wanted it.

     “Cam used this desk until he went away to college.”  She tugged the roll-top down and it thumped the writing surface.  “Betty never used it.  It’s been back here in the spare bedroom for all these years.”

     My chance would disappear if I didn’t say something.  Claire had finished and was about to lock the house and go home.  The hand of night touched the windows as the light faded outside.  I said, “I’d like to buy it.”

     “That old thing?”  She frowned and shook her head.  “I can’t sell it.  It’s not mine.”

     “Of course.  But you can give the money to Mr. Hale, or whoever is driving the truck tomorrow.  They will give it to Mr. Hale.”

     Claire shook her head.  “I can’t do that.”

     A time will come for reflection.

     I glanced at the silver-haired woman.  She couldn’t hear the desk.  “Mrs. Tilley, you told me yourself that Mr. Hale hadn’t been here for so long nobody knew how many years it was.  He’s not likely to miss the desk, if he even remembers that it’s here in the first place.”  I gave her a pleading look.  Her eyes narrowed behind the bifocals, and the frown held its ground.

     “If Mr. Hale should happen to ask about the desk,” I said, “and I doubt he will, just tell him Betty sold it some time ago.”  I smiled and held up my hands.

     Claire glanced toward the front of the house.  “Well . . .”

     “What would be a fair price?  A hundred?”  I reached for my wallet.

     “Now hold on.  I didn’t say you could buy it.”

     My hand paused at my back pocket and I said, “It would mean a lot to me if I owned this desk.”

     There is no value to be placed on magic.

     Claire sighed and shook her head slowly.  “I don’t suppose the old codger is going to miss it.  He never came up here as often as he should have anyway.”

     I nodded and produced my wallet, even as I agreed to myself that the value of magic could not be quantified.  “A hundred, then?”

     “Put your wallet away.  If Cam gets that money, he’ll wonder what it’s for.”

     “Tell him you found some money in the house.”

     She shook her head.  “No. Just take the desk.”

     “I’ll give the hundred to you.”

     Her eyes flared.  “Absolutely not!”

     I smiled.  “Only because of your kindness.”

     “Keep your money,” Claire said, pointing at the desk.  “But you have to get that thing out of here now.  Tonight, before I go home.  I’m tired and I’m leaving in ten minutes.”

     It took me eight.  With the help of a dolly that had been used to move the appliances, the desk went into the back of my pickup.  I had thought lifting it into the truck would have been a problem, but the desk was lighter than I expected and it almost seemed to move itself.  After thanking Claire profusely, I went home.

     I lived only a few blocks away, so in less than an hour the desk was positioned in my cluttered study.  It looked as if it belonged there, against the paneled wall between the ancient gray file cabinet and the window to the back yard.  Expecting the desk to speak, I stood in front of it for a few minutes, studying the grain of the wood, the tarnished brass drawer pulls, the little pockets and secret spaces under the pigeon holes where you could hide things.

     I checked the backs and undersides of each drawer and nooks inside the desk, hoping to discover a forgotten manuscript or a note scribbled in Hale’s handwriting.  I found nothing.  I tugged open the little typing table above the right-side drawers and the desk seemed to inhale and hold its breath in anticipation.

     A faded photograph was taped to the surface of the typing support.  I peered at it and recognized a young Cameron Hale, probably in his early twenties.  Clad in a vest and rakish fedora, he stood with his hands on his hips, gazing intently into the camera.  The passion that characterized his writing was already visible in his eyes at that age.  Next to the photograph were pieces of tape outlining where another photograph had been.  Within that space, in faded letters imprinted in the wood, were the words PLACE PHOTOGRAPH HERE.  I felt underneath the typing table, but nothing was there.

     I hunted for a photograph of myself.  After digging through several boxes of notebooks and papers, I found a picture that had been taken a few months ago at a gathering of friends.  I was about to tape the photo onto the typing support when a thought occurred to me.  With a pair of scissors I sliced everyone else out of the photograph, leaving a narrow shot of me alone.  I taped it in the space next to the picture of Hale.

     I closed the typing table and sat back, wondering which writing project I should begin first.  Would the answer come before I started, to avoid time wasted on a dead-end task?  Would I get visual cues of scenes in my mind?  Would the desk itself tell me what I should do?  I had no idea, but I was certain I could access the magic.  It was a matter of belief.

     Sometimes it’s easier than you think.

     “What?  What does that mean?”  I had both hands on the desk, and it began to shiver and fade.  The light in the study dimmed and a faint purple glow emanated from the ceiling.  I glanced around and saw that the walls were gone, replaced by clouded curtains of gray and black, swirling and flickering as if disturbed by the wind.  My hands were still on the desk, but I could no longer feel its surface.  Cool air rushed over me as the desk vanished.

     I stood in what appeared to be an antique store or curio shop.  It was dimly lit, with objects and artifacts scattered everywhere.  Pathways angled through the chaos, amid furniture, works of art, and most anything else the mind could imagine.  The inventory was stacked floor to ceiling   in all directions, vanishing into ever-darkening space.

     There was an upright piano with yellowed keys, a camera with bellows, and a huge piece of what looked like quartz crystal, giving off a blue light.  Books were everywhere, hundreds of books, on shelves, stacked on tables, in boxes.  On top of a bookcase to my left, a stuffed great horned owl stood watch with fierce eyes.

     To my right was a large old wooden cabinet.  I opened it and found a city of drawers, all shapes and sizes, each drawer having a different type of handle.  I extended my hand and passed it in front of the drawers until I felt a connection.  Taking the cut-glass knob, I pulled the drawer open.  A brown envelope was inside.

     I took the envelope and replaced the drawer.  I stepped back, marveling at the multitude of drawers before I closed the cabinet door.  My heart hammered in my chest as I turned the envelope over in my hands.  There were no markings or writing on it.

     Inside the envelope was a manuscript titled In the Course of Time.  The author’s name was my own.  I stared at it for a moment before sliding it back into the envelope.  Glancing upward, I saw stars, the entire shimmering night sky and the glowing band of the galaxy arching across and fading to oblivion at the horizons.  Suddenly, I heard a roaring sound, golden lights flashed, and in an instant I was back at the desk, in my study, the envelope still in my hand.

     Looking around the room, I saw the walls intact, the lighting normal.  Placing the envelope on the desk, I laid my hands against the solid wood.  I felt a gentle vibration, as if a small machine worked inside the roll-top.  I flung the drawers open again, looked everywhere, but nothing had changed.  I yanked the typing table out and the two photographs remained side by side, although it appeared the colors in my picture had faded.  The desk stopped vibrating.

     Opening the envelope again, I withdrew the manuscript and read the first page.  I knew from the first three paragraphs that it was a story I’d recently conceived, but hadn’t yet started to write.  And here it was in my hands, finished.  Remembering that everything but the ending had been worked out in my mind, I flipped to the last page and read.  It was a superb ending, different than any I’d been considering.  My hands shook as I set the manuscript on the desk.

     All outcomes exist, so anything is possible.

     “I believe it,” I said, staring at the desk.  “What else can you do?”  There was silence.

     I had to test the magic again.  Slowly I pushed the typing table back inside the desk and waited, hands flat on the wood surface.  A minute passed and I peered around the study.  Nothing.  I sighed and sat back.  Perhaps I’d done something different the first time, but I had no idea what that might be.

     I spent the next hour getting my things into the desk.  Paper, pens, pencils and whatnot went into the drawers.  I placed my laptop on the worn surface.  My bronze bookends, a steam locomotive and caboose, were last.  As I arranged them on an upper shelf of the desk I wondered how long it would be until I could schedule another train trip behind a steam engine.  I sat and pulled the typing table out.  This time, I felt the desk inhale and hold its breath, just as it had done earlier. 

     Glancing at the photos, I took a deep breath myself, and slowly slid the typing support back inside the desk.  Once again, the desk flickered and began to fade.  The study walls shimmered and changed colors, first becoming gray, then purple, then black.  In a moment they were gone, and it felt as if the room had turned and somehow twisted itself inside out.  Again, cool air sighed over me as the desk vanished from beneath my hands.

     I found myself seated in a plush railroad passenger car rolling along in a train.  Ornate light fixtures and fluted brass trimmings accented the burgundy walls and seat coverings.  The railroad car looked to be of early 1900s vintage and I was the only person in the car.  Outside, wide and rolling farmland flowed by the window as the train cruised along at a moderate speed, the clicking of the wheels keeping a steady rhythm as the car rocked.  When the engine at the front of the train sounded its whistle, I knew what had happened because the whistle was that of a steam engine.  I smiled as I realized how the desk had responded to my intent.

     As if on cue, the train entered a broad curve to the right, and I leaned over and peered at the front of the train.  An imposing black steam locomotive blasted smoke into the clear sky, wheels and rods churning with horsepower.  The train approached a highway crossing, and as the train sailed past I saw two cars stopped at the crossing, both from the 1920s.  I stood and went forward to the vestibule at end of the car and opened the upper half of the Dutch door.  Sweet country air streamed in.

     The train passed through a small town.  A wooden depot flashed by and I caught a glimpse of the station sign: GRANT.  From the landscape, it appeared that the train was somewhere in the heartland, Iowa or Nebraska, and we were rolling through a high summer afternoon.

     I watched the fields and pastures glide past, the high-wheeled steam locomotive huffing up front.  I inhaled the summer air, absorbed the staccato recitation of the engine and the railroad track, reveling in the aura of yesterday.

     When I was as satisfied as I could be, I closed the Dutch door and walked back through the coach.  I spied a ticket in the metal clip on the brass rail above my seat.  I pulled the yellow piece of paper free and began to unfold it, but before I could do so I heard the same roaring sound as before, followed by flashes of gold light, and suddenly I was back in my study, seated at the desk.  The room looked normal.  The ticket was in my hand.

     Wherever I had been, I had not been there long enough to suit me, and I wondered about the magic involved.  Could I use it to go anywhere, to any time or place, as long as I expressed the desire for a specific need or destination first?

     I had to go again.  How specific could I be?  Could I travel to a precise day and location to witness a certain event?  I worked at the typing table, but it would not move.  I jiggled it, tapped it, but it would not come out of the desk.  Frowning, I gazed at it before continuing to arrange my things on the desk.  I pulled at the typing table every few minutes, but it felt as if it was locked.  In a while, I decided to turn in for the night.  At the doorway, I paused and reached for the light switch.

     Stories have magic, but self-indulgence does not.

     I turned and stared at the desk.  “Can you tell me more?”  Silence.  “Why can’t I pull the table out?”  I walked to the desk and tugged on the typing table.  It didn’t move.  Back at the light switch I paused, expecting something else from the desk, but I heard nothing.  I doused the light and went to bed.

     A night of unsettled sleep followed.  I experienced dreams of unprecedented clarity, punctuated by moments of darkness and what seemed like movement.  I awoke feeling as if I’d had little or no sleep, but I was rested.  Before I did anything else, I went into my study and stared at the desk.  It looked no different in the morning light, but a sense of anticipation hung in the room.  Something was different.  I tried to comprehend what had changed, but the harder I thought about it the more elusive it became.  I was tempted to take the typing table in hand once again, but I shook my head and went to the kitchen to make breakfast.

     Was it the desk that had given Cameron Hale’s writing such style and power?  I felt a wisp of disappointment, in that Hale might have done nothing more than take what the desk offered.  I realized, however, that he still had to choose the words and rhythm and meaning of his stories.  His ideas and creativity would be original.  The desk would have been a source of inspiration, not a replacement for his talent.  But why hadn’t he taken it with him?  And didn’t he ever visit his mother?  I could not fathom a scenario that made sense. 

     I pondered this over a breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, toast and orange juice as golden autumn light filtered through the kitchen curtains.  Birds chirped in the trees in my backyard and I heard the morning freight train roll westward through town on its way to distant places.  The horn on the diesel engine fronting the train sounded as if it was beckoning me to join its travels.

     Finished, I dumped the breakfast plate into the sink and gulped down the last of the orange juice.  As I went to my study and sat at the desk with a thousand questions on my mind, I struggled to focus on one image, one idea.  I reached for the typing table, and now, I was able to ease it outward.

     Calmness will provide clarity of thought.

    Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, I studied the photos of Hale and myself, noting that my picture had now faded to black and white.  I slowly pushed the table in and the desk sighed.

     In the manner of the previous night, the desk flickered and faded, the study walls rippled and changed colors, and the same feeling of being shifted in place and turned inside out came upon me.  Then, and on following days, I was taken everywhere.  It seemed that my imagination was the only limit.

     I sat next to Clyde Tombaugh as he studied photo plates of star fields, searching for the smallest motion among the specks of light that would indicate his discovery of Pluto.  I waited in shared anticipation with Howard Carter as he opened a small hole in a 4000-year-old door, and with the light of a candle proclaimed the presence of wonderful things in the antechamber of the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun.  When Hillary and Norgay stood at last upon the summit of Everest, I witnessed it as if I had been Sir Edmund’s partner myself.

     This was infinite magic.  I knew, without a doubt, that nothing was beyond my reach.  As I roamed from place to place, I thought of Hale, wondering if our paths had crossed somewhere along the way, perhaps at the rocky Oregon coast or at a midnight poker game in the smoky back room of a New Mexico saloon.  

     I thought of him, peering at his photo one day in the summer as I sat at the desk. It was endless July outside, when the heat waves simmered above the county blacktops.  Hale’s face disappeared inside the wood as I slid the typing table in.

     All things are measured in seasons.

     In a flickering moment, I stood in a study somewhere, a large, dim room filled with books and papers and rolled parchments stacked on tables, piled on the floor, and overflowing from shelves.  Ancient maps and artwork adorned the dark paneled walls, and in the center of the room stood a massive, ornate desk of exotic origin.

     On the desk, in a cone of yellow light beneath a small lamp, there rested a compass, a railroad timetable, a gold pocket watch, and several maps.  I took the maps in hand, six of them: Iowa, the United States, the world, the solar system, and the galaxy.  I half-expected the last one to be a map of the universe, if such a thing was possible, but it was blank, nothing more than a folded sheet of yellowed paper.  Perhaps it was the universe.

     “You can go anywhere you like.” The voice startled me. I looked up as a figure came out of the shadows.  It was Cameron Hale.

     He had aged since the last photo I’d seen of him, but he glowed with vitality.  His features hadn’t changed: silver hair, wide face, blue eyes sparked with light.  He wore a tan shirt, leather vest and jeans.  He stopped behind the desk.  “Where is it that you’d like to go?”

     Amazed to see him, I couldn’t speak for a moment.  “I’m a writer,” I finally managed to say.  I introduced myself and we shook hands. 

     His hand was warm, alive, so my thought about this being a spectral encounter vanished, and yet, could it be real?  I blinked and stared at Hale.  He smiled, gestured around with his hands and said, “Amazing, isn’t it?”

     “Where are we?”

     “Where did you intend to go?”

     Realizing I hadn’t chosen a specific destination, I shook my head.  “Nowhere in particular.”

     “But you ended up here, so there must be a reason why.”  Hale picked up the map of Iowa and studied it for a moment.  “You’re from Iowa, aren’t you?  Where?”

    “How did you know that?”

     He shrugged and turned the map over in his hands.

     I said, “I’m from Clarke City.”

     His face brightened and he smiled.  “I have wonderful memories of Clarke City.  I grew up there.”

     I nodded.  “I know.  I admire your work.  It speaks to me like no other writing.”  I debated if I should tell him about the desk.

     “A lot of what I have to say comes from my years in Iowa.”  He put the map back on the desk.  “But that’s not why you came here.”

     I told him about the desk.  I told him where it had taken me, the ideas Id gained.  Then I said, “But it was the magic I was searching for.  With the magic, it seemed like anything was possible.  I had no doubt your desk would have magic in it.”

     “Ah yes, the magic.”  Hale smiled and sat in the ornate leather chair at the desk.  “Where would we be without magic?”

     I took a nearby wooden chair, turned it around and straddled it backwards in front of the big desk.  “Do you know how your desk came to have magic in it?”

     Still smiling, Hale studied the Iowa map.  After a moment, he said, “I have no facts to support the notion of magic in that desk.  Only beliefs.”

     “I don’t understand.  The magic in your desk is powerful.”

     Hale shrugged.  “Magic is where you find it.”

     I frowned and glanced around the room.  “Is this your study?”

     “No.  If I understand it, this would more likely be part of my mind.”  Holding the map, Hale stood and went to the window.  He gazed out at a rolling green vista, not unlike the land near Clarke City.

    “If this is your mind, how can I be here too?”

     Hale shook his head.  “I don’t have all of the answers.”

     I glanced around the room and felt as if I was intruding, but it didn’t seem to bother Hale that I was there.  “If there is no magic in your desk, why did it do all the things it did for me?”

     Hale turned and faced me, light in his eyes.  “Because you believed it would.  That’s all it takes.”

     “Just belief?”

     He nodded.  “Belief is stronger than fact.”

     “But your stories are filled with magic.  Surely that couldn’t have come merely from belief.”  Hale came back to the desk and sat.  He took the blank map in his hands and said, “The universe aligns itself with belief.  I don’t know how it works, I only know that it does.

     “If that’s true, does it mean that no magic exists at all?”

     “Quite the opposite.”  Hale waved the map in the air.  “There is so much magic one can never experience all of it, even in an entire lifetime.  Or several lifetimes.”

     I thought for a moment, rubbing my chin, but I wasn’t sure if I followed Hale’s words.  They seemed circular.  “I don’t think I understand,” I finally said.

     “But you do believe.”

     “Certainly.  I saw the magic happen, countless times.  I’ve read your stories.”  I leaned forward and placed my hand on the desk.  “How could I not believe?”

     Hale smiled.  “Your question is your answer.”  He gave me a look of sincere appreciation. “And now I think I know why you’re here.”

     “Why?”

     He pointed the blank map at me.  “You were meant to have that desk.  You’re going to continue where I left off.”

     I shook my head.  “I couldn’t possibly fill your role.”

     Hale chuckled.  “You have your own role to play, your own voice.  And even though you don’t need it, the desk will help you.”

     I stared at him, not knowing what to say.  Hale dropped the blank map on the desk and took the gold watch in his hand, studying its face.  “This one never needs to be wound.”  He passed the watch to me and said, “There is enough time for everything, but use it well.”

     As I took the watch from Hale, I felt energy flow between us and some unknown essence became mine.  I gazed at the watch, black Roman numerals upon a white face, the gilded case worn but gleaming.

     Before I could respond, there was a canticle of sound and light and I was back in my study, seated at Hale’s desk.  The pocket watch was heavy and warm in my hand.