Zoetrope by Michael St. John

By nine I’ve opened the store and booted up Gibbons. He’s an older model but serviceable, and he can make coffee the way I like it–black as oil.

“Good morning, Andy.”

“It’ll be better with caffeine, Gibb.”

“Confirmed.”

He rolls away on pneumatic wheels that need more air. And new tread. When more money comes in, replacing his wheels will be the first thing to fix on him. His taste in music is solid, though: he plays Django Reinhardt through his speaker panels.

The music is appropriate for such a hazy morning. There is a metal grate mounted across my display window, and the light comes through it in a thousand pixels. The resolution of the grate is better than any of my merchandise. Flat screens. Smart phones. Digital cameras. Vintage junk, in other words.

At Andy’s Oldies, the future is retro–that’s my sign out front.

Folks come in to decorate their homes with curiosities, whether they work or not. I once had a busted tablet that was stuck on some old school game with birds and slingshots. An artist bought it. He claimed the cracked screen “entangled” the viewer in the red bird’s “existential” crisis of being stuck in the sky. For a good price, he can say whatever he wants to his party guest who asks about the jittering screen hung high above his mantle.

My job is finding the relics and gussying them up. I’m a professional magpie when you get right down to it. Come to my nest; see the shiny things. There are display counters full of electronic handheld games, old computers, and the like.

I even have my own favorite oddity: a gordian knot of USB and charging cables. It sits on an ancient modem like a museum artifact. Years ago I read about a town in Kansas with the world’s biggest ball of twine. In honor of that lost town, that lost time, my humble ball of cables pays hommage.

Gibbons rolls out from the backroom. “Here is your coffee, Andy. It is one hundred and ninety-six degrees Fahrenheit, so please be sure to sip.”

“Thanks, Gibb. Let me ask you something.” I point to my ball. “By your calculations, how long would it take me to get mine to the size of the one from Cawker City?”

“Before it incinerated?”

“Naturally.”

He regards the dimensions and hums. “Are successive iterations of your genome considered in this task?”

“I don’t have kids, Gibb.”

“Then never,” he says. “It is a closed set limited by the factor of time.”

“Gee, thanks,” I take a sip of my coffee. “Yowch, that is hot.”

Just then the bell above the door plays its audio file–a classic cell phone jingle–as a teenage girl steps inside. One look at her clothes tells me she is in the economic bracket of the arty guy. I snap my fingers at Gibbons.

“Pipe down with the Django, huh? We have a customer.” I smile her way. “How may I help you, miss? Looking for vintage digital animals? It’s all the rage for many younger girls, I hear, and I have a collection of them…”

“I’m not looking to buy anything,” she says. “I was curious about repairs.”

“That is the other half of my business, yes. Believe it or not, I used to fix cars when we still had them.”

“Carbon rovers?” The girl wrinkles her nose. “Those are so old.”

“I prefer the term seasoned since it applies to both machine and repairman. They’ve both experienced what my friend here refers to as a factor of time and are all the better for it. Right, Gibb?”

I shoot a self-satisfied grin across the store, but Gibbons has his back to me. He is checking items–taking measurements from the looks of it–and humming. I can’t tell if he is computing hard or hardly computing. He can be a mystery sometimes.

“Forget him,” I say. “His audio recognition is shot. What do you have in need of fixing?”

“A zoetrope.”

“Talk about seasoned, missy, my god! A machine like a zoetrope is centuries old. The first ones only needed a flick of a hand to start them up.”

“It’s the same way I boot up mine that came from the Alpha store. Except it freezes every couple of times. It may be a system update…”

She set her zoetrope on the counter, and I was silent before its crystal and quicksilver metal. The machine was deceptive in its simplicity. It looked like the children’s toy from the eighteenth century, the ones I had read about when there were still libraries. A kid would spin the base, peer through the slits in the sides, and watch still images come alive. The Alpha company was smart to stay faithful to the original design. It was meant for anyone to enjoy. Anyone could learn to love it. And the company’s strategy had paid off: people had been clamoring for their toys for years.

“Why did you bring it here?” I ask. “They opened a big Alpha store downtown. There are Alpha technicians who specialize in troubleshooting their products.”

“That was my first choice,” she says, then blushes at her own honesty, “but the store was swamped. Everyone is getting the newest zoetrope. This model has premonition and REM editing software. You can customize what you see when you dream!”

“But when do you turn it off?”

“Why would you ever need to?” The girl looks at the machine and her eyes glow. “When the zoetrope’s spinning, I’m in a new world, a better world. There are no wars or people dying or bad weather and everyone loves me and we laugh and play all the time. And when I go to bed in my zoe-world, I can choose a favorite dream from my sleep list and never have nightmares.”

“That’s not the real world. You need fear every now and then to make you sharp, to make you appreciate the good times. I don’t want war, believe you me–the last one almost took all of us out–but if there’s no struggle? No strife? What then? Will we ever get better?”

As I speak, my heart ping-pongs in my chest. I catch my breath and let my cheeks cool down. And here I only had a sip of coffee.

The girl had been watching me with increasing worry, maybe for smoke to come out of my ears, another bum machine. When she speaks, her voice is calm yet firm.

“The Alpha company is a good company. Everybody’s parents work there. The company is giving my generation a future–especially after what the generations before had done.”

“Not all of those people were bad,” I say.

“Enough were.” She crosses her arms. “So can you fix it?”

“I’m afraid I can’t, I…I don’t know how it works.”

She snatches her zoetrope off the counter, and I can see through the glass counter to the merchandise below: piles of digital alarm clocks, many still blinking twelve.

“I should have known,” she says. “All my friends told me coming out to a hovel shop was a waste of time. But I thought, ‘If this guy is still open, he must be keeping up with the times.’ I was wrong. You’re not part of the new world.”

“You can’t slip into a dreamland and pretend it all away.”

She fixes me with a smug, amused smile. “You should take your own advice.”

The audio file from the bell this time is a sitcom character’s catchphrase. The door shuts. Outside, her pixelated shadow moves across the window grate.

Without realizing it, I speak aloud as if she’s still there. “When we made them, zoetropes were short illusions. They were only as long as the circle was wide. Horses running. Couples dancing. Children playing. But now, if the circle is infinitely wide, the illusion is forever. The only thing that won’t last will be us.”

After I finish, I feel like an old fool. I hold my coffee cup but don’t drink it. I just stare into the dark surface. The hiss of soggy tires on the carpet does little to rouse me.

“Andy,” Gibbons says, “I have made alternate calculations. If every inventory item was stripped of its wiring, then the resulting ball of filament would exceed the dimensions of the twine relic from Kansas. You could make new history.”

With a sad smile, I look up and say what’s in my heart. “Shut up, Gibb. And play something old and happy. We’re closing for today.”

“Confirmed.”


M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer who is 6’8″ and does not play basketball. He has been published in After Hours Press, Ink in Thirds, Literary Orphans, Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, Quail Bell Magazine, Word Branch, and Unbroken Journal, and his short story collection Other Music was recently released.