A Serial: Episode 3
It had been a long time since Frieda’s visit. The radio stayed on now in K.’s office. And K., too, had gradually spent more and more time there until he finally gave up his outside home, and moved in. There were numerous practical reasons for the move, which he had recounted to himself; but none explained the magnetic attraction he felt to the building, a pull that had become so strong he had to exert himself to pass its threshold. Once past, K. felt less free than untethered - his first steps out the door were like walking off the edge of a moving sidewalk, his body going forward but his feet still sliding back. The attraction must be strongest in his shoes, he reasoned; but examining their behavior on their own, off his feet, produced no similar results.
K.’s landlady was kind but clearly confused when he announced his departure. “I didn’t realize you still lived here!” she blurted out, evidently embarrassed. It had been months - possibly years - since they had spoken, it was true. But hadn’t he passed her on the street nearly every morning, on his walk to work? There she would be in her flowered smock, as she was on this particular day too, sweeping the sidewalk, watering the bony plants in front of the modest building, or leaning on her broom gossiping with another neighbor. K. had assumed that she too had seen him each morning, as he punctually exited the building. Perhaps his usual polite nod was too subtle to be noticed? he wondered. Or had he in some manner been camouflaged, as Frieda had explained?
The encounter with the landlady had been awkward, but uneventful; as she hadn’t realized he was still in the building, she was not put out by his leaving. Indeed, she revealed that she had also forgotten about the apartment he occupied - thinking of it now, she looked like someone reaching for details from a fleeting dream, or distant memory. “Does it have a red door?” she asked K. “Why yes, of course. I have never painted the door myself; I always thought it was your own choice of color,” he replied, meeting her eye in an effort not to similarly fade from view. “Yes yes of course it was,” she said, unconvincingly. But further conversation revealed that she could not clearly say where his apartment was located within the building. “Dear Landlady,” said K. - he had always been formal with her, out of respect for her age - “It is not a very large building. Have you lost other apartments in it?” he added, with what he judged was an appropriate tone of concern, although in truth it may have been more for himself than for her. “I have never lost an apartment!” she declared, defensively. And then: “Until now, I suppose. Well, goodbye K.,” she concluded, reaching for his hand but not waiting for him to grasp hers. She walked past to greet a different neighbor.
K. moved his belongings on a wet day, although he could have chosen any moment he wanted. He was, in a sense, his own boss in this regard: the landlady did not remember that he lived in her house, and there was no one to answer to at the office, other than himself.
And Frieda? K. felt wistful. Recently he had fixed on the idea that she too was living somewhere in the self-storage facility. Might her apartment be invisible to him, in the same way that his was to the landlady?
As K. packed a few possessions to move permanently to the office, he felt the irony - but at a distance, like his landlady thinking of the door to his missing apartment, which she had once painted such a loud red - that he was among the least likely ever to be in need of a storage unit. He had always avoided a claim over objects - this was in fact high on his list of conscious reasons for giving up the apartment. It seemed he didn’t even need one room.
Images were another matter, however; K. collected them continually. Even his landlady, each day in the same flowered smock, each day leaning on her broom, was not one but many images for K. He strove to collapse them like those accordion postcard sets sold at tourist attractions, to pack them into one archetypal or perhaps composite image on the cover: Landlady in Morning Light. But the cover always hinged open, and inside he found the landlady in the bright sun; the landlady with her hair covered in plastic against the rain; the landlady with the neighbor’s dog; the landlady with the new broom of which she seemed proud; the landlady complaining of a headache to a neighbor; the landlady pointlessly flirting with the burly garbage man; and on, and on, until he reached the landlady reaching for his hand to say goodbye but not waiting for his to grasp it.
K.’s collections of images were all like this: he saw through time, in a sense. Or it might be said: he could not reconcile images with time, they seemed forever in conflict. Sometimes, to test this problem, he would stare at the clock in his office - an old school clock, with the two hands large and clear for lessons, and a third more delicate one leaping from second to second and trembling a bit after each landing, as if the gulf just crossed required recovery and a gathering of strength before setting off again. Oof, oof, oof, thought K., not tick, tick, tick. His test was to stare at this clock, and try to form one image of it. Not an image of each leap of the second hand. One unified image of the clock.
The only way, K. found, was to close his eyes and think not of this clock, but a painting of a clock.
The painted clock in K.'s mind was in fact hanging in one of the hallways of the storage facility. Among K.’s primary duties was removing unwanted objects from the hallways and entrances, where people often left them. From the very beginning, K. found paintings amid these discards: children’s paintings; Sunday paintings; family paintings; tourist paintings; paintings purchased in an antiques store on a whim; paintings deliberately collected but now rejected; paintings inherited but not understood; paintings beloved by one but not another; paintings treasured until they were not.
K. couldn’t bear to see these paintings in the trash, so he took to hanging them in the hallways instead - carefully placing them in a different part of the building than he had found them, lest their original owners be annoyed at this reuse. The clock had been one of the first objects rescued in this manner: it had a oversize, round black frame and a white face with only four Roman numerals at the cardinal points: XII, III, VI, and IX. The two hands were ribbon, emerging together from a hole in the center and each heading for an independent exit, where they permanently marked the hour at ten to midnight.
Why ribbons instead of painted hands was one of the curiosities that gave K. pause as he initially took hold of this work. The white face was brushily, even sloppily filled in - perhaps it was part of a stage set, he reasoned. Perhaps the dimension of the ribbon was enough to suggest solid hands in front of a clock face, when seen under bright lights.
But why K. always read this clock as ten to midnight, and not ten to noon, was a puzzle he didn't consider until much later, long after placing the object in one of the most obscure bends in the building. It only fully occurred to him, truly, after Frieda’s visit, although he could not remember a time he did not know that each moment actually presents two clocks at once.