Wizened Henry Mallick had come to realize the trouble with retirement was you never got a day off. Since finishing up his job as a career locomotive train driver the day he turned sixty-five, he’d taken up position in the comfortable, well-worn and floral-upholstered recliner, and joined the land of the dinosaurs that shuffled the Earth. Where once he’d been surrounded by all the paraphernalia and status of a busy working family man, now there were only scrapbook memories, lack of a daily schedule and reminders of the much barer landscape he’d inherited. “Hello pension – Goodbye tension” read the peeling-at-the-edges bumper sticker on the back of Henry’s car. Life had slowed to a more sedate pace and ‘quality time’ was the bright-sided, catchphrase-sounding order of the day. Though he was, according to his two adult daughters – both of whom were too busy to visit – a bona-fide ‘gentleman of leisure’, life for Henry had begun to feel a lot more like simply passing time – whilst forever bobbing on a vast ocean in just a leaky rowboat.
Now swimming in the tide of his seventh decade, Henry Mallick may have contented himself with mooching around in a cardigan amidst the cozy surrounds of the ‘stylish, affordable and ergonomically designed’ retirement village he now found himself accommodated in, but it wasn’t difficult for him to remember a time, many decades past, when he’d definitely have wished to die before getting old and smelly and boring and embarrassing.
For a man rumored to have at one time in his life been a closet dagger-between-the-teeth type of guy (amongst the rolling stock and diesel engine crowd, that was) his days were now filled with the less-than-heady cocktail of tending to his rose garden, earning his ‘netizen’ stripes with attendance at internet classes for seniors and going on long nocturnal walks by the sea wall. Quoting the opening line of the Charles Dickens novel ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ – “Although I am an old man, night is generally my time for walking” was a favorite conversation gambit Henry used on unsuspecting checkout staff down at the local supermarket. He also regularly found the time to go looking for things he swore he’d just placed down moments before on his tea-stained marble kitchen benchtop.
When not occupied by any of these pastimes, Henry devoted himself to the cerebral challenges offered by computer scrabble and on-line jigsaw puzzles, writing letters to council about the need for more park benches as well as indulging one of his more unorthodox interests in the form of researching the ‘true’ identity of Jack the Ripper. “It’s a known fact he Ripper and Vincent Van Gogh were one and the same person”, Henry had become fond of telling anyone who had the misfortune to indulge him on the subject.
Since his wife had passed away a year ago after a freak accident involving an exploding bottle of ammonia (reported in the newspapers) and he’d begun the daily existence of staring down the barrel of an empty apartment every day, he’d taken up with increasing vim the search for fresh meaning and purpose in his life. In what seemed an intuitive next chapter and extension of his former working life, Henry had begun attending once-a-month meetings, twice a year conventions and semi-regular swap-meets for model railway hobbyists. Here he could discuss track gauges, circuit-board soldering tips, and brass loco pickups to his heart’s content with like-minded people. As someone who’d at one time in their life also owned competitively raced greyhounds, he found the time as well to volunteer at his local animal welfare shelter answering phones, dog-walking and sometimes even cleaning out cages.
Henry also found himself going on reading kicks, bingeing on one subject, such as the Rum Rebellion of 1808, or the Roman aqueducts, or basic color theory or the breeding habits of freshwater carp and reading everything he could get his hands on about it. For weeks he’d talk about nothing else, until, unaccountably, he would stop talking about it altogether. He had become as suggestible to books and information gathered on the internet as a hypnotized subject, so eager was he to be taken out of his humdrum life. Though he had gathered, to the best of his ability, the requisite components of what in the eyes of some might have passed for a padded-out life – taken as it mostly was from the garden-variety, silver-haired set-pieces and hobbies standard for people at his stage of life – (an interest in Jack the Ripper not withstanding) – with each passing day Henry began to sense, with every pilling thread of his favorite brown cardigan, that he was, despite his best attempts to the contrary, finally being beaten down by old age and the plain monotony of things.
But Henry Mallick was defiantly stubborn in his refusal to fade away completely and assume the recognizable shuffling gait and pallid ghost-mask of a person from yesteryear. Unlike many of his fellow alumni, he was unwilling, at least just yet, to hang a metaphorical laminated cardboard sign around his neck that said – “I’m retired -go around me.” Instead Henry viewed the present stage of his life as having not dissimilar qualities to an old abandoned mine. While all too aware others may have regarded him and the type of life he was now leading as being only a couple of crusty, backfill- layers off a gaping dirt hole in the ground that had long ago exhausted its use, given up it’s worth and ceased being a source of anything of real value, with equal conviction he knew of the shards of gold and silver still embedded, just waiting to be brought to the surface.
Other folks may have had their bucket lists prior to kicking the oxygen habit for good – Henry preferred the somewhat more direct term ‘But I’m not dead yet list’ – boasting of aspirations as considerable or lightweight as wanting to work in a lighthouse, serve on a jury, eat bulls testicles or use a fake name at Starbucks – but for Henry Mallick, his lifelong yearning had always been to attach himself to some kind of discovery, invention or breakthrough. For this reason he kept a black and white poster of the 18th century American polymath Benjamin Franklin on the wall of his garage workshop. Henry liked to remind himself that amongst the great scientist/politician/author/diplomat and electricity pioneer’s many accomplishments was the invention of the odometer while well into his seventies.
In truth, Henry had come close several times during his working life to being credited with contributing to breakthrough discoveries connected with locomotive engines. In the 1980’s he’d been briefly part of a research and development team that had set about trying to develop a new type of low-maintenance wheel set for trains. The technique he’d been helping to develop, before funding was first reduced then pulled altogether, involved heat-treating a specific type of low-carbon steel alloy that was resistant to stress and fatigue. The idea never saw the light of day and new technologies arising from applications of titanium foam and super critical-cooled aerogels eventually superseded his plans and became the industry standard.
He’d also put forward ideas on an electronically controlled pneumatic braking system to replace the old mechanically operated ones diesel locomotives once used, but his ideas had never risen above the interest of middle management. Eventually a Middle Eastern engineering firm was awarded the contract to develop the technology and Henry told himself he had little choice but to conclude his forward thinking, and what he’d heard referred to as ‘metaphorming’, were abilities destined to go unrewarded and not, for the time at least, find a place in the world.
But now that time had begun to dissolve into itself, as shapeless as the rain, and he could decide for himself the direction of each day, he set about with all the fervor of youth to find something he could attach his name to, which might even serve as his lasting legacy and the way people would remember him. Yet something as conventional as a longer lasting light bulb was definitely not on Henry’s drawing board.
There were naturally a great many failures, disappointments and frustrations along the way. His time at the animal shelter prompted Henry to recall an idea he’d read about a number of years back about beef-flavored water for dogs. After several uniquely experimental attempts at home-brewing involving immersing whole rump steaks in buckets of tap water for three days and then pouring the contents into an odd assortment of plastic bottles, Henry was ready to begin clinical trial testing in secret (that meant when no one was looking) at the shelter.
However when his two main test subjects, a raisin-black Alsatian known as B.T (pronounced ‘Bee Tee’ and short for Bark Twain) and a dishevelled Maltese with a broken tail that answered to ‘Socks’, showed as much interest as Henry himself had when he’d been invited by a village neighbor several weeks back to attend the premiere live stage show of URINETOWN : THE MUSICAL – which was to say none – he knew it was time to turn his attention elsewhere.
What followed, as the next months flipped over like the pages of Henry’s precious library books, was a series of ever more ‘unexpected’ (read hare-brained and screwy, with the commercial appeal of singlet pockets) attempts at invention. An aborted go at creating a DVD rewinding device was followed by six weeks of research devoted to investigating the feasibility of a motorized surfboard. When the light of reason and practicality finally put paid to those plans, appearing next in quick succession on his assembly line of unorthodox ideas were: a negatively geared bicycle for accountants; a car rear view mirror that could not see someone sitting in the backseat; insect gender specific fly squatters (the male house fly being slightly smaller and less agile than its female counterpart, according to his research, thereby necessitating the need for a different shaped, angled and weighted striking implement); and anti-theft Christmas lights. The idea for this last brainwave being put unceremoniously to bed courtesy of a whopping great silver tanium shovel when Henry learned smart householders simply put the most expensive lights on the roof anyway as a way of preventing them being stolen.
Henry’s set-backs began stacking up larger than a New England leaf pile. Though he fritted from one idea to the next with the agility of a snow leopard, even he had to admit that all his efforts, driven as they were by nothing more than shiny ingots of his personal passion and desire for recognition and notoriety, weren’t really amounting to much other than a quite absorbing use for his time – of which he still had a sizeable oversupply. Alone at night, the thought occurred to him that perhaps attaching his name to something as its inventor and getting it to market (as the premium business types would say) just wasn’t in the chorus of his destiny.
No longer dealing with an unstruck match of possibility, and increasingly left with little other corner to turn, Henry began to scan the landscape of his own routines and ways of doing things for smart ideas he thought he might one day be able to turn into something. He may have considered himself at the cutting edge of resourceful for having the smarts to don swimming goggles whenever he cut onions or for arming himself for personal security reasons with a water pistol filled with vinegar whenever he ventured on one of his possum-taming night walks, but he had to ask himself were any of them springboards onto something bigger and more wholesale than just his own quirky habits?
Henry knew he needed a break from all the thinking. That day he did something he’d never done before. He took himself off to the retirement village’s bingo morning. Entering the carpeted hall by himself, Henry worked the room like a politician, shaking hands and cracking jokes with the people he knew while fielding their questions about how his quest for inventing glory was progressing. Most in the village knew of his pursuits as he made no secret of it. They could also hardly forget his story from a number of years back when he’d claimed to have found a listening device in his fruit bowl. When the last numbers had been called and the game was finally over, Henry picked up his pink highlighting dabbers off the table and walked back down to his unit. He’d been watching a movie on his DVD player in small parts and was keen to finish it. Henry made himself a drink of iced tea, then added a splash of pineapple juice and a thimble full of his favorite Dragon Berry rum (before joining the railways he’d worked briefly as a bartender) then sat down on his leather couch and pressed play on the remote. The Big Sleep (1946) was one of his favorite films and having seen it numerous times he was able to cite in recalled detail of many of its scenes. He was up to the moment where Lauren Bacall’s character memorably tries to use a back scratcher to knock the gun out of Lash Canino’s hand as he attempts to shoot private detective Phillip Marlow, played by Humphrey Bogart.
Henry sat back, watched and enjoyed himself for the next unbothered hour, lifting from the couch only once to answer the phone (it turned out to be another automated robocall message from his local politician, which he promptly hung up on). He enjoyed seeing old movies. They transported him back to a simpler time when heroes were heroes, villains were the cartoonishly one-dimensional version of bad, and the line between them was never crossed. He enjoyed the brief sortie into this terrain of simplicity and clarity (with gunplay and great-looking dames thrown in for added measure) that was so rarely offered to the thinking person in real life. Then, with Henry’s interlaced fingers supporting the back of his head and his feet extended out in front of him atop of his favorite lint-grey, crocheted footstool, at a certain moment, something quite extraordinary happened. As the movie continued to play, Henry was heard to say aloud to himself “Are you kidding?” while bending his neck forward, lowering his glasses to look over the rims and continuing to stare slack mouthed at the television screen.
Henry pressed the pause button and then rewound what he thought he’d just seen. In his excitement he went back too far and had to overcorrect by forward advancing to find the spot in the movie where he’d just been. Pressing a hand against his chest with fingers splayed out, he commenced a slow, disbelieving shake of his head while all the time repeating softly to himself, “I can’t believe it.” Amazement didn’t quite cover it. It felt to Henry like someone had taken his initial spark of wonder and poured on kerosene. As he replayed again and again what his eyes told him couldn’t be true, it was like every neuron in his brain was trying to fire in the opposite direction at once – the best, most mind-bending kind of paralysis.
Henry finally unstuck himself from the couch and managed to walk light-headedly the half dozen steps to the window directly in front of him, sliding it open. He needed fresh air. After several minutes looking out onto his neighbor Howard Mourn’s side garden and going over in his mind what he’d just seen -while at the same time making a mental note to let Howard know he had nibbled caterpillar holes in his petunia plants and more importantly exactly what he could do about it – Henry closed the window and walked back over to the television set. He sat down and resumed poring over the details of the movie scene he thought he’d just witnessed. Only this time he had moved closer to the appliance he referred to, using the ancient tongue, as ‘the telly’ and was not reclined on the couch but sitting bolt upright, legs astride the footrest, staring unblinkingly straight ahead at the screen like he’d seen his own doctor do when examining black and white x ray charts.
There it was again, just as plain as day. He wondered why he’d never spotted it before. He’d seen the movie enough times. More than half way through the film, in a scene set inside a casino, a woman seated to the right of small-time, blackmailing gangster Eddie Mars (played by American star of the 1940’s John Ridgely) puts her chips on number 30 as he speaks to Lauren Bacall. In the very next shot, when the croupier asks everyone to take their chips off the table, whoa and behold there’s nothing on number 30! Henry checked again a few more times just to make sure. There was no mistake. He’d found a genuine continuity error and it would take some doing to wipe the smile off his face. This was what he’d been waiting for and trying so hard for so long for: a discovery he could finally put his name to.
Perhaps it didn’t rate as highly as cracking the Riemann Hypothesis (that all nontrivial zeros of the Riemann zeta function have a real part of one half, or some such thing) or any of the other Millennium Prize Problems that carried a $1 million reward for their solutions; nor even a thing as life-changing as the invention of the world’s first functioning teleporter, but it was, however modest, something. Something he could hang his hat on. At his stage of life he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to achieve a lifelong goal no matter how miniaturized the success or small the achievement.
That night, as he tossed and turned in bed, thinking about how he’d somehow turn his hard-won and, by his thinking, miraculous ‘discovery’ into a fist-sized ingot of credit and recognition for himself, so many ideas flooded his brain he found it impossible to get to sleep. Was this really the sweet bird of success finally visiting him or just another of life’s pigeons dropping down false hope? Henry’s mind churned on in the darkness like a runaway steam train billowing diesel exhaust. The sleeping pills his doctor prescribed somehow didn’t work and time trickled by, marked only by the glowing Martian-green numerals of his bedside clock. In an attempt to end his tossing and turning Henry even considered putting into action a plan he’d been thinking about for a long time but never actually done anything about. He’d imagined for some time knocking on the door of his across-the-way elderly neighbor Clover Christie and asking if she’d like to come to his house to lie in his bed. Not for sex, but to talk and fall asleep together, companionably. For lonely people such as he, the nights were always somehow the worst. He knew an idea like that, executed the wrong way, could get him into a lot of trouble so he thought the better of it and eventually fell asleep with the help of one of his trusted, old-timey remedies – drifting off to the inane chatter lullaby that was talk back radio. It bothered him little that he’d reliably wake up sometime the next morning to the sound of badly lisping and staticky radio announcers, the dial somehow always finding a way to move off station by itself throughout the night. Finally asleep, Henry dreamed the dreams of the triumphant and the contented, which for some unexplained reason, in his case, involved a waddle of penguins marching over a steep ice cliff and falling like tumbling pins into the sea below.
The next morning Henry – invigorated, alive, vanquishing ‘discoverer’ Henry – awoke early. Through the translucent white curtains of his bedroom he could just make out the faintest trace of fine, duck-egg blue painting the horizon due east – the first hint of the coming dawn. No sooner had he risen was he was tapping away at the computer keyboard in his unit’s disproportionately large middle room that always smelled of cilantro and trying to find out exactly how and to whom he should make known his unique find. Before long he’d hit upon a website dedicated to precisely such things – www.moviemistakes.com . He emailed them news of his most celebration-worthy unearthing plus a few questions concerned with the details of precisely how and in what form he would receive his much-prized official crediting. Henry was made to wait a number of hours for a reply but later that afternoon he saw his inbox contained a response from the site administrator. There was good news, he told, and there was bad news. The good news was confirmation he had indeed discovered a genuine continuity mistake not previously recognized for the movie The Big Sleep. Additionally, Henry would receive named credit on the website for the find. The less than joyous news that managed to at least temporarily remove some of the shine from the moment for Henry was the promise from the site administrator that he would duly add Henry’s found treasure to the list of 368 other verified mistakes already attributed to the film. Henry Mallick wasn’t to know but for those that did, the common wisdom was the older the movie the greater the chances of finding hidden boom microphones and continuity slipups. It made sense when one took into account the much cheaper production values of bygone era.
A modest triumph it may have been but Henry knew better than to scorn life’s small victories. Only last week he’d managed to apply window tinting film to his 1982 Ford F-Series utility pickup truck without so much as a single air bubble. He sensed with all the intertwined hope and certainty of a dedicated slot machine player that this comparatively small payoff was a sign that a big win was somewhere close on the horizon. He’d keep going, keep trying to make the next discovery or breakthrough in whatever form it took. That night, as a sign of his renewed commitment to his quest, Henry Mallick erected his stepladder and affixed another poster upon the wall of his garage next to Ben Franklins. The words of Irish novelist James Joyce would greet him from that day forward whenever he tinkered in his workshop – “Mistakes are the portholes to discovery.” Encouragement like that was ammunition in his daily battle against feelings of unaccomplishment; that sense of being obsolete that tended to come with the territory colonized by a person of his age and countenance and make him some days feel as fragile as the wings of a dragonfly. With a sense of pride, Henry Mallick made a mental note that each time he read the words of the famous Dublin born writer he would remind himself of one very relevant point. The pointed reference to ‘mistakes’ in the quotation, though Joyce could never have envisaged it writing back when he did, most certainly and for Henry, triumphantly, included those of the motion picture variety as well.